A new way to hold a ladder

Wisteria in bloom
Wisteria in bloom and bees buzzing as I held the ladder

Beginning of Term 4

I’ve returned from the Easter break, refreshed and ready to embark on a new term.  The holidays feel less like time away and more like an integral part of the course, just without active teaching.  For me it’s where the learning settles and takes hold of the body, and somehow changes and insights have time to quietly make themselves known.

Over Easter this happened unexpectedly while I was standing at the bottom of a ladder. I was outside on a slippery, uneven wet surface, while someone else went up the ladder to clear a gutter of autumn leaves.  Ladder-holding is not part of the curriculum. No-one has shown me directly how to do it in an Alexander way, and it’s not something I’ve done for a while, so it was a good place to notice the subtle but significant changes in how I approached it.

What surprised me was how naturally my body and mind started to work together to put me in the best place to support the bottom of the ladder.  I barely had to think about the placing of my feet.  They seemed to find a position that took into account the slope of the ground, the angle of the ladder and the opposing angles of my body.  Without effort, I had secure but flexible footing, where I could move easily if the ladder started to wobble unexpectedly.

I noticed my hands working together with my arms and back, so that I wasn’t gripping the sides of the ladder but was well balanced. I had a firm, comfortable hold, something similar to the ‘hands on the back of the chair’ procedure we practise in the training.  In the past I would have used maximum effort in my hands and arms to keep the ladder steady, probably locking my knees, clenching my jaw, holding my breath and keeping my feet too wide or too close for easy balance.  With my new stance and hold I felt much more in control, and more confident to handle an emergency.

All the while I was conscious of what was going on with a heightened awareness.  I saw my hands on the sides of the ladder, I was aware of my head, neck and back, and I felt the ground beneath my feet.  I heard the bees moving in and out of the sweet-smelling wisteria above my head and felt the dry leaves from the gutter above drifting down onto me.  But I wasn’t distracted, and knew my job was to hold the ladder firm for the person working above me.

Reflecting on my ladder-holding afterwards, I was encouraged that the training is beginning to take root within me and I’m starting to be able to use it in a dynamic multi-dimensional way.  If it can happen when I’m standing at the bottom of a ladder made of solid wood, then over time it’ll work when I have a person in front of me, and I’ll know where to put my feet and hands without worrying about it. But I’m sure it was partly the fact that I was on holiday, away from the activity of the training setting, that enabled me to bring together elements of what I’ve learned over the past year and apply it in a new way.

 

 

Seeing in a different way

Forest track
Allowing the light to come in

End of Term 3

“The relationship between what we see and what we know is never settled.”  John Berger, Ways of Seeing

It’s a year since I started my training and I’ve been reviewing how far I’ve come.  Others are also looking back. We’re preparing to say farewell to three students who graduate as teachers next week – we will study the photos of them taken on their first day of training, and no doubt notice in their graduation pictures a greater openness, physical presence and sense of self hard won after three years on the course .

The process of change is not an easy thing to pin down, because it’s subtle, personal and continuous.  Often how we have changed is more visible to others than to ourselves, so we may not even be aware of the difference in how we move or speak, and how we are all slowly leaving our old habits of body and mind behind us as we progress.

One of the changes I’m beginning to value is a growing capacity to see differently.  This is not about my eyesight, it’s more about how I’m able to look at the world.  Firstly there’s an awareness of myself – through mirrors placed round the training room I can watch how I move and become more aware of what I’m actually doing, rather than just what I thought I did. With feedback from teachers and students, I also begin to notice how I respond at different moments in the day – tightening when I’m looking for release, focussing too hard on one part of my body and forgetting about the rest, acting too quickly and without initial thought, wanting to complete an action but ignoring how I go about it.  Becoming aware of and looking after myself is key in being able to teach others.

 Secondly I’m refining my capacity to observe others, in preparation for working as a teacher. This is hard and will take years to develop. Like an experienced birdwatcher with an inner sense both of the outline of a bird and a close recall of colours, call and plumage, I am slowly honing my observational skills to appreciate both the detail and the whole of a person as I work with them.

Finally I’m slowly developing a softer way of observing the world, allowing the light to come in to my eyes rather than actively looking for something outside myself.  This is coupled with a gradually increasing ability to look out at what’s going on, to look panoramically, rather than to focus on one part of the room or to fix on some inner part of myself, as I try to make sense of what the teacher’s hands are communicating as they work with me.  Fixing my eyes leads to fixing my body – rigidity when I need flexibility, and restricted vision rather than a full awareness of what’s happening  right now.   For now, it’s enough that I’ve noticed these changes beginning to happen, and allow them to continue.

 

 

 

Two arms and a leg

End of Term 3

This week I came face to face with my arms and learned a valuable lesson.  Every day in our training we have short sessions where we experience working with our hands on other students under the guidance of our teachers. I was in a group with two of the more advanced students, and was being taught how to take and move another student’s leg while she was lying on the Alexander teaching table.

My position was fine, my feet were firmly on the floor, and my hands were making contact with her leg.  But when it was time for me to lift her leg and move it so it was flat on the table, I froze.  My body and brain didn’t seem to know how to lift something without using unnecessary strength in my arms.

The instruction from the teacher was to keep my arms as they were, and use my back and my body to gently lift the leg and place it down on the table.  I knew the leg wasn’t particularly heavy, but I could feel my upper arm muscles engaging as if I was about to lift a substantial weight.  I knew I didn’t want to lift with undue effort from my arms, but I wasn’t able to allow my body to move in a different way from usual, and I became unable to move.  My own belief that I needed to make a huge effort with my arms was stopping me from moving in a more dynamic and integrated way.

To get over this, I mirrored the teacher closely while he moved the leg, so I got a sense of the movement I was aiming for. I then practised lifting two heavy books from a desk, not gripping with my fingers, but instead holding them with open hands, and using my back and legs to bring me and the books up without effort in the arms.  The following day I worked again with legs on the table, and this time I had a greater belief in my body’s capacity to lift weight without force.  So unlearning of ingrained habits takes place day by day, and new ways of moving slowly take their place.

Below are some arms and legs I spotted on a walk today in the City of London.

Paternoster by Elisabeth Frink in Paternoster Square
Statue at the foot of Queen Victoria, outside St Paul’s Cathedral
War Memorial, south side of St Paul’s Cathedral
War Memorial, south side of St Paul’s Cathedral