The Vault

In Celebration of the Alexander Technique

By Bruce Fertman

This article is, essentially, an edited transcription of the first class that I gave at Engelberg. Consequently, the writing style is informal, more like the spoken word. I have chosen to preface this article with three excerpts found near the end of the tapes, when I was attempting to finish my class on the ideas I hold most dear as a teacher. I offer them now, in the hope that they will immediately shed light upon why I work and speak about the Technique as I do.

I use metaphors a great deal. This is not the same as using visual images. I don’t ask you to visualize. I ask you to think metaphorically. There’s a difference. I find that when I teach through metaphor people take what I am saying not just physiologically. The language of metaphor seems to speak to a person’s inner life. I’m not particularly interested in arms and legs, heads and spines. They are interesting and beautiful. But I am interested in people. I don’t work with a technique. I work with a person, through a technique.

I don’t want to reduce a person to bits and pieces. I certainly do not wish to reduce a person to a body. That is a great disservice. Alexander could have entitled one of his books The Attuning of the Inner Body. But he didn’t. He did entitle one of his books The Use of the Self. I love that title, that idea, so when I teach, I do my best to live up to all that title implies.

Alexander’s orders are a shorthand. They are intended to contain within them a huge body of information. And they are intended to reveal and enliven a remarkable simple yet sophisticated psychophysical condition within a human being. But the words themselves are not magic. As an educator, my responsibility, as I understand it, is to slowly, thoroughly, and enjoyably, imbue those words with all the depth and meaning that they hold. To do this I choose to use my hands, and I choose to speak, at length, that is, in as unabridged a way as possible. There is a Hasidic saying—God hides in the details. I choose to address the details, through my hands, and through my words.

Nature and the Alexander Technique

I feel very happy to have the opportunity to ‘belong and move’ inside the larger Alexander body. I’m going to read an Alexander quote, one of my favorites. I think it captures what my real interest is—right now.

When an investigation comes to be made, it will be found that every single thing that we are doing in the work is exactly what is being done in nature, where the conditions are right, the difference being that we are learning to do it consciously.

That word ‘right’ is tricky, isn’t it? I would like to replace it with the word self-regulating.

So what this quote tells me is that F.M. believed strongly that this work is natural, that the work is about nature. The work is about the workings of nature within us. And he’s also telling me that his work is about consciousness, clearly.

If we put these two ideas together we get that this work, our work, is about being and becoming conscious of our natural workings.

I came across another quote, taken from an interview with Sir Laurens Van der Post. He was a writer and conservationist. He ran wilderness expeditions. He took people who had never had contact with the wild into the deepest parts of Africa. Here’s the quote:

If you keep the Earth as close to the initial blueprint of creation as you can, and you bring a person into contact with it; a person who is not whole, from a lopsided society—poof—that person changes.

When I read that quote I felt like I knew what he was talking about. I changed the word earth to body and thought through it again.“If you keep the body as close to the initial blueprint of creation as you can, and you bring a person into contact with it; a person who is not whole, from a lopsided society—poof—that person changes.”

That’s my job! My job, as a teacher of the Alexander Technique, is to understand our initial blueprint, what I like to refer to as our original design. And when I can do that—poof! they change—they become more natural.

I think that the way Alexander spoke of our original design was by referring to it as primary control or as the true and primary movement. I think he was saying that there was some deep, primal, powerful, harmonious, underlying pattern in us that we have interfered with in some way and if we could just get through the interference and let that pattern work through us, that that would make a big difference.

Gregory Bateson has his name for it. He referred to it as the pattern that connects. It’s a beautiful idea. I’m currently reading the work of a man named Brian, a cosmologist. He calls it the unseen shaping power. Mysterious and wonderful. And through our work we get to experience a little of what these thinkers are finding out about what governs us and our universe.

So, if this work is about nature, then it seems to me that perhaps naturalists might have something to offer us. Sometimes we call them ecologists. Sometimes we call them deep ecologists.

Many deep ecologists today refer to the Earth as a living body. The idea of Gaia. So people who are studying the earth as a whole are thinking about it as a living being. And I have, for years, been thinking about us, we living beings, as moving earth, living landscape, as knowing water, fluid, fire.

What I’d like to do now, for the rest of this class, is to introduce this work to you, as an amateur naturalist, as someone who loves nature. Here we go.

Neck as a Bioregion and Indicator Species

Does anyone know what a bioregion is? A bioregion is a region, an area that is defined by natural criteria. Engelberg is defined by natural criteria—the mountains. But an area can be defined by other criteria as well, political criteria for example. You might have boundaries around an area that do not align with natural criteria, with the fauna, the flora, the watersheds.

We are landscapes, we have regions, areas. How do we define them? Where do we place our boundaries, our borders? How do we define our necks? Do we use natural criteria in doing so? Or do we use other criteria? You know, we are very busy asking, ordering, directing, wishing, begging our neck to be free and it occurred to me some years ago that I didn’t really know what my neck was! So I went back to the drawing board and did some research.

I found that most people do not understand their neck in terms of natural criteria, as a bioregion. Most people think of their necks in terms of the clothing that they wear. We are the only mammals that wear clothing. We are human beings, but we have turtle-necks.

Does anyone know what ecologists refer to when they talk about an indicator species? An indicator species is a species in an area, a region, that indicates to us that there’s trouble. If the air pollution becomes critical a certain bird may begin to die. So those birds are telling us through their fragility, through their sensitivity, that we are heading in a unwholesome direction. If we listen, heed the warning, we can change directions. If we don’t listen, we, as a whole being, begin to break down.

Now that’s what our necks are like—indicatory species. That’s their function. Our necks are very sensitive, extraordinarily sensitive. And they’re designed to pick up trouble. That is if they are not rigid, if they are fluid and free.

Okay. Let’s go to the idea of neck as bioregion. I am interested in a person becoming aware of his or her neck as an entire bioregion. My job is to enlarge that person’s concept and experience of what a neck is, and of its importance. That usually means, at first, filling in the bottom region of the neck, what I call the ground of the neck, as well as the hidden top region of the neck. Those are the two areas that most people just don’t acknowledge in their definition of neck. And my experience is that it’s very difficult to free your neck if your definition of it is incomplete.

Let’s look at the musculature of the neck. The neck muscles are multi-layered and attach onto your skull, onto your jaw, onto your spine, onto some of your ribs, and onto your upper appendicular skeleton—a fancy way of saying onto your arms. That means your neck muscles attach onto five bony systems.

Now when neck muscles lose some of their fluidity and freedom, all those bony systems are immediately affected, because those are the bones to which neck muscles attach. And conversely, when neck muscles return to a freer, more fluid condition, all those bony systems move, all at once, altogether. They are released into movement.

Understanding precedes freedom. And for me to be able to free my neck, I needed to understand my neck as a bioregion. I needed to expand my definition of my neck to include all the bones to which my neck muscles attach: my skull, my jaw, my spine, my ribs, my arms. That’s unquestionably one of the mighty regions of our bodies, one of our centers, one of our hubs.

A Little Bit about Albinus

The illustrations that I use for my workshops come from a book entitled, Albinus on Anatomy, by Robert Beverly Hale and Terence Coyle. It’s published by Dover. Bernard Siegfried Albinus was born in 1697 and died in 1770. He was born in Germany and grew up and was educated in the Netherlands. These copperplate engravings, officially entitled, Tabulae Sceleti et Musculorun Corporis Humani and Tabulae Ossium Humanorum, took Albinus twenty-two years to complete.

I don’t use any other anatomical illustration anymore, because everything else depresses me by comparison. Albinus draws the skeleton as a living, animated, human being. He allows us to see that we are not just superficial. That we have layers to us. That we have depth. That we are palimpsests—layers of writing, layers of meaning.

Albinus is also reminding us, through the backgrounds of his work, that we are human beings in relation to a world filled with meaning, symbol, and metaphor, a world that is natural, beautiful, mysterious. As you meditate on these drawings you will discover that the backgrounds elucidate the figures, subtly directing your attention to particular content within the figure, within yourself. Very wonderful!

Effie and the Ground of the Neck

The first thing that my hands say to a person is her or his name. The first thing my hands say is Effie. Because I have never put my hands on two people who were the same. There are no repetitions in nature. So I want to remember that this is a unique person with whom I am working. And she has a name. She’s not a body. I don’t believe in working on bodies. Not at all. I work with people who have names. And these people have ribs in relation to arms. And these bony systems are the ground of Effie’s neck, and they want to be free and included in her idea of neck. So when Effie thinks about freeing her neck, she is going to include this whole area of herself because she has neck muscles that attach on to these bony systems.

Wing Spans, Widening Rivers, Holy Places & Katarina

I’m going to work with an idea, what I call the widening river. Do you remember that famous picture by da Vinci, the one where the man is standing within a circle and a square? The man as he relates to the square is of particular interest right now. Because his fingertips on one hand are touching the one side of the square, and his fingertips on his other hand are touching the other side of the square, and his feet are touching the bottom side of the square. What does that mean about your arms?

Katarina: They are your height.

Bruce: They are your height. They are your wing span. Your wing span is the same distance as your height. Very few human beings experience that truth in themselves. Very few would believe you if you suggested it to them.

Katarina: People think they are shorter.

I think this is so, in part, because of our clothes, because of how the seams define our arms. I also think it is because they fold, like wings, so compactly along our bodies. But since we don’t use them to fly, we don’t get to experience the power in our arms, the way birds do. Now for Alexander teachers it’s crucial to bring back the support and articulation of your arms.

I call your arms the widening river. I use water metaphors a lot because I think they are more than metaphors. If you really look at bones you will see that they are not straight, like pipes. Running your hand down a humerus you can feel the spiral motion within the bone itself. It moves the same way that water moves, and that is not a coincidence. We come out of water, evolutionally and developmentally. We are sculpted by water. Novalis says it this way “There is no doubt that our body is a moulded river. Rivers look like spines, and spines look like rivers.”

So the way you bring back the full integrity of your arm structure, of your widening river, is to get rid of the dams. This shoulder, this dam, is no big deal. It’s just one joint along a long river. The river doesn’t end here. It just keeps going along the clavicle and scapula, until it meets another great river, and we call that river the spine.

Now the primal people of my country, the native Americans, say that wherever two rivers meet is a holy place. This is a holy place. No doubt about it. Because here you have a powerful widening river, equal in distance. This is an area of profound confluence, where two powerful rivers are merging. And it is also the ground of your neck. I’m working with Alexander’s first order of letting the neck be free.

Just Listening, Robin & the Power of Group Teaching

The big idea I hope to get across is that I think it is time for us to let go of the mechanistic metaphors. They are breaking down.

We’re organic. We’re natural. We’re wild. That’s what we really are. And perhaps we’ve just gotten a bit too ‘civilized.’ We are mammals. We are not machines. We have the capacity to be self-regulating.

Your arms and ribs are differentiating beautifully Robin. Now the reason why that is happening so quickly with Robin, I think, may be because I’ve spent about forty minutes talking about this idea.

And that is basically how I work as an educator. I bring an idea onto the floor. We all work on it, as best we can, conceptually and kinaesthetically. Then when I begin to use my hands everyone is warmed up, having worked with that idea to the best of their ability, from the inside out.

Robin: I realize the change in my body. Just listening.

Bruce: Yes. Just listening.

This is the power of group teaching. If you have any doubt, be crystal clear about this. You see, you want to convey to your students that you can get the work across not only through your hands. Please understand me. I love using my hands. There is nothing I like better. However, because I am an educator, and I don’t want to addict my students to my hands, I do my best to develop other ways of communicating the work, ways that will empower my students, that will enable them to make progress on their own. If they begin to understand an idea about themselves that is true, that is in accordance with their original design, and if they think about that idea, they find out they can make change, on their own, without effort. So I do my best to get my students using their brains.

The Waist-Land, the Vertical Bridge and Two Heavens

In our culture, men often wear ties. This is a cultural decision and a physical division. It divides our heads from the rest of our bodies. It makes it difficult to understand our necks in terms of natural criteria.

In our culture, we often wear belts. This, too, is a cultural decision and a physical division. It divides us into two, into an upper and a lower body, I creates a false equator. It creates an illusory part of the body that we have all come to believe exists, it creates a waist. I call it your ‘waistland.’ And it is a waste to have a waist. We are the only mammals, to my knowledge, that have waists. Look at whales and find the waist. Look at a cat, a dog, a deer, a monkey, a horse.

All our fellow mammals do not have waists because they do not wear clothes; The waist is a clothing reality, a cultural reality, but not a physical reality. Sometimes I call this waist the ‘Great Horizontal Divide.’ And, somehow, we must educate ourselves and our students to let go of that notion. The only way I can get a student to let go of such an ingrained habit, is to offer them something that is significantly more powerful, more exciting, and true.

So what I offer them is an experience of their ilio-psoas, of what I call their ‘Mighty Vertical Bridge.’ We have divided ourselves into an ‘upper’ and a ‘lower.’ The upper regions have become superior, the lower, inferior. William Blake once wrote that there were two heavens, one below, the other above. Our task is to unify them, so that there is just a whole body. How? Through a working understanding of the Mighty Vertical Bridge.

The mighty vertical bridge connects your legs, through your pelvis, to your spine. The heaven above, the neck region, is primarily about orientation within ourselves, and within our environment. The heaven below, the lumbar-pelvic-thigh region, is primarily about being self-supporting in the process of locomoting.

This is what we all want. We want to be self-supporting. We want to know where we are within ourselves and within our world. And we want to be able to move, to go, to proceed, to get on with it. We want to be able to bring this orientation and support and power to whatever it is that we are doing.


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