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the act of going through (and discarding) possessions enables one to put to rest any decisions that now seem wrong or outdated.[2]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

Four steps to positive change: 2. Analyse conditions present

In his chapter Evolution of a Technique, FM Alexander gave us a simple set of instructions for how to develop a new plan for activity that we can use to replace our usual habitual way of going about  things. In this 2nd instalment of a 4 part blog series, I want to examine another of the steps to positive change that form Alexander’s method of reasoning our way to a better use of ourselves. Today, we are going to analyse conditions present.

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

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

(1) to analyse the conditions of use present;

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

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

Why analyse conditions present?

Having defined a goal, one needs to start creating a path towards it. But in order to do that, you have to know – or at least have a glimmer of an idea – of your starting point. If we extend the ‘path’ analogy for a moment: in order to get to a destination, I have to plane a route. And that is a whole lot easier if I know where I am. I am sure pretty much everyone has been in the situation of being in a new city and trying to get to a particular tourist destination, and having trouble working out exactly where you are right this minute!

In order to be able to speak without hoarseness, Alexander needed to analyse what he was doing with his vocal (and other) mechanisms. He needed to make observations of what was happening now.

Internal and external

So if you wanted to, for example, improve your golf swing, you would need to analyse what you are doing with your body currently as you perform that action. You would need to think about muscles and joints you are using, and the sequence in which they are used.

However, don’t leave your analysis there! Also think about the external situation. Again, using the golfing analogy: look at the club you are using; the ball; the ground contours; the wind direction and strength. All of these will affect your golf swing and exactly how you would want to use it at that moment.

Analyse conditions present, not conditions past, or conditions future!

You’ll notice that I am emphasising analysing the conditions at the present moment. I am doing this for very good reasons.

First of all, if you want to improve your golf swing, part of the process of improvement is knowing that the swing will need to change according to the external conditions (like the ground and wind), and exactly what constitutes a good stroke at that particular moment. The idea of a ‘good’ golf swing is very context-dependent. (Or so my golfing students tell me…) I am certain that this is true for a huge number of other activities, too.

Second, I want you to avoid analysing conditions past or future. Sometimes in lessons a student will demonstrate an activity they want to improve – singing, for example – and when I ask what they noticed, they will say something like: “I’m not sure. But I probably pulled my head back.”

This student is assuming, for whatever reason, that they are doing the thing that they used to do when they first started lessons. They are giving me an analysis of conditions past, not what actually just happened. And when they do this, their analysis is almost always quite negative!

I also sometimes have students who won’t tell me what they just observed, but rather, tell me what they hope to have happen. This is analysing conditions future. This is just as useless to our process of path-building as analysing conditions past. To go back to the path-finding analogy; this is equivalent to spending your time looking at a map and imagining what the tourist destination will be like once you’re there. It’s fun, but it doesn’t give you any information about where you are starting from.

Analyse conditions present to gain evidence

Once you’ve done an analysis of conditions present, you have evidence about what is going on. You will have a good understanding of the particular context that is facing you at the present moment. From this, you will have a much clearer idea of what things you will need to change in order to achieve your goal.

Pretty much everyone has heard the maxim that knowledge is power. I would add that knowledge is clarity. Once you have evidence, you are no longer guessing. You are in the best position to make reasoned change – and that’s a powerful place to be.

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

photograph of Tiger Woods by U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Brien Aho.

How do you practise Alexander Technique?

Yellow sign - When you practise Alexander Technique you are a mind under construction.

Students often ask me how they should practise Alexander Technique. Often it’s the new students who ask, but sometimes the experienced ones do, too. We work on something in a lesson, and the student experiences a positive change. Understandably, they want the positive change to persist and even get better. So they ask me: “How should I work on this?”

And at this point I take a deep breath, because I’m about to say something to them that they may not like.

But before I tell you what I tell them, I’m going to explain why asking how to practise Alexander Technique is such a tricky question.

We think we know what practising looks like.

Most of us have either played a musical instrument, or been involved in sport, or trained for a 10k or a sponsored walk, or done something that involves practice. So we think we know what it is. A cello teacher, for example, might work with her student on making the shifts in a 3 octave C major scale, and suggest that the student just works on the shifts in order to get used to the movement pattern. Similarly, when I ran my first 10k race I followed a training plan that told me how often to run each week, and how long/fast each run should be.

Both of these are good examples of direct instruction. The teacher tells the student what to do, and the student (hopefully) goes away and does the thing they’ve been told to do. They are working on a skill, and they are working on it directly (on the instrument/pounding the pavement). 

In addition, the student isn’t necessarily thinking at all of the manner in which they are following the teacher’s instruction – it is possible for them to work on the skill without really considering the way they are using themselves at all. They are taking their current general condition of use into improving the specific skill.

Working indirectly

We know that we don’t have to practise ‘on the instrument’ all the time, but often I find students feel like they aren’t really practising unless they’ve actually held the violin for a set number of hours. However, working indirectly – for example, doing a similar but unrelated activity – can be a great way to improve one’s skill.  I discovered this recently with my running. I started doing daily yoga just as a bit of fun, and then discovered that running up hills seemed much easier because I’d gained significantly more leg strength!

Sometimes even just allowing oneself to stop focussing so hard on something and having a break (or a daydream) can be hugely beneficial. There’s a ton of literature available now demonstrating that allowing one’s brain to drift for a while in ‘default mode’ helps with creativity and problem-solving.[1] How often have you come back from a walk, or come out of the shower, and realised that you’ve solved the problem that was bothering you, without even apparently thinking about it?! That happens because you’re not thinking about it directly.

Unless there’s a good reason to do otherwise, we practise Alexander Technique by working indirectly. If a student has been crunching their torso down into their pelvis, for example, I probably won’t get them to specifically do anything to try and prevent the crunch. This would be working too directly and specifically – my student would try to use their old familiar ways of fixing problems and possibly end up in even more difficulty than they were before!

This is why, when my student asks me what they should do to practise Alexander Technique, I suggest that they ‘keep the lesson in mind.’ Bluntly, I want them to think about it, but not too closely.

Is that all?! Does just thinking about something really make a difference?

Simple answer: yes. For two reasons:

Changing point of view

FM Alexander was trying to get us to use our brains more effectively, and he firmly believed in the transformative power of a change in thinking. As I quoted last week, FM said early in his writing career,

A changed point of view is the royal road to reformation.[2]

If we take seriously the notion that we are a psycho-physical unity, then it must follow that a change in thinking will lead to a change in our entire psycho-physical organism.

Getting out of thought grooves

I also want us to take seriously the idea that we get stuck in grooves of thought just as surely as we get stuck in habitual patterns of movement. We think the same sorts of things in the same sorts of ways most of the time. So what FM also wants us to do is to re-examine our concept of thinking. And there’s plenty of evidence from the fields of neuroscience and psychology that our traditional ideas of good thinking – keep concentrating, keep focussed – might need some altering.

When I tell a student to keep the lesson details ‘in the back of their mind’, I’m trying to get across the idea that we spend a lot of our lives – too much – in focussed mode thinking, and that what most of us need is a bit more default mode time. We need to trust a little more in the power of daydreaming; we need to let our ideas change in the background while we do other things. If we do this, we will be playing with a new concept of thinking. And if we play with a new concept of thinking, we will change.

[1] My favourite author on this is Prof Barbara Oakley. See her book A Mind for Numbers, or her more recent publication Learning How to Learn, co-written with Terrence Sejnowski and Alistair McConville.

[2] Alexander, F.M, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT complete ed., p.44.

Image by Acrow005 from Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Are you really changing? Foundational change vs ‘getting better’.

Foundational change?

Foundational change happens at root-level, not in the canopy.

I spent some time interacting with a group of Alexander Technique students recently, and it took me a while to articulate something that I saw while I was with them. There was clearly a lot of improvement going on in these people’s lives, but some people had changed really significantly in ways that others didn’t seem to have. And it occurred to me: there are different levels of change. There is a difference between changing fundamental ideas and beliefs about oneself, as opposed to getting increasingly more adept and more efficient at the compensatory movements that we use to avoid having to change.

How might this show up in practice? A woodwind player might reach a very high standard of accomplishment on their instrument, but if they don’t address the issues that they have around breathing, for example, they may well find they reach a ceiling beyond which they can’t progress. An employee might be incredibly capable and effective, but if they have a self-limiting belief that they aren’t good at communicating or networking, they will always struggle to get their ideas across effectively.

Foundational change = a changed point of view

FM Alexander commented that 

a changed point of view is the royal road to reformation.[1]

However, he also recognised that changing one’s point of view could be difficult. 

experience of human idiosyncrasies has taught us that the most difficult thing to change is the point of view of subconsciously controlled mankind.[2]

In other words, most of us haven’t developed the tools or processes – the sheer mental discipline – to be able to change our point of view. We don’t possess the knowhow or the stamina to be able to examine the ideas and beliefs that are within our psycho-physical selves, and then alter them according to circumstance or new evidence. Foundational change, to be blunt, involves a degree of work, and you need the right tools.

Of course, the Alexander Technique is intimately concerned with developing the tools, processes, and stamina to be able to do just this. My job is to be able to help you change your psycho-physical self so you can become a better version of you. And part of that process sometimes involves assisting a person to improve the version of themselves that they currently hold, as opposed to challenging deeply-rooted foundational beliefs, though of course we do that too. To use a horticultural metaphor (borrowed a little from Henry David Thoreau), we can either work on pruning the new growth, or we can get to work on the roots.

Sometimes, thought, a student will work almost exclusively on pruning the ‘new growth’. They do become a better version of themselves, but not in the same foundational way as someone who tackles the root-level ideas and beliefs.

So why might a person decide to stick with canopy-level change? Why might someone shy away from the root-level improvement?

Canopy-level feels safer, and root-level change feels scary.

On the one hand this is human. Sometimes we do this sort of thing because the thing that most needs changing is so confronting and scary that we practise a form of denial and try to avoid it. Or the thing that needs changing is likely to take time and effort, and we really don’t relish the idea of beginning the process.

On the other hand, if we concentrate our efforts on improving the way we are using ourselves currently, we are effectively blocking off areas of our psycho-physical make-up from investigation and improvement. We’re fencing bits of ourselves off and ignoring them for the sake of making other areas better. This reminds me of one of my neighbours. He would spend a lot of time and effort working on the part of the garden closest to his house, but ignore the second part of the garden that was further away (and not immediately visible from the back door). One area was worked and reworked constantly; the other was left to weeds.

I am the last person to advocate taking away the comfort blanket of someone’s denial. I do also humbly and gently suggest, however, that as an approach to life, sticking with canopy-level change isn’t hugely healthy or satisfying. No matter how good we become at the compensatory movements and behaviours that make us feel like ourselves, we still aren’t dealing with ourselves as a whole. We will eventually reach a point where, like my neighbour, there is little more useful canopy-level tidying to be done. We need to move to the bits that are less visible, but will ultimately make a more significant and longer-lasting difference. In the end, foundational change is where our efforts should tend.

[1] Alexander, F.M, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT complete ed., p.44.

[2] ibid.

Image: Chamal N [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Mind your language use: the way you describe a thing changes it.

Has it ever occurred to you how important language use is to the way we describe the world? The words we use to describe a phenomenon don’t only describe it; in some sense, they also author it. The word usage gives the listener a sense of what you think about the phenomenon (and also what they should think about it). In a very real sense, the way we describe something creates it – it makes it in our psycho-physical image.

This being so, we can sometimes create problems for ourselves by our language use. We can use unhelpful word choices that skew our ability to perceive something for what it really is.

I want to give you two examples of words that I’ve heard to describe physical movement recently, and I want to contrast them with a different word to describe the same physical action. I want you to see how we can give away responsibility for our flaws by the language we use, and that by changing the words we can take back ownership; if we reclaim ownership of our problems, we also reclaim control of the solution.

Collapse

Suppose a student says to me that she ‘collapses’ in the mid-torso when she sits. What sense does this give? What other things ‘collapse’? The language used makes me think of buildings, or of towers of children’s building blocks. These things can collapse – if the underlying structure isn’t strong, or if a force acts upon it in the right way, then the tower falls.

But is the human torso really like that?

Flop

What if my student said that she ‘flops’ at a point in her mid-torso. Where else do you hear the word ‘flop’? I think of flopping onto a bed or into a sofa. Again, there’s this sense of things falling, of being acted upon by gravity.

In both cases, there is a sense of a lack of a controlling force. A tower of bricks doesn’t have a guiding intelligence. When I flop into bed, I am so tired I am barely awake – there’s very little guiding intelligence going on there, either!

Crunch

But what if my student decided to describe the folding in her mid-torso as a ‘crunch’? Does that make a difference?

Crunched up paper. Crunch is a better term for what happens to muscles than flop. Language use is important.

To my mind, yes. When I hear ‘crunch’, I think of two things. First of all, I think of the act of squeezing a piece of paper into a ball. The other thing that I think of is abdominal crunches – the exercise that trainers get you to do to improve the tone of your abdominal muscles.

You’ll notice that both of these images involve physical work, and they both involve something being contracted. The paper is made to contract into a ball; the abdominal muscles contract because they are working.

If my student describes her mid-torso phenomenon as a ‘crunch’, she is using a word that implies physical effort, and implies a controlling force. The controlling force can decide not to crunch the paper or the abdominal muscle; the controlling force (the student’s brain) can decide not to ‘crunch’ her mid-torso. Not only is this description more active and take more responsibility for the action, it also fits better with what is actually happening anatomically.

Examine your language use

So today I invite you to examine your language use. What language do you use to describe your physical movements? Is it helpful language, and does it have a basis in fact/anatomy? Can you change the words you use so that you have a greater sense of control over the physical movement you are describing?

Learning to look at what we think, as we think it, is a tremendous skill. You may well find that you have more control over the quality and efficiency of the way you move than you previously thought.

Image courtesy of nunawwoofy at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

What Google Maps can teach us about ignoring advice.

Have you ever asked for advice, and then ignored it and done what you wanted to anyway? Ignoring advice from experts and teachers isn’t very sensible, but it’s very human, and I think we all do it occasionally.

Google Maps: a paradigm example of ignoring advice

I was reminded of this the other day when out with a friend. My friend used Google Maps to give directions to where we were going, but didn’t follow the directions given. Rather, my friend decided that they knew better than the app and chose their own route – even though we were going to a place neither of us had been before!

It’s very tempting, when faced with a road you know, to use the known road rather than the one that is unfamiliar. But it might not be the best way to where you want to go. And this isn’t just a transportation story, but a metaphor about trying to reach any new goal; and it’s a story that FM Alexander used in one of his very best chapters, called ‘Incorrect Conception’.[1]

So why is ignoring advice so common?

FM Alexander says that we ignore advice because of our own fixed ideas about what we can and can’t do. For example, a singer might have a belief that they need to throw their head backward in order to take a breath. Their teacher might notice this, and work with the singer to encourage them to open their mouth by allowing the jaw to drop. But if the singer is convinced of the necessity of throwing their head backwards, they’ll keep doing it, no matter what their teacher says.

That is to say, they’ll keep doing it… until they don’t.

I once worked with an actor who made a very particular set of muscular contractions in order to use their voice. Every lesson with this student would lead to me highlighting how this set of contractions wasn’t helping the actor’s voice, and the actor saying a variant of ‘But I NEED to do that!’ After months of lessons, I was ready to tell my actor student that I couldn’t help them. As the lesson started, I had my goodbye speech planned. It was that very lesson that the actor exclaimed, “I’ve been doing this really weird muscular thing, and it’s not helping me!” Crisis averted.

It’s hard to take the unknown road, because (of necessity) we don’t know where it leads. We navigate away from all the familiar landmarks. But sometimes we simply must take the unknown road, otherwise we’ll just keep heading to the same old destination.

So if you find yourself going to a teacher and not following their advice, pause. Ask yourself why your are ignoring them. What is it that you are convinced you can’t do? What mental block (or dodgy decision) have you made that might be holding you back?

Your teacher might just be right. Give their advice a go!

[1] The original story is in Alexander, F.M., Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat complete ed., p.299.

Image courtesy of taesmileland at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Pick one thing: the causal factor that changes everything

A causal factor is like pushing the first domino in a domino runOne little domino: the causal factor

Have you ever watched a video of one of those amazing domino runs? The ones that split, go over obstacles, do amazing things? I’m always fascinated by those sorts of displays: the time it must take to set them up, the precision… And the fact that the whole display depends on pushing just one little domino to make it work.

This works for far more than simply dominos. It is the experience of my students, and countless other Alexander Technique students, that if you pick the right spot to make a change, everything else will improve around it.

The causal factor in the wild

FM Alexander found that if he focused on preventing pulling back his head, he also stopped depressing his larynx and sucking in breath, and his vocal condition improved.

One of my students found that, but thinking about how she opened her mouth to sing, she prevented a scrunching down in her neck and could improve not just her singing, but her ability to concentrate upon the words and the line of the song.

Another of my students, a jazz pianist, found that by focusing on listening to the noes he wanted to play inside his head and just allowing his fingers to do what they needed to do, he was able not just to play more effectively and beautifully, but also stop doing all the movements in his legs and jaw that were bothering him.

So what’s going on? Why does it work?

Why the causal factor exists.

A bit like the domino run, everything has to start somewhere. If you look at the dominos laid out ready to go, they look like a selection of separate pieces. It is only when you push the first one that you realise they are all connected.

It’s the same with the problems that FM Alexander found when he watched himself in the mirror. He saw three ‘harmful tendencies’, and they may have looked like three separate things, but FM guessed that it was likely that they were all connected, just like the dominos. The scientific principle involved is called the Principle of Parsimony (or Occam’s Razor) – the simplest solution to any problem is likely to be the right one. FM correctly made the assumption that the three separate physical act he saw were related to one causal factor. He then worked hard to find the causal factor, and successfully prevented himself from doing it.

And we can all do this. My singing student decided not to dilute her attention by trying to think of neck, breathing, opening note, words, and countless other things that obsess singers; she thought about how she opened her mouth, and found that everything else improved indirectly as a result. My jazz pianist found that by focusing on the notes in his head, he was free to let his well-trained fingers find the notes for themselves, and he was more able to stop the other extraneous movements.

So next time you are stuck with a problem that seems intractable, or you have a ton of things you could concentrate upon and you don’t know where is best, try doing this:

  • Ask yourself what is the most important thing about the activity you are about to do. What is your main focus? What action starts the activity? Is there part of the activity that involves high-up axial structures like the head and neck?
  • Decide to commit yourself to focusing on that one thing that you’ve decided is important.
  • Do it. Not just once, but a number of times. Note your results.

You may not pick exactly the right One Thing that changes everything first time around. We know that FM Alexander took a little while to find the right causal factor for his vocal troubles. But when you find it, just like the domino run, everything will have a chance to change and flow.

 

Image courtesy of posterize at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Big questions: should I be using mirrors to practise Alexander Technique?

Self image is how we see ourselvesIn my teaching practice, many students ask me whether they should be using mirrors to help them practise Alexander Technique at home. This happens particularly if they’ve done some reading and know that FM Alexander used mirrors. They also note that I don’t have a mirror in my private teaching room, and that I very rarely use mirrors in my public or College classes.

So what are the advantages and disadvantages of using mirrors? Should you use one, or not?

Using mirrors – ideas in favour

We know that FM Alexander used a mirror when he created the work we now call the Alexander Technique. He wanted to see what it was that he was doing with his vocal mechanisms while acting that was causing his vocal problems, and how it was different to what he did when speaking normally.

To this end I decided to make use of a mirror and observe the manner of my ‘doing’ both in ordinary speaking and reciting, hoping that this would enable me to distinguish the difference, if any, between them… [1]

Alexander was working entirely on his own – no teacher to help him. It makes complete sense that he would want to use a mirror to be able to see what he was doing. Music students often like using mirrors for a similar reason – it enables them to see exactly what they are doing as they play. The music college in which I work has mirrors installed in virtually every practice room. The students can work on their technique and their playing posture without needing a teacher handy.

So if you are working a lot on your own – if you are having lessons by Skype, or your Alexander Technique lessons are by necessity spaced out – then working with a mirror could be a great option for you. You get instant feedback on what you’re doing as you go about an activity. And, sometimes the things you learn and change are actually more valuable than the sensations you would have encountered in a hands-on lesson (because you did it).

Using mirrors – reasons against

This is where things start to get personal, for the simple reason that some people may simply have good cause to find mirrors very difficult. Some people dislike them, or dislike looking at themselves. When I teach group classes, when I ask how many people will find themselves instantly staring at the part of themselves they like least when faced with a mirror, I get many heartfelt nods.

When a person looks in a mirror, he* sees what he is conditioned to see – what the person’s self-concept and body image allow him to see. If the person has a negative self image, he is likely to look first at the areas that he perceives as a problem. At its mildest this is a simple dislike of a nose or some tummy flab; at its worst it manifests as Body Dysmorphic Disorder [2]. BDD is a mental health condition where the sufferer is entirely unable to reconcile the image others see with their own highly prejudicial impression of their body to the point where it seriously affects their day-to-day life. I myself am a fair way towards the clinical end on this continuum. When I look in a mirror, the first place I look is my face, then my stomach. If a teacher asks me to look in a mirror, any teaching point they were trying to make gets lost in a haze of dysmorphic anxiety.

Even if you don’t have difficulties with seeing yourself negatively when using mirrors, there is still an issue around self-discipline. Put bluntly, it can be really hard to not make yourself look like your idea of your ‘best self’! How many of us will pull in our tummies when we stand in front of a mirror, or do funny things with our shoulders? It can take a lot of willpower to just ‘be yourself’!

Using mirrors – my advice

So should you use a mirror? It depends on the answers to these questions:

  • Can you look at yourself dispassionately?
  • Are you able to reflect on what you see open-mindedly? (no pun intended!)
  • Do you have the discipline to be able to not be ‘your best self’, but be imperfect?
  • And have you developed the observational powers to be able to see yourself doing habitual movements while in activity? Or are you prepared to develop those powers?

If you can answer ‘yes’ to most or all of these questions, then using a mirror could be good for you. But if you feel, like me, that a mirror could be more harm than good, rest assured that you can progress and improve successfully without it.

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, Orion 2001, p.26.

[2] For a good book on this topic, read Callaghan, L., O’Connor, A., & Catchpole, C., Body Image Problems and Body Dysmorphic Disorder, Trigger, 2017.

*I’ve used the pronoun ‘he’ deliberately here. Frequently I use ‘she’, but I don’t want to give the impression that all females suffer from BDD. Also, I wouldn’t want to give the impression that males don’t suffer from it. Anyone can have an issue with their self image.

Image from Pixabay.