11th International Congress of the F. M. Alexander Technique
29 July – 4 August 2018
The Congress Papers, p. 216-220
STAT Books, UK
THE SENSITIVE TOUCH
This paper is based on a workshop that took place at the Congress during which I worked with practices that can help you develop your ability to feel with the hands. These practices draw upon my own experiences with both Alexander Technique (AT) and CranioSacral Therapy.
We all know the importance of the use of the teacher when working with hands-on contact. We normally start directing with the head, neck and back, then the legs and feet, then the shoulders and arms, finally arriving at the hands, and there are good reasons to follow this sequence. Feeling the student with our hands is also an important part of our work, and it’s precisely what this workshop aims to explore, in order to understand how the processes of directing and feeling can be usefully combined.
Palpation: superficial and deep contact
I ask a person to hold a bottle of water in front of me (it could be any object), and I wrap my hand around the bottle very lightly. Then I ask my partner to move the bottle up and down and rotate it. With my eyes closed, and my hand remaining still, I can perceive the movement of the bottle against my hand. If my hand becomes one with the object and I allow it to move with it, I can perceive the movement of my hand, and therefore of the object.
In the first case the perception is based on superficial tactile sensations, whereas in the second case it is based on deeper proprioceptive sensations from muscles and joints. In the latter case I process more information and have a richer feeling. This simple demonstration aims to help develop our understanding of the kind of contact that will better allow us to feel the subtle movements of what we are touching. I refer to the first type of sensation as ‘tactile’ and the second as ‘kinaesthetic’.
Practice in pairs
Everyone repeats the experience illustrated and feels the difference between tactile and kinaesthetic sensations and perceptions.
How can we educate and enhance our ability to feel with our hands?
The easiest way is to start by following an existing rhythmic movement, one that we know to be present in the body at all times.
The Craniosacral rhythm
Inside the central nervous system, which is made of the brain and spinal cord, the cerebrospinal fluid provides the proper environment for all its parts and cells. The circulation of this fluid is caused by a process of production and reabsorption from the blood stream. Differences in speed between this production and reabsorption can explain the variation of pressure inside the central nervous system and the associated movements of expansion and contraction of the head (of the structure formed by the bones in the skull). These movements are very subtle but can still be perceived by your hands. The cycle repeats between six and twelve times per minute.
Feeling the rhythm
As with the bottle experiment above, when you put your hands on somebody’s head, what you want to feel are not the movements of the head but the movements of your hands, which are determined by the movements of what you are touching. What makes your feeling more accurate is your ability to allow your hands to make the same movements as the part of the body they are in contact with – to follow them with your hands, in other words. What helps with this ‘synchronisation’ is your intention to merge your hands with the part of the body they are touching, becoming one with them. It may help to imagine a continuity through the areas of contact, as if the skin no longer provided any separation between them.
Practice in pairs
With the subject sitting, the teacher stands behind them and places a hand on either side of their head, feeling the subtle movements of lateral expansion and contraction. A delicate and open touch is recommended. Support your hands and free the wrists and joints of your hands and fingers. Your touch should not be invasive and should not stimulate a defensive reaction in the tissues. Imagine merging your hands with the body and allowing them to make the same movements of the tissues underneath.
The main places where you can feel the craniosacral rhythm are the head and the sacrum, but as the movement propagates throughout the body, you can also feel it in the limbs, where it takes the form of an internal and external rotation.
Feeling the fascia
This way of touching can put you in contact with a more complex movement which is related to the organisation of the fasciae. The fasciae are multiple sheets of connective tissue that connect all the structures of the body, including muscles and bones, and transmit forces from one part to another. Muscles and fasciae in combination are often described as myofascial chains. Both muscles and fasciae contribute to shortening and lengthening, narrowing and widening. You can feel the tension of the fasciae in any part of the body by means of a light contact and a proper intention.
Practice in pairs
a) With the subject sitting, the teacher puts hands on the front and back of the upper torso and thinks of merging their hands with the body tissues, allowing them to move according to the movement of the tissues underneath.
b) With the subject sitting, the teacher takes a subject’s arm with the intention of merging their own hands with the subject’s arm and allowing the hands to move in accordance with any tendency that becomes apparent in the arm.
When you establish this type of contact with the tissues you are opening 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 kinaesthetic information from your own hands, wrists, arms, shoulders, and so on. The same process happens at the other end, although unconsciously: the person collects information from your body via your hands, and is influenced by them. What kind of information do you want your body to communicate to your student’s body via your hands? How do you want to organise your own body and hands in order to communicate such information?
Importance of the teacher’s use
This exchange of information seems to stimulate in the student a process similar to the one which is happening in the teacher, 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. This process helps the student to become more aware of his or her inner state by means of internal kinaesthetic sensation.
Monkey with hands on the back of the chair
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 student through our hands, and it’s also the basic procedure for developing good use of our hands. It requires much more consideration than is provided here, and could be the focus of a whole workshop. Without dwelling on the details of the position of the hands, what follows describes how to have a basic experience of the procedure.
Practice in groups of three
The subject goes into monkey and puts hands on the back of a chair, directs the neck to be free, head forward and up, back to lengthen and widen, knees away from the pelvis, heels down. The subject also directs for widening between the shoulders, and lengthening through the arms, hands and fingers, and directs the elbows away from the shoulders and wrists, and the wrists together. Two assistants stand, one on each side of the subject. Each places one hand under the subject’s armpit and another hand on the neck (in the case of one assistant) or lower back (in the case of the other assistant). They don’t do anything: with their hands, they remind the subject to expand the back and to widen between the upper part of the arms.
The subject experiences undoing, helped by his own directions, while the assistants work on their ability to feel through their hands the effect of this mental process. An aspect of this procedure to consider is the contact of the feet with the ground. Think of the similarity with the contact between your hands and another person, which we have just explored. Allow your feet to expand on the ground and become aware of the contact: feel the contact, feel the ground, feel your feet. Connect your feet to your hands by releasing and expanding through your myofascial network.
Feeling the student
The process of undoing, unravelling and releasing into a good direction may happen in many ways and take many forms. When we put our hands on a student, we are usually happy to see something that looks like lengthening and widening, but this is not always the first thing that we feel with our hands. Often your hands, and your student’s tissues, seem to be going in a different direction. By allowing your hands to merge with your student’s tissues and following them, you can help them to change, release and undo. They change according to the information they receive from the use of you, the teacher.
Practice in pairs: chair work
To the teacher: Go into monkey, put your hands on the student’s abdomen and lower back, then on the upper torso and then on the head and neck. Inhibit any attempt to do anything with your hands. Direct through your whole body. Allow your hands to make a better contact. Observe your feeling of your hands, become aware of the feeling you get of your student, direct yourself again, see what happens to your hands and to your student. Choose to move the student or your hands according to your feeling. Keep feeling as well as directing. Do everything in a non-doing way. Take the student in and out of the chair.
What are the advantages of a sensitive touch?
- The intention of feeling helps to inhibit any attempt to do something in the first place.
- The more you feel, the less you need to do, and the more appropriate is your doing.
- The student is likely to feel accepted and understood, which helps produce change.
- A sensitive touch helps the student to become more aware of him or herself.
- The more you feel, the more accurate will be your response to your student’s needs.