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

 

 

 

 

 

Wall work

Head of a woman
Tracy by Dreph (Neequaye Dreph Dsane) – putting unsung lives on view
Bad Hombre
Bad Hombre

Walls have had a bad press lately, but this post is about two more benign uses – street art and Alexander wall work.  The first has long been a personal interest – I enjoy its physicality, edge and humour in the midst of the capital.  I like it when dull walls acquire a personality overnight, inviting a chuckle or quick photo in the morning.

Lie Lie Land by Bambi
Lie Lie Land by Bambi
Dom Un-ation
Dom Un-ation by Pegasus
Harry's Girl
Harry’s Girl by Pegasus

Jimmy C (below)
James Cochran aka Jimmy C has a signature ‘aerosol pointillist’ style, skilfully mixing urban grit, art history and social comment, mostly using real people in his work.

Joe's Kid by Jimmy C
Joe’s Kid by Jimmy C

Street art by Jimmy CStreet art by Jimmy CLike other street artists, his walls are visible in many countries –  Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, Spain, Turkey and the UK. For many, Instagram acts as an internationally accessible gallery for displaying street pieces and earning money via print sales.

SHOK-1
SHOK-1 is a chemist by background, spray-painting X-ray art on walls worldwide. Technically difficult, these are done freehand and comment on popular culture, contemporary life and science.

SHOK-1 street art
MasterPeace by SHOK-1 – a white poppy on a barbed wire stem done for Remembrance Day 2017
SHOK-1
Detail from SHOK-1’s The Future is Rubbish (the other half is a discarded drinks can)
Elvis by SHOK-1
Elvis by SHOK-1

Artists are often commissioned by building owners or allowed  to paint on their property. An activity that was once underground, illegal and dangerous is now part of the street fabric and the London visitor experience. Using outside space in a city that’s receptive to street art provides newcomers with profile and recognition. With luck they pick up commissions or access to more formal galleries. The stories of their subjects, also often outsiders, can gain wider currency, as with Dreph (at the top of this post).

Zabou
Zabou is female and French, now living in London and active on its walls. She works with the spaces she paints, moulding subjects to surroundings.Wonderland by Zabou

Dali by ZabouZabouThere’s a contradiction at the heart of street art – the paintings are brash and direct, the artists often private and shy.  They’re rarely noticed, producing new pieces quickly or roaming the city to scout locations and observe reaction.  Their art can seem banal, but often has political edge and wit. It looks spontaneous but has been planned in detail. It’s also physical in the extreme – working speedily outdoors surrounded by spraypaint fumes, often at height, and at risk from falls, traffic and public or official reaction.

Alexander wall work
Wall work in an Alexander context is much smaller scale.  It’s a simpler and quieter way of observing and improving body use on your own or guided by a teacher.  You stand slightly away from the wall, just touching, gaining feedback as your body adjusts or making small movements with thought and direction.  Like street art it helps you become aware of what’s going on and what it is you’re really dealing with.

As for me, I’m somewhere in the space between the painted and the living. I’m no longer stuck and immobile unable to move far from the wall. But I’m not fully formed as a teacher either.  I’m slowly moving from two dimensions to three. It’ll happen, just not overnight. And no spray cans will be involved.

The Street Art Walk by London Walks runs weekly. The route changes regularly to include new pieces as they appear.

Street art woman's face

Street art

Muhammand Ali
Muhammad Ali
Bearskin capoeira by Martin Ron
Off-duty guardsman does capoeira, painted by Argentinian Martin Ron
Don't Shoot by Bambi
A response to the Ferguson shooting – Don’t Shoot by Bambi
Ben Eine
“Sell the house, the wife, the kids, it’s bonus time” by Ben Eine, close to the City of London

Birds and bodies

Replica eggs
Porcelain replicas of illegally collected birds’ eggs (made by artist Andy Holden)

Term 5

I’ve seen through the eyes of a bird, and been shaken to the core. I’ve just read The Peregrine by JA Baker, one of the great texts of modern nature writing.  There are many bodies in this book – countless peregrines and their violent kills, Baker himself, and the effect on my own body of reading it. Baker’s biographer Hetty Saunders says ‘he strove in his writing to inhabit the falcon’s body – to see through its own eyes, feel through its body’.  And his physical difficulties – the chronic inflammatory condition ankylosing spondylitis coupled with extreme short sight – had a bearing on what and how he wrote.

Hetty Saunders and Robert Macfarlane at a discussion on JA Baker's biography
Hetty Saunders and Robert Macfarlane at a discussion on JA Baker’s new biography at the London Review Bookshop

First, the background.  The slim volume was published in 1967, won a literary prize and went in and out of print. It has caught hold of writers, campaigners, birders and general readers, and in recent years has been championed by writer Robert Macfarlane  among others. He calls it ‘landscape on acid’. Film director Werner Herzog says it’s a must for aspiring film directors, yet regards it as unfilmable.  On paper it’s a meticulous diary of one winter’s observations of peregrines around the Blackwater Estuary in Essex.  In reality it’s a composite of ten years’ obsessive birdwatching from 1954 to 1964 compressed tightly into six months. It’s fact and poetry combined.

The bird he had in his sights –“that crossbow flinging through the air” – is a supreme hunter, ‘stooping’ from the sky to snatch its victims at well over a hundred miles an hour. Pesticide use (especially DDT) was rife when Baker was writing and peregrines at the top of the food chain absorbed more than most. Their eggshells weakened, breeding reduced and extinction was close. Baker documents his questing pursuit of the peregrine, using dense visceral prose to shake us awake to the vicious reality of nature and humankind.

Time after time he produces word pictures of flight and pursuit, with rapid and fatal movement in the sky. In his entry for 20 December a line of mallards comes into view:

“Looking up at them through binoculars, I see for the first time a falcon peregrine circling very high, beating and gliding in the fading light.  She stoops, dilates like a pupil of an eye as it passes from day’s brilliance into dusk.  She is the size of a lark, then of a jay, now of a crow, now of a mallard.  Mallard spray outwards and climb as she dives between them.  She bends up through the sky again, curves under and up with the momentum of her stoop, crashes into a mallard, bursts it into a drift of feathers.  Grappled together, they glide above the wood, then sweep down to the frosted ride.  Mallard fly along the line of the wood towards the lake.  Nothing has changed, though one is gone.”

He creates movement and dynamism through an intense stew of verbs and metaphors. It’s exhilarating and addictive, yet stark and indigestible.  I can only stomach it in short bursts. From my Alexander perspective he’s overly obsessive, too much of an ‘end-gainer’, concentrating exclusively on sighting the peregrine and pinning it down in prose.  But it’s his restricted and singular focus that gives the book its furious power.

In some ways Baker’s body is barely present in the book, and he remains mysterious as a narrator. Away from the page he was until recently an elusive figure. However the Baker archives are now more complete and his life is better understood after the biography My House of Sky  was published earlier this year. He effaces himself in his writing, yet his body caused him pain and difficulty. The fusing joints from his inflammatory condition meant he couldn’t use his fingers easily, nor could he range as freely outdoors as he wanted. His severe myopia affected what he saw, so binoculars were critical. Despite all this, he pursued and described his quarry. Shaman-like, he almost turned into one of the most visually acute, powerfully explosive and mobile birds of all.

“Hawk-hunting sharpens vision.  Pouring away behind the moving bird, the land flows out from the eye in deltas of piercing colour. The angled eye strikes through the surface dross as the oblique axe cuts to the heart of a tree.  A vivid sense of place grows like another limb.”

I’ve had my copy of The Peregrine for some years and it remained unread until last week.  I couldn’t get beyond the first few pages. Every time I picked it up, another bloody kill made me put it back down. But something has shifted in me.  I’m more stable now in my body, more comfortable in my skin. The Peregrine might ruffle my feathers, but it won’t knock me out of the sky.

I started by saying I’ve been shaken to the core by reading the book. Yes, it has changed my perception of the natural world and my place in it.  I am shaken – but still standing. In the past I was more easily pushed off balance and somehow I seemed to absorb it physically. Now after six years of Alexander lessons, and nearly two years of more intense training to be an Alexander teacher, I’ve found an inner stability and a deeper resilience in myself. I’m more able to deal with whatever comes along.  Read The Peregrine if you haven’t already. It’s a strong and heady brew, so be sure your body is up to it.

Photos from the exhibition ‘Natural Selection’ by Andy Holden & Peter Holden. The eggs are porcelain replicas, made by artist Andy Holden, of a hoard of 7130 illegally collected birds’ eggs, found by the police in a raid in 2006. 

Replica eggs by Andy Holden

Replica eggs

Replica eggs

Bird books and nest

You may also be interested in a previous post on The Hunting Season