Addressing the Gorilla in the Room: How You Attend to Yourself During a lesson
We are going to look at the many ways that we can attend to ourselves that may make it harder or easier to learn the Alexander technique. Alexander himself said that our sensory perception is faulty, (in case you don’t know about faulty sensory perception check out our article about the five Alexander technique principles) and so we rarely know with any accuracy what is happening in our body. We have acclimated to our distorting habits, so our sensory perception is telling us everything is OK as is, although it isn’t ok!
Beyond what we feel in our body, rightly or wrongly, there is also the question of how we attend to ourselves.
When we step back to look at our habits from a conscious perspective, we need to question what sort of attention we are promoting and whether it offers the best vantage point for observing ourselves.
Everyone takes for granted that paying attention is one thing they do that they don’t have to question.
But in reality the way you pay attention is a big component in the creation of our bad postural habits. When we narrow our focus in an attempt to pay attention to our bodies, we actually prevent ourselves from being aware of how our bodies function as a whole,, and so we work against the very thing we are trying to learn. This tendency to narrow our attention in order to learn is such a strong habit that we don’t even know that we are doing it.
The way we attend to ourselves and the energy we put into it, is all important when we are looking to “allow” something new to take place. Focus can be narrow or diffused: in most cases people have learned to use a narrow focus to attend to things and narrowing further to a pin point when trying hard. However, narrowing one’s focus often brings tension and a lack of perspective, which also sets off a habitual response, going against our goal to change our habits.
When we are learning the Alexander technique we are like a conductor directing ourselves to have an improved response to a situation.
One of the effects of directing ourselves with a narrow focus is to draw our bodies down to what is below us. Since directing is how we use our conscious mind to change our compressive muscular response, we need to understand the pitfalls of a narrow focus which can lead us into a downward compressive direction that we are unaware of.
Opening our focus a step further, even though the change we are looking for in coordination is within us, we need to expand our focus to the space around us to gain a perspective of our inner state of coordination.
Similarly to an artist who needs to be aware of the negative space as well as the objects of the painting, an Alexander pupil needs to have a perspective of the space around them as they direct themselves. This perspective and vantage point will allow them to quiet down their end gaining responses more effectively. (in case you do not know about End-gaining, check out our article on the five Alexander technique principles.)
In short, being aware of the space around us is an essential component of directing ourselves out of our downwards, compressive habits. Once we lose awareness of the space around us, it is certain that we will be pulling down as we focus too tightly inwards on our bodies.
When describing the Alexander Technique principles of learning, I often use the example of the elderly when they are using a walker.
Most of my students can relate to the way their grandparents, when they use a walker, curl down with such force as to almost knock themselves to the floor. Even though they have been told to straighten up and walk inside the walker, you will see very few examples of this in practice. So one must ask: why can't they simply straighten up as they walk?
The Alexander Technique’s answer to that question is: "Force of habit" and "end-gaining". Their mind/body, once involved in the idea of going forward, immediately reacts by hunkering down. It is a strong force of mind as much as of body.
This habit starts much earlier in life than one might expect. We see the repercussions most clearly during the difficult period in old age when one is asked to use a walker, but miss the development of this pattern in our teens and twenties. A well-known example is the typical posture one employs while working at a computer, back slumped, chest compressed, and neck craning forward towards the screen. This posture becomes so habitual that any activity which involves being attentive to something out in front of ourselves elicits this compressive behavior.
Unfortunately as we age, this pattern gets stronger at the same time as we become less aware of it. Hence what Alexander referred to as faulty sensory perception. In other words, our sensory perception acclimates to our bad habits over time and is no longer giving us correct information about what we are doing. So we feel relaxed even though we are making unusual efforts and tension unnecessary to our tasks.
When muscles work they contract. However, there can be appropriate contractions and inappropriate ones. In the example of an elderly person using a walker, and those young or old working at a computer, the back is being rounded by muscles compressing in the chest and abdomen, drawing the person downwards towards their goal. I'm pretty sure if we measure the amount of force in these muscles, we would no longer attribute weak muscles to the elderly! Since the act of propelling oneself forward should not be accompanied by these downward efforts, the outcome of these attempts is to cause a weakened condition. It is like trying to drive with the brake on.
By a certain age one realizes that growing old is challenging at best. Years of curling down may make it feel as though standing erect is impossible. However, in most cases curling down and walking with the walker too far forward has less to do with physical limitations, than with a habitual motivation to go forward, while using all the wrong means by which to do so.
End-gaining is what happens when a person mentally leaves the process of getting to where they want to go and skips to the end result (having the end in mind but not being present moment to moment). When one only has the end result in mind there can be very little done towards mending the process in which getting to the results may have been inefficient or injurious.
I remember at one point in my life (before studying the Alexander Technique) thinking that my body will know what to do and I don't need to question it. Now I know that most people need to question what they're doing and ask themselves "how will it affect me in the long run if I don't change my habits?" We may exercise, we may eat well, but if we abuse our body in movement, it will break down when we need it the most.
Along the same line an interesting story was told to me by a woman who had just undergone surgery. Along with her another man was recovering from the same surgery and they both were recuperating by learning to walk with a walker. Since she has some understanding of the Alexander Technique she noticed that right after the surgery he was walking very upright with the walker, and she was impressed. However, that was short-lived, because she noticed that as he got stronger he began to curl down, compressing his body and walking with the walker way out in front of him. Sometimes we are our own worst enemy, such as in the case of this gentleman. Once he regained his strength he also regained the strength of his habit of trying hard, and that translated into pulling down and pushing the walker way out in front of him. His ideas of trying hard translated into unnecessary tensions and misplaced efforts which only took him in the wrong direction.
by Laurie Kline
The Alexander Technique is concerned with the way your head and your spine work together to support you, and how certain learned patterns get in the way of functioning at your best.
Why do Alexander Technique teachers spend so much time talking about the relationship between the head and the spine? The reason is, the head and the spine are integral to the support system of the body, and the head, which sits on top of the spine, weighs about 10 to 15 pounds. This is the weight of a bowling ball, and in most people this weight is directed down into the spine. This downward directed head sabotages the deep postural muscles in the back and around the spine and makes them inefficient. This leads to the spine compressing in an unhealthy manner, which the body’s design can’t sustain. And we wonder why we have a back problem!? In other words the deep postural muscles in the back which are meant to buoy us up in the field of gravity, are not working, because the downward directed force of the head is reinforcing a collapsing of the torso. This breakdown of the support of the spine leads to a segmenting of the different parts of the spine, and to inappropriate structures like the shoulders, ribs, and even the jaw trying to take over the role of support.
Since a bowling ball weighs about the same as the head, just imagine a bowling ball sitting on the top of your spine, while muscles in the neck and shoulder area are overworking, pulling the weight of the head downward.
You may be asking yourself, why don’t I feel this downward compression if it is creating so much strain? Why doesn’t my sensory perception (your body’s feeling sense) tell me that I am doing something wrong? From a very young age we start to form bad postural habits, which as we get older become more firmly established. This happens gradually and under the radar, so to speak. Our friends, parents, and idols are no better examples from which we could learn to see these patterns. As human beings we are wonderful at adapting and since these habits happen automatically without our conscious choice they go unnoticed.
In a well-organized individual the muscles in the neck and torso are being used with the appropriate amount of force to support the weight of the head on the spine. This allows for compression and extension of the spine, while maintaining a free and flowing functioning. Alexander Technique lessons restore the balance of the head on the spine. This has a positive effect throughout the person, correcting bad posture, but equally if not more important, creating a sense of well-being and energy. Why is this effect so global you may be wondering? When the postural muscles along the spine are working well the whole system is buoyed up, taking the pressure off the organs, rib cage, and the joints. This support improves our breathing, our circulation, our nervous system, and our ability to relate to the world in a more open way. Conversely, when the postural muscles of the back fail to support us according to their design, we suffer from neck pain, shoulder pain, fatigue, and a general sense of strain.
As I hope you can see lessons in the Alexander Technique open up the possibility of change at a very fundamental level.
The Myth of the Core
THE MYTH OF THE CORE
"We can throw away the habits of a lifetime in a few minutes if we use our brains" F M Alexander
The Idea of the "Core": Simple or simplistic?
If you watch the news, sooner or later you are likely to see a segment about physical fitness, in which a fit, muscular person exhorts you to strengthen your core. Or go to a gym, and you may get similar advice from a personal trainer. Every day, all over our country, people are diligently working to improve their core strength.
But what if the whole idea of the core is a myth-a myth that is actually harmful to our fitness and well-being?
I have taught the Alexander Technique for over 25 years, and my experience in fostering the psycho-physical well-being of my clients has led me to believe that this fixation on the core is a fundamentally misguided-maybe even destructive-idea.
Perhaps one reason that this core obsession became so widespread in our culture - despite no empirical studies verifying its existence - is that it makes a kind of intuitive sense. Many people feel that they lack a “core,” either physically or emotionally, or both. They may feel weak, unstable, stiff, awkward, and a great distance from where they want to be. And many suffer from stress, back pain, poor posture, and other problems with their bodies. The idea that you can become strong, fit, and confident by holding yourself in a certain way and strengthening specific groups of muscles - literally trying to create a feeling of a strong, secure core - may, at first, seem attractive and simple to put into practice. But think a little more deeply, and you may see that it is more simplistic than simple, an unthought-out reaction to a more fundamental feeling of weakness.
Individual Muscles versus Total Pattern of Organization
Research the idea of the core, and you will find that, despite the clarity of the word, it is a very nebulous concept in practice. Conflicting definitions are the norm: some locate the core in the abdominals, some in the back, some in the whole trunk. So rather than taking up each definition in turn, I will examine the underlying view which they all share: namely, that there is some set of muscles that can be strengthened through exercise or concentrated on and held to create better posture during daily activities. This approach will, it is claimed, stabilize our bodies, protect us from injury, and improve our level of fitness.
By contrast I want to suggest a completely different way of thinking about and relating to the body, one which may be unfamiliar to many people, and will imply a radically different approach to our problems. In order to adequately contrast this approach to the idea of the core, I will need to examine it in some detail. I want to be clear that I am not criticizing the idea of exercise for general fitness, but the notion of using exercises or focusing on specific muscular efforts to change deep habits of postural behavior.
Analyzing the posture and movement of any person will reveal weaknesses and imbalances - the body may be too weak in one area, too tight in another, held forward, backwards, right, or left. These imbalances often create stress, pain, and restrictions in movement and flexibility. But if we try to correct the imbalances superficially, we will be doing more harm than good. Before rushing off to "strengthen" ourselves and "correct" the problem, we need more awareness and understanding of what the problem actually is. Is it how to correct individual imbalances, how to strengthen weak muscles and release tight ones? Or, instead of narrowing our gaze to individual muscles or joints, is it understanding how the body is coordinated as a whole so we can change our habits effectively?
A muscle may be weak or tense because that is its role within the total, complex pattern of how a person has habituated to using the body. So it can't be changed in isolation from the whole pattern, and in fact may be a symptom of imbalance rather than a cause. To use an analogy, if a bridge is built with strong materials but an unsound design it will be weak and unsafe. So with our bodies: the pattern of how we use them as a whole—the living design, so to speak—is far more important to our fitness and well-being than the simple strength of our muscles in themselves. With that in mind, let us look at the underlying structure of our body to see if there is some key to changing its fundamental patterns.
Organizational Forces: Up Versus Down
At the most basic level we have a skeleton as a frame to which are attached muscles by way of tendons. The muscles are activated for movement by the brain via impulses carried through the nervous system.
This description is true as far as it goes. However, the key to better understanding and changing deep patterns of imbalance and poor coordination is a factor that neither our exercise culture nor our ordinary scientific understanding of the body recognizes at all; that is, whether the general orientation of the body is “upward” or “expanding” versus “downward” or “contracting.”
This factor introduces us to what I will call the "organizational forces" of the body, which are analogous to the design of the bridge in my earlier example. This aspect of our bodies is recognized by various disciplines such as Tai Chi, Yoga, some forms of meditation, and my own area of expertise, the Alexander Technique. These disciplines acknowledge, in different ways and with varying degrees of clarity, that our overall coordination, as well the level of our general functioning and well-being, depend on how the organizational forces are operating. The word "body" suggests an objective "thing" that is the same for everyone, but the actual experience of the body differs radically depending on what forces are organizing it, from lightness, ease, and confidence with the upward orientation, to heaviness, tension, and distress with the downward direction.
The "upward orientation" is natural, biologically-given. It is manifested in babies and in animals by the fluidity, grace, and wholeness of their movements, and by their erect yet effortless posture. Underlying this upward tendency is the finely-coordinated working of the spine and the postural muscles which run along it, creating a unified support for the body.
To make these forces more concrete, imagine setting up a tent that has a center pole to provide upward support. Remove the center pole, and the tent will still stand, supported by the poles at the corners, but it will be twisted and shortened. Unless the center pole is put back in place, no "correction" of any of the resulting distortions will be able to restore the tent's proper shape and function.
In a well-coordinated body which is functioning according to its design, the spine and the postural muscles provide the central uplift and support, which creates a general expansion throughout the rest of the body as the center pole does for the tent. This set-up creates maximum freedom, mobility, and ease in the body and can be described as an "upward" orientation.
By contrast, in a poorly coordinated body that lacks the uplift of the spine, support and balance are provided by holding muscles and joints tightly together and creating fixity at the joints. This "downward" orientation represents an interference with our natural, upward orientation, an interference which is found in most people in the modern world, usually showing up by about the age of five, or even younger. In the earliest, most impressionable years of childhood, we unconsciously absorb the patterns of our culture from our parents and peers, including, for nearly everyone, this interference with the natural way of using and relating to our bodies. Once we have absorbed this interference, it becomes the constant, habitual way of organizing our bodies. It distorts all our reactions and movements, fragmenting our experience of our bodies and creating mental and physical stress. And it underlies the myriad musculoskeletal ailments that beset us, from back pain to repetitive stress injuries, from breathing problems to balance problems.
Muscular Patterns Underlying the Downward Orientation
Remember, as described above, that in a well-functioning body, all the muscles running along and parallel to the spine, the postural muscles, coordinate together to support the spine, and therefore the body. But in a downwardly oriented body, the spine becomes segmented functionally, each section working at odds with its neighbor. This segmentation is the immediate cause of the weakness of the back and therefore of the whole body. For example, let us examine a typical case of someone standing with a forward neck, a rounded upper back (kyphosis) and an over-arched lower back (lordosis).
Beginning with the neck, the postural muscles along the back of the neck overwork, which, along with overwork in the muscles in the front of the neck, cause it to arch too far forwards. At the same time, overwork of the muscles in the back of the neck where they attach to the skull retract the head back into the neck, creating further compression and stress on the neck from above. The next section of the spine, the thoracic, rounds back, due to overwork in the muscles of the chest and underwork of the muscles in the back of the spine. And finally, the muscles of the lower back overwork, which, along with overwork of the psoas in the front of the lower back vertebrae, cause the lower back to arch too far forwards.
This is a simplified picture, but it demonstrates that the weakness of spinal support is due to the lack of a coordinated working of the postural muscles, along with interferences from other muscles extrinsic to the spine. Again, the problem is not weakness of the individual muscles, many of which, as pointed out, are actually overworking. Instead of an evenly distributed working of the postural muscles along the spine, this segmented and spastic working of the musculature subverts the unified support of the spine and results in what I have described as a downwards orientation in the body: the "center pole" is not supporting the body.
The Brain Orchestrates the Body's Organization
Although it has so many destructive consequences at so many levels, this interference originates from a mental change. The "posture" which it creates may appear fixed and simply physical, but there is always some fluctuation in the degree of interference from day to day, and even moment to moment: it is not fixed and static. This is because the brain is constantly orchestrating the underlying functioning of the spine. I use the word "orchestrate" to highlight the complexity, changeability, and "mental" quality of the messages from brain to postural muscles. As a conductor keeps the members of his orchestra working in harmony through constant, precise promptings, so the brain must constantly coordinate the firing of all the postural muscles along the spine to organize its function as a unified support for the body - or to disorganize it in the case of the downward direction. This support has nothing to do with the brute force of individually strong muscles - it is about precise coordination and timing - the "living design" discussed above. Just as a slight deviation in the rhythm of a conductor's promptings could ruin an orchestra's performance, so a subtle shift in the way the brain coordinates its messages to the postural muscles can switch the body from a harmonious upward direction to a destructive downwards one - the segmented spine discussed above.
I do not mean to suggest that this orientation, whether "upwards" or "downwards," is directed from the level of the conscious intellect. On the contrary, it takes place deep in the brain, beneath the emotional and intellectual level, a level of which we are, usually, completely unaware. But because it takes place in the brain - where all complex skills and activities originate - and because it can be changed through a mental process of observation and intention, I will refer to it as a "conception" or "idea".
It may be an unfamiliar way of thinking, but the "downward orientation" is really one way, a disordered way, that the brain can conceive of how to deal with balance and movement, and the "upward orientation" is another, an integrated way. It is one of the miracles of our brains that they can conceive of a way of coordinating our bodies that is contrary to its design. The tiniest shift in conception, a change in attitude from an innate trust in the body's design to a confused mistrust, gets carried out and amplified through all levels, from the most mental to the most physical, until our whole body gets drawn away from its natural orientation. For most people, once the downward tendency has become habitual, the upward direction remains buried and inaccessible. But because the source of the problem lies in the brain, it is not fixed and final: there is always the possibility of change.
The Internal Perception of our Bodies is Distorted
For an example of what this downward orientation looks like in practice, imagine someone sitting slumped in front of a computer, and think of the pressure this way of sitting puts on the body. Think of how it must restrict breathing and diminish vitality. Imagine as well the narrowing of the general field of awareness so that the focus is almost exclusively on the computer screen. This is not a biologically advantageous state to be in, mentally or physically. There is so little awareness of what is happening in the body that this person could be causing serious damage to him or herself without even feeling it.
How could our self-perception be so unreliable? The internal awareness of our bodies is commonly referred to as our "kinesthetic sense." All perception is based on change and movement. When the body is downwardly oriented, the general fixity of the body obstructs the subtle movements of postural organization which would register in the background of our bodily awareness. The kinesthetic sense is therefore missing so much background awareness that it presents us with a static, fragmented, and inaccurate perception of our bodies. All that is left is a rough awareness of the position of the body and the degree of tension in some of the muscles.
We may feel, for example, some tension in the shoulders, some discomfort in the hip, or notice the postural position of our body as we slump. So we approach our body in a piecemeal way: we might try to relax the shoulders, change the position of the hip, or straighten up to counteract the slump. But we have no overall awareness of the constantly changing, subtle forces at work behind these fragmentary experiences of our bodies. We have no sense of our bodies as an integrated, living whole.
If we review the basic idea of the "core", we see that it is based on this same fragmentary awareness of the body. It is focused either on trying to strengthen or directly control isolated groups of muscles, or trying to hold the body in a different position. There is no understanding of the general organizational forces at work, and no awareness of the need to change the habitual downward interference .
Our Destructive Habits Are Unconscious
But the difficulty in trying to change the habit of downward interference is that the shift from upward to downward happens at such a deep level and begins at such a young age that it is completely unconscious in adults. Since this tendency has become habitual, we don't feel how it is causing us harm: again, our kinesthetic sense has become distorted. We have become so habituated to tension, stress, and excess effort that they feel natural and right. Unless our awareness deepens to a level where we can re-examine this shift in orientation, our movements and reactions will keep repeating the same patterns.
This, then, is the essence of the problem and is the dilemma so many people are in: The mere intention to move automatically stimulates the downward habit of excess tension and stress, yet we have no awareness that this is happening. The sense of willpower and control that we enjoy in our daily activities masks the fact that all of our actions take place via this unconscious habitual interference. Because we can decide, say, to lift our arm—an action that we know how to do habitually—it doesn't mean we can also decide to move our arm in a new, non-habitual way, free from the downward tendency. Our will is actually only effective in the very constrained arena circumscribed by our habits.
Now, imagine what happens when we decide to do some core exercises designed to correct our perceived weakness or imbalance. We will simply perform them according to the same unconscious pattern that underlies all our activities, no matter how cleverly designed the exercise, or how perfectly presented the instruction. Or if we are told to correct our posture by working our core, we will tighten some groups of muscles, guided by the same fragmentary and distorted awareness that is causing our problems in the first place. Our posture might look better, but no fundamental change in our habitual orientation has taken place, and we will usually tire of the efforts we have been making. There are cases in which people find that holding and stiffening muscles in the trunk does make certain activities easier, such as weight lifting. But this is only because their bodies have become so unstable that creating an artificial and forced stability is the only way they know how to compensate for the lack of the natural support of the upward orientation. This is a crutch, not a solution, not a change in habitual orientation. And this added tension will only lead to injuries and damage in the long run.
In other words, as discussed above, the problem does not lie in the body (considered as muscles, ligaments, bones, tendons) but in the brain; more specifically, in the way the brain carries out its image of the design of the body. Unless the brain changes its fundamental conception from downward to upward, no matter how much we exercise, or how much we work on our posture, we will just be doing more of the same, or even strengthening the very patterns that are damaging us.
Expanding Our Focus
In investigating the causes of the stress, pain, and other difficulties which many of us experience with our bodies, we have had to move far away from the simplistic approach based on the idea of the "core". The "core" approach suggests trying to directly control or strengthen specific groups of muscles. But such a narrow focus ignores almost all of the underlying causes which we have discussed.
Our investigation led us to widen our focus as we examined successively deeper, more comprehensive, and more "mental" levels of contributing causes which must be addressed if we are to have any success in changing our habits. We began by looking at weaknesses or imbalances in individual muscles, then realized that problems with muscles are symptoms of the total pattern of the body's organization, then saw that re-awakening the upward orientation is the key to changing the body's organization, and finally we recognized that it is the brain which orchestrates this orientation.
But since this orchestration has become unconscious and habitual, we would seem to have no access to changing it. It looks like we have reached a dead end, and my argument seems to paint a hopeless picture: we are trapped in a maze of destructive habits which we don't experience, with a distorted self-awareness as our only guide. It seems that there is nothing we can do to correct our difficulties. But solutions often reveal themselves in the clear articulation of the problem. There is nothing we can "do" because our way of "doing" IS the problem.
Stop Doing So Much and Start Noticing What You Are Doing
This is actually good news. Because the recognition that we are trapped in our habitual patterns is a first step towards waking up from the unconsciousness of habit. If we understand that exercise and simple muscular effort, all this frantic "doing", will never change our deep postural habits, we will have freed ourselves from a major obstacle to change-the subconscious reliance on habitual tension and the whole mind-set that goes with it. Our self-awareness will therefore be more accurate
We can then begin to allow our awareness to expand so that we step back and notice our habits instead of unconsciously acting them out. We approach our bodies with more refined skill as we discover that the most effective way of changing our habits is indirectly, by monitoring the subtle shifts between the upwards and downwards orientation, rather than by directly trying to control specific muscle groups from within our habitual orientation. In effect, the total, complex orchestration of the spine, and therefore of the whole body, can be simplified and organized around a single upward direction.This expanded awareness gives us an objective and coherent way of observing our bodies which bypasses the confusions and complications of our habitual stance. The word "objective" is not meant to imply a point of reference outside of our experience, but an ability to accurately process our body's experience without stimulating the vicious circle of further mental, emotional, and physical reactivity.
This objective form of observation allows us to effortlessly change our habitual patterns at the deepest level of the brain's messages to our postural mechanisms. Our intention changes from figuring out what to "do", what to "strengthen", to how to prevent interference, what to let go of. To be clear: "letting go" does not mean becoming weak and flaccid. Quite the contrary, it means letting go of what weakens us - the downward interference - and fully engaging ourselves with the strongest way of using our bodies.
The challenge is that we need to learn how to react and move in a fundamentally different way, which is not easy. Our habitual way of doing things may create problems, but it feels secure and familiar. There is a discontinuity between upward and downward which means we have to resolutely move away from what we know - the automatic way of reacting with strain and tension - and move towards an unknown way of doing things that may at first feel unfamiliar, perhaps even wrong. We have to let go of our obsession with "doing" - with "fixing" and "strengthening" ourselves" - to a focus on awakening the finely-tuned upward orientation as we discover and trust our body's design. We must dare to surrender our known control at the habitual level to gain a new kind of control at a deeper level.
The details of how to go about this are too complicated and specific to go into here, and the help of a teacher is invaluable in the process. But the general direction to go in is to become more observant and sensitive to how we use our bodies during our daily activities. Gradually, as we get more attuned to our bodies, we become aware of unnecessary tension in our movements and reactions and can choose to free ourselves from the grip of the "downwards" habit. As we become increasingly sensitive to the subtle differences between the upward and the downward orientation, we effortlessly move towards a fundamentally healthier way of being, without exercise and without futile efforts to control isolated groups of muscles. As F. M. Alexander said
"We can throw away the habits of a lifetime in a few minutes if we use our brains"
There is a reason that the fixation on the core has become so popular. It rightly reflects the awareness that there is something awry in our relationship to our bodies. But following this approach leads us astray: it is not a solution, but only an expression of the problem.
Why do our problems seem so real?
by Michael Ostrow
A person feels depressed. He reminds himself of all the bad luck and humiliations he has suffered in his life, and looks forward to years more of the same. What is it that makes that feeling of depression seem so solid and real?
Someone gets out of bed and his body feels heavy and sore. He thinks to himself that old age and gravity are weighing him down. Is it so certain that external factors, such as gravity and age, are causing this feeling?
Two people argue over politics. They are both convinced they are right. Where does this feeling of certainty come from? Can both people be as right as they feel?
There is a common element to all these situations – a background feeling tone that is usually unnoticed which joins a concept or image to “solidify” it and give it life and reality. This background feeling tone is something that is not recognized by our culture or by most approaches to self-improvement, whether from the “somatic” or the “psychological” angle. The Alexander Technique is a unique way of broadening and deepening our attention so that it can be attuned to the level of this background feeling. This deepened attention, in turn, gives us the freedom to not be stuck in old reactions and old self-images that hold us prisoner. What is the nature of this background feeling?
When we are born, our bodies and minds are in an open, fluid relationship between the “outside” world and what is “inside.” The spine and the postural muscles of the back support the body and are the organizational center of movement and stability, while the rest of the musculature works in coordination with the spine, at rest when not needed, and fluidly working when called upon. This pattern of fluid coordination is associated with an accurate “kinesthetic sense”, which is the internal radar that allows us to accurately monitor how our bodies move and relate to the world around us. When our kinesthetic sense is operating accurately, we are immediately alerted to excess tension, and to any departure from an open sense of general alertness, both to our “bodies” and the world around us. There is an unconscious background awareness of being securely supported by the spine, along with a sense of being, “present,” “centered,” and ready to respond with our full resources. So, at the physical level we are supported and fluid, emotionally we are secure and alert, and mentally we are ready to put ourselves into what needs to be done at the moment.
Any disturbance to this finely tuned system will lead to diminished vitality and alertness, decreased physical coordination and fluidity, and emotionally to distress and a lowered sense of well being. A rough way of getting a feel for this level of our being is to contrast your experience of being on vacation and feeling very at ease and relaxed, versus being stressed and harried by a hard day at work. When stressed, every little thing causes you to react with irritation, whereas, when more at ease, the same problem might wash over you. The difference is your underlying state of being.
How do we lose touch with this finely tuned system?
As we grow up we begin to interfere with the natural, integrated pattern of spinal support. This interference starts to happen as we imitate many of the bad patterns of our parents and peers, and as we are buffeted by emotional trauma and the contradictions of our upbringing. Repeated stress and trauma gradually lead us to try to avoid or resist painful experiences. We begin to create what we call “tension,” or, more accurately, patterns of neuro-muscular activity which are unnecessary and which represent an interference with our overall design.
One could call this tension a “substitute support system” or more simply a “substitute spine”, because it gradually replaces the natural support of the spine. We end up “doing” more and more as we abandon the spinal support for efforts we make to protect ourselves from painful experiences. Since this happens at such a young age, this “substitute spine” is not conscious, and it feels natural and “right.” It forms an unconscious, distorting feeling tone, which disrupts our kinesthetic sense, and we lose the clear background awareness that allows us to be attuned to ourselves and our environment. It is as if, instead of an open, panoramic, emotionally neutral field of awareness, the field splits into small, tight nodules, which are associated with various negative emotions of fear, anger, etc. Our emotional life then becomes grounded in this background of tension, and we become like the person in the example above having a bad day at work. Since this background feeling is unconscious, the feelings it supports are perceived to come from the outside world, and we feel a victim of outside forces.”
Let us take the first example I gave above – someone who feels constantly depressed. There are at least three obvious elements involved here: 1) a concept, for example, a negative self-image (“I am a loser, a failure”); 2) an emotion associated with the concept (a feeling of “depression”); and 3) a bodily reaction to the concept (typically in this case, a literal depression – a sinking of the chest and drooping of the shoulders, and diminished breathing capacity). But there is really a 4th element 4) the background feeling, the final nail in the coffin. The physical reaction to the depression is interwoven with the whole “substitute spine,” and so cannot be simply identified or “let go of” because it has become so much a part of “who we are.”
There are many approaches, such as cognitive therapy, which teach people to be aware of and change their negative self-concepts. But the problem is, they leave out of account the fact that, once a person has experienced a negative feeling for some time, this feeling has become part of their fixed, distorted, and stressful background pattern of tension. This fixed pattern, in turn, reinforces, and gives “life” to, the negative image or feeling. Even if someone has success in having fewer negative thoughts, they will still suffer from the lowered vitality and sense of stress that has been created by years of living with this background pattern of stress. The background tension is not fully accessible by simply changing ones thoughts - it's physicality must be clearly experienced in order to let go of it. Otherwise it acts like a force field, or black hole, which pulls everything into it and makes it nearly impossible to perceive anything outside of its gravitational pull. Causality is reversed - rather than seeing the negative feelings as a result of what one is unconsciously “doing” with one’s mind and body, it is felt to be the result of objective problems with oneself or the world.
By using very precise hands on work, the Alexander Technique helps to awaken the innate support system of the spine and its postural muscles, which helps to “undo” the tension of the “substitute spine.” Every experience of freedom from the “substitute spine” leads people to have more detachment from what seemed fixed and inevitable, and makes it possible to have an experience of life without the background tension which supported the negative feelings. As one becomes more sensitive and alive, it becomes more and more possible to free oneself from the whole background feeling tone, which hitherto seemed simply to be “my life.” The kinesthetic sense is re-awakened, allowing one to re-discover the alert, alive, and emotionally neutral background feeling tone, and turn one’s attention forward to living their life, instead of backwards towards focusing on their “problems.”
This represents a truly transformative process, in which it becomes possible to transcend our culturally created, habitual sense of self, stuck in the past, and become an autonomous creator of one’s own life. We cease to identify ourselves with the fixed patterns of our background feeling tone, and realize that our real self is a fluid, evolving process to which we can attune ourselves in the moment-to-moment process of our lives.
by Michael Ostrow
What does it mean to “try to get something right?” Whether learning a skill, such as learning to play a musical instrument or a new sport, or trying to improve some aspect of our life such as our level of confidence, or our ability to be less stressed by life, people are used to relying on their internal feelings as criteria for evaluating their progress. If, for example, you take a golf lesson, the instructor will teach you a certain way to hold the club, a certain general posture to adopt, and you will follow the instructions using the internal feelings of your own body (along with the instructor’s feedback) to judge whether you are doing it correctly. It may seem as if you had no other choice but to do so.
But what if the internal feelings in your body are deceptive and inaccurate? What if your idea of right is wrong? Then, no matter what the instructor says, you will apply the instructions inaccurately.
Now, people can usually muddle through their lessons and learn new skills to some degree, but they often find that they run up against a limit to their improvement. I have worked with many performing artists and athletes, and I have consistently found that, although they have attained a certain level of skill, they are paying a price for it in tension, pain, and stress. So if you are interested in changing at a more fundamental level, you must ask more fundamental questions and look more deeply at the problem of learning and change.
One of Alexander’s discoveries is that there is in human beings a central, organizing pattern that governs our movements and reactions. This pattern is the relationship between the head and the spine. If the head is freely poised in relationship to the spine, and the spine then can attain its full length and supportive function, then the body functions at its highest capacity and greatest skill. Conversely, anything which interferes with this pattern will lower our level of functioning and diminish our skill. At this point in the discussion, I must simply assert that this is so – to verify its truth one must take lessons in the Alexander Technique.
The problem people face is that, from an early age, most people begin to interfere with the natural pattern of support of the spine. They gradually develop a whole network of compensatory patterns, which, since they were developed unconsciously and at such an early age, feel completely “natural” and “right.” This compensatory pattern becomes unconsciously identified with control, safety, and balance, and our internal feelings become distorted by this unconscious pattern. This means that we will always be reacting from within this interference pattern, and the more stress we are under, the more strength or accuracy is demanded of us, the more we will recruit this pattern. That is, the more you try to “get” something right, the more you will stimulate the incorrect pattern of reaction that “feels” right.
Is there any way out of this vicious circle? There is, but it requires attention and patience. Through lessons in the Alexander Technique, the teacher uses hands-on guidance to stimulate the biologically natural pattern of support of the spine and its postural muscles. This experience acts as a reference point, allowing the student to change their focus from “trying to be right” to “not interfering” with this new pattern of support. With time, the student’s focus is more and more identified with the new pattern, as they realize that they don’t need to react according to emotionally driven, poorly thought-out reactions, but can remain with the more open, thoughtful pattern which is generated by the natural support of the spine. This gradually leads to a different attitude towards life in general, where it becomes more important to remain calm, balanced, and alert, than reactive and driven.
by Laurie Kline
Pain in the body can stem from many factors: a fall, car accident, scoliosis, and bad posture, etc. No matter what the reasons may be for your back pain, you should know that how you move throughout the day can make a difference in how it feels and how it heals. You are most likely unaware of the forces that you are constantly setting in motion every time you move. What makes it difficult is that we are not sensitive to these unconscious choices. The choices we make unfortunately go unnoticed because they are so much a part of our everyday reactions. Every time you make a decision to move, your brain sends a signal to the muscles, which creates muscular tension that is habitual, automatic and very quickly established. If it is an inappropriate and destructive pattern then it will cause you trouble over time.
Say you have a pain in your lower back and you are sitting and standing in a way that compresses the area where you experience the pain. At this time you may not even feel that you are compressing your spine, and even if you do feel the compression you may not see another possibility or strategy of how to improve the way you sit and stand. The possibility of your seeing how you may have brought about the injury through years of bad physical habits may seem rather theoretical at first. You may not have considered the fact that there is more than one way to go about sitting and standing. But let us just say you do know that changes need to be made. Your instinct will be to start to make a change in your seated position once you are in the chair, right? That may seem obvious in most people’s minds, but by then it is too late in the sequence to make an appropriate change. If you want to change an inappropriate way of sitting you need to start at the moment the thought occurs to you to sit. The first step is to see that once you think of sitting or standing or walking, the brain is setting up a programmed response.
In most people’s minds the process goes like this:
You decide to sit, the brain tells the usual muscles to work in the way they have always done, which is: sitting as you know it. And you sit. You see you are slumping and you try to sit up straight by stiffening and holding yourself up.
After lessons with an Alexander Technique teacher:
You decide to sit, and at this moment in time you are still standing. However, since you are schooled in the Alexander Technique you will see how you have already in your mind “sat down.” Even before you have bent your knees to sit, your brain sent a quick message to the body to respond habitually by hunkering downward towards the chair, thus compressing your back. This is a pattern shared by most people. A trained Alexander teacher can see and feel these small compressive patterns before they have gone very deep and she will have given you the tools to stop and choose a better response.
From an Alexander Technique point of view this is the “Aha” moment, or the moment of choice. Remember, you are still standing, there is still time to change this pattern to a more reasoned one. From your Alexander technique lessons you will know that this habitual pattern leads to a deeper compression as you get lower to the chair. Most importantly you will see this habitual pattern before it goes too far, – “Aha. “ You will be able to bring about corrections which leads to a better way of sitting, thus giving the area around your injury the space and possibility for healing.
“If you would become educated, first know thyself”
Laurie Kline and Michael Ostrow have been teaching the Alexander Technique for 25 years.