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Lighten Up! F.M. Alexander Memorial Address
F.M. Alexander Memorial Address given June 5, 2011 at the 2011 AmSAT AGM
by Robert Britton
This article was originally published in AmSAT News, Issue No. 86, Summer 2011. The entire Summer 2011 issue of AmSAT News is available in the Bookstore.
I would like to thank whoever came up with the AGM theme of “Lighten Up!” It is a wonderful phrase that speaks so well of what we do.
The fun and joy that arise from giving an Alexander Technique lesson are not there by accident. Lightness is the feeling of strength. When we are strong, the things we pick up feel light. When we are coordinating ourselves well in our length and width, all of our muscles are sharing the work efficiently, and we feel light. We are strong and able to move dynamically.
It is a very wonderful phenomenon that our nervous systems reward us for moving well by giving us a dose of endorphins. Our students like it, and we feel better after giving a lesson. What a wonderful profession we have that our efforts have such a positive result!
Enjoyment is so much a part of what we do that we can use fun as a way to explore and be more in harmony with our structure.
At the end of my workshop at the Freiburg Congress in 1999, I recommended that everyone have fun with the information we had just worked with. Afterwards a young German teacher came up to me and said, “You shouldn’t say have fun. This work is much too important and serious to be treated as fun.” I must say I was a little shocked. Being a Californian, I believe that having fun is as fundamental to life as breathing, and I thought to myself the words, “Well, good luck!”
I knew what she meant, though. The Technique is a magnificent vehicle that has dramatically changed my life and the lives of hundreds of thousands of others. It is subtle, intelligent, and can be very accurate. We live in a world of suffering and loss. Any method we can develop to alleviate pain is very worthwhile and deserving of respect. There should be a temple somewhere to Advil® and Aleve® where we can go to give thanks for such marvelous drugs. However, my own experience has been that with too much seriousness I have often missed something important about life.
I grew up in San Francisco. When the “Summer of Love” happened in 1967, I was 17. It was a very exciting place and time to be discovering the world. However, by 1969, problems had emerged within a beautiful vision, and the Haight-Ashbury had gotten quite a bit stranger. I was working at a social service agency in the Haight-Ashbury. Downstairs was the detox center for the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, and upstairs was the Psychiatric Annex of the Free Clinic. My job was to sit in a living room on the middle floor, where anyone who wanted to get off the street could come in and sit down. I was there to talk to them and to see if they needed anything, such as military draft counseling. The most bizarre people on earth came through that door and sat down in that living room. The bar scene in Star Wars seemed normal compared to the usual group hanging out in the room. Because there were so many drugs in so many people, as well as the societal upheaval and the horrors of the Vietnam War, I had the feeling that there was no firm ground on which to stand. After a while I began to really wonder what was real—and what was a true enough reality to be able to know how to live.
There seemed to be two alternatives in life: one could be sensitive and be in danger of being crushed, or one could be strong and insensitive and survive.
One day my dear friend, who was the receptionist for the psychiatric Free Clinic, invited me to go to a Japanese film festival. In the Japanese movies, I saw characters who were sensitive and strong at the same time; and this, I realized, is what I needed. This was an approach to life that had strength and yet was subtle enough to move in harmony with reality. So, shortly after seeing quite a few samurai movies, I started to study Japanese fencing (Kendo), and I learned a new way of being present with my body. My fencing teacher always emphasized moving forward––always forward.
After a while, I became more interested in the mind that was behind fencing than in the actual technical aspects of fencing. That led me to study Zen, which had been a great influence on the Japanese samurai. Coming from desperate times in the past, Zen temples often have an atmosphere of extreme seriousness.
The main practice of Zen is sitting in awareness. This was a great breath of fresh air to me and gave me an opportunity to work on myself and find out what was real, after the craziness of the Haight-Ashbury. I found that I could just be with myself, and that what I was looking for was a quality inside. At the time, I must have been hungry for it, because I embraced Zen seriously, studying with 200% enthusiasm––so much enthusiasm that, ironically for such a peaceful pursuit, I developed a huge amount of tension in my posture, especially in my legs.
There were four days when my legs just did not relax. They just stayed gripped. At the end of those four days I felt a tearing pain in my right knee. Suddenly, I could barely walk and I certainly could not sit cross-legged, which was the thing that I wanted to do more than anything else in the world. A doctor took some x-rays and said that I had calcium deposits on the outside of my tibia and on the inside of my kneecap, and these calcium deposits were irritating the tendons crossing the front of the knee joint. It was going to be a simple operation of taking my kneecap off, spreading the muscles and tendons, shaving the tibia, and then packing everything back together again. “And,” the doctor added, “just don’t sit that way again.” This, of course, was not very appealing news.
At the time, a friend of mine asked, “Why don’t you try the Alexander Technique?” My thought at that moment was, “Alexander Technique? How could that possibly help me?” Of course I had no idea what the Alexander Technique was. But then I was invited to a party at Lyn Charlsen’s house and was introduced to Frank Ottiwell.
When I shook Frank’s hand it was an amazing moment; I experienced something I’d never experienced before. I didn’t know what it was, or really the meaning that it would have later, but it was one of the most significant meetings I’ve ever had with someone. Perhaps my deep nervous system recognized something that it knew I needed in just the touch of a hand that was fully alive, not gripped, not weak, but fully present. Now I know that Frank was shaking my hand from his whole body. Immediately I decided to take some Alexander Technique lessons.
When I walked into my first lesson with Frank, the first thing he said was, “Do you always walk with your right foot out to the side?” I said, “Oh yes, ever since I broke my ankle sliding down an escalator in the Fairmont Hotel when I was in fifth grade.” It had been easier to walk with a cast with the foot pointing out to the right side rather than bending over the toe.
Frank explained that the knee bends over the foot, which in turn supports the knee; and with the foot turned out to the side, my knee was bending over empty space. Calcium deposits attach to the bones to try to brace the bones for awkward postures, and my body was laying down extra bone to deal with this unsupported use of the knee.
Well, I was amazed, as I had no idea that what I was doing with my foot had anything to do with my knee. I thought all the parts of the body were completely separate and that pain in one part had nothing to do with any other part.
Frank asked me to relax my leg and let it swing freely. After a bit, he asked me to just let my foot drop down; and when I did this, the foot came down dead straight. Then Frank asked me to take a step, and when I did, I put my foot out to the right. Frank at this point said “You see, your foot knows where it wants to go, but you think taking a step means tightening up muscles to pull the foot out to the right.” At this point I was in shock, staring at my feet.
Then we started to work on the moment when the stimulus to walk came to me. If I didn’t react in my usual way of stepping, but instead organized myself dynamically from my head to my feet, I could allow the leg to lengthen, with the result that the knee would go forward over the foot.
Gradually over about three months, my foot turned back in to point ahead in the direction of travel, and the pain in my knee went away. I then had an x-ray done of the knee, and the calcium deposits had disappeared. Now this is not supposed to happen, but of course most people don’t change their habits of use, so the calcium deposits stay to try to support the awkward relationships of the bones in gravity. I was amazed. I never knew there was so much information about how the body works.
During my third or fourth lesson, I was sitting in the middle of Frank’s office, looking out the window, paying serious attention to Frank’s hand on my back. Frank asked me to allow my back to lengthen and widen, and I had the immediate thought, “I can’t do that. I will die.” My nervous system understood that coming out of the wildness of the Haight-Ashbury, I had put my life back together by holding a certain serious posture in my back, which I thought would give me a focus and bearing that would enable me to navigate life well. I felt that if I let it go, I would be letting go of my ability to function in life––and that would be a threat to my very survival. It is so interesting how our thoughts about ourselves are so closely tied to our sense of survival.
I expressed this to Frank, and he said, “Well, if you start to die, you can always tighten the muscles right back up again.” Well I couldn’t argue with that, so I said “Okay” to allowing my back to lengthen and widen. Suddenly a spacious and wonderful feeling sprang into my entire being, and the thought that popped into my head was “This is how I have always wanted my back to feel.” I was stunned, because I realized through this new experience that I had not known what I was doing before. I had believed that shortening and narrowing my back was essential to my survival, and now the opposite was clearly the right way to go. Even though I was studying the fantastic tradition of Zen, the way I was interpreting it was through shortening and narrowing my back––in a sense going in the opposite direction from what my being knew was the efficient way to go. Since I was very interested in what was real, I was very perplexed. It was then that I realized that I really needed to study the Alexander Technique in order to be able to study Zen well. After a while, a space opened up in the teacher training class, and Frank offered me the chance to train as an Alexander Technique teacher. I wasn’t planning on becoming a teacher, but I thought the best way to study the Technique was to fully immerse myself in it through the teacher training program.
I joined the training program, and was introduced to the marvelous work of Frank’s co-director, Giora Pinkas. Right from the very beginning of my training, there were two different but very wonderful styles of teaching the Technique from Frank and Giora.
I spent the next three years seriously and diligently trying to grasp what the Alexander Technique was. It didn’t help that a friend said, “I have forward and up and you don’t!” That made me feel so inadequate that I redoubled my efforts to get it, do it, have it, know it, and really seriously grasp what forward and up was. I worked so hard that eventually I had such a headache––like a bolt between my sub-occipital muscles and the bridge of my nose had two giant nuts on either end that were being tightened down by huge wrenches. At some point this was so painful that I said “Enough! I don’t care about forward and up any more!” At that instant my back and hips suddenly opened and my neck became free. It was there all along, unnoticed by me, inside of me. My serious effort to do the Technique correctly, and to grasp it tightly, had caused me to completely overlook what I already had.
This experience and others led me to realize that there is a genius in each of us, with more than 750 million years of experience working with necks. What I really needed was to get out of the way of that genius and let it show me what it wants.
I suppose it takes many long hours of bashing one’s head against a brick wall until one gets the message that our bodies don’t work in the way we think they do. It is hard to believe my thoughts could be wrong, since usually there is a seemingly good idea in my head, saying that I am right and that where I am going is the way to go. Of course, sometimes this path is straight into a wall. The wall is the real fact that our bodies sometimes do not actually work the way we think they do. I had been often told by Giora and Frank of Alexander’s words, “If at first you don’t succeed, never try again.” But did I really hear that?
This made me realize that we benefit from constantly tuning ourselves to the reality of our structure and becoming minutely attuned to its subtleties. This is listening and being interested in the smallest discomfort and awkwardness across joints, so that we can find the most coordinated and efficient organization.
When I was taking lessons with Frank, I was involved in a terrible romantic break up. You know the type: the first big relationship disaster. That is when we are at the bottom of the ocean of despair, angry and feeling that it would be easier to die. The only good thing about that mood is that there is an impression that things cannot get worse. I would show up to my lessons with Frank in that terrible mood, and after 40 minutes he would get me up off the table, and I would feel fine, like a new me. I would leave his office and go to the elevator. I would ride the elevator down, come out into the main hall of the building, and be fine. But walking through the hallway to the street, I would think about my relationship situation and milliseconds later explode in anger and sorrow.
In a few days, I would come back all asymmetrical and tense for my next lesson, and the same thing would happen. I would get off the table and feel fine––better than fine––good! But then I would go out the door, get into the elevator, ride the elevator to the bottom, come out of the elevator, be walking through the hallway, and I would have a thought about my former partner. Boom! I would be back in misery. I was amazed about what Frank could be doing that would take me out of such a deep and dark mood.
Then one day after my lesson, I rode the elevator down feeling fine, came out of the elevator, and noticed my usual hallway relationship thought. But this time, I realized that I didn’t have to agree to the thought. If I jumped on board, I was going to have a miserable week. I realized that my thoughts about my relationship were very expensive thoughts indeed. I had the dimmest of recollections that Frank had said something about the relationship of one’s reactions to stimuli.
I was feeling so wonderful from my lesson with Frank that I didn’t want to go with my habitual reaction. I couldn’t afford it. And I didn’t need it, because I felt just fine in my organized state, which I didn’t want to lose. There was just the briefest of seconds when I had a chance to choose, and if I chose to be angry, the chemicals would be dumped into my bloodstream, and I was on for the ride. My usual painful thought was proposing a definition of reality that I thought was real, when actually it was a provisional electrical impulse in my brain.
I realized being angry at somebody else was hurting me more that it was hurting that other person, who could care less. But more importantly, by lengthening and widening my body, my moods cleared up. What was this?
Once I was asked to demonstrate the Alexander Technique with a psychotherapist in front of a group. She was ready to go deeply into her psyche and pain with the Alexander Technique as a great exploratory tool, but after I brought her up to her length and width, she said, “You have taken away my tears.”
According to the World Health Organization, depression was the leading cause of disability and the fourth leading contributor to the global burden of disease in 2000. By the year 2020, depression is projected to reach second place in the ranking of the global burden of disease calculated for all ages and both sexes. Today, depression is already the second greatest contributor to the global burden of disease in the age category of 15–44 years for both sexes combined.1
Postural attitudes of compression, excess tension, leaning backwards, shutting down, and not being able to breathe can bring up anxiety and the inability to act––and also leave one depressed.
We lighten people up. Such a simple phrase and yet how profound it is to all the people who can come up out of their depression. Obviously depression is a complex phenomenon, but I feel we definitely have our role to play. We can show people the way back to who they are in their full stature. This enables people to move forward into action in their lives.
The bipedal dinosaur Albertosaurus
I love this picture of a wonderful bipedal dinosaur. Albertosaurus is an early Californian of 70 million years ago, 30 feet long, weighing 1.5 tons. He is definitely lightened up. You can see he is exquisitely balanced on the hip joints. Just imagine the dynamic balancing movements of the tail to enhance head movement. You can see his dynamic forward orientation to go out enthusiastically and find food in the world. The nose is right in front of his head-neck joint to smell the way to lunch.
Our noses have turned down since we have stood up because most smells are a foot or two above the ground, but they are still in front of our head-neck joints. You can imagine our fashion magazine photos if our noses still opened up straight ahead.
When animals encounter an unpleasant smell they pull their noses back. This is an ancient braking mechanism to stop the forward moving vertebrate. As soon as it pulls its head back, weight is transferred backwards, and the muscles across the joints tighten to stop the forward movement.
Our ancestors were very interested in forward movement. They actually had to spend hours slowly creeping forward sneaking up on animals that could easily outrun them. Spear throwing technology was in its infancy, and our ancestors had to get very close to their prey. When the animal they were hunting was grazing and looking down, they would slowly creep forward; but when the animal looked up to see if there was any danger around, our ancestors would have to hold still. This involved many hours of slowly and subtly creeping forward to get within range.
If you like, imagine that you are one of your ancestor hunters, and you have smelled something enjoyable near you. Slowly go into action creeping up on that person next to you or in front of you. Think of every joint in your body being coordinated to slowly move forward very gently. When your prey looks in your direction, you have to stop. How we stop is of great importance. Do we freeze by gripping? Or do we just pause our movement slightly with all the joints still fluid? When your prey looks away again, you begin to move forward again. Let every joint in your body coordinate right down to your last toe joints to slowly creep forward. When you get close enough to your prey...pounce!
Today we live in a vastly different environment than our ancestors did. For them, the loudest event in the environment might have been the wind in the trees and the rushing sound of a river. It is estimated that the maximum size of a human hunting band would have been about 150 people. Now we have...Las Vegas!
Modern culture could be throwing so many stimuli at us that our nervous systems really might not be able to handle it. Are we narrowing our consciousnesses to focus on iPhones, iPads, and iMacs, TVs, books and even AmSAT News, so that we are rarely opening our consciousness as wide as our ancestors did to scan the tundra, forest, and prairie?
We have a huge problem in modern life, and that is “leaning back.”
Walking in San Francisco, 1906
I would like you to view these pictures of people walking on Market Street in San Francisco in 1906 just before the earthquake. They come from a film 11 minutes long taken from the front of a streetcar. I would like you to pay special attention to the upright posture of these people and notice how no one is leaning backwards. You can find this video on the web at the 60 Minutes Overtime site. Search for: San Francisco on Film: Days Before the 1906 Quake.2
Here are some photos I took of people walking on the sidewalk a few weeks ago. Notice how they are settling their weight backwards when trying to go forwards.
Walking in San Francisco, 2011
Modern culture could literally be pushing us backwards in space. The daily bombardment of thousands of ads alone could be responsible for our backwards drift onto our heels. Modern life may be so intense that we are leaning back on our heels, trying desperately to gain perspective on life rather than being delightfully engaged for-ward into it.
Also undoubtedly contributing to the back-ward slant is modern chair design, explained so beautifully by Galen Cranz in her book, The Chair.3
There is a phrase in boxing: getting your opponent back on his heels so that he cannot move and strike back. Then you have won, because your opponent cannot have his weight moving in the same direction as his punches. More importantly for us, when we are leaning back, we are reversing 360 million years of vertebrate evolution on land by putting the spine on the underside of the torso. When the spine is on the bottom, we are holding ourselves up with our breathing muscles in the front of the body, which are now on the top side; and the deep spinal muscles, which are built to hold us up, are no longer contributing to the coordination of the body.
How much of modern depression arises from the simple reality that our bodies are trapped back on our heels, with our weight falling backwards, so that we feel unable to actively engage with our environment, even to fight back?
Whatever the origin of the problem, we, as Alexander Technique Teachers are needed to bring people back into their natural balance and organization to enable them to go beautifully forward into action in their lives.
I had a wonderful time studying to be an Alexander Technique teacher and living inside the Zen community. I stayed there for about five years after I graduated from Alexander Technique teacher training. One day a doctor friend had a cervical collar around her neck, and she said she had been having terrible neck pains that hadn’t been helped by three months of every medical treatment. I said to her “Well, I know something about necks. Would you like to try the Alexander Technique?”
Bob Britton (fourth from right in the top row) attended the
Alexander Training Institute of San Francisco in the 1970s.
“What’s that?” she said. So I gave her and her husband some table work in my little Zen room, and she was completely better in a week. She was so amazed that the medical profession had not been able to help her, but that this funny, little, unknown technique had been so effective. This gave me a great deal of confidence that not only was the Alexander Technique good for me, but that it was good for everyone.
It came time to leave my Zen community and move out into the wild world, making my living as an Alexander Technique teacher. My motto at the time was to give a lesson anytime, anywhere, to anyone, at a price that every person could afford. A very fortunate opportunity arose to give classes at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
I really knew the Alexander Technique was for everyone when I had an Army Band tuba player in my class at the Conservatory. Every year, every soldier has to go up before a board of sergeants to be evaluated for promotion. My student told me that the sergeants hate the Army Band. They really hate it. They think of the Band as very lightweight. The soldiers have to prepare intensively to go before the promotion board, including memorizing all kinds of information. They have to groom their uniforms to the degree that after they make the creases in their pants, they cannot sit down for fear of rumpling them. Many stayed up all night studying, getting ready for the examination.
My student said to himself that he would forget everything else and would only work on his Alexander Technique. While he was in the hallway waiting to be called in before the sergeants, he just concentrated on coming up into his full stature. When he was called into the room, he went forward in a lengthened and widened manner with his head forward and up and performed the routine drill of marching movements that the soldiers have to present, snapping to attention, crisply saluting the sergeants, and in a loud voice reporting for examination. Right at that moment, the biggest, meanest top sergeant said, “Private! Before we go any further, I want to commend you on your soldierly bearing.” He got the highest marks and largest promotion of any of the soldiers!
This made me realize that we bring people into their best organization for doing anything. Our lightening up is even good for the Army.
Nevertheless, we often find it discouraging when a student doesn’t return after a first lesson. One day a student came and wanted help on his running. We worked with all kinds of ways that he could orient himself differently and be more efficient. At the end of the lesson he was effusive in his enjoyment of the session and said he was very interested in taking more lessons. He never scheduled another lesson. I ran into him many years later; he was very happy to see me. He said, “You know I think about you every day! I got so much information from the lesson that it completely revolutionized my style of running. I can’t thank you enough!” So we can never know our real effect on a student. Sometimes when we think we have failed, we have actually succeeded. Of course, the opposite can also be true.
Sometimes lessons do not go well. They cannot always work out. The human body and mind are so complex, and the circumstances of problems so intricate that, even when we are teaching effectively, we can easily be unable to reach a student. Once a man came on the recommendation of a friend, and in the lesson I carefully described what he was doing that was causing his trouble and showed him how to change. He never came back and told my friend, “Oh, Bob just told me things I already knew.” So what is an Alexander Technique Teacher to do? Alcohol helps. But becoming a better teacher is best in the long run.
When things don’t go well, that is our challenge to grow. I often think about our ancestors 75 thousand years ago: because of climate change and serious environmental problems, they were down to such a small band that we all share a common grandfather and grandmother. In response to such pressures, that little group really got on the adaptation bandwagon and started to play around with new solutions. Complex language, art, and technology started to appear. And because they were able to change, we are here today, still innovating and looking for better ways.
The Alexander Technique is vast. You can easily experience how many different ways of teaching we have among all the teachers of AmSAT. This is a wonderful thing, as we are exploring all the subtleties of what is possible in the interaction of the human being with the Technique, to make the Technique smarter, clearer, and more accurate. The Beethoven of the Alexander Technique has probably not been born yet, or might be one of the trainees sitting in this room. So we are looking at a bright future.
Because we have spent so many years working on ourselves, we are now able to show others the way back to uprightness. Our ability to bring people back to what they really are––humans standing fully on the earth, being able to move forward––is an amazing skill.
When we take a person, all tensed, pushed back, and pulled down, and show that individual the way back to a fully balanced dynamically moving self, there can be that wonderful moment of joy.
It is an over-simplification of course, but the better Alexander Technique teachers we become, the more people we help, and the more joy spontaneously arises in world. I think we can be very proud of our contribution to the world’s daily load of happiness.
I am a great fan of having fun in lessons. We probably don’t want to be rubbing our hands in glee when a new student arrives at the door. But our enthusiasm and delight in our profession is not only a great advertisement, but also a way to find what our beings really want. In a way, down deep in us, are all of our ancestors who wanted to move well. Our ability to let fun happen brings us closer to them and allows us to be fully human.
When we are fully upright, there always seems to be beauty. There is a beauty to everyone as we drop off excess striving and strain. The human body without anything extra, fully present, free, and springing upwards, is a marvelous phenomenon to behold.
Once when I was teaching at ACT (the American Conservatory Theater), San Francisco’s premier acting academy, the other faculty members said that we had transformed all the character actors into leading men and ladies. What better way is there than to be the dynamic leading actor in our personal life?
As this is the F.M. Alexander Memorial Lecture, I have six words for F.M.:
Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
And so dear colleagues and cousins: It is a pleasure to be on this wonderful hunt for solutions and understanding with you.
Go out there!
And have fun!
3. Galen Cranz, The Chair (New York: Norton, 1998).
Robert Britton graduated from the American Center for the Alexander Technique-West (ACAT-West) in 1978. In addition to his private practice, he has taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music since 1984, and he is also a faculty member of the Bay Area Summer Opera Training Institute. Bob has helped train teachers since 1989, currently at the Alexander Educational Center in Berkeley and at the Ausbildungszentrum fur F.M. Alexander-Technik Berlin in Germany. Bob served as Chair of AmSAT from 1997 to 1999. He is one of the directors of the 2011 9th International Congress of he Alexander Technique in Lugano, Switzerland.
© 2011 Robert Britton. All rights reserved.
Photographs courtesy of Robert Britton.