Is it okay if you change? (or, where did Jen go…?)

Back in the mists of time, when I was first starting Alexander Technique lessons, my teacher asked me a question that I have come to think of as absolutely fundamental. “Is it okay if you change?” she asked me.

“Yes,” I answered, actually meaning no, not really. She smiled, and carried on with my first lesson.

And I changed. Sometimes in ways I liked, and often in ways I either didn’t initially like, or in ways that were surprising to me. But I changed. And I keep changing.

Change comes naturally to the peace lily in my teaching room.

Is it okay if you change?

This question is a standard opening question in introductory lessons in the Interactive Teaching Method (my training background), and with good reason. It gives the teacher a very good idea about the current mindset of a new pupil. FM Alexander himself said that fewer than one in a hundred would be interested in his work (UCL p.659, 1997 Irdeat complete edition), and this question lets me know where my new pupil stands. Are they ready to do Alexander’s process? Have they reached a point where they recognise that they are stuck in a habit hole, and that they need a new tool to help them out of it? How scared are they?

Is it okay, really okay, if they change?

Alexander’s work will change you. You will change the way you think, and change the way you move. You will find greater joy in the tiniest of everyday activities. You will have more energy. You will get more done. Occasionally, you will be brought kicking and screaming against the illogicality of one of your most dearly-held beliefs. And it will be okay.

You will change. Positively, definitively.

It isn’t just the student who changes; your teacher changes too. Because the Alexander Technique is a continual process, there is no end point to how far you can change and improve. This is a great thing: it means that there is always something new to learn, and always a new ‘better’ waiting for you.

My own process of change has been steep in the past few years. Since pandemic lockdowns in 2022, I have experienced a massive amount of change, some of which necessitated me stopping blogging in order that I could attend more fully to my own needs. I have changed homes, changed workplaces, changed AT teacher associations, lost some teaching posts and gained others, and watched my son settle himself in an undergraduate course in a new city. Some of that change has been (is) hard and scary. But it has all been worth it, and has all ultimately been positive. I am a better teacher and a better human being for making these changes.

It was okay to change. In fact, it was more than okay. It was necessary, positive, healing, and has led to genuine contentment.

So I can promise you that I understand the full implications of that opening question. I have felt, and continue sometimes to feel, the apprehension that you may have at what change may entail. But I can promise you that change is worth the time and effort.

So. Is it okay if you change?

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

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

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

Work between Alexander Technique lessons is physical AND mental

Last time I wrote that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 50% less game

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

Movements to play with

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

Giving directions without attempting to do them

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

Constructive Rest

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

Ideas and notions

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

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

Tools to help – my audio download series

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


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

Why Alexander Technique? Choose to break habits

Last week I wrote about how the Alexander Technique is based upon the idea of continuing improvement. Rather than the common assumption of inexorable deterioration, those of us who experiment with Alexander Technique principles hold to the idea that it is possible to experience an improving use of ourselves over the years. It’s a hugely attractive idea.

So what is it that we are doing when we experience that continuing improvement? What is the mechanism that moves us from ‘worse’ too ‘better’? As we will see this time, our attitudes to habits are a significant part of the picture.

Habits – what are they?

The beginning of the year is notoriously a time for making resolutions and having intentions to change things that aren’t serving us. When glancing through my library audiobook service, I came across the audio version of Wendy Wood’s new book on changing habitual behaviour, entitled Good Habits, Bad Habits. It has been reserved so many times that if I reserved it today, I wouldn’t get to listen to it until July!

A picture of the audiobook Good Habits Bad Habits by Wendy Wood - a way to break habits?

Habits in popular parlance could be described as behaviours that you have done so many times that you don’t necessarily even notice that you’re doing them any more. They are like keyboard shortcuts – a quick-fire response to a situation or stimulus that happens without apparent reasoned thought. They can be as big as coming home from work each day and opening the biscuit tin before taking off your coat, to doing interesting things with your head in relation to your body as you draw breath to speak.

FM’s vocal hoarseness – a case of choosing to break habits

This latter habitual behaviour was the one that caused FM Alexander’s vocal problems, and caused him to ask his doctor

Could it be something that I was doing in the way I was using my voice … that caused the problem?[1]

Alexander realised that the way he was using himself as he went to speak was troublesome. He came to understand that the unthinking and unreasoned way he directed his body in activity was causing the vocal hoarseness he experienced. When he worked to change his habitual behaviour – when he applied some reasoned thinking to the problem (and a bit of practice) – he was able to solve the hoarseness that threatened his career.

This is why Alexander’s view of habit is so refreshing. To him, a habitual behaviour is something that breaks in the face of reasoned thought:

when real conscious control has been obtained a “habit” need never become fixed. It is not truly a habit at all, but an order or series of orders given to the subordinate controls of the body, which orders will be carried out until countermanded[2]

By this reckoning, we can choose to break habits – or form them – at a thought. We can work to attain the mental discipline that stops us being slaves to our ‘shortcuts’. We can break out of our routines and choose to do something different. What if Alexander is right, and a change of thought really is that powerful? Could you afford not to give it a go?

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

[2] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.58.

Why learn Alexander Technique? Choose to be different

All the apples in this image are different - people who learn Alexander Technique choose to be different.

A few years ago I did a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) through Coursera – an introduction to psychology. One of my favourite parts of it was the description of a basic idea from social psychology. In this idea, we can all place ourselves on a spectrum between the extremes of complete individuation and total conformity to a group.

I found this a really interesting idea, partly because we move along depending on the situation we’re in, but also because it reminded me of a truth about what I teach. More importantly, it reminded me of a reason why people sometimes balk at choosing to learn Alexander Technique. The Alexander Technique is counter-cultural.

Same old, same old…

FM Alexander noticed back in 1910 that people in the society of his time had a serious problem with inertia:

We must always remember that the vast majority of human beings live very narrow lives, doing the same thing and thinking the same thoughts day by day… [1]

The people FM saw around him conformed to what they thought was normal – even if what they accepted as normal was a kind of managed deterioration of their physical abilities. He wrote:

The trouble, whatever it is, is endured in the first instance; it is looked upon as a nuisance … no steps are taken to get rid of it, and the trouble grows until, by degrees, it is looked upon as a necessity… As long as the disease can be kept within certain bounds, no effort is made to fight it.[2]

But it isn’t only London of 1910 that has a problem of accepting decline and deterioration as normal. We do that, too. When I turned 45, a friend half-jokingly told me that I’d reached the age where it was obligatory to utter a groan when getting out of a chair, and a contented sigh when seated! My friend was teasing me, but it points to a deeper truth about what we as a society expect: we expect to ‘put up with things’. We expect inexorable deterioration. If we get the odd spot of discomfort, we just live with it, and even expect it to get worse.

And there is no reason why this should be so.

Learn Alexander Technique to be counter-cultural

At its heart, I think the Alexander Technique is profoundly counter-cultural, because it is profoundly anti-inertia. It says that change is possible. It reminds us that not every problem we experience is structural – sometimes we are responsible for our own discomfort. And if we are responsible for our troubles, then we don’t need to wait on an expert to solve it for us. We can learn the right tools to help get out of trouble again for ourselves.

As FM said,

I turn my attention particularly to the many who say, “I am quite content as I am.” To them I say … if you are content to be the slave of habits instead of master of your own mind and body, you can never have realised the wonderful inheritance that is yours by right of the fact that you were born a reasoning, intelligent man or woman. [3]

Don’t settle. Why just live with ideas and movement patterns that don’t help you, when the solutions are available and easy to learn? Why not take up the challenge, be counter-cultural, and decide to take on change?

Will you learn Alexander Technique?

[1] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.65.

[2] ibid., pp.64-5.

[3] ibid., pp.67-68.

Image of apples by Artemas Ward [Public domain].

Four steps to positive change: 4. Put the plan into action

Put your plan into action with the determination carved into this statue of runner Shirley Strickland.

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 final 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, I’m going to show you how to reason your way out of trouble and into a better use of yourself.

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]

Put the plan into action.

You’ve defined your goal, and done your observation and analysis. You have spent time reasoning out the best way of getting to your goal. So what next?

Obviously, if one has spent all that time and attention creating a decent plan, one is going to use it! But there are some points I want to make about how to do so most effectively.

Do just the plan – no extras at the last minute

I’ll talk more about the technical aspects of making sure that you actually do what you intended in future posts. For now, though, it is enough to remember just how tempting it is to go ‘off piste’. 

I have a very clear memory of being in the debating club at school, and being picked for an important competition at another school. I carefully planned my speech in the debate, and wrote it out on little cards. When I stood up to speak, I recall midway through I looked down at my notes, and decided the sentence I was about to say was poorly constructed, and decided to alter it on the fly. Unfortunately, I incorporated part of the next point I was going to make; I stumbled and ran to a stop as I tried to recover my thread of argument. My desire to improvise had not been a great thing to indulge!

Complete commitment, total detachment

‘Complete commitment, total detachment’ is a phrase I’ve shared on the blog before, and one I frequently use with my students. It’s a shorthand for the following:

  • Complete commitment to the process
  • Total detachment from the outcome

We covered complete commitment to the process earlier – don’t be tempted to go ‘off piste’. But what about total detachment from the outcome? What does that mean?

Elsewhere in The Use of the Self Alexander comments that the average person (that’s probably you and me!) is accustomed to “work directly for [their] ends on the ‘trial and error’ plan without giving due consideration to the means whereby those ends should be gained.”[2] It’s as if we are so fixated on the goal we want to achieve that we don’t pay attention to the way we get there. But if we don’t pay attention to the process, anything could happen – and probably will. If we want to achieve our goals efficiently and sustainably, paying attention to the process is not just desirable, but essential. And if we have worked hard on creating a plan that achieves our goals, then we no longer even need to think about the goal; if we just put our plan into action, then achieving the goal is inevitable anyway![3]

Don’t evaluate as you gO!

When you put your plan into action, it’s tempting to try and check your progress mid-process. Don’t – it’s a trap! If you are carrying out a new plan that is contrary to your usual way of going about things, you will want to give your new plan your full attention. You will need to stay with present moment concerns.

As soon as you begin to evaluate your progress, you are placing your attention on the outcome of the process; you are looking at outputs. This is quite simply different to paying attention to the process as it happens. And if, as we discussed in the last point, success is inevitable anyway, why bother evaluating? There will be time enough for that once you’re done!

I hope that this short series on Alexander’s concept of planning has been useful, and that you have a bit more knowledge about how to go about it more efficiently and with a better chance of success. Learning to take your goals seriously, to analyse, make a detailed and realistic plan and then faithfully put the plan into action isn’t all of the Alexander Technique, but it’s a key component, and it makes life a lot simpler. 

Have fun with your planning!

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

[2] ibid., p.57.

[3 Alexander, F.M., Universal Constant in Living, NY IRDEAT 1997, p.587.

Image of statue of Shirley Strickland by By Melburnian – Self-photographed, CC BY 2.5,

Four Steps to Positive Change: 3. Reason your way out of trouble

When you reason your way through trouble you can feel like this lightbulb - switched on!

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 3rd 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, I’m going to show you how to reason your way out of trouble and into a better use of yourself.

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]

Reason out a means

FM Alexander had a problem. He wanted to stop pulling his head back when he went to recite, because it was creating a cascade of physical movements that led to vocal hoarseness. He had worked out a goal – to speak without hoarseness – and analysed carefully what he habitually did. Now he needed to work out exactly what he was going to do as a replacement for his old way of doing things.

But what does this mean? And what sorts of things might we want to include in a plan for an activity? In the paragraphs below I give a few ideas for the sorts of things that you might want to include in any reasoning that you do.

What you do with your head is important

FM found that he was pulling his head back, and that this movement was preparatory to pretty much everything that he did. Not only that, but it was the starting movement of the chain of physical tensions that culminated in his vocal hoarseness.[2] When he prevented the misuse of his head in relation with his body, the other physical tensions were prevented indirectly, and his hoarseness improved.

What Alexander found, he said, led him to the “discovery of the primary control of the working of all the mechanisms of the human body” – he discovered that what a person does with their head in relation with their body has a controlling or guiding effect on all other movement.[3] In other words, thinking about what you are doing with your head is really very important!

Keep it practical: what joints do you need to use to complete the activity efficiently and simply?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like working any harder than I absolutely need to! This means that I aim for efficiency. One of the great ways to ensure efficiency in movement is to move only at the joints that you need to in order to complete the activity you wish to undertake.

So take a look at a skeleton. Take a look at an anatomy book; download one of the fantastic apps that are now available for phones and tablets that show you bones and muscles. Once you are armed with knowledge, you can make more reasoned choices about which joints are sensible ones to use for the activity you are planning.

Keep it general 

It may sound like I am contradicting myself, but you also want to ensure that you don’t go into too much detail. You don’t need to plan out exactly which muscles you are going to use – you don’t need to work out primary movers, secondary movers, stabilising muscles… You don’t need to plan exactly how much force you are going to use.[4] That’s a job for the motor centres of your brain, not your reasoning centres. Use your reason; have a concept, and then let your brain take care of the details.

Remember context

Sitting to standing is very different depending on context: a sofa is different to a dining chair, and both are very different to a bus seat! Once you have, for example, a basic idea of moving at the hips, knees and ankles, you can adjust this basic concept depending on the specific context in which you find yourself.

FM Alexander had a high opinion of reasoning. It was so great, indeed, that he called it humanity’s supreme inheritance.[5] If FM thought it was so vitally important, perhaps we should value it more, too. We really can reason our way out of trouble, if we just give ourselves the opportunity.

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

[2] ibid., p.27.

[3] ibid., p.28.

[4] Though it is worth holding in mind the idea that it may be less force than you are used to using!

[5] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT ed., NY 1997, p. 17.

By Cpt.karl – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Four steps to positive change: 1. Have a goal

To have a goal is like being at the bottom of this staircase in Verona: you know where you are going!

If you’re reading this post, I am guessing that you are interested in making positive changes in your life. And whether you are a regular reader or not, I am sure you would appreciate being given a blueprint for how to structure your thinking so that it becomes easier to design the most effective protocols you can. And no matter what the activity, if you can design an effective protocol, you are a good way towards making a positive change to your life.

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 and the next three blogs, I want to examine the steps to positive change that form Alexander’s method of reasoning our way to a better use of ourselves.

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]

The zero step

The first of the steps to positive change actually isn’t even mentioned by Alexander at all! Well, not overtly, at least. His assumption of this step was so total, and its existence in Evolution of a Technique so all-encompassing, that it doesn’t appear as a step at all. But if there is one thing we need to think about before making any changes at all, it is this:

What is it that we want to achieve?

We need to have a goal; it is important that we know what we are doing and why.

FM’s goal

We can see FM’s goal more clearly if we go back to the beginning of Evolution of a Technique and look at why he started his investigations into his vocal mechanism. He experienced vocal hoarseness when reciting which “from time to time culminated in a complete loss of voice.” [2]

When I talk about this in classes I will often use the joke that this was very disturbing to FM, because Neighbours hadn’t been invented yet! What I mean, of course, is that in 1890s Melbourne he would not have been able to make a living as an actor without working on a stage; he needed to be able to speak and recite at volume (projection). He needed a functional voice.

In other words, if we were to formalise his goal, it would have been something like this:

To be able to recite (speak onstage) for a full show without hoarseness.

We could argue (as I do sometimes in class) that later FM adds a goal to his investigations, involving discovering the nature of how we direct ourselves in activity. But he never loses his focus on having a reliable and functional vocal mechanism.

What is your goal?

So today I invite you to ask yourself what your goal is. What are you investigating? What is it that you want to improve? 

Once you have a goal you will have a direction of travel. You will have clues about what you want to analyse, and a clear path for the reasoning that will follow.

What is it that you want to achieve?

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

[2] ibid., p.24.

Photograph of Verona street by Jennifer Mackerras.

Do we have limitless potential?

Willpower on the left, and Indistractable on the right: ego depletion n one side, and limitless willpower on the other!

I’ve been doing a lot of commuting lately, and have been catching up on some reading for research and CPD (continuing professional development). One of the books I have been reading has caused me to ponder the question: do we have limits to what we can achieve, or do we have limitless potential?

This is an important idea. Is there a ceiling on what we can achieve in any activity? If so, where is it, and how do we know when we’ve reached it?

I don’t know about you, but I have often had the experience – particularly when working on physical tasks like learning a new piece of music or a new stroke in tennis – where I have felt as though I am putting in time for limited returns. I work on the same musical passage each day for a number of days, but it does seem to get very much better. Have I reached my ceiling for improvement, or have I reached a temporary plateau? Should I persist in my efforts to improve, and if so, for how long?

Limitless potential vs ego depletion

The book I have been reading is Indistractable by Nir Eyal; its task is to give the reader a methodology for avoiding distraction in order to improve attentiveness and so enable better work and more enjoyable leisure time. As part of his argument that part of avoiding distraction is dealing with internal triggers, he discusses the concept of willpower. Eyal refers back to research done by Roy Baumeister into the concept of ego depletion: the idea that we only have a certain amount of willpower available to us each day, and that we can use it up over the course of a day. To quote from the bestselling book Baumeister co-wrote with John Tierney, ego depletion describes

people’s diminished capacity to regulate their thoughts, feelings, and actions. People can sometimes overcome mental fatigue, but Baumeister found that if they had used up energy by exerting willpower (or by making decisions, another form of ego depletion…), they would eventually succumb. [1]

In this conception, willpower is a finite human resource. Use it up refusing to eat the biscuits in the office kitchen all day, and you’ll have no energy left to fight the desire for the ice cream in the freezer when you get home!

But is this true? 

In his book Nir Eyal summarises a number of studies (including a meta-analysis of 200 other papers) that seem to discredit the idea of ego depletion. My favourite involves work done by Carol Dweck, creator of the ‘growth mindset’ hypothesis. She found that signs of ego depletion only occurred in test subjects who believed that willpower was a limited resource!

Many people still promote the idea of ego depletion, perhaps because they are unaware of the evidence that exists to the contrary. But if Dweck’s conclusions are correct, then perpetuating the idea is doing real harm. If ego depletion is essentially caused by self-defeating thoughts and not by any biological limitation, then the idea makes us less likely to accomplish our goals by providing a rationale to quit when we could otherwise persist. [2]

According to this conception, willpower isn’t a finite resource. We can choose to persist. But if this is true of willpower, what other concepts could also be as close to infinite as we dare to imagine? Our attention? Our mental discipline? Our capacity for success?

Alexander’s ideas of human capacity

When I read the passage about willpower and I thought about the possibility of choosing to persist, it brought to mind a passage from FM Alexander’s first book Man’s Supreme Inheritance. Alexander was intimately concerned with education and the prevention of psychophysical difficulties in children. Thinking about babies in particular, he wrote:

the child’s potentialities lie hidden in the mysterious groupings and arrangement of its cells and tissues; hidden beyond the reach of analysis … even at birth it is differentiated from other children; our limits may be wide but they are fixed. Within these limits, however, our capacity for good and evil is very great.[3]

Alexander is rightly pointing out that at a genetic level we might not be able to do ANYTHING – there are going to be limits. On the other hand, when a baby is born we have no idea what those limits are. I clearly remember holding my son when he was newborn, and being awestruck by the fact that I had literally no idea of what he might accomplish in the future; to all intents and purposes, his potential was limitless. [4]

As we get older we make choices about what we want to do and what we don’t. We make decisions about what we can do and what we believe we can’t. But what if we aren’t actually that different to the newborn in our potential? Obviously our brain structures are a bit different, and we may have issues with tissue repair through ageing, but what if the physiological limits of what most of us can achieve are far, far greater than the limits we place on ourselves?

Imagine what you could achieve if you had limitless potential. Imagine the levels of attention, focus and discipline you could access. Imagine the fun you could have!

Of course, I might be wrong. Our potential might be more finite than our willpower has turned out to be. But wouldn’t it be fun try holding the opposing point of view to test it out?

[1] Baumeister, R.F. & Tierney, J., Willpower, London, Allen Lane, 2012, p.28.

[2] Eyal, N. & Li, J., Indistractable, London, Bloomsbury, 2019, p.51.

[3] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, NY, Irdeat, 1997, pp.69-70. 

[4] And neurological research seems to be confirming this. I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep, and it contains a section on this topic.

Why it pays to look beyond the obvious (ouchy) thing

Look beyond the obvious - like a sticking-out finger while playing recorder. Me playing a treble recorder.

If you have a problem in a particular area – say, your bowing arm if you play a stringed instrument – it becomes very tempting to focus on that area exclusively. I see this a lot with musicians, which is why I focus on them first, but it isn’t exclusively a musician problem. I have lost count of the number of times students have come into lessons wanting to talk about why, when they use the computer, their mouse hand hurts (either the whole hand, or just a finger/region). So it often surprises my students when I start my lesson plan by looking at what they are doing in other areas. I am, in fact, doing the thing I want to teach them to do: to look beyond the obvious – past the problem area – to what else is going on.

Today I want to discuss the relationship of direct vs indirect, and explain why you might want to expand your focus in order to sort out the difficulty you may be experiencing. Whether it is music, sports, or the office keyboard, if you look beyond the obvious you might find fascinating things!

The near-myth of the specific problem

We often spend our time functioning as though all our body parts were just separate lumps of matter, not really connected to us, that we can effect and impact separately. I suspect this is the logic that lies behind the idea that we can move and influence body parts separately, creating specific ‘fixes’ for specific problems we find affecting us. For example, I remember as a young recorder player being concerned at how my left little finger would fly around in the air as I played. It stretched out away from the instrument like a maiden aunt holding a cup of tea; I was convinced it was throwing the balance of my whole hand off kilter.

So I trained myself to keep it resting on the body of the instrument. Initially this seemed like a great solution. Then I began to wonder why my left ring finger was not moving freely, and why I sometimes got a tired/sore forearm after playing.

I had noticed a very specific fault, and then constructed a solution that was specific to the parts of me that I felt were not right. I was just looking at the little finger, and not at everything else. But I thought it was just me that did that sort of thing, so I was both amazed and relieved to discover FM Alexander had done exactly the same thing. When he first tried to find a solution to his vocal hoarseness, he looked only at what he was doing with his head and neck. It was a matter of great importance when he realised that his torso was also affected![1]

Of course, we are not all separate body parts, and it is folly to think that we can move or change one part without there being some sort of knock-on effect elsewhere (even if it is only small). Because we are a psycho-physical unity, any one change has the potential to affect everything else. But it also has an interesting extra twist: if we notice a problem in one area, we might not be seeing the cause, merely an indirect expression or consequence of something else.

Let me explain.

When FM decided to look beyond the obvious

When FM Alexander first observed himself reciting, he saw that he did three things: he pulled back his head, depressed his larynx, and sucked in breath. Now it could have been entirely possible that the three things were unconnected, but Alexander was smart enough to realise that it was highly likely they were all part of one big ‘something wrong’. So he went looking to see which one he could actually prevent. After long experimentation, he found something truly fascinating:

I found that when reciting I could not by direct means prevent the sucking in of breath or the depressing of the larynx, but that I could to some extent prevent the pulling back of the head. This led me to a discovery which turned out to be of great importance, namely, that when I succeeded in preventing the pulling back of the head, this tended indirectly to check the sucking in of breath and the depressing of the larynx. [2]

Even more impressively, the condition of his vocal organs improved! 

What Alexander found was that by directly stopping one of the symptoms, he could stop the others. In other words, when he broke the beginning of the chain of causality, the rest of the chain ceased to exist. This is particularly impressive when one considers that FM was fairly certain that it was the depressing of the larynx that was actually causing the hoarseness.[3]

Practical steps for us

We can take some very practical ideas away from this.

  1. If something hurts or is not feeling right somehow, take a good look at your whole body. You might find other indications or symptoms of things ‘not right’.
  2. The place that bugs us might not be the root cause of the trouble. It might just be the end of a chain of causality. Try changing or preventing misuse that you’ve spotted in other areas, and see if that helps.
  3. We are working with observing and changing things, and that’s really hard to do in the middle of a large project at work, or while learning complex musical repertoire. You will need to set aside time to think about this properly.

Alexander had success when he looked and experimented; you can, too. Just be prepared to look beyond the thing that’s screaming at you the loudest!

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.29.

[2] ibid., p.27f.

[3] ibid., 29.

Photograph by Matthew Mackerras, 2018.

Mental flexibility: why you should try change even when you’re doing well

Can mental flexibility become as good as this lion stretching?

Sometimes when I work with new students (or even experienced ones), they come to the point of asking me: why make change? Why can’t I stay as I am? It’s a great question, and worth unpacking. Especially if things are going okay, why make changes? Why not carry on with the thing that works?

Back to the Great Madeleine Disaster of 2019

Last week I told you the story of the Great Madeleine Disaster of 2019, in which I made a gloriously disastrous attempt at baking using a new recipe instead of my usual one. I was using it to make a very important point about the importance of experimentation and failure if you want to improve.

But the observant and questioning among you may have wondered why I was trying the new recipe at all. Why risk wasting ingredients and time on something untried when I have a perfectly good recipe that I know works well?

It’s a great question, and I touched briefly on part of my answer last week. I wrote:

I firmly believe that if we are to truly learn from Alexander’s work, we must also take on board his example with regard to the role of experimentation and failure in improvement. Quite simply, you can’t improve without changing, and in order to change you have to allow for the possibility of failure. [1]

Put simply, if you want to improve, you have to do something different. If you do something different, you risk it not working. But if it doesn’t work, you have lots of lovely information to sift through. You can evaluate what happened, and learn from it. You can even compare the different process to your old one, and look at the differences to see what you can learn. All of this is valuable.

Why make change? To maintain mental flexibility.

There’s another reason, though, why I tried the new madeleine recipe. It comes down to the nature of habit. If I make the same recipe every time, I get to know it really well. I come to know it so well, in fact, that after a time I no longer need the method in front of me. I go to my kitchen, pull out the ingredients and the tin, and get baking. Pretty soon I can make the recipe without really paying attention to what I’m doing. I can listen to an audiobook, or be doing some writing as I bake.

But if I reach that point, if I’ve allowed the baking to become habitual, am I enjoying it? Am I even really ‘in the room’? And will I get bored of that particular recipe, but go on making it anyway, just because it’s what I know best?

When any activity gets to that point, we have allowed it to become a habit of thought and body. We have made it an automatic behaviour. If we reach that point, FM Alexander says that we have effectively reduced our capacity for mental flexibility and versatility:

We must always remember that the vast majority of human beings live very narrow lives, doing the same thing and thinking the same thoughts day by day, and it is this very fact that makes it so necessary that we should acquire conscious control of the mental and physical powers as a whole, for we otherwise run the risk of losing that versatility which is such an essential factor in their development.[2]

Mental flexibility requires practice

According to Alexander, if we want to maintain flexibility of mind we have to practise using it. This is no different to flexibility in the muscles: if we want physical flexibility, we have to work on it regularly. What better way to work on flexibility than to find places in daily life where we can try new things? I regularly try new recipes not just because I want to find the best ones, but because I want to enhance my versatility as a baker and as a thinker. By refusing to narrow my life to a relatively narrow range of activities and thoughts, I make the choice to use my mental powers in new ways. I choose to bake different things because if I practise flexibility in the small things, I’ll have the skills ready when a big life challenge comes up.

Alexander was very clear about mental flexibility: as with physical flexibility, you use it or you lose it. You also will never know the joy one can find in extending one’s comfort zone.

In concluding this brief note on mental habits I turn my attention particularly to the many who say, “I am quite content as I am.” To them I say, firstly, if you are content to be the slave of habits instead of master of your own mind and body, you can never have realised the wonderful inheritance which is yours by right of the fact that you were born a reasoning, intelligent man or woman.[3]

So do some mental flexibility training! Get out there, and try something new. It could be the making of you.


[2] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT NY 1997, p. 65.

[3] ibid., p.67f.

Image: Yathin S Krishnappa [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]