Everything in cycles

Bike wheels suspendedTerm 6

London in 2018 is a riot of red, orange and yellow as bikes for hire hit the streets. The first to arrive a few years ago were Boris bikes, named for London’s then mayor.  They began their life decked out in blue, now they paint the town red to match new sponsor branding.  These are lumbering heavy creatures, elephants of the bicycle world. When not in use they idle in fixed docking stations across the capital. They never get punctures, are almost unbreakable and highly reliable.

'Boris bikes' at their docking station

Two lighter competitors have recently flown in: bright yellow Ofo from China and luminous orange Mobikes.  These have no fixed home, but flock together like parakeets in designated resting places, or sit cheerfully outside coffee shops and pubs. I’ve found them waiting singly and hopefully in parks or by the canal, never there for too long before being picked up and taken for a ride.

Orange Mobikes

I too progress through town on a bike. I learned to ride in childhood, and still delight in balancing and moving on two wheels. As student and commuter I cycled for many years to cover distance cheaply and independently.  I had no sense of how I moved and just wanted to get from A to B.

In the midst of pregnancy and family life I upgraded from bike to car. Back and neck problems duly put paid to regular bike rides and I stopped calling myself a cyclist. By the time I returned to my drop handlebar bike I’d begun Alexander lessons and nothing was quite the same.  My back was stronger and longer, I moved differently and saw myself, and cycling, in a new way.   My bike and I, after 27 years together, didn’t have much in common and parted company.

Since then I’ve played the field and been out on quite a few Boris bikes. Mostly these have been short functional experiences. Sometimes there are several in a day, though I’ve never seen any bike more than once. Just occasionally one of the family borrows my bike ‘key’. Then weekends perk up, and my journey history shows me returning in the early hours from the other side of town.

Last summer I had a longer fling on a German cycling holiday.

My holiday bike

Through cobbled streets and stormy nights we were very compatible, and I knew I was ready for something more permanent.  I returned home, and after much online searching thought I’d found ‘the one’.  We moved in together a couple of months ago and seemed right for each other.  By now Alexander thinking and improved body use was part of me, and it felt easier and less effort than before.  But it was not to be.  After just six weeks of bliss my bike was stolen from me by another, and I’m on my own again, older and wiser.

I chalked it up to experience, and decided I needed advice before putting myself out there again. I went for a lesson with cyclist and Alexander Technique teacher Barry Collins.  We discussed bikes and cycling while he worked with me in the chair and on the Alexander table, before moving to the standing bike set up in his teaching room. I came away from the session with a wealth of practical wisdom: what to look for in a new bike, how to set it up, where my weight should be as I ride, how to position myself on saddle, pedals and handlebars, and how to keep freedom and length as I cycle.

Back on Boris bikes, I’m riding with greater ease, hills are less challenging, I enjoy cycling more and I’m moving faster with less effort. I understand better how my body works in cycling and I’m ‘thinking in activity’ as I go. I’m ready for a new bike, but looks and performance don’t matter as much as before. When we finally get together I’ll know better what to do, and it’ll be as easy as …

Bikes parked in London

Bike on canal boat

Bike storage in central London

White ghost bike commemorating a cyclist who died at this road junction
Not all cyclists return home
Bike trailers on the car-free German island of Hiddensee, waiting by the quayside for the ferry
Bike trailers wait for the ferry on the car-free island of Hiddensee

 

Non-doing

Fountain pensEnd of Term 5

One of the key Alexander Technique concepts is the idea of ‘non-doing’, the opposite of ‘doing’ or ‘trying’.  It’s not doing nothing, but a way of doing less, so we match the effort to the task.

To do less, we have to stop doing things in the normal way and allow ourselves to find a better one.  The stopping or ‘inhibition’ means we intercept ourselves just before we proceed with an action. In the pause we have time to choose whether and how to continue.  This allows us to think more about the ‘means whereby’ we do something, rather than ‘end-gaining’ to achieve a given result.  By pausing we also stop our usual ways of acting and start to ‘unlearn’ our habits.  This allows new patterns to develop over time, as old ways start to be replaced by easier and more conscious ways of being.

I’m about to apply the idea of non-doing to this blog. I want to continue writing, but with less effort.  Non-writing.  Or maybe writing in a more thoughtful, more sustainable way. Gradually I’m discovering that the activities I undertake have to be sustainable.  This means looking after myself – working for shorter periods, taking breaks, and noticing when I need to stop, rather than carrying on regardless.

This term I’ve gone through some large ‘undoings’ in my body, and the process continues.  In line with Alexander’s concept of psycho-physical unity (that the body and mind are not two entities, but one integrated self), it’s having an effect on my sense of myself and, in turn, on how and what I want to write. My response is to apply Alexander thinking not just to movement but also to how I approach other areas of my life, including this blog. I’m not sure what the outcome will be, but that is very much the point.

After nearly nine months of weekly posts, I’ve decided to take a break over the Christmas holidays, and after that I’ll be posting monthly rather than weekly (on the first weekend of the month, with an email going to subscribers on the Monday immediately following).

The next post will be on the website in early January 2018 -until then, best wishes for the holiday season and the New Year.

 

 

Hands and handles

Term 5

My world is full of handles.  They jump out at me and announce their presence, waiting for a hand to touch them.  Body parts are opening out all the time during training, and right now my hands are edging into the limelight. Of course it’s all connected together, as release in one part allows something else to let go.  My arms are finding their connection with my back, and I’m noticing the effect in my hands.

The handles I’ve seen vary in shape, and I approach them differently.  Some are metallic, delicate, inviting to the touch and well matched to the size and weight of door they have to open.  Others give clues before you lay a finger on them – fitting easily to an imaginary hand and anticipating a light push away or a gentle turn to left or right.

One asks for downward pressure from the thumb at the top to lift a latch behind the door, while the rest of the hand fits comfortably round the handle below.  The positioning and craftsmanship of both suggest only the softest of touches is needed to enter the secret garden behind the wooden door.

Door handle

I’ve seen door knockers as well – two hands and one fish. These are made of sterner stuff, requiring firm treatment to resonate through the building and wake a sleeping household.  But there’s a humanity and lifelike quality about the metal hands and I see how I could gently shape my own fingers round as I knock.

Shop and office handles vary widely, and their doors are not always easy to enter. Some are wide open, inviting me in hands-free. Not all are accessible, and it can be hard to find the way in.  It isn’t always clear if I should push, pull or move closer and wait for the doors to open. Typewritten signs on the glass  – Push to Open or Automatic Doors – suggest other customers find it confusing too. The doors are larger and heavier than domestic ones with substantial handles encouraging effort and strain.

Handles are coming to the fore because I’m ‘unlearning’ the way I normally grip with my fingers – tight and with too much effort.  My hands are becoming less harsh, more open and alive, and I’m beginning to use them in a lighter, easier way.  My thinking is changing too. I’ve not been paying attention and have assumed doors are heavy and I must use effort. Instead I need to meet each handle as it comes, and give myself time to unlearn the old ways.   I’m losing my grip and that’s the way it has to be.

Metal door handle