I recently had the opportunity to run a small workshop at the Victorian residential for trainees and teachers at the Maitripa Buddhist retreat in Healesville.
The workshop ran for an hour and a half. Fifteen people attended. Thank you all that came!
The workshop focused on learning some components of Non Violent Communication (NVC), and then integrating the skills into an empathic listening exercise. The listening exercise is described in this article.
I found that people responded quite positively to the workshop and I felt very inspired when Anne asked me to write a little summary about NVC for ITM. And just to mention: I have only recently become interested in NVC, and the impact it has had on my work and personal relationships has been quite noticeable.
A little on NVC
NVC is a language and communication model developed by the late Dr Marshall Rosenberg, which in his words “helps guide us to reframe how we express ourselves and hear others. Instead of habitual automatic reactions, our words become conscious responses based firmly on awareness of what we are perceiving, feeling and wanting. We are led to express ourselves with honesty and clarity whilst at the same time giving others our empathic attention.”
The great thing about NVC is that the other person we are communicating with doesn’t need to be knowledgeable about NVC or desire to relate to us compassionately. NVC is an indirect process that inspires people to connect to each other without the interference of criticism, judgement, accusation, evaluation, blame or punishment.
I have found that as long as the other person knows that your intention is to give and receive on a compassionate level, then they will want to join you in the process.
NVC is not a process to ‘get what we want’ from someone or to manipulate their actions. We use NVC to express our feelings, desires and requests in such a way that someone can choose to fulfil our requests and understand what it is we want – “to arrive at a mutual desire to give from the heart … ”
The four components
There are four parts to NVC, which are the basis of the process. In any situation we can choose to stay in touch with these principles to either express ourselves or to receive others empathically.
The components are:
Observation – What is it we are observing? These are ‘concrete actions’ that we are sensing. Observation is free from interpretation, judgement, evaluation, blame etc.
Feelings – How do we feel in relation to what we are observing?
Needs – What are the needs, values, desires and wants that create our feelings?
Request – What could we request so that our needs can be met?
As an example, let me describe a situation I have used this process for.
I have just cleaned the house and my son has walked in from playing outside with muddy gumboots on and sat on the lounge. A response I may usually give could be regarded as being unconstructive and demanding: “Take those boots off now will you! What is going through your mind?”
But if I focus the light of consciousness on the four components of NVC, my response would sound like, “ Son, when I see you walk in the door with muddy gumboots on (factual observation), I feel irritated and puzzled (feeling) because I am wanting respect and the carpet to be kept clean (need). Are you willing to walk back outside and take them off then clean up the mud (do-able request)?”
Now, we are always free to choose if we are willing to meet someone’s request, and my son could say ‘no’, but if he sees that I am interested in connecting compassionately, then my need for respect and clean carpet has a much better chance of being fulfilled in a Non-Violent way.
The four components are the basis of NVC and can be used at any time. And it is very useful to use it on yourself to acknowledge what is ‘alive’ in you in order to gain more conscious control.
Empathic Listening exercise
This is the empathy exercise that was practised during the workshop. Please try it with a friend, partner or family member in a quiet space.
Sitting facing each other comfortably, choose who is person A and who is person B.
Person A speaks for five minutes to person B. Sharing whatever is ‘alive’ in them … whatever thoughts come up. There’s no right or wrong. It’s all about expressing yourself and being heard, which may be a personal story, or random thoughts are OK. You might talk about the current relationship with person B. Childhood interests, adulthood accomplishments, hopes, dreams etc. Must be five minutes. If you run out of things to say, both people must stay with the silence until something more comes up.
Person B listens to person A in complete silence and full attention.
Listening for the feelings and needs behind the words.
Needs can be expressed as hopes, values, wishes, desires, dreams, yearnings, things that are important to them.
Remember that giving someone your full attention is a gift to them. Notice if your thoughts drift to your own inner dialogue, judgements, comparisons, evaluations etc. Bring your attention gently back to person A. It is important to remain silent to give them the space to express and so you can sense what’s alive in them.
After the five minutes, person B then relates what feelings and needs they sensed in person A’s words, and person A can describe what feelings arose while speaking. Person B may also like to say what feelings and needs arose in them while listening. Allow a few minutes for this.
Then swap around. Person B speaks, person A listens in silence.
Repeat the cycle two more times, so both people have three turns at speaking and listening. Why? Because it takes a few ‘rounds’ of empathic listening for the transformative powers of non-judgemental attention to emerge.
The point of this exercise is to tune into the feelings and needs of someone else, which is something that we may not usually watch out for. Sometimes it is hard for us to express ourselves fully when we know we will hear a reaction. Asking the listener to remain silent gives us the freedom to say what is really going on. When we express what is painful for us we often wonder how the other person will respond, with either advice, criticism, assurance, sympathy, accusation or trying to educate, correct, punish us or fix us up.
This year’s schools residential may have been the best one yet.
It was the third year running that students and teachers from the Melbourne and Sydney schools have gathered at the Maitripa centre in Healesville.
The turnout was big – 50 people.
The weather at the end of February was perfect, unlike previous years which have ranged from freezing to baking hot.
The food was fantastic again, and the accommodation seems to get a little fancier every year.
As usual, students from the Melbourne school headed by David Moore and the Sydney school headed by Greg Holdaway attended, along with quite a few teachers, plus for the first time the head of the new Sydney school, Simon Fitzgibbon.
It’s really noticeable how much the students and teachers from the schools are bonding. There’s a warmth there, and friendships and connections are growing across state borders.
It’s been a wonderful vision by David and Greg of a unified Alexander schools experience, where everyone is safe and welcome.
Caren Bayer taught us with her usual mix of brilliance and humility.
There was singing all together, and dancing and sharing and learning from each other.
The final concert was a heartfelt affair, so much so that even the staff at Maitripa decided to participate.
A particular thank you to all the soon-to-be teachers who ran workshops at the residential. They were interesting, fun and really useful. We loved learning from you and with you.
Good governance is about the processes for making and implementing decisions. It’s about the best possible process for making those decisions.
In AUSTAT our governance is very clearly stated.
Map of AUSTAT Governance.
AUSTAT is an incorporated association under NSW state legislation. This means that all our processes must abide by the NSW Incorporations Act 2009.
When we hold a position with AUSTAT we can’t just do what we want, there are clear guidelines that determine our actions and our decisions.
AUSTAT has a Constitution called “the AUSTAT Constitution”. The AUSTAT Constitution is a formal document that spells out our values and what we are aiming to achieve.
In the commercial world, the AUSTAT Constitution would be called a “Policy document” because it contains all our policies. Policies tell an organisation what the values of the organisation are, what goals are appropriate for it to achieve and what their identity is as a professional organisation. Only members at our AGM can change policy through a 75% vote.
From time to time, teacher members may suggest that changes are made to the AUSTAT Constitution. This may be important to give direction to AUSTAT Council about how to carry out our business or to indicate when there has been a change in what we want to achieve or the reasons that we want to achieve a goal. Constitutional change needs to be carefully thought out to ensure that the directions that we give to AUSTAT Council are clear and unambiguous. Changes need to be considered for knock-on effects, double meanings, that they accurately reflect the beliefs of the majority of members and that they are achievable.
It’s important that this process is reasoned, debated and careful.
The AGM elects teacher members to represent their interests as an elected Council. Those “interests” are written down in the AUSTAT Constitution. It’s incumbent on AUSTAT Council to follow the directives of the members that have been voted for and passed at an AGM. Therefore, it is important for you to attend AGMs with a good understanding of the issues. If that’s not possible then giving a proxy to someone who will represent your beliefs is very important.
The AGM can ask Council to undertake tasks on its behalf that don’t involve Constitutional change, but be careful because AUSTAT Council is not empowered to undertake any task that goes against the AUSTAT Constitution.
Policies reflect the members’ beliefs and goals. Procedures are how AUSTAT Council systematically implements those stated goals.
AUSTAT Council has no other business but to administer the policy that is written in the AUSTAT Constitution. AUSTAT Council may NOT write or create new policy. Read Section 18 of the AUSTAT Constitution, you can find a copy of the AUSTAT Constitution in the AUSTAT website members’ section under ‘Forms and Processes’.
Council can write and implement “procedures”. Procedures are systematic instructions on how to implement the policy that is written in the AUSTAT Constitution. Procedures can’t be used to slip in new policy that hasn’t been approved by members. The procedures must reflect the policy that is in the AUSTAT Constitution.
Every elected member of AUSTAT Council has an equal vote. There is no Presidential role. The Chair does not have veto powers, nor can he/she enforce or over-ride any decision that is made by Council. The Chair may not make a decision on behalf of Council. Three elected members have special duties. The Chair must ensure that the AUSTAT Constitution (i.e. the wishes of the members) is upheld. The Chair acts as adjudicator, sets the monthly agenda, ensures that meetings take place, that Minutes are written and that “due process” is followed in all decisions. The Secretary administers communication including notice of meetings and correspondence. The Treasurer administers members’ fees and ensures that all spending and invoicing is in accordance with the AUSTAT Constitution. All other Council members work together to administer the AUSTAT Constitution.
The AUSTAT Standing Committees
Standing Committees are not elected by teacher members. They are appointed by AUSTAT Council to assist Council in its administration of members’ business. Standing committees have no powers to write policy or procedures. They are constituted to only make recommendations to AUSTAT Council. This is an important safeguard.
Have a look at the AUSTAT Constitution and these working relationships are written in black and white. Standing committees have an important role to play in supporting and informing AUSTAT Council. However, there are limits on what they can do and how they can do that. These limits are important in ensuring that AUSTAT policy is followed and changes in the way we operate will only occur through the resolve of members voting at an AGM.
It’s important that elected members and members appointed by Council understand what they can do and what they cannot do. It is the “scope” of our role. Governance is important because it allows us to work together with a clear understanding of our boundaries.
Governance is important. It helps if we all understand the process and its constraints.
Each member of AUSTAT, be it the Chair, the Treasurer, Secretary, Standing Committee Member or an ordinary teacher member is constrained by the policy that has been voted for by 75% of those present at an AGM. This is an important constraint and ensures that each teacher member volunteering for AUSTAT follows the wishes of the membership.
When considering Constitutional change, that comes to you as motions requiring a special resolution (75% vote), take into account the important role that governance plays in ensuring that people act in accordance with the written wishes of the members and not from their own opinion of what they think they should be doing in AUSTAT.
Michael was asked by Council to write a short piece for ITM explaining some of the mechanics of governance within AUSTAT to assist members understand how the processes of decision making occur.
The multi-talented Elke Rudolph is from Hobart and her skills include physiotherapy, Alexander Technique and singing
How did you first come across Alexander Technique?
I had established a busy physiotherapy practice and was looking for more. I wasn’t sure whether to specialise in physio or do something else. I came across a “body worker” who had worked with many great teachers in the US and opened my eyes to other perspectives.
What were your first impressions of the Technique?
My impressions were that I was “coming home to my body and myself“.
Where and when did you train?
I trained with Bill Brenner in Sydney, graduating in 2000.
What sort of AT work do you do now?
I mostly work one-on-one with people who have long-term pain and weakness. Recently I am seeing more singers and musicians and ageing Baby Boomers who want to keep doing what they enjoy doing, for as long as possible.
I also take small weekly groups over a six-week period; for the general public, music students and occasionally for members of my choir.
As the opportunity arises, I take workshops to a larger audience, such as the Australian Voice Association conference, Hobart Conservatorium of Music, professional development for primary school music teachers, senior music students at the local Quaker school, and my choir.
Is there anything you find difficult about teaching the Technique?
After graduating as an AT teacher in 2000, I had to quickly find a way of making the two potentially contradictory perspectives of physio and the AT work together. For example, I might see a client in the morning as a physio and then in the evening as a participant of my AT class, potentially giving them opposing messages.
This continues to be an ongoing process of refinement, as I am exposed to new Alexander teachers, physio research and client issues.
In this process I have adapted and discarded some physio techniques as well as adapting my language around the Alexander Technique.
Choosing the most appropriate approach for a new client can sometimes be difficult, especially if the client comes with fixed expectations.
What do you love about the Technique?
I love that the AT can be applied to anything and encourages expansiveness, connectivity and creativity.
Currently I am developing a new collaboration between a voice consultant, a choir director and myself to offer a new workshop experience. We call it ‘Body Voice Song’ and run it over a weekend. The attendees have ranged from beginners who have never sung before to experienced choristers. A number of ‘lightbulb moments’ occur for most participants, as they learn that even subtle physical changes can have profound positive effects on their voice. We love working together and are learning something new from each other at each workshop.
I love that if a client walks into my practice and they are too anxious to take any new information in, AT has given me the skills to relax their nervous system so they are open/receptive to listen and to new experiences.
I love that through the AT, I have a refined choice of teaching use of muscle activation (intensity) from maximum to the point of awareness or intention and that the AT includes opposing directions and the whole body.
Any advice or tips for other teachers?
I have found that exploring the intersection of the AT with different professional perspectives/disciplines (not only physio) shines a light on the limitations of each, as well as enriching the way I can work with each.
Kenn Turnbull, long term member of AUSTAT, lived to be 91 and died peacefully at Rathdowne Place, Carlton, on March 14, 2017.
Although Kenn had not been teaching for the last few years, his choice to continue his teaching member status demonstrates his commitment to and belief in the Technique which no doubt would have been present since his graduation from the Melbourne Alexander Technique Teaching Training School in 1994.
The fact that Kenn entered a new field of education in his senior years was inspiring, and he is remembered, during his trainee days, as someone who brought a considered point of view to discussions about the Technique, informed by his quirky take on life and mature experience. Kenn would have been humoured by the fact that he bettered the longevity of the founder, ‘FM’.
Kenn is remembered as a man who spoke his truth, a man of integrity and social conscience.
Michael Shellshear sent a message of condolence on behalf of AUSTAT to Kenn’s wife, Marian, and family.
Heidi passed away peacefully in a hospital near Stuttgart, Germany, after a brave battle with cancer. She was far too young.
I met Heidi on the first day of my training at the School of FM Alexander Studies in Melbourne. It was 2006, and amid the crowd of new people I noticed a smiling woman wearing a beautiful bright pink jumper.
I was feeling shy and was very glad when she chatted to me. We became friends.
Heidi was then in her third year. She and her husband, Rainer Schanz, were in Melbourne for Rainer’s work at Bosch.
Heidi was a rarity among Alexander technique trainees: she had not come to the technique from a music, theatre or dance background, nor because she suffered pain. She was an active, sporting person, and was interested in the potential of the technique to improve her co-ordination.
Throughout her life Heidi was enthusiastic about fitness. As well as being an Alexander teacher, she was a qualified ski instructor, and a Pilates instructor. She and Rainer enjoyed skiing each winter when they were in Europe (Rainer is also a ski instructor), as well as hiking, Nordic pole walking and windsurfing.
Heidi was also very artistic. Her first qualification was as an architect, and she loved colour. I remember during a morning coffee break at a cafe across the road from the Alexander school, we had a discussion about clothing colours, and the fact that the ‘colour seasons’ idea had its basis in the work of Germany’s Bauhaus school. Heidi was very knowledgeable and quite passionate about the colour seasons, telling me that she was a Winter and I was a Spring. She lent me a book on the subject, and it has helped me ever since in choosing clothes.
Heidi and Rainer returned to Germany a few years later, and she was sad to leave. Before they left they applied successfully to become Australian citizens, because they loved Australia and hoped to spend time here after Rainer retired.
Heidi was a very loyal AUSTAT member. She kept up her full membership after returning to Germany, and where possible timed her regular visits to Australia so she could attend an AUSTAT conference or a teachers’ sharing weekend. She wasn’t happy if the conference was in winter, because she would have preferred to holiday in a warmer season, but she still came!
When she was visiting, she always stayed with me and my partner Craig, and we loved having her. She and I would do some Alexander-Pilates exploration together on my loungeroom floor, chat about the Technique, enjoy finding places to have coffee or to eat Vietnamese food and deepen our friendship.
Among the people she always caught up with in Melbourne were Jenny Thirtle, the deputy director of SOFMAS, who Heidi had voice lessons from and who became a good friend. She would spend lots of time at the Alexander school, as well as seeing her old neighbours, and a Catholic sister called Sister Judith. Heidi shared with Rainer a deep Catholic faith.
I was lucky enough to have several holidays with Heidi. During my training we spent a week in Tasmania, a place Heidi adored, as she did New Zealand and Port Douglas. We caught the ferry and drove from Devonport down to Hobart, stopping at every food spot along the way. So much beautiful chocolate, cheese and honey! Heidi loved to potter in shops, so we also visited wool shops, and spent several hours at Hobart’s Salamanca market.
A few years ago I visited Europe, and stayed with Heidi and Rainer in their lovely home in Stuttgart.
Heidi and I visited Heidelberg, the town where she was born and grew up. It’s one of the most beautiful towns in the world. We stayed there with her parents, and enjoyed a delicious meal, including a Bavarian specialty cooked by her father.
Then Heidi, Rainer and I travelled to the southern German town of Oberstdorf and spent a week walking in the Alps on the German/Austrian border. It was breath-taking, soaring country. One of my memories is the sight of the pair of them disappearing way up above me, seemingly hardly noticing the steepness of the slope as they powered upwards, while I panted along in their wake! We stopped at a dairy on the side of a hill and drank fresh milk, surrounded by cows with tuneful bells. Real Heidi country.
Then last year when Heidi was visiting for the final time, we drove up to the Victorian town of Beechworth, and had a delightful time walking, eating and drinking, and enjoying the beauty of the high country. She had already had the primary cancer, but at that time was hopeful that it wouldn’t return.
Heidi was so brilliant it’s impossible to mention all her talents. She and Rainer lived in Brazil for about four years before they came to Australia, again for Rainer’s work, and Heidi decided to do some study. The only problem was that she would have to learn Portuguese, which didn’t deter her at all – she even managed to submit a thesis in Portuguese. She also spoke English and German, plus some French.
She was a trained counsellor in the Zurich Resource Model, which she used along with Alexander Technique to do corporate coaching.
Heidi loved coffee and cake, and was a wonderful cook, especially of desserts. Her plum cake was amazing.
She was a merry, fun-loving person who was always keen to speak her mind. She had twinkling eyes. She made a conscious choice to make the most of each moment. She was enormous fun to hang out with.
She really cared for people – every year at my birthday time, a beautifully wrapped present and card would arrive, always chosen with real thought and love.
Even in her last two months, when I told her that I was feeling unconfident with my Alexander teaching, she sent me a copy of Ted Dimon’s book ‘The Use of the Hands in Teaching’, and wrote how much it had helped her.
It’s impossible to believe she’s gone. For me, it’s as if a bright light has gone out in the world.
Heidi is survived by Rainer, her parents, two sisters, a brother and her nieces and nephews.
Philip Jonnes died quietly on August 2, 2017 in the good care of Box Hill Hospital.
Phil graduated as an Alexander Technique teacher in 1994 from MATTS when Duncan Woodcock was Head of Training.
I first met Phil when I worked on his training course and then in the mid-1990s when I started running the Friday morning supervision group in Fitzroy as a bridge for recent graduates to support them in starting up their private practices. Phil was a regular attendee and would always catch the tram up Brunswick St and St Georges Rd, North Fitzroy, afterwards for his private teaching practice at David Moore’s School for FM Alexander Studies (SOFMAS), where he hired a room.
Phil, who often introduced himself as “Phil with one ‘l’ and Jonnes with two ‘n’s” usually arrived accompanied by the warm and lingering aroma of freshly ground coffee. Phil loved his coffee. First from Quists in Little Collins St, then from Jasper’s in Brunswick St, and then he crossed the road to Atomica the other side of Brunswick St. When Phil said he assessed one caffeine merchant better than another I would never question him but follow in his footsteps.
The Friday supervision group established a ritual of ending each year with a shared lunch at Mario’s Café ~ or if the group was more than four or five, the Veggie Bar, both on Brunswick St. Phil was a great conversationalist and it was at these meals that I learned so much about him.
Phil was born in Melbourne into a family with links in Victoria back to the mid-1800s. He grew up in Hampton, and after school at Hampton High and then Melbourne High studied civil engineering at what is now RMIT. His first work was in an oil refinery in Melbourne. He then travelled overseas and worked in Edinburgh with a consulting firm and then in London on construction work at the docks in the East End. He then moved to Africa building roads in Uganda and other projects of vital infrastructure such as dams and sewers in Kenya. On his return to Australia Phil worked on the huge Myponga Dam project in South Australia and then the Snowy Mountains Scheme for the pipeline on Murray One. Later he worked in design in Melbourne with projects in irrigation around Victoria.
It was when Phil retired from engineering he trained as a teacher of the Alexander Technique. His knowledge of the application of structural engineering to the living physical form was unsurpassed and he was always educating me about the application of the mechanics of building to the human body and the understanding of concepts of gravity, cantilevers, pulley systems, torsion, compression, shearing, tension and the like.
Phil was also well versed in Jungian analytic thinking and he often attended lectures at the CG Jung society of Melbourne. We had many stimulating conversations about the continuum between Freudian and Jungian approaches to psychoanalysis and the richness of understanding the concepts of the unconscious, projection, introjection and ‘the shadow’ within groups and organisations and that of the conscious constructive control of the psycho-physical-spiritual unity of the Self … in process!
Phil was also a keen cyclist and later a motor bike rider. He also did a stint as a boundary umpire for the Sandringham Football Club! Later in life he took up bush walking and climbing. Phil was a keen theatre goer and loved his music, the ballet and wine. Phil is the only person I know who especially constructed a wine fridge in his dining room to keep it at “just the right temperature”! Phil would often miss the Friday sessions before the Labour Day and the Queens Birthday long weekends to go on regular bush walks with his club, who became treasured friends; and the Friday before the Port Fairy Spring Music Festival … “not the folk festival the ‘journey through a week-end of fine music’ festival”.
When in Europe Phil met his wife, Jean, in 1954 and they married in 1956 in the UK. Jean said recently “you could say we continued growing up together for the next 61 years … we never ran out of things to talk about”. Phil is survived by Jean and their two children, Nick and Kathy, and his five grand-children Amy, Matthew, Tristan, Callum and Liam; and more recently his two great-grandchildren, Brody and Asher. Phil was enormously proud of his family and talked frequently of their ups and downs, and achievements.
Nine years ago Phil had his first stroke. He was determined to return to the Friday morning supervision sessions and what is more to drive himself! With the gentle strength of Jean assisting him he accomplished this and made a remarkable recovery with the help of the Alexander Technique to almost fully restore the use of his left shoulder and arm. He did, however, start to decline and in early 2017 went into permanent care at Donwood Aged Care Facility after having trialled it there for respite care. It was there he had another stroke in May and then another this August, 2017.
Such a loving, caring and thoughtful person, Phil will be missed.
As mentioned in the Autumn 2017 issue of ITM, Simon trained with Kri Ackers in the early 1990s, followed by further training with Dilys and Walter Carrington in London. Subsequently, he became a long-term resident of Madrid, Spain, where he ran a full-time teaching practice and from 2008-2015 a teacher training school. Simon welcomes new students, and teachers who wish to extend their learning. For more information email: email@example.com.
In May, Kaye spent several weeks as a post-graduate student at FMA. A bonus was meeting and enjoying the lively presence and accumulated expertise of Kri Ackers
Kaye: How do you view the teacher / student relationship?
Simon: I see no reason to complicate this issue. The student is a student, and the teacher is a teacher. Students come to the teacher because they believe the Alexander Technique can help them and the teacher endeavours to teach the student the Technique.
This, of course, does not imply that the teacher knows everything or never learns anything, nor that the student’s role is that of passively and unquestioningly receiving knowledge. Few if any really believe this is the way learning works or should work. Any such attitude, whether held by the teacher or the student, would be a product of their own psychology, not of the Technique or the way it was being taught.
Teaching the Technique is something you engage in with your student, not something you do to them. Learning the Technique, as with any other practical skill, requires attention, practice, experiment, reflection and time. Teaching it requires observation, persistence, creativity, and is also subject to the aforementioned aspects of learning, as teaching must be approached as a learning experience if one wishes to become a better teacher.
Kaye: In AT teaching I think there is an ongoing query about the student/teacher relationship in the ‘more hands-on’ approach and whether it sets up a paradigm of power, the teacher being the one with the power. Your thoughts?
Simon: I can’t see why this would be any more of an issue with hands-on teaching. Either way, it should not be controversial to say that the teacher has more experience and knowledge about the Technique than the student. This is, after all, why the student has sought out a teacher and is the one who pays at the end of the lesson.
If a teacher does not believe this is the case, I would ask what they believe their training was for. If, on the other hand, a student has a problem with the idea that their teacher knows more about the Technique than they do, they should reconsider why they are coming for lessons.
There is no reason why these differences between the teacher and student necessitate an unhealthy relationship. If I need some plumbing work at home, I am not offended by the fact that the plumber knows more about plumbing than I do. I accept it gleefully as this was why I called for help. This knowledge and experience deficit does not diminish my human value and only represents a power relationship in a very banal way. I would obviously not be satisfied with a plumber who didn’t feel they had more experience or knowledge than me about the job I was paying them to do.
Kaye: This query arises especially around the idea that the teacher will give or bestow or elicit an experience of freedom or ‘upness’, for example, that the student may be awed by but cannot attain by themselves, at least not until they can coordinate themselves. Your thoughts?
Simon: I was amazed how my third class teacher could pluck the answers to questions like ‘3 x 5 =…’ seemingly from nowhere. But my teacher didn’t present it as a magic trick. It was presented as a skill that I too could develop. What’s more, I was shown how. Likewise, the changes brought about by the teacher in an AT lesson can be amazing, but the lesson does not stop there. Students are shown a way of working which will in time allow them to get it themselves. This is the whole point of the lessons.
I could not answer questions such as ‘3 x 5 =…’ until I put in the effort to learn my multiplication tables, and so it is with the Technique. One won’t get it for themselves until they’ve done the work necessary to achieve it.
You may be aware of the story of Alexander saying that with the skill he had developed in the use of his hands he could give his students the new experience ’whether they wanted it or not’. Some have taken offence at this idea but I feel this offence is misplaced. Alexander wasn’t strutting down Oxford St freeing the necks of strangers against their will, he was finding an effective way to work around the obstacles that people who wanted his help had unwittingly put in his way. Change is very difficult for most people, and many will insist on doing things as they always have, in spite of the trouble it has got them into. Having the experience, however, is not the end of the learning process. The student must then do the necessary mental work to understand the experience and the process that got them there. Then, through practice and experiment, they will be able to implement this process by themselves with ever increasing reliability.
Kaye: Have you had experiences where you have been able to detect the student or yourself crossing into an unhelpful interaction that is, psychological or emotional territory out of the scope of your ability to address?
Simon: These sorts of problems can arise, but are less likely if there is clarity from the teacher as to the scope of their expertise. For example, a student may request a medical diagnosis or treatment, or seek psychotherapy or advice about other things going on in their lives, etc. It is very important that teachers be upfront from the outset that the Alexander Technique does not qualify them to help in these regards.
Kaye: I’m interested in the phenomenon wherein I’m blind to my habit until it bubbles up into my awareness. During my ‘turns’ with you, initially and repeatedly you used quite firm pressure and direction to lift my ribcage up away from my pelvis. How do I deal with the impasse whereby I know where I want to go but I don’t think my thinking can get me there?
Simon: Often it is more a case of someone being aware of their habit, but not of how to get out of it. In your example, I did lift you up. I was taking you somewhere you could not conceive of, let alone get to by yourself. To maintain this relationship, you did need to provide your own energy (direction). What you seem to mean by ‘thinking’ here is thought without any real intention, without energy. This is not directing. Without a change in the way your energy—or effort— is directed, nothing will change. It is not a question of reciting magic spells, the misdirection of effort is what we are aiming to correct.
The underlying confusion here is an example of what happens when AT theory is divorced from the actual experience. If you are clear about what you are after, it becomes a practical question of how to get there and not one of doctrinal purity. The ‘thinking’ you reference in the phrase ‘I don’t think my thinking can get me there’ would be more accurately described as ‘thinking about’ something. Directing is an active process: not only the projection of messages but also the necessary energy for things to happen.
Kaye: What and where is the role of intention in relation to non-doing and direction?
Simon: A clear concept of what is meant by ‘doing’ as opposed to ‘non-doing’ in Alexander jargon will help here. By ‘doing’ we mean deciding beforehand what the correct result is, what should happen, and then directly setting about to achieve this. The focus is on doing the ‘right’ thing, and in this sense; ‘relaxing’ is just as much a ‘doing’ as ‘trying’ to have good posture.
‘Non-doing’ does not mean nothing happens. It would be a useless concept if it did. The difference is that we focus on preventing what we don’t want. We are less clear about the specific result. The attitude is: if I prevent (or diminish) this tendency, what happens? For example, a non-doing approach to breathing is not to stop breathing. One must stop trying to change the breathing and figure out what is actually interfering with it and then try to prevent that as much as you can.
It’s primarily through experience and experiment that we learn to distinguish between doing and non-doing. The difference isn’t ideological and it isn’t ethereal, but it does take time to develop the necessary understanding and sensitivity. It is part of what one needs to learn. A good place to start is to ask yourself, what am I trying to prevent?
Directing is an active process. The energy is the result of intention, or what Alexander termed ‘giving consent’. It is not a question of just thinking about my head going forward and up, rather that of definitely intending my head to go forward and up. A useful analogy might be the difference between thinking about going for a walk and actually getting up and going out the door.
Kaye: What is the role of primary directions and their introduction into a lesson? How would you use ad hoc directions, for example, thinking the fingertips away from the back?
Simon: The primary directions relate to the overall postural organisation; one’s response to gravity. They form the basis of the new and improved use and are primary in the sense that they must be sorted out first. We need to discover why the neck is not free, why the back is shortening and narrowing, etc. To go with your example, ‘trying to direct fingertips away from your back’ when your back is stiffened or collapsed is demonstrably ineffective.
This does not mean that we must only direct the neck until it is free before moving on to the next step. There may be many reasons why the neck is not free or why it cannot be free. This is where prevention, inhibition, faulty conception, etc, need to be considered. For example, if someone believes they should be relaxing, and their understanding of relaxing is actually a postural collapse, no amount of asking for a free neck is going to turn that situation around. The first step here is they need to stop ‘relaxing’ as they understand it.
As for the timing, I introduce the primary directions when I think they will be helpful. There is no point in talking about directions until the student is capable of directing to some degree. In the early lessons, most students will understand the directions as a result (correct position) instead of a process, and therefore ‘giving their directions’ will only create a further layer of postural confusion and probably a great deal of stiffening.
Kaye: Is there a way the teacher can help the student to conceive the directions as other than ‘correct positions’ or is this misconception an occupational hazard, so to speak?
Simon: It is an understandable and perhaps unavoidable error. I remember my zeal as a young teacher: I was going to make sure no student of mine fell into that trap! I later realised that they all do and this is a necessary part of the learning process. Learning is a process of making mistakes, understanding those mistakes, and correcting them.
Kaye: Are the primary directions an ideal to move towards rather than a means in themselves?
Simon: No, I don’t think so. Directing is a process, not an ideal, not a result. We are not describing a position or posture, rather a tendency. We’d like the back to lengthen, but we don’t decide how much. We do, however, understand that over time we will tend to lengthen more and more consistently. This tendency is independent of what we are actually doing and in fact the point of the Technique is to bring this tendency to whatever we are doing.
Kaye: How can we avoid doing rather than thinking any direction, but especially FM’s directions?
Simon: ’Doing’ implies having a preconceived idea as to the result and making it happen, whilst ‘thinking’ as it is used here is akin to the ‘thinking about’ I mentioned earlier. Neither is satisfactory.
I think the active verb here should be ‘direct’. One should not think the directions nor do them. Rather, one should direct. What this actually involves is best learnt through experience.
Kaye: In my sessions with yourself, John Nicholls and Caren Bayer there was an emphasis that as a teacher I am touching you locally but thinking of you (and me) globally and spatially. What are your thoughts?
Simon: The changes we wish to bring about are global and so our perception and conception of our students needs to be global. If I have my hands on someone’s shoulder, for example, the question I am asking myself is to what extent is this shoulder interfering with the overall upward and expanding tendency. I’m not interested in the shoulder in isolation. A shoulder may be a bit tight, but if relaxing it drags the student down, then this relaxation is not an improvement, regardless of how far from ideal the shoulder may be in its current state.
As for movement, regardless of the specifics, our aim should be to not interfere with this overall pattern. The only way to know how successful we have been at this is by paying attention to the overall pattern.
The overall pattern happens in space, and thus spatial awareness, both conceptually and sensorially, is essential if we are to be able to direct consciously.
Kaye: Do directions have a use-by date. They are effective when new (novel) but does their charm wear off?
Simon: No, I don’t think so. What can happen though, is that someone believes they are directing but aren’t really directing at all. They are thinking an idea that distracts them enough to be able to get out of their own way for a moment. They are momentarily distracted from their attempt at getting something ‘right’ and something new happens. This process is very inconsistent—it works one day but not the next— and can give the impression that the magic has gone.
Kaye: Do you use your hands more or less, and your verbal instruction more or less, depending on the student’s needs and progress?
Simon: I use my hands almost constantly as their principle function is to feel what is going on in the student, and thus help me ascertain what it is that the student needs to learn.
Verbal instruction varies depending on the student and the moment. My lessons are practical, and so I don’t talk about what is not immediately relevant or useful. I don’t mention things that are going wrong, for example, unless I feel doing so is going to help and there is a procedure I am suggesting in order to correct it.
Kaye:Whose responsibility is it then to work out what needs to be prevented?
Simon: The teacher and student work together, though at first the teacher has a greater responsibility—and capacity—due to their greater experience. As the student progresses, they quite naturally take on more and more responsibility.
Kaye: I gather you mean that you carry on a conversation with the student, as Walter Carrington did about generalities, but you don’t necessarily hone in on the specifics of a student’s use unless useful to do so?
Simon: That is correct. Pointing out problems before there is a way around them only creates anxiety, and anxiety is one of the major obstacles to learning. And bearing in mind that many specific problems fix themselves as the general conditions improve—overall freedom, overall length—dutifully informing students of everything that’s going wrong makes no sense at all pedagogically.
Kaye: Is it chicken or egg? Does the head/ neck influence freedom in the rest of the body or is it toning of the torso, and or, release of the tyrannical hold the arms and legs exert on the torso, that causes freedom and change throughout the whole?
Simon: As an aside, let me point out that eggs predate chickens by millions of years …
The variations are infinite. The primary directions are not primary in the sense that you only attend to the neck until it is free, then proceed to the head, etc, without reference to the whole. If the neck tends to stiffen (which is almost guaranteed), the next question is –why? The why can be something localised, but more likely not. There might be a problem with the overall postural support, interference from the use of the hands and arms, an incorrect conception, fear, anxiety or any number of factors.
Kaye: What part does observation play in a lesson. I notice that you are not necessarily looking at the pupil or your hands all the time. Some schools of thought suggest that the teacher should be looking / scanning the student continuously to see the effect of changes in breathing, etc.
Simon: Observation is the primary part of the lesson. Without an idea of what is going wrong, you don’t know what needs to be taught. My observation is both tactile and visual, though I would rarely be looking at my hands because I can already feel what is going on underneath them. I will most likely be looking elsewhere. Through my hands I can also get a sense of what is going on elsewhere and generally. This is a sensitivity that one develops with practice. I also use the various mirrors I have around the room to get a different perspective and a long view of the student. I compare the information I receive from these two channels (tactile and visual) to get a clearer and more reliable idea of what is going on.
Kaye: How would you describe what you feel underneath your hands when someone is tightening, or conversely, releasing?
Simon: Tightening feels like tightening and releasing feels like releasing. The subtlety of perception comes in the form or understanding how all these tightenings and releasings are related. A tight neck in isolation tells us very little.
Kaye: Is it enough for a teacher to put ‘hands on’? What informs your movement of hands from one place to another?
Simon: Little if anything can be achieved without the active participation of the student. Think how useless a lesson would be if given to someone who was asleep. At first, this participation may only consist of leaving themselves alone, to stop trying to make the right thing happen. As the lessons advance, the teacher will begin to place higher demands on the student’s capacity to inhibit and direct. The idea that the student in a hands-on lesson is there to passively receive ‘the experience’ that the teacher gives them is not how an accomplished hands-on teacher would describe what they do.
As for where I put my hands, the first consideration is curiosity. I use my hands primarily to feel what’s going on in the student. When I say ‘what’s going on’ I mean the overall pattern. I try to form a global idea of what is going wrong and more importantly, why. Armed with this knowledge, or at least a hypothesis, the next step is to demonstrate to the student how to avoid the difficulties I’ve detected. That is, the hands show the student what not to do, rather than any ‘correct’ movement or posture.
Kaye: Thank you, Simon, for participating in this little Alexander exploration.
Simon: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
Simon Fizgibbon’s FMA Sydney is in the suburb of Darlinghurst. It opened this year.
This is the story of three British Alexander Technique teachers and how they will be working together in the northern autumn of 2017 researching AT in pregnancy
My background is in clinical psychology both as a practitioner and as a researcher and trainer. My clinical psychology practice has always been in the field of physical rather than mental health (if indeed such a distinction can be made).
Much of my research has been under the umbrella of reproductive psychology, more recently with a focus on the perinatal period, and both maternal and paternal mental health and wellbeing. I’ve worked for several years now with my co-researcher Julie Jomeen, professor of midwifery at the University of Hull.
I discovered the Alexander Technique in 2001 when I had neck and shoulder pain and, as is the story for many Alexander Technique teachers, my pain disappeared and I became hooked. Since discovering the Alexander Technique, I have been on something of a mission to find ways to make the Alexander Technique accessible to more people, in particular to people who would not normally be able to afford it.
About three years ago, Julie Jomeen and I put in a bid for an Alexander Technique and pregnancy project which was not successful. We applied the following year and again did not get the funding. Finally, when I’d given up thinking this would happen, a third submission was successful.
The post was advertised and there was a great deal of interest from the Alexander community, both from those interested to apply and those who wanted to be involved in some way if possible. We had a strong field of applicants, and things came together in a way that meant it was possible to take two students. Those students are Nicola and Natasha and I am delighted that they will be starting their PhDs in pregnancy and the Alexander Technique in the (northern) autumn.
I think this is a fantastic opportunity to do some long overdue research into an area where there is an enormous amount of anecdotal evidence that the AT has something unique to offer.
Lesley Glover started her Alexander Technique teacher training with Lena Schibel-Mason at York Alexander Technique School in 2011 and qualified as a teacher in 2014. She lives in East Yorkshire where she teaches the Alexander Technique and works part time at the University of Hull. She has a son and two step-children. She is a member of STAT.
In 2015 I participated in the Limerick Congress and a strange and marvellous chain of events began, culminating with me being offered a PhD place at the University of Hull to research ‘Women’s Experience of the Alexander Technique in Pregnancy’.
This is basically what happened: during the Congress, I visited Ted Dimon’s Continuous Learning classes on anatomy. I was impressed by his clarity and authenticity while presenting as well as his obviously great knowledge.
I later enthused to Lena Schibel, whom I have known since the founding of the German affiliated society in 1984. (Lena is originally from Germany and trains teachers in York.) Listening carefully, she said, “I think you should meet Lesley Glover” and she introduced me. I learned that Lesley is a clinical psychologist and lecturer at the University of Hull.
I went home deeply inspired by the Congress. Lesley and I linked up via Facebook. Now, I am not a great Facebooker but on February 1 this year I happened to scroll down the whole news feed and saw an announcement from Lesley, a link announcing the PhD.
Excited, I contacted her immediately asking if I could apply, which she affirmed. I spent February writing a research proposal and personal statement and getting all necessary documents together, which I submitted in March. An interview (via Skype) followed at the end of April and three days later I was offered the place, which I am greatly honoured to accept.
So, the moral of this story is, speak loudly to people if someone impresses you, and never underestimate networking, you never know what will happen!
Nicola Hanefeld is English but lives in Freiburg, Germany, venue of the 6th International Alexander Congress in 1999. She qualified as a teacher in 1989 with Yehuda Kupermann and has been teaching ever since. She has a combined Honours degree in botany and zoology from Reading University. She is mother of three grown-up children. Member of the ATVD e.V. German affiliated society.
I had been working with pregnant women and their partners as an antenatal teacher for more than 10 years when recurrent acute back pain sent me in search of a solution with the Alexander Technique. I happened to start my lessons with Refia Sacks, who runs the London Centre for Alexander Technique and Training.
I continued lessons long after I ceased to have trouble with my back and that summer Refia told me about Ilana Machover’s Eutokia workshop. She had told Ilana about me and they had agreed that, if I were interested, I could attend even though I was not an Alexander Teacher, or even a trainee.
The workshop was eye-opening and eventually I decided to join Refia’s training school. LCATT has regular exchanges with Ilana’s school in Queen’s Park and over the next few years I also attended Eutokia on two more occasions.
During my training I started to introduce Alexander principles to my antenatal course clients and after I qualified I planned to explore the application of the Technique to pregnancy, birth and the early postnatal period one-to-one and in small groups. I was aware that most of the evidence was anecdotal but then, the evidence for the effectiveness and benefits of the Technique in general is largely experiential.
I had in mind that eventually I would seek to do some academic research. Then the news of the PhD in the Alexander Technique and Pregnancy arrived in my inbox via STAT. It was about 10 weeks between when I heard about the PhD to when I received the email offering me a place.
I am very excited about getting started in September and, eventually, sharing our findings with the AT community and with the wider community involved with women and their families in the perinatal period. It will be interesting to continue to develop my practice while commuting to study at the University of Hull.
Natasha Broke started lessons in the Alexander Technique with Refia Sacks in 2011 and trained at the LCATT, qualifying in July 2016. She lives and works in North London, UK. She is married and has three adult children. From the northern spring 2018 Natasha will start to offer Eutokia workshops for Alexander Teachers interested in learning more about working with women in pregnancy and helping them and their partners to prepare for birth. She is a member of STAT.
Nature does not work in parts, but as a whole – FM Alexander
On June14 and 15, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend two very full days at the AmSAT conference in the lovely city of San Diego, California, with its temperate climate all year round.
The conference was held over four days, the last two being for the AGM. I was only able to attend the conference because I was an ‘affiliate member’, as AUSTAT is currently a member of ATAS, the international (Alexander Technique Affiliated Societies) group.
The venue was the Crown Plaza Hotel, which was extremely pleasant, surrounded by gardens with tropical palms, a massive swimming pool and restaurants that offered an exciting mix of Mexican and Spanish food and drinks!
The swimming pool was well used every morning at 7.30am for the Sunrise Activity – a swimming class with UK Alexander teacher Steven Shaw. Other Sunrise Activities included an early morning run with teacher Malcolm Balk or a Tai-Chi class and Qi Gong class.
The conference was hosted by Alice Olsher. Alice is director and head of an Alexander Technique school in San Diego. Alice is from the UK and trained with Walter and Dilys Carrington, then as a post-graduate she spent a further 15 years with the Carringtons before moving to the States. Alice has more than 30 years teaching experience. I was lucky to get a place for my first workshop at the conference with Alice in her ‘small group workshop’.
It was an incredible coincidence that I should be able to attend this conference as it just so happened that I was visiting a friend in Carlsbad, just south of San Diego, at the same time the conference was being held. I was made aware of this by colleagues in New York who let me know that they would be in San Diego to present at the ACGM.
As it turned out it was a privilege be able to attend and to have private lessons and take part in the many ’small group workshops’ that were on offer, and be be able to do this for myself, not having to teach or conduct a workshop, so a wonderful CPD opportunity!
It was also great to meet new and ‘old’ American colleagues and to learn from them. There were directors and heads of training from several training schools in California, New York and other states, along with many teachers who specialised in their various fields such as music, the arts, voice work or singing, or who taught in health clinics or in recreational activities.
These teachers were highly skilled at presenting the Alexander principles (verbally) to a group, and then demonstrating with hands-on work to an individual what an Alexander lesson involved. This was most interesting to observe. Almost all of these teachers offered, on a daily basis, private lessons, ‘small group workshops’, discussion and demonstration groups and talks, most of which had to be pre-booked.
Also interesting were the ‘open introduction’ days where any curious hotel guests (of whom there were several!) could attend and experience an Alexander lesson. These introductions were conducted in public with observers present and again, a great opportunity for us teachers to hear and observe how our colleagues introduce the Alexander Technique. On the occasion I was present a couple of hotel guests who were very experienced musicians voiced their difficulties with pain and stress while playing their instruments.
There were so many highlights, but one very special highlight for me was on my last evening while waiting to attend the keynote address by Barbara Kent. I happened to be introduced to Rome Earle and ended up sitting next to her for the keynote. Rome (Rosemary) Earle is an elderly, well-known and much-loved teacher in the States who told me that she had her first Alexander lessons as a teenager with Marjory Barlow (Alexander’s niece) and then she had lessons with FM Alexander!
It was fascinating listening to this alert, elderly teacher with her wonderful smile and the most amazing sparkling turquoise blue eyes. Rome’s story is incredible – she eventually joined Alexander’s training course but had to leave after only a few months, then returned later and completed just two years from 1949-51. However, she had to leave again to fly to the States to help her sister who became unwell. In Los Angeles Rome met Judith Stranzky and began lessons with her, but after a few years she decided to return to London to complete her training with Patrick Macdonald and Shoshana Kaminitz. She eventually received certification in1974.
Rome then left London to return to California where she taught on Frank Otterwell’s training school in San Francisco for 19 years, and later taught part-time on Giora Pinkas’s training school in Berkeley, Ca. Rome now lives in Carlsbad, Ca. with her husband, who also attended the AmSAT conference. Rome was offering private lessons but she was fully booked well before the conference.
Other highlights included meeting up again and having lessons with Barbara Kent, who I had previously met in New York and had lessons with while I was teaching at ACAT about five years ago. So it was rather special to now be present at Barbara’s keynote address, which opened the conference. Another great highlight was meeting up and sharing work and a long chat with Dominique Jacques. Many senior teachers in Melbourne and around Australia will fondly remember Dominique as a bright, lively, wonderful teacher. I first met Dominique when I was living in Melbourne (after returning from UK) when she was one of the assistant teachers on John and Carolyn Nicholls’ training school, MATTS, in St Kilda from 1987-1989 and I was a visiting teacher to the school. Dominique now lives in California and enjoys travelling widely and teaching.
And, of course, there was the ‘share work room’ which almost everyone visited more than once a day. It was so enjoyable to share and have discussions about the teaching.
The keynote address given by Barbara Kent was titled ‘A Path to Integration’. This title fitted beautifully with the theme of the conference that is contained in the quote by Alexander that “Nature does not work in parts but as a whole”. Barbara delivered her address in a clear, resonant voice describing how she came to the Alexander Technique and that it was due to her interest in the psychophysical, emotional and spiritual aspects of an individual, the whole person, and how she saw, on reading and studying Alexander’s books and then having lessons, that this is what Alexander’s teaching is all about. In Alexander lessons we teach and offer the individual a constructive ‘path’ (with principles) in how to cultivate conscious awareness that allows one to become integrated, free from harmful habits of reaction and mal-coordination. It is, she said, “an extraordinary teaching”.
However, Barbara also pointed out that perhaps not everyone today who comes for Alexander lessons has such an interest. Today most people come to lessons for pain and or stress relief, however, such people, like everyone, can be given enormous help with these difficulties when they learn how to apply Alexander’s principles that integrate the mind and body to allow change. And, this change can be experienced throughout the whole self, and/on many levels and it can generate health and well-being.
Barbara outlined some of her other interests and studies which included studying singing at the Juilliard School of Music, the Rubenfeld Synergy Method and Internal Family Systems. In a paper (an interview) with Barbara by Kathryn Miranda, I was struck by what Barbara said, “My first experience in teaching and learning how the brain works, when the combination of physical experience and cognitive learning get balanced based on a student’s needs, it’s a fabulous combo. Words alone are pretty hard to translate into experience. Experience without understanding of what is happening is less helpful than giving the student/pupil a way to use the tools.”
Barbara came from a strong traditional training of hands-on work with Judith Leibowitz and Debby Caplan in teaching inhibition and direction. In my lesson with Barbara I again experienced her hands-on work that is gentle, energetic and guiding, giving (like a gift) clear gentle direction to the neck, head and back and to co-ordinate the whole, and it is always a new experience. When she was asked once (in the interview) how she teaches inhibition she replied, “One way I like to describe inhibition is the way FM Alexander did, as withholding consent. That helps the student to see it as a positive choice not to respond with a habitual reaction.”
Barbara’s keynote address, ‘A Path to Integration’, was inspiring and confirming, spoken from a very wise and gentle teacher who lives the Alexander work and who teaches simply and skillfully the principles of FM Alexander. Barbara ended the talk with, “I feel confident that we all, in our own ways, are committed to expanding the quality of our teaching, working with each other, and broadening public awareness of the Alexander Technique. Keep on keeping on … we have too precious a gift to do any less. It’s up to us to preserve and expand the legacy that FM Alexander left us.”
Diana Devitt-Dawson felt privileged to be able to attend the recent AmSAT get-together, held in San Diego in June
She is head of the Alexander Technique Institute in Sydney
Congratulations to Julieanne Eveleigh and Paul Hampton, whose work is is featured in a new book edited by Cathy Madden and Kathleen Juhl.
Here Julieanne tells the story of their collaboration
Paul Hampton and I have spent the past eight years cooking up and re-imagining a team teaching activity that introduces first-year acting students enrolled in a BA in Acting at Federation University, Ballarat, to the Alexander Technique and the Neutral Mask.
Alexander Technique underpins our teaching practice because it affords the actor in training time to attune the senses to appreciate the beauty and clarity of their three dimensional ‘self’.
We begin with the human design as the central organising principle that is key to all human movement. We frame this fundamental value that Alexander termed ‘primary control’ as a place of possibility – a place that is not restricted by unnecessary tension in either the body or the mind, a place where the imagination can respond with immediacy, creativity, and spontaneity. Alexander Technique provides a context for students to recognise the space between a stimulus and a reaction and gives them an opportunity to make choices and respond appropriately to the moment.
In 2015 Cathy Madden sent out an invitation to AT teachers working in a performing arts context to submit an outline. Paul and I decided that we would like to document the work we do with Neutral Mask and Alexander Technique in the first year of an actor training program.
Over a five-year period, we have been collecting student responses to our work that provide not only evidence of fundamental changes in these students’ psychophysical awareness but interesting reading, so we have woven their experiences and understanding of what they were experiencing into our chapter.
We have had the extraordinary privilege of working in detail with many students over the years, whose questions and insights have helped shape our teaching.
We also feel privileged that our work will receive a wider audience, to ensure that the rest of the world knows that the Alexander Technique is alive and kicking Down Under!
New teacher Kieran Stubbs shares his thoughts on some of the ethical questions that may arise during an Alexander lesson.
The essay was written as a third-year assignment for the School of FM Alexander Studies in Melbourne
Editor’s note: Essay questions are in bold type; Kieran’s responses in roman (‘normal’) type
Thinking Aloud by Walter Carrington, Chapter on Ethics p111 – 117
Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual by FM Alexander, Chapter VI – “Unduly Excited Fear Reflexes, Uncontrolled Emotions and Fixed Prejudices”
This chapter by Walter Carrington raises a number of interesting questions, some of which relate to what we have read in Alexander’s books … and to our code of professional conduct. The reading opens up very relevant questions as to the appropriate limits of our work and what psycho-physical re-education means.
In no more than three pages give your thoughts on the following:
WC states (Teachers) “are not justified in intruding into (pupils’) emotions, their thoughts, their feelings, their beliefs, their attitudes.” In the chapter by Alexander, he says that “Unduly excited fear reflexes, uncontrolled emotions, prejudices and fixed habits, are retarding factors in all human development. They need our serious attention…” Presumably for a person to change their habit of use, these factors FM enumerates have to change. Do you think it is possible to help people change their pattern of use without dealing with people’s emotions, thoughts, feelings and beliefs?
I think if the work truly rests on the principle of wholeness, that there is no functional division between mind and body, or emotions and their ‘physical’ manifestions, then there is no question that a person’s emotions, thoughts, feelings and beliefs must be involved in any changes to their pattern of use. Use of the self is use of the whole self, so to exclude emotions, thoughts, feelings and beliefs would be to divide what is indivisible. The question is, do we deal with emotions, thoughts, feelings and beliefs directly, or indirectly? Do we confront people about their emotions or deeply held beliefs?
I think sometimes the beliefs or conceptions relating to or underpinning a pupil’s use of themself need to be addressed, but with consideration to their psychophysical condition at the time. If you, as a teacher, with a given pupil in their present condition, can directly speak to and challenge that pupil’s harmful conception, belief, etc which is resulting in a harmful use of themselves without over-exciting their fear reflexes, then it would be wise to do so, in accompaniment with a practical experience of them using themselves in that harmful way, and then a practical experience of them using themselves in a coordinated and healthy way, as guided by you, the teacher.
Carrington’s belief that we ought not meddle in the emotions and beliefs of a pupil appears to be more in accordance with maintaining a state of equilibrium during the lesson and preventing unduly excited fear responses at present and in the future, than in accordance with the student’s need to change their conception in order to fundamentally change their pattern of use and means whereby.
I agree with the intention here, however I think there is a danger of glossing over important beliefs or emotions which are central to a person’s misuse and experience of themselves, which ultimately serves only to maintain their state of equilibrium during the lesson and to teach them on a sensory/experiential basis (rather than on a level of conscious reasoning, accompanied by new sensory experience), which ultimately will be dominated again by their fixed beliefs once left to their own devices.
If the answer is “no” how might we relate to these aspects without “intruding”? If the answer is “yes”, then how would these retarding factors be dealt with?
Kieran: Continuing on from the last question, I think the answer is to deal with these aspects gently and while maintaining a sense of safety and equilibrium in the pupil as much as possible.
We, as teachers, must also deal with them in accordance with the Alexander principles of inhibition, direction, wholeness, faulty sensory appreciation and primary control. For example, it is not our prerogative to tell someone their political beliefs are wrong, however, it may be useful to draw attention to how they use themselves in relation to ideas of politics and to notice their habitual responses and whether they are working for good or ill in regards to the organism as a whole.
It may be useful also to work indirectly with a pupil’s conception and facilitate correction of their sensory appreciation which enables them to discover their own incongruent beliefs for themselves; for example pointing out that any of a pupil’s given beliefs may be seen by them to be unreliable as their sensory appreciation improves, as they have a new perspective from which light can be shed on their beliefs derived from a condition of unreliable sensory appreciation.
What does Walter Carrington suggest and what are your thoughts? Walter suggests a few things:
a)We do not give advice or judgement we are not qualified to give.
Kieran: I agree with this, our job is to judge a person’s use of themselves and help them improve it.
b)When their communication “goes beyond just the ordinary” (Carrington, Thinking Aloud pg 116), we ought to tell them they need someone to talk to, such as a psychotherapist.
Kieran: I agree in part, though there is an inherent judgement involved in making this suggestion which implies we are qualified to judge what the “ordinary” is and whether someone has gone beyond it. I think a knee-jerk or unempathic judgement in this connection can just as easily induce a state of anxiety in a pupil as can a confrontation or misguided engagement with their values, emotions, etc.
We would do best as teachers to listen empathically, and skilfully bring the conversation back to the work, and applying the principles, so as to avoid coming across as judging the student as having beliefs or emotions which displease you as the teacher.
Maintaining our own equilibrium and the safety of the student is a precursor to making referrals to, say, a psychotherapist, which may indeed be necessary, or family or friends, but you must also take into account all information available as to whether these recommendations will likely result in harm or good to the pupil.
c)Walter suggests we maintain clarity on what we are teaching and work in that domain – Alexander principles and whether or not they are stiffening their neck, inhibiting, etc.
Kieran: I agree with this on the most part, though there are times where beliefs and conceptions need to be addressed as they are inseparable from a pupil’s use of themselves. Timing, conditions and how this is done is they key.
In regard to “unduly excited fear reflexes, uncontrolled emotions, prejudices and fixed habits” and “individual errors and delusions” how does FM propose that we approach these “retarding factors”?
Kieran: Ultimately by restoring reliable sensory appreciation, and in doing so, fostering a sense of confidence in the pupil’s learning environment.
If you can accept that some types of beliefs are harmful to a person’s use and others not harmful, pick an example of a harmful and a non-harmful belief.
Kieran: Firstly, I cannot categorically say what is a harmful or non-harmful belief, because it depends on the person, and on other factors, as to whether or not a given belief is harmful to their use of themselves at a given time. A belief may be harmful one day, it may not be the next, it may be for one person, but not another.
An example of a likely harmful belief is the belief that a person’s spine ought to be totally straight, or that their feeling sense is reliable when it is not.
An example of a likely non-harmful belief is that they look better with their hair long as opposed to short.
This is based on the definition of harmful as being such that it causes discoordination or interference with the pupil’s primary control and ability to respond to stimulus in accordance with their conscious intention.
If a pupil is undertaking a procedure or treatment or doing exercises that are clearly impacting badly on their use, what is a teacher’s responsibility? If you decide that it is appropriate for a teacher to give advice in such a case, how could this be done?
Kieran: I believe that if the teacher takes due measures to understand and analyse the conditions present and the perspective of the pedagogy informing such exercises or treatment, and ascertains that the effect is worsening their use and therefore function in the long-term, then I believe it is imperative as the teacher to articulate this to the student at a time that is appropriate and with skill and attendance to fear reflexes, and with due consideration to that student’s conceptions and any likely negative consequences of those being challenged.
Something like “this is the perspective of the Alexander principles and this is what I would recommend, however you must decide for yourself what your best course of action is” would be a good line to take, as it does not disempower the student, nor take on more responsibility than the teacher ought to.
What light does the AUSTAT Code of Professional Conduct shed on these questions and matters raised in this chapter?
The following excerpts from the AUSTAT Code of Professional Conduct, section A:”THE TEACHER-PUPIL RELATIONSHIP” pertain to the above questions.
A teacher should clearly explain the nature of the work and procedures to be followed during the course of lessons and ensure that the consent of the pupil is obtained. In the case of a pupil under the age of 18 years the consent of the pupil’s parent or guardian should be obtained.”
Kieran: The relates to explaining the necessary scope of the work and that it includes addressing fixed ideas, beliefs etc, and it is not uncommon for pupils to experience emotional states at times during the work.
A teacher should not make any kind of medical diagnosis of or prescribe treatment for a pupil unless qualified to do so. Recommendations to other appropriate qualified practitioners may be made where the pupil’s problems or difficulties appear to be outside the scope of the Alexander Technique.”
Kieran: This relates to concerns being beyond the scope of the AT, and/or interfering with the re-education process. I think the key is in the word prescription, the AT teacher (unless otherwise qualified) must only make recommendations from the body of work that is the Alexander Technique as they have studied it/been trained.
During the course of a lesson in the Alexander Technique, a teacher should not introduce other practices or disciplines, even if he or she is qualified to do so, except with the prior consent of the pupil involved.”
Kieran: A teacher may have other skills, such as counselling, NLP, physiotherapy or psychotherapy, for example, which complement the re-education process. These should only be used in connection with the Alexander Technique and by those qualified to use these skills, and the pupil must be informed and consensual.