Be Still and wait: prayer, the body and the Alexander Technique – reflections on a workshop

What I LOVE about teaching the Alexander technique in groups and workshops are the WONDERFUL people who rock up to them! AND how much I learn. And last Saturday’s workshop, Be Still and Wait: Prayer, the body and the Alexander Technique, was no exception.

A few were people I knew already – including my husband who was an extraordinarily kind, unobtrusive, supportive gofer. Mostly, they were people I didn’t know – from Manchester, from Whaley Bridge, from Wildboarclough.

I was nervous. I hadn’t run a workshop on prayer and the AT before. But mostly I was thrilled that people had come to explore and to be open – and above all to PLAY – with these most important topics. And I opened by saying that I am not an expert on either the Alexander technique nor prayer. But I am a student of both and that I was grateful for fellow students to study with.

And my first question could have generated another workshop just on its own. What, I asked, does the Alexander Technique mean to you now, in one word or short phrase? And what does prayer mean to you now, in one word or phrase?

And they said, after time for thought and discussion, that the Alexander technique means……openness, friendship, skeletons (!), balance, rootedness, awareness, posture, environment, connection, self-awareness, embodiment, harmony, alignment, poise, possibility.

Honestly, I was in awe of those responses! From people with a very little, or in some cases no, previous experience of the technique. Those who are relatively new to a discipline sometimes see it with a freshness and clarity that those who have studied for longer can miss.

And they said that prayer means ……silence, stillness, deep silence, laughter, connection, alignment, comfort, openness, harmony, uncertainty, conversation with God, environment, spiritual awareness, spiritual connection, balance, and friendship.

And we looked at our lists with some amazement, all struck by the overlap, the similarities and connections between them. And I COULD have asked – are there any words or phrases from either list that could NOT go on the other? But we had sat and talked long enough and I wanted them up and moving 🙂

So I will save that question for another workshop.

So what did we do then? Well, we did some contemplative anatomy, something I have learned from one of MY teachers, Bruce Fertman, Peaceful Body School. We looked at the fact that we have, not two arms but one arm structure and at how wide and spacious that arm structure is. And then, in threes and in silence, we made bread, softly, creatively, with love and gentleness and awareness of that spacious arm structure. It baked while we ate lunch, filling the space with a wonderful aroma and waking up the sense of smell as our morning activities had woken up our senses of touch, sight, hearing, kinaesthesia and proprioception.

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And I read, after lunch, from a book by Kabir Helminski Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness and the Essential Self. And we engaged in patient, waiting, open listening and discussion. And we went for a walk, channeling our inner dinosaurs because the room was quite chilly by that time. And then we gave one another bread, the bread that we had made with love and attention and openness.

And we used our senses of touch and sight and kinaesthesia and proprioception to explore and choose and add a Christmas decoration to the Christmas tree in the church we were meeting in.

And then we said our goodbyes and said what we were taking away from our four hours together, four hours of playful exploration of the Alexander technique and prayer. And mostly what I take away is a memory of how beautiful humans are, how kind, how generous, how thoughtful, how funny. We are not all like that all the time. But we all CAN be like that, some of the time. And that, in this season of Advent, of waiting, gives me hope.

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My workshop plan – a playful plan for a playful workshop. And no, for students who know me well, we DIDN’T get through a fraction of it!

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Prayer, the body, the Alexander Technique and bad backs

What’s your body got to do with prayer? Isn’t it the soul that prays, anyway??

Over the years – and in different traditions – the way we stand or sit or kneel to pray has changed and some would say it doesn’t much matter what our bodies are doing when we pray. But perhaps it does matter and perhaps thinking about how we stand or sit or kneel might even deepen and enrich our prayer lives. IMG_20140814_140412

The bible has a lot to say about bodies. In the Old Testament, when the people of God ignored God’s law it says, ‘They turned a stubborn shoulder and stiffened their necks’ (Nehemiah 9. 29). The psalmist exhorts ‘Do not harden your hearts’ (Ps 95) and tells us to ‘Stand in awe’ (Psalm 4) and ‘Lift up your hands in the holy places and praise the Lord’ (Psalm 134).

The Alexander technique also has a lot to say about bodies. Many people, myself included, first encounter it because it can help to ease or prevent bad backs. And happily, after a few lessons, my bad back got a lot better, But what made me carry ON having lessons was noticing in myself psychological and emotional changes – I felt calmer, less likely to over-react to situations. I decided to train as a TEACHER of the Alexander technique – which is a 3 year full time training – at least partly because of the psychological – and spiritual – depths it seemed to offer. And also because it is undoubtedly a good way of helping other people with bad backs!

The Alexander technique, which has been around for over 100 years, was first seen as a voice or breathing technique and only later became associated with the relief of chronic back and neck pain. Really, it is about the WHOLE of you – body, mind, emotions, spirit – and how you do the things you do every day – how you ARE in the world. As you become more aware of how you do the things you do, you also become more able to keep calm and think and notice and choose how to respond to the things life throws at you.

Which brings me to the body and prayer. Prayer is sometimes called ‘paying attention’ (Simone Weil) – paying attention to God, to what is really there. In the Alexander technique you learn to pay attention to your usual patterns of thought, movement and behaviour – and gradually to notice what is really happening. And you can learn to press the pause button, to quieten down and choose not to move carelessly, not to react without thought, not to get drawn into endless rumination.

All of these are skills we can use in prayer. In prayer we are choosing to open our eyes rather than to close them, to open or soften our hearts rather than to harden them. We can choose to give ourselves permission to let go – of unwanted thoughts, of unnecessary tension. And we can choose to pay more attention to ourselves and our bodies, which God has created and which God delights in. When I teach the Alexander technique, either in 1:1 lessons or in groups, my underlying aim is always for people to enjoy their bodies – and their lives –their whole selves, a little bit more.

Learning the Alexander technique has certainly changed how I pray. I now tend to keep my eyes open, rather than to close them, as it helps me stay alert and tuned into the world and myself. St Francis prayed that way too so I am in good company!  I vary the position I pray in. When I notice tension creeping in I allow myself to let it go.

So, is there a right way to pray, physically speaking? In terms of position, no. We can pray in any position at all – lying, standing, sitting or kneeling. If you are tense or uncomfortable, however, then it matters because YOU matter.

Here are some ideas to play with to deepen your awareness of your body while you pray:

  • Consider whether your posture suits the kind of prayer you want to practice. If you are engaged in confession, a position with bowed head might be suitable. But is it as suitable for praise? Or for thanks giving?
  • Play with different positions for prayer and consider introducing more variety into how you pray.
  • Pray while moving, walking, bread making or dancing even! I have learned some prayers to say by heart so that I can say them while running in the hills in the morning.
  • Notice tension in your body as you pray and just give yourself permission to let it go.
  • Ask God for a soft, open heart. What might that actually feel like physically?
  • Smile when praying – it lifts the spirits and softens the heart
  • Try praying with your eyes open – like St Francis – so that you can enjoy God’s creation

Fundamentally, consider how you treat yourself, in body, mind and spirit. Jesus told us to love our neighbour as ourselves. So that means treating our neighbour – AND ourselves, ALL of ourselves – with consideration and respect.

As well as being an Alexander Technique teacher, Jenny is also a member of the  Third Order of St Francis and part of a lay leadership team in in the Church of England.