“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”
Shakespeare: As You Like It
“All the world’s a stage, and most of us are desperately unrehearsed.”
“Alexander Technique, public speaking & presentation skills, singing, playing the harp, acting, aikido, golf… Is there no end to your skills Alan?”
“Quite the Rennaisance man! A real Jack of all trades, eh?”
No! You’ve got hold of the wrong end of the stick. It’s the Alexander Technique! It helps you to move through life with greater ease. Alexander Technique is like an elastoplast… it works where you apply it.
Let’s be totally clear – what I know about golf is the merest degree above zero. But the number of times the Alexander Technique has rubbed off on a clients game and they’ve gone out and sunk a hole in one, played the game of a lifetime has stunned me.
Not half as much as it stunned them. Yes, they got the results of their coaching – brilliant presentation, fantastic interview, dealt with that difficult client – but somehow that perfect putt just keeps popping back into mind. Power, possibilities, potential…
So in this blog I hope to share some of my enthusiasms about applications of the Alexander Technique to public speaking and presentation skills; singing; playing an instrument; building confidence and reducing nerves; aikido; walking… and so on and so forth.
I hope this will help you, dear reader, to further develop those skills that will help you to move through your own life withincreasing ease, skill and pleasure.
“The people we know as masters don’t devote themselves to their particular skill just to get better at it. The truth is, they love to practice- and because of this they do get better. And then to complete the circle, the better they get the more they enjoy performing the basic moves over and over again.”
N.B. I wrote this article over twenty years ago. I’m putting it up on the blog ‘as seen’ but do want to make some changes to it. It will eventually become part of a book called ‘Life Lessons from the Edges of Aikido’
Ki is a Japanese word which means energy – either personal or universal.
The form of Ki development we will be studying comes from a Japanese
martial art called Aikido. The word Aikido translates – roughly – as ‘The way of Harmony with the Universe’.
Aikido was developed by Morihei Ueshiba (1885 – 1969) at the beginning of the 20th century. Ueshiba studied and became expert in a range of martial arts. He synthesised what he considered to be the best out of these systems and combined with his own original techniques to create Aikido.
Through the practise of Aikido many people have found subtle and sometimes dramatic changes taking place in their lives – greater calmness, humour, resourcefulness and creativity in dealing with life’s challenges. However, the development of this resourcefulness requires a great deal of Aikido practice and, even
Then, the results can be somewhat haphazard.
Ueshiba’s chief instructor, Koichi Tohei, addressed himself to this problem. It appeared to Tohei that many people practiced the techniques of Aikido mechanically with little or no understanding of the underlying spirit or Ki embodied within them.
After years of teaching and observation Koichi Tohei formulated the four principles of Ki Development. These four principles could now be taught to people in a step by step manner which would allow them, from the very first lesson, to apply Ki not only to their martial arts practice but also to the rest of their daily lives.
Koichi Tohei spent several years teaching Ki development (separately from
Aikido) in schools, universities, workplaces and private homes to people
from widely ranging walks of life.
The four principles of Ki development as formulated by Koichi Tohei are:-
1. Keep one point
2. Relax completely
3. Keep weight underside
4. Extend Ki
1. Keep one point:
Keeping one point means letting ones attention rest in the lower abdomen (which corresponds closely to body’s centre of gravity), approximately 3 or 4 inches below the navel. Nowadays with our greater and greater emphasis on rationality and thinking skills our main physical focus of awareness has tended to be the part that we think we do our thinking with – our head.
In other cultures this has not always been the case. When the psychologist C.G. Jung visited the Pueblo Indians he was told by his host that ‘the white man’ was very strange because he thought with his head. Jung was somewhat surprised by this statement and asked his host what he thought with. “With my heart of course” was the reply.
a) So how do we allow the mind/attention to rest in the one point? To give an idea how simple this is, start off by holding your index finger in front of your eyes. As you hold your index finger in front of your eyes, become aware of the physical sensation of the finger itself. Now let your hand rest at your side, out of direct eyesight, and continue focussing on the sensation of the finger.
In a similar way allow your attention to move from your head to your one point 3 or 4 inches below your navel. Allow your hands to cover this area of your lower abdomen. As you place your awareness in your one point say out loud, or just think the words, “Keep one point.” In this way the words and the experience of keeping one point become linked. Soon just thinking or saying the words “Keep one point” will be enough to recall the experience itself.
b) Keeping one point does not mean excluding contact with the world around you.
As you keep one point so you can also become curious about your surroundings. Notice/see six things that you haven’t noticed previously and as you continue looking, remember where your one point is. Continue keeping one point as you listen to the sounds around you.
c) THE BASIC KI TEST
If you have the opportunity to practice with a friend, try the following test.
Stand side by side with your friend, facing in the same direction, your bodies a little apart from each other. Ask your friend to put their attention in the middle of their forehead. Reach out with your nearest hand and test with a very smooth and gentle pressure to the middle of their upper chest or on the nearest shoulder.
A likely result of this test is that your partner will be pushed off balance backwards or that they will use a great deal of muscular effort to stay in place.
Repeat the same experiment. This time ask your friend to place their attention in the one point. Again test with the same smooth and gentle pressure to the upper chest or nearest shoulder.
Testing from the front
testing from the back
from the nearside shoulder
and from the farside shoulder
Notice the results. It is likely that your partner will now stay easily in place using an absolute minimum of muscular effort.
2. Relax completely:
Modern living is often a very challenging affair and many of us believe – consciously or unconsciously – that mere survival or keeping our heads above water requires grim forced effort. This is often referred to colloquially as ‘toughing it out’.
Relaxation on the other hand, while regarded as being pleasant and desirable in its place – evenings and weekends if we’re lucky – is often thought of as being a somewhat weakened and inadequate state from which to deal with our daily affairs.
Unfortunately this is all too often true. Our habitual means of relaxation often amount to a condition of physical and energetic slump or collapse. A state which could rightly be called ‘dead relaxation’.
There are however a number of seemingly charmed individuals who, enviably, seem able to bring qualities of ease and ‘alive relaxation’ to whatever activity they are engaged in.
We can all think of someone in the world of artistic or sporting endeavour who make the most challenging and complex activities look easy and simple. To these individuals ‘Alive Relaxation’ is not only second nature but first nature.
There are also times in the lives of most people when we wake with that ‘on top
of the world’ feeling when the pressures of the day like ‘water off a duck’s back’, when we ‘sail through’ challenging situations and turn problems into opportunities.
For many people the hallmark of alive relaxation is a sense of lightness in their physicality accompanied by a sense of effortless effort.
Adopt a strong ‘muscleman’ posture, bunch up your fists, set your jaw, dig your heels in. Be stubborn.
Have a friend give you the Basic Ki Test by applying a smooth and gentle pressure, straight back on your upper chest. You are very likely to fall over. You may of course decide to push against the testing hand thereby equalising the pressure. If the tester is cunning (i.e. sneaky) she will quickly take her hand away causing you to overbalance forwards. Clashing with a situation head on has its own unique disadvantages!
Scan your body and notice how this tough, over muscled, posture affects you. What is your energy level like? What is it like to walk around like in this posture? How is your breathing in this state? What is your attitude, toward yourself and the world like now?
Now adopt a slumping ‘relaxed’ posture. Your partner will now apply the Basic Ki Test by gently and smoothly pushing on the upper chest. Notice what happens.
Continue slumping. How does this affect you physically? What is it like to walk and move while slumping? Energy levels? Attitude? Breathing?
And now for something completely different! Stand looking straight ahead with your weight equally distributed on your feet. Imagine that there is a puppet string attached to the top of your head. Someone (your Guardian Angel?) gently stretches the puppet string. Effortlessly your head follows the puppet string allowing your whole spine to
lengthen. Don’t try. Don’t push. Let the puppet string do it for you.
The puppeteer continues pulling the string as you physically rise up on to your toes, allowing your heels to leave the floor. Very lightly, like a butterfly landing on a cherry blossom, settle your heels down on to the floor again.
Your partner applies the Basic Ki Test as you continue looking straight ahead. You are likely to test very strong, passing the test with ease.
As the puppet string suspends you observe how this affects your body. Notice how you move. Notice your breathing and energetic state. Attitude?
Now try the following experiment. Think of a situation in which you generated more tension than you required. And now notice what happens to you physically and energetically.
Now put that situation to one side and let your attention gently rest in the present moment, listening, looking around you and allowing the puppeteer to ease you into a condition of alive relaxation. Repeat the words “Relax Completely” to yourself a few times. The words will link up with the experience and amplify it. Walk around a bit.
Now recall the situation that bothered you. As you recall this situation stay in contact with this easy state. Repeat “Relax Completely” to yourself a few times.
How do you see, hear, feel about the situation differently now?
If working with a partner, apply the Basic Ki Test to each step of the experiment above.
Try the above experiment, stage by stage, with a state of collapse/dead relaxation’ as your starting point. Think of a context. i.e. a situation where you were in a state of ‘dead relaxation’. Then create a state of alive relaxation. Maintain alive relaxation as you review the situation where you were in a state of ’dead relaxation’.
3. Keep Weight Underside:
The weight of all things drops toward their underside. If you lift up an inanimate object and let go of it the law of gravity requires it to drop towards the ground. We would be very surprised if it flew off in any other direction.
This may seem to be a case of stating the obvious. Everything on the planet earth is subject to its gravitational field. Human beings, however, do not always seem to act in harmony with the law of gravity. We often seem to struggle against gravity rather than work with it.
A common startle response in primates and human beings to falling or the threat of falling (i.e. the withdrawal of supporting surfaces) is for
(l) The head to be drawn down to the middle of the body.
(2) The shoulders and arms to be drawn up – thereby protecting the head.
(3) The legs to be drawn up towards the middle of the body.
When the above three elements are present the primate or person will tend to roll up into a self protective ball thereby protecting the skull and brain from impact.
Unfortunately this startle pattern seems to be stimulated in human beings much of the time by anxiety provoking situations. We do not of course curl up in a ball on the floor every time we feel anxious. We do, nonetheless, tend to display the same physiological patterns to a lesser degree.
We recognise when we or others are ‘uptight’. Apart from the frown we often notice that the shoulders and arms are held higher, sometimes inches higher, than they need be. Often the neck will be contracted thereby pulling the head down towards the shoulders.
What is not always so obvious is that the legs are also contracting and pulling up towards the centre of the body. This tends to cause a bracing either forwards or backwards of the knee joints.
This startle pattern, if not fully released, tends to use up great amounts of energy and quite rapidly leads to fatigue.
Simply stated, when our weight is ‘kept underside’, the core of the body, i.e. the head and spine, indirectly suspends the shoulders and arms and legs allowing them to drop towards the floor. Paradoxically, allowing weight to drop underside is often experienced as feeling physically light.
When our weight is ‘upperside’ the core of the body (the head and spine) tends to be shortened and compressed towards the floor. The spine and head no longer suspend the rest of the body so effectively. The shoulders and arms tend to be pulled up. The legs are stiffened. Often there is a tendency to hold the breath. Paradoxically ‘weight upperside’ is often experienced as being comparatively heavier or more ‘weighed down’ than ‘weight underside’.
Stand facing a wall so that you can place the palms of your hands on the wall about shoulder level. Without leaning into the wall allow your hands to make a nice full contact with the wall. Notice what that is like.
(a) Now hitch your shoulders up a bit and stiffen your fingers. Now ‘walk’ your hands up and down the wall. Notice what that is like. You will probably not have as good hand contact with the wall now.
For the purposes of this experiment your hands on the wall represent the way that your feet contact the ground. Stand away from the wall. Keep your shoulders up and stiffen your toes. Walk around. Observe how this affects you.
(b) Face the wall again. Slump a bit. Put your hands against the wall and lean on them. ‘Walk’ your hands up and down the wall. Observe what this is like.
Transfer this into walking on your real feet. Slump, be heavy on your feet. Notice what this is like.
(c) As you face the wall allow your weight to be evenly distributed on your feet. Think of an imaginary puppet string gently taking your head up. Don’t force your head up. Don’t push. Only think of it flowing up. Think of your shoulders dropping down and widening apart from each other.
Gently raise your hands up on to the wall. Do not lean on them. Allow your hands to make a very gentle full contact with the wall. Let your hands walk up and down the wall being aware of the ‘touch’ of the wall as you do.
Stand away from the wall. Think of the puppeteer stretching your puppet string. Allow your shoulders to drop down and widen away from each other. Let your hands hang easily at your side. Think of your feet ‘touching’ the floor in the same way as your hands touched the wall. walk around. Observe how this affects you.
l) Unraisable Arm
Tester (A) Tester (B)
B extends her arm straight in front of herself at shoulder level. A is going to test by pressing upwards on the lower side B’s arm – between the elbow and shoulder.
B uses direct muscular strength to resist this lifting. B may find her arm becoming fatigued and overpowered. Alternatively B may pass the test but use up a great deal of energy in the process.
If B passes the test then A can vary the pressure of the test by pressing straight along the length of the arm towards the body. B is likely to lose balance backwards because she has not been employing full body-mind co-ordination.
2) B stands, arms at sides, and thinks of her weight dropping underside. B then raises an arm, pointing straight ahead at shoulder level. She puts her attention in the lower edge (underside) of her arm. A can help by tracking all the way along the lower edge of B’s arm from armpit to the little finger.
A then applies the same test to B’s arm, by pressing gently upwards between elbow and shoulder.
B should pass the test with greater ease. By may find it helpful to regard the tester as a personal servant providing a useful armrest. Even if A varies the direction of the test, pressing directly up the arm towards the body, B should remain easily unmoveable.
3) B keeps weight underside as she raises her arm straight in front of her at shoulder level.
A traces along the upper side of B’s arm from shoulder to fingers and then immediately applies the test upward on the lower arm between elbow and shoulder.
B’s arm is likely to go flying upwards due to lost body-mind co-ordination.
4. Extend Ki:
Extending Ki basically means extending good positive feeling.
A counter example of extending Ki would be the feelings and body sensations one experiences when unexpectedly bumping into someone you would really rather avoid!
As an experiment, remember unexpectedly meeting someone you’d rather avoid. Notice your response energetically and physically. The experience may well be one of shrinking into oneself.
Now try the opposite. Remember unexpectedly meeting with someone you really like. What happens physically and energetically at that moment of recognition?
It will probably become clear that extending Ki means extending positive energy or good feeling from inside to the world around you.
Try a variation on the above experiments. Put your attention in your one point and think of good feelings radiating from your one point out to the room all around you. Think of good feeling radiating from your one point and creating a beautiful big sphere of energy around you. As you continue extending Ki think again of the situation where you unexpectedly met someone you didn’t like. Radiate more Ki.
Notice if you feel any differently about the situation now.
Think of some other situations that you would like to extend Ki into.
If working with a partner try the above experiments and apply the Basic Ki Test to each stage.
A = Taster B= Tester
l) B raises her arm to shoulder level pointing it straight ahead. B makes herself very strong and ‘muscles up’..
A tests by trying to bend B’s arm at the elbow, by pressing down on the elbow joint and up at the wrist joint simultaneously (see primitive drawing)
B’s arm will probably fatigue and give way. Alternatively B will pass the test but use a great deal of energy in the process.
2) B raises her arm again and this time imagines a powerful jet of Ki arising from her one point up through her body and all the way through her arm, out of her fingers and shooting off into the distance. B’s arm muscles should be kept very soft and relaxed.
A applies the test by simultaneously pressing down on the elbow and up on the wrist. B’s arm should remain unbendable with minimum effort and maximum ease.
3) B raises her arm and extends Ki through her arm. A ‘cuts’ B’s Ki by touching B’s fingers with the palm of her (A’s) hand. A then immediately tests B for unbendable arm. B is likely to fail the test.
N.B. I wrote this article in 1989 as part of my 1st Dan blackbelt grading. The article assumes a fairly high level of familiarity with basic Aikido and Ki development techniques. I’m putting it up on the blog ‘as seen’ but do want to make considerable changes to it. It will eventually become part of a book called ‘Life Lessons from the Edges of Aikido’
KI-AIKIDO AND THE ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE
The first part of this project will be presented as an introductory class to the Alexander Technique. As such it may give participants a taste of the Alexander Technique – but should not be considered to be comprehensive or the final word on the subject in any way. As with any group class teaching there is a tendency to generalise. It is invaluable in Alexander Technique as in Aikido to have a teacher or Sensei present to fine tune the instructions for the individual user.
Throughout the article I will endeavour to compare Ki-Aikido and the Alexander Technique and draw out the similarities between the two disciplines. The article assumes the reader is familiar with Tohei Sensei’s ‘Four Principles’ (link to Ki article/s in here) and with 1st Test and 2nd Test.
Finally I shall describe some of the regular Alexander/Aikido exercises that we have been experimenting with at the Highbury Aikido Club.
Frederick Mathias Alexander (1869 – 1955) was an Australian actor who performed, at the end of the 19th century. His career went very well for a few years until he began to experience recurrent vocal and breathing difficulties. Alexander tried all the usual medical routes for a solution to his voice and breathing problems, to no avail.
Following this he spent a period of several years observing himself in mirrors while reciting. During this period he noticed that he made certain habitual muscular responses – particularly when he anticipated reciting a demanding passage.
This in turn had an adverse effect on his whole body including his vocal and breathing mechanisms. From these initial observations Alexander went on to develop and refine, until the end of his life, the technique which was named after him.
Nikolass Tinbergen the 1974 Nobel Prize winner for medicine and physiology said of the Alexander Technique in his prize acceptance speech “This story of perceptiveness, of intelligence and of persistence, shown by a man without medical training, is one of the true epics of medical research and practice”.
Alexander considered his technique to be a re-educational method that would allow people an indirect control over the largely unconscious habitual responses they were making that were not in their best interests – both mentally and physically.
Alexander taught his method both in the U.K. and the United States and his pupils included many of the leading lights of the day, including Aldous Huxley and George Bernard Shaw, to name but two.
The Technique continues to grow in popularity and many household names have had lessons including…….. (John Cleese, Wogan, Kenneth Branagh, Sting, the Duchess of York etc…)
The Alexander Technique is part clergy of the training of actors and actresses and is taught in all major drama schools in the U.K.
Let us return to the story of how Alexander evolved his method. Alexander had a tendency to rasp in his breath in an audible and ugly way between phrases, whilst reciting. He also became hoarse, sometimes almost losing his voice, towards the end of performances. His physician examined him and found that his vocal chords and the mucous membranes of his throat were inflamed. The symptom picture was known colloquially in those days as ‘clergyman’s sore throat’. Alexander and his physician tried all the remedies available without success. The only thing that helped him in the short term was vocal rest i.e. not speaking at all.
Despite all this Alexander’s career grew and prospered to the point where he was offered a particularly prestigious engagement in one of Sydney’s top theatres. He was unsure about accepting the engagement as he felt he could no longer rely on his vocal mechanism to carry him through.
He consulted his physician who advised him to completely rest his voice for the three weeks prior to the performance. He did this and, sure enough, the inflammation subsided dramatically. He mounted the stage that night full of confidence only to find that his voice failed worse that ever before.
Alexander returned to his physician and asked if it could be something that he himself was doing during the act of reciting that was causing him to lose his voice. His physician agreed that this sounded entirely plausible but could give Alexander no idea of what he might be doing to cause his loss of voice.
Alexander returned home and set up a three way system of mirrors in which to observe himself. He recited into the mirrors, he spoke in every day tones, he performed a variety of everyday activities while looking into the mirrors but could see nothing at all strange in his manner of doing things.
One day, however, just as Alexander was anticipating reciting a particularly demanding passage he noticed a slight tendency to rotate his head backwards and downwards and to stiffen the muscles running from the back of his neck to the base of his skull. As he did this he noticed, that this tendency was connected with his habit of rasping in his breath audibly. On further observation he noticed that this habit of rotating his head backwards and downwards caused him to compress his larynx, raise his shoulders and to shorten and narrow his back and finally to tighten his limbs.
What he had noticed was a pattern of whole body mal-coordination that started, with his head and neck. The whole pattern was so subtle and slight that he was not surprised that it had escaped his attention before. In fact George Bernard Shaw said “Mr Alexander calls upon the world to witness a change so small and so subtle that only he can see it”. Although Shaw intended this remark to be tongue in cheek, we as Aikidoists know that advanced technique is so subtle and contains so much hidden information as to be invisible to the general public. (Experiment 1).
As Alexander had noticed that his habit of pulling his head backwards and downwards seemed to be connected to his breathing difficulties he reasoned that he must directly put his head forwards and upwards. He duly put his head forwards and upwards and recited… and rasped in his breath audibly.
Somewhat surprised he returned to look in his mirrors. What he saw was this:- when he felt that he was putting his head forwards and upwards he was either pulling back and down even more than before OR he was pulling his head forward and down – a different kind of badly!
This constituted another discovery – our feelings or sensory feedback is not always a reliable guide to what is actually happening in our body or in the way that we move.
Alexander decided that if directly, muscularly altering the carriage of his head was unproductive and was, in fact, adding to his vocal problems then he must experiment with an indirect approach.
To this end Alexander formulated a series of verbal directions which he silently repeated or ‘projected’ to himself. The directions were “Allow the neck to be free so that the head can go forwards and upwards in such a way that the back can lengthen and widen”.
Alexander repeated these three principle directions to himself –
1. Neck to be free
2. Head to go forwards and upwards
3. Back to lengthen and widen
– for days, weeks and months without trying to physically make them happen or even feel if they were happening or not. When he looked in his mirrors he could observe subtle changes taking place in his poise and coordination over the course of time.
To many people the idea that physical changes can occur simply through thinking about them seems somewhat improbable. As aikidoists who have worked with the Four Principles of coordinating Mind and Body, as defined Tohei Sensei, this is perhaps not quite such a surprise.
If you cast your mind back to your first introduction to Ki testing the difference between ‘losing one point’ and ‘keeping one point’ may have seemed subtle and indiscernible until you were physically tested by your partner and found out that “keeping one point” was indeed stronger than losing one point” (Experiments 4 and 5) (Also see Gelb p74)
Alexander decided that the time was right to recite again. He recited and he rasped in his breath audibly and became hoarse. Again he returned to his mirrors and he noticed that while he could maintain his poise and co-ordination during certain non-emotive every day activities when it came to his heart’s desire, reciting Shakespeare, there came a critical moment when he lapsed into his old habit of stiffening his neck, rotating his head back and down and shortening and narrowing his back. He came to the conclusion that he was a man dominated by the familiar feeling of his habit – push button B (recite) and. get response B (stiffening neck etc).
He decided to take the indirect approach further still by giving himself a whole array or alphabet of responses to the stimulus to (‘push button B’) recite. This included, most importantly, giving himself permission not to respond to the stimulus of reciting at all. (This is not to be confused with freezing or suppressing a response which has already arisen).
Alexander continued repeatedly, day after day, to give himself the stimulus to recite without actually responding to it. He would instead project his three principle directions for his head, neck and back one after the other and all at the same time (see Comparison A) and:-
a) Do nothing.
b) Do something else.
c) Continue to project his directions.
d) Give himself the stimulus to recite again.
e) Repeat the whole process in a different order.
One day Alexander gave himself the stimulus to recite, refused to respond to it, projected his directions and then went ahead and actually recited without rasping in his breath audibly and without getting hoarse. In the short term the new conditions felt unfamiliar and even wrong although they were associated with an improved use of his vocal mechanisms and his organism as a whole.
What Alexander had done was to guide himself into a little known area of human experience that lies between stimulus and Response – a place of “non-doing from which “doing” could arise more easily economically and about how we learn in a different order from Alexander naturally. (Experiments 6,7 and 8).
Alexander returned to his stage career free of his vocal problems. His audiences noticed a great change in his stage presence. Soon he was inundated with actors and singers requiring vocal and respiratory re-education. At first he tried teaching his discoveries verbally only, but later he abandoned this approach as it was open to misunderstanding.
Alexander’s other major discovery was to learn how to use his hands in a subtle and expert way to give his pupils a direct and unfiltered experience of using themselves in an easier, lighter and more unified way (Experiment 9).
Nowadays we learn in a different sequence from Alexander. He Iooked in his mirrors understood what he was doing and from his understanding gained a new experience. (Experiment 10).
In contrast we get a new experience first, from the hands or verbal guidance of an Alexander teacher and understanding follows on from the new experience.
Soon doctors were referring to Alexander patients with breathing difficulties and other complaints. People who came to Alexander for so called ‘physical’ problems experienced unexpected improvements in the so called ‘mental’ or ‘psychological’ spheres.
All this let Alexander to the conclusion that mind and body were in fact an inextricably linked unity.
This led to Alexander calling his method (amongst other titles) psycho-physical re-education.
I conclude this section with a quotation from Sir Charles Herrington – Nobel Prize Winner for Medicine and Physiology:
“Mr. Alexander has done a service to the study of man by insistently treating each act as involving the whole integrated individual, the whole psychophysical man. To take a step is an affair, not of this or that limb solely, but of the total neuromuscular activity of the movement – not least of the head and neck”. (Sherrington – The Endeavour of Jean Fernel – 1946)
PERSONAL EXPERIENCE OF WORKING WITH KI-AIKIDO AND ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE
Having taught the Alexander technique for the past ten years and having also studied Ki-Aikido for six years I have had, ample opportunity to experience and compare the two philosophies. When I passed my brown belt examination I started teaching Ki development to my Drama students. They found it an extremely useful resource in controlling stage fright, developing stage presence, voice projection etc.
I have also had the opportunity to teach Ki to trainee Alexander Technique teachers. Both groups of people discovered that it was entirely possible to use Alexander thinking to pass any given Ki test. It became obvious to me that there must be some level of connection or overlap between the two philosophies. I had started to suspect this sometime earlier when I noticed certain fellow Aikido students who typically used themselves in a hunched up way starting to exhibit qualities of expanded posture and easier movement typical of the Alexander Technique. I was fairly sure that they were not making deliberate efforts to achieve this change.
I must say that although the Alexander Technique is popularly associated as being “something to do with good posture” – this is merely the observable 5% of the iceberg that peeks above the surface.
Nonetheless the apparently spontaneous postural changes that some Aikidoists seemed to experience re-affirmed my belief in the similarity between Alexander and Ki.
The way that Alexander and Ki directions are given is similar to one another. Alexander said the primary directions should be given without trying to make them happen and without even trying to feel if they are happening. Similarly in Ki development we are asked simply to stand with our weight equally distributed between both feet and our eyes looking directly ahead as we think about one of the four principles.
In the “Book of Ki” page 85 Tohei Sensei tells us to avoid ‘putting strength’ (tensing the lower abdomen) into the one point.
At the Highbury Club we start each class with about 15 minutes in the Alexander Technique active resting position (for example of this visit youtube semi supine link). This is accompanied by verbal and manual guidance from the teacher. This has proved to be a very popular part of the class, in as much as when it is not done regularly class attendances go down, and when it is done regularly attendances go up!
This is usually followed by a series of partner assisted stretches. True to the principles of Alexander and Ki the assisting partner should get just as much out of it as the assisted-by utilising the four principles,’ and/or the Alexander directions during the stretches. (scan in photos from Highbury aikido club)
This is often followed by partner assisted rolling practice (Experiment 9). Alexander teachers may give manual and verbal guidance at this point.
Another regular feature of the crass is the Alexander procedure known as the whispered ah. This is very similar to Ki breathing. (give a little background + some of Richard Wisemans reference to research into smiling)
We will then go into repeating a simple Aikido technique again and again. This gives us an opportunity to apply Alexander principles to the technique. (Primarily variations on experiments 4, 7, 8, 9, 10) .
The second half of the class is devoted to Aikido techniques. Depending on my observation of myself and/or others performance of the techniques I will briefly but regularly stop the class to make Alexander based suggestions and also to give manual guidance. Students are asked to remember certain Alexander principles during practice.
1. Parts or Unity?
2. End-gaining or Means Whereby?
3. Doing or Non-Doing?
Below is an attempted explanation of this Alexander jargon.
Parts – Am I disconnected? Does my left hand not know what my right foot is doing? Do I clash with my partner?
Unity – My mind and body are working together as are my head, limbs and torso. I am blending with my partner.
End-gaining – Am I using a sledgehammer to crack an egg? Am I rushing on to step 5 before I’ve completed step 3?
Means-Whereby – Am I using minimum effort to achieve maximum effect? Am I flowing clearly, smoothly and, seamlessly from step 1 into Step 2 into step 3……? ?
Doing – Am I being like Alexander? Am I already doing something that is not in my best interest? Am I compressing my head or bunching up my toes?
Non-Doing – can I stop throwing a spanner in my own works? Am I allowing my innate co-ordination to get on with its job? Can I let go into easy balance and poise?
This process of questioning often turns into a wordless awareness especially during vigorous practice. This in turn can lead to experiences of ease, lightness mind/body integration, calmness and so on. Almost inevitably people find that the pressures of daily life puII them out of this experience. Perhaps this should not be surprising when one considers that our habitual misuse of ourselves, according to Alexander Teachers, begins as, early as the age of two. Our habits have had plenty of time to gain the upper hand.
Consequently it would be foolish of a teacher or student to expect the habits of many years to simply drop away after a few sessions. The new sensory-motor experiences require sufficient reinforcement and repetition before they can become more fully operative in our daily lives.
On the other hand people do make significant changes in their psycho-physical co-ordination that contrasts dramatically with their normal way of using themselves. Despite this they may quite soon feel that they have returned to square one. This is not necessarily the case. They have merely habituated to, become used to, a new pattern. Knowing this can be very useful and can prevent us from throwing ourselves into the fruitless task of trying to fix something that is already working.
The Alexander Technique is, in essence, very simple and perhaps for this very reason it is not always experienced as being easy to those who live in the interesting and complex world of the 1990’s.
At this point it may be reassuring to hear a remark from Albert Redden Alexander (F.M.A’s brother) made to a perplexed pupil “Be patient; stick to principle; and it will all open up like a great cauliflower”.
Objective – to notice how head balance affects whole body co-ordination.
Work with a partner.
a) Do a simple Aikido Technique which you both find fairly easy
b) Observe each other’s head, neck and shoulder relationship. Is your partners head tilted to the side, forwards or backwards? Ask your partner to very slightly increase and exaggerate this tension. If your partner has no discernible imbalance simply ask them to very slightly tighten the muscles at the back of their neck.
Repeat the Aikido technique with this very slightly exaggerated head, neck relationship. What is the difference between your first and second performance of the technique?
Was it heavier/lighter? Smoother/jerkier? Tense/relaxed? Did you hold your breath or continue breathing?
Objective – To notice how direct physical change of head balance affects co-ordination as a whole.
In Experiment 1 you slightly exaggerated the habitual carriage of your head. In this experiment you continue to do that and at the same time you use a very small amount of muscular effort to ‘correct’ the position of your head. In other words if you tend to pull your head backwards use a small amount of tension in the front of your neck to draw your head forwards again. If you tilt your head habitually to the right use a very small degree of tension on the muscles of the left of your neck to draw your head in that direction. As you do this carry out your Aikido technique again. Swap over. Discuss whether the direct alteration of your head carriage made your technique more or less difficult?
Objective – To notice how accurate our kinaesthetic (internal body sense) is.
Work with a partner. Ask them to close their eyes. Now ask them to answer the following questions without using their memory, or visualisation or even movement:
“How many toes do you have”?
“How many fingers do you have”?
“What shape is your body”?
Now ask them to draw their ‘felt’ body shape in the air. Swap places.
When you have both finished discuss how accurate, or otherwise, your internal body sense is.
Objective – To notice how thinking affects co-ordination and movement
1) Working with a partner or group ask your partner to raise their arms up to shoulder level (Iike aeroplane wings!).
Bring your hands down again.
2) Inform your partner that an ‘average’ arm weighs approximately 8 pounds. Further inform them that this is almost the equivalent of two 5 pound bags of King Edward potatoes hanging off each shoulder joint. Continue to remind them of this fact as they raise their arms up to shoulder Ievel. Pause at shoulder IeveI. How does it feel? Heavy or Iight? Easy or difficult? How do their head, neck, back, Iegs etc feel as they keep their arms here. What is the breathing like?
Ask them to bring their arms down. Stay with this general co-ordination as you perform a simple Aikido technique.
Shake out your arms and legs and bounce a little on the spot to de-condition yourself from this experience.
3) Inform your partner that they have deflated balloons under each arm. (They may be surprised to hear this). The balloons diameter is from their armpit to their finger tips. Inform your partner that someone now inflates the balloons with an oxygen cylinder. (Make appropriate hissing noises to aid your partner’s imagination). This floats their arms up to shoulder level.
How does this feel as distinct from the potatoes image?
Lighter//heavier? Easy/difficult? How does their head, neck, back, Iegs etc feel as distinct from the potatoes image? How do they experience their breathing now?
Gently deflate the balloons. Stay with this sense of co- ordination as you perform your simple Aikido technique.
3) image from page 16 4) Image from page 16
Objective – To study the effects of habit and familiarity on our ability to make changes.
a) Fold/cross your arms in front of your chest in the way people often do when sitting or standing at rest.
b) Now fold your arms the other way round in the non-habitual way. Notice what this feels like. Notice what your responses are and how you go about the change. Commentary
There seem to be three distinct classes of response to this experiment:
The first could be verbalised like this – “He’s not going to catch me out on this one!” This is accompanied by a very slight, but discernible increase in all over body tension – particularly in the frowning muscles of the face. The arms are then folded the non-habitual way more quickly and with more determination than when they were folded the habitual way.
A second class of response is – utter confusion.
And thirdly – the majority of people start to fold their arms the habitual way, realise what they are doing, pause and ‘unhook’ from the familiar feeling that takes them down the habitual path. At this point they consciously guide themselves into folding their arms the non-habitual way – perhaps using their eyes to guide them – although the whole process may feel unfamiliar and vaguely wrong.
c) An exercise for the ‘old lags’. Take something like a jo-kata (something which you may have learned on the one side only) and start doing it on the other side:
What happens to your body as a whole? Lightness/heaviness? Smooth/jerky? Ease of breathing? Tension/relaxation? Subjective feeling of size large/small?
What is your strategy for learning on the other side? What happens in your body as a whole as you become more familiar with practising on this side?
Objective: To notice the critical moment when inappropriate tensions creep into our activities and to release them as they arise.
a) Alexander had an end which he wished to gain i.e. to recite without vocal and breathing difficulties. In this experiment we choose a simple end to gain such as walking across the room to pick up something and place it down somewhere else.
b) Work with a partner. Ask your partner to sit in seiza (or on a chair!) and scan their body noticing present Ievels of tension or ease. Ask them to let go of whatever tension they can easily let go of at the moment. Ask them to stand up and move off across the room to pick up their object and place it down somewhere else.
As they move off ask them to stop by saying “Pause” on 3 or 4 separate occasions. Try and catch them at least twice in positions of ‘tricky’ balance, such as rising up from the floor to standing, or bending to pick something up. When they are asked to pause they must not change position. Ask them to speak out loud the muscular tension they are aware of. As they verbalise their tensions they can begin to release the inappropriate tensions (as distinct from appropriate muscular work). The partner carrying out the task moves off again in their own time
Discuss and then swap roles.
c) Repeat the whole experiment again. This time when the ‘mover’ pauses they can think about releasing their neck to head muscles first regardless of whether they feel themselves contracting these muscles or not as a means of releasing the muscular/jointed system as a whole.
Discuss and swap roles.
d) Repeat the same experiment. This time when your partner pauses apply some basic Ki tests.
Discuss whether there were some particular areas of tension in your body that kept creeping back e.g. shoulders, buttocks, calves etc.
e) Working in threes having two people carry out a technique (Kata Te Kosa Dori, Ikkyo lrimi 1?). As you observe the Tori notice if there is a critical moment when they ‘crunch up’ their neck, head and shoulder relationship, i.e. a critical moment when the Tori starts to misalign themselves.
Ask them to do the technique again and caII out “pause” just a bit before the critical moment. Hopefully if you and the Tori are alert you will be able to catch them at the critical moment.
Ask the Tori to speak out loud the various tensions or mis-alignments they may be experiencing and to gently let go of them.
Continue to have the Tori repeat the technique with your calling out “pause” if necessary. The Tori’s job is to become aware of the excess tension that crunches them up at the critical moment and progressively ‘not do it’.
The objective of this exercise is not to “achieve” alignment but to ‘under-achieve’ mis-alignment.
EXPERIMENT 8 Objectives:
To give a Sense of whole body awareness and spatial awareness.
To extend Ki.
To harmonise with a partner.
Expanded and unified field of Awareness Exercise
a) Notice how you are in your body now. Tension/release? Energy. Breathing. Posture.
b) Now imagine being in a really crowded place perhaps a tube train at the peak of rush hour in summer. See what you see around you hear what you hear jump in with both feet and feel what you feel in your body and your feelings. Stay with that for a moment and keep that feeling with you as you open your eyes. How do you feel in your body taller or shorter wider or narrower breathing? Muscular release/tension…. what does the world Iook like? Now indicate with your hands what size your personal space feels Iike. Do an Aikido Technique.
c) Think of a place you really like a place that makes you think YES! That’s where I like to be. Think of what you would see around you and as you see what you see so you can also hear what you hear and feel what you feel. in your feelings now and feels what you feel in your bodies and as you feel that imagine that you can breathe it round to every single celI in your whole body.
Stay with that for a little while as you open your eyes. How is your body now as distinct from the previous exercise? Shorter/taller? Narrower/wider? Breathing? Tension/ease? What does the world look Iike? Indicate with your hands what size your personal space feels like now.
Turn round on the spot with your hands extended to create a big circle or field of ‘personal space’ around you.
And now make your field of personal space into a big egg shape around you, by reaching up with you hands to the top of your ‘egg’ and down to the bottom and feeling all over the inside of your egg with your hands.
This egg has the same flexible breathing quality: the rest of your body. Your physical body is the yolk of your egg. Choose a partner and do a simple flowing technique that you are both familiar with (Yokomenuchi Shiho Nage).
Remember to practice within your eggs. Keep repeating the technique and remembering your eggs.
d) Imagine that you and your partner are the enormous ‘double yolked egg’. Visualise/indicate this space with your hands.
Repeat the technique this time in the shared ‘double yolked egg’. Vary your escapes and let all your movements flow harmoniously.
As I mentioned earlier Alexander’s work consisted partly of giving people manual guidance to allow them a direct and unfiltered experience of new co-ordination. We have applied this practice of manual guidance to improving students’ forward rolls.
An example of basic co-ordination that 99% of people are familiar with is that of walking. In walking the forward swing of the right Ieg is accompanied by the forward swing of the left arm. And vice versa for the other side. A very few unfortunate and awkward characters try to co-ordinate left with left and right with right. Try this out for a bit of fun.
In forward rolling we tend to roll from right arm and shoulder diagonally across the back to the left hip and leg. In order to step back up into standing we use the right leg. And vice versa for the other side.
(Rolling pictures and diagonals pictures will be here)
For people with a well developed sense of their body this presents no problem and one explanation will suffice to improve their rolls. For many others with a less well refined body sense some manual guidance helps.
The procedure consists quite simply of asking your partner to do a roll and then to return to standing with the feet fairly wide apart and hands held above the head also fairly wide apart. You now stroke your partner from the fingertips of their left hand, along the arm, diagonally across the back to the right buttock/hip area and all the way down the right Ieg. This is repeated 3 or 4 times. The ‘roller’ now has a tactile after image to guide them more accurately in their roll. Repeat the procedure for each diagonal.
Objectives: How ‘beliefs’, conscious and unconscious, can affect our muscles and joints.
To refine our ability to distinguish between relatively difficult and easy ways of moving.
a) A commonly held belief is that strength is associated with conditions of heightened muscle tension.
You may have been asked during your introduction to Ki development to make yourself very strong. A common response to this is to bunch the fist, swell the biceps lock knees, dig heels in and glare. You may have been surprised to find that you were weak and. fell over easily when Ki tested.
You were probably then asked to relax and put your attention in your ‘one point’. This almost certainly did not feel like a strong state to you until you were Ki tested and found you had developed an easy and sustainable type of strength.
b) Repeat the above experiment now to refresh your memory.
c) To continue in this particular vein, in this experiment we will work with two commonly held (but not necessarily consciously) beliefs about movement.
Belief 1 – The most powerful and effective way to move is primarily through muscular contraction.
Belief 2 – The most powerful and effective way to move is primarily through muscular release.
Let us adopt for the moment Belief 1 (that we move primarily through contraction) as being self evident.
Thus if I wish to turn my head to the right it will be necessary to contract the muscles on the right hand side of my neck and shoulder in order to draw my head in that direction.
In order to look to the left I must contract on the Ieft. Try this out and notice the effect on your neck and head and other body parts.
SHAKE OUT TO DECONDITION THIS STATE. MOVE TO ATIOTHER SPOT IN THE ROOM TO DECONDITION THIS STATE
Now we shall adopt Belief 2 (that we move primarily through muscular release) as being self evident.
So if I wish to turn my head to the right I must release or de-contract the muscles on the left hand side of my neck and shoulder.
In order to look to my left I must release the muscles on my right.
Try this and notice how the local and general effects on your body are as distinct from moving primarily with muscular contraction.
More experiments in the same vein
Looking up and looking down
Adopt Belief 1 (contraction):
As you look up it is necessary to contract your back of neck muscles. As you look down it is necessary to contract your front of neck muscles.
Return to looking straight ahead. Notice the local and general effect of this movement. As you notice take a walk around.
SHAKE OFF STATE.
Adopt Belief 2 (release):
In order to look up I release the muscles along the front of my neck.
In order to look down I release the muscles along the back of my neck.
Return to looking straight ahead.
Take a little walk around the room and notice the local and general effects of this movement.
Raising the arms to point the fingers to the ceiling
Belief 1: States that you must contract the muscles on and above the shoulder joints in order to raise the arms and point the fingers to the ceiling.
Notice the IocaI and general effect as you scan through your whole body. Return your arms to your side. How do your arms and body feel now?
Belief 2: States that you must release the muscles on and below your shoulder joints joints in order to raise the arms and point the fingers to the ceiling.
Notice the local and general affect of this particular movement.
MUSINGS ON ALEXANDER AND KI
KEEP ONE POINT
“Oh I see, if you stiffen your neck, you bugger the lot” an articulate if not literate pupil gaining a deeper insight into the Alexander Technique. (Barlow p.300).
We could say that the head and top of spine relationship is primary to Alexander in the same way as keeping one point is primary to Ki development.
On the surface of it the one point and the head neck seem to be far away from each other anatomically.
Comment from Kevin in here re long, fat, central spine.
However the spine lengthens naturally when one stops. stiffening the neck and pressuring the head on to it. As the spine lengthens there is a tendency for the whole back to widen and for the elbows, wrists and fingers to release away from the shoulder joints. Meanwhile the knees, ankles and feet release away from the hip joints.
The net effect of all this is for the body as a whole to spread away from the anatomical centre of gravity (see diagrams (Gorman pages 25 and 29).
In this way I visualise the human being as being a five limbed creature (assuming the spine and head constitute one of the five limbs) that radiates out from its centre rather like a starfish.
Using the ‘starfish’ idea can be Alexander and Ki thinking during useful way of integrating practice.
I personally have found that one of the most reliable ways that I get teIl a person to lose weight underside is by touching their shoulders in such a way that they elevate their shoulders slightly but quickly. In Alexander terms a rapid elevation of the shoulders can be an indication of anxiety. On the other hand I have found that manually stroking someone from their shoulders (upper trapezius) down along their arm is a great assistance to them in passing the unraisable arm test.
A broadening and lowering of the shoulders (the upper trapezius) is generally an indication of greater calmness. This led me to wonder if there was a relationship between losing weight underside and the startle pattern. The startle pattern is a stereotyped postural response to a sudden noise starting with neck and shoulder contraction and spreading through the rest (See text and diagrams) of the body.
A speculation – are we inducing the startle pattern when we give 2nd test? For a bit of fun start to do second test to the point where your partner starts responding, but instead of continuing to test, ask them to hold the muscular response that they have just made… and then ask them to take a walk round the room using that particular pattern of muscular contraction.
After this ask them to consciously release out of this state. What part of their body/mind seems to release first?
(Commentary on the work of George Leonard on verbalising the tension pattern and pacing and leading oneself into a centred state.)
We make a distinction between Alive Relaxation – an alert, easily upright state – and Dead Relaxation – a rather duII, floppy, under energised state.
In the Highbury Club we do three Ki tests to help us to distinguish whether we are stiff and tense or engaging in ‘Dead’ or ‘Alive’ relaxation.
1. Firstly – we ask our partners to stand up straight, thrusting the breastbone up in the air (Sergeant Major style), pulling shoulders back, chin up etc. Most people find that they hold their breath during this posture. Most people fail a Ki test in this posture.
2. Secondly – we ask students to collapse down into a slumped posture. Collapsing and stiffening seem to be the two sides of the same coin in that they mutually reinforce one another.
Nonetheless students tend to ‘Ki test’ slightly stronger in the collapsed posture than they do in the stiff posture. The breathing also tends to be easier.
3. Finally students are asked to employ Alexander Technique by thinking of their neck muscles releasing in such a way… that their whole head can flow gently upwards… allowing their whole body to lengthen and follow. The emphasis is on thinking this not doing it. (See Commentary, Gelb pages 71 – 75).
This posture Ki tests strongest of the three states. Breathing tends to be easier and the posture is felt to be easily sustainable over a longer period of time.
Students are then asked to repeatedly cycle between the three different states – stiff, collapsed and poised. They are asked to make the stiffening and collapsing even more subtle each time. This helps students to distinguish more quickly than usual exactly when they are beginning to slide into stiffening or collapsing. The more readily a student is able to discern this slide the more able they become to consciously return to balance and poise.
Alexander’s primary directions were “AIIow the neck to be free, so that the head can go forwards and upwards, allowing the back to lengthen and widen”.
Alexander said that the directions should be given one after the other and all at the same time. What could this mean? Cast your mind back to being taught the unbendable arm test or perhaps the unraisable arm test. Remember how pleased you were when you passed the test. Remember how disappointed you were when, immediately after this, you were tested for one point and – lost balance. Your Sensei may have revealed to you had been maintaining mind and arm co-ordination instead of mind and full body co-ordination. When you maintain mind and fuII body co-ordination you are ready for a test coming from any direction.
Alexander’s primary directions were for neck, head and back. Especially when we use verbal directions, they come one after the other, because that is the nature of words – whether written or spoken. We are however, with a little bit of practice, easily capable of being aware of ourselves as a whole with one single sweep of attention.
The trick in Alexander and Aikido is to be capable of organising our parts (i.e. 1st you put this hand here and then you aim with your left foot etc) while simultaneously being aware of ourselves as a whole.
Later on Pooh and Piglet walked home thoughtfully together in the golden evening, and for a long time they were silent.
“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh”, said Piglet at Iast, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”.
“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh “What do you say, Piglet?”
“I say I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today”? said. Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “lt’s the same thing” he said.
A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh.
During my introduction to Ki-Aikido Sensei David Curry suggested that extending Ki was similar to that all over good feeling that you get when meeting a special friend or being in a favourite place.
Alexander similarly encourages a sense of all over body awareness whilst simultaneously being aware of what’s going on in the world round about you.
My particular jargon for this is an ‘Expanded and Unified field of awareness’. Exercise 8 is specifically designed to encourage this state during daily life and Aikido practice.
One of the things that F.M. Alexander was fond of saying to pupils was “lf you stop the wrong thing then the right thing will do itself”. If we stop energising our various postural fixations then our postural and balancing reflexes can get on with their job without interference.
Tohei Sensei also suggests in his writings that Ki is an intrinsic part of our make up. It is possible to ‘do’ the multitude of Ki and Alexander procedures, visualisations etc and think that you are somehow superimposing something on the ‘shoddy goods’.
I prefer to think of them as being memory aids, reminders that jog us back into intrinsic balance and Ki extension. “Our Iives are part of the universal Ki enclosed in the flesh of our bodies” (Ki in Daily Life, page 21).
In this project and in my teaching there is much more that I have left unwritten and unsaid – after all the map is not the territory. I have found teaching Alexander, Ki and Aikido together to be a very rewarding experience. It has also been very frustrating at times as I struggled with my apparent inability to adapt an existing skill to a new set of circumstances.
As John Lennon once said “Life is what happens to you when you are planning other things!”