Can the Alexander Technique cure me?

This post is prompted by the students I have had recently who have experienced significant medical problems. They come to me in pain, and want to know if the Alexander Technique can cure them. I have even been asked if the Technique could help fix a prolapsed disc (like a slipped disc, but worse) without surgery. So… Can the Alexander Technique cure medical problems?

Pretty much…no.

I can almost hear the intake of breath. Yes, the Alexander Technique is fantastic, and any teacher you ask will tell you stories of students who have begun lessons in significant pain and discomfort who experienced dramatic improvement. But the Alexander Technique is not medicine, and does not cure structural conditions. The Alexander Technique deals with functional matters – what FM Alexander called our manner of use – the stuff we do to ourselves that limits us.

ParkBench

The difference between structure and function.

One of the most striking examples of the difference between a structural condition and functioning was FM’s brother, AR Alexander. He suffered severe back injuries in a horse riding accident, so severe that doctors initially believed he would not walk again. He initially walked with two canes, but later with just one. A contemporary described his walk:

When I knew him … he could walk, with a curious swaying motion, for a considerable distance, his trunk very upright and his legs swinging smoothly from the hips. *

Clearly AR had suffered a major structural problem. Yet he not only was able to walk but did it so well that he was accosted by at least one passer-by who was struck by the way he moved.

[A passer-by] stopped  in front of him one day and said, “Sir, I’ve watched you for a long time and I wish I knew what  you have that other peole don’t have.” “I’ll warrant you do,” said AR laconically, and swinging up onto his cane he [walked away]. **

This is the difference between structure and function in a nutshell. AR’s structure was compromised. But he was able to use the compromised structure that he had very well indeed. As a result of the time he spent working with the Alexander Technique, functionally AR’s movement was so free and easy that it invited wonderment.

If you are reading this and you are suffering from pain or discomfort, I bet you have one question for me right now:

 

So how do we know if a problem is structural or not?

We don’t.

This is why I recommend that students seek advice from primary healthcare. If your back is painful, you really should get it checked by a doctor. Yes, I know this is obvious, but so often people don’t take this step!

However, even if there is a structural problem, an Alexander Technique teacher may be able to help you to deal with your reaction to the problem or injury. So often in order to avoid discomfort, we subtly alter our movement to ‘accommodate’ the injury we have. And these accommodations may actually do us more harm than good.

So can the Alexander Technique fix my friend’s prolapsed disc? No! But I can help them use their body more easily and efficiently within the bounds of that structural problem. And moving better may even aid their recovery, making it faster and less painful. And that, surely, must be worthwhile in anyone’s book.

 

* Frank Pierce Jones, Freedom to Change, p. 69.
** ibid.

Image by housey21, stock.xchng

 

Do children benefit from Alexander Technique?

When children and Alexander Technique are mentioned together in the same sentence, it is usually in something like this form: “Children don’t really need Alexander Technique, do they? I mean, when you look at little children, they just move so smoothly and gracefully…”

Well, yes. But…

What about the times when they just don’t? Can the Alexander Technique help children?

ballchild

Why children move well… or not.

FM Alexander was, from the first, profoundly convinced of the importance of his work to children. And as he pointed out in his first book in 1910, children are born with tremendous potential, a potential that we as parents, educators, friends etc. begin to shape almost from the very first day of life. A baby is born with everything it needs to move freely and easily; it is born with an intelligence that soaks up information and impressions insatiably.

Some of what our children take in, we can control; some of it is beyond our intervention. But everything that our children see or do makes an impression. Sometimes the impression made is positive; sometimes it is not. And we parents and educators form the primary source of information and instruction for our children. Whether through imitation or through overt instruction, our children learn what to think, how to think, and how to move through us. And we all, of course, move perfectly, think logically and exhibit open-mindedness at all times…

Hm.

This is why FM Alexander was so concerned about children. This is why he wished to teach children his work: so that they would have a framework of principles and tools that would help them learn how to think and how to move. Alexander wished to prevent our children from suffering the same problems that we adults experience.

Children and the Alexander Technique

FM Alexander taught children. In fact, they seem to be mentioned quite often in his work. The youngest that I can recall seeing at this moment was 3 1/2.* He even opened a school, first in England, then in the USA (it evacuated there during World War 2) because he was convinced that education of children was the key to his dream: “I look for a time when the child shall be so taught and trained that whatever the circumstance… it will without effort be ble to adapt itself to its environment, and be enabled to live its life in the enjoyment of perfect health, physical and mental.”**

 

My own story

My son is seven. He had his first proper Alexander lesson (not from me!) when he was 4 1/2. He loved it, and it made a big difference to the constant arching in his upper back that was causing problems with his flexibility.

He has watched students coming in and out of the house for years now. And just recently, he asked about why they came. So I told him a story about how sometimes people can’t do the things they love to do as well as they’d like, because they seem to get in their own way. And I gave him an example that he could relate to (from memory, about moving arms while swimming). And he asked me for a lesson.

The lesson was duly given, changes happened, and my son’s interest was piqued. He demanded another lesson the next day. And the day after that, he wanted to know about where his head stopped and his neck started. So we got out the anatomy books. Just as Alexander predicted in his second book, my son was hooked.***

 

Recommendations

I think Alexander Technique lessons are great for kids. My son has benefited, and I have seen big changes in other children that I have taught. So if you want to investigate this for your child, go right ahead!Just keep in mind the following things:

  1. Look for a teacher who is happy to teach kids, or who has experience of doing so;
  2. Make sure they have some sort of Child Protection training. In the UK, make sure they have a CRB Disclosure;
  3. Expect them to ask you to stay in the room, and probably to join in!

Our children are the most precious asset we have. It is our responsibility to give them the very best tools possible for navigating their future lives. And I strongly believe that the Alexander Technique is probably the best tool around for the job.

 

*FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.82.
** ibid., p.93.
***FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the Irdeat Edition, p.381.
Image by Monika Jurczynska, stock.xchng

How long does it take to learn the Alexander Technique?

Person-Playing-Violin-Posters

“How long does it take to learn the Alexander Technique?”

This was one of the questions that I was asked at the beginning of my group class at Bristol Folk House last night. I love my Folk House students for many reasons. One of them is that they aren’t afraid to ask the questions that I know every student is thinking, but few are game enough to put into words.

It’s a great question, but it needed some clarification. “What do you mean?” I asked.

My student replied that he felt he was having some success in applying what he was learning in class to his everyday life, but he wanted to know how long it would take to be able to do the Alexander Technique really well, and do it all by himself.

Now, my student is expecting a certain type of answer to this question, probably either a time-related answer (x number of months) or an answer about application (depends on how much you practice). Instead, I asked a question in return, and asked the class to answer it. How about you have a go, too!

 

How long does it take to learn the violin?

 

I’ll give you a moment to think of your answer.

 

Got one? Great! We’ll continue. 🙂

My Folk House students gave answers like these:

·        It depends on how good you want to be

·        That’s relative, depending on how much you practice

·        Learning is a constantly evolving process, so you’re always learning

And all of these answers are, on one level, true. How quickly you progress in anything does depend on the quality and frequency of your practice. And learning is indeed a constantly evolving process. But if we settle for these answers, when will be finished learning how to play the violin?

Never.

My Folk House students didn’t look happy with this answer, and neither am I. Never is an unhappy word.

So what if we turned this on its head? Try this for size. As soon as we know that if we pluck or draw a bow across the string of the violin, and that we can change the note by changing the length of the string, we can play the violin. Everything else is refinement.

Can you see that this way of looking at the issue is instantly empowering? A couple of basic facts, and we have the basic tools to go away and work the rest out entirely by ourselves, if we choose to. How fantastic!

The Alexander Technique is no different. In fact, FM Alexander believed that we need to do this stuff for ourselves. Many sources quote him as saying “You can do what I do, if you do what I did.” And what FM did was to work it all out for himself.

As soon as we know that a change in the relationship between our head and our body can make a difference to our freedom and ease of motion; once we understand the power and effectiveness that lies in stopping the unnecessary stuff that is getting in our way; then we have enough basic knowledge to go away and do the Alexander Technique for ourselves.

Everything else is refinement.

Image by Bethany Carlson, stock.xchng

Alexander’s Three Steps to Success in Anything

person-writing

Is there something that you love to do, that you’d like to do better? Maybe it’s your Alexander Technique. Or maybe writing, or singing (my two current obsessions), or running… Maybe you’d like some advice on how to do these things better? Well…

Over the past week I’ve read three separate blogs by three thoroughly different writers, and all three have had the same theme: the importance of doing the work.

The first was by Seth Godin, and was called Talker’s Block. He wrote about the fact that people don’t eveer complain about not being able to talk – they just get on with it, because they don’t necessarily care about the quality of every word they speak. Yet writers can fall into the trap of caring about every word they write, to the point where they can stop writing altogether. What would happen if they just wrote a certain amount every day, and worried about the quality later?

The second article was by Chris Guillebeau. He wrote about the fact that writing a very large number of words, and more importantly, writing them regularly, was the key to his ability to write effective prose fairly quickly. The quality didn’t come first; the word count did.

Finally, author Sarah Duncan told a story about artist JMW Turner, who while out sketching was accosted by an admirer who wished to buy his sketch. When Turner asked for sixty guineas for a sketch that took 10 minutes to produce, the admirer was astonished. ‘Ah yes,’ JMW Turner is supposed to have replied.  ’10 minutes, and 40 years of experience.’ In other words,if you do something often enough for long enough, you are going to achieve a level of proficiency. Maybe even mastery.

This is something my singing teacher has been trying to tell me for… well, I am embarrassed to tell you how long. He doesn’t emphasise quantity of practice. He emphasises consistency and regularity.

You need to do the work.

This is something that FM Alexander also emphasised, and was the key to the creation of the work we call the Alexander Technique. If you read the chapter called Evolution of a Technique that describes the process of creation, you will notice all the references to time or consistent practice and experimentation. For example:

“I repeated the act many times…”
“I recited again and again in front of the mirror…”
“…all I could do was to go on patiently experimenting before the mirror. After some months…”
“It is difficult to describe here in detail my various experiences during this long period…” *

And all these references occur within three pages. There are plenty more in the rest of the chapter.

Doing the work

Okay, you say to me. We get it. If we want to be good at this Alexander stuff, or anything else for that matter, we need to work. But how do we do that?

Helpfully, Alexander told us that, too. He is quoted by a number of writers, including his niece Marjory Barlow, as saying this:

You can do what I do, if you do what I did.

So we need to:

  • Experiment. Try stuff out. Play. Have fun.
  • Do it a lot. By which I mean, do a bit every day.
  • Give ourselves the luxury of time. We live in a culture that expects instant results. This is far too great a burden to place on ourselves. If we give ourselves time, we take away a layer of stress and pressure to succeed. And that means, funnily enough, that we’ll be more relaxed and open, and therefore in the best condition to achieve success.

Success, according to Alexander, isn’t rocket science, and it isn’t a mystery. It’s just a matter of doing the work.

And we can all do that. Can’t we?

 

FM Alexander, Use of the Self in the Irdeat Complete Edition, pp.413-415.
Image by kristja, stock.xchng

Trust vs. Proof: Alexander Technique and ‘Getting it Right’

Today’s post is inspired by my students who ask me ‘Am I getting it right?’ What I want to talk about is:

  • What my students are really asking for
  • How this relates to the difference between proof and trust

‘Am I getting it right?’

This is a common question in lessons. Typically a student had a good experience in last week’s lesson, and they’ve been so inspired that they’ve thought about it all week. They come in, sit down, and say something like, “I’ve thought about this thing all week. And I’m wondering, am I doing it right now?”

That is what the student says. But if I probe, their underlying meaning is usually this: “I think I’m doing better with this thing. But I want you as an expert to agree with that.”

They’ve worked hard. They think they’re doing okay. But they want me to validate their opinion. They want proof.

proof

Proof

One of my favourite movies is called, amusingly, Proof. It’s a little-known Australian flick starring Hugo Weaving and Russell Crowe (pre-Gladiator), and is about a blind photographer. Well, that’s the way it was sold. It is actually about a blind man (Martin) who has an overwhelming distrust of other people. He photographs the world so that he has some sort of objective ‘proof’ that their spoken versions of the world are truthful. The tag line on the posters was ‘Before love comes trust. Before trust comes proof.’

Of course, the whole point of the movie was that Martin is setting his standards impossibly high. He expects those close to him to be perfectly truthful and consistent all the time. And he wants proof of this before he will trust them. But there will never be sufficient proof. In the course of the movie, Martin is forced to learn that everyone makes a mistake, and that the nature of love and friendship is such that if he wants friends, Martin will have to trust first, and forgive if necessary.

In other words, trust and proof are not conditional. In fact, they are could almost be said to be mutually exclusive. If you need proof of something, then you aren’t trusting.

Trust, proof and FM Alexander

This is something that FM Alexander had to learn. At the end of his lengthy experiments that led to the work we now call the Alexander Technique, Alexander realised that he needed to have “trust in my reasoning processes to bring me safely to my ends,” and that it needed to be “a genuine trust’ not a half-trust needing the assurance of feeling right as well.” *

Yet in the very next sentence, Alexander says that he decided he “must at all costs work out some plan by which to obtain concrete proof ” that his process was successful.

Hm.

Well, by sheer dint of hard thinking and ever such a lot of practice, Alexander came up with a plan that would give him the concrete proof that he desired. At the time. But when he wrote his final published work in 1941, Alexander could say this:

“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.. We should reserve all thought, energy and concern for the means whereby we may command the manner of their coming.” **

I don’t know about you, but if I had two boxes, one labelled Proof and one labelled Trust, and I had to put this quote in just one of them, I’d be choosing the Trust box.

Lesson of the day

If we use our tremendous powers of reasoning, make a plan, then stick to the plan; if we keep sticking to the plan; then we will have success. It is inevitable. So do you want proof? Or are you brave enough to trust in yourself? Tell me in the comments!

 

* FM Alexander, Use of the Self in the Irdeat Complete edition, p.427.

** FM Alexander, The Universal Constant in Living in the Irdeat complete edition, p.587.

Don’t stay being a victim!

chasm

This post is likely to get me into trouble and upset a few people. Why? Because today I want to talk about the concept of being a victim, and the place of self-responsibility in the Alexander Technique.

Over the years I’ve been teaching, I’ve met students who’ve had some really tough things happen to them. Near fatal car accidents, severe motorbike accidents, physical violence, workplace bullying, sudden and severe health scares… Nasty things. Things that we wouldn’t wish on anyone. Some of my students have suffered physical or emotional agony that has persisted, in some cases, for years.

We probably all know people who have suffered something in those realms. Perhaps one of you reading this article today is in a similar situation. And it is you in particular that I want to talk to. Because I have realised something important: my students who have suffered all have one thing in common. They are remarkable for the way in which they handled the events that have struck and laid their lives waste.

How did my students react to being a victim of nasty events or circumstances? By not being a victim.

 

The two meanings of victim

In that last paragraph I deliberately used the word ‘victim’ in two different ways. In the first sentence I used the word as you would speak of a victim of crime; to quote the Oxford English Dictionary, “one who suffers severely in body or property through cruel or oppressive treatment,” or even in the softer sense of “one who suffers hardship, injury or loss.”* In other words, someone who has had something unpleasant happen to them. This is a noun. It is a statement of fact.

Sometimes, however, the term ‘victim’ moves from being a noun, a fact, to becoming a decriptor or a label. It becomes an identity in which people can clothe themselves. And it can be such a danger.

I’m sure we’ve all known people who have failed to move on from an incident which hurt them. Years later, they still refer back to the incident, speaking of it in similar terms as soon after the incident happened. They just don’t seem to be able to let it go. And as we look at them, we see that in some way they are stuck, sometimes physically, sometimes mentally, in a way that is not helpful to them or to anyone else around them. It is a painful thing to witness.

This concept of victimisation led author Melody Beattie to write:

“We do not have to be so victimized by life… We are not victims. We do not have to be victims. That is the whole point! … We can do what we need to do to take care of ourselves… If we can’t do anything about the circumstance, we can change our attitude. We can do the work within: courageously face our issues so we are not victimized… We are victims no more unless we want to be.”**

And Melody should know. She survived drug and alcohol dependency, divorce, co-dependency and the death of a child. She knows about pain and suffering, and she knows about the necessity of moving on.

So what tools can the Alexander Technique supply to help with this? Two very powerful concepts – self-responsibility and the freedom to choose.

1. Self responsibility. Think about the event that happened. Ask yourself if there was anything that you did/said/did not do/did not say that contributed to the event. If no, then great! If yes, then you’ve got a great place to start learning and healing and moving forward. This is the equivalent of FM Alexander asking “was [it] something that I was doing … that was the cause of the trouble?”*** It’s a simple question, and yet so very powerful.

2. Choice. The bad event has happened, or is happening. Ask yourself if you are able to choose your response to that event. This is what Alexander did when he began his investigations into how to alleviate his vocal problems. He realised that  he needed to “make the experience of receiving the stimulus to speak and of refusing to do anything immediately in response.”**** For example, one of my students historically had a terrible relationship with her parents. Through reading FM’s words, she decided to see if she could make the experience of receiving the stimulus of being with her parents, but refuse to do anything immediately in response. What she discovered was that she could create the space in which to choose to respond without her usual rancour. What her parents said still irked her; she simply chose not to respond to it.

 

Don’t get me wrong – I know this is a tough ask. I know that what I am suggesting is difficult, and may even seem practically impossible. And yet it is the way forward. I’m not asking you to believe me. Believe Melody. Believe my students. And believe in yourself.

 

* Oxford English Dictionary online, http://www.oed.com
** Melody Beattie, The Language of Letting Go, Hazelden, pp.209-210.
*** FM Alexander, Use of the Self in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.412.
**** ibid., p.424.

 

Why BBC Apprentice Tom’s back pain chair won’t work!

chair

The BBC TV series The Apprentice finished on Sunday when inventor Tom Pellereau won Lord Sugar’s £250 000 investment. I’ve like Tom all the way through the series, so I was a very happy viewer. There was, however, one moment in the programme when I simply hooted with laughter: when Tom first announced his business plan. Tom plans to create an anti back pain chair that will prevent injury and discomfort. This is his explanation of his business plan about 12 minutes into the final episode:

“The business is to save organisations money by reducing the personal and financial cost of back pain…The business is two-fold. It’s a service to measure the likelihood of employees having back pain, and it’s a set of chairs or furniture that will actually help you to train those muscles so that you’re much, much less likely to have back pain or other problems in the future.”*

Tom’s goal here is a good and noble one (even if Lord Sugar didn’t like it a bit!). Back pain and musculo-skeletal conditions generally are a major cause of workplace absence. When Dame Carol Black wrote a report on occupational health for the UK government in 2009, the economists working with her estimated the cost of workplace absence generally at one hundred billion pounds per year – with musculo-skeletal disorders being the most significnt culprit.**

So Tom’s instincts are correct. Back pain is a major issue in the UK. It is a major issue for employers.

So why do I say that Tom’s chair idea won’t work?

Tom is basing his whole business plan on two assumptions:

1. Back pain is caused by weak muscles

2. A back pain chair can be designed that will fix the weak muscles.

Let’s take these two points.

 

The Fallacy of Weak Muscles

There are any number of people out there, usually trying to sell you fancy chairs or shoes, that will tell you that any problems you may have with poise or posture are the result of weak muscles. Alexander puts it  little differently. He says that such problems are caused by undue rigidity in some muscles and undue flccidity in other muscles; but that the rigidity is found “in those parts of the muscular mechanism which are forced to perform duties other than those intended by nature.”

In other words, we use our bodies in ways other than intended by nature, for whatever reason. Some muscles then have to overwork to achieve the misuse. So Tom’s solution wouldn’t work, because it doesn’t deal with the misuse, and it doesn’t deal with the overworked muscles. In fact, it would try to strengthen the weak ones, so that all the muscles would be overworking!

And just in case the reader didn’t get his point, Alexander said, “all conscious effort exerted in attempts at physical actions causes in the great majority of people today such tension of the muscular system concerned as to led to exaggeration rather than eradication of the defects already present.” ***

 

Chairs are not the answer.

Chairs were the subject of my very first article, Teach the Chairs? In it I talked about the fact that, in Alexander’s view, chairs just don’t solve the problem. And it makes sense. If it is our misuse that causes the muscular rigidity in the first place, can we really expect that just purchasing a piece of furniture is going to fix the misuse?

We are smarter than furniture. Put bluntly, if we want to slump about, not even the fanciest ergonomic chair is going to stop us for long. If we have certain fixed ideas or erroneous preconceptions about what we need to do to sit at our computer, the provision of a fancy chair may make our employer feel better, but the chair cannot work on our misconceptions and change our thinking. Only we can do that.

Luckily, Lord Sugar didn’t much like the chair idea. He preferred the nail files. I admire his good judgement.

* Transcribed from the BBC TV programme The Apprentice. See www.bbc.co.uk/apprentice
** Dame Carol Blck interviewed by Mark Porter on Radio 4, Case Notes, 7 April 2009.
*** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.62.
Image by winnond, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

You’re hired! Why FM Alexander would win The Apprentice

sir-alan-sugar-boardroom

The BBC TV series The Apprentice is my not-so-secret obsession. I love watching it. There is much that this programme can teach you about how (and how NOT) to set up and run a business, and how to deal with people. For those of you who don’t watch the show, this is how it works. At the beginning of the series, sixteen candidates come to London to vye for the chance to run a business (and a £250 000 investment) with entrepreneur Lord Sugar. Each week the candidates are split into two groups and given tasks relating to selling, branding, marketing and entrepreneurial skill. And each week one candidate from the losing team is fired.

While watching the most recent series, I’ve come to notice something very important. I think I’ve found the secret of Apprentice success. It’s the reason why so often the candidates fail in the tasks set for them by Lord Sugar. It’s the reason why FM Alexander, were he alive and interested, would be a strong contender to be hired. And, even more exciting, it is a secret of success that transcends mere televisual entertainment.

Have I got your attention yet?! Good!

 

First … Why the candidates fail.

Every week’s Apprentice episode begins with Lord Sugar calling all the candidates together (usually very early in the morning) and explaining the new task to them. He does this succinctly, carefully and thoroughly. For example, in last week’s episode, the candidates were called to a warehouse, and the teams given pallets of goods to sell. These are the instructions Lord Sugar gave the six contestants:

I’ve got you an arrangement of goods over here… I expect you to sell that stuff as quick as possible and smell which item is the best seller. Come back to places like this and buy some more and just keep going… At the end of the two day period you’ll have some stock left over, which is fine. We’re gonna count the value of the stock and the money in your hand and at the end of the task the team that has the greatest amount of assets left will win…It’s the simple principle of business – turning your money over, increasing your assets.”*

Clear instructions. A simple task, yes?

No, apparently not. Both groups strayed from Lord Sugar’s instructions. They variously failed to reinvest, or didn’t restock the bestsellers, or decided to sell to high street retailers instead of the public, or stopped restocking from fear of being left with unsold stock at the end of the task. And this isn’t an uncommon experience – it happens almost every week!

So what happens? Why do the candidates fail to follow Lord Sugar’s instructions? As far as I can see, the answer is very simple. They allow their enthusiasm to dominate their reason.

 

Enthusiasm vs. Reason.

FM Alexander recognised as early as 1910 the danger of allowing one’s enthusiasm to run away unbridled. Recalling his creation of the work we now call the Alexander Technique, he wrote:

“one of the greatest, if not the greatest danger against which I had to fight was my own enthusiasm… I should never have worked out my principles, if I had allowed it to dominate my reason.” **

A £250 000 investment is a strong motivating factor for any individual. I suspect that, in their efforts to stand out from the crowd and (hopefully) please Lord Sugar, the candidates let their enthusiasm run away. They forget about the task. They forget the instructions. Each week one candidate or another becomes fixated on an idea or concept (in episode 7 it was Melody and Helen wanting to sell to retailers instead of the general public), and allows this to skew their decision-making processes to the point where the original goal of the task is totally lost.

This is, of course, what makes the programme such good viewing. We love to see Lord Sugar’s aides Nick Hewer and Karen Brady shake their heads in amazement at the bizarre decisions that are made. Indeed, we enjoy it so much that when one of the contestants, Tom Pellereau, began the series by taking notes during Lord Sugar’s opening address, the viewing public mocked him mercilessly.

But aren’t we all guilty of this, at least on occasion? How many of us lose sight of our goals, allowing our enthusiasms and transitory whims to sidetrack us and take us away from what we really want to achieve?

 

Simple Steps to Success… FM – You’re Hired!

So why would FM Alexander be such a strong candidate on The Apprentice? Because he kept his enthusiasm in check. He never lost sight of his goal, and worked according to principle.

What does this mean in practice? Well, I can imagine FM sitting neatly on the packing cases in the warehouse. He would listen carefully – very carefully – to Lord Sugar. He would take note of the goal of the exercise. Then he would analyse the conditions present. He would look at the stock on the pallet, and take note of the location of the selling pitches. He would take note of warehouse locations.

Then he would start to plan the steps that would lead him to his goal of having the most assts. He would take care to send stock to each location where it would be most likely to appeal to the passing customers. When stock began to sell, I can imagine FM sending one of his team off to the warehouse to purchase more. And if circumstances changed and items began to stagnate on the stalls, I can imagine FM being flexible enough in his thinking to alter his strategy to make the best of the current conditions.***

So these are the steps to success:

  1. Keep your goal in mind.
  2. Analyse the conditions present
  3. Construct a series of steps to lead you from the conditions present towards your goal.
  4. Carry out those steps, but be flexible enough to change if circumstances demand it.

What is your goal? What are your present conditions? What is the first, smallest step you can take towards your goals from where you are now? Tell me in the comments!

 

 

* Transcribed by me from Episode 7, Flip It. See www.bbc.co.uk/apprentice for episode details.
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition of Alexander’s books, p.90.
*** I apologise if you find my use of FM here a little flippant, or not sufficiently respectful. From my reading of Frank Pierce Jones and other authors, I have a strong faith in FM’s sense of humour. I hope he wouldn’t mind!

Turning Off Your Limiter

shower

Yesterday, I was working with one of my students – a lovely man called Ian – on standing and looking up to the ceiling. To begin with, Ian’s head came forwards to look at the floor quite happily. Looking up to the ceiling, however, was a different matter. It just didn’t happen. His neck wouldn’t extend at all. After some discussion about necks and what they are capable of (in theory, you understand!), a bit of hands-on work and some gentle cajolery, Ian’s neck extended just a little, and he looked in the direction of the ceiling. Wht follows is what happened next, as closely as I can remember it.*

“What do you notice about that?” I asked.
“Someone’s pushed the red button,” Ian said.
“What do you mean?” I asked, puzzled.
“On the electric shower. The shower has a limiter to stop the water getting too hot for children. If you want warmer water, you press a red button and the limiter turns off.”
“Ah,” I replied. “So your neck had a limiter?”
“Yes.”
“And it’s just switched off?”
“Yes,” Ian said.
“Cool!” 

What a great image this is. Ian had a ‘limiter’ that impeded the flexibility of his neck – but it wasn’t hard-wired  like the limiter on the electric shower. Ian found that he had a limiter in his thinking. For whatever reason, he had developed a belief that he couldn’t move his neck in such a way that he could look at the ceiling. The belief led to the impeded movement.

FM Alexander talked about exactly this phenomenon in 1910. He said, “the majority of people fall into a mechanical habit of though quite as easily as they fall into the mechanical habit of body which is the immediate consequence.”**

So how do we turn off these ‘limiters’, these “trifling habits of thought” that stop us from moving as freely and flexibly as we’d like? Today I want to give you a couple of warnings of things that DON’T work, and pointers on something that DOES.

 

Things that DON’T work: Try Harder!

It is really tempting, when faced with a limitation, to just throw more energy at it and hope that it works. This is the strategy I used to use as a musician when faced with a musical phrase that was too tricky for me to play. I’d worry about it all the way up to the troublesome phrase, then just go faster and throw more energy and muscular effort into my fingers and hope that it would work.

It didn’t.

Alexander says that this is a little like placing dependence upon a thermometer that we know is defective. It’s human, but it’s not sensible.

 

Things that DON’T work: Finding out WHY…

When faced with a seemingly random and puzzling limitation – like an inability to turn one’s head towards the ceiling – some students become fascinated with the origin of the limitation. “Why do I do that?” they ask. I don’t know why they do it. More to the point, I don’t really care.

Now, before you accuse me of callousness, let me explain why I say this. You see, knowledge of WHY doesn’t help the behaviour to go away. Stopping the behaviour helps it to go away. My experience as a teacher is that the students who become most obsessed with why they do the things they do, take longest to stop the limiting behaviours and improve. The search for why turns into a “fascinating bypath” (Alexander’s phrase) that leads nowhere useful.

 

Things that DO work: Using Your Head

Alexander comfortingly says that there isn’t a single habit of mind (or resultant habit of body) which may not be altered. Great! But how? By the inculcation (learning) of the principles concerning the true poise of the body, and using them in co-operation with an understanding of the powers of the objective mind. Put simply, we need to learn just how powerful the mind is, and put it to good use.

Most of us never really think too much about the things that we do as we do them. When, for example, was the last time you thought about how to look up to the ceiling, or get out of a chair, or walk, before you did them? But this is what Alexander asks us to do. He asks us to actually pay attention to what we do and how we do it. He asks us to use the power of our objective minds to analyse and plan our movements, and then to follow the plans we’ve devised. If we use our reasoning powers, we will begin to experience the power of the principles that underly all easy and efficient movement.

 

Is it hard work? Sometimes. Is it infuriating? Yep, sometimes.

But does it bring rewards? Yes. Definitely yes. And if you don’t believe me, just ask my student Ian.

 

* A couple of points about this. First, it’s part of the training I received as a teacher in the Interactive Teaching Method for the teaching of the Technique of FM Alexander (ITM AT teacher for short) that accurate recall of a student’s words – or even whole exchanges – is considered essential for good teaching. If you want to know more about this, just email and ask me.

Second, I asked Ian’s permission to quote him and credit it with his name.

** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.52.
Image by Alex France, stock.xchng

Why exercises won’t help (and three things that do!)

When I was younger I was a devotee of aerobics. I was far too embarrassed about my body to actually darken the doors of a gym, so I used to watch a TV programme called Aerobics Oz Style. Each day I’d get myself into my exercise shoes, turn on the TV, and prance up and down to the music, doing my best to follow the commands of the instructors.

Each episode of the show would have one instructor and at least 2 other people (usually female, often blonde) helping to demonstrate the movements. It was a well-produced programme, and the producers chose their instructors and demonstrators well – they were qualified, well-regarded within their profession, and frequently had been competitors and even winners of Aerobics Championships. (Yes, there really is such a thing!)

This was long before I had even heard of the Alexander Technique. But even then, as a wannabe actress, I had sufficient powers of observation to notice something really interesting about the instructors on the show. They were all doing broadly the same movements at the same time. But they didn’t look the same. In fact, if you looked closely, sometimes you could see that they weren’t really doing the same movements at all. And if you experimented and tried out the different movements – say, with a particular armline – you would realise that the different ways the instructors were moving their arms would actually cause different muscles to be exercised.

The instructors were not deliberately doing slightly different things. I think they genuinely and honestly thought that they were all demonstrating exactly the same movement. And yet they were different.

Why does an exercise give different effects on different people?

Simple: because they’re different people. There is a section of FM Alexander’s fourth book where he discusses exactly this point: that a set of exercises could be responsible for different effects in different people. “how could it be otherwise?” Alexander asks.They exist in different private universes, and have different ideas about how their bodies can and should work.  So just as different people walk and speak differently, so they will carry out a set of exercises differently, and will receive different effects as a result.

So why don’t I give out exercises?

Because it could do more harm than good.

Even if we stuck with the basic principle that giving a specific exercise for a specific problem could help that problem directly (and FM has a lot to say about that), there’s still the problem of the private universes. If it is true that every person will have a slightly different conception of how their body works, what the exercise involves, how to do it, etc., then everyone will do the exercise differently. And I as a teacher can have no real idea of exactly what effects my student will get. I woul be a poor teacher if I recommended something and didn’t know if it would work!

If exercises don’t work, what does?!

In his fourth book, at one point Alexander likens humankind to ill-controlled pieces of machinery. He says that “in ordinary mechanics, if we knew that the control or controls of  machine were out of order, we should at once decide to have them put right before expecting the machine to show the mechanical stability and usefulness of which it is capable.”*

In other words, we don’t need to load ourselves up with more things to do – we need to fix the controlling mechanisms, and get the gremlins out that are causing us to malfunction. And how do we do that? Here are three ideas:

1. Paying attention to what we are doing. How often do you actually notice what you do with your body when you are walking or driving a car? One of my students was shocked recently to discover how tightly he gripped the steering wheel.

2. Having a plan for what we’re doing. Have you ever thought about what you actually need to do to walk, or use a computer keyboard?

3. Not leaping into action. Do you jump up as soon as the phone rings? What about trying to receive that stimulus, refuse to do anything immediately in response, and then think about whether you really want to answer?

Alexander wanted us to think. He wanted us to have conscious reasoned contol of our potentialities. With the best will in the world, exercises aren’t going to get us there. But trying out the three ideas above just might.

*FM Alexander, The Universal Constant in Living in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.561.