Alexander Technique Myths #4: If I don’t know what I’m doing, I can’t stop it.

It’s time for another Alexander Technique myth (I have a collection*). A hotly debated myth, it goes like this:-

“I can’t stop it if I don’t know what I’m doing.”

It also appears as “I have to know what I’m tensing in order to let it go”; while the wording varies, the intent is the same.

To pull apart this particular myth, I would like to recount one of my group classes:-

Student 1 is working on bringing her arms behind her back. We chat about it, I do some hands on.
STUDENT 1: “I’m holding on with this shoulder, aren’t I?”
At this point she stops holding on, without any help from me.  Her arm moves much further and more easily.

Then comes the next student.
STUDENT 2: “I want to look at stooping, I find myself stooping all the time. I know I’m doing it
and I can’t stop.”
Hmmm. If it were true that once you knew what you are doing you could stop it, then Student 2 would not have come with his story.

Student 3, does walking. We work a while, I do some hands-on and she walks some more.
KAREN: “Same or different, class?”
SOMEONE IN THE CLASS: “Her arms are moving less” (murmurs of general agreement from the
STUDENT 3: “I didn’t know I was moving my arms!”
She didn’t know she was doing it. She didn’t know she had stopped doing it. But to everyone else in the group that was a clear outcome of the process of Alexander thinking. What does that do to the assumption that you can’t stop it if you don’t know what it is?

I’m not saying there is no correlation between knowing and stopping. As student 1 proved, knowing can be a powerful tool in the process, but as student 3 proved, it certainly is not essential. Don’t let yourself be limited in this way. ‘Knowing’ is a variable creature, so approach with caution.

(*) Myths #1
Myths #2
Myths #3

Image courtesy of Becker1999 via

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How to Learn the Alexander Technique? Contrast and Hone.

My blog today has a culinary theme, or at least a culinary metaphor. It should be pretty clear from my other blogs that the Alexander Technique is all about learning. But people tend to have very rigid ideas about what learning means. Usually, it’s being told a fact and memorising it. Or maybe being shown the right way to do something, and then doing it that way.

Both are good learning techniques, but very limited. I don’t want to be restricted that much, and I don’t want my students to be restricted either.

So, where to look for other models of learning? Well, how about the world of brewers, vintners and olive oil producers? (that was what you were thinking, wasn’t it??) It seems that(*):

“Brewers and vintners learn by exposure, gradually honing their focus and deepening their awareness. By sniffing and contrasting batches and ingredients, they learn to speak a language of flavour…

Proficiency builds with exposure and practice. (Though not quickly; the average training period for a sensory panellist is sixty hours)…

The people who work with olives and olive oil, most of whom performed supernaturally well on the ranking… tests, were occasionally stumped by some of the most common and, to me, obvious aromas… Those aren’t important flavours in the day-to-day of the olive world, so there’s no reason for her to know them.”

Key ingredients of this recipe (sorry, taking a metaphor a bit too far there):-

• Gradually honing and deepening
• Focus
• Contrasting
• Learning to speak a new language of expertise
• Making something new and unusual increasingly important in your day-to-day world.

Have a guess where else you might find these same ingredients. Ok, not sniffing, and regretfully no alcohol. But the other elements are all there in the Alexander Technique. Focusing on movement, actions and activities. Contrasting the different decisions you make, and the results of those decisions. Honing your thinking by repeating tiny steps many times. Making this process increasingly important in your day-to-day world.

(*) All quotes are from “Gulp, Adventures on the Alimentary Canal” by Mary Roach, pages 17 and 24. It’s a fascinating book if you’re not squeamish.
Photo by Supermariolxpt via

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What Sort of Alexander Technique Student Are You?

I want to tell you a story about The Sheepish Student and The Industrious Student.

Once upon a time there were two students. The first student came to her lesson every week, and when the teacher asked her how she was getting on, she would give a sheepish smile and say, “I’m sorry, I’ve been that busy I’ve not had a chance to think about it.”  She did this week after week after week.  She and the teacher enjoyed the lessons enormously.

The second student would go home after her lesson and work industriously at what she had learnt. She thought about the ideas, she talked about them with her friends, she read the homework, she tried out the ideas in the things she did every day.  She did this week after week after week.  She and the teacher enjoyed the lessons enormously.

How quickly did our two students learn the Alexander Technique?

The first one: Really Slowly.

The second one: Really Fast.

Old-fashioned morality tales aside, what was the difference?   My colleague Nicola Dobiecka sums up very nicely(*) three major components for learning this work:-

  • We are prepared to change.
  • We’re prepared to learn how to stop doing things the way we’ve done them in the past.
  • We are prepared to take the time needed to do this.

Take another look at no. 3: We are prepared to take the time needed to do this.

It’s not an easy thing to ask. You’re working long hours, you have loads of commitments, your home life is busy. However, if you want this to work it means more than just turning up once a week to lesson.  Like my industrious student, you need to find the time to think, to experiment, to ponder.   Each think, each experiment, each ponder doesn’t take long, no more than a few moments.

But it does require you to step back from your usual whirl of busyness.


Image courtesy of ulleo via


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Even More Alexander Technique Freebies

Last time I talked about the voucher system of Alexander freebies, and collecting odd moments to practice.  Today, some more freebies.

Our starting question is ‘What do you learn from?’  Not “what do people in general learn from?” but “What do you learn from?”

It’s a very relevant question if you are taking Alexander Technique lessons.  If you are going to be successful, you have to learn.  No getting away from it.  Obviously, you learn from your Alexander Technique teacher, but that costs money.  So where are these other free sources?

There are loads of them. Heaps.  Once you start looking a little more widely, you’ll be tripping over them.  The next best after your teacher, is the other students in your Alexander group,  if you have group classes.  Then there are blogs, podcasts and video tutorials by the hundred.  All of them specifically geared to learning, in varying degrees of formality.

But what about all the learning that sneaks up in disguise? The lady you sit next to in the waiting room who is tatting, and more than happy to talk about it.   Standing in the queue listening to the couple behind you talk about the 10-mile walk they did in the Peak District.  A novel set in Gorbachev-era Moscow.

One small example, just one. The other day I was trying to find out how to make sauerkraut, and I came across this video(*) by Sandor Katz.  Great video, clear, well explained, informative.  But just watch what he does with his upper body every time he wants to emphasize a word.  You don’t need many Alexander lessons to realise this is a recipe for a lots of extra work, and probably sore muscles, as well as good sauerkraut.  Was I expecting a culinary Alexander lesson, an impromtu reminder of what is and is not necessary for verbal emphasis?  No.  But I got one, a good one, for nothing.

Photo by wendybkoon via

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Alexander Technique Freebies

Let’s face it, Alexander Technique lessons are a high quality product, and they don’t come cheap. So wouldn’t it be nice if there were a few freebies thrown in as well?  Students often bring this up, indirectly. “How many lessons does it take to learn this?” they say, which is usually a very polite way of asking “How much is it going to cost me?”

Usually I talk about the need to practice what you have covered in lessons. To think through the ideas, to experiment with doing things differently, to challenge your old assumptions.  As often as possible.  The more you do this, the fewer lessons it takes.  However, it’s hard to make lots of time for this sort of practice.  You’re a busy person.

So why not collect freebies? You don’t need a whole afternoon sat on an isolated mountain top.  Your life is full of spare moments to step back and do some Alexander thinking.  Brief, but valuable.

While you are cleaning your teeth.
While you are waiting for the kettle to boil.
While you are sitting at traffic lights.
While the adverts are on tv.
While you are waiting for someone to answer their phone.
While you are walking to the bathroom.
While you are sitting on the bus or the tube.
While you are in the supermarket checkout queue.

Clearly, these are freebies you find for yourself. No teacher has yet managed to project a ghostly voice into your kitchen, or ghostly hands into the supermarket (I’m not sure you would want them to).  Think of it more as a kind of voucher system, where you have to present and claim the vouchers for yourself on the spot.

“Is your kettle slow to boil?” “Present your Alexander Voucher now!”
“Long walk to the bathroom?” “Present your Alexander Voucher now!”
“No-one answering the phone?” “Present your Alexander Voucher now!”

If you counted up all these moments you would find you had a considerable chunk of extra Alexander in your week. How much more does it cost?  Nothing.

Photo by

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The Alexander Technique and DIY

This is a wall.









And these are shelves.








No, this hasn’t mysteriously changed into a DIY blog. Just bear with me a little while, and imagine that you need to put up some of those shelves on that wall.

In your recent past, your nearest and dearest have given you two very thoughtful gifts,





namely, a power drill and a power screwdriver. Wonderful contraptions!  They make drilling holes and putting screws into those holes really quick easy.

Now imagine that you can’t put off the shelves any longer. So you get up one bright Saturday morning, determined to get the job done.  You get out the shelves, measuring tape, pencil etc.  Four shelves, two brackets each, three screws per bracket.  24 holes to make, 24 screws to put in.  A morning’s work.

So next you get out your power drill and power screwdriver, right?

Well, no. Actually, what you get out are these:-

An old-fashioned manual screwdriver, and an ancient, rusty hand-turned drill.   And these are what you use.  Twenty-four times over.  It takes you days and days, with much swearing and sore muscles.  You get there, but quick and easy it is not.

So what happened to the lovely new power tools?   Well, they are here:-

Somewhere. Tucked away on a shelf at the back of the garage, buried under a pile of other stuff.  Which is where they stay.  And all the speed and ease of working stays there with them.  Well, by now you’ve probably worked out that there is a point to all these photos.

The story applies equally to the Alexander Technique.  You come to lessons, and you get given the mental equivalent of a power drill. You learn to use it really well.  But if you stick it on the mental equivalent of an overcrowded shelf at the back of the garage and leave it there, it is of no help whatsoever.

The Alexander Technique will only work if you use it.


Photo credits
wall Created by Freepik
shelves Creative Commons CC0, via Pixabay
hand screwdriver Creative Commons CC0, via Pixabay
power screwdriver Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee via
power drill Creative Commons CC0, via pixabay
hand drill Drewparen via Wikimedia Commons
garage Creative Commons CC0, via Pixabay

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How Not To Overload The Alexander Technique

Last time I talked about the concept of overloading; Alexander ideas are resilient, but sometimes the student is not. Taking on a challenging new idea and immediately trying to use it with a large, difficult and stubborn problem is likely to end in failure.

What’s missing is a period of building up and acclimatising. And the best way to go about that is to try it out on EASY things. SMALL, EASY things. Once you are confident you can manage the SMALL, EASY things, then and only then do you move on, to something slightly less SMALL and EASY. And you get better at that before you move on. You keep trying out the new strategy, but in a gradual, structured way.

So here is my recipe for putting some structure to that building up process. Take a piece of paper and a pen, and write down five versions of your chosen activity. Start with the easiest version that you can think of. Break off a small chunk, slow it down, take it out of context, whatever helps. Then gradually increase the level of difficulty, until your fifth step is really quite hard. Not super-mean, just quite hard.

Now apply this challenging new idea to No.1 on your list. If that works, go on to No.2. If that works, go on to No.3. Keep going until you reach the step that you can’t manage with this new Alexander idea in place. Got it? Good. That’s the level you need to work at for the next while.

Yes, it is almost certainly artificial. Yes, it feels a long way from helping the problem you are burning to solve. Yes, it is frustrating.

But bear in mind your priorities. Longer term, sure, you want to apply Alexander to that stubborn problem. Right at that at that moment, however, demolishing the stubborn problem is not your task. Your task is to build up your Alexander skills. Give yourself permission to go slowly, and improve gradually. Make it easier for yourself.

Photo © Lnmstuff | Dreamstime Stock Photos

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How to Overload the Alexander Technique

Do you know that feeling when you have a really important idea that you can not capture in anything shorter than a complete essay. Then you read, quite by accident, something by someone else that sums it up beautifully?

My idea has been to do with overloading.

The essay version is this:
A student comes to an Alexander lesson (let’s say they’ve had a few lessons, they understand the basics). They have a particular problem they want to work on, a large and complex problem they have struggled with for ages. The teacher breaks off a small chunk of the problem, and together they use this small chunk to untangle some big ideas that are the root cause of this problem. She does some hands-on work and the student comes up with a strategy for tackling this small chunk. The strategy is difficult, but it works. Hooray! Light at the end of the tunnel!!

What does the student do next? What do they do with this very new, challenging process? They IMMEDIATELY try it out on the large, complex, ingrained problem.

It does not go well.

You and I, reading from a safe distance, may not find this surprising. But the student is always surprised and dismayed. At this point, they decide either:-
a) They are no good
b) The Alexander Technique is no good
c) The teacher is no good
and abandon a strategy that could prove very useful to them.

Now for the beautiful summing up(*), modified to fit the occasion:-

The best way to sink any Alexander idea is to overload it right at the beginning. The Alexander Technique is pretty resilient, but at this stage you aren’t. So build up the idea gradually.

Isn’t that just wonderfully put?


(*) The original version is from Mark Forster, time management expert, in the instructions for his Final Version management system from 2012:-
“The best way to sink any time management system is to overload it right at the beginning. FV is pretty resilient, but at this stage you aren’t. So build up the list gradually.”

Photo from 11mela via

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Just Passing Through

passing through pic1

There is a phenomenon in the Alexander Technique that pops up every once in a while. I don’t have a name for(*) it, so I’ll have to just describe it. To start with, the student has chosen their activity for that lesson, tried it out, and the teacher has done some hands-on work. Then the student tries the activity again, and, here’s the important part; THEY REALLY DON’T LIKE IT.

Something has changed, and it genuinely is not entirely positive(^).

Maybe the student is stepping very slowly, or lifting their leg unfeasibly high, or bending too far forward. The exact ‘what’ doesn’t matter. What does matter is the fact that ‘this is worse than before’. If you are good at visualising images, you can probably see the look of dismay on the student’s face. Maybe ‘dismay’ isn’t a strong enough word, maybe we should be using ‘appalled’. If you are more of a verbal person, you can just about hear this student muttering to themselves “What on earth has this (******) woman got me doing now!”

However, the teacher is rather content with progress. She (or he) will agree that this latest change is not positive and still be happy.

How come?

Because she is taking the longer view. Having seen this phenomenon many times before, she knows perfectly well that it is just one part of a process of experimentation and gradual change. Uncomfortable, but necessary.

Plenty of authors who have thought about what it’s like to be human have written with compassion and inspiration on how you get over this sticky patch.

Take the well-known diarist Anais Nin:

“You live out the confusions until they become clear.”

Or successful businessman and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar:

“Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly until you learn to do it well.”

The idea that ‘you are not really going backwards, it just feels like it’ is not unique to the Alexander Technique. But it does pop up very strongly in lessons, and it forces the student to make a significant choice.

Do you allow it to derail progress, get disillusioned and maybe even give up completely? Or do you accept that this is not the final stopping place, and you are just passing through?  The choice is yours.


(*) if you do have a name for it, please let me know.
(^) I’m not talking about faulty sensory perception here.

Image courtesy of Felix Mooneeram at

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An Alexander Technique Perspective on Hurrying

94 hurrying pic1

Hurrying is a perilous occupation. To demonstrate this, find yourself a bench or a seat in a cafe that overlooks a busy street. Sit, and spend a while watching the people pass. In particular watch out for the people that are hurrying.   Chances are they will poke their neck forward, squeeze their shoulders together, hunch their upper body, stomp their feet. And maybe a few other distortions as well. Chances are that by the end of the day they will be shattered and have a sore neck into the bargain.

Ok, this is pretty mild peril.

But in Alexander Technique terms, it’s a big difference.  The aim of learning the Alexander Technique (one of them, anyway) is to be able to achieve what you want to do – walking or anything else – easily and efficiently. Bringing on extra aches and pains that aren’t necessary is not part of the deal.

It’s not really practical to say to someone “you should never hurry”. Quite often we simply don’t have much time.   So for a more practical alternative, how about you look at the difference between hurrying and doing something quickly.  And no, this isn’t just playing with words.

If you’ve had a few Alexander lessons, you will be familiar with the question, “What do I need to do in order to walk?” (or any other activity you choose). You will have got pretty good at answering it. So now answer the question, “What do I need to do to walk quickly?”

The answer is: Exactly the same thing. You just move your legs faster.

You don’t need to poke your neck forward, or hunch your shoulders or round your back. These things have more to do with an emotional response to being late, hassled or anxious. They don’t achieve “faster”. You do need to reason through your task, and then carry it out exactly as you reasoned.

‘What do I need to do in order to walk?’
becomes ‘What do I need to do in order to walk quickly?’
‘What do I need to do in order to type?
becomes ‘What do I need to do in order to type quickly?
‘What do I need to do in order to wash the dishes?’
becomes ‘What do I need to do in order to wash the dishes quickly?’

It takes out the emotional pressure that goes with the idea of ‘hurrying’, and uses your reasoning processes to achieve your desired ends, quickly and easily.

Image courtesy of geralt at

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