Body use old and new

Making chainmailSummer holidays

Tense shoulders, strained eyesight and sore backs are not an invention of the modern world.  This became clear when I time-travelled back to the Middle Ages at a French village festival recently. Watching demonstrations of medieval crafts and pastimes I saw how easily these everyday activities could lead to poor body use.

The village was a stronghold for Knights Hospitaller from the 12th century onwards, so the first person to catch my eye was the maker of chain mail.  He let me feel the weight of a square he was constructing.  This really was heavy metal – ten to thirteen kilos per suit – and hot, absorbing the heat of the sun when outside.  Each suit took three months to make, working eight hours a day.  Foot soldiers were protected from head to hips, but the full metal jacket for knights on horseback weighed more heavily, extending as far as the knees.

Chainmail

 

 

 

 

 

In the history of metalworking, chainmail preceded full body armour. It was cheaper to make and allowed more flexibility. But with all that weight it would have been difficult to keep upright and breathe without restriction. Using a sword was hard, according to my knight in shining armour, as the padding under the mail restricted movement in the wrist.

Helmets

 

 

 

 

 

I moved on, taking in the breezy walk of a man carrying a large leg of ham, while the signwriter patiently finished his work before the tavern opened. The blacksmith wielded her hammer with balanced ease in the heat of the portable forge, and I dodged down a side street to watch the patient skills of the lacemaker.

Carrying a leg of ham

Tavern signwriter

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blacksmith at work

Wearing glasses and working confidently in bright sunshine, she talked through the complex and colourful pattern she was following. The local buildings have thick stone walls and few window openings, and I saw that without daylight or electricity the process of lacemaking would take its toll on the eyes. I saw how easy it would be to peer ever closer, worrying about mistakes and increasing tension in the arms and hands.

Lacemaker at work

 

 

 

 

 

Of all the people I observed that day, the falconer seemed most at ease.  A professional rather than a villager dressed up, he seemed at one with the birds of prey, perhaps because he used his voice and body carefully to keep the hawks calm and show them what he wanted.

He moved quietly and quickly, ahead of the birds, ducking through the crowds to give excited spectators the experience of an owl swooping silently over their heads. He put on a show while keeping a watchful eye on the mood and hunger of each bird as he called them back to his comfortably outstretched arm.

Stallholder on phone

 

 

 

 

 

There were few phones, screens or laptops on display at the festival. But I saw plenty of opportunity for peering, straining, making excess effort and pulling down rather than standing tall, moving freely and looking up and out. I realised it’s not the activities we do that create tension, it’s us.

 

 

 

 

My Alexander story so far

End of term 4 (of 9)

We’ve had our end-of term reviews and are heading towards the summer holidays. Now seems a good time to look back and see how far I’ve come on my personal Alexander journey. Here’s my story so far, in words and (mostly) pictures:

Once upon a time I had back, neck and shoulder pain
Paolozzi statue of Newton at British Library
My neck was pulled down into my shoulders, my body use was poor
Statue
I was unaware of what was wrong or how to change it
I was more focussed on getting things done, rather than thinking about how I did them
Then I met an Alexander teacher and started having lessons
The Power book cover
I had one-to-one Alexander lessons over a number of years
My body and my thinking began to change
Signpost
I realised I needed to ‘think up’  instead of being pulled down into myself
Dalek
My back, neck and shoulder pain has gone away as my body use has improved
After a while I decided to train as an Alexander teacher
Doubt
Three years is a long time – there are doubts and uncertainties along the way
Allowing my hands to open
But slowly my hands are opening out as my training continues
Harry Potter masks
I enjoy working in ‘hands on’ sessions with my teachers and fellow students
Canal art, pink flamingo
I’ve found my neck – and it’s now connected up with my head and back
Arms
My arms are beginning to act as if they come out of my back
Legs
I’m letting go in my legs and using less effort when I move
Patience sign
But I need to be patient… change takes a long time
Now I’m something like this:
Garden statue
I have a growing stillness in myself …
Glide in my stride advert
… and much more energy and freedom when I move
Writing
I’ve started writing a blog about the Alexander Technique…
Path through field
… but there’s a long way to go and the path ahead isn’t always easy to see

Thanks to my teachers and fellow students past and present

To be continued…

 

“Think More Do Less” book launch

Think More, Do Less by Sean Carey, published by HITE
“If you find something works, then try doing less” said Marjory Barlow

Term 4 (of 9)

A new book on the Alexander Technique is always a cause for celebration.  So it proved last week as the corks popped at the launch from HITE Limited of Think More, Do Less: Improving Your Teaching of the Alexander Technique with Marjory Barlow written by Seán Carey.  Marjory Barlow (1915 – 2006) was FM Alexander’s niece. Not only did she have a close family connection, but she trained with him as a teacher in the 1930s, and subsequently ran a training school with her husband Dr Wilfred Barlow.

Think More Do Less book launch
A mixture of Alexander teachers, trainees and pupils attended the launch

The author, Seán Carey, qualified as an Alexander teacher in 1986 and had individual and group lessons with Marjory over several years in the late 1990s.  This is the fruit of those lessons, capturing what he experienced from her words and her hands, and observing his fellow teachers learning. It is neatly bookended by a foreword from senior teacher Anne Battye (who trained with Marjory and worked as her training course assistant) and Seán’s write-up of his lesson and subsequent interview with Elisabeth Walker. She was a lifelong friend of Marjory’s and the last of the ‘first-generation’ teachers – the interview dates from 2013, shortly before she died.

Anne Battye and Brita Forsstrom
“Suit the action to the words, the words to the action” was one of Marjory’s favourite quotes, according to Anne Battye (left), shown here talking with Brita Forsstrom

 With his social anthropology background, Seán sees a value in recording how people who knew and worked with FM Alexander taught.  Much of the training for Alexander teachers takes place via an oral tradition, or is passed on kinaesthetically through use of the hands. As the generations pass there is little documentation about actual practice, particularly from the earlier teachers.  Think More Do Less describes many of the crucial details involved in standard practical Alexander procedures as taught by Marjory.  “It’s a historical record of how she taught, and how she thought FM (Alexander) taught” he told me, shortly before the book’s publication.

Sean Carey
Seán Carey

It was clear to Seán that Marjory expected the lesson to be about learning, not just having a pleasant time. As a pupil you had to be an active and thinking participant, not expecting her to do the work for you. “She wouldn’t let you get away with very much.  You had to learn to direct. Standing in front of her teaching chair, she matched the verbal directions she gave you for the head-neck-back relationship with her hands. Because of that your stature increased. However, you were responsible for bending your knees, without losing your internal length.”

She always began with the pupil in the chair, then worked with them lying down on the couch or table (the opposite way round from her husband). She would start with the head and neck, moving to the limbs and back to the head and neck again. This conveyed an immediate physical awareness of the importance of the head and neck in enabling freedom of movement in the rest of the body.

Seán is unequivocal about the value of listening to our first-generation Alexander forebears. “It would be foolish not to take note of what she did and learn from the source. Learning to teach the Alexander Technique is like climbing Mount Everest” he concluded. “You definitely want to talk to people who’ve been to the top before you start, and you also want a good sherpa to get you to the summit and back down again. Marjory Barlow is like Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay combined”.

Think More Do Less is written for current and trainee teachers, and for people who have had a lot of Alexander lessons. It already sits proudly on my Alexander bookshelf and I can see myself using it for guidance as I continue my journey from Alexander base camp towards the summit.