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The Alexander Technique: Indispensable for Optimum Health

by Annie Kaszina with Madelene Webb(more info)

listed in alexander technique, originally published in issue 94 - November 2003

If you were given the option of acquiring an indispensable strategy for optimum health, what would stop you from doing so? Would it be doubt? Anxiety around the possibility of open-ended change? Would the financial cost deter you? Or would it be the perceived drudgery of having to become aware of whole areas of your life in which you are currently operating on automatic pilot? "You can have anything you want in life, but you do have to pay… attention", brilliantly encapsulates a fundamental paradox. Attention is both the cheapest commodity – theoretically, at least, we all have it in spades – and, seemingly, the most jealously guarded.

We remember our own response when first told that we needed to pay attention to the ways in which our thinking impacted on the way our body moved through space. We found ourselves defensively echoing the immortal words of John McEnroe: 'You cannot be serious!' Our teacher could not seriously imagine that we had the time in our busy lives to pay attention to our physical well-being. Per-lease!

Yet we overcome our own innate scepticism. We have even overcome – to a degree, at any rate – a powerful drive to wallow in that state of semi-consciousness which is so easy to slip into on the journey to work, in the gym, when you're watching the television, when you're in a boring meeting, or doing the housework or… When you start to think about it, the list goes on and on.

But, since this article is all about awareness, perhaps we need to reframe our previous premise. Perhaps the blessed state of semi-consciousness is actually the norm, interrupted only when we have a specific and in some way challenging task to address. If this is so, perhaps we should ask instead: how much of the time are you fully present in the moment? How much of the time do you give any thought to the way you organize your body as a whole?

Speaking personally, two things enabled us to start paying attention. Firstly, doing so proved far less onerous than we had first thought and even turned out to be good fun at times. We learned what fascinating creatures we, like all human beings, are. Secondly, we soon cottoned on to the fact that it could be surprisingly beneficial.

What You Think is What You Get

Life coach Mark Forster writes: "… focused attention is the key to virtually every problem and challenge in life, and the more we learn how to direct and focus our attention, the more skilled we will be at life. This is because anything that we give our attention to will start to change. Of course, everything changes constantly anyway, whatever we do. But the choice we have is whether to be involved in the change or not… Human attention is the way humanity has progressed, and when humanity has failed to progress it has usually been because we have resisted or ignored change instead of paying attention to it."[1]

Some 70 years earlier, writing about the Technique he evolved, Frederick Matthias Alexander develops: "the idea of taking the control of the use of the mechanisms of the human creature from the instinctive to the conscious plane…" He adds: "… it may be many years before its true significance as a factor in human development is fully recognized."[2]

Alexander was very clear about the significance and implications of his Technique. He notes: "This process of directing energy out of familiar into new and unfamiliar paths, a means of changing the manner of reacting to stimuli, implies of necessity, an ever-increasing ability… to 'pass from the known to the unknown'; it is, therefore, a process which is true to the principle involved in all human growth and development."[2[ An empirical thinker, Alexander invariably passes from the known to the unknown and from the particular to the general. From his standpoint, major personal transformation is the likely consequence of the individual's increasing awareness of 'the manner of reacting to stimuli'.

A Technique for Maintaining Control of Our Reactions

Put simply, most of the time most of us have reacted to a stimulus before we even think about it. In practice, this can apply to any number of situations: it may mean rushing to answer the phone on automatic pilot; it may mean the knee-jerk reaction when people 'press our buttons'. Equally, it describes all the times we move – or behave – in a certain way, based on assumptions that we formed in the past and are not testing in the present circumstance.

Our assumptions may be correct and useful, or they could be wrong and detrimental. Until we test them we cannot know. We are better placed to test them if we have a technique in place that enables us systematically to put a little space between the stimulus and our response. Instead of trying to control our reactions, we put ourselves in charge of them.

Alexander makes the point succinctly, asking his reader: "If a technique which can be proved to do this for an individual were to be made the basis of an educational plan, so that the growing generation could acquire a more valid criterion for self-judgement than is now possible… might this not lead in time to the substitution of reasoning reactions for those instinctive reactions which are manifested as prejudice, racial and otherwise, herd instinct, undue 'self-determination' and rivalry etc…?"[2]

Walking the Talk

Now, at the beginning of the 21st century this may not sound like ground-breaking stuff. These days, exploring our patterns of reaction to emotional stimuli has become commonplace, and we – rightly – expend considerable energy on achieving mental clarity with counsellors, therapists, coaches, mentors and others. We also focus on looking after our physical well-being, usually as a quite separate issue.

One hundred years ago, Alexander was already walking the talk, in the most literal sense. For Alexander, man is an indivisible 'psycho-physical' whole. 'Changing the walk' affords us a range of tools for transforming 'the talk' also. The self-development industry is all about transforming our internal monologue. Yet our body-set may remain unchanged.

The Alexander Technique is an unparalleled tool for transforming our body-set into one of openness, confidence and well-being. It creates poise and grace of movement, thereby literally enabling people to walk the talk with a new ease. Inevitably, when the walk becomes more of a glide than a shuffle or a drag, the talk also gains in clarity and lustre.

Unity of the Individual Human Being

Elizabeth Langford offers an exceptionally clear-sighted and accessible portrayal of the Alexander Technique in her book Mind and Muscle: An Owner's Handbook.[3] In it she observes: "[The] head-to-toe organizations of muscle which determine our shape and physical attitudes, are closely associated with our moods and even with more enduring personal characteristics. We speak of someone looking as if he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. We say my back is broad – meaning 'I can cope'.

"What this kind of language so vividly expresses is the unity of the individual human being. The intuitive wisdom of everyday speech recognizes no mind-body split. If I am depressed or I feel great, it is I who feels depressed or great, not my body or my mind. There is a coherence, a consistency between 'inner' and 'outer' states – and that is fine, so far as it goes… There is a natural wish, even, to use the body to express emotions, moods, personality traits… There is also a need to retain the possibility of an expanded, balanced framework. Between these two needs we have to maintain a balance, lest we become what popular wisdom calls unbalanced."[3]

The Power of Thought

Aged 90, Margaret Goldie, a pre-eminent teacher of the Alexander Technique observed to Fiona Robb: "People don't recognize the power of thought. They think that they cannot change, and they go on doing their own thing and they do not change. They do not realize that what you think is what you get."[4] The simple fact that Miss Goldie was an outstanding Alexander teacher at 90, should be proof enough of the power of focused thought, that is, paying attention.

The message that what you think is what you get is not, apparently, cutting edge. We would argue that it appears frequently, in various contexts; and is usually disregarded. In the main, people seem to be beset by an assumption – untested – of the impossibility of change.

In our experience, people come to an Alexander teacher because they would like things to change. Yet they don't entertain the idea that they can experience profound, beneficial change in the way their body moves and serves them throughout their daily life. Still less do they come entertaining the idea that they can use the tools they learn through Alexander lessons to effect beneficial change for themselves, for ever after.

The Poise of a Person's Head

Donald Weed, an American Alexander teacher observes:

"The poise of a person's head in its dynamic relationship with his or her body in movement is the key to freedom and ease of movement."[5]

In these few words he neatly encapsulates an underlying principle of the Alexander Technique.

Much has been written about the 'head-neck-back relationship', largely by Alexander teachers for Alexander teachers. Given the difficulty of trying to convey an utterly foreign neuro-muscular experience through words on a page, we simply ask:
• Do you currently feel that your head is in dynamic relationship with your body?
• Do you currently consider that the relationship between your head and your body is key to your physical sense of well-being and poise?
• Have you any sense of how a dynamic relationship between your head and body might differ from the present situation?

Ideally, you would answer 'yes' to all three questions. In practice, perhaps these questions will stimulate you to think about how you experience your head sitting atop your body. Maybe you haven't given it much thought before, but the poise – or set – of your head has come about as a consequence of your life's experience, any injuries or trauma sustained at any time and your assumptions.

More often than not there is a fixed 'set' to a person's head. It may be held tilted slightly – or not so slightly – to one side; it may demonstrate the proverbial 'chin up' attitude – which pulls the back of the head down thereby compressing the cervical vertebrae and beyond; it may aspire to settle on the chest or shoulders; it may sit rigidly atop a neck that juts forward.

Being in poise implies being supported and in balance, as the dictionary suggests, whereas these fixed 'sets' reveal a relationship of the head with the body that is unbalanced and uneasy. Over time this is likely to generate significant physical uneasiness.

How Pupils Experience the Alexander Technique

Pupils of the Alexander Technique often comment on feelings of lightness and the effortlessness of movement. Another sensation that they frequently mention is that they feel 'floaty' – and often do float, or glide, out of the door after a lesson. (It is one of the hallmarks of the Alexander lesson that the pupil floats off at peace with the world, while the Alexander teacher glances after their receding back with a smile of satisfaction.)

We bring up the 'floaty' sensation, because we feel it encapsulates the experience that pupils discover in Alexander lessons. With the exception of those people who have a fear of water, most of us have experienced a sense of effortlessness, flow, buoyancy and well-being when we have been supported by a body of water.

Generally, this experience tends not to be replicated on dry land, where standing, sitting, walking etc. for any length of time often becomes hard work. Yet this need not be the case. The more we can restore innate natural poise the more we can enjoy physical harmony in activity, and in stillness.

The effect can be profound; a 'floaty' body is a powerful tool for generating a buoyant outlook. Elizabeth Langford cites a pupil of hers in her sixties, who catalogues health improvements and a renewed zest for intellectual work, then adds: "One disadvantage – I had come to terms with Death – genuinely, and suitably, at my age; this is no longer so; life is beckoning hard…"[3]

A pupil of ours, in her fifties, rites: "Since… being taken through the mental route of organizing my movements, I feel positive about facing my future years. I feel that I will be able to handle normal, routine movements… The Alexander Technique… [has] guided me onto a path of self-help and awareness. I have become aware of how I can do things in a constructive way. I no longer feel I have to just accept pain."

People come to an Alexander teacher with a specific problem and a specific and limited focus on the presenting problem. Over a course of lessons, they acquire the myriad benefits of a truly holistic technique. As another pupil notes: "Not only has my whole posture improved, my back feels stronger, the pains in my legs have gone… I was surprised to find that, in addition to my back feeling stronger and a general feeling of being physically more robust, I also feel much stronger mentally. I feel more confident and a good deal calmer."

From an Alexander point of view, you could almost say that pupils learn to talk the walk; with physical poise comes a corresponding mental poise. As another Alexander pupil puts it: "It doesn't just help with physical problems, it also lifts the spirit."

A Process of Re-education

Ultimately, the Alexander Technique is a process of re-education. This is why we speak of pupils, not clients. What is taught are simple tools for profound transition from limitation to being in charge of your physical and emotional well-being.

Alexander pupils learn these tools with a teacher in structured situations. Usually these are: being taken from standing to sitting and sitting to standing; lying in semi-supine on the teaching table; application work, i.e. applying the principles of the Alexander Technique to a specific activity. These are simply the most effective vehicles for conveying the system that FM Alexander discovered.

As Elizabeth Langford notes: "In solving his own problem, Alexander had made a discovery applicable to every form of human activity. He did not stop there. Having realized that verbal explanation is inevitably understood in terms of the hearer's previous experience, he developed a teaching technique, which makes use of subtle and precise touch where words might be misleading. The efficiency of the guiding touch depends on the teacher's own co-ordination; there is no question of being able to tea ch Alexander's discoveries without having integrated them into one's own life… Among Alexander teachers can be found those who rely chiefly on touch as a method of communication, whereas others enjoy responding to request for verbal explanation… Beyond all individual variations, Alexander offers us basic principles, universal and unchanging, which one cannot afford to ignore, for they govern the human organism in all its activities."3

Case Study

Chris had already been a chronic pain sufferer for some time by the time he started learning the Alexander Technique at age 21.

He suffered with chronic back pain, head ache, dizziness, loss of balance, difficulty walking very far, lack of physical stamina and an inability to endure anything more than short car journeys. In short, his young life was gravely impaired. Visits to his GP and hospital consultants had not brought about any improvement in his quality of life.

Chris says: "After my first experience [of the Alexander Technique], I was instantly in love with something that could make everyday activity feel so much more natural, pleasant and pain-free… I have been receiving work nearly every week since."

Chris is now free from the chronic pain and limitations that he was told he would have to learn to live with. Occasionally, the old aches and pains do surface, but through the Alexander Technique he has learned how to keep them in check successfully.

His days are now much fuller, more active and free of the fear of triggering the pain. Walking and car journeys have ceased to be a problem. "Friends and family have noticed the change in physical posture and presence, as well as the more laid-back, serene and in-control 'me'!"

Chris now feels able to go ten-pin bowling, work out in the gym – albeit with due care and consideration for his body – jog and do battle with the rampant Russian vine whose mission it is to overrun his garden.

References

1. Forster M. Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play. Hodder & Stoughton. London. 2000.
2. Alexander FM. The Use of the Self. Re-Educational Publications Limited. Manchester. 1932.
3. Langford E. Mind and Muscle: An Owner's Handbook. Garant. Leuven-Appeldorn. 1999.
4. Robb F. Not To Do. Camon Press. London. 1999.
5. Weed DL. What You Think is What You Get. 1445 Publications. Switzerland. 1990.

 

Power walking and loving it. Notice how perfectly balanced this child is. Her right foot is just about to lift off the grass and she is supported by her left leg and foot, but she looks poised, fluid and light. Whereas an adult would tend to shift their weight onto the supporting leg, this child's stance looks almost weightless

Power walking and loving it. Notice how perfectly balanced this child is. Her right foot is just about to lift off the grass and she is supported by her left leg and foot, but she looks poised, fluid and light. Whereas an adult would tend to shift their weight onto the supporting leg, this child's stance looks almost weightless

 

The perfect squat. In order to inspect the flower more closely, she has 'folded' at the joints designed for folding; chiefly the knees and hips. She has chosen to turn her head to look at the flower, rather than twisting her body. Adults often turn their body or collapse their spine, rather than simply moving the head on the top of their spine

The perfect squat. In order to inspect the flower more closely, she has 'folded' at the joints designed for folding; chiefly the knees and hips. She has chosen to turn her head to look at the flower, rather than twisting her body. Adults often turn their body or collapse their spine, rather than simply moving the head on the top of their spine

 

Present in the moment. Unlike an adult, there is nothing in the child's body-set or language to suggest tension, rush, worry or pain. Too many adults lose the knack of shedding other considerations in the moment

Present in the moment. Unlike an adult, there is nothing in the child's body-set or language to suggest tension, rush, worry or pain. Too many adults lose the knack of shedding other considerations in the moment

 

Comments:

  1. Ro Harding said..

    Am interested


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About Annie Kaszina with Madelene Webb

Annie Kaszina BA PhD MSTAT is a Life Coach and Alexander Technique teacher with a passion for helping people to find new ways to get the most out of their life. Annie discovered the Alexander Technique after years spent hunched over academic research, and a passion for martial arts led to chronic neck and lower back pain. Through AT she got rid of the pain and achieved 'psycho-physical balance'. Annie's work is focused on enabling people to find more physical and emotional lightness in their life. Annie works in NW London and Essex. To book an Alexander lesson Tel: 0845 6442341. She can be contacted via anniekazina@btopenworld.com Madelene Webb BA (Hons) MSTAT is committed to teaching the Alexander Technique to people who want to learn to take responsibility for their own mental and physical well-being. Madelene works in private practice in Stoke Newington, Belsize Park and Covent Garden. She also teaches at The Mary Ward Centre in central London. She can be contacted on Tel: 020 8533 6476; madelene.webb@virgin.net. To find out more about the Alexander Technique, receive free resources and subscribe to our free, light-hearted, e-newsletter, go to www.nopain-gain.com

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