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The life changing magic of changing your habits

I recently listened to the audiobook of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying by Marie Kondo.[1] I was struck by her emphasis upon the potential for tidying your things as a means of changing your life. Specifically, she points out that as one’s possessions form a record of one’s decisions over time, the act of going through (and discarding) possessions enables one to put to rest any decisions that now seem wrong or outdated.[2]

What if changing habits was a bit like the process in Marie Kondo's The Life Changing Magic of Tidying, shown here?

As I read the book, I was struck by three things:

  • This is a principle-based approach to dealing with physical objects;
  • Kondo is absolutely correct; one’s possessions are a physical record of one’s choices;
  • This is a great metaphor for habitual behaviour patterns.

Let me explain.

The trouble with shoulder bags…

I’ve worked with a couple of female students recently who have come to class exhibiting a really interesting shifting of weight in the torso to one side. I made a guess, and was correct both times: they had both been devotees of shoulder bags, and had shifted their torso to accommodate the weight of the bag on their hip. In both cases they’d stopped using shoulder bags months before, and switched to backpacks; the weight shift in the torso, however, remained unaltered.

Why did they do the weight shift in the first place? It is tempting to blame the bags, but not everyone who uses a shoulder bag feels the need to shift their torso to one side. So we need to look not to the physical object, but rather the person’s reaction to it. In both cases my student decided – on some level; they weren’t necessarily aware of it – that the weight shift was a good idea and would help them carry the bag.

Habitual behaviours are decisions.

All well and good. Except… Why did they continue to shift their torsos to one side after ditching the shoulder bag? The solution is quite simple: they stopped noticing the weight shift. It became so much a part of their everyday existence that they stopped registering the sensations telling their brains what was going on. As FM Alexander said in 1910,

What I wish to emphasise in this place is that the evil, disturbing habit which it is necessary to eradicate is in the ordinary experience both permanent and unrecognised.[3]

The shift of the torso is an example of a behavioural shortcut – the little choices that we’ve stopped even noticing that we make every day. They are decisions that we just keep on making because they are easy and simple. But how many of these decisions are there? What if much of our behaviour is like the rooms that Marie Kondo helps to tidy: filled with the clutter of decisions made long ago and that we’ve stopped even seeing? If this is true, changing our habits is no different to tidying our physical spaces. 

Changing your habits is like clearing clutter

I’m not going to go so far as suggesting that you take a look at your behavioural patterns and ask, “Does this spark joy?” But I am suggesting that part of the job of changing habits is acknowledging that the things you do are there for a reason. At some point that raised shoulder or shift of the torso served a purpose; it got a job done. So, in the same way that Kondo suggests having a bit of self-compassion over the purchasing choices her clients have made over the years, I am suggesting that a little self-compassion goes a long way when changing your habits. You can make new decisions safe in the knowledge that the person you were did they best they could, and that all those decisions can be altered. As Alexander puts it,

the mode of functioning which is substituted, but which may nevertheless be spoken of quite correctly by the same term of “habit,” is as subject to control as the routine of a well-organised office. Certain rules are established for the ordinary conduct of business, but the controller of that business must be at liberty to break the rules or to modify them at his discretion.[4]

Take control and decide what is appropriate for you now in each circumstance. You can always change again later.

[1] Yes, I know I’m very late to the party on this book. I’m really not one for joining trends!

[2] I can’t give an exact location, but this observation occurs at about the 3hr 20 min mark in the audiobook.

[3] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.60.

[4] ibid.

Change your story! – Kickstart positive change with a change of focus

Positive change is hard if you're trying hard not to think about something. It's like not thinking about this chocolate ice cream!

Last week I wrote about how we can make positive changes to our behaviour if we are mindful of the language that we use to describe ourselves and what we do. The language of our self-talk is important, and can bewitch us or lead us astray. This week I want to extend the idea, and suggest that making our stories about ourselves – and the instructions we give ourselves – effective and useful is also a key factor for positive change. Specifically, I want to warn against the concentration of our attention on the thing we’ve decided we mustn’t do. There is evidence that doing this impedes our progress towards positive change, and stops us from engaging in a more constructive thought process.

“I must not!”

Imagine a pianist. They come to an Alexander Technique teacher for a lesson, and are told that they are raising their shoulders as they begin to play. They keep their shoulders raised through the whole piece. The teacher helps them to experience what it is like to play without raising their shoulders. They go away from the lesson, determined not to raise their shoulders. “I must not raise my shoulders,” they think.

And that may be the first thought they have when they next sit at the piano to practice. “I must not raise my shoulders.” This leads very quickly to the thought, “Am I raising my shoulders?” and the temptation to check. And if the pianist checks, I can almost guarantee they will find their shoulders raised. But why?

Chocolate ice cream

Psychologist Adam Alter explains it by asking his readers to avoid thinking about chocolate ice cream. But each time they do, they have to wiggle a finger.

If you’re like me – and practically everyone else – you’ll wiggle your finger at least once or twice. The problem is baked into the task: how can you know whether you’re thinking about chocolate ice cream unless you repeatedly compare your thoughts to the one thought you’re not allowed to have?” [1]

Alter makes a key point about trying to suppress a thought: most of us want to check if we’re suppressing it, and if we check, we are unwittingly thinking about the very thing we are trying to suppress. It reminds me of a student I worked with once, who was troubled by hoarseness caused by muscular tension in the throat. Whenever I asked this student what they noticed, they would put back all the muscle tension around their throat and vocal region, and then proclaim that it felt the same as before!

So what’s going on here? Why does the “I must not approach” fail so spectacularly?

Positive change comes from a change in thinking

When I was first training as an Alexander Technique teacher, my trainer Don Weed often could be heard to say, “The opposite of a fault is the same fault.” He was articulating the idea that if you try to do the opposite of the original fault, you are still tied into the underlying thought processes and assumptions that underlie the original fault. It’s like being stuck in a ‘thought groove’. So my imaginary pianist who is busy thinking about not raising their shoulders is still caught in the ‘thought groove’ that focuses on shoulders. They aren’t thinking about the music, or about their arms as a whole. They aren’t thinking about their axial (head, spine and rib) structures, and how those might relate to the business of playing a piano.

This is why FM Alexander described his work as being about lifting one’s thinking out of the 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; but when once it is lifted out of the groove, it is astonishing how easily it may be directed. At first it will have a tendency to return to its old manner of working by means of one mechanical unintelligent operation, but the groove soon fills, and although thereafter we may be able to use the old path if we choose, we are no longer bound to it.[2]

Questions to kickstart positive change

So, instead of just thinking about the things you shouldn’t or mustn’t be doing, how about this

  • Ask yourself, “What am I missing here?”
  • Look at the activity you’re engaged in. What do you actually need to do to carry out that activity?
  • Are you doing more than you need to?

Start with those questions, and see how you get on. Change your conception, and you give yourself a chance to escape your usual grooves and explore positive change.

[1] Alter, A., Irresistible, London, Bodley Head, 2017, p.266.

[2] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.67.

Picture by Poorna Shaji [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Change your language! – how altering language use can boost positive habit formation

Can changing language help with habit formation, like putting running shoes like these near your bed?
New Orleans, Louisiana

Last week on the blog I wrote about how the Alexander Technique is concerned with changing habits. This week I particularly want to examine the way the language we use around habits can make or break our attempts to makle positive change.

Habit formation as psychology

I’ve written before about how our language use can lead us astray, but I think it’s worth discussing again, because I think it is hard to underestimate the way our self-talk can affect us. Adam Alter wrote about the power of language in his book Irresistible:

There is one subtle psychological lever that seems to hasten habit formation: the language you use to describe your behaviour. Suppose you were trying to avoid using Facebook. Each time you’re tempted, you can either tell yourself ‘I can’t use Facebook’, or you can tell yourself ‘I don’t use Facebook’. They sound similar, and the difference may seem trivial, but it isn’t. ‘I can’t’ wrests control from you and gives it to an unnamed outside agent. It’s disempowering … In contrast, ‘I don’t’ is an empowering declaration that this isn’t something you do. It gives the power to you and signals that you’re a particular kind of person – the kind of person who, on principle, doesn’t use Facebook.[1]

The initial language use here – ‘can’t’ –  is one of submission. In Alter’s example, the person who says they ‘can’t use Facebook’ makes it sound as though they secretly want to, but someone (a teacher or other authority figure) has ordered them to stop. It’s the same language a schoolkid uses when they say the teacher has told them they can’t draw on the desk or shout in the classroom.

The substitution of ‘don’t’ for ‘can’t’, according to Alter, gives agency. Rather than the habitual behaviour being a thing requiring outside intervention, it becomes a matter of choice and identity. Using social media is something one chooses to do if it fits one’s self image. Habit formation becomes a position of power and choice.

Habit as a noun – and a point of pride

So far, so good. We can get on board with the idea that language choice matters, even in our self talk. There is another particular point of language use, however, that worries me whenever I hear it, and it relates very much to ownership and pride.

When I work with students, I very often hear phrases like: ‘I find myself slumping a lot – that’s my habit,’ or, ‘I carry a lot of tension in my shoulders.’ And often there’s an element of pride (or at least of ownership) lurking in the words. I want to take a moment to examine these sentences and tease out why they are examples of language use that we should beware.

Let’s start off with that last example: “I carry a lot of tension in my shoulders.” It always makes me imagine a person weighed down with beanbags over each shoulder, each beanbag labelled “Warning – Tension.” If a student says “I carry tension” they have used a verb, and they have used it actively rather than passively – it would make a world of difference to say, “I am weighed down by tension on my shoulders.” The student carries it; they have chosen to carry it; it is theirs. Nobody wants to admit to making a bad choice, so the student does the only apparently reasonable thing. They take it as a point of identity and even pride.

Similarly, I notice if a student makes a statement like, “that’s my habit.” Again, there’s that hint of pride in something owned: my habit. In this case, ‘habit’ is a noun. It is no different to a chair, or a table, or a book. “That’s my chair; that’s my table; that’s my book; that’s my habit.” It sounds like a physical thing – an object with a corporeal existence that my student can pick up and put down, just like the chair or the book. But they can’t. And because it isn’t physical, you can’t own it. 

A reminder of what a habit is

A habit isn’t something with a physical existence. It is a behavioural shortcut. Habit formation happens because we choose to make a particular behaviour happen, and we do it so frequently that we don’t even necessarily notice that we are doing it.

And as we saw last week, FM Alexander firmly believed that the application of reasoned thought could break unwanted habitual behaviour:

when real conscious control has been obtained a “habit” need never become fixed. It is not truly a habit at all, but an order or series of orders given to the subordinate controls of the body, which orders will be carried out until countermanded[2]

The first step to habit formation

The first steps, then, towards positive habit formation are not what most people think – I am not advocating practice, or timetables, or putting your running shoes by your bed so you are more likely to pick them up. What I am actually asking you to do is:

  1. Watch you language use. Do you fall into any of the linguistic traps I’ve discussed here? If you do, make an effort to change the script in your self-talk.
  2. Apply some reasoned thought. Before you jump to procedures, think about what it is you actually want to do, and have a good reason for why you want to do it. Then you are in a better position to choose the tools and techniques that will most help you to attain the goals you desire.

[1] Alter, A., Irresistible, London, Bodley Head, 2017, p.272.

[2] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.58.

Last week on the blog I wrote about how the Alexander Technique is concerned with changing habits. This week I particularly want to examine the way the language we use around habits can make or break our attempts to makle positive change.

Habit formation as psychology

I’ve written before about how our language use can lead us astray, but I think it’s worth discussing again, because I think it is hard to underestimate the way our self-talk can affect us. Adam Alter wrote about the power of language in his book Irresistible:

There is one subtle psychological lever that seems to hasten habit formation: the language you use to describe your behaviour. Suppose you were trying to avoid using Facebook. Each time you’re tempted, you can either tell yourself ‘I can’t use Facebook’, or you can tell yourself ‘I don’t use Facebook’. They sound similar, and the difference may seem trivial, but it isn’t. ‘I can’t’ wrests control from you and gives it to an unnamed outside agent. It’s disempowering … In contrast, ‘I don’t’ is an empowering declaration that this isn’t something you do. It gives the power to you and signals that you’re a particular kind of person – the kind of person who, on principle, doesn’t use Facebook.[1]

The initial language use here – ‘can’t’ –  is one of submission. In Alter’s example, the person who says they ‘can’t use Facebook’ makes it sound as though they secretly want to, but someone (a teacher or other authority figure) has ordered them to stop. It’s the same language a schoolkid uses when they say the teacher has told them they can’t draw on the desk or shout in the classroom.

The substitution of ‘don’t’ for ‘can’t’, according to Alter, gives agency. Rather than the habitual behaviour being a thing requiring outside intervention, it becomes a matter of choice and identity. Using social media is something one chooses to do if it fits one’s self image. Habit formation becomes a position of power and choice.

Habit as a noun – and a point of pride

So far, so good. We can get on board with the idea that language choice matters, even in our self talk. There is another particular point of language use, however, that worries me whenever I hear it, and it relates very much to ownership and pride.

When I work with students, I very often hear phrases like: ‘I find myself slumping a lot – that’s my habit,’ or, ‘I carry a lot of tension in my shoulders.’ And often there’s an element of pride (or at least of ownership) lurking in the words. I want to take a moment to examine these sentences and tease out why they are examples of language use that we should beware.

Let’s start off with that last example: “I carry a lot of tension in my shoulders.” It always makes me imagine a person weighed down with beanbags over each shoulder, each beanbag labelled “Warning – Tension.” If a student says “I carry tension” they have used a verb, and they have used it actively rather than passively – it would make a world of difference to say, “I am weighed down by tension on my shoulders.” The student carries it; they have chosen to carry it; it is theirs. Nobody wants to admit to making a bad choice, so the student does the only apparently reasonable thing. They take it as a point of identity and even pride.

Similarly, I notice if a student makes a statement like, “that’s my habit.” Again, there’s that hint of pride in something owned: my habit. In this case, ‘habit’ is a noun. It is no different to a chair, or a table, or a book. “That’s my chair; that’s my table; that’s my book; that’s my habit.” It sounds like a physical thing – an object with a corporeal existence that my student can pick up and put down, just like the chair or the book. But they can’t. And because it isn’t physical, you can’t own it. 

A reminder of what a habit is

A habit isn’t something with a physical existence. It is a behavioural shortcut. Habit formation happens because we choose to make a particular behaviour happen, and we do it so frequently that we don’t even necessarily notice that we are doing it.

And as we saw last week, FM Alexander firmly believed that the application of reasoned thought could break unwanted habitual behaviour:

when real conscious control has been obtained a “habit” need never become fixed. It is not truly a habit at all, but an order or series of orders given to the subordinate controls of the body, which orders will be carried out until countermanded[2]

The first step to habit formation

The first steps, then, towards positive habit formation are not what most people think – I am not advocating practice, or timetables, or putting your running shoes by your bed so you are more likely to pick them up. What I am actually asking you to do is:

1 Watch you language use. Do you fall into any of the linguistic traps I’ve discussed here? If you do, make an effort to change the script in your self-talk.

2 Apply some reasoned thought. Before you jump to procedures, think about what it is you actually want to do, and have a good reason for why you want to do it. Then you are in a better position to choose the tools and techniques that will most help you to attain the goals you desire.

[1] Alter, A., Irresistible, London, Bodley Head, 2017, p.272.

[2] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.58.

Image of shoes by Tony Webster from Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States – run, CC BY-SA 2.0

Why Alexander Technique? Choose to break habits

Last week I wrote about how the Alexander Technique is based upon the idea of continuing improvement. Rather than the common assumption of inexorable deterioration, those of us who experiment with Alexander Technique principles hold to the idea that it is possible to experience an improving use of ourselves over the years. It’s a hugely attractive idea.

So what is it that we are doing when we experience that continuing improvement? What is the mechanism that moves us from ‘worse’ too ‘better’? As we will see this time, our attitudes to habits are a significant part of the picture.

Habits – what are they?

The beginning of the year is notoriously a time for making resolutions and having intentions to change things that aren’t serving us. When glancing through my library audiobook service, I came across the audio version of Wendy Wood’s new book on changing habitual behaviour, entitled Good Habits, Bad Habits. It has been reserved so many times that if I reserved it today, I wouldn’t get to listen to it until July!

A picture of the audiobook Good Habits Bad Habits by Wendy Wood - a way to break habits?

Habits in popular parlance could be described as behaviours that you have done so many times that you don’t necessarily even notice that you’re doing them any more. They are like keyboard shortcuts – a quick-fire response to a situation or stimulus that happens without apparent reasoned thought. They can be as big as coming home from work each day and opening the biscuit tin before taking off your coat, to doing interesting things with your head in relation to your body as you draw breath to speak.

FM’s vocal hoarseness – a case of choosing to break habits

This latter habitual behaviour was the one that caused FM Alexander’s vocal problems, and caused him to ask his doctor

Could it be something that I was doing in the way I was using my voice … that caused the problem?[1]

Alexander realised that the way he was using himself as he went to speak was troublesome. He came to understand that the unthinking and unreasoned way he directed his body in activity was causing the vocal hoarseness he experienced. When he worked to change his habitual behaviour – when he applied some reasoned thinking to the problem (and a bit of practice) – he was able to solve the hoarseness that threatened his career.

This is why Alexander’s view of habit is so refreshing. To him, a habitual behaviour is something that breaks in the face of reasoned thought:

when real conscious control has been obtained a “habit” need never become fixed. It is not truly a habit at all, but an order or series of orders given to the subordinate controls of the body, which orders will be carried out until countermanded[2]

By this reckoning, we can choose to break habits – or form them – at a thought. We can work to attain the mental discipline that stops us being slaves to our ‘shortcuts’. We can break out of our routines and choose to do something different. What if Alexander is right, and a change of thought really is that powerful? Could you afford not to give it a go?

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.25.

[2] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.58.

Why Alexander Technique? Choose continual improvement

Continual improvement could be as tricky - and as rewarding - as climbing a mountain, as this man is.

Last week I spoke about the counter-cultural nature of the Alexander Technique. I wrote that people who use the Alexander Technique to change the way they think in order to change the way they move, work from an opposite assumption to the way most people live. That is to say, the Alexander Technique does not hold to the view of inexorable physical deterioration. We who work with Alexander’s ideas believe – or at least experiment with – the idea that continuing improvement is possible and attainable no matter what your age.

So why do we believe this? What are the physical mechanisms that make this possible? And what are the implications of it for our day-to-day life?

The body – geared for health

I’ve recently been reading Dr Michael Greger’s book, the provocatively titled How Not to Die. [1] His premise, stated right from the very first sentence of his book, is that death from old age doesn’t really exist. We deteriorate (and die) because we get ill, and at least some of that illness is created by choices we make during our lifetime. Greger’s focus is on diet, and you can take or leave his ideas – I present it here because it is an interesting parallel. 

Because… what if this is true on a movement level? What if the beliefs we have about movement lead to physical choices that can either help us consistently move well, or cause us to experience consistent deterioration?

Alexander’s discovery

When FM Alexander first investigated his vocal troubles, he went to the doctor and tried various treatments, but without success. After a particularly disastrous performance, and having followed the doctor’s treatment plan carefully, Alexander went back to the doctor and asked the following question:

‘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?’[2]

There are a number of points about this question that are really important.

  • If Alexander was doing something to cause his voice trouble, It wasn’t a structural problem – it wasn’t that his vocal mechanism was broken, or that he had an infection.
  • If Alexander was doing something, he could in theory just stop doing it.
  • If he just stopped doing the thing that caused the trouble, then the trouble would disappear of its own accord.
  • When the trouble disappeared, his vocal mechanism would work fine.
  • If Alexander’s vocal mechanism worked fine when he didn’t interfere with it, then we could extrapolate that all of his system would work fine if not subject to interference.
  • If that’s true of FM Alexander, it’s probably true of us, too.
  • We could also extrapolate that, if it is possible to use our structures in a way that causes them to work poorly, then it is also possible to organise our movement to take advantage of our structural integrity. If we did this, we would experience improvement.
  • If we did this consistently, we would experience continual improvement.

The concept of continual improvement

What if it was really true that your body, even if subject to injury or disease, will try to function to its best? What if bodies are intended to function well? This idea, the concept of being just fine as we are, is one of the working assumptions of the Alexander Technique. I love it because it is hopeful. I enjoy the idea that I can experience continual improvement in the way I move by working on changing what and how I think.

It helped Alexander sort out his vocal troubles. It helped me recover movement and flexibility in my arms, and gave me the tools to cure my stage fright. What can it do for you?

[1] Gregor, M. & Stone, G., How Not to Die, London, Macmillan, 2016.

[2] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.25.

Photo by Michele Campeotto – used under Creative Commons 2.0

Why learn Alexander Technique? Choose to be different

All the apples in this image are different - people who learn Alexander Technique choose to be different.

A few years ago I did a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) through Coursera – an introduction to psychology. One of my favourite parts of it was the description of a basic idea from social psychology. In this idea, we can all place ourselves on a spectrum between the extremes of complete individuation and total conformity to a group.

I found this a really interesting idea, partly because we move along depending on the situation we’re in, but also because it reminded me of a truth about what I teach. More importantly, it reminded me of a reason why people sometimes balk at choosing to learn Alexander Technique. The Alexander Technique is counter-cultural.

Same old, same old…

FM Alexander noticed back in 1910 that people in the society of his time had a serious problem with inertia:

We must always remember that the vast majority of human beings live very narrow lives, doing the same thing and thinking the same thoughts day by day… [1]

The people FM saw around him conformed to what they thought was normal – even if what they accepted as normal was a kind of managed deterioration of their physical abilities. He wrote:

The trouble, whatever it is, is endured in the first instance; it is looked upon as a nuisance … no steps are taken to get rid of it, and the trouble grows until, by degrees, it is looked upon as a necessity… As long as the disease can be kept within certain bounds, no effort is made to fight it.[2]

But it isn’t only London of 1910 that has a problem of accepting decline and deterioration as normal. We do that, too. When I turned 45, a friend half-jokingly told me that I’d reached the age where it was obligatory to utter a groan when getting out of a chair, and a contented sigh when seated! My friend was teasing me, but it points to a deeper truth about what we as a society expect: we expect to ‘put up with things’. We expect inexorable deterioration. If we get the odd spot of discomfort, we just live with it, and even expect it to get worse.

And there is no reason why this should be so.

Learn Alexander Technique to be counter-cultural

At its heart, I think the Alexander Technique is profoundly counter-cultural, because it is profoundly anti-inertia. It says that change is possible. It reminds us that not every problem we experience is structural – sometimes we are responsible for our own discomfort. And if we are responsible for our troubles, then we don’t need to wait on an expert to solve it for us. We can learn the right tools to help get out of trouble again for ourselves.

As FM said,

I turn my attention particularly to the many who say, “I am quite content as I am.” To them I say … if you are content to be the slave of habits instead of master of your own mind and body, you can never have realised the wonderful inheritance that is yours by right of the fact that you were born a reasoning, intelligent man or woman. [3]

Don’t settle. Why just live with ideas and movement patterns that don’t help you, when the solutions are available and easy to learn? Why not take up the challenge, be counter-cultural, and decide to take on change?

Will you learn Alexander Technique?

[1] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.65.

[2] ibid., pp.64-5.

[3] ibid., pp.67-68.

Image of apples by Artemas Ward [Public domain].

Freedom is: the gap between stimulus and response

Over the past few weeks I’ve written about FM Alexander’s approach to planning an activity: setting a goal, analysing conditions present, reasoning out a means, and putting the means into action. FM’s experience was that he needed to find a new protocol for speaking that he could use to replace his unhelpful instinctive protocol. When he tried to put it into action, however, he found he had two problems. First, he found it difficult to stop the old unhelpful protocol from jumping ahead of his new protocol. Next, he realised that one of the reasons this might be happening was that the old protocol had been well rehearsed while the new one had barely been rehearsed at all. How to solve these problems?!

Last week I discussed mental practice as the means Alexander used to learn his new protocol. This week I’ll address Alexander’s approach for preventing the near instantaneous application of the old unhelpful protocol.

Stimulus and response

Once FM had created his new protocol for speaking, he still found that he didn’t successfully use it as he intended. As we discussed last week, one issue he identified was that his old instinctive protocol was well-learned and thoroughly practised, and so dominated the new plan he’d made. But there was another issue, too. Alexander realised that

…an immediate response [to do the old protocol] was the result of a decision on my part to do something at once, to go directly for a certain end … with the inevitable result that my old wrong habitual use was again and again brought into play.[1]

Alexander was acting at once to the stimulus to use his voice. His response was immediate. He was a bit like those people – you probably know one – who will answer their phone the moment it rings, no matter how inappropriate the situation. There was a stimulus (to speak / the phone rings) and his decision was to respond immediately.

What’s between stimulus and response? It’s your decision

That’s the most remarkable part of this section of Evolution of a Technique, in my view. Alexander realised that he had made a decision about the manner of his response, and that decision coloured everything that came after it. He had decided to prioritise doing something at once.

But there is no need for us to do that. Often we treat stimulus and response like they are some variety of German complex noun:

We treat stimulus and response like a German complex noun - no gap between the words

That’s our decision. There is no reason why that should be the case: there is no actual causal link between a stimulus and our response to it. We can, in fact, choose to give ourselves time to respond, in order that we can also choose the manner of our response. Alexander came up with the following formulation. It functions as a useful tool in training oneself out of responding instantly to stimuli:

...to make the experience of receiving the stimulus to speak and of refusing to do anything immediately in response.[2]

We can use this formulation ourselves. When we receive a stimulus – whether to speak or answer a phone or anything else – we can make the experience of receiving that stimulus and refusing to do anything immediately in response. That gives us the opportunity to choose the manner or our response. As Stephen Covey points out, we can even choose whether we wish to respond at all![3]

So no matter what the next couple of weeks hold for any of us, we can receive a stimulus, make an experience of refusing to do anything immediately in response, and then choose whether we do what we originally intended, or something else we’ve planned, or nothing at all. And that is true freedom: knowing that we always hold the key to our our reactions.

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, pp.40-41.

[2] ibid., p.40.

[3] Covey, S, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Melbourne, Business Library, 1989, p.69.

The power of mental practice

Rodin’s The Thinker indulging in some mental practice

Over the past few weeks I’ve written about FM Alexander’s approach to planning an activity: setting a goal, analysing conditions present, reasoning out a means, and putting the means into action. FM’s experience was that he needed to find a new protocol for speaking that he could use to replace his unhelpful instinctive protocol. When he tried to put it into action, however, he found he had two problems: he found it difficult to stop the old unhelpful protocol from jumping ahead of his new protocol; and he realised that one of the reasons this might be happening was that the old protocol had been well rehearsed while the new one had barely been rehearsed at all. How to solve these problems?!

Next week I’ll discuss Alexander’s approach for preventing the near instantaneous application of the old unhelpful protocol. This week I want to address the issue of learning the new plan. Alexander’s solution? Mental practice.

Mental practice defined by Alexander

“I therefore decided to confine my work to giving myself the directions for the new ‘means-whereby’, instead of actually trying to ‘do’ them or to relate them to the ‘end’ of speaking. I would give the new directions in front of the mirror for long periods together, for successive days and weeks and sometimes even months, without attempting to ‘do’ them…” [1]

To Alexander, the key component of this stage of his practice was that he was ‘giving directions’ without attempting to do them. He wasn’t speaking. He stood in front of the mirror and observed himself, but did not speak. There was a lot of work going on, but all of it was mental!

So how should we adapt mental practice for our purposes?

  • Mental practice is away from the activity – away from the instrument or the sports equipment;
  • Mental practice involves going through the ‘directions’ or steps in your protocol;
  • You do it regularly and often, just like practice on the instrument.

How do I know I’m doing it correctly?

I think it’s important to point out that, just as there isn’t really one right and true way of sitting, there almost certainly isn’t any one right and true way to do mental practice. Exactly what you do, just as with sitting, is likely to be entirely contextual. To take a musical example, at the beginning of learning a piece you are likely to be looking at specific bars and running through them in your mind to make sure you remember the correct fingerings or articulation. Towards performance day, however, you are likely to be visualising standing backstage in your performance outfit, waiting to go on, walking out, and beginning to play the notes.

It’s also important to remember that mental practice is a skill that you need to learn, just as (physical) music practice is a skill. Initially, you may find that you struggle to maintain your focus on your practice for very long. If you keep trying, however, you will find that this kind of Alexandrian thinking becomes easier to sustain, and time will pass without you noticing!

The power of mental practice: a story.

 A few years ago I worked with a musician who had injured themselves, and was using a combination of physiotherapy to deal with the injury and Alexander Technique to deal with the muscular tension that had helped to create it. The musician was in the final year of their degree, but at the beginning of the year could only play for a few minutes without intense pain. But they needed to learn the repertoire for their final recital.

Our solution? Mental practice. I worked with them to improve their mental practice skills; the musician would do only a few minutes of practice on the instrument a very few times a day, but would supplement this with plenty of mental practice and score study.

The outcome? The musician did well in their final recital and got their degree.

Mental practice works. It gives you the experience and grounding in your new protocol that it won’t feel totally unfamiliar in comparison to your old unhelpful way of going about things. Give it a go.

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.41.
Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1513092

Four steps to positive change: 4. Put the plan into action

Put your plan into action with the determination carved into this statue of runner Shirley Strickland.

In his chapter Evolution of a Technique, FM Alexander gave us a simple set of instructions for how to develop a new plan for activity that we can use to replace our usual habitual way of going about  things. In this final instalment of a 4 part blog series, I want to examine another of the steps to positive change that form Alexander’s method of reasoning our way to a better use of ourselves. Today, I’m going to show you how to reason your way out of trouble and into a better use of yourself.

Here is the section of Evolution of a Technique that we are going to cover over the next few weeks:

In the work that followed I came to see that to get a direction of my use which would ensure this satisfactory reaction, I must cease to rely upon the feeling associated with my instinctive direction, and in its place employ my reasoning processes, in order

(1) to analyse the conditions of use present;

(2) to select (reason out) the means whereby a more satisfactory use could be brought about;

(3) to project consciously the directions required for putting these means into effect.[1]

Put the plan into action.

You’ve defined your goal, and done your observation and analysis. You have spent time reasoning out the best way of getting to your goal. So what next?

Obviously, if one has spent all that time and attention creating a decent plan, one is going to use it! But there are some points I want to make about how to do so most effectively.

Do just the plan – no extras at the last minute

I’ll talk more about the technical aspects of making sure that you actually do what you intended in future posts. For now, though, it is enough to remember just how tempting it is to go ‘off piste’. 

I have a very clear memory of being in the debating club at school, and being picked for an important competition at another school. I carefully planned my speech in the debate, and wrote it out on little cards. When I stood up to speak, I recall midway through I looked down at my notes, and decided the sentence I was about to say was poorly constructed, and decided to alter it on the fly. Unfortunately, I incorporated part of the next point I was going to make; I stumbled and ran to a stop as I tried to recover my thread of argument. My desire to improvise had not been a great thing to indulge!

Complete commitment, total detachment

‘Complete commitment, total detachment’ is a phrase I’ve shared on the blog before, and one I frequently use with my students. It’s a shorthand for the following:

  • Complete commitment to the process
  • Total detachment from the outcome

We covered complete commitment to the process earlier – don’t be tempted to go ‘off piste’. But what about total detachment from the outcome? What does that mean?

Elsewhere in The Use of the Self Alexander comments that the average person (that’s probably you and me!) is accustomed to “work directly for [their] ends on the ‘trial and error’ plan without giving due consideration to the means whereby those ends should be gained.”[2] It’s as if we are so fixated on the goal we want to achieve that we don’t pay attention to the way we get there. But if we don’t pay attention to the process, anything could happen – and probably will. If we want to achieve our goals efficiently and sustainably, paying attention to the process is not just desirable, but essential. And if we have worked hard on creating a plan that achieves our goals, then we no longer even need to think about the goal; if we just put our plan into action, then achieving the goal is inevitable anyway![3]

Don’t evaluate as you gO!


When you put your plan into action, it’s tempting to try and check your progress mid-process. Don’t – it’s a trap! If you are carrying out a new plan that is contrary to your usual way of going about things, you will want to give your new plan your full attention. You will need to stay with present moment concerns.

As soon as you begin to evaluate your progress, you are placing your attention on the outcome of the process; you are looking at outputs. This is quite simply different to paying attention to the process as it happens. And if, as we discussed in the last point, success is inevitable anyway, why bother evaluating? There will be time enough for that once you’re done!

I hope that this short series on Alexander’s concept of planning has been useful, and that you have a bit more knowledge about how to go about it more efficiently and with a better chance of success. Learning to take your goals seriously, to analyse, make a detailed and realistic plan and then faithfully put the plan into action isn’t all of the Alexander Technique, but it’s a key component, and it makes life a lot simpler. 

Have fun with your planning!

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.39.

[2] ibid., p.57.

[3 Alexander, F.M., Universal Constant in Living, NY IRDEAT 1997, p.587.

Image of statue of Shirley Strickland by By Melburnian – Self-photographed, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1259804

Four Steps to Positive Change: 3. Reason your way out of trouble

When you reason your way through trouble you can feel like this lightbulb - switched on!

In his chapter Evolution of a Technique, FM Alexander gave us a simple set of instructions for how to develop a new plan for activity that we can use to replace our usual habitual way of going about  things. In this 3rd instalment of a 4 part blog series, I want to examine another of the steps to positive change that form Alexander’s method of reasoning our way to a better use of ourselves. Today, I’m going to show you how to reason your way out of trouble and into a better use of yourself.

Here is the section of Evolution of a Technique that we are going to cover over the next few weeks:

In the work that followed I came to see that to get a direction of my use which would ensure this satisfactory reaction, I must cease to rely upon the feeling associated with my instinctive direction, and in its place employ my reasoning processes, in order

(1) to analyse the conditions of use present;

(2) to select (reason out) the means whereby a more satisfactory use could be brought about;

(3) to project consciously the directions required for putting these means into effect.[1]

Reason out a means

FM Alexander had a problem. He wanted to stop pulling his head back when he went to recite, because it was creating a cascade of physical movements that led to vocal hoarseness. He had worked out a goal – to speak without hoarseness – and analysed carefully what he habitually did. Now he needed to work out exactly what he was going to do as a replacement for his old way of doing things.

But what does this mean? And what sorts of things might we want to include in a plan for an activity? In the paragraphs below I give a few ideas for the sorts of things that you might want to include in any reasoning that you do.

What you do with your head is important

FM found that he was pulling his head back, and that this movement was preparatory to pretty much everything that he did. Not only that, but it was the starting movement of the chain of physical tensions that culminated in his vocal hoarseness.[2] When he prevented the misuse of his head in relation with his body, the other physical tensions were prevented indirectly, and his hoarseness improved.

What Alexander found, he said, led him to the “discovery of the primary control of the working of all the mechanisms of the human body” – he discovered that what a person does with their head in relation with their body has a controlling or guiding effect on all other movement.[3] In other words, thinking about what you are doing with your head is really very important!

Keep it practical: what joints do you need to use to complete the activity efficiently and simply?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like working any harder than I absolutely need to! This means that I aim for efficiency. One of the great ways to ensure efficiency in movement is to move only at the joints that you need to in order to complete the activity you wish to undertake.

So take a look at a skeleton. Take a look at an anatomy book; download one of the fantastic apps that are now available for phones and tablets that show you bones and muscles. Once you are armed with knowledge, you can make more reasoned choices about which joints are sensible ones to use for the activity you are planning.

Keep it general 

It may sound like I am contradicting myself, but you also want to ensure that you don’t go into too much detail. You don’t need to plan out exactly which muscles you are going to use – you don’t need to work out primary movers, secondary movers, stabilising muscles… You don’t need to plan exactly how much force you are going to use.[4] That’s a job for the motor centres of your brain, not your reasoning centres. Use your reason; have a concept, and then let your brain take care of the details.

Remember context

Sitting to standing is very different depending on context: a sofa is different to a dining chair, and both are very different to a bus seat! Once you have, for example, a basic idea of moving at the hips, knees and ankles, you can adjust this basic concept depending on the specific context in which you find yourself.

FM Alexander had a high opinion of reasoning. It was so great, indeed, that he called it humanity’s supreme inheritance.[5] If FM thought it was so vitally important, perhaps we should value it more, too. We really can reason our way out of trouble, if we just give ourselves the opportunity.

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.39.

[2] ibid., p.27.

[3] ibid., p.28.

[4] Though it is worth holding in mind the idea that it may be less force than you are used to using!

[5] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT ed., NY 1997, p. 17.

By Cpt.karl – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58389395