Category Archives: End gaining

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.

 

Learning how to learn

Alexander Technique helps you balanceMy first experience of sitting on a horse was when I was in my twenties and it ended with me gradually sliding off sideways on to the ground when the horse suddenly broke into a trot. My second experience was a few years’ later and was slightly different – this horse decided to throw me over its head into the mud once it realised that I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.

Fast forward a decade to near the beginning of my training to be an Alexander Technique teacher. As part of the course we were to visit the local riding school once a year. There we found gentle, sedate horses but, despite their slow pace, my previous experiences had left me somewhat apprehensive – not least because now we were to have no stirrups, nor reins to hold on to. I survived but it wasn’t a particularly enjoyable experience, particularly when we were asked to keep our eyes closed and arms raised out to the sides, even while the horse was turning around in the yard. However, when we returned a year later I realised how much progress I must have made in my Alexander training, as this time I found myself feeling much more confident and at ease. Clearly my balance had improved through the training and I was more able to just go with the experience, using my Alexander thinking skills to prevent me slipping into my old habits of panicking and tensing up.

A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate to be able to spend a morning with Alexander teacher and rider, Chrissy Pritchard at her beautiful place in Lanarkshire. Chrissy had offered her colleagues the opportunity of having a go at riding her highland pony. For me this would be the fifth time in my life when I had tried riding but my colleagues’ previous experience ranged from none at all to having ridden as a teenager. What impressed me was that, regardless of previous experience, we were all able to ride quite well after just a few words of instruction from Chrissy. This lovely morning reminded me that learning the Alexander Technique actually teaches us how to learn.

So how does the Alexander Technique help us learn? When learning a new skill the tendency is to fixate on the thing that we want to achieve, the goal, leaving little thinking space for what’s the best way of getting there. What the Alexander Technique enables us to do is to pay attention to the bigger picture, so that we can create the best conditions possible for achieving that goal (being in balance and poised, moving in a well-coordinated way etc). Here’s a glimpse of what the process was for me:

As always, there were my previous experiences in the back of my mind – not just of being on a horse but all those times I’ve been confronted with something new and ‘tried to get it right’. By acknowledging these thoughts but choosing not to react to them by ‘getting prepared’ (which usually involves tensing up and over-focusing on the outcome) I was able to stay more in the present rather than dwelling in the future or in the past. As I got onto the pony I took a moment to be aware of myself, the pony and our surroundings and then thought of the crown of my head leading the way upwards (rather than pressing down heavily on my foot in the stirrup). Then I was finding my balance on my sitting bones and continually coming back to an awareness of my sitting bones and the rest of me, as well as what was around me. Holding the reins as Chrissy showed me I aimed to notice if I started to grip at any point. Similarly, I paid attention to any tendency to grip the pony with my legs, wishing instead to let my legs hang suspended freely, with my weight dropping straight down through my sitting bones, while maintaining a good contact with the pony. At one point Chrissy suggested that I subtly shift my weight on the saddle and as I did this I noticed I came into a better balance and that the pony responded positively to this. Then setting off with a gentle nudge with my legs and a ‘walk on’.

One of the things that we get better at through the Alexander Technique is being clearer in our intention and less distracted by other stimuli. So, getting the pony to go in the direction we want is helped by looking ahead in the direction of travel and allowing our intention to come through ourselves to the pony – if I’m thinking of turning right, and as long I don’t allow my habits to interfere by tensing up, then my weight will tend to subtly shift with my intention, more onto my right sitting bone and the pony will get the message. So, applying the Alexander Technique involves self-awareness and making conscious choices over how we’d like to respond (think/move/act). Seeing to what extent we’re able to stick to those choices rather than just reverting back into habit is all part of the learning process and an interest in that process helps us not to over-focus on the particular goal in question.

Pony riding with Alexander Technique

Through our Alexander experience we just needed a few simple instructions from Chrissy, and we were all able to learn the basics of horse riding in just a few minutes. Obviously if we wanted to become expert horse riders, like anyone, we would need to practice the specific skills involved but we would have the benefit of the Technique to help us get to whatever level of riding expertise we wanted.

Thankfully, the Alexander Technique is being taught more and more in schools and colleges but people of all ages want to learn new skills during their lives – the Alexander Technique gives us the best approach to learning, and can be applied to anything.

How can I change?

Choose change

It’s the beginning of January and some of us may find ourselves struggling to put into practice our New Year’s resolutions. Resolutions usually involve a desire for change – to either achieve or to be something different to now. We start off with good intentions but then find that making change happen can be incredibly difficult, particularly if it’s to be long-lasting. If we fail, it’s very easy to believe that it’s due to a lack of ‘willpower’, or because of factors that are beyond our control. Well, of course we can’t do much about factors beyond our control but we can take a look at ourselves and ask the question of what does it really take in order to be able to change?

The Alexander Technique is a method for self-change. It provides us with the thinking tools to become more aware of ourselves and our habits, and gives us a practical, thoughtful and embodied approach to bringing about change. It works with the way we think, react, act, move and be – and, because we’re dealing with such fundamentals, it gives us a process for getting to the real root of a problem. Instead of fixating on the desired goal, we learn to give ourselves time and to pay attention to how we go about achieving the goal. This also means we are more likely to set realistic goals and so are more likely to achieve them. The approach is to prioritise looking after ourselves throughout the process of working towards our goal. It’s a more sustainable approach than the ‘all or nothing’ attitude that often leads us to give up at the first hurdle.

The Alexander Technique can be applied in every aspect of life, helping us to make the changes that we want to make – from learning how to exercise without injury to reducing postural and movement habits that might be the cause of back or neck pain. Some of the hardest habits to shift can be thinking habits, and learning the Alexander Technique helps us to change our thinking. The American philosopher and educationalist John Dewey found that it enabled him to change his intellectual position on an issue whenever new evidence emerged to challenge it – he contrasted this with other academic thinkers who continued to hold rigidly to one position come what may [1].

If you’d like to find out more about how the Alexander Technique can help you make changes, consider booking an introductory lesson. Be sure to choose a qualified, registered teacher – members of the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT) have undertaken 3 years’ full-time professional training. If you live around Edinburgh you might like to consider myself or one of my colleagues. Visit the STAT directory to find a teacher local to you.

  1. Frank Pierce Jones. Freedom to change. Mouritz, London, 3rd edition, 1997; p97.

If at first you don’t succeed….

Every day we’re faced with multiple challenges to overcome, small and large − from opening a new jar of jam, to striving to meet a looming work deadline, or perhaps finding it difficult to get up from a chair through age or illness. If we don’t immediately succeed in a task we will tend to respond in one of two ways − either we give up, or we try harder. But what does ‘trying harder’ entail? In a nutshell, excessive muscular tension. Even something that seems purely theoretical in nature, like working out a tricky maths sum, will tend to find us holding our breath, tightening our lips, frowning and gripping our pen. Trying harder becomes ingrained in us from an early age − we’re encouraged to do it!

There is a famous quote, usually attributed to Einstein, that doing the same thing over and over again, while expecting to get a different result is one definition of insanity. ‘Trying harder’ is just doing the same thing with more effort.

The Alexander Technique enables us to approach our everyday challenges with more practical intelligence. It teaches us how to learn, giving us the embodied skills to be able to discover for ourselves the best way of approaching any given problem. It requires being clear in our intention and, rather than focusing intently on the immediate aim, instead using our Alexander thinking to prioritise ‘looking after ourselves’ in the process of attaining that goal. If we’re in balance, breathing freely and coordinating ourselves for optimal movement and strength we’re more likely to succeed, whatever the task, so we’re generally more effective in life. Oh, and I’m pretty good at getting the lids off jam jars − magic!