Reflections on Alexander Technique
(This article was written several years ago, for my previous website, as are several others I will re-publish here due to good timing for one individual (or more?).
“A student came to a teacher of Zen and immediately got busy talking about his views on Zen. The teacher was pouring tea in the cup that was in front of the student. The student noticed how the liquid was spilling over the brim and warned the teacher. “This is you”, the teacher replied. “You came here for the teachings I can share with you. How can I put anything into a cup that is full?”
My first day at the Alexander Technique College was filled with excitement and confusion. I love that state of an opportunity to plunge into an experience of learning a new skill and at the same time getting to know a new facet of my own inner world through con-fusion.
The classes for the future A. T. teachers are organised in such a way that the newcomers join those who are already well progressed in their training and there is no special introduction at the beginning of a term, no definitions to write down, no textbooks… no “beginnings” in the usual sense.
Now I can comprehend the reason behind it, however, the ambitious learning junkie / knowledge hoarder in me wasn’t really happy with that concept at the time.
A part of me wanted “a beginning”, a “start” point and an official introduction into the story of F.M. Alexander. It needed answers to all the five Ws and the H., it screamed like a hungry child used to eat at a certain hour.
As often happens, until that noise is silenced, there is little that can be done.
There are several ways I usually do it and this time I used a thorough investigation (as there was time while I wasn’t being instructed to “do” anything), so I questioned every objection of the rebellious part and that finally lead to a better cleaning of that “empty cup”.
“…If you can’t stop something happening you can at least stop trying to stop it happening – stop fighting it; stop fearing it – create space and acceptance by being non-resistant to the whole situation.” Alex Maunder
By each hour of every day it all started to make more sense; I felt more in the flow with the way the lectures are structured and I could feel my body detecting benefits under teacher’s hands way before my mind would manage to find “a reasonable explanation” for the physical experience. The mind would get more its food during the “reading hour” when our teacher Carolyn would read Alexander’s original writings or when we had a class with a visiting lecturer.
However, (some habits are less easy to clear, especially if the person feels they are beneficial in some way), every day I would get a visit from a wave of discomfort that would surge forward, each time wearing a different disguise from cold and sweaty hands to objection to the words used: childish moaning mind tends to stick to “pull” as a command when actually told “Don’t pull…”.
What was going on?
In the background I could almost hear a sarcastic laughter of that ever-penetrating voice of the Inner Critic: “What is it, only a third technique you are learning simultaneously…?”
It was correct. Even though I had already, over the years, learned and practiced several types of therapeutic techniques, at the time I was attending the A.T. College I was still fresh from yet another course, haven’t yet delivered (already written) exam for obtaining a diploma in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and putting a closure on that course, I was still in a process of learning Craniosacral therapy, all in doing my best to learn more and more… And more.
Why? Was it a sign of an unleashed ego hoarding academic ammunition for its mission “to save the world”? Or… Just another habit that became comfortable and I was no longer able to realise I was stuck in a pattern?
It is told that one of the challenges F.M. Alexander dealt with was his extreme ambition and when realised it was his eagerness actually blocking his performance (and health), the pathway to Alexander technique was starting to develop.
Lester Stevenson, a man who was sent home from a hospital as there was nothing the doctors could do any more for his numerous ailments and who healed himself by investigating every pain and letting go of emotions and feelings that seemed to appear around it, once said:
“In realising how much I wanted to change things in this world, I realised how much it made me a slave of this world…”
There are numerous stories* like Stevenson’s. Many of them known as they lead to developments of some techniques known today as Thought Field Therapy or Emotional Freedom Technique. Many of the stories are yet unknown widely, maybe because there is not enough drama involved in it for the 21st Century collective consciousness to notice it or maybe they didn’t satisfy the current rules of the science to be approved as valuable.
“Stripped of what we hoard we grow…” Mark Nepo
We are creatures of habits and some of our behaviours (and thus our thought patterns) are not much different to those of Pavlov’s dogs reactions to the bells. However, we have the ability to change. We can start changes in our minds that will influence our emotions and our bodies or we can do vice-versa and start with the body and thus come to the state of balance that will reflect on our emotions and our minds.
No matter which path is chosen, all our worlds are always included - any effective teachings of well-being point to that and don’t just work on covering up the physical symptoms.
When pain or any discomfort is felt on a physical level it is showing a disbalance of the entire mind-emotions-body system.
Even a broken toe is a sign of a disbalance and not just “an accident”. So is “dizziness”.
Even though all of the above have been my deepest beliefs for most of my life, I still get reminders on their truthfulness (I guess just because I keep questioning every of my beliefs and convictions…).
So often a gardener needs another one to point out spots that need attention in hers or his own garden.
Exactly that - a different approach to a thorough investigation of the current convictions and habits - is the greatest gift I was given through Alexander Technique College and our teacher Carolyn with a help of one broken toe that stubbornly wouldn’t heal for months (despite all mine and GP’s - here comes again – “knowledge and skills”). All for a good reason, as it always turns out.
“There are degrees of movement. Life is really moving from one position to another. We never stop and say, ‘This is right – this is my posture, this is the way I ought to be.’ If we do that, we’re stiff trying to hold that posture. It isn’t natural for our bodies to be held in positions.” Marjorie Barstow
Learning in a non classical way, learning about Alexander and his teachings helped me in many ways yet most valuable, most life-changing one was to re-investigate my eagerness, that over-ambitious part that F. M. Alexander and our teacher would call “the end gainer”.
My skin would itch the first few times I heard that phrase uttered until I plunged into depths of its meaning while taking a break from attending classes due to immobility (a broken toe - the point when mental inflexibility influenced the physical part to break due to rigidness).
Slowly, all the pieces came together into a picture that made so much sense.
Allowing the direction to flow through, up and wide, felt like the most natural practice of mindfulness - recognising habitual pattern and pausing before reacting - opened me even more to the awareness of my mental, emotional and physical world.
“…if you were to launch straight into doing what you thought to be the ‘correct’ thing, you would merely end up on automatic pilot again – caught in the same old patterns as before, however good your intentions might have been.” Alex Maunder
In this phase of “reminders” I allowed (helped by an immobile foot and dizziness) more time between stimulus and reaction, a space of literal and metaphysical non-doing, non-striving, non-judgemental being.
Only then I felt the decisions just floated in. How did I know they were “good” decisions? I wasn’t attached to them and they brought a deep sense of peace.
It felt like releasing the long standing tight strings that kept my body in constant tension and the mind freaking out on alert not to miss what is next to learn.
Influencing the physical body by mere intention and a directed thought is not any news today, however how often is it really put in practice so we can truly experience the benefits?
By being more aware of the muscles put in action I become more aware of those that I employ needlessly and which perform extra hours and are in constant tension during a day. That reminded me of some other extra “work” I was giving myself feeding my own illusion I was doing something "good" and for the "benefit of everyone".
There are numerous kinds of study and massive research is done in that field, reminding on those who became happier humans or have improved in their physical abilities** or have healed themselves of complicated illnesses by using visualisation or changing thinking and behavioural patterns***.
Why the F. M. Alexander’s principle feels so logical to me? It is very simple – both the answer to the question and the principle. In general it encompasses most of the widely spread ideas on a balanced living; stop and think before reacting to a stimuli, be aware of the freedom of choice, release (unnecessary tensed muscles) and let go (of old patterns no matter how comfortable they may seem now).
F. M. Alexander’s legacy reminds us – to paraphrase Wilfred Barlow’s observation in his introduction to the Alexander’s book “The Use of the Self” – on the willingness to question our preconceptions and to realise that what seemed right yesterday might not be adequate today. It reminds one on the famous “being in the now”, staying present in the moment.
It has been proven to me so many times that many teachings lead to the same conclusion in a different way and practice, and what is truly valuable and effective thus is harmoniously utilised side by side and the awareness of life in general keeps the proverbial zen cup clean yet changes its structure and use, making it more adaptable to the living in a particular environment at a particular time.
“Map is not the territory.” Alfred Korzybski
Now, whatever is written or showed about Alexander Technique wouldn’t come close to experiencing it under teacher’s hands…
Let the neck be free, so the head can go forward and up, allow the back to lengthen and widen...
All of the above is a mere “note to self” that I may wish to change every now and then to “try” to describe it better as it develops in me and as I grow with it. This post is merely a personal reminder and a wish to share what has been daily immensely helpful to me. I've got introduced to the A. T. by attending the Alexander Technique College with an intention to eventually become an A.T. teacher, however, to experience benefits of the Alexander’s teachings it is not necessary to have such aspirations – one may take private lessons and expand one’s own awareness on the “use of Self”…
*Psychologist Martin Brofman comes to mind. In 1975 He was diagnosed with a tumour on a spinal cord and healed himself by using visualisation and by changing the way he thinks.
** A research I read about in teenage days pretty much set up the pathway to my overwhelming interest in the workings of the mind and how we can influence our physical body just by a thought: Australian psychologist Alan Richardson created a study involving professional basketball players and their improvement in free throws. The players were divided in three groups. Group A practiced free throws, group B visualized practicing it and group C was a control group who did no kind of practicing free throws during the study. Both A and B group practiced for the same amount of time (20 minutes every day for 20 days). The results showed that the group A improved by 24% and the group B by 23%. Only 1% difference!
Another study on physical and mental practice comparison: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14998709
***Dr Lissa Rankin: Mind Over Medicine/ David R. Hamilton: How your mind can heal your body / Dr Norman Doidge: The brain that changes itself etc. etc…