Looking for Ease in all the Wrong Places

A few weeks ago, an Alexander Technique student emailed me the day after his first lesson.  Here’s part of what he wrote:

On my way home from yesterday’s lesson, I continued to experiment with the Alexander Technique direction you showed me – “I’m free”.  I used it walking to my car, driving, and walking into my house.

It had been a long day and decided to chill on the sofa and watch a little TV before having dinner. I sat down and was just about to reach for the remote, when I felt my whole body tighten!  At first, I couldn’t figure out what was going on, but then it hit me that I was actually tightening myself.  Almost like I was compressing myself downward into myself.

So then I thought maybe using the direction would help me stop that tightening.  I did and immediately noticed a big change in my breathing and a weird kind of message that I should stand up and move to a nearby chair that wasn’t as squishy as the sofa.  Now I felt much easier and watched TV for a half hour and then had dinner with my wife and 6 year old son.  My son glanced over at me and said I looked taller.

After dinner, out of curiosity, I sat in the sofa again and immediately felt some tightening and moved back to the chair which felt much easier to be in.

The sofa, I later learned, was very soft, provided poor support, and encouraged the kind of internal collapse the student felt.  That had always been the case, but this time my student had a new awareness of it’s effect on his body – and it didn’t feel good.  After a few more lessons, he told me he hardly ever used the sofa anymore.  “When I want to be comfortable”, he said, “I just use one of the directions you showed me. I can do that standing, sitting, walking, whatever.”

He realized that when he wants ease, the best way to find it is to use his own thinking, very lightly directed.   But if instead he made a choice like “relaxing” on the sofa, he was really collapsing into himself – compressing himself, and actually removing ease from his life.

Where do you look for ease?

If it’s by doing something, like exercise, or taking in something like food, drink, pills?  Or, like my student,  inadvertently collapsing your body into soft furniture? How helpful has that been?

If you method involves the use your mind – meditation, prayer, or Alexander self-directing, to name just a few examples – how has that worked?

I’d love to hear about your experiences below and/or on Facebook.

***

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention an Alexander Technique procedure called Constructive Rest which is a great way to let go of harmful tension and bring ease into your body. It can be extremely helpful for anybody, not just Alexander Technique students. Find out more about it here: AlexanderTechnique.com/ConstructiveRest

You can learn more about Alexander Technique directions here: BodyLearningCast.com/teachers/directions  If you’d like to learn a direction specifically formulated for freedom and ease, listen here’s a recent podcast I did with Imogen Ragone, an Alexander Technique teacher in Wilmington, Delaware:

***

OK, I hate to post a blog without including a relevant Country Music song if that’s possible. There is, as you may know, a Country song titled “Looking for Love in all the wrong Places” which inspired the title of this blog.  But it’s not a song I like. But I’ve always loved this funny/sad song – and it definitely has a strong “ease” component!

Image copyright: chalabala / 123RF Stock Photo

The F. Matthias Alexander Story – It Ain’t Necessarily So: Part 2

F. Matthias Alexander and Student

In my last blog, The F. Mathias Alexander Story – It Ain’t Necessarily So, I wrote that I consider F. Matthias Alexander to have been a genius – but  a very different kind of genius that we have been led to believe.

He was certainly not the lone genius, who after working on his own for 10 years, came up with the powerful method of self improvement we today call the Alexander Technique.

It’s now abundantly clear that most, and perhaps even all, of his teaching procedures were borrowed from others. Far more importantly, even some of the Technique’s basic principles came from the work of Francois Delsarte. (Information about the Alexander/Delsarte connection)

Near the end of that blog I wrote:

In my opinion, Alexander’s true genius lay to some extent in solving his problem using the version of the Delsarte Method he has access to.  But even more in packaging, popularizing and teaching it, and later adding some new components – notably what are now called Alexander Technique Directions, and the use of his hands to both guide his students and reinforce the ideas he wanted to get across to them.

I’ve had a good response to that blog, including some very incisive comments via email from teachers and students. Some of those comments have caused me to rethink what I consider the true nature of Alexander’s genius.

As I see it now, Alexander did something else that in it’s own way may be even more important than packaging, popularizing, teaching, and adding.

That “something more” is his roughly 60 years of taking his and others’ discoveries on the road, so to speak.

That’s a very long time for one person to stay fully committed to a single project. And it’s also worth noting that several of Alexander’s early trainees – his brother Alfred Redden Alexander, his niece Marjory Barlow, Walter Carrington, Margaret Goldie and Patrick MacDonald, among several others, spent most of their lives teaching and further developing the Technique.  Marjorie Barstow, the first person to graduate from Alexander’s first teacher training course, devoted herself to the work for over 60 years.

Clearly Alexander was a very special kind of inspirational genius and this, coupled with his own and his disciples’ dedication, over the years, led to a huge expansion in the Alexander Technique community of teachers and students. Furthermore there is now a significant amount of scientific and medical research, many excellent books, videos, websites, articles etc.

And of course it’s become much easier to find an Alexander Technique teacher today.  In the mid 1970s, when I discovered the Technique, there were 2 teachers in all of Canada, and a several dozen in the rest of the world.  Today, there are dozens of teachers in Canada, and thousands elsewhere.

But Alexander wanted more than just increased size and scope. In the Introduction to Alexander’s fourth and final book, The Universal Constant in Living, Alexander wrote:

After working for a lifetime in this new field I am conscious that the knowledge gained is but a beginning…my experience may one day be recognized as a signpost directing the explorer to a country hitherto ‘undiscovered,’ and one which offers unlimited opportunity for fruitful research to the patient and observant pioneer.

And indeed since Alexander’s death in 1955, there have been several developments that have built on Alexander’s “beginning” – just as he hoped.  Among these I would include ways of working with groups, developed by Marjorie Barstow, that went beyond Alexander’s own group teaching process, Body Mapping, incorporating a clearer understanding of the external forces that operate on our bodies, and perhaps most important of all, huge improvements in Alexander Technique Directions.

And anyone who has been following today’s interactive exchanges on the web among Alexander teachers and students from around the world can clearly see, these kinds of positive developments are continuing at a steady pace.

Finally, let’s not forget that relatively early in his teaching career, Alexander had another – and somewhat different – goal which he articulated in his first book, Man’s Supreme Inheritance:

I wish to do away with such teachers as I am myself. My place in the present economy is due to a misunderstanding of the causes of our present physical disability, and when this disability is finally eliminated the specialised practitioner will have no place, no uses. This may be a dream of the future, but in its beginnings it is now capable of realisation. (This quote appears at the end of his Preface to MSI)

While this goal has certainly not been accomplished as yet, I believe it’s no longer just a “dream of the future” but in fact is already starting to happen.

One of the most striking aspects of the recent revolution in Alexander Technique Directions is that not  only are they more effective and easier to use – they are also easily transferable from students to their friends and family.  They are, to use a bit of current jargon, “open source” directions.*

Furthermore, they are also being adapted by students and teachers for all sorts of “off label” purposes such as dealing with troublesome family members or co-workers, changing dis-functional patterns of thought about one’s self etc.

All these new developments originated within the platform for self observation and self discovery that Alexander created and that he, and many of his early followers, dedicated their lives to expanding and improving.

I believe it’s our primary mission today to continue that process of expansion and improvement.

*A fascinating podcast about the power of open source projects can be found here: Open Source World

 

The F. Matthias Alexander Story – It Ain’t Necessarily So

F. Matthias Alexander

Who was Alexander? Well the simple and obvious answer is that Alexander was the founder of the Technique that bears his name.  It’s hard to imagine today’s Alexander Technique without Alexander.

But what do we really know about the man and what he did?

We do have his four books, numerous short essays, pamphlets, photos, letters to the editor, transcripts of a lecture he gave, and a partial autobiography.  We also have a couple of short videos of him.

And of course a huge amount of material by Alexander Technique teachers and students – books, videos, blogs, websites etc.

For the most part this material supports the following highly abbreviated and simplified story of the man:

Alexander had a voice problem which threatened his career as an actor and reciter.  No one could help him. So he decided to study himself using mirrors.  He fairly quickly saw that his problem stemmed from harmful patterns of movement, but it took him almost ten years of self-study and self-experimentation to figure out how to prevent those habits from manifesting. He started to teach others what he had learned, moved from Australia to London, became well-known, had prominent students, started a teacher training course, died –  and then others carried his work forward.

It’s pretty much the story I was exposed to for years and that I used to share with my students, and in my writings.  I even likened Alexander to a sort of Phoenix rising from the ashes of a Tasmanian wasteland – an unpleasant penal colony, and site of a particularly swift and nasty genocide of the Tasmanian Aboriginies.

But about 30 years ago, I noticed some disturbing passages in his books, particularly regarding his views on certain groups of people – “primitive people”, Germans, and Blacks in the American South.

Of course these didn’t directly challenge the basic story, but they got me thinking there was more to Alexander than we had been told. It was on a Summer Workshop with Marjorie Barstow in the late 1980s that I was chatting about this with an Alexander student who also happened to be an English professor.  She said: “Well I guess it’s time we stopped accepting all the Alexander hagiographies at face value.”

Hagiographies?  What are those?  I’d never hear that word before but she explained it meant a biography that idealized it’s subject.  Kind of like the stories of saints.

And kind of like most of the historical information about Alexander then available.  Knowing the word “hagiography” actually made me more alert to challenges to the Alexander narratives.

And indeed two very serious challenges to those hagiographies have emerged since then. I’ll very briefly summarize them below, but for the record I want to state that I do consider F. Matthias Alexander to have been a genius – but like most geniuses, flawed.  And a very different kind of genius that we have been led to believe.

The first challenge came from Jeroen Staring, a Dutch academic and student of the Technique, who shows pretty convincingly, I believe, that all of Alexander’s teaching procedures came from others.

You can learn more about Staring’s discoveries in these two blog posts by Luke Ford, an Alexander Technique teacher in Los Angeles:

Jeroen Staring – Historian Of The Alexander Technique

When Your Leader Is A Plagiarist

The second challenge is more recent, and ultimately far more profound, since it’s no so much about Alexander Technique procedures, but about where some of it’s basic principles actually came from.

Jeando Masoero a French Alexander Technique teacher and self-described “archaeologist” of the Technique, has discovered a heretofore unknown link between Alexander and Francois Delsarte, a Frenchman whose Method Alexander taught in Australia before moving to England.

We’ve known for some time that Alexander originally promoted himself as a teacher of the Delsarte Method, but its always been hard to imagine how Alexander could have learned much about it because there were no writings by Delsarte or his students that he could have read.  But Jeando discovered that Delsarte’s younger brother Camille, also a teacher of the Delsarte Method, moved to – of all places! – Tasmania in 1851 and lived in Hobart, the capital for about 20 years. He had a huge influence on musicians and actors locally and on the mainland of Australia.

Alexander was no doubt influenced by Delsarte’s work. His initial decision to use mirrors to learn the truth about what he was doing to cause his vocal difficulties, for example, comes right out of Delsarte’s emphasis on using mirrors for self-discovery and self-improvement.  A great deal more about the Alexander – Delsarte connection at Jeando’s website or here: Francois Delsaarte’s influence of F. Mattias Alexander and the Alexander Technique

(According to Jeando, the time between Alexander deciding he’d figure out how to solve his problem on his own, and the start of his teaching career was no more than 18 months, not 10 years! And, lest we forget, Alexander’s niece, Marjory Barlow, said that Alexander taught his brother, A. R. Alexander, the Technique in six lessons – without using his hands.  And that was enough for him to start teaching along side Alexander!)

In my opinion, Alexander’s true genius lay to some extent in solving his problem using the version of the Delsarte Method he has access to.  But even more in packaging, popularizing and teaching it, and later adding some new components – notably what are now called Alexander Technique Directions, and the use of his hands to both guide his students and reinforce the ideas he wanted to get across to them.

For me this makes Alexander far less intimidating, and the Alexander Technique far more approachable, for perspective students. And far more likely to become better known and appreciated.

***

The title for this blog was inspired by It Ain’t Necessarily So from Porgy and Bess:

Does the Alexander Technique Have a Leg to Stand On?

I’ve been thinking about my legs a lot recently, and particularly since my recent interview with Atlas in which he described the huge impact he noticed from learning how to bring ease to his legs.

Maybe I’m also a little obsessed about these 2 important parts of me because I do a lot of walking and a lot of swimming. And of course because I’m a teacher of the Alexander Technique and naturally interested in physical functioning in general.

What are are my legs doing, and how well are they doing it?  That’s the kind of question I find myself asking these days.

On a recent walk, it occurred to me that my legs were actually performing two somewhat distinct functions: They support the rest of me – my torso, arms and head – and they move me through space.

Support and move. Both these functions require a certain amount of strength but moving requires a great deal more flexibility.  And there are plenty of ways in which one or both of the functions can become compromised over time.

Often it’s harmful patterns of sitting, standing, and moving we’ve learned over the years that cause this. And if we’ve learned how to create the problem, we can also learn how to restore efficient functioning.

That’s exactly what the Alexander Technique is all about.

Here’s a short video featuring F. Matthias Alexander, the developer of the Alexander Technique, with a collection of his acolytes.  There are several scenes where he can be seen walking and I think it’s pretty apparent that he was able to use his legs with ease. Bear in mind that he was well into his 60s when the film was made:

So how can the Alexander Technique help you to improve the quality of your leg use?

The obvious answer is that the Technique has a very long history of improving overall coordination, movement and balance. And since your legs are an important component of that, their function will naturally be enhanced.

Beyond that, many Alexander Technique teachers today work directly with their students’ legs in a variety of ways:

Perhaps best known, Alexander Technique “table work”, during which the student is lying in the Constructive Rest position, is a perfect framework for focusing on a students legs, and how they function.  It’s relatively easy to help a student release tension in a leg when it can be lifted off the table and and, in a sense “disconnected” from the rest of the student’s body.  A skilled teacher can then help the student take that release into the real world of standing, walking etc.

A somewhat analogous process was developed by he late Walter Carrington, a well-known teacher and trainer of teachers Alexander Technique teachers.  He pioneered the use of “saddle work” – having the student sit in a horse saddle mounted on a wooden frame, with their legs hanging freely to the sides of the saddle.  This position makes it possible to help the student release leg tension more easily in a sitting position.

Marjorie Barstow was another prominent teacher whose approach to leg functioning took the form of asking students to think of their legs “tagging along”, as she put it, when walking. The idea was to get them to let go of “placing” their feet on the ground in a habitual manner, allowing their legs to move in an unfamiliar, easier, manner.  Marj also developed a simple way of using her hands to guide students’ legs for a few steps in order to give them the direct experience of letting go of unnecessary leg tension.

In my own Up With GravitySM work, I’ll often ask a student to use simple imagery to move their center of gravity – instead of “walk” – around the room, for example.  They will typically notice that they are now moving with greater ease and the most obvious manifestation of that change is usually felt in their legs, and the way their feet arrive at the floor.  As with Marj’s approach, it’s a way to release unconscious patterns of leg movement that interfere with ease of movement.

Body Mapping, an Alexander Technique development by Bill and Barbara Conable, can be a quick and effective way to help bring your legs’ functioning into line with your actual physical structure.  For example most people have a misconception of where their hip joints actually are and correcting this error can change the way you use your legs immediately.  Their book, How to Learn the Alexander Technique – A Manual for Students, provides detailed information about Body Mapping, and how to use it to improve your functioning.

With the development of Freedom Directions, some teachers will ask their students to think “My legs are free” or subsidiary directions like “My feet are free”, “My ankles are free” etc. which can be very effective at addressing leg functioning.

How about Alexander himself – what suggestions for improved leg functioning did he put forward?

He does mention legs, the how we use or legs, dozens of time in his four books.  But as far as I can tell, he made only one specific suggestion for improving the way they function:

In his first book, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Alexander wrote, in “Notes and Instances”:

It is not possible…to set out in written language the correct pose of the feet and legs in the ideal standing position, and I therefore subjoin four photographs which have been specially taken for this purpose…and which show quite clearly not only the correct position of the feet, the fundamental problem, but also how the whole body of the person is thereby thrown into gear.

Here are 2 of those photos, with Alexander himself doing the demonstrating:

The caption underneath them reads:

A (image on left)—The feet are here placed in the ideal position for obtaining perfect equilibrium of the human machine, and for permitting the maximum activity of the functioning of the whole organism.

B (image on right) —The feet are here placed in a position which compels an imperfect adjustment of the whole organism in order to secure even an imperfect equilibrium. This position results in the minimum activity of the vital functioning.

That idea of correct standing promoted by Alexander was similar to one of the nine ‘base attitudes’ that the Delsarte Method students were told to practice in front of a mirror. Alexander was, it must be remembered, a teacher of that method well into the 1900s.

The advice seems pretty simplistic, but Alexander also wrote:

But when this ideal position is realized, the task of obtaining it by each individual has still to be undertaken.

And this turns out, in his view, to be a good deal more complex and likely requires the help of a trained teacher.

The upshot of all this is that if your legs feel stiff, or seem to move in an inefficient manner, or are in pain, you might want to see how the Alexander Technique can help.  You can locate a teacher here: How to Find a Teacher or Course

And if you’ve had Alexander Technique lessons and noticed changes in your feet and legs – or if you’re an Alexander Technique teacher or student who has come up with a way of using the Technique to specifically help with leg functioning, please comment below and on Facebook.

Legs Image copyright: gladkov / 123RF Stock Photo

The Art of Self Management

I recently watched this PBS News Hour segment about Zappos, the Las Vegas based online retailer of shoes, and other clothing items.  Zappos is famous for it’s amazing customer service, and for it’s unique and quirky corporate culture which emphasizes, among other things, an adventurous, creative, and open-minded approach to work.

As Tony Hsieh, Zappos CEO, mentioned in the interview, the company encourages self-management rather than traditional hierarchical, management from above.

That phrase – self-management – immediately jumped out at me.

Self-management – that’s exactly what I think most Alexander Technique teachers would agree they are  teaching their students.  It’s certainly what I’m always trying to do during a lesson.

Does that mean we’re training our students to work for Zappos, or a similar company?

Not really.  What Hsieh is talking about is empowering his employees to think for themselves and to do their jobs as best they can, with as little direct supervision as possible.  He wants his employees to take initiative and go through their workday doing what they believe is the best way to get their jobs done.

Alexander Technique teachers are also empowering their students to think for themselves, but we’re not primarily interested in the specific activities our students have chosen to do.  We’re not their CEO!

What we are interested in is HOW they do the specific activities they have chosen to do – at work, at home, anywhere.

So, for example, if someone needs to spend a few (or many) hours working at a computer, we’re interested in what they’re doing with their body while doing that, and in showing them ways to do it with less strain and greater ease.

If their job involves sorting, lifting, and packaging of mail orders, we’re interested in how they can do those tasks more easily, and with less likelihood of injury.

We’re teaching a process that could be thought of as “internal self-management.”

Of course there is some overlap between the Zappos idea of self management and ours.

For example, Zappos has a lot of employees who work in phone support. They’re sitting at a computer terminal and speaking on the phone with dozens of customers a day, many of whom may have a problem with an order or a complaint of some kind.  These employees are told to spend as much time as is needed to take care of problems and, in fact, one customer representative was singled out for special praise for spending over 10 hours on the phone with a single customer to resolve an issue!

My guess is that might not have happened if she was in pain from sitting so long or found herself getting laryngitis after a few hours of speaking.

Those are exactly the kind of issues the Alexander Technique can help with. It’s truly the art of self management.

If you’re intrigued, check out: How to Find an Alexander Technique Teacher or Course

Please share your comments below and/or on Facebook.

Atlas Talks About the Alexander Technique

Sculpture of Atlas inaccurately depicting him holding the earth on his shoulders.

I recently had an opportunity to interview Atlas, the Titan god of astronomy and navigation.  Because he and his brother Prometheus found themselves on the losing end of the war between the Titans and the Olympian gods, Atlas was condemned by Zeus to stand forever on the western side of the earth, holding the sky on his shoulders.

A few years ago, high-speed internet service became available on the western side, and Atlas was able to take some Alexander Technique lessons using Skype.  We also used Skype to conduct our interview.

Me: Atlas, it’s a great honor to talk with you today.

Atlas: It’s a pleasure to chat with you Robert!  I feel I owe a great deal to the Alexander Technique and I’m happy to assist in any way I can to let others know how helpful it can be.

Me: I’m a little ashamed to admit that until recently I was unaware of your back story – how you came to to your present situation. And I originally thought you had to hold up the earth itself.

Atlas: The other Titans and me often have a good laugh about that!  Think about it – if I were holding the earth on my shoulders, what would be holding me?

Me: Indeed. But I assume is was something about your work that brought you to the Technique?

Atlas: It was. As you know my work IS my life – I have to stand in basically the same place 24/7, 365 days a year, keeping the sky from falling.  Even with my astonishing size and strength, it’s a lifestyle that can easily lead to physical discomfort and even pain.

Me: What were the specific issues that brought you to the Technique?

Atlas: My main issues were neck and shoulder pain and extreme discomfort in my legs. it was the leg issue that turned out to be primary, so to speak.

Me: Please tell me more.

Atlas: Well my Alexander teacher pointed something out that I’d never thought of: While I had to stay in pretty much the same place all the time, I didn’t need to fix my legs the way I had been doing.  There were possibilities of small movements in my ankle, knee and hip joints which I could make – small amounts of bending, twisting etc which allowed me to introduce some ease in my legs.

At first, my teacher suggested simply experimenting with these tiny movements without any specific Alexander directions, but once I’d become used to them and didn’t worry that I’d drop the sky, she suggested I combine the movements with what she called Freedom Directions* like “I’m free” or “My ankles are free” etc. Those directions, combined with the movements, created a whole new quality of ease in my legs.  They came to feel like living parts of me, not like stone pillars, and I found over time that I could move my leg joints through larger and larger ranges of movement.

Eventually I could even move around a little!

Me: That’s wonderful Atlas.  What was the solution for you neck and shoulder pain?

Atlas: Well that’s the amazing thing.  Once my legs became freer, they were also also able to allow me to be in balance and to transfer the support of the Earth up through them to my torso and head. I discovered (I’m proud to say on my own, between lessons) that I could harness the Earth’s support in the service of keeping the sky from falling.**

Me: So that meant that your shoulders didn’t have to work as hard?

Atlas: Exactly!  I came to realize I could substitute ease and balance for fixing and holding – I could be a channel between sky and earth, allowing the downward pull of the one to nicely balance the upward push of the other.  Needless to say, my life has become a lot easier and more pleasant.

Me: I’m so happy for you Atlas!  But, still, don’t you find it a bit bothersome to have to be doing the same thing all the time – no vacations, no time to visit with the kids, no time to kick back and just enjoy life?

Atlas: Well you know I am a god, not a human being.  So I have a whole different set of priorities.  For me, it’s an honor to keep the sky from falling and now that I can do that without being in pain, I’m free to enjoy my mission for the good it produces. By the way, I’m very proud that I have become the anatomical name for the first cervical vertebra, which supports the head.  The epicenter of the head/neck relationship that is of so much importance in the Alexander Technique.  I smile whenever I use the Freedom Direction “My atlas is free.”

And, to tell the truth, sometime at night, when nobody is looking, I do a little dance using my new flexibility and balance.  Life’s good for me now, and I’m so glad I’ve been able to benefit from F. Matthias’s Alexander’s discoveries.

Me: Atlas, thank you so much for this interview.  And, on behalf of all the inhabitants of the Earth, thank you for keeping the sky from falling.

*You can learn more about Freedom Directions here: New Developments in Alexander Technique Directions

**More about the Earth’s support can be found here: Gravity, Support and Freedom – And the Alexander Technique

Walking the Floor with Alexander

My Alexander Technique students – both in person and on Skype – are often surprised when I ask, usually during their first lesson, detailed questions about the flooring in their homes and workplaces. After she’d had a few of lessons, one student said that my eyes seemed to light up when she told me she lived in an older house with original wood flooring and hardly any rugs!

No, it’s not some kind of weird floor fetish.  Or a repressed desire to be an interior decorator.

Floors, and more specifically how our feet arrive at them when we walk, can be a very useful “mirror” for observing changes in the way we use our bodies.

(A short digression for those not familiar with the origins of the Alexander Technique: F. Matthias Alexander, the developer of the Technique made use of mirrors to give him accurate feedback about what he was doing – the kind of feedback he could not get from what he felt he was doing.*  Alexander teachers today still use mirrors for this purpose when teaching, although some have moved on to video cameras and monitors. Floors can function as a sort of “sound mirror.”)

Here’s how I use the wooden floor that takes up most of my teaching studio: When I teach a student to use an Alexander Technique direction, I often start by using walking as a framework for exploration. I’ll ask the student to use a thought like “I am free” as they walk around the studio and then, at some point, I’ll ask them to keep walking and throw the direction away.

(Short digression #2: If you’re unfamiliar with Alexander directions, and how to use them, here’s a good place to learn more about them: New Directions in Alexander Technique Directing)

More often than not they will hear a significant difference in the sound their feet make as they arrive at the floor at the very moment they throw the thought away.  Sometimes they will also feel increased pressure on the soles of their feet.  They may even notice a bit of compression in their bodies.

What they’re noticing is a sudden return to their habitual way of walking. Then, as they continue walking, they can lightly bring the direction back and they may well notice that their footfalls sound lighter again.

Even if all they notice is the louder sound of their footfalls when they abandon the direction, that’s an opportunity for me to make an important point:  If the sound of their feet got louder due to a tiny mental change – and bearing in mind that feet are as far away from the brain as you can get – then everything else in their body must have also changed in some way.

There is, after all, no direct outside channel between their brains and their feet!

I’ll often pause the lesson at that point to give the student a little time to digest that experience and it’s huge implications.

At the end of the lesson, I assign my students the “homework” of experimenting with this direction, and others I give them, on their own in a variety of activities – but especially walking.  And that’s when I delve into their floor situation. I also ask them to wear shoes with hard soles at first during their experiments so that the sound of their footfalls is as loud as possible.**

I invite you, dear reader, to perform the experiment yourself and let me know, either here and/or on Facebook, what you discover.

*Alexander’s idea to use mirrors for this purpose almost certainly comes from training in the Delsarte Method, which he later taught for several years. You can learn more about that connection here: Francois Delsarte’s Influence on F. Matthias Alexander and the Alexander Technique

**When I’m teaching in Lincoln, Nebraska, a great many of my students have wooden flooring in at least some part of their home.  If they don’t have wooden floors, there are often have hard surfaces somewhere in their house, a good second choice.  In Toronto, Canada where I teach regularly, wooden floors are much harder to come by.  Toronto is condo-city and the concrete floors are more often than not covered by thick carpeting, although sometimes there is hardwood or laminate installed over the concrete.

The title for this blog was inspired by “Walking the Floor Over You,” by the Late Great, Ernest Tubb. The song was first released in 1941 and one critic has called it the honky tonk song that launched the honky tonk musical genre. Here he is, back in 1961, already a Living Legend!

Floor ImageCopyright : Igor Stevanovic 123rf.com

Lilies of the Field

Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

This blog was inspired by a recent Facebook post from Fay Putnam, an Alexander Technique teacher in Portland, Oregon who thinks and writes a lot about breathing.  She wrote:

The circle of breath… the exhale and the return/arrival of air. So it goes. We pause; the breath arrives. We are born; we cry out. Think about it – the season of life, one big circle. The world cries out around us and it does not seem to wait for the breath of life to arrive. It seems to cry out more and more and more. The circle, the rhythm is broken. There is a void, an emptiness, a grasping for relief and air. Thus it seems, with all the noise about us. In our angst to grab relief as well as air we hold and keep it, that precious air.

The swirling noise becomes entrapped and our brains and voices become stuck. We cease to be full. It is ironic that we hold on to our stale beliefs and ideas along with the stale air. We even cease crying out, in our stuck selves. We are afraid there will not be enough; we take and grab breath. We are closed to the fact that to find our authentic voices, like our breath, we must give it away. Like the newborn, we must cry out; we must first exhale. We must cry out and wait for the arrival of new air, new life, new inspiration.

There is no escape; there are no shortcuts.  – Fay Putnam

Well, I thought to myself, this is an absolutely brilliant description of a basic fact of our existence: We live in at atmosphere which creates almost 15 pounds of pressure on each square inch of our body. Air is literally being pushed into us.  When let all the air out of our lungs, and allow our diaphragm and ribs to then create a vacuum, new air rushes in without our having to do anything.

Of course we can make an effort – sucking air in to try to get more of it – but that really doesn’t help in any sustained way.  And it can cause a great deal of damage.

F. Matthias Alexander was led to develop the Alexander Technique because of making this very mistake.  He faced the challenge of reciting before large and sometime noisy audiences with no PA system, and the results were not good.

When he used mirrors to determine what he was doing that was causing his problem:

I saw that as soon as I started to recite, I tended to pull back the head, depress the larynx, and suck in breath through the mouth in such a way as to produce a gasping sound. – “Evolution of a Technique,” Use of the Self

Could it be that Alexander had been just a little too eager* to recite effectively in this challenging situation, and that his eagerness caused him to gasp for air?  Air that was already being pushed into his lungs?

I believe Alexander’s major accomplishment can be seen as the development of a method that teaches practical ways for us to organize ourselves to benefit from atmospheric pressure – and from the other forces we encounter as we go through life. In Alexander’s case the immediate issue concerned the force of the atmosphere. I believe the same general dynamic appears with basic forces like gravity, support, and electromagnetic forces like light and heat.**

Unlike the lilies of the field, we humans can “learn” how to interfere with optimal self-organization.  Alexander came up with a method we can learn to bring it back.

Alexander also had a support issue. He writes that in addition to his gasping for air habit:

Observation in the mirror showed me that when I was standing to recite I was using these other parts in certain wrong ways which synchronized with my wrong way of using my head and neck, larynx, vocal and breathing organs, and which involved a condition of undue muscle tension throughout my organism. I observed that this condition of undue muscle tension affected particularly the use of my legs, feet, and toes, my toes being contracted and bent downwards in such a way that my feet were unduly arched, my weight thrown more on to the outside of my feet than it should have been, and my balance interfered with.

On discovering this, I thought back to see if I could account for it, and I recalled an instruction that had been given to me in the past…when I was taking lessons in dramatic expression and interpretation. Not being pleased with my way of standing and walking, (my teacher) would say to me from time to time, ” Take hold of the floor with your feet.”

Carrying out this instruction prevented him from simply allowing the floor’s support force to flow freely up through his body. As with gasping for air, he was attempting to grab something that was already there. And that grabbing prevented the force from being used effectively and intelligently.

As I said earlier, we receive all the forces of nature – we have no choice about that.  But we do have a choice about how we receive them and our choice can have a huge effect on how we function.

I’d love to read your comments below and/or on Facebook.

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*Alexander was “end-gaining,” to use today’s Alexander Technique jargon.

**You can learn more about these forces, and how you can use the Technique to make the best use of them at Gravity, Support and Freedom

Lilly image copyright: supathral / 123RF Stock Photo

Who’s Minding Your Brain?

Our minds influence the key activity of the brain, which then influences everything; perception, cognition, thoughts and feelings, personal relationships; they’re all a projection of you. – Deepak Chopra

Alexander Technique teachers and their students have been successfully using their minds to influence their bodies, and parts of their bodies, for over a century. Alexander Technique Directions are mental processes whose purpose is to improve physical and mental functioning.

In a previous post, Taking a Walk down Easy Street, I described two sequences of Directions which I found very useful in walking, and in other activities.  The first began at the my feet and moved upward to my head, and eventually to my eyes.  The second traveled back down from my eyes to my feet.

The particular sequences I used were inspired by Imogen Ragone who shared with me a Direction she had thought of: “I am free to notice ease in my feet.” I experimented with it, found it very helpful and was inspired to expand on that idea.

But I realize now that I could have taken it one one step further and go to the source, so to speak, and  include: “I am free to notice ease in my brain.”

And that – whether used by itself or as part of a sequence – has turned out to be extremely powerful in all sorts of ways.

Here are what some members of Imogen’s Facebook page BodyIntelligence Community reported when using that Direction:

Image courtesy of Imogen Ragone

My shoulders tend to drop when I think this thought.

I have noticed ease in my brain and it has a calming effect for me.

Taking time to feel at ease with my brain is like checking in on my thoughts to see if they are compatible with my beliefs.

I’ve been finding this thought very useful, and have tried it out in various situations, including walking, as you suggested. I usually, however, notice the most significant effect when I’m working at my computer, or thinking about work!! The first thing I typically notice is a sense of spaciousness inside and out, accompanied by a deep breath that just happens spontaneously, and an overall sense of ease. I also often notice a letting go in my shoulders, too.

For me, the effects were most pronounced when I used the Direction while walking – it seemed to reorganize my whole body, especially my legs, so that it operated in an easier and more efficient manner.

It’s not at all surprising that individual experiences would be so varied.  The brain, after all, controls just about everything in ourselves, directly or indirectly.  Which is why, for example, a brain tumor which puts pressure on brain tissue, can have a huge variety of unpleasant effects, depending on where that pressure on the brain takes place.

One of things I like about the new “Brain Direction” it is that I am not able to directly sense the effects of this Direction in my brain itself.*  The effects are, however, quite apparent in other parts of my body. This “separation” is a useful quality for self-direction since it makes it easier to avoid being drawn into the Directlon’s effects while experimenting with it – making it less likely to forget the Direction that is causing those effects.

As I emphasized before, effective self directing requires softness of thought, no direct intent to actually make the Direction happen, and as little attachment in the moment as possible. (You can learn more about Alexander Technique directions and the art of directing at New Directions in Alexander Technique Directing.)

Obviously the experiments with this new direction are just a start and it would be very, very useful to have readers experiment with it and post their own findings below and on Facebook.

And please, don’t think you need to have had any Alexander Technique experience!

***

*Some people seem to be able to directly sense changes going on inside their brains.

Brain image copyright: nerthuz / 123RF Stock Photo

What is the Alexander Technique? – Part 2

This is a question Alexander Technique teachers get all the time, and one I wrote about last January in What is the Alexander Technique?  It’s something I keep coming back to.

Teachers’ replies to this most basic of questions about the Technique vary dramatically.

Some teachers are able to come up with a short, clear and easy to understand answer.

Many others appear to be flustered, as though they’re being put on the spot, and often preface their reply with phrases like “Well that’s a tough question.” or “I was afraid you’d ask me that.” They may say something like: “It can’t adequately be described with words – you have to experience it for yourself.”  Sometime their answer is so jargon-riddled that it’s impossible for ordinary people to comprehend.

It’s easy for those of us who teach the Alexander Technique to understand the many reasons behind these seemingly bizarre replies – for example our unfamiliar way of thinking about posture, pain, and stress, our concern that anything we say can easily be misinterpreted, etc.

But still…it must seem bizarre to a questioner why there is so much reluctance to giving the answer to a  very obvious and basic question. A question which, if anybody ought to know how to answer, it would be a teacher of the Technique!

A brief pause here…nothing I’m writing here is meant as a criticism of my colleagues. I am, or have been, guilty of all these ways of describing the Technique.  It’s taken me years to feel confident and comfortable answering the “what is” question.

In this regard I owe a lot to the late Marjorie Barstow.  More often than not, she would begin a workshop by asking everyone for their definition of the Technique.  Of course some participants, new to the process, couldn’t answer the question, and Marj was fine with that.

Some of the answers were excellent. My favorite (and Marj’s too) was from one of her ongoing students, Dr Alfred Flechas.  He suggested: “The Alexander Technique is a way of learning how to release harmful tension from your body.”

I often use that answer myself as it seems to resonate with a lot of people. Sometimes I say: “Its a method of helping people do whatever they want to do more easily and with less unnecessary strain.”

And sometimes, particularly when my contact with the questioner if fleeting – going through customs for example – I say: “It’s a way to help people improve their posture and co-ordination.”

My current favorite answer – but definitely not for everyone! – is: “It’s a way to make the best use of our physical structure and of the forces that operate on us as we go about our lives on the surface our planet.”*

I’m always looking for better answers – which is one reason why at the beginning of my podcasts I ask the person I’m interviewing to give their short definition or description of the Technique.  In some ways it’s not surprising that many of the best answers come from Alexander students as they are often free of the trepidations many teachers have.

Actually, I’m much more comfortable these days talking about Alexander’s discoveries – what they were and how we can make use of them for ourselves.  But that is a topic for another blog.  In the meantime, you might want to read this excellent article by Alexander Technique teacher Nicholas Brockbank, What Did Alexander Discover – And Why is it Important?

One final thought: It’s interesting that F. Matthias Alexander himself never gave a concise answer to the question.  Indeed, as far as I know, he never even used the term “Alexander Technique”!  Maybe that’s because he started his teaching career as a teacher of the Delsarte Method**, shedding that identity only after he moved to England in 1904, and perhaps not feeling comfortable attaching his name to what he was doing.  From that time on, he generally referred to to his teaching as “the work” or “my work.”

Alexander was also very clear in his writings that he viewed his work as just the beginning of an ongoing process of discovery and innovation.

For me this history, and the very nature of the Alexander Technique itself, means there is no single “official” Alexander Technique definition.  Individual teachers, students and professional societies have come up with their own definitions of course.  But they can – and often do – change over time, reflecting new developments or the sort that Alexander expected would take place.

And now dear readers a final question: What is your definition of the Alexander Technique?

I’d love to read your answers below and/or on Facebook.

*More on the inspiration for this direction can be found at Gravity, Support and Freedom – and the Alexander Technique

**More on the Alexander/Delsarte connection can be found at Francois Delsarte’s influence on F. Matthias Alexander and the Alexander Technique

Image Copyright: lupobianco / 123RF Stock Photo