• Eve Bernfeld

Working on Myself



My 95-year-old Grannie says she’s under house arrest. No, no, everyone assures her, she’s in protective custody.

How are you doing in captivity? The first week I leaned heavily on other people’s material—online meditations and movement sequences. That worked pretty well. Then I remembered I have my own material—you know, the Alexander Technique, not to mention a lifetime of movement, voice and theatre work and I did a pretty good job of keeping myself in balance. Then I lost a week somewhere and my remembering myself protocols went off the rails. Predictably, by the middle of week 4, I was feeling weepy and stuck and generally terrible.

Oh right, remember me?

One of those quaint yet pithy phrases we have in the Alexander Technique is “Working on yourself” (along with “leave yourself alone” and “use of the self” and “let the neck be free”). When F.M. Alexander was in his 80s, his niece asked him, “Do you still work on yourself?”

“I dare not stop,” he replied,

So what does it mean to work on myself? (Or, the phrase I sometimes substitute: “Remember me?”) It is not the same as “working out” or “stretching” or “doing my PT exercises.” Working on myself in the Alexander Technique is a process of directed thought that highlights the how I am doing… anything, over the what.

It starts with stopping.


Also known as Inhibition: Stopping ourselves to prevent moving/behaving/responding in automatic, stereotyped ways.


Then we carry on to Direction: Deliberate self-talk that suggests better coordination than our automatic patterns.

Every time we remember to do the “Ready List," we're working on ourselves.

Stop

See

Breathe

Soft & Tall

Every time we pause and think F.M.'s "Guiding Orders."

No.


Let the neck be free

To let the head release up

To let the back lengthen and widen

To let the knees release forward and away

To let the ankles release the heels to drop.

Every time we stop whatever we're doing long enough to lie down on the floor and do nothing for awhile.

And even more than all that, it could mean setting aside a few minutes of your day to engage in a deliberate process of working on yourself. Two minutes? Twenty minutes? Maybe start small and work up. Where you do a series of activities with your primary attention NOT on accomplishing the activity, but on how you are using yourself. That could be a discrete, practical activity like slicing a carrot or unloading the dishwasher or singing a line of your aria. Done in this fashion, it could even involve "working out" or "stretching" or "doing my PT exercises", as long as the primary focus isn't on accomplishing those tasks, but on using them as an opportunity to practice Inhibition and Direction. Or it could involve taking the time to review a procedure we do in an Alexander lesson or class, like monkey or conductor.

No matter what activity you choose, the main point is that your primary attention is on Inhibition and Direction, not on completing the activity.

I’m going to take about a minute or two to do this very thing. Using a couple Alexander procedures. And then I’ll attempt to record my process (thoughts, movements, observations) in a little poem (“poem” might be too strong a word).

Move the chair.

Oops. PAUSE

Let the neck be free.

Am I seeing?

Blow a feather.

Oh, I don’t need to grip around my pelvis.

Heels drop.

No.

Let the neck be free.

Arms come up toward conductor—let the neck be free—arms come up a bit further.

Blow a feather.

Arms come down.

Oh, I don’t need to grip around my pelvis.

PAUSE

Let the head release up.

Spiral swings in each direction, seeing the room.

Let the breath out, so it can come in.

Slowing down.

Neck free.

Am I seeing…a fly?

Oh, I don’t need to grip around my pelvis.

Knees release forward, hips release back into a monkey.

Let the neck be free.

PAUSE

Deeper monkey. Creaky protest from knees. Maybe I’ll let my hips go back farther. Better.

PAUSE

Let the neck be free.

Come up.

Move the chair back.

Oops. PAUSE

So there’s a snapshot of my own short moment of working on myself. I can report that I felt different—lighter, freer, better at the end than I did when I started. Not a bad way to spend a few minutes while in “protective custody.”

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