Monday, 7 December 2009

Which way is "Up"?

I cried the day my brother died.

I had the rare privilege of having my "Alexander hands" on him as he took his last breath. I felt the energy leave his body. He had had a cardiac arrest 5 days previously which he had survived - physically - but which had catastrophically damaged his brain due to oxygen starvation. Although he was unconscious for the whole 5 days, his body was not limp.

I realised that the energy which held his body together in that hospital bed was not just blood pressure. It was more than Tensegrity. It was that "thing" that we are constantly trying to direct "up".

"Upness", if I can call it that, is the lightness that we feel when we have had an Alexander lesson. It's that sense of being tall and free: no sense of being pulled-down. It's good. Much as we might wish to, we can't actually "do" anything to bring about upness. It's a reflex that's built into our bodies that is always trying to counter the forces of gravity that pull us down. To experience it, we just have to get out of its way (i.e. inhibit the tension that blocks it) and give it direction.

Think of it like a hose pipe lying on the lawn which you want to use to water the plants in the borders. Left to it's own devices, it will thrash around under the water pressure and the flow of water will go almost anywhere except on the flowers as intended. You pick up the hose to stop it thrashing and you direct it towards the flower beds. You are inhibiting the hose's tendency to go in the wrong direction and you are directing it to where you want it to go. You are not trying to make the water flow. It's doing that on its own.

In a lesson - and in your day-to-day life - you should not try to "create" upness. When you are standing, say while waiting for a train or a bus or to get served in a shop, feel your feet and your heels on the floor and allow the floor to push up through your bones until it pops out of the top of your head. If the upness does not seem to be flowing, it's not because it's not there: you just need to release the unnecessary tensions that are impeding it.

You can direct the flow upwards, beginning by freeing your neck and allowing your head to go forward and up. This freedom of the head and neck lets your back lengthen and widen, widening across the upper parts of your arms. You release your knee caps and allow you knees to go forward and away - towards your second toes. Keep repeating these directions to yourself - not necessarily by verbalising them. At the end of each cycle of directions, just check that you are not "doing" anything to make the directions work. Remember to get out of the way to allow the upness to flow.

Don't under any circumstances, beat yourself up if it takes time to master this art of non-doing. The more you practise the better you will understand what is required for you NOT to do!

Oh, and which way is "up"? It's the direction from the bottom of your spine to the top of your head. It's vertical when you are standing and horizontal when you lie down. The flow is always in this direction whatever you are doing.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

What are the "AT Basics"?

I've been pondering this question for a number of years and I now find myself in a position where I must decide which aspects of AT that I should teach to a beginner.

Call me "old fashioned" if you like, but I believe that, as a provider of a training service, I have a duty of care towards my pupils to ensure that they have at least been introduced to the basics within the first 10 weeks albeit that this might be pushing them along at a relatively fast rate. Only after I have covered the core principles will I slow down and deal with individual aspects in more detail.

A ten-week course currently costs £300 and in this "credit crunch" world, people want to get value for money in the services they buy. Imagine their reaction if after completing a short course, they compare notes with another AT pupil and discover that there are some key things that have not been taught. But what are "the basics" of AT? Here is my attempt at a list. It's not supposed to be exhaustive and it's in no particular order.

  • An overview of the Alexander Technique including a summary of FM Alexander's life, work and discoveries.

  • How to do the daily practice of lying in semi-supine

  • Standing and sitting in a chair: the role of the postural mechanism of the body and how habit interferes with it

  • Inhibition: saying "no" (to habit) in response to stimuli

  • Direction: the "mantra" of allowing the neck to be free so that the head can go forward and up and the back can lengthen and widen, widening across the upper part of the arms and the knees can go forward and away.

  • The role of the ilio-psoas muscles in influencing core tensions

  • Whispered Ah

  • Positions of mechanical advantage with "hands on the back of the chair" as an example

  • Using the wall to inform the process of releasing the knees into bending - a precursor to walking

  • Walking

  • Stooping, crawling and lunging

  • Going up on to the toes

  • The neural control mechanisms of the body: spirals

That's a lot of ground to cover in just 10 weeks but my question is this: which, if any of these things could you leave-out in a short course?

Given that most pupils won't actually tell you how many lessons they are going to take, in what order should these principles be taught?

I fully accept the principle that no two people are the same and therefore a prescriptive system can never be defined that would cover all pupils' needs. We should always stick to principle and deal with the body as a whole and not focus on individual misuses or undue tensions. However, it's my view that customisation of the teaching curriculum to address the pupil's individual needs should only be considered when the basics have been covered.

As usual, I would welcome comments, especially from teachers but also from pupils who have a view on this.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

It's time to protect our market

I've been thinking for a long time about how I can do justice to the subject of marketing AT services. My views on this subject have not changed since I first began my teacher-training in 2002.

The publication of the ATEAM study in August 2008 heralded a new era in the AT profession. At last we can put to bed the futile argument about whether AT is a therapy or a form of education. When used to help people with bad backs, it's educational therapy. The study showed that AT was more effective than other forms of remedial treatment because the educational element of AT extended the period of its effectiveness as a therapy for chronic lower back pain.

If we continue with the line that AT is purely education then we cut ourselves off from this potentially lucrative market of new pupils seeking treatment for their backs. Ask a random sample of the population why someone might book AT sessions and the vast majority will say something about improving their posture or about back problems. Ask them where they might expect to see AT advertised on the Net and they will invariably mention the words alternative and therapy. They might even use the words medical or treatment but I'm willing to bet that virtually none of them will say anything about education.

If we really insist on disabusing our pupils of the notion that AT is therapy, there is a time and a place to do it - and that's in a lesson, once the new pupil has committed, and absolutely NOT at the time where we are prospecting for new pupils.

So what's my point about protecting our markets I hear you say.

We are entering the mother of all recessions since the great depression of the 1930's. Thousands of people are losing their jobs every week and those who are still employed are getting anxious about their own particular job security. Whether or not there is any need for it, people are beginning to tighten their belts and economise, preparing for the possibility of bad times to come.

Those who may have been considering taking-up Alexander lessons or even training to be AT teachers will be having second thoughts. It's going to be tough for existing AT practitioners and for teacher training schools.

So when I read in the recent newsletter that new teacher training schools (heads of training) had been applied-for, I immediately wrote off an email to STAT to suggest that they refused permission - at least in the UK.

We are a private society of members who are each invited to join STAT, when we apply for training at STAT-approved schools. There is no automatic right to membership and, as a private society, we have the absolute right to refuse membership to anyone for any reason provided such refusal is within the remit of our constitution and represents the will of the membership.

I think the time has come for STAT to protect existing practitioners and established training schools from an over-supply of qualified teachers. In the current economic climate, I would be furious if STAT were to grant an application for a new teacher training school in my geographical locality. Business is hard to find and the prospect of a local school churning-out newly qualified teachers into an already saturated market would fill me with dismay.

Nowithstanding the possible new demand that may be stimulated in the medical sector by the ATEAM study, we should not continue to undermine our existing, limited markets by opening new AT teacher training schools.

As it happens, the current proposals for teacher training schools don't particularly affect my geographical area, so I'm therefore arguing my point from common sense rather that from a NIMBY attitude. Unlike many struggling AT teachers, I have my own alternative form of income that means I'm not dependent on an income from teaching so again, I'm not being self-serving by arguing for more regulation of the market.

You only need to look at what has happened to the acting profession to see the effect of over-supply. Most actors spend more time out of work than in-work because there are probably 10 actors (or more?) available for every one job. It's a classic example of an unregulated market. There is no framework to enable the supply of new actors to be stemmed, unlike in AT, where accreditation by a recognised professional organisation is seen by our customers as an important requirement, if not exactly a prerequisite.

We know from recent salary surveys of AT teachers that there is a crisis amongst those who are teaching AT as their primary source of income. Compare today's typical lesson fee of £30 to the 4 guineas charged by FM Alexander 90 years ago. His fee corresponded to around £200 by modern standards! It's my understanding that he expressed concerns about the dilution of the market by newly qualified teachers: fears which evidently were well-founded.

I therefore intend to propose a motion for debate at the next STAT AGM, providing I can find a seconder. At the moment, I'm thinking of something on the lines of the following:

"The membership feels that too many teachers are being trained at present and would like Council to explore a moratorium on new schools in the UK for 5 years. After this time, the granting of new heads of training will be strictly controlled having regard for the demand for AT lessons in the geographical location relative to existing supply in that location and to the will of the membership."

If you have a view on this or would like to second such a motion, please Send me an email or comment on this blog.