Trainee’s column: How the Alexander Technique Helped My Jump Shot

How the Alexander Technique Helped My Jump Shot: confessions of a casual basketball player

Ever since I can remember, I reveled in the simple joy of shooting a basketball.  To me there was no greater feeling than the smooth release of the ball from my hands and the sweet swish sound it would make sailing through the net.  Unfortunately, that sensation was all too elusive for me growing up.  That smooth release that I had idealized as a child was often supplanted by a heaving of the ball, as my torso twisted to the left or the right and my eyes blinked as it came time to release it from from my hands. Instead of traveling in a smooth arch with a good spin, the ball would flat-line toward the basket and sound a terrible clang off the rim, signaling my defeat.

Despite my best efforts through the years to correct a pattern of behavior that accompanied me to some degree or other in nine out of ten shots I attempted, I could never fully overcome the interference to my jump shot and resigned myself as a young adult to forever be an inconsistent jump shooter.

In the summer of 2016, after finishing the second term of my first year of training to become an Alexander Technique teacher, I decided to take a week off from my other passion, teaching the classical guitar, to better incorporate the Alexander principles of inhibition and direction on the guitar and on the basketball court.  My first day back on the court was predictable.  The old habits were still alive and well within me when I decided to take a jump shot.  My torso still wanted to twist to the left as it came time to shoot, which negatively affected the ball’s trajectory.  What I learned this day was of immense importance; I learned that not only did I twist my torso when it came time to shoot the ball, I felt the left side of my torso pull down, my lower back narrow and my left hip pull forward as my legs tightened, which made it difficult to bend my legs.

Suddenly, connections to the Alexander procedures began to click.  The bending of the knees in preparation for the jump shot was nothing more than an upright monkey; just like all the procedures, inhibition and direction needed to come first.  I began thinking of a jump shot as doing a monkey. I practiced inhibiting the desire to make the shot and paused anytime this desire entered my mind.  I practiced thinking of freeing my neck and sending my head forward and up, while allowing my back to release away from the basket. Immediately I noticed ease and a strong co-ordination that followed. I also noticed that at the critical moment, my attention would abandon these newfound directions and predictably return to focus on making the shot.  My habitual tension returned and unsurprisingly, I missed the shot.  As I continued my practice, I found if I could succeed in inhibiting and directing through the critical moment, I almost always made the shot and made it with a swish.

This gave me great hope!  Although I was still wildly inconsistent, I felt for the first time I had the power to change.  If I could consistently inhibit and direct at the critical moment, I could consistently make my jump shot anywhere on the court!  I practiced diligently with my inhibition and direction over the next few days with slow, but steady progress.  On the 4th day of practice I decided to incorporate the ideas of rhythmic movement and flow with language introduced to me in Pedro De Alcantara’s book Integrated Practice.  I began thinking of direction as a rhythmic event that can be continually refreshed and renewed.  I practiced this form of thinking in walking for quite some time the night before and its effect on me through the following day were quite profound.  I started my practice not by shooting but simply dribbling the ball while thinking of a triplet rhythm and giving direction to myself on every down beat.  I made a point to allow my legs to move with the rhythm.  Suddenly, the collapse in my left side decided to take a holiday.  I found myself no longer having to inhibit and direct myself out of this habit, the downward pull was simply gone, like it never had existed!  I found myself in a sense of euphoria, having never before experienced such a pure and easy flow of oxygen.

I began to shoot the ball: the first shot flew out of my hands with a quick and effortless response from my wrist, legs and arms.  The ball missed its target but only marginally, and the typical analytical and judgmental response to my miss no longer seemed necessary.  It was as if another part of my brain had made the adjustment without me.  I decided to shoot again—inhibiting was no longer difficult; it just seemed to flow with the rhythm of my directions.  The ball again left my hand with a startling quickness and I experienced responsiveness in my whole body as the ball floated into the net!  Even with the positive result I felt no need to react to the success.  I shot again…..swish!  And again…..swish!  At this point I decided to try my luck at the three-point line.  The change in range would normally have triggered a huge reaction on my part.  Not today. It was as if all the habits that interfered for years were gone and no longer needed inhibiting!  I shot again with an even greater quickness and a powerful elevation from my legs, the twist in my torso was now a distant memory as the ball traveled with a nice arch and spin, splashing through the net!!

For what seemed like an eternity (though in reality was about 5 minutes) something else in me coordinated my movements.  I no longer had to focus on how my body should move, it just moved itself and never in the exact same way, and yet the result was always the same.

I have not experienced anything like that before or since but looking back on it, it taught me the true and profound power of the means-whereby and how it can help all of us fulfill our potential.

Blog by Travis Chastain

Photo by Travis Chastain, used with permission

Trainee’s column: Brushing Teeth, Washing Face, Freeing Neck

In the morning, I rushed to put in my contact lenses before leaving for school. These were not my first contact lenses. I have wasted hundreds of dollars by giving up wearing contact lenses after ordering because of the difficulty of putting them in. Today, I decided to try this challenge one last time.

Hunching my torso over the bathroom sink to put my face as close as possible to the mirror, I pulled my head back a little to allow my face to be parallel to the mirror. I held my upper eyelid with my left fingers and took my right index finger with a lens down to my eye, without success. Each time I tried, the lens fell down to the sink or stuck to my face or finger. Again and again, I repeated the same thing. Before long, my eyes were unavailable to remain open without blinking. My finger’s accuracy became lower and lower. “Let’s quit it!!,” I thought. “I will be late for school.” At that time, I was just about to go my school, Alexander Technique Denver, as a first-year student in the teacher-training course. When I was about to give up, the idea came to me. “Why don’t I apply Alexander Technique now?”

Alexander Technique is a way of learning how to get rid of harmful tension in our body to use the body effectively. We are learning how to develop conscious use of ourselves to inhibit automatic habitual responses which cause unnecessary harmful tension. This technique can be applied not only to performance in sports and arts but also our daily activities such as operating a computer, driving a car, washing dishes, and so on. I tried to apply the technique to my contact lens-wearing activity. Instead of thinking about putting my contact lens in, I gave directions to myself. “Allow my neck to be free, allow my head to go forward and up, allow my torso to lengthen and widen.” My posture changed drastically. I now stood upright three feet from the mirror. I did not think that I could put the lens on my eye because I was not able to see it on my fingertip in the mirror. I tried to apply the Alexander Technique principle of inhibition. “I can stop, then choose to do this or do other activities. There is an option to go to school wearing my glasses,” I told myself.  I pulled my eyelid up with my fingers. It was much easier than before. Head Neck and Back direction and inhibition released tension from my neck and shoulder as well as face. My eyelid didn’t close against my fingers. My finger reached to my eye and the lens stuck to my eye. It was as easy as tapping an icon on my phone. I hardly believed the situation and had another trial on the other eye. It occurred again. The Alexander Technique did work for contact lens fitting. I left for school with pleasure being able to apply Alexander Technique to my daily activity by myself. But that was not the end of the story.

The next morning, I was very excited to wear the lenses. “Neck is free, head is going forward and up, torso is lengthening and widening.” I directed myself in the same way as the day before. My eyes kept staying open long enough to wait for the lens to come in. After my finger touched the eye, the lens stayed not on my eye but on my fingertip. I tried to put the lens on my eye over and over. “What is the matter? Doesn’t Alexander Technique work on wearing contact lenses or am I doing it in a different way than yesterday?” I thought. Then I started to observe myself in detail.  Most parts of myself were in the same condition as before, except my right index finger and my mind. I found the finger definitely trying to put the lens on the eye and make it stay there. Yes. I was do-ing. I was trying to wear contact lenses with Alexander Technique. I noticed that I was an end-gainer. (In class I had learned that if we focus on the end goal, we fall into our faulty habit of use.) In this case, my strong desire to repeat the success of putting the lens in using Alexander Technique affected my finger too much. I gave direction to myself again, but my end-gaining thoughts were too strong to be changed. I was upset. What should I do? I felt impatient with my uncontrollable index finger. It might keep its habitual movement to locate the lens on my eye. A crazy idea suddenly hit me. “Let’s use another finger because my right index finger has lots of habits.” I moved the lens from my index finger to my middle finger. My awkward but habit-free middle finger touched my eye. The lens sat on the eye as easy as the day before. Voila!

Through this experience, I understood the principles and effects of Alexander Technique practically. After that day, I still needed some more practice to apply Alexander Technique principles, such as direction, inhibition, and observation, to put in the contact lenses efficiently.  Now, I can put in my lens rapidly even if I am in a hurry. I can use either my index or middle finger to do it. At the beginning of my second year of the teacher-training course, I am looking forward to exploring the use of myself with the Technique in various activities in my daily life. What is next? Washing Face? Brushing Teeth?

Blog by Naoko Yoda

Photos by Tom Yoda, used with permission

Trainee’s column: Slack-lining with the Principles of the Alexander Technique

As an active person in the first year of my Alexander Technique teacher-training, I have started many new hobbies. New activities allow me to create useful and good habits in the way I use myself versus correcting old, harmful habits in familiar activities. So, I decided to give slack-lining a try. I am not a very advanced slacker, as I have only tried to slack-line a handful of times. Even with so little experience, I can wholeheartedly say that applying the principles of the Alexander Technique have been the means-whereby I have been able to take steps on the slack line.

The very first time I slacked, I couldn’t even get onto the line by myself. I didn’t create a productive technique or thought process as I was too focused on not falling and hurting myself. The second time I attempted to slack-line, I was able to give myself directions before, during, and after every attempt to get onto the line. These directions were simply taking the time to think. I asked my neck to be free, my head to point up into the space above me, and my whole torso to lengthen and widen. As I gave these directions, I allowed my whole body to respond in order to release any built up tension that might be caused by the idea of trying to get onto the slack line. With my right foot on the line and my left foot on the ground, I gave these directions and after inhibiting the desire to get onto the slack line, I proceeded to float up into space, my left foot coming off the ground landing in front of my right foot on the slack line. I took three steps on the line that day.

The reason I write this blog is to share with you my third experience of slack-lining. First, I played around with getting onto the line without any direction. This resulted in being very unstable in my body once I got onto the line. Once I directed and took my time, I became stable and began to take many steps. As I followed my head direction of going up, my feet began to move beneath me taking step after step . . . three, four, (the furthest I have ever gone!) five, six, seven, (my excitement exploding) eight, nine! At step 10, I become determined to go on. I would keep going. I had to. I must. I felt every muscle in my body start to tense in anticipation of going on and as a result, I started to lose my balance. I realized in that moment how much I was end-gaining. My whole body was collapsing in the desperate effort to continue. As I was about to fall, I let go of the idea of going on, and instead renewed my directions. My neck is free. My head is going forward and away, my whole back is lengthening and widening. As a result, I regained my balance, and kept walking taking 10 more steps.

As I continue with slack-lining, I keep these Alexander principles and directions close at hand and with this way of thinking, my slacker skills have exploded. I have taken 72 steps in a row going backwards and forwards, turned around, kneeled, and achieved other flexible yoga-pose feats on the line. Not only will this way of thinking and moving help with slack lining, but it will also impact other movements I make throughout my day. In each moment, I have a new opportunity to be a little freer and a little easier helping me balance every situation and movement that walks my way.

By Anna Sobotka

Photo by Thomas VanDyke, used with permission

Fearlessness and Coordination

I will never tire of watching this video (click on read more to see video). It is truly awesome to behold how perfectly the human organism can work when it is not being interfered with. Watching this child’s mind/body organization brings to mind the phrase “thinking in activity”, which is how John Dewey described F.M. Alexander’s process.

Because the baby has naturally good coordination which has not been interfered with, she doesn’t need to do the kind of thinking we do (those of us who need to let go of harmful habits of coordination that have been built up over the years). She doesn’t need to inhibit any reactions. She is in a condition of perfect mind/body coordination. Her actions are exploratory: there is no hurry or fear of failure, only a total absorption in what she is doing at each moment. She is never forcing things or trying too hard to reach the next hand or foothold. She is never working too hard in a way which makes her stiffen her neck. “Just do it” is not part of her philosophy. She is not afraid. She is not overthinking or over-analyzing what specific move to make next. The path simply becomes clear to her as she waits and explores. She does not miss an opportunity to stop and find a better way when something isn’t going to work. Even when she is millimeters from the top, she can stop when it is not working easily, turn back, and explore a new path that will help her attain her goal.

At the training course today after watching this video, we talked about some of these things, and members of the course commented on how free and expansive her back was, how her limbs came out of her expansive back, how the movement of her hands and feet reaching out for the holds reminded them of “putting out feelers”, how she wasn’t in a hurry, how she looked like an expert climber, how she looked like she was simply crawling on the floor if one didn’t know it was a vertical wall. We also talked about how for an older child or an adult, fear of failure and over-analyzing specific movements could get in the way of this easy coordination.

One way of “thinking in activity” consists of NOT “doing our Alexander Technique” and NOT “trying to figure out what to do next” but simply noticing if we are about to do something which will interfere with our overall ease and poise, stopping before we interfere with this poise, and doing something different which will allow us to maintain ease and poise in our head/neck relationship and thus our whole self. People often injure themselves by ignoring the sense that tells them they are doing something in an awkward way.

Trainees’ Column: On Chronic Pain

ImageIt’s been six months since the pain in my shoulder started, a new episode in the journey of learning about my unnecessary habitual muscular tension. The event which started the consistent pain happened while trying something new, performing on a very heavy accordion. What followed was a week of not lifting my arm, then going back and forth to feeling better and worse on a daily basis until the present day.

There are many processes and experiments that I’ve gone through since the event. First, I just waited to see if it would heal. After a month of continuously hurting during certain movements, I realized it was now a use issue. At this time, I was on break from an Alexander Technique (AT) teacher training program, and was left with the process I’ve been learning: Awareness, Inhibition and Direction. Knowing that this process can be very slow to makes changes, I thought that maybe I’d try something new again, a martial art called Aikido. Brilliant idea, I know… After researching, I found this form of martial art had some of the same principles as AT – focusing on personal use over anything else and having some hands on help to change habits. For the first few weeks, it was helpful the way the sensai (teacher) explained the coordination of breathing with movement and other mental and physical instructions. It also helped that I was in a New Beginner class and the sensai taught at half the speed of a normal class. I found that as I applied my AT process to the instructions, my coordination improved and my shoulder started feeling better. But as the class sped up, I was no longer able to inhibit my habits, and I finished the classes feeling worse than when I started. What’s more, I left with a displaced rib that I eventually snapped back into place, ugh!

It was about time to start my third year of AT teacher training, and I was in pretty rough shape. My Alexander teachers, fellow trainees and guest teachers have helped me change some of those habits and responses that have caused my shoulder to lock up which make the act of raising my left arm very painful. The painful episodes are becoming fewer, and my left shoulder and my whole body is now learning to move more efficiently and with better coordination. Though my habits have not changed enough for the pain to be completely gone, I’ve seen small and permanent changes happen as I continually come back to the AT principles, particularly when I don’t give myself any expectations on my progress. For example, when practicing moving my arm up, I tend to get “fixed” on getting my arm up over my head, something we call endgaining. The real progress only comes when I no longer care if my arm goes up. Instead, I allow myself to notice what happens in my whole body as well as my shoulder as I begin to think of lifting my arm. This gives me a chance to prevent any tension from taking control. This kind of work takes enormous patience and willingness to experiment over and over again, but that is when lasting and permanent changes can occur. So, I will continue to work through the process and trust that I will continue to improve and learn as more challenges arise.

By Michelle Brake, 3rd-year trainee

Drawing by Michelle Brake, used with permission

 

 

Trainee’s Column: Observation-Where True Change Begins

ImageBy Michelle Brake, 3rd year trainee

Observation was the first step F.M. Alexander made in his journey of learning about his habits and the way he used himself. How can this be the first step, yet the one I most often forget? I remember the first time that it really made sense to me. I was at the University of Denver, in my first years of Alexander lessons when I read something about accepting how you are in the present moment, with no judgement and not wanting to change or fix whatever it is you “think” or “feel” is wrong. This concept was a revelation to me. There were so many things I wanted to change about myself, and the idea of observing those things was very foreign to me. I realized that before I could change those habits, I had to find out if I was really doing what I thought I was doing. Oftentimes, the discovery or observation was not what I expected. I then started observing the circumstances around my habits. What caused me to go deeper into or come up out of them?

The enlightening thing is that when I observed these habits in a scientific and unattached way, they began to change on their own. On the flip side, when I let my emotions, desires and end-gaining take control, there was no room for discovering the true habit, much less allow it to change naturally. I had been letting myself presume what was going on, and in my desperate desire to change, would adjust myself into a worse condition. In her book, Voice and the Alexander Technique, Jane Heinrich explains the principle of non-doing as, “to be able to stop, not to do whatever the habitual response is – before more than superficial change can take place.” After this discovery of what non-doing means, many changes took place when working on myself as well as how I accepted or approached my Alexander lessons. I was able to let my teacher work without getting in her or my own way.

Fast-forward to present time. As a third year teacher trainee almost ready to graduate, I am still rediscovering what inhibition truly means, as my end-gaining always creeps in unawares. Pamela Blanc came as a guest teacher into my training course and focused on this principle of observation/awareness with no preconceived ideas. I have been recovering from a shoulder injury, and find the pain is an incredible motivator to end-gain. Pamela’s reminder of simple, unbiased observation of oneself is helping me to notice habits that cause me even more pain. Gradually those habits are getting less, and I’m seeing improvement much faster than before.

Not only has observation helped my own ailments, but also has helped me in becoming a better teacher. It has taken off some the pressure I put on myself to give a “good” lesson or to “help” my practice students. In the first lesson I taught after this rediscovery, I essentially just talked about the same process that I was going through. Things my student had been struggling with all of sudden became clearer. He was able to make some changes even without me putting hands-on. I don’t know who was more excited, him or me! A phrase that various teachers have said to me is, “The Work works.” That is just what happened. Those moments of quietness, of non-doing, of inhibition make all the difference, and they make me so grateful to be learning and teaching the Technique. I look forward to making more rediscoveries with all the other principles. However, observation/awareness is my favorite, for now.

Photo used with permission, courtesy of Michelle Brake

Trainee’s Column: the Left Hand and the Alexander Technique

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By Nicole Rafferty, third-year trainee.

While studying Alexander for the last few years and in the new Alexander training course in Denver, I’ve taken much of what I’ve learned into improving my violin technique. This blog will focus on how I’ve incorporated the technique into analyzing and improving my left hand technique.

When I first started taking Alexander Technique lessons I, like most violinists, suffered from excessive tension in my left hand resulting in a pinky finger that remained clenched back in towards the palm of my hand when not in use and a slow and uneven reaction time across the fingers especially in fast passages. As would be expected, these issues severely hindered my playing, making it difficult to advance my overall playing ability. As I started going through the Alexander Technique process I became aware that my left hand issues were actually a result of a misuse of my primary control.

If you’re not new to Alexander Technique, I probably haven’t said anything that would surprise you. The Alexander Technique is all about understanding the primary control (the relationship between the head, neck and back) and how it benefits the whole system and as I started my journey with the technique I would spend most of my time trying to understand the primary control. However, as I became more and more able to direct my primary control and appreciate the other things that were going on in my body, such as locked knees or a tensed hand, my Alexander teacher and I began looking at my left hand specifically.

What we noticed were the tension issues I mentioned at the beginning. In order to start dealing with these issues we decided to work on unwinding my left hand by creating a series of activities away from the violin in which I could start moving my hand and fingers in different ways, while incorporating my Alexander “directions” (using my brain to give suggestions to my coordination). We did this because a lot of my tension issues resulted in a lack of control.

In one of the first activities I would sit down and start directing (giving directions from the brain) as I normally would when I sat down. I would then turn my hands over with as much directions as I could and either rest them on my lap or on a table with my fingers together. I would then start directing through each of my fingers. For me, one of the best ways to do this was by imagining the bones in my hand expanding in either direction and expanding out through my fingertips. While I’m doing this I would go back to thinking my primary directions (for my neck, head and back). After doing this for a while I would then move on to trying to move the fingers in certain patterns while still directing my overall coordination. For instance, I would move my finger in to a “spock” finger pattern, with the pointer finger and middle finger together and the ring finger and the pinky finger together and a space in between my middle finger and my ring finger. To my surprise, for quite some time this was extremely difficult for me to do without tension or twitching.

After that series of exercises we worked on moving my fingers from the base knuckle (where the fingers join the palm of the hand) with the other joints remaining straight. We did this because I was actually unable to consciously move my fingers from that joint. Believe it or not, this is a detriment to violinists because being able to access the movement in the base knuckle allows us to have greater control of the hand and keep the palm nice and open to allow the fastest and most easeful movement of the fingers. Like with the first activity we did this activity sitting while continually going back to my primary control directions. We also did this standing and with hands on the back of the chair, because if you haven’t guessed already that particular motion of the fingers (being straight while moving at the knuckles) is exactly what we do when we put hands on the back of the chair.

After several months of working with those exercises away from the violin and gaining a great deal of muscular control, I took this exploration further outside of my lessons. I began starting to work on my left hand with the violin. One of the first problems I tried to tackle was the clenching of my pinky finger when I was playing. In order to do this, I had to learn to direct my primary control while holding my violin, then while putting left arm up, and finally while putting my fingers down. When I came to this last step I had to pay special attention to my pinky finger by imagining electrical impulses (or sending directions) from the base of my elbow all the way up my arm and through my pinky finger and out the tip. I began to notice that not only my pinky finger but the others as well were shortening and pulling back toward my hand instead of lengthening toward the strings when I wanted to use them, so I took it a step further by thinking the direction for my pinky finger and resting it on the D string very gently while playing an open A, a first finger B, a second finger C, and a third finger D on the A string. At first this was extremely difficult, but the more I did it and the better I paid attention to my directions while doing it the less tense my hand became and the more capable I felt moving my fingers in an organized fashion with little tension.

What I feel is important to say at this point is that all these specific movements came secondary to working with my primary control and the principles of inhibition and direction. As my awareness and understanding of these aspects of the technique got better the movements got better.

photo of Nicole’s left hand, used by permission

A Birthday Blog: Intention and Choice

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One of my cats does not have good use of his self, even though he is a member of the animal kingdom. He stomps around the house on the hardwood floors so loudly that you can often hear him coming from 20 feet away, even though he is quite small. “Thunk, thunk, thunk.” More often than not, he goes “splat” on the side of the cupboards when he tries to jump up to the countertop, and I regularly even see him fail to be able to jump up on the coffee table, which is only about 18 inches off the ground. He has mental issues as well (like obsessively trying to remove our wedding rings, for instance), but today I would like to share my observations about how his thinking affects his physical functioning. (Ask me in the comments if you would like to know more about his early kittenhood.)

At first we would laugh (surreptitiously, of course, so as not to humiliate him) at his lack of coordination, but I started wondering why he could jump up onto the washing machine without fail (which is close to where we store his food), and why sometimes he padded around instead of stomped. And my theory is: you guessed it, intention.

I noticed that when he is just bored and walking around aimlessly he stomps, but as soon as he sees something he wants to walk towards, his eyes brighten, his body organizes, and his footfalls soften. And when he sees something specific that he wants on the countertop, he leaps up effortlessly. The times he goes splat are the times he seems to be thinking, “Hmm, I don’t have anything to do, I think maybe I’ll jump up on that cupboard for the heck of it.” Sometimes I have caught him looking doubtful that he could make it, and I have noticed when there is a moment of hesitation, it messes with his coordination, leading to the “splat”.

I have noticed something similar in myself. If I am out for a walk, and think to myself, “Hmmm, I wonder if I should maybe run a little bit for better exercise,” my coordination feels different than if I see something in the distance that interests me, and I break into a jog to get there faster. It is much easier to begin work on something I am excited about rather than on something unpleasant that I know I have to get done. When I can decide I really want to clean the bathroom, that clear intention or desire leads me to bring my unified psychophysical self to the task rather than being at war with myself.

In the training course, we are reading Man’s Supreme Inheritance. In the section “Habits of Thought and Body”, F.M. Alexander writes about habits of thought that get in the way of attaining poise, and one of these is “lack of purpose”. He also talks about the mental conflict between “I must” and “I can’t”, and says what we really need is “I wish”. He says if we have the desire to do something and the desire to carry it through to a successful end, we can bring our whole self to the task at hand.

It is my 50th birthday today, and always on my birthday, I tell myself I will do exactly what I wish to do all day long. So the mental conflict that arises from trying to force myself to do things that I don’t want to do is gone. Strangely, on my birthday some of the things I decide I want to do would normally be disagreeable (like cleaning), but are no longer disagreeable since I have given myself a choice. Every year after my birthday, I wonder why I don’t treat myself like this every day? Maybe this year…

by Heidi Leathwood

Image courtesy of tiverylucky at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Alexander Technique: Creating Opportunities for Change

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“Human activity is primarily a process of reacting unceasingly to stimuli received from within or without the self.”

—Frederick Matthias Alexander, The Use of the Self

More than 120 years ago, a very determined Australian actor decided to find out what he was doing to cause himself to lose his voice. The impetus for this project was his love for acting, and his desire to continue unimpeded upon his career. He single-mindedly observed himself for months and then years in front of mirrors, successfully solving his vocal problems, and in the process making discoveries which would become the basis of his lifelong work. As a result of these discoveries, his life changed, and so have hundreds of thousands of lives around the world. Now the Alexander Technique is taught by internationally affiliated societies of teachers in 18 countries.

“What’s all this fuss about teaching people how to sit up straight and relax?” some may be thinking. And they would be right. At least they would be right about how ridiculous it would be to form national societies of teachers who teach people to sit up straight and relax. But the underlying assumption that Alexander Technique is about sitting up straight and relaxing would be wrong. “But what about the changes in posture and relaxation I have heard about?” you might say. After all, with Alexander lessons people’s posture changes, often dramatically, and often they report feeling more relaxed. But I don’t think I have ever heard an Alexander teacher tell someone to sit up straight or try to achieve relaxation.

It is the underlying principles of Alexander’s work, not the outward changes you may see, that inspire people to devote their lives to this work. Following these principles, people learn how to change habits of posture, movement and thought that are preventing their best functioning. But the method by which we can make a true and lasting change and move in the right direction is far more indirect than sitting up straight or trying to relax: in the Alexander work we learn how to undo our existing habits rather than try to do something new on top of them. Alexander’s “technique” involves learning how to stop. Not pause. Full stop.

By learning how to stop, you can break the cycle of “stimulus®automatic reaction.” You then have a choice. But this is easier said than done. It is not so easy to be sure whether you really are stopping or whether you are trying too hard to stop, thus doing a different harmful automatic habit. This is where an Alexander teacher comes in. The extensive training that an AmSAT certified teacher undergoes (a minimum of 1600 hours over 3 years) allows them to see and feel extremely subtle differences in your body. Alexander teachers can discern the connection between your thoughts and actions, almost as though they are mind-reading. “How did you know I was thinking of sitting down?” my students often ask. I know when my students are thinking of sitting down (or standing up, or singing/playing their high note, or trying to be perfect) because when they think of doing that thing, their body starts to do it, often at a level imperceptible to them.

Alexander discovered that just the thought of doing whatever it is that we are about to do causes our automatic habits to come into play. It is only by completely stopping that you can have a chance of not doing your usual habit. If you only pause, thinking, “I must pause before I play this difficult passage and relax so that I can go on to play it correctly,” then you are still thinking about playing the passage and you are going to do the unnecessary things you do that go along with the idea that the passage is difficult and that you want to try to do it correctly. Stopping is not so easy…but it changes everything.

The unnecessary things we do in sitting, standing, walking, running, music-making, sports, working at a computer, communicating, you name it, interfere with the optimal coordination of our whole system, and Alexander Technique lessons aim to restore this coordination. Alexander discovered that good coordination cannot be achieved by micromanaging what our specific parts are doing, but is governed by the relationship between our head and our spine. Most people unconsciously lock their head tightly onto the top of the spine, if not all the time, then when they do difficult movements, or in reaction to certain activities or events. If your hands, arms, legs, jaw, breathing are “tight,” then most certainly you have interfered with the easy relationship between your head and spine.

Let’s say you have come to an Alexander teacher for some lessons. The teacher will do some gentle hands-on work with you, and also teach you the thought process and self-observational skills you need so you can work on your own. During a lesson, it may feel to you like she is putting you in a new position, but what she is really doing is gently coaxing your system to stop doing unnecessary habits (of pulling down, pulling up, squeezing in, or whatever you are doing). She helps you stop locking your head onto your spine, and then the relationship between all the parts changes on its own. The process is not about learning to find a good position.

“But how can I know if I am in a good position then?” my students ask. It is so hard to let go of the idea that there is a good position, and that we can find it somehow by what feels right. The answer is that if you are trying to find a perfect position, then you are “doing it wrong.” That is, you are misunderstanding the principles of the work. Even if there was a perfect position, you couldn’t find it. Why? Because your kinesthetic sense does not accurately tell you what you are doing. Everything you feel, you feel through the filter of all of your unconscious habits that feel right to you. “Aargh!” you might say. And that’s what Alexander said, too (actually he said, “This was indeed a blow,” when he discovered the phenomenon of faulty sensory perception.) But he carried on. “The attempt to bring about change involving growth, development, and progressive improvement in the use and functioning of the human organism calls necessarily for the acceptance, yes, the welcoming, of the unknown in sensory experience, and this ‘unknown’ cannot be associated with the sensory experiences that have hitherto ‘felt right’.” (F.M. Alexander, Preface to 2nd edition of The Use of the Self)

Alexander embarked upon a journey into the unknown, with the aid of mirrors. His remarkable work has changed countless lives and inspired numerous well-known authors, philosophers and scientists to write about him. It certainly changed my life, first of all, by helping me free myself from the habits that caused my own arm injury, thus freeing me from my injury. That in itself was life-changing, but it goes deeper than that. Working with the principles of the Alexander Technique has given me a glimpse of what it means to have a choice. I potentially have a choice in each and every moment, if I can stop my automatic reaction. In choosing not to rush headlong and blindly towards my goal, my choices from moment to moment become clearer, so that I can choose the best way of reaching my goal, or even choose to work toward a different goal. Like Alexander before me, I changed the course of my career because I became so interested in exploring the possibilities for human change he discovered. I have now been working with Alexander’s discoveries for twenty-six years, and I am training others to teach the Alexander Technique at one of thirty AmSAT approved training courses in the US.

Our national society can be found at www.amsatonline.org. Here you will find links to research about the Alexander Technique, and a national list of teacher members.

Dr. Leathwood is a pianist who performs frequently as both soloist and chamber musician throughout the US. She is on the faculty of University of Denver Lamont School of Music, and has been an Alexander teacher for 20 years. She has set up a special blog entry for the CSMTA on her training course blog at http://atden.org/tips-for-musicians-experiments-part-i/ where members can find out more about the Alexander Technique, try some activities and tips, or contact her to inquire about private instruction or a group workshop.

This article was published in Notes and News, the newsletter of the Colorado State Music Teachers Association, and is reprinted with permission. If you would like to see a pdf of the original article, with photographs, visit this link: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/54205182/Leathwood_article_alexander_technique_CSMTA%20Notes%20%26%20News%202015%20copy.pdf

by Heidi Leathwood

Photo copyright Heidi Leathwood

Tips for Musicians: Experiments (part I)

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This is the first in a series of companion blogs for the article about the discoveries of Frederick Matthias Alexander which I wrote for the Colorado State Music Teachers Association. (See my previous blog post or visit https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/54205182/Leathwood_article_alexander_technique_CSMTA%20Notes%20%26%20News%202015%20copy.pdf to read the article). Each blog entry in the companion series will contain an experiment for you to try on your own.

Please note that I do not claim to teach you the Alexander Technique by means of the written word, and I highly recommend that you find a qualified teacher who can guide you in your explorations.

Since these experiments will rely on your perception of what you are doing (which, as Alexander discovered, is likely to be inaccurate), it may be helpful to video yourself or to do them with a partner. If you have a partner, one of you can read the instructions aloud as the other carries out the experiment. Aim for assessment without judgment. It is perfectly normal that you will have many habits you are unaware of and/or cannot feel yourself doing.

Experiment #1: “At rest vs. getting ready”

Choose ahead of time whether to do this experiment sitting or standing—choose the position in which you usually play or practice. If you are a singer, use this exercise for the purpose of finding out what happens when you hold a score or a choir folder.

  1. Go to your usual practicing location and get ready to start practicing.
  2. Now go to a different room, without your instrument, sit or stand easefully, and continue to be aware of your surroundings.

Do you think you stand or sit differently when you were not in your practice location and not getting ready to practice?

  1. Go back to your practicing location and sit or stand easefully, without any thought of practicing. Continue to be aware of your surroundings.

Are you able to sit or stand in your practicing location without thinking of playing or practicing? Is your sitting or standing easeful, as it was in the other room?

  1. Now bring your hands to your instrument, or bring your instrument to your body. If you are a singer, bring your score up in front of you.

Did you change your easeful way of sitting or standing when you moved into a practicing position?

  1. Go back to your easeful way of standing or sitting, without any thought of practicing.
  2. Pretend that your instrument is not an instrument, or that your music folder is not a music folder. Imagine it is some kind of neutral but pleasing object. Continue to notice your easeful sitting or standing, from head to toe, not thinking of playing or singing, while you move yourself into a position that approximates one in which you could play or sing, without disturbing the ease in your torso and head.

Was the movement and the sitting/standing different when you were not thinking of practicing?

Often when sitting, standing or moving without the idea of practicing, we move more easefully, simply because the thought of playing or singing brings all of our habits into play. If we can approach our instrument without the thought of music-making, we may be able to break the cycle of habit associated with playing/singing. Can we continue to be easeful while getting ready, and even once we begin?

I hope you have found the experiment interesting and useful in learning more about your habits, and I would love to hear from you about what you have discovered. Please feel free to comment in the space below, or go to our Facebook page (Alexander Technique Denver) to comment there. Below you can subscribe if you would like to be alerted when new posts appear.

Photo of a musician at rest by Heidi Leathwood