The Finger That Points at the Moon

A series of reflections on 30 years of Alexander practice

Part 2: Senseless

The motivation to begin Alexander lessons came primarily from my curiosity about this method I had heard about for years. The actors and dancers I knew swore by it, saying it kept them injury-free or was a huge help in recovering from the physical demands on people who use their bodies for a living. On a less intellectual level, I felt a nagging pull toward anything body-based, because I suspected that my relationship with my physical self was not what it should be or could be.

The truth is, I had almost no awareness of my body, my senses, or the way I moved through life. I was senseless. That’s not to say I didn’t have healthy functional sight, hearing, smell, taste, or touch. I just wasn’t present most of the time, so I wasn’t directly experiencing my life through my human senses. Even worse, I had no idea how cut off I had become from myself in this way. The fact that I was living in my head about 90% of the time wasn’t immediately apparent to me; I assumed this was normal.

Around the same time that I began AT lessons I went to an allergy clinic and got tested for several possible allergens. As part of that visit I was offered a complimentary nutritional assessment, and of course they started by asking me what I ate on a typical day. I could not answer this question with any detail. “Well, what did you eat yesterday?” they asked. No clue. I could name some foods I routinely ate, but honestly had no memory of recent meals. I had to think really hard to remember.

This exchange disturbed me. Unlike some friends who complained that they couldn’t stop snacking or thinking about food, I noticed that I could go all day and forget to eat, until I arrived home at night, cranky and depleted. I could go most of the day without stopping to pee. I would see a bruise somewhere on my body and wonder, “when and how did that happen?” I was very good at ignoring signals from my body.

Given this level of disconnection from my senses, it’s no surprise that I also had very little understanding of how my body was constructed. In my early lessons, Alan would say things like, “allow your hips to open” and I’d think, “how can bones open?” I didn’t know that I had large, moveable joints called hips. Likewise with shoulders, which I didn’t think of as joints but as the region on either side of my neck. In addition, I had no notion of how tense I was. And boy, was I tense! I was holding on with every fiber of my being.

So in our work together, Alan and I gradually began to help me wake up a little. The primary way this happened was through allowing my teacher’s gentle touch. In our first lesson he explained that there were three ways I could respond to his hands-on guidance: bracing and resistance, collapse and deadweight, or “you can give your consent to follow where it seems my hands are leading.” My heart sang at this invitation, while it also felt tentative and unsure. Up to that point, my experience of being touched in a professional context was about someone doing things to me while I tolerated it. Being asked for consent and encouraged to participate in what we were doing was brand new.

This touch felt good. It was like a light shining on various body parts, illuminating them and making it possible for me to feel the energy moving through me. The result was that my body became unified, my awareness of any portion connected it to the whole, and by the time the lesson was over, I felt like we had somehow taken Humpty Dumpty and put him back together again.

Woman sleepwalking on the edge of a cliff

Woman sleepwalking on the edge of a cliff

As good as lessons felt in these early weeks, I was also becoming distressed about the mindless state of my everyday living. I had found great help through Jungian therapy, which I began as a way to deal with the effects of growing up in a dysfunctional, alcoholic family, as well as to explore Jung’s amazing approach to the human spirit and psyche. I had taught myself the use of Tarot cards as a contemplative method of reflecting the inner state of things (not for predicting the future, I’m not good at that). I occasionally took yoga classes that I appreciated but which often left me feeling inferior (I misunderstood most of what yoga is meant to be). So I believed I had some self-awareness. The fact that I didn’t know what I was doing in activity, in the use of myself, was a shock. In spite of the nagging suspicion that got me there, I was constantly surprised in my early Alexander lessons when, for example, Alan would lay hands on my shoulder girdle and it would release – kerplunk! – onto the table. Who knew I’d been holding so hard there? Not me.

The more I recognized how numb I’d become, the extent to which I was essentially sleepwalking through my life, the more agitated and afraid I became. It seemed dangerous to live like that. From the outside I might appear productive and engaged with my work as a theater critic and editor/writer, a happy newlywed with a great group of friends. But in reality I just didn’t show up for myself very often. I was beginning to see a different way to be, but I was scared of what such a change might require. This is why I thought “oh shit” after my first lesson. I wanted to learn and understand more, but a large part of me was screaming “no way!”

I’d like to pause here and take a moment to honor my choice to keep taking lessons. I could have quit, but I didn’t. As an Alexander teacher, I have seen students hit this choice point in our work together, and sometimes they stop. I try to provide as safe and supportive an environment as I can, to reassure if possible, but sometimes they just cannot continue. The fear of losing the familiar and embracing the unknown is just too great. I don’t recall if I was able to voice my fears to Alan, but in any case I felt seen and heard and attended to every time I had a lesson, and I understood that I could be hungry and thirsty for growth while simultaneously feeling terrified. I recognized my bravery, and like most situations that call for courage, I didn’t feel like I had a lot of options. I’d been given a glimpse of what could be and there was no going back.

To be continued…