So what is the Alexander Technique all about? I sometimes like to describe it as awareness, intention and balance. In previous posts I described how learning and applying the technique enables us to develop greater self-awareness and come into a better state of balance (physical & mental). Today I’m considering the key role of intention.
It’s about being clear what you want and what you don’t want. So for example, I may want to get that pot of jam from the high kitchen shelf but I’m also clear that I’d rather not pull myself off balance, and so have to over-tense all my muscles, as I reach up for it.
One of the key skills we learn in Alexander lessons is to prioritise ‘looking after ourselves’ over and above the urge to simply attain the goal. The goal in question could be as mundane as getting a pot of jam, or as significant as deciding what career to embark on next. ‘Looking after ourselves’ encompasses a desire not to rush to just grab at the goal – this is an ingrained habit for the vast majority of us (in industrialised countries at least). Amongst other things it involves unnecessarily compressing the spine and joints as we physically or metaphorically reach out to grasp what we want. Through the experience gained in Alexander lessons, we become aware of this tendency. We begin to notice how we’re constantly and unintentionally mucking ourselves up by narrowing in our attention on the desired goal – interfering with the natural rhythm of our breathing, muscular tone and balance, as well as the clarity of our thinking. We gradually learn to pay more attention to how we carry out our daily activities, rather than just focussing unthinkingly on the goal of each activity itself.
This is one of the basic principles of the Alexander Technique, namely to prioritise the means of attaining a goal, rather than fixating on the goal itself. Occasionally this principle is misunderstood to imply that we shouldn’t have goals, or that our goals are unimportant. Having clear goals is, of course, essential; it’s simply a question of how we achieve them and, if we’re not careful, at what cost. Paradoxically, by learning to confer greater importance on looking after ourselves than on just trying to achieve the immediate goal, we will be more effective and are more likely to succeed than if we only focus on the desired end result.
Considering a simple example such as throwing a dart makes this last point clear. If all your attention is focused on achieving the highest score, you’re likely to be less mindful of how you prepare for the action and how you then throw the dart. Furthermore, it’s very difficult to stay present if your mind is on the score you want to get (in the future), or on what happened in your last experience of throwing a dart (in the past). In contrast, providing you are clear what your overall target/intention is, you can then allow yourself to stay sufficiently present to stop holding your breath, stop scrunching yourself up so much, and bring yourself into balance – and that’s not a bad starting point for any activity. The rest can then take care of itself. We’ve all heard of athletes doing incredible feats when they’re ‘in the zone’, and the same principle applies to how well-coordinated we are when we throw a dart or just walk down the road.
Another source of potential misunderstanding is thinking that this Alexander focus on the how, i.e the process, means that we need to try and work out exactly how to carry out the action in question. Consider any action – let’s take the example of throwing a dart again – and bear in mind that we have more than 600 muscles in our body. It’s immediately obvious that we cannot consciously work out exactly which parts of us need to be doing what at any given moment. The bio-mechanics required for almost any action are way beyond the ability of our conscious mind to determine. And yet in the mainstream, we’re bombarded by endless streams of advice on ‘the required grip for the dart’, the ‘desired position of your head’ in golf, what to do with your so-called ‘core muscles’ in Pilates etc. Unfortunately, when we try to work out at this level of detail what actually needs to happen, we’ll simply end up trying to micro-manage ourselves. This internal focus of attention leads to excessive muscular tension as we fruitlessly dictate what different ‘parts’ of ourselves need to do.
The point is that we already know how to coordinate ourselves well to carry out an immense range of intricate movements and actions. It’s the way we moved when we were 2–3 year-olds. But we ‘know it’ with our subconscious minds and bodies, and this knowledge has become buried under many years of habit. Putting into practice the Alexander Technique involves being clear in our intention, and using self-awareness to help ourselves prevent the habits that would otherwise interfere. Reducing the habitual interferences allows our inherent ‘blueprint’ or ‘template’ of coordination and balance to begin to re-emerge with its characteristic poise, ease and freedom of movement.
So, the Alexander Technique helps us be clear what our overall intention is, to create the best conditions we can in ourselves, and to make sure we’re getting all the information we need to be able to achieve the goal (keeping the eye on the ball etc). This approach is backed up by sports science research which has demonstrated that an external focus of attention for the action is required for best results [Wulf, 2007]. Applying the Alexander Technique does encompass an internal focus of attention as well, but this is aimed at reducing what we don’t want i.e. not interfering by letting our usual habits creep in. Crucially, we aspire to developing an expansive awareness that encompasses both the external (the surrounding environment) and the internal (our mind/body) into one integrated whole.
In the examples above I’ve used activities that might commonly be described as largely ‘physical’ (reaching for a pot, or throwing a dart) but exactly the same principles apply for anything, whether a physical action, a train of thought, or a life goal. Whatever the aim, we need to be clear what is our overall intention and not just to fixate on an immediate outcome. As an analogy, if you’re sailing across a lake to get to a point on the other side, you won’t get far if you simply strive hard to go directly to that point. Instead, as long as you know the overall destination you’re heading for, if you pay attention to the general conditions of wind and weather, you’ll be able to navigate the best route with all its twists and turns, and get to where you want to go.
Summing up, we’d like a clear intention of what we want, a friendly monitoring of our ingrained tendency to muck ourselves up, and a resolute decision to not just slip into habit but stick with our intention and then to allow it all to happen.
Wulf G. Attention and motor skill learning. Human Kinetics, USA 2007.