On February 21, 2022, I received my AIDA II Course Freediver certification with Christina Sours’ Spitsea Diving in Redondo Beach, CA. It was an intensive weekend, though I was surprised how easeful & comfortable the process was as I proceeded through the course completing a static apnea (breathehold) of 2:30min and a 15 meter constant weight dive (diving on one breath hold while finning).
During the open water session of the course, I was so excited to discover that the Alexander Technique is an invaluable tool for freediving. Conversely, freediving is a great barometer for the possibilities of ease that can be accessed through the Alexander Technique. Even more exciting to me is how clear the principles of inhibition and end-gaining become while going through the process of preparing for a dive and going down the line – diving to depth while finning. Your state of mind and ability to “relax” and be free of unnecessary tension as well as your ability to be completely present in the moment without thought, or with directed thought, is of utmost importance while freediving. Each thought uses oxygen, every unnecessary tension creates more co2 in the body. Every thought counts. If I end-gain, it has a direct effect on the quality of my dive. Inhibition and letting go of unnecessary tension becomes a necessity.
As a third year teacher in training at ATILA and a newly certified beginner freediver, I am thrilled to explore the depths and parallels of what the technique and freediving have to offer – a key to access the life and presence that thrives both above and below the surface.
Sandy Lipkin had private lessons in the AT for almost two years and it has been a year since she stopped lessons. I recently asked her how her life has changed as a result of studying the AT and how it continues to influence her life since she stopped.
How has the Alexander Technique changed my Life? That’s a pretty big question and I would have to state that there overarching changes in every corner of my life and have involved a changing of the guard as to which voice inside my head gets to be in charge.
First, by way of context, I’d briefly like to explain what brought me to the Alexander Technique. I am a professional woman, a patent trademark attorney, with my own solo practice. Throughout my entire adult life, I have been interested in maintaining optimal health and fitness. I have moved from weight training to cycling to swimming to yoga to martial arts. All these activities gave me what felt to me like a really good understanding of my body; I felt really in tune with my body as a result of my interest and attention given to it. I have always looked after my diet and other habits, trying to choose the healthy thing at least 80% of the time. I take my health and fitness as my own personal responsibility and therefore am a seeker of activities and lifestyle choices that would enhance my freedom within my own body to be healthy and fit.
It is interesting to be reminded about your beliefs about your body. You, like many of us that are physically active and attentive to the body, had an understanding that was based on your sensations. You had misinterpreted many of those sensations and came to various inaccurate conclusions, “you aren’t strong enough, limber enough, coordinated enough, etc..” The wonderful thing is that you were able to set those beliefs aside long enough to explore new ideas about your body with me.
In 2018 I embarked on a journey which has revolutionized my life. I decided, without logical explanation it seemed, at the age of 53 to start taking singing lessons. I always loved music and wanted to sing, but when I auditioned for the choir in church as a child, I got the message that this was not something I had an aptitude for. I got the message that the ability to sing was something you were either born with you weren’t. Years later, probably 9 or 10 years ago I met a person who told me that anyone can be taught to sing. I was skeptical, but this person had apparent authority that I trusted; the thought remained with me for about 5 years until I decided to test that hypothesis, so I started taking singing lessons.
This is such an amazing quality of yours; you constantly challenge yourself to move into the unfamiliar and uncomfortable to do things that you want. I truly admire you for immersing yourself in singing and playing the guitar coming from such a disempowering background.
Singing involves the whole self, specifically, the body, I quickly found I could not change the subject in any way to mask the tension. The tension had taken up residence in my body and I could not will it away.
I resolved to look into it and at the end of 2019 took my first Alexander Technique lesson with you. Shortly after I began, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent rules took over the world which relegated my lessons to Zoom.
Although I had been teaching the AT for more than 40 years at this point, I hadn’t taught over Zoom before. Therefore, it seemed important to work with Zoom students twice per week at a minimum. To encourage this, a reduced rate was offered.
I was very fortunate that the situation benefitted me in this way. And I am nothing if not an avid student, so I was able to glean much from these Zoom sessions, sans the typical hands-on by the teacher that is usually involved.
You were an ideal student to work with, your commitment to learning, experimenting, testing, questioning made the experience equally rewarding for me as a teacher.
In your Zoom lessons the emphasis was on becoming aware of your habitual interfering patterns, learning how to inhibit these patterns, and redirecting your whole self in a range of activities. We began by working with how you sat at the computer since this was how you spent most of your waking hours. The activities evolved to encompass more areas of your life, bending to reach things, cleaning the cat litter boxes, walking and swimming, some yoga positions, singing and playing the guitar to name just a few. We always started with where/how you were when you came into a lesson, your psycho physical state in the current moment. Sometimes you would wake in intense physical pain, and we would work just to calm the nervous system before attempting much else. There wasn’t a step one, then step two lesson plan. We worked with the things that you loved to do along with the things that you found difficult.
After about 20 months, in July or August of 2021, it was mutually determined that I understood the principles well, so I stopped the sessions and went to fly on my own, at least that is how I saw it. I had to go out and repeatedly work through what I had learned in order to train my body away from its old habits.
The Alexander Technique can help solve such a vast array of problems, from chronic pain to poor posture to vocal strain. Some of these problems can be resolved with a minimum of 12 to 20 lessons. Understanding the principles of the AT well enough to be able to apply them on your own, often takes 2 years or longer. I am most gratified when my students understand the Technique well enough to apply them independently.
So, here I am, about a year after the lessons have stopped, to ruminate on all that I have learned and all of the awareness that continues to show itself to me as I spend quality time each day with my body.
My practice now with the Technique has turned into a daily morning walk for about an hour where I spend alone time with my body and my habits. I have found that I am in the most bodily distress when I wake up in the morning because of all of the unconsciousness that goes on during sleep. The first two or three hours of my day are so crucial to get to the body and give it attention and loving correction rather than having my old habits commandeer my body all day only to find myself too tired at the end of the day to try and give my body the attention it needs after I am done with my work and parenting responsibilities. In that sense, my body, and my relationship to it has taken the first priority in my day, which is part of the changing of the guard regarding the hierarchical voices inside of my psyche.
While I am thrilled with the discipline that you use to continue practicing the principles of the work, I find that I still want to tweak your language a bit… the word “correction” stands out. The AT is not a process of correcting as much as it is a process of undoing the unnecessary tension while staying conscious in activity. “Correcting” lends itself to being judgmental in a way that usually creates more tension rather than less tension. Keep up the excellent work.
All of my endeavors: working, parenting, walking, swimming, weightlifting, yoga, singing, making music – all of it has been enhanced through this journey. I can get quite evangelical about it and start feeling that the entire world needs this. While that may be true, I also know from my own personal experience, that those who are seeking this type of integration and healing, have a good chance of being lucky enough to stumble upon this valuable Technique that has stood the test of so much time. The Technique will draw in those who are meant to find it. I can ultimately pat myself on the back for doing the seeking and following through with the humility and work required to ask myself, freshly each day, and with love, “what else am I wrong about?”
Sandy, thank you so much for participating in this dialog/bi-a-blog.
Sandy has many more profound observations about herself in this journey and I will include these in a subsequent newsletter.
The Alexander Technique (“AT”) and psychotherapy both aspire to show individuals how to make more conscious, effective and authentic choices as they navigate their way in the world. They are both educational processes. By experiencing the power and influence of unconscious, habitual behavior, the psychotherapy client and the AT student gain a deeper understanding of themselves, enabling more consciously directed and healthier responses to the stimuli received from within and from without.
Active, intentional participation is a requirement in both cases if either process is to be effective. Both the AT and psychotherapy explore and examine habits of thinking, feeling and being, revealing the depth and out-of-awareness of habitual responses to the world.
The AT focuses on movement and grace in activity, i.e., how one “uses” one’s body, which requires observation, awareness and thinking during activity (i.e., during “experience”). With the AT teacher’s subtle, gentle guidance/support, the repetition of new movement habits gradually replace the older, less productive (and often even physically injurious) ones.
In contrast, psychotherapy typically pays attention to (brings to conscious awareness) habitual patterns of feelings, emotions and thoughts as they arise in the psychological transference, ie., the relationship between therapist and client. It leads the client to observe and become aware of often self-sabotaging unconscious feelings (emotions) directly in the (safe) bubble of the psychotherapist/client relationship. As the client gains emotional insight in psychotherapy, often concurrent physical changes occur (such as improved personal presentation, more balanced weight, cessation of intoxication, drugs, etc.) – as a result of experiencing life with fewer self-sabotaging behaviors.
With the AT “education”, the consciously attended patterns of unconscious behavior involve physical movement., i.e., posture, coordination and carriage, known in the AT as bodily “use”. Through a critical modality known in the AT as “inhibition”, positive changes in “use” occur in the absence of the previously self-sabotaging movement habits, and the body image that accompanied them. Frequently, along with much more productive “use”, the AT student experiences a different and more positive body image and concomitant emotional state. In short, the AT may lead one to awareness of important, unconscious but self-limiting emotions indirectly as a kind of side effect of the AT.
The Alexander Technique and psychotherapy therefore share the commonality of allowing one to discover who one is after letting go of unproductive habitual patterns of being in the world – patterns whose original influence and purpose may have long disappeared. Both intend to sensitively, gently educate one toward a less fearful and more open experience of the ever-changing world.
Just as an effective psychotherapist seriously listens to and observes their clients, the effective AT teacher seriously listens to and observes their students. Both are “present” in the best sense of the word — they meet the client/student where they are in the moment — a process one might say of enjoined discovery. They both listen to the words and to the tone of voice – and they observe the physical expression and presentation. They both imagine observing through their client’s/student’s eyes as they listen, and they commonly observe: is the body speaking the same language as the words? Where does the body tighten? When does the body collapse? Where do the eyes go as they interact?
And most critically, both AT teacher and psychotherapist listen and professionally engage without being judgmental. By being fully, non-judgmentally present, the psychotherapist and the AT teacher generate a safe relational context and environment for the difficult process of overcoming long-practiced resistance to change to take root, and for appropriate responsiveness to occur in each unique case. Interactions carried out in such a context facilitate the possibility for the client/student to become more open and less fearful to learning and to their own authenticity.
On a personal note: as a troubled young adult, I attempted to find relief through psychotherapy with several different psychotherapists. Each were well-trained and competent; however, it was not possible for me to overcome my resistance to, and doubt of, such therapy. Then, in my senior year of college, I had an experience in an AT course that suddenly made me know I was much more than I knew. For a brief time in each class, my fears and defenses dropped away. It was an epiphany. As a result, I moved 2,000 miles away from home to train as an Alexander Technique teacher. Throughout the 2.5-year AT training period, I became more and more comfortable and assured in my own body, and my general perceptions of the world changed dramatically as I initiated the process of releasing long-held habitual beliefs and emotional poses. However, irrespective of these wonderful changes, some old patterns of unhappiness persisted. So, I returned to psychotherapy — but this time, bolstered with more confidence and insight, I was ready and open — and it took. Though more indirect, the AT was the ideal initial path for me on the journey to better self-understanding, i.e., to finding who I am.
If you are like me – A-type personality, over-achiever, compulsive DO-er – here is a discovery you may find useful for moving with less muscle tension.
Nutritious Movement and Restorative Exercise
I have been doing Restorative Exercises since I first met Katy Bowman in August 2009 when I was 71. I became an avid student attending 5-6 classes weekly. Then I did the Whole-Body Alignment RES (Restorative Exercise Specialist) certification program with Katy live and became certified in 2010. Then I became a teacher with Breena at the BEACH in 2013. And all this time, I have had an active home practice along with an ambitious walking, hiking, and hanging program. I am what you might call – into Nutritious Movement!
Neck Muscle Tension
About a year ago, I began experiencing voice and throat irritation – raspy voice, irritated throat, coughing and clearing my throat. These symptoms occurred while teaching restorative exercise, on the telephone, and in face to face conversations. Finally, I took six weeks off while going on a special diet to see if I had acid reflux. After ruling that out, the problem continued.
Addressing Muscle Tension – Alexander Technique (AT)
One day I got a telephone call from my chiropractor, Delia Gorey, in Ventura, California. She had worked on alleviating these issues and was puzzled that the symptoms persisted. Delia referred me to an Alexander Technique (AT) teacher and practitioner in Ventura. who she highly recommended – Sydney Laurel Harris.
In our first meeting Sydney gently used her hands to introduce me to the feeling of relaxing my neck. She led my head forward and up WITHOUT me DOING anything. She emphasized no effort on my part – NON-DOING. Just say the words silently, think/visualize as she delicately guided my neck and head.
She also worked with my breathing, again focusing on my neck and head, while lying on the AT table. She used only gentle guidance with her hands and verbal instruction. We both noticed excessive and chronic tension in my neck and shoulder muscles.
After the first appointment, I was at a total loss how to explain it to my husband and to myself. I had fully expected to come home with specific exercises to DO or at least something to DO. Not only was there nothing to DO, Sydney said if I forgot what she had said and done, no problem.
The second meeting was similar. Nothing for me to DO but experience my head poised on the top of my spine while silently saying the words and thinking/visualizing my head going forward and up. Her delicate hand guidance gave me the tactile cues. Slowly, I began to feel the muscles in my neck and shoulders relaxing. I began to freely move my head side to side.
Changing Muscle Tension
And, after the second session, I saw significant changes. I taught a full one-hour class of restorative exercise without coughing, no clearing my throat and no irritation. Following that, I had an hour-long phone conversation with my sister. At the end of our call, she commented she had heard none of the raspy throat issues usually present in our weekly calls. I told her what I was doing (non-doing) with the AT. I was still unable to explain what I experienced in my sessions with Sydney.
Learning More About AT – Body Learning by Michael Gelb
At our third meeting, I asked for a book recommendation so I could learn more. Sydney referred me to Body Learning by Michael Gelb which I found informative, inspirational and fascinating. I find myself returning to it frequently both for the text and photos.
The Over-Doer Learns More About Muscle Tension
At my ninth session, I began to reconcile the biomechanics I have learned from Katy with what I am learning from AT. In working diligently (read overworking) to ramp my chin to correct and limit further hyper-kyphosis, I had been tensing the muscles of my neck. This had compressed the space necessary for the free flow of my voice as I speak. My larynx was restricted causing constant irritation. With Sydney’s expert guidance and my “non-doing,” those muscles were able to relax allowing my head, neck and torso to naturally align.
Moving With Less Muscle Tension
Another instance of me over-working the Nutritious Movement restorative exercises was in my stance. My tendency is to enter a room with my belly first. (Photo on far left.) This compresses my lumbar spine and puts strain on my knees and the balls of my feet. Again, I had worked diligently (read overdone) ramping my chin, shifting my hips and weight back over my heels. (Middle Photo.) And still my default position had my hips forward.
By using the Alexander Technique and focusing on undoing the unnecessary tension while non-doing, my torso shifted into a natural alignment and my knees relaxed. (Photo on far right.)
In my experience, it is possible to OVERDO even a good thing if I add excessive tension to my body. Sydney and the Alexander Technique have provided me with a way to have it all. Now I can incorporate the non-doing of AT (feeling Sydney’s guidance, silently saying the words and thinking/visualizing my head going forward and up) with the restorative alignment exercises of Nutritious Movement. I can continue to change the way I move more by engaging more of my body with less muscle tension as I optimize dynamically aging.
Dr. Norman Doidge, Neuroplacticity & the Alexander Technique
by T Booth Harris
As an example of an AT student’s (not teacher) response to one of the science presenters, Booth (my husband) wrote a brief review regarding the stimulating presentation and work of Dr. Doidge. Booth originally came to the Alexander Technique (Michael and Lena Frederick) with a history of back pain. He is also a former banker, science and PE teacher at Ojai’s Oak Grove School and, though not an engineer, CEO of a specialized international civil engineering company:
Norman Doidge, M.D., Canadian psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and pioneering neuroplasticity popularizer, keynote-presented on 30 July, 2018 at the inspiring 11th International Alexander Technique (“AT” henceforward) Congress at Loyola University, Lake Shore Campus, in Chicago, IL, USA. Dr. Doidge, a student of the AT, commended its potential to engender neuroplastic change and/or healing, which, quoting Dr. Doidge, “…requires the active involvement of the whole person to change/heal”. Leveraging off his latest book The Brain’s Way of Healing (which had been preceded by his bestselling The Brain that Changes Itself), he compassionately showcased several riveting case histories of recovery from serious movement and neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s Disease and severe chronic pain.
Dr. Doidge, in his latest book, defines neuroplastic change (or “neuroplasticity”) as “…the property of the brain that enables it to change its own structure and functioning in response to activity and mental experience.” In a decade old National Post (Canada) article, he defined it as “…the property of the brain that allows it to change its structure and function in response to what it senses, what it does and even what it thinks and imagines.” (my italics).
The context of the AT is movement education. Primary operative concepts of AT practice are “use”, “habit” and “inhibition”. Dr. Doidge presented neuroplasticity at the Congress as dynamically, in an evolutionary/biological sense, fundamental to human learning (education). Humans adapt to the world by learning effective survival/social skills that can be, often automatically, applied/re-activated as required. In short, through experience of the world, habitual “learned” physical neural patterns (of movement, thinking, feeling, etc), typically ultimately unconscious, are formed, evolutionarily designed to economize energy/improve performance. Paradoxically and concomitantly, the more these patterns (or neural “tracks” as Dr. Doidge presented) are invoked/used (e.g., to improve performance) – the more resistance to neuroplastic change they present.
From an evolutionary perspective then, resistance represents a biological, adaptive balancing act: it conservatively (i.e.., “conserving” habit) safeguards the “learned” and simultaneously dampens “learning”. AT practitioners are skilled in recognizing poor, habitual body movement (“use”): from subtle gracelessness and “automatic” postural fixation to functional but maladaptive activity-purposed movement that may have developed into discomfort, pain, and even injury. An important element of the AT is to engender positive change by encouraging “inhibition”, i.e.., short-circuiting maladaptive “learned” patterns through the application of conscious intention (from Dr. Doidge’s latest book: “…intention…a subtle concept…is to focus the mind…to change the brain. What counts is the mental effort to change.” Again, my italics). It’s within this conscious, intentional awareness space, supported by the AT teacher, that neuroplastic change may well be activated, and why Dr. Doidge’s controversial, compassionate work theoretically complements AT practice (and vice-versa).
Importantly, and as Alexander teachers know, Dr. Doidge’s case histories clearly indicate that neuroplastic change requires a kind of systematic psychophysical work, which can be exhausting, i.e.., wishful thinking falls far short. Overcoming neuroplastic resistance requires consistent positive intention to change, irrespective of the habituated sensation of the moment. Such change is rarely “comfortable”, i.e.., the “unknown”, as it were, can be unsettling. To successfully engage with the Alexander Technique therefore is a serious, whole person enterprise in which trust in the teacher (and one’s self!), patience, persistence and respect for the natural pace of change are required. The Alexander Technique benefits may be, as with Dr. Doidge’s cases, wonderful and life-changing, i.e.., as with successful psychotherapy, surely worth the price – but, similarly, very likely not without dedicated commitment to change.
T. Booth Harris For Alexander Technique USA LLC Newsletter
Alexander Technique USA LLC Newsletter: October, 2018
Notes from the 11th International Alexander Technique Congress
The Congress provided a working vacation for my husband, Booth Harris, and me; he was an Event assistant and I a “senior teacher”. Our fifth story dorm room windows at Loyola University’s Lake Shore Campus were positioned directly over a rocky shoreline overlooking Lake Michigan. Though rarely in our room other than to sleep during the almost week-long Congress at Loyola, we were easily lulled into slumber on resilient dormitory twin beds by soothing summer lake breezes and gentle lapping waves.
And what a terrific week it was.
Over 600 Alexander Technique (“AT”) teachers and teacher-trainees (and students) attended from all parts of the world. The theme was Advancing Global Perspectives: Making New Connections (Science, Performance Education). It was much more than simply a positive counterpoint to the domestic and global divisive turmoil that is so present in today’s “news”. The Congress was composed of daily full-audience presentations by noted (and excellent) speakers (both keynote and plenary), as well as continuous learning sessions, workshops (almost a hundred!), panel discussions (on Science, Performance, Education, Medicine, Diversity and more), ongoing work-exchange, and, of course, entertainment!
All of my experiences at this Congress, as a student and as a teacher, were stimulating, and engaging, providing superb learning opportunities at every turn.
The keynote speakers – David Hyde Pierce, Dr. Norman Doidge, Dr. Neil Shubin and Roshi Joan Halifax – were articulate, inspirational (each in their own way), all presented with depth of knowledge and understanding, with compassion and even humility – and wonderful appreciation of the AT.
For me, the most important takeaways came from the perspectives of the scientist-presenters, which included our own (AT teacher) Rajal Cohen, Ph.D., and, on the last day, Kevan Martin, Ph.D., as well as the above-mentioned keynote speakers. They all talked in different ways about the scientific importance of staying open to new discoveries and new evidence and the importance of adjusting conclusions accordingly. It’s clear that just as we AT teachers want scientists to be open to the AT, it is also vital for us to be open to new evidence and new discoveries. It’s most comfortable to become attached to what we know, to latch onto only the evidence that agrees with what we already believe to be true.
• Change may not be comfortable. Kevan Martin, Ph. D., concluding speaker at this AT Congress, started by quoting Dickens “…the best of times…the worst of times…the spring of hope…the winter of despair…” (Tale of Two Cities) and noting that, irrespective of how comfortable/un-comfortable the world around us may feel, personal change is vital, not just with regard to helping our students change, but with regard to ourselves as well. • From Dr. Rajal Cohen’ plenary talk: “If the principles of the Alexander technique are true, then they must exist beyond the Alexander Technique. Furthermore, they should be objectively testable. Recent scientific advances in neuroscience, psychology, kinesiology, and other fields related to motor control provide intriguing insights into the working of the Alexander Technique. You can see her whole presentation at https://vimeo.com/284599464 • Did you know that there are at least 13 different systems involved in balance? In her workshop, Nancy Romita, Teacher Training Director of ATMidAtlantic, led enlightening explorations of 5 of these; vestibular, visual, tactile, proprioceptive and neuromuscular. • From Dr. Shubin, we learned about the Tiktaalik, a transitional form, species, evolving from a fish to an amphibian. One of its most important features was its neck. “Fish have a situation where the head is physically attached to the shoulder. What we have in this creature, and you can see it in the skeleton, is that you have a head that is actually separate from the shoulder, meaning that it has a neck that can move the head around.” (bold face mine)
The following is taken from Joan Schirle, the Founding and Artistic Director of Dell’Arte International, a professional ensemble theatre and school of physical theatre. She was a Plenary Speaker at the Congress as well as a Continuous Learning Instructor. Due to Joan’s attendance at the Congress, she missed receiving in person The Association of Movement Theatre Educators (ATME) the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award.
Hold a piece of paper tightly as not to drop it. Now check in with the rest of your body. Do you notice any gripping going on in other parts of your body? Your arms? Your face? Your neck? Any place else?
Now reduce your grip by 25%, but still not dropping the piece of paper. What is that like? How does it feel? What parts of you changed?
Reduce it by another 25% (50% less than you began), still not dropping the paper. Check in with your whole body again.
Now keep reducing the grip in increments without dropping the paper. What is that like?
From the lightest grip, increase it by 25%. Check in with your whole self. Increase it again by 25% (50% more than your lightest grip). Check in.
Keep experimenting with changing the grip by loosening and increasing the intensity. This will help you to understand more about the nuance of balancing tension and effort in all activities.
Working together for several years on the serious business of AmSAT, we needed a break, a change of direction: We needed to have fun! But the Alexander Technique is a SERIOUS BUSINESS—a deeply engaging, ultimately profound psychophysical learning process. What does play have to do with it? Or rather, what can play have to do with it?
We have been taught in our culture that nothing of value is accomplished if you just play. You must not be learning if you are having fun. But actually, when the energetic and creative energy of play is part of the learning process, you learn as you are having fun and the learning process is enhanced. Physicists F. David Peat and the late David Bohm describe the relationship between play and creativity in this way:
New thoughts generally arise with a play of the mind, and the failure to appreciate this is actually one of the major blocks to creativity. Thought is generally considered to be a sober and weighty business. But here it is being suggested that creative play is an es-sential element in forming new hypotheses and ideas…. Play, it appears, is the very essence of thought…. Within the act of creative play, fresh perceptions occur which enable a person to propose a new idea that can be put forward for exploration. 1
Thus “Playing with Principles” was born. At the 2014 and 2015 ACGMs, we presented workshops that engaged small groups of teachers and trainees in an exploration of learning through play. In these workshops, we experienced firsthand that playfulness offers a valuable and profound way to lighten up the serious nature of sticking with the principles.
We are all familiar with the experience of trying too hard: We can be so serious that we get in our own way. We can become robotic in our movements and fixed in our thinking when we try too hard to follow the teacher’s orders or mimic the teacher’s words and movements. We can get stuck by trying to bring about predetermined results, feelings, or positions.
We found a way to address this kind of self-created end-gaining interference indirectly through open-ended play, which provides an enjoyable antidote to these difficulties and a legitimate method for practicing the principles of the Alexander Technique.
Our experiences inspired us to look at academic research on play to see how it relates to learning. It turns out that play is an innate part of normal development in all animals, especially human beings. Play helps children learn about social give-and-take, develop impulse control, practice problem solving, and learn to be adaptable to changing conditions.
“Play is more about process than content. At its best, play is self-directed and guided by fluid rules agreed to by all participants. But whether it is raucous or quiet, physical or mental, social or solitary, the act of playing seems to open the brain to possibilities.”2
What Does Academia Say about Play?
In 1961, Roger Caillois, a French intellectual, wrote Man, Play and Games, which identified many different types of play: competition, chance, simulation, disciplined pursuit of solutions, un-restricted improvisation, and gra-tuitously difficult puzzles. Caillois defined play as an activity that is:
1. Free: in which playing is not obligatory; if it were, it would at once lose its attractive and joyous quality as a diversion;
2. Separate: circumscribed within limits of space and time, defined and fixed in advance;
3. Uncertain: the course of which cannot be determined, nor the result attained beforehand, and some latitude for innovations being left to the player’s initiative;
4. Unproductive: creating neither goods, nor wealth, nor new elements of any kind; and except for the exchange of property among the players, ending in a situation identical to that prevailing at the beginning of the game;
5. Governed by rules: under conventions that suspend ordinary laws, and for the moment establish new legis-lation, which alone counts;
6. Make-believe: accompanied by a special awareness of a second reality or a free unreality, as against real life. 3
In his book The Ambiguity of Play, Brian Sutton-Smith looks at the diverse nature of play activities and finds a thread of commonality: “Clearly the primary motive of players is the stylized performance of existential themes that mimic or mock the uncertainties and risks of survival and, in so doing, engage the propensities of mind, body, and cell in exciting forms of arousal.”4
Play prepares us for the ambiguities and variability of life and gives us pleasure in the process. We are in good company by engaging and promoting play.
Stuart Brown, MD, the founder of the National Institute for Play, often begins working with people by taking a play history, and one of the first questions he asks is “When have you felt free to do and be what you choose?” In other words, when were you happy? Happiness is the essence of play. Laughter is an extension of play, and studies show many health benefits of laughter and play, including: longevity, reduction in risk for dementia and neurological problems, reduction in depression, reduction in heart disease, decreased stress, and improved relationships.5 So, play is not only fun, it is good for you!
The Principles Are Compatible with Play
Using play in teaching the Technique seems like a natural partnership to us, because both play and Alexander principles have so many aspects in common. For example, preventing habitual reactions to stimuli is an essential principle of the Technique, and it is also an essential element in most play, for improvised play is not predetermined. In other words, we do not know how the game will play out. When end-gaining is not a factor, opportunities for surprise, discovery, and joy are created.
Like the Alexander Technique, play is process-oriented, leading us to stay aware and engaged in the present, moment by moment. They both have the capacity to leave us energized with a feeling of lightness and ease and pleasure.
It’s not what you know but how you engage in the activity, how you face the unknown, how you approach challenges that matters; and the results of a playful attitude can be unexpected, often surprising, and revealing.
Play requires freedom and choice. Hmmmm, gee, what does that remind us of? The choices we make while playing reveal a lot about our way of being in the world. We learn about ourselves from the way we play.
Why and When Would You Want to Use Play in Your Teaching of the Alexander Technique?
Theater programs have long used improvised play and theater games to teach actors about authenticity and spontaneity. Games and improvised play stimulate curiosity, participation, and involvement and can lead to discovery of something new. Establishing a safe and non-judgmental environment allows players to explore more freely. Utilizing Alexander Technique principles in playing theater games can deepen the experience, for when habitual reactions are inhibited (when the actor rejects the usual “schtick”) and muscular energy is released into improved patterns of balance and ease, then the actor is open to the possibility of spontaneity and authenticity that comes about when you really don’t know what will happen next.
This is true in games of skill as well as theater games. For example, in the simple example of “Red Light, Green Light,” when a player stops end-gaining to respond quickly without regard for the moment-to-moment process, she can take the time to listen carefully and become more skilled at the game—in addition to having more fun.
A simple change in use (such as using a monkey or allowing the neck to be free) can ultimately affect both process and outcome for participants in a challenging game of skill. This may lead them to a new perspective on the Alexander principles derived from experiential learning. Any kind of ball play will lead to interesting examples. For instance, in playing the game “Juggling” in a group, ask the participants to stand in a circle, each holding a ball. One by one, each person throws a ball to another person, who then throws it to someone else. The game begins with one ball in play and gradually more balls are added until all are in play at the same time. In the beginning, there can be a lot of anxiety about keeping track of where the balls are going and coming from, about dropping the balls, about looking stupid. However, when focus shifts from the end-gaining of catching and throwing successfully to using oneself well, players tends to become more coordinated, better able to keep track of what is going on, and, ultimately, more successful at catching and throwing when there are multiple balls in the game.
Another example is any kind of target practice. In this easy game, each person takes four pieces of paper, makes paper balls with three pieces, draws a big circle on the fourth, tapes it to the wall for a target, and then throws the balls, trying to hit the target. End-gaining and mind-wandering often surface. Interest-ing options for thinking about use include: thinking up while aiming forward and awareness of diagonal relationships in the use of the whole (e.g., the role the left foot plays in throwing with the right arm).
Play is also useful when a student is overthinking and so invested in “getting it right” that he or she fears “getting it wrong.” Start small, try a game with few rules, like keeping eyes on a ball rolling on the floor, while sitting and standing, to break the mood and change the student’s attitude. A little fun goes a long way!
Students come to lessons with different learning skills, personal perceptual preferences (e.g., conceptual, auditory, visual, kinesthetic), varying degrees of tolerance for routine, and attentional proficiencies and deficiencies. The art of teaching includes the ability to utilize the wealth of our personal experiences and knowledge of the Technique to engage each student in a unique “sandbox” tailored to each individual.
Some pedagogical approaches present a prescribed set of instructions for putting hands on the student in a set way in set places, saying the same words repetitively, all in the same order. Students learn the principles and improve their use through this pedagogical style, or teachers would not use it.
However, we believe that it is more empowering for students to own their own learning process, and we do this by encouraging students in a process of self-discovery. We expanded this approach in the group situation of our ACGM workshops by cultivating a playful atmosphere, so that the participating teachers and trainees could freely play with principles in hopes that this experience would widen the range of pedagogical styles they are comfortable employing in lessons and classes.
The effectiveness of play in opening up channels for learning—and the need for play as part of normal development—is wired into the human brain, but getting adults back to this open state takes practice. We hoped that running workshops that encouraged playing with the principles would initiate an eye-opening and open-ended journey for the participants.
Using Our Personal Play History to Plan Workshops
Drawing on our own memories, we began thinking about what kind of play would be appropriate for an ACGM teacher/trainee workshop. We looked back at our personal play history and remembered many happy moments: Sydney loved improvised imaginary play with dolls of all kinds—paper dolls, Madame Alexander dolls, baby dolls, Cowboy Bob, Barbie and Ken—as well as social play at school such as hopscotch and jump rope. Later she enjoyed drawing, reading, and crossword puzzles. She disliked competitive sports, which triggered anxiety. Today she particularly treasures unscheduled time. For Sydney, encountering new people, new places, new cultures, without the pressure of being seen in a particular way, engenders excite-ment and novelty, important ele-ments of play.
Kathy remembers the joy of moving: improvised playing on swings, rolling downhill, skating, running from it, and dancing. She loved learning and varying the rules of board games, card games, party games, puzzles, and word games. Her happiest moments included a sense of safety, free-dom from ridicule, novelty, and a sense of other players’ complicity and willingness to suspend any past or future agenda—to let the present be all.
For our first workshop, we decided to focus on social games with some structure to begin with and to allow participants to improvise and change the rules as they went along (Kathy’s love of varying the rules influenced our approach). Our happy memories helped us think about creating an atmosphere that would feel unpressured, safe, and encouraging of playfulness.
Our First Workshop
During our first workshop, at the 2014 ACGM, we asked participants to look for specific principles during the experience of playing games. The primary goal was to explore and discover different ways of demonstrating the principles.
First, the group discussed definitions and qualities of play and agreed that play is not serious and not work, but is joyful and has an unknown outcome; and the group agreed that players have presence, flow, creativity, focus, quiet attentiveness, and permission to stop or rest. Let the games begin!
We provided examples of games that introduce Alexander Technique principles such as inhibition and direction. We progressed to asking participants to create their own games. In keeping with the voluntary aspect of play, we asked each group of three participants to decide which principle (end-gaining, direction, awareness, inhibition, primary control, or observation) they wanted to explore in creating games. In the second half of the workshop, the participants spontaneously chose to play without a principle in mind to discover what principles might emerge.
Participants chose from toys and props: balloons, sponge balls, tennis balls, pool noodles, and piles of National Geographic magazines. One group used pool noodles to explore the balance of opposition, going into squats with one person at either end of the pool noodle. Then they made the game more complicated by using two noodles and three people!
Mara Sokolsky reported on the workshop in AmSAT Journal and wrote, “We got to explore how elements of play can make those tenets [Alexander principles] come to life in an imaginative, indirect, but highly impressionable fashion.”6
When participants created games without designing them around a particular principle, multiple Alexander Technique prin-ciples emerged within each game—the contrast of end-gaining vs. not end-gaining, using direction vs. not using direction, the effect of inhibition—and all resulted in heightened awareness and ob-servation.
At the end of the workshop, one of the participants said that he had had no idea that he was going to be creating the games—which turned out to be a very pleasant surprise for him. The participants learned a great deal about them-selves in relationship to play and to look at the Alexander principles with fresh eyes.
In order for participants to be willing to play, they must let go of self-consciousness and feel safe working with new people. This takes time. In 2014, there were six participants in a three-hour workshop. The small number of people and the lack of time pressure allowed the group to move organically into playing and experimenting. The 2014 workshop met our personal need for playing with each other, and it sparked our desire to delve more deeply, and more consciously, into play.
The Theme of the 2015 ACGM Workshop was Health and Happiness
Play was in the air at the 2015 ACGM. The Board organized Friday morning’s session around community building. There was a playful approach to defining community that included a word game on qualities of community, whispered ahs, and joining hands pair-by-pair and group-by-group until we were one big circle of joined hands. Our community has its share of conflicts and complex inter-relationships. It gave us hope to see so many of us wishing to bring more play into our time together, helping us move forward with kindness and creativity.
In 2015, we had 18 participants and two hours, and we decided to add more structure to create a sense of safety and to accommodate individual needs for quiet play, active play, rowdy play, and so forth. Stuart Brown finds that a powerful first step to re-engage people with play is to have them inventory their play history.7 We began the workshop with a contemplative exercise combining active rest with reflection on the participants’ individual play histories. This exercise inspired a vast compilation of the definitions, elements, and individual variations of play and helped to bring the group together.
We presented the first game, a variation of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” to groups of three, but we used “up, wide, and forward” instead of “rock, paper, scissors” to make the game more Alexander-relevant. The groups had the autonomy to select a movement or gesture to signify each of these directions and to decide whether or not to keep score and how to change the rules if the game got boring. We had never tried this game in a group before, and we were curious to see how it would work. The groups had a grand time for sure, making silly moves and laughing heartily when all three made the same choice. This game seemed to be a good icebreaker, putting everyone on an equal footing of vulnerability and creating a sense of safety, which allowed the players to feel comfortable while daring to be wrong.
The next game focused on manual sensitivity and, yes, inanity. We divided the group into partners to play a version of “tug-of-war” with toilet paper. The challenge was to pull the toilet paper away from your partner without tearing the paper. We also offered big rolls of paper towels to create variety and options in developing the game so that it would be fun. Some participants were very interested in the texture, strength, and flexibility of the paper and their relation to it through touch and pressure. Some were competitive and determined to win. Some discovered a connection to their play history and noted how much they had evolved since childhood, even though they still had similar preferences.
In both games, we gave instructions to break and change rules as the game progressed, and we asked participants to note if any of the Alexander principles emerged or enhanced aspects of play. Participants’ responses included end-gaining, expanded field of awareness, permission to not know, permission to experiment, and a sense of kinesthetic lightness.
During the third segment of the workshop, participants invented games using a variety of props and toys. One group of three invented a challenging game of catch with the catcher restrained by a jump rope looped around the waist and held by another player who moved the rope to prevent the catcher from catching the ball. A group of four used small balls to create a balance beam to walk across. There were so many ways to have fun, create challenges, and be silly. For us the success of the workshop was revealed by the smiles, the creativity, the joy of exchanging ideas and what-ifs, and the enjoyment of out-of-the-ordinary physical challenge. Because processing time is very important, future workshops will include more ways to process the experiences and facilitate reflection, observation, and possibilities for further exploration.
Future of Playing with Principles
In his book A Playful Path, Bernard De Koven, game designer, author, lecturer, and fun theorist, recommends that adults develop a playfulness practice:
There are many good reasons to be playful, and many equally good reasons why you generally don’t. Which explains why it’s called ‘practice.’ So, here’s what you might need to remember: 1) you can almost always choose to be playful, 2) you’re almost always allowed to be playful, 3) and in all likelihood, you’ll be glad, and so will the people with whom you are playing.8
We will keep practicing playfulness and looking for opportunities to share our playful practice with colleagues. In future workshops, we plan to continue combining Alexander principles with the purposeless nature of good play. It’s not as purposeless as it seems, because playing engages our whole selves and also triggers our habits of mind and body, thus providing a convenient and fun way to address those habits while remaining alert to the present moment, being spontaneous and open to whatever occurs, and having a good time!
1. David Bohm and F. David Peat, Science, Order and Creativity (New York: Bantam Books, 1987).
2. Jake Miller, “Flights of Fancy,” Harvard Medicine (Winter/Spring 2014). www.hms.harvard.edu/news/harvard-medicine/harvard-medicine/play/flights-fancy.
3. Roger Callois, Man, Play and Games, trans. Meyer Barash (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1961), 9–10.
4. Brian Sutton-Smith, The Ambiguity of Play (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 231.
5. See studies cited in Stuart Brown and Christopher Vaughan, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (New York: Penguin, 2009).
6. Mara Sokolsky, “Playing with Principles,” AmSAT Journal, No. 6 (Fall 2014), 34.
7. Brown and Vaughn, op. cit.
8. Bernard De Koven, Playful Path (Pittsburgh, PA: ETC Press, 2014), 45. www.aplayfulpath.com.
Sydney Laurel Harris certified to teach with Frank Ottiwell and Giora Pinkas (ATI-SF, 1977), and she has also studied with Marjorie Barstow, Patrick Macdonald, and Walter and Dilys Carrington. She is a founder and co-director of the Alexander Training Institute of Los Angeles. Sydney delights in her serious/silly AmSAT partnership with Kathy Miranda.
Kathryn M. Miranda (ACAT, 1990) is Director of Alexander Technique of Syracuse, a training course that is currently on hiatus. She has enjoyed the camaraderie and professional associations she has experienced while volunteering for AmSAT in various “serious” roles, including as Chair from 2011 to 2013.