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‘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
There is are some common mis-conceptions that Alexander Technique lessons are about improving our posture, or that we learn to sit and stand with a straight back, or that we learn some exercises. Another misconception is that the Technique is a form of relaxation exercise but FM Alexander himself 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
It is true that many people become more poised when taking Alexander lessons but these changes are the result of learning to think differently about the way we approach activities. Alexander realised that the most important thing was how we do things, because this influences the functioning of our whole body. 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 simple tasks, so that we can let go of old habits of over-use and mis-use and allow our bodies to move more freely. We then begin to transfer this learning to more complicated activities in our lives.
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
In order to bring about any changes in the way you use yourself, you need to use your thinking to develop awareness of your existing attitudes with their associated patterns of use, over-use and mis-use, whilst performing your usual activities and during your Alexander lessons. Gradually, you will learn to associate the words spoken by your teacher, with the changes in your use and the proprioceptive sensations you experience as she gently guides your movements. 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 learn to use our thinking to give ourselves some instructions, or ‘Directions’. We do this in order to be able to direct our movements in such a way that we reproduce the changes and improvements in our use that take place in our Alexander lessons.
Thought Can Change the Structure of our Brain
Neuroscientists have been researching the capacity of the brain to change and 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 this process of plasticity, with taxi drivers developing larger hippocampi in their brains than do other people.
Greenfield also sites research into the malleability of our brains whilst playing the piano. Researchers discovered that the brain scans of the group of adults 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 is perhaps most interesting in relation to giving ourselves ‘AT Directions’, is that the second group, who were only thinking through the piano exercises, without actually playing them, showed almost identical patterns of change in their brains to the group that had actually played the piano. 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 control group that merely observed piano playing, showed no changes in the structure of their brains.
It would follow, therefore, that the process of psychophysical re-education that takes place in Alexander Technique lessons, with the process of directed thought and movements, would be likely to lead to the formation of new neural connections in the brain, as we learn to think about and change the way we move. So the changes do not just take place in the way we move but in our very brains. It is important, therefore, to be aware of what we are thinking and how we are aiming to use ourselves, so that we 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 A/T lessons and of giving ourselves ‘Directions’, in order to examine how far the plasticity of the brain shows itself in changes that might take place with learning and practising the Alexander Technique.
So much of the time we tend to mis-use ourselves so that we create problems such as neck pain and lumbago, or chronic back pain. This type of mis-use can be seen in the endearing sculpture by Martin Jennings of Sir John Betjamin, which is in 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. Avoiding the mis-use that creates such damage to ourselves, whilst still being able to look upwards, is the one of the things a 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. You learn to inhibit, stopping any habits of mis-use such as are described above, 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, contracting down into yourself, so that you can then choose 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
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.
You need to 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, then you will be wise to very 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.
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 any action, then give yourself directions, ‘one at a time and altogether’, as Alexander is reputed to have said
Let my neck be free
Let my head go forward and up
- Let my back lengthen and widen
- Let my knees go out and away
Stop and Inhibit ~ Think and Direct ~ then Move