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.

 

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.

 

 

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