In the last couple of years I’ve found myself now and again sitting back-to-back with my Alexander Technique pupils. This is not a tool which I use very often, and by no means with everyone, but it can be a very powerful resource in the right situation and I thought I would share some of the ways I use it, and why I sometimes find it so helpful.
There are several reasons why this kind of work can be of benefit:
It can provide a very dynamic and rich form of feedback to people about the habits they have in the use of their back, and in how they interfere with their breathing.
It’s a very effective way to help people to experience what it is like to ‘come back’ and let go into dynamic support if they find this difficult.
It’s an effective but quite gentle way to give insight into habitual responses people might have around making contact with others, and to explore alternatives.
It is a very powerful way to work with the voice and with singing for people who are nervous or ashamed of vocalising.
Working back to back is potentially quite an intimate way of being with someone, so it’s essential that you and the pupil have been working together for some time, that there is a good degree of ease and trust between you and, most importantly, that you are clear the pupil does not have a habit of wanting to ‘please the teacher’, so is able to give an authentic ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as to whether or not they really want to do the exercise.
Feedback and habits
To work this way you need to have a fairly tall and firm cushion (a large, well-filled beanbag cushion works well). You sit back to back on this, both with crossed legs and, to begin with, the idea is simply to come together into a place where you are making gentle contact with your backs so that both can breathe freely and neither of you are leaning either forward or backwards, pushing against each other, or collapsing. This in itself can be a very interesting and revealing exercise, and it is quite easy to spend ten or fifteen minutes exploring in this way. It is potentially powerful because the pupil is getting a larger degree of contact with the teacher than in normal hands-on work, and so the ‘tuning’ of one system to the other is more noticeable. In addition, as a teacher you are getting a very direct contact with the pupil’s back and it’s surprising how much more you may notice about what they (and you) are up to.
What you really want here is a feeling of mutual discovery and exploration of the habits and habitual holdings which are getting in the way of you both just being in contact, upright and breathing freely. This will probably involve a bit of juggling of position, in particular finding a comfortable distance between your two pelvises, and looking at habits to do with applying unnecessary force into something we are leaning on, pulling down, and around breathing and holding the breath. There’s no need to rush any of this, and it can be surprising how rich it can be and how much can be discovered.
Being in support
This process can be particularly helpful for pupils who tend to find it difficult to release into the support of their own postural system. Often when pupils find this challenging it may be rooted in a fundamental feeling of lack of safety. For some this may have roots in very early life. Being ‘held’ as a young baby in a way that feels secure enough to fully release into gives the system the sense that life is safe and it’s OK to ‘let go’. In time this sense of trust will translate into the ease with which the developing child can learn to let go into the support of their own postural system rather than their parent’s. If this experience is compromised for some reason (perhaps because the parent is emotionally absent and withdrawing, or is themselves over-aroused and unable to let go and trust) then the person may later find it difficult to believe that it is fundamentally safe to let go into support of any kind.
In other cases it may be that people who did experience secure holding as an infant have experienced traumatic situations and experiences later in life which belied that early experience of safety, leaving them in a similar situation. But whatever the cause, back-to-back work can be particularly powerful with people who have a fundamental difficulty with letting go. It gives an adult-appropriate experience of supportive contact and co-regulation from another person which, though in a way quite intimate, also has a distance which makes it relatively unthreatening. It can give a feeling of really secure and safe contact and support without the person being ‘engulfed’ as they would be if being literally ‘held’, and so makes it easier to experiment with letting go into support and to breathe. In this way it can be a helpful ‘halfway house’ towards someone learning to let go into the support of their own postural system. I’ve found that a little bit of this kind of work can make a huge difference to some pupils very quickly
Habits of Connection and Disconnection
Another way of using back-to-back work is to explore habits and related emotions people might have developed around making contact with others. Are they tending to push against us and ‘lean’ on us? Do they shrink away from contact? Do they become rigid and unyielding? One good thing about this approach is we don’t have to psychoanalyse people, or try and convince them of anything, because the habits are expressing so obviously at a physical level. They can be clearly seen and talked about in a way which does not involve assumptions about meaning or causes on the part of the teacher. This makes it possible to straightforwardly discuss what may be going on for the pupil in relation to these habitual ways of responding. People are often very willing to explore such questions if we simply point out (while holding preconceptions in abeyance) what is happening and wonder what attitudes and feelings might lie behind it. If these become conscious it is often then much easier to say ‘no’ to the habit and experience a different way of reacting, because there is a much more multi-faceted, gestalt appreciation of what they are up to and why.
I’ve also found back-to-back work to be very useful when working with the voice, and particularly when working with those who find singing difficult or shaming. I tend to encourage most of my pupils to explore singing a bit (not everyone takes me up on the offer!) because it is such a direct form of self expression which makes the defensive habits we have around showing our ‘true selves’ quite apparent. Many people have been deeply shamed around using their voice to express and to make themselves heard, and find it difficult to make sounds which are an authentic expression of their inner world. Instead they will tend to tighten, shorten, close down and cut off. Working back-to-back has the advantage that there is a sense of someone being there, and of a supportive and holding presence, but no one is looking at them. Some people find this very liberating.
If someone is so shy of singing that they literally can’t make a sound when invited to do so (not at all uncommon) then we can start with humming on a single note and—to make it easier still—we can sing with them so they are less exposed and their expression of feeling is both mirrored and validated. In the process we can note with them how they may, for example, tend to interfere with their breathing, stiffen, pull down or away from us, or lose their connection to the ground. It’s often exhilarating how soon this kind of practice can end up with someone who was initially almost too shy to hum singing lustily along in an improvised duet! This kind of work can surprisingly quickly make significant changes to someone’s ability to express themselves while staying in support and connection.
A few pointers
If you choose to work this way with someone it’s important to have some consciousness about how you go about breaking the contact when you have finished. People can go quite deeply into themselves in this work, particularly where voice work is involved, and we need to appreciate that a connection has been made, and negotiate how, and how fast, we disengage. It’s a privilege to be permitted to connect with someone in this way, and it takes courage and vulnerability on the part of the pupil, and this needs to be acknowledged and taken into account at all times.
Finally, to reiterate, because sitting back-to-back is a relatively intimate way to be with someone it’s essential that there is an existing level of ease and trust with the pupil, and that you’re sure they are able to give a meaningful 'yes' or ‘no’ to the activity. Also, be aware that when it goes well this work is often a very nice and quite touching thing to do for both parties, and so it’s important to be very clear about our own needs and wishes around this sort of contact and to make sure that if you suggest it you are doing it for the pupil, for a specific reason, and not for yourself. As ever, doing some of this work in the pupil position before attempting it as a teacher, and thoroughly checking out our motivations with a neutral and skilled third party, is always a good idea.