For the Hobblers Out There

“Moving through life with freedom and ease” is a line often used in ITM Alexander Technique marketing material.

If you’re struggling with an injury or chronic condition, and so moving without very much freedom or ease at all, that little slogan may really rub salt into your wounds.

It's possible to over-promise what the Alexander Technique can offer.  It can’t cure disease or eradicate injury (though some naughty people talk it up as though it can). 

This doesn’t mean it’s not worth bothering to pursue Alexander’s work.  You’re likely to do very much better with it than without.  On a bad day, though it may not feel like it, following the particular thinking processes of the technique absolutely will help you handle your difficult condition more easily. 

When a ‘friend of mine’ (ahem) is having a particularly vicious inflammatory arthritic flare-up (and after getting over the sulky outrage which serves no useful purpose whatsoever), she goes back to basics; reasoning out how she can start from scratch, gently, with every move (physical or mental) she makes.  It makes an enormous difference with regaining control and climbing back up out of the metaphorical ditch.  

When you feel like a counter on a snakes and ladders board that’s been shot back down to square one, all you can do is surrender to the reality of the situation and then begin again, slowly.  Well, F.M. Alexander's brother A.R. did say that "it is necessary to go slowly.” 

So the Alexander Technique doesn’t promise sunshine, rainbows and kittens.  It's not about reaching nirvana and being disappointed with anything less.   It’s rather about sticking to a mental discipline that will help you do a little better…then a little better still… and so on; realistic, practical help with working out whatever’s most useful in each moment and each circumstance. 

Even if you are in the SASH Club (Studying Alexander, Still Hobbling) this work still makes life more tolerable.  If ever things go awry and you feel as though you’re getting nowhere, or even going backwards, perhaps a more comforting slogan would be “Moving through life with more freedom and ease.”  Or how about, “Playing a crappy hand with greater equanimity;” or even just plain, “Doing better”?  For me, at least, that’s a technique worth studying.

Wimbledon Special: a 'process mindset'

Johanna Konta beat Simona Halep to reach the semi-finals of Wimbledon yesterday: the first British woman to do so since Virginia Wade in 1978.  Her playing was brilliant, but so was her BBC interview immediately afterwards.  “I definitely felt very clear on what I was trying to achieve out there.  Regardless of whether it was going my way or not I felt I really stuck to my true self and just tried to create as many opportunities as possible...”  “I felt quite consistent in my general approach...”  “I just continued to trust in the fact that what I was doing was going to bring me good things.” 

Asked when she had started believing she could be a champion, Konta replied, “Ever since I was nine years old.  I’ve always believed in my own ability; I’ve always dreamed big.  But again, I’m much more process mindset orientated, so I don’t give myself too much time to dream, and focus more on the work.”

So although she dreams big, as any would-be champion must, she has stuck to the process of tackling each moment as it comes, ‘regardless of whether it’s going her way or not’.  Pretty cool.  A ‘process mindset’ is also something the Alexander Technique champions: developing the mental discipline to attend continually and consistently to the ‘how’ of doing anything.

Tim Henman was also impressed by Konta’s “mentality on the court.”  Sports correspondent Rob Bonnet asked about Konta’s repeated use of the term ‘process’ - a new one on him in terms of tennis vocabulary.  “It’s process, not outcome…” said Henman.  “What you’re really trying to focus on is the way that you want to play - the process of that point - and not worry about the outcome.  So whether you’re playing the first point of the match, and you’re serving, (or) whether it’s five all, thirty all in the third – that should really be irrelevant.  You want to have a clear process of the way you want to play, and the outcome will take care of itself… It’s a little bit like staying in the present tense; there’s no worrying about a shot that you’ve missed before, or what’s going to happen in the future...”

Not worrying about what went before or what will happen next; just following the process of how to do whatever it is you want to do, and letting the outcome take care of itself.  Sort of takes certain kinds of pressure off, doesn’t it, ‘life in the present tense’?

Handbrake Warning

Though we all need to move, we often visualise our bodies in somewhat fixed terms.  We may even have been told to arrange them in particular configurations: “chin up - stomach in - chest out - tuck that tailbone under…”  Many fitness instructors and educators assert that there's a 'right place’ to 'put' your head/stomach/chest/tailbone (good luck with 'putting your tailbone' anywhere, by the way).  Do you believe there’s a ‘correct’ place where you ought to ‘put’, ‘keep’ or ‘hold’ your head?

Meet Bob.  Bob believes there is a 'right place' to 'put' his head, so he’ll absolutely 'put it' wherever he thinks that is – and then strive to keep it there.  As soon as he thinks about keeping anything anywhere, he'll employ muscles to do so.  Muscles don't just move joints.  They can also prevent joints from moving; which can make them (and their driver) pretty tired, sore and stiff, after a bit.

As soon as Bob moves out of his lovely ‘correct’ position, he’s by definition no longer in it… if he can move easily at all, that is.  He may find it arduous, because he may have kind of parked himself and put the handbrake on. 

If your movements feel stiff, you too could have jammed yourself up in the pursuit of ‘right places’ and 'single right answers’.  This is why, in lessons, Alexander teachers prefer not to use the words ‘position’ or ‘posture’; they're static concepts.  ‘Poise’ works better, because Bob can continue to have great poise and still move (without ‘grinding the brakes’, or keeping muscles contracted unnecessarily).

The Alexander Technique can help you reason your way from thinking and fixing (rigidity/brakes on) to thinking and moving (flexibility).  We were made to be flexible. 

Now do you think there’s a single right place your head should be?

Sit Up, Sit Down - or Just Sit

Man and chair.  A match not always made in heaven; but there are people out there who seem to believe that chairs be the work of the very Devil. 

Oh yes, some chairs are apparently out to get you.  What’s needed, if you have back pain, is a Good Chair.  Some enterprising bods even create super-special chairs guaranteed to prevent or ‘cure’ back problems - yours for only £5,999.  I’d almost prefer a bad back… 

But the chair is not the problem.  Of course most of us these days spend way too many hours glued to chairs.  We kid ourselves that a quick wriggle will suffice, when we know it'd be much better to just get up and walk around a bit occasionally.

Some of us have rather particular ideas about how we ‘ought’ to sit, and may have been told that if only we ‘sat properly’ we wouldn’t have back trouble. 

So how ‘ought’ we to sit?  Is there an ‘ought’?

Experiment 1: “SIT UP! GO ON! Sit up straight!” You’ll likely ‘hold yourself up’ using every available muscle that is or isn’t designed for sitting, including all the wonderful little muscles up, down and all around the spine.  

The short muscles that attach each vertebra to the next are fabulous for the many micro-adjustments we need for flexible movement.   They’re not really designed to all remain fully contracted for long spells of time.  They’re only little; no wonder they get tired and sore.   End of experiment - at ease.

Experiment 2: sit gently on a stool or bench, or just perch on the edge of your chair so you can’t use the backrest.  Now how are you doing?  Is it an effort?

If your pelvis ‘rolls’ back, you may feel you want to counter by holding yourself up again, yanking on your hip-flexors.  If you’re a really high achiever you may ‘push forward’ with your lower back too.  What a lot of work just to sit there. 

What if your pelvis was neither rolled back nor pushed forward?  What if it was just like standing up, only with your legs folded and a chair to stop them folding any further?

The spine is part of a system that should just enable you to sit easily with minimal muscular effort.  You shouldn’t need shedloads of added hip or lower back effort.  We often lose touch with the natural, easy way our systems could be functioning.  We could seek solutions in snazzy, expensive, ergonomic, automatic, systematic, hydromatic chairs; but if we haven’t addressed the way we are sitting, they’re unlikely to help.

Painkillers address symptoms, not causes.  Exercises might help, but exercising with back pain might well further aggravate an already painful area; which is why Mr. Alexander said to “beware of so-called exercises”.  OR we could, as he also quipped, re-educate ourselves, rather than the furniture. 

So why not phone your nearest Alexander teacher, then sit back and relax...

'Self drive'

What a great effort learning to drive seems at first: remembering which pedal is which; knowing what gear is next and how to find it without making a ghastly crunching noise; remembering to check the mirror, indicate before turning, etc, blah.  Yet, after a while, you master the various combined skills and it’s no longer difficult.  You reach the stage where you can do it all without anxiety - and even think of other things as well.

So ‘natural’ does driving become, in fact, that occasionally you may realise you can’t remember driving the last few miles; you just seem to be here.  Freaky. 

Were you actually unconscious during this ‘blank’ time?  Well that can’t be right.  Or do you believe you were driving ‘subconsciously’, somehow?  You may have had your mind ‘on other things’, or apparently nothing at all, but you were still (literally and figuratively) in the driving seat.  If a child had run into the road, chances are you’d have reacted pretty sharpish.  On some level, even if you can’t remember the journey (which most often happens if you’re so familiar with the route you’ve been able to kind of ‘tune out’), you were still acting consciously; sending messages to your muscles to steer, accelerate, brake, etc., in the right sequences.

The Alexander Technique isn’t just about sitting or standing ‘right’.  Like driving, it involves learning how to do several things at once; except that unlike driving a car, you can apply these new reasoning skills to 'driving yourself' in all your activities.  Over time, even the most mundane activity may become easier and, dare I say, more enjoyable.

Having Alexander lessons and studying the work is incredibly rewarding.  If it sounds like too much faff to challenge your thinking and change the way you do things - trust me, it’s well worth the effort.

We all tend to tootle along believing we’re doing OK, and we probably are; but we could always do better.  The Alexander Technique teaches you to notice what’s really going on and make better, constructive choices about… well, just about everything.  It can help you get to where you want to go - and even beyond that...

When the Dog Bites

“When the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad…” For the luckier folk, their painful memories and ideas aren’t bad enough to affect present-day life too adversely.  For others, some dark thoughts really hang around, cause trouble and generally make life hell. 

The physical expression of mental distress is very often tension of some sort.  Severe tension can lead to all kinds of further unpleasant conditions: headaches, back problems, high blood pressure, auto-immune disease, to name but a few.

Is it possible to live with deep-rooted anxiety or distress without it impairing the life you want to lead today?  And if so, how?  Painful memories can’t be just erased. 

If we could eliminate our anguish merely by knowing what caused it, that would be great; but life isn’t like that.  It may be helpful to identify the cause of the suffering - if only to know there’s good reason for having constructed (occasionally extreme) coping strategies like surprising or bewildering hypersensitivity or disproportionate reactions to apparently random things. 

But sometimes these coping strategies end up causing even more problems and limit life still further (nothing to do with weakness, incidentally, this; it’s the struggle of many strong, courageous people - often the strongest, most courageous).  Despair may ensue.

What to do? 

Maybe we can learn to stop; just a little bit at a time. 

Stop what?  Stop it all.  Stop trying.  Stop battling on bravely.  Stop struggling to maintain a façade of coping.  Stop blocking and suppressing.  Just- stop. 

Stopping everything - even for a moment - creates a little window of opportunity to see what’s going on.  A chance to reason out what to do, or stop doing.  A chance to see that present stimuli may have nothing to do with past stimuli; to recognize that those long-seated response patterns aren’t working; and a chance, maybe one day, to decide not to employ them - starting with that ‘default’ tension that we carry when we’re not paying attention.

Then when that old ‘dog’ comes around to bite, a newer, useful strategy is available: the knowledge that there is an option not to respond in the usual way.

In 1976, Frank Pierce Jones wrote a book called Body Awareness in Action, later republished under the much cooler title Freedom to Change

In Mr. Alexander’s last book, he wrote, “My technique is based on inhibition, the inhibition of undesirable, unwanted responses to stimuli, and hence it is primarily a technique for the development of the control of human reaction.” – UCL 88

Freedom to choose our responses and reactions?  Yes please, where do I sign up? I’m bang up for learning how to have me some of that freedom.  And the first step on the way there is learning to simply… stop.

Zero Settings

So you're just standing there minding your own business when something somewhere starts niggling.  You wriggle around a bit to try and ease it up, and it kind of works, briefly; but the discomfort keeps returning and even worsens, over time, until...

Eventually you're so desperate you'll try anything; so you book yourself some Alexander Technique lessons. You discuss your recurrent problem. The teacher takes a look at you and puts his or her hands, delicately, on your head. An odd thing happens; you feel something somewhere relax.  Great.  But then - zikes, you feel as though you're about to fall on your face, or keel over backwards. What's going on? It feels really WRONG. 

It feels wrong because it's unfamiliar. You don't normally stand in this more relaxed way. That doesn't make it wrong. In fact, you may just have de-wronged yourself a bit. 

If your customary 'zero' setting involved you standing at an angle of three degrees off absolute minimum effort required to stand, and you just changed that, you're bound to feel as though you're off by three degrees now. 

This is just one example. There are zillions of ways you could be using your musculature with wonky settings. Wonky use can creep up on us. We only notice it when we start hurting; we may have been wonky for years. 

When I was about sixteen, my brother pointed out that I walked 'leaning forward', as if against a high wind.  Looking in my reflection in shop windows as I passed them, I couldn't deny it.  I started holding myself back to correct this, and gave it little further thought. BUT - I hadn't stopped using the muscles that were pulling me forward first. So I was now  pulling myself forward AND backward at the same time, doubling my trouble. 

This might sound a bit mad, but it's very common.  Many of us build up odd movement patterns like this; countering 'this way' with more of 'that way'; and yet another way, and another... and the things we do become normal to us - our personalised 'zero' settings. Small wonder, then, that when we stop any of these patterns we feel weird, or off balance. 

When you try to change a movement pattern and it 'feels wrong', you've encountered one of Mr. Alexander's discoveries: the unreliability of feeling. 'Feeling right' won't help you out of the jam. Reasoning out the solution is the only, er, solution; working out what's needed - and what isn't.

In his last book Alexander wrote, 

"When a certain degree of misuse has been reached, the deceptiveness of these impressions reaches a point where they can mislead us into believing that WE ARE DOING SOMETHING WITH SOME PART OF OURSELVES WHEN ACTUALLY WE CAN BE PROVED TO BE DOING SOMETHING QUITE DIFFERENT. This is equally true of things we believe we think."

I wish he'd put that last sentence in capital letters, and perhaps in bold, too.  Wouldn't the world be a better place if we were all a little more suspicious of the 'zero settings' of our beliefs, as well as our movements?


Super Powers

Did you know we all have super powers? It's true. Believe me. I come up against them quite often; my own, and other people’s. We don't need a Hulk body or a Spock brain. We may think we have no particular strengths, but boy, oh boy, oh boy…

I'm talking about the astounding, incredible force of our beliefs.

If we believe we will never really find a way to eliminate the tension we carry, we’re damn sure to prove it to ourselves and to the world. Nothing anyone else can do or say will stop us. If we believe we’re right, in fact, the world is wrong.
Hmm, can’t understand why the world’s so full of conflict…

We say we want to change. We even think we believe that. Of course we want to be pain free and not walk around feeling so sore and stressed. The very idea that you wouldn’t want to change that is ridiculous, isn’t it?

So we go for lessons. In the lessons, with the help of a teacher, a little something gets a little easier, because we let go of a little of the tension.

Some might consider this cause for celebration. Pah, what do they know!  It’s actually a bit of a disappointment. We’re not ‘fixed’; we didn't walk into the lesson broken and come out perfect. That little bit of improvement? Big whoop. Not impressed.

WHY THE HECK NOT?! We changed something for the better, really quickly and really easily! So it's not as if there's no proof of hope.  It can't be that.

So what's going on? A battle of beliefs.  Our customary way of doing things may have been challenged, and proof of a new possibility provided; but for some reason or reasons, we’re unwilling to entertain the new idea, let alone accept it. It's new, strange, and flies in the face of what we thought we knew about movement, for one thing.

For another, we find it hard to believe change could really be so easy. I'll just write that bit again:

we find it hard to believe change could be so easy.

Maybe this is why it seems so hard when if we would just allow ourselves to entertain a simple new thought, change would happen - quickly and easily.

A physical difficulty develops, then worsens. We seek a remedy.  It doesn't work. We try another, then another.  

Eventually we lose hope of finding a solution and privately conclude that no solution really exists. Unwilling to suffer further disappointment, we make a sort of uneasy peace with our discomfort. We get used to it, even. We may not relish it, but it's ‘ours’, and we ‘know where we are’ with it.

It would make a certain kind of sense that if we're thinking, “I want to relax so much! But daren’t hope that I can! Want to believe! But don't really believe!” the messages we send our poor muscles will be, to say the least, somewhat confused and conflicted. “Try and let go! Oh, it's not possible! Is it? No! Maybe? No! Aargh!”

Obviously I’m writing this purely from the point of view of a teacher, here. I personally would never think like this, ahem...

But what can we do?

We can reason.  Reason it out.  Try the new thing.  Examine the evidence.  Challenge our beliefs. See if they still hold water. Whatever we dig up can't be worse than squashed-down hopelessness, can it?

Of course, the choice will always be entirely ours.  But what would happen if we applied our super-powers to the real possibility of change and improvement?

Anti-Thinking Thinking

What is it with this practically phobic response to the idea of consciously directed thinking?

“Eeuw, all that ‘think yourself happy' shit,” or, “oh, yeah, right, ‘what you need is to take a dip in the river You’, har har,” or, “that’s just phoney” - or even my beloved late parents’ favourite: “It sounds very… American (there was no greater insult than this, while they still enjoyed Gershwin, Copeland, Burroughs, Williams, and Sgt. Bilko).”

But is it wrong to direct your thinking this way, as opposed to that?  Will you somehow no longer be ‘you’, if you merely direct your attention to whatever you are thinking about, decide whether or not it's useful and make some choices? 

This seems a very common response to the idea of choosing to do something differently.  “I don’t do it that way.”  “No, that’s not how I do it.”  “That’s not me.”  “If I did it like that, it wouldn’t be me,” and even, “If I did it like that, I wouldn’t be me.”

But we make choices all the time, every single day, anyway, don’t we?  Didn’t you at some point make a decision that this music is to your taste, and you like your hair done this way, but you don’t like that type of food?   We make choices, we’re happy with them, we get cozy, and we settle down and stay right there, thank you. 

Great – until we’re stuck somewhere we’re not so happy.  If we haven’t kept ourselves tuned in with that ‘choosing channel’, we may end up wondering how we got where we are, and struggle to get out again.  It’s terribly easy to think in certain comfortable patterns, but these can become life limiting.  It can become difficult, after a while, to think differently - even if we want to.

This is what the Alexander Technique is all about.

It’s OK to be more conscious, people!  It’s really useful “to bring more practical intelligence into what you are already doing; to eliminate stereotyped responses” – Frank Pearce Jones – Freedom to Change.  Who doesn’t like ‘useful’?

Here is one of my all-time favourite quotes from F.M. Alexander, which anticipates the current, super-trendy concept of neuro-plasticity by over a hundred years (bright spark, that Mr. Alexander):

“The brain becomes used to thinking in a certain way, it works in a groove, and when set in action, slides along the familiar, well-worn path; but when once it is lifted out of the groove, it is astonishing how easily it may be directed.  At first it will have a tendency to return to its old manner of working…but the groove soon fills, and although thereafter we may be able to use the old path if we choose, we are no longer bound to it. “ Man’s Supreme Inheritance

How does taking a little trouble to think about your thinking sound now?


Doing, Undoing and Not Doing in the First Place

1. Doing.

Certain activities are hard going or even painful.  You can’t figure out what the problem is.

2. Undoing.

You begin Alexander Technique lessons and begin to notice some things you’re doing that are causing you difficulties.  You become aware of unnecessary muscular tension and may, with the teacher’s help, experience ‘switching off’ some of it.  The experience can come as a surprise, and of course relief.  You may experience moments like this again and again as you continue learning.

3. Not doing in the first place.

‘Ninja’! Not even switching on those damn muscles when they’re not needed!  You have learned to think and move in a constructive way – easily, consistently, and at will.  When you are really adept at the Alexander Technique, you know what you need (and what you don’t need) to make a movement.  You use only those muscles relevant to each task, and with minimum exertion. You find you have more energy at the end of each day, because you haven’t been wasting it.

This is of course an ideal way to be.  It doesn’t happen immediately.  You need patience.  The longer you’ve been doing things your ‘old way’, the longer it may take to stop them altogether.  Pretty much everyone finds that they are very attached to their ‘old way’, even when it’s obviously not helpful.  Though a hell of a lot better at moving around than I used to be, I’m still attached to a good few of my ‘old ways’.  Frustrating?  Yes.  Funny?  Yes!

But the good news is that the Alexander Technique is a means to keep on improving; to keep moving towards ever-greater efficiency in our movement, and the joy that brings. 
Continual improvement - even into old age.  I’ll buy that. 

Imagine enjoying doing even the most mundane of everyday tasks because moving well is so pleasurable.

Imagine having more energy at the end of each day. 

“What would your life be like if you only used as much effort as was necessary and no more?” – Don Weed, What You Think Is What You Get.



The Knotty Problem of Awareness and Articulating

How can we prevent ourselves doing something we don’t want to be doing?  How is this possible when we don’t even know what it is we’re doing?  Why would we want to open this whole can of worms anyway?

To take the second point first: what happens in Alexander Technique lessons (and between lessons if we, ahem, do our ‘homework’) is that we start to become more aware of some of the things we’re doing.  Over time, we not only notice more and more, but we can learn to articulate to ourselves what these things are.  By ‘things’, I mean unnecessary tension and the thinking behind - the cause of - this tension.      

In a lesson, you might make some lovely changes, experiencing ‘stopping stuff’; muscles relaxing, easing up.  It feels good.  You might then ask “how do I do this for myself?”  Well, one of the ways is to become more articulate about the labelling – the “oh that’s what I’m doing!”

Tight muscles mean that you are tightening them.  If you stop, they’ll no longer be tight.  This sounds simplistic of course, but it’s just true.  The hard bit is finding a way to stop the thinking that causes us to tighten muscles unnecessarily.  In the Alexander Technique, we’re not working on muscle, but on thought. 

How can you undo those knots in your shoulders?  It depends to some extent on the causes.  With some disease, or if you’re bashed up from falling off your bike, those knots won’t necessarily respond so well to the Alexander Technique.  But in the absence of injury or disease, you can stop making them.  The knots don’t ‘go away’.  You stop making them happen. 

Imagine life without those knots… Go on - open that can of worms…

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