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.