The Vault

Observing and Understanding Group Energy

By Vivien Plews

 

At the International Congress for the Alexander Technique in Brighton 1988, special attention was given to working with children and the Alexander Technique. Several of us were involved in this and gave lectures and workshops designed to illustrate our own individual approaches. In the preceding lecture, Lizzie Atkinson had highlighted the benefits to be gained in the growth of the individual through working in groups with the Alexander Technique. My approach was then to look at the quality of communication between individual members of a group and between teacher and group.

From experience and observation in working with children and adults I find that our own individual fears act as a block to real and therefore effective communications. Generally speaking a child's 'communicating persona' is not as well rehearsed as an adult's—when the adult comes out from behind his/her persona of 'teacher,' 'parent' or just plain 'adult,' the child is more likely to drop his/her mask and so facilitate a real exchange. This new-found honesty in communication provides a security in the immediate environment which makes fertile ground for possible change to a new way of being for an adult or a child.

In the Alexander Technique we are not interested in masks, tricks and various short cuts which supposedly help us to cope with the multitudinous stimuli found in everyday life. Many teachers are limited in the effectiveness of their teaching with children because they are not aware enough of the masks, protections and barriers they use in communication. Inhibition and direction are extraordinarily effective tools for real communication, providing a new means whereby to gain a pathway to a change which is not limited but open.

Focus and Structure of Workshop

The workshop which I ran with twenty-eight teachers at the 1988 Congress was structured so that we graduated from working in pairs to fours, then to a larger group of nine or ten. At each stage the participants were given a task to carry out with the rest of the group followed by sharing and feed-back within the groups.

In pairs, one partner A the other B, contact with partner's palms of hands and eyes. A leads, then B leads, both for a period of time dictated by me. Throughout this activity verbal reminders for the use of inhibition and direction are given by me along with nudges to check jaw tightness, "Have you stopped breathing?", "Do you want to lead?", "Are you happy to be led?", "Do you feel threatened, irritated?" etc.

As an individual makes these observations within the activity, I encourage them to use their Alexander work to 'let go' of unnecessary reactions. The couple then sit down for 3 minutes and frankly compare notes, e.g., "I found it difficult to follow you, you didn't seem to want to lead!"—response—"Really! I thought I was being too pushy," etc.

This couple then find another couple and they swap partners repeating the procedure, while I give the format as before. When the time comes to discuss the reaction of each to the other, this is done in the group of four so there are two people within the group who have worked with a third. The response may be "I found it really easy to keep eye contact with my second partner whereas with my first I found it difficult!" A high level of awareness of use was cultivated through each activity and feed-back was straight and honest, but not destructively critical.

The group was divided into sub-groups of nine or ten persons and I told them that I would like them to work out a group dance. I suggested that they work out a rhythm first and maintain this either by singing or sounds, clapping, tongue noises, whistling or any means they might invent. I reminded them of folk dances in lines, circles, foot stamps, etc., and suggested that they keep the step simple. I showed them a few to encourage them so that they did have the background knowledge for the task. I then gave them ten minutes to work it out.

After this period of time we had each 'dance' performed. I was astounded by the variety, the skill, fun and sheer enthusiasm which emerged. One was very beautiful and atmospheric, another rhythmical, active and strong and the third group turned up with a rumbustious genuinely funny piece.

We all then sat together and discussed the workshop. Judging by the response of all group members, a substantial leap in individual awareness of the self in a situation of communication was achieved. Initial emotions of fear, aggression, irritation, and caution were shed. Each person's consciousness expanded into relief, love, freedom, lightness, sympathy, etc. These newfound patterns of response were not short lived but grew as we greeted each other throughout the short period of time left to us at the Congress. The change in the use of the whole self had been pushed a little further than usual for most people and there was a buzz of excitement at this exploration.

One participant wrote later:

This opening up process which you led us through gave us a different arena for communication to that of the Congress in general and marked a strong contrast with how we felt before the class and after. I think the word quality begins to express the heightened awareness of this sort of communication.

This change would hopefully be developed by each individual with the help of inhibition and direction over a period of time. It would have been good to have follow up work. However, a remark of "Why didn't we have this at the beginning of the Congress, it would have made so much difference?" made me seriously concerned about our communication abilities as teachers and individuals. When we feel afraid, defensive, business-like, cautious, etc., we block communication and set up uneasy patterns of response with each other. In teaching, if the communication is poor between teacher and pupil then consequently the learning procedure will follow a similar pattern.

Methods of Gaining the Interest of Children

When teaching the Alexander Technique to young people it cannot be done by any one single procedure as each person's interests will be individual. For example, a child who is interested in mechanics of biology will respond well to pictures of the body's structure.

I recommend using How Your Body Works, by Judy Hindley and Christopher Rawson, Usborne Publishing Ltd., 1975. This book has excellent pictures which appeal to young people on the body's functions. I also use it for some of my adult pupils! Initially, I show the pictures on page 42 and 43 of the skeletal structure and the contents of the torso. It is obvious that the bones are spaces in the body and that the torso is full up with the life support system—lungs, heart, liver, intestines, etc., with no spare room for the contents to move into if we should begin to collapse and squash ourselves. The muscles are the movers of the body, they hold us up and get us around to do things. So the teacher can illustrate that if we go around squashing our insides then this will affect all the complicated activities taking place in our torsos, like breathing, digestion, circulation etc., so that they don't work quite so well. If we carry on squashing ourselves then we may eventually hurt and distort the bones and joints. Here we have given a simple explanation of use affecting functioning.

If the muscles hold us up and move us and we have established so far in the lesson that perhaps we are not moving our bodies in as co-operative a way as we could, then it becomes obvious that we must have a word with these muscles. Talking to your muscles can be a way of introducing 'directions'. The primary control is the H.Q. The Chief of Police, The Conductor—whichever person in command the child can relate to, and we must consult the primary control!

As I see it, the teacher's job is to communicate to the pupil the reality of the communication system within. The learning process helps the pupil to become in charge of this system so the pupil is the one to give the orders to his/her body and make the choices. The idea of being 'in charge' is usually one which appeals to children. The illustrations in the book—or any other form of pictures which you may provide—give visual impact which will stimulate the pupil to look at his/her self in a different way. Pictures, photos or videos of cats pouncing, horses running, dogs leaping to catch a ball, will all illustrate the primary control in action. This is what we are aiming at with children. To help them to use their new improved use in their daily activities, a tool with which to tackle life, one which improves the more you use it.

Work with Groups

With a group of children, I have asked them to think of something sad which has happened to them and then to remember what it felt like at the time. Take several moments for this, don't rush them. You will find that the children respond with physical as well as facial expressions. At this point, with a group I usually go around and lightly put a hand in the area of their occipital joint and ask them to stop thinking of sad things, encourage them to take over the whole situation by gently talking to their neck muscles, asking them to undo their extra tightness or not to be so floppy, whichever is appropriate, and then to ask the head to lead the rest of the body. Sometimes as soon as you put your hand to the child's occipital joint the response is to immediately let the head lead. Talking about each child's experience afterwards will feed back to you how much awareness they each have of themselves. The group will have observed each others reaction to some extent, giving a more objective feed-back on their use rather than leaving them to the mercy of their own subjective feelings.

One to One

I always mention feet quite early on with a young person's lesson. Often the weight is badly distributed on the feet in their everyday use. A change can be brought about quite dramatically by putting hands on their feet whilst they are in the standing mode and encouraging them to just leave the feet alone and to let them lengthen and widen on the floor. With very gentle hands directing their head forward and up a little, walking can be done, leaving their feet alone, bringing about a new experience. These changes in use must be experienced as being pleasurable with children, otherwise they will block against the learning procedure.

More formal chair work can be done for short periods having great fun with learning 'stop' as you take them in and out of the chair. The experience of lightness and ease is quickly achieved with all but the most disturbed of children. Table work is usually without exception taken to immediately: engage their thinking, tell them what you are doing and what they are doing. They love being taken up from the table! Playing catching games encouraging the child not to 'endgain can be very valuable if the teacher helps with the verbal directions of stopping, allowing the head to lead, keep breathing, watch the ball, and of course, don't mind if you miss.

Adult Examples of Good Use

Just being closely in the presence of non-threatening friendly adults who are directing effectively is what brings about the fundamental change in use with most children. At a concert only two days ago I was sitting with a friend and pupil; beside him was a very collapsed boy of thirteen or fourteen years, whose physical behaviour showed signs of disturbance. Half-way through the concert my friend indicated discreetly that I was to look at the young chap next to him. The boy was sitting tall and easy with his hands quietly in his lap and no facial contortions. This state lasted for the next thirty minutes which took us to the end of the concert.

The Indirect Effects of the Alexander Technique

The conscious change of use is slow in children but then, when it is made, progress is made on all sorts of levels. I was delighted one day when a pupil with communication problems told me of her enormous leaps in confidence at school. Alexa told me she had been much happier in the classroom situation and had been controlling her exam nerves with whispered 'ahs.' She had also taught them to half a dozen friends who found them very helpful! What had been learned with the lesson situation had been used to make effective changes in her life and so start the process of conscious control.

I really feel that the procedures and principles used in teaching adults the Alexander Technique are the same as those used for children. If an adult is bored, confused or frightened etc. by their teacher, their learning procedure will be coloured by this. An honesty and straightforwardness in teaching, a quiet self-confidence manifested by the teacher, and a genuine interest in each individual pupil, adult or child will give a formula out of which a tailor made effective learning situation will arise.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Before training as an Alexander teacher, Vivien Plews completed a three year teacher training and performing arts course in speech, drama and movement. She spent one year in the London School of Contemporary Dance, and eighteen months in professional theatre work, followed by five years as a consultant lecturer in industry, working with inter-personal communications. To add to her skills, she has completed three years training in acupuncture and ran a playgroup in Dartington for eighteen months. She spent four years training Alexander teachers and teaching students of music, art and drama at Dartington College of Arts, and has led her own teacher training school.

 

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