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A Balanced Life

by Dorothy Rowe(more info)

listed in alexander technique, originally published in issue 94 - November 2003

Growing older isn't fun when bits of your body get stiff or rattle around in unhelpful ways. I'd complained to my friend Jeannie MacLean about my stiff neck and shoulders and clunking hip, but it was not until I last visited her in her beautiful home in Glen Prosen in the Scottish Highlands that we had time for Jeannie to give me my first Alexander lesson, even though for the last 25 years Jeannie has been talking to me about the importance of the Alexander Technique, of which she is now a greatly experienced teacher.

I first met Jeannie nearly 30 years ago when, instead of enjoying her marriage and her little baby, she was feeling intensely guilty because she was not a perfect wife and mother. Like most of us, Jeannie had grown up believing that there was something intrinsically wrong with her and that, by way of atonement and being accepted, she had to work hard to be good. When she began reading my books she discovered that she hadn't been born intrinsically bad, but that this was the conclusion she had drawn from the way she had been treated in her family. However, this new understanding was only in her head. It was not until she began studying the Alexander Technique that this knowledge began to inhabit every bit of her.

The Alexander Technique is not concerned with exploring a person's thoughts and feelings but with discovering where the person's body is out of kilter and then helping the person to re-discover their natural balance. No magic and no mysterious life forces are involved, just the process of learning to live comfortably in your body.

Jeannie works in various clinics and schools, teaching both adults and children. Doctors send unhappy patients to her and teachers send children who are a problem to them. Some Alexander teachers believe that they need to adapt the technique to children, but Jeannie sees this as being quite unnecessary. When she talks to a child, irrespective of the age of that child, she speaks to another human being, not to some little person who is deficient in adult understanding. She finds that children as young as six understand what she means when she tells them to stop trying, and that they have no difficulty in focusing on the tensions and imbalances in their bodies.

Jeannie never requires a referral letter about the person being sent to her. Rather, she learns all she needs to know about that person from the way the person holds himself and moves. Our body contains our history. Some of us as children felt deep shame, and, in trying to hide ourselves from view, we shrank into our body, pulling our shoulders down and hunching our body in the vain effort to take up less and less space. Some of us grew up in a family which one way or another we found dangerous, so we learned to hold our body in a position for flight or fight. Others of us took up defensive positions. Years ago my yoga teacher said to me, "Your legs are strong and straight because you've always had to stand on your own two feet, but your shoulders are stiff because you hold your shoulder blades together to keep out the knives". That was the story of my life. Alas, now my neck and shoulder muscles are painfully stiff and the muscles and tendons around my hips are growing weary from over use. Jeannie pointed out to me that my hip problem was related to the way I had always kept my knees together. Even when I gave up wearing skirts and took to wearing trousers I kept my knees together, just as my mother had taught me.

But at least I do know what Jeannie means when she says, "Don't try". By not trying, our muscles fall gently into their right places and our movements and our thoughts flow. Not trying, we pause before moving or acting. Doing this, we learn through our bodies what the Taoist masters called wu wei – going with the flow.

When Jeannie and I began our lesson she asked me to sit on a chair. She stood beside me and asked, "Are you comfortable if I put my hands on you?" This surprised me. Of course I didn't mind her putting her hands on me. Then I realized that this was always how she began her lesson. Afterwards I asked her if anyone had ever said that he or she didn't want to be touched. She said just one person, a boy. So they played throwing balls to one another. She asked him to let her know when he was ready to be touched, and a few lessons later he said that he was ready. By then he had learned to trust Jeannie.

Those of us whose bodies carry our history of the hurts we have suffered have learned not to trust other people because they are dangerous. To let ourselves relax our bodies into the hands of someone like Jeannie, we have to lay aside many years of experience and start anew. It doesn't matter how skilled and experienced any kind of therapist might be, and how potentially effective the therapy – if we cannot come to trust the therapist no beneficial changes will occur. One great advantage of the Alexander Technique is that the therapist has no need to venture into the dark and painful areas of our mind. Instead, as our tightened muscles expand, our thoughts and feelings of necessity change, because our mind resides in our body, and our body resides in our mind. Jeannie teaches us how to inhabit our own space, to stand up straight and firmly balanced, ready to face the world.

Editors Note:

Please also see Annie Kassina and Madeline Webb's feature regarding The Alexander Technique on page 53 of this issue.

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About Dorothy Rowe

Dorothy Rowe is a clinical psychologist, well known for her work on depression. She has written 12 books, each concerned with how we create meaning, and is a frequent contributor to newspapers, magazines, television and radio. Her website is www.dorothyrowe.com.au

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