Dancing into the future, letting go of the past: two journeys out to sea

Belonging 2017 by Chiharu Shiota
Belonging 2017 by Chiharu Shiota
Ocean crossing

As a child, six nearly seven, I arrived in the UK by sea from another continent. King Neptune dipped me under water as I crossed the equator for the first time. Each evening the adults dined and danced in formal dress while I slept beneath the porthole. Every morning a cabin attendant in a starched white jacket woke us with a tray of tea and crisp biscuits.

Flying fish leapt from the waves and dolphins followed our wake. We stopped in the Canary Islands where I bought an embroidered postcard of a Spanish flamenco dancer. Vibrant silk thread sparkled on the flounces of her skirt and I held her close like a talisman.

Fish weathervane, London

Starting again

After two weeks at sea a tug hooted as it brought us in to dock. We waited on shore while a crane lifted our battered Vauxhall Velox from the hold and laid it like a toy on the quayside. My father turned the key in the ignition and we drove north for a new life.  Our possessions, crammed into splintering tea chests in the hold, followed on. I clutched my Spanish postcard.

Learning to dance

Within months I was dancing the Dashing White Sergeant and saw snow for the first time. My mother wrote a weekly letter home on crinkly airmail paper and learned how to make shortbread.  At Christmas my father, the youngest of seven and back after many years abroad, led the singsong as his siblings gathered round the piano.

Beyond Time by Chiharu Shiota, Yorkshire Sculpture Park 2018
Beyond Time by Chiharu Shiota

So I became Scottish and British and European, speaking new languages and adapting to the rhythms and steps of countries not my own. Finally I settled in London, at home in a city with a tidal river where everyone comes from somewhere else.

London buildings from the Thames

Sea change

Many years have passed since that tug guided us in and I stepped onto dry land to dance to adulthood.  If I’d found the Alexander Technique earlier then maybe my passage through life would have been more expansive and comfortable. But these past few years I’ve returned to sea on a different kind of voyage. I’m again far from my embarkation point and heading for unknown territory.  Somewhere beyond the equator my old choreography melted into the deep and something smoother and more graceful took its place.

Seal in Cornwall

Dancing to a new rhythm

Now as I approach the shore, I reach for a flamenco talisman again, but this time I no longer need to hold on.  Instead my own internal threads have untangled. Like the act of breathing, an exchange has taken place at sea and what was outside has found its way in.

The landing point is still hazy but I hear its muffled music through the mist. That subtle rhythm is infectious and my feet are tapping. Soon I’ll leave my sea legs behind and be ready to join the dance.

Written in Term 8 of my training to be an Alexander Technique teacher

Dancing the flamenco to a new rhythm with the Alexander Technique

Change with the Alexander Technique takes time

I’ve been through a period of profound change while learning the Alexander Technique and training as a teacher. But change takes time. I realised this after meeting  Ötzi the Iceman in two different bodily forms. There I was cycling uphill through vineyards and orchards in northern Italy, finding the mountains oppressive and the sun fierce. In addition my knee ached with every turn of the pedals. Then my mood lifted when I came across Ötzi on  a rest day in the stylish town of Bolzano.Mountain river in the Dolomites

The discovery of Ötzi’s mummified body

Hikers discovered the first Ötzi  – a mummified and shrunken body – in 1991 on a mountain glacier close to the Austrian border nearby. We peered at it through the glass of a special cell in the museum where it rests like a medieval relic, constantly cooled to prevent decay.

2.Finding place © South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/Aichner
Hikers found Ötzi’s body on this glacier © South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/Aichner
How Ötzi died

Researchers have slowly pieced together Ötzi’s story. At first they thought his remains belonged to a lost climber. We now know he lived 5000 years ago and died violently one summer up on the glacier. A hand wound showed he’d been in a fight a few days before.

Ötzi reconstruction

Hours before his death he climbed up from the valley into the mountains. His killer followed, shooting him in the back from below with an arrow.  A revenge attack after the earlier fight?  Then came a blow to the head or maybe a fall. Blood loss meant he died quickly. His body lay face down on a large flat stone. It remained preserved in ice until its accidental discovery all those years later.

Facial reconstruction

What we know about Ötzi

We know he was about 45 (an old man for the time), with brown eyes, loose dark wavy hair and a beard. He was not in good shape – his many tattoos were probably an early form of acupuncture for pain relief. He had worn joints, some broken bones and signs of a recent chronic illness. Too much time sitting over an open fire had blackened his lungs.

Tattoos used as an early form of acupuncture for pain relief Ötzi’s second incarnation

At the end of the exhibition we met the second Ötzi. This was a reconstruction by the Dutch twins Kennis and Kennis, who make lifelike and authentic models of ancient humans for museums all over Europe.  He  was upright, three-dimensional, unexpectedly modern, very human and engaging. This was a fitting finale to Ötzi’s absorbing story.

4. The Iceman's reconstruction by Alfons & Adrie Kennis © South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/Ochsenreiter
Photo © South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/Ochsenreiter
How I’ve changed from learning the Alexander Technique

Our rest day over, it was time to pedal south. As I looked round at the fertile river valley I saw why Ötzi had caught my imagination.  It was more than just cycling in his deerskin-clad footsteps and living off the land.  I have also inhabited two bodies. The first was uncomfortable, immobile and contracted, how I used to be. The second is taller, full of life and breath, more open and upright and balanced. I also feel more human and ready to move and be in the world.

The second version has only slowly emerged from the first. It’s almost a decade since my initial Alexander Technique lesson started the process of deep psycho-physical change. Both our stories continue to evolve with new insights. Researchers have only recently located Ötzi’s stomach and identified his  last meal . There’s a new film about his life and death. And I too am revising my story after uncovering a degree of hypermobility I wasn’t aware of.

We can change, but it takes time

My knee was still sore as my bike bumped over the wooden slats on the cycle bridge across the rushing water. I was more optimistic, not just because the day’s ride was downhill.  I’ve learned that we’re not fixed and can change. The pace may feel glacial but our stories can develop irrespective of age. We too can thaw out and become more fully human if we allow ourselves the choice and the time.

Written in Terms 7/8 of my training as an Alexander Technique teacher.

Otzi's shoes

Stillness and movement

Stone basin, Kyota Garden
Movement in a thoughtful way

The Kyoto Garden in London’s Holland Park is set aside for quiet and contemplation. Movement there is slow and considered. 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

Everything open, receptive and calm

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

Time to stand still and think

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. I compared 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.

Stillness and choice

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.Movement comes out of stillness and choice, Kyoto Garden, London

Waterfall, Kyoto Garden, London

Awareness and heightened senses

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.

Staying calmly within myself

My own capacity for all these things is growing as I learn to quieten my thoughts and reactions. Then 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 widens and deepens. In turn movement flows more easily.  The stroll garden reflected me back to myself. So at the change of seasons I’ll return and be still and move through it once again.

Written in Term 7 of my Alexander Technique teacher training

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