When I had my first Alexander lesson, I caught a glimpse of something in my minds’ eye.
It was on the edge of my vision, a fleeting peripheral image of something wonderful. I didn’t know what it was, it had something to do with my neck and yet it seemed to be more than that. I decided I needed more lessons to find out what this glimpse was about.
There were days, when, after my lessons it felt as if my legs were carrying me of their own accord, that I wasn’t actually walking- something else was ‘walking’. It was strangely wonderful.
I had been nagged into having lessons by my mother, who, suffering from ankylosing spondylitis; had received enormous benefit from her own lessons. She couldn’t explain anything to me- although I would sometimes find her sitting in one of our dinning chairs with her hands perched oddly on the top rail of another chair placed in front of her. It looked like she was playing buses and I didn’t understand. Finding her explanations inadequate, she booked me in for a series of 30 lessons. Those lessons changed my life, my career and my whole way of being. The Alexander technique became a thread that ran through everything I did. My piano playing became easier, my damaged wrist, broken in an accident when I was 12, grew stronger, I became calmer, taller, and suffered less pain. Up till then pain had been a fairly constant companion. I have a form of fibromyalgia, which meant I was often in pain when sitting or lying, or walking- or doing anything really. Climbing stairs would leave my thighs burning with pain after only two flights, sitting in a cinema was almost out of the question as I would be in such pain at the end of the film.
I was having three lessons a week. After about 20 lessons I noticed my neck feeling different, and I could climbs stairs more easily. I was intrigued. My teacher, Jean Sheppard, suggested I visit Lansdowne Road, where she trained, and have a lesson with Walter Carrington. Jean had spoken about Walter quite a lot and I was curious to meet him, so I duly rang up, was shocked at the length of time I’d have to wait for my lesson and eventually climbed those mosaic marble steps to the big black double doors, rang the day bell and went in for my first lesson with Walter.
I remember this enormous hand sucking my neck up into itself like a limpet clinging to a rock, and there it stayed. Walter stood me, sat me, laughed, talked to me about rib cages, “In our work, what we find is, people can tend to stiffen their ribs.” I nodded sagely. I knew that. Walter and I agreed on this point. It didn’t occur to me until I was almost home that he was talking about MY ribs, MY stiffness. Surely not! I had had 30 lessons after all. I caught another glimpse, in the peripheral vision of my minds eye- of a kind of freedom, an elusive but tantalising glimpse of a life free from pain. I wanted to see more so I enrolled on the teacher-training course.
I thought I knew what it meant to free my neck, I was familiar with the directions; head forward and up, knees forward and away. But as I started training I felt I actually didn’t know what they meant after all. It was a mystery and the glimpse of freedom left me and I felt mired in a morass of doing.
Later, I realised it was as if another layer of misuse was shedding– like a snake shedding its skin. My path became spiralic, mobius-like, a constant return to the much loved and much misunderstood (by me) concepts of inhibition and direction. It was like going back to the same piece of landscape year after year, walking round the same garden- seeing it again, fresh, new and yet familiar. The peripheral vision began to occupy centre stage in my sight lines and I could see more clearly the tools I was being given.
Training with Walter and Dilys was a privilege and in those three years I formed life-long friendships, gained another inch in height and acquired a reasonable pair of hands. Lessons with Walter were a highlight- his way of talking, which I came to call to myself “the first person once removed”, always intrigued me. He would engage you in a conversation about something- the neck, the knees, the thoracic area, and talk to you as if you and he were agreeing about the sorry state of such things- but you were equals and he knew that you knew about the neck, the knees, the thoracic area- he was just offering a gentle reminder. If you weren’t paying attention, you could miss the delightful subtlety of Walters discourses.
I qualified: another notch on the Alexander belt, and began to teach. The image of spirals stayed with me, a spiral staircase of use I climbed, occasionally looking back, sometimes seeing the same things from a different height. I began to write: lectures, articles, books. My learning felt almost alchemical in its subtleties and complexities. I pondered deeply on the effects of gravity on my neck muscles and wondered what the opposing force was, apart from my own muscles; perhaps it was the light itself, urging us upwards, like plants. From my new perspective of not only teaching the public, but also staring to be involved in training future teachers; F. M. appeared to be a magician.
I become Dilys Carrington’s apprentice, learning the skills of teaching new trainees precisely what is involved in using hands on another person. Here, more than anywhere, I was struck by the seamlessness of use, how the things I had learned in my own early lessons were still the important things. How an understanding of good use was fundamental to becoming a good teacher and, if you wanted to teach someone else to become a teacher, you still had to maintain your use. “There, can you feel it coming?” Dilys would ask, her hand on the top of mine as we helped a new trainee into monkey. “There it is, that’s the direction coming.” I couldn’t feel it- not at first. Later, I could feel it, even sense it coming before the sensation arrived in their backs, as Dilys did. I could feel Dilys was initiating this strong current of direction that began to flow through the trainees and she was teaching them both to not interfere with its natural course and then to initiate it for themselves. It was all to do with the many facets of direction. “Let’s all let our knees go.” she would say; and we would, and the direction would flow from Dilys through me into the trainee and on to the person they had their hands on. Everyone got it.
In 1987, the Alexander technique took me to Australia– where it had all begun. I was the assistant of the first teacher-training course in Melbourne. 24 people gathered from all over Australia for the course- some had never had lessons because at that time F.M’s homeland had so few teachers. It felt strange and wonderful to be a part of re-energizing Alexander’s work in his own land, a strange spiral, an odd twist of fate. How would we fare? Peripheral vision now was fully focused on this way of working, this way of being and to my pleasure, the more I taught, and engaged others in the process of teaching, the more my own use improved. Long standing injuries finally resolved and most of the time I was pain free. Walter & Dilys came out to visit us in Melbourne, Dilys to see how her ideas were working out for me in our ‘hands-on’ sessions and Walter to lecture, discuss, give turns and share his thoughts. I was struck again by his immense skill and his beaming personality. He would work on our students, none of whom he had met before and somehow would find just the right way to talk to them so that things made sense. He talked to one about the rigging in a ship, how it had to be balanced if the sails were to catch the wind, how important it was that every rope was the right tension. He didn’t know the man under his hands was not only a keen sailor but had built his own boat, including the sails! “Must have smelt the salt behind my ears.” was the astonished comment when Walter moved on to the next trainee.
Sitting on the wooden veranda of our weatherboard house, waiting for the cool change to switch the air from stifling saturation to clean fresh breeze was an opportunity for inhibition. I certainly couldn’t change this stimulus- the cool change would come when it came, but I could change my response, so that I used myself better instead of fretting about what was not changeable. I learned a lot about use in different environments in Australia. 3 yrs, a baby son and a flash flood later, I returned to the UK, glad to have lived for a while in F.M’s homeland, to have visited Ballarat and Bendigo where he had taught and to get a sense of place and seen for myself the ‘wide brown’ that surely must have influenced F.M’s thinking. The sheer size and openness of the landscape, the immensity of the night skies and the persistence of its people, these things are now part of the technique for me.
Of all the disciplines in my life, the Alexander technique remains the one that is the most effective. Life throws challenges at you, both in the circumstances of your life and the accidents or illness that befall you. How you meet those changes is what makes you. I have been teaching over 30 years now and my legs still sometimes hurt when I walk up stairs, but I don’t make things worse by stiffening my neck or holding my breath as well, or shortening my spine. Neither do I tell myself I’m not applying the technique properly- an easy trap to fall into- surely you should be perfect by now shouldn’t you!-instead I return again to those things I was taught in my first lessons. How to free my neck, how to send my head forward and up, how to inhibit my responses so I can see my choices to act or refrain from acting more clearly. The glimpse I saw out of the corner of my eye is now a detailed picture, fully viewed. It is a landscape of body, mind, breath, awareness and choice that never fails to delight me. It is the journey I embarked on in my early 20’s and I know will last me the rest of my life.
Thank you F.M.