Tag Archives: Alexander Technique London

Habits Decide Our Futures

F M Alexander’s work centred on the role of habits in our lives.

Alexander is quoted in an article on Habits by Hank Wagner in Agri-View, a magazine for the agricultural community in Wisconsin. This is interesting, as farmers do not often advertise that they have AT lessons, so it is good that they are being introduced to Alexander’s work. The Technique can help all sorts of people cope with stress and problems such as back pain, which are experienced in farming communities as well as by city dwellers. We all have habits that contribute to our various discomforts and, when we learn to recognise them, we can learn how to stop many of them them and to change them. As Alexander stated :
“People do not decide their futures. They decide their habits and their habits decide their futures.” 
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F M Alexander 
This idea can be hard to believe and often we don’t want to accept just how much we are responsible for our habits and how they influence our way of life. Habits can be formed, for instance, as our response to injury, to our environment and to our own thoughts and feelings. Some people want to claim that a problem ‘is all someone / something else’s fault’, whilst others can get very self-blaming and think ‘it’s all my fault’ when they realise how we form out habits. Neither attitude is very helpful – and both tend to be habits in themselves! Acceptance, without blame, allows us to make changes more easily.
Wagner acknowledges that habits can be ‘particularly difficult to give up‘ and one of FM’s well known quotes is ‘Change involves carrying out an activity against the habit of life‘. We need to be willing to allow ourselves to change. First we need to inhibit’ or say ‘no’ to our unhelpful habits, then we can then allow ourselves to choose to do something different.
The article also cites some research undertaken by University College London into ‘How long does it take to form a habit’ (2009) which concluded that it takes 66 days to form a habit that can be performed automatically. Thinking about the process we go through in AT lessons, that is a lot of saying ‘no’ to old unhelpful habits and ‘yes’ to allowing new habits to take their place. This may help explain to students at least one reason why Alexander lessons are not a ‘Quick ‘Fix’! It takes time to change our habits and this process is helped when you are guided by the AT teacher’s words and gentle hands.

Teaching the Alexander Technique

I’ve been teaching the Alexander Technique for 29 years!

That deserves a quiet celebration….
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What an enjoyable and satisfying job this is too. I have met so many wonderful people from all walks of life, who have come to me for AT lessons and at least six of those have themselves gone on to train as Alexander teachers.
Of course I have also met many excellent and inspiring AT teachers over the years, including several first generation teachers who trained with F M Alexander himself.  I am very grateful to them as they have helped me to develop my skills and my own teaching work and I would like to thank them all.
One of the best things about being an Alexander teacher, is that I have to keep using the AT work for myself, otherwise my teaching would be worthless and I would probably end up with creating problems for myself, such as back pain.  There are not many jobs where looking after yourself is formally built-in, as an essential part of the process of working. Of course STAT expects teachers to have to have ongoing CPD training  but we also have to we aware of our own body-use minute by minute as we teach – and whilst we live our lives.
One of FM Alexander’s graduates was Margaret Goldie and I had the privilege of having some lessons with her and of working at the Bloomsbury Alexander Centre with her for some years. Miss Goldie had had been teaching for 60 years and had her 90th birthday whilst teaching there – now that’s an inspiring role model!

UEL Wellness Day ’14

University of East London Wellness Day 18 November 

I had an interesting afternoon helping out at UEL’s Wellness Day, on a stall run by STAT (the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique). There were three AT teachers promoting the Technique, plus Ilia, STAT’s manager – and of course there was Alex the skeleton!
The young man in the photo was running the next stall and it was good to be able to introduce the Alexander Technique to him, giving him some ‘hands-on work’ whilst he was sitting, standing and walking around. A good number of students, lecturers and staff kept us busy for the whole time we were there, asking questions and having mini AT lessons, which was great.
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Alex was rather tired by the end of the day……
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Alexander Technique and Anxiety Conditions

Anxiety and Stage Fright

The Alexander Technique is well known for helping with our posture and with back problems but not so many people realise it is a useful tool to use in conditions of stress and anxiety. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence of this and I personally know that it can help, from my own experience. However, there is little scientific evidence as yet to support this idea.   Some people that have for years found the AT can help with anxiety, are musicians and other performers, who have found the Technique invaluable to them in coping with stage fright.
William Hurt is one such artist who uses the AT to help with performance anxiety as quoted on the DVD shown below.
It’s not just performers that can benefit from the calming aspects of the Technique – we all can. Almost everyone experiences anxiety at some point in their lives and the strength of anxiety can range from situations when we are just mildly worried about things, through to conditions such as performance anxiety, panic attacks or post traumatic stress disorder.

Using the Alexander Technique during an eye operation.

A pupil of mine mentioned that she sometimes has panic attacks and one of the things we have been working on in lessons is the idea of not reacting to anxious thoughts by tightening up her muscles and restricting her breathing. This not only helps reduce tension but can help to stop the anxiety from building up. 
Shortly after starting AT lessons, this pupil had to have an eye operation for which she was sedated but only to the level where she could still talk – and she could still see the surgeon as he was performing the operation. This understandably lead to her feeling a bit anxious but she was pleased to be able to tell me that “When I used the Alexander Technique, I stopped myself from having a panic attack during the eye operation”.
It was quite impressive for her to be able to use the Technique so well after just 5 lessons. Fortunately, she was asked to lie down in the semi-supine position for the operation and the fact that she had been practising the AT lying down procedure regularly, in this position, would undoubtedly have helped her to remember what she had learned in her Alexander lessons. My pupil found she could use the AT during the operation in order to help herself stay calm, so that she avoided building up lots of tension and was able to keep her breathing more regular and easy. It also helped her that a nurse sat and held held her hand throughout the operation, something we could happily see more of in the NHS. 

At the Dentist…..

Another excellent time to use the AT is when we visit the dentist, where people experience different levels of discomfort and anxiety whilst receiving treatment. It can be very tempting to pull our head back with loads of tension in the neck, whilst holding the jaw open stiffly during dental procedures. However, we can use the Technique to keep our jaws more free, to look after our necks and backs and to help ourselves be calmer as we lie in the dentist’s chair.
Another bonus is that it’s helpful to have something else to think about, other than the drill or whatever bit of metalwork is filling our mouth at the time! 

After a diagnosis of long-term illness

It can be very reassuring to know that we can use the Alexander Technique to help us cope with a huge range of different situations and conditions. 
“My aching legs, though, were the precursors of a more serious, long-term endocrine condition.  My energy, memory, and stamina were affected and I had constant muscle pain. I continued with AT which helped me to cope with the worst.  Lying in the AT position made it less necessary to take pain-killers and helped me to be more calm and not to panic about the future of this illness”.
Individual lessons are regularly available. You can contact me here.

The ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ habit

Research shows the British habit of having a ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ may reduce Cancer survival rates.

The BBC cites research that indicates people in the UK tend to be slower to contact their doctors when they notice possible cancer symptoms and this puts them more at risk than patients in most other countries. As with most conditions, the sooner there is a diagnosis, the more treatment options are likely to be available. Delaying diagnosis can reduce cancer survival rates (as can a lack of NHS funding!)

The article says this is particularly true of Brits over 50 years of age, who often say they are embarrassed and don’t want to waste the Dr’s time. Researchers also suggest they still have a ‘wartime mentality’ and feel they need to be stoic. Money worries and the recession add to fears about losing jobs, so many people feel less able to admit to having a problem, so it is understandable why the ‘stiff upper lip’ comes into play.  How sad – if only they could allow themselves to seek help sooner.
A Stiff Upper Lip impacts on other conditions too

Some people come for AT lessons because their constant back problems or RSI (for instance) have become so painful that they are finally driven to seek help and come to the Alexander Technique. Often they have tried so hard to do their best that they’ve lived and worked through stress, pain or illness for months before deciding to address the problem, which usually makes their condition worse and can lead to more serious illnesses and ME, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis. 
People often find great relief from their pain by learning how to use their bodies differently in AT lessons but the more entrenched their habits and the longer they have been around, the harder it is for change to happen and for healing to occur. When we are ready and willing to allow ourselves to change, change usually takes place – the earlier this process starts, the easier it is and the sooner we can feel more comfortable in our bodies. This isn’t necessarily age related. I have known some eighty year old pupils more open to allowing change than some fifteen year olds!

Don’t be so Stoic!

Most of the time we just don’t need to be so stoic (although very occasionally, it is a useful skill to draw upon).  It is important to know when we are stuck in a pattern that does not serve us so we need to stop working in the way in which we have been doing and to allow ourselves to ask for appropriate help. 

To illustrate what often happens, I will explore the problem of RSI. There are many people who constantly use computers or musical instruments and experience increasing levels of pain. They continue working right through the pain in order to meet deadlines and they stoically believe they have to keep on going, despite their discomfort. This is not a very pleasant way to live and yet many people ‘keep a stiff upper lip’ and keep working, getting caught in the mouse trap. Changing the mouse may help briefly but then the pain tends to come back with overuse – unless the way they work and use their bodies also gets changed. Far better to seek help quickly, as one drummer recently did, in the very first weeks of having painful arms.

It’s OK to seek help sooner ~ Know when to STOP

My second example is of a new AT pupil who described her experience of previously having ME – I’ll call her Mary. As a younger woman, she had been both working and attending college at the same time and was doing far too much. She also had a full social life and chose not to take any of her holiday for a full calendar year. Then Mary became ill with sinus problems which just wouldn’t go away but she ‘just kept on working’ through her illness – until she found she couldn’t walk. Mary ended up in hospital for a week and spent three months being ‘out of it’ and unable to walk. Her body had rather dramatically told her to stop being so stoic and to stop overworking! 

Mary began to recover and to walk again. She changed her attitude towards work and her studies, so that she did a lot less and did not overstretch herself. The ME lasted for four years or so, which is rather less than it takes many people to recover and this may largely be due to the fact
that Mary took her condition seriously and made important changes in her attitude towards the way
she worked, cutting out everything unnecessary and ‘extra’, which gradually allowed her body to heal and her health to improve.

Wisely, Mary has taken a sabbatical in order to avoid going back into her old patterns of overwork. She wants to stay in touch with what is really important to her and has started having Alexander lessons in order to enhance this process 
Many people over the years have found that learning the Alexander Technique can help them to manage conditions like ME, RSI and back pain, as they begin to fine tune their energy and tension levels and learn to pace themselves better. 
The Technique not a cure-all but most people find the work incredibly helpful in all sorts of different situations and conditions – it can even help you free your jaw, smile and begin to let go of a habitual urge to keep a stiff upper lip!

Leonardo da Vinci Anatomy Drawings

Leonardo da Vinci Anatomist Exhibition

There is a wonderful exhibition on at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, of Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomy drawings and if you are interested in art or the workings of our bodies, this exhibition is not to be missed! 

I have been very fortunate to have visited the exhibition as part of Clod Ensemble’s ‘Physical Thinking’ course. This allowed us, as course participants, to view the drawings after the Gallery had closed to the general public. What a privilege to be able to see Leonardo’s delicate, precise and beautiful work close to, without having to peer through crowds of people! He turns anatomical diagrams into fine art.

As an Alexander Technique teacher and ex-dancer, I find the short course both informative and fascinating, as Suzy Willson of Clod Ensemble leads the sessions and encourages us to find the movements suggested within Leonardo’s drawings of bones, internal organs and muscles, then to express those through our own bodies. It’s a very special experience to be exploring our body movement whilst surrounded by Leonardo’s works.

The Leonardo da Vinci Anatomist exhibition continues until 7 October ~ catch it while you can!

Hearts and Minds

Heart v Mind: What Makes us Human?

This is an excellent programme shown on BB4 0n 10 July 2012, so it will still be available on iPlayer for a while to come.

David Malone explores our society’s conflicting views of the heart, with the view from people with a poetic sensibility describing the heart as being central to our emotional states, whilst a more anatomical, mechanical approach sees the heart purely as a pump which is part of our physical make-up.

Contemporary research is taking place which bridges this gap and shows that the physical  heart has neurones that bring about changes, for instance in the heart-rate, in response to our empathic and emotional reactions.  

This is a fascinating programme that questions the mind-body split that F M Alexander was always challenging in his writing and when teaching his Technique. Keeping an awareness of these issues during Alexander lessons will surely enhance both the teaching and the learning experience.

This programme is well worth watching. Visit iPlayer to see it here 

One Child’s View of the Alexander Technique

This short piece was written by a young secondary school child for his Religious Studies homework and it illustrates an aspect of the Alexander Technique that is not often known by about many people, who often think that lessons are only about ‘sitting up straight’ – until they have experienced the work for themselves.

No mention of the Alexander Technique had been made by his school teacher. However, the boy had experienced some Alexander Technique for himself and he had also seen how people around him had changed in themselves, after taking a number of Alexander Lessons.

The boy’s words illustrate the fact that the Alexander Technique is a form of psychophysical learning which explores the relationship between the way we think and feel and the way we express those aspects of ourselves through the way we use our bodies. The Alexander Technique can even have aspects of being a spiritual experience – it’s not just a set of ordinary physical exercises that you do in order to improve your posture.

I will leave his homework to speak for itself.

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Uni Boat Race is extreme end-gaining

The University Boat Race 2012

This year’s boat race was dramatic and fraught, with a man swimming between the two boats and an oar breaking. At the end of the contest one of the crew, a 27 year old student doctor, collapsed and had to go to A & E. He said that he ‘didn’t remember anything about the race after the blade breaking’. The Oxford coach Sam Bowden was quoted on the BBC as saying “I think it was just (just?) somebody rowing themselves into a state of exhaustion”.
The use of the word ‘just’ gives away the predominant attitude in our society that such an occurrence is to be expected. But is this really a good way to look at things?

F M Alexander certainly did not think so and, referring to a photo of the 1931 Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race in which he thought the young men looked either ‘ tortured on a rack‘ or ‘in a trance‘ in their attempt to win the race, FM wrote:
‘Surely a university boat race should be a friendly contest between men animated by the sporting instinct…. It should be an experience of pleasure… not an unnatural struggle involving distortion and a loss of consciousness through the “determination” to gain an end even at the cost of personal exhaustion and damage…. in the long run he will defeat himself by his habit of concentrating on his end, without having first thought out the means whereby harmful by-products will not be created in the process of gaining it’. FMA – The Universal Constant in Living 1941.
This year, the exhausted bowman recovered the by the next day, thankfully. But is such a race – or even the jobs that keep so many people over-working in order to achieve ‘urgent’ goals – really worth the damage and illness that such end-gaining causes? It would be great if this young doctor-to-be could think about these issues before he starts taking on patients himself.
A young woman has just started taking Alexander lessons with me in order to address the damaging over-work in her life, that results in regular migraines and raised blood pressure, because of the tension and constantly high stress levels she experiences. This young woman has been end-gaining constantly, tending to focus on deadlines and other people’s needs, at the expense of her own health. She has wisely decided to change that way of working.
We cannot always alter the level of stress in our lives but where we can, it’s sensible to change things to make life more manageable for ourselves. What we can do, is learn to change the way we react to stressful situations so that we can calm our nervous systems and musculature, reducing over-tension and discomfort. When we learn and apply the Alexander Technique in our daily lives, we gain an incredibly useful tool to use, to help us cope with stress. One study has even shown that practising the AT helps reduce high levels of blood pressure.
The semi-supine lying down procedure is a good place to start the process of calming ourselves down and then we can gradually include the Technique more widely and think about the way we perform our activities so that we can look after ourselves as well as our work – just as in Ella Fitzgerald’s song in the previous blog entry.