Remembering an Exceptional training, with Don Burton at Fellside Alexander School
By South East Alexander School, Jul 13 2018 12:39PM
Following on from my previous writing about lineage, and mentioning the training that I myself had at Fellside Alexander School, with Don Burton, I thought it appropriate to post an article written by a friend and colleague of mine - Gentian Rahtz - who trained together with me at Fellside in the late 1980's. Here are some recollections of our time with training with Don.....
For anyone appreciating or interested in this approach to training, you may be interested to look at the South East Alexander School's teacher training programme, as although not exactly the same as Don's training, my aim is to 'continue Don's ideas and approaches to A.T. training and teaching as far as is possible.
An Appreciation of the Visionary Contribution Don Burton Made to the Alexander Technique Community
by Gentian Rahtz
Don Burton died in 1996. He enriched AT work in ways which continue to inspire his students. His approach to the Technique was controversial, but his memory and important innovations in AT work should be honoured.
Don completed his own AT training with the Carringtons in 1973. He had previously worked as a physiotherapist in private practice and so also taught anatomy for the Carringtons while he was completing his training.
In 1986 he started Fellside Alexander School in an old school house in Kendal with large work rooms and views of the Cumbrian hills. The school became large and successful.
It has taken me many years to more fully appreciate the breadth and depth of Don’s pioneering work. He expanded the whole spectrum of AT work and also realised that the students’ holistic personal development was a crucial part of their training as teachers.
I graduated from Fellside in 1990 and doubt if I would have lasted in a more conventional school. I was lucky that I found a school that gave me a chance to find a more trustworthy sense of myself, an inner compass and a pleasurable experience of “coming to my senses.”
I have a clear visual, aural and body memory of Don standing at the blackboard delivering illustrated detailed master classes on the anatomy and physiology of the moving body with frequent reference to a life size skeleton hanging on a stand. His open, poised and balanced “use” was inspiring. These daily classes were followed by student hands-on sessions, fleshing out how anatomy and physiology applied to Alexander’s principles. He included very up to date scientific findings in his anatomy, physiology and embryology teaching, much material unknown in Alexander’s day. Don would have been most interested in the present day explosion of neuroscience being applied to studies of AT.
A particular individual session with Don stays in my mind and body memory. We were standing in front of a window looking out to the Cumbrian hills. He was standing to one side of me, one hand round my ribs and the other on my solar plexus. My arms were raised. As I relaxed the outer layers of my body, my back opened and my breathing seemed to spread to all four limbs and out into the room. He asked me to look at the hill tops and to stay with my sense of myself while using my imagination to drop down through the hills and trace a circuit to underneath my feet and then up through my body back to my eyes while still expanding my attention to the hill tops. I think I knew what “being grounded” meant for the first time and something inside me shifted – it was like a very spacious, slow dance articulating the space between teacher and student, between us and the landscape.
DON’S TEACHING ABOUT HAND CONTACT
During my training I became gradually aware of the range, the widely differing qualities and underlying intentions, of skilled hand contact within the broad spectrum of AT work. ‘Touch” seems a very inadequate word for the sense to which it refers.
It would seem that there is some reluctance among AT teachers to acknowledge that an important aspect of our work is that to some degree we inevitably impart our energetic patterns, our energy field, our general state of being to the person with whom we are working and of course vice versa!. Some teachers may openly acknowledge that “directing’” the power of the mind will affect the flow of chi or subtle energy. In this way, a teacher’s hand can act like a “fulcrum” for AT work.
Although it seems somewhat artificial to differentiate between forms of AT hand contact, the following list may be useful. These are not discrete categories but do imply a shift in the quality or emphasis of attention or intention.
Classic AT Touch can be experienced as a felt transmission of Alexander’s principles with a homeopathic element of “like for like.”. This form of touch, which can be quite brief, requires consistent attention to the quality of the teacher’s own “use,” and their facility with“inhibition,” “direction,” and “primary freedom” which, ideally, stimulates and brings a clarity to the recipient’s own “use” and understanding of the principles.
Deep Touch is a deeper, longer lasting, energetic touch with time taken to visualise the underlying anatomy and be more fully aware of the reciprocal dynamics of two people in professional contact, in an embodied, sometimes visceral listening with the hands characterized by “non doing.” This may be resting the palm of the hand on someone’s back or belly, gradually inviting a deeper connection with the underlying tissues and a sense of depth in the hands - a quality of spacious awareness open to a wide range of information. Another example might be two students sitting together, one “sandwiching” the heart area of the other. The recipient is enabled to take the time to tune into the qualities of their own heart and breathing.
Deep touch clearly overlaps with healing/subtle energy work and cranio-sacral work (some AT teachers are familiar with both) and is at the therapeutic end of the AT spectrum of contact. Don would sometimes sit for some time holding the head of a student who was lying in semi-supine, listening with his hands for those deeper dynamics of space and subtle movement or restriction in the body, in bone, muscle, connective tissues, fascia, fluids or membranes.
Tuning In seems to be a particularly valuable Alexander skill and Don emphasised the need to give this enough time and attention. We were encouraged to stay with a spacious awareness in ourselves, to stay back, to breathe, to sense the space needed between us and around us, to clarify how we might negotiate a contact that didn’t crowd someone’s personal space. We learned to make an initial hand contact in a very non-doing way both mentally and physically, an open hearted enquiry into how the student was and to come fresh to that particular individual as a unique human being rather than a “student to whom we were going to teach AT principles.” We were encouraged to give each other feedback about this experience.
Another aspect of this “tuning in” was a real acknowledgement that everyone’s body holds two separate aspects - the long term imprint of their personal history but also their fluctuating sensory awareness in the present moment. The latter can be understood as a separate aspect of their “sense of themselves” operating in a different part of their brains. The kind of information that might arise resembles “dowsing”, a subtle intuitive “listening” for some sort of authentic contact.
This process might also indicate whether to offer a table turn or to start with movement and orientation in space, to assess whether to calm or energise the system, to ask a few questions. There is an obvious correlation with negotiation in a counselling session, which may involve paying close attention to a “felt sense of rightness.”
Unwinding. This is a more dynamic, definite, relatively “doing” form of hand contact with a clear intention to decompress the spine or open out limbs. It can be understood as work nearer to the therapeutic/physio end of the AT spectrum, between re-education and therapy. Don taught us how to unwind and facilitate slow releases of fascia which encloses every muscle fibre, muscle bundle, bone, ligament, tendon and organ and which is connected throughout the body. He likened this fascia to cling film which shrinks to accommodate the habitual range of movement in any area of the body.
One of the central characteristics of bipeds is the need to release the flexor muscles and decompress the body to allow the extensor muscles a better resting length which keep us balanced, upright, poised and open to life, like a small child. Crucially, the tendency of the flexor muscles to pull down is reduced so that the deep support postural muscles can have more room to work well. This very slow stretching and “directed” opening up of limbs or spine gradually realigns the body and invites a deeper state of neurological rest as well as a sense of how the limbs connect into and release from the back. It can also give a powerful felt experience of the warp and weft, of the long spiralling relationships of limbs to trunk, of different layers of muscle, and a fresh experience of being “more left alone.
This procedure requires a teacher to have very non-doing AT hands, while visualising the relevant anatomy and sensing patterns of restriction or inertia in a limb or the spine. Then, when those connections are established, releases already starting to happen can indicate what slow stretches or unwinding might be appropriate. This process requires a mixture of focused and diffuse attention.
Don taught students at a later stage of training to sense when it was appropriate to facilitate a longer period of release in a contracted area, to be aware of fascial and energic connections throughout the body.
Don taught me to visualise the spine of a person lying in semi- supine like a bridge that I could gradually lift up with two hands from its moorings at the base of the spine, scanning each section of the spine and feeling the degree of give, the elasticity, without overriding the spine’s capacity to open up. Decompression of the spine is quite addictive! – it feels wonderfully calming and releases both mental and physical tension while increasing kinaesthetic awareness of the back, neck and spine. Recent research on the thickening of fibrotic processes involved in decreased mobility where the layers of fascia and muscle do not glide so easily suggests this may be helped by sustained slow stretching.
Don taught a variety of overlapping approaches to making skilled hand contact. The three examples given emphasise different approaches to intention and attention.
MEDITATION AND DON’S WORK
Our training refined our awareness of the moment by moment transition from movement to stillness and vice versa. We started every day with lively physical activity of the kind that a child does naturally: running, darting around, rolling, shouting, stretching, getting our energy moving before we sat in meditation for 45 minutes. Many of us chose a kneeling position sitting on a pile of books. Don lead these sessions using a wide variety of imagery and language. Some were more focused visualisations based on anatomy and physiology, or on the breath. Others were focused on chakras, colours and subtle energy flow. He invited attention to whatever arose, physically, mentally or emotionally.
Here is a verbatim quotation from one of Don’s meditation sessions in June 1994:
“The first part of the meditative process is taking enough time to get in touch with your own wellbeing. Alexander’s idea of inhibition was really to allow enough time so that whatever happened next came from a place that was better organised. He described it very much in terms of neurological events, but in essence inhibition is a meditative process and to fully understand the potency of inhibition it really is necessary to use it as such – to practice it to the point at which this feeling of well-being arises within you simply because you have let go. You have taken enough time and created the right sort of conditions for the interferences at whatever level to just dissolve away”.
We learnt that “inhibition” could be understood using many phrases - stopping, pausing, taking space, taking time, resting attention in the present moment, returning to a sense of self, “taking refuge in our backs.” It could also be relevant to a wide variety of contexts – to brief moments in everyday life and for longer periods in semi-supine or meditation. This conscious awareness of stopping, “listening” with all our senses to ourselves and also to nature, to one’s surroundings, is amplified in meditation practice. It can give time and opportunity, once the body and breathing begin to settle, to develop conscious awareness of habitual, mental or emotional patterns and reactions.
Here is an approximate summary of one of Don’s more anatomical meditation sessions:
“Be aware of the weight of the head, 5 kilos or more, how the skull balances on the atlas, think of the roof of the mouth releasing upwards as a continuation of the spine. If you listen you can change the muscle tone of the whole body – listening and balance are closely connected. Relax the jaw muscles behind the ears and under the cheekbones. Take one step back in the mind, not in the forebrain but further back into the sensory part of the brain. Start by softening behind the eyes - this changes the facial expression – it opens the face. (It closes when people put attention into the frontal area). Be present with sensations for each bit of the body. Don’t visualise diagrams of the body. Drop anchor, take a back seat, find the breath, release armpits and collar bones, widen attention”.
Don talked about coming to rest and recuperating, being fed by the senses, finding our natural rhythms, including on a planetary level; he said that resting, meditating, was an act of moral, political, ecological and spiritual sanity.
Don thought that learning the skills of meditation was essential both for a deeper understanding of “inhibition” and for personal development. He also used these sessions as a way of reinforcing our knowledge of anatomy and physiology.
DON’S LEGACY TO THE AT PROFESSION
Don said he thought the AT became a practice and eventually a way of recapturing a wide awake multi-sensory listening to the environment, a capacity that must once have been part of human beings’ capacity for survival. He saw how sensory stimulation from the environment, particularly from nature, could cue the necessary “inhibition,” the stopping, the coming back to oneself, receptivity to the present moment.
Don’s capacity to “listen” with his hands and with the quality of his attention and his remarkable ability to convey this skill to his students seems a particularly important aspect of his legacy. I often spent time watching Don work on students; he was able to judge extremely accurately how much sensory and verbal stimulus a student could attempt to integrate and how he might engage their attention with this process.
He wanted his students to recapture some of the elasticity and instinctive desire for movement that most of us have as children. The training included crawling, rolling, stretching, Dart procedures, authentic movement, contact improvisation, anatomically related movement and various types of dance.
A crucial aspect of Don’s work was his realisation that when someone starts applying Alexander’s principles, they can appear superficially open but much of their underlying concerns, their physical and emotional history, their attitudes and assumptions will not be apparent. For some people there is a natural ability to come back to their sense of themselves, to stop with awareness, for others it’s a rather cold abstraction. He also saw that many people are too pulled down by their personal history, too “armoured” or uncoordinated or ungrounded for “inhibition and direction” to be much more than an externally imposed prescriptive technique, a “ papering over the cracks.”
So Don saw some of the work of Fellside School as a “pre–technique,” exploring how, with varying degrees of success, students’ physical, mental, emotional and energetic systems, including their nervous systems, might find a more reliable state.
In a present day world rather different from Alexander’s Don wanted this “pre–technique” work to be recognised as a vital pre-requisite to enable students to develop the trust, the open minded flexibility, the wide field of awareness and, in particular, the necessary precision and clarity with “direction and inhibition” that the Technique requires.
He saw that many students were “out of touch” with themselves and needed to “come to their senses,” in particular to reclaim and appreciate their kinaesthetic sense (noticeably devalued in our society and rather denigrated in some ways by Alexander!) before the classical bones of the Technique could really become embodied. He recognised that it is all too easy for the Technique to become a prescriptive mental straight jacket, an unquestioning allegiance to the Alexander “canon.”
He also saw that it was essential for students to have the opportunity to apply Alexander’s principles to many types of movements, activities and contexts such as voice work, performance, juggling, drawing, etc. and he drew on the expertise and differing teaching styles of many visiting teachers.
He said that the “ultimate skill we are teaching people is to leave themselves alone in a wide variety of situations and stimuli so that our primary control works well.” We were also encouraged to regularly stretch our attention, to “stay in our backs” but expand our awareness out into the room and to notice how this changed the quality of our hand contact.
Don was endlessly curious and creative about how to engage students’ interest in Alexander’s principles in their own lives and to convey the wider implications of the work. This non-dogmatic approach meant that we felt able to explore our own understanding and to eventually make the work our own, to find our own language. As a result I have never been bored with the Technique even after twenty-eight years of teaching.
Don’s legacy to the AT profession was his emphasis on “pre-technique” emotional and physical personal development work for trainees so they had better self knowledge and were less likely to be “papering over the cracks “when applying or understanding AT principles. He also expanded the spectrum of ways of understanding and of applying the Technique.
So nice to hear about Don again and the excellent work that he did. I found the blog most interesting. It is impossible to describe the experience of being in Don's presence or have him work on you, but I am very much reminded of how it felt. People coming to train in the technique inevitably, like the rest of us, bring emotional baggage from their lives so far and reconciling this baggage has to be the first step in training someone to work on others. I think that this is what Don saw that maybe others did not. Techniques from yoga and directed meditation rather than being a distraction all help to develop the person in order that they can go on to help others at a more fundamental level. I don't see the technique as being purely physical or even mind-body, but rather helping people to become more balanced and happier individuals. A far cry from what some see it as: 'quaky back therapy'. Of course, it is very difficult to get into someone's mind, so one can probably never be absolutely certain that they really are prepared to go out into the wider world and teach. I found Delia's training on Dart techniques very useful and still do them in supine. I also find the Alexander Technique invaluable when doing exercises, such as walking, going to the gym and yoga and doing these helps the Alexander work when I have a lesson, which I occasionally still do.
It is great to read your detailed memories of Don Burton. I attended him in Sunninghill in the late 1970's for about 10 private lessons. I benefited immensely from these lessons and even now some 40 years later when I develop muscular pains I get down on the floor and put into practice his teachings. I remember him with a warm smile on his face. I also remember him telling me that when working as a physiotherapist he was appointed the physio to the India cricket team that was touring England . He described in those days the members of the team as being extremely polite like little old gentlemen.
In subsequent years I have had a few AT lessons with other teachers but have always felt that somehow Don included something extra when I was receiving from him.
How refreshing and enlightening I found this.I have felt a bit bored and stuck lately as a teaching. this article as reminded me to exploring in life.I have recently got back to meditation as a daily practice and this as reassured me me in many aspects thank you so much Light Linda
Very well put! Thanks Chris for your memories and insight.
Yes, if we stop exploring we die! Its so easy to become stuck, in the name of freedom, as an AT teacher! (Although I guess that not many of us admit to this!!).