The flecked sea
The sand below
The riders at one
Their horses unbridled
An illustrated book for children.
People often decry ‘releasing’ as not being a proper part of Alexander work. This attempts to explain why I disagree.
I’m puzzled by the implication that the Technique instructs us to not interfere (with the right employment of the Primary Control), but not to stop current interference; largely because stopping something we are already doing smacks of releasing, which isn’t considered a valid part of Alexander work.
“I’ve noticed that I get into an undesirable pattern a lot: I’ve learned to “release tension” without necessarily increasing my freedom.”
“It isn’t really possible to know why your recent lesson experience gave the impression that the Technique is concerned with ‘releasing’ or ‘freeing.'”
“I certainly had difficulties for some time with the paradoxical activity of ‘doing’ releasing or thinking that this was required – wrong conception of course, and definitely not what is required!”
The suggested order of events would seem to be:
1. Becoming conscious.
2. Recognising a stimulus.
3. Deciding to not interfere while responding.
Generally, whenever we become conscious we will, on some level, be interfering. If this wasn’t the case – if our default, unconscious mode was one of not interfering – there would be little purpose in learning the Technique.
Assuming we are aware of interfering, we have the option of stopping it. If we’re unaware, we don’t have that option. If we don’t stop it, we can’t then ‘not do it’, since not doing something we are already doing depends on our stopping doing it first. This is a crucial point. If we don’t stop current interference, all we can do, in the name of ‘not interfering’, is ‘not interfere more’.
Not interfering, or not interfering more, requires that we know how we have interfered in the past, just as stopping interfering requires that we know how we are interfering in the present. We can’t consciously stop doing, or not do, something we have, or have had, no kinesthetic knowledge of.
This means that in any decision to not interfere, we either:
a.����� Recognise we are already interfering as a result of our reaction to a preceding stimulus, cease that existing interference, and don’t re-start similar interference.
b.����� Recognise we are already interfering, don’t cease existing interference, but don’t interfere more.
c.����� Fail to recognise we are interfering, while desiring not to interfere.
These three possible ways of responding depend on the level of our awareness. For a beginning student, comprehension of interference, whether current or potential, will be slight, as in (c). As our knowledge of ourselves increases, so will our awareness of how we actively and potentially interfere. I would consider (a) an appropriate and (b) an inappropriate Alexandrian response.
Much of our time, any new stimulus we face will be virtually identical to the one we’re already responding to. In other words, on becoming conscious, we will find ourselves doing much the same thing, still sitting at the desk, continuing with the washing up, the walk, the swim, actively eating, talking, etc. The only difference will be our awareness of what we’re doing.
If we don’t recognize we are interfering, any decision to ‘not interfere’ will be meaningless, since the unchanged stimulus is unlikely to demand any major change in our behaviour, which already excludes interference we are familiar with. If we do recognize we are interfering, however assiduously we may decide to not interfere, unless we actively stop existing interference, we will again be doing nothing new. In both cases, there will be little scope for ‘not interfering more’, given the unchanged stimulus.
If the new stimulus we are confronted with is different to the one we are currently responding to, as in the doorbell ringing, being accosted in the street, learning something unexpected, getting out of a low chair, etc, we face a potential increase in interference. If we are unaware of existing interference, any decision on our part to ‘not interfere’ will actually mean ‘not interfere more than we are already, without knowing it’. Our ability to do that will depend on what potential interference we are familiar enough with to be able to recognize. I would call this beginner’s inhibition.
If we are aware of existing interference, we have the choice of whether or not to stop it. Stopping existing interference, and not restarting it, effectively inhibits any possibility of ‘interfering more’. However, any deliberate decision to not interfere, and to not interfere more than – but without stopping what – we are already doing, will result in far less of a change to our habitual response. Since we can’t not do what we haven’t stopped doing, we will be limited to ‘not interfering more than we are already, knowingly’. This would amount to partial inhibition, at best.
Effective, full inhibition is the process of becoming conscious, ceasing existing interference – as far as we are able to recognise it – and not restarting it. Naturally, for as long as we don’t restart interference, there will be no need to cease anything more, beyond the initial stopping; but in order to begin ‘not re-starting’, we have no choice but to cease existing interference first.
This ceasing will feel like, and in fact, will be, a release. Such releasing could happen many times a minute or once in half an hour, depending on how conscious we are. If we don’t perceive such a release, the odds are we haven’t successfully stopped anything. In all likelihood, if we’re aware of interfering, but not of releasing, we’re stuck.
Since ceasing existing interference requires us to perceive, kinesthetically, both its presence and its absence, the question then becomes, not whether releasing is appropriate, but whether our recognition of what leads up to it is accurate.
Personally, I would discount the possibility that we can be much mistaken in whatever we perceive as existing interference. This is because the main purpose of the Technique is to increase the reliability of our kinesthetic sense; and it would be absurd if we went from a position of knowing nothing about interfering in an Alexandrian context to being wrong about how we were interfering, as a direct result of the learning process.
However, much does depend on what an individual – whether teacher or student – understands by Alexander’s words, “interfering with the right employment of the Primary Control”. A mistaken understanding could result in piecemeal releasing of particular tensions rather than a general reduction of unnecessary (or redistribution of necessary) effort. A far greater risk, though, than over indulging in releasing, would be hanging on to existing interference out of fear of misinterpretation.
As a simple example, let’s say someone is driving, while thinking about next year�s holiday. In an Alexandrian sense, they are operating unconsciously. Then, they remember the Technique and become conscious. They notice immediately that their neck is tight and their head is being pulled backwards and down. This is unlikely to be a rare occurrence, though it might be more or less severe. Meanwhile, the stimulus of driving (with holiday thoughts supplanted by thoughts of use) is not greatly changed from moments earlier. The only real difference is they are now conscious of it.
They determine to not interfere, as they understand it, from this point on, and for as long as they remain conscious. This might last for any number of seconds or minutes. The question is, since they are already interfering, as a result of their prior unconscious reaction primarily to the stimulus of driving, how do they now not interfere while responding to the same stimulus?
The simple answer is that they stop interfering and they don’t restart. I can’t conceive how the effect of this could be construed as other than a release, if their neck untightens and their head is no longer pulled backwards and down. The alternative scenario is that they do nothing. In other words, they don’t stop interfering. Since they can’t not do something they’re already doing, they carry on driving, in an unchanged state, save for being conscious of it.
Let’s then say they lapse back into unconsciousness, and, a few miles up the road, the more demanding stimulus of a police car appears in their rear view mirror. Having sufficient presence of mind to remember the Technique prior to responding to this new stimulus, they again notice that their neck is tight and their head is being pulled backwards and down. This time, their choice is between stopping (and not restarting) existing interference, or not interfering more than they are already. In other words, they can either release their neck and not tighten it again, or they can maintain an existing tight neck but not tighten it any more.
For me, there is something absurd about setting out to not interfere, or not interfere more, while still knowingly interfering. It is the idealised act of refusing to do something we’re already doing, without stopping doing it first. To my mind, stopping interfering is as inseparable a part of inhibition as not interfering. The experience of release is simply the result of ceasing to send existing messages from the brain to the muscles.
This has nothing to do with (or at least, is a separate issue to) the sending of new messages, through direction; although directing might (or might not) appear to have a similar effect. That is because Alexandrian inhibition depends on kinesthetic feedback, utterly; whereas direction doesn’t, remotely.
The Evolution of Low Back Pain by John Gorman.
I first became aware of John Gorman when he wrote an article for The Alexander Review. He was an engineer who had had a number of Alexander lessons and wanted to share his insights on how the spine worked. Afterwards, I recognised his name in connection with chairs and back supports he was marketing.
Much later, a pupil of mine said she had visited a chiropractor whose main piece of advice was that she should slump more. This confused her since I appeared to have always maintained the opposite. The chiropractor’s name was John Gorman. Then I saw an advertisement for “The Evolution of Lower Back Pain” in STATNEWS and learned that his engineer’s interest in the spine had caused him to train in McTimoney Chiropractic.
Initially, I found his ideas hard to grasp but put that down to a general disinterest in mechanics. Then I realised it wasn’t that I was being obtuse; my difficultly was in accepting a theory diametrically opposed to what I believed.
By the time I finished the book I was in much less doubt about the validity of his arguments. Now, months later, although an element of scepticism remains, I think his ideas should at least be considered by anyone interested in how the spine works and what might, or might not, be done to enable it to function better.
I came to the Alexander Technique with a bad back and have been trying to find out more about it ever since. Books, even Alexander books nowadays, give the sort of generalised advice for good use everyone is familiar with. The benefits of maintaining an upright posture, especially when sitting, are so widely recognised that the human tendency to fall short of this ideal is assumed to lie behind most back problems.
John Gorman agrees that our way of sitting is the main culprit, but he thinks the more we attempt to put it right by “sitting well”, the less good we will do ourselves. As he says, “It is when we are sitting relatively upright that the mechanical situation is worst”.
He explains how the two lowest discs of the spine are naturally wedge-shaped (the thick end of the wedge faces forwards) and how they should not be forced beyond parallel sidedness, otherwise two things may result. The first is a warning pain. The second is a tendency for muscles in other areas of the back to go into spasm, causing “clamped joints”. Undoing clamped joints forms the basis of his work.
He recommends trying to maintain the wedge shape of these discs at all times, since, as he says, “Even when the pain level is very low, (only a slight ‘feeling’), the warning pain can still turn on clamped joints”. Little mention is made of any activity other than sitting that can cause this, but the implication is we become progressively less tolerant of general misuse the more our two lowest discs are subjected to sustained, undue flexion. Much of his book is spent explaining why it is virtually impossible to sit in an ordinary way without this occurring.
The problem is due to the tendency of the pelvis, when relaxed, to tilt backwards. His engineer’s answer is to use specially designed chairs which ensure the alignment of the lower vertebrae by providing pelvic support. Similar props are also available for use in a car. Where such devices are impractical, such as at a meal table or desk, he suggests dispensing with a backrest altogether and adopting the muscular balance of what he calls “Alexander Sitting”.
The alternative solution is for us to slump. As John Gorman puts it, “When we do sit slumped all the joints of the spine will be flexed and all muscles and ligaments will tend to be stretched to a natural length.” Somewhat surprisingly, he also says, “For most people slumped sitting will actually have to be learned. We are so used to trying to ‘sit up straight’ that most people cannot easily sit slumped”.
He relates this to sitting on a conference room or dining chair. “If the pelvis is placed sufficiently far forwards to produce a complete slouch it is a satisfactory sitting position and much better than sitting up against the backrest of such a chair as we are normally told to do.”
Clearly, most forms of sitting involve positioning ourselves reasonably far back in a seat and then leaning against the available support. But unless we are prepared to stiffen muscularly in order to prevent it, our pelvis will usually tilt backwards, putting pressure on the front of our lowest vertebra and causing a levelling of the two wedge-shaped discs.
John Gorman estimates that during such sitting, with the pelvis tilted back by about 40 degrees, there will be approximately 20 degrees of flexion in the two lowest joints of the spine and little anywhere else. He compares this with slouching on a settee, where the pelvic tilt will be greater at 60 degrees, and the back will appear much more bent, but because the flexion is spread evenly over all eighteen joints, individually it will be only about 3 degrees. In this way, the wedge shape of the two lowest discs can be maintained.
Needless to say, slumping is recommended only as a natural part of sitting and not of any other activity such as standing or walking. John Gorman’s use of the word “natural” is interesting here, since he poses the question, “Why don’t more naturally living people have the same problems?” His answer is simple: uncivilised people don’t sit, they slump.
It’s difficult to know where to look for evidence of this. Slumping and slouching are hard to define, anyway; but the diagrams in his book do show an alignment of the spine similar to that of a deep squat. Squatting is incontestably natural, and a position of repose for half the human race. Perhaps we should be looking at slumping as an inferior, but easier to achieve, version of this.
Understanding a mechanical theory is one thing; accepting it as an idea is another; but translating that into practice, in order to verify it, is virtually impossible when you can neither see, nor feel with any precision, what is going on.
Certainly, my pelvis tilts backwards whenever I sit and lean against the support of anything but a very straight backed chair; this is especially so in a car; but I can’t begin to say what happens to my wedge-shaped lower discs. I do get “feelings” in my lower back from time to time, but I don’t know it these are warnings of an impending clamped joint. So whether it is better for my spine, and for me, to spend lengthy periods fully flexed in a slump, or flexed at one end only while sitting upright, is unclear. Perhaps my sensory appreciation requires more intensive re-education, or more of a suspension of traditional Alexandrian belief than I am ready for.
This is an attempt to put into lay language what can sometimes seem overly complex.
What did Alexander discover – and why is it important?
When we consider what we pay attention to, from the minutiae of our daily lives to the big picture of the world around us, it is extraordinary how much we take for granted the continued smooth running of our bodies and minds, on which all else depends. The work we do, the food we eat, the attitudes we have, all contribute to, or detract from, our health; but our primary influence – the way we do what we do – remains outside most peoples’ awareness and control. This is what the Alexander Technique seeks to address.
F. Matthias Alexander was a reciter who had made a considerable effort to train himself optimally for the purposes of performing. He carried his body and projected his voice as he had been taught by experts in the field; but he found his vocal health and general presence faltering.
Over a period of years, he studied himself, using mirrors to gain an objective viewpoint of his actions, and contrasting this with what he felt subjectively.
He discovered a discrepancy between what he believed he was doing and what he was actually doing. In specific terms, his kinesthetic sense told him his carriage – not least the carriage of his head – was as he intended; while his eyes looking into a mirror told him a quite different story.
His discovery that he was not doing what he intended, and also that what he intended was not necessarily for the best, began a train of investigation that culminated with him becoming a teacher of ‘use’ (pronounced as in ‘useful’). By this, he meant the way people ‘used’ their minds and bodies in everyday life.
For Alexander, the mind and the body were indivisible. He believed the way people thought lay at the heart of the way they acted, and that the way they acted was the primary cause of their physical ills. He reached this conclusion after experimenting with changing his own patterns of thought and noting the subsequent changes in his physical habits.
This led to his conviction that the way we think in response to a stimulus largely determines whether we contract or release into movement, and whether we are impulsive or considered in our actions. His claim of mind/body indivisibility was far reaching for a turn of the century rural Australian who had no background in medical science; but today it seems little more than common sense.
So, how do we apply Alexander’s discoveries to our present day lives?
Most of us will be familiar with seeing ourselves in a mirror or shop front, not particularly liking the way we are, and making a few adjustments before going on our way. Next time we come across our reflection, we discover the changes we made have not lasted, and that we have reverted to type. We may make the same minor changes again, before moving on.
The odds are, we will have any number of habits of carriage and use we are unaware of; others we are familiar with but that we mistakenly believe are useful; others that may be the result of something once deliberately cultivated but long since forgotten; and still others that are fully intended but that we fail to recognise are not being accurately carried out.
These discrepancies may lead to nothing more severe that the occasional ‘twinge’, or moment of unease, or they can lead to our becoming totally incapacitated. Nobody can say what the effects of ‘poor use’ will be; but it certainly will not be for the good. What is certain is that we cannot expect to be aware of the way we really are until we see ourselves from an objective standpoint. We would be selling ourselves short if, once we understand the degree of harm we have inadvertently been doing to ourselves, we failed to act.
For anyone who wants to change their ‘use’ for the better, some sort of re-education of their kinaesthetic sense is essential. The reason for this is simple. However much we may desire change, and however aware we may become of what needs changing, because we have a mistaken sense of the way we are, any corrections we make will be suspect. We will almost certainly replace one set of poor habits with another.
Alexander devised a teaching method, the Alexander Technique, specifically designed to recalibrate the kinaesthetic sense, and to bring it into line with our conscious intention. For anyone who would like to know more about the way they function in everyday life, Alexander Technique lessons are an eye opener.
Some insight can be gained by self study which, when persisted with, can be extremely rewarding. Generally, though, because the way we feel is not the way we are, being guided by our existing sense of ourselves is fraught with problems of reliability.
The major benefit of learning the principles of Alexander work is that doing so enables us to uncover whatever it is we are doing to ourselves that is harmful and to stop doing it. This is different for each of us, but there are certain common areas of imbalance. The way we hold our heads, the way we flex our spines, the way we swing our arms and legs, all contribute to the way we are, as a whole.
Learning, first, how we are, enables us to gain insight into the differences between this and the way we believe we are. It can be disconcerting to realise how far the two are apart! Understanding, , how we ideally might be, and experiencing this at the hands of a teacher, enables us to recognise that change is always an option.
Eventually, with some Alexander training, we can have true choice, perhaps for the first time in our adult lives. We can, of course chose to continue as we are, even though, kinaesthetically, we now understand this is not ideal for us; but we can also choose to make a change, knowing our recalibrated kinaesthetic sense is sufficiently reliable to enable us to recognise good from bad, or better from worse.
Without this knowledge – that we are not necessarily as we seem – and the kinaesthetic appreciation gained from lessons – that we are more out of balance than we know – we will be unable to change anything with any degree of lasting accuracy. This is because, until we know what harm we are doing ourselves, we will not be able to stop doing it.
Even the most glaring (in retrospect) habits cannot be stopped until we recognise them for what they are. To do that requires an objective view of ourselves, which cannot be provided by our existing kinaesthetic sense. What we feel ourselves doing will almost certainly not be what we are doing. A teacher (or a mirror, or video) provides this objective view, which enables us to learn to stop doing what is harmful, while establishing a more reliable kinaesthetic sense in order not to revert to type afterwards.
An often asked question is why something as important to human survival as our internal sense of ourselves, which determines every move we make, should ever ‘go wrong’. The only satisfactory answer is that the complex lives we lead as adults require more learned behaviour than we evolved to cope with. When something occurs that places a greater demand on us than our existing habits can deal with, unless we consciously attend to the way we react (which we will have done when the habits were originally learned, in early life, but are unlikely to do now) we run the risk of overdoing our response, without knowing we are doing so.
When this largely unconscious process is repeated sufficiently often, we run the further risk of an existing, appropriate habit pattern being gradually overlaid with a new, less appropriate one. This new habit then becomes the norm; until it, too, is superceded. Over time, we will move from an overall position of ‘good use’, with a repertoire of smooth running habit patterns that are appropriate for the tasks at hand, to one of ‘poor use’, where – increasingly – less appropriate habit patterns are utilised to service our day to day needs.
This is the conundrum that lessons in the Technique are designed to circumvent.
If giving orders is linked to the good use experienced during lessons, in real life it is almost always linked to poor use. This is because we are seldom prompted to give orders in daily life other than during ‘bad’ moments. Is there a danger here?
Whenever I read about the power and effectiveness of directing, I suspect its importance is being overemphasised at the expense of inhibition.
Most of us can readily imagine, as children, sending messages to pull our heads backwards and down in response to a variety of stimuli. It isn’t hard to see how we might not always have stopped sending every last trace as each separate stimulus abated. Over the years, this would have grown into a permanent instruction on a subconscious level not only to maintain a residual tightness in our necks but to increase it incrementally at every opportunity.
In Alexander terms, this is our legacy. As students, when we give directions to lengthen and widen, their effectiveness depends on the prior inhibition of our acquired tendency to shorten and narrow. Unfortunately, we tend to act as if these processes were one and the same; but direction has to remain apart from our kinesthetic sense, whereas inhibition depends on it.
I generally explain my thoughts on this by asking any willing listener to tighten his or her neck. They usually agree the effect produced comes from messages sent by the brain to the musculature, and that to maintain such a state those messages have to continue being sent. I then ask them to �think� of their neck releasing, while continuing to send messages to tighten it. There is rarely much sense of releasing reported. Finally I ask them, instead of thinking of their neck releasing, to stop sending – first some and then all – of the original messages to tighten it. Gradually, their necks release.
These messages are conscious and deliberate. Had they been subconscious and habitual – as they are in most of us – the ability to stop sending them and release the associated tension in the neck would be dependant on raising that tension to awareness. Thinking of the neck releasing, while continuing to send unchecked subconscious messages for it to tighten, is not the answer.
In order for deep and lasting change to occur, we have to refer to the distinguishing characteristics of these subconscious messages, which are the kinesthetic effect they have on us. There is no way we can withhold consent for their despatch other than through our perception of their non-arrival. Inhibiting in response to a stimulus prevents the onset of customary tension; in situations where we have already responded, it will be experienced as a release of existing tension.
Directions are given to aid and abet this process. While we are able to inhibit those messages to shorten and narrow whose effect we are aware of, any further desire to lengthen and widen must stay aloof from the kinesthetic sense that might otherwise try and carry this out directly. Our hope and expectation is that a consciously projected wish – no more than a cerebral formulation – will displace some contradictory subconscious messages and prevent them being sent, thereby enabling us to become kinesthetically aware of their non-arrival. Again, this will be experienced as an absence or release of customary tension.
As each strata of previously hidden instruction to shorten and narrow makes its presence (or, more accurately, absense) known, we have the opportunity for further inhibition; and as its hold on us weakens – always assuming we continue directing – more messages from a subconscious repository we can assume to be bottomless become unearthed. In this way, inhibition and direction work hand in hand.
One of the particular dangers of verbal ordering, at least as it was taught to me, is its disassociation from this reciprocal process. A decision not to respond to a stimulus in an habitual way but instead to intone a series of sub-vocal phrases, with little reference to what those phrases mean or to the parts of the body to which they refer, hardly allows for the inhibition of contradictory subconscious messages that prevent (or at least severely hinder) them from being carried out, other than in a purely Pavlovian way.��
There is another danger here. It lies in our human tendency to apply the Technique more assiduously during bad times than good. When functioning well, we are likely to become blas� about the means-whereby; only while operating below par do we pay particular attention to inhibition and direction.�
Any new student who has had a series of lessons where they have been encouraged to give orders while their teacher has worked with them should have at their disposal a conditioned response of lengthening and widening linked to the repetition of those same orders outside the teaching room. Initially, this may work, despite the lack of meaningful inhibition. Over time, however, with verbal ordering likely to be resorted to increasingly when a student finds him or her self in a poor way – that is to say, actively shortening and narrowing, but with little understanding of how to inhibit this – a secondary conditioning will become established, based on how they are then.
The risk is of this secondary, ‘pulling-down’ conditioning growing at the expense of, and eventually superceding, the initial, ‘going-up’ model, leading to a deepening spiral of poorer use. The inevitable result would be the perception that ordering no longer worked, or had a detrimental effect, followed by a return to lessons, or else cessation of all interest in the Technique.
This may happen with non-verbal directing, too, if we approach it with insufficient attention. Personally, I find it only too easy to give directions without doing much more than going through the motions. Unfortunately, it seems that any process designed to alter an existing situation, if it is followed by rote, runs the risk of anchoring us more firmly to what we want to change. I suspect this phenomenon could account for many of the difficulties encountered during training.
The conclusions I have come to are that verbal ordering, at best, is a useful reminder of where we want to go, but is no different to any other form of affirmation, and could become a liability; and that directing without inhibiting is little more than a specialised form of positive thinking.
While there is nothing wrong with such approaches as prescriptions for change, even transformation, in our lives, inhibition, potentially at each and ever moment, remains the key to progress in the Technique. It is inhibition, assisted by direction, that helps reawaken the dormant links between our bodies and our minds.
Putting this into practice is a tall order, and I can’t say I live up to it; but that’s mainly because I forget to inhibit rather than because inhibition is particularly difficult. Arguably, a far greater challenge to students of the Technique than discovering how to apply its principles is learning to recognise and maintain the individual awareness of current conditions on which any success in carrying them out depends.
Judging from the available literature, inhibition is not something many teachers like to consider, even though they presumably spend large amounts of time instructing others in the skill. This is a shame, since everyone has a unique viewpoint, which it would help for others to know. As Alexander work grows, and grows away from its source, it becomes increasingly important for individuals to be clear, not so much about what it is or how it works, but how they make it happen for them.
The creative power of thought is a fascinating subject, central to Alexander work but going far beyond ‘directing’ in scope and application. I have always marvelled at how whatever is running through our minds at any one moment affects not only our bodies but our entire appreciation of life. What is odd, though, is how little control we have over this, how our automatic reaction to events determines the way we live rather than any preferences we may think we have.
This is where conscious control comes in; but I would love to know how to make it easier to exert. It isn’t difficult to understand why inhibition and direction should be hardest to apply when they are most needed. After all, however inappropriate our subconscious reactions may seem now, they were laid down by us in good faith at testing moments of the past. Nevertheless, it would be illuminating to discover what evolutionary purpose was served by making undeniably obsolete habit patterns not merely resistant to change but antipathical to health and therefore, presumably, survival.
This was originally published in Direction magazine.
What happens when "Alexander hands" are put on a horse, as Jeremy Chance describes in Direction Volume 2 No 1? This must be a matter of interest for anyone who has ever wondered what it was they were teaching.
The question is essentially one of control. In Alexandrian terms, it is only by exercising conscious control over the process of inhibition and direction that we can let go of subconscious control, or habit, in order to liberate the primary control. In the case of a horse, who, or what, allows any of this to happen?
Most of us accept the operation of the primary control is the same for all vertebrates, and that it functions reflexly. The thought processes and habit patterns of animals in the wild are essential for survival and are unlikely to interfere with a response system that has evolved alongside them. The kinesthetic sense exists to ensure this, and in the absence of special circumstances, can be assumed to be reliable.
The primary control isn’t exclusively muscular, any more than the mental impulses that activate it occur only in the brain. In this respect, the facculties of an animal in the wild will form a harmonious unity. Such a creature may think, and feel, but not to the extent of losing sensory contact with itself or its world. It is a problem to know how to describe this state of uninterrupted relatedness of mind, body and environment, other than as animal consciousness.
Animal consciousness is our birthright, too, whose original enjoyment becomes increasingly stifled by our denying ourselves ready access to it through the activity of what we call, confusingly, the conscious. The notions of a subconscious and unconscious result from this. Lacking such distinctions, animals can’t claim any sort of control over their reactions to stimuli other than that provided by fully reliable senses. It is on such a basis that we assume they operate unconsciously, and that unlike us, they have no freedom of choice; but this may only mean they are unable to chose to go wrong.
If an animal is domesticated, as most horses are, its primary control will already be constrained, with the nature and extent of that constraint determining the future unreliability of its kinesthetic sense. This will have been caused by the hiving off of part of its original consciousness into something resembling a subconscious, to accomodate whatever unnatural behaviour it has been required to learn, with any embryonic "conscious" acting in deference to that of its human overseer; and a lapse into relative unconsciousness for whatever associated portion of the primary control has become subdued.
If such a horse then "goes wrong", it will be further affected on all levels by increasingly harmful habit patterns disabling the free operation of the primary control and diminishing recognition and awareness of the sense mechanism on which that operation depends. This would be evident to the horse in physical and mental dissatisfaction and to those who knew it as poor functioning and perhaps being out of sorts.
If, as Jeremy reports, Alexander hands were able to restore something to a horse that was recognisable to a vet, presumably on a physical level, it would be odd if something did not happen at the same time mentally. This might be less obvious to an onlooker, but both phenomena would appear to the horse as the restitution of a lost part of its original consciousness.
Alexander hands certainly work on humans in a way that circumvent any requirement for them to knowingly inhibit and direct, even while that process is going on. In fact, it has been suggested that a pupil’s ability to discern a teacher’s intention, in order that they may learn to "leave themselves alone" satisfactorily during a lesson, constitutes a form of control every bit as effective, and possibly no less conscious, for not having been thought out.
It is unlikely that a horse could leave itself alone – and for any benefit to be obtained, that is what it must do – without a similar awareness of what the situation requires, and some control over it. In order for the hands to speak through the musculature, and in so far as the musculature is influenced, for the rest of the organism to become affected, that organism, whether animal or human, must be at least willing.
Such willingness on the recipient’s part would be both a reflection of the underlying urge of the primary control to reassert itself and a recognition that Alexander hands were helping with this. Neither of these need be articulated, nor necessarily formulated in any communicable way, but to come to any sort of fruition, they would have to be acknowledged.
However, leaving the self alone is not the same as being able to "look after" it. Gains can be made in functioning, with increases in consciousness, and weakening of habit patterns, through accomodation to a teacher’s initiative; but unless it is known why or how change is occuring, even though some form of individual check over subconscious reaction is what allows it to happen, it is unlikely to recur without the further assistance of Alexander hands. Constructive conscious control of the individual cannot mean getting out of the way in order to allow someone else to do the work for you.
A pupil, in responding, however ably, to the purpose behind a teacher’s hands, is abnegating responsibility. As soon as they are alone, the intention for the rehabilitation of the primary control, which was provided for them, and can only become their own, as it did for their teacher, through self-knowledge, will be lacking; and they are left as dependant on subconscious reaction as before.
This is not to imply they are necessarily worse off than their more knowing colleagues, at least during lessons; although whether Alexander hands would work better, or simply differently, or even less well, if the recipient was capable of inhibiting and directing at their own discretion, is difficult to say. Nor is it any easier to know how well those hands would work, if at all, without that same ability – assumed to be present in Jeremy’s case – on the part of the teacher.
What is certain is that independant conscious control requires, above all else, intention imbued with knowledge; this can’t be acquired by osmosis, and only comes about if a specific process is learned and a decision repeatedly made to put it into practice. At a stretch, a well trained horse might pick up something resembling this, but once alone, it would be as unlikely to decide to attend to it, or its use generally, as it would be to practice dressage movements when its rider wasn’t present.
Autonomy of this sort is inconceivable for animals; but it is precisely their lack of the uniquely human faculty allowing it – which creates the problem of faulty sensory appreciation in the first place – that should make them need it least. For animals in the wild, there is neither interference, nor any means of stopping it; whereas the extent of our potential for conscious control reveals how far we, and by association the creatures we misuse, have gone wrong.
Alexander’s original purpose was to encourage others to learn what he had. The use of hands was only a means to this end. He saw his technique as an evolutionary step forward, and deplored any suggestion of returning to the way things had been; but at the same time he emphasised our need to allow our organism to function as nature intended. His legacy shines in his writings; but sometimes today’s reality seems little more than palliative, helping counteract the worst effects of the over-development of the human brain, while their underlying cause remains unaddressed.
Without wanting to eulogise the lives of animals, it is clear that in their natural state they need us, and our Alexander hands, far less than we need them. For those that are domesticated, the results of our ministrations, given willingness on their part, should be little different from any other recipient: an improvement in functioning with a commeasurate increase in consciousness and its enjoyment, at the heart of which would be a less interfered with primary control; but not, and in the absence of any detailed explanation or instruction, not even for humans, any accurate understanding of how this happened, nor any means of ensuring it happening in the future.
I wrote this in response to the question: “What is it about developing one’s coordination that precludes every activity, save inhibition, to bring about a change in one’s manner of use?” I don’t know if I answered the question; but I was certainly clearer, afterwards, in my own mind, on the subject of inhibition.
Inhibition happens a lot of the time without people knowing it does, or calling it that. Take someone who has a tendency to leap out of their chair and rush to do something, whenever the urge strikes them. They decide to change this habit, and to stay in their chair for a count of five first. Whatever they may call it, inhibition of a prior impulse must happen if this habit is to be successfully changed.
It could be argued, of course, that their desire to leap out of the chair is still present, but that they are constraining it with a greater desire to remain where they are; and that this isn’t true inhibition.
I think the notion of doing something different without having first properly stopped doing what that activity is replacing lies at the heart of the Alexander dilemma. Whenever I consider this, I am reminded of Alexander’s example of a cat inhibiting its desire to jump on a prey until it is truly sure of its catch. The original desire remains as strong as ever; but it is held in check by an even greater desire. Thus, it is being inhibited. However, neither the cat nor the person in the chair is applying inhibition to their ‘use’. In our specialised Alexander context, it is often easy to believe we have ‘inhibited’, when what we have done is acted differently, with unchanged use.
Suppose an Alexander student notices their head retracts when they stand. They know this from seeing themselves in mirrors, videos, etc. They also sense it, from their teacher’s hand, and to a certain extent, when alone; but let’s assume, in this instance, that what they sense is ‘it’ happening, or having happened, rather than the manner in which they are causing it to happen; and that instead of waiting to cultivate an increased consciousness of that ‘manner’, they decide to change things by deliberately preventing their head from retracting, throughout the activity of standing. They do this assiduously and end up with a new, better seeming – to them – habit. However, the likelihood is that whatever caused them to retract their head, is still very much present, but is prevented from exerting its unconscious influence by their stronger, conscious desire to do otherwise. In such an instance, inhibition of an unwanted activity has taken place, but inhibition of the manner of use that led to it has not; and that although there has been a superficial, and possibly beneficial change, on a deeper level conditions remain the same. Indeed, from an Alexander viewpoint, they are probably worse.
Such a student is doing no more, or less, than the person in the chair or the cat with its prey. All have a degree of knowledge of their actions and what they have to not do (inhibit) in order to achieve what they want. None is attending, consciously, to their use. For the cat, such inattention is largely irrelevant, since we can assume its use is uniformly reliable. For the person cultivating the new habit of staying in their chair for longer than before, any changes that come about in their use will be by accident rather than design. In the instance of the retracting head, the student knows it retracts, and that they would like it not to. What they don’t yet know, and therefore can’t inhibit, is what lies behind this ‘activity’. For such a student, whose desire is – presumably – to change their use, in order to do what they do differently, deliberately setting out to do things differently, regardless of their use, is like putting the cart before the horse.
In the simplest terms, there is inhibition of action and inhibition of use. Inhibition of action happens all the time. Inhibition of use happens rarely. We can inhibit what we are about to do, by doing something else; but that doesn’t mean we are inhibiting the way we usually do it, or the way we will do whatever we replace it with. Alternatively, we can inhibit the ‘way’ we act, without seeking to change ‘what’ we’re doing at all – although our actions will necessarily change, as a result of our changed conditions.
Unfortunately, in Alexander work, the more students look as though they are ‘doing things differently’, the more likely it is they will have inhibited their actions rather than their use. Those whose actions merely ‘look different’, may, indeed, be managing to inhibit the way they carry them out. To consider T’s question: “What is it about developing one’s coordination that precludes every activity, save inhibition, to bring about a change in one’s manner of use?” I should say that use determines, primarily, the quality rather than the appearance of coordination. Any change in quality would affect appearance, of course; but a change in appearance wouldn’t necessarily affect quality.
It is possible to ‘develop coordination’ (as I understand this term) without changing use one iota. Whether use would change as a by product of developing coordination would depend entirely on the individual. I’ve met people who have changed the way they act and look out of all recognition through one ‘regime’ or another; but their intrinsic ‘use’ doesn’t seem to have altered at all. Then again, I’ve met people whose use appears to have undergone a dramatic change, and who look vastly different, and act in a wholly new fashion, as a result of this, without them ever having had any conscious intention of doing anything differently.
I think the Technique is unique in addressing inhibition of use before, or at most, in tandem with, inhibition of action. It seems to require of students that they bypass their initial perception of a need for a change in what they are doing in order to focus on the way they are doing it. By changing this ‘way’ first, whatever they then do (whether what they first intended, or something else) will not only differ qualitatively from what they would otherwise have done, it will look different, too.
This lengthy series of emails resulted from an enquiry I had from someone who had read my original self help article.
This dialogue was conducted with an interested student who had read most of the available literature on the Technique during the previous couple of years but who was unable at the time to have any lessons.
I tried the experiment in your article two years ago but did not pursue them seriously. I read the article again last week, and started to think seriously about it. I ventured on the experiments and it was a nice experience. It gave me the impression that the AT is really something. It is something that WILL work.
I have difficulty turning the head with my hands (one on the forehead, the other one behind the ears). The head just seems like a heavy ball stuck firmly to a pole. Maybe it is due to the muscular tension. I cannot let the hands guide the movement.
I have a voice problem. I speak with a strained voice and people cannot hear me. I have no physiological problem with the cords. Just muscular tension. Speech therapy over 2 years did not help.
The BIG thing the Technique does is enable you to become aware of muscular tension you are employing unconsciously, which then enables you to stop employing it. There’s another article of mine either on Robert Rickover’s site or at www.dodman.orgthat explains how after my first lesson I became suddenly aware of what I had been doing for many, many years with my totally distorted shoulders!
Sometimes, it’s quick, like that; other times, it’s slow. I’m sure, if you persevere, you’ll benefit hugely; though how long it’ll take, without lessons, I’ve no idea. What I can be sure of, though, is that if you give as much dedicated time to working on yourself as you would have to do during lessons, progress is assured. The temptation is to devote a few minutes once in a while and then wonder why nothing much has changed!
Concerning ‘head turning’. If you have a gentle friend who can assist you could enlist them to turn your head (this cannot be done too carefully) as I think I suggest in the article. If not, it doesn’t really matter, since the important thing is for you to “think of allowing your head to be free to be turned” rather than actually turning it. What I mean by this is that you “pretend” someone – whether you, your friend, a mythical Alexander teacher – is reaching their hands out to take your head and they ask you to “allow” them to turn it. You “allow” them, to the best of your ability, without assisting in any way. If no one else is present and you’re not using your own hands, your head need not – in fact, should not – move one iota.
However, an internal change will have been made, even if you can’t feel it. Your head will be less firmly cemented to your spine!
You do the same in pretending to allow someone to tilt your head forwards and backwards from the point in between your ears. Again, no actual movement is necessary; but the thought is crucial. Without the ‘new thought’, nothing will be any different to usual.
The more often you can ‘do’ this – which isn’t a ‘doing’ so much as an ‘allowing’ – the more likely it is that your head WILL be free to turn, and would be, if you or someone else tried to turn it.
Maybe you could try this and let me know how you get on?
Or, if what I say doesn’t make sense, ask me.
Whatever you experience, it is likely to be subtle.
For what it’s worth, I’ve twice had people come for lessons whose necks were (it seemed to me) so abnormally stiff I could find no way to help. One eventually went to an osteopath, with good results. The other, I’m unsure about. Everyone else I’ve ever seen was able to recognise and minimise excessive neck tension fairly easily.
I mention this just in case. The Technique isn’t always the answer! However, you could expect progress to be many times slower since you don’t have the advantage of a teacher. And, it would appear, you have experienced an element of ‘neck stiffening’ when sitting or standing. Those two people I mentioned: their necks were so stiff all the time there was no increase or decrease in tension, when sitting, standing, or doing anything else.
One other thing you could try, which isn’t strictly Alexander, but which I think could be useful, is, after you have ‘allowed’ your head to ‘be free to be turned’ by the imaginary set of hands, imagine it IS being turned by those hands. Again, no movement, please!
Thank you for the detailed reply. I am reading it carefully and I’ll try the experiments. I have started to think of the imaginary hands before I read your message. I am more confident that I am on a good path after reading you. Let me get back to you with the experience soon.
It was such a funny adventure. I focused on the thinking whenever the flow of life was static (sitting there working, on a bus ..) these two days. I also kept written notes on how I felt. I am suddenly like a student learning conscientiously in a school, with a note pad constantly with me!
I had some idea about the point where my head rests on the spine, although it is still a rough idea. The invisible hands worked very well on me. I could feel the absence of the stiffness and sensed some freedom on the joint. There is a feeling of lightness too but too vague to describe. I successfully turned my head with my index fingers in the holes of my ears! I heard some “clacks”, I believe, from the joint too (like those clacks you sometimes hear when standing up from squatting).
Imagining the head being turned gave me vertigo, sort of having nothing to grasp on and I’m going to fall from height. If I try to experience this further, I’ll resort to doing and the muscles on my neck will react and tense up.
So I all along stick to thinking the head being free and that it can be turned. Today, I just put my fingers on my ears and that feeling and experience reappeared in my thinking immediately. It is like, “And all was calm again”. The rough sea has become still again. I felt that life was so beautiful and I smiled. As for what you wrote about AT not being always the answer. I agree but I am not looking for any answer to my problem. It is better than none. I can become more self aware and the means whereby will give me a lot of insights. The end itself is not important for me.
I have started to sense the tension in my neck muscles during movements too. There is stiffness on my neck when I walk, sit and stand up. But no idea how come it is there, when it creeps in or how to describe it.
Thank you for letting me share my experience with you.
Well, that all seems productive and useful. What you need to do now – what we all have to do, continually – is more of the same! Believe me, it’s amazing how tensions that were unconscious can become conscious and how shocking they can seem when they do.
Even more shocking in many ways is how they keep coming, again and again. Did you locate that article I wrote about my first one or two lessons? I couldn’t have any more lessons for a year; but that didn’t matter, since I had the insight into my condition I needed; but what astonished me over that next year was how persistent my shoulder tension was.
So, I went from being completely unaware of it (for many, many years) to being wholly aware of it, just like that; but then it took an age to prevent myself from ‘doing it’ every time I stopped thinking about ‘not doing it’.
It might be worth your while seeking out either a real skeleton or a book showing the head and top few vertebra. It amazed me to see how the skull sat on the atlas bone (1st vertebra), and ‘nodded’ from that juncture; and how the atlas bone sat on the axis bone (2nd vertebra) and rotated at that point. Once you ‘know’ that’s the way you are, it’s somehow easier to ‘feel’ it. I talk about this point being midway between the ears; but it would probably help you to visualise this if you had seen it for yourself in some form.
You’ve read pretty widely concerning the Technique; so you’ll know how important the head/neck relationship is, and how everything else follows from it. So, all I would suggest you do, is keep paying attention, but try to do this as subtlety as possible. I wrote a review of a book about The Alexander Technique once, which was full of pictures showing rather stiff looking people, and I remember saying something like “The key to successfully applying the Technique is not to look as though you are”!
Please, any questions, about anything to do with the Technique, at all, fire away … I get huge pleasure from thinking someone can benefit without having to have a hands on lesson.
Your article “Before and After” on your experience has given me some insights in my situation. On reading your story about having stiff shoulders because of the hair style requirement at school, I remember being told to speak up when I was small at school (the lady teacher’s voice would still resonance in my ears now, “speak up, little girl.”) I was born a soft speaker obviously. But I did not have problem of having a strained voice until I was made conscious that I spoke too softly. To please those people around, I tried hard to do what they taught me, to breathe “correctly” by pushing out the abdomen and keeping the shoulders fixed. They said I should breathe with my diaphragm and only the belly should move, the shoulders should not move and the “support” should be from the belly.
With your experiment of head turning, I began to realize what I have been doing to myself over the years, just to speak in such “correct” way. I overdo my neck muscles to sound louder and I hold my breath during speech, to keep my belly hard to “support”. The speech therapist often reminded me to breathe in and not to use force to speak. These have been vague remarks to me until now I realize what I am doing to myself.
These bad habits sound too overwhelming. While the poise of the head during the head turning experiment gives me the well being so wonderful, I just keep losing it whenever I stop thinking about it and when I am busy with my daily activity. I won’t dream about changing the bad habits. I just want the well being of being poised to stay a little bit longer!
I must say that this experiment with you is a real key to self-awareness. And it is a fruitful experience.
I would like to ask this. The “allow my neck to be free, allow my head to go forward and up, allow my back to lengthen and widen” directions described in the books, how do they fit in the present experiment? And “inhibition”, does it mean I have to pause before each activity and simulate poise, and then decide whether I should engage in the activity?
I hope I sound clear enough to you. I’ll be glad to clarify. It is sometimes difficult to say it in English, which is not my mother tongue.
Progress is almost always a case of ‘two steps forward, one step back’; and it can seem painfully slow. This is especially the case when you have recognised some behaviour pattern you no longer want, but find it tricky to stop.
Remembering my shoulder problem, I hope I made it clear in the article that although it took a very short time for me to become aware of something I had been blind to for years, it took me a lot longer than that to stop doing it!
To turn to your questions. I have a slightly different view of ‘inhibition and direction’ to the commonly taught one.
Inhibition, as I see it, is the process of becoming aware of something you don’t want to be doing and then stopping doing it. For example, if you habitually clench your fist, and that clenching becomes subconscious, you cannot inhibit it. Firstly, it needs to become conscious. As soon as you become conscious of what you are doing (as with my shoulders) you can stop doing it, at least to some degree. What you then commonly find is, as soon as you stop ‘inhibiting’ (that is, paying attention to not doing something) the behaviour pattern comes back. That’s what you’re experiencing.
All you can do in this case – which is the same for every Alexander student – is try your utmost to remember to inhibit whenever you can. Every little helps; and even when it seems as if you’re getting nowhere, progress is almost certainly being made. That progress endures even if you feel you keep going back to square one.
I liken it to physical growth. When I was younger and I met uncles and aunts maybe twice a year they always said how much I had grown though I never felt any different. My growth was so slow it always seemed normal and unchanging to me. So it is with whatever you inhibit. Believe me!
Concerning the head turning, I like to think that when you ‘allow’ your head to be turned, you are inhibiting the habit of ‘fixing’ it to your skull. The act of freeing your head is the act of inhibiting fixing it. Does that make sense?
Now, as for directions, the primary one is allowing the neck to be free in order for the head to go forward and up. When your head is free to be rotated or tilted (which is what the head turning, and the imaginary head turning, exercise is designed to achieve) it IS going forward and up. In other words, the neck HAS freed. Once the head is going forward and up, the spine WILL lengthen. So, ‘giving directions’, in my view, for these things to happen, is best done by freeing the head in the way I suggest.
So, when you ask:
“The “allow my neck to be free, allow my head to go forward and up, allow my back to lengthen and widen” directions described in the books, how do they fit in the present experiment?”
I would say they are there, but not actively expressed. If you read my article on directing (on the website, called ‘learning to apply the technique’, you will realise I went through many stages. The stage I’m at now is the result of many blind alleys! However, it may be you would find it useful to direct in a more formal manner. It’s worth experimenting with.
I sympathise with you saying:
“I just keep losing it whenever I stop thinking about it and when I am busy with my daily activity.”
That’s inevitable! Just keep coming back to it, whenever you can. It’s a discipline, like any other. One way of thinking about it is remembering just how long and hard you worked to set up the poor habits in the first place. In your case, to do with making your voice louder. That required hard, conscious work and persistence, which eventually became automatic. That’s what you now have to undo.
When you ask:
“And “inhibition”, does it mean I have to pause before each activity and simulate poise, and then decide whether I should engage in the activity?”
Well, you can do this. I found – and find – it results in a certain stiff, mechanical way of behaving; but it’s certainly useful in instilling discipline. The main problem is that in ‘real life’, you can’t usually decide whether or not to pursue an activity. Waiting to cross the road, you can’t ‘inhibit’ half way across and decide whether or not to go on. Cooking a meal, riding a bike, it’s the same. But, certainly, at home, it can help to not automatically do whatever you first think of, ‘simulate poise’, as you put it, and then decide whether or not to do what you planned, something else, or nothing at all.
However, ‘remembering’ to come back to yourself, whatever you’re doing, is the big problem. I’ve tried many devices in the past, to trigger my memory; but it all comes back to self discipline.
I’m not sure if you lie down in semi supine at all? Is this something you’ve tried?
Also, have you come across what is known as ‘the whispered ah’ in your reading of Alexander literature?
The act of freeing the head is the act of inhibiting fixing it. This certainly makes sense to me. The thought of letting the imaginary hands move my head freely can now bring me into a tranquil state where I am more in touch with the present moment and the things around me. Just like what you say in your article “Learning to apply the technique” (I have read it carefully many times and I am going to read it again. The ideas are quite abstract to digest.), I have to let myself go through stages in learning to apply AT in my life. I understand that everyone pathway may be unique and mine will not necessarily correspond yours. But I agree with you that it is important to have a clear mindset from the onset that the technique has to be applied in daily activities right. And I have to find a way to “keep the directions going” (in your term, “remember to allow the invisible hands turn my head and not fix my head” in my case), through experiments and perhaps through many blind alleys like you.
I have explored and read about AT for 2 years. I know it clearly that I should not carry out the directions in action. Over two years, I have tried to give myself those directions in my brain whenever I remember to do so. The directions (neck free, head up and so on) are in English, and I have to mentally translate them into my language each time I think of them. I just can’t do it in a momentary manner, just as what you describe in your article. It results in no particular change in me, even the subtlest one, except some kind of stiffness on the neck and the feeling of being a puppet.
Reading your article on head turning and doing your experiment has given me a taste of the experience of being poised. I am working the other way round: experience first, not caring about the verbal directions, and as exactly as you put it, “when my head is free, the neck HAS freed, the head IS going forward and up, the spine WILL lengthen.” This has led me to a new ground I have never explored.
The key to remind myself to inhibit is exactly this new experience. I have started to lie down semi supine and do the head turning experiment. In a very short span of time, I reached a point that I felt my body “thicken”, that my torso occupied more space. I could scan my whole body and notice the tension on my neck and on my face. I allowed my thoughts to trace down to how they came about. I found I was sort of telling my body to do it. As soon as I found that, it disappeared without any necessity to even stop it. This is just a very short fleeting moment. When I am in my daily life. When I remember telling myself to allow my head to be turned, I suddenly remember how I felt during that fleeting moment. The experience seems to replicate in me and I remember to tell those thoughts tensing up my neck and face to stop. My body seems to be re-educating itself. I know that my spine has inclined to the left (people told me about that after a chest X-ray). I think I can slightly feel it now, when in that semi supine position.
I have been lying down with my eyes closed. As soon as I open my eyes, I lose the focus on my body. I’ll try to open them more and more. I like playing with this idea.
As for the whisper AH, all I can see in those books are pictures with people having their mouth wide open and some descriptions that seem quite vague to me. Is the Ah audible (how much is “whisper”)? How to allow the jaw to open?
I’ll perhaps have the chance to work with an AT teacher visiting my area later this month. Just one brief session, perhaps. Will certainly share the experience with you.
This AT experience is great. Things just happen. How good it is not having to concern about progress.
I also would like to know about Monkey and the Lunge, perhaps at a later stage.
It sounds as though you’re making useful progress. I’ve never been entirely clear whether the verbal directions work, even slightly! It seems to me there are two possibilities: one is that the repetition of the words, while being worked on by a teacher, enables the same words to produce something similar when away from a teacher; the other is that the body ‘hears’ the words and deciphers them on an unconscious level.
Neither of these strikes me as satisfactory. There is the other issue of whether, when we repeat the words, we ought to be ‘thinking’ of what they mean, or what we think they mean. Some teachers suggest we shouldn’t; that the words are not to be interpreted; others that it is only the meaning behind the words that matters.
It’s a very confusing area; and no two teachers have exactly the same ideas. For me, I’ve come to the conclusion that the words are the expression of what, generally, we don’t do. Most of us, most of the time, are tightening our necks, pulling our heads backwards and down, etc, etc. Before anything else, what we need to do is stop tightening those necks. Strictly speaking, that is inhibition; but we can only stop doing something to the extent that we are aware of doing it in the first place.
So, let’s say we are aware of 1% of the unnecessary tightening we are doing; and whenever we remember, we stop that 1%. What about the other 99%?
That, for me, is where direction comes into play. I think it’s largely futile to repeat words (but, having said that, I highly recommend getting hold of a booklet by Joe Armstrong on the subject, who believes just the opposite) and that what is needed is something more like desire.
The ‘desire’ for the remaining 99% of the neck (or part of it) you are unaware of tightening to be free is really just a continuation of stopping tightening the initial 1% you are aware of. The two sort of meld into one. In practical terms, whatever you do to undo the tightening you are aware of, you simply carry that a tiny bit further …
That ‘tiny bit’ is hopefully encapsulated by the ‘allowing your head to be turned’ process. Each time you go through this, you increase the likelihood of the 1%/99% ratio becoming, say, 2%/98%.
I think you might find the Whispered Ah, or a variant of it, very useful. The Lunge and Monkey are really just devices for ensuring all the joints of the body are used optimally. If you have any experience of Tai Chi, there are lots of similarities.
The Whispered Ah can seem quite complicated, and in my opinion, takes emphasis away from the central issue, which is what we do with our breathing in everyday life. For the moment, maybe I could suggest a short procedure I found useful?
I’m not sure what your personal circumstances are, whether you live alone, have children, or whatever. The ideal would be if you had tiny children you could read aloud to but who wouldn’t mind if you read very slowly, with a changed emphasis!
To do this, you need to chose a piece of writing and to read it out aloud. It’s crucial that you be prepared to read much more slowly than you would normally do.
Take your time. Get comfortable. Firstly, avoid the initial desire to take a breath before beginning reading. Simply start when you like. Read at half or a quarter your normal speed; use normal tone and intonation, so that what you are reading makes sense; but don’t structure your breath to suit the reading. What I mean by this is, as soon as whatever air in your lungs begins to run out, don’t take a rapid inbreath and continue reading! Instead, stop reading and allow – ALLOW – fresh air to fill you up. This influx of air should take several seconds, which it is useful to count mentally. As soon as your lungs are full again, you can restart your reading from where you left off. Continue reading out loud until your breath begins to run out again; again, stop reading and allow your lungs to fill.
Carry on with this for as long as you like. Treat full stops and commas and new paragraphs with decent sized pauses. Generally, when we read out loud, we do a lot of straining and gasping to get the sentences to fit. We’re also usually in a tremendous hurry. Both of these tendencies should be avoided.
The way the lungs work is extremely interesting; but what’s truly important to know is that almost zero effort is required to breathe in. In this exercise, you make an effort to speak, and as you speak you necessarily breathe out; as soon as you stop making that effort, as soon as you stop squeezing the lungs in order to expel the air that creates the spoken word, atmospheric pressure will ensure that fresh air floods back in.
In other words, breathing in requires no effort at all, so long as you don’t get in its way, which of course most of us do!
Maybe you could let me know how this exercise goes?
I’ve had my first lesson! The teacher was visiting and had time for just one lesson. I am now saving up money for a residential course for one or two weeks in the future, perhaps in two years’ time.
I have experienced the “poise”. It was the same as what I achieved in the “head turning”, but much easier. The teacher pointed out to me that my whole pursuit in trying to attack the problem with my voice by applying AT is by itself an end-gaining process and suggested that I gave up the desire of speaking well. The teacher also found that my eyes focused too much on things. When I was asked to stop staring at things and ALLOW things to flow into my eyes, and just ALLOW things in life come to me, I felt relaxed and released of the burden that I had been carrying over the years without knowing it. The teacher said I started breathing and my head returned to where it is supposed to be on the spine. I did not feel that. I only felt relaxed and relieved. It was amazing to be poised without even having started the hands-on work. This indirect procedure sets me on a new outlook on life. Life can be so easy. It is like picking up a box full of milk, with much preconceived effort, only to find that it was empty and one has used too much effort. This experience is beneficial in the sense that I can always tell myself to stop end-gaining in life and allow myself to return to such poised state simply by letting things come to me. I think I can achieve much by myself with this new attitude to approach life. This is the right track for me.
The teacher then ended the discussion and started working with me standing. I was then started off walking. I liked to walk that way and I would not want to stop. I know that this kind of work needs the help of a teacher. And it is no use trying to recapture the experience now. Re-educating the body will take time and I am prepared to it.
Returning to our thread of discussion, I would now replace the “allowing my head to be turned” process with the “let things flow into my eyes” procedure and carry on with it. The feeling I get from the latter is the same: I am more at the present, relaxed but alert, and breathing becomes easier and automatic. But it is much easier.
Thank you for suggesting the breathing procedure. It helped me realise that one do not have to gasp for air and hold it, and one can actually survive with so little air. When the head is poised, breathing is subtle and automatic, I can’t even feel it going on. But to be poised and speak at the same time is difficult for me. I can only do it semi supine. (I read something that I have learnt by heart. No one was present).
The “voice” is something that I do not dare to go too near. I always try very hard to do it as I am too anxious about it. It is difficult not to become end-gaining with it in my case. The more I want to do about the voice, the more interference I’ll make on the breathing. At a certain point, I had to stuff my ears with cotton balls so that I wound not hear the end product, and I could concentrate more on the refill of the lungs when the speech stopped. This worked better. And I could keep the playful attitude towards myself and withhold the judgment that is sometimes too harsh on myself.
Looking forward to hearing from you.
It may sound like heresy from an Alexander teacher but I am firmly of the opinion that if we are fully present, taking in what is out there through our eyes, as well as our other senses, we will be every bit as balanced as any amount of inhibiting and directing could bring about. Alexander work helps us become more present, because we can’t inhibit or direct other than now; so we’re forced back into the moment in order to apply this work; but what I’ve come to realise over the years is that the process operates in reverse. By this, I mean that, as soon as we come into the present, with the intention of inhibiting and directing, there’s actually little need to do either, since they will happen automatically, by virtue of our being present.
Being present is far from easy, however! For me, what defines it is how we’re thinking. Chiefly, I differentiate between ‘thinking of’ things, and ‘thinking about’ them.
For example, if you ‘think of’ your kitchen, the state of the world, or a two week residential Alexander event, they exist in your mind as realities. You don’t need to consider them, though you can, if you like. They simply exist, and you’re familiar with them, or the idea of them. You could even ‘think of’ something you’re unfamiliar with, such as my kitchen, without knowing anything about it.
Something like this can and is done by us and by all sentient beings (I believe) constantly, while we stay very much anchored in the present moment. However, as soon as we start to ‘think about’ any of these things, we immediately take ourselves away from the present moment, into an imaginary – usually past or future – state.
‘Thinking about’ is vital to human development (it enables us to build bridges and organise our days) but it is also (I believe) the root cause of poor use, because it takes us away from the present, and in particular, our sense of ourselves. I would guess that when we are born, we do no ‘thinking about’, during childhood, we learn it in detail, and as adults, we can do little else. I would estimate that whenever we are not directly involved in something so exciting or meaningful that it swallows us up, we will be ‘thinking about’ something other than what is going on. I reckon most of us spend the vast majority of our waking lives ‘thinking about’ things. We ‘think of’ them, too; but usually, ‘thinking of’ something leads pretty swiftly to ‘thinking about’ it.
The ‘sense of ourselves’ I mentioned is what will have provided us with accurate feedback as to when and where we were going wrong in the past. Because we will have been absent (‘thinking about’ things) from a fairly early age, we will have failed to heed that sense. As we grew older, this failure to heed would have become more and more commonplace, until we become where most of us are today, barely in touch with ourselves at all. Really, it’s amazing we function as well as we do!
I was on a walk yesterday, ‘thinking about’ this (!) and I tried – once again – to work out how to describe the process involved in preventing such thinking from occurring. I used to believe it happened via the eyes. There’s definitely a correlation between the way we see and the way we think; also the way we breath; and obviously, our use generally; but I’ve come to the conclusion that all this – sight, breath, use – is determined by the way we are thinking rather than the other way around; that there are only two ways for us to think; and that one way leads to freedom of sight, breath, use, etc, while the other way causes restrictions in all three.
It does work the other way around, though. By deliberately looking at the world in a particular way (I call it ‘Seeing in 3D’, and I’ve written about it elsewhere) we are not only brought into the present, but use and breathing both alter. In order to ‘see in 3D’, we can’t be ‘thinking about’ anything. As soon as we start ‘thinking about’, the seeing – and breathing, etc – is lost.
Similarly, if we ‘allow ourselves to breath’ in a certain way, this seems to produce changes in the way we see, and our use generally. Again, it doesn’t allow for the possibility of ‘thinking about’ things. However, both ‘seeing in 3D’ and ‘breathing in a certain way’ suggest we are already seeing and breathing in a not useful way because of something we are currently doing.
For me, that ‘something’ is our thinking, which is what determines the way we are. By changing use (whether how we look at things, how we breathe, or how we hold our heads) although the way we think may alter, because we haven’t addressed the thinking pattern directly, it is likely to return, and this can be disappointing. Of course, changing the thinking pattern directly doesn’t mean it stays forever changed; the old pattern quickly returns, too; but it is the cause of poor use rather than the effect. In other words, it seems more sensible to address the cause than the effect.
An analogy might be a hosepipe with water gushing out of the end. Squeezing the hose will stop the water flowing; switching the water off at the tap will do the same. The truth is, we can’t satisfactorily ‘switch the water off’. The sort of ‘tap’ humans have is one that as soon as the intention to switch it off lapses, it automatically switches itself on again. However, to me it makes more sense to ‘switch the water off’, even if only for a few moments, and alleviate the water pressure, than squeeze the hose, which has the same effect of stopping the water flow, but requires more effort.
Anyway, all this was simply to say that whatever method you use to become more present, it is as well to remember that you don’t become present by ‘doing something’ so much as by ‘stopping doing something you are already doing’. For you, let’s say you stop staring, and you find yourself more present. I would like you to try to see if, when you stop staring (by ‘allowing things to flow into your eyes’) you don’t also stop ‘thinking about’ things. And that when you find yourself starting staring again (in other words, you forget to ‘allow things to flow into your eyes’), you haven’t at the same time started ‘thinking about’ other matters.
Actually, maybe the first step would be for you to try and recognise for yourself how you do think in your life. Are you able to appreciate the difference between ‘thinking about’ and ‘thinking of’?
This may seem a bit ‘off course’; and, naturally, it may not interest you as much as more orthodox Alexander work. Something you said made me write all that! Now, back to business>
The breathing/speaking procedure is designed to increase awareness of what we are doing with our breathing whenever we speak. It’s worth carrying any insights you gain into the world. For example, when asking for fruit or vegetables at a grocer, how rushed are the words? Is there a gasp for air because a sentence isn’t finished? At work, or in social situations, are you able to retain a sense of yourself while speaking. Are you rushing the inbreath to get a sentence completed?
Maybe this is for the future, though. As you say, if you don’t want to examine the voice too closely, maybe it would be useful for you to do this:
While in semi supine, or any other time, too, try the following:
1. Allow your lower jaw to hang open. This may give you a faintly ‘village idiot’ feeling! It doesn’t matter how far the jaw hangs. As you let it hang, ‘think of’ it moving away from your neck region.
2. Allow your tongue to sit with its tip nestling against your lower teeth.
3. Allow whatever air is in your lungs to be expelled while you make a ‘whispered ah’ sound. This is a very much quietened version of the sound you may have occasionally had to make at the doctor, when he or she examined your throat.
4. As the sound finishes and there is no more breath to expel (there’s no need to wring your lungs dry), close your mouth, stop whatever effort you had been employing to cause your ribcage to contract, and allow the ribcage to expand again as you allow air to flow into your lungs through your nose.
5. As your lungs inflate, allow your trunk to widen. Once the inflation is complete, begin the process again with (1).
Two key points: Avoid ‘taking a breath’ in order to start the process. Begin it with whatever air you have in your lungs, even if the first ‘ah’ lasts a nanosecond And allow (1), (2) and the beginning of (3) to happen all together, so the process flows.
Personally, I find it useful to place the backs of my hands on either side of my ribs, to remind me just how much they can move.
If you’re in a public place, and you want to do this, the same procedure can be followed, but:
1. ‘Think of’ the lower jaw releasing and dropping, without actually letting it do so.
2. ‘Think of’ the ‘ah’ sound, without articulating it and breath out through your nose rather than your mouth.
Concerning your experiences of the ‘allowing my head to be turned” process and the “let things flow into my eyes” procedure and how you find the results much the same but the latter easier.
It’s crucial that it is easy, so you’re probably on the right track there. I strongly suspect that both these procedure have the ultimate effect of stopping you ‘thinking about’ something completely separate from what was going on! The best way to do any of these processes (whether ‘letting things flow into your eyes’, allowing your ‘head to go forward and up’, or whatever) is to think ‘of’ rather than ‘about’ them. For example, if I was to ask you to ‘think of’ a pineapple, and to ‘hold that thought in your mind’ for the next fifteen seconds, while you go about your ordinary business, you should find it fairly easy, unless you’re doing something else that requires all your attention. Certainly, you don’t need to ‘think about’ the pineapple in even the slightest detail.
I’m not sure how useful what I’ve just said will be. Although it’s easy to stop ‘thinking about’ things for a few seconds at a time, the demand is huge – in me, and most people I’ve known – to start the process up again. It’s largely what determines us as humans, but it’s also our curse.
Something I’ve wondered is: are you able to squat, comfortably, with your heels remaining on the ground? If you are, can you do this, while keeping one hand on the back of your neck, to feel what happens there? If you’re not able to squat, how about if you try it while holding onto something like a set of door handles – the door open, and you holding one handle in each hand? As you squat down, simply pay attention to what restricts you from going further.
The lesson has given me a new experience. But before reading from you I had been wondering how to get on from there. I then really got a lot of insights from your message.
What you have written describes exactly what was going on in me. It is easy to allow things to flow into my eyes, and be at the present, but it is as easy to return to my original state soon afterwards. I realized that even before reading you. In fact, the new experience has unveiled from the most inner thoughts of me, many episodes of the experience in the past, even from the earliest years of childhood. Like a movie, the scenarios replayed themselves and I realized how all those end-gaining attitudes developed in me over the years. I had been modifying my general approach to life and the use of my body (most unconsciously) to “adapt’ to life, to live up to people’s expectation, and more importantly, to my own expectations of being a perfectionist (life should be so and so, I should be so and so). All these have wrapped themselves up in fleeting end-gaining desires before every action and every reaction to a stimulus, while myself having no knowledge or feeling of it. Is this “think about” in your sense? I have read your message over and over again to make sure that I get what you mean. I think I am exactly as “barely in touch” with myself as you described. (Before reading you I could only vaguely describe these thoughts.) I had been wondering how to stop these end-gaining thoughts before reading you. After reading you, I think I can say, I am thinking about without even thinking of it (without even knowing that I am thinking about)! And I agree very much “you don’t become present by ‘doing something’ so much as by ‘stopping doing something you are already doing'”.
I like your approach to differentiate “think of” and “think about”. They are simple, short and direct. I do not need to translate them mentally when I come to examine how I think in my life. I think I understand the words you wrote literally. But I am not sure whether I can really appreciate the difference between them. Let’s see if I understand them correctly by applying them to my case of using the AT as an end-gaining pursuit to solve my voice problem. Each time I try to fix the voice with AT work (directions, inhibitions, stop staring, let things flow into my eyes, imagine head being turned), I can’t resist the temptation of trying to see how it works, how different I feel, whether this AT stuff works, whether the end-product (the voice quality) will be different, or am I doing it correctly (checking from the mirrors). All these are “think about”, right? As for “think of”, should I be just letting go of those thoughts, keeping the desire to be at the present and the desire to allow things to come to me, and forget about the voice?
You asked whether I stop thinking about things when I stop staring. Yes. There is calm and lightness too. I can just let things go by themselves. No need to use so much energy. “And when you find yourself starting staring again, you haven’t at the same time started ‘thinking about’ other matters.” This is as well true.
I really agree that the thinking pattern is the root of poor use rather than the effect. It also sounds very logical that we should address the cause than the effect. But other than the options 1) addressing the cause only; and 2) addressing the effect only, will there be an option 3) addressing the effect and then addressing the cause? I hope you understand what I am trying to say. I mean a mixture of both one after the other. The “let things flow into my eyes” (addressing the effect) easily brings me back to the present. Can I then switch to giving up the “think about” thoughts and allow myself to “think of” instead? By this stage, the initial desire of “let things flow into my eyes” will become a vague desire if I can think of its existence only without going to the slightest detail or checking its effect on me.
Also, where I an read the ‘seeing in 3D”? Now back to business>
I’ll keep doing the procedure of whisper ah and squatting. Some questions and some insights for this stage:
Ok, avoid taking a breath to start the process is easy. Yet after the lungs are refilled, have to allow the jaw to open and the tongue tip to touch the lower teeth, during this lapse of time, should I continue breathing in, or start breathing out and then aspirate the ah after the jaw and the tongue are ready? Or should I have the jaw and tongue ready at the same time while allowing air to go into my lungs?
I know that I have to avoid taking a breath to start the first ah. Yet as the process goes, do I have to wait until the air has come in before articulating the ah? Do I always have to wait until all air is expelled when breathing out and the lungs are full when breathing in during the process? Or can I just articulate the ah at any moment I wish and stop to let air come in at any moment I wish, without concerning about the “remaining stock” of air in my lungs?
The first insight in this process is that the jaw is bigger than I ever know. I tried to feel for it in order to release it. The sideburns are so long and go up to the earlobe! I always thought it was only along my lower teeth like a horseshoe!
People have been teaching me how to speak. They all said I have to support the voice with air when I speak, and that I have to let the belly go out to breathe in. I then breathe out hard when I speak in order to physically sense the outflow of air, just to make sure that it is there. I push the belly out by overdoing the muscles, without such effort I cannot physically sense that I am breathing in and I will have a feeling that I’ll die for short of breath. What’s worse is that I never know about this. During the whisper ah procedure, my hands on the rib cage tell me that I am breathing out as soon as I speak (as soon as there is voice), but I cannot feel that. I feel that I am breathing out only at a later stage, when I force that voice with the muscles in order to sound longer and louder (a subconscious habit). Same case for breathing in. As soon as I stop the voice, my hands feel the expansion of the rib cage, but I do not sense it. I sense it only later when I start holding my breath (another subconscious habit).
I even try to think of letting the breathing go all by itself without thinking of the details, and just speak and stop, and just feel the rib cage with my hands. First, I had a feeling that I am dying without air and no breathing was going on in me. Soon I felt I was floating and relieved, sort of like having removed a heavy armour unnecessary for life. When I really speak to people, I have started to be able to feel that things went wrong. It was mostly the breathing. I push in my belly to speak, and push out my belly to breathe in and prepare for the next sentence. All the time holding the breath, not allowing air to go out or go in.
I’ll continue with this. I can approach my voice comfortably with it.
As for the squat:
I can squat all the way down to the heels. I just feel a pull back action midway down and another pull back action midway up with my hands on the back of my neck. The head was pulled backward and it seemed to bounce back each time before I reached down or up.
Enough for now. Enjoy reading from you.
Thanks a lot too.
Good to hear from you.
Firstly, the 3D writing. Unfortunately, all the pieces I’ve written about my experience ‘seeing in 3D’ were to AlexTech. Recently, I had a hard disk failure, and a portion of my records, including emails sent and received, were lost. So I have no trace of some of these pieces. I believe AlexTech archives exist somewhere; but I’ve never located them!
What I could find was this. It followed on from a discussion about the Bates method. I said:
“I know nothing about the merits or otherwise of Bates work; but I do recall a single day of Bates instruction we had on our training course. The visiting teacher went through all the exercises – palming, etc – which I found a bit of a yawn; but then he started talking about seeing in 3D. I initially thought, well, of course we see in 3D; but he had us all stand at the window (which was in a house on a hill) and look out over the South Downs; and as he explained what he meant I suddenly, and for the first time for many, many years, saw depth in what I was looking at.
It was an awesome moment; and perhaps the most awesome fact of all was that I could switch it on or off at will. The knack was rather like the knack of seeing those magic eye pictures, only far easier. What it did require, however, was an effort of will to choose to do it. Now, this possibility is open to us every moment of every day; and while I can’t speak for anyone else, I can confidently say I spend most of my time looking at the world in anything but 3D.
It has been my experience that seeing the world in 3D alters the way I think and act. I suspect perception may affect conception as profoundly as conception does use. Anyway, it’s food for thought.”
Someone replied to this asking for more details:
“I am curious how the Bates practitioner taught or explained “how” to see in 3-D. I have heard many ways to do it, but would like to know what worked for your class.”
My reply was:
“It’s a long time since this happened; but as I remember there was no formal teaching of anything so much as a reminder to do what we all knew how to do anyway.
As I said, it was like learning to see magic eye pictures. That took me some time; but when I ‘got it’, I was able to do it again and again. Seeing in 3D – or what I mean by seeing in 3D, which is really no more than fully appreciating depth – seems to me to be a similar matter of focus. Sitting here in my living room, there’s an assortment of chairs, plants, rugs, and doors to other areas of the house, all of which can either be viewed in ‘flat screen’ mode, which is what I usually do, or 3D mode.
I find it’s a matter of choice; and to chose 3D seems to involve a recognition of depth that is connected in some way with changing focus.
I find I can switch it on as easily as a tap; but it’s like the dead man’s train brake lever: it works while it’s on, but as soon as I forget to keep it on, it reverts to off. Off is definitely my default mode.”
Dos this make sense to you?
Concerning thinking ‘of’ and ‘about’. You ask:
“Let’s see if I understand them correctly by applying them to my case of using the AT as an end-gaining pursuit to solve my voice problem. Each time I try to fix the voice with AT work (directions, inhibitions, stop staring, let things flow into my eyes, imagine head being turned), I can’t resist the temptation of trying to see how it works, how different I feel, whether this AT stuff works, whether the end-product (the voice quality) will be different, or am I doing it correctly (checking from the mirrors). All these are “think about”, right? As for “think of”, should I be just letting go of those thoughts, keeping the desire to be at the present and the desire to allow things to come to me, and forget about the voice?”
Yes, I believe you’ve grasped the essence of this. In the context you’ve chosen, what you need to do is exactly what you describe in your last sentence. It’s not a question of stopping thinking altogether, since you have to have the thought ‘of’ engaging in a process to do it at all. Where it potentially falls apart is when you start thinking ‘about’ the means or the consequences of what you are doing.
Of course, during any initial learning process, thinking ‘about’ the way you do things is necessary. As, for example, with the whispered ah. However, once the actual structure is clear, the less you think ‘about’ it, the better. Naturally, continuing to think ‘of’ what you are doing is essential in order to keep doing it.
“… other than the options 1) addressing the cause only; and 2) addressing the effect only, will there be an option 3) addressing the effect and then addressing the cause?”
Yes; and I think that would especially be the case with anyone who’s had a bit of Alexander experience, because they would naturally be more aware of effects. But there’s also option (4); which is addressing the cause and then, maybe, the effect.
The reason I suggest this is that I met and talked to another Alexander teacher recently who I hadn’t seen for a long time. I was mentioning my ideas about thinking being the cause of poor use and he said he knew a lot of people involved in meditation, Buddhism, Guerjieff work, etc, all of whom were dedicated to ‘being in the moment’, and many of the apparently most successful had appalling use!
His implication was that merely stopping ‘thinking about’ (which is what ideally happens during meditation, attention to now, etc) doesn’t necessarily result in good use.
My response was that maybe these people weren’t as successful at stopping ‘thinking about’ as they believed; but also, that poor use is the end result of many, many years of dedicated hard work on our part, and that it would be unreasonable to expect it to undo all at once. In many ways, we create these muscular shells to live in, and even if we stop doing whatever created the structure of the shell, it’s habitual and convenient to remain within their confines.
For those that have meditated for many, many years and claim to be more ‘in the moment’ than not, yet still have aches and pains and wretched use … it may be that they are paying more attention to what they see, hear, smell, touch, etc, than what they sense; and that they’re simply unaware of living in a muscular shell that was created by past thought patterns. Many meditation techniques emphasise sensing the body internally, but not so much how it manifests itself externally.
Maybe having the additional awareness of what constitutes good or bad use that comes through Alexander work means that, once a person has addressed the cause, they can then consider whatever effects (which will probably be habitual effects, by which I mean the effects of past causes) are present that they might like to address.
For myself, I tend to oscillate between all four options. Thinking about them, I suppose they all turn into each other, eventually.
Concerning your questions about the whispered ah:
“… after the lungs are refilled, have to allow the jaw to open and the tongue tip to touch the lower teeth, during this lapse of time, should I continue breathing in, or start breathing out and then aspirate the ah after the jaw and the tongue are ready? Or should I have the jaw and tongue ready at the same time while allowing air to go into my lungs?”
What seems to happen after some familiarity with the process is that at the point where the lungs are full, there is a momentary lull. It’s like the moment on a bike when you reach the top of an incline, stop pedalling, and wait for gravity to take you down the other side. Or you hit a tennis ball in the air and it stops for a moment before dropping back down. During this lull, there should be enough time for the lower jaw to drop open and the tongue to find its place; but if this coincides with the beginning of the air coming out again, that’s okay.
I wouldn’t start getting the jaw and tongue ready while you’re still drawing air in through your nose. Better late than early.
You also ask:
“I know that I have to avoid taking a breath to start the first ah. Yet as the process goes, do I have to wait until the air has come in before articulating the ah? Do I always have to wait until all air is expelled when breathing out and the lungs are full when breathing in during the process? Or can I just articulate the ah at any moment I wish and stop to let air come in at any moment I wish, without concerning about the “remaining stock” of air in my lungs?”
Mmm. There are no hard and fast rules; but I think the procedure is one that should be adhered to in (ie, it’s better to allow full inspiration and full expiration) artificial, practice circumstances; however, during ‘real life’, especially when speech is involved, it might be different. However, from what you say, there’s a lot of ‘history’ in the way you speak and breathe! I would strongly suggest keeping the whispered ah long and full.
You mention belly breathing. I would pay a lot of attention to how your ribs move, especially the ribs around your back. Using your hands – or, if that’s awkward, taking a scarf and holding it around your trunk, gently tightening it as you breath out and then allowing your expanding ribcage to gently ‘force’ the noose open when you breath in – to sense how much movement does take place in your back. It’s even worth placing the palms of your hands on your front (one around the belly area, the other on your chest) as you proceed with whispered ahs, just to sense how much movement there is, and how much is necessary. The answer is not very much! Feel free to experiment with deliberately not allowing your belly to inflate as you breathe in, and see if air flows elsewhere. Alexanderwise, breathing is largely a back activity.
The more you practice, the more you will sense what is happening, even if at first you need your hands or the scarf to verify matters. So it’s worth persevering.
Concerning the squat. You say:
“I just feel a pull back action midway down and another pull back action midway up with my hands on the back of my neck. The head was pulled backward and it seemed to bounce back each time before I reached down or up.”
Squatting is a fascinating action. As a child, everyone first learns to stand out of a squat. For ages, we do little but squat and stand and hover in between. Then, adults start putting chairs in our way! That’s how we learn to ‘sit’.
It strikes me that the ‘pull back’ you mention is occurring at the point at which you would ordinarily arrive at, or leave, the chair seat. Is that correct?
I often suggest to students that they put themselves in front of a chair or stool, and then pretend that chair or stool is not there. I suggest they then decide to squat. It’s important they genuinely squat as if they had no knowledge the chair was beneath them. Hopefully, so long as they do this fairly slowly, they should find the chair arresting their progress. I ask them to watch out for breath holding or head retraction around that time.
Similarly, in rising from a chair, I suggest people allow themselves to fold forwards at the hips to a point that feels to them like they are half way up to standing from a deep squat. Then, again watching for breath holding or head retraction, carry on ‘out of the squat’ and stand.
Maybe you could try this? It’s worth remembering that every time we sit (and we sit countless times each day) all we’re really doing is a variant of a truncated squat. However, because we usually know the presence and height of the chair or bench we’re about to sit on, we tend to ‘fall’ the last few inches. Each time we ‘fall’ we go out of balance and tighten up instinctively. We do this so much we’re no longer aware of it.
This means, if the chair we were about to sit in was whisked away unknown to us at the last minute, we would fall over. Yet, when we learned to sit as children, falling over while going from standing to squatting was most unlikely. So, something we have learned to do since we were children takes us out of balance which causes us to tighten up.
When standing, we tend to leave the chair well before we are over our centre of balance. You can test this by slowing the movement down and taking yourself to the point just before you would ordinarily stand up. What effort is required? I suspect you feel some ‘thrust’ (normally supplied by the rapidity of the movement) is required. The more you come over your centre of balance, the less thrust is necessary.
My view is that when we sit or stand we are usually several steps ahead of ourselves, busily thinking of the next thing to do. We rely one hundred percent on our bodies to look after us. Why don’t our bodies ‘squat’ as they used to? The answer seems to be ‘impatience’ and ‘practicality’. It takes more time to sit or stand in a balanced fashion. Also, in ‘real’ life, when we sit or stand we like to keep our eyes focussed, or at least aware of, whoever we’re with, or whatever place we’re in. To do this, it helps not to have to bend too far forward from the hips. This prevents true balance, which puts pressure on our musculature. This tends to pull our heads backwards, which also assists us in keeping our eyes on where we are.
This is especially true with other people around. The simple answer to most of this is, if we can’t squat traditionally, because of circumstances, to introduce the ‘adult squat’. This simply means being inventive with the feet. By moving one foot backwards in space, well under or to the side of the chair, a person’s centre of balance changes dramatically and there is much less need to lean forwards from the hips.
I hope this provides food for thought. I enjoy responding to your posts, because they force me to reconsider what it is I believe; though of course, you must remember, I am not a font of knowledge!
All the best.
Thanks for the reply.
I’ve had a lesson with another teacher, also a visitor to my area. While the last teacher focused largely on my thinking patterns, this one performed mostly bodywork with me. The teacher said that I had very round shoulders which are tensed up and pointing to the front, constricting my breathing by limiting the space for my rib cage to move. The lesson began by my being asked to sit down and stand up by myself. Then the teacher asked me to allow them to move my head upward, put back my shoulders and help me get up from the chair. The adjustments made were not subtle I would say, as I felt that the teacher was pushing my head up by pulling it and pulling my arms off. It was totally different from the other teacher’s work. The second teacher kept asking me how I felt after each movement, but I really could not say that I felt anything. I just felt the pushing and that I stood up and sat down with some slighter ease, sort of my body was doing it all by itself, without my telling it how to do so.
The teacher also worked with me semi supine. It was different from my own semi supine. My head was really supported by the books. When I do it by myself, I always felt the little pointed bump behind my head on the books and it was not comfortable. With the teacher, my head seemed to have become flat and was lying squarely and steadily on the books. Same sort of bodywork. The teacher told me to soften my shoulders and then pushed them down. The teacher pulled my head up and I felt my whole spine pulled up with the head, down from the pelvis.
I do not mean to criticize this teacher. But I would say that this type of work requires long practice and many lessons for a student to be able to get on his own, not to mention putting it into practice in real life. If I am saying it correctly, AT work is not only bodywork, it is work on the whole self, mind and body together. I do not have the money to take so many lessons and most of all, I do not want to become a puppet who would have to worry about where to put my head and shoulders in every movement. I also want to address the thinking patterns that are integral in the movement itself.
But I would not say I got nothing from this lesson. The teacher asked me to pause and think of the directions (when he started reciting those words “soften the neck, head up, spine lengthening, shoulders wide, knees ..” ). I noticed that I started moving immediately without being conscious of it. I like this idea of pausing and observing how I react. Pausing is a new experience to me. Besides, the teacher said that our body is designed for movement and sitting is in the middle of a squat (like the “truncated squat” you describe), and that the ribcage is hanging on the spine. These are enlightening remarks. The teacher also said the effects of lessons are accumulative. At least this is encouraging.
So this is the lesson. You said in “Before and After” that you only had a lesson before having the next after one year. I wonder whether you felt the same way as I do now. I cannot find another teacher. I’ve tasted how wonderful it was when the body functioned in a co-coordinated way, but sadly, only with the help of a teacher. I know I cannot make the good thing happen again without a teacher, shall I just wrap up this packet and put it away, and wait for the time when I can have lessons again? This is frustrating.
Returning to our thread of discussion, I have a clearer idea about the breathing thanks to your explanations. I like your description of the lull after breathing in (the bicycle and the ball). I sensed it too. It is amazing that when you allow that lull to pass, things slow down and you do not have to force things on. They just happen. Breathing out just follows naturally.
I tried putting a scarf around the trunk and kept sensing with my hands when I did the whispered ah. Although I still need the scarf and the hands to feel the movement of the ribs, I have started to sense that breathing actually requires less effort than I usually use. I deliberately tell myself to stop feeling the breathing, sort of to feel I am not breathing, but actually I am breathing because the scarf and my hands tell me that my ribs are moving. The movements are little; they are so subtle that I cannot feel it myself except with the hands and the scarf. I started to feel such subtle movement today without the hands and the scarf, but just a little bit, and the lightness and calmness that go with it. It is amazing to notice that I do not need the usual effort. This is just a vague feeing. But it is a good beginning to rediscover how breathing is supposed to be naturally without intervention.
As to where the air goes, I tried not to move the belly deliberately. The scarf is tightening on my back just around the shoulder level. It is a funny experience. I seem to have an air bag below my back. When it is full, I feel like being a hunchback!
Now, about squatting.
It strikes me that the ‘pull back’ you mention is occurring at the point at which you would ordinarily arrive at, or leave, the chair seat. Is that correct?
My answer is yes. When I carried out your experiment of sitting down, it is difficult not to think of the presence of the chair. The body seems to be expecting the existence of such and is preparing itself automatically by holding the breath and tightening up generally (I just felt a general tightening around my shoulder and neck and head retraction without knowing precisely how it was) when it reached the seat level. Similar for standing, when I reached the moment of “getting up” from the squat, I needed the thrust to stand up. Again holding the breath and general tightening. I also tried coming over the centre of balance more than I usually do, less thrust was necessary and I felt my ankles and calf supporting more of my body weight.
I agree to your analysis on how we were taken out of balance by chairs. A child can be well poised and balanced staying in the middle of a squat and will not fall without a chair. But if we adult want to stay in the position of being in the middle of a squat, we need to make an effort to hold ourselves in such position by tightening the muscles, in order not to fall down. But in fact, it is this tightening that takes us out of balance. I tried to do without the tightening while staying in the middle of a squat (like when one wants to avoid sitting on a dirty toilet seat when urinating), I nearly lost balance and fell down! What a pity that chairs have become something that we cannot do without.
I’ll go on with the whispered ah procedure and the sitting and standing. Worth exploring more.
Just two questions,
The adult squat, is it meant to be something to get round the problem of not being able to squat traditionally in front of people, i.e., a solution to maintain balance while we can’t squat?
The 3 D is interesting. How does seeing in 3 D affect our use?
I enjoy reading your posts too. It is inspiring. Looking forward to reading from you again.
When I was a trainee teacher it was impressed upon me that the most important thing for me to do was ‘give’ each student the ‘experience’ of what you call “the body functioning in a co-coordinated way”.
The point behind this was twofold. One, to give people a taste of the way they could function that was so attractive to them they wanted more, and would therefore return for lessons, particularly if they had no idea how the experience had come about, which is usually the case. Two, to link up the repetition of those experiences with the student giving ‘directions’, in the hope and expectation that by ‘giving directions’ outside of lessons similar experiences might be enjoyed.
I disagreed with this approach then; and I still disagree with it now. For me, it helps create, first and foremost, unrealistic expectations on the part of the student; and, secondly, dependency on the teacher.
I was far, far more interested in enabling a student to learn something – just one little thing at a time – that would allow them to stop doing something in their lives that would result in better use. They might not even recognise the change, it would be so slight; but it would be their own achievement, which they could replicate at will.
Replication is so important. It’s all very well having hundreds of lessons, ‘feeling great’ and being ‘put right’; but if you haven’t the sort of money or time or inclination that requires you to be at the mercy of a teacher’s hands for ever and a day, it won’t get you far. Even if you do have the money time and inclination, it’s still something of a dead end, in my opinion.
I would say, as a rule of thumb, the best Alexander lesson you could have is the one that leaves you most easily able to replicate – later, when alone – whatever you experienced during it. The more you need your teacher present in order to do that, the less successful that lesson was.
So, in many ways, your ‘taste’ of freedom is an unfortunate one! Since you’ve had it, I would emphasise ALL it means is, for as long as it lasted, you were not doing a number of things you habitually do. As and when you stop doing those things as a matter of course, the ‘taste’ will become normal. In a way, it’s ‘cheating’ to have had the experience of stopping doing so much all at once. You simply can’t do it, without outside help.
For the record, I didn’t feel disappointed after having just one lesson and then not having another for a year. The disappointment was when I started lessons ‘properly’, and found after thirty or so that I was not only no further forward, but that I had in many ways taken several steps back!
The great thing about the first lesson was that it opened my eyes to something I had been doing for years without realising it. It took me a good year to stop; it was a massive habit. My reason for having more lessons and then going on to train to be a teacher was because I wanted to find more things I was doing that were equally counter productive. I did, but only after much searching; and most of the discoveries I made were made despite rather then because of my teachers.
I guess I’m unusual in that my experiences during and immediately after lessons have not been that wonderful. I’ve felt lightness and ease and generally better many times; but I’ve never felt fantastic; and I’ve ALWAYS been left with a nagging sense that whatever I experienced was done to, or for, me, and that try as I might I would not be able to achieve anything remotely similar myself.
ALL we can do, alone, is inhibit and direct. We can learn how to direct pretty quickly, but directing alone won’t get us very far. Inhibition is the true key; and I would say – though other teachers might not – that it is impossible to inhibit something you are not aware of. You can pause, which is a sort of preparatory inhibition, but as soon as you go back into action, all the old misuses will flood back unless you consciously stop them. By repeatedly consciously stopping something, it will eventually stop happening automatically.
All the little things you’ve noticed about yourself over the time you’ve devoted to Alexander work – whether during or after lessons, from something I’ve said or suggested, books you’ve read, thoughts you’ve had – will contribute to changing your felt sense of what you’re doing. The sharper this becomes, the further you’ll get. It’s as simple as that. If you put what you’ve got in a box now, waiting to have a course of lessons, it would be a real waste.
So when you say:
“I’ve tasted how wonderful it was when the body functioned in a co-coordinated way, but sadly, only with the help of a teacher. I know I cannot make the good thing happen again without a teacher, shall I just wrap up this packet and put it away, and wait for the time when I can have lessons again? This is frustrating.”
I think it is perfectly possible for you to “make the good thing happen again”, without a teacher, but not all at once, so it might not feel like they’re happening at all. It’s also important to remember that you made it happen by stopping thinking and acting in certain ways. The teacher merely helped. The trouble is, you had too much too quickly! You can’t possibly do things at that speed, alone. And, because you will necessarily be advancing in tiny stages, you may fail to notice any difference.
My brother rang me last night and we talked about his yoga. He’s been practising three mornings a week for two hours each morning at a local club. It’s astanga yoga, quite vigorous. I asked him how it was going and he said progress was slow and he sometimes felt he was going backwards. I said it was important for him to remember that change is almost always slow. It’s like growth. Everyone can remember their aunt or uncle saying ‘my, how you’ve grown’ when they haven’t seen you for a year or so, while you feel exactly the same.
This is especially true with muscular change. Muscles are like a perfectly fitting suit. If we change muscularly, whether through age, exercise, or something like the Technique, it’s often difficult to remember how we were originally. We go out and buy new suits; but if we were to dig an old one out of our wardrobe and try it on years later we would be shocked at how we’ve altered. So it is with our muscular state. If I or my brother were to try and slip into our muscular state of a year or two ago we would realise we are no longer the same person. We might be pleased or horrified but we would certainly be surprised.
I would hazard a guess that if you were to step into the person you were before you ever heard of the Alexander Technique, you’d find it not only physically, but mentally, a much tighter, less comfortable space.
Concerning breathing – I think you just need to carry on experimenting. There is a fine line between not interfering with the breathing process and interfering with it in the opposite way to the habitual one. What I mean is, there is the danger of becoming afraid of ‘breathing fully’ for fear of overdoing it. This particularly applies to the inbreath during a whispered ah. Allowing the air to ‘flood’ into your lungs can feel like making more effort than you might like; but it’s important to allow this to happen.
Concerning squatting – you say
“The body seems to be expecting the existence of such and is preparing itself automatically by holding the breath and tightening up generally (I just felt a general tightening around my shoulder and neck and head retraction without knowing precisely how it was) when it reached the seat level. Similar for standing, when I reached the moment of “getting up” from the squat, I needed the thrust to stand up. Again holding the breath and general tightening. I also tried coming over the centre of balance more than I usually do, less thrust was necessary and I felt my ankles and calf supporting more of my body weight.”
Again, just keep experimenting. It’s well worth stopping just prior to the point where you feel like you need more ‘thrust’ or are about to go out of balance. Try allowing yourself to come a little further over your centre of balance than you are used to and go from there instead.
“The adult squat, is it meant to be something to get round the problem of not being able to squat traditionally in front of people, i.e., a solution to maintain balance while we can’t squat?”
No, not really. It’s to allow people to achieve their centre of balance much earlier than would otherwise be the case, and without any need to tighten in the neck. If you stand in front of a chair, and ‘pretend’ to squat, you’ll find you need to bend at the hips quite severely, and you’ll end up looking way down at the ground, or tightening your neck to look up. This is particularly the case just prior to arriving on the chair. The key moment, in fact, when, to avoid these problems, you’ll tighten all over, stop breathing, and generally ‘fix’ your musculature out of balance! It’s the same with getting out of a chair, assuming you endeavour to do a ‘reverse’ squat.
However, if you place one foot, either the ball or the toes, behind the other, tucking it under, or to the side of, the chair, before standing or sitting, you should find you come over your centre of balance much earlier, and that it’s therefore relatively easy to move fluidly without disturbing your musculature.
Tell me if this isn’t so, as I may not have explained it well.
This is a practical solution to an act we repeat endlessly. Particularly for females. Men can happily widen their stance, which has much the same effect, but looks inelegant. For example, if you were wearing an above the knee skirt, sitting amongst other people, the odds are your knees and feet would be close together. That makes staying in balance when sitting or standing – particularly if eye contact is being maintained with others – virtually impossible. Shifting the position of the feet can make a huge difference.
“How does seeing in 3 D affect our use?”
The answer is, I don’t know, for sure! But a New Zealand Alexander teacher, Peter Mansfield, has made an art form of linking sight and use. He has a web site which is called something like www.eyebody.com which explains this in more detail.
For me, I equate not seeing in 3D with ‘thinking about’. The two seem to go hand in hand. When I am seeing in 3D, I’m unable to ‘think about’ at the same time. So, since I believe that ‘thinking about’ is the prime cause of poor use, the same would apply to non 3D sight.
Since thought usually precedes action, I would suggest we would automatically see in 3D whenever we’re not ‘thinking about’. Since we’re ‘thinking about’ nearly ALL the time, that leaves so little 3D seeing we barely recognise its existence.
Sometimes, though, it seems easier to switch on 3D seeing than stopping ‘thinking about’. It’s certainly clearer when it is and isn’t happening.
Over the years, I’ve corresponded with loads of people about self-help Alexander. Sometimes there’s only a couple of emails, sometimes dozens. It’s a very individual process; and it obviously has severe limitations, since it is entirely dependant on written feedback. What I mean is, I never see what’s happening!
So, if I don’t say anything as specific as I might have done in the early stages, it’s because it is difficult to be sure if what I might say to someone I was seeing personally would be appropriate for someone I’m unlikely to ever see.
Therefore, if I end up suggesting you do ‘more of the same’, it’s partly because that’s what the Alexander Technique is, and partly because you are acting as your own teacher, and have no choice but to uncover things yourself.
What I would say is that all the little things you have uncovered are all you need to work with. They’re there, already. However slight they might seem, they’re the tip of an iceberg that, if you persevere, will show more and more of itself. But it happens slowly.
When you talk about “holding the breath and general tightening”, it’s important to recognise what a template this is. Think of that as the key. The more aware you are in everyday life of “holding the breath and general tightening” the more often you will be able to inhibit it. That’s all you have to do!
If we relate that to my shoulder experience – all I was aware of after my first lesson was my shoulders lifting and tightening virtually all the time. So I worked at inhibiting this, and it took years, but now I hardly ever do it. I still hold my breath and tighten up generally, though, just as we all do. So, the tendency doesn’t go away, but its severity lessons from the first moment you become aware of it. Think of it like water dripping on a stone: eventually, a hole will appear; but not overnight.
What might be useful, if you wanted, is if you were to describe, in your own words, a whispered ah, from beginning to end, just as you carry it out, including whatever you experience, think or feel. Or the process of standing from sitting; or sitting from standing. Or any other procedure you like. I could then suggest anything I think might improve your experience.
Only if you like!
Finally, you mentioned, either this time or last, semi supine, and how much more comfortable you found it after your second lesson. I used to teach evening classes and for part of the time I would get everyone in semi supine and then work my way around them. During this time I would put a tape on that I had recorded specifically for people on their own. Basically, it (the tape) asked people to pretend they were being worked on: to pretend their head was being picked up and eased away from the rest of them; to pretend their legs and arms were being moved in turn. This worked because they had had the repeated experience of me working in just this way on them. What happens – or what is supposed to happen – when teachers work on students in semi-supine is that muscular release is initially encouraged by the teacher’s hands and voice, that this becomes forumulated as an intention on the part of the student, who hopefully sends messages to this effect, and when the result of this is sensed by the teacher, he or she ‘takes up the slack’.
‘Taking up the slack’ is the one part you can’t do on your own, at least not easily. What I mean by this is, if you have a tight musculature lying down, which then ‘let’s go’ to some extent, you can’t, without major effort, rearrange yourself to accommodate for the letting go. So, if your neck and head were scrunched up when you first placed them on the books, even though the internal state of your muscles may have changed, their relative position on the floor and books won’t. With a teacher present, that relative position will change, as a result of their ministrations.
I sometimes get around this by suggesting people lie in semi-supine, then do the imaginary work, but while doing this, actually move the different parts of themselves, though never the head on the books. However, what they can do for the head, after maybe five or ten minutes, and occasionally thereafter, is reach behind to the books themselves and EASE the books away from themselves, with the FULL weight of the head remaining on them. That replicates to some extent the teacher’s actions.
For the pelvis, it’s possible to bring the knees towards the chest, reach the fingertips around them and EASE the bottom, by a gently pull, away from the rest of you.
For the legs, I would suggest lifting one leg until the foot leaves the ground, straightening it, then leaving it lying on the ground for a while before returning it.
For the arms, I suggest raising them on the elbows, then reaching them out to the side and turning the palms over, sometimes letting the palms reach back to the sides of the ears.
You must have had a couple of semi-supine sessions now. They may not have been much like mine; but the sequence as I used to describe it went:
Imagine the head is being lifted, gently encouraged away from the spine, and then replaced on the books. Then one leg. Then the head again. Then the other leg. Head again. One arm. Head. Other arm. Head. Pelvis. Head.
Having imagined this, you could then actually move, first the books, then one leg, then THINK of the head being taken, then move the other leg, then THINK of the head again, then move the other leg, then the books, then an arm, THINK of the head, the other arm, THINK of the head, then move the pelvis, finally the books again; and then stay still!
Hopefully, that will ‘take the slack’ out of your system!
There’s a lot suggested about how you might be thinking during all this; but I would save that for later. What I would suggest, though, it that whenever you come to an actual movement, as opposed to an imaginary one, and particularly when you move a leg, monitor your breathing like a hawk. Don’t breath in any special way; but don’t stop breathing either! If in any doubt, do a whispered ah at the same time, to help maintain the flow.
All this is entirely voluntary, of course; but I would enjoy hearing how you get on.
I have wanted to write earlier but have been busy. The message I last got from you is very insightful to me and has provided much food for thought. In fact, I am keener in this AT pursuit more than ever. Although the last lesson has put me off a bit and it was a frustrating experience, I am still convinced that AT is more than that type of body work in respect of putting the body in certain shapes according to a certain “mantra” (neck free, head forward and up…). It is not the essence of it, I would venture to suggest. When FM Alexander carried out his experiments, I think what is most important is in his self observation and self discovery. He observed his own habits and questioned it, believing that the habitual way should not be the only way, and there could be other ways to do it. I think to change our habits, we all have to go through the same process. Just as what you say, we have to become aware of what we are doing before we are able to stop it. When those habitual patterns become sharper, we have a better chance of stopping it consciously. And the teacher is only there to help. I agree to what you say, since I learnt about AT some 4 years ago, I have become a different person now. I have no idea how my muscles have changed but I am clear that my way of thinking is certainly not the same. I look at things differently and I believe that as time goes by, I’ll be able to pause and react differently, although it does not seem obvious now. Since I started correspondence with you, progress is much more obvious (seems faster too, although it is still a slow process). How encouraging to read that if I persevere, I can progress by tiny bits. The little things I discover about myself do show up bit by bit, very slowly. Yes, I’ll not give up. And I am convinced that inhibition is something I can do without the help of a teacher and “the good thing” will happen one day. There is a saying “the dripping water will make a hole in a stone”, that means with time and perseverance, even the most incredible things can happen.
I had thought of such saying before you wrote. It is funny that you seem to know what I was thinking every time you write. Concerning what you say about breathing, “allowing the air to flood in can feel like making more effort than you might like”, that is exactly what I was going to ask you. I felt an “influx (I described it as such before you wrote) of air, very strong in fact. But I was telling myself not to do anything and allow my body to breathe in. It is a shocking experience; I seemed to be overdoing it. I had intended to ask you about that but your message has cleared things up. I am still experimenting in order to get a clearer picture about that “fine line between not interfering and interfering in the opposite way to the habitual one.”
“if I end up suggesting you do ‘more of the same.”
I like this approach and in fact each experience in the same procedure is a new experience for me. I get more and more insights each time. Thank you for being there to listen to my feedback. I’ll describe in my own words the whispered ah.
I’ll tell myself that I am going to do the whispered ah. This mental process always comes in automatically. I will then look out what my body is like at this point of time, where my tongue is, where my jaw is, how am I breathing, am I staring with my eyes (which is mostly the case). I’ll then remind myself to avoid taking a breath to start. At this point of time, I’ll feel that my upper and lower teeth are tightly closed, sort of pressing against each other. Then my attention will go to the jaw, where it is jointed to the ears. I will then realize that the tightening of the teeth goes all up to that joint. I’ll imagine that my jaw has some weight and let it drop and hang loose. I do not feel it hanging loose, I just feel that I am putting it in a position lower than it usually is, and holding it in that place with an effort. I’ll then switch my attention to my tongue. It will not be touching the back of the lower teeth. I’ll then tell myself to allow it to touch the teeth. I have to move it to get there usually. Do I just have to think of allowing it to touch the teeth without really moving it and let it stay away from the teeth (but imagine that it is touching the teeth when it actually doesn’t)?
Jaw and tongue ready, I’ll then open my mouth and let air come out from my lungs. I won’t say out the ah. I just think of being in front of a doctor examining my throat and I am making that ah sound. Air will come out and I’ll tell myself not to make an effort to breathe out and push the muscles. I’ll just imagine that air is coming out. The shoulder will “sink” as air comes out most of the time, seems that it is released all of a sudden. It is funny that I’ll feel more saliva in the mouth at this point, seems that a tap was opened from the time the jaw is lowered and saliva is flowing to fill up my mouth. I’ll then have to swallow it. When swallowing the saliva, I monitor my breathing in order not to break the flow of things.
Most of the time, I am not quite certain about the point when the air in the lungs is exhausted. Yes, muscles do contract and I feel the contraction pointing towards somewhere near the stomach level. But I have no idea about which muscle is doing what. The tensing up is very strong and I will fear that I am overdoing things. I’ll then decide to end the breathing out stage. The in-breath that follows is usually preceded by apprehension; the influx of air is too overwhelming. It gives a feeling that I am doing too much. I seem to be gasping than allowing air to come in. I’ll try to remind myself to allow air to come in and not try to breathe in myself. I’ll rely on my hands to tell me that my lungs are expanding, while physically I do not sense anything if the hands were not there. When in semi supine, sometimes, I’ll feel a movement all over my back on the floor at this stage, down even to the pelvis that rocks with the in-breath (still vague about how it rocks, but there is certainly movement).
It is easier to tell that the lungs are full. I just can’t take in more air. I’ll then release the jaw and have the tongue ready and start another cycle. I’ll usually get a clearer picture about a released jaw after the first cycle. I’ll feel that my face has become longer as the jaw has been dropped. I’ll check my eyes at that time and have to stop staring and allow things to flow into my eyes most of the time at this stage. I’ll remember what my first teacher said, “in your life, space might be rare. But there is always space in your head, if you allow it.” I’ll find this space again by this stage, when the jaw is release and the eyes are “released” in the sense that they are not required to focus on things. In fact, I’ll feel that they “are dropped” back and return to where they are supposed to be. I’ll feel that my eyes are in fact larger and they are brightened up.
I also tried the reading aloud version of the whispered ah. I can now manage to focus on the procedure and forget about the voice. The voice does come out comfortably. I have a strange feeling that someone else other than me is speaking and the voice comes out from a position that is lower and more behind than usual, although I can’t tell you exactly from where.
So here’s the procedure in my own words. It is not easy to describe things that are so abstract in English. Just tell me to clarify if it does not sound clear.
And here’s some interesting feedback and a question on sitting from standing:
I do not understand what exactly is the “centre of balance”. Does it mean, “centre of gravity”? When you say going “further over” the centre of balance during squatting down, does it mean, I should go down more into the squat, or bending the hips more?
I’ve tried bending more in the hips when sitting down. It was a new experience. The action was more like squatting than sitting down and for the first time I could forget about the existence of the chair. The legs seemed to be doing more of the job too, especially in the lower legs. They seemed to be supporting more of my body weight.
The semi supine:
I do not have much time for the semi supine. I’ll tell you about it later. Your explanations are very clear. Just want to ask, when you say, “it’s possible to bring the knees towards the chest, reach the fingertips around them and EASE the bottom”, do you mean reaching the fingers around the bottom or the knees?
Finally, I have started to appreciate the little pause that we can have in every day life. When the flow of life is not intense, I can sometimes THINK of the pause and realize that I can choose to do things in a different way than I habitually do. But I cannot really pause. I just react habitually all the time. However, I sympathize with the poor self that goes to each action “headlessly”, being too busy about the end to gain and not conscious about the means whereby. I will not attempt to force myself to stop the habits at this stage. Over the last few years, I’m been trying to give directions to myself, hoping that some miracle will happen to my use. I will not say that these efforts are a waste. But I agree with you that “inhibition’ is at least also as important as “directions’, if not more important. I believe the consciousness that I now have about the possibility of pause in life is an interesting path to explore. I also enjoy observing myself reacting unconsciously out of habit. What you say is encouraging: this “will contribute to changing the felt sense of what I am doing. The shaprer this becomes, the further I’ll get. It is as simple as that”.
Looking forward to hearing from you. Thanks once again for being there.
Good to hear from you.
An analogy I sometimes use is of a bath filled with water. Think of the water as being you. Then, a single drop of blue ink is spilled into it. It quickly vanishes. Think of the drop of blue ink as being an Alexander thought. It’s going to require many, many drops to make the bath even begin to appear mildly tinged with blue. By the time this happens, you will have got so used to its new colour, you will have forgotten it was ever anything else.
So, change happens slowly, and I think it’s a mistake to suppose that suddenly, one day, the ‘good thing will happen’. Perhaps that could be better phrased as ‘suddenly, one day, you realise the good thing is happening, has happened before, and can happen again’.
Thanks for describing the whispered ah. There are a few areas I might comment on. The first is the tongue. I should actually place, rather than merely think of placing, the tip of the tongue against the lower teeth. It may feel ‘forced’ at first; but eventually it’ll sit there quite happily.
As for the jaw, you might like to experiment, when alone, with very gently ‘pushing’ the jaw forward (away from your neck) as you allow it to ‘hang’. This has a simian or monkeylike feel to it. So as not to overdo this, try first to do it as far as you can, really thrusting your jaw out. Then, assuming that is 100%, and what you ‘usually’ do with your jaw is 0%, allow, say, 5%-10% to happen. Concerning the ‘hanging’ of the jaw. If this doesn’t appear to be happening (check in a mirror) you can exaggerate the movement and then let go whatever obvious effort was involved in the exaggeration. That should leave the jaw hanging somewhat with no appreciable strain.
Did I mention the smile? Looking back at old emails, I don’t think I did. I’m sorry about that. At this point of the process, think of something funny, and allow your face to smile. That’s all. It’s a small but important point.
As the air comes out of your mouth, with or without an audible ‘ah’, allow it to be of the sort of force that would make the flame of a candle sitting a foot or so in front of you to wobble or flicker. In other words, the air coming out doesn’t just fall around your chin, it projects away from you.
A certain effort is required to contract the ribcage in order to send the air out of your lungs. Obviously, this wants to be minimal. Again, it can help to judge what is appropriate by deliberately making a big effort, then making absolutely no effort, and then making the slight effort that is requires.
So, for all these things – the position of the tongue, the jaw slightly forward and hanging down, the degree of effort in contracting the ribs, the force of the outbreath, it usually helps to deliberately overdo it, then do ‘nothing’ and then experiment with doing as little as possible.
It’s important here to keep experimenting. Decide at a particular time what’s appropriate but don’t assume it will be appropriate on all occasions.
If you come back with your impressions of my impressions, that might be helpful. Of course, the one missing ingredient here is me hearing (and seeing) you; but let’s make the most of what we’ve got!
Now, on to your other questions.
Yes, by centre of balance I did mean centre of gravity. Although we can have a false impression of where this is, it’s generally pretty obvious. In terms of the squat, what tends to happen is overall stiffening when we go out of our centre of balance to prevent us falling over. We can liken ourselves to those anglepoise lamps you may be familiar with, where if you hold the head of the lamp and push down, the frame bends in two or three places, so you can lower the lamp to the height you want while keeping it in balance.
By ‘further over the centre of balance’, I mean coming further forward from the hips. So, for example, when leaving a chair, you would rock forwards from the hips until you reached a point where you would be over your centre of balance if the chair wasn’t already supporting you. In other words, if you expended the effort (mostly in the thighs) to take your own weight, you could lift yourself an inch from the chair and stay there, in balance. If you were, say, six inches less forward from the hips and you tried to do that you might succeed with immense tightening but it would be very uncomfortable.
Of course, the ankles and knees have major roles to play here. Certainly, you don’t want to overdo the hips while barely bending the knees! That’s why a full squat is so useful; it, rather than you, determines how, when and where the knees, hips and ankles bend. A good way to test this is to stand upright and allow yourself to rock slightly onto your heels. If you’re like the vast majority of people, you’ll stiffen to prevent yourself falling over backwards. Instead, as you rock, let your knees flex; your ankles and hips can then join in and you can ‘allow’ yourself to begin to squat. Stop a quarter of the way down (half way to a chair) and you’ll be in ‘monkey’.
Try that often. Starting from standing, beginning to rock back on your heels, allowing your knees to flex, and sinking into monkey, with the head ‘leading’ (ie, still going upwards). Maybe you could let me know how it goes.
Concerning semi supine, you ask if I mean, when I say “it’s possible to bring the knees towards the chest, reach the fingertips around them and EASE the bottom”, to reach the fingers around the bottom or the knees?
I mean the knees. That way you should be able to reach out and apply a certain amount of ‘pull’ on your bottom and back without any strain in the neck. You use your folded legs as a sort of fulcrum. Gently does it, should be the watchword.
Finally, you said:
“Over the last few years, I’m been trying to give directions to myself, hoping that some miracle will happen to my use.”
I think this whole area of direction giving is fraught with problems. It’s far too simplistic, especially when it becomes a sort of mantra. I believe the best way to understand the directions is to see them in reverse. In other words, assume your ‘neck is tightening, pulling your head backwards and down, causing your back to shorten and narrow’.
You’re doing this to yourself through unconscious direction sending. Rather than asking your ‘neck to be free, etc’ by sending new directions you could instead ‘stop’ sending the old directions to tighten and pull down.
Of course, we are unable to recognise the form these old directions are being sent in so we have to address them through their effects. In other words, if we sense our necks tightening (as a result of messages we are unconsciously sending) we can stop tightening them (this will result in us stopping sending the messages). It’s a tricky concept to grasp, but the unconscious messages being sent, and their effects, are actually one and the same thing.
Thanks for the reply.
I agree with you that the approach of applying directions to myself over the last few years is fraught with problems. I have told you in previous mails that it has become an endgaining pursuit itself. I suspected that AT is not just giving directions and there must be “something else to it”, something that I have failed to appreciate. I begin to appreciate that inhibition is at least as important as directions. And I can actually go quite far by myself with it, although the progress will be extremely slow. I also agree that I can see the directions in reverse. That is what I am experiencing too. During the last three years, giving directions to myself always resulted in a kind of tug of war. The old habits tend to fight against the new patterns being imposed. The result was stiffness and more tension. What’s more important is that I failed to see what my old patterns were; I was just trying to suppress them. I have started to work in reverse with you. I allow the habitual patterns to emerge and observe myself more: how I stare at things and how I tense up when standing up from sitting and squatting down. It takes a lot of courage to face one old self, with all the unwanted habits, while resisting the urge to put oneself right. What is amazing to notice is that, the non-doing is so simple. Once I am conscious of the habits, I do not even have to ask myself to stop or put my body in a certain shape. The habits (like staring) just disappears (for very short moment most of the time).
I am also convinced that changes will happen slowly, so slowly that I won’t even notice. Each tiny bit of thought of AT will help. But may I ask this can I also be equally assured that things will continue to improve (even the process is slow), but not deteriorate?
The whispered ah:
Thanks for mentioning the smile. Now it always comes in naturally in the process. The speech therapists always asked me to open my mouth wide in order not to block the air passage. I never managed to do it. With the smile, this has been achieved without effort.
I could project the air when breathing out too. The image of the candle is helpful. The air going out is strong and steady. If I do it longer when I have time, I can reach a point where I need minimum effort to contract the ribcage but the air coming out is still strong. I can describe it as more effective than the way I usually breathe, while I try so hard to contract the ribcage and less air actually comes out.
Your suggestion of “overdoing” then “nothing” then “as little as possible has been very useful, especially for the jaw. With the “overdoing”, I started to get the idea of how the jaw should be hanged and allowed to go forward, and how different I could breathe out. It requires more effort to do nothing than doing as little as possible. The latter is the most comfortable. I may go stiff if I force myself to do nothing.
I started to appreciate the flooding in of the in-breath too. Only little effort is required. I notice that in my daily life, I am doing too much to breathe in.
There is always a release of shoulders during the process, sort of dropping down. I sensed the release of the pelvis once, when I thrusted the jaw out.
Squatting and sitting:
I felt the general tense up when rocking back on my heels, although it is not specific enough. I allowed my knees to bend the moment when I felt I was starting to fall down. My kinesthetic sense told me that I was inclining to the back at this point of time. The mirror told me that I was straight. I then went down as if I was squatting. I was in Monkey easily without the need to concern how much bending is required on the knees, hips and ankles.
The awkward moment arrived whenever I reached the seat level. I would stop squatting automatically and “rested” on the seat. The body seemed to go through a kind of ritual, from the pelvis to the head, of being seated. It was like tensing up and putting the body in a certain shape (trying to sit up straight I think). I felt that this action went up from the pelvis all the way up. I would then think of going on squatting. I would tell myself that I couldn’t because I was on a chair! It is a funny experience but it is hard to describe it in words.
I always felt some pulling down of the head after I tried to ease it away from the spine with its full weight on the books. It happened after each step (pelvis, leg, leg…). I release it, it goes back to its original place automatically.
When the head is eased and balanced, the ribcage tends to float. Sort of feeling like wood floating on water. Think of this image, the wooden blocks are frozen in a big ice cube immersed in water. The ice melts and the wooden block (each rib) loosens and floats on the water. Funny enough.
These are the new experiences I have recently. Perhaps you may wish to comment on them.
By the way, a new teacher has become available locally. I believe they have links to Barlow. I may be starting lessons soon.
Thanks and bye for now.
Sorry about the delay in replying. Generally, when I get an email, I either reply straightaway, or I start replying and then pop it in the draft folder for later. ‘Later’ can be very variable!
It’s interesting to consider the element of chance involved in finding a teacher and having lessons. You, for example, have had two lessons with the only two teachers available, and they’ve been massively different. Imagine if there were fifty or a hundred and fifty teachers, like, say, London, and how difficult it would be to chose the ideal one.
I’m not sure I can guarantee you won’t go backwards! As I see it, all progress is a case of one step forwards, half a step back. So there will inevitably be regression. I think I can say it would be virtually impossible for you to return to your starting point. But there will undoubtedly be times when you feel you’re getting nowhere. Try not to despair. It’s a common enough syndrome, even if you’re having dozens of lessons.
Your feedback on the whispered ah and semi supine makes it sound as though you’re comfortable with the process. It’s important you keep your senses tuned for habit patterns that will be glaringly obvious when you notice them but can be horribly difficult to see for the first time. Often, they’re right in front of the nose.
As an example, I could mention that for years – after many lessons and half way through the training course – I became aware that whenever I moved any part of myself while lying in semi supine (ie, a leg or arm) I held my breath. I ‘knew’ I did this in everyday life whenever I exterted even a small amount of effort, as in slicing bread, threading a needle, changing gear in a car, etc) but not while working on myself at the Technique. What was more embarrassing was the breath holding actually made the subsequent movement much more difficult – but I simply hadn’t noticed.
In other words, after umpteen lessons, I still remained blissfully unaware of something as fundamental as breath holding; yet, when I eventually realised what I was doing, it was blatantly obvious.
So, it’s as well to consider that the habits that are most harmful to us are often not hidden so much as ignored. It can be difficult to know where to look, but often, as I said, they’re right in front of us.
When you say:
“The awkward moment arrived whenever I reached the seat level. I would stop squatting automatically and “rested” on the seat. The body seemed to go through a kind of ritual, from the pelvis to the head, of being seated. It was like tensing up and putting the body in a certain shape (trying to sit up straight I think). I felt that this action went up from the pelvis all the way up. I would then think of going on squatting. I would tell myself that I couldn’t because I was on a chair! It is a funny experience but it is hard to describe it in words.”
It’s what happens when we’re not paying attention that’s so interesting. Nine times out of ten, when we sit, if the chair was suddenly whisked away, we would fall flat on our backs. What occurs during that matter of moments when we go out of balance and then are ‘saved’ by the presence of the chair is a general tightening that, repeated endlessly, day in, day out, becomes a part of us. That tightening is what we have to inhibit. So, although it may seem tedious having to pay attention, it’s in a good cause.
Simply staying in balance is a good start. How we know we ‘are’ in balance rather than ‘feeling’ as though we are is tricky; but, by and large, the more we consider balance as an option, the more likely our estimation of it will be correct.
You say the new teacher has links with the Barlows. You will probably know from reading Dr Barlow’s book that they place great emphasis on verbal directions. That might make him more like your second teacher than the first. Then again, I was trained by two people who were Barlow trained, and who were very insistent on verbal directions, but I’m not, or not particularly, so who knows? It sounds a great opportunity for exploration; I hope you find him a congenial teacher. Reading over what I’ve written, there doesn’t seem much that’s ‘new’. You went into a lot of detail about your experiences; and I’m not sure I’ve done that detail justice. If you were a student coming back to me for a ‘real’ lesson, I would probably be looking to see what’s going on inside while we go through movements that might seem to have become a bit routine. It might help in your case if you were to have another go at the original exercises outlined in the Positive Health article. That’s as near an approximation of having a teacher present I can think of (though others might disagree)!
By the Positive Health article, do you mean the one on head-turning prcedure I found in Robert’s site? I suppose it is. The head turning has helped me simulate the presence of a teacher.
My new teacher mentioned training with Barlow when I told about my earlier, second lesson and he said he did not quite like it. In fact, what had bothered me the most was not the verbal instructions like a mantra, it was rather the sharp pushing on my neck, shoulder and back. It was so different from the other teacher, of which the adjustments were much more subtle. The pushing was so forceful that I had a feeling of being manipulated like a puppet. As I said last time, I was not even able to start a discussion about this. I hope I can work well with my new teacher. So far, we have had some fruitful discussions over the phone.
I have started reading all your messages again and found more insights from them. It is good not to give me anything new.
Lastly, I once felt some pain on the jaw joint when I released it gently. It is not very painful and went away almost instantly. Is that normal to feel pain?
Thanks again and cheers
This is an immediate reply!
Yes, I did mean the same article. And in particular the exercise where you put your own hand on the back of your neck. I think I would be worth your while experimenting with this while sitting and standing; and to make this more true to life, try looking up or down and to one side as you move. Just as if you were looking at somebody or something in the room with you. You ought to be able to differentiate between muscular effort needed to create wanted movement of your head and unnecessary muscular effort pulling your head back onto your spine. As always, the critical moments are just before laving or arriving on the chair. Maybe ask yourself if you are more aware of your neck now than you were when you first tried this.
It’s not exactly normal to feel pain, no; although, to put this in perspective, when I started releasing my shoulders, the pain was excruciating, for many months. If in doubt, though, do less. Even to the point of doing nothing.
I have done the exercises in “Alexander Technique Self Discovery” again. As you said, I was more aware of the activity on the neck muscles now than I first tried them in September. I had a clearer idea about where the head joint was. To a very slight extent I was able to distinguish between the necessary and the unnecessary muscular effort when I tried to rock my head up and down and turned it. I even sometimes felt how a free head should be. It was when I told myself to stop those unnecessary efforts whatever they were, and just allow my head to move with as little effort as possible. My head then seemed to float and it became so heavy that it had a tendency to drop towards my chest.
I seem to know myself better but I have not noticed that I had changed over these months. I am sometimes able to carry those insights I got from the above exercises into the real life. I have started to notice the presence of those unnecessary muscular efforts of the neck in virtually all movements in my life. I could not feel it. I simply knew that they were there automatically.
I have also started to ponder on the word ALLOW that you AT people use so often. I experimented with the free jaw hanging and slightly forward, and the tongue against the lower teeth. I tried to ask myself to stop doing whatever it is that is holding the jaw up and inwards, and the tongue backward away from the teeth. I then felt that my jaw started to go hanging and forwards, and my tongue tip going to touch the back of the lower teeth, while in fact there was no movement at all. I do not know whether this makes sense: if I stop doing whatever it is that prevents the jaw from being free to hang and the tongue to touch the teeth, I am in fact allowing the jaw to hang and the tongue to go forward at the same time. I would like to hear your comments on this. Perhaps I may sound silly.
I forgot to ask you to elaborate on “the head leading” last time. You mentioned this when describing the rocking on the heels and squatting. Many books on AT talk about “the head leads, the body follows”. Does it just mean the head going upwards? This always poses a problem for me. The word “leading” always gives me an impression of some active movement of the head, which is leading the body to go somewhere (upward not forward I presume). In other words, it represents a pitfall of “doing something” rather than “non-doing” for me. I really need some clarification on how to interpret it.
The pain I mentioned never returned. The exercises are going fine. Just one question in the meantime:
For the whispered Ah. After the breath out, I’ll close my mouth. Should the tongue and the jaw return to their original place (before hanging and going forward .) so that I have to allow the jaw to drop and the tongue to touch the teeth again in the next cycle? In fact they automatically return to their default position in my case.
I have not been able to start lessons this month. We just discussed over the phone and he related to me his experience of being trained. I am looking forward to having lessons.
That’s it for now. Thanks for being there.
I suggest you keep popping back to the original procedures, every now and then. You never know what insight might result. Try not to be disappointed if nothing dramatic occurs. Also, always remember that a proper lesson takes up around forty minutes of your and the teacher’s conscious attention. If you give that sort of time to yourself, inhibiting and directing as you go, you cannot fail to benefit, in my opinion. I said something to that effect in reply to a post made on the forum linked to my website, so it’s in my mind at present.
Please don’t be under the misapprehension I had one or two lessons and immediately became fully aware of not only the tendency for my neck to tighten at every moment but the actual, muscular tightening as well. Becoming aware of this took years and many, many lessons! I remained pretty unaware for a long time. During this fallow period, my theoretical understanding of the Technique was way ahead of my practical appreciation of it. This was the opposite of useful, in my opinion.
You ask about ‘allowing’. Particularly with reference to the whispered ah. The truth is, ‘allowing’ anything to happen in Alexandrian terms nearly always means ‘stopping doing’ its opposite. So, yes, you’re right: if you stop (or, assuming you’re unaware of doing it in the first place, if you think of stopping) retracting the jaw and tongue, they will naturally incline elsewhere. Where the optimum place for the jaw and tongue is, generally, is hard to say. It always seems to me better to know with some degree of certainty what isn’t useful, to stop doing that, and to be happy with whatever results. So far as the jaw goes, you’ll be familiar with what happens when someone nods off to sleep on the bus or train and their jaw hangs open. Or, the ‘village idiot’ look, where the jaw hangs vacantly. The way I see this, a certain amount of muscular effort is required to maintain a closed jaw most of the time, but anything more than the minimum is superfluous. Why overdo it? So, in the context of the whispered ah, all perceived effort, and all idea of perceived effort, short of actually allowing your jaw to hang open, can be inhibited.
Of course, in the specific case of the whispered ah, you’re also intending for the jaw and tongue to be ‘going’ somewhere. Whether they should be ‘there’ all the time is a moot point.
Outside of the ‘lesson’ situation, in all areas of life, it can be counterproductive to circumnavigate the body, ‘allowing’ loads of different parts to go in a ‘better’ direction. What I mean by this is, thinking of your breathing, thinking of your tongue and jaw, thinking of your legs and arms, with the neck and head, too. In a lesson environment, that’s okay, but in ‘real life’ it can seem somewhat piecemeal. Properly speaking, by ‘allowing’ the head to go forward and up, everything else should follow in line, including, indirectly, the jaw and tongue. My preference is to have a global sense of myself, in which the neck and head stand out. Frank Jones explains this well in his book.
This brings me to your other question about ‘head leading’. Again, this is a term for what happens when the head stops being pulled backwards and down. So, it’s really the inhibition of something that’s already happening. The best way to understand this is to get yourself positioned so by looking straight ahead into a mirror you can see your head and neck and shoulders from the side. Then put your hand on your neck and deliberately scrunch your neck up and tighten your head down onto your spine. Just do this enough to be able to feel the tightening under your hand and see the effect in the mirror. You should lose a little bit of height and to the informed eye look a tiny bit squashed; but otherwise nothing much will have changed. Then, taking your hand away, but keeping the ‘scrunching’ going, slowly – so you can see the difference – ‘allow’ yourself to ‘stop’ pulling backwards and down by stopping the scrunching. The result should be a visible instance of your head leading and the rest of you following. Let me know if this doesn’t happen!
You ask about the whispered ah and what happens to the jaw and tongue between each cycle. I think it is best to approach each ’round’ of outbreath and inbreath as if it was a completely new event. Start afresh each time; and as your mouth closes at the end of each outbreath, simply allow your tongue and jaw to find their own, default place.
A friend was round the other day and he asked me whether I was ‘concentrating’ all the time on Alexander ‘poise’ (his words) or whether I had simply spent a lot of time reprogramning my ‘autopilot’. I think the second is truer than the first. ‘All the time’ is an impossibility. I imagine even with the most committed Alexander person the actual amount of time they devote to inhibiting and directing in real moment to moment life is limited. However, the more time they do devote to this, the more likely it will be that their ‘autopilot’ will become changed. My general use is nothing special; but it’s much better than it was; and I attend to it whenever I remember. That’s all any of us can do. One thing is sure: we never go back to where we were before we ever thought to consider our use, at all.
Bye for now,
I have tried the experiment to see how the head leads. I managed to see the body going up flowing the head. It is strange to note that the head actually goes up together with the head without myself having the slight feeling kinesthetically so. The going up is so noticeable on the mirror. But the body has no sense of it physically. Interestingly enough too, the pulling down is as well noticeable on the mirror, but the body cannot sense it either.
The whispered ah and squatting procedures go on continuously. I went back to the initial procedures from time to time, and the semi-supine almost every other day. The attention that I am giving to myself is greater ever than before. And I have started to have a glimpse of the habitual patterns.
The most striking one is the habitual thinking pattern about the use of the voice. It has been right in front of my nose but I seem to have ignored it. The idea of speaking well, and that of trying to speaking right, is actually “haunting” me all the time. Whenever I want to speak, or after I spoke, the idea is there. I’ll evaluate how I have spoken, or getting prepared to speak (both mentally and physically I presume). I tried to question why this issue of the voice seemed so important to me, to the point that I keep telling myself “I have to fix the voice, it’s a great problem. My career will be ruined. I have to do something to improve it.” No joking, this is all the time in my head. I tried to tell myself to stop such thinking. It returned as soon as I lost concentration on this inhibitory desire. Is it something I have to persevere in inhibiting? This is a thinking pattern. Can I inhibit it like the tightening of the neck?
I suppose the very moment before I speak must be critical, and it will perhaps be beneficial if I am aware of what I am doing to myself at such moment. The only thing I notice is that I will try to open my mouth (as being taught by the speech therapists) to speak by in fact tightening the jaw. This happened even in my own AT self help session. I let the jaw hang when doing the whispered ah. As soon as I opened my mouth, I tightened the jaw again by pushing it in order to open my mouth. I told myself to stop that and just allow the lips to open. More air flowed from the mouth and much less effort was required. This tightening of the jaw is a massive habit when I speak during daily life.
As for the thinking patterns regarding my voice, old memories have started to pop up recently. I remember that I enjoyed using my voice when I was little. As soon as people started to comment on my voice, I took their remarks very seriously and started trying to put things right. I would pay attention to the quality of my voice and tried to avoid the “problems” people described. Speech therapy lessons have given rise to more of such “awareness” to the voice. I have become so obsessed about speaking well now. That’s why I say it is haunting in my head. It is like the Window 2000 running on my computer now. Whenever it is on and functioning, Window 2000 is running on the background!
As for squatting, is it normal that the legs (the lower legs in particular) will feel more tired than usual? The muscles seem to work much harder than usual if sitting down and standing up are to be done like part of a squat.
Bye for now.
An interesting email of yours. If your first paragraph is the absolute truth, that you see both lengthening and shortening happening in the mirror but you have no kinesthetic sense of either of them, then I suggest you take the ‘scrunching’ up of the neck a little further, just to the point where you can both see and feel what is happening.
There’s got to be a place where the feeling starts to register, and if you go to that place, and a little beyond, you should be able to see and feel shortening (ie, your head going backwards and down in space), and also feel the lengthening (your head going forward and up) when you release (slowly, bit by bit) the effort you used to shorten.
Try this and let me know how you get on. It’s important that you do get to feel what is happening, even if it seems to require extreme measures, because that helps you recognise ‘how’ to feel in a very specific way.
Concerning the habitual thinking pattern about the use of the voice. This is a good insight. From a solely Alexander viewpoint, yes, you can and should inhibit it; but thoughts are incredibly persistent and have a way of returning again and again and again. This certainly seems to be the case for you. There are a number of approaches I would suggest. The first is to pay scrupulous attention to what is going on in your body (not just the immediate area of your jaw) at the precise moment you become aware of the presence of the thinking pattern and for as long as you stay aware of that pattern. I suspect you will find this uncomfortable; but see how it goes. What is going on in your feet or hands could be as important as anywhere else.
At the same time, you might usefully question what you are doing with your breathing. For what it’s worth, I found it invaluable when speaking in public to allow my voice to reverberate throughout my body; which meant, more than anything, to allow time for an inbreath to occur.
Also, most importantly, consider what you are doing with your eyes. This last point is crucial. I would be very surprised if your eyes were truly focussing on ‘the matter at hand’ (which could be people in the vicinity, the room you’re in, traffic, or whatever) while you’re thinking the ‘voice’ thoughts. This may feel to you like being asked to ‘stare’; but I prefer to see it as keeping your eyes active and focused on something – at eye level rather than on the ground. Is it possible to do this while the ‘voice’ thoughts continue unabated?
One other point: with reference to what I said earlier concerning ‘thinking of’ and ‘thinking about’; which of these categories would you say your voice thoughts fall into?
>From my experience, it is almost impossible for someone to have any ‘thought loop’ going if they are both breathing freely and focusing with their eyes at the same time. The two (or three) just don’t seem able to go together. What appears to happen is, when a stressful situation arises, we stop breathing and stop focusing in order to concentrate on ‘thinking’.
If you find nothing helps you stop the thoughts, it might be worth your while investigating the realm of cognitive therapy. I don’t know lots about this; but I do have a book called Feeling Good by David Burns which explains in great detail how the way we think determines all else, both our emotional mood and our physical state. The Technique works backwards for the most part, in that we look at our physical state, which in turn affects our emotions and thoughts. In many ways this is easier!
In the book, there are a lot of exercises that I never did; bit for anyone with sufficient self discipline, I think they would be worthwhile. I offer this as a possible idea for the future rather than a suggested activity now.
You ask about squatting, and whether it is normal “that the legs (the lower legs in particular) will feel more tired than usual?”
Well, yes and no. Firstly, you can probably assume that any extra effort you perceive your legs doing will equal the amount of effort other areas of you body will no longer be doing. So, that’s a major benefit, especially as the legs are designed for the task. However, sitting, standing and squatting are not really about strength or effort so much as balance, timing and ease. Check out some toddlers next time you’re able to. They move from standing to squatting – and all graduations of monkey in between – seemingly effortlessly. The question is, how do we capture the same grace and ease?
The key is both knowing, and using, your centre of balance. It’s worth investigating what happens when you rise from a full squat. A full squat forces you into balance. Resting there, if you were out of balance, you would topple over backwards. To remain in a squat requires tension in the ankles, but that’s about all. Going from squatting to standing requires effort; but no more than your body is equipped for. How do you stand up from a squat. Do you lift your bottom and lower thighs away from your calves first so that your head tilts towards the floor or does you head go directly up? Is what you do different from what you see children or toddlers doing? The important thing is not to do more than you need; but not to be surprised if you are doing more than you used to do, because you were probably used to doing it with other parts of your body.
Now, when working with a chair, it’s crucial you come forward enough from the hips (on the way up or down) to minimise the need for your legs to clench in order to keep you upright. The way to know when this is a matter of trial and error; but the best way is to assume you could always do with a little more leeway at the hips, since that is usually the area that tightens up first.
This isn’t infallible, but you could experiment with putting your hands over you knees (or under them, so you can feel you hamstrings) and sense tactilely when the muscles start to tighten as you come forward from the hips to stand. Generally, if you’re starting to stand before you’re properly over your centre of balance, your knees and hamstrings will tighten up massively more than if you are over your centre of balance. However, the danger here is going way beyond your centre of balance, so you end up folding ludicrously far forward!
I realise I’ve left out the most important comment. Whenever we sit, stand or squat, we’re capable of utilising a bodily reflex that operates outside the realm of conscious effort. If, for example, a doctor taps your knee in a certain way, your lower leg shoots out automatically. Something of the kind seems to operate in the standing/sitting area. It’s difficult to be precise about this, but when you’re had a few Alexander lessons you’ll realise a lot of the teacher’s time is spent trying to facilitate this. Unfortunately, there’s no magic button, or if there is, it’s not in the same place for everyone. What happens, from a teaching point of view, is we have our hands on a student’s neck, and we can gain an overall sense of where they are, ‘balancewise’, all the time. As we move them, or they move themselves, from sitting towards standing, the optimal point is reached where ‘launch’ occurs. The less effort made by both student and teacher at that moment, with the proviso that the student does end up actually standing, the better. If no effort at all is made, the student will probably stay in the chair, If too much effort is made, the movement will be jerky and overdone. From a student’s point of view, I occasionally had the experience of standing (and sitting) effortlessly. But I think a good portion of this sense of effortlessness had more to do with other parts of me that had been used to making an effort no longer having to do so, and the parts of me that did have to make an effort, even an increased effort, not registering this, rather than a purely reflexive movement having taken place.
My favourite activity for rediscovering ease, balance and poise is the one I described in an earlier email. Start from standing, and then lean slightly backwards, bottom staying in line with shoulders; but rather than toppling over, allow the knees to bend; then, just before you reach the point where the knees can bend no more, allow your trunk to come forwards from the hips. The knees can then bend more, and the hips too. You can then rest in ‘monkey’ or continue going down or return up.
This may seem a slightly mechanical procedure; but if you repeat it often enough it can become so fluid it appears that as the knees bend in response to not wanting you to topple over backwards, so the hips begin ever so slightly to flex, too; and from there onwards both knees and hips (and, of course, ankles) all ‘know’ exactly how much and when to bend further. Allowing them to operate while keeping a fatherly (or motherly) eye on proceedings can help enormously in understanding how balance works. This procedure also helps (in my opinion) unleash the potential reflex movement that can then be transferred to real life situations.
It’s worth repeating the above procedure at varying speeds. The ideal comes when a certain fluidity is reached, whether fast or slow.
Reconsidering your question, it is somewhat unusual for the lower rather than upper legs to feel they’re making more effort than usual. The thighs are the truly powerful parts of us that should do most work whatever we’re doing. It may be, though, that you have traditionally done less with the lower legs than might be considered optimal.
One angle of enquiry might be for you to discover what part of you is most affected if you ‘decide’ to do less with your lower legs. What happens to your balance?
Translating squatting from ‘Alexander practice’ into ‘real life’, I strongly suggest utilising the manouverability of your feet when standing and sitting on chairs that allow it. This means you don’t have to go so far forward from the hips while remaining in balance, and it minimises the effort involved.
It’s difficult to be emphatic about any of this; but I would heartily recommend taking some time and visiting a couple of parks or playgrounds where youngsters congregate and watching them moving. The ideal age would seem to be 1-3 years.
I’ll leave it at that for now. Hopefully, what I’ve said will provide some food for thought.
When are you hoping to start lessons?
I tried scrunching up the neck further and I finally felt the lengthening as I saw it in the mirror. It was an interesting experience. I began to realize that in real life, I tend to straighten myself up with an effort in order to stand straight. This effort is in fact pulling me down but I never felt it that way. Only when I let go the desire to make such an effort to stand straight, the lengthening feeling return to me.
As for the thinking pattern about the voice, I am more aware of it and mange to stop it from time to time. A kind of serenity and lightness will result on these occasions. How nice it is to put those thoughts away from my life. I also notice how I react when those thoughts come. I begin tensing up my body and lift the weight of my body off my heels (heels sometimes really lifted too). My vocal mechanism will get prepared in some way to try hard to perform well, in a struggle to defeat these thoughts, to prove that they are not true. I will sometimes utter a hmm sound unconsciously. The vocal mechanism is working beyond my control. I also hold my breath and my eyes will lose contact with the world. I did not even hear what people say around me. I am just thinking of what to say and more importantly, how to say it well. You are right. I forgot to tell you last time. I was thinking about the voice (too much) instead of thinking of it.
As for squatting, I noticed that my heels tend to raise as soon as I reach the seat level. I am still trying to know my centre of balance when going from squatting to standing, and sitting to standing and vice versa. When I say that I feel my lower legs working hard, it is in fact the heels that are working hard. It seemed that the weight of the body has shifted to the heels and such weight is quite heavy indeed. The thigh muscles have to work more than usual too. The procedure of starting by leaning backwards and going into a squat now has more fluidity with practice. And I almost always walk differently than I usually do in the few steps after I finish the procedure. I did feel balanced and poised afterwards, although it just last for a fleeting moment most of the time.
. I do enjoy observing the beautiful movements of toddlers. The movements are easy and smooth, but too quick to see what is going on. I can just say that the whole trunk functions as a whole and they are using their legs more than I do. When I get up from a squat, I will move the bottom and lower calves away from my calves first. I sometimes have to use the knees as a fulcrum by pressing my hands against them and pulling myself up.
I have had one, very brief lesson so far. I did get something out of it. My body, when put in a balanced state, has registered the need to “stop and think” before going into movement. And in real life, the body chooses this easier way and I have been able to put in a pause before some actions. I remember that my body has a length too. I will think of my heels and the teacher’s voice “heels heels” and the energy seems to go up from the heels all the way up to my head. An easier way to stand straight by doing absolutely nothing.
I will not give up in this AT pursuit, despite the difficulty of finding a suitable place for lessons and the fact that it is hard to find time for it in my busy life. I have asked a friend to lend me the use of his office tomorrow where I can lie down semi-supine and try releasing the voice. The teacher has to travel more than an hour to get there.
You mention needing to find somewhere to practice lying down, etc. It is important, to be able to pay full attention to what you’re doing, but it’s not crucial. I’m not sure if you read this, so I’m copying below something said on Alextech by Franis:
“… aside from the time spent on lessons to learn more about it, what makes Alexander Technique different and better from most other self-improvement regimens is how AT does not take extra time for practice to get its benefits, only extra thought and consideration.”
It’s vital to remember this, especially if you are faced with problems of how to put aside time, when you don’t absolutely need to. What’s required, over and above all else, is ‘mindfulness’ during the ordinary activities of everyday life. That’s free, and freely available, all the time; but we simply forget, preferring to think about other things. I can’t overstress the importance of this. Bringing your mind back to what’s going on NOW, whatever that is, is critical for inhibition and direction to have any meaningful effect on our lives; yet it gets ignored in favour of doing ‘procedures’ that, often, are merely paying lip service to the principles of the Technique. I speak from personal experience here!
Concerning squatting. Everyone’s build is different. I find squatting does put more weight on the heels rather than balls or toes of my feet unless I really come forward from the hips, to the point where my armpits sit nicely cupped over my knees. That way, the weight of my arms hanging forwards acts as a counterbalance to the weight of the rest of me wanting to tip backwards. Without doing this, there is definite tension in my ankles in order to prevent me tipping over backwards. So, I tend to do this if I plan to stay in a squat for any length of time. I think the thinner and lighter a person is, the more squatting will come easily to them. For me, the major area of ‘resistance’ is my stomach pressing against my thighs, along with whatever clothing I have on bunching up against my midriff.”
I came across an interesting Alexander book the other day. I don’t own it, but I’ve ordered it from the library. It’s called Directed Activities by Gerald Grennell. It apparently lists loads of ‘procedures’ that can be usefully done while learning the Technique. It incorporates instructions on how best to think while doing these. It could be useful to you if you are unable to have lessons; or to supplement lessons. I think it might be useful to me, to help me keep my ‘eye on the ball’.
It sounded like it might be a way of avoiding repeating the same routines endlessly, until they become rote. Sitting, standing, lying down, etc. However, as you know, doing any of these or other practices in a routine way requires that you set aside both time and space, neither of which everyone necessarily has. Carrying out these procedures might make it easier to relate the Technique to the activities of everyday life. This, as I mentioned earlier, is the true working area.
I’ve reorganising my website and I plan to put up an email exchange I had with someone a while back concerning Self Help Alexander. You might find it interesting to read. I’ll let you know when it’s up.
You’ve mentioned a couple of times how you’re not going to give up; but I get the impression you’re finding the Alexander road tough going. Is that right? And that you attribute this to your lack of regular lessons, your perceived lack of progress (compared to what you would like to achieve) your non ideal circumstances (lack of space, busy life, etc)? In other words, circumstances are not ideal.
I would simply say you already have sufficient skills to apply the principles of the Technique to yourself on an ongoing basis. More lessons, more time, more space, greater funds, might or might not make things easier. What I suspect is required, more than anything, though, is an acknowledgement on your part that the process of applying the Technique to your life is its own reward rather than the precursor of anything more profound. Something more profound may occur, but that would be a bonus.
Here’s a wonderful sentence from one of Alexander’s books:
“I wish it to be understood that throughout my writings I use the term “conscious guidance and control” to indicate primarily a plane to be reached rather than a method of reaching it”
What this means to me is that when we are ‘applying the principles of the Technique’, we are already on ‘the plane’. The ‘plane’ is not somewhere we get to as a result of ‘applying’ the Technique. This can get a bit confusing to think about, but, essentially, the only valid ‘result’ of applying the Technique is the process of applying it!!!! So, any indulgence in the opposite process of looking to see what the result of ‘applying the Technique’ is, means it is no longer being applied.
I’ll end on that note!
Bye for now,
How are you? I have had three formal lessons now.
It is so difficult to find a suitable place.When you say that I find the Alexander road tough going, it is true in the sense that circumstances are not ideal. This is very frustrating. Yet on the other hand I would not attribute this toughness on the AT learning to any lack of progress. I have nothing in mind about what to achieve. I do not even expect progress of any kind. It is a journey to explore something new. I am frustrated not because the lessons have no ‘effects’ on me, but rather because of being deprived of the chance to learn, just for the lack of space and for the busy life that won’t seem to stop a minute.
I keep revisiting your procedures even when I am having lessons. A week ago I tried the head turning procedure when lying down semi supine. For the first time, I had a clearer idea of the position of the sub-occipital joint. I imagined not allowing the imaginary hands to turn my head and I sensed tightening of the muscles around that position. I then let go and let the hands turn the head, just allowing it to be free without physically moving the head. I sensed the stop of the tightening. I then got up and walked a few steps. I thought of the sensation of the freedom of that joint and I suddenly felt lightness. I seemed to have become thinner and I was walking with lightness and ease. I spoke to someone on the phone afterwards. Speaking was easier than usual and the voice seemed to be speaking by itself. This lightness lasted for one hour. It was gone after my boss startled me.
I had a new experience in this. The legs became sort of “firm like steel rods” when I was completely down in the squat. They are solid and full of strength, supporting the body and I felt balanced and at rest. For the first time I felt the lower ribs moving when I breathed. The rib cage expanded and touched the legs. The breathing was slow and free.
Alexander & real life:
I agree to what you said about the mindfulness during the ordinary activities of everyday life. I found the distinction between “thinking of” and “thinking about” very useful in this aspect. If I remind myself not to think about, that of being at the present makes it impossible to consider what results have been gained. When I start to find out what the “effects’ are, I will stiffen by merely repeating the procedures I have learnt.
I would say it is a blessing to know about AT and have a chance to apply it in life. Applying it is its own rewards. Yet every student, I think, may perhaps go though the same thing: the AT lesson is such a nice experience and we are so anxious to apply it in life. It is sometimes hard to resist the temptation to replicate the experience by deliberately doing the procedures in a mechanical way. Is there a term called Alexandroid that is related to this kind of thing? I would try to avoid becoming one.
One question about inhibition:
I find it hard to stop and think before going into movements. I would like to pause and observe myself more in everyday life. Is there anything I can do about it?
I like your new website. But I would like to read the articles in detail when I am away from my computer. Some of them are quite lengthy to read Unlike those in the old site, those in the new site cannot be printed on hard copies. I would try to read them whenever I have time.
Thanks so much.
All the best
You say you are:
“… frustrated not because the lessons have no ‘effects’ on me, but rather because of being deprived of the chance to learn, just for the lack of space and for the busy life that won’t seem to stop a minute.”
It’s difficult, I agree; but although your circumstances may be far from ideal, it’s still possible to give yourself some very useful experiences, if you can remember to do so, during all the moments of the day when you’re not caught up with other things. There may not be many such moments, but if, for example, you isolated certain times during the day, such as when you clean your teeth, wash you hands, eat, or whatever, and decide in advance to be ‘mindful’, in an Alexandrian way, on those occasions, you might find it adds up.
Perhaps it’s not so important for you, since you mention not wanting to ‘get’ anywhere particular, but I always like to remind people of what I call the new suit syndrome. I may have mentioned this before. Often people feel as though they haven’t changed because the changes that take place using the Technique are small and contiguous. It’s not an overnight transformation. It’s crucial for them to realise they are not the same person from week to week but that they are subtly changed – assuming they’ve practiced the Technique, to some extent – and that the further back they look the more changed they’ll be. Just as if they tried on an old suit and found they had grown out of it.
I’m glad you find the ‘self help’ procedures continuing to be useful. It seems to me that ‘stopping the tightening’ is something that could be done pretty much any time. I hope what I’ve been saying doesn’t conflict too much with your lessons.
That’s good news on the squatting front. I’m fascinated by squatting. In Northern Europe it’s mainly considered part of an exercise regime nowadays. People ‘do’ a certain number of ‘squats’ (on their toes) to strengthen their legs. In other parts of the world, by all accounts, people squat as a matter of course, for rest and relaxation. I had a student once who worked in the Middle East and she said that whenever she found herself queuing outside a shop, she would be the only one standing, with everyone else squatting and chatting. I would definitely encourage squatting, for rest and relaxation rather than exercise – even if it feels like hard work!
“It is sometimes hard to resist the temptation to replicate the experience by deliberately doing the procedures in a mechanical way. Is there a term called Alexandroid that is related to this kind of thing? I would try to avoid becoming one.”
Yes, that term is a common one to describe the frightening tendency of Alexander students to do just what you describe. I’ve made loads of references to this in various things I’ve written. The main culprit, I think, is the use of the hands in teaching. Something that might interest you is called “Alexander men and women”; you can find it under “Essays”.
By the way, if you click on ‘printable version’ next to each bit of writing, you should find you can print them out easily enough.
“I find it hard to stop and think before going into movements. I would like to pause and observe myself more in everyday life. Is there anything I can do about it?”
Mmm. Do you mean ‘pause’ as in ‘stopping moving’ or do you mean simply a gap in your thinking? The second, in my opinion, is far, far more valuable. Bringing your mind to bear on what you’re doing WHILE you’re doing it doesn’t mean you have to stop doing it; but it does enable you to do it differently. ACTUALLY stopping physically is the precursor to Alexandroid behaviour! Again, this is only my opinion. It’s true, when you’re desperate to ‘remember’, stopping physically for a short while – pausing – can help; but it can also lead to Zombyism (sort of slow motion movement).
It’s difficult to find the right balance; but the cultivation of an ‘onlooker’ is required, regardless. The ‘onlooker’ is the part of you that observes what is happening from moment to moment. If this is active, the ‘pause’ can be mental rather than physical. It becomes physical, though, in the next instant, since you can then ‘stop doing’ something you might have been doing. For the full on physical pause, the observer still needs to be there, to remind you to stop. You do have to ‘start again’, though, and who’s to say when you do it will be any different unless you ‘stop’ an aspect of what you were doing; which makes it more or less identical to the mental stop, though with attendant dangers!
That’s a bit confusing; but the point I wanted to make was that if you stop physically there is more of a chance that you will go back into movement in a constrained rather than free way. The general trait is that Alexander students, fearful of stiffening their necks, limit the movement possibilities in that area to such an extent they end up with exactly what they don’t want: a stiff neck!
By not stopping physically, but still attending to yourself in movement, there’s more likelihood of an existing stiff neck becoming less rather than more stiff.
That’s how I see it, anyway.
Best of luck with your future lessons.
Thanks for the reply.
I totally agree with what you describe in the new suit syndrome. As changes in me will be subtle and contiguous as I go on having lessons, I have started writing a diary about the lessons, how I feel and any kind of change I can notice over the time, including people’s reaction and remarks about my posture and my voice. This will be an interesting piece of writing.
When you say you hope what you have been saying doesn’t conflict with my lessons, I would say that the correspondence with you on self help Alexander is complementary to the lessons I am having. It helps me to explore more on my own about the concept of balance and poise in movements.
About the pause I mentioned, I did mean a gap in thinking instead of a stop in physical movements. For me, remembering to pause is difficult. I always forget to do so. When I do remember to pause, I’ll be too eager to watch out for the results, to think about instead of thinking of, and I’ll end up being away from the present. And there is such a strong temptation of trying to change too, which is certainly the opposite of non-doing I suppose. I just wonder how you (all my teachers and you as you appear in the pictures on your site) manage to move with such ease and grace continuously. Do you have to be conscious of it all the time? Is it what they called “thinking in activity”? How to set the auto-pilot going when one always forgets that it is there?
I enjoy observing toddlers. They can sit down on the floor easily when they are already in a deep squat. I can go into a deep squat quite easily now. But I find it difficult to let my bottom go down to the floor and sit there from a squat. I’ll lose balance and I am afraid of falling on my back. It seems that there is a long distance between the sit bones and the floor and I’ll fall for a long distance before the floor can be reached. I know the distance is short. Toddlers just sit down so easily by allowing their bottom to drop that short distance. Is it normal for an adult to find this action difficult?
The diary sounds like a good idea. It would be better still if it could be a ‘sensed’ diary; but that’s impossible, unfortunately.
Squatting easily does depend on build and bone structure. I think it is more likely that toddlers and children can squat with their bottoms almost touching the floor than adults; although, I have seen photos of India where they seem to do the same. The truth probably is, the more a person squats, the further down they will go. I don’t squat as much as I would like to, so I certainly don’t find it easy to sit back without toppling over.
“I just wonder how you (all my teachers and you as you appear in the pictures on your site) manage to move with such ease and grace continuously. Do you have to be conscious of it all the time? Is it what they called “thinking in activity”? How to set the auto-pilot going when one always forgets that it is there?”
My old training course director used to say you should never judge a person by their use because you couldn’t tell where they had started from. What he meant was, some people have better ‘natural’ use and will ‘look’ more graceful without this necessarily being the result of the Technique or conscious thought; whereas others might look a bit crook and stiff but were very much worse before they learned the Technique.
I think it’s probably true to say that most Alexander teachers and students spend the majority of their time NOT ‘thinking in activity’ but simply cruising along on autopilot; but that the calibration of this autopilot is determined by the cumulative amount of time they HAVE ‘thought in activity’ previously. It all adds up, moment to moment, each and every day.
‘Thinking in activity’ simply means ‘being conscious and paying attention in an Alexandrian way’. This state can last a second, several seconds, a minute, or several minutes, but it generally comes and goes, and, I would say, generally ‘goes’ for far longer than it ‘stays’!
Remember the proverb about water dripping on a stone? Eventually, a hole forms in the stone. The hole doesn’t vanish if the water stops dripping; but the more the water drips the sooner the hole will appear. Think of the stone being you, the water being your Alexandrian thought, and the hole being better use. Your ‘default’ mode is the water not dripping (unconsciousness). Whenever you ‘think’ (conscious attention) the dripping starts. The more you think, the more of a hole (good use) there will eventually be. When the water isn’t dripping, the hole will still be there.
Does that make sense?
Do you carry children around much? I wonder if you have noticed whether you always tend to stoop to pluck him or her from the floor from the same side; and whether you tend to favour one hip rather than the other to carry him or her on? Just a thought.
Without being greedy, space is a wonderful thing to have, if it’s available. I sometimes think that being hemmed in by their surroundings can cause a person to pull down more than would otherwise be the case; and make it more difficult than it would otherwise be to remember to interject that all important mental pause
It’s been a month since I last wrote to you. I have had 9 lessons and things are really going on so well. Today I read through my last mail to you, asking about how to set the auto-pilot going when one always forgets it is there. Only this moment I realized that things have changed in me. Funny enough. Now I don’t understand how I could have asked such a question a month ago. The answer now seems so obvious that there does not seem to be any point asking about it. There is no need to set anything going. It is simply there, growing stronger and stronger against the old habits with the teacher�s coaxing hands. It seems that a system in my body has been awakened without any doing on my part. It is not something that can be brought about by reasoning of any kind about what to do. In this respect what you said about the old suit syndrome is very true for me. Although I have not felt anything dramatic after each lesson, it has built up by tiny bits and the old suit doesn’t fit anymore now. The auto-pilot is better and better calibrated with time!
I cannot tell you what has changed. I just feel an overall improved well-being and serenity of the mind. I see a different me in the mirror but I can’t say what exactly the difference is. I sometimes feel like floating when I walk. These nice things just keep propping up in my life, coming in suddenly and then away without a trace. I would listen to my teacher and will not try to make anything happen. But it is so nice to be ‘there’ sometimes. It is a good idea to keep a diary in this respect I think.
The voice hasn’t changed yet. But I don’t care too much about it. It will be freed one day. Yet it is interesting to point out that I have now reached the stage where I can sense the pulling back of the head when I sing. Once I realize that I will let go and think of the singing voice resonating in the cavity in the head. I manage to do that during a lesson and for the first time in my life, I heard a free beautiful singing voice coming from myself! It is reassuring to come to know where one’s own potential can be. And more amazingly still, the obsessive thoughts about the voice that I mentioned in my previous mails are simply gone without a trace. I used to be haunted by the thought about how to speak in the day ahead every morning after I woke up. Now I just feel like singing when I use the bathroom in the morning.
You ask how I pick up children. Yes, I tend to favour one side of my body when I pick a child up from the floor. This child is now walking more and more on her own. I do not have to carry her so much as before. And when I do it now, I still favour the right hand side, but I will hold her close to my body and I feel my spine supporting quite an important part of her weight. It is less tiring too.
As for having more space here, your remarks are very true. Space is such a luxury.
On the squatting front, I now manage to do a full squat without slumping. I still dare not attempt the reading procedure suggested in your earlier mails. The fear of the voice still lingers in me. Will keep you posted of any progress.
It sounds as if everything is going swimmingly. I’m very glad for you.
I’m not sure there’s much more I can add. Other than, if you’ve found some of what I’ve said over the last few months useful, the best thing is to keep going back to it (or the bits you didn’t find useful at the time) and trying or re-trying the various suggestions I made. Each time your experience is likely to be different.
You mention squatting without slumping. Do you mean without falling over? The other day I was peeling potatoes in the kitchen. My wife suggested I squat down by the compost bin, as she usually does. I found staying down there harder than I expected. I realised then it’s so easy for me to pontificate about ‘good’ things to do without necessarily doing them myself! I do squat quite a lot, but I certainly don’t squat for long periods of time for pleasure or relaxation, as some people do. This is largely because of muscle tightness whose only ‘cure’ would be to squat more.
Just as you say, things are going on very well, and it is amazing that it happens without any willful effort from myself.
You mention squatting without slumping. Do you mean without falling over?
I used to squat with my back slumped. My shoulders were hunching over my knees. There was a feeling of heaviness when I tried to get up. Now the feet seem to be gaining more and more strength in themselves. They support me like pillars supporting a bridge. I can keep my back straight even in a squat. I have a perfect sense of balance too.
You suggest putting our email exchanges on your website. I basically do not oppose to such idea. I share your view that others may benefit from it and it is worth sharing. There are people who may find themselves in the same position like me, where a teacher may be hard to find. Thanks to the internet, we can communicate with great minds like you. I will not be able to thank you enough for all the insights you have given me. It was like a beacon shining in the dark when I had absolutely no other resources other than books (and I’ve read all those available) for guidance. And thanks to you I found my teacher in the end. I do hope that people can benefit from those messages as well.
Concerning squatting. Ages ago, I read an intriguing booklet which I then wrote a review of. It’s on my website under reviews. The booklet is by John Gorman, and it’s called Evolution of low back pain.
Anyway, he was an engineer by trade, and had worked out, from the shapes of the discs of the spine, that slumping was very useful. I figured out that the best sort of slumping comes about when we squat, mainly because there is nothing pushing upwards against our bottoms, as a chair does. In a way, the entire spine hangs downwards, extending itself. The question is, what is more natural, for the spine to curve like a banana during a squat or for it to be straight?
I tend to favour having a visible curvature rather than not, especially in the lower back. But I think the acid test must be to observe other people squatting, and take your cue from that … bearing in mind, of course, that everyone’s size and shape is different.
All I would suggest to you is to try and be aware of any tendency on your part to think a curved spine while squatting is something to be avoided at all costs and then ‘doing’ whatever you perceive as necessary to straighten things, rather than allowing your spine to fall into place, curved or not.
Having said this, I’m not suggesting you want your shoulders to be hunching over your knees. To a certain extent, your thighs and stomach (and ankles!) will determine what happens, anyway.
These are just some of the ways an intending trainee might approach the tricky question of training to become an Alexander teacher.
“How do I decide which training course to attend?”
I started training as an Alexander teacher in 1986. At that time, there were far fewer schools, and most of them had long waiting lists. They also had what I considered stringent conditions for joining those lists, including a lengthy period of lessons with the course directors.
I had had relatively few lessons, and I had no particular preference for one training school over another. I was vaguely familiar with the different approaches – Carrington, MacDonald, Barlow – from my reading of the available literature; and I suppose, if asked, I would have veered towards a Barlow based school, simply because I found Wilfred Barlow�s explanation of the Technique more illuminating and thoughtful than any other.
My eventual choice of school was entirely due to chance. I happened to have a lesson with a teacher who had heard of a new training course about to open. I visited it, met and got on with the directors, who had, as it happened, been Barlow trained, and joined shortly afterwards. I was one of nine, most of whom had gone through a similar process to me. Perhaps because of this, we shared a refreshing – I thought – non allegiance to any particular approach.
If I was planning to train now, I would be far clearer about where I would want to go. Not having the benefit of hindsight, I would suggest any intending trainee, having established a short list of financially and logistically viable schools, discover as much as possible about each before even thinking of visiting any of them. This is because an Alexander training school can seem a strange and sometimes intimidating environment. Visiting one isn�t necessarily the best way to obtain information.
Useful questions to ponder might be:
How structured is a course? Is that structure decided by the directors or the senior students? How rigidly is it adhered to? Would you consider such rigidity a good or bad thing? How much say, if any, might junior students have? Is there any provision for individual students to �take over� the occasional running of the course? Personally, I found I preferred a fluid structure; and I particularly liked it when students ran the course, temporarily. However, I loathed it when all structure became temporarily lost.
When does a student begin to use their hands? This can differ widely, from almost immediately to not before the third year. It might seem difficult to know as an intending trainee which is preferable. I, personally, would have liked to use my hands immediately, and not have had a special or precious thing made of it. Others might disagree.
How much hands on work is there, overall? An intending trainee might not know how much they would like there to be. Perhaps, if their experience of lessons had been that the more a teacher used their hands the better, they would prefer that sort of ratio to continue during training. For me, the opposite was the case, and I would have positively welcomed a more hands off approach.
There�s also the issue of how the hands are used. This is a subtle matter, and obviously requires time spent at the school itself. Some teachers can seem alarmingly heavy handed, or disconcertingly light fingered. My personal bias errs towards the latter.
How much time is set aside for �work on the self�? In truth, all Alexander work is work on the self, and a better question might be to ask �how�, precisely, such work is done. Any answer to this question from a course director outside a brief reference to inhibition and direction could prove very illuminating. Merely attempting to answer the question, in detail, would be a plus, in my view.
How much if any reading is done in class; and what books are read? If Alexander�s books are considered de trop or too difficult in any way, this might be a telling point. If someone is after an academic approach, it might be worth asking about any follow up to �reading�. One of my fellow trainees was disappointed we didn�t discuss in class, and later write about, what we had read, as he had done, in depth, with texts at university. For my part, I found reading in class of most interest not because of what we read but how we read it, out aloud.
Anatomy and physiology is a tricky question. How much formal study goes on? How much is necessary? If it is included, is an equivalent portion of psychology taught? Personally, apart from learning about the way the head sat on the atlas, and the atlas turned on the axis, the relative position of the hip joints and the striking mobility of the ribcage, I found most of this superfluous. Of far more interest, to me, was the mechanism of thought. For others, though, the exact opposite might be the case.
How soon do trainees put hands on other students, other teachers or � most importantly � visitors? I would simply say, the earlier the better, even with members of the public, so long as they are not paying. I don�t think this is common practice.
How many visiting teachers are there in a typical term or year? And, even more crucially, how many of them are from alternative strands of the teaching web? This is probably the most important question of all. Visiting teachers cost money, and if the school is a small one, the directors would obviously prefer to do as much work as possible themselves. What I clearly recall, though, is the massive advantage we all gained from visits from teachers whose approach we were not familiar with. Insights abounded, and blockages cleared, like magic. The key word here is familiarity. Having the same visitor, constantly, becomes less and less illuminating.�
What lineage are the directors from? Is this the same as the visiting teachers, the same as the trainees, before they joined the course? How important is this? Some schools may have a reputation for not only believing their understanding of the Technique is the only valid one, but expecting their students to believe it too. To further that end, any visiting teachers, as well as senior trainees, will probably teach along similar lines to the directors. This might, or might not, seem attractive.
Are there any extracurricular activities? By this, I mean anything that isn�t either straightforward Alexander work or directly relevant to its application. A trainee may, or may not, have strong feelings about this. In moderation, I didn�t, and don�t.
Is any time devoted to easing the passage from training into professional life? Some schools will treat this far more seriously than others. Again, much depends on how a person views becoming a professional.
Various ways to establish the above information might range from phoning or emailing the course director, checking the school website, if it has one, or asking for contact details of previous students. I would recommend the last approach. I�m sure that recently qualified trainees would be happier to answer questions in detail than course directors. They might be more honest, too. I�ve found, in other areas of life, if I want to learn about something I�m considering paying for, asking advice from those who have already paid for it is a great help.
Finally, there are the obvious questions that can only be resolved by a personal visit to a school.
Do you get on well with the course director(s)?
Do you like the place?
How do you find the other students?
These three are all gut level decisions. You either feel good about the place and the people or you don�t. We had several visitors on our course. I remember one, an Israeli, who came with his father, said nothing the whole day, and refused to be worked on. We never saw him again. Others couldn�t stop talking, or else never left the safety of the couch. Some came often but failed to become trainees; others made a single visit, and then joined the course a year later.
Only one person ever left our course, unqualified; and she completed her training elsewhere. This was a clear case of the school not suiting the personality. However, that doesn�t mean that everyone else was ideally suited where they were. Given a choice, it�s far easier to select the ideal place at the outset than move to it later.�����
To reiterate. For me, the most important issues, besides the obvious practicalities of locality, finance and rubbing along with everyone, would be how much emphasis was placed on work on the self, rather than work on others; how much hands off work was done; how early hands on work was introduced; how soon students got to work in real life situations; how frequently visiting teachers came; and how open to alternative strands of teaching a school was.
The one issue that would probably tip the balance for me today would be the amount of time spent teaching trainees to work with other people without using their hands. In other words, time spent investigating our thought processes, and how they affect our physical use, in action, in depth. I�m unaware of any training course offering this as a speciality.
Although I taught on a training school for many years, as a visiting teacher, I don�t run one. So my advice to potential trainees is strictly from the point of view of a teacher who remembers how it was to train and how he might have preferred it to be.