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.
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.
“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.