Towards the end of 2012, I realised that I was struggling to find ways to deal with harmful levels of stress that were leaving me prone to panic attacks and fearing chronic exhaustion. I recalled having tried Alexander Technique lessons in the past and, although I had not been convinced at the time, I thought I should try again. Once I searched on the internet I noticed that there were a number of teachers practising in and around this area of North London, but Hilary King’s website inspired confidence.
Coping Strategies and a New Vocabulary
Arriving for a session with a practitioner that you have never met in person, be it an osteopath, a psychotherapist or an Alexander Teacher, can be a daunting experience. But on first meeting Hilary for one to one lessons, she struck me as someone who was calm and understanding, as well as a perceptive listener. Over a year on, it is reasonably difficult to recall how strange it is to have a lesson for the first time. I will have felt self-conscious on first experiencing gentle hands-on work, standing still as Hilary explained what she was doing and what I had to (not) do. As when an Alexander Teacher takes hold of your left hand and lightly lifts it and pulls it away from the body, the student is to do nothing: not anticipate, not assist, and not resist. Not-doing is a remarkably difficult concept to grasp and, more importantly, it relies on trust: that your teacher is there for you and that this repetitive and somewhat banal movement will change you. Your teacher will encourage you to talk about your daily activities and show you how you can apply AT to perform these without unnecessary tension and paying more attention to the moment. ‘Why not use a slight monkey position when chopping vegetables’, for example, is one of Hilary’s favourite suggestions. A new vocabulary will also be acquired, and whilst doing a monkey is self-explanatory, there are other terms that are quite baffling initially: to have a loose and free neck, inhibition, end-gaining, and more.
Mindfulness in Action
As the weeks went by though, I found Hilary was teaching me so much more than just how to sit, how to actively rest, how to walk, how to breathe. Alongside this process of repetition, I began to cultivate patience and being in the moment, and this allowed me to understand how I had been living life at an odd pace. Inevitably so, as such is the demand of modern life, to be drawn out of your present self and instead become caught up with what took place yesterday, what will need to be done tomorrow and what might happen next year. Therefore, you are standing in the kitchen hunched over the chopping board with one foot pointing outwards, in the direction of the hallway, should the phone ring, whilst fretting about when to complete that overdue report and, all the time, trying to ignore a regular pain niggling in the middle of your back. Instead, you could be doing a monkey and chopping leeks in your kitchen one April evening, taking pleasure in the task and stopping, perhaps, to notice that the days are now lighter for longer and you feel at ease. The report is still over due, the phone might ring, but this is the here and now.
Connecting With My Body
Whilst regularly attending AT lessons, Hilary was enabling me to connect with my body and the way I use and (mis)use it, encouraging me in the exploration of issues of trust in a safe environment, and gently showing me how to engage in the present. Hilary’s amiable sense of humour was part of the process from the start, a welcome quality because taking a close look at our self (body, personality, mind and habits) can be unnerving in its moments of revelation. Whilst I was initially anxious when being asked to consider an activity I found difficult, such as standing on the wobble board, I eventually realised that Hilary was not actually asking me to master the art of ‘monkeying’ on a small circular and unstable bit of plastic! Rather, Hilary was getting me to notice where and how I was stiffening in anxious anticipation of not accomplishing a task to perfection and, one day, instead of feeling that sharp sense of irritation with myself, I started to laugh. And my laughter had changed, it was no longer self-conscious or tightly nesting in my upper chest, but formed part of the release of tension – specifically from the belly. It was not like learning to laugh, as if for the first time, but remembering how to laugh with my whole being again.
Conscious Choices and Change
To conclude, learning the AT has not only allowed me to develop the necessary strategies and inner strength to cope with what life can unexpectedly throw at us, but it has been instrumental in helping me find the courage to pursue the changes I wanted but found difficult to acknowledge. It has allowed me to appreciate through simple exercises, like catching (or not catching) the ball, that I have a conscious choice over how I sit and where I sit, how I stand and when I stand, what I do and why I do it (or do not do it). AT, if embraced and practised, can be empowering. If you live locally, you will find that Hilary is an empathetic, thoughtful and reliable Alexander Technique teacher, and she will help you work towards letting go of unnecessary tension and set you up with your own toolbox, so to speak, of AT skills so that you can go onwards and upwards.
JCH April 2014