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A Teacher's Perspective of Feelings

by Jeremy Chance



"If you memorise your feeling,
you'll never change."

Marjorie Barstow
 

  I began my training as an Alexander teacher in 1976. I was very fortunate to have at my school during this time a teacher who was very gifted with her hands. A 'lesson' from her, if one could call it that, rather left me with the feeling that I had just been blessed. It always involved me in sensing an extraordinary energetic change in the being of myself. Of course this new 'being' included all the hallmarks of a good lesson in the Alexander Technique, including improved breathing (deeper, calmer, less 'gaspy'), a feeling of lightness in walking, an impression of more wholeness in movement and, always for me, a striking improvement in my sense of height. I could always rely on my teacher to sort out any physical ache or soreness that had developed in me. It was an ontological change inasmuch as I sensed the urgency of my existence soften, and the presence of others heighten. It was always a truly inspiring experience. The striking feature about this teacher's work, and the thing that most impressed itself upon my blank understanding of the teaching process, was the gentle touch of her hands.

"When I help her she relies on her feeling,
because then her feelings are freedom and ease."

Marjorie Barstow

I had no idea how she did it and at the time that strange fact did not seem to bother me at all. I was simply happy to again and again experience in myself a state of greater freedom and flexibility; and I was sure that it was through repeated experiences of this kind that I would be able to move towards a better use of myself. This assumption on my part was reflected in a constant preoccupation I had at that time with rating a teacher's worth on how good his or her hands were. We students would say "I had a fantastic turn to-day" or "I never get anything from that teacher's hands." (A 'turn' is the jargon used on an Alexander training school to describe a short 15-20 minute lesson from a teacher.) Here the implication is that all the learning is based entirely on whether you feel differently or not after a turn.

Marjorie Barstow with the author, Jeremy Chance
Marjorie Barstow with the author, Jeremy Chance

I now think that this attitude to Alexander lessons is an unhealthy one, as it leads to an increasing dependence of the student on the teacher and also, because it moves our work out of the realm of education into that of therapy. This is evidenced by the increasing use of 'table work' over the decades where very often the teacher does not discuss with the student what he or she is doing and the student likes it simply because it 'feels' so good and makes her or him feel better. I do table work, and I recognise there is a need for it, but I am increasingly coming to see that if my pupils want to learn something they would be better off in an upright state, with their minds fully attentive, engaged and interactive in the process of their lesson. The purpose of my writing here is to share with you the evolution and present understanding of my work in its application to the pupil. I think this will be of interest from the point of view of the student, as well as that of the teacher, as it may open up the different possibilities that are available to them in the various kinds of Alexander lessons being given in the world today. Each approach has value--it is simply the preference of the student that matters in each case. This article is about my approach.

The simplest way of explaining my discoveries is to refer to the triangle below:

In his book The Alexander Principle Wilfred Barlow introduces us to the Alexander Principle as being that USE AFFECTS FUNCTIONING. While I am not sure about that being the principle, it certainly describes the discovery which very early on in Alexander's own research into his movements gave him the means of verifying which of the various conditions of co-ordination that he was experimenting with were best suited to the use of his vocal mechanism. Without some means of judging the results of his various experiments, how could Alexander possibly know that lengthening through the torso was preferable to shortening it while speaking? He noted that his voice improved a little while he was lengthening, yet it deteriorated a little when he was shortening--hence lengthening was the preferred condition of co-ordination. Use affects Functioning, very simple.

I would further expand this neat description to include our structure. I was once set thinking about this by a little sticker I noticed on a car which read "Osteopathy adjusts, nature heals". What place, I wondered, does structure have in the scheme of easing human movement? Literally what might happen is that an Osteopath or Chiropractor will on occasion physically manipulate the structure. While this is certainly not their only means of treatment, it is a significant one. In this case it is the structure of a person that is being directly acted upon. So too, in 'muscle toning' exercises and allied treatments. In these cases there is an attempt to alter in some way the physical nature of a person's structure, in the belief that if the desired change is effected then this will lead consequently to an improvement in the patient's malfunction--whatever that might be. The removal of the appendix is an extreme example of the application of this principle. Here, a structure that is causing real dysfunction is quite literally cut out and thrown away!

We could speak of this principle in relation to drinking alcohol: first we make a decision, or our habit forces a decision upon us, to have a drink, or several drinks. This almost immediately brings about changes in our structure. One notable example is the alteration in permeability of the membrane surrounding some of our nerve fibres. This change in our nerve fibres' structure interferes with the mechanism sending nervous impulses to our musculature. In turn our functioning is affected as we stumble from floor to chair. This change in our functioning may force a new decision of use upon us-- in this case it may be to sit the rest of the night--no walking.

So we have Use affects Structure affects Functioning. Now we come to the application of this principle in our teaching. An Alexander lesson operates simultaneously on influencing our use and our functioning. Teachers use their hands to make subtle changes in the living, always moving, relationship of head, torso and limbs. At the same time each teacher is requesting each pupil to make a new decision to alter their conditions of co-ordination in the fresh direction that they are sensing from the teacher's hands. So the teacher's hands talk directly to the pupil's state of neuromuscular balance at each moment, while the teacher's words appeal to the pupil's thinking and reasoning, urging him or her to continue moving in this new direction that he or she is being given. Simultaneously, through linking the thinking with the moving, Alexander pupils are learning the means by which this process can carry on for them at a later time.

My early experiences in Alexander lessons felt unbelievable and must have brought about a tremendous improvement in my functioning. The lessons were working most directly at that level of my being. I did not really have to think about much at all and I could still experience the wonderful changes. I developed the notion, collected from my reading, that the process of learning the technique for the present-day pupil is the direct opposite of the process used by Alexander in discovering it. Alexander developed an experience from a true conscious understanding of it, while I and later my own pupils, were to develop a conscious understanding from a solid experience of it. This helped to reinforce my view that it was the improvement in functioning that was initially important, that this was the meat of the learning for my pupils, and I should carry on giving them that. It fully justified, in my mind, teaching in silence much of the time. Silence I mean here not literally, but a silence on any discussion between myself and the pupil of what I was trying to achieve in them with my hands at the very instant of trying to achieve it. This differs from an approach of discussing with your pupil what did happen or what we want to happen which I often did. Metaphorically it involves coming down from the spectators stand and becoming a player on the field with the student.

In the past it seemed to me that unless a pupil had a recognisable sense of something that differed from their habitual use there was nothing to talk about. That is, I must first bring about an improvement in their functioning. So I placed my hands on them as I had been taught, hoping against hope that this experience would soon become known to them. These were excruciating times. I lived in a constant fear that my pupils would not feel anything and that they would pick me out as a fraud. My poor pupils, I now realise, were also constantly in fear that they would be too stupid to get this wonderful experience they kept hearing and reading about. Most of the time we were quiet as we each struggled in our own little worlds with all these self-imposed difficulties.

In his book The Alexander Principle Wilfred Barlow introduces us to the Alexander Principle as being that USE AFFECTS FUNCTIONING. While I am not sure about that being the principle, it certainly describes the discovery which very early on in Alexander's own research into his movements gave him the means of verifying which of the various conditions of co-ordination that he was experimenting with were best suited to the use of his vocal mechanism. Without some means of judging the results of his various experiments, how could Alexander possibly know that lengthening through the torso was preferable to shortening it while speaking? He noted that his voice improved a little while he was lengthening, yet it deteriorated a little when he was shortening--hence lengthening was the preferred condition of co-ordination. Use affects Functioning, very simple.

I would further expand this neat description to include our structure. I was once set thinking about this by a little sticker I noticed on a car which read "Osteopathy adjusts, nature heals". What place, I wondered, does structure have in the scheme of easing human movement? Literally what might happen is that an Osteopath or Chiropractor will on occasion physically manipulate the structure. While this is certainly not their only means of treatment, it is a significant one. In this case it is the structure of a person that is being directly acted upon. So too, in 'muscle toning' exercises and allied treatments. In these cases there is an attempt to alter in some way the physical nature of a person's structure, in the belief that if the desired change is effected then this will lead consequently to an improvement in the patient's malfunction--whatever that might be. The removal of the appendix is an extreme example of the application of this principle. Here, a structure that is causing real dysfunction is quite literally cut out and thrown away!

We could speak of this principle in relation to drinking alcohol: first we make a decision, or our habit forces a decision upon us, to have a drink, or several drinks. This almost immediately brings about changes in our structure. One notable example is the alteration in permeability of the membrane surrounding some of our nerve fibres. This change in our nerve fibres' structure interferes with the mechanism sending nervous impulses to our musculature. In turn our functioning is affected as we stumble from floor to chair. This change in our functioning may force a new decision of use upon us-- in this case it may be to sit the rest of the night--no walking.

So we have Use affects Structure affects Functioning. Now we come to the application of this principle in our teaching. An Alexander lesson operates simultaneously on influencing our use and our functioning. Teachers use their hands to make subtle changes in the living, always moving, relationship of head, torso and limbs. At the same time each teacher is requesting each pupil to make a new decision to alter their conditions of co-ordination in the fresh direction that they are sensing from the teacher's hands. So the teacher's hands talk directly to the pupil's state of neuromuscular balance at each moment, while the teacher's words appeal to the pupil's thinking and reasoning, urging him or her to continue moving in this new direction that he or she is being given. Simultaneously, through linking the thinking with the moving, Alexander pupils are learning the means by which this process can carry on for them at a later time.

My early experiences in Alexander lessons felt unbelievable and must have brought about a tremendous improvement in my functioning. The lessons were working most directly at that level of my being. I did not really have to think about much at all and I could still experience the wonderful changes. I developed the notion, collected from my reading, that the process of learning the technique for the present-day pupil is the direct opposite of the process used by Alexander in discovering it. Alexander developed an experience from a true conscious understanding of it, while I and later my own pupils, were to develop a conscious understanding from a solid experience of it. This helped to reinforce my view that it was the improvement in functioning that was initially important, that this was the meat of the learning for my pupils, and I should carry on giving them that. It fully justified, in my mind, teaching in silence much of the time. Silence I mean here not literally, but a silence on any discussion between myself and the pupil of what I was trying to achieve in them with my hands at the very instant of trying to achieve it. This differs from an approach of discussing with your pupil what did happen or what we want to happen which I often did. Metaphorically it involves coming down from the spectators stand and becoming a player on the field with the student.

In the past it seemed to me that unless a pupil had a recognisable sense of something that differed from their habitual use there was nothing to talk about. That is, I must first bring about an improvement in their functioning. So I placed my hands on them as I had been taught, hoping against hope that this experience would soon become known to them. These were excruciating times. I lived in a constant fear that my pupils would not feel anything and that they would pick me out as a fraud. My poor pupils, I now realise, were also constantly in fear that they would be too stupid to get this wonderful experience they kept hearing and reading about. Most of the time we were quiet as we each struggled in our own little worlds with all these self-imposed difficulties.

" When you give up, doesn't that mean you were looking for a position?"

Marjorie Barstow

I did talk a bit during my lessons. I told my pupils what the technique was about, what their job was in the process, what the primary control was, that is, I spoke as 'the spectator' mentioned previously. I explained inhibition and direction and debauched kinaesthesia (my favourite principle). And then I would look off into space, put my hands on them, and desperately try to give them a glorious, unforgettable experience. The experience was the god, I was sure of that. Eventually, either during the lesson or after they had had several lessons, discussion of the work would slowly lapse into silence. I had run out of useful things to explain. An occasional word here and there together with the odd anecdote seemed to be the way of my lessons. Many times we would spend much of the lesson in silence, or engaging in some small talk. I was not concerned about this as, from my training in England, I knew that this was the way that many of the teachers worked. It was certainly the way my teachers had trained me, and anyway, I thought about it in the way I have described above.

The result of this teaching was that I never really got around to the theoretical part two of the lesson: engaging their thinking. I rarely ever asked my pupils what, in fact, they were thinking about. Indeed, I would tell them what I wanted them to think about and then I assumed that they did. How wrong I was. In the last few years I have been questioning my pupils on their thinking and their replies have sometimes been truly amazing. My parameters of the success or failure of a lesson were also based, if I am honest, on this level of functioning, that is, how different the pupil felt at the end of a lesson: whether their neck was freer or their sore back feeling better etc. It didn't seem to enter my mind to ask them if they knew how this had happened - I was just so ecstatic when it had!

Now I come to my confessions: teaching began to bore me. I faithfully worked by a chair and over a table and the whole thing began to seem mechanical and meaningless to me. This was not always the case: the less teaching I did the more exciting it felt. But standing there, lesson after lesson, having to direct myself all the time while I moved my hands here and there, would just get too much. I was seriously thinking of returning to direct in the theatre. At least in that capacity, I thought, I am more creatively engaged with another person and wouldn't always half know what was going to happen next.

Then one day I attended a workshop of Marjorie Barstow's. My teaching was never to be the same again. Now teaching is one of the most exciting events of my life. Truly. At the moment I can't do too much of it. (But I bet I could). What happened to me? Many, many things. In this article I am going to discuss just one aspect.

"Nothing will move if YOU don't engage their mind."

Marjorie Barstow

Conscious Versus Unconscious Change

Unless the pupil approaches each and every one of their lessons with a conscious viewpoint on their involvement in the process, then it will not become a 'conscious' technique for them. It is odd that such a truth need even be stated. But certainly, until I met with Marjorie's work, the practical implications of this were not at all clear.

The most apparent shift in my work is that I have become more a teacher of 'Use' than one of 'Functioning'. By this I mean that my centre of gravity in teaching has shifted from a primary intention of giving a person an experience of real, profound change in their mechanism (which everyone loves, let's face it), to an intention of leaving a person with a small conscious discovery about the way they interfere with their movement mechanism. Unusually, I now don't care if my pupils leave a lesson not feeling wonderfully different--what is more important is that they have clearly and consciously sensed a habit that is interfering with their ease of movement, and they know what to do about it.

"You stopped the constructive thinking that didn't allow your habit to take place."

Marjorie Barstow

I emphasise the word 'conscious'. Previously my pupils would walk away with a tremendous (I flatter myself here) feeling of difference about their movements, but very often, as I myself had found in my early lessons, they would have no idea of precisely what had moved in them to make such a difference. The result of my teaching in that way was that my pupils were left with an experience which they would then have to figure out for themselves. They had a few ideas of course--they knew about freeing the neck, going forward and up, lengthening and widening, but the change they could sense in themselves immediately after the lesson, was far too different, and had taken them radically beyond any conditions of co-ordination that they were themselves ready and able to implement in daily life. The experience that they left a lesson with was almost too good--how could they know and sense in themselves consciously, in the way I assume Alexander must have known in himself, just what had moved during the lesson so that they could then do it for themselves? That is, how could they know how it had all happened? If they didn't know that, then what were they going to do? Why were they coming to me? Was it really therapy?

Many turned into 'Alexandroids'. An 'Alexandroid' is a person who memorises a feeling and then tries to recall that feeling in order to bring about a new use in themselves. But could I really blame them? The experience they had was so overwhelming that they were bound to try to feel it out for themselves. But feeling for something does not activate the mechanism that will bring about a change. For something to free, it must move first. It is that small releasing movement that brings about the sense of ease--a muscle ceases to contract so much, it lengthens and we feel the difference: that is the order of things. Feelings come last, not first. Marjorie: "He puts the mental state at the end of the process, that's upside down." Marjorie taught me that you are never after a feeling, you are after a thinking, because your feelings are never the same twice. The thinking is a verbal thing to start with but then itself must turn into an activity, a delicate movement, as she would so often put it. It is then that you feel something--at the end of the process, not the start.

I realised that, by over-emphasizing the experience of a lesson through silence, as opposed to teaching my pupils a conscious understanding of some small changes that they could make for themselves, I had helped to set my pupils off in that direction which I have heard many outsiders observe of our work: "Some of you look held and stiff". In fact I had often noted that the more studious and dedicated my pupils seemed to be, the stiffer they started to get! And that this only started to happen after they had had a few lessons. Read here a few experiences. It is obvious to me now why they should stiffen up so. They were trying to feel out again what they had felt in the lesson. So to any of my old pupils--feeling your way into a new use will inevitably cause some stiffening. If thinking about the Alexander Technique often gets you stiff then be sure that you are not really thinking - you are trying to feel yourself to be right.

"You won't energise to put your head forward and up unless you feel the condition which you associate with the idea of head forward and up, which is, unfortunately, stiffening and shortening, the very opposite of forward and up."

F. Matthias Alexander
 

"You didn't recognise that you could move without the tension you usually associated with forward and up"

Marjorie Barstow

 


About The Writer

Jeremy Chance is the Editor and Publisher of DIRECTION, an international Journal on the Alexander Technique. He trained at the School of Alexander Studies in London, qualifying in 1980 and later undertook extensive post-graduate work with Marjorie Barstow from 1986 to 1992.

P.O. Box 276, Bondi, NSW 2026 Australia
Tel: 02-9665.3364, Fax: 02-9665.1578,
E-mail: Direction Journal


 

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