When Mo-Mo, Who Eats Everything, Has Eaten the “Up”


Yesterday, my student Jan told me that sometimes if she and her partner feel awful in the morning, they joke that Mo-Mo has eaten the up. I should explain that Mo-Mo is their cat who is on a diet, and because he is getting more fit, he is able to leap everywhere and eat everything.

In thinking about Mo-Mo and the up, I am reflecting on lessons that I have learned and relearned hundreds of times over the past 26 years. One lesson is that just because I can’t feel the up doesn’t mean it isn’t there. The other is that when I feel awful and am desperate for relief, I am likely to end-gain like mad in an effort try to get out of whatever it is that I presume is causing my discomfort.

Here are a few ideas for when it seems that Mo-Mo has eaten the up. Consider the possibility that your directions are going just fine, but something has happened, which will cause you to feel awful no matter what. Maybe you are sick or getting sick. Maybe you didn’t get enough sleep. Maybe you have allergies or there is some environmental factor that is affecting your system. Maybe you have pulled a muscle or injured yourself in some way. When I was in Alexander school long ago in Los Angeles, I recall noticing that often on a day I felt really terrible, someone would compliment me on how well I was doing.

More about feeling the up: as we have more and more Alexander lessons, our sensory perception gets more and more accurate. The improvement of our sensory perception is both wonderful and horrible. It is wonderful, because it is very helpful to be able to listen to our kinesthetic sense when it tells us we are going wrong. It is horrible because it can lead to a presumption that “up” always feels the same and if we don’t have a certain feeling, we must not be going up. It is horrible because it can lead us to seek that feeling (seeking the feeling is what we in the Alexander Technique call “feeling it out”). It is horrible because we can forget that even though our kinesthetic sense is better, it is not totally to be trusted. When we use our kinesthetic sense to try to “get the up”, we get into trouble instead.

Trying to get a certain feeling is end-gaining. “End-gaining” is a phrase that means going directly for your end (feeling better, doing it right) without regard for the best way of getting there.

The best way to lengthen and widen is not to try to lengthen and widen, not to try to feel lengthening and widening, but to do nothing. As we do nothing, we may give ourselves a mental direction for lengthening and widening. A direction is an intention but not a doing. Unfortunately (and this is the second lesson I spoke about above), when we feel really awful, we get desperate for relief, and even the merest idea of lengthening and widening or up can cause us to overdo the directions. In other words, we subtly or not so subtly TRY to lengthen and widen. Without realizing it, we cross over the line and start doing something to try to get the feeling of up, lengthening and widening. This is likely to cause us to feel worse and then to try even harder.

In these cases, what works for me is to take the words “lengthening”, “widening”, and “up” out of my vocabulary. I tell myself, “I accept that I feel awful right now. I am not going to try to fix it. I am not going to ‘direct’. I am just going to do less. If I do less, at least I won’t add to this mess. I am going to be patient with myself.”

Up is always there, but sometimes it needs uncovering. How does it get uncovered? By stopping. By doing less. By letting go of trying to get the feeling. And trusting that if you have stopped the desperate trying, and are doing less, you are making an improvement, even if you can’t feel it.

So the next time you wonder if Mo-Mo has eaten the up, try this approach and let me know how it goes. I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

by Heidi Leathwood

photo courtesy of Jan and Mo-Mo

Ex Machina—thoughts on robot and human movement



I went to see the movie Ex Machina, which I enjoyed immensely. Lots of food for thought about the implications of artificial intelligence. It also stimulated my thinking about conscious choice, habit, and movement, both robot and human. As an Alexander Technique teacher, even when I am wholly immersed in a movie, I can’t help but notice movement patterns, and as I reflected later, my number one question became: did the actress playing the robot make a conscious choice to move differently when the character knew humans were not watching? Perhaps watching the movie again will give me more evidence, but here are some preliminary thoughts.

For the most part, the female protagonist robot moved as a “typical robot”, i.e. the way we are accustomed to think of robots moving: in a mechanically sound way, which involves bending at the bigger joints (hips/knees/ankles), and not bending in the torso. I think most of us tend to think of a typical robot form that does not have a spine, thus it would not have flexibility in the torso. The robot in this movie actually has does have a spine (as you can see through the transparent midsection), making it possible for it to be flexible in the torso and neck.

If you are an Alexander Technique teacher, you may notice that even though the actress (Alicia Vikander, in a wonderful performance) was doing her best to bend at the hip joints (a la good mechanical use), she was still doing some bending in the lower back, presumably without realizing it. It would be normal for this to happen, because of what we in the Alexander Technique call “faulty sensory perception.” This is a phenomenon in which you get so used to your habits that you can’t  feel yourself doing them, and even when you try to move differently, vestiges of your old habits remain.

In another “un-robot-like” movement, the robot pulled its head back when bending forward. For humans, tilting the head back is, in itself, not a bad thing. It is possible to do this with great ease, however most of the time, people do this movement as an unconscious habit, and it serves no purpose. When it is an unconscious habit, usually it involves excessive muscular effort (I call it scrunching), and prevents ease of movement, not only in the head and neck, but throughout the body. This is a typical human habit, and I found myself wondering if the actress, as a human, was doing this movement unintentionally.

Only later did I think of another possible explanation. The robot was built and programmed to seem so human it would fool humans. Perhaps the typical human movement of pulling the head back was deliberate on the part of the actress and the director?

Near the end of the film, I happened to notice a moment when the robot was sitting on the ground and reaching for something (bending forward). In this moment it didn’t pull its head back. Was it simply because it was a different movement than I had seen before–seated on the ground and reaching for something as it bent forward? Later I realized that in this scene the robot was unobserved by humans. Could it be that the robot’s default way of moving is more mechanically advantageous (not pulling its head back in bending), and it was in default mode when it was alone? And the less advantageous way of bending (pulling the head back) was deliberately chosen as part of a program to fool a human into thinking it was a fellow human?

Fellow humans: through Alexander Technique lessons, you can learn to move without unconsciously pulling your head back—show those robots they are not the only ones who can figure out how to move in a mechanically advantageous way. Trump them at conscious control!!!

by Heidi Leathwood

image from “free to share and use commercially” file at Yahoo

Lost in Translation: misunderstanding and faulty sensory perception

IMG_2295It is no wonder there is so much misunderstanding in the world. A simple word can mean completely different things to different people. When I was 20-something, my favorite book was Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” Over the years I often think of the powerful chapter in which Kundera takes a number of seemingly innocuous words, and defines them according to each character’s perspective. Words take on meanings that depend upon associations from our experience. For instance the word “light” can be positive for one person, negative for the next.

Have you ever said something to someone, and then they think for a minute, and say, “Oh, you mean ….”, and they translate what you have said into their own personal language? If you have had this experience, I would be willing to bet that the person you are communicating with often says something related but quite different from what you intended to convey, and often says exactly the opposite of what you meant.

I believe this happens all the time in human interaction: you say something to me, I think about what it means, rephrase it in my head, and then remember my own words, not yours. It becomes a type of faulty sensory perception, where I actually remember hearing you say the words I think you said, but really it was my own translation of what you said that I hear ringing in my ears.

As a teacher/friend/mother/spouse, if I keep this in mind, I can be slower to react in these types of situations…”Maybe I did say that, but let’s talk about it again, because I am not sure that is what I meant.” Or, “Oh, you didn’t say that? I must be remembering what I thought you meant, and not what you actually said. Can we talk about it again?”

The same thing happens when we read about something. We interpret it, and then when we tell someone else about it, we learn we may actually have gotten it wrong. Upon many occasions, my students have related to me something they have read in an Alexander book, but when we look it up, we learn that the words and the meaning were quite different from what they thought it said.

As a teacher, I sometimes learn (and surely often never find out) that students have misheard me or don’t remember hearing me say something. When I find out about it, my habit is to feel defensive, or upset that I hadn’t successfully conveyed the information I intended to. I need to keep in mind the bigger picture, and use this opportunity for learning, both for me and for my student. “Let’s talk about it again.”

photo of “American Pancakes” by Heidi Leathwood, taken in a Madrid Starbucks

blog by Heidi Leathwood