Avoiding Relaxation

“Relax”, “relaxing” and “relaxation” are words said often in lessons.  But not by me.  In fact, if you listen carefully, you will find me avoiding these words like the plague.

Many people, Alexander teachers included, link the Alexander Technique with relaxation.  I don’t.  As far as I’m concerned, the concept of relaxation is a can of worms.  And FM Alexander wasn’t too keen on it, either.

WORM No.1
“Relaxation” comes with a heap of baggage attached.  Almost everyone has been told to relax, or done relaxation exercises(*).  They know what it ‘thinks’ like, they know what it ‘feels’ like.  In other words, they have lots of preconceived ideas about what relaxation is; and Alexander lessons are all about challenging preconceived ideas, not reinforcing them.

WORM No.2
Most relaxation exercises require you to sit or lie absolutely still, and empty your mind of everything.  The Alexander Technique is about increasing the agility of the brain while you are being active.  Sounds downright contradictory to me.

WORM No.3
This is the wriggliest worm of all.  If you ask someone to show you relaxing, and watch really carefully, you will almost certainly see their ‘relaxing’ involves over-tensing some muscles, and collapsing others.  FM Alexander wrote about this problem a number of times, quite scathingly.  He says;
“The usual procedure is to instruct the pupil, who is either sitting or lying on the floor, to relax, or to do what he or she understands by relaxing. The result is invariably collapse… and if … persisted in, there must inevitably follow a general lowering of vitality which will be felt the moment regular duties are taken up again”(**)

So what words do I use, if not “relaxing”?  Stopping the unnecessary muscle tension.
Sometimes other ways of putting it help.

  • letting go
  • releasing
  • being loose
  • being free to move
  • moving easily
  • allowing your body to find its natural shape

And so on.  Each student has to find the phrase that clicks with them.  Sometimes we get quite creative with our vocabulary.  But never, ever, “relaxed”.

 (*) I am not condemning relaxation exercises.  They serve a very useful purpose, and if they help you, stick to them.  But they are not the Alexander Technique.
(**) Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Part 1, IRDEAT edition page 25

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CNHC and ITM registered Alexander Technique teacher.

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Posted in Alexander thinking, familiar, feeling
17 comments on “Avoiding Relaxation
  1. Thanks Karen, Like the worms. Those three certainly make a canfull!

  2. I could agree more, Karen. I avoid using the word “relax” too for all the reasons you state. I believe F M Alexander started out asking people to “relax the neck” but changed to the now well-known “free the neck” which is very telling. Feeling more “relaxed” may be the outcome of some Alexander work for many people (though I would say usually it’s both “relaxed and energized”), but it certainly isn’t usually a word that’s helpful to the process of getting there. Great blog!

    • Note to self – always read through before you submit comment! Should read, “I couldn’t agree more…” 🙂

    • Glad you liked it, Imogen. When I was researching the FM Alexander quote I used in the blog, I re-read the part where he describes the phrase ‘relax the neck’ as ‘inadquate’ – but he couldn’t think of a better one. (CCCI p. 318 IRDEAT). There seems to be more in the Articles & Lectures about developing the concepts of ‘free’and ‘release’. I’m not very familiar with them, I need to read more carefully (there may be a future blog in there!) Either way round, you hit the nail on the head when you say it’s really not helpful to the process.

  3. Adrian Bourner says:

    “Relaxation” as a solution relies on there being something there that needs “relaxing” i.e. the thing that usually gets lablelled “tension” or sometimes “stress”. By using “relaxation” as a solution, people tend to collude with or at best ignore the underlying problem. In the ITM we often label that the “correction” model. Alexander’s model of the world is about stopping or eliminating the cause of the problem. By learning Alexander’s work we remove the need for overlaying a “relaxation” solution on top of the unnecessary muscular tension that is causing the problem.

    • I hereby name you creator of the fourth worm. And what a mega-wriggler this one is. I’ve never managed to express the issue of stopping the unnecessary tensions vs. not starting it in the first place it very well, so I’m glad you’ve done such a beautiful job here. K

  4. Sonia Liff says:

    Hi Karen – I have been ‘thinking’ about this. I had noticed that ‘relaxing’ what not a word you use but it has been interesting to understand more of the reasons why. I can see why you want to avoid words that have ‘baggage’ but in doing so don’t you risk leaving it all in place and even have people associate a new term with the same understandings? An alternative is to say relaxing is not what you think it is – in the same way you do with ‘thinking’! The meaning of words are contested territory. I agree that the danger of this approach is that the old meanings and associations are too strong to shake up – so maybe it is important to do both??

    • These are wonderful questions. Would you mind if I leave the question of the risk of association for now? I think it would make a great follow-up blog. As for why I don’t teach different forms of relaxation, as I do the concept of thinking, I think the answer is mostly ease. Generally I have found that students learn a new concept & the associated skill a lot faster than they unlearn an old one. Therefore it is easier and quicker to try and build up a new idea of ‘stopping’ or ‘letting go’ than try and convert ‘relaxation’ into something different. However, that option is out for ‘thinking’. I can’t avoid the word ‘thinking’ altogether, because thinking in its many and various forms is so utterly central to the AT.

      I’m not sure what your final question ‘maybe it is important to do both??’ refers to. Can you clarify?
      Hope this helps, Karen

      • Sonia says:

        From my limited understanding, learning the AT is about profound whole life changes / ‘becoming a different type of person’ with a distinctive set of understandings and practices. A specialist vocabulary is part of such change. It can signal new ways of thinking and – as you say – can help people to understand more quickly that change is required. This is important and may even be a necessary part of making such a transition. But the downside is that there is a whole other world where people feel stressed and are told to relax … and that may be left relatively untouched if such familiar concepts are not also challenged directly. Words have very elastic meanings (says Humpty Dumpty!) so probing and exploring what ‘relax’ means to people can also help to clarify what you are looking for. For me ‘relaxing’ is more or less the same as ‘letting go’ and it is an active process rather than a state. It involves becoming aware of which bits are ‘unnecessarily tensed’ and tries to do something about it – but then it is not something I am very good at! So different approaches to teaching – starting from scratch with a whole new set of concepts; or starting from what is familiar to people and trying to move them to where you want them to be. In my view they both have their strengths and weaknesses so I was suggesting that there was a case for working on both fronts! Does that make any sense?

  5. Kim W. says:

    After taking Alexander Technique lessons and practicing it, I started doing the same thing, not really liking the word “relax” and not wanting to use that word anymore. Usually I’ve been told, “you just need to learn to relax”. So someone using that term automatically makes me get mad and tense up because I associate it with being told, “you’re tense!” in a judgemental sense.
    There’s been some times when practicing Alexander Technique and especially when doing acupuncture and Alexander Technique combined, I felt so just completely at “rest”. So I coined the term for myself, when my body feels, “at rest”. Maybe this wouldn’t work for some people. When in Alexander Technique lessons, a teacher says something that sort of “wrinkles my feathers” or I don’t relate to, I take the concept and form my own thought that I do relate with – not sure if this is healthy but it just has helped me. I’ve gotten more laid back about the term “relax” and “relaxation” now and it doesn’t bother me so much. I don’t make so many associations with the word “relax” anymore.

    • Hi Kim, you make some great observations here. I find being told I need to learn how to relax enormously irritating, especially when people prefix it with ‘just’. As if it was so very simple! And being irritated is no help to your Alexander thinking at all. I don’t know if you’ve caught the follow-up blog to this one, but I’ve addressed (briefly) this idea of how students take what the teacher says and try to make it work for them. It’s normal. Sometimes it’s unhelpful, but that should show up in lessons, and be dealt with. Other times it’s enormously helpful, because everyone’s ideas are so very different. Ultimately there is not the vocabulary to describe exactly what goes on, so we all have to find our own way into the thinking, using whatever phrases help us move forward. And you may well find that the phrases that help you now may not be so helpful in a few months time – you will have outgrown them, and it’s time to move on. Karen

  6. Sonia, I’m hoping the new post will have answered some of your concerns. Basically, the answer to your question is YES! Absolutely you need to work on both fronts. Its just a balancing act to choose in any one lesson which way is best for that student at that point. You make a great point, very nicely put, and I love your definition of the Technique. Karen

  7. Reblogged this on Maureena Bivins PhD and commented:
    I really like Karen’s concept of “allowing your body to find its natural shape.”

  8. Kim W. says:

    Read your reply and follow up article. It’s so nice you address the thing about the word “relaxation”. To me, the word is overused, general, and vague.

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