This is the first in what I hope will be a series of interviews with people who take Alexander Technique lessons or classes – Alexander Technique students . What people get out of learning the Alexander Technique, and their reasons for studying it in the first place, can be so varied and interesting, I want to share some of their stories with you.
Margaret Almon is a student of the Alexander Technique who I got to know online through our blogs and Facebook, although she actually lives not too far away from me, in Lansdale, PA north of Philadelphia. I was able to meet her in person when she was in Wilmington for an arts and craft exhibition to which she kindly invited me. Margaret is a wonderful mosaic artist and I was lucky to have her create this gorgeous house number for me (mosaics by Margaret, numbers by Wayne Stratz).
Here’s the interview:
Me: Thanks so much for doing this interview, Margaret. To start off, I’d love you to tell me and my readers a bit about your work as a mosaic artist. Have you always been an artist?
Margaret: I was fascinated by the brushstrokes in paintings, and making pinch pots out of clay in elementary school. I took a circuitous path through an MFA in poetry writing, and an MS in library science, before giving myself the chance to explore different visual mediums as an adult in my mid-30’s. I had some unfortunate encounters with watercolor, and cake-decorating, and much better experiences with collage and drawing. When I saw a mosaic by Hildreth Meiere up close at the Jesuit Spiritual Center in Wernersville, PA, I knew I wanted to be a mosaicist, and I’ve been creating mosaics since 2005.
Me: How did you first hear about the Alexander Technique?
Margaret: I first heard of AT when I was working as a medical librarian, and a speech therapist asked me to do research on the Alexander Technique for voice disorders. I was having difficulty with back pain in 2003, with all the sitting at the computer, and bought a copy of Richard Brennan’s Alexander Technique Workbook, but didn’t get very far reading it.
Me: Interesting. So was that your particular motivation for having lessons?
Margaret: In 2010, the hospital closed the library, and laid me off. I began making mosaics full-time. My back had been cooperating up until this point, but suddenly I was spending much more time in the studio, and in November of 2011, I woke up with that dreaded sensation of my back being “stuck.” I have had cycles of intermittent lower back pain since my mid-20s, with physical therapy, particularly the McKenzie Treat Your Own Back exercises. In this case though, the McKenzie exercises seemed to make things worse. It was disheartening to realize that working in the studio was one of the things that aggravated my back. I wanted to figure out what I was doing while in the studio that made the pain worse, rather than having something “done to me.” I considered occupational therapy. I dug out my Alexander Technique book and was intrigued by the idea that there is strength in my spine if I allow it to function as a whole.
Me: So it was quite a while later that you were spurred on to investigate it for yourself. I think it often happens that when we have pain, or other problems, that are holding us back from doing what we love, that we seek a real solution. What was your first encounter or experience with the Alexander Technique like? When was that?
Margaret: After resonating with what Brennan wrote about stress and tension and habits that lead to pain, but still not grasping how this actually worked in practice, I started looking for an Alexander Teacher. Although there weren’t a lot of teachers in my area, unless I was willing to travel an hour into Philadelphia, there was one 25 minutes away in Lederach, PA. Even more exciting was that this teacher, Ted Hallman, was both Alexander Teacher and Fiber Artist, and I hoped he had insight into how to work in my studio with less pain. I realized I’d seen his art, at an exhibit in 2005.
I had my first lesson in December of 2011. I had enough experience in healthcare to know that awareness of my studio process was out of the scope of traditional physical therapy, and not something covered by insurance, but I was more than willing to explore AT with a teacher who worked out of an old wooden chapel, with a mirrored disco ball, a huge loom, boxes and boxes of fiber for weaving, and walls of art books! Ted told me AT was an educational process, and this appealed to me in the midst of my fears of having something “done to me” that would exacerbate my pain, or become undone as soon as I went back into the studio.
Me: Wow, not many of us have studios like that! Sounds like a perfect fit for you though!
After that first experience, what made you decide to continue?
Margaret: My teacher conveyed ease, and I responded to the possibility that I could make art with this kind of ease. He described the integrity of the torso, and how there is no joint in the back, no hinge to bend, and I knew that was part of my trouble in the studio, that I was bending at places that weren’t meant to bend, and it hurt, and I wanted to learn more. I was also motivated by the fact that my teacher is 79, and still making art.
Me: Well, the spine does have joints (between each vertebra), but they not meant, or needed, for natural bending where we hinge at the hip joint – so I know exactly what you mean!
When did you start having lessons, and do you still have them regularly?
Margaret: I started December 2011, and have had 3 or 4 lessons per month, with the summer off.
Me: So, you’ve had quite a lot at this point! It’s always interesting to hear what different people do in their AT lessons – I’d love hear a about yours. Is there a typical formula to your lessons, or do you do something different each time?
Margaret: My teacher usually starts with a conversation about different concepts in Alexander, like the relation of head to neck or the different curves of the spine or ways to talk to myself with awareness and kindness, or “body mapping” (like finding where I bend at the hips, which is much lower than my old map of bending at the waist). Then he has me get out of my chair, and he does hands on work with light touch to suggest different places I can release tension in my body, or align myself, lengthening and broadening rather than constricting.
There is an element of surprise that sometimes we might walk around outside in the yard, or lay down on the floor or practice sitting in a chair and then getting back up, or stopping halfway in-between. Ted likes to joke that there are whole schools of Alexander based on getting in and out of a chair and nothing else. A few times we have had a table lesson when for instance my teacher will lift my leg, and ask me to let go of it, which allows me an experience of what lightness feels like so that I can be aware of this possibility when I am upright.
Sometimes we have tea, which of course turns into a lesson in how to lift the cup without adding extra tension to the movement. Because Ted is also a teacher of future Alexander teachers, he is very skilled at explaining what he is doing as the teacher, and will narrate what he is doing in his own posture and movement that allows him to give lessons without causing damage to his body, and also how his sense of ease is one of the most important things he can convey to his students.
Me: That’s so interesting. You’ve already alluded to the benefits you receive from lesson. What specific benefits would you say you have gained from studying the Alexander Technique, including how it helps you in your work (if it has)?
Margaret: Alexander lessons have made a great difference in my studio practice, especially these three things.
- Letting my back be my support and strength, since working on gluing intricate mosaics with small pieces can easily become all about the front of my body, my head and hands. When Ted told me to let my work come to my eyes, rather than using my whole body to retrieve it, I was struck by how pulled down I become when working.
- Releasing tension, and letting go of habits rather than “making them go away.” My belief had been that once I had tension in my body, it was stuck there, but AT lessons have shown me that I can let go of tension, and I can rest, especially with the semi-supine position of “constructive rest.”
- Pausing to talk to myself before I begin work, as a way to be good to myself in both body and spirit. I have an orange index card that my teacher gave in order to write a few prompts to remember my ease: let my neck be free, head forward and up, feet in contact with the floor, let my back lengthen and widen. Also, remember to breathe!
Me: Wonderful! Is there anything else you would like to share with us?
Margaret: As an artist, I am particularly drawn to visual imagery, and just looking at someone who is at ease can help my body be at ease. I created a board on Pinterest of images that inspire me in my practice of the Alexander Technique and Ease in the Art Studio.
About the photos: I loved working on the Breathe sign because it reminded me to breathe as I glued each piece and cleaned away the grout. The rainbow of pendants shows some of the little tiny pieces I use in my work, and which I get sucked into if I don’t pause and remind myself of what I’ve learned in the Alexander lessons. The house number you will recognize! I have learned much from reading your blog, and love your reminders on Facebook and Twitter to breathe, or let go of the mouse.
Me: Thanks again, so much, for talking to us about your experiences with the Technique and for sharing the lovely photographs of your work. It’s fascinating to hear your story and wonderful to hear of the benefits you’ve gained.
If you’d like to see more examples of Margaret’s work, visit the Nutmeg Designs Etsy Shop, or to learn more about her and her work, check out the Margaret Almon Mosaics Blog. And for more about Margaret’s experiences with the Alexander Technique, she did this great interview with Robert Rickover:
If you have any questions or comments for me, or for Margaret, please reply below. We’d love to hear from you.
And if you are an Alexander Technique student or pupil and would like to be interviewed for my blog, please let me know!