Before and after

This was written in response to a fellow teacher who disagreed with my thoughts concerning the timing of inhibition in Alexander work. It includes a description of the dramatic results of my first (and, for the next year, only) lesson.

Reading over J’s very reasonable last post ("words, getting closer"), it would seem that our major area of disagreement concerns the point in time that students of the Technique step in to stop or refrain from sending messages to stiffen their necks, along with the relative effectiveness of their intervention. I simply don’t think there is such a clear-cut beginning and end to the majority of stimuli affecting our lives as he evidently does, nor that there is much qualitative difference in when we act.

The notion we receive and respond to stimuli in isolation, and that in some way it is too late to ‘step in’ between one reaction and another, makes little sense to me. Possibly, in the case of "dead lifting a barbell", where there is a clear beginning and end, without much space for anything else, we can behave like this; and in ‘formal’ Alexander work, it may be necessary to simulate ideal conditions; but most of the instances and events that fill my life don’t lend themselves to such an approach.

In this connection, J emphasised:

"’Counteracting’ or ‘undoing’ neck tension AFTER you have unconsciously engaged it is too late to make a new reaction to the original stimulus… The old pattern has already been launched, and attempts to modify the results, even if partially successful, are worthless compared to the ability to refrain from starting."

He also said:

"Certainly being able to notice that your are bracing your neck and ceasing to do so is a worthwhile skill to develop. BUT I don’t think you can reach this point without having gained some previous experience of what it feels like to react to stimuli WITHOUT such bracing."

I thought about this as I cycled five miles to play tennis the other day, wondering where stimulus and response could be said to begin and end. There were some fairly clear moments of potential ‘bracing’, from the gestation of the idea during lunch, while humping the bike out of the garden shed, when negotiating initial traffic; but once I was well on my way the gaps between the myriad stimuli coming at me from all sides (including, of course, the overriding aim of getting to my destination) and my reactions to them seemed seamless. Where was an Alexander student supposed to ‘step in’?

Although most of the time I was careering along in a state of blithe unconsciousness, whenever I ‘surfaced’, I became aware of a degree of interference. I accept that my ability to perceive what J calls "bracing" is partly (though not exclusively) the result of earlier Alexander work; but I don’t agree with him that stopping it after the fact is "too late", nor that this should be in any way dependant on having previously learned to "react to stimuli without such bracing". In fact, I should say the opposite was the case, with any facility we may have for preventing interference from starting depending largely on our skill at recognising and stopping it while it is going on.

The difficulty of ‘getting in before the event’ in an Alexandrian context seems little different to stopping off any other deep seated habit at its source. If, for example, our temper tends to get the better of us, it strikes me as churlish to refuse to curtail it mid-reaction on the grounds we should have prevented it surging up in the first place. Obviously, prevention is better; but that is more likely to come about after rather than before curtailment; and if it turns out we are angry, in the way that our necks are stiff, most of the time, our best bet must be to cease being so occasionally, then (hopefully) more and more often, before aspiring to not become so in the first place – whenever that might be.

In the light of this, I would take J’s statement:

"Certainly being able to notice that you are bracing your neck and ceasing to do so is a worthwhile skill to develop. BUT I don’t think you can reach this point without having gained some previous experience of what it feels like to react to stimuli WITHOUT such bracing."

And rephrase it, thus:

"Certainly being able to react to stimuli WITHOUT such bracing is a worthwhile skill to develop. BUT I don’t think you can reach this point without having gained some previous experience of what it feels like to notice that you are bracing your neck and ceasing to do so."

In another post, J made this additional point:

"Trying to follow the advice; ‘just don’t stiffen your neck, and stop doing it if you do,’ would be as absurd as hoping to learn the Technique from page 174-5."

My experience is that sensory appreciation of what we are doing is not so much faulty as hidden, and that we can become aware of it quickly and effortlessly, if our attention is appropriately drawn in that direction. I think this requires insight and cleverness on the part of the teacher, but not necessarily any manual contact. I’ve known it happen in students I’ve taught and often when it hasn’t happened I’ve felt it would have if I’d said or done something different.

As an example from my own past, I had my first Alexander lesson in the early eighties. Initially, the teacher started leading me through what I later recognised as the traditional lesson format; but after a short time she stopped, moved away, and asked me, with my arms hanging by my side, to pretend I was carrying two heavy buckets. Almost immediately, my shoulders dropped about six inches. As they did so, an immense sigh escaped me. I realised I had been holding my shoulders up around my ears, pushing my head forward to good effect, for what I later worked out must have been nearly two decades, all without knowing it.

This trait had begun when I was at school during the time it was fashionable to have long hair. The school disallowed hair to touch the collar at the nape of the neck so I had learned to pull my shoulders as far back and away from the rest of me as possible and push my head in the opposite direction. This was a conscious effort and took some doing but eventually it became habitual. My mother and later my wife used to comment on what they saw as my deformed upper torso and try and reshape me but I laughed them off. I couldn’t relate to what they were saying; nor could I see in the mirror what they saw. So far as I was concerned, I felt, looked and was normal. Yet, ten minutes into my first Alexander lesson, a teacher had enabled me to recognise how wrong I had been.

I had that first lesson in London. Since I lived in Portugal, where there were no teachers, I wasn’t able to have another for more than a year. During the intervening months, I became increasingly conscious of what I was doing with my shoulders. Whenever I wasn’t thinking about them, they rose up and my head pushed forward. As soon as I did think about them, I became aware of an almighty tightening taking place. It staggered me I could be making so much effort without realising it. Each time I remembered, and thought of the ‘heavy buckets’, that effort ceased, my shoulders dropped, and my head righted itself. I used to see it happening in shop windows as I walked past. The pain of this release was extraordinary, like being strung up by meat hooks. I found it hard to believe simply stopping doing something should produce such torture.

By the end of that first year, the habit of jacking my shoulders up had more or less vanished, although vestiges remained. Throughout that time, I don’t remember ‘getting in before the event’ in the sense of ever finding myself in a balanced state and pre-empting the shoulder raising. Instead, I ‘undid’ it whenever I came across it, at first increasingly often, then with gradually decreasing frequency and amplitude, until eventually there was nothing to undo any more. Looking at old photographs at the time, I couldn’t believe how deformed I had been. My wife and mother remarked on the change and reminded me of how often they had chastised me in the past, to no avail.

The point of this story is not whether the single lesson I had or the approach I followed had anything much to do with the Alexander Technique, but to show that is is possible for an aspect of use that was deliberately conceived, became established, then became habitual, and that I was wholly unconscious of for many, many years – despite having it pointed out to me on numerous occasions – could suddenly become as obvious to me as it was to others; that the insight I gained was not only lasting but grew daily; and that my remedial approach had involved me saying ‘no’ while rather than before reacting to stimuli.

The notion that I might be doing other, similarly stupid things to myself without knowing about them made me determined to have more lessons as and when I could. I reasoned that if something so dramatic could be uncovered so swiftly, what wouldn’t happen if I had a full course? Something I particularly wanted to find out was what I was doing with my lower back, which often hurt. Unfortunately, though it was no less obvious, this took a lot longer (further lessons were with a ‘traditionalist’ in a different part of England), and it involved my training to become a teacher. It’s difficult now, looking back, to know whether I am justified in thinking if I had seen the right person at the right time what I later discovered might have been revealed much earlier.

My main worry concerns those who take a course of lessons in the Technique and decide not to go on to either become teachers or perpetual students. In other words, the vast majority. I remember my own confusion and disappointment at this stage of learning with my apparent lack of progress, particularly in inhibition. It was only after more lessons that I could count, and being present at two years of a three year training course, studying and thinking about the Technique many hours of the day, that my mortification at hardly ever ‘getting in before the event’ became gradually overshadowed by the dawning realisation I didn’t have to.

It was as if I had travelled full circle. It was only then, when I became comfortable again with the idea of ‘getting in’ whenever I remembered, that I allowed myself to stop doing with my neck and back what I had grown to believe I was always too far advanced in my reactions to usefully inhibit. This led to not only a massive reduction in interference, but, as a consequence of an expanding kinesthetic familiarity with what I was doing wrong, a gradually increasing ability not to start interfering in the first place, a dual endeavour I’m working on to this day.

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