What Google Maps can teach us about ignoring advice.

Have you ever asked for advice, and then ignored it and done what you wanted to anyway? Ignoring advice from experts and teachers isn’t very sensible, but it’s very human, and I think we all do it occasionally.

Google Maps: a paradigm example of ignoring advice

I was reminded of this the other day when out with a friend. My friend used Google Maps to give directions to where we were going, but didn’t follow the directions given. Rather, my friend decided that they knew better than the app and chose their own route – even though we were going to a place neither of us had been before!

It’s very tempting, when faced with a road you know, to use the known road rather than the one that is unfamiliar. But it might not be the best way to where you want to go. And this isn’t just a transportation story, but a metaphor about trying to reach any new goal; and it’s a story that FM Alexander used in one of his very best chapters, called ‘Incorrect Conception’.[1]

So why is ignoring advice so common?

FM Alexander says that we ignore advice because of our own fixed ideas about what we can and can’t do. For example, a singer might have a belief that they need to throw their head backward in order to take a breath. Their teacher might notice this, and work with the singer to encourage them to open their mouth by allowing the jaw to drop. But if the singer is convinced of the necessity of throwing their head backwards, they’ll keep doing it, no matter what their teacher says.

That is to say, they’ll keep doing it… until they don’t.

I once worked with an actor who made a very particular set of muscular contractions in order to use their voice. Every lesson with this student would lead to me highlighting how this set of contractions wasn’t helping the actor’s voice, and the actor saying a variant of ‘But I NEED to do that!’ After months of lessons, I was ready to tell my actor student that I couldn’t help them. As the lesson started, I had my goodbye speech planned. It was that very lesson that the actor exclaimed, “I’ve been doing this really weird muscular thing, and it’s not helping me!” Crisis averted.

It’s hard to take the unknown road, because (of necessity) we don’t know where it leads. We navigate away from all the familiar landmarks. But sometimes we simply must take the unknown road, otherwise we’ll just keep heading to the same old destination.

So if you find yourself going to a teacher and not following their advice, pause. Ask yourself why your are ignoring them. What is it that you are convinced you can’t do? What mental block (or dodgy decision) have you made that might be holding you back?

Your teacher might just be right. Give their advice a go!

[1] The original story is in Alexander, F.M., Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat complete ed., p.299.

Image courtesy of taesmileland at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Pick one thing: the causal factor that changes everything

A causal factor is like pushing the first domino in a domino runOne little domino: the causal factor

Have you ever watched a video of one of those amazing domino runs? The ones that split, go over obstacles, do amazing things? I’m always fascinated by those sorts of displays: the time it must take to set them up, the precision… And the fact that the whole display depends on pushing just one little domino to make it work.

This works for far more than simply dominos. It is the experience of my students, and countless other Alexander Technique students, that if you pick the right spot to make a change, everything else will improve around it.

The causal factor in the wild

FM Alexander found that if he focused on preventing pulling back his head, he also stopped depressing his larynx and sucking in breath, and his vocal condition improved.

One of my students found that, but thinking about how she opened her mouth to sing, she prevented a scrunching down in her neck and could improve not just her singing, but her ability to concentrate upon the words and the line of the song.

Another of my students, a jazz pianist, found that by focusing on listening to the noes he wanted to play inside his head and just allowing his fingers to do what they needed to do, he was able not just to play more effectively and beautifully, but also stop doing all the movements in his legs and jaw that were bothering him.

So what’s going on? Why does it work?

Why the causal factor exists.

A bit like the domino run, everything has to start somewhere. If you look at the dominos laid out ready to go, they look like a selection of separate pieces. It is only when you push the first one that you realise they are all connected.

It’s the same with the problems that FM Alexander found when he watched himself in the mirror. He saw three ‘harmful tendencies’, and they may have looked like three separate things, but FM guessed that it was likely that they were all connected, just like the dominos. The scientific principle involved is called the Principle of Parsimony (or Occam’s Razor) – the simplest solution to any problem is likely to be the right one. FM correctly made the assumption that the three separate physical act he saw were related to one causal factor. He then worked hard to find the causal factor, and successfully prevented himself from doing it.

And we can all do this. My singing student decided not to dilute her attention by trying to think of neck, breathing, opening note, words, and countless other things that obsess singers; she thought about how she opened her mouth, and found that everything else improved indirectly as a result. My jazz pianist found that by focusing on the notes in his head, he was free to let his well-trained fingers find the notes for themselves, and he was more able to stop the other extraneous movements.

So next time you are stuck with a problem that seems intractable, or you have a ton of things you could concentrate upon and you don’t know where is best, try doing this:

  • Ask yourself what is the most important thing about the activity you are about to do. What is your main focus? What action starts the activity? Is there part of the activity that involves high-up axial structures like the head and neck?
  • Decide to commit yourself to focusing on that one thing that you’ve decided is important.
  • Do it. Not just once, but a number of times. Note your results.

You may not pick exactly the right One Thing that changes everything first time around. We know that FM Alexander took a little while to find the right causal factor for his vocal troubles. But when you find it, just like the domino run, everything will have a chance to change and flow.

 

Image courtesy of posterize at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Big questions: should I be using mirrors to practise Alexander Technique?

Self image is how we see ourselvesIn my teaching practice, many students ask me whether they should be using mirrors to help them practise Alexander Technique at home. This happens particularly if they’ve done some reading and know that FM Alexander used mirrors. They also note that I don’t have a mirror in my private teaching room, and that I very rarely use mirrors in my public or College classes.

So what are the advantages and disadvantages of using mirrors? Should you use one, or not?

Using mirrors – ideas in favour

We know that FM Alexander used a mirror when he created the work we now call the Alexander Technique. He wanted to see what it was that he was doing with his vocal mechanisms while acting that was causing his vocal problems, and how it was different to what he did when speaking normally.

To this end I decided to make use of a mirror and observe the manner of my ‘doing’ both in ordinary speaking and reciting, hoping that this would enable me to distinguish the difference, if any, between them… [1]

Alexander was working entirely on his own – no teacher to help him. It makes complete sense that he would want to use a mirror to be able to see what he was doing. Music students often like using mirrors for a similar reason – it enables them to see exactly what they are doing as they play. The music college in which I work has mirrors installed in virtually every practice room. The students can work on their technique and their playing posture without needing a teacher handy.

So if you are working a lot on your own – if you are having lessons by Skype, or your Alexander Technique lessons are by necessity spaced out – then working with a mirror could be a great option for you. You get instant feedback on what you’re doing as you go about an activity. And, sometimes the things you learn and change are actually more valuable than the sensations you would have encountered in a hands-on lesson (because you did it).

Using mirrors – reasons against

This is where things start to get personal, for the simple reason that some people may simply have good cause to find mirrors very difficult. Some people dislike them, or dislike looking at themselves. When I teach group classes, when I ask how many people will find themselves instantly staring at the part of themselves they like least when faced with a mirror, I get many heartfelt nods.

When a person looks in a mirror, he* sees what he is conditioned to see – what the person’s self-concept and body image allow him to see. If the person has a negative self image, he is likely to look first at the areas that he perceives as a problem. At its mildest this is a simple dislike of a nose or some tummy flab; at its worst it manifests as Body Dysmorphic Disorder [2]. BDD is a mental health condition where the sufferer is entirely unable to reconcile the image others see with their own highly prejudicial impression of their body to the point where it seriously affects their day-to-day life. I myself am a fair way towards the clinical end on this continuum. When I look in a mirror, the first place I look is my face, then my stomach. If a teacher asks me to look in a mirror, any teaching point they were trying to make gets lost in a haze of dysmorphic anxiety.

Even if you don’t have difficulties with seeing yourself negatively when using mirrors, there is still an issue around self-discipline. Put bluntly, it can be really hard to not make yourself look like your idea of your ‘best self’! How many of us will pull in our tummies when we stand in front of a mirror, or do funny things with our shoulders? It can take a lot of willpower to just ‘be yourself’!

Using mirrors – my advice

So should you use a mirror? It depends on the answers to these questions:

  • Can you look at yourself dispassionately?
  • Are you able to reflect on what you see open-mindedly? (no pun intended!)
  • Do you have the discipline to be able to not be ‘your best self’, but be imperfect?
  • And have you developed the observational powers to be able to see yourself doing habitual movements while in activity? Or are you prepared to develop those powers?

If you can answer ‘yes’ to most or all of these questions, then using a mirror could be good for you. But if you feel, like me, that a mirror could be more harm than good, rest assured that you can progress and improve successfully without it.

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, Orion 2001, p.26.

[2] For a good book on this topic, read Callaghan, L., O’Connor, A., & Catchpole, C., Body Image Problems and Body Dysmorphic Disorder, Trigger, 2017.

*I’ve used the pronoun ‘he’ deliberately here. Frequently I use ‘she’, but I don’t want to give the impression that all females suffer from BDD. Also, I wouldn’t want to give the impression that males don’t suffer from it. Anyone can have an issue with their self image.

Image from Pixabay.

Self responsibility – why an Alexander Technique teacher shouldn’t tell you what to do

The pathway to self responsibilityMy son is now a teenager and eager to become more his own person. The other day we were discussing independence, and he said, “I just wish you could spoon-feed me independence a little more quickly!” 

Then he wondered why I was laughing.

Self responsibility

Self responsibility is one of the key concepts of the Alexander Technique. It’s actually the first major principle that I teach from Evolution of a Technique, the piece of writing where FM Alexander describes how he created his work. FM experienced vocal problems that threatened his career and received no lasting solution from his doctor. After two weeks vocal rest, FM again lost his voice onstage during a particularly important engagement. He recounted his conversation with the doctor:

 “Is it not fair, then,” I asked him, “to conclude that it was something I was doing that evening in using my voice that was the cause of the trouble?” He thought a moment and said “Yes, that must be so.” “Can you tell me, then,” I asked him, “what it was that I did that caused the trouble?” He frankly admitted that he could not. “Very well,” I replied, “if that is so, I must try to find out for myself.”[1]

When FM Alexander decided to discover for himself what he was doing with his vocal mechanisms that was causing his hoarseness, he was taking responsibility for his own problems. And every student that walks through my door does pretty much the same thing: they’ve decided that whatever is holding them back is a self-imposed restriction, and they want my help in getting rid of it.

My job, then, is to construct a pathway that will help my student in solving her own problems. My task is to make sure she has all the tools and concepts she needs to be able to get rid of her own unhelpful thought and movement behaviours, and even to construct new and better ones. It isn’t my job to tell my student where she is going wrong, or to solve her problems for her, even if I can see them more clearly than she does. Because my job isn’t to impose myself on my student’s life and thinking – my job is to help her become so adept at reasoning her way out of unhelpful behaviours and into more effective ones, that she doesn’t need me any more.

Self responsibility leads to independence

Independence is, in fact, what Alexander said was his ultimate goal. In the preface to his first book, FM said:

I wish to do away with such teachers as I am myself.[2]

FM wanted us all to be so adept at thinking our way out of difficulty and into efficiency that there would be no need for Alexander Technique teachers! We might be a little way off that yet, but it’s still my goal for every student that I teach. i want each and every student to be able to do the work for themselves, and my task each time is to create a pathway – individual to that student – that will help them achieve that goal.

So I’m not going to tell you what to do. I’ll ask a lot of questions, and I’ll give a lot of support when necessary, but I’m always going to make sure that you take responsibility for yourself.

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, Irdeat ed., p.412.

[2] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat ed., p.5.

Lesson thrills: what’s even better than having the good feelings last?

How long do good feelings last in AT lessons?

When students come in for Alexander Technique lessons, they enter an environment where they are encouraged to change their thinking, which changes the way they move. And this very often also brings about a change in the physical sensations that they feel. Very often, students report having great experiences: they feel lighter, or more open, or tingly, or just more awake and alive.

When we have Alexander Technique lessons, we often have good feelings as one of the outcomes. And we expect – or possibly just hope – for the good feelings to continue.

I’m really sorry to have to tell you this, but you probably won’t keep on feeling the lovely feelings that you experience immediately after making a change in your thinking and movement. There are good psychological and physiological reasons why this is true, and I’ll give you a quick summary of them below. And most importantly of all, today I want to explain why it’s actually a good thing that we ‘lose’ the good feelings.

Hedonic Adaptation: why psychology says the good feelings don’t last

According to Prof Laurie Santos in her popular Coursera course The Science of Wellbeing, hedonic adaptation is “the process of becoming accustomed to a positive or negative stimulus such that the emotional effects of that stimulus are attenuated over time.” [1]

Cat and hot dogs - good feelings don't last

But what does this mean? It means that if you win the lottery, you think you’re going to experience a massive jump in your level of happiness. Actually, though, you initially won’t be as thrilled as you expect, and your happiness levels will drop to normal levels pretty quickly as you get used to having all the extra cash. Good things don’t affect us as positively as we predict, and bad things don’t hurt us as much as we fear.

Similarly, the cat in the meme above thinks he’s going to enjoy the seventh or eighth hot dog just as much as the first. But those of us who have ever binged on chocolate know that this just won’t be the case – you get used to the taste, and can even become tired of it! This is because your body is physiologically geared to get used to sensations, and then to discount them. Your taste buds stop registering a taste quite quickly; and even if they did, your brain is bombarded with so many pieces of sensory information every second that it couldn’t possibly process them all. It prioritises information that is new or vital to your continued existence, and junks the rest.

This is what happens to all those nice feeling sensations that students often experience as a result of changing their ideas and reducing their overall physical tension. Immediately after losing the tension, they feel fantastic. And understandably, they want to feel fantastic forever. But just the same way as one’s taste buds stop reacting to the delightful taste of chocolate, one’s brain stops registering the delightful feelings of freedom and lightness. They become normal. And if we carry on doing a positive behaviour for long enough, it becomes part of our normal happiness ‘set-point’, and we don’t register it.

But is that sad, or is that something to rejoice in?

Yay! – The good feelings don’t last!

You won’t notice those lovely feelings any more, because the change in thinking that generated them has become normal. Wow! That means you’ve made a substantive, lasting beneficial change to your life! It’s just that it doesn’t necessarily feel that way.

But I would hope that we don’t just settle for the new improved way we are using ourselves and go blithely about our days. Why settle for good, when even better is just around the corner? If we keep thinking and keep experimenting, we open ourselves to more beneficial changes and more lovely sensations. And more than good feelings, we will be opening ourselves to the possibility of true wellbeing. FM Alexander wrote:

William James suggested to us that we should get up every morning looking for health. We hope to go further, for we have a technique to offer in this connection which will command for the human creature an increasingly high standard of that condition of psycho-physical functioning which makes for health … the all-important duty of the human creature … is that of the continuous individual cultivation of fundamental, constructive conscious control of the human psycho-physical organism and its potentialities. [2]

So if we want to be truly healthy, we need to move beyond living in a non-feeling daze, or even hoping for consistently feeling nice. We just have to keep exploring and improving the way we think.

[1] You’ll find the quote in Week 3, lecture 3.

[2] FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat ed., p.391.

Does your concept of education hold you back from brilliance?

Making mistakes in performance: bad or good?Last time, you’ll remember that we discussed how, in early lessons, students very often want me to tell them how to sit/stand/walk/whatever in the ‘right’ way. As I said last time, this is entirely understandable. If a student has come to me, it’s probably because they’re not happy with what they’re doing at the moment, and they want to fix it so the trouble they’re experiencing goes away.

The train of thought the student has typically goes like this:

Statement: I want to sit the right way

Logical (and emotional) consequences of statement: 

  • There is a right way and (at least one) wrong way of sitting
  • I am doing it the wrong way.
  • (Bad me)

Last time I talked about the logical fallacy behind trying to find a One Right Way to sit. Next time I’ll talk about the self-criticism implied by the ‘(Bad me}’ part of the thought train. And in this article I want to talk about how we often hold a view of education that holds us back. It’s implicit in the thought train above, and it gets in the way of us improving.

Let’s get started.

Education – what it so often appears to be

“There is a right way and (at least one) wrong way of sitting”

Most of us have been through some sort of school system, and I think most of us have at some point been exposed to the idea of the ‘right answer’. A typical scenario runs a bit like this:

A teacher asks a question of a class of children. There is an immediate sea of hands. Who will be labelled the brightest child? The one who puts up their hand and answers the question not simply correctly, but faster than anyone else.

And what happens to the student who puts up their hand but doesn’t give the answer the teacher is expecting? At best, they are told they are incorrect. At worst, the child is put down in such a way that they feel belittled and ashamed.

Of course, when we get a bit older we realise that not all of life works this way. We learn that sometimes there may be multiple right answers, or no right answer at all. But how many of us still cling in our hearts to the simplistic model of ‘the one right answer’? And how many of us live our lives with that model in the back of our minds, ruling our interactions?

If a student asks me for the Right Way to sit, they are unwittingly conforming to this model. It might be okay for arithmetic, but it doesn’t function well when we look at the multiplicity of variables we encounter every time we want to sit. [1]

So what other options are there?

Education – what it could be

Actually, what if the heart of education was about the concept of options? What if the job of a teacher is to give a student the tools so that she can discover the options in a given circumstance, and then reason out the best course of action?

And to my mind that’s what good education should be about: giving students the tools so that they can work things out for themselves. So often our experience of schooling systems has bludgeoned us into believing that education is about being told what to do. I much prefer FM Alexander’s concept of teaching:

… by teaching I understand the placing of facts, for and against, before the child, in such a way as to appeal to his reasoning faculties, and to his latent powers of originality. He should be allowed to think for himself, and should not be crammed with other people’s ideas, or one side only of a controversial subject. Why should not the child’s powers of intelligence be trained? [2]

If we persist in looking for the one ‘right way’, we blind ourselves to the given circumstances before us. We end up denying ourselves important information and risk settling for something less than optimal in our efforts to Be Right. How silly that the quest for perfection should cause limitation and a settling for something that  doesn’t fulfil the needs of the moment.

So don’t settle. Look at the circumstances in front of you, and work from there. Work out what is best for you, using your “latent powers of originality.” You won’t be Right – you’ll be something far more interesting. You’ll be adventuring.

Have fun.

[1] chair height, chair slope, chair back, floor surface, shoes, space in front of and around chair…

[2] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the complete Irdeat ed., p.88.

Image by Stuart Miles, freedigitalphotos.net

Is your self image up-to-date with reality?

Self image is how we see ourselvesThe other day I was working  with a student who historically had a tendency to pull his shoulders forwards. The student was convinced he was still doing this. Guess what?  He wasn’t. His self image was lagging behind the physical reality.

Self image: not seeing ourselves as others see us

FM Alexander writes in his second book about a particular kind of preconceived idea, in which we do not see ourselves as others see us. He uses it to refer to people whose sense of themselves is so out of step with reality that they perceive as entirely normal characteristic that the outside world would view as being well away from anatomic norms.

As an illustration, FM picks an example from his own teaching experience of a man with a stutter. In lessons, speaking slowly, the stutter vanished. But when asked to speak in that way in his daily life, the student relapsed I to his stutter as he commented that “Everyone would notice me!”

It’s an extreme example, but it really demonstrates how we all have the ability to be entirely mistaken about how others see us. As FM said:

He [the student] no longer saw things as they were, and was out of communication with reasoning, where his consciousness of his defects was concerned.[1]

But it works the other way, too.

Self image lag

There’s a particularly fascinating version of this kind of mistaken self-perception that arises in Alexander Technique students. They started coming to lessons with a particular physical issue – like having their shoulders pulled forwards – and have come to identify themselves in some way as someone who has this issue. The student is no longer just Joe Bloggs; they are Joe Bloggs, the Person with the Shoulders.

And even after they’ve done massive amounts of work on their particular issue and made huge improvements, it is likely that they haven’t yet altered their identity. They are still Joe Bloggs with the Shoulders, not simple Joe Bloggs. In order to truly change, the student still needs to do the vital work of changing their self image to correspond with the new physical reality.

My challenge to you today is this: what have you been working on recently? Are you so fixated on the fault that you’ve perceived that it has become part of your identity? Check and see if you too need to do a little bit of work on your self image!

[1] Alexander, FM., Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat ed., p.302.

Image by Skitterphoto on Pixabay.

Is your set-up causing pain, or the way that you’re using it, or both?

If I had to give a one sentence definition of Alexander Technique, I would say that it’s a toolkit of ideas and processes to help you carry out any activity you choose in the easiest, most efficient, most enjoyable way possible. Mostly Alexander Technique teachers talk about the way that you’re going about activities, and rightly so. They want to focus on how you are using yourself as you use your office set-up, for example, or your musical instrument, because that’s a primary focus of what the Alexander Technique is about. FM’s whole journey began with the question

[Was it] something that I was doing that evening in using my voice that was the cause of the trouble?[1]

Right from the beginning, Alexander identified that he was using his body poorly, and that this inefficient use of himself was causing trouble. He very clearly here drew a distinction between, for example, medical problems and self-inflicted problems. FM said he wasn’t physically broken; he just didn’t use his body well in order to speak.

We Alexander teachers also tend to focus on this area in part because very often our students come to us having spent a lot of time and money thinking about their set-up. They’ve spent a fortune on chairs, keyboards and wrist rests to no avail. Students are really ready to think about their own part in their problems.

One extreme to the other

However, sometimes we run the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. We can fall into the trap of looking only at ourselves. We note that Alexander Technique is about taking self-responsibility for our problems, and we whole-heartedly take responsibility for everything. But that isn’t sensible. We’ve just gone from one extreme (thinking our problems aren’t our fault) to the other (assuming everything is about the way we’re approaching activity). Neither extreme is true or accurate.

We could argue that even Alexander fell into this trap when he was investigating how to solve his own vocal problems. He realised that he needed to know what he was doing; in his own words, he needed to “analyse the conditions of use present.”[2] But why stop at analysing your own use? Why not do a detailed analysis of your desk, or violin, too? As an Alexander Technique teacher, I can teach you how to use the set-up you have efficiently and well, but if your set-up is poor, you’ll always be fighting against it.

I was working with a violinist last year who’d had the same shoulder rest for a few years. But they’d bought it while they were still growing; a few years later, and it was completely the wrong height for them now they were fully-grown. Once they changed the set-up AND looked at their use of themselves, all the shoulder tension went away.

If we exclusively focus on the way we’re using our bodies, we run the risk of missing out on a whole area of analysis that might yield significant improvements. What about the way our office furniture is set up? What about the way my student’s violin is set up, with shoulder and chin rests? Aren’t these equally worthy of examination?

Check the conditions!

Musicians: look at your set-up. Classical guitarists should think about their footrests and music stand position. Violinist should think about their chin and shoulder rests. Recorder players: consider thumb rests. Don’t take anything for granted.

Office people: take a good hard look at your desk. Are your desk and chair the right height? Is your keyboard close enough? Is your monitor the right height? If you use two monitors, is the one you use most directly in front of you?

Hot-desk people: do you take the time to properly set up your work space when you arrive? We kid ourselves that it will take too long. But isn’t a few minutes worth it for a whole day free of discomfort?

There’s a lot we can do to help ourselves. We can work on how we use ourselves, and that’s the most important job! But don’t forget the external circumstances. They can make a world of difference, too.

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, Orion 2001, p.25.

[2] ibid., p.39.

Businessman stretching in an office — Image by © SuperStock/Corbis

Correcting unshakeable belief: what if your teacher was actually right?

Correcting unshakeable belief is like moving a big rock!

Correcting Unshakeable Belief…

I’ve been working with a trumpet student recently. He likes to play his trumpet standing, and as he does so he juts his pelvis forwards and pulls his upper thoracic spine backwards – a bit like the shop dummies at many UK clothing stores! I’ve worked with him; explained how the extension through his thoracic spine prevents movement in his ribs and interferes with his breathing; done hands-on work and given him the experience of the improvement of tone and breath control when he stops the ‘H&M pelvic thrust’.

So has he changed it? Nope.

You see, he is convinced it helps him reach the high notes. Even though he knows that change in pitch happens via valves and embouchure, on some level he believes that the extension in his spine is essential for high notes, and that he won’t reach them if he doesn’t do it. He has an apparently unshakeable belief in the necessity of jutting his pelvis forwards.

I’m sure that most of us, if pushed, could think of a similar experience. I can clearly remember having a very similar interaction with my tennis teacher.

So why didn’t I do what my tennis teacher told me? Why doesn’t my trumpet student do what I suggest, especially when he has had a clear demonstration of the improvement he could experience? After all, if we’re paying a teacher to help us, why don’t we follow their advice?

The answer is that, on some level, we believe that we know better. We have an (apparently) unshakeable belief. And correcting unshakeable belief seems like a very big thing to accomplish.

A question of belief

Everything we do and every action that we make is, ultimately, a result of the constellation of ideas and beliefs that we hold to be true, and that constitute what FM Alexander called our psycho-physical make-up.

We all think and act (except when forced to do otherwise) in accordance with the peculiarities of our particular psycho-physical make-up. [1]

When we carry out an action it is because, whether we are aware of it or not, it conforms to our image of ourselves and our place in the world. My student, for example, just his pelvis forwards when he changes pitch because on some level he believes he has to. It conforms to his beliefs about himself and trumpet playing. When I come along and demonstrate to him that he doesn’t need to make the jutting movement with his pelvis, I create for the student a dilemma. Do he believe me, or do he trust in his own untested beliefs?

This is the challenge faced by a student in pretty much any Alexander Technique lesson. If the demonstration is sufficiently strong or the previous belief not strongly held, then the student will change what they are doing quickly and easily. But if the teacher’s demonstration challenges a movement behaviour that keys into a core belief about what the student needs to do to exist in the world, then they are likely to cling to the old behaviour.

But the dilemma won’t go away. It will sit in the student’s mind and irritate, a bit like having a stone in your shoe. Sooner or later, my student is going to have to think about his jutting pelvis!

So how do you deal with this situation?

As a teacher, you just have to accept that sometimes (often?) the student thinks they know better than you. Your job is to, in Alexander’s words,  “the placing of facts, for and against, before the [student], in such a way as to appeal to his reasoning faculties, and to his latent powers of originality.” [2] You can’t take any responsibility for a student’s understanding, only your presentation of material before them!

As a student, you have to approach each lesson mindful of the fact that you come bearing beliefs and assumptions that probably aren’t helping you. If your teacher suggests a change to what you are doing, you need to inhibit your instinctive response (to disagree!) and then as open-mindedly as possible, try what your teacher suggests.

Correcting unshakeable belief is a matter of playing the long game. Just keep presenting the facts (if you’re the teacher), and keep trying to have an open mind (if you’re the student). Sooner or later, something has to give.

[1] FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT complete ed., p.304.

[2] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT complete ed., p.88.

Mix it up! Why changing your routines makes you better

changing your routines gets you out of grooves

Chiropractors who only work from one side of the bench.

Music students who use the same practice room at the same time every day.

Runners who follow the same route every training run.

People who park in the same parking space every single day.

What do these people have in common?

They’ve fallen into a groove.

“The brain becomes used to thinking in a certain way, it works in a groove, and when set in action, slides along the familiar, well-worn path.” [1]

Grooves can be good. They help us to get through every day of our lives – they speed up decision making and get us through our days faster. But…The problem with the groove is that, while you’re in it, you’re not thinking hugely effectively. You may be following an established protocol very easily, but you won’t necessarily have analysed whether that protocol is really best for your needs. Sometimes your protocol will be sound, but at other times it will be staggeringly inappropriate, and you’ll be too busy in your groove to notice.

For example, it may look like a time saving measure for a physical therapist or chiropractor to stick to one side of the table for making adjustments on patients. They don’t have to move as much, and they get really good at adjustments on that side. But it comes at a price: they risk being less comfortable if they have to work in a different space where they are forced to use their ‘wrong’ side. And they risk muscle fatigue and injury to the side that is working harder.

Similarly, the music students I work with tend to love the routine of just block-booking a practice room as far into the future as the computer system will allow. They book the same room, and the same time. It gives a rhythm to their day-to-day life, and makes practice as normal a part of the day as eating or sleeping. But this also comes at a cost. When these students come to do recitals, they have to perform in very different rooms at different times of day. At a time when they already have the pressure of grading, they also leave themselves open to the disorientation of new spaces and different circadian rhythms, a new acoustic, and a lack of the environmental cues that helped them to memorise their pieces. The added load from all these new stimuli can be enough to hinder them from performing as well as they could.

Nonplussed by the unexpected

FM Alexander knew this only too well. In his first book he recounts a story of a young man who had been given an introduction to one of FM’s students, a prominent businessman. The young man hoped for a job, but was stunned when the businessman shouted at him, “What the devil do you know about business?”

“Of course,” the young man continued, “I was so unnerved that I could not even collect my thoughts and I was so flurried that I could not answer his further questions. He told me he hadn’t any position to suit me.” “My dear young man,” I remarked, “why did you allow Mr. —– to insult you? Why did you not remonstrate with him …” “I was so upset by his sudden attack, and I didn’t expect to be treated in such a way.” “Just so,” I replied, “you were nonplussed by the unexpected. But I hope this will be a lesson to you. Mr. —– was only testing you, and he wants men who are capable of dealing with unexpected events and situations in his business.”[2]

We need to be ready for the unexpected. We need to be able to deal with stimuli that could cause fear, and the way to do this is through  knowingly and deliberately breaking your grooves, in order that you can improve your physical and mental flexibility and your tolerance of stress.

Physical and Mental flexibility

I know it seems fairly obvious, but unthinkingly carrying out the same physical protocols day in, day out, is not likely to be hugely beneficial for your physical health. You run the risk of never actually taking even a moment to STOP, and allow your body to properly rest.

But this is true mentally, too. Trapping yourself in an unthinking groove won’t help you mentally either. To take the musical example, if you mix up the practice room you use and the time of day you practise, you are giving yourself low-stakes opportunities to experience different acoustics and different experiences of playing. This gives you the mental flexibility to be able to deal with changes of space, time and audience when you perform. This means that you’ll be far less likely to be phased by a grumpy examiner, or that audience member rustling a cough sweet wrapper for an eternity!

Small amounts of stress are good

Deliberately changing your routines will also leave you less open to amygdala hijack. This is where your reasoning centres become unable to inhibit the fear reaction from the primitive parts of your brain, making it difficult to think or remember anything.[3] By choosing to mix things up, you are helping your brain to develop the reasoning power and mental discipline to control your amygdala more effectively. There is an increasing body of evidence that choosing to undergo small amounts of stress helps to prime your brain for improved performance by causing the production of new nerve cells that help you to be more alert. [4]

So try changing your routines. Find ways of subtly placing yourself under a modest (and short-lived) amount of stress.

  • If you are doing an audition, for example, choose to play in lots of different spaces with different acoustics, and choose to play in front of people.
  • If you’re doing a half marathon (like I will be soon), choose to run at different times of day, or after doing some heavy mental work, in order to stretch your mental discipline.
  • If you are involved in an occupation where it is tempting to do things one way all the time, see if you can find a way to change your movement patterns.

Your mind and your body will thank you for it.

[1] Alexander, FM., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat ed., p.67.

[2] ibid., pp.140-141.

[3] Katwala,A., The Athletic Brain, London, Simon & Schuster 2016, p.123.

[4] http://news.berkeley.edu/2013/04/16/researchers-find-out-why-some-stress-is-good-for-you/