Stillness and movement

Stone basin, Kyota Garden Term 7

The Kyoto Garden in London’s Holland Park is set aside for quiet and contemplation. I went through the gateway one Sunday morning and soon began to see why. As if I had turned off a motorway into a tranquil rest area, the outside noise dropped instantly away. My breathing slowed and I caught, clearly now, the gentle trill of falling water. Waterfall, Kyoto Garden, London

Designed for the 1992 Japan Festival, this is a traditional Japanese ‘stroll garden’ encouraging visitors to move quietly through the landscape, discovering new aspects as they proceed and allowing nature to ‘unscroll’ before them. The key elements are water, rocks, fish, stone ornaments, trees and flowers, all carefully placed to encourage an appreciation of natural beauty and meditation on the wider world, represented here in miniature.Kyoto Garden, London

I followed the arrows clockwise round the pond, several koi carp keeping silent pace as I approached the waterfall.  My fellow visitors stood or padded by, talking in hushed tones. A young man sat cross-legged, headphones in and contemplating the water, moving every few minutes to catch the sun.  A dad in shorts and sunglasses perched on the rocks by the water’s edge, pointing out to the toddler cradled in his arms the multi-coloured shapes gliding below. Even the wildlife here seemed open, receptive and calm.

Koi carp, Kyoto Garden, London

Squirrel, Kyoto Garden, London

Bird bath, Kyoto Garden, London

Peacock, Kyoto Garden

As the path turned towards the waterfall I had to make a choice about where to place my feet.  I stood still for a moment and looked at the smooth surface of the large flat stones ahead, comparing them with the more uneven jumble of smaller ones set alongside. Both paths led to a frothy pool of foam beneath the tumbling water, so this was not about where but how. I was being quietly wrong-footed. The deliberate duplication in garden design was prompting me to stand still and think about my next move.

Those large flat stones underfoot would give confidence and I could walk purposefully, looking out and ahead at the next view.  But putting my feet on the smaller ones would mean glancing down, away from the garden, going more slowly  and thoughtfully before reaching the water’s edge. One was not better than the other – the point was to have a deliberate moment of stillness and choice before launching into movement. How I moved and what I experienced would be different depending on my decision.Stone path, Kyoto Garden, London

Waterfall, Kyoto Garden, London

The Kyoto Garden encouraged me to be still, though not static. I had to keep moving but be thoughtful about it, senses heightened, aware of myself and what and who was around me. I needed to allow the landscape to unfold, in a quietly active way and be open to surprises.  The narrow path was circular so I could go round as often as I liked seeing it differently each time.  And time itself  became a thread in the natural tapestry as reflections and shadows and people changed over the morning. It felt good to be in an outdoor space that respected and promoted stillness, sensory awareness and conscious movement.

My own capacity for all these things is growing. I’m learning to quieten my thoughts and reactions so that through stillness I have the choice of which path to take. In movement I’m more able to stop at any point and remain integrated and in balance. And as I become more able to stay calmly within myself my field of awareness is widening and deepening, which in turn makes movement flow more easily.  The stroll garden reflected me back to myself. At the change of seasons I’ll return and be still and move through it once again.

Stone basin, Kyoto Garden, London

Kyoto Garden

Stone, Kyoto Garden

Bamboo fence, Kyoto Garden

Kyoto Garden

Peacock feathers, Kyoto Garden

Peacock feathers, Kyoto Garden

Kyoto Garden, London

On balance

18th century silk shoe
18th century silk shoe

Term 7

The pleated oak panelling on the walls of the Linenfold Parlour disappeared from view as I wedged on the heavy virtual reality headset, took hold of my high-tech walking stick and departed for Anxiety Island.  I was visiting the Footnotes exhibition as part of London Craft Week and Dutch designer Eelko Moorer wanted to test my stability in three virtual scenarios.  A number of research studies have shown the effect of Alexander Technique on balance, so I was curious to see what mine is now like.

Four artists, including Moorer, have responded to footwear from the London College of Fashion archives. The shoes are displayed at Sutton House, an atmospheric Tudor townhouse in east London, now run by the National Trust.  Oak linenfold panelling, Sutton House

The exhibition theme in the Linenfold Parlour was Balance, hence Moorer’s involvement, with his inspiration being five shiny black leather orthopaedic shoes selected from the archive. According to the Footnotes catalogue:

“In his work there is an underlying preoccupation with balance, often taken to extremes through his focus on the psychological and physical impact that objects can have upon the human form.”

Headset on and guided by a fashion student following my virtual reality trip on a separate screen, I moved in jump-cuts towards a busy outdoor plaza as a computer-generated crowd criss-crossed around me. Many people find this disconcerting and scream. But I was calm and stable on my feet, not worried about being jostled or knocked over.

Next my guide directed me to a narrow gap in a towering black wall. Standing on the threshold I noticed virtual spiders, from tiny to giant, crawling over the floor and walls to a rhythmic soundtrack of lightly clicking arachnid feet.  My heartbeat and breathing were steady but I declined the invitation to enter, calm but not quite ready to embrace the full spider experience.

The final destination was an outdoor space where suddenly the floor ahead dropped away, leaving a gaping hole and darkness below.  I stood happily, seeing clearly through the headset that there was no ground beneath me as I looked down, but completely aware that my real feet were firmly planted on wooden floorboards and I was in no danger.  After I’d taken the headset off my student guide thanked me for undergoing the experience, as not all visitors are up for it. At the same time she seemed disappointed it hadn’t unnerved me as much as she’d anticipated.

I, on the other hand, was cheered by ten minutes with the headset.  It showed that I’m living more fully in my body than before starting Alexander work and have a more co-ordinated and accurate sense of where I am in space. I hadn’t been drawn in to the virtual reality landscape but stayed calm and grounded without going off balance.  I’d given myself time at each stage rather than feeling rushed or disorientated by the changing visual cues. For me these are huge steps in improved proprioception, integrated body use and balance, and responding to the unknown.

Exploring the rest of the exhibition, I appreciated the beauty and craftsmanship of faded silk and worn leather, even though I can no longer wear narrow shoes with pointed toes. ” It’s not you, it’s me” I whispered through the glass of each display case. My toes are opening out, I’m putting my best spreading feet forward and I definitely need more space.

Woman's silk ankle boot, c 1860
Woman’s silk ankle boot, c 1860
Woman's silk buckle shoe, c 1780
Woman’s silk buckle shoe, c 1780
Woman's silk ankle boot, 1850s
Woman’s silk ankle boot, 1850s
Leather women's ankle boots, c 1870
Leather women’s ankle boots, c 1870
Leather woman's puzzle shoe, late 19th century
Leather woman’s puzzle shoe, late 19th century
Woman's leather boot 1880
Woman’s leather boot, 1880
Shoe tree for a military thigh boot, 1850
Shoe tree inside a military thigh boot, 1850
Leather ankle boots, 1870s
Leather ankle boots, 1870s
Silk satin wedding shoes, 1909-10
Silk satin wedding shoes, 1909-10
Spangle, metal thread and bow decoration on silk wedding shoes, 1909-10
Spangle, metal thread and bow decoration on silk wedding shoes, 1909-10

 

 

 

 

 

Letting go

Signpost showing different levels Term 7

This week my voice changed.  Reading aloud in class I noticed easier breathing and a richer resonance coming from a deeper place inside me. It’s taken a long time as muscle tension has only slowly undone and responded to Alexander work.

I welcomed it on Tuesday, but sometimes this muscle release has been awkward, as if I’m going through a second adolescence.  At these points my usual way of being no longer fits, brain and limbs don’t mesh and nothing works. I can’t move as I did before but haven’t yet found a replacement.  After sitting it out in teenage limbo for a while something shifts, new connections form and a different me starts to emerge. Like a breaking voice it’s unpredictable, but gradually I gain in confidence, the old pattern fades and I learn to trust my new self.

A second level of mental letting go comes as part and parcel of the new physical freedom.  I’ve found new patterns of thinking emerging, unstoppable and fresh like blossom after the cold contraction of winter.  I’m becoming more open and lively in all aspects of myself with less need to hold on to the safe ground of what I know. Spring blossom, France

In the wake of this has come the capacity, gently at first, to let go even more deeply. Life changes on a broader scale, inconceivable a few years ago, become a glint in the eye. From being desirable they slowly seem manageable then after a while inevitable.  Greater awareness, clarity and vitality are beginning to make profound change possible.

I’ve just let go of something important and long-standing in my life.  For 35 years I’ve had a share of a small piece of land with an old stone cottage set into a steep wooded hillside in rural France –  an antidote to London living and holding deep-rooted memories for me and family and friends. It’s been a formative, long-term and joint project with others. But now we’ve signed the papers and handed over the keys.

Before I left I laid my hands on the once yellow cornerstone where long ago an unknown mason had painstakingly carved two distinguishing marks, perhaps to ensure payment for his work. I passed the care of the traditional stone bread oven over to its resident adder, knowing I would never now fire it up and bake. I visited the small pool of spring water below the house where the wild boar come to wallow in the mud, snorting their way through woodland at dusk, heard but rarely seen. I lay one last time in the hammock, lizards rustling in the leaves below and the oak and hornbeam holding me swaying in the late afternoon breeze as the cuckoo song echoed down the valley. Oak and hornbeam from below

Letting go at any of these levels has been emotional and uncomfortable and I’ve needed energy, courage and time. It’s been a multi-layered process and will continue in other forms long after the end of my training. I feel loss and sadness for what I’ve left behind, but I’m relieved and lighter, intrigued about what comes next.  The patterns and places of the past have served their purpose but they’re no longer what I need to move freely into the future.

Bories (stone shepherds’ huts) and lavoirs (communal washing places) in south-west France

Shepherd's hut, France

Shepherd's hut, France

Shepherd's hut, France

Lavoir, France

Lavoir, France

Lavoir, France

Lavoir, France

Lavoir, France