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A journey of discovery
F.M. Alexander discovered that it is possible to employ one's powers of conscious choice to great advantage. Deciding what we will or will not consent to do gives us the freedom to respond appropriately to the stimulus of the environment. In our capacity for conscious choice we find our essential autonomy and humanity. This is the greatest benefit the Alexander Technique offers. Releasing more of our potential carries the human race forward and boosts our wellbeing. On the other hand, when we are bound by habit which curtails further development, we get intellectually, emotionally and physically stuck. That is why we cannot demand wellbeing as a right. We have to create it. Most people who endorse the Alexander Technique will verify that it produces unanticipated improvements which are not confined to the body. It makes life more fun.
Not treatment or therapy, but re-education
Specific complaints and problems are not the direct concern of the Alexander Teacher. You should not see yourself as the patient of an Alexander Teacher. You do not go to an Alexander Teacher for treatment, but to be a pupil, learning how to re-organize the way you are using your whole Self [sic]. You will go through the same process of psycho-physical transformation that Alexander did. The difference is that in the hands of a skilled teacher, making the necessary changes takes only a fraction of the time it originally took Alexander. This is a complex learning process which addresses the psycho-physical whole: mind, feelings and body, which Alexander insisted comprise an indivisible unity.
The implications of indivisible unity
When Alexander first tried to show his colleagues what he had discovered, he tried instructing them verbally, explaining what he wanted them to do. He soon discovered that this did not work. They could not apply his instruction the way he intended them to because their habit of use got in the way. Because we are indivisible psycho-physical unities we cannot have a habit of body-use without that same habit being encoded in the rest of us. Our flesh and bones embody the habit that dominates our thinking and feeling. When we are down in spirit we become down in body...and vice versa.
The people Alexander was trying to help had little choice but to translate his instructions via the medium of their habitual thinking and the faulty sensory appreciation which accompanied it. For example, when Alexander told them to stay still, they clenched their muscles. When he told them not to try hard, they slumped. Whatever he asked them to do, they endeavoured to enact their idea of it and this enactment manifested as an instant muscular configuration. Alexander recognized that preconceptions are not simply mental activities but are embedded in the fabric of our neuro-muscular systems. He realized that a broadened field of attention was needed to monitor these preconceptions and their influence. He saw that this field of attention must include an awareness of how our musculature is responding to our idea of performing an intended act. We need encompassing physical and mental awareness in order to change our habitual way of doing things.
Alexander saw that he would need to provide the kineasthetic experience his subjects did not yet have: that he needed to give them an experience of performing their actions in a new way. Instead of using words, he decided to make contact with his hands.
From that moment, his work took a new turn. He discovered that when he put his hands on people he could transmit the experience of his own improved psycho-physical use to them directly. Their bodies, unhindered by interfering thought, responded spontaneously to the contact. Alexander realized then that the vicious cycle imposed on the organism by habit could be broken by approaching the body directly - as if the body already knows how to organize itself, if we would only allow it to do so. What is required is that we learn to think differently. The psycho-physical re-education facilitated in Alexander lessons is centred not in learning how to do the ‘right’ thing, but in learning not to do the ‘wrong’ thing. As Alexander put it, “when you prevent the wrong thing, the right thing happens by itself.” Learning to prevent the wrong thing requires objective feedback and this is why the Technique cannot be learned from a book.
The Alexander Teacher
Your Alexander Teacher will have spent three years on an approved training course undergoing an intense psycho-physical re-education. He/she will need to achieve a high standard of use in order to be able to impart the principles of Alexander’s Technique. Central to the training is the use of the hands in receiving information from a pupil’s body, transmitting a certain quality of experience and facilitating muscular release. A skilled teacher’s hands are light and inviting and do not force or manipulate. After a lesson people feel ‘put together’, lighter, freer, more poised and spatially aware.
The changes which occur can be profound and can lead to discomfort temporarily as the musculature reorganizes itself. This reorganizing process is sometimes experienced as a mild and diffuse ache in various places where the redistribution of muscle tonus is most keenly felt such as between the shoulder blades or along the tops of the shoulders. There may also be shifts in kinaesthetic sensitivity which can be mildly disorientating. If this does occur, there is nothing to be concerned about. These are simply the affects of the body’s response to change and are to be welcomed. They will soon pass.
During this process the gentle physical contact your teacher uses imparts a stimulus which supports you while your own anti-gravity responses are not working optimally. This also enables the teacher to facilitate release where it is needed. At the same time, you will be receiving feedback from the contact which will give you a better sense of yourself as a whole.
Attention will be given to increasing your awareness of your head/neck relationship. Freedom in the positioning and movement of your head on the top of your spine is essential for the overall co-ordination of your body. Often we hold subtle chronic tension in the muscles of our necks and at the base of our skulls which interferes with the natural poise of our heads. Excessive tension in the head-neck region causes malcoordination of the rest of the body, producing the experience of disconnection among its parts. In time you will be able to keep your neck muscles free and this will promote a change in the total pattern. Keeping your head/neck balance free is essential for restoring reliable sensory appreciation in movement.
As you may already have realised, the teacher will also be doing more than getting your body working more efficiently. That cannot actually happen until your habitual patterns are addressed. These patterns have become encoded in your neuro-muscular network so they are also encoded at the level of mind and emotion. What we believe, the internal imaging we make, our idea of ourselves, is transduced into muscle tension and determines the quality of our actions and experience.
One of the really liberating aspects of Alexander lessons is learning to use consciousness to gain command over our thoughts and emotions. This comes with the increasing ability to inhibit: to be able to suspend our reactions to stimuli from the environment until we choose in our own time, calmly and collectedly, how we want to respond – rather than being slaves to the telephone, the clock, the television, the traffic lights, the boss, the kids, the angst ... This is possible once our bodies are no longer bound by patterned responses.
Your teacher will help you to identify your habitual responses so you can inhibit them. Once this is achieved you can decide consciously to perform your actions with a minimum of exertion. Your teacher will give you a fresh experience of performing everyday acts in such a way that you can prevent wear and tear while achieving your goals. The ability to direct your energy efficiently will become second nature to you and you may notice that it becomes easier to apply yourself to difficult tasks in general.
Once these positive changes replace the old patterns, muscle tissue that was previously over-tense resumes its optimal length. Tension is redistributed so that joints are no longer subjected to strain. Instead come buoyancy, ease in movement and an improvement in co-ordination. Complaints associated with misuse – such as aching joints, back pain and anxiety will diminish in intensity or disappear altogether as the pattern which produced them is reorganized.
A practical approach
The Alexander Technique is a practical method of re-education and your teacher will suggest simple procedures for you to practise at home to reinforce the benefit of your lessons. You will find you want to put the Technique into practice in your daily life. Many people experience increased vitality as their use improves because energy that was being expended in strain becomes available for their enjoyment.
Who benefits from Alexander Lessons?
The Alexander Technique is for everybody. It first became known amongst musicians, actors, dancers and athletes because of the improvement it brought to their professional skills. Nobel Prize Laureate Professor Nikolaas Tinbergen thought so much of Alexander’s Technique that when he addressed the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique in London, he said that it was the key to an evolutionary step for mankind. He thought, quite simply, that everybody should take Alexander lessons and that if they did, many of our most pressing issues would be resolved. But that is up to us. Whether you decide to try the Technique because you have aches and pains, or want to refine a skill, or to change your posture, or calm down, or just for the sheer pleasure of it, you will soon discover the benefits for yourself.