Letting go

Signpost showing different levels Term 7

This week my voice changed.  Reading aloud in class I noticed easier breathing and a richer resonance coming from a deeper place inside me. It’s taken a long time as muscle tension has only slowly undone and responded to Alexander work.

I welcomed it on Tuesday, but sometimes this muscle release has been awkward, as if I’m going through a second adolescence.  At these points my usual way of being no longer fits, brain and limbs don’t mesh and nothing works. I can’t move as I did before but haven’t yet found a replacement.  After sitting it out in teenage limbo for a while something shifts, new connections form and a different me starts to emerge. Like a breaking voice it’s unpredictable, but gradually I gain in confidence, the old pattern fades and I learn to trust my new self.

A second level of mental letting go comes as part and parcel of the new physical freedom.  I’ve found new patterns of thinking emerging, unstoppable and fresh like blossom after the cold contraction of winter.  I’m becoming more open and lively in all aspects of myself with less need to hold on to the safe ground of what I know. Spring blossom, France

In the wake of this has come the capacity, gently at first, to let go even more deeply. Life changes on a broader scale, inconceivable a few years ago, become a glint in the eye. From being desirable they slowly seem manageable then after a while inevitable.  Greater awareness, clarity and vitality are beginning to make profound change possible.

I’ve just let go of something important and long-standing in my life.  For 35 years I’ve had a share of a small piece of land with an old stone cottage set into a steep wooded hillside in rural France –  an antidote to London living and holding deep-rooted memories for me and family and friends. It’s been a formative, long-term and joint project with others. But now we’ve signed the papers and handed over the keys.

Before I left I laid my hands on the once yellow cornerstone where long ago an unknown mason had painstakingly carved two distinguishing marks, perhaps to ensure payment for his work. I passed the care of the traditional stone bread oven over to its resident adder, knowing I would never now fire it up and bake. I visited the small pool of spring water below the house where the wild boar come to wallow in the mud, snorting their way through woodland at dusk, heard but rarely seen. I lay one last time in the hammock, lizards rustling in the leaves below and the oak and hornbeam holding me swaying in the late afternoon breeze as the cuckoo song echoed down the valley. Oak and hornbeam from below

Letting go at any of these levels has been emotional and uncomfortable and I’ve needed energy, courage and time. It’s been a multi-layered process and will continue in other forms long after the end of my training. I feel loss and sadness for what I’ve left behind, but I’m relieved and lighter, intrigued about what comes next.  The patterns and places of the past have served their purpose but they’re no longer what I need to move freely into the future.

Bories (stone shepherds’ huts) and lavoirs (communal washing places) in south-west France

Shepherd's hut, France

Shepherd's hut, France

Shepherd's hut, France

Lavoir, France

Lavoir, France

Lavoir, France

Lavoir, France

Lavoir, France

 

Animal attraction

Manege, Jardin des Plantes, ParisTerm 6

It was half-term and I was in Paris. Wandering through the Jardin des Plantes on a chilly Monday morning I wondered what to do. Hitch a ride on the Dodo manège?  Or join outdoor tai chi to warm up?

Tai Chi in the Jardin des Plantes, Paris

But a trainee Alexander teacher never sleeps. The siren call of skeletons sang out from the nearby Gallery of Comparative Anatomy and Paleontology. The lure of bones was too strong and I stepped inside.

Skeletons, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Over 600 skeletons came at me in a stampede as I walked in. It’s hard to believe these animals are long dead – they arrived in Paris in the 18th and 19th centuries, brought back by French explorers from overseas expeditions.  Many lived in the nearby Menagerie and eventually the collection formed the basis for the study of comparative anatomy, then in its infancy.Manege, Jardin des Plantes, Paris

Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Bird skeletons, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Turtles, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Spines in Museum of Comparative Anatomy in Paris

The layout and display seem little changed since the gallery opened to the public in 1898, but it’s surprisingly light and full of life. Parisian children on half-term visits seemed content to wander, point and discover as they moved from hippo to giraffe, gorilla to whale or headed for the heavier bones of the fossil gallery upstairs.Gallery of Comparative Anatomy and Palaeontology, Paris

Prehistory, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris
Fossils on the first floor

At first I was overwhelmed. But as I spent more time among the bones, I saw the value of a collection like this.  It’s entertaining and quirky, but it also forces you to compare and contrast and think for yourself. What are the differences between species, between modern and prehistoric, young and adult and ultimately between animal and human?  I haven’t got the answers, but the questions are still ringing in my head and the impact of being with so many skeletons in one huge room will remain with me. I now have a clearer sense of how important bones are in providing structure, alignment and internal space. They give the framework for life and dynamic movement, and maybe that’s why it was so cheerful and full of energy and the children were so absorbed and engaged.

Feet of Bactrian camel, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris
Feet of Bactrian camel – thick pads between the toes stop it sinking into the sand
Deer skeleton, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris
Deer use strong muscles in the hind legs to jump. Front legs act as a pivot for changing direction.

There wasn’t just science on offer but art too. All the displays had historical and anatomical value, but there was also beauty in their form and arrangement.  And it was artists, not anatomists, who first used the écorché  standing at the entrance – a model of a flayed human body produced to help understand muscles and how they work. The one here was made for art students in Aix-en-Provence in 1758.

Model of human foot, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Further on the arteries of the brain were as much an artwork as a scientific specimen.

Arteries of the brain, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

And in 2016 the artist Quentin Garel made twelve giant animal skulls from wood and bronze, hiding them in the mass of skeletons for visitors to discover. It was difficult to tell if they were still there or not.

Lunchtime approached. The attraction of the animals began to fade and it was time to go. There was one last treat on my way out – Garel’s giant whale vertebra still sits in the gardens outside. Like the gallery itself, it was the perfect French marriage of art, science and delight.

Dodo Manege, Jardin des Plantes, Paris

Vertebrata by Quentin Garel
Vertebrata by Quentin Garel

Growing up

Peacock umbrella at Kew GardensTerm 6

In the dog days of winter I long for colour and warmth, and the place for both is at the annual Orchid Festival in Kew Gardens.  On a grey and rainy day I made my way to the Princess of Wales Conservatory, which was toasty, welcoming and packed with vibrant Thai-themed displays. Walkways and stepped paths led through a multi-coloured indoor pleasure garden, hung with delicate umbrellas, flowered archways, evocative animal scenes and stunning floral arrangements.   Avoiding selfie takers, family groups and the Room of Carnivorous Plants, I bathed in the tropical temperature and soaked up the bright hues, chasing away my late-winter blues.

Temple Kew Orchid Festival

Orchids in barrow at Kew

orchid arch at Kew

Thai umbrellas at Kew

After a while I became aware of the detail of the blooming orchids  – delicate gradations of pattern and colour blending with curved petals to form captivating shapes, almost symmetrical and yet not quite, each one individual.  And in amongst the foliage were gardeners carefully watering, monitoring and nurturing the plants, ensuring those in bloom stayed at their best, and the ones yet to emerge had the right conditions to flourish during the short life of the festival. orchids in close up

orchid petals

pale yellow orchids

As I continued my eye was drawn away from the gaudy flowers and towards the less showy leaves of the resident plants that thrive in the conservatory all year round.  In the past I wouldn’t have paid these much attention.  But now their spreading and flexible surfaces remind me of the way I’m uncurling and opening out as I get deeper into my training.  I see the anatomical everywhere and noticed in the leaves their long spines and ribs with a sense of openness and space, mirroring what’s happening within me.  They seemed firmly planted yet free to expand upwards and outwards towards the light, not bursting with colour like the orchids, but with a clear and strong presence in the conservatory.

large leaves

leaf

leaf

Leaves

In a way the process of training is like being a plant tended by thoughtful gardeners.  It’s no hothouse after quick results, but a warm and safe environment for three years, encouraging curiosity, exploration and growth. Teachers notice our clinging habits, and encourage us to let go and send roots into more nourishing ground.  Their hands and words guide wayward spines and limbs into a more dynamic and integrated shape. With daily attention they gently provide what we need to send us upwards, strong, light and open, firmly rooted but flexible.

Soon an outside Alexander gardener -our external moderator – will come to check me over. She visits twice, now towards the end of my second year and once more during my final term.  This time she’ll want to see how I’m progressing, whether I’m fully embedded in Alexander soil and how I need to develop over the coming year to bring me into bloom at the right time. Two years have passed since I started my training and it’s a year since I began this blog. Slowly but surely I’m growing up.

Kew red flowers

Kew red flower

Umbrella with orchids

Water buffalo at Kew

Flower lizard at Kew Gardens

Kew orchid festival

Flowers at Kew