by Susan Perkins
(This article was originally printed in the Winter 2004-2005 issue of the ACAT News, © 2005 Susan Perkins)
Besides years of chronic pain, I really wanted to change my posture. In some of my very first Alexander technique lessons, I am asked my teacher Charles Stein if this curvature in my spine was permanent thing or if it could be changed." Oh, it can definitely change," he said without hesitation and with such authority and positive belief, I was quite surprised by his answer. He said, "The spine is quite flexible and movable. It is the muscles which hold it in a fixed position." I remember thinking my spine was a long bony structure that had been permanently fixed into a big hump on my back. Here was a brand new idea; one I could scarcely dare to believe.
So I waited. I watched. I pulled myself up higher and higher, straining to move that curve out. I got a backache, but the curve refused to move.
Charles suggested I lie on rubber balls, placed in the thoracic region. He showed me the size of the rubber ball, approximately the diameter of two hands forming a circle. Alas, no one had rubber balls this size. (Little did I know at the time no one had a them, because no one was making them anymore.) So I improvised with a roll of toilet tissue paper, covered by a soft squishy round Nerf ball.
Dutifully I lay down every day. Sometimes for an hour or hours. I watched and waited, looking for changed daily in the mirror.
Since nothing much was happening that I could observe, I decided, after 3 years of lessons, I needed to train to be an Alexander Technique teacher. "I'll get this hump out, because Alexander teachers have the straightest backs in the world.
When I came to ACAT I remember thinking, "Oh my God, when they see I've had three year of Alexander lessons and I still look like this, what will they think?" Say one of school. Class with Daniel Singer. "Let's skill all the intros; believe me, by the end of the week, you'll be so sick of it." So he began his discussion right away. It was something akin to an inordinate amount of focusing on the body, as opposed to what the technique was really about. "This is not body fixing!" he ranted. Remember, now, this is my first day of school, and who was this giant man ranting about what the technique was and wasn't? "If you want to fix your body, go do Pilates! Really, seriously. This is not about fixing the body."
Well I wondered, "Should I get up now, walk out of the door, and go train in Pilates? What the hell is Pilates?" Because certainly the reason I came to school was to fix my body. I wanted to get rid of pain, and I really wanted to get this hump off my back.
How many times did I almost leave school the first semester? What kept me there? I don't know, but I suspect the power of the work had spoken to me, and without any rational or intellectual reason of the "how" it worked, I just knew it did.
First, second, and third semesters go by. I think I cried every day. Sometimes I would go to school feeling so great, and by the time I left, I was miserable. Angry, frustrated, mad, sad, confused. Still I watched my back, knowing the hump was still there. Every time someone put their hands on me, they want first to my chest and hump. I began to get very sensitive, and cranky.I knew I needed to straighten up there, but how? And then, this business of "don't go down when you bend your knees, think up!"
I wanted to scream as loud as I could "I am thinking up so hard my head is about to explode! I have no thoughts of going down right how. You idiot, I am most certainly not thinking down." Did I express any of this? Did I calmly ask, 'now what do you mean when you say bend your knees, but continue to move up?" No, I said nothing. I simply suffered and screamed directions to myself, hoping I would get it somehow.
Of course, one day it was too much. A classmate had hands on my, and said, "Bend your knees." I dutifully bent, and the classmate said, "let's come back up. Now when you bend your knees, think up, not down." I exploded into tears and said "I can't, I can't." I ran away from the classmate, feeling horrible. What would she think of me?
Daniel came to my rescue saying, "What don't you understand?" And he patiently worked with me, and said, "That's it; that's all there is to it." I said "I just don't get it, and I want to go inside myself. I don't want to be in this room." Being present in times of stress was so hard for me.
I went to Joan Frost and I said, "I can't work with all these people. I am so confused. I don't understand what people want me to do. Could I just work with teachers, and that's it?" You see, I didn't trust that volunteers or classmates could really know anything about my movement. Only a really experienced teacher could offer me something. Joan said, "I think you need to do whatever you need to take care of yourself. You don't ever have to work with anyone you don't want to." I felt good and bad at the same time. This was a first step in my learning to express my needs, but at the same time I felt like I was shutting out other people.
I took her advice, and soon enough I was ready to accept the help of peers, volunteer, and anyone. I was still a bit skeptical, but I began to trust a little more.
So back to the hump. It was still there. Year one goes by. "My, how you've changed!" everyone says. "Can you see how much you've changed?" "Yes," I reply. But a little voice says, "But your hump is still there."
Is the technique failing? Am I failing the technique?
Year two. Feedback. What a dirty little word. Look, I already put up a stink in the end of last year of how under no uncertain terms did I want any feedback whatsoever about my hands. Unless, of course, it was from a teacher. That was different. That was ok. They had the knowledge and the skill. But what could we - the trainees - possibly know? We were just bumbling around with each other. Do you really think I, who was just learning to work with other people, whilst learning to monitor my own needs, really wanted to hear what they thought of my hands? Because that's what feedback was to me: judgment. Either your hands were good (light and up) or bad (heavy and down). Anyway, what do we know? We're just trainees.
I still continued to be quite skeptical that all of this stuff worked anyway. After all, my hump was still there, glaring and ugly, sticking out of my back. Ruining the perfect straightness that I saw in others.
One day I asked Pearl, "Did you believe in the technique? Did you really believe it from the beginning?" Pearl said "No." I think I knew she was a scientist, so there, that was proof! Maybe it can't really work. Pearl continued, "But I watched my sister walk every day down a long hallway. And I saw just how much her walk changed over time, so then I started to believe." I grew suddenly very quiet and still. I was on the table, and I have never felt such calm and stillness inside. For a moment, I jokingly wondered if I was dead. Tears were flowing, but I said, "I'm not sad, Pearl. I've just never experienced such peace." "Sometimes it happens when people let go, when they stop doing." She answered in her simple, direct, Pearl way.
I began to suspect after this experience that there was some major interference going on in my process, and I was the cause of it. Or rather this inner activity, the inner voice, what ever you want to call it, was so busy directing, ordering, judging, bantering, badgering, telling me, "neck free, where's the up, inhibit going down, hips back not butt back, lengthen lengthen lengthen, now direct, now inhibit, now order." There was so much inner activity, it's a wonder I learned anything. as I began to quiet a little in my lessons with the Pearl, sometimes she would move me, and my mind would say, "That was impossible. The front of my torso is not that long. How did I do that?"
So what about the hump? I waited, and hope still that the hump would disappear. But it was still going strong, not budging.
Then came the down wrists game in Daniel's class. He said it just cleared up this whole messy feedback issue. Instead of saying to my classmate, "Oh, that was lovely; I moved so beautifully; it had up, and flow, and such direction" you could simply say."Up." Instead of "Well, it started off very nicely, and then, well, I'm not sure. Maybe it was me; let's just do it again." "Down." Instead of, " well at the end there, I'm not sure, what I felt something like - maybe I couldn't move my head, or something." "Wrists."
My complete reluctance to play this game was again my denial that we really knew anything about what was going on. Who was I to say "Up, down, or wrists?" I couldn't bear to say down to someone. And I was terrified to have someone say down or wrists to me. So I simply didn't play for a while.
Back to the hump. I still kept checking every day to see if it was gone yet. Nope, still there. The second year of trading passes into the third.
Oh my god, it's the third year. This was it. If I didn't figure out everything this year, and my body didn't change soon, well, that would be it. I would graduate and be a terrible Alexander teacher.
I think there is a Bible verse that begins something like, "Oh ye of little faith." I had been operating on face for two years. Sometimes I had no idea what was going on, so just kept pretending and going along with it. Just keep going, putting hands on, pretending I had a clue.
Oh, there were moments that kept me going. Sometime in my second year, I had my hand on a classmate's head and neck. Suddenly I felt something electric shooting straight up her neck. It's so startling to me I almost yanked my hand off. What the devil was that? I think she said she was getting some strong sense of direction, and all lot of up.
So how did I do it? I was probably not paying attention, and in that movement of quietness, something got through.
So there were little inklings here and there of what was possible. But now it's my third year, and this hump has shown no signs of yielding, what can I do? How is my back ever going to get straight?
When I came back to school the third year after one of those endless summer, I was so worried. I hadn't had any lessons, not a single one. I felt like the girl that Julia described one year who said "I didn't think about that technique at all the whole summer." And someone else said, "Yeah, you could tell." Is that what people would say about me? Would they take one look at my back and say "Good lord, she just lost her two years of training! Look countdown she is!"
Shortly after my return, Brooke happened to ask, "What happened to you over the summer?" Oh my god, here it comes; she knows. "Look how integrated your back is!" Integrated? I could hardly believe my ears! You mean I hadn't lost all of my training?
Still with every positive comment, that little voice would whisper, "But your hump hasn't gone away." You know what? I was really getting sick of this. Why wasn't anything I ever did good enough?
I decided I needed to go to psychotherapy. Maybe therapy could you tell me why I had this hump, and why it wouldn't go away.
I found out I was in an episode of major depression. I had suspected for a while that I was depressed, but I didn't realize just how bad it works. Very early in therapy, I began to form an idea. For most of my life I held tremendous feelings of guilt, fear, and badness inside of myself. No matter how hard I tried to succeed, and no matter how hard I worked on something, I was never satisfied with the results. In fact I competed with others to be better. If I could be the best at something, then I would feel better about myself, or so I thought.
Now I think it's funny, going to therapy to analyze this hump on my back. Well, it didn't start out that way, but within the first couple of sessions I've began to form an idea. Maybe all that was wrong with me, all the badness, the guilt, the low self-esteem, all the fear, and wrong things inside -maybe that was my hump. My hump represented everything that felt wrong.
I wrote a little for AIS, as I was using psychotherapy four hours of credit, and shared some of the writing with my therapist. The next week after she read it, she said, "I'm very curious about this hump on your back. Could you talk a little more about that?" I basically explained that I felt like my back was representing how I felt inside of my self. I hated my back, the way it looked, and I sometimes felt that way about my self.
Anyway, I felt like maybe if I began to deal with the feelings of low self-esteem, failed relationships, guilt, fear, and badness, maybe just maybe something would change.
Right away I began to notice subtle differences. I became very curious about what people were saying with their hands at my rib cage. Sometimes I would just give up and say, "Okay, I'm not going to look at my back for a week." But then I'll be staring; checking it out before I even realize what I was doing.
One day in my private with Daniel, we worked on shoulders for half an hour. I really wanted to get this. Sometimes he would say, "It looks as if the world has been lifted off your shoulders!" Maybe something was beginning to change.
Then we began the Dart procedures with Barbara. Something felt so wonderful! I couldn't describe it, but it felt like I was moving. I showed Judith a procedure, a forward bend in the chair. She said, "I can see why you like this - you are moving through your thoracic area."
That's why it felt so wonderful! I was beginning to move through an area that had been locked away for so long. I just can't describe how good it felt to move where there was so much stillness. And how nice it is to have some stillness inside my mind and nervous system where there was so much turmoil and inner activity.
I wrote most of this in December. Where am I now with the hump? It's still there, but I think it's begun to diminish. Sometimes I think the hump was life. It was my journey through to get to where I am now. Without it, I wouldn't be who I am today.
I think the process - that is the Alexandrian process of awareness, inhibition, and direction - was the only way for me to come to terms with who I am. First I had to look at myself (be aware, and awareness includes an acknowledgment and acceptance of who I am and what I am: the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful.) Awareness includes embracing all of my habits, even the scariest, ugliest, most awful ones I had. If I did not first acknowledge and greet them with a smile (for a tear), that I was debauched. I could not clearly see what I was, or what I was doing, if I could not first become aware in an objective, curious manner.
Once I was aware and acknowledged what I saw, then I had to take that step back. I had to pause and ask myself, "This is what I see; is this what I want?" If I didn't want it, what were my other choices? Then, and only send could come the direction, add a change, if I so desired. I am still working through the process and have only just begun the direction.
I have been in therapy for almost one year. My therapist is pregnant and our last session is today, the day before I graduate. Though I'm sad not to be working with her anymore, because she was so supportive and helped me so much through my process, I think the timing is appropriate. The ends are only new beginnings. If the door shuts, look for a window
I wanted to play violin today. I wanted to have the miracle experience of Stephanie, and her flute, and Mark, and his marimba. I'm not quite there yet. But I feel strongly that the training did something very miraculous for me.
Susan Perkins graduated from ACAT in 2004. She currently teaches at Wake Forest University and Salem College in North Carolina. She earned her undergraduate degree from the University North Carolina School of the Arts and earned her Master’s Degree in Violin Performance from Florida State University. In 2001 Susan moved to New York City to study the Alexander Technique at the American Center for the Alexander Technique in Manhattan, a rigorous three year program entailing 1600 hours of study. As a Nationally Certified Teacher of the Alexander Technique since 2004, Susan teaches the Alexander Technique to people who have back trouble, postural issues, musicians who have physical difficulties performing, or people who want to improve their overall health and well being. She completed John Nicholls’ post graduate course “The Carrington Way of Working” in NYC in 2016. In addition to maintaining a busy private practice teaching Alexander Technique and violin in Winston Salem, Susan is the Alexander Technique and Violin Instructor at Salem College, and teaches the Alexander Technique at Wake Forest University and University of North Carolina School of the Arts.
B.M., Violin Performance, University of North Carolina School of the Arts
MM, Violin Performance, Florida State University
MAmSAT, American Center for the Alexander Technique, New York