What I’ve learned from standing up and sitting down from a chair

Chair work in the Alexander technique is looking at how we transition from sitting to standing and back again. There are some teachers who think that it’s great and some who think it has nothing to do with the Alexander technique. I’ve had lessons with both types. One of my early teachers, Patrick McDonald was a big fan of chair work. Misha Magdov still is. Bruce Fertman and Jeremy Chance are not keen on it. In recent years I’ve moved towards an approach which is based on the activity that you’re doing right now.

Here’s what I’ve learned from doing chair work:

Chair work is a form. Forms are repeated activities that allow you to see your habits more clearly. The repetition allows you to know what’s new and what’s different from the last time you did the form. Form allows you to store information about yourself that you can forget in other contexts.

I learned that my conception of how to stand up and sit down, those seemingly inconsequential and even trivial every day movements was faulty. Like a dog with a bone, I hung on to an idea of how to do the movement.

I learned that trying to do a simple movement like standing without being fully supported and present results in a dis-coordinated movement. When the movement is done as a whole, force and energy sequences effortlessly through my joint spaces and the core of my body. I’m clear on what initiates the movement and how to get the support of the earth.

I learned that timing is everything in movement, engage the legs too soon and it blocks the movement. When I have a faulty idea of the movement, I’m confused or just trying too hard, timing goes. When it all works, everything engages in the right order at the right time.

I learned that if my idea of the primary movement excludes my core, the movement doesn’t work. It ends up with a tell tale little jerk as my pelvis leaves the chair.

I learned that when I move my body closer to the earth, it’s best to let gravity do the work. When I move my body closer to the earth I’m trusting my muscles to catch me as I fall. If I do it another way, I tend to over muscle the movement, to over do the catch and end up bracing.

I learned that my releasing my head at the top of my spine gave me access to co-ordination and integration in a way that still surprises me 30 years after I took my first Alexander lesson.

I learned that extraordinary ease is possible, even from the most unpromising and difficult place.

Here’s what I didn’t learn from doing chair work:

I didn’t learn the Alexander technique from chair work, that’s something I’m still figuring out for myself. Chair work put me somewhere in the area of Alexander technique. Perhaps that’s the best a teacher can do, create what they hope are the right conditions and let the student discover for themselves what it’s all about.

I didn’t learn spiral, three dimensional, asymmetrical movements from standing up and sitting down. That had to wait until I started yoga. I was confused when I tried to apply the stuff I learned in my Alexander lessons to these movements, it took me a while to translate the symmetrical movements I learned in the early 80’s in AT to the asymmetrical movements in yoga. And that’s another process which I’m still learning to this day.

I didn’t learn about other movement patterns like navel radiation (from the centre of gravity out), or developmental movement patterns. That had to wait until I did some work with yoga teachers who had done Feldenkrais and Body mind centring.

Here’s what I think about chair work now:

It’s fun! When I was learning with teachers who just did chair work, I believed that it was necessary for me to do chair work in order to learn the Alexander technique. When I started learning with teachers who didn’t do chair work, a lot of anxiety about belonging dropped away. Now, it’s something that I can do if I choose.

Sometimes when I’ve been sitting for a while, I’ll find a way to get out of the chair I’m sitting in which brings me home into my body. Often, that’s thinking of my head mediating the movement. Sometimes I’ll have fun coming up with other ways to do it. Sometimes I’ll just move without trying to be conscious in any way. I’m not sure if my chair use is improving but my sense of being at home in my body definitely is.

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© Kevin Saunders, Yogaground 2017

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