BRINGING SEMI-SUPINE TO LIFE
Presented at the 2008 International Congress for the Alexander Technique
Published in the Congress Papers, 2008
Semi-supine is familiar to all of us who study and/or teach the Alexander Technique. The workshop I taught at this 8th International Congress of Teachers of the Alexander Technique in Lugano, Switzerland was entitled “Bringing Semi-Supine to Life.” I asked the teachers present to be willing to put on their student “hats” as well as their teacher “hats” and I took them through the process of Active Rest as I teach it in university settings. Some aspects of this process were not new to the experienced teachers. Some aspects such as encouraging conscious awareness of thoughts and emotions provided new insights. Teaching Active Rest effectively is dependant on the quality of understanding the principles, along with consistency and repetition for the student.
BACKGROUND: For over twenty of my last twenty-nine years of teaching the Alexander Technique I have been employed in theater or music departments of various universities in California. Often the classes would have fifteen to twenty students over the course of a fourteen-week semester. At one university, the class met once a week for an hour and a half. At other universities the class met twice a week for 50 minutes each time. *
CHALLENGE: How to teach the Alexander Technique to a group of students in such a way that it engages their thinking even when they are not experiencing hands-on work? Knowing time was limited and two hands could not effectively convey the Alexander Technique to all of these students in a 50-minute class, I decided to teach semi-supine as a foundation to teaching the principles. In the hopes it would “…make them endeavour to exercise their conscious minds all the while.” (Alexander 1957 , p.130)
OVER TIME: In my own life and work I have been intrigued with the way directions keep me coordinated in whatever spatial movement I make. i.e. Allowing the neck to be free, to allow the head to go forward and up, to allow the back to lengthen and widen, to allow the knees to go forward and away, heels down, bring me into balance. I recognize the oppositions implicit in these directions. There is an up and a down, a forward and a back, a side to side. These are spatial directions.
VENUE: The universities provide a rehearsal room to teach in and I arrange the chairs in a large semi circle with a white board facing the group. On the board I write the words Principles/Operational Ideas of the Alexander Technique. Under which I list (but do not limit to): Awareness, Inhibition, Direction, Primary Control, Whole Person, Means-whereby vs. End-gaining, Recognition of Force of Habit, Faulty Sensory Appreciation, Use affects Functioning.. I introduce the Alexander Technique as a study in how they (the students) use themselves. I explain the concept of the Self as the Whole Person, the Psychophysical Self and the concept of use as the manner in which they go about living their lives.
INTRODUCING Active Rest: (See the Handout at end of this article. Handout is given out only after students have experienced Active Rest during the first two weeks of class.)
Students are asked to lie down on their backs, with knees bent, and a book under their head for support. I talk them through the process as I walk around the room putting hands on as I go.
AWARENESS: They are then encouraged to notice without wiggling how their body is in contact with the floor. Notice the two shoulders, is one bearing more weight or higher than the other; notice the two sides of the pelvis, is one side bearing more weight or higher than the other; notice the two feet, is there more weight on one than the other, are they in similar relation or is one turned out / turned in; notice the two elbows and lower arms, are they similar to each other; notice the head on the books. I explain that they are simply collecting data about themselves that might give them insight into how they use themselves in the upright. I explain the concept of use affecting function. They are simply being asked to become aware of how their bodies are in contact with the floor and consider what information that provides.
Then, still in the realm of awareness, they are asked to consider what thought is dominating their thinking (the first day I ask in the moment, but later might ask in this day, in this week, in this semester, in this life!) and is it conducive to their best use or does it interfere with their best use? I take time for them to silently formulate a sentence stating this thought.
Continuing with awareness, I then ask them to consider what is dominating their emotions in the moment (but later might ask in this day, this week, this semester, this life!) and is it conducive to their best use or does it interfere with their best use? Again, they are given time to silently formulate a sentence. Later, I speak to using this opportunity as artists to enhance their emotional vocabulary. For instance are they “happy” or in bliss or giddy or simply the happiness that comes with contentment. When they sing a “sad” aria or play a “sad” character. What is the quality of that sadness?
INHIBITION: I begin the explanation of this concept by saying it is the space between stimulus and response, the space in which they have an opportunity to make a choice. I invite them to set aside the above thoughts & emotions while they proceed with their ten minutes of Active Rest. Clarifying we are not suppressing, but choosing. Later I speak to them about the concept of inhibition in neuroscience of sending messages from the brain to lessen muscular excitation.
DIRECTION: Thinking spatially and sending messages from the brain and conducting energy necessary. To quote F. M. Alexander:
When I employ the words “direction” and “directed” with “use” in such phrases as “direction of my use” and “I directed the use,” etc., I wish to indicate the process involved in projecting messages from the brain to the mechanisms and conducting the energy necessary to the use of these mechanisms. (Alexander 1932, p.13)
I then encourage them to give themselves directions by thinking of allowing their necks to be free of any unnecessary tension, to allow their heads to release away from the spine (remember they are lying down and the book is providing the forward), to allow their backs to release into length and width, to allow their knees to release away from their hips and to allow their feet to be present on the floor. We repeat this a few times inviting their thinking to both circulate their energy and to stop unnecessary excitation of their musculature.
DEMONSTRATING Direction and Kinesthetic Awareness:I might ask them to think to their right thumb, then to their right pointing finger, middle finger, ring finger, pinky. Notice if the right hand feels different from the left having directed the thought to the right fingers. This is an example of giving directions and heightening ones kinesthetic sense. They can send messages to all parts of their body. I explain that Alexander gave directions by thinking of “allowing the neck to be free (of any unnecessary tension), to allow the head, etc.” and liken pointing with one’s finger to directing up along one’s spine. Again, in time, I help them to distinguish between thinking the thought and feeling the response to the thought.
EXHALATIONS: Towards the end of Active Rest they are asked to spend a few moments extending their exhalations. This is done by whispering an Ah or by silently saying lalalalalalala until the exhalation is easily completed. Choosing not to “take in” the breath: but rather allowing the next breath to come in, to arrive. Repeating this a few times at their own pace. As the semester progresses so does their understanding of the Whispered Ah. Later I might use the time during Active Rest to introduce respiratory re education and to vocalize sound i.e. a hum into a vocalized Ah.
COMPLETING ACTIVE REST: They are encouraged to make a decision to complete their Active Rest and come silently to standing facing me while being aware of the relationship of their head/neck/back. I note that we are now standing in Active Rest. Then I demonstrate how if I tighten my neck or lock my legs I begin to brace and am no longer in Active Rest while standing. I release my neck and legs demonstrating that I am sending messages to stop the unnecessary excitation and am not straightening my neck or bending my knees. As the semester goes on I might ask them to notice if they are sitting in Active Rest while I am working with an individual at her instrument in front of the class. I might ask the whole class to take a walk around the room in Active Rest.
Thus, they begin to understand that the directions are indeed what keeps them coordinated in whatever spatial movement they make. And, they begin to see that what they are thinking is influencing their muscular effort, as are their emotions. They begin to experience that thoughts and emotions can be passing through as an impermanent quality.
Please note, although Active Rest is practiced at the start of each class, students are individually worked with as time permits and principles explained in front of the class in a variety of activities including chair work, monkey, walking, singing, playing their instrument. I’m delighted to say students arrive early and when I arrive at the start of class time they are already in Active Rest. They learn to appreciate the benefits of Active Rest and within a short time they understand that they can be sitting in a chair with the quality of Active Rest; standing in Active Rest, walking in Active Rest. Always with the same process: What are they aware of in their Whole Psychophysical Self: physically, mentally, emotionally; what do they individually need to inhibit; choose to redirect their thinking and their energy. Eyes are encouraged to be open.
We as teaches teach our own level of understanding and via the means-whereby we portray/live that understanding. It became obvious to me as I wrote this material on teaching Active Rest that I have been greatly influenced not only by my two training teachers but also by my work with Patrick Macdonald, Walter Carrington and Marjorie Barstow (I hear aspects of their individual voices within what I wrote) and by my colleagues and by the needs of my own students. I share this perspective with all of you and look forward to continuing growth.
After 20 years of teaching the Alexander Technique AmSAT bestows its members with a certificate that reads “in recognition of twenty years of service, teaching, and contribution to the development of the F. M. Alexander Technique.” Nine years ago when I received this certificate I wondered what “contribution to the development” of the Technique I had made. Now, I think that as we study our selves, learn from others, integrate and embody our own understanding of the work, we each are contributing to the development of the F. M. Alexander Technique. I am grateful to the International Congress Papers for the role it provides in hallmarking the growth of this work.
*The good news is I am now employed in the music conservatory of a university that credits students 1 unit for taking a ½ hour private lesson once a week for 14 weeks. Within this private lesson format I still encourage students to do Active Rest for ten minutes daily and write a short report midway through the semester on it’s effect in their lives. It seems to establish a means to an end of living a less stressful life and a life in which constructive conscious choices are being made,
Alexander, F.M. Man’s Supreme Inheritance (1910) Integral Press, Bexley, Kent Fourth Edition 1957.
Alexander, F.M. The Use of the Self (1932) Integral Press, Bexley, Kent, Third Edition Reprinted 1955.
BIO for CONGRESS PAPERS
Pamela Blanc, certified in 1979 by Frank Ottiwell and Giora Pinkas; Post-graduate certificate, Art of Breathing, Jessica Wolf, ACAT-NY, 2003; Assisted Jessica in Art of Breathing Course, 2006; Teaches privately in Los Angeles and in University Theater & Music Departments since 1980; A founding Director of the Alexander Training Institute of Los Angeles; 2008 recipient of AmSAT Certificate of Merit Award.
HANDOUT: I do not give them the handout until after the second week and they have had the experience in class four times.
ACTIVE REST HANDOUT
8th International Congress of the Alexander Technique
With Pamela Blanc, m.AmSAT
AmSAT Certified Teacher of the Alexander Technique
10 Minutes – Lying down on your back, with knees bent, and a book under your head for support.
Awareness of your Self (physically, mentally, emotionally)
Consider how your body is in contact with the floor.
(Scan 9 points of contact)
Consider what thought is dominating your thinking. (Is it
conducive to your best use or does it interfere with your best use?)
Consider what is dominating your emotions.
(Is it conducive to your best use or does it interfere with your best use?)
Inhibition – The space between stimulus and response.
The space in which you have an opportunity to make a choice. Choose to set aside the above thoughts & emotions while you proceed with your 10 minutes of Active Rest.
Neuroscience: messages sent from the brain to stop muscular excitation.
Direction – Thinking spatially and sending messages from the brain and
conducting energy necessary.
Begin to give your Self directions by thinking of allowing your neck to be free of any unnecessary tension, to allow your head to release away from your spine, to allow your back to release into length and width, to allow your knees to release away from your hips and to allow your feet to be present on the floor. Repeat this. – Allow your thinking to both circulate your energy and to stop unnecessary excitation of your musculature.
Towards the end of your Active Rest spend a few moments extending your exhalations. This is done by whispering an Ah or by silently saying lalalalala until the exhalation is easily completed. Choose not to “take in the breath” but rather allow the breath to come in, to arrive. Repeat this a few times. If you do “take in the breath,” observe how you do that and on the next breath observe what happens when you don’t do it.
Make a decision to complete your Active Rest. Get up with ease, monitoring the relationship of your head/neck/back. Continue with your day…in a mindful way. Enjoy.