A highlight of my Christmas viewing was '100 Years of King's Carols' (broadcast 21 December on BBC2). The documentary follows the world's most famous choir in the centenary year of the 'Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols' from King's College. Forty-four minutes into the programme, we peek into the vestry and see Cambridge-based Alexander Teacher Polly Waterfield as she works with three of the singers, helping them "find that doorway into being easier with yourself". The voice-over explains that the choir members use the Alexander Technique to maintain comfortable posture, stamina and vocal strength, and that it even helps with performance nerves.
Here's a timely pre-Christmas reminder from Lily Tomlin, one of my favourite actresses:
"For fast-acting relief, try slowing down."
Looking to find out more about the Alexander Technique? Come to my 2-hour 'taster' workshop on Friday 9 November (10.30-12.30)! Enlightenment and enjoyment guaranteed, not to mention coffee and cake.
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Take a look at this marvelous portrait, from the National Portrait Gallery's collection. It's of Sir Desmond MacCarthy (1877-1952), literary critic and member of the Bloomsbury Group, painted by the Bloomsbury artist Duncan Grant in 1944.
I love the sitter's easy upright pose - an example to us all, and so different from the 'slump and peer' posture most of us adopt when reading or writing (or texting) these days. Notice how Desmond MacCarthy uses another book to create a makeshift reading slope.
This is what Gary Neville said on ITV last night, after our valiant '3 Lions' team lost to Croatia in the World Cup semi-final: "I think back to my career and watching players: the best players, in the final third, they always looked like ice cold and they always slowed themselves down and looked like they had that extra moment to find the pass. [Whereas tonight] we looked really rushed...so we never quite see the pass or the run of Harry Kane...we're always too rushed in our minds...the young players, they just don't slow themselves down in their minds enough...But that's youth. And that's maturity."
When we rush, the mind is ahead of the body, which can only ever be in real time. The body doesn't like this split, and reacts by tensing up. A benefit of the Alexander Technique - and one badly needed in our pressurized modern world - is that it teaches us to be less 'rushed in our minds'.
I have just read a remarkable autobiography by a remarkable woman: 'LET IT GO' by Dame Stephanie Shirley CH. There's a pun in the title, as Steve Shirley made her fortune by founding and building a computer software company in the days when IT (as in 'Information Technology') was in its infancy. During her phenomenally successful career, she learned to let go in several senses - through empowering others, through relinquishing control when it was time to move on, and through giving away millions of pounds through 'intelligent philanthropy'.
Letting go is also a recurring theme in the Alexander Technique, be it letting go of unnecessary muscle tension, of habitual over-reaction to a stimulus, of patterns of moving that cause undue wear and tear, or of fixed ideas. A little like Dame Stephanie Shirley, the Alexander Technique student who learns to let go finds that they expand into their best selves as a result. Less is more!
There is much emphasis in the Alexander Technique on undoing the collapsing and narrowing tendencies that accompany life in our sedentary, indoor and hi-tech modern world. As I jogged through my local wood early this morning, it occurred to me that a walk (or run) in nature can be our friend in this regard. There is nothing like ancient woodland, with birds singing from undergrowth to highest canopy, to invite one’s awareness up and out. And as we are what Alexander termed ‘psychophysical unities’ (i.e. mind and body are inseparably linked), the body expands into greater length, openness and – dare I say – ‘springiness’ in response.
In a recent interview, McMafia star Juliet Rylance was asked, 'What is the greatest challenge of our time?' Her reply: 'Apart from the very real threat of climate change, it might be as simple as a lack of stillness. The world feels as though it's speeding up, spinning out of control. I think at least some of our issues would be relieved by a bit of quietude.' FT Weekend Magazine, January 13/14
The Alexander Technique has many benefits, and one of them is helping to quieten our over-reactive minds and over-tense bodies. Lying in semi-supine is a great way of introducing some stillness into our busy lives.
My recent post ('I never thought I could do that' 12/12/17) about a new study investigating the benefit of AT to older people with a fear of falling reminded me of a 2007 research project that covered similar ground. Almost ten years ago, I attended a very inspiring presentation by two American colleagues, Sarah Barker and Glenna Batson. Their pilot study at the University of South Carolina explored the effects of a two-week trial of the Alexander Technique on elderly people living in a residential community.
Sarah and Glenna showed us video footage of participants being tested before and after their series of group AT lessons. The improvement in the elderly people's balance and co-ordination was plain to see. Thanks to a little googling, I have discovered that the video clips can now be viewed on youtube - and by following this link.
Recently I have been working with a mentally sprightly but physically frail octogenarian who is very unsteady on her feet. The most striking improvement is that, whereas when she first came for AT lessons she rose from a chair with difficulty, relying heavily on her arms, now - with a little directed thinking - she can get up without using her hands.
Today I learned of a new UK pilot study which investigated the changes following an AT group intervention for older people with a fear of falling. It concludes that "the intervention had a positive impact on falls-related and physical skills" - and also on psychological wellbeing.
The research paper, co-authored by AT teachers Lesley Glover and Jane Clappison, along with a team from the University of Hull, is published in the European Journal of Integrative Medicine (January 2018). It can be accessed free via this link until January 2018.