Trainee’s Column: Observation-Where True Change Begins

ImageBy Michelle Brake, 3rd year trainee

Observation was the first step F.M. Alexander made in his journey of learning about his habits and the way he used himself. How can this be the first step, yet the one I most often forget? I remember the first time that it really made sense to me. I was at the University of Denver, in my first years of Alexander lessons when I read something about accepting how you are in the present moment, with no judgement and not wanting to change or fix whatever it is you “think” or “feel” is wrong. This concept was a revelation to me. There were so many things I wanted to change about myself, and the idea of observing those things was very foreign to me. I realized that before I could change those habits, I had to find out if I was really doing what I thought I was doing. Oftentimes, the discovery or observation was not what I expected. I then started observing the circumstances around my habits. What caused me to go deeper into or come up out of them?

The enlightening thing is that when I observed these habits in a scientific and unattached way, they began to change on their own. On the flip side, when I let my emotions, desires and end-gaining take control, there was no room for discovering the true habit, much less allow it to change naturally. I had been letting myself presume what was going on, and in my desperate desire to change, would adjust myself into a worse condition. In her book, Voice and the Alexander Technique, Jane Heinrich explains the principle of non-doing as, “to be able to stop, not to do whatever the habitual response is – before more than superficial change can take place.” After this discovery of what non-doing means, many changes took place when working on myself as well as how I accepted or approached my Alexander lessons. I was able to let my teacher work without getting in her or my own way.

Fast-forward to present time. As a third year teacher trainee almost ready to graduate, I am still rediscovering what inhibition truly means, as my end-gaining always creeps in unawares. Pamela Blanc came as a guest teacher into my training course and focused on this principle of observation/awareness with no preconceived ideas. I have been recovering from a shoulder injury, and find the pain is an incredible motivator to end-gain. Pamela’s reminder of simple, unbiased observation of oneself is helping me to notice habits that cause me even more pain. Gradually those habits are getting less, and I’m seeing improvement much faster than before.

Not only has observation helped my own ailments, but also has helped me in becoming a better teacher. It has taken off some the pressure I put on myself to give a “good” lesson or to “help” my practice students. In the first lesson I taught after this rediscovery, I essentially just talked about the same process that I was going through. Things my student had been struggling with all of sudden became clearer. He was able to make some changes even without me putting hands-on. I don’t know who was more excited, him or me! A phrase that various teachers have said to me is, “The Work works.” That is just what happened. Those moments of quietness, of non-doing, of inhibition make all the difference, and they make me so grateful to be learning and teaching the Technique. I look forward to making more rediscoveries with all the other principles. However, observation/awareness is my favorite, for now.

Photo used with permission, courtesy of Michelle Brake

Learning through Journaling: a Celebration


A beautiful thing about teaching is the opportunity to witness someone’s discoveries. It is a rare privilege. When people share their process with me through their journal, I am often inspired and humbled. My private pupil Briay made my day when I saw she had written a haiku about her weekend, and I was even more ecstatic when she gave permission for me to include it in a blog!

I am very touched by retyping Briay’s poem. The sense of wonder and gratitude she conveys at the discovery that things can change just by noticing and “urging”, and “letting”. I don’t have to hold my body up…my body holds me up.

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I am touched by the power and depth of Alexander’s work as it inspires a poem like this after only a handful of lessons. And to think Briay may never have written that beautiful poem without my journaling requirement for the University course of lessons she is enrolled in. I learn a lot about my students when I require journaling…it seems to stimulate a reflective, questioning attitude in exploring how they move through life. I privately celebrate this attitude when I observe it in my students, but thanks to this blog…journaling myself…I have the chance to make my celebration public. Thank you, Briay, for letting us all in on your reflections on the Alexander Technique!!

And here is her poem again, just in case you were not able to read it in the image above:

A Haiku for my Work Weekend

I worked like a dog/ It wasn’t so taxing though/ I sat at a desk…

I smiled at them/ And I printed their tickets/ Silent films they saw…

I sat at a desk/ My shoulders were very tight/ I urged them, “Expand.”

My shoulders released/ And with them my neck was free/ Freedom I did feel

I sat at a desk/ Without the tension before/ “heart”! My dear body!

My happy body/ You work harder than you should/ Thank you for letting

Thank you! My body!/ You can be so efficient/ When you hold me up!

Haiku by Briay Conditt

Blog by Heidi Leathwood

Image with permission from Briay Conditt



The Importance of Questions


For me, working with the Alexander Technique involves a willingness to ask questions of myself. Questions allow me the freedom and opportunity to notice when I want to change my path. I find that many of my questions arise from self-reflection and stimulate more reflection and more questions, and that coming back to the same questions again and again helps me to notice growth and change and also to reassess. “What is important to me in the long term? What is important to me in this moment? What am I doing? Why am I doing this? What is a good way for me to get closer to what is important to me? What am I doing to get in my own way?”

Or, “What does it mean to stop an unhelpful reaction within myself? How can I employ freedom of my neck and an overall length and width during this activity?” If I am grappling with a big question like one in the previous paragraph, bringing the question back to “what am I doing in this moment?” changes my thoughts about the big question and I often realize something unexpected.

Asking questions of others can forge a human connection and open possibilities we may not have thought of otherwise. Someone once suggested a question I could ask my child in the midst of a tantrum: “What do you need?” I remember vividly one instance in which I managed to do so: the act of becoming aware, stopping my automatic response, and redirecting my actions toward addressing the big picture had radical and unexpected results. My child stopped screaming, thought silently for a few moments and said, “I need a hug.”

I cannot think of a better way to value someone than asking them a thoughtful question and listening to the answer. What could be more important than a person’s needs, wants and goals? When I teach a lesson, my big-picture goal isn’t to spew information at my student, tell them what to do or try to change them. Any of these things can happen if I assume I know what my student is thinking or how they are reacting. What I really want, though, is to learn about what is important to my student, find out something about their reaction in different situations, and help them find a way to get closer to their goals. I want to find out what they are thinking that may be either helpful or unhelpful. What better way than asking questions? In keeping with what F. M. Alexander discovered about the unity of the self, learning more about our own thought process and that of our students is part and parcel of the whole endeavor.

by Heidi Leathwood

photo copyright Heidi Leathwood