by Timothy Tucker
Recently, Barbara Kent held a two-day workshop entitled “Meeting the Stimulus: a Look at the Gift of Inhibition.” I signed up quickly when this event materialized on the ACAT website because opportunities to study at length with a 55-year veteran of the Alexander Technique are few and far between. And indeed it was a rich and spacious experience, with plenty of time for hands-on work, play and reflection.
A Lively First Morning
We started our exploration on Saturday, April 29th with a discussion of Barbara’s question, “What areas of your life do you find most, or least, challenging when meeting a stimulus?” Participants offered replies to the question that were very individuated and that were also closely inter-related. As the responses unfolded, it was clear that we were all better at identifying areas in our lives where stimuli are challenging than we were at finding areas of ease. In fact, it was only after an extensive discussion of challenges that the group even began talking about areas of ease in meeting a stimulus. The imbalance in our conversation is illustrated by the lists below.
Meeting a Stimulus: The Challenges Outweigh Ease
Most Challenging Areas of Life
- Urgent situations
- Human relationships
- Meta problems
- Habits of self-perception and identity
- Time management and roles
- The unknown
- Fatigue, self-care and self-image
- Teaching AT, especially start of lesson
- Intense life changes and crises
Least Challenging Areas of Life
- AT lie down
- Working quietly alone
- The AT community
- Time with pets
Following this discussion, we formed rotating pairs in which we worked quite specifically with inhibiting the stimulus of putting hands on (teacher role) or of receiving hands (student role). While we participants exchanged in various pairings, Barbara put hands on those working in the teacher role to simultaneously bring them back into themselves while also making them more aware of the larger environment.
During my exchanges with other participants, I noticed how distilled my experience of the Alexander Technique has become. When I began my Alexander odyssey five years ago, 45 minutes barely seemed sufficient for a lesson, which was itself a very mysterious affair. Exchanging with colleagues during Barbara’s workshop, however, I was able to extract a great deal from just 5 minutes while working as either the teacher of the student. That my “absorption rate” has increased so much over my few years as a student and teacher of the AT was a surprising realization for me.
Getting Real While “Resting and Digesting”
Following our various exchanges, Barbara led us through a “rest and digest” period, giving participants an opportunity to reflect on their experience. A couple of quotes during that conversation stood out for me:
“Inhibition opens up a space where I can be creative with myself.” Kathy Miranda
“I can allow myself to be confident enough to ‘do’ what’s there. Each time I give myself permission, I get closer and closer to where ‘there’ is.” Garnett Mellen
I voiced my fear to the group that in putting my hands on such skilled practitioners I would almost inevitably be judged to be incapable as a teacher – that my interior narrative of unworthiness would be validated by my “superiors.” To my surprise, the entire group acknowledged harboring the same anxiety to varying degrees. Kathy Miranda noted, however, the positive side of this anxiety: when we competitively examine ourselves and make comparisons with the work of other teachers, we can use that process to raise the standard of our work and improve our teaching. In other words, we can decline to judge ourselves while making observations and receiving information that can make us better teachers, and students, of the Alexander Technique.
As this conversation occurred, I realized once again how valuable it is to have a safe space in which to make, or acknowledge our fear of making, mistakes – a space in which we could “dare to be wrong.” This is the gift of our AT community, a gift that ACAT fosters and renews by offering these kinds of postgraduate workshops.
Following our discussion, Barbara guided us through a much-needed lie-down. After a period of stillness and self-monitoring, she asked us to lift one arm (either from the elbow or as a whole) off the table several times. First, we were asked to leave our shoulder blade on the table while extending the arm toward the ceiling. Then Barbara asked us to allow our shoulder blade to rise off the table, following the arm once we had extended it, and to notice the difference that made. I noticed my arm was lengthened and eased by this procedure. We finished the lie down with a series of whispered ahs, followed by humming.
An Afternoon of Fun, Games, and Insight
During the afternoon we had lots of time to play with toys that Barbara brought. First, we played on our own, noticing our response to working with ourselves while using toys ranging from jacks to yo-yos to rubber and fabric-covered balls with various degrees of bounce. After working alone, we then worked in pairs with one member of each duo putting hands on the “student” while s/he played with a toy.
With Kathy Miranda’s hands tuning into my system and expanding my awareness, I noticed immediately how much harder it seemed to play with a yo-yo “successfully” than it had been to play on my own. For example, I had to think much more about my position in space and my movements to enable Kathy to stay with me. Meanwhile, my attention was divided among at least 3 interconnected realms – the yo-yo (stimulus), monitoring my use while playing with the yo-yo (inhibition and direction), and Kathy’s hands and words amplifying my inhibition and direction and guiding me in my play and self-monitoring. I experienced some confusion and bewilderment as I tried to integrate all the various stimuli into something more coordinated and spacious. Gradually, with Kathy’s support and encouragement, I was able to blur the lines between the yo-yo, myself, Kathy, and the larger environment. Put another way, I was able to experience the “widening sphere of attention” that I remember being described by Frank Pierce Jones.
The common thread in our play, it seemed to me, was that with hands on we learned to use the more distal parts of ourselves to manipulate our various toys, and rely less on the involvement and distortion of our head-neck relationship or our shoulders and hips. For instance, when playing on my own with the yo-yo I was inclined to pull my head down in front and curve my neck downward toward my sternum, with each downward throw of the yo-yo. It was almost as if I was turning my whole self into a yo-yo. Although these contortions were fairly subtle, they were very noticeable to me. They seemed to be habits left over from yo-yo play 40 years earlier, and they were not so easy to get away with under Kathy’s hands. I also noticed that my tendency to involve my shoulder and even my elbow was lessened with hands on – throwing and then catching the yo-yo became much more an affair of the hand and wrist exclusively. Even so, my breathing was noticeably restricted by a stubborn fear of throwing the yo-yo badly, or not catching it. Clearly, I have much more playing left to do!
Talking About Play: Serious Business!
In the discussion that concluded our day’s work we talked about our play and spent time teasing out the distinction, for us, between attention and awareness. The group was inclined to view awareness as more of a generalized state or condition, in contrast to attention which was viewed as more specific – a prioritizing of mental resources, or the conscious directing of those resources toward something that is then focused upon with some intensity.
Barbara told a story that was a useful illustration of the distinction the group was talking about. Prior to studying the Alexander Technique, Barbara had a habit when she sang of putting her shoulder forward and pushing it inward (medially) that she was unaware of. During her lessons with Frank Ottiwell, Barbara became aware of this habit and, because of this generalized state of awareness, she was then able to pay attention to herself while singing in order to specifically inhibit the habit that Frank had made her aware of. Just as had been the case with me and the yo-yo, though, when Frank encouraged Barbara to stop enacting her shoulder habit, she was initially unable to sing.
Day Two: Teaching Through a Broad Spectrum of Activities
On the second day of the workshop, Barbara invited all of us to lead the group through an activity that would provide the teachers with an opportunity to practice inhibition and direction. We spent the day applying the AT principles to a wonderfully diverse range of activities, ranging from circle waltzing to eating soup to tying a knot to craniosacral work to cognitive shifts in drawing. There were too many discoveries and insights amidst all these activities to catalog here, but the activities showed the incredibly diverse range of interests and approaches among the Alexander teachers attending the workshop. In addition to the various participant activities, we also had two periods of hands-on work, including one period in which we each received a turn from Barbara.
Barbara offered us a great weekend of experience, conversation and synthesis. Her workshop gave participants a helpful reminder that, no matter how long one has been a teacher of the Alexander Technique, there is always more to learn, and to unlearn!
TIM TUCKER learned of the Alexander Technique through his Zen Buddhist practice and had his first lesson in May 2012. That first lesson was permeated by deep skepticism and confusion, but Tim was too struck by his own ignorance to dismiss the AT. He qualified to teach the Technique in June 2016. Prior to becoming a certified AT teacher, Tim worked as a security analyst and as an artist in film, video and lighting design. Tim formed Alexander Technique Now, LLC in May 2016. He is Secretary of the Board of ACAT and volunteers as an assistant teacher on the ACAT training course. www.alexandertechniquenow.com