The Shape of Awake: An Interview with Hope Martin
We recently spoke with Hope Martin who has taught the Alexander Technique for 32 years, trained Alexander teachers for decades at the American Center for the Alexander Technique, and operates Hope Martin Studio in New York City. She is a meditation instructor and a Focusing trainer. She has also been Pema Chodron’s cook and attendant for 25 years. Read this article about Hope’s work at one of Pema’s retreats.
New York Open Center: It’s wonderful that you apply the Alexander Technique to meditation practice. People have so much trouble with the physical challenges of sitting when they meditate. What can participants expect when they learn the Alexander Technique in your class?
Hope Martin: In my class I will give meditation instruction. The class is recommended for both beginner and seasoned meditators. About half the class time is devoted to meditation practice with an emphasis on finding bodily ease during the practice. During those practice sessions, I quietly go around the room doing hands-on work with each participant while they meditate, helping them find more balance, ease and non-striving in the practice and a fuller experience of their bodies. Meditators with all levels of experience report that their practice really deepens by being fully embodied with less tension as they practice.
The second half of class is devoted to the application of the Alexander Technique to everyday activities such as walking, bending, picking up things, climbing stairs and sitting at your computer.
Participants will learn about themselves and their responses. They will learn to settle their nervous systems, to stop trying so hard, to befriend themselves and to contact their body’s wisdom operating beneath their habits both on the meditation cushion and in the activities of their lives.
New York Open Center: What exactly is the Alexander Technique?
Hope Martin: The Alexander Technique teaches us to notice how we live in our bodies and to become sensitive to unconscious postural and movement patterns that interfere with our innate poise, ease and equilibrium. Our habits are always expressing themselves, but they are below our radar, even though we may live with the result of them: chronic pain, tight shoulders, etc. The process is communicated through a teacher’s verbal and gentle hands-on guidance, but ultimately teaches us how to be our own teacher and apply the principles for ourselves.
Alexander is not a series of exercises, but rather a re-education of the body and mind, based on awareness. Our birthright is to be upright, expansive, resilient and open. Throughout our lives, we develop habits that interfere with these qualities. Getting to know our habits and learning to let go of the constriction and holding allows a reorganization of the body-mind which is natural, light, expansive, yet grounded.
It is a sophisticated approach. Instead of doing more, we’re encouraged to let go of what we’re doing that gets in our way. The basis of it is to learn to stop trying to change, which always results in working hard and pushing. Pushing does not result in the freedom we are after. So there’s an emphasis on letting the nervous system rest, getting to know our habits and then letting them unwind through an indirect approach that is initiated by the re-balance of the head on the spine.
When we get out of the way, we access the balanced organization that is inherent in our human design; we access our postural reflexes. If we constantly push, we never find true change. We just substitute one habit (the heavy, slumpy habit) for another (the rigid stiff habit). If we employ habits to change habits we stay stuck in known outcomes.
The approach is training for all aspects of our lives–creative pursuits, relationships, our jobs, our meditation practice!
New York Open Center: You specialize in teaching your work to meditators. Why?
Hope Martin: I love teaching the Alexander Technique to meditators and helping them get more balanced on their cushions. The process brings tremendous ease to sitting.
The view is similar to meditation: Alexander teaches us to be aware of how we interfere with our inherent organization, and how to access the ease and openness that is already there underneath the holding patterns. Similarly in meditation we notice how we interfere with our inherent capacity to be awake and fully present and we train in returning to that state again and again.
Meditators are easy to work with. They are ripe for tuning into their body/mind connection and tend to have a lot of sensitivity because they are used to being with themselves and watching their own process.
Applying Alexander to meditation deepens the practice. When you’re upright, supported and at ease, you have direct contact with your life in the present moment. Our tendency to sink and be preoccupied with our thoughts, or to be overly rigid and held in our practice, is a way of interfering with a fluid, dynamic quality of presence. When you come back to the present moment with an awareness of letting go of holding patterns and inviting the balance and ease of your body, there is subtle flow and movement that expresses being alive and that invites a personal, direct experience of impermanence. By not fixing or freezing experience, you are present right now.
The Alexander process is unspecialized – it is meant to be applied to everything we do. I find that my students who learn it in the context of meditation are more able to extend it into their everyday lives. There’s less outside stimulation in meditation and that’s a good basis for learning the process and then taking it into activities that require more engagement with the world such as working at your computer, walking down the street, cooking dinner, running a marathon, playing a musical instrument or having a meeting with your boss.
New York Open Center: What attracted you to this practice?
Hope Martin: I discovered the practice by auspicious coincidence in a life drawing class in art school in my early twenties. I took some Alexander lessons and was amazed by how profound the work was for me. I really needed to enter my body, to let my nervous system settle and find the ground underneath me.
For the first time in my life I was getting to know myself. The body orientation is what made meditation possible for me when I discovered it ten years later. I needed to find the trustworthiness of my own experience and this was a means for doing that in a gentle form that spoke to me.
Click here for upcoming programs with Hope Martin.