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

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