An Alexander Technique Perspective on Hurrying

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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.

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Usually, But Not Always

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Have you ever noticed how human beings like easy answers?  Most of them, most of the time.  Alexander Technique students, usually being human beings, also like easy answers.  Which is a bit of a shame when life throws up complex problems that require more complex, or at least, flexible, thinking to solve.

This came home forcibly in a recent lesson looking at how best to get your eyes closer to the computer screen.  Moving the laptop closer wasn’t possible.  Bending at the hips was tricky because of the angle of the footrest.  The arms of the chair prevented pulling it further forward.  So I suggested curving the spine, to great indignation from my student.

“But you always tell me to move from the hips.  I’ve been practising moving from the hips for months”

She wasn’t wrong.  Having done a quick mental review of all her lessons that I could remember, I decided we had always worked in moving from the hips.  Quick rethink needed, for teacher and for student.  In fairness, the hip joints are far better designed to make those sorts of bending movements than the spine.  Usually, moving at the hip joints is by far the better option.

Usually.  But not always.

Maybe there’s a table in the way.  Or your trousers are too tight.  Or you want to sleep.  Or you have a serious medical problem with your hip joints.  There are lots of potential maybes that mean hips are not the best option.  Sticking like glue to the easy answer, the ‘right’ answer, or the answer your teacher has told you, is going to cause its own set of problems.  That’s why it’s so important to stop, very briefly, to “analyse the conditions” and “reason out”(*) the what, how and why of what you are about to do.

Real life doesn’t always follow the usual rules.  If you want flexible movement, you need flexible thinking.


(*) I must … employ my reasoning processes, in order
                (1) to analyse the conditions of use present;
                (2) to select (reason out) the means whereby a more satisfactory use could be brought about;
                (3) to project consciously the directions required for putting these means into effect.
     The Use of the Self, FM Alexander, IRDEAT edition p.423 

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Subtle or Not So Subtle?

Usually when someone has an Alexander Technique lesson, they physically change.  Sometimes that change is definitely not subtle; it’s easy to see, to feel, to describe.  Other times that change is very subtle, hard to see, harder to feel, very hard to describe.

Take two examples(*):-

  1. An elderly lady with advanced osteoporosis who is very stooped, and has come to see what this Alexander Technique is all about. She sits in the chair for some hands-on work.  At the end of the hands-on she is less stooped.  In fact, she is about 2 inches taller(^), a change which is clearly visible to most of the room of complete Alexander beginners.
  2. A different lesson with a different student, one who has had lessons for a little while. She also sits in the chair for some hands-on work.  She changes, but she doesn’t get taller (she is already sitting at her full natural resting height).  The changes are hard to see, and really only visible to students who have worked in group classes for a while, and built up their Alexander observation skills. They are equally hard to describe.  Woolly words like ‘softer’ and ‘easier’ get muttered.  There definitely is a change through the whole torso, from hip to head, but pin it down?  Forget that.

Two examples, the subtle and the not-so-subtle.

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My question for you is; which is the bigger change?  The one you can see clearly and quantify, even measure if you happen to have a measuring tape handy.  Or the one you think you can sort of see, but no way can you describe.

If ‘bigger’ doesn’t work for you, which is more far-reaching?  More important?  Which is a sign that the student has made good progress?  Which shows that the teacher has really achieved something with her hands-on work?

Interesting question, isn’t it?

(*) these are real examples, not hypothetical ones
(^) 5cm in modern money

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Where’s the Magic in the Alexander Technique?

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There is a kind of magic in the Alexander Technique.

It’s a small magic that usually tip-toes up when you are not expecting it(*), and gives you a sudden burst of something wonderful.  It could be your pain goes away, your leg lifts higher, you take in more breath, your movement flows more, you feel calmer and more stable.  Or it could be a more mental sort of wonderful; you realise something that troubled you doesn’t have to trouble you any longer, you have a different way to tackle a problem, something new becomes possible.

Where does this magic come from?

Well, consider the story of a lady with lots of ongoing pain in one hip, and a pronounced limp.  Her first lesson was a lovely experience.  We talked through some Alexander Technique ideas, I did some hands-on work, and her limp very nearly went away.  Barely noticeable.

Her response: “It’s like magic!  You hardly did anything, you just put your hands here, and put your hands there, and my limp went away.”

That seems pretty clear.  The magic comes from the teacher.


A week later she came for her second lesson.  She showed me her walking, and the limp had come back in between times (which is normal at this stage of a student’s learning).  So we reviewed the Alexander ideas, the reasoning, the questions and directions.  Just talking, no hands-on.  Off she went again, to walk across the room, and once more her limp had all but disappeared.

Remember – no hands-on work this time.  Just a verbal reminder of the new ideas.  So where does the magic come from now?  It can’t be from the teacher.

My magic or your magic?

Answer: your magic.   You, the student.  Always your magic.  You may need a little help to achieve it, but that is all a teacher can do, give a nudge towards something that is in the student to start with.

Always your magic.


(*) there is a broader, longer-term magic that you only really spot when you look back over a period of time, and contrast you now with you then, but hey, one ‘magic’ blog at a time.


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Alexander Myths Part 3 – Put Your Back Into It!


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“Go on – put your back into it!”

If you’ve not encountered this phrase before, it’s a slightly old-fashioned way of telling someone to make more physical effort – to push, pull, twist or lift harder. You might have your own version. Where I come from it was ‘Give it some elbow-grease!’

Let’s be very clear at the start. Some jobs need a great deal of physical effort. Digging up tree roots. Moving heavy furniture. Dragging large and reluctant dogs. Running a marathon.

No myths so far.

But these colourful and entertaining phrases have led to a huge myth about the need for strenuous exertion, ie. If something is strenuous, you MUST (with large, capital letters in gothic typeface) turn on every muscle in your body. As hard as possible.

The myth pops up from time to time in lessons. Take, for example, one student whose job involved mopping a very large and grubby floor on a regular basis. He was adamant that the only way to do this job was to put his back into it. So he did put his back into it. Hard. Methodically, thoroughly and with great strain. Guess what problem brought him to Alexander lessons? Back pain.

When we reasoned out what was actually required to get a clean floor, it boiled down to ‘push down harder when you scrub’. Looking at ‘scrub’ calmly and logically, it turned out that most of the movement came from the arms and shoulders. The back had a supporting role, no more.

‘Scrub harder’ = effort from the arms and shoulders.

My student tried this out and it was, indeed, easier to do and less painful on his back.
Myth disproved.

Maybe, rather than hurtling along with the overall, undirected ‘strenuous’ that lurks behind these phrases, we could stop and consider the activity in Alexander terms. Replace ‘strenuous’ with ‘force’. Think about the direction of that force and which particular body part creates it. Then stop adding unnecessary stress and pain into our necks and backs.

And leave vague ‘strenuous exertion’ for the dictionary.

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The Right Way to Think the Alexander Technique

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Q:           When you are going about your Alexander Technique, what is the right way to think?
A:            It’s a trick question.

I know, a bit mean of me.  But you’d be amazed how many students ask, in various wordings, “What is the right way to think?”  And it usually takes a while of repeating the question before the student takes in that I mean what I say.  There is no “right way to think”.

There are better ways to think, and worse ways to think.  And we will cover them in lessons, many times.  But no matter how many different activities you bring to your lessons, there are always more circumstances in life outside the teaching room.

A chair that is slightly lower.
A deadline that got moved.
An unfamiliar kitchen.

You need solutions right there and then, not next week when you go for your lesson.  So how do you get around this problem?

One good answer (please note I didn’t fall into the trap of saying “The answer”!) lies in a wonderful picture-blog by Jen Mackerras(*), where she talks about mindset and the work of Carol Dweck.  About half way through, a slide caught my eye:-

 “Is this a useful way to think?”

This idea has a good pedigree, all the way back to FM Alexander himself.  Writing about how you should judge his – or any other – self-help technique(†), he was very clear on his criteria for success:-

 “Judgment must always be made… on a general basis in the process of living and all-round usefulness”

If it’s not useful thinking, then discard it.  Ask yourself “What can I replace the ‘not useful’ with?”  If it is useful thinking, keep going.  Follow it up with a question like “What is useful about it?” or “Why is it useful?” or “How could I make this ‘useful’ even more useful?”

Whatever your thinking pattern, all-round usefulness is a pretty handy goal to be aiming for.

(†) Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT edition p.374
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FM Alexander’s Journey

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Reality TV loves a good ‘personal journey’.  But forget histrionics for the camera – FM Alexander was there 120 years ago, very quietly transforming his life.  So what was his journey made up of, with no audience, no judges and no makeup?  Well, he wrote an account of what he did,(*) and while I recommend reading the whole thing, you could just go through it, pull out the bare bones and make it into a list.

Here are those bones, with all the verbs, the ‘doing words’ put into italics:-


  • I discovered that
  • I very soon noticed several things that I had not noticed
  • I realized that here I had a definite fact which might explain many things
  • This served to confirm my early suspicion
  • I realized that I must also
  • This made me suspicious that I was not doing what I thought I was doing
  • It gradually dawned upon me that
  • I asked myself
  • Through it I was led on to the further discovery
  • I had never fully realized all that this implied
  • This reconsideration showed me more clearly than ever
  • I looked all round for any other possible causes of failure,
  • When I came to try it, however, I found that
  • I began to see that my findings up till now implied the possibility of the opening up of an entirely new field of inquiry, and I was obsessed with the desire to explore it.


  • I had two facts to go on.
  • If this were so, and I could find out what the difference was
  • A further result which I also noted
  • This new piece of evidence suggested that
  • Tendencies I had detected in myself
  • I began to reconsider my own difficulties in the light of this new fact.


  • Go on patiently experimenting
  • In the course of these experiments I came to notice that
  • A long series of experiments … noting the results in each case.
  • By careful experimentation I discovered that
  • I must continue this process in my practice for a considerable time
  • I therefore decided as my next step
  • I therefore concluded that
  • This led me to a long consideration of the whole question of
  • My next step would be to discover
  • When I came to consider the significance of this last point, it occurred to me that if,
  • I concluded that if I were ever to be able to
  • I reasoned that if


  • I had learned by experience
  • As I gradually gained experience
  • This experience taught me


No drama or tears, just a whole lot of learning.

(*) All quotes taken from ‘Evolution of a Technique’, the first chapter of The Use of The Self by FM Alexander.

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Alexander Technique Myths Part Two -My Head Will Fall Off!

For the second of my Alexander Technique myths, I want you to imagine a lesson where I am working with a student on letting go of the oh-so-tense muscles in the back of their head and neck.  Imagine that this is not their first lesson, and that they are comfortable with the idea of unnecessary muscle tension, and the need to stop it in order to move freely.   The lesson goes something like this:

       Karen:  What would happen if you let go of some of these muscles in the back of your neck?
       Student:  My head would fall off.

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You can probably hear some giggling from the rest of the class, because of course everyone knows your head won’t fall off.  And usually the student in question knows this too, in the logical part of their brain.   It’s daft.  But still something pretty powerful is telling them they must not let go – OR ELSE.

So we reason it out a little:-

       Karen:  It would really, actually fall off?
       Student:  Ok, It won’t fall off, but it will fall forward until my chin is on my chest.

Now comes the demonstration, where the student shows me their head falling onto their chest.  And we have a courteous disagreement about it.  You see, what they call ‘falling forward’, I call ‘pulling forward and downwards with great force’.

We chat about the fact that you don’t hold your head up like you would a sack of potatoes.  Instead the skull is resting on a powerful tower of building blocks (ie. the vertebrae).   These vertebrae are held in place by lots of muscles, so many that each one only needs to work a miniscule amount.  I might even mention the strength of the ligaments holding the bones together.  Meanwhile, I continue to do hands-on work.

Normally by now the student has let go of a large amount of that pesky tension in the back of their neck.

       Karen:   How is your neck now?
       Student:   Less tense.
       Karen:    Has your head fallen off?
       Student (very reluctantly):   No.

Myth demolished.  Lesson over.

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Posted in asking questions, change, muscles, stopping

The right Alexander Technique mirror

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The question of whether you should use a mirror in your Alexander work has rolled around for a very long time, pretty much since FM Alexander developed his technique back in the 1890s.  He used a mirror; in fact he used several mirrors, and stood watching himself speaking for hour upon hour (boy, did that man have patience!)

Since then, some teachers use them in lessons, others, like myself, don’t.  The purpose of the mirrors is to see what it is you are doing, what has improved, and what unnecessary muscle tension is still lurking.  Then you can work on stopping it(*).  But what happens when you want to practise your Alexander thinking while you are doing the washing up, walking the dog, playing golf or anything else?  No mirrors there.

Well, if you extend the definition of a ‘mirror’ into ‘something that gives you feedback on how you are doing whatever you are doing’ then you can find mirrors everywhere.

A few weeks ago I wrote about a small but useful discovery I made when cleaning my teeth.  My colleague Robert Rickover made the comment that “my gums were my mirrors”.  Sounds unlikely, but he was spot on.  The pressure on my gums was exactly the feedback I needed.  All parts of your body will register and report back on the amount of pressure whenever you are in contact with another surface.  A chair back, the floor, the keyboard, a spoon, it doesn’t matter.  Loads of mirrors.

And what about hearing?  Robert again:-

‘The floor can be a “mirror” – especially a creaky wooden floor with lots of auditory feedback.’

Your jeans rustle differently when you change how you walk.  Often your voice becomes deeper or more resonant.

Then there is sight(†).  How close or far away are you?  The reach of your arm at full stretch – is it longer than normal?  Are you now looking down into someone’s eyes where before you were on the level?  Does your driving mirror need adjusting?

All of these provide information; clues as to what you might be doing, what might have changed, and where you might want to take your Alexander thinking next.  Don’t restrict yourself to a formal ‘Alexander Technique mirror’.  Find your own mirrors everywhere.

(*) the question of whether you need to know in order to stop is another issue for another day.
(†) I’m really not sure about smell and taste.

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Improving at the Alexander Technique

I want you to stop a moment, and think about the idea of improvement. You’re reading this blog, so presumably you have an interest in improving yourself. But what does that actually mean? Put another way, how will you know when you get there?

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It all leads to the big question of whether improvement has a definite end-point. Our society is becoming increasingly obsessed with the quick fix, which implies there is a definite end point and I want it now, thank you so much. But there are other ways of looking at it. Other cultures, theories and techniques. Like, for example, the Alexander Technique.

FM Alexander had two gripes with the idea of a quick fix. Firstly, the idea of ‘quick’. He makes the point that if you’ve been doing things your old way for a long time, it might just take a little while to stop them (my paraphrase). And secondly the idea of ‘fix’. Is there really a definite item to be changed, one with hard edges and clearly defined boundaries?

He was so keen on the subject that he spent most of his last book – which covers 230 pages – talking about the constant influence for good inherent in his technique. Constant influence. Not an ‘ok, I’ve done this, what’s next’ influence, but one that is with you every minute of every day of the whole of your life.

It would be interesting to know how many people today (outside of Alexander Technique students) take this approach to life; or to any small segment of their life. And how many people are even aware of the concept. It’s not taught in schools. Certainly it never entered my head before I started lessons. But if you are prepared to keep reaching, the boundaries keep moving, stretching and expanding. You start to aim for things you didn’t even know were possible, because part of the process is finding out what ‘possible’ is.

My colleague, Mark Josefsberg(*), has nailed it very neatly in what he tells his students:-

Go for slow, never-ending improvement.

I like that.

(*) ; comment via FaceBook – thanks, Mark!
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