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

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: 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