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the act of going through (and discarding) possessions enables one to put to rest any decisions that now seem wrong or outdated.[2]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

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)]

The fallacy of the One Right Way

“Why won’t you just tell me what to do?!”

There is no One Right Way to sit.In early lessons, students very often want me to tell them how to sit/stand/walk/whatever in the ‘right’ way. This is entirely understandable. They’ve come to me because whatever they’re doing at the moment has caused them trouble, and they want to fix it so the trouble goes away.

But there’s a logical fallacy at work, and a misunderstanding about what education is about. There’s also often a degree of self criticism. These are big topics and I want to take time to talk about them, so this week I will deal just with the logical fallacy. Next time I’ll talk about how our concept of education holds us back. Finally, I’ll talk about the issue of self criticism.

Onwards…

The logical fallacy of the One Right Way

Statement: I want to sit the right way

Logical (and emotional) consequences of statement: 

  • There is a right way and (at least one) wrong way of sitting
  • I am doing it the wrong way.
  • (Bad me)

Let’s look at the idea that there’s a right way of, say, sitting, and at least one wrong way. It sounds like life would be very simple if there were just One Right Way of sitting on a chair. We could just learn it, use it, and not have to think about it again. But it really wouldn’t be simple at all, for this reason:

If this was true, we would first have to decide if there was only one right way, or if we would allow One Right Way for each circumstance (eg dining chair, office chair, car seat). At the very least, we’d end up with a list of Right Ways to suit our usual set of furniture and circumstances.

But what if the circumstances subtly alter – like having to get into the car with the seat a little further forward than usual? We would either have to suffer Doing Something Not Right, or make sure we constructed a set of Right Ways to deal with all conceivable changes of circumstance.

And then we’d end up with a big list of Right Ways. And we’d have to memorise them all.

That sounds like a lot of work to me. I’d much rather learn the principles behind constructing a Best Way (for now) for any circumstance as it arose, and then learn how to think and apply it moment by moment. In the end, it’s just so much easier.

And that’s what Alexander Technique lessons are: learning how to construct a Best Way (for now) for the moment that you’re in. Don’t be fooled by the apparent unthinking simplicity of the One Right Way. It leads to lists, prohibitions (mustn’t do the wrong thing!), and complexity. Go for gold, and learn how to reason out the Best Way (for now) instead.

Correcting unshakeable belief: what if your teacher was actually right?

Correcting unshakeable belief is like moving a big rock!

Correcting Unshakeable Belief…

I’ve been working with a trumpet student recently. He likes to play his trumpet standing, and as he does so he juts his pelvis forwards and pulls his upper thoracic spine backwards – a bit like the shop dummies at many UK clothing stores! I’ve worked with him; explained how the extension through his thoracic spine prevents movement in his ribs and interferes with his breathing; done hands-on work and given him the experience of the improvement of tone and breath control when he stops the ‘H&M pelvic thrust’.

So has he changed it? Nope.

You see, he is convinced it helps him reach the high notes. Even though he knows that change in pitch happens via valves and embouchure, on some level he believes that the extension in his spine is essential for high notes, and that he won’t reach them if he doesn’t do it. He has an apparently unshakeable belief in the necessity of jutting his pelvis forwards.

I’m sure that most of us, if pushed, could think of a similar experience. I can clearly remember having a very similar interaction with my tennis teacher.

So why didn’t I do what my tennis teacher told me? Why doesn’t my trumpet student do what I suggest, especially when he has had a clear demonstration of the improvement he could experience? After all, if we’re paying a teacher to help us, why don’t we follow their advice?

The answer is that, on some level, we believe that we know better. We have an (apparently) unshakeable belief. And correcting unshakeable belief seems like a very big thing to accomplish.

A question of belief

Everything we do and every action that we make is, ultimately, a result of the constellation of ideas and beliefs that we hold to be true, and that constitute what FM Alexander called our psycho-physical make-up.

We all think and act (except when forced to do otherwise) in accordance with the peculiarities of our particular psycho-physical make-up. [1]

When we carry out an action it is because, whether we are aware of it or not, it conforms to our image of ourselves and our place in the world. My student, for example, just his pelvis forwards when he changes pitch because on some level he believes he has to. It conforms to his beliefs about himself and trumpet playing. When I come along and demonstrate to him that he doesn’t need to make the jutting movement with his pelvis, I create for the student a dilemma. Do he believe me, or do he trust in his own untested beliefs?

This is the challenge faced by a student in pretty much any Alexander Technique lesson. If the demonstration is sufficiently strong or the previous belief not strongly held, then the student will change what they are doing quickly and easily. But if the teacher’s demonstration challenges a movement behaviour that keys into a core belief about what the student needs to do to exist in the world, then they are likely to cling to the old behaviour.

But the dilemma won’t go away. It will sit in the student’s mind and irritate, a bit like having a stone in your shoe. Sooner or later, my student is going to have to think about his jutting pelvis!

So how do you deal with this situation?

As a teacher, you just have to accept that sometimes (often?) the student thinks they know better than you. Your job is to, in Alexander’s words,  “the placing of facts, for and against, before the [student], in such a way as to appeal to his reasoning faculties, and to his latent powers of originality.” [2] You can’t take any responsibility for a student’s understanding, only your presentation of material before them!

As a student, you have to approach each lesson mindful of the fact that you come bearing beliefs and assumptions that probably aren’t helping you. If your teacher suggests a change to what you are doing, you need to inhibit your instinctive response (to disagree!) and then as open-mindedly as possible, try what your teacher suggests.

Correcting unshakeable belief is a matter of playing the long game. Just keep presenting the facts (if you’re the teacher), and keep trying to have an open mind (if you’re the student). Sooner or later, something has to give.

[1] FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT complete ed., p.304.

[2] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT complete ed., p.88.

Reducing muscle tension: the whys and wherefores

reducing muscle tension

Reducing muscle tension (and mental commitment to that tension) is often a key component in Alexander Technique lessons. Frequently, a student will have a good experience related to reducing muscle tension, and they’ll ask: why am I doing this apparently pointless bit of muscular tension that actually hurts and gets in the way of me achieving what I want? If reducing muscle tension in this activity is good, then why don’t I do it? Why do I keep the old way?

It’s a great question, and deserves some thought. So… Let’s think about it like it’s an object in a house. Why do people keep physical things? They might keep an object because…

  • They think they need it. (My husband’s computer cable collection falls into this category)
  • They forget they’ve got it. (My son is a master at putting a toy in the bottom of a box, forgetting about it, and then rediscovering it the next time we do a major clean-out of his room)
  • They think it might come in useful. (Again, my husband’s computer cable collection springs to mind)
  • They’re afraid of what other people would say if they got rid of it. (Gifts from relations might fit here, or Great Aunt Edna’s hideous pottery pig collection)
  • They’re afraid they might need it at some point in the future. In other words, they’re afraid to get rid of it.
  • They like it.

There’s no right or wrong answer. If you like it and you want to keep it, who am I (or anyone else) to judge you? But if it gets in the way of your other stated goals (like having a clutter-free house) then we might reserve the right to question you about it. If you then decide that you like or want the object in question, then it isn’t anyone else’s business if you keep it.

The same goes with muscular tension. If you have an idea about the task at hand which leads you to move physically in a way that prevents you from achieving your goals, the Alexander Technique teacher’s job is to draw your attention to it. We will get in the way of the physical tension. We will present reasons why doing something else might be good. And then we will (or should) leave you to make up your own mind.*

Why? If what we are suggesting is better, if it will help you to achieve your goals more easily and more quickly, then why don’t we try to cajole you into doing something different? For the same reason that no one should make you get rid of your Great Aunt Edna’s pottery pig collection. It would be rude. It would be unkind, and none of our business.

And even more importantly – and this is where reducing muscle tension is different to pottery pigs – positive change (like reducing muscle tension) is nearly inevitable anyway. Alexander Technique teachers work from the principle that your body is geared towards health, wellness, and optimum performance. It takes time and energy to force your mind and body to do the unnecessary, harmful, unproductive stuff – you’ve really got to work hard to create it. So when you’re ready, you’ll stop.

And when you stop, we’ll be ready and waiting to cheer you on.

* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT ed, p.88: “by teaching I understand the placing of facts, for and against, before the child, in such a way as to appeal to his reasoning faculties, and to his latent powers of originality. He should be allowed to think for himself, and should not be crammed with other people’s ideas .” FM wrote it about children, but it sounds good enough to apply to adults, too!
Image by Ambro from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Beat performance plateaus by changing point of view

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Performance plateau?

Are you experiencing a point of difficulty in one of your hobbies or work activities? Perhaps you can’t quite hit that tennis forehand the way you’d like, or nail that top G reliably? Possibly you’ve always thought the problem was intractable, or that you’d reached a ceiling on your abilities.

But have you considered that the reason why you’ve plateaued could be because you’re getting in your own way?

Performance plateau: the young swimmer

I had a taste of this from my son the other day. On the way home from school, he said he didn’t like swimming any more. I asked him why. He said it was because the teacher kept telling him to put his head in the water while swimming freestyle lengths. “But I do put my head in the water!” he said.
“Really?” I asked.
“Yes! … Some of the time…” he said, rather less vehemently.
“Okay. When do you put your head in the water?”
“I put it in for a bit, then I lift it up to breathe,” he replied.
“Ah. Is that what the teacher wants you to do to breathe?”
“Well, no. But it’s the way I do it.”
“Do you think the teacher would stop telling you off if you did what she asked?”
“Yes,” my son said. “But I want to do it my way.”

 

“My way” – Performance plateaus as a state of mind

And there you have it in a nutshell.

Most of us, when we go about the activities that make up our day-to-day lives, have ways that we like to do them. The ways we choose are based on our personal preferences, our experiences, and our beliefs about the right way to go about things.

But what if we’re wrong? What if our way is not the best way? What if our way of doing things is, in fact, the cause of the performance plateau that we’re experiencing?

FM Alexander was able to write that, after 20 years of teaching experience, he had “no hesitation in stating that the pupil’s fixed ideas and conceptions are the cause of the major part of his difficulties.”*

Even worse than this, Alexander goes on to say that if a person has a very fixed idea of “their way” of doing things, they are likely to go on trying to do things “their way” even after the teacher has demonstrated that their way can’t be relied upon! My son, for example, knows that his swimming teacher is correct, and that his way of breathing is not helping him. But no amount of the teacher yelling at him is going to make him stop!

So what will?

 

A change of mind as the key to breaking performance plateaus

My son needs to change his mind. Currently he is held back by, to borrow Alexander’s phrase, his “fixed and unreasoning conception” about what he needs to do to breathe while swimming freestyle. He will need, in short, to give up his desire to feel right, in order to do the thing that will increase effectiveness.

 

Here are the steps to take:

  • A touch of honesty. Are you like my son – do you secretly know what is holding you back?
  • Thinking about teacher/mentor feedback. Are you consistently being given the same criticisms in feedback? Can you recognise these criticisms in your own performance?
  • Listening to teacher/mentor advice. Are you being given advice that you’re not following? Maybe you could have a go at trying it, if only to prove your teacher wrong!
  • Loosen up and be prepared to feel ‘wrong’. Sometimes, letting go of what seems ‘right’ is the only way forward. Loosen your grip, and see what happens!

Performance plateaus are not a lot of fun. Even though it might be scary, why not try tearing up the rule book you’ve got in your head, and have a go at the thing that feels ‘wrong’? And let me know how it turns out.

 

*FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the IRDEAT edition, p.294.
Image by Tup Wanders, flickr creative commons.

There is no magic bullet: true grit as the key to achieving your goals

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So often, if we’re really honest, we would love to be given the magic bullet that will fix our problems quickly.

The secret to playing that semiquaver passage.

The key to losing those last few pounds(kilos for me – I’m a metric girl).

The one thing that will make that bit of writing better.

Because if we were given that magic bullet, we wouldn’t have to go through the stress, struggle and frustration of not being sufficiently good enough. We’d be able to skip that nasty bit, and go straight on to the ‘doing it easily with no effort at all’ stage, quickly and easily. And there’d be no problems ever again…

Reality check 1: there is no magic bullet

There just isn’t. We know this. Dreaming about it is fun for a while, but ultimately doesn’t help us progress in our endeavours.

Reality check 2: even if there was a magic bullet, it wouldn’t mean the end of struggle

The simple fact of the matter is that, if we are progressing, we will always be running up against things we can’t do yet. This means that we will always experience some level of frustration.

I think the notion of the ‘struggle-free zone’ is a false belief based on the idea that there is some kind of condition of ‘perfect’ where, once our problems are sorted, everything will be easy. But a lot of problems just aren’t like that. There are a lot of activities and problems in the world that have no end point. For example, in his book The Myth of the Garage, Chip Heath relates the story of the program manager for the anti-smoking initiative in North Carolina, and how she approached the goal of reducing smoking across the state.* Even with the best will in the world, the chances of 100% success in stopping smoking across an entire state seems highly unlikely! To use a very different example, most actors will tell you that you never really finish working on a character – there is no point where you know everything that there is to know about Hamlet.

And on one level, we know this to be true. We know that, to quote FM Alexander, “if a person is to make [a] change successfully, it must be by a gradual process of change from day to day”**

The difficulty is that we don’t get much in the way of feedback when we’re in the midst of this gradual process. Students often report having the experience of feeling as though they aren’t making sufficient change when they’re working by themselves, or that they aren’t ‘doing it right’ because things aren’t changing as fast as they hoped.

And this is where grit comes in. Chip Heath describes grit as “endurance in pursuit of long-term goals and an ability to persist in the face of adversity.” What I like about this definition is that it has no reference to results, only to pursuit of goals. The reality of the creative life (actually, not just the creative life) is that most things aren’t easy, and very few of them have definite end points. We are making improvements one step at a time, one decision at a time. We don’t get (to borrow Heath’s words) the obvious “psychic payoff” of a categorical success; just the knowledge of another step taken.

How do we avoid the mystique of the magic bullet?

By making sure we keep our heads straight, and asking ourselves some simple questions.

  • Is it a problem with a definite end point? (Baking a cake? Yes! Learning and performing a piece of music? Probably no)
  • Am I prepared to look for, accept, and celebrate even small changes that move towards my goal?
  • Can I find a way of helping me measure small improvement? (Recording my practice sessions, finding a friend to listen to me every couple of weeks, etc)
  • Can I programme a periodic review, so that I can look back and assess how things are going over a longer time period?

Try these ideas out, and see if they help you deal with the frustration of the daily battle for improvement. Value grit, and eschew the magic bullet. And be sure to let me know how it turns out.

* Heath, C., The Myth of the Garage, Kindle ed., loc.747.
** FM Alexander, Universal Constant in Living in the IRDEAT ed., p.585.
Image by papaija2008 from freedigitalphotos.net

Decision making and FOMO: what FM would say…

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Are you good at decision making, or are you plagued by those modern evils, Fear of Commitment and Fear of Missing Out? This post is about why decision making is a fundamental skill within Alexander Technique, and how you can do it better.

Decision making fail – leaning on the fence

A week or so ago I had the great pleasure of taking my family along to the ExCeL conference centre in London to see the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Celebration. It was a massive exhibition – tons of displays of costumes and props, lots of stalls selling things, and lots of demonstrations and theatre shows in a number of small spaces.

Many of these small spaces were defined within the large exhibition space by little fences. Inside each fence there were chairs and a stage. The fence was small, and though you could easily see over the top, staying outside to watch the demonstrations wasn’t exactly comfortable. The fence was rickety and wobbled every time it was touched, and the crowds bustled past constantly.

But that didn’t stop people. Every time I walked past one of these little theatre spaces, only about a third of the chairs inside was filled, but the fence was lined entirely by people leaning uncertainly against the rickety barrier and watching from the outside.

They didn’t want to commit. If you went inside you got a (more or less) comfy seat, but it also made it harder to leave if you didn’t like the show. And who was to say that there might not be a better show starting in the next space in just a few minutes?

So most people decided to hedge their bets, and spend an entire 40 minute show jammed against a wobbly barrier while the crowds brushed past.

Decision making and reasoning

Now, I admit that I’m not the world’s best decision maker. But I do know that standing around in a crowded passageway for 40 minutes just to ‘keep my options open’ is what FM Alexander would disparagingly call ‘unreasoned’. It stems from a fear of making the wrong choice, and a lingering worry that we might be missing out on something ‘better’. But really, does it really matter if there’s a better show than the one we’re watching, especially if it will take use half of the show time to push through the crowds to get to it?

If FM Alexander had worried about making the wrong choice about what experiments to make while he was trying to find the solution to his vocal troubles, we wouldn’t have the Alexander Technique today. FM made tons of mistakes. He went up conceptual blind alleys, tried wrong things, and even realised at one point that “all my efforts up till now to improve the use of myself in reciting had been misdirected.” (p.419)

But he never let his errors stop him. Indeed, more than once in Evolution of a Technique (the chapter in which he describes the creation of the work we now call the Alexander Technique), he says clearly that he profited from the experiences he had from his mistakenness – the experience helped him to form new ideas and new experiments to try. (see p.418, p.424)

 Decision making – which side of the fence are you on?

Ultimately, there are very few decisions where the outcome is really that crucial. Most things can be changed, or improved upon. Most decisions will not be completely bad or wrong – we can learn from most things.

Therefore, don’t sit (or lean) on the fence.

Try that new restaurant or cafe.

Try that new watercolour brush technique.

Try playing that phrase with a different fingering pattern.

Try a different route home.

In the vast majority of circumstances, even if the choice turns out to be less than optimal, it won’t matter that much. You might end up with a lesser cup of coffee, or it might take you five minutes longer to get home. But if you don’t try, you might end up missing the best cup of coffee you ever tasted.

If you lean on the fence for too long, you’ll just end up with sore feet.