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What Alexander means to me

I recently asked a pupil to write briefly what Alexander means to me. She responded by saying that it means:

relaxed ability to be with people
beauty around me
the world
command of my responses
lovely birds and clouds
real relationships
loving myself
challenge and growth

I couldn’t put it better myself!

Alexander Technique in a nutshell

Alexander Technique is the oldest embodiment practice in the west – and remains the most iconic. It predates the 20th century, as the first self-development tool.

Embodiment practices are based on the knowledge that mind and body are an inseparable unit, only functioning in interaction with the world around us.

Although the oldest, Alexander Technique remains the most far-reaching and all-embracing of all embodiment practices. Rather than mindfulness, its goal is self-fulness. Self-fulness means being in harmony with our natural design and functioning, free of internal conflicts and chafing. This includes movement with the greatest possible ease, and engagement with life without unnecessary stress and conflict. Its teachings lead to self-knowing, acceptance, purpose, and self-directed freedom.

There is no hocus pocus involved, no belief, no rituals. Its simple gentleness enables the most direct experience of life. It does not teach flow but the conditions under which flow is likely to occur, such as ease, clarity of presence, integrity of the mind-body-spirt, inner quiet, and choiceful intention.

© 2020 Barry Kantor

Let go of tightening

Are those neck muscles actually helping?

Maybe you are running, and find yourself pushing against the clock. Or maybe you are taking strain pushing against the world, work, relationships. Pushing feels uncomfortable, at the very least, and you may be hurting yourself in the process.

Spare a moment to ask “what is the one thing I can do that is loving towards myself right now?” This is an ideal way to pause and check in with yourself, and to step back from unwarranted effort—perhaps in that pause you will find release, even fresh legs. You can apply this to all aspects of your life, anywhere and anytime. It’s a question of self-respect.

Maybe you will find fresh eyes on a problem you are battling with.

Regain the joy of running

© 2020 Barry Kantor

Frames get in the way

Memories of training in London come alive and bring me joy whenever I meet up with Julia Messenger again.  We trained together in the very early nineties, and still have so much to talk about, not least regarding the Technique, but also about everything else. Frequently, ‘everything else” turns itself back to the Alexander Technique.

We were walking through London last week and she described her experience of the Bonnard exhibition that was on. One of the things she discussed were the frames on the pictures: “There was more than one unframed canvas – there is a single small room dedicated to five of them, nailed to the wall as he would have painted them in his studio. These artworks, unencumbered by heavy, clumpy frames do seem to hit you directly in the eye and the experience was perceptively different from the other paintings.”

This got me thinking how often people frame the things that they do and say, and how this gets in the way of direct experience. As if reality were not enough, we go about ‘framing’ who we are with stylised gestures, turns of phrase, facial expressions or postural shifts. These are matters of habit, usually, rather than the creative animation of what we say. It would be like dressing up nature. As if we we need a little help, we put on a smile, feign some interest, or maintain some subtle pretence or other. But it’s a question of ego, and it makes us false, alienates us from ourselves and others from us, and keeps peace and self-acceptance at bay.

And this is where the Alexander Technique comes back into the picture – through it, we learn to face up to things as they actually are, let ourselves be as we actually are, and present ourselves to the world as we actually are; that is to say, unadorned and free of the myriad habitual patterns of being to which we get so accustomed that we don’t even know they are there.

All this is not to suggest, however, that there isn’t tremendous value to be gained from reframing the way we understand or approach matters. Reframing gives us a different lens or understanding of ourselves, and enlarges our understanding.

We might see something as a problem, for example, but on a second look take a larger view of it, and see how a problem may be the result of the choices that we have made. This may suggest a new course of action that we might otherwise not have considered.

I was fortunate that my concern about my rounded shoulders led me to lessons in the Alexander Technique. It helped me reframe my problem and I soon learnt that my shoulders are not an issue of real concern, and certainly not the issue regarding my posture. I was misunderstanding posture and not taking a holistic view of myself. If I had tried to “fix” my shoulders, as a result of poor insight and lack of understanding, I would have caused more problems for myself, and never have redressed my personal difficulties in the way that the Alexander Technique has made so easy. Instead of seeing my shoulders as a problem to be solved, I see them as a pointer to the development of a new relationship with myself.

Life is an ongoing exploration, a rediscovering and enlarging of our frame of consciousness. So I am not attached to the conclusions that I come to. There is always scope for reframing things. And let’s be clear, reframing is an art, something Alexander Technique has helped me achieve. But dolling ourselves up with the interfering frames of artifice leaves us greatly worse off.

© 2019 Barry Kantor

Your ego footprint

Think about your ego footprint

I recently got new neighbours. They live in the house adjoining mine. I can’t hear them talking unless they are very loud, but I can hear if they knock things over, walk in high heels, play loud music, or reorganise their bookshelf up against our common wall.

The last neighbours, Fabian and his girlfriend, were very quiet; one hardly new if they were home. They moved away without saying goodbye, which is a shame, but the point is I never realised they had gone until I spoke to the movers who were hauling their things onto a removal truck. Fabian had moves “several days ago” they said.

Now I have new neighbours, and I know when they are there, from the time they unlock the door with a grunt, a sigh and a tumble inside. They are especially noisy on the weekends. They park on the pavement, leave their door open while they smoke out in the yard, continue chatting from outside to anyone still inside, and play music that gets louder as the Sunday afternoon wears on. They seem to knock and damage things quite a bit, and generally stomp about.

We speak of “footprint” to describe the impact that our way of life has on the environment; and the difference in my two neighbours led me to think about whether we each have our own individual “ego footprint”. Am I a bull in a china shop, or am I quiet as a mouse? Sometimes, it is true, I can be like the former, and other times I am more quiet, but generally I am somewhere in between, shifting dynamically as to my mood or the occasion – or how much I’ve had to drink.

Consider reducing your ego footprint

We each have our unique ego footprint, which determines the range within which we normally operate. Some people are filled with bombast and others show great humility. Some have little and often no awareness of themselves, while others show care, understanding and restraint, thinking before they do something and sensitive to how they are doing them. They are in touch with what is appropriate to the place and occasion and do not assume that everyone around them wants to know they are there. Some people bump into things, hoot and jump lanes, generally irritating those around them – if not causing actual damage. Others have a softer impact, glide through life announced, and use their energies more effectively.

Not that I want to spoil anyone’s fun. And because I don’t, I aspire to ‘taking up less space’. The Alexander Technique is my route to getting there.

© 2019 Barry Kantor

The present is infinite

I overheard the late Marjorie Barlowe, an Alexander teacher who trained many teachers of the Technique, and who happens to have been Alexander’s niece, say to a young guy she was working with on the table, “yes I know we have other things to do in five minutes but let’s remember that in a certain sense we have an infinity of time”. This was back in 1991 and I have often recalled those words when I find a pupil rushing or getting anxious.

Nowadays I often say to my pupils “we have infinite time” and one questioned me today by asking what I mean. So I tried it on my next pupil. But he correcting me by saying: “well, perhaps we can have an experience of infinity”. No doubt he is right, but time is but a construct and we can imagine living without past and future, without a word for “when”, and without being ruled by the might of time.

And it occurs to me that since we can only be alive in the present, only live right now, there really is no such thing as time, and we experience infinity if we stay in the present. And so, in a certain sense, we too are infinite. And in a very practical sense, if we remember this we can relax more, feel more expansive, and enjoy more freedom then if we are governed by the pressure of time.

Now sorry to be difficult, and to honour a Buddhist teacher I once had the great privilege of meeting, named Arnaud Maitland, I am going to be paradoxical and say that without a sense of time we will never get anything done. And indeed, by aligning ourselves in time, as Arnaud taught, we can accomplish a great deal. The trick is to stay in time, with time, but not forgetting that we ourselves are infinite, with infinite time, and that to stay in the present in that sense of infinity can help us be efficient rather than spiral out of control like the Road Runner, or Speedy Gonzales. Then time opens up and we can move more freely, think more creatively, and meet our deadlines with great efficiency.

Life is all about doing, manifesting, creating. Even relaxing on a Sunday afternoon under a tree with good friends, when we are especially able to enjoy the freedom of a sense of the infinite, as if free of time, we are up to something, whether it only be lying down, talking, eating grapes, having a snooze.

We can harness ease by having spacious awareness of where we are. At the same time, we can have an awareness of when we are, with a clear sense of the time we have, no more and no less, yet without being harassed and contracted by rushing. Yes, we can be clear about what we are up to, clear about our intentions to accomplish something or to simply arrive somewhere. And so we can live full and fruitful lives, get to our appointments in time, and do so with easy grace.

© 2018 Barry Kantor

The world is designed for us

“Wow, look at the size of that tree!” said Brian. “Come on, let’s climb it,” said Julia. It was one of those rare summer days, perfect in every way, when you are with friends in the country, with time to do nothing. And you feel like you are 10 again.

We’d had lunch, toured some wine estates, and were now exploring a public garden, filled with indigenous fynbos, and that one giant Ficus tree. Within moments, Julia had climbed the enormous trunk and was making her way up a side branch. Responsive as usual to Julia’s enthusiasm, I spied a branch that looked just right. It curved off another making a gentle angle, a back-rest against which to lie. I climbed up and settled myself down along the branch, only to find it was anything but comfortable. It had nobbles all over that stuck into my back, the angle of the branches was wrong, it was too narrow. Nothing about the branch was fit for my purpose. And it had looked so wonderful from below.

The others had by now climbed up and were sitting in various spots around the tree, some more precariously than others. I was too lazy to move myself and chatted with the others until we all fell silent. Within about five minutes of having climbed up I found myself falling asleep. I realised with surprise that my branch was in fact after all the most comfortable spot in the world. It fitted me perfectly, was smooth as can be, and the angle was faultless, just like a beach recliner.

How often do we rant against the difficulties of life, the peculiarities of others, the discomforts of our living arrangements?

That tree taught me something so valuable: if you relax and don’t fight against the world, it becomes exactly what you want it to be. We can be amazingly flexible and adaptable but instead find ourselves chafing against the world by tightening, holding ourselves stiff, taking up an attitude, sticking to our opinions, expecting things to be different … all to suit us!

The Alexander Technique teaches us how to be responsive rather than reactive, to allow rather than push. The result is that we become easier, in fact more human, as I did after those few minutes of letting go in that tree.  Normally I would have jumped down in protest, but because of the day, my friends around me, my laziness, I stuck it out and found myself giving in to the shapes of the tree. How easy life can be if we remember this.

© 2018 Barry Kantor

Life is enounter

The essence of every aspect of real life is encounter. We encounter things all the time. We meet others, and we live in close encounter with ourselves. There is no getting away from it: we are built for the purpose of encountering. And that makes us – and life – interesting, because there are always so many responses possible.

Unfortunately, we develop worn-out patterns in the ways in which we encounter others, in how we respond to them and to our own needs, and this limits our potential to enjoy life.  Think of how you relate to “boss”, to politicians, to friends, and even to members of your own family. Most of these patterns are habitual, and do not fit the individual purpose of any specific encounter. Understanding our responses in the way we engage with the infinite encounters that make up our lives is therefore the key to understanding life, and hence vital to any possibility for improving things.

The Alexander Technique sensitises us to our responses in any encounter – how we deal with objects, how we engage with others, how we attend to our needs. It gives us access to how we move, how we relate, and even to how we think. It teaches the skill of change, of taking charge of our responses in the moment, and this re-awakens our choice, flexibility, variability, and creativity.

© 2018 Barry Kantor

Alexander Technique and self-acceptance

I sometimes say that the Alexander Technique comes down to a practice of love. The Technique is based on non-doing, which results in self-acceptance, without grasping or reacting. And this enables us to be with another free of judgments and expectations.

So what do I mean by love?

Love is:

  • I seek to see you as you are
  • I accept you as you are without judgment or wanting to change you
  • I give you the right to be here with all of yourself – as well as the right to choose not to be
  • I give you time and attention
  • I respect you and your choices
  • I believe you have the right to take up space
  • I connect with you, am available, am prepared to be moved by you
  • I am serious with you, and take you seriously
  • I choose to be with you
  • I accept and respect myself, and am willing to share feelings and thoughts openly with you
  • I show up in this relationship with all of me

Love is not:

  • I’m not jealous of you
  • I’m not in competition with you
  • I don’t have anything to prove to you
  • I don’t judge or resent you
  • I don’t anticipate judgment or rejection from you
  • I do not avoid conflict with you, any more than I shy from an emotional connection with you
  • Love it not soppy, or ‘nice’; I don’t pander to you – it takes guts and risk

Compare passion:

  • I can’t get enough of you
  • I need you to complete me
  • I idolize you
  • I am turned on by you, get excited just thinking about you; long to meld physically

A friend of mine, an artist, paints portraits. She says that no matter who she is painting, by the time she has finished the portrait she feels love for her sitter. For me this applies to my Alexander Technique students. Love is active, a giving of non-judgmental attention. It is not just a lucky happening.

© 2017 Barry Kantor

How many lessons do I need?

This morning, a new pupil reminded me of myself when I was 24 years old and learning the clarinet.

Life events took me to Windhoek in Namibia for a year soon after finishing university. I decided to take up the saxophone, which is something I’d always wanted to be able to play. The Windhoek Conservatoire had no saxophone to lend me, so I settled on the clarinet – “it’s a similar instrument,” I was told.

After a couple of weeks I told my teacher I planned to be able to play Mozart’s clarinet concerto by the time I left the country. She looked at me nonplussed but was too polite to set me straight. In a few more weeks I realised how naïve my expectations had been.

So this morning, my pupil asked me: “What’s the longest-standing pupil that you have?”

“Over 5 years in a couple of cases,” I replied, “and there is one pupil whose recently returned after I first taught him over 20 years ago.”

“What?” she asked looking over her shoulder at me. “What can there possibly still be to learn after all that time?”

I smiled remembering my own assumptions about the clarinet – after all, I’d thought, you only play one note at a time, it couldn’t be as difficult as the piano which I’d played as a child.

Pupils can make extraordinary progress in just 10 Alexander lessons and really enjoy surprising benefits in that time. But like any skill in life that is really worth learning, it may take a good deal longer to get good at. Socrates said something like: ‘The more I learn, the more I realise how little I know.’ And how much more true is this when it comes to learning about ourselves!

Becoming a teacher of the Alexander Technique takes three years of full-time training. Even after that, novice teachers frequently don’t feel up to the job. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers wrote that it takes 10,000 hours to become seriously good at anything. While one doesn’t need anything like that to benefit hugely from the Technique, I must admit it was only after I’d been teaching for about 10,000 hours that I really did feel like an expert at teaching it.

© 2017 Barry Kantor