Friday, December 19, 2014

so glad you asked

An old friend and Alexander Technique colleague, Bruce Fertman, sent me this video with an intriguing request – analyze the movement from an Aikido perspective. Bruce is comparing how differently trained people see movement.  I found this fascinating, and my answer continued to grow . . . so I thought it would live well on Riding Between Heaven and Earth.
Marj placed great emphasis on observing movement.  My involvement with horses and riding has given me a new appreciation of that aspect of her teaching. Marj was a horsewoman who raised and rode quarter horses on her ranch.  Now I understand how significantly that informed her Alexander Technique teaching.  My riding mentors are all extremely keen observers of movement.  But I have been asked to answer through the lens of Aikido.  My response looks at how much power is generated with the least amount of effort though use of the body as a whole and through a harmonious relationship with the tool.
I’m noticing how much body integration each worker seems to possess and how they are trying to maximize the effect of their effort; how energy is moving through them and their sledge hammers; what is their relationship to the tool they are using -- if they make it a natural extension of their movement or if they seem very separate from it.  All of them are standing in right hamni, the triangular stance used in Aikido and in Aikido weapons training.  The worker in the green hat is using himself in a manner closest to Aikido body movement.  He is the most efficient, initiating the movement from his center and allowing it to spiral up his torso through his arms. He is using the dropping of his center and maximizing the movement of his hip, knee and ankle joints, and his torso has a lot of integrity.  He maintains his vertical axis nicely -- he is not twisting himself off axis.  He allows his hip movement to swing the hammer back and behind him, which carries through as his arms raise over his head and he then lets the hammer drop with gravity, enhancing the effect of that with the timing of the dropping of his center, just slightly before the hammer strike. Sugano Sensei had this quality of timing in his bokken (wooden sword) cut.
“Green hat” also has the best ma-ai (distance) between his center and the center of the post.  The other workers’ distance appears not quite comfortable.  Possibly the different distances are necessary to coordinate the movements of the four of them.  The third worker from the right has to throw his hammer out forward to reach the post, which puts some extra stress on his upper body.  Green hat‘s efficiency means that he does not need to reposition his grip each time he swings the hammer. The worker to his right repositions his grip for each strike to create leverage with his upper body and arms against the hammer, but this means his upper body is taking more impact and also doing more work – he is actually lifting that heavy hammer with his arms for each swing – you can see his left elbow come away from his body creating the stressful relationship to his hammer.  The other two workers are focused on hitting with their upper bodies as well; the worker in the left front is at least moving his center laterally and using his large joints (like the rowing exercise in Aikido) which gives him some whole body power; however, his upper body has an energetic break mid-chest, as he is still overworking with his arms and upper body, so he dissipates some of the useful energy generated by the movement of his lower body.  He and the worker in the white hat are each tensing their upper back and neck against impact of the strike which indicates to me that they are using “hard eyes” or a narrowed field of vision, focusing a lot of effort on the end goal and slightly anticipating each impact.  I also notice that green hat’s efficiency with his body mechanics, timing and distance makes his striking seem slower and more spacious, even though I believe they are all striking at about the same actual speed.
So, the worker with the most ease, awareness and integration within his own body is able to work most efficiently. In Aikido this efficiency translates into the martial quality. The beauty of the movement is not separate from the effectiveness.
What an interesting opportunity to see four people’s unique relationship to the same activity! Thank you, Bruce, for asking my perspective. I suggest asking Gail Field to give an Alexander Technique/Centered Riding analysis, and Maria Katsamanis to talk about movement from a Classical Equitation context.

Friday, April 22, 2011

the other side

It has been over a year since I last shared anything here. Those who know me know something of the story but the gist of it is that I have passed through a time of deep sorrow and loss and have finally emerged to fully embrace life and learning again. Lots of knitting was accomplished this winter as I meditatively worked through my feelings, and more than a few horses have carried me as I cried -- they have taken especially good care of their trembling rider.
Springtime is bringing many riding opportunities, Centered Riding® clinics, study groups, a new Finding Harmony with your Horse session at Lord Stirling. Annelie and I are attending Feldenkrais and Franklin Method (with Eric Franklin!) workshops, and spending time together pursuing our many common interests. and I’m fully back on the aikido mat and doing a lot more Alexander Technique teaching. My daughter and her husband have moved to New York! You can hear her lovely coloratura soprano voice on the blogger site I just created for her: Maya's Arrival.
So, I’m looking forward to tending my digital garden here at RBHE again, now that I have come out on the other side – of life.
Theo, the biggest horse I have ridden so far, terrified me with his ground behavior, only to show me that, as promised by his owner, he is a perfect gentleman under saddle and truly a gentle giant!

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

on the radio

A few weeks ago I was down in Hickory, North Carolina for a Centered Riding® clinic with Robin Brueckmann and a few extra days of horse immersion at the invitation of my friend, the fabulous, fearless and funloving Miss Dana Dewey, founder of Foothills Equestrian Center. I also visited Aikido of Charlotte and taught a couple of classes at the gracious invitation of Sensei Dennis Main and his senior student Jonathan Weiner who subsequently interviewed me for their web radio program.

I thought I would consciously avoid incorporating anything at all about horse riding, as I know that I often get carried away with that -- but of course, I couldn’t quite resist.

Listen to the interview HERE.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

sharing a center

So many titles surfaced -- you can take your pick – it takes two / two as one / seamless / mobius / give and take / giving weight / pouring weight / follow the weight / the flow of weight / flow the weight / the shifting of the weight.

Weight, momentum, inertia and what happens in relation to these forces when one moving body comes into contact with another moving body forms the basis for an art form called Contact Improvisation. I was fortunate to have Alexander Technique students who were teaching it when I first came to New York. Created by a modern dancer who was also an aikidoist, it is an improvised exploration of bodies in motion. Sometimes more interesting to experience than to watch, it has influenced post modern dance and the sensitivity training of young dancers for over 30 years. It is also an evident influence on the choreography of the most famous ice dancing couple ever, Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean.

A couple of summers ago, my horse riding friend, Annelie, visited the USAF Summer Camp where she bravely got on the mat with me and had her first experiences of the art of aikido. She had a rather unique approach to learning which involved asking me repeatedly, ‘where should my weight be now?’ A lot of people want to know where to place their feet or what to do with their arms, but Annelie always wanted to know where to shift her weight. Sometimes I had to go through the movement several times myself before I could answer her – my unconscious competence carried me through the techniques without too much analysis after so many years of repetition, but her questions led me to a new perspective.

The more I learn about riding horses, the better I understand why she approached this learning experience based almost solely on what happened to the weight in her body – did it shift forwards, or backwards, and at which moments did it change? She knew instinctively that the quality, location and movement of the weight through her body, down through her legs and feet was fundamental to what we were trying to accomplish in aikido, just as it is in horse riding. I thought about this for months afterwards and spent a lot of time on street corners and subway platforms and also on aikido mats and yes -- even on the back of a horse while riding -- experimenting with the shifting of my weight and also the accepting of weight through my bones.

The aspect of the interaction shown above which is most interesting to me is the progressive blurring of the boundaries between the two skaters as they mirror and then match each other’s movement, gradually closing the distance and eventually each maintaining their own perfect integrity of self while both giving and receiving weight. I watch the dance over and over, invariably swaying in my seat, following the hypnotic path of the weight which they expertly funnel back and forth between them. What happens during those rare moments when two become more like one? This is what continues to intrigue me about the art of horse riding, as well as aikido and other artistic forms involving partnering.

Now in the midst of the Winter Olympics, it’s timely to share this clip and some of the myriad impressions it evokes in me. If you have the patience to watch through the rather long introductory section you will be richly rewarded. In this performance filmed during their professional career, they push the artistic envelope, having the freedom to leave some of the rules and restrictions of competition behind.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

fascinating rhythm

The giant metronome in the sky – that’s how I came to think of the incessant and precisely regular sound. It would have been maddening, except for the fact that it seemed to pulse at a tempo perfectly suited to the trotting gait of the horse I was riding that evening -- another lovely autumn night in the outdoor ring. Clear and not too cold, it was apparently also perfect for the local marching band practicing somewhere off in the distance, using an amplified electronic metronome to keep them in step.

Well, of course, I knew rhythm to be important in riding and horse training but that evening I had a very tangible experience of the effect of regularity, repetition and consistency on both my horse and myself. I found it impossible to keep from posting the trot to the beat of the metronome. So after my initial resistance, thinking ‘when will that infernal pounding stop!?’ I surrendered and noticed how happily Knickers seemed to be ticking along, dropping his head slightly, blowing out and shaking himself like a big dog, quickly settling down to trot easily around the ring. We both became somewhat mesmerized and I found that soon I hadn’t a care in the world.

The experience stayed with me and in my musician’s heart I began to ponder the significance of rhythm – a concept I had come to take for granted throughout many years of musical training. I started questioning some of my musical friends, particularly those who play jazz and Latin music, I pulled out all of my various dressage and horse training books and began to think about rhythm – in music and in horse riding, soon finding more complexity than I first imagined.

Rhythm is a vibrational phenomenon, and it exists at many levels and across time scales. Some say that our relationship to rhythm is established in our mother’s womb as we are literally immersed in the beating of her heart. Throughout our lives we experience layer upon layer of rhythms and cycles from the rising and setting of the sun, the phases of the moon, and the turning of the seasons. From the micro to the macro level, rhythm makes time apparent to us.

So, rhythm includes periodicity and regularity, contains the element of tempo, can create shape, is predictable -- the feeling of knowing what is coming next allows for relaxation. I have the rhythm of my work day, my week, the rhythm of an hour’s aikido class or a weekend intensive seminar. These days I also have the regular structure of a riding lesson – a similar progression from preparation, warm up, through gradually more demanding movements, including periods of greater and lesser intensity, ending with a winding down to walk on a long rein, halt and dismount. Like a musical phrase, a song or a symphony, a short story or a novel – each has a certain form and tempo, a rhythmic framework.

Our rhythmic sense should be completely natural and inherent, yet not everyone seems to be able to express it equally well, to “tap into it,” to “go with the flow.” If rhythm is so closely connected to relaxation, then it certainly makes sense that tension is the enemy of rhythm. Any method for releasing excess tension, whether through the Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, meditation or constructive rest, allows us more access to this quality we all seem to crave: the pulse which has the ability to mesmerize and enthrall and which in turn puts us even further at ease.

The subject is deep and broad and all-encompassing and its application, especially in horse riding and training, so integral, I am quite certain that “I do not know what I do not know” – you know what I mean -- but it is so irresistibly fascinating that it must be explored.

And, what could seemingly illustrate rhythm more perfectly than – tap dancing! Ring in the New Year with this over-the-top number as Eleanor Powell dances to…what else – Fascinatin' Rhythm! Fortunately, even the low resolution film quality cannot disguise the precision of her body mechanics. Note her ability to isolate body parts, the easy poise of her head and if you wonder how she can move and lift her legs without disturbing her overall coordination – it’s the psoas (core strength) muscle. Enjoy!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

the maestro

"Equestrian art is the perfect understanding and harmony between horse and rider."
--Nuno Oliveira
Enraptured, I watched in amazement, and could only feel that this must be the epitome, the ultimate expression of equestrian artistry -- its complete embodiment. Nuno Oliviera (1925 – 1989) personifies effortless elegance in this rare footage from his earlier years. Horse and rider are seamlessly inseparable – he transcends their duality, creating a palpable demonstration of oneness. Where does one being end and the other begin?
The creation which results is it seems greater than either could achieve alone – the horse has become a willing partner, allowing the man to experience a physicality impossible without his mount. And while a horse’s movements at liberty are undeniably beautiful, somehow the rider is able to draw out and reveal to us unimagined potentials in the horse. Their synergy positively takes our breath away.
The caption of the video “travail d'un cheval” or “work with a horse” describes not a choreographed artistic performance but rather the patient, precise and utterly consistent process of communication by a master training a pupil. The addition of the wonderfully complementary musical track may enhance the aesthetic impact, yet as I watch again in silence I find it even more magical. This masterful rider seems able to place the center of himself lower than his physical body, somewhere inside the horse – creating the effect of the mythical centaur.
What is he actually doing, I feel desperate to understand -- he is leading and following at the same time! How is he able to do this? I sense an utter absence of muscular willfulness, an infinite patience and what must be great sensitivity to every nuance of the horse’s response. And, sure enough, I perceive not just the rider’s spine but his whole head and torso being used as a tool with energy directed both upwards and downwards, and often in both directions at the same time. As I watch I feel a vague kinesthetic resonance in myself – we all must have had certain experiences -- pure and unfettered, at some point before we began accumulating our many habits of movement and reaction.
The riding is really just too exquisite – I soften inside, release my preoccupation with understanding how, and surrender to the sheer ecstasy of simply knowing that someone has lived who experienced this depth of understanding and this relationship with horses.
Apparently, as he worked, Maestro Oliviera often listened to arias from the operas he so loved – the Italian masters Verdi or Puccini. Watch the footage above with and without the soundtrack and you will find all the qualities of musical expression even in silence: lyricism, drama, the dynamic shaping of a phrase through accumulation of energy and its release, rhythm and tempo, and of course harmony, and even – harmonic dissonance! Do you sense it?Click HERE to view another much shorter video clip of this incredible master.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

a moving stillness

When did I begin to pay attention to what being a “quiet” rider means? It seems fairly recent, but seeds are always sown well ahead of the bloom. Of course, I have heard the quality praised over and over again – this rider has a quiet seat, this one quiet hands, this one a quiet presence -- but with so much else to learn and to “do,” apparently it took some time before I was ready to reflect on what quiet really means – to me, and to my horse.
Late August, Gail Field’s annual Centered Riding Clinic out at Lord Stirling Stable, my only written notes state: “DO NOTHING, learn to surrender to the horse. First do nothing – any tension or holding tells the horse something.” Hummmmm.
Early October, ah yes, there was that particularly vivid experience at Mio Morales’ weekend intensive Alexander Technique workshop. Sitting “still” in our seats, we practiced what became a kind of meditation – we gently and repeatedly brought our attention to the possibility of ease in our head/neck area. The ease ebbed and flowed with our awareness, and I was freshly reminded how much subtle movement is really taking place as we simply sit on our chairs. How interesting and refreshing it was to turn down the extraneous “noise” of excess tension and unnecessary movement. Hummmmm.
Next, a wonderful article by Elizabeth Reese, “The Alexander Technique and Classical Equitation” really got me thinking about what I have been telling my horse as I sometimes fidget around, trying to find just the right organization of myself as I ride. A few choice quotes:
* “. . . any action that the rider does make can [should] be both intentional and momentary.”
* “We must first find a place of quiet listening in order to act. Without listening, all of our actions are really reactions.”
* “The rider needs to discover a neutral place where she or he is not interfering with or disrupting the horse’s balance.”
November, Aikido Winter Camp in Florida: the image of Shibata Sensei’s “calm-before-the-storm” way of being. We quickly came to know that without any discernible movement or clue he could in a split second somehow draw an unsuspecting attacker into the center of the action. This produced a profound sense of aliveness on the mat -- magical in a way. You never knew where he would appear and you never quite knew what to expect. He captured our attention, with his quietness. His movements seemed to carry even more impact as they emerged out of a calm stillness. Hummmmm.
And periodically throughout the autumn I visited philosophical realms with “Dressage in the Fourth Dimension” written by Dr. Sherry Ackerman, a professor of philosophy who is also a dressage rider. An excerpt on sacred geometry:
“All movement begins with its antithesis, immobility. The dot, in ancient cosmologies, represented universal consciousness – the source of all things . . . in . . . dressage, we participate in the dot through the fully engaged halt. We sit, perfectly motionless in poised collection . . . as long as we do not disturb the collection, the horse remains prepared . . . for instantaneous movement in any direction . . . we sit in a stream of consciousness: the motion of immobility.”
So, lately when I get on a horse, or step onto the aikido mat, or find myself in a crowded subway or on a congested New York City street, I am very interested in the component of stillness within the activity -- how to be still without becoming tense. How does my presence affect my horse, or my training partners on the mat? Do others become more manageable or react differently to me when I stay quietly in touch with my center? Where is the neutral place where harmony begins? Hummmmm.
Shown above, Annelie sits quietly connected to the canter of one of the largest horses I have seen her ride, an enormous Cleveland Bay she rode at his owners request at the Centered Riding Clinic at Thorncroft Therapeutic Riding Center. She recently attempted to describe to me the sense of stillness that is possible on a beautifully moving horse; apparently you feel that you are doing nothing, but in reality there is a lot going on!