Category Archives: Mind-body

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.