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Mar 31 16

Quote of the Month: April 2016

by Ellen

“Even though [the student] could see that she looked better and understood that improved body use would improve her functioning, she was afraid of giving up a part of herself, however ‘negative.’”

~The Alexander Technique, by Judith Leibowitz and Bill Connington

Making change can be a very vulnerable experience in a lot of ways. Our conceptions of ‘self’ are based on habit and a feeling of normalcy, and anything other than that habit can often feel uncomfortable and somehow ‘not you.’ To make lasting changes, we have to travel from the familiar to the unknown, and most of us harbor at least a little bit of fear of the unknown. Stripping away layers of strongly-reinforced habits can leave us feeling scared, alone, and adrift, which can make us want to cling desperately to the habit out of a desire to feel like we at least know who we are. Add in to this our desire to be right and fear of being wrong, and moving into the unknown feels like an insurmountable terror. Better to stick with what we know of as our ‘self,’ even if that’s not the best place to be in the long run. And it is true that making these lasting changes requires giving up a piece of our conception of ‘self,’ and feeling like you have no idea who you are for a while. And yes, making change is going to result in a change in how you view yourself. But chances are, you’ll come out at the end feeling much happier with the newer you.

One of my favorite books about AT is called “Dare to be Wrong.” I love that phrase because it implies that there’s a strength in having no idea what you’re doing. Being wrong is a gutsy decision, one that requires taking the plunge and going for it regardless of how scared it might make you feel. So this month, let’s all play with the idea of daring to be wrong. Go further. Fail spectacularly. What’s the worst that could happen? Challenge yourself – I’ll do the same!

Forward and Up! is a Pittsburgh-based private practice offering quality instruction in the Alexander Technique in a positive and supportive environment.

Mar 24 16

Book Review: Alexander’s Way, By Alexander Murray

by Ellen

This is a somewhat unusual entry for my book review project. Generally when I choose books to review for this blog, I focus on books that prospective new students are likely to have come across in their initial search for information. How You Stand, How You Move…, for example, is one of the top hits when you search for “Alexander Technique” on Amazon. The purpose of my critique, then, is to assess their suitability as an introduction to the Technique. Today’s book is emphatically NOT that; to really get the most out of this one, it is necessary to already have a solid foundation of the principles and practice of the work. This is a special one for me, though, and I’m reviewing it as an exception. That’s because this book was written recently by one of my own teachers.

Alexander’s Way: Frederick Matthias Alexander In His Own Words and the Words of Those Who Knew Him is a journey through the development of Alexander’s method, focusing on the ways his physical techniques evolved over time and the various people who influenced him. The book strings together many disparate elements into a cohesive narrative, conveying a strong sense of the exact chronology of Alexander’s work. It is targeted towards those who are on their own journey through the work, and who are interested in seeing where FM’s influences came from and how they changed over time. However, it is not a book for the faint of heart, nor would I recommend it to new students until they have some of Alexander’s own writing under their belt.

Alexander’s Way illustrates clearly how FM’s language and word choice evolved over time, and how his methods changed accordingly. It accomplishes this through the use of long blockquotes from various sources, with important passages highlighted in boldface type. The passages are selected carefully and woven together with small bits of narration/explanation from Murray, creating the overall impression of Murray as editor or chronologer rather than author; he is a detective piecing together the puzzle and presenting it with his comments. The book begins with a timeline of Alexander’s life, highlighting the important years such as the releases of his four books and the beginning of the first training course. This allows the reader to get an overall sense of the direction of Alexander’s journey right from the start. The book itself is split into chapters that cover periods of several years each and is further subdivided into sections for the various sources drawn from, illustrating how his methods changed over that time period and which figures had an impact on those changes.

I was excited to find that Alexander’s Way focuses quite a bit on the early years of FM’s discovery process; most introductory books tend to gloss over the early years with a sentence or two. Murray spends a whole chapter on the period before 1904, compiling various pamphlets and booklets to give a cohesive picture of those formative early years in the technique’s history. I also appreciated how the chapters were split up by publication; it allows each new piece to be broken down and inspected for the various influences that contributed to it. By bolding phrases and vocabulary and then discussing them in context, Murray highlights how the minutia of the method itself changed over time and how those changes were prompted by the influence of others. It can be very tempting to see Alexander as a hero figure; to put him up on a pedestal as the ultimate genius who came up with all of this out of thin air. This book helps to highlight the other people in Alexander’s life whose acquaintance gave context and nuance to his own philosophy.

That context and nuance, however, means that this book is a dense, tough read. Long blockquotes mean lots of voices besides Murray’s, including Alexander himself, so the tone can shift dramatically from one section to the next. Because of this, and because some of those blockquotes are from Alexander’s books (almost an entire chapter is quoted verbatim at one point with comments added), I’d recommend that the reader have already read Alexander’s books before reading this one. It helps to have a strong foundation of understanding of the Technique going into this book, as the focus is not on the principles themselves so much as the fine detail of how the implementation of those principles changed over time. As such, I would not recommend this book to new students, but for experienced students and teachers it would be a welcome addition to their library.

The Nitty-Gritty
Title: Alexander’s Way: Frederick Matthias Alexander In His Own Words and the Words of Those Who Knew Him
Author: Alexander Murray
© belongs to the original authors of each quoted work; Murray’s comments are uncopyrighted and released to the public domain, published by Alexander Technique Center Urbana
ISBN-10: None
ISBN-13: None
Status: Available from the Seattle Book Company

Forward and Up! is a Pittsburgh-based private practice offering quality instruction in the Alexander Technique in a positive and supportive environment.

Mar 17 16

Everyday Poise: Auburn Softball’s Defensive Hop

by Ellen

For today’s Everyday Poise, I’d like to show you something that popped up on my news feed this week. Check out the Auburn Softball team’s unique way of starting a run:

Learn about Auburn Softball's defensive hop and the science behind it.

Posted by NCAA Softball on Monday, March 7, 2016

That little hop enables the players to take off running in the appropriate direction without any false steps, which to me connects to multiple concepts from AT. If you read last week’s Concept Spotlight about Positions of Mechanical Advantage, then this team’s ‘defensive hop’ should look familiar. They’re not just hopping; they’re hopping in monkey. And in doing so, they’re making full use of the mechanical advantage of monkey. When the coach talks about tightening up the muscles to get them ready for movement, that’s much the same idea as what we go for in monkey. Of course, as an AT teacher I’d avoid the use of the word ‘tightening,’ since what they’re really doing is engaging the muscle tone through the body and getting their direction going before moving.

For me, this defensive hop also brings up the ideas of inhibition and direction. Practically speaking, by inserting a hop before any run, the players are working with inhibition – stopping their habitual reaction long enough to make a conscious choice about how to execute their upcoming run. When the coach talks about removing false or excess steps, he’s really talking about inhibition. You can see it in the players’ intent when hopping; the hop gives them time to actually watch the ball and see where it’s going, so that by midway through the hop they’re already sure of which direction they need to go, and are just waiting till they land to take off in that direction.

And by hopping in monkey specifically, they are as prepared as possible to take off in virtually any direction needed. Remember when we said that positions of mechanical advantage are positions that it’s easy to move from? Being in one of these positions gives you the maximum options for where to go next. In fact, you can hear a great description of what a Position of Mechanical Advantage is, spoken near the end of the video by the coach without even knowing that that’s what he’s describing. He says

“…it puts your body in the most optimum position to react.”

If that’s not a Position of Mechanical Advantage, I don’t know what is!

Forward and Up! is a Pittsburgh-based private practice offering quality instruction in the Alexander Technique in a positive and supportive environment.

Mar 10 16

Concept Spotlight: Positions of Mechanical Advantage

by Ellen

It’s time for another edition of “Alexander uses big words to explain simple concepts”! Today’s simple concept explained with big words is the ‘position of mechanical advantage,’ also known as ‘monkey’!

In simple terms, a ‘position of mechanical advantage’ is a position from which it is easy to move. The position itself gives you an advantage due to the specific mechanics of the relationship of parts of the self. While the term ‘position of mechanical advantage’ is usually used to refer to the specific position that most teachers now call ‘monkey,’ the phrase can really be applied to any position that satisfies that criteria. Most of what AT teachers do during application work is about finding positions of mechanical advantage for completing specific movements or tasks. Whether that’s adjusting the height of your computer monitor or your chair at a desk, or finding a safe and efficient way to carry your two-year-old on your hip for hours, or helping you reach that high shelf at work without straining your back, it’s all about finding relationships of parts that make it easy to complete the movements required without excess tension.

As for ‘monkey,’ that’s usually what we mean by this phrase. This is ‘monkey’:

As you can see, the torso is inclined forward from the hips a bit while the head directs forward and up to keep the length, and the knees are releasing forward and away from each other. Though the knees might look ‘bent,’ I’d hesitate to use that word since the direction in monkey is emphatically NOT down into the knees, but up and out of the hips. Monkey can be performed anywhere from very deep, where it looks almost like a squat, to so shallow that it’s barely noticeable visually. My suggestion for people who need to stand for long periods of time is usually to think about standing in a super-shallow monkey, something that will be basically invisible to the onlooker, but will keep your knees free and torso engaged a bit.

Keeping the knees free like this is important, as it allows for a light, springy feel to the legs, so that rapid changes of direction and movement can be completed easily. When the knees are completely straight, there’s a slight rotation that happens in the knees themselves that we often refer to as ‘locking’ the knees. If a joint is locked, it’s harder to react by moving it since you first have to take the time to unlock it. If someone gave you a quick shove and your knees were locked, you’d likely fall over. In monkey, you’d likely just sway or slide away from them without losing your balance fully. It’s a position of mechanical advantage.

Here are some additional examples:

In the first application, Ellen works with Christa on her martial arts technique, using a modified monkey to help her prepare to draw the sword.

In the second application, Ellen once again puts Christa into a modified monkey, this time to help her carefully pick up an ancient artifact.

One important thing to mention here: a position of mechanical advantage is one that it’s easy to move from – remember that moving from it is the important part. Any position will become stagnant and unhelpful if you stay in it too long, even monkey. Like everything else we learn in AT, monkey is a tool for your toolbox; you can use it to help re-organize and re-invigorate your use, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to move from it for it to be useful. Hang out in monkey too long and it’ll quickly become just as tiring and stressful as anything else. Once you’ve got it, go!

Forward and Up! is a Pittsburgh-based private practice offering quality instruction in the Alexander Technique in a positive and supportive environment.

Mar 3 16

Quote of the Month: March 2016

by Ellen

“[I would advise everybody in the world] to sit down and think over all the beliefs and ideas they have got and find out where they came from. You would not have many left. After a week’s thought, you would throw them overboard.”

~Alexander, Articles and Lectures, “Bedford Physical Training College Lecture,” p. 172

I’ve been thinking a lot about this quote in recent weeks, due to the election season being upon us. I generally don’t get very involved in politics, but it’s hard not to these days. A version of this quote is usually my guiding thought wherever politics are concerned, since there is so much misinformation that gets spread around.

You will not find my personal political views in this blog post, and I will work my hardest to keep value judgements out of my statements as well. A person’s political views are their own. Ideally they should be something you’ve come to through your own thinking and feeling, rather than something you are told is ‘right’ by someone you see as an authority on the matter. As Alexander was fond of saying, “We all want to be right, but no one stops to think if their idea of ‘right’ is right.” This election season, I encourage you to stop for a moment and consider: where are you getting your idea of ‘right’? Who else shares your idea of ‘right,’ and who does not? Can you see where those people might be getting their own ideas of ‘right’?

To me, election season is a time to sit down, as Alexander says, and think over all your beliefs and ideas. Where did they come from? Are you following your family or friends? Are you trusting a party or other organization to know what is best for you? Think about why you trust that party, organization, or person. Have they earned your trust, or is it more of a case of inertia? There is a lot of vitriol in this election field particularly – have you had a visceral reaction to hearing someone else’s belief that is shaping your own? Have you researched the beliefs and motivations of the people you see as authority figures? Was that vitriol objective and unbiased, or have you been swayed by fear-mongering?

Voting is a big responsibility, and we owe it to ourselves and each other to put in the time to make sure that our votes are a true reflection of our own reasoned beliefs and ideas. Give your preconceived notions a second look, and don’t hesitate to throw them overboard if you don’t like where they came from. And don’t be afraid of ‘not having many left,’ as Alexander says. Becoming vulnerable is a crucial step to making change. Once you throw those habits overboard, you can take stock of what’s left and work from there.

Forward and Up! is a Pittsburgh-based private practice offering quality instruction in the Alexander Technique in a positive and supportive environment.

Oct 30 15

Everyday Poise: Robot Developmental Movement

by Ellen

I’ve become surprisingly fascinated with robots – specifically, watching humanoid and quadrupedal robots moving around. It strikes me as very telling, since someone had to program that robot to move in that way. I love to watch robot movement and look for similarities between the patterns the programmers have come up with and the developmental movement patterns described by Raymond Dart.

As an example, check out this cool video of the RoboCup soccer tournament from 2009. Pay particular attention to what happens when the robots fall over.

Part of the deal with the RoboCup is that once the game begins, the only input allowed from the humans is the refereeing. The robots have to essentially fend for themselves, and that becomes very apparent whenever a little guy falls down – which happens with some frequency in this video. Clearly, the team with better programming has an advantage – if their particular algorithm for coding the robots results in less falls and/or more successful recoveries from falls, they will get more time to play.

Skip to 1:00 into the video. The left-hand robot is preparing to kick the ball, and you can see him lining up nicely. However, when he goes into his ‘kick’ algorithm and lifts his right leg, he ends up leaning past where he can maintain his balance and topples over. Here’s where it gets interesting. Check out the way he gets back up – it’s almost move-for-move identical to the Dart Procedures method of getting off the floor!

First, he turns his head and uses the sensors in his eyes to check out his surroundings and orient himself so that he’s facedown on the floor. His arms slide out and up over his head, rotating in an almost perfect rendition of what Dart referred to as ‘ventigrade,’ or ‘fish arms.’ Then, his knees bend and his hips slide back, putting him first on elbows and knees (what would obviously be crawling position if the robots had a bit more flexibility) and then rocking himself back onto his feet. Pay close attention to the moment where he balances on his feet and goes into a deep squat – that’s what we’d refer to as an ‘Alexander Squat,’ where the head goes up and the hips go down to counterbalance each other! At that point, all he has to do is straighten his knees and he’s good to go! No wonder he got applause when he finished getting up – it was some pretty impressive hands-off coding!

Clearly someone on the blue team studied developmental movement when it came time to program the robots getting off the floor! However, there’s more to soccer than getting up after you fall – skip ahead to 5:00.

As we saw before, and as you continue to see when you watch the rest of the video, while blue team is great at recovering from falls, they seem to have some issues with their ‘kick’ coding. Something about their program is tipping the bots too far off-balance when they lift their leg, so they often end up falling over before they can get the kick off. Contrast that with the kick that the red bot is about to do. He stays centered over his supporting leg, using the knee and hip joints to bend his kicking leg up and give clearance for the kick without tipping his upper body. If you look closely, you can see the moment where his foot comes completely off the floor while still parallel to it. Contrast that with blue bot’s attempt earlier on – he straightens his knees and rocks to the side before picking up his leg, so he’s already more off-balance from the get-go. Red bot seems to have a more methodical programmer at work, making sure he’s balanced before even attempting to lift the leg.

I love watching videos like this – you can really see how much conscious thought had to go into something that we generally do automatically. Since the robots in this tournament are all standard hardware, the only real skill difference is in the programming choices. How they go about having the robots move makes the difference between a winning team and a losing team – a perfect example of use affecting functioning!

Forward and Up! is a Pittsburgh-based private practice offering quality instruction in the Alexander Technique in a positive and supportive environment.

Sep 1 15

Everyday Poise: New Study on Human Gestation

by Ellen

For today’s Everyday Poise, I’ll refer you to an article I came across talking about a new theory on human gestation. Specifically, it centers around what doctors refer to as the ‘obstetric dilemma’ – the idea that human offspring are born relatively helpless compared to other mammals because our increased brain size makes it necessary for the baby to leave the mother’s body early, before the birth canal is too small for the head to pass through.

This new research suggests that it’s not so much the size of the head compared to the birth canal as it is the mother’s metabolism. Gestating a baby requires a great deal of extra energy, and the scientists’ findings reveal that mothers tend to give birth right when they are about to pass into the metabolic ‘danger zone,’ when they simply cannot expend any more energy keeping the baby inside them without dangerous levels of strain on their system.

This new development makes me wonder if learning to use herself more efficiently through the Alexander technique might have a beneficial effect on the mother’s ability to expend less energy in carrying the baby, keep her metabolism steadier, and therefore result in the easier pregnancies that are often reported by pregnant students. It also makes me wonder, on the flip side, if expectant mothers who carry a lot of excess tension around with them might be more likely to have premature babies, as their metabolism would enter into the ‘danger zone’ much earlier than most.

It’s fascinating reading, and I can see quite a bit of potential for more studies on this topic. Any physicians who have experience with Alexander Tech out there, I’d appreciate your two cents! Any thoughts?

Forward and Up! is a Pittsburgh-based private practice offering quality instruction in the Alexander Technique in a positive and supportive environment.

Jul 2 15

Quote of the Month: July 2015

by Ellen

Note: Apparently I went a little bonkers a few months ago and thought I posted this blog entry when in fact I didn’t, so here it is, for real this time.

LUKE: Oh great! We’ll never get it out now!
YODA: So certain are you? *sigh* Always with you what cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say?
LUKE: Master, moving stones around is one thing, this is totally different!
YODA: No! No different! Only different in your mind! You must unlearn what you have learned.
LUKE: Alright, I’ll give it a try.
YODA: No! Do! Or do not. There is no try.

As we’ve seen before on this blog, Alexander Technique can be found in the most unlikely of places. For me, this week, that place was Star Wars.

Specifically, it was in The Empire Strikes Back. That master of profound statements, Yoda, is trying to impress upon Luke the ways of the Force. Luke doesn’t truly believe in the power of the Force, despite having seen small proofs of its existence – the ability to move stones, for example. When his X-Wing fighter jet sinks into the swamp, Luke begins to despair.

I’ve always loved Yoda for his zen-master-esque feel and the profound things he says, and this is just one prime example of how Yoda’s teachings are very Alexander Technique-like. Two separate comments of Yoda’s in the above exchange speak directly to the Alexander Technique.

First is Yoda’s comment “You must unlearn what you have learned.” In this case, Luke’s preconceived ideas of what can and cannot be done are preventing him from even attempting something new. He is so dejected at this point that Yoda has to prove it to him by doing something Luke considers impossible: lifting the X-Wing completely out of the swamp and setting it gently down on land, all without ever touching it.

Compare that to an Alexander Technique example: our own preconceived ideas of what we can and cannot do often impede our ability to move with ease and efficiency. A man with knee trouble who has convinced himself that he “cannot” sit down without using his hands will be shown that same proof of the impossible if his Alexander teacher sits him down effortlessly without his help. But he needs to unlearn the ideas he has learned about his own limitations before he will be able to do so himself.

The second example is also one of Yoda’s most famous quotes: “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” This speaks directly to the Alexander idea of “trying to be right.” Alexander learned that when he actively tried to accomplish a task, he only reinforced his end-gaining habit. In order to successfully accomplish the task at hand, he had to give up on the idea of “getting it right.” Yoda is able to lift the X-Wing because he has decided to do it, and so he does.

These are just a few of the innumerable bits of Alexander-esque wisdom taught by Yoda throughout the film. Go watch the whole thing again and keep your eye out for the rest of them!

Forward and Up! is a Pittsburgh-based private practice offering quality instruction in the Alexander Technique in a positive and supportive environment.

Jun 16 15

Everyday Poise: The Negotiation of Balance

by Ellen

For today’s Everyday Poise, let’s talk about balance. But first, watch this video of ballet dancer Sophie Williams.

Gorgeous, huh? Watch it again, and look closely at her supporting foot and ankle. The balance board she’s standing on is amplifying her movements, which is handy since it makes them easier for us to see and analyze. It’s harder to see in pointe shoes, but check out the balance board for a clue to what’s going on inside those shoes.

See all that movement in her ankle and foot? We tend to think of balances as ‘still,’ but in reality there’s a whole world of movement going on in a balance. It’s just that normally it’s so tiny that it’s hard to see. If you attempt to cut off that movement and be completely ‘still,’ you’ll simply increase the tension overall in your body, and the more tense you are, the harder it is to balance. One of my ballet teachers used to say of balancing, “The negotiation is there, but the fight is gone.” When you’re in balance, you’re no longer fighting against multiple forces trying to pull you off, but you’re still moving slightly, adjusting as your weight shifts gently around your foot. You’re negotiating with the balance all the way through, making tiny corrections as you feel the weight shift to keep your center of gravity poised over its support.

Balances appear to be ‘still’ mostly because of a sociological trick. As humans, we don’t tend to look at someone’s feet. We are drawn to looking at a person’s face and upper body – and if you look, Jacqueline’s upper body is perfectly poised, and does seem still. You’d see the same thing if you looked at your yoga teacher’s ankle during tree pose, or a figure skater holding a long sailing shape, or an acrobat balancing on another acrobat’s head. It’s never completely static – it’s always in motion in some way, but generally the motion is confined to the foot, ankle, and shin, so we tend not to notice. There’s an old adage in the ballet world that the only people who look at your feet during a performance are other dancers – everyone else will look at your face and arms.

So the next time you need to balance, take a deep breath, exhale and release your tension, and make peace with the negotiation of balance!

Forward and Up! is a Pittsburgh-based private practice offering quality instruction in the Alexander Technique in a positive and supportive environment.

Jun 2 15

Quote of the Month: June 2015

by Ellen

A way that can be walked
is not The Way
A name that can be named
is not The Name

~Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

For June’s quote of the month, I ran across this beauty. It’s the epigraph of my own teacher Alex Murray’s new book about Alexander Technique, which I plan to review at the end of the month on this site. In the preface, Alex credits fellow teacher Patrick Macdonald for quoting this passage often in regards to Alexander’s work. Alex states “…we have Alexander’s own words as signposts on his journey. They are there to point the Way for us, which we are free to find as best we can.”

This quote from Lao Tzu strikes me as a wonderful way of explaining why it is so hard to articulate the Alexander Technique in words. I always say that the hardest question for an Alexander teacher to answer is “What is Alexander Technique?” The reason the answer to that question is so difficult is that the Technique cannot really be expressed in words. That may seem an odd statement coming from a website that is at this very moment jam-packed with words attempting to describe what I do, but at its core, AT is an experience of a new way of moving and using our bodies. That experience can be physical, mental, emotional, even social, or any combination of those, but we don’t really possess the vocabulary to describe the experience itself. The traditional answer to the question, therefore, is “Come in for a lesson and find out for yourself!” But that’s hardly satisfactory for most potential students. Lao Tzu’s quote points out that whatever description of the Technique I come up with, it can’t really communicate the essence of the Technique itself. I can present signposts as Alex describes, I can give context to your journey, but the Way is always going to be the student’s to find.

Forward and Up! is a Pittsburgh-based private practice offering quality instruction in the Alexander Technique in a positive and supportive environment.