Alexander Technique: cancelled for the first time in 100 years

Yesterday, the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT) put out a statement to its members. They’ve asked us:

to cease face to face teaching with immediate effect. You may find that you can continue to contact your clients online and encourage reading about the Alexander Technique. It is a difficult decision to take given the impact it will have on our livelihoods, but it is the right thing to do to assist in stemming the spread of coronavirus.

– STAT Updated Guidelines Regarding Teaching Alexander Technique Hands-On

The essence, joy and power of the Alexander Technique is in the communication of improved ‘use of the self’ through the teacher’s hands. This is the unique method which FM Alexander (the originator of the Alexander Technique) developed in Australia and then refined on his arrival in London in 1904.

It is therefore remarkable that this hands-on practice now needs to cease for the time being because of the Coronavirus. And yet one of the fascinating characteristics of the Alexander Technique is that it is an inner journey which each individual must embark on. This means that, in the current time of social distancing, there is plenty for students of the Technique to explore, whether that’s through reading, individual experimentation or taking Alexander Technique lessons online.

Such wonderful progress can be seen in my students after even just a few hands-on lessons at my studio. However, for now, as the Alexander Technique community begins to experiment more with ‘hands-free’ approaches, we can remind ourselves that Alexander was his own teacher, and take confidence from his own remark that:

Anyone can do what I do, if they will do what I did.

Alexander Technique for children: the ‘Developing Self’

This weekend I had the privilege of welcoming two of the pioneers of the Alexander Technique to Bristol: Sue Merry and Judith Kleinman.  They are both experts in bringing the Technique into educational settings, whether that’s primary and secondary schools or universities and colleges.

Over two weekend workshops in Bristol, Sue and Judith introduced their work to Alexander Technique teachers from as far afield as Italy, Spain and Ireland. Judith has masterminded the Alexander Technique curricula at the Royal College of Music, and Sue is a trailblazer at the Educare Small School in Kingston, where Alexander Technique is woven seamlessly into each school day. You can see more about what they have created at thedevelopingself.net.

There is huge potential to bring the wisdom of the Alexander Technique into educational settings. As Judith put it so beautifully in an email to me after the course, ‘this respectful coming together of folk interested in conveying the work in Education and bridging the gap between Wellbeing and ‘Learning how to Learn’ is so important’.

It is hard to sum up what I personally gained from these recent Bristol workshops. On one level, I learned many new ways of teaching the Alexander Technique. But on another level, these workshops have helped me reach a deeper understanding of why this work is so vital for our young people, caught up as they are in the maelstrom of modern life.

To extend the metaphor, the Alexander Technique offers young people an anchor: a way to find wholeness, peace and self-acceptance in what is too often a clamorous and inhuman world. The Alexander Technique helps them see that being kind to oneself is the first step in being able to function well as a human being. For that alone, it is invaluable.

When did you stop paying attention?

I’ve recently been reading the extraordinary book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. A passage caught my eye due to its relevance to the Alexander Technique. For around 95% of our 200,000 year existence we lived hunter-gatherer lifestyles. In Harari’s words, during this period, homo sapiens:

mastered not only the surrounding world of animals, plants and objects, but also the internal world of their own bodies and senses. They listened to the slightest movement in the grass to learn whether a snake might be lurking there. They carefully observed the foliage of trees in order to discover fruits, beehives and birds’ nests. They moved with a minimum of effort and noise, and knew how to sit, walk and run in the most agile and efficient manner. Varied and constant use of their bodies made them as fit as marathon runners. They had physical dexterity that people today are unable to achieve even after years of practising yoga or t’ai chi.

What is clear from the above is that one of the key characteristics of early humans was hence the ability to be flexible in how they paid attention. Darting between a keen watchfulness for predators, a focused precision for sharpening flint stones, and a heightened body-sense while hunting prey – the mind as well as the body of homo sapiens was clearly extremely agile.

What is also clear is that modern humans have lost that flexibility of attention. Have you perhaps had the experience of perching for hours in a chair absorbed in a task, such that your sense of your physical self ‘disappears’ – perhaps until your back or neck started aching? If you have, then your experience ties in with what neuroscience now tells us: that a narrowed attention is linked to poor body awareness (a ‘disappearing body’), and that a wide open attention that includes peripheral vision is linked to your fullest body sense. And only when you allow your attention to widen out can you:

  • allow your kinaesthetic or proprioceptive (‘body’) sense to function best;
  • perceive spatial relationships accurately;
  • learn new movement skills;
  • understand body orientation with respect to gravity.

As you deepen your understanding of attention, you’ll begin to realise it is the fundamental ‘lens’ through which you experience the world. This means that if you change your attention habits you’ll change not only what you experience, but how you move around in and relate to the world around you. In short, you’ll rediscover your homo sapiens birthright of an agile mind and body working in harmony.

For more detail on the science behind the link between attention and movement, have a look at my article, ‘The Alexander Technique and Neuroscience: Three Areas of Interest’ on my Research page.

And for information on how to learn the Alexander Technique with me in Bristol, visit my Services page.

Goals – context = misery

Over the last month, there’s been quite a bit popping up in the press about happiness. ‘Trying to be happy could make you miserable’; ‘Brits became less happy amid Brexit deadlock’; ‘The money, job, marriage myth: are you happy yet?’ And so on.

My own view is that happiness can never be within our ‘grasp’: it’s too subtle for that. We can look at this conundrum another way, though. What if there was something we do a lot of the time that consistently adds to our misery? What if this harmful thing is mostly unconscious? Perhaps if we could only stop doing that… well, is it possible that something resembling happiness might turn up more frequently?

F M Alexander, the originator of the Alexander Technique, called this one malevolent thing ‘end-gaining’. Conceptualizing it is half the battle, so here goes:

End-gaining is an attitude where you’re obsessively focusing on a goal without working out how best to achieve it.

But why might understanding this concept be so important for our happiness? The reason is that the unconscious drip-drip-drip of end-gaining takes its toll on us in all sorts of ways: physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually.

To take just the first of these, one of Alexander’s greatest insights was that end-gaining is always accompanied by excess physical tension. End-gaining causes us to round our shoulders, crane our heads forward and over-contract, and in that way it diminishes us in a literal sense. This interference in our musculoskeletal system makes any physical task more difficult, and also makes us more susceptible to discomfort, pain or injury. Not only that, our ‘stature’ in the eyes of others is also reduced.

My job is to help students understand how negative physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual effects all follow as a result of end-gaining. I cover the subject in detail in one-to-one Alexander Technique lessons, and in the exclusive reading material I have created for my students.

In summary, focusing on a goal at the expense of your overall physical coordination and mental agility leads to an unhappy curtailing of your potential as a human being. Or, as the title of this blog states:

goals – context = misery

Finding a way to climb out of the holes that we’ve dug for ourselves is the point of the Alexander Technique. You can find out more about how it works here.

Embodied approaches to managing stress

I’ve recently been delving into the strategies British university are taking to cope with stress and anxiety among their student populations. The problem is rife: traditional counselling services have been unable to cope with demand, with knock-on effects on waiting times for services.

Perhaps as a result, it seems that universities are keen to trial new strategies, including ones with an ’embodied’ approach. One example is the ‘Calm to the Core’ programme of classes at Durham University which aims to improve embodied awareness and a sense of agency over anxious symptoms.

Another programme is the BodyMind approach at the University of Hertfordshire, pioneered by Professor Helen Payne. She explains that, when we assess stimuli in our environment for their potential threat, these stimuli are always received in our ‘BodyMind’. If the perceived threat is unresolved for whatever reason, it therefore follows that our whole BodyMind will get stuck in harmful fight, flight or freeze reflexes. Although this ‘stuckness’ can be altered through the body or the mind, Professor Payne maintains that it can be resolved more effectively through both at the same time. This is where embodied practices come in, which can regulate our mood and our stress levels through the release of hormones such as dopamine.

The BodyMind approach resonates strongly with the practice of the Alexander Technique. That’s because the central competency or skill which the Alexander Technique aims to pass on is how to prevent the stimuli around us triggering harmful habits of physical or mental tension. In essence, if you are able to embody this skill, you can more quickly return to emotional and physical equilibrium. Owing to its holistic approach, not only does the Alexander Technique empower students to understand and deal with mental stress and anxiety, but also very practically teaches them how to look after their bodies as they study (for example, by making working at a laptop more comfortable).

The Alexander Technique has already supported thousands of students at the most prestigious tertiary arts institutions in the UK for decades (see here for a list). However, its benefits have yet to be experienced by the wider student population through university counselling services. I, for one, would be very keen to see British universities embrace its potential in this regard.

Students, Stress and the Alexander Technique

At Bristol University Freshers’ Fair – also called the ‘Welcome Fair’ – last year I gave dozens of students a free taster of the Alexander Technique, and spoke to many more about its benefits.

Many students suffer from back or neck pain, caused by habits such as sitting at desks for long hours. Physical tension and mental anxiety also arise from a lack of strategies to deal with exam stress.

The Alexander Technique can help with many of the diverse challenges that university life brings. That’s because the Alexander Technique demonstrates, on a very practical level, that you don’t need to be at the mercy of the stimuli around you. You can the learn the very real skills of:

– saying ‘no’ to your habitual reactions to the things in your life causing you stress;
– allowing a different response, one that is far more congruent with your overall wellbeing.

I am currently offering free taster sessions to university students at my studio in central Bristol. And to read more about this unique, powerful and evidence-based method, you can read my own ‘About AT’ summary.

Good luck to all students as they enter the exam season!

Does the Alexander Technique treat back pain?

The Alexander Technique is well-known as a treatment for back pain. In fact, the best research on the subject to date (published in the British Medical Journal) concluded that ‘a series of six lessons in Alexander technique combined with an exercise prescription seems the most effective and cost effective option for the treatment of back pain in primary care’.

But does Alexander Technique actually treat back pain? I’ve been doing some DIY recently, and I’d like to use a simple analogy to suggest that the Alexander Technique does not actually treat back pain! What do I mean by that?

If you’ve ever used a jigsaw like the one in the image above, you’ll know that it has the potential to cause you a lot of pain. However, it also has various safety features such as a blade guard.

Would you say that the blade guard on a jigsaw treats pain? Likewise, would you say that the various steps you take before and during its use – such as wearing gloves and safety goggles, using a workbench or clamps and checking the location of the blade and electric cord – also treat pain?

Plainly, these would be silly statements to make. However, the relationship between the Alexander Technique and pain is pretty similar. The Alexander Technique is a preventive method which stops you doing the things to yourself which cause pain and injury. It is about the skilful ‘Use of the Self’ which is, incidentally, the title of one of FM Alexander’s most famous books.

If you’ve never considered yourself as an ‘instrument’ that needs some TLC in the way you use it, this can be quite a revelation. Simply put, if you ‘use’ yourself well, then the potential for pain and injury diminishes substantially.

This is the field of enquiry which Alexander opened up over a hundred years ago, and from which you can benefit today.