Vitality and poise: a visit to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Vitality and poise in Julian Opie's People 15 in Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Walking with poise – Julian Opie’s People 15

Vitality and poise are two key benefits I’ve had from learning the Alexander Technique.  I hadn’t expected this (though I’m sure my teachers did). I’d gone for greater mobility and relief from back pain.  Both duly arrived as my head, neck and back began to work together in a more integrated way. Now other rewards have started to come through. One is that I’m more self-possessed with a greater zest for life.

Expanding and breathing

I’m more aware of vitality and poise in the world at large too, and found both on a recent visit to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park .  Here monumental pieces – stone, bronze, iron, wood, even string – animated the landscape. Many were of the human figure or about movement, almost alive yet with an inner stillness. Despite their size I felt they could easily come to life and swap places after closing time.

Reclining Figure Arch Leg by Henry Moore
Reclining Figure Arch Leg by Henry Moore
Part of The Family of Man (1970) by Barbara Hepworth
The Family of Man by Barbara Hepworth

I puzzled over what was different here from any other gallery.  Barbara Hepworth, born in nearby Wakefield, gave me some clues. She wrote of  sculpture as “something still and yet having movement, so very quiet and yet with a real vitality”.  But being outdoors was also important:

“I prefer my work to be shown outside. I think sculpture grows in the open light and with the movement of the sun its aspect is always changing; and with space and the sky above, it can expand and breathe.”

Playful vitality and mindful poise

Visitors too seemed more energetic, lively and engaged than in many indoor spaces. No tired ‘museum feet’ here.  Instead some had hiking poles and set off briskly round the lake trails. Family groups argued about the best routes. And round every sculpture people gathered in twos and threes. They discussed, chatted, wondered what it was all about or just enjoyed the cracking Yorkshire view.

Later I picked up two of the park leaflets.  One of them – 50 Ways to Play – suggested you “play with our art and nature to lift your spirits, enjoy your day and test all your senses”. The second listed Well-being events, including sessions called Still Looking and Room to Breathe.  These encouraged you to “think deeply, move mindfully and connect with nature” while engaging with art and with others. I discovered the park has an Art and Well-being Coordinator  who is herself an artist interested in walking and mindfulness.

Touch with Care, Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Expect the unexpected

All in all it was a satisfying place to visit. It encouraged visitors to discover a playful vitality in themselves, while moving through the sculptures and landscape with mindful poise.  My trip to Yorkshire was to see the sculptures. But like my experience with the Alexander Technique, what I found when I got there was deeper, more interesting and worth going back for.

Written during Term 8 of my Alexander Technique teacher training.

Network by Thomas J Price
Network by Thomas J Price
One and Other by Antony Gormley
One and Other by Antony Gormley
Riace Figures II, III, IV by Elisabeth Frink
Riace Figures II, III, IV by Elisabeth Frink
Wilsis by Jaume Plensa
Wilsis by Jaume Plensa
Large Two Forms by Henry Moore
Large Two Forms by Henry Moore
Promenade by Anthony Caro
Promenade by Anthony Caro
Cloaked Figure IX by Lynn Chadwick
Cloaked Figure IX by Lynn Chadwick
Seated Man II by Elisabeth Frink
Seated Man II by Elisabeth Frink

Body use and alignment help carry luggage with less strain

Luggage, Kings Cross

Maintaining good body use and alignment when you carry luggage takes care and thought. This summer I’ve taken many train journeys, and learning the Alexander Technique has helped me lift and carry my bags more easily. Recently I spent a morning at London’s Kings Cross station to see how other travellers handle their baggage while on the move.

Kings Cross station, London

Luggage in all shapes and sizes

It was like stepping onto a bustling film set as random extras streamed through from all sides.  Taking refuge on the balcony I saw silent dramas playing out below. A musician hauled a bulky instrument on his back, weighed down and weary. Three businessmen discussed office politics, neat overnight bags beside them. A men’s sports team in sponsored tracksuits milled round kitbags, laughing and sharing phones.  “Cycling, skateboarding and roller-skating are not permitted on the station concourse” boomed the loudspeaker. Body use with poise wheeling a bike, Kings Cross station

Straining, twisting and tensing

Many travellers, I could see, were carrying vast amounts of luggage. In fact they struggled to cope, yet somehow expected to manage it all. Some carried bags lightly and evenly balanced. Many more had them hitched on one shoulder, tensing and twisting. There were some with backpacks tucked snugly high up. Others had left the straps loose and the weight low, risking strain as the bags dragged them down.

Support from spine and feet

I noticed my own habitual patterns of body use repeated on the station floor. For many years I stood with the weight dropped into one hip, pressing down more on one side of my body. At the time it seemed comfortable and normal. In reality my spine and feet were not fully supporting me. I was twisting and distorting myself, leading to long-term back pain.

Some passengers stood with feet crossed over at the knee or ankle. But they quickly shifted position as discomfort set in. Several leaned forwards or sideways onto suitcase handles rather than supporting their own weight.Body use at Kings Cross station

Phones a distraction

Almost every hand held a phone as people passed the time online. Some glanced up occasionally to check on their train, others had eyes only for the screen. Then, as I took photos, I heard a thud next to me. A precious backpack had slipped off my neighbour’s shoulders to the ground. He walked away, unaware, still filming on his phone.

Thinking more about body use

Since learning the Alexander Technique I’ve had relief from back pain and can manage travel and luggage better. So now I pack less, allow more time and think differently about how I move. I pay more attention to my length, width and breathing. I understand the cumulative impact on the whole body of compressing or twisting any one part. In addition my feet make more equal contact with the floor, I stop more often and I’m less worried about arriving on time.

Change of focus

Overall my focus has changed so I think more about my own body use, even with a train to catch. This summer I’ve had to contend with disrupted journeys. Lightning took out a signal box, a tractor and tree collided beside the line and timetable changes ushered in mass cancellations. Mostly I’ve still reached my destination. Almost certainly I’ve arrived lighter, calmer and with less strain than before.

Written in Term 8 of my Alexander Teacher training

Suitcases, Kings Cross, London

Kings Cross, London

Kings Cross

Kings Cross station

Kings Cross station, London

Kings Cross

Kings Cross London

Body use while on the phone at Kings Cross Station, London

Body use while on the phone at Kings Cross station, London

Kings Cross

Back Care poster






Change with the Alexander Technique takes time

I’ve been through a period of profound change while learning the Alexander Technique and training as a teacher. But change takes time. I realised this after meeting  Ötzi the Iceman in two different bodily forms. There I was cycling uphill through vineyards and orchards in northern Italy, finding the mountains oppressive and the sun fierce. In addition my knee ached with every turn of the pedals. Then my mood lifted when I came across Ötzi on  a rest day in the stylish town of Bolzano.Mountain river in the Dolomites

The discovery of Ötzi’s mummified body

Hikers discovered the first Ötzi  – a mummified and shrunken body – in 1991 on a mountain glacier close to the Austrian border nearby. We peered at it through the glass of a special cell in the museum where it rests like a medieval relic, constantly cooled to prevent decay.

2.Finding place © South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/Aichner
Hikers found Ötzi’s body on this glacier © South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/Aichner
How Ötzi died

Researchers have slowly pieced together Ötzi’s story. At first they thought his remains belonged to a lost climber. We now know he lived 5000 years ago and died violently one summer up on the glacier. A hand wound showed he’d been in a fight a few days before.

Ötzi reconstruction

Hours before his death he climbed up from the valley into the mountains. His killer followed, shooting him in the back from below with an arrow.  A revenge attack after the earlier fight?  Then came a blow to the head or maybe a fall. Blood loss meant he died quickly. His body lay face down on a large flat stone. It remained preserved in ice until its accidental discovery all those years later.

Facial reconstruction

What we know about Ötzi

We know he was about 45 (an old man for the time), with brown eyes, loose dark wavy hair and a beard. He was not in good shape – his many tattoos were probably an early form of acupuncture for pain relief. He had worn joints, some broken bones and signs of a recent chronic illness. Too much time sitting over an open fire had blackened his lungs.

Tattoos used as an early form of acupuncture for pain relief Ötzi’s second incarnation

At the end of the exhibition we met the second Ötzi. This was a reconstruction by the Dutch twins Kennis and Kennis, who make lifelike and authentic models of ancient humans for museums all over Europe.  He  was upright, three-dimensional, unexpectedly modern, very human and engaging. This was a fitting finale to Ötzi’s absorbing story.

4. The Iceman's reconstruction by Alfons & Adrie Kennis © South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/Ochsenreiter
Photo © South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/Ochsenreiter
How I’ve changed from learning the Alexander Technique

Our rest day over, it was time to pedal south. As I looked round at the fertile river valley I saw why Ötzi had caught my imagination.  It was more than just cycling in his deerskin-clad footsteps and living off the land.  I have also inhabited two bodies. The first was uncomfortable, immobile and contracted, how I used to be. The second is taller, full of life and breath, more open and upright and balanced. I also feel more human and ready to move and be in the world.

The second version has only slowly emerged from the first. It’s almost a decade since my initial Alexander Technique lesson started the process of deep psycho-physical change. Both our stories continue to evolve with new insights. Researchers have only recently located Ötzi’s stomach and identified his  last meal . There’s a new film about his life and death. And I too am revising my story after uncovering a degree of hypermobility I wasn’t aware of.

We can change, but it takes time

My knee was still sore as my bike bumped over the wooden slats on the cycle bridge across the rushing water. I was more optimistic, not just because the day’s ride was downhill.  I’ve learned that we’re not fixed and can change. The pace may feel glacial but our stories can develop irrespective of age. We too can thaw out and become more fully human if we allow ourselves the choice and the time.

Written in Terms 7/8 of my training as an Alexander Technique teacher.

Otzi's shoes