Sunday, 02 December 2012 07:57

Learn more about the Alexander Technique

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Enlightenment is not some special state of mind

The state you are in when you have 'right posture' is itself Enlightenment. 

These are the words of Suzuki Roshi, the foremost interpreter of Zen for the West, speaking to a group of close students some 25 years ago..

Clearly Suzuki Roshi is not referring to some mechanically correct body position when he speaks of 'posture'. He is actually professing to his students his profound confidence in the unity of mind and body. His message is, that though they may not appear identical on every level, mind and body are intimately and inextricably interwoven and interdependent aspects of the unified whole.

We find ourselves however in a culture and historical era where 'mind' has come to be regarded as separate from and senior to 'body', and although the mind is quite fascinated by such concepts as mind\body unity it is rarely willing to surrender its superior position. 

Historically we have some of the great minds of our civilization to thank for this predicament. St. Augustine, embellishing Plato's ideas of eight centuries earlier, argued eloquently for a dogma of salvation through transcendence of the 'profane' body.

Christian theology prior to this was basically holistic (holy) and the Old Testament is abundant with lines like; "they stiffened their necks so they would not hear the words of the Lord" ( Jeremiah 17:23) suggesting an understanding of 'bodymind' unity. The philosophical surgery excising mind from body was completed in the seventeenth century by Rene Descartes. His proclamation, "I think, therefore I am", made a telling epitaph on the tombstone of wholebeing.  


Alexander's Discovery

Late last century F.M. Alexander, himself a product of this polarized culture, developed certain physical symptoms which were to propel him on a journey of discovery and teaching spanning over 50 years. In the process of seeking a cure for the recurrent voice loss that had plagued his acting career, he began to realize that his problems: "were not primarily due to defects in the use and associated functioning of the parts of the organism most immediately concerned, but were the indirect result of defects in my general use of myself which were constantly lowering the standard of my general functioning, and harmfully influencing the musculature of the whole organism."

In recognizing the "close connection between the processes of use and functioning which worked from the whole to the part" F.M. Alexander was meeting head on the cultural conviction, by now so finely woven into the fabric of society as to be virtually invisible, that held mind to be separate from body. He now realized that it was this belief itself, held within his body as a complex of neuro- muscular patterns, which was causing his health problems. 

After a long journey of self-experimentation, he succeeded in distilling this insight into a practical method, of exquisite simplicity, to gradually restore the integrity of his being. The changes in his health and demeanor were apparent to acquaintances whose requests for assistance inspired him to find a way to teach his discoveries to others. 

Many benefited from his teaching and as his work progressed, and was refracted through the perceptions of certain of his pupils, notably Aldous Huxley, G.B.Shaw and the American educator/philosopher John Dewey, Alexander came to appreciate more fully its philosophical resonances. 

However this recognition never tempted him into abstraction in his teaching methods. His teaching continued to involve the individual's moment-by- moment awareness and choice. He taught his pupils how to notice the moment when habitual attitudes or movement patterns interfered with the natural coordination (which he called 'use') of mind and body. He showed them how over-concern with results, which he called 'ends', caused them to abandon good 'use' in favor of unconscious inappropriate effort. 

He taught verbally and with refined manual guidance how to suspend the habitual way of performing an activity, be it breathing, threading a needle or conducting an orchestra, maintaining the primacy of the dynamic relationship between head neck and back. By suspending the habitual reaction to a given stimulus, a process that Alexander called 'inhibition', his pupils learned how to hold the intentional pursuit of a goal within a matrix of constructive means. Gradually, under these favorable conditions, good 'use' was found to re-establish itself.

T.S.Eliot describes this process in the almost scriptural lines: 

I say to you: make perfect your will.
I say: take no thought of the harvest,
but only of proper sowing.


We've heard the likes of this before though, only to have it become just another nice idea to amuse the mind. What Alexander discovered was a method of teaching which, by addressing the mind and body as a unified whole, made it more than an idea. He found he could communicate the principals through a refined manual guidance, informed by his own 'use'. 

He attended to his own 'means', suspending any tendency to directly pursue his goal of helping his pupil: he 'made perfect' his 'will', and took 'no thought of the 'harvest'. 

He entrusted the harvest to something he on occasion referred to as "the unknown origin", or in characteristically less mystical terms, "the total pattern of response".

To see that this 'total pattern' is more than some remote ideal state, one needs only to observe a healthy infant. While absorbed in exploring a fascinating new world an infant's whole system is available - eyes, neck, back, limbs a concerted whole.  There's no fixing of the breathing no undue contraction of neck and back muscles. The habits that result in poor use have not yet become fixed in the infant's psychomotor system, so that although her motor skills are relatively undeveloped, she is naturally balanced and coordinated. 

How is our natural good use lost?

F.M. Alexander wrote about the causes of our diminished 'use' mainly from a sociological perspective regarding it as a by-product of the civilizing process itself.. For a more specific understanding it is helpful to turn to contemporary psychology. Theories on ego formation explain the dynamics involved in the formation of core habits that eventually fragment us and separate us from our inherent coordination of mind and body. 

It could be said that the ego is the sum of our habits constellated into a cohesive entity, which we soon come to regard as our essential selves. But for all its attractions the ego really isn't the essence of who we are. It is a construct designed during our earliest years to defend us against perceived threat, or compensate for perceived lack. 

The following example of the process of ego formation is related by Hameed Almaas, the founder of the Diamond Approach: "a baby may begin to experience a lack of proximity with her mother. When the satisfying symbiotic union with mother disappears for any reason, the resultant pain may be too shattering for the baby to bear. Eventually she learns not to feel the loss and emptiness. She learns to withdraw energy from those parts of her neuro-muscular system which are feeling pain. She reduces her consciousness of these areas and replaces the experience of somatic aliveness with all kinds of emotions beliefs and fantasies. Over time these become encapsulated in the unconscious, showing up in later life as attitudes, mannerisms and traits."

In this cameo of early childhood, Almaas is describing a highly simplified version of the kinds of circumstances nurturing certain aspects of ego formation and the neuro-muscular complexes by which it becomes established.

Eventually of course the ego becomes enormously intricate, rich and self-sustaining, holding court in every aspect of our lives. It is to be respected nevertheless, not only because it was our saviour in the overwhelming innocence of our early lives, but more importantly because, as Almaas and others have suggested, it is redolent with memories of our essence, of our selves as wholebeings. 


Ego on the Spiritual Path

The ego structures are of course especially vigilant in our spiritual endeavors which are to a great extent about entering and passing through the very domain from which the ego was designed to protect us - the domain of our wounded innocence. In this respect our woundedness itself is the gateway to our essential nature. 

So, to bring life to our wholebeing, it is necessary to dis-identify from the carefully constructed fantasy life of the ego and experience the wounded condition of our neuromuscular system. It is through the experience of our true condition that deep healing can begin, and we can enter the spiritual path with compassion and respect for ego which is now to become our servant/ally - no longer savior/master. This is rarely an easy alliance. 

As usual with new relationships trust grows slowly. The old habits die hard. Ego is there with us on our meditation cushion, frightening us and seducing us. Urging us to try harder! It even insists that we must eliminate our ego in the quest for enlightenment - anything to distract us from this precious moment. Anything to 'protect' us from the simple authenticity of 'right posture'. 

In Spiritual work we are engaged in the process of increasing our capacity to perceive, tolerate, accept and eventually celebrate the energy in our systems, and the system at large. The more we can stabilize ourselves in a spacious and grounded condition, the less reactive our ego structures will be, and the more we will be open to the potential of the present moment. F.M. Alexander's work and his gift to us is a completely practical technique to encourage these qualities within everyday life. 

Teachers trained in this technique can guide us to embody an open moment energized by the fine tension between our urge to act and our willingness to simply allow. Gradually a new relationship develops between 'doing' and 'being '. It is such a relationship Suzuki Roshi is describing as, "the state you are in when you have 'right posture'". 

Copyright Brian Tracey, 1996.  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">

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FM Alexander

The benefit of instruction

The idea may be effective as a marketing strategy, but have you ever heard anyone play piano after their sixth lesson? In reality nothing is learned that quickly - except perhaps how to bake a cake. Yet even a chef would say that the cookery class shows you the basic techniques, but from that point on it's a matter of practise, a matter of baking the same Victoria sponge a few thousand times before you'll be performing reliably in the kitchen.  

Learning tennis can also be described in a half dozen moves equivalent to the methods of baking. The ball may be sent across the court by a forehand, a backhand, a serve, a volley or a lob. But only a facile assessment by means of those prevalent reductions called "competencies" would be so daft as to pronounce the pupil a tennis player after a brief course of lessons encompassing the moves. Nor would we recommend that after being shown the procedures, the apprentice should simply continue practising. Building the skill of ball placement needs guided rehearsals over many years. Wimbledon pros retain their trainers. And if Ian Thorpe needs a coach to guide him through the water, then we can all use a pair of good Alexander Technique hands to continuously refresh our manner of use.  

The procedures for learning the Alexander Technique are as brief and simple in outline as those for baking or tennis. If in cake-making we say step one is: "First grease your tin," then "First free your neck" would be the equivalent when our object is improved co-ordination. The remaining half dozen steps in AT are as plain, but they are learned more gradually as the pupil changes his or her habitual way of moving. You can go to cookery class and learn the basic techniques in a week or two, and thereafter hone your skills over dinners and tea parties on your own. But learning how to change the way you move requires more monitoring.


Because your kinaesthesia - your muscle sense that makes you aware of how much tension you are using - is desensitized by over-use, it is not possible to assess by means of your proprioception - the sense that tells you where the parts of your body are in relation to one another - the ways in which you are pulling yourself out of shape, and how you must set about rectifying things. In theory it is possible to learn the Alexander Technique on one's own because, after all, F M Alexander did. But people who imagine they can re-educate their use without a teacher, have not recognised the genius of the man. He himself commented that, although it took him ten years to discover how to make the necessary changes for his larynx to function normally again, it would not take his pupils so long to heal themselves because they would have the benefit of his hands to guide them.  

More than a sum of parts

Alexander Technique is taken up in the same way as you might take up a musical instrument or a sport. You may read about its provenance and its history; peruse manuals of theory and related subjects such as human anatomy and the mechanics of animal movement; you observe the movement of others, and you have regular lessons to develop better ways of moving yourself. If you are young and fit, you may want to train to a level of good use appropriate for teaching others.  

Partly because it deals with movement as a whole; and partly because, like tennis, its procedures are few, the Alexander Technique may appear to deliver less than, for instance learning piano, which is richer in elements that build technique - scales, chords, arpeggios, rhythm - while its intellectual aspects encompass the studies of harmony, phrasing, touch and other stylistic features. But anyone who practises an art or a sport discovers that the number of its parts does not reflect the experience of its sum. More doesn't always mean more. Feeling the thrill when the ball unites with that part of the racquet from where only the wish is needed for precise placement of the ball; or being carried along when the music seems to play itself, are experiences arrived at equally whether the medium is complex or simple. The study of mathematics and the practise of meditation can both deliver bliss. In the same way that tennis at championship level has evolved into something rather more than patting a ball over a net, the skill of sitting and standing in accordance with the structural design of the human body transforms into a wonderful lightness of being.  

All trainings need teachers, instructors, guides or coaches. Because the Alexander Technique is taught in a less-familiar way, we will correlate what we can with instruction in baking, sport and art. As the burnt sponge cake emerges from your oven, the experienced cook can point out where you went wrong and give tips for your next attempt. It's a straightforward business of making alterations in the assemblage of ingredients, quantities, consistencies of mixture, temperatures and baking times. Similarly, the tennis coach will analyse the movements you are making with your limbs and eyes that determine ball placement, and with what force and spin. Advice is then given verbally which it is up to you to interpret and follow.  

The piano teacher also observes hand and arm movements while he listens to the sounds you produce, and introduces you to aspects of musicality that are building the new language of your developing ear.  


A different way of teaching

The Alexander Technique teacher does some of the same things, that is, she observes with her eyes what movements you are making. But mainly she feels with her hands what you are doing. The process is not in fact so localised, but rather her hands act as the terminals of a neurological circuitry between your body and hers that helps her to recognise with her more finely tuned apparatus what is going on in yours. Different distributions of muscle tension give characteristic patterns of strain or ease. When muscle fibres contract, pulses of energy are given off. Relaxed muscle is quieter. Recognising the best mix of quiet and noisy muscle in a body is the equivalent of recognising from experience the optimum consistency for a cake mix, or the qualities that render a sonata more musical.  

Using her hands to bring your attention to different parts of yourself, the teacher guides your musculature towards a new consistency. She uses some verbal instruction, but mostly she is showing you with her hands where you are holding where you shouldn't be and where you are not holding where you should.  

The tension mix is felt by the teacher's whole body which in turn counteracts the wrong pulls with messages from her own better balance. Like many things that are evident in life nobody really knows quite how it works. But experience confirms that when the hands of a body that is opening out - or, in Alexander language, one that is "going up" - are placed on the muscular wrapping of someone who is shortening and narrowing, they stimulate it to release and open out. The experience can feel much like relaxing but without collapsing into a sagging shape. It would seem to be a sort of recognition response similar to the one that spreads smiles or yawns through a group. A good pair of Alexander-trained hands gives you a feeling of load shedding. Lengthening and widening gives you an experience from where you can discover what you habitually do that pulls you down. You learn how to tune in to your body so you can collect more reliable information from your proprioceptive and kinaesthetic senses. The teacher's aim in tuning in to her pupil's body is the same as that of the tennis player who is acquiring the fine co-ordination that will hit the ball plumb in the middle of her racquet every time.  

Deceptively simple…  

Just as playing a piano or tennis might look easy, it looks and feels as though the Alexander teacher isn't doing much. You may watch her lift somebody's leg and remember the feeling of your own leg having lengthened when she did that to you. But you cannot just l pull a leg and be doing the same thing at all. It looks simple , but the teacher is doing other things with her own body that have accumulated from her experience - the things that give a sum of parts that has become something other than the mere contact of her hands. Try drawing a violin bow across strings and you'll realise there's a bit more to playing the instrument than at first appears. To elicit a beautiful sound from dragging taut horsehair across catgut fibres, or to be opening your shape while bringing your hands together on a body sandwiched between them, takes lots of lessons and years of practise.  

Practise is feeling and finding, and above all, paying attention. Its aim in Alexander Technique is to elicit and sustain the improved co-ordination in all situations.  

Of course all learning is with a view to eventually shedding one's instructor, but that may be later rather than sooner, as the restoration of your proprioceptive and kinaesthetic senses to more reliable function along with the growth of a strong back take persistence over time.  


One step at a time…  

You would shy of asking your teacher to show you how to play a Rachmaninov concerto on your first piano lesson - or even after six. You would understand that years need to be spent working up the necessary skill to do that. Yet we expect to be able to do something as intricate and demanding as sitting down and standing up when the neuromuscular mechanisms for effecting this constantly-performed movement are in very bad condition. In teaching the Alexander Technique we use this seemingly-simple movement because it is, on the contrary, complex and it requires a high degree of balance and strength in the postural musculature for harm-free execution. It is the movement most frequently performed by the able-bodied in everyday life. Maintaining good use while moving within the vertical plane, for instance in walking, is a relatively simple accomplishment. But the serious business in human movement lies in learning to maintain length while lowering the body groundwards.  

How long will it take you to learn to sit well? Can we be guaranteed to emerge as accomplished musicians from our piano lessons? However liberally descriptive the prospectus of the course of study we embark upon, we can never know the answer to this. Just how we come upon our “eureka” moments cannot be known before the fact, and will be arrived at in the learner's own time.  

Learning good co-ordination may not appear to deliver as generously in satisfaction as learning to play a musical instrument or to cook well. But use of the self is the skill that all others depend on when maximum performance and minimal damage is the goal. Its rewards are therefore infinite. As with learning anything, you will swim around in a sea of incomprehension, enjoying the process most of the time, but also sometimes feeling frustrated and bored while gradually accumulating understanding, and slowly lightening like a perfect Victoria sponge!   

© Christine Ackers 2007. All Rights Reserved.
02 9331 7563 www.ate.org.au 
Drawing made from a photograph of F M Alexander with a group of his pupils circa 1945 in America. 
Drawing made by Jing Sheng Wang This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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