Vitality and poise: a visit to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Vitality and poise in Julian Opie's People 15 in Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Walking with poise – Julian Opie’s People 15

Vitality and poise are two key benefits I’ve had from learning the Alexander Technique.  I hadn’t expected this (though I’m sure my teachers did). I’d gone for greater mobility and relief from back pain.  Both duly arrived as my head, neck and back began to work together in a more integrated way. Now other rewards have started to come through. One is that I’m more self-possessed with a greater zest for life.

Expanding and breathing

I’m more aware of vitality and poise in the world at large too, and found both on a recent visit to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park .  Here monumental pieces – stone, bronze, iron, wood, even string – animated the landscape. Many were of the human figure or about movement, almost alive yet with an inner stillness. Despite their size I felt they could easily come to life and swap places after closing time.

Reclining Figure Arch Leg by Henry Moore
Reclining Figure Arch Leg by Henry Moore
Part of The Family of Man (1970) by Barbara Hepworth
The Family of Man by Barbara Hepworth

I puzzled over what was different here from any other gallery.  Barbara Hepworth, born in nearby Wakefield, gave me some clues. She wrote of  sculpture as “something still and yet having movement, so very quiet and yet with a real vitality”.  But being outdoors was also important:

“I prefer my work to be shown outside. I think sculpture grows in the open light and with the movement of the sun its aspect is always changing; and with space and the sky above, it can expand and breathe.”

Playful vitality and mindful poise

Visitors too seemed more energetic, lively and engaged than in many indoor spaces. No tired ‘museum feet’ here.  Instead some had hiking poles and set off briskly round the lake trails. Family groups argued about the best routes. And round every sculpture people gathered in twos and threes. They discussed, chatted, wondered what it was all about or just enjoyed the cracking Yorkshire view.

Later I picked up two of the park leaflets.  One of them – 50 Ways to Play – suggested you “play with our art and nature to lift your spirits, enjoy your day and test all your senses”. The second listed Well-being events, including sessions called Still Looking and Room to Breathe.  These encouraged you to “think deeply, move mindfully and connect with nature” while engaging with art and with others. I discovered the park has an Art and Well-being Coordinator  who is herself an artist interested in walking and mindfulness.

Touch with Care, Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Expect the unexpected

All in all it was a satisfying place to visit. It encouraged visitors to discover a playful vitality in themselves, while moving through the sculptures and landscape with mindful poise.  My trip to Yorkshire was to see the sculptures. But like my experience with the Alexander Technique, what I found when I got there was deeper, more interesting and worth going back for.

Written during Term 8 of my Alexander Technique teacher training.

Network by Thomas J Price
Network by Thomas J Price
One and Other by Antony Gormley
One and Other by Antony Gormley
Riace Figures II, III, IV by Elisabeth Frink
Riace Figures II, III, IV by Elisabeth Frink
Wilsis by Jaume Plensa
Wilsis by Jaume Plensa
Large Two Forms by Henry Moore
Large Two Forms by Henry Moore
Promenade by Anthony Caro
Promenade by Anthony Caro
Cloaked Figure IX by Lynn Chadwick
Cloaked Figure IX by Lynn Chadwick
Seated Man II by Elisabeth Frink
Seated Man II by Elisabeth Frink

Body use and alignment help carry luggage with less strain

Luggage, Kings Cross

Maintaining good body use and alignment when you carry luggage takes care and thought. This summer I’ve taken many train journeys, and learning the Alexander Technique has helped me lift and carry my bags more easily. Recently I spent a morning at London’s Kings Cross station to see how other travellers handle their baggage while on the move.

Kings Cross station, London

Luggage in all shapes and sizes

It was like stepping onto a bustling film set as random extras streamed through from all sides.  Taking refuge on the balcony I saw silent dramas playing out below. A musician hauled a bulky instrument on his back, weighed down and weary. Three businessmen discussed office politics, neat overnight bags beside them. A men’s sports team in sponsored tracksuits milled round kitbags, laughing and sharing phones.  “Cycling, skateboarding and roller-skating are not permitted on the station concourse” boomed the loudspeaker. Body use with poise wheeling a bike, Kings Cross station

Straining, twisting and tensing

Many travellers, I could see, were carrying vast amounts of luggage. In fact they struggled to cope, yet somehow expected to manage it all. Some carried bags lightly and evenly balanced. Many more had them hitched on one shoulder, tensing and twisting. There were some with backpacks tucked snugly high up. Others had left the straps loose and the weight low, risking strain as the bags dragged them down.

Support from spine and feet

I noticed my own habitual patterns of body use repeated on the station floor. For many years I stood with the weight dropped into one hip, pressing down more on one side of my body. At the time it seemed comfortable and normal. In reality my spine and feet were not fully supporting me. I was twisting and distorting myself, leading to long-term back pain.

Some passengers stood with feet crossed over at the knee or ankle. But they quickly shifted position as discomfort set in. Several leaned forwards or sideways onto suitcase handles rather than supporting their own weight.Body use at Kings Cross station

Phones a distraction

Almost every hand held a phone as people passed the time online. Some glanced up occasionally to check on their train, others had eyes only for the screen. Then, as I took photos, I heard a thud next to me. A precious backpack had slipped off my neighbour’s shoulders to the ground. He walked away, unaware, still filming on his phone.

Thinking more about body use

Since learning the Alexander Technique I’ve had relief from back pain and can manage travel and luggage better. So now I pack less, allow more time and think differently about how I move. I pay more attention to my length, width and breathing. I understand the cumulative impact on the whole body of compressing or twisting any one part. In addition my feet make more equal contact with the floor, I stop more often and I’m less worried about arriving on time.

Change of focus

Overall my focus has changed so I think more about my own body use, even with a train to catch. This summer I’ve had to contend with disrupted journeys. Lightning took out a signal box, a tractor and tree collided beside the line and timetable changes ushered in mass cancellations. Mostly I’ve still reached my destination. Almost certainly I’ve arrived lighter, calmer and with less strain than before.

Written in Term 8 of my Alexander Teacher training

Suitcases, Kings Cross, London

Kings Cross, London

Kings Cross

Kings Cross station

Kings Cross station, London

Kings Cross

Kings Cross London

Body use while on the phone at Kings Cross Station, London

Body use while on the phone at Kings Cross station, London

Kings Cross

Back Care poster






Wall work

Head of a woman
Tracy by Dreph (Neequaye Dreph Dsane) – putting unsung lives on view
Bad Hombre
Bad Hombre

Walls have had a bad press lately, but this post is about two more benign uses – street art and Alexander wall work.  The first has long been a personal interest – I enjoy its physicality, edge and humour in the midst of the capital.  I like it when dull walls acquire a personality overnight, inviting a chuckle or quick photo in the morning.

Lie Lie Land by Bambi
Lie Lie Land by Bambi
Dom Un-ation
Dom Un-ation by Pegasus
Harry's Girl
Harry’s Girl by Pegasus

Jimmy C (below)
James Cochran aka Jimmy C has a signature ‘aerosol pointillist’ style, skilfully mixing urban grit, art history and social comment, mostly using real people in his work.

Joe's Kid by Jimmy C
Joe’s Kid by Jimmy C

Street art by Jimmy CStreet art by Jimmy CLike other street artists, his walls are visible in many countries –  Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, Spain, Turkey and the UK. For many, Instagram acts as an internationally accessible gallery for displaying street pieces and earning money via print sales.

SHOK-1 is a chemist by background, spray-painting X-ray art on walls worldwide. Technically difficult, these are done freehand and comment on popular culture, contemporary life and science.

SHOK-1 street art
MasterPeace by SHOK-1 – a white poppy on a barbed wire stem done for Remembrance Day 2017
Detail from SHOK-1’s The Future is Rubbish (the other half is a discarded drinks can)
Elvis by SHOK-1
Elvis by SHOK-1

Artists are often commissioned by building owners or allowed  to paint on their property. An activity that was once underground, illegal and dangerous is now part of the street fabric and the London visitor experience. Using outside space in a city that’s receptive to street art provides newcomers with profile and recognition. With luck they pick up commissions or access to more formal galleries. The stories of their subjects, also often outsiders, can gain wider currency, as with Dreph (at the top of this post).

Zabou is female and French, now living in London and active on its walls. She works with the spaces she paints, moulding subjects to surroundings.Wonderland by Zabou

Dali by ZabouZabouThere’s a contradiction at the heart of street art – the paintings are brash and direct, the artists often private and shy.  They’re rarely noticed, producing new pieces quickly or roaming the city to scout locations and observe reaction.  Their art can seem banal, but often has political edge and wit. It looks spontaneous but has been planned in detail. It’s also physical in the extreme – working speedily outdoors surrounded by spraypaint fumes, often at height, and at risk from falls, traffic and public or official reaction.

Alexander wall work
Wall work in an Alexander context is much smaller scale.  It’s a simpler and quieter way of observing and improving body use on your own or guided by a teacher.  You stand slightly away from the wall, just touching, gaining feedback as your body adjusts or making small movements with thought and direction.  Like street art it helps you become aware of what’s going on and what it is you’re really dealing with.

As for me, I’m somewhere in the space between the painted and the living. I’m no longer stuck and immobile unable to move far from the wall. But I’m not fully formed as a teacher either.  I’m slowly moving from two dimensions to three. It’ll happen, just not overnight. And no spray cans will be involved.

The Street Art Walk by London Walks runs weekly. The route changes regularly to include new pieces as they appear.

Street art woman's face

Street art

Muhammand Ali
Muhammad Ali
Bearskin capoeira by Martin Ron
Off-duty guardsman does capoeira, painted by Argentinian Martin Ron
Don't Shoot by Bambi
A response to the Ferguson shooting – Don’t Shoot by Bambi
Ben Eine
“Sell the house, the wife, the kids, it’s bonus time” by Ben Eine, close to the City of London