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 FreeDigitalPhotos.net
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.”
http://markforster.squarespace.com/blog/category/final-version

Photo from 11mela via pixabay.com

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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 FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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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.

Image courtesy of geralt at pixabay.com

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Usually, But Not Always

93 usually not always pic1

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 

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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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.

92 subtle not subtle pic1

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?

91 where is the magic pic1

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.

But…

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.

 

Image courtesy of digitalart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Alexander Myths Part 3 – Put Your Back Into It!

 

90 myths#3 put back into it pic2

“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.

(*) https://www.haikudeck.com/mindset-what-is-it-and-why-should-you-care-education-presentation-3EvKzGUoHV
(†) Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT edition p.374
Image courtesy of digitalart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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