Part 2: Off the Map: My First Alexander Lessons

This is the second in a six-part series about my experience studying the Alexander Technique for the first time.

Yesterday, I wrote about my fear of injury as an aspiring musician. When I called Carol McCullough to set up my first Alexander Technique lessons, I had few illusions that I needed some help. It wasn’t just that I was often uncomfortable at the violin, it was a growing sense that I had very little awareness of what was going on.

I spent most of my time at Oberlin either practicing the violin, reading, or on the computer. When I branched out and took a contact improv class in the middle of my fourth year (because: Oberlin), I remember the teacher at the end of the month asking us which parts of our bodies were clearest in our mind. I thought for a while and came up with this list: my hands—since I played the violin and typed with them. And my elbows and knees—since they were bony and stuck out.  

Later that spring, my friend Todd dragged me, somewhat against my will, to a yoga class. I remember the blissed out expression on his face as he went through the poses and my growing sense of frustration and incompetence. The teacher kept telling us to bend from our hips. What did she mean, bend from the hips? Where the *$!% were my hips?

It was as if parts of my body were areas of an old map marked “terra incognita.”

Much of my early Alexander lessons were spent focused on raising my basic awareness. The lessons were hands-on. It was my first experience with educational touch. Carol’s contact was gentle, but assured.

Her hands gave me the most basic feedback: this is where you are in space. Her instructions were reinforced by touch. If she told me that my head was supposed to move from the very top of my body—the atlanto-occipital and atlanto-axial joints, if you’re being technical—then she would give me the experience of moving at those joints. Her hands were saying: this is where your head balances on top of your spine. This is how you move to take advantage of your head-neck joints.

To reinforce my experience, Carol introduced me to Alexander’s idea of “faulty sensory awareness”—or in his more florid moments, “debauched kinesthesia.” I felt a twinge of recognition: through unwitting neglect, my sense of self had grown inaccurate and incomplete.

Many years later I would read A Body Has a Mind of Its Own, Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee’s book about how the brain maps the body. In it they talk about the distinction that scientists make between your body image and your body schema.

Your body image is your mental picture of your body. It’s your beliefs about yourself: how you think you move and how you think you appear. In contrast, your body schema is the information coming to your brain from the sensory organs around your body, telling you where your body is actually in space. Your body image is top-down. Your body schema is bottom-up.

The alarming thing is that your body image will almost inevitably override your body schema. Your beliefs will remain unchallenged by the actual and accurate information coming in from your senses. Belief trumps reality.

In my Alexander lessons, I was testing my beliefs—as spotty as they were—against the real structure of my body. It wasn’t intellectual knowledge—it was experiential. It was lived.

Very gradually, my body map started to fill in. The discovery of my hip-joints was a landmark event—I’m talking about the ball-and-socket joint where the thigh bones come into the pelvis. Maybe it sounds silly: but through discovering movement at my hips, I started to rediscover my full mobility and strength. You can’t move easily if you’re locking your hips. You can’t be strong if you’re always bending at the waist and losing the leverage of a lengthening spine.

Then a strange thing happened: I realized I was tall. Let me explain. I was 23 when I started lessons with Carol and I hadn’t been tall for very long. I was a late bloomer. Growing up, I had usually been the shortest kid in my class. And then I grew all at once. I was five feet tall at fourteen and reached my full height—6’1”—three years later at the end of my junior year.

The alarming thing is that your body image will almost inevitably override your body schema. Your beliefs will remain unchallenged by the actual and accurate information coming in from your senses. Belief trumps reality.

But I didn’t really feel tall. This had had some disastrous consequences—my first week at Oberlin, I leapt over some students sitting on the floor of the dorm hallway and concussed myself, smashing my head into the ceiling. Less dramatically, I often had the sense that I was talking with people at eye level, even if they were six inches shorter than me and were obviously looking up.

None of this struck me until after I’d started lessons with Carol and started to see the world from my actual height. It also started to make sense why I was so often uncomfortable. It’s hard to take advantage of your height if at a fundamental level you don’t think your tall.

A lot of times, students assume that Alexander lessons are going to start with the teacher telling them the right way to move. But lessons really begin with the most basic awareness. It’s hard to get around if your map is incomplete. You have to start by knowing where you are.

Before my lessons with Carol, if I was uncomfortable or in pain, I didn’t know why. With each lesson, I started to realize that there was information available to me that would help make sense of the discomfort. It was a lot more subtle to perceive than the ache of an aching wrist. But if I practiced this simple awareness, I might start to perceive the patterns that not only explained the pain, but could point me in a different direction.

Next: Everything I Need to Know about the Alexander Technique, I Learned from my Catin which Carol shows me chair and table work and my cat teaches me about habit.