Timing

Let’s say we have put all this energy into learning constructive, new innovations we’d like to do for ourselves. But after spending some time learning, now we could use a way to practice whatever we can do. Designing a way to practice that works to improve gradually is key. We want to reinforce the new, unfamiliar behavior so it develops into a new routine,  so we can say we really “know it.”

But training a new, constructive habit is tricky, because our ways of gaining a new habit might be suspect. Slowness is an important tactic in designing a new habit to better ourselves. We would want to prevent ourselves from repeating what we know we don’t want to do, and this often takes going slowly. To the extent we can avoid doing what we don’t want, then our new routine will not merely be “Good enough for Rock’n’Roll,” It will truly be “Practice Makes Perfect.”
That saying is deceptive because most often, “Practice Makes Permanent.”  We need to be careful of what we allow ourselves to repeat. Best if each repetition is its own mini-experiment. It’s even best if the opportunity to experiment arrives unexpectedly!

  • There is this Aldous Huxley novel titled: “Island” where wild parrots have been taught to randomly squawk, “ATTENTION! Attention! HERE and Now! Here and NOW!”

     

  • What that would be like, to have a suggestion to experiment?
  • What if it happened at unexpected moments?
  • What if I could set up some sort of random notification to use to remember what I know how to do  – so it could happen more often?

So I went looking. I found this cute little app for my smart phone called “Enlighten.” It was made as a meditation timer. But I’ve begun to use it for so many other purposes.  (My phone is Android, but I selected this one from a wealth of others, so I’m sure you’ll find one for yourself if you have another brand of phone.)

Enlighten for android 

This little app for a smart phone is pretty cool because you can type in any sort of random provocation or saying into it. What you typed then re-arrives somewhat unexpectedly as a notification and/or sound.
(Would be great if you could enter in a list of varied provocations into the app, without knowing which one would come up. Also if you could choose the sound. But those aren’t a feature yet.)
Since I like to apply Alexander Technique principles, I set the notification to say:

“A bit freer?”   

This reminds me in unexpected moments to lengthen my whole body and make whatever I’m doing more fluid and fun.

There’s also a “temple bell” sound in the “Enlighten” application that can be set to go off in intervals that’s not very intrusive. For my students, I’d recommend to figure out how long you can sustain your attention and set the timer to go off just beyond it.

It works great! I look around and notice …how this moment is different.

 

Trajectory

My colleagues and I have been discussing how we have acquired an interesting skill as a by-product of having studied Alexander Technique…

Catching a falling knife, it’s a poor practice. On Wall Street it means to buy on the way down. In a word, don’t. In the kitchen, well, that’s pretty obvious. Don’t try it at home kids—no falling knives—especially, if you’re like me, pretty uncoordinated, at least in the past. Today, I catch falling objects in mid air—no knives yet—with speed and accuracy, the top of a carrot, the very top, a sheet of paper caught in the wind and on its way down, a fork, a spoon, the very edge of wet dish. Now, why this new found aplomb? Unlike the rest of you, I am getting older, reflexes should be slowing down. I can only attribute this new reflexive sangfroid to study of the Alexander Technique. It has radically improved my over all coordination as well. When I go into a squat in class some people gasp. I do too. Crap, I think, just how old do these people think I am? So, study the Alexander Technique, and develop your own super-powers. Look, up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Alexander Guy, flying without his pocket protector. Thrilling stuff!
– Alan Bowers, Alexander Technique teacher

I think that I know what has been happening.  Having been the former business owner of a sideline hobby making seed-filled juggling balls from velveteen, I’ve taught over 3500 people to juggle. One of the skills of juggling is judging where the ball is going to land so your hand can be there to catch it. Unbeknownst to most people, you do not have to “keep your eye on the ball” to be able to do this extraordinary skill of being there to catch something… You only need to spot the arc of theATprojectilePath ball in a glance. Otherwise, juggling would not be possible.

It works a bit like this rather scientific-like illustration…

However, there’s more to how this skill ended up in the pocket of those who study Alexander Technique.

Stand up, (you’ve been sitting awhile anyway, haven’t you?) Stick your fingers in your ears. Imagine the top of your spine ending there. Now, look up and feel how your head pivots at the point near where your fingers are pointing to.  Nod forward, as if you’re saying, “Yes.” Then look up again and allow the back of your head to drop down as you face comes up. Really look up, check out the ceiling. Now, nod “Yes” again. Now think about the moment around the tip top of the arc . Can you feel your balance changing in the rest of how your body responds to your head moving across that arc?

Now, isn’t that head nod that changes your balance sort of like the trajectory of an arc that a ball follows?

Like a ball arc, the greatest force that goes forward happens at the top of the arc. With the body’s capacity to move, around the top of the arc is the best time to initiate another action, such as to take a step or move your arms.

My Alexander Technique colleagues and I all agree that the top of the arc as heads are moving at the top of the spine is when it’s easiest for a body to go forward into action. As a group of Alexander Technique teachers, we don’t collectively advise head-nodding every time someone moves! This experiment is a short-cut example that you can try out that may work to illustrate this phenomena that we term, “Primary Control.”

When I teach people to look up and nod their heads, later I am careful to show how it’s practice can become more subtle. Eventually it remains as a “faded signal” of pure imaginative intention, timed at the moment just preceding any action. Faded signaling means in this case that the action of looking up and nodding forward is intentionally faded to the point where the actual movement is only a thought, not any overt action such as looking up and nodding forward as it was for beginners.

You’ll be able to sense this in your own body as your head moves over the point of balance if you’re able to pay attention to subtle changes. If you spot it, your balance will change in a sort of listing movement, (unless you’re so set in your ways that you’re a stalwart against any movement. It’s most obvious to perceive while standing.) The “listing” means you can go into action with a very poised ability to move lightly, as if your capacity to move were the clutch of a car that must be skillfully engaged before the accelerator is applied to “GO.” If you can’t sense this listing, try standing against a wall having your sleeve brushing the wall; perhaps you’ll be able to sense your own body movement as a skin sensation.

So – my theory is that because Alexander Technique teachers are in the business of paying attention to this crucial moment to go into action as a discipline, this is why Alexander Technique teachers have found themselves able to catch falling items without having studied that specific skill.

Their judgment of the arc has become incidentally educated to be able to predict the quality of movement of other items besides the way bodies move, as if by magic.  Good job!!

I was the total klutz when it came to sports involving catching balls. Now, I grab them out of the air. Every time I catch a set of keys, my husband says “How did you do that?” The answer can only be Alexander Technique! – Robbin L. Marcus, Alexander Technique teacher

Uphill

Getting Past the Ruts
Getting Past the Ruts

ANOTHER TRUE STORY: BIKE RIDING UPHILL

Pedaling up to the stop sign, with my newly repaired 5-speed bike, I was thinking of walking. My legs were tiring fast, even though low gear was finally working. I couldn’t help but think, “Here’s a great time to apply somebody else’s bright ideas. Whatever I’m doing, there’s room for vast improvements before the top of the hill. I think I’ll use Alexander Technique right now.”

WHAT’S GOING ON: WATCH WITHOUT JUDGING
Resisting my urges to adjust and compensate instantly (I’d already tried that) or lashing out at myself for being obviously “out of shape,” (I hadn’t done any real exercise in much too long, which is why I repaired the bike,) I only heard myself panting. I knew the more articulate I could be about myself, the more useful data I’d have to work with and change around. I paid attention again without changing what I was doing. Twenty strokes later, I noticed I was moving in a series of stroke! stroke! encouragements, timed on each pedal’s downswing. Gasping for breath, I was tipping my head back, locking my neck and back to lever my weight against the unsuspecting pedals. You guessed it, the pedals were winning.

HURTLING HEAD FIRST
Eager to apply Alexander’s bright idea that we begin interfering with our innate effectiveness by moving head first, I wondered: Would it be possible, right now on this here hill, to resist my way of locking my neck and back that I thought I must do to avoid falling over? Possibly to definitely convince myself that this was the culprit, I exaggerated the very motion I didn’t want. Yup, I didn’t want to do that. So far, I felt as if I HAD to brace myself in order to apply what I thought was the ample amount of “strength” I imagined would get me up the hill. Did I really have to?

NEW MAY FEEL STRANGE
To see if it would make any difference, I decided to choose the moment I went to stand up on the pedal as the point where I would move as easily as I could head first. I knew I did something different because something unexpected happened. “AHA!”, I realized, “No wonder the muscles in my legs are just getting tighter and tighter”. My mind, with its crazy encouragement regimen of stroke!, is really telling my legs to tighten!, tighten!, without giving them any chance to spring back into their lengthened range of motion. And – the length of my muscles were rapidly losing my resiliency because of what I was doing. No wonder I was getting tired fast.

PARADOX OF STROKE! VERSUS PAUSE.
This discovery suggested the reversal of my timing techniques. I used a more purposeful, and less predictable sense of determination to really carry out the new accent on my timing. I had to re-decide to not let my habit sneak in…while I continued to move in my new way with my head leading. It took another twenty strokes before I could think and move how I wanted. (That isn’t a whole long time, but I had changed my habits like this before and I knew how insistent habits are.)

HERE’S WHY IT WORKED
Pretty soon the stroke! stroke! I’d thought was the only way up the hill turned into rest ~ rest ~ rest, accented on the leg that should be doing just that. Surprise, surprise, paying attention to the pausing rest let the stroking part take care of itself. Wheeeee! I found myself up the hill in no time, through the worst part of the hill was near the top of the uphill curve. It took much less time to think through and do everything, than it did to read it here. The cars passing me didn’t notice me doing anything weird at all, unless, riding all the way up the hill on a heavy 5-speed, was funny. I was, after all, grinning.

Evaluate Conclusions

This post is part of a series called NAMED.  Seeking a way for my students to remember the steps of how to use Alexander Technique, I came up with a simple word they could remember to help jog the steps. The letters of the word stand for each of the steps

N…notice – Started on April 4th, 2012, with points for self-observation

A…ask – Explored the “A” part of the mnemonic – on April 6th, 2013

 M…move  –  Read more about experimental moves on April 11th, 2013

E…evaluate – This post explores how to get results from interpreting our experimenting – in three parts: For What Purposes? Standards and Timing  and this post on evaluating conclusions

D…direct – also a three part explanation: Avoid Mistakes, Interrupting Routines and Clearing Sensory Feedback

Evaluate the Conclusions

Once results are obtained after conclusions are made, it’s tempting to file them away so they can be recalled using familiar retrieval memory skills. We will attempt to “evoke” the results with such techniques as repeating “magic words” or sorting. It makes sense to the brain that content and information that we “know” works in this manner, with producing the “right answer.” After all, schooling groomed this memory retrieval process during our education.

Performance ability is a different animal. Because many unique situational factors and chains of skills that got built must be taken into account as we perform, the process followed will determine our success. It’s not a matter of memory, but a matter of training.
Follow an old process, and you’ll get familiar results. For new results, we must follow the newer processes – and this  takes courage to do what’s unfamiliar and time for training and practice of a new way when the new process is an unfamiliar one. To build a bridge between our old knowledge and our new experience so we can remember it, we need to note similarities – without discounting the uniqueness of the new experience.

It also takes a strange ability for abstraction and paradox.  The “how” seems too abstract to repeat, because the discovery was so…funny. But what makes us laugh at not being able to “get it” when it seems so obvious now –  that is the pathway to new and exciting territory.

Evaluate – Standards and Timing

This post is part of a series called NAMED.  Seeking a way for my students to remember the steps of how to use Alexander Technique, I came up with a simple word they could remember to help jog the steps. The letters of the word stand for each of the steps

N…notice  On April 4th, 2012, starting with points about self-observation

A…ask  Explored the “A” part of the mnemonic – on April 6th, 2013

 M…move    Read more about experimental moves on April 11th, 2013

E…evaluate  This post explores how to get results from interpreting our experimenting – in three parts!

D…direct

 

What Standards?

Falling short of meeting our standards means they run ahead of our abilities – isn’t that the way it should be? When applying conclusions, it’s constructive to note incremental progress and to re-determine our “north star” headings. How constructive is it to discount incremental progress merely because collectively, tiny improvements fall short of ascending aspirations of potential excellence? Standards and tastes will tend to accelerate and rise ahead of whatever progress has been currently mastered. Especially, artistic standards apply eternally changing social fashions.

Judgment and offering opinions has become so popular of a social pastime that there is a danger that destructive standards will get applied indiscriminately. Danger and the violation of social mores are actively sought out, because the social media has learned that creating drama and intrigue attracts people’s attention.

Devil’s advocacy has become the social acid test that was originally intended to drive improvement, making it “bullet-proof.” However, the ability to generate improvements can shut down when criticisms are applied, which are designed to attack, not build or develop solutions. This is an important reason to apply criticisms after experimentation. Nascent results need potential solutions applied to them. Fledgling ideas and new experiences and skills need to be developed and shaped by vision and aspirations.

When to Evaluate Determines Results

The timing of when to evaluate results determines the ability to note and sort into certain categories of success or failure. Having results is the important part that needs to precede evaluating. If you do the evaluation before you’ve done the experimenting and gotten some sort of result, you’ll most likely notice habitual factors. This is because habits running the show operate as a default condition.

The secret is doing an evaluation after moving differently to experiment is much more likely to lead to making an unexpected discovery. If you cannot verify that you did indeed make a move in a different way, then you can’t expect different results.

The reverse is also true: different results come from doing things using a different way. Uncovering the differences means the results can be repeated. Being a better observer during experimenting will allow these differences and new skills to come forward in further experiments.

Move

This post is part of a series called NAMED.  Seeking a way for my students to remember the steps of how to use Alexander Technique, I came up with a simple word they could remember to help jog the steps. The letters of the word stand for each of the steps.

N…notice   This series was started on April 4th. 2013

A…ask    This post explores a bit the “A” part of the mnemonic.”Ask.”

M…move

E…evaluate

D…direct

MOVE!
Once you’ve got some observations and have asked some questions, it’s time to conduct the experiment.

You’ve probably got some ideas what might be a better way to accomplish the goals you have in mind. What we’re talking about here is how you might move to put these goals into action where the rubber meets the road…how you walk your talk, so to speak.

The usual way to accomplish goals is to become urged on to do so. This is a fine strategy when tiredness or overcoming resistance is a factor. But what if those are not the issue? Does urging help when there there is plenty of motivation, (maybe too much of it) – so much desire to succeed that the person is beginning to overdo, to fall over themselves or freeze up? What happens when there is so much value riding out an outcome? For instance, how can that experienced pool shark miss that “easy” shot merely because of the pressure of it meaning winning a tournament award?

Conducting an experiment means you’ve never done it before. You’re not urging yourself on to keep going, you’re urging yourself to dare to metaphorically jump off a cliff while paying attention.

In order to learn any skill reliably, it takes practice. Practice when the pressure is off, and when the pressure is on you’ll have much more of a chance to put it into action at a crucial moment.

So the first ingredient for conducting an experiment is to make it safe for yourself to take chances. Try to put in place various guarantees on personal safety, social consequences, to take responsibility for other people’s possessions and other concerns you might need to minimize risk or loss. Find the smallest chunk that doesn’t make the alarms go off that engages the habit.

Instead of substituting one “better” set of procedures for a “worse” out-dated ones, I’m going to suggest that you merely stop doing the outdated ones and see what happens. Perhaps you do not need the put in place any other substitutions.

Stopping what you had been doing that was leading you where you did not want to go is the first step – and sometimes the only step needed for improvements to arise spontaneously.

Give it a go!

Giving Up

It’s tricky to perceive what’s going on with thought and actions, because everything happens at once – and fast.

You have done it a million times. The most familiar way to suspend what you do not want is to do something else. Fire off another cue and change the channel. Time to go on to the next thing.  Once people get a cue, their urge to respond to it is very strong – hopefully strong enough to face down continuing to do the previous routine.  Brrrrring, the phone rings. Pooof! Stimulus for new behavior. A person can be SCREAMING; their phone rings and suddenly, this tiny, sweet, polite “Hello” voice comes out. They were trained by the bell to offer a new behavior. This is the mind’s superb recognition system in action.

People know that changing from one action to another works. The thinking strategy here is to install a new habit to take the place of the old one, and fire off the next trigger.

But – what happens when the previous state of mind gets in the way of the next? It acts like a problem with inertia – hard to start the ball rolling, and hard to stop it. The person picks up the phone call and they growl at the caller on the phone instead of being civilized. Even though the person on the phone doesn’t deserve it or they may take the insult personally, the previous mood or attitude of the person who answered runs over into the next activity. The poor caller is guilty by association of their bad timing.

This spill-over also happens quite innocently when training oneself to do a skill.  There is learning the intended skill… Also comes extra, unnecessary things done during the training process. These get accidentally get trained into the skill along with what is intended.

So, self-control would be handy, but too much control can be too heavy-handed. In the tiny moments most people witness themselves doing what they don’t want to do, they immediately change what they’re doing as a reaction to the witnessing. They want to “fix things” immediately – fix whatever is happening that they deem is “Wrong or Bad”.

Policing yourself is firing off the behavior of self-judgment. This is what most people call “to be inhibited.” The act of policing oneself irresistibly pops out as what is unwanted or don’t like is noted. Policing oneself works, but it stops everything indefinitely. The dam is held back until it bursts or pops off like the opening a soft drink that’s been shaken. The issue becomes a vicious circle.

I like tell another story about my own sweet mother – she could not get a photo of herself that really looked like her. Each time the camera came out, she would compose her face into an uncharacteristic expression to “get her picture taken.” Something about looking in the mirror would have the same effect. She would compose her face or her posture in a funny, uncharacteristic way. It was a sort of self-consciousness many people get today when they are filmed or during public speaking. One day I tricked her into thinking I wasn’t ready to snap her picture. Finally there was a photo of herself that she liked.

How to get past the vicious circle of assuming the only choice you have is to train and switch?

F.M. Alexander invented the idea. What he invented is a method of subtraction. Rather than adding a new behavior and firing that off to replace what it is you don’t want, merely subtract what is unnecessary.

This approach is particularly effective when one triggered behavior can’t stop the next – they run together. As in when the person who answers the phone punishes the caller by growling – who has no idea what is in progress.

So, now you’re wondering, how can the habitual routine be merely disengaged or stopped? It turns out, that a little unnoticed action of change can fly “under the radar” of the unwanted, coercive reaction. The trick is finding this something to detour the unwanted habitual reaction. It’s a design problem, finding this something. Alexander teachers specialize in being great observers to find such a thing for you. But you can do a bit of it yourself by being sneaky with your habits. Use a low-stress activity, one that makes little difference. Reassure the old habit that nothing terrible is happening. Then do the steps you imagine will get you where you want to go, bit by bit. As you unlock the skill of suspending a routine and as you practice this ability, that trickery can be used as a training tool for the ability to change routines during more important situations.

When you want to suspend a habitual routine, that’s the time to use all those nasty things you have been told that you must never do. You want to lie, cheat, fake it out, make it wait, slap it down, tickle it, distract it, etc. That’s the time to be devious. Your ability to rebel, veto, buck the system, subvert the dominant paradigm… this is what will work best on re-routing a conditioned set or routine. It’s very difficult to directly fight routines that have crystallized into habits once they get going. But you can tease them into submission by fooling them, lying to them, sneaking around them. It works best if you can catch them the moment before they go into action. The best time to do this is right before the routines get started.

The first practice of learning this skill is something most people can do. It is to refuse to do the act of self-judgment. Can you sense and witness yourself without changing or “trying to fix” what you usually do to fix the problem?

It is possible to both watch yourself do what you are doing AND also allow the event to occur anyway without your interference of self-judgment. With practice, it becomes even more possible. Perhaps it is so difficult to do such a thing because nobody has ever thought of asking people to do it. Asking in a way that worked. They ran into self-consciousness, which is a form of self-judgment, and they give up.

The funny part here is giving up is exactly what works. Giving up the self-judgment works.

Stories Show Need

For decades of my life I have specialized in adopting rather unpopular and sometimes “outdated” as well as completely new “cutting edge” ideas about ways of doing things. The value that attracts me has been that well-placed effort has a greater benefit and it is of greater benefit than a massive amount of misdirected effort. Less of doing what a person does not want will creatively provide a person with more of what they do want – as an effortless byproduct. This is especially true when small tendencies add up cumulatively over time.

These ideas of how to carry out my values of “doing less, more selectively brings more benefit” seems to be tricky to present to others for various reasons. Many other topics also posses this same challenge. Of course, this challenge of how “less is more” is at odds with the prevailing values of my American culture.
The value of timing a small effort, rather than offering a huge effort in an untimely way is an extremely interesting topic to explore. The interesting part is how to determine what is the appropriate time? It also has ramifications for the health of the planet, etc. The American ideals of “more and more is better and better” is going to have to undergo a significant change, if environmental concerns are going to be successfully addressed.

There are some factors in tactfully introducing an unpopular subject. It is handy to have foreknowledge of the various debate tactics people tend to use to dismiss the validity of your topic that you’d like people to value and/or take advantage of. With their mistaken assumptions about what something IS, people tend to want to fit what is unfamiliar into something familiar that they already know.

One of these debate tactics of dismissal is to say, “Oh, that old thing. We’ve already considered it. ” (Of course a rebuttal might be, “Perhaps there is a reason why that old thing hasn’t already gone away? Because people find it useful after all this time. So perhaps you mistakenly dismissed it before you learned enough about it to discern it’s value?”) Another categorization tactic: “That idea is exactly like this other thing…”

People when they find something new, they want to familiarize it. Perhaps having names for these debate tactics in a list would help us dispense with having to grapple with them over and over again? The debate model is an overused one. There are so many other thinking skills available than debate argument, such as lateral thinking.

OK, so HOW do you address uncovering problems that people may not want to know they have? How do you delicately and tactfully open “a can of worms” for people? Part of the reason people shrink back from admitting they have a particular problem is that they would not know how to solve it if they did acknowledge it!

When it comes to new processes, new ways of thinking, new ways of considering perception, new ideas, new inventions, these problems are common in presenting nearly everything unique, interesting and novel. These issues are also present in formerly useful practices and/or skills that were historically passed up, ignored and possibly forgotten. People might want to resurrect these “tried and true” solutions when the supposedly “better” improvement turns out to have unforeseen drawbacks.

So, I asked a very successful speaker how to deal with it. She’s Barbara Sher. She is a career counselor and speaker with multiple books under her belt in print for thirty years who now writing another book going into depth about the various reasons why certain unique groups of people do not figure out how to become a success. What she is describing as various ways of dealing with “resistance” sounds quite a bit like “inhibition.”

Her advice to me about presenting unusual topics was simple. The key presenting the solutions to unusual problems is to tell stories about why someone would need what I had to offer. These stories would illustrate why someone would want to bother to learn new ways of dealing with what has been more expediently dismissed or ignored. These stories would be about the often forgotten ways how people answered questions and designed solutions that were somewhat short-sighted at a time when they did not know what else to do.  Now circumstances have changed that encouraged new ways of doing things. Of course, eventually these “improvements” that are being designed now will also need to change.

These funny situations would illustrate universal human quandaries and paradoxes. You tell these stories and everyone laughs or cries or both. They can be self-deprecating stories or about other people who struggled and lost. But the common thread, which you spell out are that people dismissed any possibility of changing these problems because they assumed “there wasn’t a solution anyway.”

Then you offer your solutions that specifically addresses the problem. This creates hope for people that possibly there is a way out (or a return to previously valued ways) for the people listening. Their frustration level is not as great as they imagined at first, because if others have succeeded, so can they.

My story comes from a playground of my distant past when I was raising someone else’s six year old. The kid had done a pretty amazing series of moves on the monkey bar built on the side of a swing, sliding down to twisting into a wonderfully elegant twisting dismount from the swing. I had seen his antics, but he wanted to show his dad, who missed his pretty cool trick. Of course, when his dad was watching, the trick the boy had done the first time didn’t work out the same way. The poor kid was quite confused and embarassed. He had just done the trick once, why could he not do it again?

So – I’m collecting stories now. Little stories. Let me know if you have a good one.

Approaching Pervasive Habits

This article was written in response to a question posed on the Alexander Technique Email Discussion Group. Although the question is about piano playing, the issue it raises applies to just about any activity. In this answer, there are some useful suggestions for any student of the Alexander Technique who is working on their own.

I had a series of lessons on Alexander Technique some time ago. Lately I have consider progressing with Alexander and taking out my old books. I’m a piano student and I have noticed that as I play I raise my shoulders a lot or keep them raised all the time. This of course creates tension and eventually pain in the arm. In an effort of becoming aware of this, I realized that I do this all the time. I raise my shoulder when typing, when writing, when speaking at the phone, when eating, when walking, when walking, when reading. What does should raising mean in relation to the primary control and the head-neck unit? How does it is solved? Thanks, Davide

I’m going to offer some (hopefully useful) perspectives about some of the philosophical challenges present in stopping, avoiding or using substitution strategies in your unique situation of having noticed an all-pervasive mannerism.

First, it’s really a great observation that you did notice something so global about your manner of moving entirely on your own. The first thing to do is to realize how much of an achievement that is in itself!

It can be daunting to realize the extent that a habit such as this has crept into your life. Be encouraged that you can change it! Of course, this will definitely take some time. If it were possible to completely stop this habit now, it would take about three weeks before it would “go away.” Unfortunately, this isn’t possible without constant attention and someone or something to offer constant feedback. People seem to have a certain tolerance for experimentation that will be worthwhile to extend. I’m sure you are familiar with this challenge concerning the process of learning new tunes and piano techniques in relation to playing what you have already learned.

Since you have a habit that has crept in everywhere and has become a mannerism, what you may usefully do now is to note slight improvements that may be celebrated right away. Strangely enough, celebrating small successes as if you were a two year old, (such as “how many moments or minutes can I go without intentionally raising my shoulder?”) makes for faster progress than groaning in anguish every time you notice the targeted objectionable shrug. (Most handy for this is a sense of humor.) It’s all too tempting to demonize a habit!

Remember there are many ways for shoulders to be raised – and what we’re after (at least, by using A.T.) is to “free up” the ability of your shoulder to be raised in every way appropriate to a specific situation. You would want to avoid, sidestep or stop the raising of your shoulder in a PARTICULAR, HABITUAL way instead of moving your shoulders uniquely in response to any changing situation.

In fact, in a way it’s useful that you have a predictable, repeating habit. This is very handy because you will want to repeat it in order to make some observations about so you can use it as a starting point. In experimenting, scientists always establish a “control,” meaning, a ground zero. You might want to even write down and date observations to give you a chance to note how much you have changed as you proceed. Perhaps make a video of yourself in action for a starting point comparison?

Asking some questions with observations concerning relative location would be useful. This would be so you may answer with your observations such questions as: How far are you already going with this shoulder-raising? You might want to establish additional criteria of “how far” by measuring distance in relationship to some observable condition.

For instance, how far in relation to your nose as you turn your head to the side? How far would your elbow move if you raise your shoulder in relationship to your leg while sitting down? How are the wrinkles in the neckline of your clothes affected by a particular frozen shrug? Perhaps choosing time-sensitive effects that you could describe would also be useful. …As in how long does it take until your piano playing seems limited and how is this affected by possible experiments aimed toward improvement?

The more of these answers and questions you have to orient yourself, the more useful your evaluations and comparisons will be for you as you make changes designed toward improvement.

You seem to have already answered the question of “Do I need to raise my shoulders?” Obviously not, but maybe that’s an assumption that would be worth asking on a routine basis, even if you cannot answer the question now. Because for some good reason you put the habit in place long ago. As an Alexander teacher, I don’t believe people train routines for themselves without a reason. (It’s just that the need to repeat them can be short-sighted when they can’t be turned off…as in the Disney Sourcerer’s Apprentice cartoon.) It would be handy to know when that happened for you personally. So you could make a different choice at the source, that would be a short-cut bonus answer to your quandry that would pay off big to be able to trace.

Alexander teachers find that timing is an important relationship helps clarity of observation. The questions including “when” are a very useful ones – When do I raise my shoulders? Can I pay attention and observe myself about to raise my shoulder in response to what stimulus? When do I bring my shoulders down? When do I notice my shoulders are up? Can I notice that I have already raised my shoulders sooner?…and so on.

There is a secret in using whatever you have remembered learning in A.T. to improve things for you, and the secret is this: As you observe and describe yourself before you have changed anything about yourself by experimenting with A.T. – you will find your habit. Observing and describing yourself AFTER you have moved or experimented with a new direction using A.T. head/neck relationship or any other experiment – you may find out something new. Simple as that.

Let’s say your original goal is to improve your stamina as you play the piano. You have correctly assumed that a starting point concerning timing would be handy to establish. When does this habit start? When you raise your arm? When you walk over to the piano seat? When you think about playing the piano?

The tricky part about changing habits is often that a gradually escalating standard for success may put the bar higher each time, keeping up with your ability to improve. You seem to have discovered this paradoxical stumbling block. To stop this sneaky perfectionist tendency which can discourage, it’s important to establish and seek what exactly constitutes progress. For this you need observations – VERY specific observations about the nature of the “shoulder-raising.”

Contrary to what you have observed – (since raising your shoulder can be done more or less of a vengeance!) it is possible to work with an intention to lessen the intensity of raising your shoulder less (rather than more) at the piano by working it into your practice time – perhaps each time you put your hands on the keyboard or each time you move your hands to a new location on the keyboard. You could parse for frequency – how often you have the urge to raise your shoulder? Location is also a useful parse: How far you seem to want to raise your shoulders? Then you’d reward yourself for raising with less height and also, sensing yourself doing the raising of your shoulders less often. (Because if it’s the sort of habit you describe, the doing of it is buried within the rest of your piano-playing routines.)

Since you have observed that this shoulder-raising starts during walking and many other common activities, nipping the urge to shoulder-raise in the bud by experimenting with it as you begin to walk or use the phone, etc. would be a useful long-term strategy. Since you’re having a problem with this issue, you won’t know where your shoulders should be. So don’t “put them” somewhere, where you imagine they “should” go. It’s most constructive to just stop interfering with them so much – so often – so far. You’ll know you did that by allowing your shoulders to “feel a little weird” (but easier) by “un-sticking” them and letting them go where they want to go, without settling your shoulders in a certain location.

What I’ve outlined here are merely procedural tips that anyone may use that follow along the lines of some of the principles of Alexander Technique. Hope they’re useful to you and that you can come back to using them often.

Qualities of Attention

Part of what you are practicing with learning Alexander Technique is a new way of using your attention and thinking. If you remember back, it was a little overwhelming when you first learned to blow a now-favorite musical instrument or when you learned to drive a car. As you practice, new ways become much easier to sustain, no matter how strange it felt when you began.

write down your wishes and leave them hereMost people favor a certain way of using their attention and exaggerate it because it is the only attention style they know. There are many variations on applying attention. Perhaps now your attention works somewhat like a searchlight or field glasses – whatever you direct your attention to takes up all the capacity you have. If that were the case, a great deal of effort would be required to redirect this kind of all-absorbing attention. The same would be true of having a butterfly-like attention span of only a few moments. Your ability to appropriate the quality of your attention is stuck – no matter what the pattern it’s stuck in.

The brand of attention that the use of A.T. cultivates could be described as a widening of the field of what is going on at one time; a multi-tasking ability. You also learn to shift your attention lightly, easily and precisely. These are qualities that most people find unusual.

Secretly, there are also more effective and strategic moments for when to apply the process of A.T. rather than just generally whenever you can remember to do it. Some people find that a little thought to making what you’re doing easier is best applied before intending to act. Try experimenting as you start moving and during pauses as you continue doing the action. The preventive strategy behind this works because once a habit starts and assumes full control, it is more difficult to stop it. So the way you start what you are doing determines how you are able to continue doing it.