Interviewed by Kathryn Miranda
Kathryn Miranda: I traveled to Oxford in 2004 for the International Congress, and one
of the best learning experiences I had was in the workshop you and Joan Frost gave on
“The Uncommitted Hand.” Could you talk about this class and how it came into being?
Barbara Kent: I come from a strong tradition of hands-on work with Judy (Leibowitz) and
Debby (Caplan). This idea for the class came from my ongoing work with Hands on the
Back of a Chair (HOBC) and Judy’s idea of the uncommitted hand. She talked the essence
of HOBC, even though the classical form didn’t suit her very well. She used concepts,
like ‘into and away from’, bringing your hands together, palms coming together, elbows
wide. She described the uncommitted hand as a hand that was present, attentive, and
energetic but did not do the directions. Her hands always had that energetic presence
and non-doing quality and it is was a major part of her work training teachers.
Having had the experience of her hands and having heard what Alexander had said about how important HOBC was, I went through the process of using the form until I could make a connection between the form of HOBC and my training experiences with Judy. Now I don’t need a chair and I don’t need to concern myself if my wrist is pointing this way or that way or if my palm is flat. All those things are important and useful but not essential. What I have noticed about the HOBC procedure is that sometimes I’m either doing too much, sending my thought of lengthening into a doing or I’m so careful not to be pushing or pulling that I’m not there. In either case, I could have the right form, but not the best results.
The exercise I presented at the Congress, in which you exaggerate what you want to happen or what you want to do, appeals to me as a way to explore the idea of uncommitted hands. The exaggeration helps me to know what I’m doing and then it gives me the freedom to own that habit. One of the interesting bits of feedback from the participants was, “For once I was allowed to do it badly.” I imagine that the folks who said that have had opportunities in their training to feel what it’s like to do it wrong, but we are so often oriented towards a non-doing touch. If you’re told over and over don’t push, don’t pull, don’t pull the person down, don’t tug, you don’t allow the wrong thing to happen by either getting stiff or by retracting your energy.
KM: As I recall my experience from the workshop, I could see how I would throw away my intention to guide the student into length when I dropped the doing. So I got to practice having an idea of what I want to happen, exaggerate what I would do to make that happen and then let the doing go, but still have the intention. Could you talk about the aspect of intentionality when you play with exaggeration?
BK: The longer I teach, the stronger that impulse is to let my intention turn into something more than an intention. I am more capable of seeing what the student is doing and more intuitive about what isn’t working. So the impulse to try and fix what isn’t lengthening or, for example, to move the shoulder out in order to get width, is stronger. How do I have the intention without interfering, without letting the intention actually become an interference? That’s the challenge I thought would be fun for experienced teachers to work on together.
So in this exploration of exaggeration, we set out to see what that interference feels like. We acknowledge the struggle that is going to happen. We just have to go through it and try not to be scared of it. The crux is being able to sustain the idea of uncommitted hands, at the same time having a keen intention to see and feel and sense what it is we want the student to know about.
When I do too much, I need to know what too much is and to feel what I actually do. If I put my hands on your head and neck and I have a volitionary thought that I want to encourage the head to be balanced up off the tip of the spine, well, I often find my hands lifting. So let me look at it, let me see, what do I have to do to lift. Oh, I pull this; I tighten here. What happens if I let go of that? What happens if I just don’t do that and I go back to that pure intention? It gives me a chance to practice the interface between intention and how I carry it out. And of course, the longer I teach the more I appreciate both the strong urge to correct and the power of non-doing.
KM: It’s such an interesting area to talk about, where stimulus meets response, where thought meets movement. How do you talk with your students about inhibition and direction?
BK: One way I like to describe inhibition is the way F. M. did, as a withholding of consent. That helps the student to see it as a positive choice not to respond with a habitual reaction. I also like the words pause and wait.
Describing or explaining direction is challenging to me because it is a way of thinking with which few of us have had any prior experience. Direction is a skill that improves with practice. It is the ability to use one’s mind in a particular way to influence physical habits of use and movement.
I’ve always seen myself as primarily a non-verbal person and I’ve felt challenged to speak clearly about this process called the Alexander Technique. I love language. I’m a singer. I sing words. Sometimes I find myself talking too much, trying to explain or elucidate what I’ve experienced or thought about the work over these 30 some years. Sometimes I find it more helpful to be quiet and repeat the simple directions as I work with my hands, leaving the student in a quiet place to let a new experience emerge.
From my experience of teaching and learning how the brain works, when the combination of physical experience and cognitive learning get balanced based on a student’s needs, it’s a fabulous combo. Words alone are pretty hard to translate into experience. Experience without some understanding of what is happening is perhaps less helpful than giving the student a way to use the tools.
There are dozens of ways to teach inhibition and the art of teaching is being present with the student, hearing what’s happening for them, how they’re taking in what you’re saying. I don’t have a clue if there’s a way to go about this that isn’t totally individual for the person who’s teaching and for the person who’s being taught.
KM: When I am verbally guiding someone to inhibit or direct, I often feel the change under my hands that is based on their thinking. It’s different than the changes I feel when I’m putting my hands-on, thinking through the hands-on techniques, like HOBC, the uncommitted hand, or staying with myself. In the first, the change is directed by their thinking and in the second, change is stimulated by my hands-on work.
BK: I’ve observed that the initial hands-on experience tends to define what the words mean to a person and they begin to have more and more ability to use the concepts of inhibition and direction based on the hands-on experience. I see this clearly in trainees. They begin with fairly minimal skills in being able to direct themselves and to be able to affect a change through their own thinking. Yet at the end of training, I observe them wait, inhibit and change the thinking. In supervised classes where they are practicing their skills with non-skilled students, they feel the pull of trying to do it for the students because the students aren’t able to do it for themselves. I remind them these students are new to this skill. Four years ago, were you able to do that? Now you can direct, you can affect a change with your thinking. Well, how did that happen?
Judy told us that in her lessons with Mr. Alexander, he said, “Don’t worry about what the words mean; let me give you an experience that will define these words.” She used that same language in her teaching all the time. “Let me give you an experience; let my hands define the words. And when you use these words, you will have a kinesthetic experience that hooks up with that.”
KM: When my intention is to give the student an experience that will help define the words I’m using at that moment, I give myself a really strong stimulus to do what the words say, widening across the shoulders, for example.
BK: Saying words and giving experiences are part of our teaching heritage. I heard Patrick MacDonald say that his main role as a teacher was to give the student an experience in his lesson that the student could not have on his own. So there is this trap: neutral hands, uncommitted hands, just work on yourself—but you’re supposed to be giving an experience through your hands to tie with the words so your student is going to know what directing means. There you are, this is the on-going conundrum in teaching this work, which is what makes it so challenging. There isn’t a formula, OK this is what we do and this is what will happen.
How do you teach someone to direct something that they’re not going to do? We have phrases like, directions not to be carried out, think don’t do, allow yourself to think. Language tries to convey the gist of it, but so often you ask a student to think neck lengthening and the immediate response is a stretch of the head reaching up. So you keep clarifying the not doing.
I’ve been teaching for some thirty odd years, I’ve been a student since 1962 and I’m still struggling with these same issues. I’m on a spiral of change. I have much more clarity but the basic issues haven’t changed.
KM: What else do you find challenging in hands-on work?
BK: What pops into my mind is a clarity between what my hands are saying as a message and what my hands are doing in terms of guiding in space. Debby Caplan used to talk about the teacher having two musical tones—the internal and the external movement. From a training standpoint, we give a lot of attention to this because it’s very easy, say for the back and up direction to turn into forward and down as you initiate movement and bring your student forward in space.
So much of my learning has come out of experience and the memory of the physical experience in my body from Judy, from Debby, from Walter, from Patrick, from Marj Barstow, all slightly different approaches stylistically but all giving that same experience of really not going in the direction of the movement—internally not going in the direction of the external movement. I have dozens of indelible experiences in my being from various teachers so I know kinesthetically that it’s possible. I have a taste of what’s different between just coming out of the chair in a perfectly mechanically well-oiled movement and coming out of a chair with the internal movement continuing, not getting caught up in the external.
We might say that the external movement is the form and the internal movement the content. One of the things I like about the Dart Procedures that the Murrays do is that it informs this distinction. An unfamiliar movement series, which for most of us the Dart Procedures are, can highlight when the movement has lost its’ internal direction. You can experience when rolling down or doing developmental movement becomes the thing rather than the essence. When you experience the head leading and the lengthening spine, limbs releasing out from and supporting that while you are moving and being in all kinds of shapes, you’ve experienced the value and the pleasure of that internal movement.
KM: In the workshop you gave at the Oxford Congress, you talked about your judgmental self and how you had become friends with it. The presentation you gave before we went to work was inspiring, because you spoke with so much acceptance of your own internal judge. You said you were able to see it and say, “Yes it’s there,” and not send it away, scold it, or try to get past it, but just, “Make friends with it.” It’s not not part of you, but it’s not the whole of you. When it comes up and it’s bossy or demanding or very strict or very negative, you’re able to see it differently. You helped me and I think many in the room to have a friendly rapport with those habits that interfere with our hands-on teaching.
BK: Well, thank you for that feedback. Yes, for me the work in Alexander has been a consistent and strong influence that has enabled me to experience my judgmental self without becoming it. Granted, I had a lot of therapeutic work, but that work jives with Alexander, especially Alexander work via Judy’s teaching, which is a consistent non-judgmental approach.
KM: By presenting this aspect of your process to other teachers, I believe, you lay a foundation that allows teachers from different teaching lineages to work with each other in a very free and playful way. Your presentation at Oxford allowed all the different hands-on teaching styles to co-exist without judging each other.
BK: I finally realized that if I have such a strong judge, I bet others do too. By not hiding, I’m taking the shame away from it. It’s part of what I enjoy sharing, because it’s been such a prominent part of my learning. To me it’s the core of the Alexander Technique. Whenever I ask myself what this work really about, it always come back to the issue of endgaining. We need a lot of self-acceptance to truly allow ourselves to be wrong. When my judge and critic are activated they either cannot allow me to be wrong, so I must defend myself and try harder, or they will make me wrong so I have to defend myself and try harder. Real change can’t happen when the judge/critic is in charge. The implication is that where I am is not safe; it is lacking or inferior. Then I’m thrown back into habitual patterns of tension and needing to be “right.” But, if I can accept my judge as part of my whole makeup, befriend it and keep an empathetic, playful relationship with it, then where I am can be a relief and much more fun.
The more we can accept ourselves, the more we are able to look at what is objectively. I can see that right shoulder tightening up again, period. I don’t want to leave it like that forever, but I don’t want to make myself feel like a failure because it’s still that way.
There is a certain amount of psychological maturity that allows one to take a clear look. Alexander said, “Don’t come to me unless, when I tell you, ‘you are wrong,’ you make up your mind to smile and be pleased.” When a person can embody that, then they have enough sense of self or center to sustain an objective clarity and not be so thrown off by a judge that says, “ I really don’t understand this Technique because if I did, these patterns would have changed by now.”
KM: You have trained in Ilana Rubenfeld’s Synergy Method, a discipline that directly addresses the emotions. What insight has this given you into how the Alexander Technique lesson can support the emotional aspects of our life, without being a Synergy session?
BK: I came into the Technique without any therapeutic background and it was the Technique that helped me see that there were things that were not responding to direction or that needed to have another conscious process.
I think Ilana was after a way to work with acceptance and attending to yourself on a psychological and emotional level, to listen to what happens inside of you when the teacher asks you to release into length and width. A Rubenfeld Synergy session is not an Alexander lesson. It doesn’t teach the Alexander Technique. It uses aspects of it, but what tends to happen, at least in my experience as a client and a practitioner, is a synergy. Many things that create something different.
But the question is: how would a teacher support that kind of awareness in an Alexander lesson, not necessarily unleashing memories or working with psychological material. Could we be more open to the psychological and emotional level in the way that we talk about it with our students?
For example, we’re directing and using our hands well and yet we become aware that the quality of our student’s response has this other layer going on. If we keep our observations to ourselves and keep asking our students to free the neck and release the spine, the tighter they get and perhaps begin to feel like a failure as an Alexander student. There’s a whole piece going on with the emotional life of a person and perhaps they can’t let go of something for more than one reason.
I would not like to see us try to become psychotherapists. Just opening up one’s conscious awareness to the emotional or psychological aspects of the physical pattern can be such a rich area without having the teacher become the psychotherapist. I’d like us to have the possibility to explore that aspect of ourselves, at least to know that it’s OK. It’s very easy to stay with the physical level, but then you feel like you’re not a good Alexander student if you can’t release your neck.
For example, my shoulders are still tight. I just came from a session of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Response), where I suddenly had a sense (and I’ve been in therapy forever) of a whole gestalt of who I am and how I came to be where I am, and that that’s why my shoulders are the way they are now. Until I can come to that place psychologically, my shoulders have to stay the way they are. I don’t care how many times Pearl (Ausubel) takes my shoulders out so beautifully and I feel fabulous afterwards; they will return to some level of tension governed by a whole psychophysical me.
KM: Judy (Leibowitz) said Alexander started something, implying that he hadn’t finished. She was very excited about the future growth of the Technique. What directions do you think the Technique has taken us or we have taken the Technique?
BK: Good question, I don’t know if I have a clue. What has developed for me is a way into understanding how I work, how I function, what my habits are, and how they limit me.
I got involved in the Technique because of singing. I knew that I had a lot of tensions in my body. I really wasn’t much interested in the rest of it. I came with a physical purpose. Because of the influences I had in my early days with Judy and my voice teacher, Gladys Lea, who sent me to Frank (Ottiwell), the Technique spilled over into other areas, which is what I think Alexander hoped it would do. It helped me to become aware of how the world works and how I am in the world. That has opened up for me, even though it seems like I probably have a pre-school or kindergarten level of really using the tools of inhibition and direction in all areas of my life. But when I do, I see over and over again that the principles of the Technique are the principles of good use everywhere.
Barbara Kent trained at ACAT with Judy Leibowitz, graduating in 1971. She has studied privately with Frank Ottiwell, Debby Caplan, Walter Carrington, Patrick MacDonald, Marjorie Barstow, Glynn MacDonald and Elisabeth Walker among others. She holds a BA in Voice and an MA in Choral Conducting from Brooklyn College. In addition, she is a Rubenfeld Synergy Method Practitioner (Certified 1991). Barbara served as ACAT's Director of Training 1982–1987 and 1996–2001. Currently, she is senior teacher at ACAT, and also on the faculty at the Alexander Residential Program in Sweetbriar, Virginia. Barbara teaches privately on the Upper Westside of Manhattan and in Sag Harbor, New York.
© 2006 Kathryn Miranda. All rights reserved