Category Archives: Performance

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.

The Alexander Technique keeps me safe

Stay safe with the Alexander TechniqueThis past month I’ve spent a lot of time driving up and down between Edinburgh and Bristol due to family illness. During this time I often found myself thinking ‘thank goodness for the Alexander Technique, I’m so lucky to have this skill!” – I was able to stay calm, aware and focused throughout, even when I’d had very little sleep and the road conditions were awful.

There have been countless times in my everyday life – for example, picking up something heavy, climbing a ladder, walking on uneven ground – when I’ve used the Alexander Technique to help me stay safe. How does this work? – by becoming more aware of oneself and what is happening moment by moment, and being able to give oneself a little bit of space and time in which to consider how best to respond in any given situation. So, for example, if I’m climbing up a ladder to wash the windows I’m very aware of my changing balance with each step – not trying to control or micro-manage, just staying present and paying attention to what I’m doing with myself rather than solely focusing on cleaning the windows. So if, for example, a rung is slippery I’m more likely to be able to adapt and stay in balance and so stay safe.

Less obvious perhaps but equally as important, is how learning the Alexander Technique is helpful for safety in its broader sense, particularly over the long term. So it’s not just about in-the-moment avoidance of accidents or strain – I’ve also protected my long-term health and well-being through the Technique. I’m convinced that without it I’d be a bit of a wreck now with neck pain and RSI – I was beginning to get signs of these developing before I started Alexander lessons. Through the lessons and my subsequent training to be an Alexander teacher, I’ve integrated the Technique into my daily life for better balance, movement coordination and mindful calm.

I’ve discovered even I can enjoy running!

Alexander Technique RunningOne of my most hated aspects of school was being made to run all the way around the athletic track. As an unfit, poorly coordinated and totally non-sporty teenager, I really struggled and quickly reverted to walking – only to be shouted at by an unsympathetic teacher to ‘get running’ again. From then on I’ve never run, apart from for an occasional bus.

Since coming to the Alexander Technique my attitude to physical activity has gradually shifted, as my balance and coordination have improved. I began enjoying trying out different activities – happy that I didn’t need to ‘try and get it right’ but instead just playing with my Alexander thinking and enjoying having a go, safe in the knowledge that I now knew how to look after myself better in any activity. My latest venture is paddle boarding, which I’ve found can be harder than it looks on the sea off Portobello beach.

Despite my new-found enthusiasm for trying out ‘sporty type’ activities, my long-standing hatred of running remained…until a couple of weeks ago when I was introduced to some new ideas. Malcolm Balk, Alexander teacher, running coach and author was coming over from Canada to give a workshop in Edinburgh and I decided it was too good an opportunity to miss. So I got in touch to ask if he would consider giving a second running workshop for Alexander teachers – not least to help us better tailor our Alexander teaching for our clients who run.

On a gloriously sunny Edinburgh day, I gathered with eight of my Alexander teacher colleagues for a morning’s workshop with Malcolm. After some warm-up exercises, he filmed each of us in turn as we ran a short distance. We then decamped back to base to view the results. How enlightening being able to clearly see one’s habits all played out in slow motion! Perhaps not surprisingly, as Alexander Technique teachers we all ‘passed the first test’ being pretty good at looking after our head/neck/back relationship, so we weren’t introducing a whole load of unnecessary tension in our necks (phew). But we were all doing various extraneous things not conducive to easy running – what on earth was I doing with my arms, did I need to be moving them quite as much as I was? We all had our own individual idiosyncrasies but on top of this we shared a tendency to a greater or lesser extent to ‘run with our legs’ rather than ‘on them’. In other words, the leading leg was coming right out in front of the rest of the body, such that the centre of mass then had to be ‘heaved’ over the top of it, rather than the legs being more underneath and behind the head/torso to allow propulsion forwards with a great deal less effort.

Having seen all this we then went back outside and Malcolm invited us to have a go at running in our usual way to get a sense of the unnecessary habits that he’d (in a very kind and helpful way) pointed out to us. This gave us a great opportunity to gain a better appreciation of what we were actually doing, by matching it up with what we’d seen. Knowing what it is that we’re doing that we don’t want to do is the first step in the process of change.

We then went on to the next stage which was introducing, one-by-one, some very simple thoughts together with a few basic instructions. Most approaches in life encourage us to try and work out what we need to do and we often end up trying to micromanage ourselves. The Alexander Technique is different and recognises that we work as a whole system. We’re much more complex than a machine, so we can’t possibly consciously decide what we need to do with each ‘bit of our body’ to carry out an action. Through the Alexander Technique we learn to use our conscious thinking to prevent or reduce unhelpful habits that are interfering with our natural movement coordination, poise and balance, as well as to create the best conditions we can for ourselves – that way or inherent neuromuscular processes can take care of what needs to happen to carry out any action. As Alexander himself put it, ‘If you stop doing the wrong thing, the right thing does itself’.

So, armed with a few simple thoughts, I began to trot off across the field and was amazed at the experience of how effortless it was. I had been making a lot of totally unproductive effort in trying to run and I now knew how to let this go. After a short while I heard Malcolm call out ‘Great, that’s it, you can stop now’ but I just kept on going – I was actually enjoying it!

I’m not an Olympic athlete but…

Ski raceAs the competitors return home from the Winter Olympics, I’m pondering which ones might have been using the Alexander Technique to help them achieve their personal bests and stay free of injury. Certainly, previous Olympians have described how using it was integral to winning their medals and sustaining their careers, including 2012 British Dressage Team Gold medal winner Carl Hester who said ‘The Alexander Technique is one of the most valuable tools a rider can possess’.

You might think you’ve not much in common with an Olympic athlete but most of us would like to be able to reach our full potential. Your breathing, movement and clarity of thinking can be improved through the Alexander Technique – and that is going to be beneficial to performance in any sport or activity. Research has demonstrated how training in the Alexander Technique leads to improved movement coordination, balance and postural support. Just as important, the Alexander Technique enables one to stay present and focused.

For many of us, remaining injury free is as high a priority as achieving the best times. Again, better balance and coordination is key here but also important is the growing self-awareness that allows us to know our limitations and avoid the all-too easy slip into only focusing on the desired result (‘endgaining’) without paying attention to what we’re actually doing in that moment.

So whether you’re a serious competitor or enjoy a gentle jog round the local park, consider finding out how the Alexander Technique can help you reach your goals without compromising your long-term health.

Parkinson’s, balance and the Alexander Technique

Consider the Alexander Technique for people with Parkinson’s disease who are experiencing balance or motor function problems.

These are the new guidelines from NICE (National Institute for Care and Excellence).1

Along with other Alexander teachers, I know from experience how helpful Alexander lessons can be for anyone with balance or movement difficulties, and it is good to see these benefits being recognised more widely. The NICE advice is largely based on the findings of a clinical trial demonstrating that people with Parkinson’s were able to carry out their everyday activities with less difficulty following one-to-one Alexander lessons, compared with a control group.2 The trial also showed that the skills learnt in the lessons stayed with the people long after the lessons had finished.3 Other research suggests that verbal instructions based on Alexander principles can enable people with Parkinson’s to find better balance and mobility when standing or walking.4

The improved balance gained from learning and applying the Alexander Technique goes hand in hand with improvement in movement coordination and postural support. Again there is research to back this up.5,6,7 Studies with older people have also shown improved balance, postural stability and confidence in standing and walking following Alexander lessons or classes.8,9,10 There has even been a study comparing the walking patterns of qualified Alexander teachers with that of people of a similar age; this showed that older Alexander teachers walked more like younger adults.11,12

Benefits for balance and movement are important, not just for people with Parkinson’s but for elderly people who may be afraid of falling, and indeed for anyone engaged in any activity – sport, dance, and yoga may come to mind but we also benefit from good balance and coordination when hanging out the washing, or doing DIY or gardening.

Contact me to discuss how you could benefit from some Alexander lessons, or find out about other research.

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