First Alexander lesson

Chair

Beginning of Term 5

I’ve forgotten what happened in my first Alexander lesson, except I knew it would help and wanted to continue.  At the time that seemed enough. Now, as a trainee teacher, I wish I could remember more, though in a way it doesn’t really matter.  Even so, I was happy to find Lulie Westfeldt’s account of her first lesson, clearly memorable, at the hands of FM Alexander himself.

She came from New Orleans, and contracted polio at the age of seven. Many medical interventions followed, which made things worse and left her, as she described it, “with added physical handicaps and disastrous psychological scars”. After lessons with Alexander in 1929, she joined his first training course for teachers in London in 1931. Back in the States she worked as a teacher for many years until her death in 1965.

Lessons and training brought huge benefits, though her memoirs paint a personal, not always flattering picture of Alexander the man. She’s frank about the difficulties she and her fellow students had on that first training course.  But she’s unequivocal about the experience of her initial contact with Alexander:

“In my first lesson I understood very little, if anything, of what Alexander was doing or what he wanted me to do.  He used his hands on me a great deal, and in the most subtle, delicate way, making what seemed to be minute, infinitesimal changes in my body in the region of my head, neck and back.

After a short interval, however, these tiny adjustments would add up to a substantial change which would often feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar.  And so he went on.  He worked on me while I was sitting in a chair and while I was standing up, and he also, with his hands on my head, took me in and out of a chair.

At the end of the lesson he walked me around the room with his hands on my head, and I felt as light as air.  But even this was not a pleasant feeling, as I felt shaky and uncontrolled.  My old equilibrium was gone and my legs seemed to dangle.  Alexander’s hands were amazing; sometimes they almost seemed to be doing nothing at all or something that was so imperceptible that it passed for nothing.

Yet in reality they were always building up and strengthening a new HN&B [head, neck and back] pattern, thus producing fundamental changes in my body.  It was as if my body was put on a different control.  His hands impressed me so much that I thought over the qualities they possessed.  They were dry, cool, light and impersonal, but above all they had a quality that gave me complete confidence and made me want to go with them… I enjoyed a clarity of thought and a tranquillity of emotions never before experienced.”

Not everyone has such vivid memories of a lesson, or notices profound effects. But it makes me remember the experience of hands conveying lightness, subtlety, strength, confidence and ‘doing nothing’. As the new term starts, it’s good to be reminded of what I’m working towards.

Lulie Westfeldt’s memoirs are published as “F Matthias Alexander The Man and His Work: Memoirs of Training in the Alexander Technique 1931-34”

 

 

 

David Orman, Alexander Technique teacher

David Orman, MSTAT, Alexander Technique teacher in 2017 after graduating
David Orman MSTAT,  in 2017 after graduating (photo: City Alexander Technique School)

David Orman qualified as an Alexander Technique teacher in March 2017 from the school where I am training.  He told me his story.

“I was 17 or 18 and I could feel myself changing for the worse.  I had pain and many unpleasant sensations in my whole body.  I also had some emotional changes and I was irritable a lot of the time. Pain was an everyday experience, it was very severe “.  Eventually he received a diagnosis of fibromyalgia, though he had none of the fatigue usually associated with the condition.  He rejected pain medication, not wanting a life on painkillers, and sought out other options – chiropractic, osteopathy and pain specialists.  “They all described me as ‘mysterious’, especially for someone of my age.  There was no way they could help” he said.

One chiropractor recommended the Alexander Technique, and after a couple of lessons he felt he was on the right track so continued for a couple of years. “I had a sense of lightness in myself, and a reduction in pain”. By now, aged 21, he had quit university and was unable to work because of the pain, though he could feel some things improving, such as sitting. “For years I had been very reluctant to sit down, I was in so much pain. This was a very isolated time – I had no job, no social contact except with my family.  I’d left school and university, I was in pain and isolated”. He read The Use of the Self by FM Alexander, and began to realise that by training to be a teacher he could apply the principles Alexander had discovered to himself and his own body use, and it could benefit him as well as his pupils.

He committed to the course, and to three years commuting from Kent to London.  “I enjoyed the social aspect, it was a positive experience and it felt like a little family. In the first term I felt quite light-hearted.  I was being trained by skilled teachers, I had social contact four days a week, and I was sure the exposure would help me. But as the year went on, my thinking changed. I began to see it as a mission that had to benefit me.  I had to get the pain to go in order to justify my training.  I had to use that emotional drive and motivation to look at the Alexander Technique in a wide way so it would benefit me”.

Closer to graduating, he recognised the responsibility of being a teacher, and part of a profession, and realised he had to find a way of making it work.  This was despite pain that continued when he put hands on people in teaching. “I expect that to go on for a few years.  I don’t feel it’s plain sailing, and I will have to factor that into my teaching”.  Looking back, he sees his training as a time of self-exploration.  “You get a lot of help from the teachers, but if you want to maximise the experience you have to be prepared to look at yourself”.

He wants to work with people involved with sport, and anyone with chronic pain, in Kent or in London.  “I’m clear in my thinking about my own pain, I understand emotional responses to chronic pain, I can provide a practical way to carry on living and get round the pain.” He recommends people try an Alexander lesson and see what happens.  “The worst that can happen is that it doesn’t appeal.  You won’t come to harm from it, so it’s worth seeing if it’s for you”.

David Orman’s website

David Orman in 2014 as he started his Alexander Technique teacher training (photo: Kamal Thapen)
David Orman in 2014 as he started his Alexander Technique teacher training (photo: City Alexander Technique School)

 

Sarah Warman, Alexander Technique teacher

Sarah Warman, Alexander Technique teacher
Sarah Warman MSTAT,  Alexander Technique teacher
Learning the Alexander Technique

Sarah Warman has been an occasional visitor to our training school, and we met to talk about her route to being an Alexander teacher.  As we sat outside in the sunshine, she told me her introduction had been through her father. He had avoided a back operation by having lessons, then persuaded her to have some too.   “It looked good, it felt good, I thought it was like deportment, I thought it was luxurious” she told me, describing her early experience of lessons.

Then, in her twenties, she tasted success in her career as a documentary film-maker and landed a dream job with the BBC.  Around that time she discovered a yoga meditation centre where she experienced a level of peacefulness she wanted to incorporate in her daily life.  This quickly came into conflict with the deadlines and stressed pace of her TV job.  “I felt creatively stunted while I was there.  I had an inability to be myself freely.”   This dissonance between the career trajectory that she thought she wanted and a quest for a different kind of personal quietness continued.  Before long she was in extreme pain with RSI.  “I ignored myself being unhappy, until my body told me to stop. I couldn’t use my left arm, and I couldn’t use it for a long time.  The pain went into my right arm, my neck, my hips and my knees.”

Training as an Alexander Technique teacher

Through a mixture of Alexander lessons, a spiritual alchemy group class and a decision to take a few months off work, she began to realise she couldn’t continue as she was:  “I was grieving the life I thought I was going to be losing.”  Initially intending to pursue it only for a few terms, she started training as an Alexander teacher, decided to continue, and graduated in 2013.  “It was very painful in my first year.  It wasn’t what I’d planned for myself. During the training I had a deepening conversation with myself, being able to hear, listen to and honour myself.  But success means something different to me now.  My focus is on health and wellbeing.”

Her RSI came back with a vengeance when she qualified and she has to remember to keep her life in balance to avoid a recurrence of pain, neither pushing herself on too much nor retreating away from the world:  “pain has always been my friend, telling me when to stop”.

Working as an Alexander Technique teacher

I asked her what she brings to the pupils she works with.  Her Alexander life has always been intertwined with a spiritual element from the dynamic alchemy teaching that is important to her.  “I find they complement each other” she continued. “You meet each person where they are.  I learn about myself by trusting my intuition, seeing where I am that day and where my students are. That’s where the magic can really happen. It’s about the playfulness of life, being inventive and creative with myself. ”

She continues to call herself a film-maker and still loves photography.  “I will always be a film-maker, I’m still passionate about it.” But she is more careful about what projects she takes on, aware that low budget contracts where she has to do all the jobs may put too much pressure on her.  “I had RSI very severely.  I don’t have it in my left arm any more.  I don’t see it in the same way.  Pain means I haven’t been looking after myself.  But when you put hands on someone else (in an Alexander lesson) you have to look after yourself. “

Sarah Warman’s website

Film by Sarah about making a community vegetable garden in Stamford Hill in North London