Mindfulness is a topic that has been explored in the media of late. For instance, an article in the Sunday Times, ‘Breathe deep and mind how you go’ discussed the value of using mindfulness training as a way of helping school children who find it hard to cope with their various experiences of stress, including exams and “body image” pressures. Heads of high-performing schools are concerned at the ‘alarming rise in (pupils) suffering from mental health disorders’ and there is a move to build more resilience in children. This is admirable – but hopefully people are also addressing ways to reduce some of the pressures put upon these youngsters?
Some aspects of mindfulness training have similarities with aspects of the Alexander Technique. The Times article states that a number of schools use mindfulness training as a way of helping children ‘to act consciously and thoughtfully… rather than react with a kneejerk reaction’ and mindfulness ‘has proved effective in ameliorating young people’s mental and emotional difficulties’. This is something that is part and parcel of Alexander lessons, where we learn to inhibit unhelpful habitual reactions, so gaining more conscious control and more choice as to how we respond to situations.
Mindfulness training in classrooms helps children learn to notice their thoughts and feelings as they sit quietly and breathe deeply. Anthony Seldon suggests that ‘Every school in Britain could begin this journey back to sanity and self control by introducing two minutes of stillness every day’. Whilst this is a great beginning, just two minutes a day does sound somewhat minimal.
Mindfulness in Movement – Including Breathing
One of the beauties of the Alexander Technique is that part of the work is learning to develop what could be called ‘mindfulness in movement’, so that we aim to live our lives and perform everyday activities, including breathing, with more awareness. Becoming aware of our breathing and just observing it, as in some mindfulness training and in the AT is one thing. Being asked to make ourselves ‘breathe deeply’, as some people advocate, is another. It very much depends on HOW we breathe, as to whether or not this is helpful or, possibly, even harmful.
F. M. Alexander known as F.M.) was aware of how schools and the army used to advocate deep breathing exercises and he wrote extensively about the pitfalls of following any routine which used ‘end-gaining principles‘ to force the breath. For instance his paper ”The Dangers of Deep Breathing’ (1908) outlines how this frequently results in distortions and patterns of mis-use such as ‘lifting the chest and collapsing’ whilst trying to breathe deeply, which usually ’cause an exaggeration of the defective muscular co-ordination already present, so that even if one bad habit is eradicated, many others – often more harmful – are cultivated’ .
F.M. himself had breathing problems as a young man, which contributed to him losing his voice when he was reciting on stage. He described himself as breathing through his mouth so that he made audible ‘sucking and gasping noises’. In learning how to change these habits, F.M. began to develop the Technique as we know it today. Alexander was known by many as ‘The Breathing Man’ and he helped many people become better poised, with a coordinated use of their muscular mechanisms, so that their breathing could work smoothly and naturally. This is still a central part of Alexander lessons today.
William James, an early and influential psychologist is quoted, as having stated that an education that taught people how to focus their attention would be “the education par excellence” – whilst he could perhaps be describing mindfulness training, this could also describe the Alexander Technique as well. F.M. was very keen to apply his methods to the general education of children, so that they could avoid developing bad habits that might stay with them all their lives. In 1924 the ‘Little School’ was started with
the help of Irene Tasker, a Montessori and AT teacher and the children were given Alexander Technique lessons alongside ordinary schoolwork, so that they were taught how to be aware of their psychophysical functioning – that is, their thinking and body use – throughout their school day. Unfortunately the second World War interrupted the work of this school and it was not able to be re-started after the war ended. Today, a number of schools incorporate the Technique into the curriculum to great effect, as do music and drama colleges.
FM Alexander wrote of the problems of ‘mind-wandering’ and old habits which result in ‘thought-grooves’ but suggested that while we need to gain control of our thought processes we should ‘beware of so-called concentration‘ as it denotes conflict and leads to physical tension.
Instead, Alexander says:
‘We must cultivate… the deliberate habit of taking up every occupation with the whole mind… which necessitates bringing into play every faculty of the attention’. (The Alexander Technique – Essential Writings of F M Alexander selected by Edward Maisel 1974)
Now this, surely, is mindfulness in action and it enriches our lives.