The Self at Hand - working with the Alexander Technique
What can collaboration and play between disciplines make possible for how we inhabit ourselves and engage in the world?
Her hand is following my moving at the same time as it is supporting the quality of the connection between my head and my spine and the rest of my body.
I’m aware that I have collaborative companionship in my coordinating process.
I’m aware that I am making movement decisions. I’m aware of movement itself, moving me.
Walking in the park after the lesson is over I feel so new to myself that every step is my first, and so at home in myself that I feel this is how I have always been.
That’s me, reflecting on an Alexander lesson I had with teacher Jane Refshauge. An expanding moment where everything comes together. A recognition at the heart of what I love in this work.
The Alexander Technique offers what another important teacher in my life, Seattle-based Cathy Madden, describes as a process of learning to co-operate with our human design. It is a way of saying yes! to ourselves. It gives tools for accurate body mapping and a process for changing habitual patterns of moving and thinking that constrict us. Alexander teachers include words, ideas, images, and their hands to communicate principles and facilitate learning.
It’s my final year of Alexander Technique teacher training and I’m working with a young man who wants to look at standing. He says he doesn’t have ‘good posture’.
I’m trying Cathy Madden’s ‘have a little wonder’ approach … what kind of body map might he have … what idea of ‘standing’… where might it be useful to bring my hands… but actually, I‘m not really wondering, I’m tightening, and I can see him tightening. I’m tightening readying to ‘do’ something, and he’s tightening readying to be ‘improved’.
Suddenly I feel overwhelmed by implications. The way he’s co-ordinating to stand is part of his whole way of being in the world, and here’s me about to move in and maybe change that, or at least offer a different possibility. A sense of politeness paralyses me for a moment. I don’t want to interrupt.
Later I talk with [the teacher]. She looks at me with steady compassion. ‘Actually, I see that as part of my job. To interrupt patterns.’
She’s right. Interrupting is part of my job. I realise that for me to be able to do that I need to give myself a bit of a paradigm shimmy. Shed the ‘improvement’ dynamic, for us both.
For me, teaching Alexander Technique is an ongoing collaborative exploration, grounded in radical respect of the embodiment histories and potentials of myself and of the people I work with.
My starting place and reference home base when I am working with my hands is always my own process of whole-self coordinating. It is from here that I can offer space and invitation for people to engage with their own moment by moment co-ordinating. In similar spirit, dancer and Alexander Technique teacher Fiona Bryant describes the way she works with her hands in teaching as an improvisatory duet ‘where there are no established roles of leader and follower, and constant negotiations that the partnership depends on.’
The organising principle that brings teacher and student together is a shared interest in the process of co-operating with our design.
I am interested in what this kind of collaboration can make possible for the ways we inhabit ourselves and engage in the world.
She has one hand on my lower back, one hand on my belly, and we are exploring the still dance of standing. Almost I don’t think I can bear it. Last night late I ate a lot. It’s all there hard and sore inside me and I would rather be anywhere but here with her hand on my belly.
She is talking about being porous to gravity. The whole of her is with me, with her hand on my belly, being porous to gravity. I begin to absorb. And it turns out that no matter what I have done to myself the ground and gravity are still there.
I can invite myself to co-operate with my design from any state I’m in.
Kate Barnett is based in Melbourne at the Abbotsford Convent WellBeing Centre in Melbourne where she teaches Alexander Technique, Yoga and InterPlay. Kate offers individual lessons, group classes and workshops, and mentoring sessions. She is currently preparing for some weekend afternoons of InterPlay – two Saturdays and a Sunday.
An earlier version of this article was first published in Dancehouse Diary Issue 8 (2015).