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.
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Laurie Kline and Michael Ostrow have been teaching the Alexander Technique for 25 years.