AT Congress, Berlin 2022
Continuous Learning Session
When we come into physical contact with our pupils we open up a two-way path of communication. While we collect sensory information through our hands, we also communicate information about the use of ourselves. In this Continuous Learning session I propose to explore ways of enhancing our ability to feel what happens in our pupils with our hands and to facilitate a change toward a better state by means of our own use.
Directions, hands-on and feeling
Initial question: What do you feel with your hands?
The answers from the session participants were varied: muscular tension, freedom of joints, breathing, tendency to go up or down, expansion or lack of it, stiffness, ease of movement, sense of connection, state of the pupil, response from the pupil, etc.
In the Alexander Technique (AT) we have a clear sense of the directions in which our body is supposed to go: head forward and up, back to lengthen and widen, knees forward and apart, heels down, shoulders apart, lengthening through the arms and hands, and so on. We self-project these directions and we approach our pupils with the aim of helping them to expand in the same way. In practical terms, when we put our hands on our pupils, we release, undo and direct ourselves, because we believe that in this way we can stimulate a similar process in them. But what does happen when we put our hands on a pupil’s body? How do we collect information? How do we interpret it? What’s the role of feeling in teaching the AT?
Types of contact
Participants were asked to do a simple game to experience two different types of perception. When you feel the movement of an object in relation to your hand, the information comes from receptors in your skin, providing a tactile perception. When you allow your hand to move together with a moving object, the information comes from proprioceptive receptors in the muscles and joints of your fingers, hand, wrist, elbow, etc.; it then gets processed in your brain, and you have a kinesthetic perception.
Question: What kind of contact do you want to have with your pupils?
Merging hands with pupil’s body
When you put your hands onto somebody’s body, you want to feel what’s going on in there, what is its inner tendency, right? In order to get this information, what you are going to feel are not the movements of your student’s body, or parts of the body, but the movements of your hands, which are determined by the movements of what they are touching. Therefore, you want to allow your hands to make the same movements of the tissues they are in contact with. You can help your hands to get this sort of ‘synchronisation’ by the intention to merge them with your pupil’s body, becoming one with it. It may help to imagine a continuity through the areas of contact, as if the skin no longer provides any separation between them. You can imagine allowing your hands to merge with your student’s bodily tissues, layer by layer, through the skin, the connective tissues, muscles, bones, and so on. Gradually, you can reach a stage where your hands can be so connected to the other body that you seem to get information directly from it, as if you and your pupil are part of the same system.
Hands on torso, feeling breathing movements
As a way to explore this type of contact, participants were asked to work in pairs, one with hands on the other’s torso, front and back or on the sides, and follow these instructions: support your hands and free the wrists and the joints of your hands and fingers; look for a delicate but firm and open touch; think of merging your hands with your pupil’s body and allow them to move according to the movement of the tissues underneath; at first you may feel the contact coming and going, then you gradually learn to allow your hands to stay with the tissues and with their movements; feel the breathing movements.
Beyond the rhythmic movements of breathing there appear to be more subtle movements in the body in relation to the tension of connective and muscular tissues, which can be described as subtle pulls that can take any direction. Do you also want to feel these pulls? I think you had better to, because they contribute to shortening and lengthening, narrowing and widening, twisting, and so on.
We tend to imagine lengthening and widening as a linear process, but what happens in the tissues is probably more complicated. During the session I used a rope to illustrate the concept: if you want to lengthen a rope which has a knot in the middle, and you want to untie the knot, you have to allow one or both ends of the rope to do some very different movements before they can go away from each other and take the rope to its full length.
The process of undoing, unravelling and releasing into a good direction may happen in many ways, often different from what we expect. When we put our hands on a pupil, we are all happy to go with something that seems to be going in the direction of lengthening and widening, but this is not always the first thing that we feel with our hands. Often your hands – and your pupil’s tissues – seem to be going in a different direction. What seems to move toward a restriction may be the necessary path toward achieving a release and resolution of that restriction. When you allow your hands to stay with the tissues and follow them, whatever movement they make, you may allow them to change.
The participants were asked to explore this type of hand contact in pairs, one lying on the table and receiving the work from the other. They were instructed to sit at the edge of the table and put their hands around the pupil’s head and neck, think of merging their hands with the pupil’s body, allow the contact to deepen, feel any tendency of the hands to move – which may be determined by the inner movements of the pupil’s tissues – and allow their hands to move with them. The same procedure may be applied on other parts of the body, like the shoulders, the hips, a bent knee, a straightened leg, etc. A step further can be to lift an arm or a leg with the same intention of merging the hands, and follow any inner tendency to movement, which may be either very subtle or a real visible movement, in any direction. The same can be applied to the head, a part of the body which is usually supported by a pile of books: why not give the head and neck a chance to do some self-adjusting movements while they are supported by the teacher’s hands?
The participants were intrigued by this approach. Most of them could recognise their initial tendency to do something with their hands and the wish to get something happening in their partner. Putting hands on with the single goal of feeling something allowed them to inhibit these tendencies and to avoid end-gaining. Most of them could feel movements in their hands, forming what we called a kinaesthetic perception of the pupil. Questions were raised on how such an approach, which requires a long moment of contact, can be applied in Alexander lessons, where contact times are comparatively shorter. In my experience, once you learn the process, you can easily integrate it in your teaching pace and make it part of your approach to your pupils.
The ‘merging hands’ approach comes from my experience with Craniosacral Therapy, and I think it can help us to have a better understanding of hand contact in the Alexander Technique. While in a Craniosacral context there is a clear idea of the kind of information the therapists look for with their hands, in an Alexander context there seems to be some uncertainty about it, as shown by participants’ replies to the initial question.
A highly experienced teacher, John Nicholls, told me that it took him two years of teaching before he could feel anything. Yet, like many beginners, he could certainly give good AT lessons. Walter Carrington used to say that when you put your hands on your pupils you want to feel whether they are free or fixed, whether they are going up or down. While this kind of sensitivity might be the natural byproduct of a consistent self-application of inhibition and directions, is there a way to learn it consciously? What is the actual information collected by our hands and interpreted by our brain?
In the Alexander tradition and literature, greater importance is given to the information that teachers transmit to their pupils with their hands. Also, a pedagogical rejection of feelings as unreliable may have contributed to avoiding attempts to better understand and describe the process of feeling through the hands.
Having tried to explore this process, some questions arise: What is the role of feeling in teaching the Alexander Technique? What information is important to us? How can we learn to become more conscious of this information? What do we know about the physiology of feeling? And more…
When you, as an AT teacher, establish hand contact with your pupil’s tissues you open up a two-way path of communication.
- You consciously collect information from the other person via your hands, and you become aware of them through kinesthetic information from your own hands, wrists, arms, shoulders and the rest of yourself.
- The same process happens at the other end: the receiving person collects information, although unconsciously, from your body via your hands. By this way, he/she becomes more aware of his/her inner state, by means of internal kinesthetic sensations. This information, somehow, seems to stimulate a process similar to the one which is happening in you, for better or worse.
This is why the teacher’s own use is so fundamental in our work. If you stiffen your neck, shorten your back, pull in your legs, narrow your shoulders and so on, then it is unlikely that you can suggest any release of unnecessary tension and stimulate appropriate muscle tone in your pupil. We need to ‘undo’ in our legs, back, thorax, neck and arms, in order to transmit our inner elastic expansion to our pupils through our hands.
Semi-flexed position with hands on the back of the chair
‘Semi-flexed (‘monkey’) with hands on the back of the chair’ is probably the procedure that best promotes the coordinated expanding use of the self, the kind of use that we want to communicate to our students through our hands, and it’s the basic procedure for developing good use of our hands.
Participants were invited to perform a simplified version of the procedure, with hands on the sides of the back of a chair, palms facing each other. Directions: neck to be free, head forward and up, back to lengthen and widen, knees away from the pelvis, heels down, widening between the shoulders, lengthening through the arms, hands and fingers, elbows away from the shoulders and away from the wrists, wrists together, hands together. Each subject had two assistants at the sides, with one hand placed under the armpit and the other hand on the middle or lower back. With their hands, they reminded the subject to widen through the back and between the upper part of the arms. The subjects could improve their ability to undo through directing, while the assistants could improve their ability to feel the effect of this mental process.
Thoughts in the hands
When you approach your pupils, the directions mentioned above constitute the psychophysical background at the base of good hands-on work, the fundamental mindset that promotes optimal conditions in yourself and in your hands. But once you are in contact with your pupil, what is the intention behind your hands? What are the thoughts that make you decide what to do with your hands? I guess that most of us want to invite the body of their pupils to go with them, according to thoughts like ‘come toward my hand, let me help you to get some length; allow me to support your back, or arm or leg; let me do this for you; let me guide you; etc.’
As an experiment, I suggest you adopt a different intention: ‘Here I am, can I come with you? Would you show me where you want to go? What’s going on here? Interesting movements… where are we going? What can we do together?’ These thoughts make sense when they are accompanied by the intention of merging your hands with your pupil’s bodily tissues and following their inner movements. On the other hand, your pupil is going to show you something that you would not see in any other way. The question is whether you are available for this experience.
Practice in pairs
Participants were invited to put into practice these suggestions. With a partner on the table, they would put hands on the sides of their shoulders, direct and feel; take an arm, direct and feel; put hands around a bent knee, on thigh and lower leg, direct and feel; take a leg and support it, direct and feel. While doing chair work, they would put hands on their partner’s abdomen and lower back, then on upper torso and then on head and neck, direct and feel, move the partner or move the hands.
The purpose of this Continuous Learning session was to stimulate a reflection on the manual contact used in teaching the Alexander Technique. The starting point was offered to me by the practice of Craniosacral Therapy and its approach to the mental attitude at the basis of palpation and the repercussions it can have in manual communication. If, in the Alexander Technique, importance is traditionally given to the use of oneself and to ‘giving an experience to the pupil’, it is also true that one expects to develop, with experience, a growing sensitivity towards the pupils themselves. I hope the path proposed here will help to better understand this aspect of our work and to integrate it in an ever more conscious way.
Paolo Frigoli trained as an Alexander Technique teacher from 1989 to 1992. In subsequent years he spent long periods of professional development in the UK at the Brighton Alexander Training Centre directed by John and Carolyn Nicholls, while also taking regular lessons from Walter Carrington and Peggy Williams. Since then he has kept working regularly with John Nicholls who has become his mentor. Paolo has taught the Technique for 30 years individually and in groups, both in his private studio and in public institutions, and has been invited to teach in various Alexander training schools. In 2008 he was on the Continuous Learning faculty at the International Congress in Lugano. In 2015 he started his own STAT-approved teacher training course in Italy. Paolo qualified as a physiotherapist in 1989, then trained in the Mézières method with Dr. Laura Bertelé and in the Cranio-Sacral Therapy of Dr. John Upledger, which is still part of his daily practice.
Paolo Frigoli, Coccaglio (BS), Italy