A training school day

Ajar by Gavin Turk
Ajar by Gavin Turk (2011, bronze) shown as part of Sculpture in the City

International Alexander Awareness Week 9-15 October 2017

People often ask me what we do in the training to be an Alexander teacher, so this post is my reply. My course runs over three terms a year and four mornings a week for three years – other schools operate slightly differently. Each day follows the same broad timetable but allowing for change if we have visitors or need to work on something in depth.

We start with a short silence and meditation, allowing us to ‘come together’ as a group and prepare quietly for the day.  The teachers then give us a short ‘turn’, the name that has evolved for a mini Alexander lesson (from FM Alexander’s custom of putting ‘hands on’ his trainees in turn).  This session is the ‘meat’ of our training.  Through work from skilled teachers, day after day, we develop good body use and a more reliable sensory awareness of ourselves and how we do things. Over time as our use improves, we become able to transmit this to others through our hands.

Directed activities
Next comes a short activity guided by a teacher. Once a week it’s tai chi, on other mornings we look at a procedure in detail or do a ‘game’.  This session offers a way of approaching a set of movements in a more playful and experimental way, observing ourselves without needing to be right.

As trainees we’re learning to provide our future pupils with new experiences, guiding them to move in ways that may feel uncomfortable, at least to start with. We in turn have to develop an open and receptive attitude, where being wrong is a creative opportunity for learning and change.  It’s also a chance to practise inhibition – not needing to respond in habitual ways to the new or unexpected, but giving ourselves time to make a conscious decision about how to react.

Morning break
By now we’re hungry and ready for tea and toast, essential ingredients in the training school routine. Downtime is important – we’re each going through a prolonged, slow and individual process of physical and mental change, and at times this can be hard going. We can’t take it too seriously, so we need to take a break and chat, laugh or be quiet and recover.

Hands-on groups
Revived, we read aloud and discuss one of FM Alexander’s books, or watch a relevant DVD or internet clip. Once a week a trainee or teacher leads an anatomy or physiology session.  Towards the end of the morning we break into smaller groups led by a teacher, and take turns putting ‘hands on’ our fellow pupils.  We work calmly, ‘leaving ourselves alone’ – learning to stop, inhibit our habitual reactions, direct our thinking and give consent to what we do in a conscious way.  This sensory re-education is surprisingly tiring, and we need to stop before doing too much.  So to round off the morning we lie down in semi-supine, ready to return to the other parts of our lives.

The skills we’re acquiring come in small increments.  We’re discarding habitual patterns developed over many years, and learning to think and act differently. This can’t be rushed, and happens slowly. It may sound as if we don’t do much, but the cumulative effect is to enable new pathways to open up and deep change to take place.

You might also be interested in a previous post on Spiral Learning

Robot walking

Pedestrian robot
Photo courtesy of Yu Fan Chen, Michael Everett, Miao Liu, and Jonathan P. How at MIT

Term 5

After only a few Alexander lessons I noticed an unexpected side-effect: I could navigate through oncoming crowds with ease. I had a more accurate awareness of my own body, and sensed more quickly how others might move. As time has gone on I tend to hold my own on the pavement more than I did, increasingly sure of the space I’m entitled to, but remaining flexible in how I get by.

This came to mind when reading about an experimental robot at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that has learned to wheel itself past pedestrians without hitting anyone. The engineers broke down the robot’s task into four key areas:

  • Localisation – where are you?
  • Perception – what’s around you?
  • Motion planning – what’s the best way to get to your destination?
  • Control – actually getting there

To deal with the first two, they provided sensors and mapping tools, but motion planning was more complicated.  They wanted the robot to move through a busy indoor space at normal walking speed, while coping with real people who changed direction or stopped unexpectedly. Allowing the robot to calculate all possible destinations for everyone ahead was one solution, but it took too long to be practical.

So the makers tried “Socially Aware Motion Planning with Deep Reinforcement Learning” – a machine learning approach, giving the robot ‘social norms’ about which side to walk or pass, and making it re-assess its route ten times per second.  They didn’t predict too far ahead, and allowed for changes in behaviour at every turn.

Spurred on by this, I went for a walk on a busy street, imagining I was a knee-high robot on wheels.  People moved at different speeds, some had dogs, suitcases, pushchairs, scooters, walking frames.  There were bikes parked and bags of rubbish.  Delivery drivers came at me, couples strolled, children dashed and many had eyes only for phones, unaware of my presence.

The process was complex, as the robot engineers had found. All the time my body/mind was working fast: eyes and ears absorbing information about what was going on around me, feet following as brain calculated which way to go, judging movement, space, speed and balance. Meanwhile I maintained my full height and width, thinking up along my spine and using the natural spirals in my body to gently twist and turn as people came towards me.

Judging from this experiment, it takes much time and programming to learn and replicate human decision-making in movement. I’m interested to see what applications come from this kind of robot walking in future, particularly outside or in busier spaces. For now I have an increased respect for our human capacity to move easily through a crowd – anything but a walk in the park.





Pause for thought

ClockTerm 5

This week I went looking for words.  I found hundreds of them, at the cashpoint, on buses, in shop windows and open spaces.  A chorus of adverts and notices shouted for my attention and instant action:

Touch screen to begin
Start the adventure
Get the app
Swipe right
Go binge

Find your new job
Do something you love
Please say hello
Call our team today

Press up
Sit up
Drink up

Now available here
Open all day
Open every day
Same day service
Available now

Buy one get one free
Have you swiped your Nectar card?
Clean up after your dog

I don’t have a dog, but came home overwhelmed by possibilities. The next day I went out again, on the lookout for things not to do:

No ball games
No parking
No entry

No stopping
No smoking
No dumping
No dogs

I couldn’t find as many of them, and I didn’t have to (not) do them immediately. Instead this was about keeping me in my place, ensuring my behaviour and my body stayed within boundaries. I had less freedom in the outside world than I thought. Still no dog.

The Alexander word for ‘not doing’ is inhibition.  I’ve struggled with it and find it hard to put into practice or describe, but it’s central to becoming a teacher. I think it’s about habit and choice.  If we automatically obey an instruction or react to a stimulus, we’re more likely to do it in our habitual way.  Habits are what we want to move away from, because they encourage us to act or move unthinkingly, without paying attention.

By ‘not doing’ we allow ourselves breathing space between stimulus and response.  This gives us time to choose how to react: we can do nothing, carry on with what we intended, or do something else altogether.  But in the pause for thought we’ve allowed a moment to make a conscious choice, and that’s the key.

My sample of words on the street is just a fraction of the shout-outs for action we come across each day.  ‘Doing’ is seen as positive, natural, a necessary part of everyday life – otherwise how would we ever achieve anything?  It’s also time-bound, deadline-driven, urgent.  The idea of ‘non-doing’ seems largely negative and constraining, even lazy and out of step.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that it’s difficult to explain or understand Alexander’s ideas, because they run so counter to prevailing thinking. There seems little room for the Alexander concept of not reacting, stopping and pausing or for seeing ‘non-doing’ as a welcome chance to catch our habits on the hop before they take over.

The only instruction I came across where the mainstream and the Alexander world were in unison was a road safety slogan. The three words made me smile, breathe and pause:

Stop.  Think.  Live.