- The Mechanisms of Well-being
- The Problem
- The Solution
- Rethinking Mind and Body
- How to Change Habits
- Natural Coordination - The Primary Control
The body, like anything else, is subject to gravity. All the physical and mechanical principles governing the support, balance, organisation and movement of an object that physicists and engineers work by, apply equally to it. Living ‘objects' like animals and humans are not just passively subject to this force. Over millions of years they have evolved ways of harnessing and exploiting it for their own purposes: for standing up without strain, for coordinating the parts, balancing and moving with ease. The result is a natural optimum functioning: a dynamic equilibrium, a constant interaction between the body and the planet. Note that the body doesn't just live in a vacuum, there is a necessary interplay between ourselves and the ‘outside' world. All our basic mechanisms and sensory equipment are intended not just to ensure we, as objects, move satisfactorily and don't fall down, but to optimise our being in the world, first for survival but also for sheer delight in being alive (think of your dog's capacity for this kind of elation). So when we talk about the body's natural functioning we are really talking about the whole of ourselves, our way of being in the world.
Generally, very young children exhibit this natural functioning and show us its advantages very clearly. We see their curiosity about the world around them and their sensory liveliness, their grace (coordination) and spontaneous energy – in a word, their well-being. In this state our organism is integrated, lives in the here and now, and works as a whole.
If for any reason we lose this state, our sense of wholeness and the constant interplay with our surroundings starts to disappear. Without this simple harmony the organism is forced to do something to compensate. In Alexander's words “we go wrong”. This happens to just about all of us, for many reasons that it would take too long to go into here, but we can all see how almost all children lose their natural coordination at a very early age, and how disastrous is their posture by the time they are adolescent. So our inborn mechanisms get lost and other ways of supporting our weight, balancing and moving begin to develop. We are unlikely to be aware of these adaptations since they form unconsciously and then become habits, so much a part of us that they feel natural, normal, right.
The fact is, though, that gravity has got the better of us. Life gets more difficult and literally starts getting us down. We slump or we stiffen, we get tired quickly. Our efforts to remedy the problem, being unnatural, don't actually help us at all. If we keep this up for a few years (and remember it's mostly happening at an unconscious level) our ‘way of being in the world' can get quite distorted and we may find symptoms appearing, as if out of the blue: postural problems, headaches, neck or back pain, shoulder tension, sciatica, breathing problems, vocal difficulties, and many other disturbances. At this point we probably feel our body has let us down, so we no longer have confidence in it. We don't realise we've been slowly creating this situation ourselves.
Gordon Fox, in an article that appears on the French Alexander teachers’ Association website, says (my translation from the French, my italics): "The Alexander Technique works on our postural behaviour, that is, posture taken in a wide, dynamic sense, including our attitudes, preconceptions, our automatic mental responses and reaction patterns, which are inseparable from our physical posture and our way of being and moving." It’s easy to see that if our organism always works as an undivided whole, everything that happens in one sphere will be reflected in all other spheres. And in Alexander work we discover in fact that in working to free the body from its restrictions, to give it back its true nature, we are inevitably working on our whole being. Alexander pointed out that, far from being simply physical, "it's the most mental technique in the world".
The Technique's field is, nevertheless, the body. It’s there we want to intervene to reintegrate ourselves. Remember, what we're interested in here is body basics: how it how it coordinates in order to support itself, balance and move its parts. These are the mechanisms of well-being. The Alexander Technique works at this deep level, with these primary patterns that underlie all our body activity and determine the quality of all we do. At this level the body works as an integrated whole, every element fitting into a dynamic overall pattern(1). If we can get back to letting these mechanisms function properly again, anything we want to do, however complicated, will be easier and better executed.
Alexander discovered how to get back to this natural functioning after a long period of self-observation trying to solve the vocal problems that were threatening to put an early end to his career an as actor (see The Alexander Technique Story). In the course of his experiments he found that if he managed to prevent himself from using his body in certain ways (mental as well as physical) that up till then had been perfectly normal for him to the extent that he hadn't even noticed them, and let the body follow a different overall organisational pattern, his voice improved and so did his general health. He discovered that the body coordinates itself best if it is allowed (note the word 'allowed') to lengthen and expand upwards away from the pull of gravity in a particular way (more about this in the last section on Primary Control). He realised that his difficulties had been due to his interference with this natural body organisation, and that the way to improve his functioning was simply a matter of taking away the obstacles: his unnecessary tensions, postural habits and so on. He was to say later “Stop doing the wrong things and the right things will do themselves”.
So the Technique is not about adding, but subtracting, undoing, unlearning. There is nothing to “do” in the accepted sense of the word. There is only a letting go of hindrances. So what we actually have to do is stop doing what we have been unconsciously doing to ourselves for a very long time. There are no exercises, no special movements to perform, no direct controlling of the body. The Technique gives the reins back to the body and its own intrinsic controls.
Use affects Functioning
Alexander realised that the way our body behaves reflects the way we use it, and the way we use it reflects the way we think about ourselves and the world, both as a society and as individuals.
The way we use something affects the way it will function. If I try to use a chisel as a screwdriver I'm in for trouble. It doesn't do the job well, and is likely to get damaged in the process. What if, without knowing it, we were trying to use ourselves in inappropriate ways? Wouldn't that do the same, with the body not giving us the results we'd like, and even getting damaged in the process? And wouldn't it go a long way towards explaining why the body often tends to stop running smoothly after a few years of using it?
Alexander adopted the term ‘use' as part of his basic thinking. It has been defined as “the total pattern that characterises a person's response to stimuli”. So you see it means our whole ‘way of being'. Alexander's practical experience took him away from the thinking of his time that divided the human organism into separate compartments, mind, body, and so on, and convinced him that it was actually impossible to separate these elements in any form of human activity.
Mind and Body
The concept of ‘use' is important, as it links the physical with the mental. If we can realise that our body is not an object, or a kind of machine that behaves mysteriously and independently from 'us', and if we can appreciate that we are actively using our body all the time in accordance with how we unconsciously think we should behave, we immediately see the direct mind-body link.
Alexander said: “You translate everything, whether physical, mental or spiritual, into muscular tension.” In other words, nothing we do or think is ever just physical or just mental. It's the warp and weft of a single body-mind fabric. The way you use something is not just a matter of physically manipulating it, it will depend (among other things) on how you think and feel about it, how aware you are, what your intentions are, whether you're in a hurry, your motivation, your mood, even your overall world-view – all ‘mental' aspects that interpenetrate the physical.
Unreliable sensory appreciation
This is Alexander's phrase to describe the way we can get a distorted view of ourselves without knowing it. Suppose our underlying primary patterns have been disturbed. As we've seen, that means we'll be using unnatural mechanisms instead. The body will have acquired counterproductive habits that have become so much part of us they seem right. So wrong seems right. For instance, we could habitually have a whole series of compensations, such as holding our head always inclined to one side, neck dropped forward, or hips thrust forward out of alignment, one shoulder lower than the other, ribs stiffened, breathing shallow, spine twisted, legs or back overworking and tight while other parts are not working at all, toes curled up, and so on ad infinitum. But our sensations don't tell us any of this. It all feels normal when it decidedly isn't. Our appreciation of what's going on is unreliable.
In this situation we'll have a hard job accepting what is actually right for us because it will almost certainly feel wrong. So, whatever method we experiment with to improve our functioning, we'll still unconsciously be following what feels right, and our own unnatural way of doing things will be incorporated into all our exercise programmes just as it is in everyday activities. The deeper patterns won't have been touched and our basic misuse of ourselves will remain, whatever we try to do on top of it, so we won't really have changed anything. This is the fundamental stumbling-block in trying to change habits. Anyone who’s tried to do so knows how difficult it is. Alexander faced the problem of habit and unreliable sensory appreciation head on and came up with a solution that represents the core of the Technique’s teaching.
How to change habits
Alexander Technique teaches four fundamental skills:
The major tool of the Technique is our own consciousness. We learn to be present to ourselves and the world around us so that we are always aware, conscious of the way we are using ourselves as a whole. The Technique has been defined as keeping your eye on the ball, applied to life. Awareness is that quality we possess when we have so much got the habit of paying attention that it becomes incorporated in our natural way of being. Think of the awareness you acquire as you learn to drive: it starts off as conscious application, but quickly becomes part and parcel of your ‘driver’s consciousness’, and there is no effort at all.
If we're going to get rid of habits that are getting in the way of our functioning, we have to become conscious of them. But the Alexander Technique doesn't just get us to notice things we never noticed before about how we use ourselves, it changes the way we think about ourselves, and our relationship to it, it re-educates our consciousness. The body ceases to be an object we try to manage by various means, and becomes instead the living, ever-present partner of the mind.
The body is not just the "doer", it's also the source of all our consciousness through sensory perception. As we saw at the beginning, we need to be sensorially aware, since the body's natural mechanisms have developed through interaction with our surroundings and work less well if we ignore them. The astonishing richness of the realm of the senses is often missed in today's hasty, very verbal, not to mention virtual lifestyle. The senses are the world of the present moment, of all that is perceived directly without the filtering commentary of words. Sensory liveliness is part of our heritage and it's a pity to miss it, especially since we function better if we manage to be more than just a set of thoughts walking around.
The first requirement for change of any kind is realisation of the need for it. Often people start Alexander lessons with this basic level of awareness (otherwise why would they be there?) but haven't yet recognised what needs to be done. Even if they are suffering or not achieving the results they want, they can't feel anything wrong in their 'way of being in the world', they can only feel its consequences: their symptoms or their limited achievement. Not only is their sensory appreciation faulty, it's well-nigh non-existent.
So, to repeat, we must become conscious of how we are really doing what we do. This is the second stage of awareness. We'll be asked to notice our use of ourselves in ordinary simple situations such as standing and sitting, and simple actions like standing up, sitting down or walking. This observation will always necessarily include not just observing the body within a sort of closed circuit of attention, but at the same time how we relate with our senses to the space and stimuli around us, and how we are thinking. Timothy Gallwey, author of the classic book The Inner Game of Tennis (see Links and Bibliography) on the mind-body relationship of good performance says: "No matter what a person's complaint when he has a lesson with me, I have found the most beneficial first step is to encourage him to see and feel what he is doing – that is, to increase his awareness of what actually is."
The third stage of this re-education of awareness involves other fundamental elements of the Alexander approach, described in the next two sections.
Psychologists have described the basic process of life as an infinite series of stimuli (sense impressions, both from within and without) to which we then respond. Academic enquiry has gone beyond the simple form of Stimulus-Response theory and is into Systems theory and the like, but here on the ground it's simply an observable fact that we do uninterruptedly receive stimuli of all sorts and do react to them. Mostly we react out of habit, automatically, unconsciously. We've sat down in chairs countless times, so when we want to sit (when we have the stimulus to sit) we sit down without thinking. How does that happen? Obviously a memorised way-of-sitting-down pattern is activated that takes care of the movement. We have no idea how it's done. This applies to things much more complex than sitting down, including mental habits.
Suppose we want to change a habitual reaction, one that represents an unconstructive use of ourselves, one that is automatic because the carrying out of the response is done below the level of consciousness. What can we do? Alexander's answer is to put a space – a neutral moment – between the stimulus and its response, to refuse to react to the stimulus. This he called inhibition (nothing to do with the psychological use of the word). Here's what Raymond Dart, renowned anthropologist, anatomist and Alexander technique pupil, says, fifty years after Alexander made his discoveries, about the nervous system’s way of getting good results: "The general effect of the suprasegmental structures in our central nervous system, whether it is in our fore-, mid-, or hind-brains, is to produce coordination and control…by inhibiting [Dart’s italics] useless, isolated muscular activities and combining them in purposive movements." So, at the business end, this is how good body use is achieved, by ‘not doing the wrong thing’.
If you think about it, the only place we can really change anything in our lives is in that space. Otherwise we end up doing, or thinking, what we've always done or thought. This is the place where we can have choice; it's the place of here and now. So in the sitting down example, if we want to re-educate ourselves and sit down in a more coordinated way, we will stop at the point where we think of sitting down and not allow ourselves to go any further – we'll inhibit. (Note, we are not inhibiting our will or desire to do a particular thing, only the way we usually do it). In this way we inhabit the present moment and can take stock of what's really going on. We clear the decks, and create a state of openness in which the way forward is not inevitably the one we've always chosen. We can then consider an alternative use of ourselves and work out more suitable means to arrive at our goals (see the following section on Direction). As we've seen, this acting contrary to habit is unlikely to feel right at first, so we also have to inhibit our reactions to these new means, not listening to what our sensations are telling us: that it won't work, that it's not right or ‘natural'. In other words, the inhibition has to be maintained while we try the new way of moving.
This requires all our awareness and sensory alertness, and it's this we practise steadily through our Alexander lessons as we work on ourselves. Inhibition, which in our lessons we first learn in the context of body habits, will start expanding to include our reactions to life in general. It then gives us a chance to avoid standard responses in all situations, and be able to look at the world with fresh eyes more often.
The three elements, awareness, inhibition and direction are in practice intertwined, but for the purposes of this explanation, which is following the sequence of our re-education, I'll talk of direction as following the preparatory phase of inhibition.
Once we’re in the neutral state of inhibition, we can consciously direct what and how we would like our response to be. The responses represent the 'instructions' for any one of of our habits (our use of ourselves) acquired over many years, often from our infancy. The way we habitually hold ourselves, move, react, none of this has come about by chance. This is our way of responding to life’s challenges, and we actively keep this definition of ourselves alive, but at a subconscious level. Directing is necessary and natural to us, and constant. Note that we do actually direct all the time, but the directions are mostly unconscious. Alexander didn’t invent direction he just saw that in order to correct faulty inner directing we had to make it conscious, that’s all.
So, we’re going to start consciously directing ourselves, taking charge. What conscious directions (mental directives) should we give? Directions that correspond to the body’s own free way of self-organising. We don’t need to do the organising ourselves with direct muscular control, we couldn’t anyway if we tried, we’d only produce a dreadful parody of natural coordination, which is much more subtle and complex than anything our poor consciousness can grasp. What we do need to do is really clarify our intentions so the body is finally given a more appropriate direction and a counter-order to the unconscious instructions our habits have been repeating for years.
At no point do we give direct orders to our muscles to do something, forcing them to do what we want. After all, muscles don’t work on their own, they need instructions from the nervous system. So the Technique works at the level of the directions, the upstream department that instructs the muscles. In so doing, we let the body react and organise itself on its own. If the desired result isn’t forthcoming we wait patiently until the necessary conditions are established and the result comes from within the body’s own (re-educated) resources.
It’s important to know that the brain’s motor commands (nerve messages to make a movement), conscious or unconscious, don’t include the details of the gesture. That is looked after lower down in the nervous system away from any conscious awareness. The brain only sends the broad outline of the movement to be made. That’s why, in Alexander, we talk of the head-neck relationship, or the widening of the back, rather than focusing on (or worse still, working) individual muscles, or thinking in precise anatomical terms. We need to give the body the freedom to fashion its responses in its own way.
The body is extremely complex, and unlike most animals it needs many years to come to full development. This means there’s ample opportunity for it to go wrong before getting to maturity. Many things will end up being wrongly directed, at all levels, and will need re-education – through awareness, inhibition and direction. This must take place within the context of the overall pattern of coordination and will be subject to principles that will become clear to you once you’ve read the last section on the Primary Control.
With practice, conscious directing will allow better patterns to be restored and this ultimately becomes ‘second nature’. This good functioning (perceived as lightness, freedom, tonicity, ease and efficiency of movement) will be part of our new enjoyment of well being. And this time we can rely on these sensations, as they reflect good use. And, thanks to our new awareness we will immediately be able to sense when things are going off course. We can also choose at any time to use the body however we like – even ‘badly’ – for fun, caprice, the simple joy of exploring the infinite possibilities the body offers us, and even out of necessity: imagine an actor having to play the Hunchback of Notre Dame! Even that need not bother us, since through the Technique we can work out the best means possible of conveying the hunchback without going into overdrive and killing ourselves every performance.
By the way, as must be clear by now, good use emphatically doesn't mean a series of correct positions or a set way of doing things. Good use of the body involves letting the body's natural organising mechanisms organise us.
Not really an extra skill, more of a logical outcome. If we possess innate mechanisms for good functioning, then it's pointless “doing” them, we only need to let them operate. So one of the principles we learn in the Alexander Technique is that of not “doing” an action but of letting it be done. The necessary energy and the action itself spring directly from our intentions. Actually, this is how we operate in any case if we're not interfering. We don't “do” our walking, for instance. And if in walking to the bus I see I'm not going to make it and start to run, I don't “do” the running either. It just happens. The necessary kinetic energy, stored in the muscles, is released as the body faithfully executes my mind's orders.
Many people don't realise that as far as the body is concerned you don't have to ‘find' energy from somewhere, it's waiting there to be used (unless we're ill or otherwise dysfunctional). Think of those emergency situations where the body just instantly bursts into action, quicker than the mind can react. Or supposing you're totally miserable, with zero energy, and I give you a cheque for a million Euros? Do you still have no energy? Where did it come from?
It's important to see that non-doing doesn't mean not-doing, far from it. It means being aware, having mind and body connected, getting our intentions very clear, and our mental energy going, our motivation, and then trusting the body to do what it's designed to do. It gives our actions that natural flow that can is only possible when the body is allowed to carry out the computing of all the infinite things involved in even the simplest gesture we make, and when we stop trying to impose some sort of muscular control ourselves.
Non-doing has far-reaching implications. It offers a different way of bringing about the results we want. It requires a different mind-set. It deals with the whole area of ‘trying to achieve'. It's also do with relationship, and implies that we don't act directly and unilaterally on things or people, but that we first put ourselves into a relationship with them to see what an appropriate response might be. A very banal example could be the opening of a jam-jar. If I try to unscrew it by just going at it, using force directly, three things could happen. I could open it, but I'd never know if I'd used too much strength, and I might risk damaging myself or the jar; I could find to my surprise that it wasn't tight at all and that my anticipated effort was useless; or I might not manage it even though I'd applied all my strength. If instead I take notice of the jar, hold it softly in my hands and start from an absolute minimum of effort, always keeping my hands as soft as they can be, the jar itself will tell me how tight or not it is, and I will gradually find the level necessary to open it. There will be a reciprocal relationship. If you try this sometime you'll be astonished to find that a jar that seemed impossible to open with all your strength can often yield almost immediately to very little effort, as if the aggressive approach tensed it, while the soft relational one allowed it to be relaxed. If you think this is far-fetched, you've never tried it. This example can be taken as standing for much more important issues.
In another context, non-doing is well known outside the Alexander Technique. It’s called ‘being in the zone’ by sportspeople. Musicians, actors, dancers and many others recognise its qualities: that state in which we have the greatest availability of our personal resources and the ability to act from a lucid, calm and focused space inside us, where things just flow without any direct intervention on our part (Timothy Gallwey, cited above, examines this in detail). The Alexander Technique helps us to find this harmony in our ordinary everyday life. Non-doing is also part of various spiritual approaches.
Finally we come to the thing that ties everything else together. Over millions of years our body has evolved patterns of neuromuscular and sensory behaviour guaranteed to optimize our ‘being in the world': the mechanisms of well-being. Of these patterns one in particular is absolutely paramount: optimum working of the whole organism depends on the way the body organises the dynamic relationship between the head and the neck(2) (more precisely, at the atlanto-occipital joint where there is a small movement possible, which must be kept available) and the head and neck in relation to the rest of the body(3). This relationship determines how everything else behaves in all areas of our functioning. That's why Alexander called it the Primary Control. It means that if I want to do anything: sit in a chair, brush my teeth, play the violin, throw the discus, work at the computer or just be, my head-neck-body relationship is the vital factor that will determine the quality of all my doing (and being) – stiff, tense, collapsed, awkward and finding it difficult; or free, flexible, tonic, graceful and easy.
The real significance of this head-neck-body correlation in changing our use, our way of being in the world, can only be experienced in practice. No amount of words can substitute that. So I won't attempt to explain the specific teaching you'd receive in an Alexander lesson. But the relationship itself can be described to a certain extent.
If the head-neck-body relationship works in the way nature intended, the body will be dynamically aligned to counterbalance gravity perfectly (‘dynamic’ here means not static, always free to adapt). The head is placed on the top of the spine (atlanto-occipital hinge) in such a way that if the joint between the two is free, not fixed (good head-neck relationship), the head actually invites the body physically to follow it, to extend upwards and to open, away from the pull of gravity (good head-neck/body relationship). It releases the natural spring we possess (which we have unconsciously compressed) - the postural mechanisms that integrate us if they're working freely, and make life very difficult for us if we lose this coordination. Quite simply, the body works better when its overall organisation is allowing it to lengthen and open out, not shorten and narrow. This way, instead having of a dead weight to somehow hold up we have a body-dynamic of lightness and ease. The breathing frees and the internal organs have a better time of it too. None of this needs muscle effort, on the contrary it’s a question of “letting go upwards”, the spring effect, so that the innate muscle responses can operate and take charge of handling the body’s weight, balance and movement.
There is a necessary sequence here. In the words of the great physiologist of the last century, Rudolf Magnus: “the whole is organised in such a way that the head leads and the body follows”. So, if we try to correct anything without having first got the freedom of the head, we’ll never find the body’s natural coordination. Alexander came to understand this empirically before 1900, and scientific research much later.
In the free state, the postural mechanisms can operate to organise appropriate (synergistic) muscle tone throughout the body. The skeleton achieves its optimal expansion and uprightness, creating passive stretches in the postural muscles. This tonifies them, a bit like stretched elastic bands, so that their interplay throughout the whole network holds the body lightly poised and ready for action. The body – as Sir Charles Sherrington, founder of modern physiology, explains – stands entirely through this intricate series of stretch reflexes. So, muscles don't have to stiffen in order to create stability, and there’s the least resistance to movement. In movement this same relationship guarantees a balance of the body masses so that again the muscles are sufficiently tonic, but not over-stiffened. When there is hard work to do, this balanced preparedness gives us the best chance of good results. There is also much less likelihood of damage or injury. At the same time, all the sensory equipment packed into our head is brought into the appropriate relationship with the rest of our body, gravity and the outside world – a necessary condition for its proper working and for us to receive reliable information at the conscious level. A little known but vital scientific fact.
Science has long since corroborated all Alexander’s findings, but this information has stayed hidden in the specialised publications of analytic research. Not only did Alexander, a total layman, anticipate this development in scientific understanding by about 30 years, he was the only one to go on to devise a practical way of getting other people to be able to benefit from this knowledge, offering them the tools to create a better quality of life for themselves.
1 For simplicity's sake I talk, in this text, about the muscular or neuromuscular systems. But, for a while now anatomists have realised that the network of the fascia (all the various types of connective tissue) creates the real support and architecture of the body. It's a vast system. To quote a page from Anatomy Trains (http://www.anatomytrains.com/explore/tensegrity ) "connective tissue cells and their products...taken together, form the extracellular matrix or fascial system throughout our bodies. This system is sometimes referred to as the "organ of form." It supports and protects by wrapping each muscle and organ in its own fascial wrapping. These wrappings in turn form part of an inextricable web that connects as well as separates all functional units of the body down to each individual cell. It serves as container and restraining support for the whole body. In addition, this living and responsive matrix provides the vehicle for communication between cells and even links the inner network of each cell to the mechanical state of your body via proteins called integrins." It is also more than likely that the principles of tensegrity explained on the same site, Anatomy Trains, form the most convincing hypothesis yet of how the body structures behave. Our understanding accelerates!
It has become clear, at least to me, that the subtle work by teachers of this Technique is in fact connecting with and influencing the fascia, rather than "the muscles" as they used to be understood, since the muscles' own form and functioning depend on this system. In addition, the sensation of lightness experienced by those who have freed themselves through Alexander work, could well be the indication of having restored the tensegrity principle to the dynamics of the body.
2 Raymond Dart, world-renowned anthropologist and anatomist, discoverer of the "missing link” Australopithecus, writes (1950): “The technique designed by Alexander is appropriate because it is based on the fundamental biological fact that the relation of the head to the neck is the primary relationship to be established in all proper positioning and movement of the body”. This all-important fact was first described in 1926 by Magnus. It has since become an accepted scientific commonplace, verified by scientists the world over. A present-day expert, T. D. M. Roberts, says more generally (1999): “I formed the opinion that there was nothing in the Technique that was out of line with orthodox neurophysiology”.
3 Benoît Lesage, of the faculty of medicine at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, Paris, writes in his paper on psychomotricity : "Matthias Alexander…discovered … what he called 'the primary control', that is, the dynamic relation between the positions of the head, neck and back. This intuitive discovery…is confirmed by the psychophysiologists. We know, in fact, that the neck, and in particular the atlanto-occipital joint, control the overall postural pattern by reflex loops [my italics], as studied by Professor J-B Baron (Eléments de neurobiologie des comportements moteurs, Paris, INSEP-Publications, 1982) ".