Category Archives: Mind-body

Mindfulness & the Alexander Technique

This Saturday I’m giving a conference presentation, to discuss how learning the Alexander Technique can help people with hypermobility – I’ll come back to this topic next time. The talk that will precede my one is about mindfulness. So, why did I decide to call my presentation Embodying mindfulness through the Alexander Technique?

Mind full or mindful

Many of you will be familiar with this cartoon of having your mind full rather than being mindful – it’s all too easy to get too caught up in our busy lives, impacting our health and wellbeing. Practices such as mindfulness can help us be more present, and so can the Alexander Technique.

So how do they differ? I’ve made an attempt to portray how this cartoon might look if we consider it from the perspective of the Alexander Technique:

Alexander Technique mindfulness

Through learning the Alexander Technique we gradually become more present but as a whole mind-body self – we’re very much part of the picture, not just looking out (or inwards) from the mind – you could describe it as embodying mindfulness.

So the Alexander Technique is not a meditation practice, or indeed any kind of practice or exercise that you perhaps do for a certain amount of time each day or week, but rather it’s a way of thinking and being that is with you all the time as you go about your daily life.

FM Alexander was around long before our culture took up mindfulness with such enthusiasm. In his time, Alexander was described as Zen for the Western world. For him the mind/body is indivisible – whatever you are thinking now will be playing out physically in some way and vice versa. So he was a bit ahead of his time. At least the wider world now acknowledges that the mind and body are linked – but a linkage still implies two separate entities!

The Alexander Technique is a method for self-care and for change. It enables us to have more choice over how we respond to what life throws at us. Alexander teachers use hands on and spoken guidance to enable people to learn on both experiential and cognitive levels – they will be shown how they can quieten their over-active mind-body and improve their general standard of functioning – their breathing, postural support, balance and movement. In so doing, they generally discover a different and more confident sense of themselves.

The Alexander Technique and mindfulness are complementary, and both help people feel calmer and more in control. I would argue that learning the Alexander Technique has a greater potential to transform people’s lives because it works at such a fundamental level – how we react, how we move, how we breathe. But it is not a quick fix and it is not as accessible as some mindfulness interventions – you can’t just download an app. Learning the core Alexander skills and gaining sufficient understanding to apply it in your own life usually requires some one-to-one lessons. Not everyone has the time, money, or inclination for that but for those who are able to make that personal investment, it’s unlikely they will be disappointed.

When things go wrong

I had a lot of anger to deal with on Friday. On the phone to a well-known life-insurance company, I was shocked to find out that my mum had been misled about her policy. In her lifetime, my mum had done her best to make sure she was leaving all her affairs in order, and she had been assured that a scheme she’d paid a lot of money into would cover her funeral expenses. I discovered on the call that this was not the case. Despite my mounting anger, I was able to ensure I got the information I needed, to calmly but firmly make my case, and to take the matter further.

When people begin Alexander lessons, they don’t usually anticipate the all-encompassing nature of the technique. They often come for a specific reason – perhaps back pain, or stress, or for posture-related problems – and they’re pleasantly surprised to discover additional benefits in seemingly unrelated areas of life.

Understanding the fundamental nature of the Alexander Technique takes time. At the beginning one might assume that the core skill of learning to ‘not just immediately react’ might entail a suppression of emotions. With time it becomes clear that this is not in any way true – rather, we discover how we can best express our real feelings.

As I was listening to the person telling me why the policy would provide no money to pay for mum’s funeral, I was also noticing my (mounting) reaction. I was feeling a tightening in my chest, my brow became even more furrowed than usual, and my attention was narrowing in. I was beginning to hunch over my desk, gripping the phone hard. Oh, and I was holding my breath. So, as the conversation proceeded, I simply and repeatedly reminded myself of the support coming up through my sitting bones, and of the space around me. As I did this, I gradually became more aware of the room around me, and began to breathe more freely. Rather than spitting out the first words that came to me, I took a few seconds to regain my calm. In those moments, the right words came and in a tone that required to be taken seriously.

I’m still angry at the situation – even just writing this now, I can feel my jaw momentarily tighten. But I’m not turning the same thoughts over and over. That is what I would have done before and it would have harmed no-one but myself. But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to let the matter drop. I accept the real feelings of anger and frustration, and in accepting them they begin to lose their power.

Why hands-on in Alexander teaching?

Alexander Technique hands-on teaching The Alexander Technique is essentially a self-help method for positive change that involves discovering how to think differently. So why do Alexander teachers use hands-on work to help people learn the technique?

Touch can provide a subtle yet powerful means of communication. Hands-on Alexander work uses a gentle, reassuring, instructive, non-judgemental and unique quality of touch that requires at least 3 years of training to acquire – and which then continues to be refined over a lifetime of teaching. Here are the main reasons why we use hands-on work (not mutually exclusive):

  • Helping people become calmer, more present and more alert. When the whole mind-body self quietens, the best conditions possible are created for positive change and learning
  • Aiding the development of greater self-awareness
  • Providing abundant opportunities to help people develop and practice core Alexander skills, such as giving oneself time to make conscious choices over whether and how to respond to any given stimulus (rather than just reacting automatically)
  • Enabling people to discover a clearer sense of embodiment – the sense of self as a whole, rather than as a mind linked with a body
  • Helping people to develop greater integration, coordination and stability within themselves
  • Encouraging the development of better postural support and balance
  • Guiding movement to enable people to have an experience of more fluidity and less effort than they would otherwise have been able to achieve
  • Helping people become aware of habitual tension patterns, and to let go of excessive muscle tension
  • Enabling people to better manage and reduce pain
  • Assessing what is happening within people, to provide feedback and to guide and tailor the teaching to the individual.

Hands-on Alexander work can bring about a profound sense of well-being. When someone leaves an Alexander lesson they generally feel more relaxed, yet alert, and more in control – strong motivators to continue to apply the technique in their daily life.

The majority of Alexander teachers combine their hands-on work with spoken guidance and dialogue. This synergistic combination creates the optimal learning environment for most people, equally engaging both experiential and cognitive learning.

If the spoken guidance element of teaching is lacking, it’s much harder to enable people to think differently and to ‘gain all the tools’ needed. Outside of the lesson, people are then less equipped to be able to work out for themselves how to apply and develop the Alexander Technique for themselves. As a result they may remain more dependent on the teacher than they need be.

At the other end of the spectrum, a small number of Alexander teachers claim that it is possible to predominantly, or even solely, teach without the use of hands-on work. This is sometimes now taking the form of online teaching. Perhaps remote teaching can provide useful supplementary support for people who already have a reasonable amount of Alexander experience. However, and particularly for those beginning lessons, the teacher’s guiding touch provides an invaluable help in developing the core skills, such as the ability to not just react unthinkingly but to pause to choose whether and how to respond to a stimulus. So, not using any hands-on work makes learning harder but it will also leave people short-changed of the full potential of the Alexander Technique to transform their lives. An article by Alexander teacher Joe Armstrong, eloquently discusses the importance of hands-on work in enabling the longer-term and life-transformative changes that can occur as a result of Alexander lessons.

Another important consideration is that, to date, all of the Alexander teaching in clinical research trials has consisted of hands-on combined with spoken guidance. This research provides good evidence that one-to-one Alexander lessons using hands-on work together with spoken instruction are effective in reducing pain and disability for people with chronic pain (back or neck), as well as enabling people with Parkinson’s to manage the associated disability. In contrast, there is currently no research evidence that either hands-on work alone, or spoken guidance alone are effective. It is also worth remembering that when FM Alexander began teaching his technique to others, he started out using just spoken guidance. But he then brought in hands-on work because he discovered that words alone were rarely enough to convey his meaning. This nicely reflects the practical and experiential nature of the Alexander Technique.

So I would argue that combining hands-on and spoken guidance together is essential if we want the teaching process to be as effective as it can be. In this way, people will be equipped with the necessary skills and understanding to be able to apply the Alexander Technique for themselves, as well as to continue to learn and develop it for the long term.

Thinking differently about thinking

You might have heard it said that the Alexander Technique is ‘all about thinking’ but for many people this can come as something of a surprise when they first begin Alexander lessons. What’s more, they often find it hard to imagine that, outside of lessons, they could possibly be able to think about it very much at all – life is just too busy!

Thinking

But what do we mean here by ‘thinking’? The English language uses this one word as an umbrella term that encompasses a whole range of different types of conscious process. Here are some of the many ways in which we can think: we can analyse, calculate, evaluate, criticise, conclude, decide, anticipate and recollect. We also imagine, visualise, believe, create, and day-dream. Then again, we can observe, contemplate, appreciate, intend, choose and wish. I would say that the nature of Alexander thinking shares most in common with this last set of terms and least in common with the first.

Applying the Alexander Technique involves two distinctive ways of thinking that FM Alexander called ‘inhibition’ and ‘direction’. Practising inhibition involves developing greater conscious awareness of ourselves, such that we are more able to choose whether and how to respond in any given moment (rather than the default mode of reacting instantly and habitually). Over time this practice leads to a general quietening down of our whole self, so that our minds race less and our muscles tense less and we’re less likely to over-react to what life throws at us in the moment.

For me, ‘direction’ is thinking spatially from an embodied perspective. This means that, whatever I’m doing, my mind-body lies at the centre of my awareness, and this is organised around my head and spine as its axis. Like inhibition, the character of direction is expansive – a light brush stroke of attention that sweeps around, not an intense focus. For example, when I’m standing, I’m directing if I simply think of where the crown of my head is in relation to the ceiling and in which direction my weight is going. Such thinking will indirectly and beneficially impact on my posture (in this moment) in a way that simply thinking ‘I’ll try and stand up straight’ never could. So, inhibition and direction are not our usual ‘doing thinking’ but more a ‘state of being’ thinking.

Through the Alexander Technique we learn to think in a more embodied way and to develop and refine our natural skills of awareness, so that we can take in our environment and ourselves simultaneously. This ‘expansive awareness’ (external and internal at the same time) is a natural attribute (animals and young children have it) but it’s a skill that we increasingly lose as we grow up – largely because we’re constantly encouraged to pay very focused attention to the task in hand. For most people, most of the time, attention switches between external and internal; and the internal attention switches between feelings/sensations and thinking. The Alexander perspective is different, so for example, while I’m looking at the computer screen writing this post, I am also seeing the room around the screen (obviously not in focus), hearing the sounds outside, and I have a sense of my sitting bones in contact with the chair and the movement of my fingers over the keyboard as I choose what words to write next.

My experience, as well as that of my colleagues, is that Alexander training, and practising inhibition and direction in daily life, lead over time to an overall shift in our way of thinking. In general, we become less judgemental, not so self-critical, not as anxious, and less likely to fixate narrowly on our goals. Instead we become calmer, more optimistic (yet more realistic), more accepting and compassionate, and more open-minded, experimental, playful and quietly confident.

For many of us, it can often feel like we’re subject to a near-constant stream of random mental chatter, full of ‘what if…’ and ‘I should….’ thinking, as well as self-criticism and such-like. Engaging with Alexander thinking replaces some of this chatter in a very simple and effective way – better directing our mental energy, and with resultant benefits such as less tension and a calmer state of mind.

Enjoying the simple things in life

One of the many things that I really appreciate about the Alexander Technique is that it enables me to turn the mundane into the pleasurable – or at the very least, into something better than it would otherwise have been.

Woman squatting to load washing machine
Finding balance in squatting to load the washing machine

Whether I’m standing at the bus stop, doing the ironing, or waiting in a queue, these days I am rarely irritated and never bored. This is in stark contrast to my former self, before I began lessons in the Alexander Technique and later went on to train to be an Alexander teacher. I was always in a terrible rush, wanting to be somewhere I wasn’t yet. While sitting at traffic lights, I had an overwhelming urge to be getting going to reach my destination and this fed into a sense of mounting tension. At the checkout queue I often felt impatient whenever the person in front seemed to take ages to pack and pay. And with a demanding job that seemed to suck up nearly all of my time and energy, I resented every moment when I was ‘having to’ put out the bins or do the washing up. I just felt that this was all ‘wasted time’, when I could be doing more interesting or important things.

I’ve now been teaching the Alexander Technique for many years, sharing this wonderful secret of finding more contentment as we go about our daily lives. Through learning how to think, move and ‘be’ differently, we gradually become more present and aware. Like me, you need never be bored again, there’s a whole world of awareness, balance and simple movement to playfully explore.

Through the Alexander Technique I have found a profoundly greater peace of mind/body. It’s true that old habits die hard and I do still have a tendency to be thinking ahead, living in the future. But now I always have the capacity to bring myself back to the present, my embodied self, and to a greater sense of calm and happiness.

How does the Alexander Technique work?

Research paper movement anticipation affects posture

New research has shone light onto a possible cause of some of our unhelpful postural and movement habits. Dr Rajal Cohen and her team found that simply the anticipation of making a movement caused people to put their head out of alignment with the rest of their body [1]. The research illustrates a common tendency to over-focus on the desired end result (in this instance walking towards something in order to put an object down), without sufficient awareness or interest in what we might be doing to ourselves in the process of achieving our goal. This undesirable tendency (‘end-gaining’) is something we can learn to recognise and diminish through Alexander Technique lessons.

The Alexander Technique was developed during many months and years of dedicated and careful experimentation. It was the solution to a very personal, career-threatening problem – the loss of FM Alexander’s voice. The practical, thoughtful method that Alexander discovered, allowed him to overcome the persistent hoarseness that had plagued his life as a theatre actor.

Today people take Alexander lessons for a wide range of reasons covering areas as diverse as health, sports, music and business. Because of its fundamental nature – encompassing how we react, think, move and even breathe – the Alexander Technique can be applied in any activity, allowing greater choice, freedom and ease in everyday life.

Clinical trials have demonstrated that one-to-one Alexander lessons with STAT-registered teachers can lead to long-term reduction in persistent back and neck pain, as well as enabling people with Parkinson’s to minimise the effects of their condition on their daily lives. The Alexander Technique has been taught for many years in music and drama colleges, enabling students to improve their performance, and avoid anxiety and injury. It is now being taught in some schools to help children to ‘learn how to learn’, and Alexander lessons are also increasingly being taken up in business and in sports.

So how can one approach be applied across such diverse fields? How does the Alexander Technique actually work? FM Alexander first developed the method (the practice) and later sought to understand and explain the theory behind it. He was clearly ahead of his time, being one of the first in the Western world to recognise that mind and body are inseparable – this concept is beginning to be more widely accepted in our stubbornly dualistic world, but mostly we don’t get beyond simply acknowledging that there is some kind of link between mind and body. Alexander also recognised that the way we do everything that we do in life (our ‘use’) profoundly affects our long-term functioning – something that biomechanist, Katy Bowman eloquently writes about today. And Alexander’s method relies on our potential for fundamental change – and this potential has been borne out in more recent decades by neuroscience’s recognition of brain plasticity. Research by Tim Cacciatore and colleagues has demonstrated that training in the Alexander Technique leads to improved postural and overall muscle tone, movement coordination, flexibility and balance.

The latest research by Dr Cohen’s team is very welcome as it clearly supports Alexander’s belief that mind and body are indeed inseparable. The study found that just the thought of moving caused an anticipatory negative effect on posture. Furthermore this effect was more pronounced in those participants who were found to be least able to consciously prevent themselves from reacting to a test stimulus; and it was also worse in those who generally tended to be less ‘present’ (mindful).

Learning the Alexander Technique involves developing greater self-awareness and more conscious choice over how we respond in any situation. This skill of conscious (intentional) inhibition enables us to prevent unwanted habits, and thereby to access our inherent movement coordination, balance and posture that would otherwise tend to be hampered by such habits. Alexander work helps us remain more present and embodied. It enables us to avoid the tendency described in Dr Cohen’s research of continually ‘jumping ahead of ourselves and living in the future’.

Reference

1. Baer JL, Vasavada A, Cohen RG. Neck posture is influenced by anticipation of stepping. Human Movement Science 2019;64:108–122.

Self-aware but not self-critical

Leopard almost asleep yet alertIt’s not hard to imagine that this sleepy leopard could be up and moving in a flash if an unwitting young antelope happened to wander past. Even when totally relaxed, the leopard is alert and ready for action. A few hundred years ago most humans would probably have shared this same ability to remain aware of what is going on all around them and, just like the leopard, be quietly and calmly ‘ready for action’.

Our current world is full of mobiles, tablets and laptops and these tend to narrow in our focus, rendering us less aware of what is around us. We’ve all either been or seen someone who is so intent on their mobile that they collide with something when walking down the street; and it’s easy to spend a whole bus journey completely oblivious to everything and everyone around us. What’s more, we’re usually in a constant state of doing, or readiness for doing, as we dash about our busy lives. This tendency to hyperactivity and focused concentration makes it even harder to ever return to ‘neutral’ – a state of quiet contemplation.

In a previous post I talked about how awareness, intention and balance are, for me, the bedrock of the Alexander Technique. Having already explored the role that balance (in all its senses) plays in our lives, this month I’m taking a look at awareness and the particular kind of self-awareness that we develop through learning the Alexander Technique.

The awareness we gradually develop through Alexander lessons is largely an appreciation of ourselves in relation to our environment. Rather than our attention being focused at any one time on either the external or the internal, we take in both at once. I like to call this ‘expansive awareness’ whereby we bring together into an integrated whole, our sense of our physical self, our thinking self and the information coming in on what’s around us.

So, we are able to see with a real depth of vision rather than over-focusing on what we are directly looking at. Again, if you think of the leopard, it is able to pay close attention to something, without losing this wider awareness.[i] Similarly, we can appreciate the rich three-dimensionality of our field of hearing. During our Alexander journey we also begin to notice more and more how we have a tendency to over-tense and hold ourselves – and we learn how to use the Technique to reduce this. We also gain a better appreciation of one of our most important senses which is proprioception – the sense of where we are in space and how different parts of ourselves relate to each other spatially, including the sense of our movement. Although proprioception is largely ignored (it doesn’t even feature in the commonplace description of having ‘five senses’), without it we would be unable to do virtually anything in life.

It’s not just our physical selves that we become more aware of – I used to have very little sense of my body as I was such a ‘live-in-the-head’ person. Yet, at the same time I think I also had little awareness of the habitual nature of much of my thinking. Through the Alexander Technique I’ve gradually reduced the amount of the ‘I must / I should / I need to’ type of thoughts, as well as all the ‘what if…’ thoughts. As we begin to reduce the physical tension and mental chatter, we will feel calmer and more in control. So over time, as we develop our skills in applying the Alexander Technique, we become more and more conscious of the information that all our senses are gathering about ourselves and what is around us, as well as what we are thinking, and all this leads to a greater sense of embodiment.

One last thought – I’d like to make a clear distinction between self-awareness and self-criticism (in the sense of being judgemental). As our awareness of ourselves increases through the Alexander Technique, our habits (both physical and thinking) come more to the foreground of our attention. It can come as a bit of a surprise to find that we’ve spent most of our lives up to this point blissfully unaware that that way we are sitting, standing, texting etc is not that well-coordinated, nor are we in balance and so we’re tensing to hold ourselves up. As a result of this realisation, thoughts like ’I’m doing it all wrong’ or ‘oh no, I’m tensing up again’ are not infrequent reactions. Thankfully it soon becomes clear that such self-critical thoughts are counter-productive. No-one is ever going to be perfect, so striving for perfection or ‘being right’ is not achievable – nor indeed is it desirable – and in trying hard to get it right we will only encourage our existing tendency to tense up. Rather, a curiosity about ourselves and a non-judgemental interest in any unhelpful habits are catalysts for change.

So we don’t want to encourage self-criticism or self-obsession, just greater awareness of what we’re doing with ourselves as we go about our daily lives. Implicit in an awareness of an unwanted habit is a desire for change. Forming a clear intention to stop or reduce the habit is the most important step in bringing about change in a positive direction. And we’ll come back another time to intention – the third member in our Alexander triumvirate of awareness, intention and balance.

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[i] If you’re interested in reading more about this see Iain McGilchrist’s work where he describes how, for example a bird is able to pay close attention to the ground so that it can peck out the seeds from the grit, while at the same time remaining aware of what is around it to stay safe from predators. Humans seem to be gradually losing this ability and McGilchrist puts this down to the shifting relationship over the last few hundred years between the left and right hemispheres of our brain.

The answer to life, the universe and everything

Balance through the Alexander TechniqueIn the Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy, Douglas Adams’ famously cited the answer to life, the universe and everything as ‘42’. Looking at this ‘ultimate question’ from the perspective of an Alexander Technique teacher, I’d suggest that a more helpful and plausible answer might be ‘balance’.

Whether it’s life balance, balance in movement, or emotional balance – balance is something most of us aspire to. Perhaps surprisingly, even in such everyday activities as sitting or standing, we do not readily or regularly achieve a state of physical balance. Balance is a dynamic process and habits such as locking knees and other joints will interfere with this, as any rigidity prevents the natural and very subtle postural sway. Our physical balance is also affected by our tendency to ‘live in the future’ rather than being in the present moment, with our minds one step ahead of our bodily selves. For example, while I’m reaching out for something, my mind tends to already be onto the next action – thinking what I’m going to be doing with the object I’m just about to take hold of. The result can be that I very readily pull myself slightly off balance in reaching out, rather than allowing myself to take that necessary extra step closer. Unless we are in balance, we have to over-use muscles in order to stay upright and in position. So frequently being slightly off balance is one source of excess muscular tension.

In Alexander Technique lessons, people learn how to come into a state of balance and how to maintain this while moving, standing, sitting etc – they’re often surprised by the experience of ease and pleasure that this brings. They also learn how to use awareness and intention to carry this through into the rest of their daily lives – discovering how to find better balance in everyday activities, reducing the habitual tension patterns that are no longer needed to ‘hold themselves up’.

Equally as desirable as ‘physical’ balance is ‘mental’ or ‘emotional’ balance. When we’re in a state of equilibrium we feel more able to deal with the world and calmly consider different options or perspectives, without jumping to a decision or viewpoint based solely on preconceived ideas or simple habit. When we practise Alexander thinking we can find a better ‘mental / emotional’ balance. Rather than just reacting immediately in a ‘knee-jerk’ habitual way, we learn to give ourselves more space and time in which we can choose whether and how to respond to what life throws at us. And in that brief moment of non-responding, as we bring our awareness to ourselves and form a clear intention of what we do and don’t want, everything has a chance to organise and we come into a better state of physical balance. And vice versa – so if, for example, I’m nicely balanced on my sitting bones on the chair while typing this, I’m going to feel a bit calmer than I would if I were hunched over my computer. So, from an Alexander perspective, we’re not composed of separate physical and mental entities but as one mind-body self. A better sense of ourselves as embodied beings leaves us better placed to tackle life’s ‘ups and downs’.

We’re encouraged by our culture to look for certainty and absolutes (‘work as hard as you can’ rather than ‘do a good job and go home at a reasonable time’; ‘be the fastest’ rather than just ‘enjoy your run’; ‘make sure you make the right choice’ rather than ‘weigh it all up and go with what seems the best option’ etc). However, very little in life is black and white, and extremes in any aspect of life are generally not desirable. We sometimes set ourselves unrealistic goals and then give up disheartened when we don’t immediately achieve the desired outcome.

As we begin to apply the Alexander Technique in our daily lives we become more aware of the physical and thinking habits that tend to pull us off balance, and we learn how to reduce this interference. We also discover that when our intention is clear, we are more able to focus on the desired direction of travel and to fixate less on wanting immediate results.

It’s not about trying to achieve some state of perfect balance in all things and at all times, but rather, by using the Alexander Technique we can continue to find a better balance in our lives. In a nutshell, the Alexander Technique is about awareness, intention and balance. Greater awareness of ourselves, together with clear intention, tend to lead to better balance (in all senses of the word) both in the moment and for the long term.

 

“My life’s a mess! I need a counsellor…and a chiropracter…and a coach and a…..”

We have a tendency to split ourselves into different bits. If we want help defining or achieving our goals we visit a life coach, for physical fitness we might go to a personal trainer, for aches and pains it may be a physiotherapist, and for anxiety perhaps a psychotherapist. Of course, if we want to address one specific issue or aspect of ourselves, then seeing one of these professionals could be exactly what is needed. But thinking more widely, what if we’re interested in improving the way we work as a whole (mind-body), to protect and promote our health for the long term, to be able to stay calm and think clearly, and to achieve the best we can? Is there an approach that is truly holistic that will enable us to achieve these goals – and one which we can access at any and every moment we choose?

And why is it that we tend to compartmentalise ourselves into the mind and the body, and to split the body into different discrete parts? Descartes, and even going as far back as Plato, have a lot to answer for! Our whole culture and way of thinking is centred on mind-body dualism. When we think of ‘I’ we often mean the conscious thinking self (the voice in one’s head) and the body is often seen as simply the vehicle that carries us around – a ‘vehicle’ that we often mistrust, sometimes dislike, and even fear when it ‘goes wrong’. You can notice this attitude in everyday expressions such as ‘my back is hurting me’ − this implies the back is an object that I possess, in much the same way as I might say ‘my car has a fault’. Much of our conventional attitude to health and illness is shaped by this assumption. So for example, if my back is hurting I may assume this is exclusively a physical problem, and I might then look for a specific treatment or specific exercises to strengthen certain muscles. But the thing is that we aren’t an assembly of mechanical parts and we operate as a whole; it’s not just that we’re inter-connected, rather we are indivisible mind-bodies. Not recognising this fully, we don’t always consider whether perhaps the root of the problem, and indeed the solution, might lie partially or wholly elsewhere from the immediate symptom. So for example, an ankle problem may result from the overall way that I walk and stand; and pain is always worse if I anticipate pain. If your car develops a problem with its headlights you’d probably be right in not expecting that the actual cause of the problem could be the tyres. A car is a mechanical object but we’re not, we’re highly complex beings where everything about us affects everything else; the mind can’t be separated from the body, or the body split into discrete independent parts.

Perhaps a more helpful idea than Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am’ would be ‘I am what I think’. I would argue that every thought that we have translates into some kind of physical quality in ourselves – as well as the converse, our physical state affects our mental/emotional state. That’s probably obvious for things like getting stressed about something and feeling tension develop in shoulders, neck etc, and the vicious circle that ensues. But you might think that this would not apply for more abstract things such as, for example, the ‘mental’ activity of reading your emails? Well try it and see whether you notice any of these happening: holding your breathing, eyes staring fixedly or glazing over, brow furrowing, lips pursing. Why would any of these occur if mind and body did operate independently?

The Alexander Technique is a practical, logical and empowering self-care, self-development method that can be learnt with the help of a qualified teacher. The teacher will use both hands-on gentle guidance and dialogue to engage you in a process of learning that is both experiential and cognitive. You will begin to notice those physical and thinking habits that interfere with your natural movement coordination and balance, and also your freedom of choice. You will discover how you can harness your thinking to free yourself of such habits and to exert a strong positive influence on yourself. Being more self-aware and also clear in your intention, you will find that activities of daily life can be carried out in a more considered and mindful way. Being shown how to reduce the habits that interfere, you can begin to allow the natural coordinating mechanism of your dynamic head-neck-back relationship to work as it should, so that movement can occur with minimum effort, fluidity and balance. This natural movement coordination can be seen in most toddlers and also in animals – think of the grace with which a wild horse runs. Through Alexander lessons, you will notice less tendency towards tension, easier breathing, and a greater sense of calm. The Alexander Technique is not a quick fix but as our overall functioning gradually improves, specific problems have a much better chance of resolving. Gradually, we become better able to look after ourselves in everyday life, and for the long term, and we generally find it a bit easier achieving what we want to achieve

So, faced with all the problems and challenges that we encounter through our lives, does it make sense to look for someone else to fix things for us, searching for a different type of professional help each time we encounter a different problem? Or, alternatively, why not find out about a method that can provide life-long skills so that you can own an approach to help you tackle any and every challenge that you face (whether it might be labelled as ‘physical’ or ‘mental’ or both?)

See https://alexandertechnique.co.uk for a directory of teachers in your area who are registered with the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT). STAT is the world’s largest and most long-standing professional body of Alexander teachers. All STAT-registered teachers have successfully completed a 3-year full-time training course and adhere to a published Code of Professional Conduct.

Embodying mindfulness

I’ve sometimes heard the Alexander Technique described as ‘Zen for the Western World’. With the help of an Alexander teacher we can learn to become more present and mindful as we go about our daily life.

It’s not just about ‘being in the moment’ though − we are, after all, embodied beings. Being more present is incredibly important but is not enough on its own to allow free and easy movement, and a better quality of life without the so-very common back, neck and joint aches and pains. Alexander lessons engage us as a whole (mind-body) in an experiential learning process in which we begin to think, move (and be) differently; over time it becomes a truly transformative process. The lessons guide us to continue to apply the skills we’ve learnt to our everyday activities, and gradually our postural support, balance and movement coordination improve. I always remember the time while I was having lessons and before I trained to be a teacher, when I suddenly realised one day sitting at my desk at work that I was comfortable for the first time, sitting effortlessly. After many years of the continual ‘yo-yo of habitual slouching / trying to sit up straight’, my postural muscle support system had gradually ‘woken up’ through the lessons and started working well again, while I was also letting go of the excessive muscle tension that I’d been using to try and hold myself up. During this period my colleagues were also commenting on how I was the one who always remained calm when our work became particularly stressful.

Through the Alexander Technique we become more aware of ourselves and how we’re responding, moment by moment, to what life presents; it enables us to discover how to lessen the habitual interferences with our natural movement coordination, balance and postural support and how to improve these fundamentally important aspects of ourselves. So yes, I think that the term ’embodying mindfulness’ is a good way of describing what the Alexander Technique is and what it achieves.