Very simply, the Alexander Technique is a five step process that anyone can use to improve their health. It's focus is on standing, sitting and moving between the two, plus semi supine. This is because we spend most of our time standing or sitting. We do this more than anything else. So it's much easier to find out about our habits there. If you had an unusual activity that you performed a lot, it would be worth applying the Alexander Technique to it.
This is the five step technique of the Alexander Technique directly quoted from Use of the Self. Apart from the part in brackets. Of course there is much more to it than this. But it really helps to have a very basic definition. You can then extend and broaden this idea with more experience. FM Alexander refers to the activity as speaking a sentence because that was his basic problem and why he invented the Alexander Technique.
"1. Inhibit any immediate response to the stimulus to speak the sentence.
2. project in their sequence the directions for the primary control (relationship between head neck and back) which I had reasoned out as being best for the purpose of bringing about the new and improved use of myself in speaking, and
3. continue to project these directions until I believed I was sufficiently au fait with them to employ them for the purpose of gaining my end and speaking the sentence.
At this moment, the moment that had always proved critical for me because it was then that I tended to revert to my wrong habitual use, I would change my usual procedure and
4. whilst still continuing to project the directions for the new use I would stop and consciously reconsider my first decision, and ask myself 'Shall I go on to gain the end I have decided up on and speak the sentence? Or shall I not? Or shall I go on to gain some other end all together? - and then and there make a fresh decision,
not to gain my original end, in which case I would continue to project the directions for maintaining the new use and not go on to speak the sentence;
to change my end and do something different, say lift my hand instead of speaking the sentence, in which case I would continue to project the directions for maintaining the new use to carry out this last decision and lift my hand;
to go on after all and gain my original end, in which case I would continue to project the directions for maintaining the new use to speak the sentence. " - FM Alexander Use of the Self
So the first step in Alexander Technique is prevention. This sounds easier than it is to perform. Here is a good quote from FM Alexander to get the ball rolling;
"When you are asked not to do something, instead of making the decision not to do it, you try to prevent yourself from doing it. But this only means that you decide to do it and then use muscle tension to prevent yourself from doing it." - FM Alexander (Articles & Lectures)
So prevention is very actively deciding what not to do with yourself before you do something. And not anything extra. Eg you don't want to tighten your neck or do anything like the startle pattern before you stand up from sitting. You have to observe your neck and to see this and just decide or wish not to do it. This was the last part of FM's discovery. He already knew all the bad things he was doing with himself. Like most of us, we can tell that our bodies aren't doing what we're asking it to. Without the prevention we have no chance to change because all the bad things are still happening with the good or new directions added. It just creates more problems. So this part is clearing the decks essentially.
You can't just relax. You can't just tense up. There is a balance of tension that needs to be maintained in the body. We need elastic spines. So once we have spent some time preventing the habits we can see going wrong we need to give some direction to the body. Our natural body use depends on our attention. Without attention there is no direction. You have to keep your attention on a body part before you can direct it. The sequence of directions are very simple;
1) Allow the neck to be free
2) In order to allow the head to go forward and up
3) In order to allow the back to lengthen
4) In order to allow the back to widen
5) In order to allow the knees to go forward and away.
This can be seen as just keeping it going. That's perfectly true but it's also notoriously difficult to do this. Essentially you are keeping at least three main directions going at the same time. It's a bit like juggling plates. That's the hard way. Alexander tells us to direct 'All together, one after the other' to sustain these directions. You could also take the view of preventative directions. This is much easier. Not tightening the neck. No to pulling the head forward or backwards and down. Not shortening the spine. Not narrowing the spine. This is much more sustainable. Otherwise you will find it much harder to create the combined activity that is needed.
You need to consider your 3 options in any situation. 1) Do it, 2) don't do it or 3) do something completely different. This is best left as something spontaneously found in the moment when you start the consideration.
You decide what to act on from your consideration. This part is key and often overlooked. It usually happens before you've had time to think about it. Don't let that happen. You need to sustain your directions even more at this point to keep them throughout the new or unknown experience you are about to have.
During my teacher training I became interested in skipping because I thought it would be a good way to keep fit and increase my coordination. I got a proper skipping rope made from some kind of plastic fibre, like the ones used in boxing gyms. It made a wonderful whoosh sound when it got going. However, when I tried to skip I would consistently fail after 5 to 10 turns of the rope. I would also aggravate my disc. I could tell something was wrong, but couldn’t tell what. After a combination of tripping myself up and whipping my own head or shins I decided to stop. Clearly something going on and when I was tensing up I was throwing out the timing of the skip.
Instead of just getting on with it, I started to think of how I could understand what was happening. So I broke down the skip to its most basic elements. I jumped without the rope. I didn’t get into any trouble there, so I ruled that part out. Next I tried throwing the rope over my head without jumping at all. And there it was my neck pulling my head back, just as the rope swung up above my head. I was in startle pattern, anticipating the rope hitting my head before it had even happened, even if it wasn’t going to. This was great news, because now I knew what I was doing wrong.
But that didn’t mean an immediate attempt to start doing the full skip again. I practiced throwing the rope without any attempt to jump it. Each time going through the 5 steps mentioned before. Each time I would find my neck, head and back doing less and less. And 80% of my time was spent on not tightening my neck. Although it probably looked ridiculous, it became enjoyable to move without this restriction.
When I felt I had control during this movement and could sustain the directions adequately, I gave full skipping a go. For about 13 or 14 skips I would be doing great and then the startle pattern would kick back in. I would stop and again very simply go back over the process. It’s really important not to get carried away with success or disappointed when it stops working. You have to keep refining and getting better. Following this basic format and building up slowly, I was able to skip continuously for about 20 to 30 mins. When I started out I didn’t even last 60 seconds!
It would just take too much time. It's better just to keep an eye on the parts of your life where these things are noticeable. However, I would say that prevention would be the thing to use the most as it's what we tend to lack the most. If you have a hobby or practice some semi supine that is the best time to go deep into it. But you might find yourself doing this on the way to work or when you have a quiet moment to yourself. Apply common sense basically.
This is just my opinion. There are loads of other opinions out there. You can find more definitions on sites like https://blog.feedspot.com/uk_alexander_technique_blogs/ and alexandertechnique.com. Walter Carrington has the best definition of the Alexander Technique that I know of.
I hope you found that interesting, please share or comment below if you did, especially if there was anything that wasn't clear or you want to know more about.
Hi, I'm Edward Fisher and I believe that everyone can have a life free from back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain and many other musculoskeletal pain related conditions. I recovered from slipped discs and sciatica. I spent 10 months being unable to walk. After 3 months of Alexander Technique I was walking again. Now I show others how to overcome their own pain related conditions for themselves.
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