Big questions: will I ever be able to do Alexander Technique myself?

"Can I ever do Alexander Technique myself?" Can I have the independence of this flying white ibis?

Today’s post is another instalment in my occasional series on the Big Questions that beginning students very often ask me. Last time I talked about the sorts of homework I give students to do between Alexander Technique lessons. We learned that, yes, there is homework, and that what I typically give people to do are tasks that blend the physical and mental aspects of the Technique.

This week I want to talk about the question that every student wants to ask me, but that few have the courage to put into words: will I ever be able to do Alexander Technique myself? Will I ever be good enough that I won’t need lessons any more?

The creator’s view

FM Alexander, the creator of what we now call the Alexander Technique, was very clear on this point. In the preface of his very first book he wrote:

I wish to do away with such teachers as I am myself. My place in the present economy is due to a misunderstanding of the causes of our present physical disability, and when this disability is finally eliminated the specialized practitioner will have no place, no uses. [1]

Alexander wanted to be so successful in getting people thinking and moving more efficiently that he wanted to remove the need for his own profession! This means that you – and your teacher – should be aiming for independence. You really should be aiming to be able to carry on the processes that enable you to change your thinking and movement by yourself. Alexander couldn’t be more clear.

How far do you want to go? Levels of proficiency.

While Alexander is clear that he wants us all to be able to do this for ourselves, as a teacher I also have to be mindful of what the student wants. When a student says to me, “I want to be able to do Alexander Technique myself,” they could mean a number of things. One student might consider themselves satisfied at a point where another student feels they are just beginning their journey. Let’s think of it in terms of ‘levels of proficiency’.

I once had a student who came for lessons for constant back pain. After six lessons she decided she was better and didn’t need more lessons. She was happy; she only got back pain if she hoovered, and she could get her boyfriend to do that. That particular student had reached a sufficient level of proficiency for her own purposes.

By contrast, I have also had students who have decided they wanted to train to become Alexander Technique teachers. They felt that in order to really be able to ‘do’ Alexander Technique at the level they desired, they needed the in-depth study that teacher training provides.

Which students were doing it right? They all were. They made a decision about what being able to ‘do Alexander Technique myself’ meant, and then stuck with it. This means that you too may need to decide if you have a specific stopping place in mind. At what point will you be satisfied?

Continuing development

Even students who feel that they have progressed to a high level of independence and proficiency sometimes come back for occasional lessons. In the music world this is considered completely normal. Even top-flight soloists will see a teacher occasionally, just for a bit of external input.

I have more than one student who will come back every few months when they get stuck, or just feel they could use some extra input. And some students don’t come back for a physical lesson: one student tweeted me out of the blue after a gap of several years, to ask me a very specific question. I tweeted a reply; they replied that it was exactly the help they needed, and went away happy!

Independence to interdependence

This work is designed to promote, as FM Alexander put it, “continuous individual cultivation of fundamental, constructive conscious control of the human psycho-physical organism and its potentialities.” [2] I would suggest that recognition of the interdependence of people is a fundamental part of this cultivation of our conscious control. No person is an island. It is absolutely true that you can do this work for yourself – that’s how Alexander designed it. But don’t forget that there is a power and strength in recognising if/when you need an extra pair of eyes and a different viewpoint to help you out. When you’re at that point, I’m ready and waiting to help.

[1] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.5.

[2] Alexander, F.M., Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, NY, Ireat, 1997, p.391.

Image by Charles J Sharp / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Big questions: how hard will I have to work between Alexander Technique lessons?

This is my audio download album image - a great way to guide your work between Alexander Technique lessons.

Today I’m once more returning to my occasional series on the Big Questions that beginning students very often ask me. Last time I addressed the issue of exercises. We learned that if you come to me for lessons (either in person or by Skype), I won’t necessarily give you exercises to do between lessons in the way that we normally think of them. I do, however, give people things to do. So what constitutes work between Alexander Technique lessons, and how hard will it be?

Work between Alexander Technique lessons is physical AND mental

Last time I wrote that:

Alexander Technique, because it is about the mental as well as the physical, is really not going to be a best-fit with ‘move some limbs around while checking social media’ types of movement. Some mental focus is likely to be needed![1]

We always need to remember that the Alexander Technique is a psycho-physical process. As FM Alexander wrote in 1923,

We all think and act (except when forced to do otherwise) in accordance with the peculiarities of our particular psycho-physical make-up.[2]

This means that if we want to make a change to what we are doing physically, it is a good idea to work on improving the mental as well as the physical aspects of the activity. Indeed, we are unable to change the physical without changing the mental! This being so, working on what and how we think is a vital part of the way we improve.

This means that even the more apparently physical things that I give my students to do between lessons are actually not purely physical – you have to put in (a little bit of) mental focus. However, because I also know that a little bit of focus goes a long way, I always say to my beginning students that I’m only asking for a maximum of two minutes a day – and they don’t even need to be sequential!

Examples of work between Alexander lessons: what do my students do?

The following are examples of some of the things that I may give my students to work on between lessons. Some of them are games. Some are experiments. One or two are designed to be done regularly and may surprise people who think of me as a very non-traditional Alexander Technique teacher. Everything that I give a student to do, however, is given because it is relevant to that student’s present situation and their learning goals. All experiments, games, practices and homework are tailored to the individual.

With that idea in mind, here are some of the favourites:

The 50% less game

Can you do a particular activity with half the effort? One that works well with pens, shopping trolleys, buggies and toothbrushes (no death grip, please!). It is to be used with caution in the kitchen, and with extreme caution when behind the wheel of the car.

Movements to play with

I will often run through the different types of motion possible in certain joints. I then encourage my student to work on isolating each movement. This not only helps with disciplining thinking – it can be surprising tricky to move just one joint in one particular plane – but also gives practice for when students go into activity. For example, a violin student who has worked on the difference between their acromio-clavicular joint and their gleno-humeral joint is going to find it far easier to raise their violin to a playing position.

Giving directions without attempting to do them

I will often suggest that my students follow Alexander’s example, and try giving directions without attempting to do them. This mental practice gives you a more thorough knowledge of the protocol you’ve designed, so that it will be easier to take into activity.

Constructive Rest

This one might surprise some people. I do sometimes recommend a version of the traditional AT semi-supine, in which you lie on your back, with your knees in the air and your feet flat on the floor. I don’t recommend it for the rest – although I’m sure all of us feel like we could do with a rest occasionally – so much as for the thinking you can do while you’re there. Many of my students find it’s a great place to experiment with their shoulder muscles or their breathing.

Ideas and notions

A vague title for the collection of concepts and little things that come up that I suggest students might want to think about between lessons. This might be anything from ‘put the instrument down mentally as well as physically if you’re not playing it’ through to, ‘jaws go flappy-flappy’ (and yes, that is a direct quote from a recent class!).

As you can see, my students are not left without something to do after a lesson! But I always try to make the work between Alexander Technique lessons fun. After all, if something is fun, we’re more likely to want to do it.

Tools to help – my audio download series

If you’re between lessons or working on your own and you feel like you’d benefit from a little more guidance as you work, you could try out my audio download collection. It’s a series of tracks that talk you through some basic movements, such as going from sitting to standing, walking, and using a keyboard/mouse. It’s available from Bandcamp.

[1] https://activateyou.com/2020/02/alexander-technique-exercises/

[2] Alexander, F.M., Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.304.

Big questions: will you give me Alexander Technique exercises to practice?

Are there Alexander Technique exercises - the equivalent of these dumbbells?

Today I’m returning to my occasional series on the Big Questions that beginning students very often ask me. Today, it’s the issue of exercises. If you come to me for lessons (either in person or by Skype), will I give you special Alexander Technique exercises to do between sessions?

Why people expect exercises

There are a couple of major reasons why beginning students ask for (and expect) Alexander Technique exercises to do between lessons: previous experience of other health/wellness professionals; and a belief in (or even need for) something to do when they don’t have direct involvement from a teacher. Let’s look at these in turn.

Past experience

When people first come for Alexander Technique lessons, they typically have tried a whole load of other things first. If they’ve come because of unresolved issues involving soreness, they’ve probably been to an osteopath or a chiropractor; they’ve almost certainly tried sports massage or physiotherapy. In many of these cases, the professional has given them exercises or stretches to carry out between sessions.

The trick is that Alexander Technique is really very different to healthcare, and different from wellness modalities that my students have experienced. Unlike sports massage, for example, which is a very physically-oriented thing, Alexander Technique is psycho-physically oriented. In other words, I help you to change the way you move by giving you the tools to change the way you think. In any lesson, my focus is actually primarily on the mental side of things. This means that I’m not likely to give a student exercises in the way they normally understand the term.

Having something to do

Because a lot of my students have a background in music or sports, they are fully on-board with the idea that doing some work between lessons is a good thing, because it helps speed improvement. Even for those without those backgrounds, their experiences with physiotherapists, for example, leads them to expect to be given stuff to do between sessions. And the sorts of exercises given between appointments tend to be lists of specific movements to make for a certain number of repetitions.

There are a couple of point to make about this. One is that, if my students are honest, they’ll admit that they don’t always do the exercises at the frequency they were told. Sometimes they also admit that they left the office of the healthcare professional not completely understanding how to do the exercise properly, or even exactly what the exercise was designed to improve. Finally, ALL of my students (even the sportspeople and musicians) will admit to not always having their mind ‘on the job’ when doing the requested work between sessions. It’s so easy to lose concentration and carry things out mindlessly, and yet still be able to tick it off your to-do list and feel a little virtuous.

Alexander Technique, because it is about the mental as well as the physical, is really not going to be a best-fit with ‘move some limbs around while checking social media’ types of movement. Some mental focus is likely to be needed!

The other reason why Alexander Technique exercises are problematic

The other key issue around exercises relates to one of the fundamental ideas of the Alexander Technique: your manner of use of yourself is the thing that’s causing you problems. When FM Alexander followed the doctor’s advice that wasn’t successful in solving his vocal problems, he came to ask this question:

Is it not fair … to conclude that is was something I was doing that evening in using my voice that was the cause of the trouble? [1]

If the problem lies in the way we go about our activities, it follows that we’d take that manner of use of ourselves into the carrying out of any exercises I was to hand out. We’d actually be practising our old inefficient way of using ourselves, while also congratulating ourselves for being virtuous and doing ‘something useful’.

Alexander wrote about exactly this problem with one of his students (who he disguises with the name John Doe):

What John Doe lacked was a conscious and proper recognition of the right uses of the parts of his muscular mechanism, since while he still uses such parts wrongly, the performance of physical exercises will only increase the defects. He will, in fact, merely copy some other person in the performance of a particular exercise, copy him in the outward act, while his own consciousness of the act performed and the means and uses of his muscular mechanism will remain unaltered. Therefore before he attempts any form of physical development, he must discover, or find some one who can discover for him, what his defects are in the uses indicated. [2]

The verdict for exercises

As you’ve probably guessed by now, I don’t give students a list of Alexander Technique exercises to complete. Because I want to give people tools to change the way they think, it would quite simply be counter-productive! But that doesn’t mean that students are left with nothing to do between lessons. So what do I give people to work on? Come back next week and find out!

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

[2] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, NY, Irdeat, p.61.

Photo by Keith McDuffee [CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

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 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