Hands and handles

Term 5

My world is full of handles.  They jump out at me and announce their presence, waiting for a hand to touch them.  Body parts are opening out all the time during training, and right now my hands are edging into the limelight. Of course it’s all connected together, as release in one part allows something else to let go.  My arms are finding their connection with my back, and I’m noticing the effect in my hands.

The handles I’ve seen vary in shape, and I approach them differently.  Some are metallic, delicate, inviting to the touch and well matched to the size and weight of door they have to open.  Others give clues before you lay a finger on them – fitting easily to an imaginary hand and anticipating a light push away or a gentle turn to left or right.

One asks for downward pressure from the thumb at the top to lift a latch behind the door, while the rest of the hand fits comfortably round the handle below.  The positioning and craftsmanship of both suggest only the softest of touches is needed to enter the secret garden behind the wooden door.

Door handle

I’ve seen door knockers as well – two hands and one fish. These are made of sterner stuff, requiring firm treatment to resonate through the building and wake a sleeping household.  But there’s a humanity and lifelike quality about the metal hands and I see how I could gently shape my own fingers round as I knock.

Shop and office handles vary widely, and their doors are not always easy to enter. Some are wide open, inviting me in hands-free. Not all are accessible, and it can be hard to find the way in.  It isn’t always clear if I should push, pull or move closer and wait for the doors to open. Typewritten signs on the glass  – Push to Open or Automatic Doors – suggest other customers find it confusing too. The doors are larger and heavier than domestic ones with substantial handles encouraging effort and strain.

Handles are coming to the fore because I’m ‘unlearning’ the way I normally grip with my fingers – tight and with too much effort.  My hands are becoming less harsh, more open and alive, and I’m beginning to use them in a lighter, easier way.  My thinking is changing too. I’ve not been paying attention and have assumed doors are heavy and I must use effort. Instead I need to meet each handle as it comes, and give myself time to unlearn the old ways.   I’m losing my grip and that’s the way it has to be.

Metal door handle




A training school day

Ajar by Gavin Turk
Ajar by Gavin Turk (2011, bronze) shown as part of Sculpture in the City

International Alexander Awareness Week 9-15 October 2017

People often ask me what we do in the training to be an Alexander teacher, so this post is my reply. My course runs over three terms a year and four mornings a week for three years – other schools operate slightly differently. Each day follows the same broad timetable but allowing for change if we have visitors or need to work on something in depth.

We start with a short silence and meditation, allowing us to ‘come together’ as a group and prepare quietly for the day.  The teachers then give us a short ‘turn’, the name that has evolved for a mini Alexander lesson (from FM Alexander’s custom of putting ‘hands on’ his trainees in turn).  This session is the ‘meat’ of our training.  Through work from skilled teachers, day after day, we develop good body use and a more reliable sensory awareness of ourselves and how we do things. Over time as our use improves, we become able to transmit this to others through our hands.

Directed activities
Next comes a short activity guided by a teacher. Once a week it’s tai chi, on other mornings we look at a procedure in detail or do a ‘game’.  This session offers a way of approaching a set of movements in a more playful and experimental way, observing ourselves without needing to be right.

As trainees we’re learning to provide our future pupils with new experiences, guiding them to move in ways that may feel uncomfortable, at least to start with. We in turn have to develop an open and receptive attitude, where being wrong is a creative opportunity for learning and change.  It’s also a chance to practise inhibition – not needing to respond in habitual ways to the new or unexpected, but giving ourselves time to make a conscious decision about how to react.

Morning break
By now we’re hungry and ready for tea and toast, essential ingredients in the training school routine. Downtime is important – we’re each going through a prolonged, slow and individual process of physical and mental change, and at times this can be hard going. We can’t take it too seriously, so we need to take a break and chat, laugh or be quiet and recover.

Hands-on groups
Revived, we read aloud and discuss one of FM Alexander’s books, or watch a relevant DVD or internet clip. Once a week a trainee or teacher leads an anatomy or physiology session.  Towards the end of the morning we break into smaller groups led by a teacher, and take turns putting ‘hands on’ our fellow pupils.  We work calmly, ‘leaving ourselves alone’ – learning to stop, inhibit our habitual reactions, direct our thinking and give consent to what we do in a conscious way.  This sensory re-education is surprisingly tiring, and we need to stop before doing too much.  So to round off the morning we lie down in semi-supine, ready to return to the other parts of our lives.

The skills we’re acquiring come in small increments.  We’re discarding habitual patterns developed over many years, and learning to think and act differently. This can’t be rushed, and happens slowly. It may sound as if we don’t do much, but the cumulative effect is to enable new pathways to open up and deep change to take place.

You might also be interested in a previous post on Spiral Learning

Robot walking

Pedestrian robot
Photo courtesy of Yu Fan Chen, Michael Everett, Miao Liu, and Jonathan P. How at MIT

Term 5

After only a few Alexander lessons I noticed an unexpected side-effect: I could navigate through oncoming crowds with ease. I had a more accurate awareness of my own body, and sensed more quickly how others might move. As time has gone on I tend to hold my own on the pavement more than I did, increasingly sure of the space I’m entitled to, but remaining flexible in how I get by.

This came to mind when reading about an experimental robot at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that has learned to wheel itself past pedestrians without hitting anyone. The engineers broke down the robot’s task into four key areas:

  • Localisation – where are you?
  • Perception – what’s around you?
  • Motion planning – what’s the best way to get to your destination?
  • Control – actually getting there

To deal with the first two, they provided sensors and mapping tools, but motion planning was more complicated.  They wanted the robot to move through a busy indoor space at normal walking speed, while coping with real people who changed direction or stopped unexpectedly. Allowing the robot to calculate all possible destinations for everyone ahead was one solution, but it took too long to be practical.

So the makers tried “Socially Aware Motion Planning with Deep Reinforcement Learning” – a machine learning approach, giving the robot ‘social norms’ about which side to walk or pass, and making it re-assess its route ten times per second.  They didn’t predict too far ahead, and allowed for changes in behaviour at every turn.

Spurred on by this, I went for a walk on a busy street, imagining I was a knee-high robot on wheels.  People moved at different speeds, some had dogs, suitcases, pushchairs, scooters, walking frames.  There were bikes parked and bags of rubbish.  Delivery drivers came at me, couples strolled, children dashed and many had eyes only for phones, unaware of my presence.

The process was complex, as the robot engineers had found. All the time my body/mind was working fast: eyes and ears absorbing information about what was going on around me, feet following as brain calculated which way to go, judging movement, space, speed and balance. Meanwhile I maintained my full height and width, thinking up along my spine and using the natural spirals in my body to gently twist and turn as people came towards me.

Judging from this experiment, it takes much time and programming to learn and replicate human decision-making in movement. I’m interested to see what applications come from this kind of robot walking in future, particularly outside or in busier spaces. For now I have an increased respect for our human capacity to move easily through a crowd – anything but a walk in the park.