Published Articles & acknowledgements
PUBLISHED in SYNERGY NEWS Autumn 2012
The Alexander technique and you
Many of you already know that using the Alexander technique in your day to day living eases unnecessary muscle tension and prevents the build up of stress resulting from long held unconscious habits of reaction. Learning to apply the technique to everyday activities can bring about sometimes unexpected benefits and changes in many areas including a greater enjoyment of life.
All of this however is dependent on a change in your attitude!
You may assume that I am talking about a Pollyanna approach to life: always (annoyingly perhaps) looking on the bright side. But no. Not necessarily. Being unreflective and unremittingly positive in the face of adversity or tiredness can mean ignoring the very problem that is confronting you and losing sight of the reality of the situation.
Training as an Alexander teacher I was reminded*: When you wake up in the morning and everything is lousy don’t pull yourself up and try to make it better. It won’t help. First of all you have to accept how bad it is, then ascertain how to prevent things from getting worse. From that point there is an increased possibility of improvement in the situation.
All the matters over which you have little direct control but which affect you adversely both at home and at work can be lumped into the category ‘Lousy’. A few topical areas might include over ambitious turnover targets, Social cuts, Cost trimming, you can add your own.
The key question is, how to prevent things from getting worse especially when it isn’t you making the rules.
Arguably the most significant control or choice open to a person is how you react and how that reaction affects your self.
Every person (or patient) encountered in a day and each situation will evoke a feeling response between empathy and dislike in all the many gradations.
In the online survey on Emotional Intelligence featured in the April issue of this magazine those with higher scores were ‘ less likely to give way to their urges’. This would indicate that they could prevent reactions that would have been professionally inappropriate.
Controlling emotions, however, will often involve, imperceptibly, a biting of the lip or clenching of the jaw and a holding of the breath with attendant muscle tensing contributing to an accumulation of stress throughout the day. So although these professionals are presenting a helpful response to a patient and contributing positively to a situation it may be at their own expense.
I am not of course advocating a need to express all emotions willy nilly which brings its own negative results for self and others. There is, however, another possibility between letting it all hang out and keeping it ‘buttoned up’ and this is where the Alexander technique can step smartly into the breach.
Instead of the pervasive contraction of muscles in the neck and jaw in the suppression of emotion you learn, with the technique, to prevent this physical reaction and to free up the over contacted neck muscles, taking a split second to choose how you are going to use that feeling response usefully.
Rather than being held in a fixed position, the head is now freely balancing through the atlanto occipital joint, supported on the neck. Voice, breath, neck and shoulders all benefit from less constriction, consequently the spine also receives fewer jarring shocks from the weighty impact of the head.
This result depends however, on that change of attitude!
Faced with a harried work pace or difficulties to overcome we tend to ‘brace up’ to try to make things better, to do something to make it work. We have been educated to get things right. It takes a shift in mind set and some lessons in the Alexander technique to instead be able to take a small step back, to stop, think and choose to ensure the situation won’t become worse through any unconscious habitual tensing up.
Looking after yourself with this new approach, learning to notice that muscle and breath are working appropriately without undue tension, what ever the situation, means you can be a Pollyanna, if that’s your nature, without a risk to yourself.
For the rest of us we can at least know we are doing our very best for ourselves, as well as others, whoever is laying down the rules!
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An article about accompanying the dying for those interested in the TLC section
TOWARD THE UNKNOWN REGION
At some point, usually in our adult life, the likelihood is that we will face the situation of losing a loved one. Some of those we are close to come within our regular care, others we visit, for 30 minutes, over weeks or much longer periods of time.
Despite encountering family illness and death over four decades I have often been left with a feeling of helplessness not knowing how best to behave at the bedside. Sometimes, happily, my intuition came into play but I was aware how easily my own anxieties could overtake my compassion.
It is only when I came across the work of Felicity Warner and was trained by her that I found a map, if you like, to guide me even at times of emotional distress. A means whereby I could do least harm and give appropriate (non medical, non denominational) occasional or more enduring support to someone coming to the end of their life.
Often there are recognisable stages in the dying process. Having knowledge of these gives a structure to the support we can offer however long our bedside contact lasts.
Using such analogies as the four seasons or stages of babyhood (dependence-needing support) through to Adult hood (independence-leaving) the TLC (tender loving care) training that Felicity (and myself) teach offers practical exercises and advice for person centred caring.
Some people may be equipped to offer skills in this setting and have already been a supportive presence to family and friends. It is helpful, however, to know what is most appropriate and at what stage kindly intended attention can be best received.
Looking after myself, is also an important factor in accompanying a very ill person. At moments it can be just too difficult to be present and we need to recognise what we can and cannot manage at the time.
In his book ‘Being Mortal’ Atul Gawande talks about how in the past the interval between realising you had a life threatening ailment and dying was commonly a matter of days or weeks. In the medieval era dying used to be ‘accomplished’ by a prescribed set of customs and protocols. Perhaps also due to the wide spread plagues of fatal diseases, guides to Ars moriendi , the art of dying, were very popular at this period. Even before William Caxton printed, in 1490, his translation from the French, the “Art and craft to know well to die”, there was a popular hand written Latin manuscript Ars moriendi in 1415 which was later translated and printed in more than a hundred editions across Europe.
It included instructions to friends and family on ‘ proper bedside behaviour’.
Since the increased medicalisation of dying, ‘proper bedside behaviour’ may have lost its time honoured place. This absence and often consequent lack of openess and acceptance of the natural process called death could be, as Diana Athill reflects, a pendulum swing away from the 19th century’s ‘obsession with the subject’. There are, however, still cultures that abide by old customs but not often in the urban areas where many of us live.
It is over 10 years since the first ‘Death cafe’ was inaugurated in Europe and the movement has since grown around the world, (Hong Kong, London, Paris, New York). They provide a chatty and open forum for talking about death and dying and what it means to us. When asked if this wasn’t an overly morbid activity for those at the meetings a psychologist declared the whole process very life affirming ‘because they eat cake‘!
However much we discuss these matters it can take some courage to keep company with someone leaving this life for the unfamiliar or unknown. Whatever your spiritual beliefs or intuition small techniques that augment your sensitivity, reassurance and kindness framed in a clear understanding of what is happening can make a difference to you, to the dying person and those around them.
Elizabeth Kubler Ross said that every time we go through a crisis in our life we are rehearsing for our own death. They may also play their part in helping me to achieve an accepted death. In understanding and recognising the way to best support others perhaps I am also laying the foundations for accepting the challenges of what will be my own dying.
Years ago, in Rotterdam’s Museum park as part of a 24 hour theatre performance , I sang ,at sun rise, the moving choral piece “Toward the unknown region”. It contains a line that has always stayed with me. “No map there, no guide”
I am grateful to discover, however, that the earth bound journey towards that uncharted place often has signposts along the way, available to recognise and follow so that I am (to place in a slightly different context), “Equal, equipt at last”.
Kate Kelly August 2015
Kate trained in Soul midwifery with Felicity Warner in 2013
“Safe Journey Home, a simple guide to achieving a peaceful death”
Felicity Warner Hay House 2008
“Being Mortal , Illness, medicine and what matters in the end “
Atul Gawande Wellcome Collection 2015
Notes on Ars Moriendi Bodleian Library Oxford S. Seld. d.11(1)
Guardian article 23 September 2014 Diana Athill
“Death and Dying” Elizabeth Kubler Ross
“Toward the unknown Region” Words Walt Whitman, Music Vaughan Williams 1907
Walter Carrington and his team of teachers gave me
a marvellous training in the Alexander technique
for which I will always be immensely grateful.
My work is informed by the training I took to qualify in 1999 as an A.A. Tomatis practitioner in London. I gave a paper to an International congress of my Alexander peers in 2004 entitled ‘The Generous voice’ linking aspects of Alexander’s and Tomatis’ discoveries.
I have also benefited from the teaching of the Roy Hart theatre in France (especially from my colleague Ivan Midderigh),
whose members work with the eight octave voice.
I have been very supported and guided for over
by Hilmar Schonauer through his exploration
and teaching of the work
of Bob Moore.
I trained in 2013 as a Soul midwife with Felicity Warner and now give workshops (TLC) on how best to accompany those at the end of their life.
Thank you to
Julie Vander Poorten
for B+W photos
on this website