The second best piece of advice from a movement teacher also came from the world of yoga (Modern Western Postural Yoga). I was nearing the end of my teacher training and many of the newly hatched yoga teachers were wondering how to design a class sequence, and even really, how to practice on their own. My teacher Stephanie Snyder said, “Get on the mat and start moving.” It took me nine years to follow that advice, but it is currently the one thing that I am doing that I am most sure about.
A yoga teacher once told me, “All the yoga poses already live inside you.” I don’t know if she said this to every student, or she said it just to me, but I took it personally, and it made me feel totally empowered to practice yoga. Yoga already belonged to me, it was already alive inside of me, and learning yoga would be a practice of unlocking these secrets versus adopting something alien.
I think this was the most helpful thing a movement teacher has ever said to me.
I think about all the times when Alexander Technique teachers, in their efforts to be helpful, pointed out that I had very tight legs, or I must be a dancer because my back was so arched, or my lumbar lordosis was my “bête noire,” and I’m sure they were trying to be helpful, but all I felt was shame.
And I think about all the times that I as an Alexander Technique teacher have said, your upper back is very tight, or your ankle is rolling inward, thinking that in some way my clever diagnosis was providing the student with helpful information, but was probably causing the same shame that I felt for all my flaws that I didn’t know how to change (and maybe didn’t need to change).
I think about how I have learned to receive feedback as data and not take it personally, and how that is a big growth curve, and that being able to see things clearly without spin is so useful – but it has taken years to get there.
But still, the most helpful thing was to be told the truth: All of this goodness is already alive inside of you.
P.S. In case you are curious that yoga teacher was Dina Amsterdam and she still teaches in the SF Bay Area.
P.P.S. And, If you are student of the Alexander Technique, trust that all that freedom and ease that you taste in lessons already lives inside of you.
I’m not sure why I thought it would be ok to teach after a dental extraction. Mind over matter only goes so far. Why do I think it’s a good idea to push my own body through pain and exhaustion when I am constantly counseling my Alexander Technique students to listen to the body, find the ease, and practice self-compassion? It it our cultural conditioning that we all need external permission to rest lest we be perceived as lazy? Right effort gets lost in the intoxication of brute force.
Pushing beyond self-perceived limits is part of the performing arts culture* that I have taught/participated in my entire life. Professional and aspiring artists are encouraged to work through extremes of exhaustion and pain to achieve a sought after catharsis – and sometimes that’s necessary – and there’s a cost – and that level of pushing becomes a habit and a cultural norm.
Or is that, locked as we are inside our own brains, imbibing our inner cocktail of giddy stress hormones, we can’t make sense of things? A recent Aeon article advised adopting an ancient Greek practice known as illeism (i.e. speaking about yourself in third person). Illeism supposedly delivers a scientifically validated uptick in well-being and decision making. I think of my Alexander Technique Teacher Frank Ottiwell saying, “Sometimes, I really wish there was an Alexander Technique teacher around, and then I realize I am that.”
I am that.
So today, I am listening to my inner Alexander Technique teacher, letting my neck be free and taking the afternoon off. We can all provide wise council to ourselves.
*and academic culture, and medical culture, and sports culture, and really any environment where “good enough,” is tantamount to failure, and only the exceptional win.
When students used to say to my teacher Frank Ottiwell, “I carry a lot of tension in my shoulders.” He would say, “Well, why don’t you put it down?”
With the Alexander Technique, we look at posture as a reflection of habits and behaviors, not as an inherent feature of genetics or identity.
Over time, Alexander Technique students learn to stop the habits that pull them off balance and out of alignment. The result is an easy feeling in the body and effortless uprightness.
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Do you find yourself sticking your neck forward and crunching your shoulders in concentration? These are common reading, texting, and speaking habits. Our need to focus to extract meaning, or to see, hear and speak drive us to push our faces forward. The urgency of social communication can undermine our natural capacity for ease. This is a common problem for my actor students who have the challenge of broadcasting emotion to the back row without sacrificing authenticity. Luckily, there is a simple solution that does not involve advanced postural cuing, hands on work from an Alexander Technique teacher, or expensive equipment. You can try it right now.
Expand your awareness to include the space behind you. Sometimes it’s helpful to actually turn around and look behind you, and then turn back and imagine you are seeing out through the back of your head, or the skin of your back. This requires a little imagination. Do you recall that feeling of knowing someone is looking at you even though they are behind you? How do we know? I don’t have the answer to this, but we can make use of our ability to extend perception to balance our use. “Use” is F.M. Alexander’s term for the way we habitually organize our movement in response to all the stimuli of life. What does it feel like to extend your awareness backwards?
Then, if you are an actor, take out some text, or a script you are learning. If your are not an actor, your phone is probably your biggest stimulus to focus forward and contract your attention. Do you feel an immediate impulse to push your neck forward? Are you holding your breath? Again, expand your attention to the space behind you. Rest a bit, and try your task again. Toggle between expanding awareness backwards, and focusing attention forward. Practice for only 2-minutes, and then let it go. Otherwise, you won’t be able to get anything done. Directing attention takes a lot of cognitive resources at first! See if this short amount of practice leaves you with the spontaneous ability to broaden your awareness and breathe throughout the day.
It’s pleasant to practice expanding your field of attention outdoors while walking or exercising. It’s challenging but good to practice expanding awareness back during a conversation with someone. The heat of communicating, the need to be heard, liked, or to make your point, is often the biggest stimulus to push your head forward.
I learned this exercise from my teacher Frank Ottiwell. I had the privilege of assisting Frank’s Alexander Technique Classes for actors at American Conservatory Theater (where I still teach) for several years. As you know, actor’s frequently stick their necks out in the urgency of communication. I’m sure you’ve seen this on film. Two actors argue, and if you turned off the sound you would witness the argument progress as chins compete in forward motion. Frank would quip, “Half the world is behind you.” With this simple reminder the actors would find a way to speak while staying centered and free.
Took my first Ballet class in 25 years (with the encouragement of my friend David Cho). From the deep unconscious, I obeyed the piano and Piqué’d, Frappéd, and Dégagé’d en Cloche…steps I haven’t practiced in decades. If I paused to give it a moment’s thought, the choreography fell apart. But if I listened to the music and remembered to breathe, flow.
I felt grateful for all those years I studied with Beth Hoge as a teenager in Oakland, and later with Ernesta Corvino at SUNY Purchase. Their classes, rooted in the Cecchetti method and deepened by Alfredo Corvino (Beth’s mentor and Ernesta’s father), prioritized precision and timing over extremes of range. Under their careful tutelage, even a short-legged modern-dancer, with what was then, an unfashionably-pronounced booty, could learn what Ballet offers: a reliable reference for the body moving in space. And so, years after, the head knows to be over the foot in Pirouettes, the fingers and toes finish together in Développé, and the body automatically aligns with the invisible diagonals of the room…Croisé Devant, Effacé à la Seconde.
I’m sure I’ll be very sore tomorrow, but I may go back. It felt relaxing to do something where I’d already put in the hard time trying to achieve. Not to imply that I have, in any way, figured Ballet out, but only to say that I no longer have any skin in the game. It doesn’t matter if I’m good or not. The dirty secret is that it never mattered. All that’s left is to have fun.
And, in case you are not a former aspirant ballerina or danseur noble, if you have no interest in sewing ribbons on toe shoes, or brandishing princely hand waves, you can still achieve a reliable reference for moving your body in space by studying the Alexander Technique.
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Please join in celebrating the life of our beloved Frank Ottiwell at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Stage on Nov 6, 2015 at 1pm.
I will post more about Frank soon. It’s been hard to write anything definitive. I am still saying goodbye. I have been reading through my 11-year journal of my time studying with Frank, and excerpting bits here and there. The notes begin half way through my 3-year training at the Alexander Technique Training Institute of San Francisco where Frank was the Director, cover the period when I was visiting and then assisting Frank’s classes at A.C.T., and end rather abruptly when Frank retired from A.C.T. due to illness. It’s slow going. As a diarist, I didn’t distinguish between the profound and the trivial. I was equally excited to report Frank’s dapper corduroy trousers as his sharp observations about the discipline of teaching, “It’s a kind of love, but not the sort where you want to have dinner with your students after the lesson.” Frank was my teacher and mentor, but Frank’s great gift was that so many people can make that claim. I feel his presence with me all the time, and miss him dearly.
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