Alexander Technique Directions are a Thinking Tool

Some common mis-conceptions about the Alexander Technique are: – lessons are all about improving our posture – they are not;  that we learn to sit with a straight back – no, but we do we avoid distorting our poise;  that we learn exercises – we don’t. Another misconception is that the AT is a form of relaxation training but FM Alexander used to call it ‘The Work’.

Elisabeth Walker, who trained with Alexander, describes the Alexander Technique as being ‘A thinking tool to help us in all our activities’ ~ Forward and Away ~ Elisabeth Walker 2008

Many people do become more poised when taking Alexander lessons but these changes are the result of thinking differently about the way we approach activities. Not just forcing an upright posture. Alexander realised that the most important thing was how we do things, because this influences the functioning of our whole body.

‘There is no such thing as a right position, but there is such a thing as a right direction.‘ 

F M Alexander ~ Aphorisms ~ Mouritz 2000

In lessons, we spend time becoming aware of how our thoughts influence our reactions and movements. We learn to think about how we move when we sit, stand and perform our tasks.  As we let go of habits of over-use and mis-use we allow our bodies to move more freely and easily. Then we can begin to transfer this learning to more complicated activities.

Alexander said It’s not getting in and out of chairs even under the best of conditions that is of any value: that is simply physical culture. It is what you have been doing in preparation that counts when it comes to making movements.’ Aphorisms – Mouritz 2000

Mind Over Matter

In order to bring about changes in the way you use yourself, you need to use your thinking! You need to gain awareness of your mental attitudes with their associated patterns of physical use, over-use and mis-use .  In lessons, you learn to associate your teacher’s words with the ensuing changes in your body use and the proprioceptive sensations you experience. In face to face lessons, this process includes hands-on work, with the teacher giving you a direct experience of physical changes. During online lessons the teachers observations and your thinking become paramount in bringing about changes in yourself.  In this way you learn to distinguish between unhelpful habits that cause problems and the new, improved use of yourself.

Using this awareness and learning, we then use our thinking to give ourselves instructions, or ‘Directions’. We do this in order to direct our movements in such a way that we reproduce the changes and improvements in our use that take place in our lessons.

Thought Can Change the Structure of our Brain

Neuroscientists have been researching the capacity of adult brains to change and to create more connections during learning and mental practice. Baroness Susan Greenfield describes research into the brains of London black cab drivers who learn ‘the knowledge’ (the names and whereabouts of all streets in central London). The research shows a process of plasticity, with taxi drivers developing larger hippocampi in their brains than do other people.

Greenfield also sites research into the malleability of brains whilst adults played the piano. Brain scans of a group who were learning to play the piano showed ‘a significant increase in functional brain territory related to the movement of their digits’. The finding that’s most interesting re giving ourselves ‘AT Directions’, is that the second group who were only thinking through piano exercises ( without playing) showed almost identical patterns of change in their brains to the group that had played the piano! The control group that merely observed piano playing, showed no changes in the structure of their brains. Greenfield sites this as ‘an example of a thought or mental event having virtually the same effect – modification of neuronal circuitry – as a physical one’.  The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century – pp 27-29 – Susan Greenfield 2008.

Choose Your Path

It follows, therefore, that the process of psychophysical re-education that takes place in Alexander lessons,  is also likely to lead to the formation of new neural connections in the brain.  Connections created as we learn to think about and change the way we move, through the process of directed thought. So changes do not just take place in the way we move but also in our brains. It is important, therefore, to be aware of what we are thinking and how we choose to use ourselves. Better to increase helpful neuronal pathways in the brain, rather than ones associated with mis-use!

An interesting piece of research for the future, could be to study the impact of AT lessons and of giving ourselves ‘Directions’. This could examine how much the plasticity of the brain shows changes taking place with learning and practising the Alexander Technique.

Overcoming Mis-use

Much of the time we tend to mis-use ourselves, so that we create problems such as neck pain or chronic back pain. An example of mis-use can be seen in the endearing sculpture by Martin Jennings of Sir John Betjeman (St Pancras Station). Sir John stands with his back excessively arched and his head pulled right back, looking up at the wonderful roof of the station. This position must concertina his neck and will thrust the heavy weight of his head and upper torso down into the lumbar area of his back, compressing his vertebrae and discs. If this sort of contracted position is held for any length of time, or is repeated frequently, it will almost certainly result in neck and low back pain.

Sir John Betjeman – Did he get neck and back pain?

Avoiding mis-use that creates damage to ourselves – whilst still being able to look upwards – is one of the things an Alexander pupil can learn.

In Alexander Technique lessons, you learn to think in activity, so that you are able to change the way you act and move around. Importantly you learn to pause, to inhibit any of your habits of mis-use, before you act. You also learn to give yourself a set of orders, or directions, both before and during any movement, so that you think and act with awareness of the primary control. With this process you refuse to just react to stimuli by, for instance, tensely contracting down into yourself. So you can then choose how to move, sit or rest freely and expansively, all the time maintaining your length and poise.

As Alexander put it when teaching – Go on with the orders right through the whole piece, once, twice, thrice. You have inhibited the wrong movements at the beginning, and given the new orders as you make the movement, how can you be wrong?’ Aphorisms – Mouritz 2000

Keep Your Directions in Mind

When we give ourselves directions, we do two things:

  • We give ourselves some instructions or directions, as to how to be, both in movement and in stillness.
  • With these instructions, we also tell ourselves the direction in which to let our bodies lengthen and then move.

Learn the words shown below, so that it becomes second nature to give yourself these directions during everyday life. In this way you will be able to bring about the changes in your use, which you have experienced in lessons, whilst going about your daily activities. You will find that over time, you will begin to use these directions semi-automatically, so that you approach everything you do with your directions in mind. When you try a new or difficult task,  you will be wise to consciously use inhibition and give yourself directions, so that you approach the task with awareness of your use and so help yourself avoid potential problems and injuries.

Forward and Away

The sense of ‘up’ referred to is used to indicate a flow of energy up through the body, not a fixed place to put ourselves into. Elisabeth Walker uses the words ‘Forward and Away’ and this highlights the sense of expansiveness and fluidity through the body that we are aiming at ~ Forward and Away ~ Elisabeth Walker 2008.

Inhibit the urge to rush into performing an action, avoid unhelpful habits then give yourself directions. Note they are all about allowing your body the natural freedom of movement it is designed to have

  • Allow my neck be free
  • Allow my head to go forward and up
  • Allow my back to lengthen and widen
  • Allow my knees go out and away

Stop and Inhibit ~ Think and Direct ~ then Move