Chairs of the week

End of Term 3 and my first year of training

I’m used to standing up and sitting down.  Much of what happens in our training or in a regular Alexander lesson involves working with a teacher to get in and out of a chair.  We’re thinking about how we’re moving, and whether the head, neck and back are working in harmony to take our bodies fluidly and without effort from standing to sitting, or vice versa.

But this week my thoughts turned to what I’ve been sitting on rather than how I got there.  The chairs were many and varied.  Firstly there was a concert where I sat in a wooden Victorian pew with a hard, protruding backrest, made comfortable only when I stuffed my bag behind me to provide a different kind of contact for my back to lengthen into.  Then there was the awkward interlude waiting for a bus.  Trying hard not to be a bench, the shiny red surface was subtly curved downwards, so I could only perch and not sit, in danger of bracing my legs, and worrying always about sliding off.   Once on the bus, the soft springy padding of the lurid blue and orange seats gave me an illusion of a comfortable ride as the driver negotiated the potholes that have arrived with the coming of spring.

Matters were no better at the office.  My new ergonomic chair was both ungainly and uncomfortable.  Somehow I seemed to be at an angle below the desk looking up, accentuated by the sloping floor of the historic building I’m based in. So I tried the Arts and Crafts chair nearby.  This was the triumph of the week.  Beautifully made, simple, elegant and a good height for the desk, it had an upright back and a base that provided just enough support.

The next day I travelled by train.  Yet again my body had to adjust to a new shape of seat, the backrest long and angled backwards, the seat softly undulating.  And finally on the homeward stretch I waited for another bus.  This was my least favourite chair experience of the week.  The seats were metallic, harsh and cold, with a combination of severe straight edges and sinuous curves in the wrong places. This meant I was sitting too low, too far back, too far off the ground and in a position that made it impossible to get up without effort for the bus.

What do I want from a chair?

Until recently I hadn’t given much thought to chairs. But what I do know is that I want to be able to sit on my sitting bones with my feet on the ground and my hip joints slightly higher than my knees.  To do that I’d like a chair that has a flat, reasonably firm seat with a back I can rest against, and that is neither too high nor too low. Very few of the chairs I sat in fitted this description.  And most of them, unfortunately, encouraged the kind of use of the body that I’m learning how to prevent.

Victorian church pew
No sleeping during the sermon in a Victorian church pew
Bus stop seat
Perching at the bus stop
Bus seat
Well padded seat at the back of the bus
Office chair
Ergonomic office chair on wheels
Arts and Crafts chair
Arts and Crafts chair, useful and beautiful
Train seat
Travelling by train with the backrest leaning backwards
Bus station seat
Difficult to get up to catch a bus from this seat

If you want to read more about chairs, chair design and history and the Alexander Technique, read The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body and Design by Galen Cranz

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