An Alexander technique teacher working for well-being and positive mental health
Author: Jennifer Fox Eades
Alexander technique teacher, writer, researcher, education adviser, member of Third Order of Society of St Francis. Interested in the Alexander technique as a source of well-being, contemplative education, stories and storytelling, and embodied learning and praying
Appreciating Church is a handbook style
resource book based on an ecumenical project of the same name. The aim of the
project is to create ‘communities of practice’ – groups that foster change in
positive, hopeful, inclusive and encouraging ways. Behind the project, and
behind the book, is the organizational practice of Appreciative Inquiry, a
practice that is based on looking for the best in people and in organizations.
Developed by David Cooperrider, appreciative inquiry and, by extension,
Appreciating Church start NOT from the viewpoint that organizations are
problems to be solved, but that they are miracles of human organizing and
ingenuity – to be appreciated.
I heard Cooperrider speak once. He is both
the son and the father of Christian ministers. His belief in the potential of
human goodness to bring about positive change in the world was palpable and
deeply inspiring. He was perhaps the most hope filled person I have ever met.
Cooperrider’s key insight is that if you go looking for problems you will find
them – and you are then likely to get bogged down in them. If you ask different
questions – questions about when an organization is at its best, when its
people are at their best, you don’t cover over the difficulties but you do help
to generate the imagination, the creativity and the energy needed to move
beyond them. In every system, every church, every person – something is
working, something good is happening. Appreciative inquiry seeks to find that
goodness and to grow it.
Appreciating Church is a practical resource
for bringing some of that hope filled appreciation into churches and church
projects. It does this by bringing together a bit of theory, a lot of stories
and a lot of resources to help communities see themselves and the future a little
bit differently. As a church leader, I particularly liked – and will be able to
quickly and easily use – the practical suggestions for introducing an
appreciative approach into meetings and also its use for the discipline of
Richard Rohr describes contemplation as a
way of seeing that includes recognizing and appreciating. I have worked with
appreciative inquiry in the past and recognize its overlap with the
contemplative path. Appreciating Church seems to me to be one more way in which
the essential spiritual path of contemplation is being reinvigorated for
An Alexander Class for Parents and Carers (babies welcome)
Mondays 1.30 – 2.30 £10 per class or £45 for 7 weeks
Learning the principles of mindful movement – working WITH our bodies, not against them. Help yourself to easier movement and learn how to support your developing child as they grow.
Clinical trials show the Alexander Technique provides substantial long term relief from lower back pain. It is in the NICE guidelines for Parkinson’s disease to relieve symptoms, including depression and improve balance. It is relaxing, grounding, stress reducing….it can be life changing.
An excellent talk on movement and why the fitness industry gets it badly wrong from a fitness expert and male model, Roger Frampton. He highlights the ridiculous practice of Western cultures of taking master movers – also known as children – who squat naturally and with ease and then teaching them to SIT for 7 or 8 hours a day.
I suspect that this single practice, the practice of replacing the natural human positions of standing and squatting with sitting on that man made, modern and malign invention THE CHAIR probably contributes more to the epidemic of back pain in the Western world than anything else.
Sitting, slumped over, limits our breathing, contracts our spines, weakens our core muscles and probably much more. We used to squat – Frampton calls it the ‘pre-chair resting position’ – why were we made to stop???
Frampton says we should watch children to understand how our bodies want to move and try to get back our full range of movement – the movement we once had. He criticizes the outcome focus of the fitness industry – constantly measuring time, distance, repetitions, weight – and says we should focus instead on HOW we move – and focus on movement, not looks, not muscles. Work with your body, not against it, he says and prioritize the spine. You are, as a Chinese saying has it, as old as your spine.
So, the Alexander Technique – not about posture but about movement – put movement first, understand how your body wants to move, used to move – find an Alexander teacher or, perhaps better still, watch a small child.
On Saturday, 16 people turned up at St Peter’s Church, Macclesfield to explore the simple, yet complex movement of walking. We all know how to walk. What we don’t always know is how WE walk and how we might walk with more ease, more enjoyment. And that is what we explored together.
And it was immense fun – a really good workshop. And people learned a great deal. And we metaphorically covered a great deal of ground though we physically didn’t walk any great distances.
And looking back on any workshop or group session I COULD pat myself on the back, as the person running the workshop and say ‘well-done, I ran a good workshop’. Or, alternatively, ‘that didn’t work, I must not be a very good teacher’. And in these days of an education system that measures teachers on how well their students do, that is certainly a tendency. But that view, it seems to me, puts TOO much emphasis on the role of the teacher and not enough on the role of everyone else in the room.
It’s not that the teacher has NO role or responsibility. Of course they do. It was my job, yesterday, to ensure that the physical and emotional environment was as safe as possible – that people knew they weren’t going to be judged or criticized. I try to make sure the physical environment is as beautiful as possible too – that tells participants I value them. As does the fruit and treacle flap jack at break time. And it’s my job to be as skillful a teacher as I can be, to keep studying and learning myself and to teach as clearly as I know how. I am responsible for the pace of the workshop, the content of the workshop.
On this particular afternoon I was also lucky enough to have two other Alexander technique teachers to help me, the lovely Janey Goodearl and the wonderful Su Harrison.
But – and it is an important but – the other people in the room play an absolutely essential role in the success of any workshop. Their openness to learning, their generosity to one another, their courage in being willing to change and look at new ways of doing things are things the teacher or workshop leader can encourage but not actually give. Only the participants can do that.
So, as I look back on Saturday’s workshop and reflect on it, I have to pay tribute to the open-hearted, warm, friendly and open-minded participants for the learning that took place. To Janey and to Su, for their invaluable help and to all the lovely people who came together to form a community of learning the Alexander technique together.
If we learn, we change. And at the end of four hours, people had changed. They said,
‘I feel safe and more stable and more appreciative of the ground’
‘I learned how strong my lower body is’
‘when I went for a walk I thought more about the process of walking instead of being in my head’
‘I felt more grounded, more connected with the ground’
‘I felt a lot more stable, I looked up, I enjoyed going for a walk!’
‘I’m taking away a sense of freedom and stability’
‘I’m taking away the need to slow down’
‘I’m going to be a bit gentler with myself about change’
‘I learned that holding yourself rigid is a silly waste of effort’
Well done, those students of the Alexander work. And thank you for a good afternoon’s learning.
Sometimes, running Alexander Technique groups is the MOST enjoyable, satisfying and above all, funniest job I can imagine. And today was one of those days. There aren’t many groups of people where I can picture myself saying, ‘Let’s imagine we are a pelvis, and then paint ourselves a pelvic floor!’ but my Union Chapel Alexander groups are that kind of group so today we did precisely that.
First, though, we began with me deciding and admitting that I need to learn how to teach voice as an Alexander technique teacher and that I need my groups to teach me how to do it. There are singers in my groups and other voice users – that is, other humans! So why would I not use these experts to learn from?
We are language using animals. On the radio today I heard a paleo-linguist say that speech is finely controlled breathing. And the Alexander technique is, first and foremost, a breathing technique. So, with the help of Harriet Anderson’s excellent The Thinking Teacher’s Body we first thought about standing in a quiet, balanced way so that our musical instrument, i.e. our body, was as aligned and relaxed as possible. And while John, (thank you John) read aloud an extract from Harriet’s book I went round and used my hands to help people explore that quiet standing.
Then we did one of Harriet’s ‘Explorations’ and attempted to vocalize in a really good slump. And we explored how that sounded and how that felt. Linda said it felt like a large fat cat trying to squeeze through a small cat flap! And then we explored vocalizing while in a more balanced and open state – and the difference that made.
But it was after coffee that we became a pelvis! Martyn and Linda were the ischial tuberosities, Fiona the pubic synthesis. John was the sternum and spinal column, other group members were the iliac crests. And I painted in a pelvic floor.
When we could stop laughing enough to think about what we had done, we agreed that this was a funny, powerful way to explore our mental body maps – and to learn about and think about the extraordinary miracle that is the human body. So my thanks to one of MY teachers, Bruce Fertman for both the ideas and the confidence to try them out.
We did a LOT of voice work today – and I felt I learned a huge amount from my committed and generous students. And we all felt we had started to explore a way of studying the Alexander technique together – and breath and voice – that we can extend and develop in future sessions. And we laughed – a lot. And I LOVED the session. As always, I feel grateful and privileged to teach this work.
So, here’s to more pelvis building….. and to more tuning of the musical instrument that is the human body.
This week we are going to take some time to consider what the founder of our work called the ‘primary control’ and which others refer to as the ‘primary pattern’ – that is, that the body is an integrated whole, not a collection of disconnected parts, and that it needs to move and work as a whole. What I do with my neck affects my feet – what I do with my feet affects my head. It sounds obvious but humans manage to forget this because we are SO absorbed by….where we are going, the facebook page in front of us, butting into the conversation, pulling up one more weed….etc, etc. And then we wonder how we hurt ourselves 🙂
Those in my groups who are new to the work this term will revise what we have learned so far about standing easily, about sitting easily and we will coach one another (a teaching technique I use a LOT) to remind us what we might remember to make life as easy as possible.
And we will look in our anatomy study at the amazing, incredible structure that is the spine.
Those who have done this work for a while will ALSO revise what we can usefully think about in order to sit/stand easily and then take that knowledge into movement, into transitioning between sitting and standing and standing and lying down and lying down and standing up, while remembering to remember ourselves as well as what we are doing.
AND for the first time I am teaching a shared lesson on Monday afternoon in WhaleyBridge at Riverside Wellbeing. The lesson is full but email me if you would like to be kept posted about future chances to come along.
Yesterday I attended a workshop at St Dunstan’s Church Liverpool on Centering Prayer, given by an Episcopal Priest, Cynthia Bourgeault. The workshop was called ‘Centering Prayer – from Performance to Gift’. And, for me, the whole day felt like being given a very important gift.
I have been attempting to practice this form of contemplative prayer since reading Cynthia’s book, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, some years ago. Yesterday’s workshop was an inspiring encouragement to keep going, with some very practical pointers to help us to do precisely that. Cynthia said she has been practising centering prayer for 40 years and that it has transformed who and how she is in the world. She spoke simply and clearly but with great power and depth. A small, loving, vital, intelligent and erudite woman she is a good advert for the results of a life-long commitment to this ancient Christian wisdom tradition.
She spoke first about the tradition of meditation, of which centering prayer is a part. She called meditation ‘a universal human sacred activity’ and a ‘universal activity of the human spirit’ which can be found in every religion and every philosophical path in some form or other. Though meditation is widely known and practised in the East, many Christians are unaware that there is an ancient tradition of Christian meditation too and the teachings of centering prayer are part of a rediscovery of the riches of this tradition.
All forms of meditation aim to still what is sometimes called the ‘monkey mind’ – the endless inner chatter that humans engage in. Many forms of meditation seek to do this by training the mind to focus on a single point – the breath is perhaps the most common of these, and mindfulness meditation is a secularised form of this. Another form is the repetition of a mantra or repeated word or phrase. In the Christian tradition, the work of John Main and the World Community for Christian Meditation encourages this single point form of meditation.
Cynthia Bourgeault describes centering prayer as rather different. Though it is a form of meditation, it is called prayer, she said, rather than meditation in order to honour the intention of the practice, which is to enter a presence that is characterised by love. And rather than focusing on a single point or word, it is based on the principle of learning to let go of each thought, to release, to consent to just being in the presence of the divine in each moment. It is about intention not attention. God, she said, is IN the silence, in the noise of the inner chatter, in the consent to let it go. Centering prayer is a way into a different way of being, a different way of perceiving reality. Each thought that arises is an opportunity to practice that letting go, that release, that consent to be in the presence of God.
The aim of centering prayer is not a deep state of bliss, or profound quiet. The subjective experience of your prayer time doesn’t really matter. The noisiest and least settled prayer times may actually teach you the most. The aim is simply to practice letting go of thoughts when they arise, gently, with kindness. It is not hard to do, she said, but it is hard to value and it is of immense value. The value of each tiny act of letting go is that it mirrors the self-emptying of God that Christians see in Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection. It is nothing more or less than the way that we learn, thought by thought, day by day, prayer time by prayer time, to ‘put on the mind of Christ’ – which is the calling of every Christian, the key to walking the ‘Jesus path’ as best we can.
And unlike secular meditation methods, like mindfulness as it is widely taught in the West at present, centering prayer is not something you do for yourself. It is not about YOU at all. It is not done in order to ‘de-stress’ – it is not ‘me time’ or about reducing your anxiety levels. It is something you offer on behalf of a suffering world. It is not about acquisition but about generosity of heart. It is about creating a space for love to be a little more present in the world, a little more often, about opening up points of eternity in the every day. It is a gift YOU give to the world.
If you want to make a start, these are the four guidelines of centering prayer. It really is VERY simple.
Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within. (At our workshop, Cynthia said this would ideally be quite a neutral word or short phrase, like ‘Wait’ or ‘Quiet’ or ‘Let be’ or ‘be still’. It doesn’t need to be a ‘holy’ word as such)
Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.
When you notice yourself thinking, return ever so gently to the sacred word. (You don’t repeat it the whole time, just when you notice a thought)
At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.
This week we move from sitting, to standing. And we will think of how we can stand with more ease and more enjoyment. One regular student of mine, after studying the Alexander work for some years said to me, ‘I know it sounds odd but I used to not enjoy standing and now I do’. Being able to stand in a balanced and easy way is a skill and a gift that is often overlooked and under appreciated – and it is good for us.
So we will look a little at the anatomy of standing, at the weight of the head and where and how it balances on the end of the spine. We will observe each other standing and see what we notice. We will observe and explore the act of standing in ourselves, too.
We may consider how we move between sitting and standing – and explore different ways of doing that with grace and ease. And we will develop a gentle standing warm up routine that we can do on waking or at any time of the day to gently wake up the body and get ready for the day or the activity ahead.
And we will discuss when, how and how much we stand on a daily basis and how we might apply Alexander work to all of that.