Lay Your Burden Down

21139668 - concept of stress of a businessman with a big rockThe other day I was working with one of my Alexander Technique students, showing her how she could stand with ease.  Like a great many people, she had a habit of pushing her upper torso back and her pelvis forward a bit as she stood.

As I gently guided her out of that pattern and into a different, and totally unfamiliar way way of standing – one in which she initially felt she was pitched too far forward – she exclaimed: “I feel like I just dropped a huge burden!”

As the late Marjorie Barstow would often say to students in a similar situation, “What you’re feeling is the absence of tension in your body”.

What’s going on is a shift away from using muscular effort to hold oneself and instead  intelligently utilizating of our built-in capacities to be easily upright – head balanced on top of our spine, torso balanced on our hip joints, legs balanced at our ankles, and the effective use of the basic forces of the earth.(1)  Of course some effort is still needed to stand, but far, far less than before.

Substituting balance for effort can be a challenge at first, not just because it feels so strange, but also because we often have a built-in bias towards using our muscles – instead of our thinking – to make changes that will cause us to feel “right”.

As F. Matthias Alexander, the developer of the Technique, said: “We are so brutalized by our belief in doing and muscular tension.”(2)

Letting go of that false belief lies at the heart of “Laying your burden down.”

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(1) You can learn more about these forces and how we can make the best use of them here.

(2) Here is Alexander’s full quote on this topic: “The trouble is none of my pupils will believe that all they need to do is to think and that wish for the neck to be free will do the trick.  I can now with my hands make any alternation in anyone, but none will trust to the thought. We are so brutalized by by our belief in doing and muscular tension.” – from Training with F. M, a diary of Sir George Trevelyan, a student on Alexander’s first teacher training course. This quote comes from the period 1933-1934.

Copyright: alphaspirit / 123RF Stock Photo

The Leanings of Clinton and Trump – and the Future of the World

Recently I’ve been thinking about the concept of Leaning In, a phrase popularized by Sheryl Sandberg, the CEO of Facebook in her bestselling book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

For her, the phrase is a metaphor for being assertive and embracing risk in order to achieve the greatest level of success in the workplace. But as a teacher of the Alexander Technique, I’m particularly interested in the physical aspects of leaning in – or it’s opposite, leaning back.

Especially today when America – and the world – will witness the first Presidential Debate in which Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump go face to face on the same stage. Both candidates’ non-verbal communication patterns will be on view for all to see, including their leaning propensities.

Non-verbal patterns have been shown to be at least as important as words in influencing audiences, so the way the 100 million expected viewers react to what they see may well decide the outcome of the election.

It will come as no surprise that Trump is a big-time leaner-in.  At times so much that it has an element of aggressiveness.

Clinton doesn’t lean a lot, but when she does, it’s my impression that she leans back a bit – as if she wants to get away from her audience.  And that could explain some of her perceived failure to connect on a personal level.

(President Obama seems to hardly ever lean, but when he does, it seems to be slightly in.)

I’ll be glued to my TV this evening – 9PM Eastern time, 6PM Pacific time.  You might want record it in order to take a closer look at the candidate’s leaning patterns and I’d love it if you post what you see, either below or on Facebook.

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Here is a podcast interviews I did with Imogen Ragone about the physical aspects of Leaning In:

And here are three earlier blogs related to this topic: The Posture of Power, The Posture of Power – Part 2, and Studies in Political Posture – Bernie Sanders

http://www.bodylearningblog.com/the-posture-of-power-part-2/Image courtesy of vectorolie at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

 

You’re a Nice Place to Visit, but Would You Want to Live There?

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein

The most important question you can ever ask is: ‘Is the universe is a friendly place?’ – Albert Einstein

He added: … if we decide that the universe is a friendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to create tools and models for understanding that universe. Because power and safety will come through understanding its workings and its motives.*

Perhaps the most important question you can ask about yourself is something along the lines of: Am I a friendly place?

If we can say with certainly that the answer is “yes”, then we have every reason use our intelligence to understand how we function, and how to improve our functioning.

Luckily for us it’s easy to verify that “yes” in indeed the answer – at least in the realm of our posture and physical co-ordination – by using a “paradoxical” Alexander Technique direction.

Do you want to check this out for yourself?

Here’s how:

First, choose any activity you do on a regular basis.  it could be speaking, chopping vegetables, working at a computer, climbing stairs – anything you can easily experiment with.

My personal favorite for this kind of exploration is walking, so I’ll use that as an example.

Start by standing and very gently thinking to yourself I am not walking. Continuing that thought, move around the room. After a few steps, continuing to move, toss the I am not walking thought away.  After a few steps, gently bring the I am not walking thought back.

What did you notice at the moment you stopped thinking I am not walking?  And when you brought the thought back?

(If Alexander directing is completely new to you, here are a few more detailed instructions: First, absolutely no holding on to the thought I am not walking. You’ll almost certainly forget it, and when you notice you have, just gently bring it back.  In other words, be totally forgiving of forgetting. Second, if you’re adding extra thoughts – like This is silly or What does this mean? just gently tell yourself that those thoughts can be entertained later, but not during the experiment. Third, let go of any intention to make anything happen, or not happen.  Just the simple thought I am not walking. It may also be useful to choose a hard, or creaky wooden, floor and wear shoes with hard soles to make it easier for you to notice the sound made by your foot falls.  You can learn more about Alexander Technique directing here: New Developments in Alexander Technique Directing)

You’ll probably notice that when you switch away from I am not walking, your feet come down a little more heavily on the floor.  You might also hear a louder sound from your feet as they arrive at the floor.  And you might also sense a little downward compression in your torso.  And when you gently bring the direction back, there is less pressure on your feet and on the rest of you.

What’s going on here?

I believe that saying I am not walking is shorthand for this longer, more cumbersome, message for your body: I don’t want to walk in my usual wayFind another way for me to walk.

You might well be thinking that logically your body would be just as likely to come up with a heavier, less efficient, manner of walking as it is to move you in the direction of lightness and ease.  After all, you only asked for a different way of walking.

However – and to me this is truly amazing – in my experience, with myself and my students –  that NEVER HAPPENS!  With walking – or swimming (I am not swimming) or using a computer (I am not using the computer) or pretty much any other activity.

I take that as an indication that my body (and yours!) is a friendly part of a friendly universe – that it wants the best for you and is just waiting for you to give it the opportunity to show how it can help you.

And that makes me happy and proud to be living in such a friendly location and motivates me to continue working to improve myself.

***

I’d love to hear your experiences with paradoxical Alexander Technique directions, and how you interpret them.

* Einstein also addressed the implications of the other 2 possible answers:

If we decide that the universe is an unfriendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to achieve safety and power by creating bigger walls to keep out the unfriendliness and bigger weapons to destroy all that which is unfriendly and I believe that we are getting to a place where technology is powerful enough that we may either completely isolate or destroy ourselves as well in this process.

If we decide that the universe is neither friendly nor unfriendly and that God is essentially ‘playing dice with the universe’, then we are simply victims to the random toss of the dice and our lives have no real purpose or meaning.

 

Einstein image copyright: photoestelar / 123RF Stock Photo

How the Alexander Technique helped me Overcome Terrible Customer Service and Useless Tech Support

ID-10067459This past week, I had to deal with two companies which, under the right circumstances, provide an excellent product but which have truly awful phone support systems.

I’m sure you know what I’m talking about: Long hold times during which you’re forced to listen to messages about how much the company values your business.  Service and tech representatives who are unable to help you because they have no idea what has been done already or simply don’t have the necessary training to help.  Bizarre phone loops that take you back to where you started.

I’m generally pretty good at moving up to a higher level of customer support. For example by calling the company’s corporate headquarters where there is usually an office to deal with persistent people like me.

But nothing seemed to work this time.

In both cases I needed to have a quick resolution of the problem and I found myself getting more and more frustrated, inpatient and angry. I could feel the toll this negative energy was having on my body but it still took awhile for me to realize that I had a tool that could help  – the Alexander Techniqueif I chose to use it.

Kind of embarrassing, since I’ve been an Alexander teacher for over 35 years!

One of the companies* was Windstream, a regional provider of phone and internet service.  My modem had been randomly losing connection to the internet and the company agreed it was a problem caused by an error on their part.  I could have lived with that for a few days if I didn’t have several Skype teaching calls coming up, calls which would be almost impossible to do well with interruptions.

I was told the earliest a visit from a technician could be scheduled was the following week and that they couldn’t tell me if it would be morning or evening!  And that it was absolutely impossible (their words) to do it any sooner.

I cancelled a Skype session scheduled for early the next morning and went to bed feeling trapped between an incompetent corporation and my teaching obligations.  As I usually do before falling asleep I did a bit of Alexander Technique self directing – “I’m free”, “My breathing is free”, “I’m free to receive the support of the bed” – that sort of thing.

Just before dozing off, I thought I might as well throw in a freedom direction about my predicament – “I’m free to find a solution to my connectivity problem.”

In the middle of the night I woke up with the thought “Time Warner”.  Yes, Time Warner, the giant cable company regularly voted the most hated company in America!  And for good reason: it’s customer service is as awful as Windstream’s and it’s much, much bigger.

Still, it did offer cable internet service that I’d used for years and that was quite reliable. It would cost significantly more than I was currently paying but when I called them the next morning, I was offered a guaranteed 1 hour window for installation that very afternoon at 4 PM.  That would be after my 2 in-person students, and well before my scheduled Skype sessions starting the next day.

This was an obvious way around the problem, but in my frustrated state I had overlooked it.

Put another way, the solution had been there all along, but I hadn’t be “free” to recognize and choose it.

My situation was not that different that of my Alexander Technique students. Once they’ve experimented a bit with using Alexander directions to change their posture and movement patterns I remind them that they now know there is a “free” state always available within them. Moving from their default state to the free state requires nothing more than a simple mental choice – for example thinking softly to themselves, “I’m free.”

But I had forgotten to remind myself!

Once I saw there was a choice, I was no longer focused on getting Windstream to do the right thing quickly.  I assumed they probably would not, but thought I’d make just one more call – this time not as someone pleading with them to do something for me, but as a lost customer they might be able entice back.

It was with in great sense of calm then called Windstream’s “Executive Customer Service” and outlined the problem I had been having. I then told the agent I was leaving them for an equivalent service I had arranged for later that day that would cost almost twice what I was paying them – precisely $24.52 a month more, I added.  Including taxes.

Unless they could fix my service that morning.

There was a long period of silence at the other end. The agent then said she would see what she could do. I thanked her and wished her a good day.

Forty-five minutes later, I got a call from the local office saying a tech would be at my house within 30 minutes.  He came, installed a new modem, re-set my connections with their central system, and made sure I was able to connect all the devices in my house to the new modem’s wi-fi.  He then, on his own, decided to check some wiring in an alleyway behind my house to make sure it was up to standard. It wasn’t, and he replaced a considerable amount of wiring.

Altogether he spent almost 2 hours making sure everything was working at optimal efficiency.

I then called Time Warner to cancel my appointment.

Thank you F. Matthias Alexander!  And thank you Jennifer Roig-Francoli, Mother of Freedom Directions!  You can listen to several podcasts about Freedom Directions, and other Alexander Technique directions here: bodylearningcast.com/teachers/directions

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*The other case involved Tracphone, a cell phone company.  It was resolved in much the same way as my Windstream problem.

Photo courtesy of David Castillo Dominici Free Digital Photos.net

Striding Towards Freedom

I have always walked a lot.

As a child, my parents were just about the only people in the neighborhood without a car so if I wanted to go somewhere, I had to walk or take the bus. It was perfectly normal for me to walk 2 miles each way to see a movie, and of course I walked to school every day – about a mile each way for high-school. For awhile I had an after-school paper route that started a mile and half from my house.

Wherever I’ve lived – Washington, New Haven, Boston, New York, Toronto, London, and now Lincoln – I walk when I need to get somewhere as much as possible, and to explore new neighborhoods. Walking and swimming are my two favorite exercises.

Since becoming an Alexander Technique teacher in 1981, walking has taken on new meanings for me.  To start with, it was on a long Sunday walk in Toronto, the day after my first Alexander lesson, that I noticed strange things going on with my arms: my hands wouldn’t stay in my coat pockets, and my arms insisted on swinging freely!  Later on, I noticed that my walking was taking place with a lot less effort.

Over the years, it’s been an excellent activity for me (along with swimming) for exploring Alexander Technique directions.

It’s also proven to also be an excellent activity for my students to learn about directions, and how to use and test them.  See, for example. Throw it Away

One of the nice things about using walking as a teaching framework is that it’s an activity most of us are already doing over the course of our day.

I’ve also found that the rhythmical quality of walking, with the power of propulsion shifting  from one leg to the other, makes it relatively easy for students to notice how using – and then deliberately not using – directions affects their walk and how they can learn to preempt heavy footfalls with a useful Alexander Technique direction.

Finally, a wonderful aspect of walking is the auditory feedback it can provide as a student’s feet arrive at the floor, particularly with hard surfaces and especially creaky wooden floors. I often tell my students that if they have wooden floors somewhere where they live or work, that will be the perfect place for them to explore directions while walking.

Beyond these teaching considerations, I have found that walking is a wonderful way of letting my mind mull over a problem or question I’ve been working on. With surprising frequency, I find the solution or answer seems to just pop into my head after a nice walk!

A couple of years ago, I heard a wonderful two-part program about walking on the CBC Ideas series titled Walking Matters. That program inspired me to create the Centered Walking website. You can listen to the program here: Part 1   Part2

Since then, I’ve found three other excellent pieces about the many surprising benefits of walking:

The Slow Death of Purposeless Walking – from BBC News

Why Walking Makes Us Think – from the New Yorker Magazine

In Praise of the Flâneur – from the Paris Review

Finally, Henry David Thoreau wrote a wonderful short book about walking – a meandering ode to the simple act and accomplished art of taking a walk titled Walking

One step at a time is good walking. – Chinese proverb

Photo by Eadweard Muybridge an English photographer important for his pioneering work in photographic studies of motion.

The Plot Thickens: The Alexander Technique

F. Matthias Alexander

F. Matthias Alexander, developer of the Alexander Technique

The Alexander Technique has been around for over 125 years and so it’s not surprising that references to it, and to it’s founder F. Matthias Alexander, have appeared in works for fiction a number of times.

Some of those references have been funny, some bizarre, and some quite nice descriptions of the work. As such, they afford an insight into ways in which the Technique has been perceived over the years.

(My personal favorite is the story about Alexander, Dewey and Anzia from Norma Rosen’s book.)

Most famously, Alexander shows up as a character in Aldous Huxley’s book Eyeless in Gaza, published in 1936. Huxley introduced Alexander in the person of Miller, a medical anthropologist. Miller, in the words Frank Pierce Jones “..also incorporated a part of Gerald Heard, whom Alexander detested, and a part of Dr. McDonagh, a fashionable but unorthodox physician to whom Alexander also referred his pupils.” (1)

For the next fifty years there are occasional references to “F. M. Alexander”, “Alexander” and even the “Alexander Brothers” here and there, but with no explanation of who he was.

In 1989, Norma Rosen wrote a novel, John and Anzia – An American Romance, about the (actual) relationship between Professor John Dewey and Anzia Yezierska, a Polish-American emigree from the Lower East Side of New York.

In Chapter 7, Yezierska accompanies Dewey and two of his friends to visit “the studio of the well-known body aligner, F.M Alexander.” Yezierska is a little hesitant, saying “I think I’m already aligned.” Nonetheless she does go.

Here are a few excerpts from the events that follow upon their arrival:

“…Alexander himself entered the room with a bouncy stride, as if a special spring twanged in his foot. He wore a formal suit and sandals with thick white socks. Everything about him seemed freshly sprouted, like the white carnation in his buttonhole. He turned his sharp-featured face to address them.

“‘You hear my voice? The full production, the roundness, the depth? This is my true voice, a fine instrument. Once it was crippled. I opened my mouth and croaked like a crow. In the middle of my favorite recitation piece, ‘Napoleon’–”

“He interrupted himself to recite theatrically, ‘Oh, lonely exile! Oh, armored ambition pierced!’ Then he went on in his normal, slightly less theatrical tone. ‘In despair at the loss of my voice I devised my technique. The results – you hear in my voice. Now you must listen and obey…

“We will not take ladies first. We will take the professor.” He clapped his hands onto John’s head, standing tiptoe to do it. “All your life your head has thought you. No you must think your head. Think and direct it, forward and up!”

Later, after working with the others attending the lesson, he gets to Yezierska:

“You also will experience difficulty in saying no to yourself my dear Miss. Nevertheless! Think only forward and up! Legthen and widen!”

“…The chair edge touched under her buttocks and for one moment she floated in a weightless crouch above the chair.

“Alexander whirled around. ‘This woman’s vertebrae have the ability to think!'”

More recently, a short story appeared in the New Yorker Magazine in 2007. It’s central character is an unnamed Alexander teacher in Boston – based on Tommy Thompson, an actual teacher there. From a conversation with Tommy I know he hates the story and it’s not hard to see why. Indeed it’s a pretty awful work of fiction on many levels, but you can judge it for yourself here. The Long Distance Client

Another Alexander reference (courtesy of Karen DeHart) comes from Writing Jane Austen: A Novel, by Elizabeth Aston:

“A stunned Georgina came out of the surgery with her arm in a sling and a prescription for a painkiller written out by Dr. Perry, and signed, after a further half-hour wait, by another doctor. She had an appointment in three weeks’ time with the practice physiotherapist, and friendly final advice from Dr. Perry that of course she could use the mouse and type with her left hand, but the chances were if she did that exactly the same thing would happen to that one.

“Maud turned out to know a good deal about RSI. “All young musicians these days are supposed to see Alexander practitioners,” she announced. “That’s probably what you should do. They readjust your body, and you learn how to do things, and how to do it better and you don’t put any stress on yourself. Only by the time it’s got as bad as it has with you, I’m not sure there’s anything much anybody can do about it. Except to stop doing whatever it is that’s given it to you. We had a pianist at school who had to stop playing for two years.”

The latest Alexander reference – this time a non-fiction book, but written by a popular fiction writer – also comes from Karen:

Moonwalking with Einstein – The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (page 11) by Joshua Foer : “When he walked, Buzan seemed to glide across the floor like an air hockey puck (the result, he later told me, of forty years’ training in the Alexander Technique).”

Buzan is Tony Buzan, author of Use Your Head, who one wrote: “The Alexander Technique transformed my life. it is the result of an acknowledged genius. I would recommend it to anyone.”

There may be other references I’m not familiar with. If you know of any, please let me know, using the Email Contact.

Footnotes:
1. Body Awareness in Action, Chapter 7
2. I am indebted to Loren Shlaes, an Alexander Technique teacher in New York City, for sending me a copy of this novel.

Studies in Public Posture: Bernie Sanders

In two earlier blogs, The Power of Posture and The Power of Posture – Part 2, I wrote about the posture and coordination of politicians and American televangelists.  In general the ones who are successful use their bodies more effectively than the average person.

And, as I wrote in the second blog:

Members of both groups also tend to be good public speakers.

Not surprising, given that their job is to convince their listeners to support them, either with votes or money.

Today, I’m beginning what I hope will be a series of blogs that focus on the posture, coordination and public speaking patterns of specific public figures from a variety of fields.

I want to do this from an Alexander Technique perspective. I’d like to emphasize close observation of movement patterns that are effective, as well as those that might be preventing these men and women from presenting themselves to the public as effectively as possible.

I’ll keep my own observations and comments very short in the hope that other Alexander teachers and students will weigh in with their own.  I’m hoping for some guest blogs too!

I also want to stay away from any consideration of the subjects’ specific views and policies.  The main focus of the Alexander Technique is not about what people do, but how they do it.

You Tube will be my primary source.  It’s the perfect medium for people from around the world to observe the same people and then share their observations. What I hope to provide is a platform for sharing those observations.

An obvious choice to start with is Bernie Sanders, one of the two candidates for nomination by the Democratic Party to run for President of the United States in the November election.

His speaking ability has played a large role in propelling him from an unlikely entrant into the Democratic race, widely seen by most political pundits as not having any chance of success, to becoming a very serious challenge to Hillary Clinton, his only remaining opponent.

Clearly he is an effective public speaker.  But I believe he could be a lot more effective, and a lot less likely to damage his speaking voice, if he made a couple of changes in his method of delivery.

Let’s start with the two video clips shown above. Here are my first thoughts:

Bernie seems to have a lot of neck tension and his head is habitually pushed forward from the top of his spine.  How much of this he can change in a short period of time is debatable. Photos of him as a student activist show this same pattern to some extent so it’s probably a deep-rooted pattern.  But there are two inter-related speaking patterns that really stand out to me, both of which I suspect he could change fairly quickly:

1 – He’s putting an awful lot of effort into speaking.  Sometimes it seems he’s forgotten that he has a microphone! All that force is putting a strain on his vocal mechanism, and his voice is clearly suffering at times.

2 – When Bernie wants to emphasize a point, he pushes his head still further forward, as well as his whole upper torso – which he also pulls down – putting further strain on himself.  You can see in the videos that his height actually diminishes at these moments, a clear indication that he’s compressing his entire body.

His public speaking pattern seems to echo in some ways that of F. Matthias Alexander, the developer of the Alexander Technique. Alexander was an actor and orator who ran into serious vocal difficulties resulting from his attempt to project his voice to to the back of large halls, crowded with rowdy tin miners, and –  this being the late 1890s – no PA system.  Alexander’s basic strategy had been to make more of an effort when speaking in these environments.

The unfortunate effects of this over-effort on his part – hoarseness, gasping for breath, and even the loss of his voice – prompted him undertake a period of self-study that ultimately led to the discoveries that lie at the heart of the Alexander Technique. And enabled him to project his voice far more effectively with less effort and strain.

The short video below is interesting because here Bernie is not on stage, but having a conversation.  You can see that the speech patterns discussed above are still there, but in a more muted form.  It was recorded more recently, so you can also hear the cumulative effects of his speaking patterns on his voice.

I suspect any competent Alexander teacher could help Bernie notice those patterns, and provide him with verbal and/or hands-on guidance that would enable him to let go of them to a significant extent fairly quickly.

What do you think?  Any other Alexander Technique thoughts about Bernie? Who else in the public sphere seems like a good topic for a future blog?  Would you like to write guest blog on this topic?

Normally I’d encourage you to put your comments on Facebook, but in this case it would be very helpful to also post them in the Comments section below so that this page can be a resource for learning how to observe posture and movement patterns in others, and themselves.

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I have acquired the ownership of two domain names which, at some point, could be used to bring the material from this series of blogs together in one place: PoliticalPosture.com and PublicPosture.com

How Bad Is The “P” Word?

header“P” – as in Posture.

In a previous blog, What Is The Alexander Technique?,  I wrote about the curious reluctance of many of us Alexander Technique teachers to actually say what the Technique is.  Another odd feature of our profession is the ongoing, sometimes heated, debate about whether the Technique is, or is not, a method of posture improvement.

Why is this the case?

After all, posture improvement is one of the main reasons students take Alexander lessons.  Indeed, when the Technique is mentioned in conversation, most people have no idea what it is, but typically a few will say something like “it has something to do with posture.”  And many Alexander Technique students will mention improvements in their posture as one of it’s most important benefits.

In my own case, I started taking lessons out of a general curiosity, but within a couple of lessons I noticed a dramatic improvement in my posture.  Within the first month, my height increased my almost an inch which, rightly or wrongly, I identified with continuing posture improvement.  I was so amazed that I continued with lessons for a couple of years and then went to England to take a 3-year course to become an Alexander Technique teacher.

I can think of two reasons some teachers are opposed to using the word “posture”, which I’ll list below.  But – full disclosure – I personally have absolutely no hesitation in telling people the Alexander Technique is about posture.

1: Many people think of posture as a fixed position, something they have to create by lifting themselves up and then holding themselves in the new “correct” manner.

But of course we’re living creatures, and as long as we’re alive we’re in constant flux. And even if there were a “correct” position at any point in time, it would cease to be “correct” a split second later.

Alexander Technique teachers are quite rightly concerned that perspective students will confuse a static view of posture with what the Technique teachers can actually help them achieve: an easy, dynamic, and upright way of sitting, standing and moving.  The word “posture” for us is a verb, not a noun.

2:  Another reason why some teachers don’t like to connect the Alexander Technique with posture is that there are a lot of other profound benefits one can get from Alexander Technique lessons such as improvements in breathing, pain reduction, ability to be comfortable in stressful situations – the list goes on and on – and teachrs don’t want to limit the way people think about the process.

On the other hand, I believe there are at least two reasons why it’s makes good sense to connect the Technique with posture:

1: Posture is getting a lot of press these days and much of it correctly connects poor posture with a variety of ailments – “text posture” with neck pain, for example. Also, while there are still plenty of posture articles and programs that promote a retrograde view of posture, offering suggestions like “pull your shoulders back” or “sit up straight,” we’re increasingly seeing more dynamic views of good posture that dovetail nicely with Alexander Technique principles.

A potential student may indeed have a “faulty” idea of what posture is all about, but it’s not really doing him or her a service by saying our work isn’t really about improving it. A student who has a few lessons will almost certainly come to a new realization about posture on their own.

I had a good friend who worked for years as a publisher’s representative.  Her job was to visit book stores and convince them to order new titles. One of the first questions the owner would ask if the answer wasn’t obvious was: “What shelf would it go on?”  When I described the Alexander Technique to her (in a very different way than I do today!) she said she’d have a hard time thinking of an appropriate shelf for an Alexander book, making it likely it wouldn’t be purchased.

People often need an existing category in which to slot a new idea, even if only temporarily.  It’s part of our job to provide that category and for many potential students “posture” is an ideal “shelf.”

2: While much of the scientific and medical research about the Technique addresses it’s effectiveness in pain reduction and specific performance issues, there is also a considerable amount of recent research showing the Technique’s positive effect of postural tone.  In some ways, this line of research is the most interesting of all since unlike most other studies, it is based on precisely measured quantitative effects, not self-reported qualitative effects.  You can learn more about this exciting new line of research here: Alexander Joins the Neuro-Zone

It’s also worth noting that F. Matthias Alexander, the developer of the Alexander Technique,  used the words “posture” and “postures” almost 50 times in his books.

As I indicated above, while I understand some teachers’ reluctance to talk about posture, I’m firmly in the “pro-posture” camp.

What are your thoughts on this? Can you think of additional arguments on either side of the debate? Please leave your comments below and/or on Facebook.

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You can listen to several podcasts about posture and the Alexander Technique here: Alexander Technique Podcast – Posture

The Posture Page also has information about Posture and the Alexander Technique

New York City Alexander Technique teacher Karen Krueger has two nice articles on posture and the Alexander Technique: Spreading The Word, Even If The Word Is “Posture” and Standing Up Straight Can Be Just As Bad As Slouching

Stuck In The Middle With You: Your Neck

When our children were in middle school, my wife and I would attend “Classroom Visit Night” at the start of each term. This involved going to all their classes in the same order they did during the school day, and for about 10 minutes each teacher would talk about the class and answer questions.

One evening, we were in a General Science class with a middle-aged teacher who appeared to be compressing his head down onto his neck with an extraordinary amount of pressure. (OK – a dirty little secret about Alexander Technique teachers: We do take notice of that kind of thing, especially when it’s extreme, even when we’re not “on the job.” And as much as we try not to make judgements – well, sometimes we do.)

At one point in his talk, he talked about students who weren’t doing well in class but, who in his opinion, “had a good head on their shoulders”, and who he would try to help do better. Just as he said that, his neck became even a little more compressed!

That phrase was new to me at the time and I remember thinking about it a lot afterwords. I’ve since learned it’s a fairly common idiom used to describe someone who is intelligent, sensible and has common sense. But it seemed to me that using phrase had an adverse effect of the teacher, certainly in the moment, but quite likely over time as well.

As you can easily see by looking at anybody (or yourself in a mirror, or the image above) there is a significant distance between the support point of your head and the top of shoulders.

As Barbara Conable, an Alexander Technique teacher and one of the developers of Body Mapping points out, there is a kind of “law of human behavior” that states that when there is a difference between the actual physical situation in your body and your perception of that situation, it’s the perception that always wins out.

This does not mean your faulty perception will change the underlying physical reality, but it does mean you will attempt to stand, sit and move in accordance with that false perception. And that will typically involve creating harmful excess tension.

I like a woman with a head on her shoulders. I hate necks. – Steve Martin

Would you like to test this for yourself?

First, locate the 2 little groves on your skull that are located just underneath your ear lobes, putting a finger tip lightly on each one. Midway between your two finger tips is the top of your spine. That’s where your head is actually supported.

Spend a few seconds with your fingers there so you can start getting a good sense of it’s location – which for most people is quite surprising.

Next, put your hands on top of your shoulders and spend a few seconds there as well.

Now, imagine your head is resting on the top of your spine and then shift to imagining it’s resting on top of your shoulders. Switch back and forth a few times.

What did you notice? Does one conception seem to make you heaver and more compressed than the other?

You might also try taking the “my head is on top of my spine” conception with you as you take a little walk around the room. Then, while continuing to walk, shift over to “my head is on top of my shoulders” and notice what happens to your walk. Again, switch back and forth a few times.

(This experiment will work best if you walk on a hard surface, wearing shoes. A creaky wooden floor is ideal as it will give you auditory feedback about how lightly, or heavily, your feet arrive at the floor as you switch back and forth.)

What did you notice? And what does that tell you about the usefulness of having a correct perception of your structural reality? And, what does it tell you about the implications of using a phrase that goes against that reality?

Man is the head of the family, woman the neck that turns the head. – Chinese Proverb

I’d love to hear about your experience. Please post them below and/or on Facebook.

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Another, somewhat related, example of an unfortunate use of words that can produce harmful consequences can be found in the common American phrase “Ready, set, go” to start a race as opposed to the much better British version “Ready, steady, go.” And then there is Toronto’s “Sick Kid’s Hospital” – which I believe was based on the name of a London hospital. And, of course, Head & Shoulders shampoo, a popular American brand. Perhaps these will be the subject of another blog…

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What Is The Alexander Technique?

It’s a question that Alexander Technique teachers get all the time and, oddly, it’s frequently met with a hesitant response that suggests the teacher isn’t totally comfortable providing an answer.

Why is this?

There are probably several reasons, but I believe the main one is that the Technique has an approach to human functioning, and how to improve it, that doesn’t fit well with the way most people think.  Alexander teachers tend to inhabit their own verbal and mental ecosystem and it can be a challenge for us to step away from it to provide useful explanations to people on the outside.

Over the years I’ve found the very best descriptions of the Technique come from Alexander Technique students. They are often able to describe what they have learned in a fresh way, one not conditioned by Alexander jargon.

This is especially true for students who are journalists and non-fiction writers, people who make their living by explaining unfamiliar ideas in ways a general audience can grasp.

Maud Newton falls squarely into that category. I recently came upon a wonderful blog post of her’s, I, Rodent – Humanized mice and mousy humans. It’s a fascinating read and ends with this account of her Alexander Technique experience:

For a couple years I’ve been studying the Alexander Technique. I started because I had bad posture and a racing overanxious brain and nothing else I’d tried until then (apart from psychotherapy) had helped much with either.

The Alexander Technique is difficult to describe, but it can teach you to reduce unnecessary tension by becoming aware of your habits, of things that have come to seem inherent to an activity but aren’t really. For example, thinking doesn’t actually entail clenching your jaw or wrinkling your forehead, even if you always do those things when you’re concentrating. Sitting doesn’t need to involve swinging your arms. Texting doesn’t have to induce hunching.

Something you can do to try to train yourself out of habits like these is to tell yourself things like, “I am not sitting down,” even as you sit down, and see what happens. Or tell yourself, “thinking is not a jaw activity,” or even, “I don’t have a jaw.”

I’m describing it poorly, but the Alexander Technique has acquainted me with so many knotty places in myself that I can work with more easily now. One that remains mysterious is just below my chest, between my heart and my gut. It’s a spot that always feels kinked.

“Sometimes it helps to imagine what it feels like to be inside there,” my teacher said recently.

I’ve learned to take these suggestions seriously and when I got home later I tried feeling my way into the spot. It was hard like a walnut on the outside. The thunder of my heartbeat reverberated all around. Prying open the nut, I found a small brown mouse, trembling and uncertain, its whiskers twitching. It was braced to hamster-wheel. It expected to be disavowed. It’s okay, little mouse, I thought, and the kink loosened slightly.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this description and, if you’re a student of the Technique and have one of your own, please share it below and/or on Facebook.

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Just after writing this blog, I learned about the tragic death of Alan Rickman, the English actor and director, best known for his film performances as Hans Gruber in Die Hard and Severus Snape in the Harry Potter film series. Rickman was a student of the Alexander Technique and here are a couple of his descriptions of the work that illustrate the theme of this blog:

With the best of intentions, the job of acting can become a display of accumulated bad habits, trapped instincts and blocked energies. Working with the Alexander Technique to untangle the wires has given me sightings of another way; mind and body, work and life together. Real imaginative freedom.

Using the Alexander Technique empowers me and gives me a balanced sense of tension rather than relying on creating tension to do something in order to produce a sound or an act that is preconceived. I realized that I cannot control a set of circumstances outside of myself so I can go on a journey relying on the state of mind and body that the Alexander Technique gives me.

RIP Alan.

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