Sarah Warman, Alexander Technique teacher

Sarah Warman, Alexander Technique teacher
Sarah Warman MSTAT,  Alexander Technique teacher
Learning the Alexander Technique

Sarah Warman has been an occasional visitor to our training school, and we met to talk about her route to being an Alexander teacher.  As we sat outside in the sunshine, she told me her introduction had been through her father. He had avoided a back operation by having lessons, then persuaded her to have some too.   “It looked good, it felt good, I thought it was like deportment, I thought it was luxurious” she told me, describing her early experience of lessons.

Then, in her twenties, she tasted success in her career as a documentary film-maker and landed a dream job with the BBC.  Around that time she discovered a yoga meditation centre where she experienced a level of peacefulness she wanted to incorporate in her daily life.  This quickly came into conflict with the deadlines and stressed pace of her TV job.  “I felt creatively stunted while I was there.  I had an inability to be myself freely.”   This dissonance between the career trajectory that she thought she wanted and a quest for a different kind of personal quietness continued.  Before long she was in extreme pain with RSI.  “I ignored myself being unhappy, until my body told me to stop. I couldn’t use my left arm, and I couldn’t use it for a long time.  The pain went into my right arm, my neck, my hips and my knees.”

Training as an Alexander Technique teacher

Through a mixture of Alexander lessons, a spiritual alchemy group class and a decision to take a few months off work, she began to realise she couldn’t continue as she was:  “I was grieving the life I thought I was going to be losing.”  Initially intending to pursue it only for a few terms, she started training as an Alexander teacher, decided to continue, and graduated in 2013.  “It was very painful in my first year.  It wasn’t what I’d planned for myself. During the training I had a deepening conversation with myself, being able to hear, listen to and honour myself.  But success means something different to me now.  My focus is on health and wellbeing.”

Her RSI came back with a vengeance when she qualified and she has to remember to keep her life in balance to avoid a recurrence of pain, neither pushing herself on too much nor retreating away from the world:  “pain has always been my friend, telling me when to stop”.

Working as an Alexander Technique teacher

I asked her what she brings to the pupils she works with.  Her Alexander life has always been intertwined with a spiritual element from the dynamic alchemy teaching that is important to her.  “I find they complement each other” she continued. “You meet each person where they are.  I learn about myself by trusting my intuition, seeing where I am that day and where my students are. That’s where the magic can really happen. It’s about the playfulness of life, being inventive and creative with myself. ”

She continues to call herself a film-maker and still loves photography.  “I will always be a film-maker, I’m still passionate about it.” But she is more careful about what projects she takes on, aware that low budget contracts where she has to do all the jobs may put too much pressure on her.  “I had RSI very severely.  I don’t have it in my left arm any more.  I don’t see it in the same way.  Pain means I haven’t been looking after myself.  But when you put hands on someone else (in an Alexander lesson) you have to look after yourself. “

Sarah Warman’s website

Film by Sarah about making a community vegetable garden in Stamford Hill in North London


Neck and neck at London Zoo

Two giraffes at London Zoo

Term 4

I’ve been on safari in London this week, visiting London Zoo.  It’s not that I hoped to tick wild animals off on my bucket list, but because I wanted to observe with an Alexander eye how animals move. We often talk about this in our training, and compare it with the upright posture and gait on two legs of human beings. I hoped to spot the head, neck and back relationship working easily in the animal kingdom, and also see what I could pick up about use of hands and feet, and co-ordination and flexibility.

First up were the gorillas.  Their wonderful faces and expressions make them seem so nearly human, but instantly I spotted a few differences.  I watched an adult in the sunny outdoor enclosure, with a baby straddled on its back, move gently along the grass on all fours, then stop and lift a front hand to eat while maintaining perfect balance for the baby on top, without any disturbance to its head, neck or back. We did something similar this week in our training, going on to all fours and imagining champagne glasses balancing on our backs. It was not straightforward to get into position nor to stop the imaginary glasses from spilling over while lifting a hand and balancing on three limbs only. Gorillas can walk on two feet as we do, but mostly they get around on all fours, using their knuckles to walk.  To enable them to do this, their finger bones are wider than ours, giving extra strength. Their wrists and hands have evolved to provide stability and take their weight – up to 270kg in the case of a large male.

I then saw one drop from his high wooden platform using hands and feet to come down a rope.  As he approached the ground his legs melted into the grass softly and gracefully, and off he went to forage for more breakfast. I would have reached the bottom of the rope with a thump, and would not have been able to saunter off into another activity with such easy poise. The gorillas’ strength was obvious, but I was impressed also by their speed and agility, and their grace, fluidity and playfulness.

I spotted some lovely heads, necks and backs working in harmony in the penguin pool, at otter feeding time, in the giraffe enclosure and the meerkat den.  Further on, the Galapagos tortoise and the Komodo dragon were also happy to display their wares.   But the neck star of the day was undoubtedly the shy okapi.

Okapis are the only living relative of the giraffe, and their normal habitat is dense rainforest in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Here was this modest and secretive creature openly displaying the strength and length of its neck, as it raised its head underneath the overhanging leaves.  There seemed to be a great distance between the tip of the leaves and the okapi, but it kept its head raised, its tongue gently rolling in its mouth, eyes alert and neck stretched until the wind brought the leaves into touching distance.  Suddenly out came the lizard-like tongue, silvery grey and able to extend right up to the tree to lick the leaves.  Then the tongue retreated again, there was another watchful wait for the leaves to sway in the right direction, and off it went once more.

As with the gorillas, one part of the body moved, but the rest stayed still and in balance, while feeding continued with quiet focus.  There was no surplus muscular activity, all parts of the body worked easily and in harmony. The okapi prepared for the moment of action, but without unnecessary tension beforehand.

I saw perhaps 11 or 12 different species of animal during my visit.  They were in captivity and not in their natural environment, but I was struck by their natural posture, how fluidly they moved, and how well adapted their bodies were to their habitats, their food and their predators. I came to the Alexander Technique because, over time, mis-use of my body in my daily activities led to back pain, and I needed to learn a new way of moving. By contrast the creatures I spent time with at the zoo were fully at home in their bodies and moving with complete ease, whether feeding, playing, swimming or sleeping.

Adult gorilla carrying baby
Adult gorilla carrying baby, with second young one just visible underneath its chest
Adult gorilla on wooden platform, knuckle-walking
Adult gorilla knuckle-walking on the wooden platform before climbing down the rope
Baby gorilla
Young macaque, head turned, well balanced on one hand and  both feet
Humboldt penguin at ease in the water
Humboldt penguin completely at ease in the water
Otter at feeding time
Oriental small-clawed otter, using its partially-webbed paws to hold a piece of crab
Otter at water's edge with tail
These otters have a streamlined shape with a flattened tail to help propel them through the water.
Heron observing otters' feeding time
Heron observing otters’ feeding time, in balance but alert and ready to move
Meerkat looking adorable
Slender-tailed meerkat – the long thin tail allows them to balance when standing upright
Tiger, resting but alert
Sumatran tiger, sleepy but watchful in the sunshine
Galapagos turtle, neck extended as it moves slowly across the grass
Galapagos tortoise – its shell is relatively light, but they have vast fat stores, so they can survive without food and water for over a year.
Komodo dragon, scary but poised
Komodo dragon – their skin has armoured scales with tiny bones, making it into a kind of chainmail.
Giraffe feeding
The atlas/axis joint at the top of the neck allows the giraffe to tilt its head vertically and reach more leaves with its tongue
Two giraffes at London Zoo
Giraffes have the same number of vertebrae in their necks as humans, but each one can be over 28cm long
Okapi waiting for the leaves above to be in the right place
The okapi opens its mouth, releasing its tongue to lick the leaves above
The okapi’s tongue can be up to 18 inches in length, and can reach its eyes and ears
Lion asleep
Asiatic lion with a long back, asleep in the zoo’s new lion enclosure

The photos were taken at London Zoo over the May bank holiday weekend

Anatomy now and then

cover of children's book on the human body
We have weekly anatomy sessions on Thursdays

Term 4

Finding information about the body nowadays is easy.  For our weekly anatomy sessions on Thursdays, one of us picks a topic and researches it on the internet or in books from our library. Within a few hours we can pull together a short presentation based on reliable sources and in non-technical language to share with our fellow students.

But it’s not always been as straightforward as this.  I realised that when I visited the Hunterian Museum in central London this week, shortly before it shuts for three years as part of a major redevelopment of its home at the Royal College of Surgeons.  The museum houses the collection of  anatomist and surgeon John Hunter (1728-1793). It’s a bit like an 18th century Wikipedia for medical students – anything you needed to know about anatomy at that time, including a giraffe, was in his museum or dissecting rooms.

What’s inside the museum

On a midweek afternoon I slipped past the reception desk and headed up the majestic staircase to the museum, looking forward to its ghoulish ambience.  The combination of over 3000 glass cases filled with animal and human specimens combined with eerie light levels and free entry make this a surprisingly popular tourist attraction.  It’s not often you overhear the words dissection, intestine, crocodile and syphilis while going round a museum.  Not for young children, though, or the faint of heart.

Over three decades Hunter collected and analysed animal and human body parts, both healthy and diseased, with his collection eventually reaching up to 14,000 specimens.  He used them as research subjects for his own experiments and as teaching aids for medical students.  I learned a bit more from the guidebook about John Hunter, and it made him sound not unlike FM Alexander: “as a teacher Hunter encouraged his pupils to think for themselves, to trust what they observed of the human body and always to ask questions rather than accepting established doctrine.  Hunter’s own lectures changed from year to year as his research and experiments developed his understanding.”

He suspended the specimens on threads to stop them sinking, and stored them in glass jars full of alcohol, sealed originally with pig’s bladder, tin and lead, then painted over with pitch.  In the 20th century during wartime, the size of the museum made it hard to move out of London, and about 10,000 specimens were destroyed in 1941 when the College building was hit by several incendiary bombs.

How we understood the body

Having had my fill of the glass jars, I was drawn to look at the Evelyn tables, dating from before Hunter’s time.  These are four large anatomical wooden boards, displayed upright, containing dried human tissue laid down and varnished on to show the nervous system, arteries and veins.  They were prepared in 1646 in Padua for John Evelyn, the diarist and traveller, and are thought to be the oldest anatomical preparations in Europe.  It is salutary to think that this was the way to understand the inner workings of the human body 370 years ago.

Today we take it for granted that animal and human anatomy are different, and forget that early anatomists assumed anatomy of all mammals was the same.  Through imaging, scans and cameras we can see inside the human body to an extent unimaginable to surgeons in Hunter’s time.  And through the widespread distribution of the printed word and the searchable ease of the internet we can access anatomical knowledge instantly and feel confident that it accurately represents how our bodies work.  So when I do my next anatomy presentation on Thursday,  I will remember John Hunter and his contribution to the knowledge I am so easily able to find and to share.