This was a contribution I made to the AlexTech Internet forum whose members were debating the merits or otherwise of exercise in relation to the Technique.
I’ve been musing over some of the recent emails and wondering how the Alexander Technique relates to exercise. Clearly, it is not enough to say that by following the principles of inhibition and direction a full and healthy life will automatically ensue. It might be fuller and healthier than
beforehand; but much would depend on what that life consisted of. I imagine the vast majority of Westerners, including most Alexander teachers, lead far from ideal existences.
Despite his account of John Doe, Alexander wasn’t dismissive of a culture that encouraged people to live and work under conditions of relative restraint, even if they did visit the gym afterwards to try and rebalance things; what he railed against was their poor use generally.
I spend most of my time sitting or standing, moving quietly from room to room, doing quite a lot mentally but hardly taxing myself physically. To compensate for this, I garden a fair amount, play tennis regularly, ride occasionally, walk and bicycle when the need or mood arises; but I have become increasingly aware that I should do more with myself, energetically, if I am to stay healthy.
I’ve always made a distinction between activity and exercise, thinking of activity as something that is engaged in for its own purpose, and exercise as being done to produce an effect. Some activity can come to seem like exercise; exercise done in a certain way could become an activity.
If we define enjoyment in life as the pursuit of those activities where mind and body gel in such a way we are unable to say where one begins and the other ends, duration and effort, the cardinal virtues of exercise, become irrelevant. Alexander work seems particularly possible then.
At the other extreme, when we are engaged in something we don’t enjoy, we have to cajole our minds to stay with the matter at hand, and our bodies to keep going. We are neither fully present, nor actively engaged. When the mind detaches itself from what the body is doing, Alexander work becomes impossible.
Not wanting to play more tennis, garden unnecessarily, or do anything else I enjoyed for its own sake simply in order to get fit, I cast around for a form of exercise that might in itself prove pleasurable. I tried any number of approaches, all of which I found tedious. A case in point is the Astanga Yoga I am currently experimenting with. It’s very dynamic and I end the sessions feeling thoroughly integrated; but the process itself takes close to two hours to complete, and for the most part, as much mentally as physically, it is a struggle. Why, I wonder, should I be asking and telling myself, as I stretch and twist, a hundred and one irrelevant things, such as how much time this is taking up, what needs to be done in the garden, how grim the weather is, what’s going to be for supper, how my children are, what I plan to do tomorrow – instead of paying attention to what I am doing and how I’m doing it?
None of this tangential thinking happens when I play tennis, or if it does, it focuses on the way the game is going; even if I’m just hitting a ball against a wall on my own, I’m engaged in the activity. Cantering on a horse doesn’t incline me to think extraneously, either. Even sowing broad
beans involves me pretty fully. Sadly, I haven’t been present in this way very much or often when exercising; but then if I’m honest nor have I when lying on the floor in semi-supine.
Although inhibition and direction, and the mind/body gelling that makes them possible, require only a slight change in perspective to bring about, the ease or otherwise of “thinking in activity” does seem to depend more on the nature of that activity than any amount of conscious intention.
This makes me wonder whether it is better (both as an Alexander student and from the point of view of overall health) to pursue those activities where attentiveness to what is going on comes easily, rather than persevere with those where it hardly seems possible.
So far as specific abdominal or any other exercises go, I doubt such things exist. No exercise can isolate one part of us so long as we, rather than machines or electrical pads, are carrying it out. If the worry is whether something we do is in keeping with Alexander’s precepts, our concern
oughtn’t to be how trying to tighten up an area of ourselves might or might not affect overall coordination, but whether we are actually present, inhibiting and directing, while doing it. If we adhere to principle, and that principle is sound, our coordination will sort itself out.
Ideally, of course, there would be some activity we loved so much that we couldn’t do enough of it, that brought our minds and bodies together without apparent effort, made inhibition and direction second nature, handed us the shape we wanted and the tranquillity we sought as by products, giving us endurance and longevity along the way.
In the meantime, if most of our activities are sedentary, and we find inhibition and direction at least as possible while exercising as doing anything else, where’s the harm; especially if, as in the case of K, the perceived problem is associated with an activity like running, which presumably she enjoys? Assuming she is able to remain present (which seems likely, from what she says) amazing change can be wrought in moments, through the tiniest alteration in perspective, with no muscular effort whatsoever.
Anyone doubting this should spend some time with Malcolm Baulk, who has made working with runners something of a speciality. I’m just a chasing-after-the-ball lumberer myself, but I was glad to be reminded during a group lesson what sorts of change (kinesthetically perceived by me, highly visible in others) can come about during such an ordinary, seemingly automatic activity, through the expenditure of less rather than more effort, simply by consciously giving consent for it to do so.
Whether this would apply to weight lifting I have no idea but I do remember reading some interesting observations by David Gorman years back involving a nautilus machine and how much more effectively it could be used through a reasoned, Alexandrian approach than simply piling on the pressure in the traditional manner.