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Why is the Alexander Technique not that well-known?

Multiple reasons, actually.

First off, students who are introduced to the discipline of Alexander Technique are traditionally not given many words by their teachers to describe what they’re learning. It’s tricky to find words to describe how you are being taken to underneath the edge of your customary perceptual sensitivity levels. A.T. teachers read a students’ subliminal signaling like an open book, but you cannot…because you’re not trained to see it yet.

Also, the ability to tolerate perceptual unfamiliarity is unsettling to most people, but it also fascinates too. Some people are superstitious that if they describe it, the magic will go away. It’s awhile before you can evoke this “magic” on your own.

Second, most students of A.T. are not clear that that they are getting a “How” and not a “What.” As far as I know, there are very few value judgments of content that A.T. teachers are selling. They mostly include how wonderful effortlessness and efficiency are and how strong the power of repetition is. This is one of the nicest features of AT – its lack of cultural value system “requirements” you must accept as a student that most mind/body disciplines demand. Where else can someone learn impulse control without being slapped down?

Also, AT people forget the big thing that makes A.T. different & unique is that it is designed to be used on improvised action. Whereas ALL the other supposedly related methods need that extra practice or therapy hour set aside for their routines & “exercises.” It’s true that if you don’t practice, it won’t work – but practicing A.T. takes only a thinking moment as many times a day as you can muster. This is much less time than, say, going to the dojo or doing yoga every day.

People most commonly assume what they feel is FACT, but it’s not. Human sensory feedback is completely relative, (remember the last time you got out of the water in a breeze and decided to get back in?) Sensory feedback is rampantly misinterpreted by most adults to varying detrimental effects over a person’s lifetime.

Also, A.T. feels strange, because whatever is new feels unfamiliar. Most A.T. teachers downplay the important principle of motor sense amnesia as if it’s merely “special effects” that deserve to be ignored while “sticking to process” is admonished. The fact that kinesthetic sensory capacity is distorted (for MOST people) is a huge selling feature that the public is NOT aware they are missing! Doing A.T. is a completely natural high.

So – those who teach are swimming against a tide of ignorance. The public in general doesn’t know how much they need this education. People have no clue how important it is to stop the eventual and unnecessary physical decline of repeating harmful contortions & unnecessary habits by mistake every time they attempt to teach themselves or perform intended skills. The public only realizes they need something when they feel pain and no other alternative exists. We need to introduce people to A.T. as a tool to rebel against their own conditioning. Perhaps in high school or middle school when rebellion is natural?

When you explain it like this to people, they get more interested and see the usefulness of learning A.T. and how widely it could be applied.

Actually, I shudder to imagine A.T. pushed into the same narrow category with chiropractic or physical therapy now that we have scientific verified proof how A.T. works on lower back pain. (2008 British Medical Journal)

A.T. is so much more handy for generating creative thinking skills, as a spiritual form similar to meditation practice to “actualize your intent.” A.T. improves self-observation & descriptive ability as well as sharpening recognition & awareness; it’s great for learning sophisticated impulse control & how to suspend assumptions & judgments. A.T. works as a template for coaching & studying it frees non-verbal social communication styles beyond childhood & regional upbringing. Plus, where else can someone un-learn what they trained themselves to repeat by mistake? Is there anywhere to learn how to substitute a “better” revision for a procedure a person now does reflexively? Plus, freeing postural conditioning has been documented to strengthen will-power!

I could go on & on…

 

I think the last reason that A.T. is not that well known is that over 3/4 of it’s teachers are women – and women are culturally programmed not to “brag” about their consummate skills, (which are considerable.) There’s some remarkable women in the field. I used to review for STATnews and found a anecdote about how an A.T. teacher needed Scotland Yard to dust her place for fingerprints after she was burglarized. Curiously, none of her own fingerprints were found in her house, because she handled everything she owned with exactly the most delicate amount of effort to do the job.

Anyway, check out this amazing perceptual training ability you can learn that is the real deal. It will improve your will, stamina and ability to get results from practice as well has allow you to avoid many pitfalls of life.

It’s continued to fascinate me for over forty years now….and counting.

 

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The desire to do something that matters in an enjoyable way seems to be at the core of learning Alexander Technique.  – Jean Louis-Rodrigues in 1982

Today I wanted to write a bit about why “Chairwork” became a classic way of teaching Alexander Technique.  Classically, Alexander Technique was taught to me by having me sit in a chair and stand again over it, over and over and over…for years. The priorities of chair work are to rise from the chair and sit in it again while being effortlessly in balance within any part of the motion.

Now that I am the teacher, I don’t choose to teach using that form as a teaching activity. For me, this was because there are good reasons I discovered later to not repeat anything over and over.  Plus, having the student choose the action was more fun. It matched F.M. Alexander’s motive to make a hobby, art or passion of his possible and to continue learning what he wanted to be doing indefinitely, despite his serious problem issues that came from his own breathing issues and misunderstanding his teachers.

Alexander Technique is an indirect, abstract discipline. It is meant to be applied to whatever you’d like to improve by making anything you’re doing easier to do. For instance, people who are far from being able to look anywhere near “normal” posture can be doing A.T.

One of the misunderstandings that students have with chair work is to mistake the content for the activity, to think Alexander Technique was “sit up straight school.” There is no “ideal posture.” Anyone can do Alexander Technique well, even if they are physically bone-twisted from multiple other injuries or chronic diseases. A.T. teaches how to make happen an intentional response to change oneself. This is usually for the goal of moving effortlessly, but for an actor that priority would be “to be in character.  To do this, we need to use some sort of physical example so it can be shown factually we did as we intended…even if that outward action is lying on the floor to take a break, to solve a maths problem, dig a hole or to gimp across the street while the light is still green.

The classic A.T. teacher’s selection of the action of sitting a chair and standing as the medium for teaching is pretty much arbitrary. It was probably selected from having limited space for teaching originally.  It was preserved as a form for teaching probably because of the tremendous respect of students for their first generation Alexander teachers.

But in fact, any movement will do for an A.T. teaching example. It’s best to choose an action that deals with changing balance. (This is mostly why rising from sitting and sitting in a chair qualifies.) Any action that requires balance to change orientation will exhibit all of the personal strategies involved in movement decision-making on a fundamental and often hidden level of physical coordination. In the tiniest microcosm of movements are the metaphors for the preferences of habit. My favorite staple for teaching using a mundane activity is walking. 

Plus, it’s a useful thing to study sitting in chairs. It’s been scientifically proven that sitting for long periods is hazardous to health. If we can sit actively with poise, grace and stamina, we can do demanding and additional activities with a high degree of repetition without the potential for cumulative injury.

Because of the dangers of the lack of the ability to suspend a goal, having the teacher pick the activity they’re most familiar with is a good thing too. For many reasons, it doesn’t matter what motion that gets chosen as a medium for learning A.T. This is because the action is merely an example, an experiment.

It helps if what you choose as a goal is an activity you don’t care about. This is because then your desire to “attain the goal” won’t be so strong and you’ll be able to practice it without intense desire getting in the way.

But it’s also really useful and fun to pick a very challenging situation for using Alexander Technique. Otherwise, you’ll not know if you will be able to suspend a passionately held goal. You might not know whether or not your intent for excellence may be playing out as you imagine is possible.

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How I came to value Alexander Technique

I noticed the difference between adults and kids was stiffness from since before I could remember. Despite resolving as a kid to never “get stiff,” I was only able to avoid a mental brand of stiffness by being open to change in my thinking and attitudes. Probably I first received this “inoculation” for open-mindedness by being the child of an inventor, who was an immigrant in a new culture. He was a wise parent – as was my mom. Aside from their open-minded attitudes, they were able to spend a great deal of time with us as kids.

I am living proof that it’s possible to never lose one’s own curiosity, despite the loss of original childhood-blessed coordination from many uncommonly difficult life experiences.

Physically adapting to circumstances to avoid pain, my having to adapt to a change of height or weight  – all these influences made my own “mis-use” pretty much irresistible. My parents didn’t have particularly good coordination at all. I needed practical ways to express my open-mindedness that worked to make real improvements in my life. If I hadn’t had them, I would probably have bitterly given up, resigning from discouragement and over-sensitivity long ago. Until I got the tools to heal a mind-body split from using the discipline of Alexander Technique, I had little chance of executing a change toward effortlessness in my coordination. “Little chance” meant that I was the victim of a thoughtless but well-intentioned medical procedure that had unforeseen lifelong consequences – as a baby. Doctors thought it was more “kind” to tie off a birth defect gristle on my ear with a rubber band. It caused me as a baby to tense up the side of my neck randomly because the four week experience was an irritant. Only two decades later did doctors realize the procedure was destructive. Children who had had this done developed random back, neck, hip and knee problems when they reached skeletal maturity around seventeen years old.

I am not sure if it was was purely the chance of having experienced, insightful parents that helped me remain open to solutions. Perhaps it was the sad experience of becoming an orphan when I was a teen that led me to reflect and reconsider the effect of my actions. In that era, there was no grief counseling (or depression medication, thankfully!)

My capacity for denial was the only tool I had to cope with grief. Looking back, I wonder if it was a back-handed benefit to be able to so completely shut myself off with denial. Because when I ready to come out of my shell to make a friend, evidently I opened up farther than most people were capable of doing.

I cannot think of any other reason why it was me who had “Peak” consciousness experiences perhaps fifty times over a period of a couple of years. These experiences of a “state of grace” allowed me to be in a “flow” state with effortless posture and energy for days at a time. Without ever having taken mind-altering drugs, I experienced sustained psychedelic effects similar to the effects of magic mushrooms. Because this was the late 1960s psychedelics culture of experimentation, I did not think of my experiences as a sign of insanity – merely a sign of enlightenment.

One of the effects of having had these experiences is I got to embody “flow states.” I noticed the difference between me when I was in these “states of grace” meant my posture improved. For instance, I could run indefinitely without getting tired. I could almost read minds by being able to anticipate where people were going to move next.

But in my everyday life, I didn’t know how to regain the energy I experienced while in these altered states. I had no idea how to evoke these special states – they merely happened to me at unpredictable times. Valuing the beautiful coordination and other characteristics of being in these “flow” states did not stop my physical limitations from showing up at seventeen. Until I discovered Alexander Technique I had the flash of enlightenment, but not the knowledge to “turn back the clock” to youthful effortlessness. Even then, I thought of it as a means to suspend time.

My desire for “flow” experiences did allow me to recognize someone who was practicing Alexander Technique. That one person showed me a whole new world of possibility, Yisrael Kenneth Feldsott. He was training with Giora Pincas and Frank Ottiwell’s ACT teacher-training class for Alexander Technique. I watched Kenny tie his shoe and was completely entranced by the beauty of how he moved.  I thought Kenny’s ability to move beautifully meant he was capable of enlightenment states – and I was right.

What led you to value the ability to walk the pathway you’re on now?

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Learning A.T.  made an interesting change in my sense of my own attractiveness. At the time this happened for me, I was attending daily teacher-training classes. I was learning to see postural expressions of qualities of thought and mannerisms of character in other people. I suddenly realized that others had been seeing and responding to my own postural attitudes too!

Even if they didn’t know what my body language meant in as much detail as I was learning, I had to admit that my own body language expressed who I was on the inside of me – not just my external appearance. As I realized that people were probably responding to what was expressed inside my internal character and sense of self, (as well as the fact that I was a tall, young woman at that time,) my whole picture of attracting attention from men I needed to consider in this new light. Even if these guys who wolf-whistled at me were not conscious how they could discern this information of attractiveness, that didn’t matter. I had to give them credit, whether they knew exactly what it was about me that was attracting their attention or not. I realized they were noticing how I was acting as I walked down the street – where my attention went, how I walked and moved. As I understood that, I began to be able to “turn it off” and on – so that when I did not want to attract attention, I could control being available. The broadcasting of attractiveness and charisma can be deliberate, not accidental.

I don’t think that most men really know what it’s like to get unwanted sexual attention from strangers. Perhaps if a guy is hetrosexual and finds himself getting sexual attention from homosexual men, it is a bit similar. Pretty much, every young woman must figure out how to deal with getting this attention from an early age, and it’s difficult. My strategy was to wear baggy clothes and hide as best I could, but it did not really work. Knowing more about what and how my body language projects the way I am inside made a big change for me concerning this challenge. Getting this sexual attention that I was forced to deal with because of being born in the culture was difficult for me. But with this new insight, it suddenly became an insight. I realized that attention from strangers was happening because of how I moved, how I paid attention, instead of it being an accident of birth and physical appearance. For me at the time, it was quite a turnaround.

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Let go of the wrong thing, and the right thing does itself.          – F.M. Alexander

This Zen-like aphorism doesn’t make much sense until it’s been experienced. It says something about the effect of a strategy used during Alexander Technique practice.

This functional strategy is clearing out unnecessary routines, and then noticing what happens. An easier way to go ahead has a chance to run the show, once the interference is gone. But this useful, easier way doesn’t always come forward reliably. This is because unintended “helpful” interferences tend to jump back into control.

The experience of suspending customary routines and patiently noticing what is going on afterward is a skill that takes practice. The default ease of the Primary Control principle that can emerge is not another trainable habit replacement. Instead, the move a person can make without routines is always a slightly different attentive response. The advantage is it’s a response that can be most appropriately tailored to the suspended goal at hand – and this can indirectly result in a discovery, a consolidating insight or a sense of Flow.

To tolerate this lack of predictability, a student could use a bit of reassurance that “there is a method to the madness.” It is OK to hang out and pay attention, without knowing what’s going to happen next.

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Using the goal to substitute new improvements to develop his vocal skills, Alexander observed himself. It appeared that his own problems with voice loss starting in a backward and downward movement of his head. He observed that shortening the head back or down creates unecessary tension that affects the entire body and its’ quality of movement. This habitual movement was similar to the movement a turtle can make, in the motion of retracting the head towards the shell.

F. M. Alexander concluded that the orientation of the head in relation to the body determines the quality and successful response of how all other intended bodily motion may occur. The head is a steering key to bodily movement. The head moving away from the body allows the whole body to expand in stature, and to be ready to move easier in any direction.

Alexander observed that once this pattern of head retraction went into action, it was very difficult to influence. So he decided to back up and make the improvement with the first motion that initiated action. He traced the origin of motion to a head movement. He wondered if he could solve his voice loss problem by moving in the opposite direction from his usual habitual preparation as he began to speak. In Alexander’s case, this opposite direction of improvement was slightly away from the body and tipping slightly forward, which he described as “Forward and Up.” This sort of movement counteracted what is now known as a startle reflex.

After coming up with some issues carrying his intentions into action, Alexander found eventually that he could counteract his habit of pulling his head down into his neck. Starting the action in this new way alleviated the pressure on his voice. Counteracting habitual self-imposed limitations provided Alexander insights about the qualities of motion related to his suspended goals of being a better speaker.

The eventual success of Alexander’s hypothesis and the commonality of observing this same pattern in other people led him to establish the importance of the head as an axiom about movement initiation. The head moving away from the body allows the whole body to expand in length. Inspired by Rudolph Magnus idea of central control in animals, Alexander called this principle primary control. Primary control works in action – whether for good or otherwise.

Later, other Alexander Technique teachers used additional terms to encourage and mark the importance of this head movement, because specific descriptions can be an advantage. Alexander’s first graduate of this first training course, Marj Barstow, felt it was important to describe quality of motion as being “delicate” and originated the phrase: “The head moves, and the body follows.”

Most of our habits interfere by superceding the primary control response as a special exception. In most adults, so many special exceptions have been put into place that these pull in opposing directions, often firing off simultaneously. The teacher helps the student to become aware of these routine interfering patterns in order to inhibit them and regain control against conflicting automated habitual responses.

The other special action Alexander found helped to undo the coercive power of routines was to “Direct.” This special term of “Directing” means to suggest the thought of a constructive means without overtly performing the action. Through experimentation, Alexander discovered the fact that movement preparation occurs long before the person is aware they are about to move. This agrees with brain science findings done a hundred years later.

The suggestion of thinking about primary control while moving achieves many advantages. Most important, this ‘Directing” allows a minimal tonus of the neck musculature, so that the head balances freely on top of the spine, rather than locked in a certain position. This freedom of balance allows the torso and spine to respond by slightly expanding. That is exactly how and why Alexander Technique has gained a secret reputation for expanding height in adults and preventing height loss during aging.

This is a reprint of a definition of Primary Control I wrote today for the excellent wiki attended by Lutz at:

http://alextech.wikia.com/wiki/Primary_control#

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Language is an encyclopedia of ignorance. Words and concepts become established at a period of relative ignorance – which each period must be, compared to the subsequent period. Once the perceptions and concepts are frozen into the permanence of language, they control and limit our thinking on any subject because we are forced to use those concepts. – “I Am Right – You Are Wrong” by Edward de Bono, one of his 80+ books on creative thinking

How do you go about extracting concepts from literal experiences that are “stuck” into a already-assembled package?

Decades ago, before I had really learned to write, I was assigned the job of describing Marj Barstow’s new innovations about teaching Alexander Technique to groups. It was quite a difficult job for many reasons. Learning Alexander Technique occurred on many levels for a student – everyone was located along a continuum of the learning process – but this process of learning the subject was not linear…and everyone followed a different pathway.

To complicate this, my teacher was also quite literal, very specific and a superb editor. She was so much of an editor, she couldn’t write for herself. There was something wrong with everything because it didn’t contain the whole. So my job became to write, write, write and allow her to cut up whatever I had written to shreds…and go back and write some more, undaunted. To complicate matters, nobody else but the founder had written about his own driving conceptual & innovative principles, although everyone acknowledged their importance who had experienced the power of his teaching. It was a little like daring to describe what nobody else would touch.

Since I knew that compiling was a much easier job than the simplifying of concepts that I really needed, I started out by collecting selected “impressions” my teacher’s students had written to her. There were interesting quotes from people that I selected, assembled and grouped so they “flowed” in topic. The sequence of the topics were arranged to match my teacher’s introductory presentation sequence – because they had to posses some sequence. At the time, it seemed to be an arbitrary selection of deciding what quote should follow the next. The learning process and application of the skills of Alexander Technique was so subjectively circular. What organization would be best for introductory teaching?

My attempts were widely distributed among her students for feedback. The acknowledgment came back from her more experienced students: the sequence I stumbled on was the same one they had been effectively using in action to teach others. So, now I had a sequence to present content (that I had arranged so “arbitrarily”) and it had turned out to be in agreement with what others who did not write had learned.

Now I was ready to write a “concept synopsis” where each topic changed into the next. To simulate the out-of-sequence form of learning, I split the conceptual chapter headings from the raw quotes and added some experiments for examples. The idea of a tri-sectioned book emerged to allow the information to be read out of sequence as well as in sequence.

the cookbook style thing, divided in three separate books bound together into one book was funny to read in practice. It frustrated people who wanted to read it in sequence.

So – that was how I took one very complex subject that didn’t have a conceptual organization and simplified it.

Hope that my story from my experience in Alexander Technique inspires for you how to extract concepts from literal experiences and express them successfully in words.

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