Is there a link between self control and the Alexander Technique?
On Monday morning on BBC Radio 4, the presenters of the Today programme interviewed Professor Roy Baumeister, author of Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strength. In the interview, he suggested that “self control is really the best thing you can give your chilrdren,” and gave an example of a simple way to improve one’s willpower as an adult.
“The good news about self control is that it’s never too late. We’ve done studies even with adults, showing that a couple of weeks of training and practice, even things like working on your posture, can strengthen your willpower … The first study we did, we told people, ‘Whenever you think about it, sit up straight, stand up straight.’ The thing about willpower is that if you strengthen it in one sphere makes you better at everything else.” *
So… If you tell people to sit up straight or stand up straight, their self control improves. And if their self control improves, the evidence is that they become more successful and better liked. So far, so good…
I have a couple of things I’d like to talk about off the back of this interview:
1. How the Alexander Technique can explain the basis behind the positive changes Baumeister witnessed;
2. Why it is that Baumeister’s approach may end up doing more harm than good.
I will cover point 2 next week.
Alexander on habits and self control
FM Alexander stated all the way through his books that he believed that the troubles people experienced (with things like bad habits) were the result of what he called subconscious control – depending upon instinct and feeling for guidance, “so that today man walks, talks sits, stands, performs in fact the innumerable mechanical acts of daily life without giving a thought to the psychical and physical processes involved.” **
Alexander wanted us to move beyond this subconscious guidance, and to enliven our reasoning faculties. “For in the mind of man lies the secret of his ability to resist, to conquer, and finally to govern the circumstance of his life…” ***
So how do we bring to life our reasoning faculties? Well, Alexander said we could change to something more beneficial “if once we can clear away that first impeding habit of thought which stands between us and conscious control.” ****
In other words, if we make an effort to change the way we think, then we start to change not just towards more beneficial physical conditions, but more beneficial mental ones too. We will begin to develop a reasoning facility that will actually help us to keep changing and improving. As Alexander says:
For when real conscious control has been obtained habit need never become fixed. It is not truly a habit at all, but an order or series of orders given to the subordinte controls of the body…”
And interestingly, this sounds errily similar to statement made by reviewer Jamie Holmes in his assessment of Baumeister’s book: “One implication is already apparent.Since repeated behaviors eventually turn into habits, improving willpower long term requires a unique strategy—a habit of changing habits, of continually expanding our zones of comfort.”
The way forward?
All of this so far, I fear, may have sounded a bit dry. But it is actually really important. Alexander is telling us that nothing is fixed.
Let me repeat that. Nothing is fixed.
If we begin to use our brains and take a good hard look at the things we do, we can make beneficial changes. If you habitually slump, for example, you can reason out where you would bend to sit if not slumping. You can reason out where the muscles are that do the job of bending your legs. You can find out what a curvy shape the spine actually has. You can think about whether different chairs would need different approaches to sitting. these are just some of the questions you could ask yourself.
You can do all these things. You are resourceful, intelligent, and determined. You have the power to change for the better. So what are you going to start to change today?
*Prof Baumeister, transcribed from the BBC interview. The link is in the text above.
**FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.16.
*** ibid., p.58.
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