Big questions: ‘How do I keep it?’

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Do I keep it, or let it go?

I’ve taught a fair few introductory Alexander Technique lessons recently. They tend to go like this:

  • Student comes and sits. They tell me about what is bothering them.
  • I ask some pertinent questions, and do some Alexander ‘hands-on’ work.
  • Student feels better. Their face brightens.
  • I ask if they have any questions. They look at me earnestly, and ask this:
  • “It feels great. But how do I keep it?”

The dark underbelly of ‘how do I keep it?’

The question on the surface seems like a fair one. The student has had a good experience, and wants it to continue. This is completely understandable, especially if the student has been troubled by discomfort, and as a result of the lesson experience the discomfort has gone.
But ‘how do I keep it?’ is a question with a dark underbelly, and the easiest way of teasing this out is with this simple question: “What would happen if you didn’t keep it?”

The classic answer to this question is, “I’d revert to how I was before.” The subtext of this answer is this: I have to work at it for my body to feel like it is working well, and if I stop keeping it up, it will work poorly. In other words, the dark underbelly of wanting to ‘keep it’ is the hidden belief that our bodies work poorly unless we make them do otherwise.

Put that baldly, it is a fairly depressing thing to believe, isn’t it? And yet many of us, whether we realise it or not, work as if that’s the truth.*

But what if it isn’t?

The alternative

You see, if our bodies are essentially poorly functioning, then we’re always going to have to work hard to keep them working well. But if the reverse is true – if our bodies are basically fine and designed to function well – then we wouldn’t have to do anything to keep them going. All we would need to do is to get out of our own way, cut the extraneous and unhelpful, and learn how to use our amazing bodies to best advantage.

In the words of actor Bruce Lee:

It’s not the daily increase but the daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.

 

* FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the IRDEAT ed., 382-3.
Photo by Jennifer Mackerras

Not in Kansas any more: Why the new feels WRONG!

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It’s a common thing for Alexander Technique students, whether novice or old hand, to have the experience that doing an activity in a new way feels better, but also somehow… wrong.

The old way of sitting wasn’t comfortable. The new way is. But it just doesn’t feel right, a student might say to me.

FM Alexander wrote about this in my all-time favourite chapter from his books, called ‘Incorrect Conception’. His example was a teacher asking a student to bend at the knees. The student does it in their old habitual way. The teacher helps them to bend their knees in a new, more mechanically efficient way. At this point, FM says, for the student bending the knees becomes

…to all intents and purposes, a new act, bringing with it a new feeling. This time the act is not what he is accustomed to, and so it feels wrong to him.*

In a lesson today I likened this to that moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy looks around at the technicolor world of Oz and says “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.” Dorothy was a bit unhappy in Kansas – it was grey, life was hard, and people were giving he ra tough time. But at least it was familiar.

Our bodies are a bit like that. We move in certain ways, ways that are familiar and normal. We may not always be comfortable, but at least everything feels normal and where it should be and, well, somehow right.

It is only when the joy of the feeling right becomes outweighed by the discomfort that people typically come to an Alexander teacher. They are taught how to conceive of and carry out activities in new ways. But no matter how comfortable the new way is, it isn’t going to have the same sense of familiarity as the old way. It isn’t going to feel right. Not at first, anyway.

The challenge for any Alexander Technique student is to recognise that they’re not in Kansas any more. There’s a new world, and it’s brightly coloured. There’s no map, and sometimes it might not seem the safest or most enjoyable place in the world. But it isn’t the same old same old. It has the thrill of adventure.

Are you willing to step out into the new? Are you ready to risk feeling wrong?

 

* FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.297.
Image by Matthew Mackerras