Stephen Dunn, Alexander Technique teacher

Stephen Dunn MSTAT, Alexander Technique teacher
Stephen Dunn MSTAT, Alexander Technique teacher

I’ve been to visit Stephen Dunn, the first Alexander Technique teacher to qualify, in 2016, from the school where I’m training.  He worked for 35 years in the art world as an exhibitions and collections registrar. Now he has the letters MSTAT after his name, meaning he’s a member of the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique.

Learning the Alexander Technique

We met in his sunny living room, and I asked what got him interested in the Technique.   He explained he’d had one lesson many years ago, couldn’t see the point and didn’t go back.  But some time later he became irritated by his round shoulders, decided to give the Technique another chance and came by recommendation in the mid-1990s to Lynn Neal (then Lynn Azerappa).

“My first lesson was like a road to Damascus moment.  She was realigning my head, neck and back relationship.  She had her hands on my head.  She was taking me up.  I felt my back melt away from my neck.  It was a divine experience.  I thought this was amazing.  I felt so light.  It made me think about how I used myself and how I could do things differently.”

He had lessons with Lynn for over a year, and subsequently with a number of other people, including Walter Carrington, one of the first generation Alexander teachers, who had worked for many years with FM Alexander and died in 2005.  “I had 5 or 6 lessons with him.  You felt completely inspired and safe and stimulated by what he said, his ideas, and his ways of thinking about things.  The energy from his hands felt very special.  I felt incredibly safe and energised by him.”

Training as an Alexander Technique teacher

He continued having lessons, but as he came close to retirement decided to change tack and train as a teacher himself.  “I’d run my course with the art world.  Over the years I’d often thought about training to be an Alexander teacher, as I’d got so much out of it.” I asked him about his experience of the training course, which lasted nine terms over three years. “I feel so much better.  I feel more enlivened and people remark how different I look.  There’s an encouraging physical reward.  The training in itself – the intensity of training – has been incredibly worthwhile for me as a person and has changed me.  I now have the ability to stand back from things before I react. One of the really liberating elements to it is understanding the joy of being open to learning something new about yourself.”

Getting into his stride, he went on: “I also enjoyed being exposed to a non-linear way of learning.  Learning as a jigsaw and fitting pieces of that jigsaw together.  It’s not what we’re conditioned to want.  That in itself was very stimulating and challenging, to have your conventional ways of learning challenged.  It completely breaks the mould.  You gradually come to understand more deeply things which you thought you fully understood before.  You think you’ve got it then you discover another layer of treasures.  It’s like having a box of chocolates and then you find you have another layer. ”

Teaching the Alexander Technique

I asked him how he explains his work to his pupils: “We explore the way we do things, and the comfortable habits we have. We demonstrate how it can be to do things differently, and transmit a different experience.  Because everything is interconnected, mind and the whole body, it’s fascinating to see how dealing with the primary control (the dynamic relationship between the head, neck and back) can work its way out to everything we do.”

Stephen Dunn’s website

 

Skeletons in the bookshop

Easter holidays

Since starting to train as an Alexander Technique teacher, I’ve developed an interest in skeletons.  There’s one in the corner of our training room, which we use to explain how different joints work, to see how our ribs connect with the spine, where the sitting bones are, or to count how many bones are in the hand or the foot. But what I hadn’t expected was that this interest in the anatomical body would extend to my leisure time.

It’s the middle of the Easter holidays, and I’m taking a break from all things Alexander.  But strangely I found myself gravitating this week towards a bookshop full of skeletons and anatomical artefacts.  It’s at the Wellcome Collection in London. As well as having a wonderful collection of scientific books, it’s a treasure trove of bones and body parts, all tastefully designed for adults and children in plastic, paper, glass, fabric and melamine.

So I leave you this week with a visual feast of skeleton souvenirs.

Head back and down
What not to do  – we want the head directed forward and up, not back and down as here
skull paperweight
The skull is heavy – it weighs between 4 and 6 kgs
Eyes
Allow the eyes to lead before letting the head and then the body follow
Body part coasters
How you think affects how you use your body, and vice versa – the Alexander concept of psycho-physical unity
Name the organs
Breathing becomes freer, the internal organs have more space
Skeleton socks
Think about your toes going away from your heels to allow your feet to release gently onto the floor
Nose pencil sharpeners, plastic hands, feet and eggs
Feet and hands open up over time, as tension in the body releases
Replacement body parts
Think of how the body works as a whole rather than focussing too much on individual body parts

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