I never thought this day would come! Training with George Lister and Sally Munro has probably been the most transformative period of my life. Without George’s persistence and generosity, I never would have contemplated becoming an Alexander teacher.
I believe I first read about the Alexander Technique in the Yoga Journal. My curiosity led me in 1988 to my first teacher, Frank Ottiwell, who taught at ACT in San Francisco. I loved how I floated out of the studio after his lessons, but felt I could never recapture the feelings on my own.
Because of my schedule I could not continue studying with Frank, so he referred me to several teachers on the Peninsula – none of whom I found satisfactory. From them I got the idea that I had to constantly give myself messages. One teacher even told me I was giving myself incorrect thoughts since it wasn’t working! At that point I gave up and decided the Technique was too cerebral for me.
Instead I started classes in Kentro Body Balance from Angie Thusius. At her suggestion I stopped Iyengar Yoga, which I had been practicing for 10 years. The aches and pains in my back from working as a computer programmer gradually subsided. However, Angie soon moved away and I still had a lot of neck and shoulder tension.
In early February of 2005 when my husband, John, was out of town on a ski trip, I decided to clean out some old files. When I came across the folder for Alexander Technique, my first thought was to toss it out, since it hadn’t worked for me in the past. But something made me stop to see if there was anything worth saving.
As I looked through the Alexander folder, I came across an article by Frank Ottiwell, and something about it spoke to me. I slowed down, gently touched the front of my neck with my fingers until I could feel the tension in my neck letting go. Next I moved my fingers to the trapezius muscles on either side of my neck and lightly touched them until they let go as well.
I also tried to slow down all my movements as much as I could and would make sure my neck and head were relaxed. And, after reading more articles and books, I started to add the internal verbal directions as well. Though they had never helped in the past, I now had the physical sensations to go with them.
During the first days of working on myself I felt a huge release in my shoulders and neck. I couldn’t believe I had so much tension. It felt as though a huge weight had been lifted from me! I noticed how I wanted to go back to the old way, the old habit, because it felt comfortable. But I kept trying.
I felt the physical relaxation permeate my whole being. I felt as though I had plenty of time. No need to rush around and create tension. Do things slowly and with awareness.
Even in bed I would make sure my head and neck were relaxed and would sometimes chant the directions like a mantra inside my head. I noticed I no longer woke up with a stiff neck and tight shoulders. I also chanted the mantra to focus my mind while swimming.
I realized I could apply AT not only to more physical things like walking, riding the bike, gardening, and stretching but also to more common activities like sitting, writing, driving, typing at the computer, etc.
But my real challenge was singing. I was taking voice lessons once a week and performing in my voice teacher’s recitals. I also sang in several groups. In the beginning, AT didn’t seem to help.
I couldn’t quite believe that I’d tapped into something on my own. It wasn’t easy, and I lapsed often, but I could sense when things were wrong and didn’t like it. It seemed to me that when the head and neck were relaxed/aligned (what was being called “primary control”), the body/posture fell into place with ease. And by being aware and stopping yourself before making a habitual motion (what was called “inhibition”) you could prevent bad habits from recurring .
I was curious to see if this was really Alexander Technique since no one had put their hands on me! So I called Frank Ottiwell and asked him. He no longer accepted new students, so he referred me to George Lister. I gulped, remembering my experience in the past with other teachers, but what choice did I have? I contacted George and he agreed it was possible, and he was open to my coming to one lesson to verify my experience. I went for my first lesson in March of 2005, and the rest is history!
PRIVATE LESSONS WITH GEORGE – 2005
Once I started working with George, things Frank had told me over 15 years previously that I’d thought I’d forgotten came back to me. I continued taking private lesson from George for about a year. During this time I noticed some wonderful changes.
I used to get sore from swimming and couldn’t wait to get under the shower to let the hot water relax my muscles. Suddenly there was no soreness anymore.
I had reached a new level where I realized I could let go of habits that were no longer serving me. The habits were like friends – they’re comforting and meant well. But I wanted to tell them I needed to move on and find new friends that would serve me better.
One night I awoke on my right side. I thought about freeing my neck and suddenly I had an almost out of body experience! I could feel energy radiating from my head down to all my limbs – ZING – it was that fast! Also a wonderful feeling of lightness even though I was lying in bed.
Even when I wasn’t as open as I wanted to be, I felt I had the choice to be so at every instant. George said progress is measured by the amount of time we are conscious in activity.
TEACHER TRAINING 2006-2012
In April of 2006 George offered me the opportunity of taking the teacher training class daily for two weeks. This experience made me realize how great the training program could be for me.
I remember the first time I put hands on someone quite distinctly. Peter asked me to just touch his back while we both stood, and when I did so, I felt as powerful a lengthening as I had when George worked on me. I couldn’t believe it! But, it was tiring and eventually I had to stop.
Once, when Sally wasn’t there, George took over the ‘voice’ lesson. He had us read poetry. When it was my turn, he noticed that I was rushing on without taking enough time to breathe. He gently put his hands on my rib cage to make me aware of the movement, and somehow his hands communicated everything I needed to know! I slowed down and waited for the breath to come in on its own and fill the ribs.
Another time George worked on me in front of the class and as I was standing there, I really felt my feet on the floor and energy radiating through them and into my legs making me feel taller. It was wonderful!
In February of 2009 we went to train at the Constructive Teaching Centre, which was an amazing experience - like going to the Mecca for Alexander Technique!
In August of 2011 I started teaching two students and have learned so much from them, not the least of which is that I enjoy teaching! Once when I was working with one of my students I really felt HER! Suddenly I was so aware of her while my hands were on her that I could feel energy flowing through her. It was so amazing that I just stayed there awhile to enjoy it. I haven’t felt this sensation since, but I know it’s a possibility to look forward to.
And in February of 2012 when the class returned for more training to the Constructive Teaching Centre I told George that I felt I’d finally found my calling.
SUMMARY OF EXPERIENCES/ MORE CHANGES
My attitude and thinking have profoundly changed. In other words, every aspect of my life has been affected by the Alexander Technique! The changes can be so subtle that it can take awhile before it registers that something has changed.
My walking is completely different than before.
And one day when I woke up, I paid attention to my breathing and was surprised and delighted to feel my ribs expand in a bigger and fuller yet relaxed way – sort of like a bellows.
The swimming lessons with George, Steven Shaw and Glenn Kenreich have totally transformed my time in the pool. Rather than going for speed I’m going for openness and ease. I wanted to share this way of swimming with my family. My first and most enthusiastic student was my father!
I was anxious to see how AT training would transform my singing, which used to be such a big part of my life. Amazingly, as I let go of singing commitments as well as any goals regarding singing, I noticed my voice improving. In 2011 I was pleasantly surprised to feel more space in my mouth where none had been before. And then I read somewhere that the vocal apparatus cannot work well when the neck is pulled back. Suddenly it all made sense. All the things voice teachers had been trying to get me to do, I could never do because I was stuck. Ironically now that I don’t care about singing and performing, my voice feels the freest, clearest and strongest ever.
RELATION TO BUDDHISM (From Fire Monks; Zen Mind Meets Wildfire at the Gates of Tassajara by Colleen Morton Busch)
Everything is connected.
Doesn’t this sound like what we practice as Alexander teachers? Actually this is a distillation of Zen Buddhism! I’m going to quote a few more sayings from this book, as they seem to capture the essence of AT.
Awakening can happen in a moment with the right words, the right conditions. But it can’t be held on to. It comes and goes.
The point isn’t to create some static state of permanent perfection. The point is to be perfectly ready for whatever comes.
In Zen, “don’t-know-mind” is the only kind of mind that is true. When you practice don’t-know-mind, you let go of the need for knowing and acknowledge how little you can ever actually know.
When we know something and rest in that knowing we limit our vision. We will only see what our knowing will allow us to see. In this way experience can be our enemy.
At the core of Zen is the practice of taking care. It’s a particular kind of caring, free of rigid expectation, free even of hope. Hope is fine as long as it doesn’t lead to inflexibility. When you’re living in the present moment, you’re not so involved in hope or invested in a particular outcome.
Taking responsibility includes letting go. You accept the consequences of your actions even as you realize that your actions completely depend on the totality of circumstances in any given moment.
KOGI – THE HEART OF THE WORLD
The Kogi live in the far north of Colombia and have preserved pre-Colombian culture and philosophy. After centuries of deliberate isolation, the Kogi decided (in the 1980’s) that the time had come to speak to us, the younger brothers. They call themselves the Elder Brothers of the human race, and are convinced that our ignorance and greed will destroy the balance of life on Earth. They believe that the only hope is for us to change our ways.
The book I read about them, The Heart of the World, by Alan Ereira, is their warning and their message. Some of their concepts relate to our work as Alexander teachers.
If work is undertaken thoughtlessly, and its full significance and effect is not considered, there is a strong possibility that it will have unforeseen consequences. The health of the world will be disturbed.
The distinctive feature of the Kogi is the emphasis they place on the mind and on consciousness as the doorway between the physical and metaphysical worlds.
QUOTATIONS FROM GEORGE
George said this is full time work; we always need to pay attention.
‘Leave yourself alone’. Don’t get in your own way. Trust the process. All that openness and freedom is available as long as we don’t interfere.
Releasing the body allows it to work in a much more coordinated way, so muscles are working differently.
Connect the neck and spine – it’s one line, no separation. The whole spine connects and supports the head, so the head can lead.
The hardest thing is to realize that we have the right to say NO; we’re pre-conditioned to say YES.
The more you get in touch with yourself, the better you can connect with other people.
You can let go of many things you think you must control.
A free neck is a state of being.
And a quote from Walter Carrington: take all the time you need; the time is yours to take.
Several years into training I came up with my own definitions of AT:
Taking time to be thoughtful
The freedom to be who you are
A method of learning how to be at ease with yourself
I am grateful to each and every one of my classmates and family. My journey started alone but now I’m part of a wonderful community. George’s dedication to this work has helped each of us find the best in ourselves.
I feel more comfortable with who I am than I ever have. I no longer feel I need to prove anything to myself or to anyone else. This is the first time in my life I truly feel that I am standing on my own two feet!