Stillness and movement

Stone basin, Kyota Garden
Movement in a thoughtful way

The Kyoto Garden in London’s Holland Park is set aside for quiet and contemplation. Movement there is slow and considered. I went through the gateway one Sunday morning and soon began to see why. As if I had turned off a motorway into a tranquil rest area, the outside noise dropped instantly away. My breathing slowed and I caught, clearly now, the gentle trill of falling water. Waterfall, Kyoto Garden, London

Designed for the 1992 Japan Festival, this is a traditional Japanese ‘stroll garden’ encouraging visitors to move quietly through the landscape, discovering new aspects as they proceed and allowing nature to ‘unscroll’ before them. The key elements are water, rocks, fish, stone ornaments, trees and flowers, all carefully placed to encourage an appreciation of natural beauty and meditation on the wider world, represented here in miniature.Kyoto Garden, London

Everything open, receptive and calm

I followed the arrows clockwise round the pond, several koi carp keeping silent pace as I approached the waterfall.  My fellow visitors stood or padded by, talking in hushed tones. A young man sat cross-legged, headphones in and contemplating the water, moving every few minutes to catch the sun.  A dad in shorts and sunglasses perched on the rocks by the water’s edge, pointing out to the toddler cradled in his arms the multi-coloured shapes gliding below. Even the wildlife here seemed open, receptive and calm.

Koi carp, Kyoto Garden, London

Squirrel, Kyoto Garden, London

Bird bath, Kyoto Garden, London

Peacock, Kyoto Garden

Time to stand still and think

As the path turned towards the waterfall I had to make a choice about where to place my feet.  I stood still for a moment and looked at the smooth surface of the large flat stones ahead. I compared them with the more uneven jumble of smaller ones set alongside. Both paths led to a frothy pool of foam beneath the tumbling water. So this was not about where but how. I was being quietly wrong-footed. The deliberate duplication in garden design was prompting me to stand still and think about my next move.

Stillness and choice

Those large flat stones underfoot would give confidence and I could walk purposefully, looking out and ahead at the next view.  But putting my feet on the smaller ones would mean glancing down, away from the garden, going more slowly  and thoughtfully before reaching the water’s edge. One was not better than the other – the point was to have a deliberate moment of stillness and choice before launching into movement. How I moved and what I experienced would be different depending on my decision.Movement comes out of stillness and choice, Kyoto Garden, London

Waterfall, Kyoto Garden, London

Awareness and heightened senses

The Kyoto Garden encouraged me to be still, though not static. I had to keep moving but be thoughtful about it, senses heightened, aware of myself and what and who was around me. I needed to allow the landscape to unfold, in a quietly active way and be open to surprises.  The narrow path was circular so I could go round as often as I liked seeing it differently each time.  And time itself  became a thread in the natural tapestry as reflections and shadows and people changed over the morning. It felt good to be in an outdoor space that respected and promoted stillness, sensory awareness and conscious movement.

Staying calmly within myself

My own capacity for all these things is growing as I learn to quieten my thoughts and reactions. Then through stillness I have the choice of which path to take. In movement I’m more able to stop at any point and remain integrated and in balance. And as I become more able to stay calmly within myself my field of awareness widens and deepens. In turn movement flows more easily.  The stroll garden reflected me back to myself. So at the change of seasons I’ll return and be still and move through it once again.

Written in Term 7 of my Alexander Technique teacher training

Stone basin, Kyoto Garden, London

Kyoto Garden

Stone, Kyoto Garden

Bamboo fence, Kyoto Garden

Kyoto Garden

Peacock feathers, Kyoto Garden

Peacock feathers, Kyoto Garden

Kyoto Garden, London

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

By the water

Canal mural
The hectic shared space of the canal on a local school mural

Term 5

“There are places where we feel calm or that provide us with space to think; places we feel a deep pull towards or that have a physical effect on us when we visit; places where we feel ‘at home’ or that make us feel complete.”

I noticed this quote from the National Trust’s new Places that Make Us report because it echoes the Alexander concept of ‘psycho-physical unity’ – that mind and body work as a whole, and what we do with one affects the other.  If I want space for body and mind then I feel drawn towards water. The most tranquil place is the New River – not a river but an aqueduct engineered to bring fresh drinking water to London in the 17th century.

Here I find quiet and autumn colours, birdlife, dog owners and children being taken to school.  I have a camera in my hand; people are friendly and greet me warmly. No rush, I can sit quietly and enjoy birdsong and silence.  Sometimes a local artist sets up her easel to paint by the old watchman’s hut. The heron stands hidden but wary; I admire its balance and the easy turn of its neck.

Heron, New River

To negotiate the second stretch of water I too have to be alert.  The narrow canal towpath is grittier and more competitive, with differing views on speed, space and entitlement. To manage this I need to think ‘up’ with my Alexander directions, breathe easily, be aware of what’s around me, and take whatever comes in my stride.

Cyclists move fast, heading into work in determined fashion.  Runners follow, chatting in twos, easier to hear as they overtake. Then come dog or casual walkers like me, more at ease, holding our own, ducking lightly under each bridge. It’s too early for anglers to sit safely on the path and no canal boats or canoes are on the move just yet.

London’s housing crisis is here in microcosm – two semi-permanent tents pitched by the towpath and canal boats in use as affordable living space.  One of the striking things in my Alexander life is how often people stop me to ask for directions, responding perhaps to open body language. Sure enough, two stranded tourists want the canalside café. I point to the lock beyond the next bridge and move on.

Canal boatMy third destination is the Thames. Sometimes I walk along the riverbanks or venture onto the muddy foreshore, envying the mudlarks as they dig for finds. Recently I spent a late summer’s day on the river, sailing on a paddle steamer towards the Thames Estuary. The river has tides and timetables that can’t be ignored, but there’s also a calm detachment as the banks and rivercraft drift by. This is the Alexander concept of ‘means whereby’ in action – the journey’s the thing, not the port of arrival. The mood on board is cheerful. We wave at the Southend lifeboat out for a spin, and to cruise ship passengers heading for the Channel.

FM Alexander was clear that body and mind act as one, and I’m slowly integrating the two as I continue my training. My experience also bears out the National Trust’s research that a physical visit to a special place has a long-term emotional and psychological impact. Moving on or near these watery spaces changes my thinking, leaving me energised, calmer, more content and with new perspectives and enlarged horizons. Which special places do you visit, and what effect do they have?

New River reflections

New River, duck on water

Canal boat

Canal boat

Fish bench by the canal

Canal boat cat

Canal boat duck

Notice on a canal bridge

Tower Bridge raised
Tower Bridge lifts up as we sail underneath
Looking back at the London skyline
Looking back at the London skyline
Red Sands Forts in the Thames Estuary
Red Sands Forts in the Thames Estuary, part of Britain’s Second World War defences
Traditional Thames barge
Traditional Thames barge
Returning to London on the Thames at sunset
Returning to London on the Thames at sunset