New directions (literally!) for my work

In the past couple of months, my approach to teaching has evolved rapidly and radically. You might say that it has transformed. Ever since I got back from Costa Rica in January, from attending the week-long course “Say Yes to Your Life” led by Ariel and Shya Kane, my work has been moving in unexpected, highly productive directions. My students have been learning deeper and faster and the process of teaching has become fascinating and, well, a lot of fun.

All three strands of my 3-part program—voice lessons, Alexander Technique, and bodywork—have been involved in the transformation. In each area, I am noticing in more detail and with greater clarity what is going on in my students’ bodies and bringing about improvements with a new ease. I’m teaching more students per day and feeling more energized at the end of the day.

What has brought about this shift in my world? I attribute it to applying the Kanes’ 3 principles of Transformation to my teaching. The shift began when I started noticing a disparity between the Kanes’ approach and the way I had been applying the Alexander Technique—particularly in my practice of the Alexander concept of Direction.

In order to bring about improvements in mind-body coordination, F.M. Alexander advocated approaching activities with Awareness, Inhibition, and Direction. In brief, Awareness is noticing what you are actually doing with yourself in a given moment—which is often not what you feel you are doing. Inhibition involves pausing in action to halt your habitual reaction and thereby allow a new set of neural impulses to fire. Direction is using your thinking to guide your body into the desired new coordination.

Traditionally, Direction has been taught as a set of “orders” or “wishes” one thinks in activity. Typical Directions include orders that are universally applicable, such as “I allow my neck to be free, to allow my head to go forward and up, to allow my back to lengthen and widen….” Directions may also be custom-designed for a specific person. For example, my head tends to lean to the right a bit, so a personalized Direction for me might be “I aim my head up and slightly to the left”.

Over the past weeks, I have grown uncomfortable with this concept of directing myself as I have noticed how it is at odds with the Kanes’ principles of Transformation. Traditional Direction seems to require me to leave the awareness of the present moment and engage in fantasy about what I might wish to be true. It also requires me to know what every part of me needs to do in every moment, which is surely not possible. Luckily, an easy tweak has brought my work into line with the Kanes’ work and has enabled me and my students to transform.

Here are the Kanes’ 3 Principles of Transformation. (I have paraphrased and changed to order of the principles. You can get their version in any of their excellent books.)

  1. You can only be exactly as you are in this moment. Become aware of this without judging it to be right or wrong.
  2. If you resist what you notice about yourself or wish it to be different, it will persist and grow stronger.
  3. If you allow yourself to be exactly as you are, and stay aware, something will shift.

Using this paradigm to analyze the Alexander Technique, we can see that Direction (at least the way I had learned it) was asking me to wish myself to be different than I was. At the core of this approach is a sense that I was somehow wrong or needing to be fixed.

Lately in teaching, I have been encouraging my students to amp up their moment-to-moment awareness, and this has, to my delight, dispensed with the need for either Inhibition or Direction. For example, I noticed that a student (“Jay”) was pulling his head off-balance every time he sat. Previously, I would have him pause in the act of sitting to become aware of what he was doing with his head and then direct his head to move in a more productive way. Under my new Transformational paradigm, I decided to set up a “game” in which Jay would notice from moment to moment how his head was balancing. I was initially surprised to note that, in a matter of minutes, such finely honed noticing led to an improved coordination—WITHOUT EITHER JAY OR ME NEEDING TO KNOW WHAT THAT WOULD BE. And we’d never decided to change anything!

It’s so easy.

I have found myself thinking and teaching in terms of continuums rather than good vs. bad, right vs. wrong. In Jay’s case, I stopped labeling head-back-and-down as wrong and head-forward-and-up as right and opened up our awareness of the full range of possible ways for the head to balance on top of the spine, which is in actuality much more complex and subtle than a simple phrase can represent. When I have applied this continuum thinking in my own life, I’ve experienced transformations everywhere from the gym (improved balance in one-legged stances) to an airplane (increased comfort and reduced anxiety during take-off and landing).

The implications for vocal instruction are exciting, but I will save those for future posts. In the meantime, I think I’m going to rewrite my website to reflect my new Transformational approach.

13 Comments

  1. Beautiful post, beautifully written, with some great practical ideas.

    Thanks!

  2. Michael Hanko says:

    Thank YOU, Mark. Exploring these ideas with you (my fellow Alexander teacher) has been an important part of the transformation in my work.

  3. isabelle says:

    I am a language teacher and can get frustrated with student’s repetitive grammatical errors which can be equated to a "bad" body position. You are giving me food for thoughts and a different way to help my students bring awareness to them. Tks.

  4. Joey Raines says:

    Great sharing Michael, sounds like you ‘got it’. It’s beautiful to see a process being consciously applied to a condition and having its efficacy validated first hand. Keep us posted as you apply it to your students vocal development.

  5. Michael Hanko says:

    Thanks, Isabelle and Joey! I’ll definitely keep posting updates as my work continues to evolve.

  6. Leah says:

    Beautiful post, Michael! Such an inspiring way to start my morning. It reminded me that I can only be exactly as I am in this moment and that is the perfect springboard into my day. Thank you!

  7. Michael you are a GIFT that keeps on giving! How beautiful to see what is happening for you and how you are freely giving what you have discovered away to, not only your students, but to the world at large. We find you a source of great inspiration. We also appreciate how much you "water the tree that is feeding you." Thank you for your kind words about us and our work as well. Looking forward to seeing you at our Say Yes to Your Life Monday evening in Manhattan tonight. With Love and Respect, Ariel and Shya

  8. Ursula Oelke says:

    Wow, dear Michael, how inspiring! And so clearly put in words I can follow your every thought and action. This inspires me to keep looking with the same care and love for people and detail in my moment-to-moment-teaching:-)! I feel totally refreshed :-)!
    Thank you so much:-)!
    Love, Ursula

  9. Michael Hanko says:

    Thank you, Ursula!

  10. Peter Bloch says:

    Hello Michael,
    We share a profession, in that I teach the Alexander Technique and also singing, each informed by the other.
    I read your views on direction with interest. I have been teaching the AT for 30 years, and my understanding of what exactly is meant by direction has continually evolved over that time. What this has often meant is that, when my understanding grows, I recognise that my previous understanding was erroneous. When this first started happening, I felt as if I had been truly “wrong” before – but now I see it as a movement in the direction of “truth”, rather as in Emerson’s famous description (in ‘Self-Reliance) of the tacking of a sailing ship across an ocean, if seen from a great height, would essentially be a straight line in one direction.
    And so, having said all that, and allowing for the fact that you wrote your blog 3 years ago and so this may all be out of date for you – a suggestion from my current understanding that I hope may prove helpful. Direction is not a fantasy about what you wish to be true, but a preference for how you would like to move forward. So, wishing that your neck be free is ‘preventative’, as Alexander said, an opportunity to observe if you are, in fact, stiffening your neck. Then, should that be the case, the thought will naturally arise, that this is the very thing that you would prefer not to be doing. And it is this change of intention alone that brings about positive change.
    With regard to what you learned from the Kanes, I would agree (in common with the great psychologist and psychotherapist Carl Rogers) that it is paradoxically only when I can accept myself as I am that I am able to change. It is quite possible for this to happen concurrently with a wish to change. Therefore directions ought always to contain the full acceptance of one’s current state, and all that has led to this moment, and be free of pushing or force. As Dilys Carrington (Walter’s wife) used to say when I was training with them, “ask nicely”.
    I hope this helps!
    Peter

    • Michael Hanko says:

      Dear Peter,

      Thank you for reading my blog and for responding so generously and with such thoughtful analysis. I see everything you so beautifully wrote as aspects of the truth, which still goes for what I wrote three years ago as well. It’s fascinating, isn’t it, how looking at life from multiple angles reveals endless facets of the whole picture?

      I have a feeling that you and I have a similar way of thinking about Direction. (I hope we are able to meet some day and exchange ideas in person!) I was writing this blog to celebrate moving beyond a previous way of using Direction, which came with a hefty dose of self-criticism and often resulted in LESS freedom rather than more. I don’t know if it was the intention of some of my early teachers, but I came away from lessons thinking that Awareness was about discovering what was wrong with me and Direction, the means to “fix” it.

      In the past three years, I have found more and more that the “Kane-inspired way”of approaching Directions has brought me more ease and more access to my full potential. It allows me to tap into a deeper level of my consciousness—deeper than the language-using brain—to allow my system to recalibrate and redirect ITSELF, without my having to impose my conceptions of what would be a better state of affairs. There is an inner wisdom that reorganizes the system of ME from moment to moment when it has data about what is going on in each moment. This data gets input via my observation (in singing, this involves principally listening)…but the observation must be without judgment for this to work. As soon as I—my thinking brain—decide that I prefer one state of affairs over another, the automatic regulator cedes responsibility to a far less subtle and effective mechanism.

      When I get a student listening in this way to the sound of her voice—this is data being input into her brain through her ears—her system becomes self-regulating and her voice responds instantaneously at the highest level at which her technique currently functions—without effort. This phenomenon comes across as magic when people first experience it.

  11. Peter Bloch says:

    Dear Michael,
    Thank you for your reply. It would be lovely to meet, but alas we are far apart geographically. Actually, I am originally from NYC and used to go every year when my grandparents were still with us, but I have lived in the UK since I was a child and plan to stay. If you are ever in England, it would be fun to meet. I am planning to start an AT teacher training course from about April next year. You can follow the progress of this here: http://peter-bloch.co.uk/weekly-class
    I agree with most of what you have written just now: I love the analogy of multiple angles of view of the same phenomenon, that self-criticism in the negative meaning of the term ends all possibility of freedom (Frankly, I think that, when the AT is taught this way it is at best ineffective and at worst harmful).
    Speaking with other teachers of several decades of experience, many of us find that what you have written in your penultimate paragraph is the way that our work develops. In the end, it is any thought, way of thinking, idea or system that most promotes improved Use in YOU at THIS MOMENT that is the best direction. For me personally, above all, it is almost always allowing myself to be who I most deeply am (especially in open relation to my pupil in the Buber ‘I-Thou’ sense) that most enables forward movement in my Use of myself.

    • Michael Hanko says:

      I will definitely get in touch if I come to England, Peter. Best of luck with the training program!

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