Posts tagged Cats
Part 3: Everything I Need to Know About the Alexander Technique, I Learned from my Cat

Odin's early education was truly top-notch.

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

Actually, I can’t possibly have learned everything I know about the Alexander Technique from my cat, since Odin didn’t come into my life until 7 years after I first started lessons—not to mention a couple years after I’d certified as an Alexander teacher. At any rate, yesterday I wrote about the  emphasis on building my basic awareness in my early lessons. Today, I want to talk about being introduced to traditional Alexander chair and table work. But to make sense of those early lessons, it’s necessary to talk a bit about the nature of habit first. Odin’s quite helpful in this regard, since as a kitten, he gave me an object lesson in habit, especially what it means to be conditioned to a cue.

Odin was a kitten living in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, and for reasons too complicated to get into, he spent his first two weeks off the street at Jerry Coyne’s fruit fly lab at the University of Chicago. A fruit fly lab is a perfect place for a three month old, street-smart kitten: regular food, errant fruit flies to chase, and potted plants in which to bed down.

When I went to pick Odin up, Jerry was excited to show me a trick that he had taught him. He opened up a bag of kitty treats and Odin trotted over. Jerry held the treat at his belt and Odin quickly clambered up his pant leg and snatched the treat from Jerry’s hand. So cute!!

"Ha ha, so cute!" I said outloud, while inwardly grimacing. That was not going to be so cute when Odin was a FULL GROWN CAT CLIMBING MY LEG. But I didn’t say anything. As I headed home with my new feline companion, I silently resolved never to do that again.

Odin settled into life nicely. But one morning a couple of weeks after he arrived home I was making oatmeal and I opened up a bag of raisins. Suddenly Odin climbed up my leg. What was that all about? A week later I casually got out some trail mix and no sooner had I opened the bag then the cat climbed my leg, scaring the crap out of both of us.

This cat is cued and ready to go.

It kept happening. A few months in—the cat getting bigger, claws needing to be cut—I opened up a bag of brown sugar and the cat climbed up my leg, digging deep gouges through my jeans. I grabbed him from my leg and as I was about to shake him and say, “Why are you climbing my leg?!? There are no treats!”, I looked into his perplexed eyes and realized: wait a second. Jerry hadn’t trained Odin to the cue of offering a treat. He’d trained him to the cue of the sound of a bag opening.

I’d thought that if I didn’t offer Odin a treat held up at my belt, that he wouldn’t climb my leg. But everytime I opened a bag, he come running, expecting a treat.

It’s important to know what the cue is.

When we think of our habits, it’s natural to focus on the behavior, whatever it is—a cat climbing your leg, say—and forget to really understand the cue. What sets the behavior off?

This is especially true in the Alexander Technique, because the behavior we’re talking about seems practically invisible, it’s so fundamental. How we prepare to stand. How we get set to sit. Our postural coordination. Most people don’t even think of these habits as habits. They think of them as just how they are.

But these habits are still contextually driven: set off by cues built into our activities and environment. Only by understanding this aspect of habit—the difficulty not only of perceiving them, but knowing what sets them off—can we really understand why Alexander teachers teach the way they teach.

In my first few months of Alexander lessons with Carol, I experienced traditional chair and table work. I described yesterday how Carol was using her hands to give me basic feedback. She was also using her hands to quite literally move me. If we were working with sitting, for example, I would stand in front of the chair and Carol would sit me. This kind of guided movement is a unique experience, and one that I grew to love. There was a feeling of the movement just happening. It felt a little magical—I sometimes felt like Carol was my Jedi master. And it gave me a real experience that moving more easily was possible.

The behavior we’re talking about seems practically invisible, it’s so fundamental...Most people don’t even think of these habits as habits. They think of them as just how they are. But these habits are still contextually driven: set off by cues built into our activities and environment. Only by understanding this aspect of habit—the difficulty not only of perceiving them, but knowing what sets them off—can we really understand why Alexander teachers teach the way they teach.

Table work was equally enjoyable. I would lie on my back on a firm massage table in what was called constructive rest: head supported on a paperback book or two, knees up. Carol would gradually bring about what she called the “lengthening and widening of the back” through gentle manipulation with her hands—or at least, that’s how I would have described it at the time. It was relaxing, yes, but I was expected to stay awake and aware, noticing the changes in my body. At the end of the 15 or so minutes, I would feel flattened, almost pancaked to the table. And when I got up I would feel taller and wider across the shoulders and much lighter in my body.

For a long time, I assumed that chair and table work was teaching me the right way to be: the proper way to stand and sit. I assumed that at a certain point the experience would stick, and I would never forget it, as if she was molding me like a piece of clay into a better version of myself.

But this isn’t how it happens. Carol was showing me what the ideal felt like so that I could eventually experience how my habits pulled me away from the ideal. She was giving me a basis for comparison so that I could sense what actually changed when a habit was cued.

For the first few months, I didn’t bring my violin to my Alexander lessons. For maybe 8 to 16 lessons, we worked on the simpler movements of sitting and standing. I started to get used to the experience of finding my true height, the width of my shoulders, a sense of ease and integration across my back. I was loving it. And then Carol said I should start bringing my violin to my lessons.

And everything went to hell.

Next: When Violins Attackin which my illusions about my heroic poise at the violin are exposed and I discover the tension I’ve conditioned into my playing.

A teaching chair, a sleeping cat.

Welcome and come on in!

This is my Alexander Technique studio. If you’re curious about Alexander work, you can learn a lot from what’s in a teacher’s space. Here are five things in my teaching space and how they are used in an Alexander lesson.

  1. Chair: In a traditional Alexander lesson, we begin with chair work. We could use any movement to teach the Alexander Technique, but we start with the chair because it’s simple. Amazingly, many of your habits can be found in sitting and standing. By starting with something so familiar, we focus on how you’re thinking and moving at a fundamental level.

  2. Table: Alexander lessons include a table turn. We use a massage table, but an Alexander Technique table turn is nothing like a massage. You rest quietly on your back, while the teacher encourages release of the back musculature into length. For many of us, resting our minds comes at the expense of our bodies—for example, collapsing on the couch to watch television after work. A table turn models a different way to rest, one that leaves you feeling open and refreshed, not compressed and stiff.

  3. Piano: The piano represents the “activity work” part of a lesson: the thing that you do everyday, usually the focus of your career or a passionate hobby. If you’re a pianist, it’s practicing the piano. If you’re a writer, it might be working at your laptop. Maybe it has nothing to do with an instrument or object. If you’re a runner, you might want help with your running. If chair work looks at your general coordination, activity work looks at how your general coordination can serve you better in the work that matters to you the most. Often activity work is the most ground-breaking part of your lesson. When you realize the force of your habit in the activities that you do every day, you are well on your way to change.

  4. Mirror: A mirror clarifies what’s really going on. One of the most challenging things about changing a habit is that our habits feel normal and the better way too often feels weird. For example, the other day I was helping a student find an easier way of standing. She usually stands with her knees locked, her hips pushed forward and her upper back pushed back. After I adjusted her stance, she felt like she was doing the opposite: pushing her butt back and leaning forward. But when she looked in the mirror, she saw that she was standing up straight. The mirror helped her compare what she thought she was doing with what she was actually doing,

  5. iPhone (on top of the bookcase—not visible): The video and slow-mo features on my iPhone, along with the Coach’s Eye app, are helpful to my students when they’re moving at speed. For example, one student was trying to work out if his skateboarding was the cause of knee pain.  We went outside and videotaped him on his board, and saw that he bent his knees in towards each other with each impact, straining the area of his knees that hurt. Seeing the action helped him sense the action in real time and helped him start to address an old habit,

Arlo, doing what he does best.

These are some of the objects in my teaching space, and how they’re used in an Alexander…what’s number 6? Oh, that’s Arlo. He likes to sleep in my violin case. Cats often make excellent teaching assistants. They excel at modeling the importance of rest and rejuvenation.