Does internet-based learning work?

internet-based learningCan you learn effectively from a teacher who isn’t in the room with you?

I’ve been wondering a lot recently about internet-based learning, and decided to investigate it further. Two recent events motivated me.

  1. Internet-based learning – singing.

My son likes surfing YouTube looking for interesting music types to follow. One of the people he found was Boyinaband, who is famous for his song Don’t Stay in School. Boyinaband decided to try learning how to sing over a 30 day period, and used apps and YouTube videos as his primary means of instruction.

Watching the video he made detailing his adventures in singing, I fell to wondering: what would it be like trying to learn a new skill from the internet? What would it be like not having a teacher in the room with me?

  1. Internet-based learning – Alexander Technique

I, like many Alexander Technique teachers, offer lessons via Skype. I am convinced that this is a viable and valuable learning pathway for many students. I was, however, uncomfortable that I hadn’t tried some form of practical skill-based internet learning myself, and thought that I should be consistent with my beliefs and give internet-based learning a try. (I’ve done lots of more academic courses on the internet-based Coursera platform, and found them excellent.)

Added to this, I know that my students watch Alexander Technique-related videos that are available on YouTube, and that like all things available on that platform, these can be variable in quality! Is it possible to learn, not just via an electronic platform from a teacher who isn’t in the room with you, but also from instructional videos where the teacher can’t even see you?

My own 30 day internet learning challenge

Twitter friends and colleagues had been learning yoga using YouTube videos made by Adriene Mishler of Yoga with Adriene  and saying good things about it. I’d never tried yoga before and wanted to work on strength for the running events I’ve entered this season – it seemed like the perfect opportunity. So I embarked on Adriene’s series 30 Days of Yoga. It was a remarkable experience.

What I learned

  • Yoga looks easy and gentle and flowing. It isn’t easy. Sometimes you are working so hard you shake with exertion. It’s also incredibly good fun.
  • It’s really hard to know if you’re doing the exercise or the pose correctly. You think you’re doing okay, but if you’re a beginner it can be really hard to know if you’re really bending in the right spots. Sometimes it can also feel like it’s going faster than your brain can reason out. Mind you, I know students who have had exactly that experience in face-to-face yoga classes…
  • You form an emotional bond with the teacher. You begin to regard the teacher as a friend and ally, even though intellectually you know that they have never met you and don’t actually know you exist! It got to the point where, if Adriene gave some praise, I felt like it was genuinely directed at me.

Recommendations

If you’re going to learn something by YouTube, check around and get recommendations from friends and colleagues. I was really lucky to find a yoga teacher as good as Adriene. Boyinaband, by contrast, viewed videos from teachers who gave advice that I thought was potentially unsound.

Good teachers will know and predict the errors their unseen students will make. Adriene is really good at this. She gives plenty of advice about how to position oneself in each pose, and sometimes it felt like she had predicted my mistakes. She did this by having a long background in teaching face-to-face classes – she has first-hand knowledge of what mistakes students are likely to make. So making sure your online teacher has a good background in face-to-face teaching might be a really good idea.

Personality is key. Adriene has a lovely open personality and rather engagingly does not edit out her mistakes. By the end of the 30 days I felt like she was my genuine teacher who genuinely saw me, rather than just a person on a screen. It is no accident that Adriene has developed a massive online yoga community. An engaging personality may also be a danger, though. Just because someone is engaging doesn’t mean they know their stuff. You have to do your due diligence and make sure the teacher is well-qualified.

Try to photograph or video yourself. You’ll soon learn if you’re doing things the way the teacher intends – you may even be pleasantly surprised! One of the delights of Boyinaband’s account of his singing challenge is the ‘before’ and ‘after’ snippets. I don’t have any such pictures, alas, that I can share (I’m too shy). However, one of my Twitter friends did video herself doing yoga, and was able to use it to improve her form very effectively.

Alexander Technique is a great pre-requisite for other forms of internet-based learning. I found that I was able to follow Adriene’s instructions pretty clearly, and I think that my AT knowledge played a huge part in that. I know where the muscles and joints are, and what the normal ranges of motion should be. I also am fairly good at designing a process for how I’m going to move, and then carrying out my process with accuracy. I can well imagine that someone without that background of understanding may well fall into patterns of poor use that could impede the learning process.

And all of those points are relevant for learning Alexander Technique by distance learning, too. Go by recommendations. Check out the teacher’s background. Make sure that you feel comfortable with them. If you do these things (and make sure that your technology set-up is up to the task), you’ll have a really good internet-based learning experience.

Don’t trust teachers implicitly!

trust teachers but don't follow them blindlyShould you trust teachers implicitly? Should you accept the advice of a professional unconditionally?

I met a person recently who had been advised by a doctor that, in order to avoid upsetting the arthritis in their knees, they should avoid going up stairs and not carry anything heavy. The person not only trusted the advice, but seemed to ‘help it along’. Without being aware of it, they made the doctor’s advice pertinent by placing extra strain on their knees. They would almost push themselves down into the floor at the base of the stairs, as if to ensure that their knees were in the least beneficial position for the physical act of climbing the stairs. Their knees would hurt, thus proving the doctor’s advice was sound. I stress: they weren’t aware of the physical movement, but they were very clear on their belief in the doctor’s advice.

Belief creates physical movement

Students in my classes are well used to me remarking that the way we describe things and the language we use to describe them are incredibly important. If we describe our hip joints as being somewhere on the sides of the body and up quite high, then that’s where we’ll move. (This isn’t where the hip joint is, by the way!) But this applies just as much, if not more, to advice we are given by teachers and medical practitioners. If we trust a teacher or other professional, we are likely to listen to their advice, and sometimes a little more unconditionally than is advisable. We can fall into one of these traps:

1. Blindly following advice without understanding it

FM Alexander fell into this trap when he had acting lessons with Mr James Cathcart. FM was told to ‘take hold of the floor with his feet’ and conscientiously tried to do so. He never asked Mr Cathcart what he meant, or what the instruction was trying to achieve. Later, FM realised that the tension in his feet was contributing to the whole-body misuse that culminated in him losing his voice onstage.[1]

2. Thinking we are following the advice, but really doing something different

My music students often speak of their instrument teacher telling them to, for example, use their bow in a particular way on their violins. They go away and think they are doing what their teacher told them, only to find out in the lesson the following week that they’ve been doing it completely wrongly. How frustrating!

3. Following the advice so carefully that we copy the movement behaviours of the person giving it

Many years ago, I had a lecturer who wanted to remind his class that thinking required us to get past a degree of mental inertia. He was fond of saying, “Thinking hurts.” But it wasn’t just a metaphor – he would actually jam his head back and down into his torso as he said it. But because he was a well-like and influential teacher, his class started to take on board not just the words, but the accompanying physical gesture. We started suffering recurring headaches!

4. Following advice that is just plain wrong.

I think we can probably all think of examples of this!

What to do?

The advice from me is this: don’t check your brain in at the door! Hold all advice lightly – even the advice from me. Interrogate everything. Work out what you think is most likely to be true, but even then, continue to gently question and test the limits of what you think is true. FM would call this being ‘open-minded‘. Don’t trust teachers implicitly, but don’t blindly believe your own ideas, either. If you can manage it, you’ll find that the act of reasoning out why you’re being told what you’re told will help you to improve faster and more efficiently.

But that’s just my idea. Go and test it for yourself.

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, Orion, 1985, p.33.

Photograph of Grayson Perry artwork by Jennifer Mackerras

Big questions: are Alexander Technique lessons expensive? Why not?

Are Alexander Technique lessons expensive?

I noticed a conversation on Twitter recently where two friends were discussing Alexander Technique lessons. One had just been for a lesson and enjoyed it, but was not likely to go back. They both agreed that it was ‘too expensive’.

This got me thinking: are Alexander Technique lessons expensive, and if so, why? And are they really ‘too expensive’? I’ve got three reasons why lessons cost money, and I’ve got a challenge to your thinking. Are you ready?! Read on…

Alexander Technique teachers are professionals

Good Alexander Technique teachers are professionals who have worked very hard to be qualified, and who continue to work hard to improve their skills.

I trained for four years part time. Others from different training schools train for three years part time, but under a different scheduling structure. That’s a lot of time. I learned FM Alexander’s books inside out. I gained a good grounding in basic anatomy and psychology. I learned hands-on techniques and many other vital teaching skills. I had to pass a slew of exams, including a practical exam, and log a large number of training lessons.

I hold public liability insurance and professional indemnity insurance. I am the member of a professional teachers’ association, and I have registered under the voluntary regulator the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), because this ensures that my students know that I keep to high publicly-available standards. I am also a member of a union (Equity) and am a registered practitioner with the British Association of Performing Arts Medicine (BAPAM). I am required by both my professional association and CNHC (voluntary regulator) to do Continuing Professional Development every year.

Most teachers charge much the same rate per hour as a music teacher. I admit to charging a little more, but I have a fair few years of teaching experience behind me, as well as professional theatre training and music training. When it comes to working with performers or dealing with performance nerves, I really know what I’m talking about.

Most wouldn’t think twice about paying the same to a chiropractor, a massage therapist or an osteopath. When FM Alexander moved to England from Australia in 1904, he charged the same as a Harley Street professional, because he wanted his clients to take his lessons seriously. Some people pay significantly more on a regular basis to have their hair cut or their nails done! When you consider the training and expertise that you recruit when you come to a teacher, Alexander Technique lessons start to look like pretty good value for money.

We are in the business of improvement.

We’re not in the business of making people feel good. We also aren’t concerned with dealing with the structural after-effects of injury or trauma. I can’t necessarily speak for others, but as an AT teacher I help people to learn how to use themselves more effectively. I help them be more efficient so that their minds and bodies are better integrated, their movement easier, and their wellbeing greater. In short, I help people stop pulling themselves around in all the little ways that don’t cause any pain or harm in themselves, but when added together and done consistently over time can lead to a whole bunch of trouble.

I just don’t know of any other discipline that can help you learn to use your body more efficiently no matter what situation you find yourself in. It might be tempting to spend the money on a new pair of high heels; it’s a professional like me who can help you to walk in heels so that you look stunningly elegant.

We want you to be independent.

And I do this in a series of lessons. If you have clear goals and apply yourself between lessons, you can learn quickly and the number of lessons you need will likely be few. It’s part of my job to get you to be able to reason your own way through any situation you find yourself in, so that you can succeed with style and panache. Some of my students come, learn what they need, and then go away and apply it. Others come more regularly, or over a longer period, because they find value in continued self improvement. As with any other service, you take what you need.

My challenge to you.

In short, I’m a professional, trained and under (voluntary) regulation. I work hard to help my students prevent the poor physical use that leads to strain injuries and other related nastiness. I help them succeed and feel free to be more creative, whether on a stage or at their office desk. And I help them feel more in control of themselves and their lives. Some of my students have 1:1 Alexander Technique lessons; some come to groups; some learn via Skype. All of them improve and grow.

But only you can decide if you value your wellbeing, your daily activities, and your beloved pastimes enough to bear the expense.

It’s up to you.

What running a half marathon taught me about doing the work.

Me reaping the rewards of doing the work

Last Sunday I ran my first ever half marathon. I’m going to write about it, not because I’m proud of myself (although I am), and not because I want praise. I learned something about the nature of goals and work, and about how we mess ourselves up by misrepresenting them. I’m writing about my experience because I think it simultaneously destroys a couple of myths and demonstrates a really important principle.

Myth 1: “you must be really amazing.”

No, I’m not. Five or six years ago I would have had trouble running for a bus. I’ve been overweight and unfit, and I’m definitely not naturally sporty. I just decided to change, and then did the work to make it happen.

Similarly, FM Alexander wasn’t special. He was just some guy from small-town Tasmania. But he wanted to sort out his vocal problems, so he decided to do the work to make that happen.

Myth 2: “a goal like that is so big, I could never do it.”

This myth is tricky, because it is wrong on two levels. First of all, what looks like the goal (the half marathon) isn’t the true motivating factor. I didn’t wake up one morning and just decide to do a half marathon, any more than FM Alexander just decided to found a whole new field of psycho-physical education. He wanted to act again without losing his voice; I wanted to gain a level of fitness to ensure I’ll stay healthy as I get older. For FM, creating what we now call the Alexander Technique was something that happened because he became fascinated with the process of what he was doing to solve his vocal problems. For me, entering a half marathon happened because I got fascinated by distance running, and because having a race in the calendar helps me to stay disciplined with my training. In both cases, the big goal isn’t actually the true motivating factor. FM and I had intrinsic motivations that were way more important.

The second way this myth bites is that it assumes that the Half Marathon (or whatever the apparent goal is) is too big and scary to achieve. Someone new to running will look at the 13.1 miles, and see an overwhelmingly long course. Which it is.

But it isn’t impossible. It’s just a big goal, which needs to be broken down into more achievable chunks. You take advice. You work consistently. And by working the smaller steps, the larger goal takes care of itself. This is what FM was getting at when he said:

Only time and experience in the working out of the technique will convince him that where the “means-whereby” are right for the purpose, desired ends will come. They are inevitable. Why then be concerned as to the manner or speed of their coming? We should reserve all thought, energy and concern for the means whereby we may command the manner of their coming.[1]

Principle: You can do the work.

What I’ve learned, and what I hope I’m modelling here, is that anyone can do the work.

It’s worth repeating: ANYONE CAN DO THE WORK.

Human beings are amazing. We can achieve amazing things, all of us. But certain conditions need to be met before we can unleash our amazingness upon the world.

  • Have a WHY. Motivation is really important, and intrinsic motivation is the best kind. I wanted to improve my fitness so I can maintain my health as I get older. FM wanted to keep acting – a profession he loved.
  • Have a goal. I chose a half marathon (and previously, some 10k races). FM wanted to recite and maintain his vocal condition.
  • Use the tools to hand. FM used a mirror or three. I found a fantastic website that tailor-made a training programme for me. I talked to friends, and gathered advice. Look at what is around that can help you.
  • Get help and external accountability. I made sure that friends knew what I was up to, so that they would ask me how the training was going. FM checked his physical condition with friends and doctors.[2]
  • Keep going. It takes a certain level of persistence and mental discipline to keep going when things get difficult. One of my favourite sentences in the whole of Evolution of a Technique is when FM says, “Discouraged as I was, however, I refused to believe that the problem was hopeless.”[3] Even when FM’s investigations were going apparently very badly, he kept working. This is where your intrinsic motivation becomes really important. I had plenty of rubbish training runs, but I still kept going.
  • Be prepared to laugh at yourself. My teacher’s teacher, Marjorie Barstow, advocated it, and I think it’s an important point. Take the process seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously.

Running a long race isn’t for everyone. But I think we all have ideas and goals and dreams, and often we cheat ourselves out of them. What would happen if you chose to honour them instead, and do the work?

[1] FM Alexander, The Universal Constant in Living, Irdeat ed., p.587.

[2] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.28.

[3] ibid., p.36.

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/

Big questions: can the right chair prevent back pain?

sitting comfortably

Can using the right chair prevent back pain?

If I was given a pound for every time I’ve been asked this question (or a variant), I’d be fairly comfortably off by now. In my experience as an Alexander Technique teacher, one of the most common niggling worries for people from all walks of life is sitting. They have to do a lot of it (computers, cars, offices, orchestra rehearsals…) and are convinced that they aren’t doing it very well. Sometimes they even experience discomfort, or downright pain from sitting. If they just bought the right chair, would the problem go away?

Is this you? Are you wondering the same thing? Could buying the right chair prevent back pain?

I can’t give you a straight yes or no answer, unfortunately, because it’s a more complex issue than it might seem on the surface. So I’m going to give you two reasons why I say no, buying the new chair won’t help. But I also give you one reason why yes, thinking about the chair really will help you.

No the first: injury and disease

The first and most important thing to say is that if you have a diagnosed injury or a disease that causes your back pain, just buying a new chair won’t solve the issue. It might give you some relief, and some Alexander Technique lessons could help you move more efficiently to mitigate the effects of the condition. But a chair can’t cure you, and only a chair salesperson in need of a good commission would allow you to think so. Can the right chair prevent back pain? No, not if your problem is illness or injury.

But, I hear you say, I’m not injured. Should I go out and buy a nice new chair? Here’s why the answer is still no…

No the second: it isn’t the chair, it’s the way you sit in it!

It isn’t just me who gets asked frequently about furniture. FM Alexander had the exact same problem. And my answer to the question is the same as his: furniture isn’t the issue. It’s the way we use it that causes us problems. If someone has sat poorly (using too much muscular effort in the wrong places) on a cheap office chair for many months or years, is the purchase of a fancy new chair suddenly going to change her sitting habits? Does someone with poor dietary habits change his entire processes around food just because he purchased a slightly tight-fitting new suit? Probably not.

This is why FM Alexander was so concerned that we should have the mental tools to adapt ourselves to our environment. This particular passage I’m about to quote is primarily about child education, but if it’s good enough for kids, it’s probably true for the adults too:

What we need to to is not to educate our school furniture, but to educate our children. Give a child the ability to adapt himself within reasonable limits to his environment, and he will not suffer discomfort, not develop bad physical habits, whatever chair or form you give him to sit upon.*

My aim as an Alexander Technique teacher is to give you the tools so that you are able to organise yourself to be comfortable on ANY chair. If that interests you, then maybe you should talk to me about having some lessons.

But sometimes you do need to look at the furniture, too…

Did you see the caveat in FM’s statement? He says that the child should be able to adapt within reasonable limits. In other words, there may be times and places where you will need to take careful note of the chair or office set-up. After all, if you’re going to be using your desk for eight hours every day, it is clearly common sense to make sure that you are giving yourself the best conditions you can, within constraints of budget, time and common sense. Humans are adaptable, but that doesn’t mean we should live with something that is just not fit for purpose.

One of my friends once found herself with neck ache, even though she had a lovely new desk set-up at work. I asked her to tell me about it. It was a corner desk, she said, with lots of lovely room for all her books and notes right in front of her. The monitor was to her left, and the keyboard to her right.

I’ll say that again. Her monitor was to her left, and her keyboard to her right.

No wonder she was getting neck ache! When she changed her keyboard to the other side, the neck ache went away.

The moral of the story: there is no such thing as the perfect chair. The right chair won’t prevent discomfort; learning how to sit easily and efficiently is a much better solution. But if you are like my friend, you may want to take a good look at your office set-up too!

* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT ed.,  p.92.
Image of Ai WeiWei’s Marble Chair (outside the Royal Academy) by Jennifer Mackerras

Big questions: who makes the positive changes happen?

making positive changes in Alexander Technique lessons involves fun!

Are positive changes teacher-driven?

For beginning students looking at an Alexander Technique lesson, it can look a lot like the teacher is doing all the work. The teacher does something with their hands, and apparently makes massive positive changes in the student. Even though there is very often a fair amount of talking going on, it can look a lot like most of the work is being done using hands-on techniques BY the teacher TO the student. The balance of power seems very much to be with the teacher.

But I really want to challenge you to reconsider this notion. I want you to consider the possibility that the positive changes that occur in the course of Alexander Technique lessons are in fact student-powered.

Positive changes are student-powered!

As I discussed last week, what I am doing with my hands during an Alexander Technique lesson is NOT sculpting the student according to my ideas of what is right and good. I don’t decide what would be good for my student, and then mould it! Rather, I am making it increasingly hard for the student to STOP sculpting themselves according to their ideas of what is good. My job is to help the student question whether their ideas are good and useful to them, or whether they would be better served by letting some of their ideas go.*

This means that the balance of power doesn’t lie with me as a teacher at all. If one of my students decides that they would rather hang on to their physical tension (and the ideas that lie behind it), then there is nothing that I can do to stop them. On more than one occasion I have worked with students who have found their reasons for their physical tension so compelling that they have refused to give them up, even though their justifications resulted in physical discomfort.

Happily, because most people don’t have such a life-or-death attachment to their ideas, they are happy – sooner or later – to make the shift in thinking that shifts its physical manifestation. The lure of the benefits of positive change is too inviting to ignore.

In addition, the fact that the student is the one with the power means that they can make positive changes without the teacher being involved. Just this past week one of my students failed to make it to class, but read the recap email that I sent to all the class participants. She thought so carefully about that email during the week that, by the time she came back to class, she had made definite positive changes and was experiencing less discomfort in her daily activities.

If the student is the one with the power, and if a student can make progress without the direct involvement of a teacher, then what is to stop you from improving right now? As an Alexander Technique teacher, one of my most important roles is to give my students a space and a framework for examining what they do and how they do it. But you don’t need me in the room with you!**

What is it that you’re doing, and how are you going about it? What one thing strikes you as something that you could do less, or even not at all? Will you take the challenge to drive your own positive changes?

* Alexander spoke of teaching as “placing facts, for and against, before the child, in such a way as to appeal to his reasoning faculties…” I am of the opinion that this sounds like a great teaching tool and applicable to other age groups too! See FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat ed., p.88.
** Though, of course, I’d love to work with you in person, too. 🙂
Image by Kevin Leighton.

Big questions: Why do teachers of Alexander Technique use hands?

In Alexander Technique, teachers’  hands are for… what?!

Alexander Technique hands-on work

When starting to learn the Alexander Technique hands – specifically, how the teacher uses their hands in a lesson interaction- are one of the biggest points of question and confusion for a new student. What on earth is the teacher doing with their hands when they are working with a student?

Sometimes a student will say that it feels like I am pushing or pulling them to a different shape. If it’s a group class, this frequently gets a laugh, because the group can see that there is virtually no physical effort being expended on my part as the teacher. And when I ask the student whether I really am pushing or pulling them, they have to answer no.

Sometimes a student will ask, ‘Are you feeling the things that the student is doing wrong?’ Well, sort of. I can feel muscular tensions within the student when I work with them, but am I specifically looking for that? Not really.

So if I’m not ‘pulling’ them into shape, and I’m not specifically looking for the things they’re doing wrong, what exactly am I doing with my hands in a lesson?

Bringing a reasoning intelligence…

It all comes back to what we think the Alexander Technique is for. I think of it as a method for learning how to bring a reasoning intelligence to our movement.* We learn to how to organise our naturally flexible structures in a way best suited for what we want to achieve. We are learning how to use our amazing bodies without excess or unnecessary effort.

So when I use Alexander Technique hands on techniques in a lesson, I am attempting to help the student notice the unnecessary ideas or tensions they are inflicting upon themselves, thus making it increasingly difficult for them to keep doing them!

For example, a student might only want to move their head on their neck up or down in a very limited range (which I tested by using Alexander Technique hands on methods). This brings the limited range of motion to their attention. When I ask them what their neck is for, they might reply, ‘to help me see’. So if I give them a reason to see things outside of their usual range of motion – like an imagined trip to the Sistine Chapel- they may well move their necks much more freely when I next use my hands.

It doesn’t always work this way. Sometimes there is more chat involved, and sometimes less. Very occasionally there is none involved at all! But in all cases I am using my hands as a tool, to make it increasingly difficult for the student to stick with the physical tension that, through sheer force of will, they are enacting upon their body.

In Alexander Technique hands aren’t the only way to learn.

It’s important to note that you don’t need to experience Alexander Technique hands-on lessons in order to effect lasting and positive change. The classic example of this? FM Alexander himself. He made lasting positive change to his own vocal problems, and didn’t have a qualified teacher around to help him out! We can always do what he did:

  • keep watching ourselves to see if we are doing anything in the way we are going about our activities that is causing our problems;
  • reasoning out what we actually NEED to do for any given activity;
  • endeavouring to do what we’ve reasoned out.

Pick an activity to work on, follow these steps, and see if it helps. Let me know how it goes!

 

* I’m paraphrasing Frank Pierce Jones. See Freedom to Change, 3rd ed., Mouritz 1997, p.2.
Photograph of Jen and student by Gordon Plant.

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

Overthinking – how it impedes your performance, and how to stop

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Overthinking – what it isn’t

I love thinking. I’m wholeheartedly with FM Alexander in his belief that modern society suffers from a dearth of rational thought, and that in the mind of humanity “lies [our] ability to resist, to conquer and finally to govern the circumstance” of our lives.[1] I think that the Alexander Technique provides a stunning framework for helping us to improve the way we think and, as a result, the way we move.

I’m also pretty convinced that most of us ‘think’ too darn much – the wrong sorts of thought, and in the wrong quantities. For example, in his book Do The Work writer Steven Pressfield identifies a type of junk thinking which clouds our thoughts and prevents us from following through on the process that will help us finish our creative projects. He calls it chatter.

“when I say “Don’t think,” what I mean is: don’t listen to the chatter. Pay no attention to those rambling, disjointed images and notions that drift across the movie screen of your mind.”[2]

This type of thinking is destructive, but it isn’t the brand of problematic thinking that I want to focus on today. Instead, I want to warn you of the dangers of what I want to call ‘overthinking’. What I’m referring to is a brand of thinking that I see in good, conscientious students across many fields: music, Alexander Technique, writing, sport. It looks a bit like this:

Overthinking – case studies

  • The student who thinks so much about the details of going from sitting to standing that they are almost incapable of moving;
  • Recorder player so intent on making sure that every finger lands in the right place at the right time in a semi-quaver passage that they can’t play it fast enough and the passage falls into an untidy heap;
  • The championship-winning snooker player who works so hard going ‘back to basics’ on his cueing technique that he ends up arriving at every tournament with a different cue action.[3]

Overthinking is not a beginner fault. If you’re a beginner tennis player, you’re probably going to need to think carefully about the protocol for each shot that you play! But once you reach a certain standard of play, and you’re in the middle of a match, you probably need to start relying on the hard work you’ve done thinking about such things in your practice sessions. You have other things that need your conscious control and reasoning powers!

FM Alexander gave the example of a student who came to him wanting to improve his breathing. The student was teachable and ready to apply himself, and soon learned how to make a better use of his breathing mechanisms. FM continued:

Now it would be absurd to suppose that thereafter this person should in his waking moments deliberately apprehend each separate working of his lungs, any more than we should expect the busy manager of affairs constantly to supervise the routine of his well-ordered staff. He has acquired conscious control of that working, it is true, but once that control has been mastered, the actual movements that follow are given in charge of the “subconscious self” although always on the understanding that a counter order may be given at any moment if necessary.[4]

Note that last line: a counter order may be given at any moment, if it is considered necessary. That’s the difference between habitual movement and leaving the details up to the ‘subordinate controls of the body’. If we have done the work and really thought about how we want to carry out our activity, we can rest on it for as long as we think it useful or necessary. When it isn’t, we can send out different orders. We are still in control.

So do the work. Enjoy the work. And then allow yourself to reap the benefits of it.

[1] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat ed., p.17
[2] S Pressfield, Do the Work, Kindle ed., loc 256.
[3] Ronnie O’Sullivan, Ronnie, Orion 2003, p.158. He’s giving his opinion of Steve Davis.
[4] FM Alexander, MSI, p.60.
Image by bplanet from FreeDigitalPhotos.net