Not Merely Sit-Up-Straight School

One way to start teaching about the Alexandrian ideals of “use” is to give people an appreciation of it. I got a suggestion to have people watch each other move and see if they can describe each other’s posture. Compare “good” to “bad” use. Maybe people can learn to spot and admire “good” use, for instance in favorite sports players and young children.

However, there is the problem with this approach. Most people who are unschooled in Alexander Technique will miss the obvious indicators that we Alexandrians have learned to spot at first. How would someone actually learn these indicators of beautiful, effortless motion?

How do you give people who have never thought about this before any idea of WHY the features an Alexander teachers point out are notable ones? At first, they don’t see anything that stands out for them when they look. They can’t understand at all why you’re making a big deal out of it. Certainly most people know that kids move like kids; when they grow up and their bones grow into place, then they look like adults. In the middle they look like truculent teens. So what?

If you show them the differences between Alexandrian ideals of “good” and “bad” use, they will probably see the difference eventually. So what? Will being able to spot those differences be useful to them in improving their own coordination?  Probably these students will assume they now have a new standard to strive for in their old same ways of over-doing. I would say that the Alexander teacher has failed to give their students much of anything useful, other than a reason why they should come back for more lessons.

The challenge as an Alexander teacher is to figure out how to give your pupils a clue how to sense improved use while being on the inside of themselves, without being able to attribute the change to the teacher’s “magic” hands.

The problem as I see it comes from, traditionally, that Alexander Technique has been taught using British standards of culturally implied opposites. Alexander teachers have been trying to teach paradoxes by pointing at what is not there. It would help if A.T. teachers thought more often about how prevailing cultural assumptions are a factor in their teaching skills.

Of course, there are philosophical reasons for using this approach. As a person learns how to prevent the routines that constitute their misuse, the “good” use that is present underneath all those habits and compensations will emerge as if by itself. This mark of “do-less-ness” should be a prominent experience of any Alexander Technique lesson.

Adding to the teacher’s bag of tricks about how to communicate what you, as an A.T. teacher, have to offer is a tremendous advantage. If all you can do as a teacher is to merely point to what is not there, and your students can’t see it in the first place – well – you could use more avenues for communication.

Most people in a state of misuse will just repeat themselves, over and over, when what they are doing does not work. Many Americans have a bad reputation because when they travel abroad and find out the person does not speak English who they want to communicate to, Americans merely talk louder as if the person must be deaf. In the Alexander Technique field, we have a word for this which is “End-gaining.” All mistaken reactions are a form of end-gaining.

However, I think inadvertently, end-gaining is what many A.T. teachers are guilty of doing by not doing enough creative thinking for the benefit of their students about how they can be learning faster and easier. When you’re the teacher, why only mimic the way you have been taught when you teach?

Well, one good reason would be preservation of the purity of what is Alexander’s work. There is certainly enough about Alexander’s Technique that deserves to be preserved. As he stated, F.M. Alexander meant for his line of work to be constantly improved.

Learning time is certainly a feature that could use improvement. The way A.T. has been traditionally taught, pupils are just supposed to get it from a teacher pointing at what they want a pupil to do and indicating…see that? The answer for the pupil might be, “No, I don’t see that. See what?” Then the teacher works with them again. Pointing at their improved use the teacher again asks, “Get this?” The student says “Get what?”

Part of the reason Alexander teachers have so much trouble teaching is that what they have to offer is …NOTHING!!! They are teaching a learning process that results in a lack of effort. The public doesn’t get that this “Nothing” is what is valuable. People want to “DO SOMETHING” to get whatever the benefits are they have been told is possible to get by learning Alexander Technique.

It would be an advantage to work with this assumption rather than against it. Perhaps if a teacher could spell out the steps that contain what TO DO in the positive that actually works for people to learn to sense these things for themselves – then they would learn faster?

How to design these experiments?  That’s where your creative thinking ability comes into play. You need to make it safe to conduct the experiment, so when unpredictable things happen it won’t have a destructive effect. You need to encourage people to laugh, because people are more willing to take on challenges and feel daring & courageous when they are amused and curious. Both teacher and student need to establish a priority of criteria to evaluate their success. Then they can know if their experiments worked or not.

If these experiments do work to improve your student’s use, (certainly a student being able to sense subtle differences in their own use would be a benefit,) the teacher would continue using that approach. If pupils misunderstand the teacher, that strategy would be dropped. More brainstorming for discovering other means to communicate what the teacher has to offer would be in order.

There is no use for blaming pupils for not understanding the teacher. This is the frustration from their teachers that many traditionally trained AT teachers had to endure forty years ago.

So – now we have it defined: the obstacle is that the public will go after their new appreciation of “good” use in the same old ways. How can we as teachers really update these old ways of approaching new means? As teachers we do not want “Good” use to be just a different carrot that learners will lead themselves astray with. How do we teachers change that?

Granted that the Alexander community finds that people nowadays are often motivated to start learning Alexander lessons to address back problems. But does the A.T. community want Alexander Technique to be popularly misunderstood merely as “Sit Up Straight School”?

Can you think of three different and new ways to address this obstacle in communicating Alexander’s discoveries and principles? Can you think of one right now? Anyone can problem solve this challenge. You don’t have to be an Alexander Technique teacher.

One way that I’ve used to help people understand what their pattern of use is seems to work particularly well in a group of actors, but will work with any group. Humor and goofiness is a useful feature of it.

“Type-casting” Have a person who is “it” to walk their “normal” walk in front of the class. Then have the group watch to absorb those qualities. Then ask for multiple volunteers to exaggerate the mannerisms of that walk of the person who is “it” – taken to extremes. It’s quite fun to do and helps people learn what they are doing with their own mannerisms of movement while walking. Interesting because the original mannerisms of the person who is attempting to exaggerate also comes through. Having multiple people do this brings this contrast to light as a feature. People will notice the “on purpose” exaggeration…and there will also be the innate sets of Alexandrian Use underneath what is being purposefully acted out. The more people who volunteer as the exaggerators, the most interesting this gets to watch. This also works great with teens or kids as an A.T. teaching activity – and it’s pretty fun as an ice-breaker that helps explore the subject of self-observation.

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From Wikipedia.org discussion pages…

I’ve been maintaining the Wikipedia.org  website featuring Alexander Technique for some years now. Right now, it’s got a pretty interesting and rather encyclopedic tone. Anyone may edit Wikipedia, so people discuss what is on there on what is known as the “talk page.” What follows is some of the more recent discussion from that page, with my comment included below.

== Summary not explained == the line as well as improve other conditions related to overcompensation appears in the summary at the top, but nowhere else is overcompensation referred to or explained. —Preceding [[Wikipedia:Signatures|unsigned]] comment added by [[User:Stillflame|Stillflame]] ([[User talk:Stillflame|talk]] • [[Special:Contributions/Stillflame|contribs]]) 16:57, 3 September 2008 (UTC)

:Good point. I’ve changed the use of this jargon term to the more general “physical habits” to make it more understandable.–[[User:Vannin|Vannin]] ([[User talk:Vannin|talk]]) 16:04, 4 October 2008 (UTC)

Perhaps the term “compensatory movement strategies for avoiding pain” should be substituted instead of your more general term, Vannin? It means when a person designs a work-around strategy of how to go about moving to accomplish their goals in order to avoid pain in the moment or to avoid further anticipated cumulative pain.

Also Vannin asked: “Also, please explain why movement to demonstrate its principles” differs from exercise.”

The reason for not using the word “exercise” is merely that using the word does not work to bring about in their student’s response what Alexander teachers are teaching. It creates misconceptions for their students that later need to be cleared up.

Exercises are done to be repeated at will with certain intended goals. The problem is that repetition sets up a new habit, which is against the intent of A.T. The challenge is to subtract current ongoing habits, not to put a new habit into place.

What is recommended is exploring quality, direction, sequence and timing of movement in the moment, rather than thinking of what you are doing as an exercise. So even though you may be paradoxically following a procedure to invoke discovery, it doesn’t work to anticipate results before they occur.

Let me know if that sounds like “jargon” OK?

What to Do If You Get That Twang of Pain

It’s a pretty common thing as people get older to feel aches and pains. What isn’t very common is to know what it means when unexpected things seem to be going wrong with your muscles.

When an injury is about to happen, your body will send you a very handy,  immediate warning that you are about to hurt yourself. This warning is a pull a strain or the start of a cramp, or a sudden feeling of awkwardness or grinding in your body. If you notice this message and you can respond to it by immediately stopping whatever you were doing, you will avoid hurting yourself worse.

Many people believe that these twanging messages mean that the pain has already happened and the injury is already a done deal, so they ignore it. If one of these things happens to you, it will pay off big to act immediately.

For instance, if you are carrying something, and you feel a twang of pain, do not continue carrying that thing! Put it down right then without taking another step. Of course, if you are carrying it with someone else you would tell them that you need to pay attention to the twang that just happened. If it’s a situation where you’re about to fall from losing your balance or it is your ankle that is starting to twist, just fold that knee and sit down on the ground – a skinned knee or bruises heal much faster than a sprain.

It turns out that the bulk of muscle damage of our bodies occurs just after this twang of warning. This twanging really means that something is about to go wrong – it hasn’t yet, for the most part. If you stop right then and lay or sit down to allow yourself to be free of the weight or whatever was going on when the twang occured, whatever injury that was about to happen will be significantly minimized. Taking a moment to rest immediately will pay off. You may find that there is a little bit of injury present once you take the time to check out what has happened to you. If you return to the activity, that injury may get worse. So it’s wise to take a break and do something else for awhile.

Bigger and very real injuries happen by NOT listening and acting immediately to stop whatever you were doing if a painful twang of warning signals to you that something is going wrong about how you’re using your body.

So now that you know that this twang of pain is a warning that can be helpful – the only trick is to learn to make a joke of it so your friends don’t think you’re being wimpy! Taking care of your body to help it last as long as possible is wisdom in action.

What Attracted Me To Alexander Technique

I’m thinking back at what attracted me to Alexander Technique…a very loooong time ago, in 1976. Strangely enough, it wasn’t to improve my terrible twisted posture, which had to have been a very, very depressing sight in someone who was 23 years old.

I’ve assumed that the spiritual reasons that had motivated me to continue learning Alexander Technique probably wouldn’t motivate others…but maybe that’s my erroneous assumption. So that’s why I’m about share my experience here.

I wasn’t thinking about my terrible posture at all when I got to know this guy as boyfriend material. He was fascinating to me because I thought his easy posture and challenging mind meant he could naturally experience changes of consciousness. To me, this indicated the capacity for enlightenment. It’s true that he moved much lighter and easier than I could – he still does. He was studying Alexander Technique; eventually he was invited to join the teacher training class. I often accompanied him to class, and students there used me as a “body” for their practice lessons.

Still now, I often recall how he would reach up to smooth away the crink in my forehead that I didn’t realize I was doing to myself. For not having that line in my forehead thirty years later, I still quite often feel affectionate gratitude towards him, even though we only spent nearly four years with each other. What a wonderful gift to have given someone!

What convinced me to continue to study and train to teach A.T. on my own and what made it fun was the attraction of being able to change my own consciousness. AT didn’t use the coercion of an Iron Will to affect change, but something else. Mysteriously, indirectly this something else made my analytical ego attachments go away and my sense of wholeness would return.

These all-points-awareness experiences were a signature state of my Alexander Technique lessons. The potential in me that they could evoke was very exciting. Sometimes I’d have a creative flash of insight. Along with a new awareness of my body, my perceptual sensitivity would ever so slightly wake up. Sometimes there would be a leap of new awareness and insights that transformed how I thought about myself, my past and my potential power to choose my actions that I had not previously possessed. My motives to keep learning A. T. were now driven by having a means to address a split I saw between my intentions and how I mostly floundered around to bring about change in my own behavior, talents and my ability to learn.

Later, I realized my whole body was a lot happier too. I wasn’t getting worse and more limited as I got older, but I felt easier, freer. My body unwound, as did my worries and my ability to fall asleep whenever I wanted to sleep.

As I applied the Alexander Technique to learning to sing and continued to observe myself and ask questions, it gave me a significant insight about why I kept half my throat was closed. When I was a baby I had been told that I had been born with a very slight birth defect; my ear gristle grew unattached that would have allowed me to wiggle my ears. In the 1950’s doctors thought the remedy of tying off the gristle with a rubber band was preferable to holding down a squirming child and cutting off the tiny offense. Unfortunately, this choice of treatment trained the baby to tense its neck. Without realizing it, I did this to the side of my neck and also shut off half my voice. Keeping my neck tensed as I learned to walk and talk affected how I grew as a toddler. I unknowingly kept doing this extra tension, accommodating and adapting to the posture it dictated to me.

Everything was fine for me as a child, but as my hips became one piece in my late teens at 17, I began to have a mystery problem with my knee. No doctor could tell me why my knee became damaged when there was no external injury; I had to seek out a third opinion before I could even find a doctor in that era who would admit nobody knew why!

As my hip had become one piece, my body was finally forced to assume the posture of a twisting torque. This was dictated by the tension I customarily trained myself to do as a baby on one side of my head-neck. This continuous reaction had been put into place in that three week period of having an irritating rubber band on my ear as a baby!  There was even a picture of me with this squint on my face as a baby that shows what I had trained myself to do in a constant reaction to this irritant. Of course, as a child, my unformed bones were able to accommodate this tension without affect. But as I grew into an adult, there came a time when the structure must reflect the cause; this time was when my hips matured at 17. Then my knee took the brunt of this posture I had trained myself to do – and forgotten about. After 17 years old, my torqued posture actually stopped the blood flowing to my femur at my knee and caused the bone to crumble – and surgery didn’t help. I still had the limp at 23 until I began to study Alexander Technique. If I hadn’t “stumbled” onto Alexander Technique, I have no doubt that by now I would have had to have my knees replaced before my forties!

All this came clear when I talked to someone else younger who had the same rubber-banding-to-crop done to their ear when they were an infant. They had later been informed by their doctor that this barbaric practice was the cause of many back, neck and hip problems for people that only showed up in their late teens.

So you see, that although I was attracted to Alexander Technique for spiritual reasons, it had a significant benefit for the longevity and quality of my health that was not, at first, apparent to me. With my sights set on a spiritual path, I did not really realize the significance of what it meant to have an operating manual for my coordination. From my point of view, the inside state affected my outside state. I never realized that changing one’s external manner of moving could affect the inside in such a powerful way. But there it is.

Sometimes a person doesn’t know what they have to gain from a course of action until they do it and find out for themselves what they are getting from it. Sometimes this finding out takes time, especially when the course of action involves loss.

When you are giving up something, you know well what you are giving up. What you may have to gain can feel like only a promise; an uncertain elusive conviction of faith or a whisper of potential. Often, you can’t have both – you must choose either the old comforts you know well or the leap of faith; because you can’t go in two directions at once. I have experienced that myself leaping into the unknown feels like a complete willingness to risk everything. In my case, the advantage of learning A.T. was a “noh”-brainer!

I’d love to hear about your story of attraction to studying this Alexander  Technique.

Why Are Habits Hard to Change?

It should be possible to recognize a habit – specifically enough to be able to undo it, stop it or substitute a better response. Why is this so challenging?

Within the intention of making a habit useful is the design for habits to become innate by disappearing. Then the next habit can be chained on, to build really complex skills. It’s hard to change what you can’t sense.

Also, the only tools we have for noticing a buried habit on our own is the desire to improve a skill and the ability to notice and ask questions constructively. Questions tip some people into a state of indecision and self-doubt. This is not a very comfortable thing to be doing for many adults, who are used to knowing a little. Spotting hidden assumptions in what is missing is a sophisticated and somewhat rare thinking skill.

Often the results of experimenting are unfamiliar and elusive to notice. We must use the feedback of our own sensory abilities, which may be rusty from disuse or absent from being over-stimulated. We don’t have many constructive examples of wisely and effectively interpreting results.

If things are going OK, what reason is there to mess with trying to improve something that’s not completely broken? People want comfort, and learning is challenging, (even though it’s exciting,) most people want what is predictable – and habits certainly are predictable. People aren’t used to noting gradual progress. In fact, instant and convenient results are preferred. People have to be sold on the value of patience and a desire for lasting results. It’s discouraging when success is not complete and immediate. Most people don’t really know why or how things work when it comes to the way they move. Most people would rather have something that sort of works than nothing at all and once you open the door on new perceptions, you can’t easily close it again. Some are a little superstitious that examining or analyzing will tear apart the wholeness of an ability, like a millipede who began to think about their legs and tripped over themselves. The kinesthetic sense is not even in the list of the five senses!

All these concerns are very good reasons why people find it tricky to change their own habits of movement. Habits are in a sense, addicting. There is a seductive cost to using habits: routines dull the need for noticing subtle distinctions. By using a habitual response, the skill of noticing the feedback of the senses becomes unnecessary and, like any unpracticed skill, it gets rusty.

I’ve practiced this skill quite a bit because I teach Alexander Technique. I have some experience in how to deal with these problems that I’d like to share with you.

A particular strategy that seems to be an effective and fundamental solution for me and my students has been to look for the original decision or thinking strategy behind designing a habit. This approach has the potential to globally change at once the many (physical) features that make up the habitual response. As the original justification or source of the need why the habit was trained is uncovered, you may practice substituting, eliminating or updating specific features. It works best if you practice on trivial points to groom the skills for the important features. This helps you to determine what would really improve things for you, and to dare to do it when the rubber meets the road. A.T. is so useful and unique because it can be used during performance. Using A.T. will steer you somewhere new and creative, allowing you to use your potential on the fly.

Once there, you may change more of the whole response pattern in one fell swoop by making a fresh decision to address the pivotal goal in ways that answer your now more sophisticated concerns and priorities. You now have a new ability to groom, sharpen and shape a “pretty good for Rock’n’Roll” skill. Or perhaps it’s called how to install and train a flexible habit that can be easily updated. Maybe you can now get free of a pervasive, insistent response pattern that always steers you off your best game.

Until you can remember or relearn exactly what that decision was, (and timing is often a factor,) it’s much more complicated to undo and change the many sophisticated and complex responses tied to your buried habitual response – because the habit just “goes off” like a good dog should obey.Changing this or that feature of how to move, as taught by Alexander Technique, seems most useful to bring yourself to face the moment of the original decision or justification for the habit’s existence. Subversively undoing the whole pattern without firing off the habit is what an Alexander teacher can provide their students. Once free of the habit, even only temporarily free, it’s possible to actually sense the moment of exactly what you are doing as you go back into the habit – when before it was all-pervasive and impossible to sense. It’s at this moment when you may kinesthetically or situationally remember what encouraged you to put the habit in place and know part of what happened that you have forgotten.Making sense of what you are facing and being able to interpret the results takes some serious, strategic thinking and trial!

Other ways that I have been able to do this by myself has been to note and watch for the stimulus that encourages me to use the trained response. While paying attention, it paid off to notice the habitual program going off, all the while suspecting if there really is a need for it to be done in this way. My objective is to spot the maybe mystery original decision at the beginning right before the habit engaged. If that happened, the decision was made in the distant past will be obvious; a more elegant solution might be obvious also. I’m then free to try it! I can always get the old response back if it doesn’t work. If I figure that I still need to use the old faithful habit, moving out of the habit after the (supposed) need for it is past is also important to remember.

Explaining How Habits Can Be Undone

Lately, I’ve had great success explaining that the Technique is about the behavior chains of building habits, which is how we adapt and learn. Building habits are what makes skill possible. Trouble comes when a person forgets the habit is there, or trains a short-sighted building block of habit, which is a “pitfall” built into adapting & learning. The building blocks of skills are usually designed to disappear and become innate. If things aren’t working out as intended, people assume they need to train themselves to do another thing “opposite” to an already innate habit they forgot that they’re already doing, instead of training themselves to stop. With repeating a nuisance, most people see how handy it would be to stop, but they don’t know the first things about how to stop.

flooded2.jpgPeople also do not realize the problems that old conflicting habits can create over time. People know whatever a person practices, they’ll get better and better at doing. In this case, a person can be practicing unintended habits that pull themselves apart.

A.T. shows a person how they can change the way they practice and learn, as opposed to having to give up any particular troublesome activity. How useful to know how to subtract what is in the way, without habitual conflicts running the show.

So when beginners want to describe A.T., I have them describe it as something that teaches how to uncover and undo innate, out-of-date habits that have turned into self-imposed limitations. Most people who hear that immediately remark how useful that would be to know. There are many innocent situations where a need to unlearn habits becomes obvious:
1. The self-taught who get into doing counter-productive foundation habits from learning without a proper teacher, or a lousy teacher;

2. Those who learn skills or movement compensations with built-in pain, fear or stress from a challenging teacher, situation or skill;

3. Someone with pain who sees the need to train themselves to temporarily compensate for it; after healing, they then find what was intended to be temporary becoming permanent.

4. A kid who never figured out their unique size and shape, or how that shape changes during growth.

I’m sure you can think of more of these situations!

Franis Engel

>
> — John Coffin wrote:
>
> > Unfortunately, trying to describe the Technique
> in language the non-student will find attractive is
> an immediate paradox. How do you interesting someone
> in changing something they don’t know exists, and
> whose influence they cannot imagine?
> >
> > John Coffin

How Far Is Too Far?

Morning yoga routine. Had a realization that I may have been
holding my body in a tense position for many years. Tried to
concentrate on relaxing as I went about the day. Noticed when I
did that, I could feel stretches much more keenly. As I said, I
have a lot of work to do in this department.

Obviously you have realized that learning how to undo what you ave probably been doing to yourself for a long time is a process that will take some time to undo, as you’ve figured out. I can offer some hints about how to proceed faster and safeguard common mistakes.

This hint is based on the fact that proprioception of the body is a relative sense. Meaning, you will feel a change in relationship to whatever and wherever you have been, rather than any factual truth of where are you and what is happening. So in the light of that, when you feel yourself out of balance and you make a change to “improve” things, you must be careful to evaluate on the basis of the question: “Is it easier now?”

The other tip that you may find even more useful is how to interpret the feelings of “stretches” you describe. I do not know what exactly is happening for you here from your comment, so you’ll have to be the judge of this yourself! Tricky for me to tell how to interpret what you say you are feeling without being there with you – which is a key element in working out what might be constructive to do about it!

I do know that as my students begin to unwind their habitual twistednesses, they may begin to feel areas where they didn’t know they were holding and tensing. Is this what you’re experiencing? What often happens when someone successfully lessens the tension and holding for some part of themselves in piecemeal, is they will feel some other part of themselves that is not easily moving along because that part of the body will complain further down. Is this the “stretch” you are talking about?

If so, the remedy would be to include that part of your body just below where you notice “stretching” because you are leaving parts of yourself behind in the thought and intention of the moves you are doing. The ‘stretch’ is there because you are not moving that part of you along with the rest of you. You’ll know you succeeded because you’ll feel easier, or you’ll feel a complaint somewhere else in your body! Which again, is an indicator you’re not moving part of yourself along with your original intention, etc. It make take quite a few repetitions of this clarified intention for it to have an effect, because you may also not be able to acertain if you did what you intended or not. So repeating the intention is the way to go – and feeling easier and sometimes a little strange or unfamiliar is the indicator that you are succeeding.

Or, are you commenting how during the act of yoga that you could feel the yoga movement stretches much more? It is true that by paying attention to your quality of movement throughout the day, you will enhance your ability to pay attention when you also focus on your movements in a special time set aside to do so.

However, again the same principle works well: If you feel a stretching somewhere in your body during a yoga move, this is an indicator that you are leaving behind some part of your body in the context of the yoga movement you are attempting. If you do the yoga movement in as the form was intended, (the interpretation of the form will obviously depend on the skill and observation of the yoga teacher with whom you are studying,) it will feel as if you are “doing nothing” special. Masters of a skill make it look easy, right?

In fact, if you do feel “stretching,” sometimes you are feeling muscle fibers breaking! I can’t say this because I don’t know how far you are taking yourself during yoga and if it is ‘too far,’ (and some yoga teachers will encourage students to go too far which I know to be counter-productive,) but generally, you should not go as far as you can push yourself, but only as far as you can move without pushing. It works best to figure how far that is, and back off and clarify what you want to do; and then experiment to see how easily you can do the yoga motion in question. You’ll notice that you can move farther and enhance flexibility over time more constructively that way than pushing and pulling against yourself and resisting – and damaging muscle fibers and then having to recover from the damage you caused yourself.

Let me know how this turns out for you!