Whereas we are normally conscious of the space surrounding us we are rarely conscious of our own ‘space’ – our size, our shape, the space we take up. We frequently diminish ourselves in two concurrent ways: 1. by too much tension which tends to pull us downwards and inwards, in effect squeezing ourselves; and 2. by collapsing (frequently called ‘relaxing’) which also compresses us, reducing our shape and size. Both decrease our ‘inner space’ which in turn affects the functioning of our entire organism, both physically and psychologically. For example by diminishing our breathing capacity, compressing our joints, narrowing our blood vessels, and therefore making us feel smaller. With the Alexander Technique we are not setting out with an idée fixe as to what we are or should be – there is no predefined ‘ideal’ posture – but we are learning how to prevent constricting ourselves. The AT is how to allow ourselves our true size and shape. And it is an ‘allowance’, not an imposition. We can allow ourselves to take up the space we inhabit. It is much more an ‘inner’ expansion rather than ‘outer’ expansion (although there are visible effects as well, these are side-effects and not the primary object of the AT). The Alexander Technique is inviting you to boldly go where you may have not gone before – your own personal and individual space.
Your Alexander teacher will have provided you with the classical directions of the Technique (along the lines of ‘neck to release, head free to go forwards and upwards’ etc., the exact phrasing depends on the teacher). Here inhibition (non-doing) and direction are closely choreographed in the activity of thinking. Every direction has to be preceded by inhibition so that the whole process is one of prevention and non-doing. The expansion and general release of the whole muscular system is first and foremost an undoing, only gradually does it become a subtle toning-up of the muscles, whereby the whole neuro-muscular system is enlivened, alive and alert, and in a state of readiness. Lying down is salutary for practising this thinking (inhibition and direction) which you can then continue as you resume your everyday activities. Ultimately the experiences of lying down inform how you go about daily life.
Many people find this simple (on paper) practice difficult, but with time and practice it becomes easy and flowing.
Whereas adopting the physical position is easy, the mental attitude required takes some practice. First, it is an attitude of observation and non-interference. It may take some time to allow the mind–body to quieten down; to reach some degree of stillness where you are not occupied with wandering thoughts, such as thinking of what you have done and what you are to do. We want to reach a point where it is alright to be present, to observe yourself without judgement and without trying to correct your position. To be quietly here and now, when awareness is happening by itself. Eyes are open and attention is gentle. It is not a matter of work, it is not a matter of sleep. Many thoughts and feelings may pass by, but you just observe them as they run through you.
Then, observe your breathing without interfering with it. For some, turning the attention to one’s own breathing immediately changes the breathing. However, with time and an non-interfering attention, you can observe your own breathing as it happens, without changing anything. This is a second step.
The lying-down procedure (which goes by a number of names in the Alexander Technique) is one of the most classical procedures of the Technique. You lie down on a firm surface, knees up, head supported by books so that the head is not pulled back but that the neck is encouraged to release and a lengthening of the spine is promoted. Generally, it would mean that the neck vertebrae are more or less aligned with the rest of the spine, allowing for the natural curves of the spine. The hands are placed comfortably so as to allow the shoulders to ease and widen. The position adopted is one which facilitates lengthening and widening, and it will vary in detail from individual to individual.
This position is beneficial in itself. The knees up position tends to diminish any muscular pull on your lower back. While lying down the intervertebral discs reabsorb fluid (which is why most people are 1–2 cm taller in the morning than in the evening).* The back and neck muscles are allowed a – for most people – much needed rest.
Lying down for 10–15 minutes a day is a beneficial practice. This is a first step.
* ‘Diurnal changes in the profile shape and range of motion of the back’ by P. Wing et al. in Spine 1992 Jul;17(7):761-6.
Our thoughts and feelings are reflected in our postures and movements. Equally, our postures and movements influence our thinking. Our postures and movements are frequently more revealing about ourselves than our own beliefs about ourselves. With the Alexander Technique you learn to break habits of thinking and moving which in turn affects your posture and your walking. Gradually you will free from yourself from ‘postural sets’, that is from fixed habits of moving and indeed of being. The Alexander Technique does not provide you with ‘right’ positions or ‘right’ postures, but simply with the freedom to make your own choices. Your choices affect how you think and move, but you choose. The Alexander Technique, fundamentally, is about developing freedom in thinking and moving.
The Alexander Technique makes for economy of effort in everyday activity. An example: in walking or running we conserve energy by the elastic nature of tendons and muscles. As the foot hits the ground mechanical energy is stored in these elastic elements which then is released during the ‘push off’, of the ground. The energy is recovered as a spring-like bounce (easy to observe in children and four-legged animals). This effect is dependent on the elasticity of the elastic elements involved which in turn is dependent on the amount of stretch the elastic elements allow for in movement. (The same reason a tennis ball can bounce and a bowling ball cannot.) Stiffness and rigidity does not make for stretch and elasticity, instead walking or running becomes heavy and sluggish, and each step will require more energy and the muscles will fatigue quicker. Practising the Alexander Technique creates length and expansion of our whole muscular system, whatever the activity. The Technique teaches you how to obtain an ‘inner stretch’ – meaning you don’t have to perform any particular activity to achieve it. (There are no ‘stretching’ exercises in the Technique.) Even in sitting and standing you can allow the musculature to lengthen. Then it will ready for the bouncy effect available to us in walking or running. This is just one of several ways in which the Technique makes for ease and efficiency.
Attention, awareness, alertness, being present, whatever the name used for the quality of being awake, thoughtful and perceptive, is universally regarded as a desirable quality. From the school room admonition ‘Pay attention!’ to ‘modern’ methods of mindfulness (‘modern’ in quotation marks because mindfulness has its origin in Buddhism). The problem is that paying attention easily becomes another thing ‘to do’, as if attention is something you have to work at. The reality is that attention – in the sense of being perceptive – happens by itself. All we have to ensure is that we do not interfere with our perception. One of the ways we interfere is by not wanting to present, to be ‘here and now’. Why not? Because we are uncomfortable, we are tired, we are stressed, we are tense. Then presence ceases to be a place we want to be in because it is not pleasant. However, many niggling bodily pains, tensions, and uncomfortableness can be alleviated or removed by the Alexander Technique. The Technique teaches you to be easy in yourself, and hence comfortable. Once you are comfortable in ‘your own skin’, as the expression goes, attention happens spontaneously.
The head-neck-back relationship is fundamental to the Alexander Technique. A balanced alignment of the head on the neck as a result of the appropriate muscular tonus of the neck is associated with a more coordinated and efficient way of sitting and moving. The Technique teaches this new movement behaviour by first of all preventing the habitual way of moving (which disturbs the balance of the head on top of the spine). Typically the habitual movement behaviour happens already at the stage of anticipating/preparing to move. Scientists have now corroborated this. Research has shown that prolonged forward head posture (holding the head forward relative to the body) results in a stooped posture which is associated with a number of serious chronic health issues. A new study in the US has additionally discovered that forward head posture (‘head forward dipping’) increased in healthy adults already when they anticipated moving. Individuals with this behaviour had lower impulse control than those without the behaviour, suggesting that forward head posture may be related to an inability to resist impulses. (‘Lower impulse control’ roughly means reacting too quickly to a stimulus to do something.) Read the study, ‘Neck posture is influenced by anticipation of stepping’, in Human Movement Science vol. 62, pp. 108–22.
Central to the Alexander Technique is the balancing of the head on the top of the spine. Not for aesthetic purposes, although a well-balanced head looks beautiful, but because it requires a lot less muscular effort. The weight of the head is in the region of 4.5–5.5 kgs in an adult. Lift up a 5 litres water bottle and you have will an approximate feel of the weight you are carrying on your spine during the day. Various studies have calculated the extra effort involved if the head (and frequently the neck as well) is forward from your body’s line of gravity. One study suggests that even just 15 degrees protruding head and neck is the equivalent of carrying 15 kgs of weight instead of 5 kgs. This means back musculature have to work a lot more and the increased pressure on the chest may well interfere with the breathing. With the Alexander Technique you learn how to let go of unnecessary tension so that the muscles of the spine and back can expand and lengthen, thereby allowing the head to balance freely on the top of the spine, with minimum of effort.
‘To take a step is an affair, not of this or that limb solely, but of the total neuromuscular activity of the moment, not least of the head and the neck.’ said the famous, Nobel-Prize winner physiologist Sir Charles Sherrington. This was a tribute to Alexander’s technique, for it was preceded by: ‘Mr. Alexander has done a service to the subject by insistently treating each act as involving the whole integrated individual, the whole psychophysical man.’*
The Alexander Technique teaches how mind and body work as a whole. Take the example of walking. Walking depends on the freedom of the joints, especially of the hip, knee and ankles joints to bend freely. The freedom of the joints depends also on the ability of the muscles to lengthen effortlessly. Muscles constrained by tension restrain joints from moving easily and may also compress joints, making walking stiff and a lot of work. With the Alexander Technique you learn to expand your musculature in movement, especially of the head and neck, so that the spine can lengthen and all joints are decompressed. This in turn allows for swift and effortless movement of the joints, so that walking can be easy and efficient.
You are warmly welcome to come to one of our ‘Open Hours’ events to get an impression of the Alexander Technique.
Through a series of lessons you can learn to practice the Alexander Technique.
[* quoted from The Endeavour of Jean Fernel by Sir Charles Sherrington (Cambridge, 1946).]