Yoga and Alexander technique: the art of seeing a whole person

When we do yoga or Alexander technique, we have an intention of being whole, of not dividing ourselves in a confusing set of parts.

Good intention, but how does that work in practice?

I’ve just finished assisting a teacher who is well-known in the yoga world called Donna Farhi on a 4 and a half day intensive on moving from the core. She’s a great yoga teacher and author. I’ve learnt a lot from her way of inquiring deeply into movement and the patterns behind movement. There were 3 of us assistants and around 50 students, many of them also yoga teachers. So, a busy class with lots of very knowledgeable people.

Assisting is like watching the patterns made by a flock of birds. Patterns in movement appear and disappear in the blink of an eye. Being able to help a student requires that I see the pattern and suggest a change at the right moment. Sometimes I’m right there. More often than I’d like, I’m behind or in front of that crucial moment. It’s a great metaphor for life as an effective teacher, there are lots of powerful distractions and teaching interventions need to be focussed, short and timely if they have a chance to survive.

Back to the seeing from wholeness. When we look at another person, we tend to focus on their face. We’re social beings and faces contain lots of useful information about how our interactions are going. If we’re attracted to that person, we look at er… other bits. And that’s it. We don’t really register those areas of the body not considered essential for social or sexual interactions.

Think about it, there are probably whole web sites devoted to your favourite movie star’s rear end. Not so many devoted to their left elbow.

So I’ve spent some time in looking at areas of my students that don’t usually register. Their toes, their elbows, their wrists, their knees. I got this tip from Alexander teacher Bruce Fertman; who has devoted many hours of study to the art of seeing the whole person.

It paid off with one student who was doing Warrior II pose in the one of the morning sun salutations. It was a pose that the students spent a minute or two. It’s a complex three dimensional shape. Like a lot of yoga students in this pose, I noticed this student seemed to have strain in her arms. She seemed to be pulling them up with a lot of effort.

If I had started working on her arms instead of seeing the whole person, I would have missed a little thing that she did with her toes. They seemed to have a life of their own, pulling away from the floor at intervals. I asked her if she would be willing to let her toes rest quietly on the floor. Instant transformation in her whole body, including her arms.

Afterwards she told me that she came into a whole different experience of a more intuitive, instinctive way of being in the pose.

The tension in her toes was just enough to block her experience of being whole.

Then there was a chap whose Tadasana looked full of strain. Tadasana is basically just standing and we’re designed to be able to stand upright with very little effort. Somehow, that message hadn’t reached this chap. He was pulling his upper body backwards in space with considerable effort and tension. If you looked at him side on, it looked like he was leaning backwards and pulling himself down to the ground.

I worked with him to find another balance. And didn’t have much luck. When I talked to him later, he told me that if he couldn’t feel the ground in the way he was used to, then he was convinced that he had lost his balance and he didn’t like it. He was all about holding on to the ground, that’s where his idea of support came from. The work I did wasn’t totally lost though, when he did a balance pose, he was beautifully upright. The key seemed to be when he was distracted enough, he let go of the pulling down and back pattern. In the body/mind connection, I’d got the body part of it there, the mind would need more work.

And that’s the way it is with working in fast moving dynamic contexts; lots of mistakes as well as lots of successes.

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© Kevin Saunders, Yogaground 2017

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