This is an article I originally wrote for Positive Health magazine. I am always glad to hear from people interested in taking the subject further, either via the Forum or by email (click on fourth or fifth horseman).
Although the Alexander Technique has traditionally been passed on through the medium of touch, with the hands of the teacher guiding the student, the originator of the technique, FM Alexander, was entirely self taught.
Yet, anyone becoming involved in Alexander work soon discovers why it is so difficult to learn alone. The problem revolves around our perceived sense of ourselves. Most of us would say we know when we are in a balanced state, and it is often a shock to be encouraged by our Alexander teacher to move in ways counter to this.
With the aid of mirrors, Alexander discovered that what he saw did not correspond with what he sensed himself doing. After much experimentation, he concluded it was necessary for him to feel wrong while knowing he was right, until he was sufficiently accustomed to the new sensation for it to no longer seem strange.
This is a simplification of the processes involved; but essentially, having a faulty sense of ourselves makes beneficial change difficult. This is especially the case when the bulk of our kinesthetic perception takes place beneath the level of awareness. Hence, the need for teachers, who satisfy the dual function of drawing attention to what we are doing while guiding us to do it differently.
The average individual is likely to have neither the inclination nor the perseverance (despite the availability of video), to emulate Alexander’s painstaking work, as outlined in The Use of the Self; but there are alternative avenues of exploration open to those wanting to change their habitual way of reacting to stimuli.
The first step is to become fully engaged not only in what we are doing but the way we are doing it. This may not seem a tall order; until we realise how often our mind is either wholly taken up with the task at hand, or is anticipating the future or reminiscing over the past, while our body operates on autopilot.
The second step is recognising – accurately – what we are doing, and from that, recognising what we are doing wrong. In Alexander’s view, we tighten our necks, and pull our heads backwards and down; which, in turn, leads to a shortening of the spine, through over exaggeration of its curves, and a narrowing of the trunk, causing a general contraction of the body. His ideal was a free neck, with the head going forward and up, followed by a lengthening spine and a widening back.
To have an idea what he meant, it can be useful to sit somewhere, place the palm of one hand on the back of your neck (let it rest there like a poultice) and then decide to stand, while keeping your hand in place. You might stand quickly or slowly, in one movement or in stages; but pay close attention to what your hand is telling you is happening with your neck muscles.
Unless you’re markedly different from most, there’ll be a palpable degree of activity in your neck out of all proportion to what needs to be going on to keep the head supported, and way more than you would normally be aware of. You may also perceive that this neck activity pulls your head backwards and down.
Try this going from standing to sitting. Then repeat what you’ve just done, but rather than using your hand to measure the muscular activity in your neck, use your internal kinesthetic sense. Sit or stand normally, while paying attention to your neck. You’ll probably notice nothing, or else very little, going on there.
That in itself should be enough to clarify for most of us the enormous gulf between what we are actually doing (pulling our heads backwards and down) and what we think we are doing (nothing untoward). If we run through this procedure often enough, we’ll come to recognise unnecessary activity in our necks without needing verification from our hands. It will be going on most of the time, although it will be when sitting or standing that it is most noticeable.
All that is then required is for us to stop doing this. Stopping pulling our heads backwards and down – which is the sole criteria for it to go forwards and up – isn’t a discipline that comes about overnight; but there’s no reason for progress to be any slower than in other areas of learning.
For a more subtle, supplementary approach, you could try placing one hand on the back of your head, and the other on your forehead, and gently rotating your head half way to where you would be able to look along the line of one shoulder, and then turning it back (switching hands if need be), so you’re doing the same on the other side.
As you do this, it is best to think of your head rotating from a spot more or less midway between your ears, which is where the skull sits and turns on the two topmost vertebra. It also ‘rocks’ from this point; so, again using your hands, gently incline or nod your head an inch or two forwards (as if you were checking your shirt front) and then tilt it the same amount backwards (that first step to looking up at the stars).
Turn your head slowly back and forth, then nod and tilt it, a few times, paying as much attention as you can to allowing your hands rather than neck muscles to initiate the movement. Obviously, your neck muscles play their part, but you want the impression they are following rather than leading. Keep remembering that point between your ears.
Finally, return your head to its starting place, only this time, as you begin to apply gentle pressure with your hands to rotate towards the right or left, or to tilt forwards or backwards, use your neck muscles to resist the movement.
Don’t let this become a tug of war. A gentle inclination with the hands can be met by an equally gentle resistance. Maintain the pressure of your hands; then allow your head to be turned, or tilted, taking particular notice of what you ‘do’ to allow the movement that previously you had disallowed to now take place. That is the key moment, so pay attention to it.
Play around with this for a while, stopping and starting, noticing the difference between what you do muscularly to resist the urging of your hands and what you do – or rather, don’t do – to go along with it.
Now take your hands off your head, but pretend they are still there, trying to turn or tilt it. Initially, deny them the possibility. Let’s call that fixidity. Then, do whatever you did before that allowed your hands to turn or tilt your head, but this time without them being there and without you turning or tilting it yourself. Call that poise. For as long as you choose poise – which is simply the absence of fixidity – you can be reasonably confident your head will be balanced rather than pressing down on the top of your spine. Whatever it may feel like – and it may feel no different to the way it usually does – this will affect you beneficially.
I suggest you work on the assumption that when you’re not consciously engaged in choosing poise you’ll almost certainly be subconsciously ensuring its opposite; that fixidity is your default mode for most of the hours of the day; and that when you’re doing anything remotely stressful you’ll be hard pressed to undo this. That way you won’t be too disappointed.
Another ploy utilises the procedure Alexander devised for encouraging new messages to be sent from the brain to the muscles without relying on the kinesthetic sense. To understand how this works, it is important to differentiate between actual and imagined movement. Raising an arm and moving it about in space before letting it hang by your side again is not the same as imagining yourself doing this, without moving your arm at all.
If we consider the key Alexander concept of wanting to free the neck for the head to go forward and up, there is a crucial point to bear in mind, which is that you cannot carry these instructions out directly, since the only way for the head to go forward and up is for the neck to stop pulling it backwards and down. To the extent you know you are doing this – assuming you have been paying attention – you will already have stopped.
However, imagining your head going forward and up (which is done in exactly the same way you might imagine moving an arm in space) is an acceptable alternative, circumventing any desire you may have to make it happen, at the same time as acting, through the process of placing your intention on the area in question, as a counter influence on your hidden desire to carry on pulling it backwards and down. If you are in any doubt what forward and up means, you could try tightening your neck, verifying that the result is your head being pulled backwards and down, and then letting it go again.
These simple steps – becoming aware, stopping pulling your head backwards and down, choosing poise rather than fixidity, imagining your head going forward and up – can have a powerful effect. Not least of their power, though, comes from the concurrent need to remain in, and pay attention to, the present moment. It sounds cliched, but probably the most profoundly beneficial self-help procedure any of us could undertake is simply to be where we are.
Once there, I suspect our minds and bodies would naturally gravitate towards that point of balance it is the main purpose of the Alexander Technique to reintroduce to our lives.