What is The Alexander Technique - here's how Mr. Alexander explained

When I tell people I teach the Alexander Technique, they ask questions to help them figure out which category to place it in.  "Is it like yoga?"  "Oh, that's about posture and breathing." "What kind of exercises do you teach?"

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I tell people the Alexander Technique is truly a mind-body method.  I can show people how their minds and their thoughts impact their bodies.  To begin, I help people observe the effect of the mind at the level of muscle tension, balance and mobility.  I can also help people see how their thinking effects them on other levels, including emotions and physiology.

Without a first hand experience (and even after one) it is often difficult for people to find the language to convey what the work is and how the Alexander Technique helps them.

Here are some of F. M. Alexander's words to help us describe the realm in which the work takes place.

In August of 1934, F. M. Alexander delivered a lecture at The Bedford Training College.  Among many amazing things he says during this talk, there are two quotes which I find most thought-provoking and exciting:

"We see people do certain things and without thinking or questioning we copy them.  Don't.  Don't do it. [new paragraph] Do what I recommended everybody in the world do in my first book.  That is, to sit down and think over all the beliefs and ideas they have got and find out where they came from.  You would not have many left.  After a week's thought, you would throw them overboard."

"You would not think that the matter of belief comes into our sphere.  You have all got your ideas of what belief is.  Do you know what we have found that belief is?  A certain standard of muscle tension."

The Alexander Technique works with belief systems.  While it may seem like "bodywork", it is really a process for (among other things) reclaiming awareness, consciousness, and the ability to be truly in the moment, experiencing novelty.  We begin with the belief systems of sensation, such as how much muscle contraction I need to perform a certain task.

 

Applied Wishful Thinking

In a talk from 1974, Walter Carrington says "... although we're thinking of moving structures, we're really not so interested in moving structures as we are in the willing and wishing behind the movement."

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He goes on the explain that in fairy tales, the focus is on the wishing, without concerns about how the wishing is going to carried out.

In Alexander lessons, the focus is on learning to maximize coordination and reduce excess effort and tension in muscles by thinking more clearly. You could say this skill is "applied wishful thinking".

Our voluntary actions are based on our thought process, and the decisions we are making. Our habits may include voluntary and involuntary processes. We address the voluntary component of our actions and behavior.

Alexander spent over 60 years self-experimenting and teaching his method. He taught himself and his students how to use meaningful and accurate thinking to guide action.

In lessons, I use my hands to make adjustments to my student's alignment and balance. More importantly, I teach her a methodology using thoughts, taking the form of words and concepts, to "steer" her action. I cannot take over someone's brain to change her muscle tone, but I can teach that skill. Hands-on work defines the words for my student, so that when she thinks the words outside the lesson, she can access the new, improved distribution of tone.

My father has taken lessons with me on and off for over 15 years. At one lesson I asked him to reach up for something as if he was getting a plate or glass down from a higher shelf in a cabinet. He struggled to raise his arm above his head. I saw that he had shortened the muscles at the base of his skull, effectively pulling the back of his head and his upper back in the opposite direction his hand was extending. I asking him to think of not pulling his head back and down towards the floor behind him, and he observed that his arm felt lighter and he could reach higher.

"You changed your thought and it changed your coordination" I explained.

"Are you telling me that just thinking can change me?" he challenged.

"What do you do if you are thirsty and want a glass of water? You think and you move, don't you?" I asked.

"I guess I do. I never really thought about it, but yes, I think and then I move."

"I am teaching you different thoughts that generate a different way of moving. It begins with thought, just like your habit. You don't need to micromanage every little movement when you go to get a glass of water habitually. All you need to think is 'I am thirsty' - and you don't always need to think the language or those words to know you are thirsty. Once you have decided to get a glass of water, you go through immeasurable movements, from walking to the cabinet, grasping the pull to open it, holding the glass of water, filling it with water from a faucet or a bottle, lifting, drinking, swallowing. All that happens without micromanaging each moment.

Thinking different, specific thoughts, such as those I am teaching you, helps all your actions happen with less effort and more efficiency.

The skill I am teaching you is thinking. That way of thinking is the means to change your coordination."

The idea of wishing is intended to offer a context for an easy quality in our thinking, that doesn't add performance anxiety, or a tendency to over-rely on bodily sensations.

Try this:

1. Lay down on a firm, comfortable surface with enough books under your head so that if you were standing up, your head and neck would not be leaning behind your upper back. Bend your knees so both feet are on the floor. Rest your arms at your sides palm face up or down; or bend your elbows and rest your hands, palms face down, on your lower ribs or abdomen.

2. Keeping your eyes open, look straight in front of you at the ceiling, and stay aware of your upper peripheral vision.

3. Think or say these words:

  • I am allowing my head to release away from my body, towards the wall behind the crown of my head.
  • My head continues to release off the end of my spine and my spine follows as it lengthens.
  • My knees release to the ceiling
  • My shoulders widen away from each other.

4. Think/hear the words and wish to let them happen, but do not actually "do" what the words describe with your muscles.

5. Spend five to ten minutes thinking/hearing the words in sequence. Afterwards, observe any changes in your state of being.

Visit www.alexanderlesson.com where you can donate $10 or more to download an MP3 audio file of a guided lesson.

Alexander Student, Alexander Teacher, Alexander Teacher Trainer - What's the difference, and why does it matter?

I have been taking lessons as a student of the Alexander Technique for over 33 years. I still take lessons to this day.

I began teaching 27 years ago, and have been training teachers for the last 25 years.

My greatest passion is training teachers, though I will take lessons for the rest of my life, and I get deep satisfaction teaching my private students.

I thought it would be useful to me, my students and the teachers-in-training that I work with, to consider what is different about each of these roles: student, teacher, teacher-trainer.

STUDENT

When I take a lesson, my attention is on myself. I gratefully accept the objectivity of my teacher as she uses her hands and words to engage me in learning. My learning takes place on many levels.

My teacher's hands are giving me information and experiences that assist my ability to observe and know how much excess tension I may be generating in my being. I am using my lessons to enhance the benefit I gain in my daily live when I bring my Alexander Technique tools to bear.

Sometime the excess tension arises in response to a muscular demand, in activity, involving motion. We might explore how I carry out the activity of getting in and out of a chair, use my handheld device, or move into and out of downward dog during yoga practice.

I might observe excess tension in the context of my inner dialogue. Thinking about my workload, administrative tasks I have yet to complete, my response to someone's actions.

Any and every activity, mental or physical, can be material for the lesson.

Whatever I am exploring, I am interested in my own skills. I allow my teacher to be my guide and to educate me about myself and how I can best use my Alexander skills to access the efficiency and intelligence of being a human.

I have no focus whatsoever on assessing my teacher's use or process, I trust she is my guide. I am grateful and appreciative for the support and benefit I receive from the lesson and her teaching.

TEACHER

In contrast, when I am the teacher, my level of awareness is expanded to observe how my student is progressing, as I observe how I am teaching.

What skills might she benefit from learning or deepening during this lesson?

How can I use the hands on component of the work to help guide her into a more integrated and poised state?

Private students (including me) take lessons for self-benefit, so they are focused on applying the Alexander principles to aid them in their lives. They are not planning to teach the work to anyone else. Their attention is NOT on the teacher.

As the teacher, I manage my end-gaining, and apply the principles to myself in the activity of teaching (hands-on work; choosing where to put my hands; what concept I may emphasize in the moment or in the lesson; speaking; and utilizing instructional aids, such as pictures of anatomy and videos). I use Alexander's means-whereby to teach, i.e., I am using the very same skills I am teaching in order to teach effectively.

As a teacher, my attention is on my student, her goals for learning and applying Alexander Technique to solve her own problem. That dual attention leaves me less time to wander around in my own mental chatter, so teaching becomes an activity that supports me in inhibiting my own habits on multiple levels.

I also benefit directly in my own self from working with Alexander principles, even if I am the "teacher" in this situation. When I give a lesson, I get a lesson.

My work is as healthy and beneficial to me as it is to my student.

TEACHER TRAINER

In this role, I am adding a level of assessment for how self-sufficient the teacher-in-training (trainee) is when working on herself, and as she reaches a high level of competence, I assist her in applying her means-whereby to teaching.

On our training course at The American Center for the Alexander Technique (ACAT), our trainees regularly put hands on faculty members as a tool for training. This approach is educational on multiple levels:

1) Faculty members all have a high level of competence at applying means-whereby to activity, so in the same way we use our hands on our trainees to convey inhibition and direction, when our trainees put their hands on us, we are still transmitting that information through our whole bodies. As the trainee progresses through the three-year training, she recognizes what she is witnessing under her hands, and with her eyes and ears. She has worked with classmates, and practice students with less skill, and can compare and contrast what she has observed under her hands. This gives her a sense of the kind of changes and progress she may observe in her students, so she knows that learning and change really are happening over time.

2) When a trainee works on a faculty member, we give specific verbal and hands on cues so the trainee can observe how a change in her system facilitates a change in the teacher she has hands on. Sometimes the change is towards enhanced poise and efficiency, sometimes the change is towards increased strain, effort or tension in muscle tone. Either way, observing the change allows the trainee to consider her own internal state, use her developed skills at self-work, and observe the change in the teacher-trainer she is working with. This is the means-whereby of teaching in action.

3) As the trainee works with faculty, she realizes we all have habits of use that interfere with our full potential for poise and efficient coordination. The trainee can provide valuable instruction to the trainer, and can also understand that a teacher's use need NOT be perfect for a teacher to be highly skilled and effective in our teaching.

I theorize that when a teacher has hands on and is working with her skills to inhibit and direct in herself in order to communicate that to her student, that process is discernable to the student. It may be so subtle the student is not yet aware of how the teacher's use is facilitating ease and poise, but the intention comes through. So even if the teacher is sometimes tightening her neck in moments, she is ALSO freeing her neck and using inhibition and awareness. That intention is picked up by the student, who is also providing inhibition and direction in the lesson. Student and teacher assist each other in this process. Both startle and pull down in moments, but both ALSO apply inhibition and direction to antidote startle and pull down.

In Closing

In some ways, the same means-whereby is in play in all three distinct roles, but there are clear differences in the short term outcomes for learning and how this is accomplished in these three roles.

 

 

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Being a "Yes" to Life, without losing my reason

Being a "Yes" to life, without losing my reason...

I have been involved in business and life coaching and spiritual communities that were all about being a yes. “Being a Yes” means looking on the positive side of things, going for it, not taking no for an answer, and with that, the dark underside of self recrimination, FOMO (fear of missing out), shame if I’m not being a yes, and the uncomfortable feeling that comes when you say yes in times when a “no” is more authentic.

 

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Problem solving using The Alexander Technique

*This was originally posted on ACAT's Blog

Problem Solving

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Alexander didn't have a teacher to help him solve his vocal problems.  He had no one telling him where to begin or how to approach finding a solution, so he began with simple observation and then experimented on a trial and error basis.

One of Alexander's observations and concerns, as he worked for over 60 years teaching people from all walks of life, was the lack of critical reasoning people brought to problem solving.

Some of my most effective teaching moments have been when I could help someone see, for themselves, how they were using their body or reacting to a situation.

Example 1:

At the first lesson, I showed this student how she was putting pressure on her lower back by locking her knees and pushing down onto her waist.   Within moments, she was able to lesson the pressure.

"When my doctor suggested surgery to alleviate excruciating back pain from two herniated disks, I remembered a friend who had avoided surgery by working with an Alexander trainer so I tried it too.  It's been almost two years since I started working with Brooke and I am virtually pain-free.  When I do have pain, it's because I've forgotten to use the Alexander tools Brooke taught me; as soon as I remember to walk properly, the pain goes away.

I no longer suffer from terrible lower back pain. My whole body feels less tense and I have fewer muscle aches. Using the Alexander Technique while playing golf, lifting weights or doing any other physical activity has helped prevent injury."

Example 2:

"I asked Brooke about my knee pain and she asked me to get up from the chair and within a few seconds she saw my problem. She had me sit and get up again, this time giving me commands on how to position my legs when getting out of a seated position. I felt the difference immediately and to this day, I use the

instructions she had shown me. "

Example 3:

I am working with a young actress, who shared she is not satisfied with her quality of sleep.  After about 5 lessons, she came back and told me she has engaged in a point-by-point investigation into solving the combined issues that were interfering with her sleep.  She said she'd solved some of her problems, knew the solution to others and was getting to them; and still had some questions about solving some of the problems.   At our lesson last week, she said she was sleeping better already.

Here is her checklist:

  1.  Sleep Mask- buy one that does not fall off
  2. Mattress- switch with neighbor, get a new one
  3.  Pillows- remove second pillow and get smaller pillow to put under big pillow (both pillow were a lot for me, and one was not enough so I was always struggling with them at night)
  4.  Glass of Water- Keep at distance far enough that you can't knock over
  5.  Dogs
  6.  AC- Keep remote next to you and turn on and off as you please during the night
  7.  Comforter- Keep yourself cool so you won't get hot under it, ask Michael to push it to your side before he gets in the bed so he does not sleep on it and therefore deprive you of wonderful comforters
  8.  Michael awake at night
  9.  Dogs chewing things- before going to bed remove all things that the dogs can reach that you know they will chew on (shoes, pens,etc)

While students who have lessons sometimes have a hard time describing what the Alexander Technique is, or describing the sensations and changes they experience, these examples are a bit more concrete and can help students understand the reasoning process that is an integral aspect of applying the principles of the Alexander Technique.

You can ask: "How am I doing what I'm doing?  Could I do this differently?"

A simple example from my own life came when I realized I could thread a needle more easily by facing the whole towards my eyes, and bringing the thread from behind the needle into the hole.   It is much easier to see.  I consider myself a somewhat intelligent person, but I realized how habitual I can be in life, and when I made this simple adjustment (after 38 years of threading a needle "blind" by brining the thread in sideways) the activity became much easier and more efficient.

The Alexander Technique: It’s Not Just About Standing Up Straight

*This was originally posted on ACAT's Blog

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When people hear that I teach Alexander Technique, they often comment “Oh, that’s about standing up straight”, or say something apologetic or sarcastic. Then they inevitably pull themselves up into their version of “Good Posture”.

The good news is that gravity is not what’s getting you down. It’s actually your own muscles, over contracting, working inefficiently and pulling you down. When you learn to allow lengthening to occur throughout your musculature, weight falls more efficiently through bones and joints, leaving you more balanced on your skeleton.

Hours spent sitting at a computer, studying, driving a car and other such sedentary activities contribute to being habitually shortened through the muscles on the front of the body. Because we are so used to this shortening, it doesn’t register in your feeling sense as active muscle work. In fact, it probably feels effortless and maybe even comfortable. Fortunately, when you learn to release this excess effort, the natural outcome is more evenly distributed muscle tone, lengthening and more upright alignment through your spine. You can get better results with less effort when it comes to posture.

I have a couple who’ve studied with me since Fall of 2000. He reported gaining a full inch in height at his last check up; and she went from a 1/4″ to a 1/8″ correction in her orthotics for a leg length discrepancy.

Studying the Alexander Technique can help you look taller and feel lighter and easier in upright posture.

I leave you with this quote:

“I am putting into gear the muscles that hold you up, and you are putting them out of gear and then making a tremendous effort to hold yourself up, with the result that, when you ease that effort, you slump down worse than ever.” F. M. Alexander

The Alexander Technique as a Tool for Dealing with Trauma

NOTE: This was originally posted on ACAT's Blog

[*Please note, I am fully healed and my love of dogs is fully intact!]

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The Sunday before Father’s Day in 2005, I was bitten on my right leg in three places by a bulldog in the home of someone I knew. I had met the dog before a number of times over the years, and had entered the home of her owner without waiting for the woman to come to the door without incident many times.

After the dog released me and her owner pulled her away and closed her up in a room, I noticed my habitual reaction was to immediately focus on the idea that “everything is fine.” My parents were there, having arrived before me, and they and the dog’s owner seemed ready to join me in my habit. I was able to stand and walk on the leg. I saw a long scratch down the inside of my calf, which was bleeding; and evidence of bite marks on my calf and the outside of my thigh, which was swelling slightly, beginning to turn red as bruising began; and what seemed like bleeding under the skin where there were obvious teeth marks.

As moments passed, my assessment of the situation was that I had to pursue proper treatment for myself. Those around me were already soothing themselves with the idea that I was walking and the skin was not broken, so I was OK. I first suggested that I go to the hospital, as I imagined a tetanus shot was in order. The others seemed hesitant to take me there, as the wounds didn’t seem serious enough. The owner said she didn’t think I needed to go to the hospital or that there was any worry, as the dog was up to date on her shots and the skin was not broken. (In fact, on later inspection when I got home, I discovered the skin had been broken in five places.)

I did not want to go to the hospital, but I knew that was my habit of minimizing things. I pursued the subject, insisting that I should consult with a medical professional to determine the proper course of treatment. The owner offered to try to reach her doctor on the phone. She called and I thought the line didn’t answer. My mother later told me she believed there was a recorded message with further instructions and another number to call in an emergency, but the dog’s owner didn’t pursue the course beyond her first call. I suggested I call my own doctor, who was out of town. The doctor covering for her called me back after about 15 minutes and determined that the dog and I were up to date on our shots and my concern was infection. He didn’t tell me to go to a hospital, but did tell me how to clean the wounds and what to watch for that would indicate infection.

The owner had provided me with a bottle of betadine and paper towels to clean the wounds. I asked her for some ice as I saw there was swelling, and at first she told me in which drawer I’d find a plastic bag to put the ice in before she stepped in and did it for me.

I noticed throughout that I was in mild shock. My hands were shaking, and I had lost my appetite, even though I had been hungry when I arrived. I felt an energy of wanting to move, to get away from this environment, even though I stayed where I was. I was also acutely aware that I found the behavior of my parents and the dog’s owner contributed to my discomfort. I felt a distinct attitude coming from them that the event was over and all was fine now, while I was still very shaken. I felt unsafe in their presence and that any display of upset or fear would be met with a non-reaction.

When I arrived home a couple of hours later, my husband expressed what felt like an appropriate level of horror and concern and outrage that this had happened. I knew his response had an accurate level of energy and urgency to it. It took me a couple of days to feel the full intensity of my physical and psychic disturbance, and all the while, I had to keep recognizing my habit to minimize the events, my feelings, my thoughts and use my Alexander principles of awareness and direction to keep myself in the reality of the situation. My parents also woke from their somewhat numbed reaction and became more upset upon seeing my injuries in full color, and in response to how the dog’s owner had minimized the seriousness of the events.

For a few days, whenever I thought about the actual attack, I could feel the pain of the dog’s jaw biting my leg vividly. I could feel my fear and shock setting in as I struggled on the floor, calling for help and trying to scramble away from the dog. I wondered if I would have flashbacks and residual stress from the event. That didn’t happen and I believe it was because I sought out contact with people who would express the outrage, and empathize with me, whether or not they saw the actual wounds or had ever been bitten by a dog themselves.

Acting against my habit in this case has had many benefits. I have been much more proactive in dealing with many different circumstances that I would habitually avoid or let go un-addressed at the expense of my own comfort and well-being.

About a month later, on July 7, 2005, I was watching a film clip of a man injured in the subway bombings in London. As I watched the police help him walk and saw the cuts on his face and his bandages, I recalled the shock and mild trauma that I had experienced from the bite, and felt I could empathize much more fully with the pain, fear, and shock he must be feeling. I could touch into those feelings, while not re-living the moment as real or losing my present self in the memory. I fully credit my skill in the principle of the Alexander Technique with my ability to feel more fully and know I was safe.

"Reality Check": How to think constructively to manage fear and stress

*This was originally posted on ACAT's Blog

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When I began my training as a teacher of the Alexander Technique, my biggest "symptom" was not pain, it was anxiety.   I had started to have panic attacks, where I felt light headed and would begin to hyperventilate, and I was afraid I was dying.  Often, the fearful thoughts centered around having an allergic reaction to something that would prove fatal.    (I have had three incidentsof strong allergic reactions, one to medication, one to food and one undetermined, none of which has been fatal.)

During the second year of my training, I noticed that I had not had any "incidents" in recent memory.  A couple of years after I graduated, I recall watching a panic attack come on while I was riding the subway.   I felt a flush of heat rise from my heart up to my ears (adrenaline rush?), my heart started pounding, and I began to think "I'm having trouble breathing".  As I observed myself, my mind remained calm, and I thought to myself "Wow, your body is experiencing sensations of terror.   Yet, I don't feel afraid.   I am remaining conscious, I can breath even though I have concerns that I can't.   Wow, this is so interesting."  As fast as the symptoms came on, they subsided.   The event made a strong impression on me because my reason stayed clear and I did not mistake the symptoms for something dangerous.

The process of training in the Alexander Technique gave me skills to refrain from my habit of anticipatory anxiety.   I would not have realized this pattern of behavior if it weren't for the contrast I noticed.   Over the years, I have seen how my focus on releasing physical tension from my body has had a beneficial influence on my mental state as well.

Try This:

Notice a topic you may be concerned about, or worrying over.  (There's plenty of issues facing us, such as the state of today's economy.)

Write down the thoughts of concern or worry you are experiencing.

Which ones are based on current facts/circumstances?   Which ones are based on what might or might not happen?

Now, take a moment to think of allowing your shoulders and jaw to release some tension.  Notice what that is like.

Now, think about something you are concerned or worried about.

Return to releasing your jaw and shoulders.   You may have noticed that they tensed again when you put your attention on your concerns.

Continue to move back and forth between actively releasing tension in shoulder and jaw; and thinking about things that worry you.

What's the next step?

This activity is beneficial in and of itself, as a way for you to see how your thinking affects your tension levels, and that when you put your attention on your muscular tension, you can find some relief.

The next step you might explore is to consider the source of your worry or concern.   Which thoughts are based on current facts, and which are the result of anticipatory anxiety?   For those that are based on facts, what actions can you take to address the concerns?   For those based on anticipation of what might happen, go back to working with your muscle tension as a way to reduce the impact this habit of thought has on your stress levels.

Alexander Technique in Education

*This was originally posted on ACAT's Blog/Produced by STAT and the Alexander Trust, "Alexander in Education" is a film about how the Alexander Technique is helpful for students, in developing skills for life.:


Alexander’s greatest wish was for his method to be integrated into primary and secondary education as part of the standard curriculum. This video, from the UK, shares firsthand accounts from students of many ages, who were fortunate enough to have Alexander Technique as part of their education before college or adulthood. The Alexander Technique not only gives us tools for managing the physical demands of life, it teaches us critical problem solving. For education to be fully rounded, a knowledge of our own inner workings seems like an obvious foundation, and yet there is little in the US curriculum that teaches us about ourselves in the practical, concrete way the Alexander Technique can.

In my own practice, I have found children are just as subject to stress and anxiety as adults. By virtue of the fact that they are younger, their habits and beliefs is not as entrenched as with adults, so often they are keen students, they grasp the concepts quickly and successfully apply the ideas to change their behavior. They change more quickly.

There are no short cuts for certain things in life, and just as you need to floss, brush and take care of your teeth to keep them healthy, taking care of your mental and physical wellbeing is one of those things. Whether you are young or old, a course of study in the Alexander Technique can give you a lifetime of skill at reducing the effects of stress, tension and wear and tear on your system, as well as improving performance and adaptability.

The Habit of Dissatisfaction*

As a child, growing up in the United States, and particularly as a student in American academia, I developed the tendency to respond to my circumstances with dissatisfaction. I was inclined to focus on what needed to be changed or fixed, how to garner or continue to get approval, and to seek distraction from my habitual internal dialogue and attitude towards my life circumstances. This attitude was reinforced by the people around me, by the media, and in particular, by advertisers.

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