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Alexander Technique Blog | Barbara Maloney

BLOG – Going Further

The Alexander Technique is dynamic and exciting, but not in the ways you might initially think. This page is dedicated to exploring ideas and revelations in my practice, and I invite you to explore alongside me through this blog.

Your Free Will and Your Free Won’t – the Alexander Technique teaches us to bring these into balance.


How wonderfully therapeutic it can be to learn to say no! So many situations spring to mind as we imagine the great good a little bit of ‘no’ could do for organizing our lives. Well from the perspective of an Alexander Technique teacher, it is also just what we need to help organize our limbs.

A simple and obvious example can be seen by bending at the elbow. If we want to flex the bicep on the front of the upper arm we need to let go of the triceps on the backside. The front and back muscles act in cooperation in order to allow for movement at a joint. At the level of the nervous system this is even more obvious.  At its most fundamental, coordination can be understood as the balance of excitatory and inhibitory messages from the nervous system.

We rarely have to think about the balance of these complementary states. We have an intention to carry out an action and then we take off. In fact for many actions the separation between intention and action is almost nonexistent. Think of a toddler; I see I grab. More to the point for Alexander Technique teachers is the plight of many adults; even when attempting to rest in a neutral state, muscular action takes over in a habitual though unwanted manner. The toddler’s action is more willful than free will as there is not yet much ability to choose. In the case of the adult, though, we have a lack of ability to not do something. Could we say there is a lack of free won’t?

Students of the Alexander Technique are sometimes surprised by how much conscious effort it can take to learn to use their free won’t; shoulders that lurch upward with just the thought of standing up, a chin reaches forward at the suggestion of walking. A physical effort to actively correct these tendencies by trying to pull the shoulders or the chin back result in more tension. To bypass these habits we need to say no in a way that affects nerve and muscle. This active ‘no’ inhibits our habitual response in the moment of our first intention. In this way Alexander Technique lessons teach us a highly therapeutic ‘no’. This free won’t turns out to be a critical part of our ability to act freely. Liberated from the burden of habitual strain it is possible to discover true freedom of movement.


Expectations, Awareness and A New Type of Education.

At the end of a recent first lesson my student said, “That is not at all what I expected”. Websites, like this one, might have a page devoted to what happens in a lesson but we are still bound to be surprised by this new type of learning. In part that’s because language has  limits. Somethings just have to be experienced. But the surprise is also related to expectations and awareness. In a lesson we are asked to bring our awareness to a process of undoing but most of us expect physical changes to be a result of more direct effort.

Awareness is shaped by expectations. What we expect to be relevant is where we put our attention. (Check out this YouTube for a wonderful illustration http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oSQJP40PcGI) What may seem relevant for someone, like this new student, who has a goal of improving his posture might be placement and holding. He expects me to help him find the right place to put shoulders, spine and head and then to teach him how to stay there. However the teacher’s words and touch are consistently inviting him to release habits of holding and realize there is no correct placement, only a dynamic relationship of parts.

Fortunately our senses also shape awareness. The teacher will ask a student to notice changes. He says he feels lighter, he sees in the mirror that he is more upright. This is what we were hoping for, isn’t it?  But the next statement is, “I can’t do this myself”. This unexpected process of change has gone all but unnoticed. The teacher must have done it all, he believes, since he is not aware of any effort on his part and effort is what he expects to rely upon.

But it is evident that these changes could not be accomplished merely through the light guiding touch of a teacher. The power of directing our awareness, the tool we have been working with throughout, the lesson has not yet been understood. Now it is time, once again, to bring awareness to the process and explain that we don’t want to grasp at the end point without paying attention to how we got there.

At this point that advice may seem about as helpful as pointing out that “life is a journey”. He has been asked to attend to a process that is not in his normal range of awareness. He declares, “I am a very logical fellow”.  Thankfully the Technique is very logical and  practical as well. It offers the only kind of instruction that is likely to get him results. Grasping for the goal when we haven’t yet recognized the process for achieving it is not very logical. In fact it is sure to cause frustration.

Reducing frustration is  part of teaching  All learning is bound to have its setbacks and learning to change habits might be expected to provide many. However this is one more expectation that may be false when it comes to the Alexander Technique. The Technique is subtle but also powerful. Learning to change habits does require consistent attention. But where we might expect hard work we discover that letting go is the best remedy.


Posture, Consciousness, and Potential

In the very early years of Mr. Alexander’s developing technique he was thought of as a breathing expert. Now the Alexander Technique is probably most commonly associated with posture, pain relief and the performing arts. My experience tells me that given a brief explanation of the work  people assume it has something to do with exercise and ergonomics. In fact lessons are a time to trick ourselves out of constraining habits and into our potential.

Aldous Huxley, the well known author, considered by some the father of the human potential movement, was a student of Mr. Alexanders in the 1930s. He was so impressed with this unique type of teaching that he created a character in one of his novels based on Mr. Alexander and later wrote a preface to one of Alexander’s books. What Huxley knew from the beginning, and I think many of my students realize early on, is that the precision of standing and sitting is not the point.  Instead with that wonderful feeling of claiming my full height, my natural grace, the roll of my feet, there comes an awareness: something I’m doing is stopping me form using all that is here to give me greater comfort and support. There is a potential for ease that I am not realizing.

At work, in athletics or creatively we know that we cannot always work to our full potential. We feel the time constraints and competing priorities that undermine our dedication to work to our full potential. But what about the way we move, sit and breath? Why would we be operating in a way that is less than optimal? It doesn’t take more time to walk well. As a matter of fact it probably takes less.

Clearly it is not a question of priorities or lack of time that determines how well we stand or sit. It is the force of habit, and dulling of awareness that comes with it, which diminishes our potential. What links interest in the human potential movement  with the Alexander Technique is it’s perceptive method for working against the force of habit. This is embodied learning that brings awareness to where it needs to  be if we want to change. In Mr. Huxley’s words,

“The Alexander Technique gives us all the things we have been looking for in a system of physical education: relief from strain due to maladjustment, and consequent improvement in physical and mental health; along with this a heightening of consciousness on all levels. We cannot ask for more from any system; nor if we desire to alter human beings in a desirable direction can we ask for any less.”

The changes we are looking for will benefit us on many levels both physically and mentally.  Realizing more of our potential in daily activities can translate into greater confidence in the creative realm as well. The heightened consciousness that Huxley noticed is directly connected with the embodied learning, and awareness that is critical to overcoming long-held habits. People may originally come for lessons to improve their posture, but the process of learning often teaches them that posture is just one part of realizing their full  potential.