Category Archives: Awareness

Being a ‘better’ person

Alternative version of Coronavirus public health message

FM Alexander was once asked if a burglar were to learn his method, would they become a better person? FM replied (probably with a twinkle in his eye), ‘no, but they would become a better burglar’.

Learning the Alexander Technique involves a process of developing greater self-awareness and more conscious control (i.e choice) over one’s habitual reactions and behaviours. A common experience reported by students is of becoming more one’s ‘true self’. A person’s sense of self can change as learnt behavioural patterns that were used simply to survive / thrive in childhood and the workplace are gradually peeled away. Anyone who has worked with the Alexander Technique for an extensive period will testify to its transformative effects. In my own case, I know that I gradually became more open minded and optimistic, and less judgemental and relentlessly self-critical. I can’t say whether I’ve become a ‘better person’ but I certainly welcome the changes that have occurred.

By its nature, putting the Alexander Technique into practice necessitates a certain amount of healthy self-interest. But what happens if the individual learning the technique is already overly self-interested, for example a narcissist, or someone with those tendencies? Does the Alexander Technique help them to usefully question and challenge themselves, or does it just encourage their unhealthy self-obsession? Does it simply enable such people to develop greater skills in how they want to present themselves to the world, and how to manipulate others? If FM Alexander was right about the burglar (assuming he was thinking of a person who was a burglar by choice, rather than absolute necessity) then perhaps the answer to these latter questions is ‘yes’?

I’ve been pondering these questions over the last couple of weeks. Like most people in the UK, I’ve been appalled and disgusted at the Dominic Cummings fiasco. The callous disregard and sense of entitlement of the Prime Minister’s top advisor are breath-taking. The scandal has been compounded by the pathetic weakness and irresponsibility of Boris Johnson in supporting him rather than sacking him – it’s now clear, if it wasn’t before, who is really running the country. Together they have put at risk all the Covid-19 health messaging and therefore they have jeopardised public safety, as well as trust in government.

While contemplating all this, I wondered whether things might have been a bit different if Cummings had had the advantage of taking Alexander lessons in the past? With more self-awareness, would he be better able to hide his arrogance and disdain? In particular, in the famous Rose Garden session with journalists, would he have been able to not react with the irritation that was visible at the more probing questions; and at the end, could he have avoided that telling smirk on his face? Or, more hopefully, would Alexander lessons have opened out for him other possibilities that allowed his character to change for the better?

I don’t know the answer to these questions but I suspect that there may be certain types of people for whom learning the Alexander Technique might be good for them but not for the rest of society.

In my own experience of teaching the Alexander Technique, people who come for lessons have always been thoughtful and considerate, with a moral compass and sense of personal responsibility. The privilege of meeting and working with so many people who embody the better aspects of humankind, is one of the main reasons I love teaching so much.

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.

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.

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.

With the best of intention

Dart hitting the bullseyeSo 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.

Reference
Wulf G. Attention and motor skill learning. Human Kinetics, USA 2007.