NOTE: This is Part 2 (Read Part 1 here) of a series of conversations featuring the five members of the TVF faculty (Michael Hanko, Molly Kittle, Peter Jacobson, Darci Balkcom, and Eleni Vosniadou). This is a transcription of a recent conversation they had about the Alexander Technique. Enjoy!
Peter: Hello everybody, welcome. I am here with Michael, Eleni, Darci, and Molly. Our topic for today is: What is the Alexander Technique? I’m going to start with a personal story on this topic. This question was the topic of my independent study for my Alexander training. In my quest to answer the question, I went from one Alexander teacher’s websites to another. They were each interesting but so different. This went on for a while and eventually my trainer got fed up with me stalling and stalling. She finally said to just turn the darn thing in, even it wasn’t finished. I just kept finding more, and more, and more ideas and definitions about what this work was. It’s really hard to clearly and definitively define the Alexander Technique. Which is also kind of the cool thing about it. Every teacher and every person that studies this work gets to have their own understanding of it.
Michael: I think it would be interesting to identify who Alexander was. F. M. Alexander was a professional reciter of Shakespeare in the late 19th century. He got himself into trouble, because he would often lose his voice in performances. None of the medical and other experts of his time could give him any advice that would have a lasting effect. They would do something for him that would palliate the condition for a while but as soon as he went back on stage, he would lose his voice again. The brilliance of Alexander, was that he did not give up. He took it upon himself to figure out what was going on. Nobody had been able to identify what it was. He started observing himself when he was doing his activity, using mirrors and expanding his awareness, looking at every aspect of his reciting that he could. Eventually he discovered that he was doing things physically while he was reciting, that he had not been aware of before he started paying attention. Through a process that took years, he figured out what he was doing and figured out some ways to not do those things that were interfering with his speech.The interesting thing about the Alexander Technique for me is that you can see it as what Alexander did, and what he discovered, specifically. Or, you could step back from that and say that actually at the core of his discovery is his idea of bringing awareness to what he was doing, while he was doing it. So I’m going to propose one way to define the Alexander Technique is if you pay attention to what you’re doing, while you’re doing it, you will discover stuff that proves to be useful in some way.
Peter: Wonderful. Thank you Michael. I used to say, if you’re aware, you’re halfway there. Another Alexander teacher said 80% of the Alexander Technique is awareness. You’re upping the ante even more, which I love.
Eleni: I’d like to comment briefly on something that Michael said. I love how you bring up Alexander’s story Michael, and how awareness, which is kind of an observation, is such a big part of it. The other part of it is play. Experimentation. Be attentive to what’s happening with you and seeing where that takes you. Let it generate experiments. Observation and experimentation is the basis of the scientific method. I see Alexander as someone who was very intrigued and curious about becoming a scientist of life; how we’re made and how we’re made to function. The other part that really grabbed me in the Alexander Technique is how it really allows us to recognize our wholeness. Some people describe the Alexander Technique as an embodied mindfulness way of being. For me, it’s definitely an invitation to recognize where I am and who I am embodied without leaving my body out of the picture.
Molly: That’s so beautiful, Eleni. Bouncing off what you’re saying, one of my students was writing about his experience with the work. And one of his sentences was, welcome to your body in the world. I love that. There is an embodiment element. As an Alexander Teacher, I have a whole spectrum of people that I work with. Some have back pain or want to work on stage presence or on their sense of being, or just study the work. All are true and practical. I can offer practical body mapping information or a real sense of self. I think an amazing part of this work is how many layers there are. We have these cool tools to really be present in the world. I think this offers this concept of play and this concept of noticing that Michael was talking about. F.M. Alexander had to notice what he was doing. It’s so easy to have this mentality of fixing ourselves. While there is truth to being able to make positive changes, for me it’s more about settling into a trueness of our nature. Your back tension doesn’t mean that you’re doing all this stuff wrong and you have to correct all these things. It’s really more about your own nature.
Darci: I’m going to bounce off Molly. It’s interesting that in a lot of different forms of the work, the word habit comes up. And habit is what we do when we’re unaware of what we’re doing. Which isn’t a bad thing. It took me a long time to figure out that it wasn’t right or wrong to have habits. Habits pop up because they’re useful. If we had to think about every single tooth that we brush each time we brushed it, we might go slightly crazy. Or maybe we do want to think about every single tooth that we brush. It brings us into this place that we have access to awareness. That can be a window, coming into awareness of something that we’re doing when we don’t know what we’re doing, in our system, in our mind, in our spirit. Gives us a window to wholeness or to our innateness. Which we’re all born with. We can keep unfolding and that’s the cool thing is that it’s always in process because we’re always in process. When I was first studying Alexander Technique, the habits kind of felt like the soprano in La Traviata, who takes a whole act to die. I use that example a lot. Because you think you have changed a habit and then all of a sudden it pops back up again! That was a growing pain for me. I had to get to the point where I celebrated when I noticed the pattern. That meant I was noticing the present moment in my body instead of this dramatic death of a habit that I first associated it with.
Michael: We’re honing in on the idea of not only awareness, but a certain kind of non-judgmental awareness in which we invite ourselves to see simply what is, without assigning morality or right or wrong to that. That’s one of the things that I really admire about F.M. Alexander, because he spent a really long time looking at himself in an activity that meant a lot to him. And yet he was not hard on himself for what he observed. He simply noticed things he was doing with his body. Through that open curiosity, he discovered so much that we’re still talking about what he discovered to this day. Darci, something you said about brushing teeth I found fascinating because you said, you know you’ll drive yourself crazy if you think about every tooth if you brush it. Or, maybe sometimes you want to think about every tooth when you’re brushing it. And that’s one of the gifts of the Alexander Technique, is it doesn’t prescribe to us what we have to do. It invites us to be interested in discovering in every moment, what is appropriate for now.
Molly: I really love that Michael. What is appropriate for now. That’s true in so many ways. When I was in my Alexander Training and trying to understand, I was evolving and learning. I have arm tension, kind of a lingering injury/habit/ whatever it was. I was struggling with it and I remember thinking, I just have to change, I have to have better use. Use is another term that we use in the Alexander world. It refers to use of yourself or your use of your body. I was thinking my use has to change for me to get better at it. There is an element of truth in that. I was frustrated with my current body situation. And then having someone tell me that my arms were perfect. I had to realize that my arms are perfect. Yes, I have a goal that I’m working towards but I can be what I am already and have that be worthwhile. It is like the image of a spiral. The process is not this linear step one, step two, step three process. We are always spiraling in ourselves in a certain way. There is rarely the dramatic death of a pattern. We may find a complete release out of a tension pattern. Then we go for a while and it may pop back again as we loop back to that. We have beautiful windows of opportunity to be with ourselves in the process. It’s not so much about perfection. Darci was telling me about working with these high school kids and they asked if she was perfect in her body all the time? Because she’ll help them release an arm, or release tension. Just because we’re Alexander teachers doesn’t mean that we’re perfect, by any means. Darci, you can elaborate on that if you want. I just remember thinking that was so funny that your kids were kind of making that assumption.
Darci: They were asking if they study Alexander Technique for a certain amount of time, is there going to be a point when they are perfect. What I answered was: would you want to be? Or wouldn’t that just be boring? Because then you would never be paying attention to yourself. The whole point is that you’re paying attention to the quality of yourself. It might even take something painful to get your attention. I’m not saying that any of us want to be in pain. But that’s actually your body just calling you back in to the space of noticing. And I love what you said Michael about it being non-judgmental. Because I think that’s what sets this work apart, with that kind of non-judgmental sweetness in which we can hold another human being or hold ourselves. Things have the chance to unravel, instead of adding more things to our to-do lists in our body. And I think that is maybe the condition that creates the place for the unraveling.
Michael: I like that. And I want to jump in now and just let people know why you would you study the Alexander Technique. What is it for? This awareness that we’re talking about, when you bring it to your activity, there’s a possibility that you’ll discover exactly how to be with yourself and your activity in every moment. Good things that can come are that you can be comfortable in your body. You can be using your body in a healthy open way, with just the minimal amount of tension necessary for the activity. You can be gentler in the way that you interact with things in the world. So that, you know you’re being a more responsible human being in a way. Because you’re considering how the effect of what you’re doing, you’re considering the effect of what you’re doing on your environment. Anybody else want to jump in with some benefits of this work?
Eleni: Yeah, I’d actually like to bring in singing. Because I’ve been having an incredible time during our TVF adventure just enjoying freedom in my body as I sing, and wholeness in my body like never before. And I’ve been studying the Alexander Technique for many, many years. Funnily enough, I got the same question as Darci last Saturday at a workshop that I gave. A student asked, do you ever get pain or are you always marvelous. I could comment forever about what has changed over the years of studying this work, but something that’s really enjoyable and wonderful, especially in my singing these days is the freshness and the liveness of discovering what’s possible, what’s available. Discovering in which direction I want to work, to build my skills as a singer, and be able to do that with the aliveness and freshness of a little child. Where no judgment can be there when we’re in the present moment. And judgment will come up, of course. But for this awareness and the freshness of embodying moment to moment whatever our experience is, we have the possibility of using that judgment to simply jump back into the present moment. Instead of going in our heads and making that judgment real.
Molly: One of my teachers has a saying that life is hard, and if we’re hard, life’s going to be pretty hard. You know, life is hard, and if we get a little softer, life becomes a little less hard, right? It doesn’t mean you are going to be happy all the time or that you’re never going to be stressed out again. How you show up and respond to what’s going on around you will change. Without denying there is hardship in life sometimes. But having the ability to soften in response is an amazing thing. I’ve actually noticed that process as I’ve been reframing things. I’m even reframing the idea of what tension means. Tension can just be pent up energy that wants to go somewhere. I just get to redirect that energy. Even the act of reframing in and of itself, offers me a little bit of ease and freedom. And when I get a little bit more ease and freedom in my life, then that is so liberating and empowering.
Michael: And, yes, Molly I love what you’re saying. And something thatI think as a faculty we’ve been discovering lately is that the ease and freedom you’re talking about is actually our natural state. That is what we are made of. At the heart. And then things come in that interfere with that. And we think that we have to like fix those things. But that innate freedom and ease is always there, and the Alexander Technique is a way to reconnect to that when it seems to have gotten lost.
Peter: I’d love to jump in here and add my two cents. As per usual I am just in awe of the brilliance among this faculty and everything that you’re sharing, it’s giving me this whole new appreciation for this work. I want to add one really important piece of this and that is Alexander’s primary discovery about the role of the head in relationship to the body. What he discovered is really the head is the boss of the body, to put it in kind of layman’s terms. And what’s cool about that, is that’s not something Alexander invented. He discovered it, it’s like Newton and gravity. When we think about gravity, we don’t think about the Newton technique. Right? We just think, oh, there’s gravity. And it’s the same. I think of it more as the Alexander discovery or the Alexander understanding versus a technique. And that’s given me a whole new availability to see this everywhere. Like Alexander didn’t invent anything, he just pointed us to some truths in nature. He never called it the Alexander Technique, he called it the work. Which I think is really fascinating. And he said, about this work, we are giving nature her opportunity. Apparently Alexander thought nature was a woman. So, we are giving nature her opportunity. And that’s it, I mean how simple is that?
Molly: I love that because it comes back to the essence of what we already are. And the trueness of that. The work is practical because I learn how the joint moves. I’m working with somebody and I explain this is how a hip socket works or hip folds or something. They respond with a should for how they have to move. And I remind them that they’re already wired to do it. You know we’re just looking, we’re just noticing that that’s true. One of my teachers called this work an unlearning process. We are getting back to the truths of how we move. Every person’s body is kind of unique to them. I mean there are all these things that we share, you know in terms of being skeletal humans. But that you know maybe someone has a longer leg here or a shorter this or that, and that is brilliant, right. It has it’s own brilliance. There’s a sense of acceptance of yourself that for me feels like one of the conditions that creates change, right? So if we go in trying to change something, even if we’re doing it because we’re excited to learn. For me, one of the conditions has to be acceptance, and has to be a deeper knowledge of this brilliance that we all have innately. Otherwise we’re just laying external things on external things.
Peter: The two words that come to me are the brilliance and kindness in how we’re built and how we’re made. It’s so beautiful. We are just so well made. When you can understand that and see indeed how we’re made, my experience is that life just gets easier. It just continues to get better and better. And there’s infinite layers of discovery and understanding in this work. I’ll do it until the day that I die, because there’s just so much on offer through this work.
Darci: It truly makes it so that we’re never alone because we have this innate system that’s always there with us. You know, I’ll often think about that on stage when singing. You’re not up there alone, you’re there with this incredible support system. Without even doing anything to it, it’s just there for you. And it’s on your team, and it’s going to back you up in any situation. You’re in relationship to yourself that is really powerful.
Peter: Wow. Goosebumps. Thank you.
Peter: Thank you all. Yeah, this has been a really juicy and delicious conversation, and I have again a whole new appreciation for our work. Thank you all, thank you very much!
Karen Archbold is TVF Director of Operations (fancy title for the person who keeps everything running smoothly and Peter sane!) and a member of the TVF Pro Certification Program. She is based in the Chicago area and spends her time being a mom to three beautiful girls, making music, teaching her fabulous students and drinking expensive Australian tea!