Author Archives: julia

A life ruled by habit?

Habit and change spelled with Scrabble

We all develop habits – our usual way of doing things. As young children we learn how to walk, talk etc partly through mimicking the adults around us (which inevitably involves copying their habits). Later we may want to emulate our peers and slouch nonchalantly to ‘look cool’. Or perhaps we injure ourselves and have to adjust so that we can, for example, walk without pain – only to continue walking in that way when the pain has resolved. If we experience trauma, we develop coping strategies that then stay with us, even if the person or event that we’re protecting ourselves from are no longer there. Habits develop as a response to many different situations.

And why do we always end up hunched over our desks and our mobiles? Simply because mind and body are not separate entities, so wherever our attention is, the rest of ourselves want to be there too – and these days our attention is often absorbed in a screen of one sort or another!

Habits are inherently neither good nor bad. They allow us to get things done quickly as we don’t have to pay attention to how we are carrying out all the acts of daily life. This may not be too much of a problem if we are able to retain our poise and coordination as we carry out our everyday activities but that is rarely the case. Being on ‘automatic pilot’ has its downsides.

One of the, perhaps less obvious, reasons we get stuck in habit mode is because of how our sense systems work. Generally speaking, we are consciously aware of differences not constants. Every moment nerve signals are conveying a whole host of information including visual, auditory, proprioceptive (sense of oneself in space), olfactory, gustatory, and touch related (texture, temperature, etc). It would be impossible to be consciously aware of the myriad of sense signals that our brains receive every second. So we tend to pay attention to what’s different – and that makes sense from an evolutionary perspective because anything that is different could represent either a threat or an opportunity.

However, this system evolved (and was therefore probably quite effective) for a world that is rather different from the one we live in today. Going back pre-industrial revolution, most people would have lived in a less complex environment, with no fast-paced cities or technology. At the same time, their lives would have been less sedentary and more varied in terms of the range of movement moment by moment throughout a typical day. In contrast, today many of us are stuck at a desk – staring at a screen, using a keyboard sitting on chairs for many hours at a time. If we do spend a lot of time sitting, we’re likely to have little or no awareness of our sitting bones (being busy paying attention to ‘more important things’); but if something were to change, e.g. if the seat became warm, then we’d probably notice this.

If our life consists of many hours of repetition e.g. sitting and looking at a screen, then we are likely to simply cease to register when we begin to slump, or tilt our head to one side, or shift the weight mostly onto one sitting bone, or to grit our teeth or generally tense up. Whatever it is that we’re doing with ourselves becomes our habit. Crucially, because it’s ‘normal’, it begins to feel right. So, for example, a habitually tilted head will feel like it’s straight. Not surprisingly, it’s hard to change when something fundamentally feels right i.e. is what we always do. That’s why it’s such a challenge if we want to change the way we sit, move, eat, think etc.

More than 100 years ago, FM Alexander recognised that we’re gradually losing our ability to accurately interpret all the information we receive through our senses, and he coined the term faulty sensory appreciation. He realised that we are usually governed by what feels right – by the force of habit. He recognised it first in himself, when he observed his habitual response to being on stage, and deduced that how he was standing and speaking lay at the root of his voice problems. His next important discovery was that he was unable to stop these habits simply by force of will. Alexander developed a method that enabled him to be free of these habits, and then worked out how to teach his method to others. The Alexander Technique enables us to lessen the habits that hold us back and to have more choice in our lives – we can’t often change the world around us but we can find more freedom and happiness in how we respond to it.

Choosing our future

Yes Scottish Independence flag

It can take a little while, when learning the Alexander Technique, to begin to believe that such huge potential can be opened up by simply becoming more present in oneself and taking a tiny moment before responding to life’s myriad stimuli. When we don’t go down the usual immediate reaction route, then we gain the opportunity to be curious, to ask questions and allow new possibilities to emerge: ‘Do I really need to scrunch up my shoulders to reach for my cup of tea’?, ‘Can I find more ease and calm while sitting here?’, or ‘Are my beliefs and opinions stuck, or can they respond to changing circumstances within a shifting world’?

What would FM Alexander have made of the current state of the world? He was born well before the welfare state came into being and he lived through two world wars. In his lifetime he noted a: ‘…growing tendency towards disunion instead of unity, towards dissatisfaction instead of satisfaction, towards enmity and discord instead of good-fellowship and peace’.1 It would seem that little has changed! His writing of more than 70 years ago remains just as relevant to today’s politics; he observed: ‘Under the present plan, politics and deception are interdependent. The individual seeking re-election will resort to forms of deception to which he would not stoop in other walks of life, particularly in the matter of making promises which he has not the least hope of fulfilling…’ Alexander suggested that we don’t always give ourselves time to question and that we can easily be ‘carried away by ‘…oratory or personality or both.’1

So, what was Alexander’s solution to this unsatisfactory state of affairs? He was clear that the foundations of the state (political, social, educational, industrial and moral/religious systems) ultimately rest on the condition of all the people who constitute it. The implication is that if we want to make far-reaching changes at the community/national/global level, we need to start by first reflecting on and be willing to change ourselves. FM Alexander’s method provides an extremely effective means for personal change. We can discover how we can have more choice over how we act and react moment by moment, and how we connect with others and the world around us. We learn to pay more attention to the means by which we achieve our aims, rather than just fixating narrowly on the desired goal (endgaining). This clarity of intention and more holistic (mind-body-environment) view makes it more likely that we will ultimately be successful, whether the goal is a personal or a wider one.

The Alexander Technique gives us a practice with which to engage more profoundly and productively with the world. At its very heart lies self-awareness situated within the context of one’s surroundings and fellow humans, together with the ability to choose for oneself rather than being stuck in habitual ways of thinking and doing. Such self-determination at the individual level might ultimately enable change in the bigger picture.

So looking more widely, the people of Scotland and England appear to be going in very different directions. In Scotland the avaricious, self-interested narrative of Thatcher did not take hold nor, more recently, have the lies and misconduct of Johnson/Cummings been disregarded. Here it seems that individual responsibility does not mean ‘everyone for themselves’, instead there is a greater sense of the importance of the wider community within which an individual co-exists. So I for one, now have a very different stance towards independence than I did the first time I lived here over 30 years ago.  Perhaps in the coming year there will be time to question, to be curious, to openly engage…and to choose our future?

1Footnote: FM Alexander Constructive conscious control of the individual. Second edition, 1946. Mouritz p182–185.

Hypermobility & the Alexander Technique

Over the many years that I’ve been teaching the Alexander Technique I’ve learnt a great deal from working with people who are living with hypermobility. Hypermobility is a term that covers a huge spectrum, from simply having increased flexibility with no negative consequences, through to more complex and challenging conditions such as hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (hEDS).

One of my clients with hypermobility, Daisy has agreed for me to share her experience of learning the Alexander Technique. For several years, Daisy had been living with persistent pain, fatigue and weakness but she has not yet had any medical diagnosis (unfortunately it is common for people to have to wait years before receiving a correct diagnosis, reflecting the complexity and often poor understanding of hypermobility conditions).

Daisy began Alexander lessons as a way of looking after herself better. Right from the start, she found she was able to apply some of what she’d learnt to help herself in her everyday life. Here are some snapshots from her Alexander journey:

In Daisy’s first lesson, she was already getting more of a sense of embodiment and ‘wholeness’; this was despite her description of herself as being a “live in my head type person”.

Second lesson: Daisy reported that her Alexander lying down practice had helped her deal with pain. “I had a busy, stressful week and got myself into a mess again but doing my Alexander lying down helped me get out of it”.

Third lesson: We were exploring standing, and Daisy realised that her habitual way of doing this was putting stress on her joints. Through the hands-on work, she had an experience of standing in balance pretty effortlessly. She said “I realised I’m trying to balance & that’s making it difficult – I don’t need to try, and my legs now feel more stable”.

Lesson 5: After years of constant pain and discomfort, Daisy was delighted to report that she’d had a pain-free week.

Lesson 6: The week in between lessons had brought a reminder of the need to keep the Alexander thinking and awareness going, or old habits are likely to return (particularly during early lessons before changes become fully established). Daisy had been away with work for a few days and “not thinking about the Alexander Technique and my neck & shoulder tension returned”.

Lesson 10: Daisy said that “The Alexander Technique has given me the means to self-manage, rather than having to always be seeking help from others”. This nicely illustrates the self-care nature of the technique.

In lesson 14, she mentioned “This way of moving feels really good and right”, reflecting an experience of moving that was better coordinated, in balance and therefore less effort.

Lesson 15: Daisy reported that “I’ve been applying the Alexander Technique more and finding standing quite a bit easier”. She also said she’d realised that, even without thinking about it, she was often now staying in balance when moving and standing.

The all-encompassing nature of the Alexander Technique (mind-body) was illustrated well in lesson 16 with Daisy’s comment that For the past 5 years, I’ve been going to psychotherapy – my progress has become much more rapid since I started learning the Alexander Technique”.

In lesson 18: Daisy said “I’m now often aware when I tense unnecessarily. I’ve been trying out the stuff we did last week and found it releases tension in my jaw”, showing how self-awareness increases and again how the Alexander Technique enables people to sort themselves out.

Lesson 19: “I’m thinking about the Alexander Technique quite a bit in between lessons. Now it actually feels wrong when I bend over in my old way”. Here we can see how we can overcome unhelpful habits through Alexander lessons.

In her 20th lesson, Daisy said “The Alexander Technique gives me a sense of joining myself up”, demonstrating the embodying nature of the Alexander Technique, giving us a better sense of self.

Daisy can still have relapses of pain and it’s usually when life gets on top of her but she finds now she usually knows how to get out of the mess – this ability has brought greater self-confidence in managing the symptoms of her hypermobility. For example, in her 22nd lesson she said “I had neck pain and stiffness after an emotionally challenging week – but I managed it and I’d completely recovered within the week”.

So how did these changes come about for Daisy? What is it that she is putting into practice? Alexander lessons are based around experiential (hands-on guidance) and cognitive learning (thinking in a less reactive and more embodied spatial way). The aim is to enable people to quieten an over-active mind-body and improve their general standard of functioning – breathing, postural support, balance and movement. In so doing, people usually discover a different sense of themselves.

If you would like to try an Alexander introductory lesson to see if it’s an approach that suits you, I would recommend looking at the websites of local Alexander teachers and calling up a couple for a chat, as we’re all different in the way we teach. I suggest asking if they are happy to work for integration and connection and not for release or lengthening, as this should give a good indication of appropriate experience of working with people with hypermobility. You can find a directory of registered UK teachers at: www.alexandertechnique.co.uk.

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.

Learning from my little finger

This post is taking a little longer to write than usual as my touch typing is somewhat hampered, having broken my little finger 2 weeks ago. Learning the Alexander Technique leads to many benefits, including greater self-awareness and better balance. So what’s an Alexander teacher doing breaking her finger? And, why am I quite so grateful to the Alexander Technique at this moment?

x-ray of my broken finger
My broken little finger after my fall

I was out walking by the sea with a friend, when I ended up having to climb down a sea defence barrier to get nearer to my dog who had wandered ahead out of earshot. I’ve happily clambered up or down these massive boulders several times before – I’m no climber but I do love scrabbling around. Knowing that everything was very wet from recent rain, I was actually looking forward to the mini challenge of navigating myself safely down. However, halfway through, I allowed myself to be momentarily distracted when my friend called out to me – ironically to ask how was I going to manage the bottom section which was covered in seaweed? As I looked up to answer I wasn’t paying attention to the step I was then taking and I soon realised that my foot was rapidly sliding underneath me.  

Probably everyone has had the experience of time appearing to slow down as an accident unfolds. What the Alexander Technique offers in such a situation is the ability to avoid simply going into panic or freeze mode but instead to give yourself time to figure out how best to respond in the moment. So when I first realised that I was slipping, I knew how I could allow myself to descend fairly smoothly and safely. However, as I was coming gently into contact with the rock underneath me, I realised that now my whole body was sliding on the slippery rocks and I was heading towards a large gap between the boulders. Falling down there could easily result in my head banging against the rock walls, so I threw my arm out to stop myself. No harm done except for my little finger which immediately began to throb insistently. Assuming it was just a sprain and stupidly feeling rather embarrassed, I didn’t tell my friend that I’d hurt myself. Later on though, my partner made me go to the minor injuries unit and I was shocked to see the x-ray of my finger with a very obvious fracture. 

My finger is recovering really well and I’ve been musing on how different everything would have been without the Alexander Technique. Of course I can’t know for sure, but I think it’s very likely I would have ended up with a worse injury. I certainly would have felt a real flash of fear while falling and tightened every muscle in my body – a reaction which is more likely to lead to injury (we’ve all heard about someone who has fallen over when drunk without hurting themselves because they were so relaxed). But perhaps more interesting than this is my attitude after the event, which has been very different to my pre-Alexander days. In fact, the reason I first began Alexander lessons all those years ago was fear about my future long-term health because of a family history of back and neck problems. All my life I’d perceived myself as primarily a thinking mind, with very little awareness of my body, which almost seemed ‘other’ to me. In those days if I’d broken a finger I would have spent my time worrying about whether it would heal properly and whether I’d end up with osteoarthritis in the long term. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that I had any real role to play in my own recovery. Now I have a better understanding of myself and more confidence in the natural healing process. What’s more, I know how to use my Alexander thinking to help this process along. On a practical level, I have a good sense of what activities will be ok for me to do, rather than my previous attitude of just being scared that I might make the injury worse by inadvertently doing something I shouldn’t. So, through my Alexander training, I’ve gone from a position of fear to one of self-confidence.

Training in the Alexander Technique certainly doesn’t make you invincible but it does give you the means to take better care of yourself. I’m sure that, compared with how one was before, the overall risk of injury must be reduced when one is more self-aware, more present and more in balance, more of the time. This will be true across many areas – whether it’s falling, doing DIY, or just ‘overdoing it’ during exercise.

So, through the Alexander Technique I’ve gained confidence in being better able to avoid an accident from happening, in responding appropriately in the event that it does, and in recovering from it afterwards. Of course one doesn’t want to be over-confident – after all, they do say that pride comes before a fall!

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.

The difference a small thought can make

During an introductory Alexander Technique lesson this week, there came a point when my new client looked slightly puzzled and it felt like I could almost read her thoughts: ‘This is really strange, my back isn’t hurting now but I don’t understand what’s made the difference. OK it does all sound logical…..but are you seriously suggesting that just thinking a bit differently in my daily life can help me overcome the back pain I’ve had for years? And in even if it could, how on earth can I remember to do this ‘Alexander thinking’ all the time?’

Of course, I don’t really know what she was thinking but I certainly recognise how hard it is to make such a mind shift. After all, mostly in life we’re led to think we need to do something, and to make big changes if we want to get anywhere. So, faced with aches and pains we either just grit our teeth and get on with life, or we might perhaps sign up for an exercise class. To suggest that we don’t need to do different stuff, just do what we do differently, does take a bit of getting used to.

From an Alexander perspective, it’s the way that we do things that is important. The tendency is to run on automatic pilot, not being particularly aware of how we’ve just picked up that bag, or how we bent over to wash our hands etc. And there’s no problem with that if we’re able to carry out our daily activities with the same beautiful movement coordination and balance that almost everyone is born with. Unfortunately, we’ve had to adapt ourselves to this complex world of cars, chairs, computers etc – a world rather different to the one we evolved for. In adapting, we’ve developed ways of moving, sitting, standing that aren’t ‘natural’ just habitual.

So if we’re stuck in habit-mode, how do we get out of it? One way is through the experience of discovering how to do things differently – which is what you get in an Alexander lesson. And what you also get is guidance on how to put this into practice for yourself. How to ‘stop and think’ so that you can prevent your usual, unthinking reaction and instead make a conscious choice of how you would like to proceed.

Like learning to drive a car or ride a bike. At first it’s seemingly impossible on your own and you need the regular help of an Alexander teacher. Gradually, through your lessons, you build the skills and understanding and eventually it becomes second nature to think, move and be in a way that ultimately just makes life easier.  

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.