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Pandemic focus purchasing: Order completed over the phone. Smart walk into town, mask on, quick flash of my card to buy the flowers and a swift hand over of two huge bouquets.
I hadn’t expected them to be so big.
After about 5 minutes of brisk walking I realised I needed to carry these bouquets for at least another 10-15 minutes and I predicted my arms would probably ache. I was tightly gripping them in front of me, elbows at 90 degrees. I had hoped to put them in a large carrier bag I had brought with me. They were far too big to fit into it. I remembered I had studied the Alexander Technique for over 30 years and smiled.
What if these bouquets were actually two huge balloons and they weighed nothing, in fact they were holding my arms up? Immediately I let go of the strangled grip I had on all the flower stems. My hands felt so much better! My wrists and arms released, my neck and jaw released. I looked around me as I walked. I had a spring in my step. I enjoyed the mass of colour in those bouquets in front of me. I revelled in the late autumn air. The walk was a pleasure.
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This month’s project was about playing with the phrase:
” the knees can go forward and away“
If you have not had Alexander Technique lessons before, in AT terms, this phrase is called a direction. Simply put, directions are thoughts to bring about how we wish to move (prevent what we don’t want to happen).
F. M. Alexander talked about four main “directions” which are:
Let the neck be free,
so that the head can go forward and up,
so that the back can lengthen and widen,
so that the knees can go forward and away.
As I mentioned, directions are thoughts. They are preventative wishes. In this case, the latter direction is to prevent your knees/legs fixing, holding, gripping and any other manner of things they get up to.
Here’s the process I went through during this exploration:
I started using the direction. The thought of knees going forward and away. I gave the direction (had the thought) in as many positions and situations as I could,
Before I gave the direction (had the thought) I did nothing. It’s important to be in a neutral state (inhibit in AT terms) before giving directions.
I became aware of the present moment. Sights, sounds, sensations,
ready for something and nothing,
I then noticed where I needed to do less, though the simple act of noticing brings about less effort.
In stopping, coming to neutral, preparing to think knees forward and away, my hips, pelvis and legs released. That release continued up my spine, whole back, head and breathing! I was surprised at how much I was doing unnecessarily and how it affected my whole system.
I reflected on my awareness of the way the leg moves. How the leg is a unit, and combined with the trunk, moves rather like an angle poise lamp, in many activities. It is a complex activity when broken down.
Also that the leg spirals unlike an angle poise lamp! The spiral is an important element of knees going forward and away. Released hips/thighs/knees spiral away from each other as the knees and hips bend.
This direction needs release in the hips/pelvis. It prevents the legs from doing what you don’t want them to do. It allows them to spiral following their inherent anatomical/physiological function. You might not notice the spiral happen, but it is happening, from a present moment neutral state.
I invited my knees to go forward and away: For me that is forward and away from each other and away from the back,
invited the thighs to lengthen into the movement,
the back to release away from the knees,
the knees away from the back,
invited the knees go away from each other like off-set headlights,
knees releasing and flowing into the movement.
These invitations can all happen before movement occurs.
Movement happens with ease using the Alexander Technique. To allow this direction to happen with ease, the hips are released and the knees start in neutral ( not bracing back), and the spiral has freedom to happen. It is important to be mindful that the movement arises rather than is “done.” It arises from a thinking process.
Doing the movement is counterproductive. Of course this non-doing movement takes a bit of getting one’s head around it. It is a fundamental element of the Alexander Technique but it takes some practice and it helps to have the support of a teacher.
The exploration reminded me that knees forward and away is an important direction in that it feeds into so much of our system.
- Do nothing, notice the present moment, notice your legs
- Soften, release any perceived tension in the body
- Ease in the pelvis/buttocks
- Ease in the hips
- Soft knees
- Flow through the legs
- Think “knees forward and away”
- Choose to move (or not) allowing the knees to go forward and away
“You have to have the overall intent of going up. And you have got to make sure that you are not bracing the knees, not tightening the adductor muscles, not tightening the muscles at the pelvis and so on. You’ve got to take care not to do those things. Now it will probably help you to think of the knees going forward and away, but do watch out because if you’ve got a yen to do it, to force the knees forward and away, then you will be in trouble. So, remember, the knees forward and away is a preventative, preventative, preventative order.”
“The Act of Living” by Walter Carrington
If you would like to explore what having ease in your legs both in stillness and movement can be like, prevent doing the wrong thing, come and have a few Alexander Technique lessons! Happy to help!
Recently, I rediscovered a poem called Lost by David Wagoner. When I came across it, I remembered that I had read it out to a group of my students when we were thinking about being in the present moment, something that is an essential part of the Alexander Technique. I am so glad I found the poem again:
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
This time as I read it, I thought it would make a perfect subject for my AT topic this month. The bits that stood out when I read it were:
The forest knows where you are.
Let it find you.
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I have no fuse. At least it feels that way. I imagine myself as a huge round black cartoon bomb but without a fuse. That’s me. I can be pushed and pushed and pushed…and then BOOM, I EXPLODE. I often feel shame when that happens. I learned that response from my childhood. I learned to suppress anger. My history informs me that anger brings rejection and calm doesn’t, so it’s understandable I have these habitual responses. I didn’t learn to use the feeling of anger effectively.
I’m learning to accept and embrace my anger. I am learning to be compassionate about it and be curious when it erupts. It’s a work in progress. Some of the process is about accepting what is and not changing it.
The Alexander Technique is about being in the present moment, accepting things as they are, releasing into it, and not “doing” something to change it. I like that it takes me into calm. However, I am using it to explore my anger. It doesn’t mean I have to explode, shout, scream, deny it, suppress it, just let it be what it is, a feeling that informs me. I can then choose what I do.
It’s coming in very handy whilst I wear a 24 hour blood pressure monitor. I want to rip it off my arm almost every time it beeps. That heralds the machine starting up. Frequently it pumps up, and fails, and starts again but with more pressure. It takes my breath away. My arm feels alien, like it’s turned into one of those rubberised fake arms. I think it might pop. I feel panic. I am irritated that I am having to go through this. My genetics are catching up with me despite years of healthy choices and oodles of relaxation and ways to find calm. Also, years of suppressing and denying anger and wanting to stay in a calm, peaceful state. My thoughts are wandering towards what the night is going to be like. Will I have bloodshot red eyes through lack of sleep in the morning?
I am observing what happens to me. How I tense up and brace. How the cuff restricts my movements which irritates me. How my thoughts are going towards tonight and the possibility of lack of sleep and the future possibility of medication. In this instance it’s not helpful. It will show higher readings as a result! I am choosing to stay in the present moment, notice my feet, stay grounded, notice my neck, invite it to have flow, notice my muscular response and choosing to invite ease and calm. I am not jumping over the reactions but I am responding to them appropriately.
The Alexander Technique is a tool. It can be a lifestyle as well. In this instance it is an extremely helpful tool. I am glad I can use it.
If you are interested in exploring how the Alexander Technique can help with anger, reactions you don’t know what to do with, overwhelm get in touch.
Jane Clappison MSTAT
Alexander Technique Teacher
My Dad had quite a few “War stories” he told but the one that I want to tell today is about when he stuck his head above the parapet. A parapet is a low protective wall for concealing troops. It’s a very short story and involves my Dad behind a parapet, his commanding officer, and a random third party doing shooting practice. Apparently his commanding officer bellowed out “Clappison” and my Dad lifted his head up above the parapet, and said “Yes, Sir” and got shot! Fortunately it hit him at the very edge of his forehead. All his kids, and anyone else listening, got to feel the dent in his skull, and the outline of the bullet underneath his skin every time he told the story. He carried the bullet for the rest of his life. I’m guessing it wasn’t a live bullet but a practice round.
My best friend also has a very similar wound from sticking his head above the parapet, but this one happened at school. It happened when he was very young, but he didn’t ever forget it. His body tries to protect him from ever being wounded again, every time he is in company.
Apparently, when he was at school, the teacher decided to tell the class about penguins. As my friend had been reading about penguins, with his mum, the night before, he got really excited. He knew all about penguins and they were from the south west coast of Africa, and even had islands named after them: the Penguin Islands. Unfortunately the teacher had only read about penguins from Antarctica. So when the teacher asked “Where do Penguins come from?” and my friend shot up his hand quicker than anyone else in the class, he got picked to answer the question. The answer made the teacher, and then the whole class, laugh. That bullet landed very deeply and is still felt: everywhere.
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I love that practicing the Alexander Technique brings new information, new ways of seeing things all the time.
A recent Alexander Technique lesson I received started something like this…
Teacher – What’s happening with your foot?
Me – Oh it’s forward of the other, it’s often like that.
Teacher – What else is happening, take a look!
Me – Oh it’s becoming windswept! It’s been going that way since I broke my ankle.
Teacher – What about if you release into the windswept way it wants to go…?
Me – OH! Wow!
“If we can just let go and trust that things will work out they way they’re supposed to, without trying to control the outcome, then we can begin to enjoy the moment more fully. The joy of the freedom it brings becomes more pleasurable than the experience itself.” – Goldie Hawn
The release felt like my foot was softening, expanding, spacious, opening, beautiful, limitless, effortlessly yielding and it had a ripple effect, through my whole system, opening out into the world. It sounds profound and it was.
I wouldn’t say I am a control freak where most things are concerned. Yet, with many years dancing, teaching movement & working as a Chartered Physiotherapist, I do keep falling into the trap of trying to “control” my body and wanting it to be other-than-what-it-is! I was doing that same thing with my ankle and my foot. I was releasing them the way I wanted them to go. I was trying to control them, despite all my Alexander training (habits can be so deep they go unnoticed) and despite that (mostly unconscious) effort to control them my balance was getting worse and my foot was stuck in the middle, going two ways.
So, back to the lesson …we spent it thinking about releasing into the direction that my foot, and my body wanted to go. I marvelled about how “releasing into the direction something wants to go” had such a profound effect and I knew that the same process could be applied to life. Google defines release as…
“allow or enable to escape from confinement; set free.”
It is not about collapsing, or admitting defeat but involves ceasing trying to change things in-the-moment, accepting things as they are, setting things free to be just as they are. Releasing into an unknown outcome.
I have been lovingly acknowledging and embracing my windswept foot (which probably evolved as a result of a fall and broken ankle) as being part of me. Accepting that this is how it is.
The paradox is that by witnessing it and allowing it to be, giving up the control, things have changed and my foot is already less windswept and my balance has improved.
Sometimes I come back to a thing over and over before I take a different path. I may be back here again in the future! I suspect release is rarely a one- time thing especially where habit is concerned. I do know that “releasing” can feel utterly impossible if one does not know how, and it can be challenging as well as breathtaking. The Alexander Technique is a wonderful tool to support this process.
FM Alexander described his technique as conscious control of the individual. Yes, it is about “control” but of a different kind. One where we can react differently to our patterns.
When you can’t control what’s happening, challenge yourself to control the way you respond to what’s happening. That’s where your power is! – unknown
Jane Clappison MSTAT (with gratitude to Lena Schibel-Mason MSTAT)