Several days before Yom Kippur my cell phone rang. On the other side of the line I heard the voice of Naomi, Yitzhak’s mother. After an exchange of greetings she asked that we meet in
– she, her husband, me and my wife. I agreed with pleasure. Jerusalem
Yitzhak had been drafted into the army and was already finishing up boot camp. Naomi and Baruch had always had a special manner of thanking me for the work I had done with their son. They touched my heart and the more the acquaintanceship grew, the more I appreciated them. This feeling of gratitude and appreciation was mutual. They had taught me about determination. They had taught me about that very characteristic which I spoke so often about, even preached about, and which they themselves lived with gentleness and modesty – a characteristic I call the ‘role of parents’ as a condition that enables work with children. Their trust in the Alexander process, their determination to persist for years, the gratitude which they expressed by small gestures of attention and Naomi’s active participation in Alexander lessons – all these turned Yitzhak's story into a success proving that positive changes in the life of a child are possible.
We met on Friday.
‘Yitzhak wants to speak with you,’ said Naomi immediately after we sat down. Baruch dialed Yitzhak’s number on his cell phone. I spoke with him for several minutes. He sounded quiet and self-confident, in control of his situation and coping courageously with the difficulties of the army.
I thought about the fact that the story of my work with Yitzhak contained both the central themes that I am trying to describe here in my book and also the principles of Alexander technique according to which I work with children. Yitzhak’s story contains an aspect of rehabilitation – both physical and emotional – and it contains an educational aspect as I understand the term ‘education.’
It talks about acquiring the tools of consciousness and understanding, about the student’s free decision to use them for his personal good and about a dialogue with the world. His story contains the active intervention of parents, and it contains great mutual affection between teacher and pupil.
‘When did I begin to work with Yitzhak?’ I asked Naomi, as soon as I had ended the phone conversation. She smiled. ‘Seven years ago. Don’t you remember? The school counselor referred us to you.’ I remembered. It all began with a telephone conversation. Naomi had phoned me and told me about her son, age eleven.
Yitzhak had been born with a club foot. In the course of several years he had four operations to straighten the foot. The operations succeeded; the foot straightened almost completely. The doctors believed that one more operation was needed but Naomi decided to try an alternative treatment. The difficulty, she emphasized in her phone call, was Yitzhak’s severe limp. Although the operations had succeeded, Yitzhak’s walking had not improved, his limp was even worse. We made an appointment.
In my first meeting with Yitzhak, I found him to be friendly and pleasant. It was easy to make a connection with him, and he enjoyed the attention I gave him. He limped badly, dragged his feet and rocked from side to side as he walked. His movements showed lack of coordination and weakness.
As my acquaintance with Yitzhak continued, I discovered that he had learning difficulties: arithmetic, reading and other subjects. In addition he suffered from attention disorder and was treated with Ritalin. The school was planning to move him to a special education framework but Naomi opposed this strongly.
I recommended that Yitzhak receive two lessons a week. My work plan included strengthening his movement by improving the daily movements (getting up from a chair, sitting, walking) and also blending the Alexander Technique into those studies that were hard for him in school: arithmetic, reading and writing.
In the first lesson it was already clear to me that Yitzhak not only enjoyed our shared work in the Technique, but he truly understood with a child’s intuition that our work would open to him a way to rehabilitate himself. He was decisive in his desire to come to our meetings and to cooperate with me. He was ready to try the new, to study and to develop.
Positive changes began slowly, subtly, but as a clear and stable process. His walking rocked less; he nearly stopped dragging his feet; his balance improved and his back straightened. The school also began to notice that Yitzhak was quieter, more focused, participated in lessons and began advance in his studies.
Yitzhak’s intensive work continued for two years. Afterwards we continued to meet once a week and later from time to time with lessening frequency. His limp nearly disappeared; he stopped the Ritalin.
In parallel to Yitzhak’s lessons, his mother received one lesson a week. She participated fully in the process, interested in the Technique both for her son and herself. The understanding she acquired created optimal conditions for working with Yitzhak and aided his rehabilitation. Work in the Alexander Technique creates a subtle awareness of the body and a new language between a man and his body, between a man and himself. When this language is shared by members of the family, a synergy of strength develops, creating conditions which strengthen the entire family.
It was Friday morning and we were still sitting together. The conversation was lively; the atmosphere, warm and friendly. Without it being mentioned, there was a feeling of summarizing, the end of an era. I understood that my role as care-giver and educator had ended. I released a deep breath of happiness mixed with a light sadness. I felt proud, and a little worried, but I was full of confidence that Yitzhak and his family were on the right road.
The idea guiding work with families
In parallel to my individual work with children, I relate to them also as part of a wide circle of family including, most importantly, their parents. Not only is it the child who is disappointed of himself because he cannot meet the expectations adults have hung on him. Many parents who speak with me also feel disappointed. Often they, too, have been hurt; their trust has been hurt, the trust they had in care givers, in the possibilities for their child and in their own ability to help him.
I look at them. They look at me and at their child.
What are they thinking about?
What are they feeling?
I try to get to know them, to have an impression of them, to feel. What are they saying? What does their body language say?
I say to them in my way: ‘Observe. Ask. Don’t work from blind faith, but don’t refuse without understanding as well. Take part in the process. I’m not hiding anything. I have no tricks, no magic, no professional secrets or short cuts.’
I invite them to join the process of trial and error, repair and renewal, freedom and direction. I explain my method of work to them and the principles behind my work, and I guide them in that area which Alexander called ‘The use of the child by himself.’ I explain to them the new terms of the Alexander Technique: direction, primary control, sensory appreciation, giving directions, and such, and I demonstrate on their child and on themselves what I mean by these terms. In this way I give them my message of shared work and cooperation, cooperation between them and their child, between them and me.
My work offers changes. It teaches children to do what they want to do in a new way, and later they are asked to live this change also outside the work room. The children have, of course, personal responsibility for themselves and for the change that comes to them from the work, but at the same time they are a part of a wider system of family and society. From this comes the great importance I give to the condition that the child’s close environment, and in particular his family, understand the processes that are affecting him, in both theory and practice, and know how to contain these processes so as to support the child. It is important that the parents, or at least one of them, receive practical lessons in the Technique. Without their own practical experience it is impossible to truly understand their child’s experience
The basic, immediate and natural wish of every parent is to help their child, especially whenever there is any problem, such as back pains, difficulties in writing or a curved spine. However, occasionally parents are unaware of the importance of the way in which they help.
The great contribution that they can make to help their child lies first of all in the work that they do on themselves. Only when they do this work seriously and honestly have they the possibility of establishing a supporting dialogue between themselves and their child.
Parents have an enormous influence on their child from the day of its birth. They are the example their child copies, and from them he learns the most basic, primary matters. Among these basic matters is the way their child uses himself. For example: a father’s particular style of walk can be clearly seen in the walk of his son or daughter; a mother’s special tilt of her head can be recognized in her son or daughter.
Sometimes parents forget or they don’t properly appreciate the power of personal example, one of the most significant powers in education. A father who smokes has vast difficulties persuading his son not to do as father does. A mother who suffers from lower back pain should not wonder if her daughter develops similar pain.
So, parents are the model to copy and from a very young age children integrate their parents’ habits, for good or for bad. Therefore, when a parent asks me, ‘What can I do to help my child?’ I suggest that he begin to create consciously a change for the good in his own use of himself. When the parent improves consciously his use of himself, he changes his unconscious, harmful influence on his child to a conscious, positive and beneficial influence without any direct effort from the child.
Occasionally I run up against parents who believe that if they only sit and observe the lessons without taking lessons themselves, they will understand what I am talking about. Parents who observe a lesson and have no training themselves will see a child who sits straight and comfortably in a chair and plays. Usually at the end of the lesson they say to their child: ‘From today, you’ll begin to sit straight, just as Gal showed you.’ for that is what they think they have seen. Of course, they say this because of their lack of understanding, because of their desire to help, certainly not from any desire to harm, but such words may accomplish exactly the opposite of their desire. They may create unnecessary tension in their child, who cannot yet control by himself his new use. They may also create unnecessary tension between the parents and their child, for the child feels that he does not live up to his parents’ expectations. This tension can arouse the child’s opposition to the Technique and to what is happening in our meetings.
I never ask a child to ‘sit straight’. A wall or a floor is meant to be straight, but a back has naturally a kind of S shape, and is not meant to be ‘straight’. A back is meant to be in a constant subtle movement of lengthening and widening. The child’s upright sitting is the active result of his improving use. My advice to the parents of a child who studies the Alexander Technique is, first, there is no homework and, second, no need to tell the child, ‘Sit straight’ or to give any other order. If parents follow this advice, they will save themselves a frustrating struggle. Helping their child is actually a total impossibility for the child doesn’t yet know how to do what they are telling him to do.
Second, I suggest that they take some Alexander lessons, so that they acquire understanding, both theoretical and practical, of the Technique. When parents want their child to become stronger, it is better that they first become stronger. With their own process of inner strengthening, their child will also strengthen. The parents of a child with difficulties must take an active part in his change, as it is first of all their own inner change. Through the process of change that they undergo, they will themselves be an active part in the processes their child undergoes; they can become themselves a model and an inspiration for him to copy.
These words are just as true regarding education and preparation for a healthy and balanced life. When a parent acquires basic knowledge related to the way he uses himself, he is able to guide and support his child exactly as he teaches him to speak properly or to eat with a knife and fork at the table.