A Game of Speed and Strength
At this point I have been doing yoga in some form or other for about 18 years, and teaching it for almost 11. I’ve been taking lessons in the Alexander Technique for the past three years, and in a couple of weeks I am starting the 3-year Alexander Teacher Training Course. It’s a serious commitment: 1600 hours, 3 hours a day, five days a week with summers off, plus reading and papers.
The last time I took a teacher training 8 years ago was at the Iyengar Institute in New York. I had so much yoga information bouncing around my brain before we began that I started to write it all down, to get a sense of what I knew and where it was coming from. I found it to be an extremely helpful endeavor, so I thought I would try it again now. My regular blog, Yoga: Art+Science, is primarily a yoga blog. I wanted a place where I could be a little more fluid about my subject matter, plus I didn’t want to take for granted that readers over there would be interested in my stumbling around with the Alexander Technique.
I don’t take regular yoga classes any more. I haven’t in six or seven years. I take Alexander Technique and Art of Breathing (based on the work of Carl Stough) with Jessica Wolf and Amy Matthews’ Development Fundamentals class (a fusion of Body/Mind Centering, PNF and Bartenieff work) on a regular basis and, once or twice a year, I take yoga workshops with Donald Moyer, from the Yoga Room in Berkeley, CA. These are all hugely influential in the way I practice and teach, but mostly my practice is self-directed. I manage to get in at least 2 big practices a week, one with my practice partner, Kristen Davis, and one on my own. Some weeks I can practice a little every day, some weeks not. Even though I am thinking about awareness, the mind and the body almost every waking second, having a 3 hour class every day is going to be an intense and new experience.
I already know some of the challenges I am going to face. The biggest is working too hard. My father once joked when I was a kid that I could turn anything into a game of speed and strength. I’ve realized this to be true even now. In my lessons with Jessica I could work so hard at non-doing that I would exhaust myself.
One of the important skills to develop in any mind/body discipline is embodiment. The mind needs to be able to inhabit the body comfortably in such a way that we can sense the inner volume of our bodies three-dimensionally, as much as we are able to sense the three-dimensional space of the room around us. This, I suppose would be the first stage of embodiment. The second stage might be to be aware of the shape and volume of specific internal structures–a muscle, an organ, a bone. Having grasped that, the challenge becomes to sustain awareness of more than one part of the body at a time.
From the skill of embodiment emerges the skill of observing what is happening in those places–movement, tension, release–and not only what is actually happening, but what wants to happen. The mind and body are filled with habits. These potential actions, these small potential doings, are embedded in our nervous systems as a result of years and years of repetition to the point where they become familiar, and even comfortable. At some level we claim them as part of our identity. They become the basis from which we relate to the world and to ourselves. Some of these habits are useful and constructive. Many (most?) are not.
The goal of any mind/body discipline is to recognize these habits and to unravel them, replacing them with new patterns that promote freedom of choice in the way we react and interact.
Usually an Alexander student will have one 45-minute lesson a week on an ongoing basis. For a number of reasons, mostly financial, I was only taking lessons with Jessica once a month or so. In some ways, this was just as well. I would emerge from one in three of our lessons exhausted, my nervous system frazzled. I would often experience anxiety or depression which would last easily for a week. I really wanted to do the Alexander training, but if it was going to be like this for three hours a day every weekday, I didn’t think I would be able to hack it.
Jessica had always observed that I seemed to have a default setting of stillness, but not in a poised, relaxed way. Instead I tend to hold a position, clamping down almost, locked in place. “You’re putting on the brakes,” she would tell me for the better part of a year and a half. I would be so intent on fulfilling all of the cues she would give me to the point of perfection, that I would be straining not do anything wrong. This is the opposite of being in a state of non-doing, where the body is poised but mobile, ready to meet the world and the self with ease and fluidity. Somewhere during the course of my life I had developed the notion that if I just did not move at all, perhaps I wouldn’t do the wrong thing. But living is movement. Breathing is movement. Even in rest there is movement.
I brought this up in class eventually, sometime in August. I made a deal with myself that I wouldn’t try too hard. That, in fact, I wouldn’t “try” at all. And, what do you know, it worked. If you’ve never taken an Alexander lesson, you should know that all one does is lie on a table, sit, stand and walk around for 45 minutes under the listening and guiding hands of the teacher. And yes, it turned out my dad was right. I could turn even this into a game of speed and strength. Not this time, however. I didn’t consciously do any of the things Jessica instructed me to do. And yet, I somehow managed to create the freedom and ease she was looking for. All I did was remain embodied, remain aware of all my inward parts at the same time.
Okay, I thought. I’ve got the hang of this finally. Do less. Do nothing. Just be aware of the body. everything will be easy after that.
And, of course, I was able to turn even that into a game of speed and strength. In late September I had to take two assessment lessons as part of he admissions process to get into the ACAT program. I met my first assessor, Brooke, the program director, on one of those really horrible, sticky wet New York late Summer days. It was hot and muggy and it felt like you were walking around in clothes that weighed a hundred pounds. I went into the session with a poor frame of mind. The idea of having to be assessed has never sat well with me. (Does anyone really enjoy it?) I went in with a bit of a chip on my shoulder, but still willing to put my best foot forward. The lesson started and I did my best to just watch. I thought I was doing well, but apparently I wasn’t. You could tell from the way she was working with me.
I noticed that my inner monologue was going a mile a minute, with all sorts of cranky ego driven chatter. So I did my best to disengage from it, allowing it to fall into the background of my field of thinking. Things got a little better, but even behind the chatter there was movement. The best way I could describe it would be as intellect. I was watching her and myself with a knowing, a cataloging and a contextualizing of everything that was going on. I thought to myself, what if even this is a resistance, a doing? So I tried to let that recede.
And there it was. In that stillness, I seemed to be able to find the poise that she was looking for. This again without me trying to do or not do or even be engaged with what she was asking of me.
So it seems I’m able to make even non-doing a game of speed and strength. I’m going to have my work cut out for me over the next three years. I’ll be working hard at not working at all.