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

Learning to juggle

End of Term 3

Last week I ran away to join the circus. At least I could have.  I was learning to juggle.  You know, with those multi-coloured juggling balls you get in your Christmas stocking, when your mum doesn’t know what else to give you.   I say learning to juggle, but really failing to juggle was a more accurate description.

Three coloured juggling balls
Multicoloured juggling balls from my Christmas stocking








David, one of my fellow students, juggles four balls with consummate ease, while walking and talking.  He’s thirty years my junior. Normally we interact as equals, but on juggling day I felt every one of those years in the hand-eye co-ordination gap between us.   He was having a go at teaching us how to juggle.  So there we were, ten adults in a small room and a basket full of variegated balls.  He thought we’d learn more quickly if we each had three balls to start with.  I don’t know what the people in the office below thought, as balls fell to the ground with an annoying regularity.  It’s depressing when you’re trying to imagine yourself as a nubile acrobat and juggler whose life revolves round the Big Top, yet you can’t get your left hand to throw a ball accurately so your right hand can reliably catch it.

David didn’t lose heart however.  He suggested we jettison one of the balls, once we’d got the feel of holding three at a time, and continue with two, to see if we could throw and catch, throw and catch, and find a rhythm that worked for each of us.  Sure enough after 10 minutes I became more confident, and the thump on the floor followed less frequently.  And then I started to put one foot in front of the other as I threw, somehow feeling able to navigate past other jugglers, while I walked up and down the room.

In the end my arms became tired and I stopped.  Enough for today.  But I had learned that my left arm throw was less accurate than my right and that I tended to grab at the ball I was trying to catch because I was scared to let it fall. Most importantly, I found I was able to move my feet while my arms were doing something else, a critical part of being able to teach.  So I haven’t yet run away to the circus.  But I’m sewing sequins onto my costume just in case.