I’m thinking about how, sometimes, when we look at our history, we have a visceral response of shame. It’s no wonder we don’t want to look at it. Shame begins in the body. Shame’s first language is the body, and then we put language around it. And then we put protections around it, and then curricula and policy and elections around shame. But it begins in the individual language of the body. And it’s understandable that it is so seizing of us. It is like being arrested by something — it does stop you. – Pádraig Ó Tuama, poet, theologian, and conflict mediator.
As a teacher of the Alexander Technique, my ears always perk up whenever I hear an interesting reference to the human body.
But this particular quote bounced around in my mind for quite a awhile before I realized that it helped explain a paradox we Alexander teachers encounter from time to time: A student comes for a lesson or two, and experiences a significant change for the better in his or her physical functioning. Friends and family members also notice the changes.
And then the student disappears.
One of my very first students fit that description perfectly and I’ve puzzled over the phenomenon ever since. I even did a podcast interview with my colleague Mark Josefsberg: Why do some students take one or two lessons and then quit even though they – and others – have noticed major benefits?
In that interview I did mention situations where the changes brought about by Alexander Technique lessons might be difficult to integrate into a student’s life and circumstances.
But this quote from Pádraig Ó Tuama made me realize in a far more profound way just how difficult that integration could be, particularly in the face of deep rooted shame, or any other kind of trauma. Shame can cause a pulling in on one’s self, creating a protective shell that allows one to take up as little space and attention as possible. I believe this is especially true when the shame originates in early childhood.
This physical tension will certainly have adverse effects on the ways they sit, stand and go through life.
We Alexander Technique teachers are skilled in helping people release harmful tension. We a long history of helping our students alleviate physical ailments such as back and neck pain. We have helped performers of all sorts practice their craft more effectively, with less strain and less likelihood of injury.
And so we may well be able to give a student who suffers from shame an experience of greater ease fairly quickly. And we may even be able to show them the beginnings of how they can achieve that for themselves.
But those changes may turn out to be incompatible with their “shame shell.” And faced with a choice between greater ease and protecting that shell, the shell might win.
This is the point in an Alexander Technique blog where some sort of tying together, or even a solution, is offered.
But other than recognizing the problem, and our own limitations – we are, after all, teachers, not therapists – I have no idea how to provide that.
I would be grateful for any constructive suggestions from Alexander Technique teachers and students whose experience might shed some more light on this issue, and have any helpful thoughts to share based on their own experiences.
Please post your comments below and/or on Facebook.
*Pádraig Ó Tuama has a lot more to say about physicality, vulnerability and prayer later in the podcast – it’s well worth listing to in it’s entirety. Here’s a little of what he said:
I have a T-shirt that says “Whiskey and yoga” on it. I’m very faithful with one of those.
I did gymnastics ever since I was a child. I have a very flexible back. And when I do go to yoga, which isn’t often enough, despite the fact that I can do a backbend really easily, I have to take a breath before I do some of these postures, because I know that I might just start to cry. When you open up the body, open up the heart, some of those heart-opening poses, they are vulnerable. And it’s not because of an incapacity for the physical body to do that. It’s because the body goes deeper into its own knowing. I think, yoga or any (other) embodiments… cause us to pay attention to the way in which there’s something deeper than the narration that we’re giving to what’s going on. There’s a deeper literature of the body that is telling us back to ourselves, if we’ll listen. And it’s painful to do so, sometimes, and I think that is a really wise thing to do.