The Alexander Technique - A short discussion and definition
Generally speaking people are unaware of how they engage their mechanisms in everyday activity. There is an unconscious presumption that it does not need to be thought about, that somehow we just "know" how best to do the things we do.
For over one hundred years teachers of the Alexander Technique have been exposing this fallacy. The truth is that almost everything, if not all, we do is learned. This is obvious in such activities as reading or riding a bicycle but to many may not so obviously be the case in sitting in chairs, walking, standing and so on. When we engage ourselves in activity it does not necessarily occur to us, especially when learning, what happens when we use more muscular effort than is necessary. The human frame is very flexible. Use more effort than is necessary to lift an arm, say, or take a step and the result is to pull the framework out of shape. Physiological factors then act, through what is essentially a time-saving mechanism, to make us reproduce, next time, what we have just done and we develop a habit of doing too much.
The distortion of the framework results in inefficiency of movement, and stress and strain within the mechanical system. This makes daily life much harder than it need be and sets up a situation where every time we engage in an activity we are hurting ourselves and laying the ground for the mechanical stress to become worse.
Lessons will, in the first place, take you through procedures that will enable you, probably for the first time, to begin to observe in yourself the stressful situation you are creating merely by carrying out your normal daily activities. It will then go on to show you how an amelioration of the present situation can be brought about and a foundation laid for future improvement. The emphasis of lessons will be practical. However, an outline will be given of how so-called "mental stress" relates to the problems considered and an indication given as to how the same approach can and will bring about relief.
It is often thought that some how or another the manner in which we co-ordinate ourselves in activity is automatic, given, not necessary to be learned.
It should go without saying that without the existence of the bony and muscular structure and the "hard wiring" of the nervous system we would never use ourselves at all but it does not take much thought to realise that many, some would say all, of our activities are learned. That is to say, for any activity we must go through a process that allows us to co-ordinate the movement, with the right amount of effort, of one part of the structure with another. We talk, for instance, of "hand and eye" coordination. Most of us have no doubt that we had to learn to write, drive, play the piano, row a boat and so on. Even if some people are better at any given activity more quickly than others when we say, for instance, that "she is a born pianist", we merely mean that the process of learning did not appear to be so arduous for her than for someone who appeared to struggle more. Yet there is an amazing disparity of ability for almost any activity you can think of. It ranges from risible incompetence to breathtaking virtuosity, with the majority forming a mediocre norm.
How can this be? Apart from size and gender we all appear to be exactly the same 'model'. If one has been fortunate enough to become an internationally applauded concert pianist it is probably natural enough of think of oneself as "gifted". But what does that mean for the "ham-fisted"? Is there nothing more to it than it is in the genes and it is inevitable? Well it would be difficult to find a concert pianist who said that they play as well as they did without having had to put in the hours of practice. But what is practice but taking the "machinery" through the procedure conceived to be the right one, the requisite number of times, for the activity to flow without hitch and at will. Practice, as people still like to think, makes perfect.
Of course we know that practice doesn't make perfect, except for the fortunate few. For the majority of people any skill seems to find its natural stopping point and however hard one may work at it, a higher level is not achieved. Indeed, the usual thing is that the highest level is only reached occasionally with most attempts being worse than that to one degree or another.
Any activity we undertake is accompanied by the tendency for what we do this time to be what we do next time. This is the basis of habit. Habit had been praised by, for instance, William James for its up side - the more habitual a thing becomes the less conscious attention we have to give it - but it has a down side.
Every thing we do requires some conception of what it is we are doing and it is in accordance with that conception that we direct our body to adopt some posture and/or change its position in space. (These are not actually alternatives, just different aspects of the same thing.) In other words the mind thinks and body moves and, again as William James tells us, unless we over-ride it in the brain, when the mind thinks the body always moves. (Movement whilst dreaming, for instance, is directed but the signals never reach the muscles which will bring it about because it is inhibited in the brain stem.) The primary function of mental activity is to produce movement. Thus mind and body are a single working unity.
The truth of it is that most of the things we do we do over and over again and have been doing them pretty well all of our lives and thus we get tremendously quick at responding to our mental directions. We achieve this quickness by merely having to trigger stereotyped activities (habits) but what we produce is what we have learned. What if what we learned does not represent the best use, the best configuration, say, of the bodily mechanisms? Well everything is not quite as it should be, meaning, at the very least, we do not perform as efficiently we should. If we were made of metal for instance, instead of flesh, bone and blood, we would manifest our inefficiency by the production of light, heat and noise and diminished capacity for work. Our "out-of-shapeness" is best thought about as producing unnecessary wear and tear, and stress on the physical machinery including the brain. It also restricts our capacity to function.
For a variety of reasons being pulled out of shape becomes the norm for most people quite early on in life. It represents the way we are in the world. Everything we do is wearing us out and stressing us more than it should for no other reason than we cannot be in the world without being out of shape. Or to put it in a more Alexander way, the very fact of our existence involves us in habitual misuse of ourselves.
This basic misuse means that everything we attempt to do is dominated by it. The harder we try, the more work we do, the more we will misuse ourselves. The more we misuse ourselves the more out of shape we become and the worse we perform. From the mechanical point of view we make it impossible for ourselves to function any better than we do. And this is why more often than not practice does not make perfect and we reach a ceiling of possibility.
One of the things which ameliorates the situation from the personal point of view is that when we discover that we are "no good" at something we avoid doing it. There is only one way we can avoid being in the world altogether though, and just ordinary everyday life demands that we exercise our misuse, now and then to the point of exhaustion of our current possibilities. The psychological effects of this can be complex and devastating.
This bleak picture is the reality of the majority of peoples' lives in our western civilisation.
When Alexander had solved his own problems he went ahead and got on with the rest of his life. In doing this he discovered that he did things in a way that other people recognised as notably different and they wanted to know how. What Alexander had to teach them was the process he had just been through but somewhere along the line he discovered that if he used his hands he could improve the mechanical system of his pupils dramatically. This made it easier for them to give their attention to learning to put the Technique into action and speeded the process up.
This then became Alexander's usual way of working: "re-co-ordinating" (as we refer loosely to it) the pupil with his hands whilst getting the pupil to direct the new use and when the circumstances were right executing the activity in a new way.
This, generally, is the way in which Alexander lessons are conducted today. Thus it is the case that whereas Alexander teachers give Alexander lessons the pupil has to learn the Alexander Technique. What does not happen is that the Alexander teacher does the Alexander Technique to the pupil. This does not mean to say that having the reco-ordination work without learning the Technique is not efficacious; it is, often amazingly so. The re-co-ordination work of the teacher is probably the way that most people benefit from Alexander lessons and, it is fair to say, as much as most people want from them. However, unless the pupil goes through the same process as Alexander did they will not have learnt the Alexander Technique. There is no mysterious conduction of "influence" or "power". There is no passive way.
It is often asked whether or not it is possible to learn the Technique without the aid of a teacher. Of course the answer has to be yes. After all it is exactly what Alexander did. He was quite clear, though, that the only way of learning, with or without a teacher, was by understanding what he, Alexander, understood and going through the process that he, Alexander, had gone through. He was equally adamant that time was of the very essence. Learning the Alexander Technique takes quite a long time. Having lessons is easy, learning the Technique is more or less a labour of love and never quick.
Undoubtedly yes, for the teacher knows the way you must go and accompanies you on the way. This does not mean that the pupil will not stray, sometimes for a long time. Although the teacher knows so many of the blind alleys and broad paths to nowhere, he is powerless to prevent the pupil wandering down them if that is what the pupil wants to do. The teacher only has insight and the voice of reason as tools of persuasion. What he can do is call from the path constantly guiding the pupil back and be ready to continue the journey. Also the teacher achieves the re-co-ordination work much more quickly than the pupil could achieve it unaided. And somehow or another the re-co-ordination must be achieved or habit will continue to dominate.Back to top
Well, it's simple really. If your life is not going to change very much and you are satisfied with it, but you would like to be rid of the products of your current level of misuse (headache, backache, lethargy, woolly-headedness, and so on, and so on) then Alexander lessons are what you need. You probably won't want to bother much with learning the Technique. However, if your life has been unproductive and uncreative and you are not succeeding where you would like to succeed, perhaps being crippled with worry and/or fed up to the back teeth with it all, then just getting re-co-ordinated a bit does not help you forward very much. For unless you learn a new way of being in the world you are condemned to repeat the old way. It is not possible to change peoples' minds by changing their body shape. What is required is a process that enables you to re-orientate your view of life through your own insight. It is in this way that the full potential of your life, for whatever point you are at in it, is made exploitable by you. You lift your life from the level of habitual determinism to the level of consciously directed and executed choice. That's why it's worth the bother. Alexander called it: "Man's Supreme Inheritance".Back to top
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