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Up

This seems simple enough but up, as used in the Alexander Technique, is not necessarily up towards the sky. ‘Up’ is always referring to a lengthening flow through our bodies, up along our spine, whatever direction the spine is assuming at the time. So if you are lying down, up is actually a horizontal lengthening.

Importantly, it is a refusing to pull down and contract or shorten the neck, spine and torso, which would interfere with our primary control and general functioning.

As Alexander researched the causes of his vocal problems he found that

the best conditions of my larynx and vocal mechanisms and the least tendency to hoarseness were associated with a lengthening of the stature’… and that ‘it was necessary that my head should tend to go upwards, not downwards, when putting it forward; in short, that to lengthen I must put my head forward and up’.

F M Alexander ~ The Use of the Self  p.14

Above

In Primal Alexander online lessons, the term ‘Above’ is often used instead of ‘Up’. This is used to convey a sense of an upward flow of energy through the body.

Use

Use refers to the habitual and characteristic manner in which a person moves and uses their body, all the time, whatever they are doing. Our use is influenced by our thinking and by our emotions and to bring about changes in our use, we need to allow changes to take place in our thinking and in our reactions to things.

The way we use ourselves affects the functioning of the whole body, our whole psychophysical being. As F M Alexander put it:

‘Talk about a man’s individuality and character: it’s the way he uses himself’ Aphorisms

Alexander also wished to make clear:

‘when I employ the word “use” it is not in that limited sense of the use of any specific part (of the body)….. but in a… more comprehensive sense applying to the working of the organism in general’.

When we interfere with our natural use (subconsciously most of the time) we can develop habitual patterns of mis-use and overuse, which generally lead to problems of distortion, tension and sometimes pain. 

F M Alexander ~ The Use of the Self  p.4

Semi-supine

Supine comes from Latin and means to lie flat on one’s back. In the semi-supine position, the person lies on their back but with the knees bent.

Semi-supine is a specific Alexander Technique term and refers to the position used to practice the Lying Down Procedure.

The semi-supine position, as taught in Alexander lessons, requires us to lie down on our backs with our knees bent, feet resting on the floor and our heads supported by one or more books, according to each person’s Head Neck Back relationship. The Alexander Teacher will show the pupil the number of books that are required in order to align his neck and spine correctly.

It is important for us to remain alert and aware whilst practising, so that we can use our thinking to aid the process of bringing about change in our use. If we lie down and drift off into a sleepy state, we will not learn more about our use and misuse, nor will we develop a tool to help ourselves with.

The Lying Down / Active Rest Procedure is included as part of most Alexander lessons and is taught with the pupil lying on the Alexander table. Whilst the pupil lies in semi-supine, the teacher gently works on him to help him develop his awareness and to let go of old habits. The pupil will be asked to give himself directions whilst this is taking place, in order to bring about changes in the way he uses himself and his body.

Hilary teaching the Semi Supine procedure

All Alexander pupils are encouraged to use the Lying Down Procedure on their own, ideally on a daily basis, in order to work on themselves. This needs to be practised whilst lying on a carpeted floor, rather than something soft like a bed, which will not give the body adequate support. However, floorboards alone are rather hard and drafty, so do use something like a rug underneath you.

For further information, you may like to read my notes about using the Lying Down Procedure.

Constructive Conscious Control

Alexander’s work is all about learning to make conscious choices, in order to direct and organise our psychophysical responses to situations, with awareness of the way we use ourselves whilst doing so.

Before we can consciously change our use, we need to utilise the technique of inhibition, to avoid being ruled by habitual reactions based upon faulty sensory appreciation and mis-use which interferes with our co-ordination and functioning. Once we have done this, we may then consciously control and direct our use during activity.

Conscious control is not a process that we superimpose, in order to force change to the way our body mechanisms or mind work.  Rather, it is a constructive process that works with our natural energies which are directed and controlled by reasoning processes which have been primarily employed in connection with the use of (our) psycho-physical organism’.

F M Alexander ~ The Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual.

Doing and Non-doing

Doing
This term refers to the common but unhelpful tendency to physically make changes with our muscles in order to do the Alexander directions. This often results in a person stiffening, tensing and even pushing with their muscles, rather than thinking their directions in order to bring about changes in the way they use themselves.

Non-doing
When we inhibit and give ourselves directions, we then allow the muscles to act. Indeed, the very directions given, incorporate this concept of non-doing e.g. ’ I will allow my head to go forward and up’….

As Alexander found when he tried to alter the way he was using his voice:-

When ‘I tried… to do the new thing which my conscious direction should bring about (such as putting the head forward and up) and speak at the same time, I found I immediately reverted to all my old wrong habits….. After many disappointing experiences of this kind I decided to give up any attempt for the present to “do” anything to gain my end and I came to see at last that if I was ever to be able to change my habitual use…. it would be necessary for me to make the experience of receiving the stimulus to speak and of refusing to do anything in response.….. I therefore decided to confine my work to giving myself the directions for the new “means-whereby“, instead of actually trying to “do” them or to relate them to the “end” of speaking.’

F M Alexander ~ The Use of the Self p.27

Directions

The term ‘Directions’ is used in the Alexander Technique with two different but frequently overlapping meanings.

1 ‘Directions’ are the mental instructions we learn to give ourselves before and during an action, in order to bring about changes in the way we use ourselves whilst performing the action.

2 The instructions that are given also indicate the ‘direction’ in which we wish to release and lengthen muscles – for instance, allowing our knees and thighs to ease out and away from our hip joints.

Directions

It is important to notice the word ‘Allow’ in these directions. When we stop interfering with how the body wants to work, we allow it to function as it was designed to.

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

Example

After experimentation, Alexander discovered he could change his habits of mis-use, in which he pulled his head back and down when speaking, that resulted in his having vocal problems.  First he had to inhibit, stop his habit, then give himself a set of new directions.

Once this misdirection was inhibited, my next step would be to discover what direction would be necessary to ensure a new and improved use of the head and neck, and, indirectly, of the larynx and breathing and other mechanisms… and in its place employ my reasoning processes…. to select… the means-whereby a more satisfactory use could be brought about’ and then ‘to project consciously the directions required for putting these means into effect.’

During lessons, Alexander teachers aim to give pupils the experience that Alexander describes, of inhibiting their old habits of mis-use and then ‘of projecting the directions for the new and more satisfactory use in their proper sequence, primary, secondary, etc “all together, one after the other”… whilst the teacher at the same time with his hands makes him familiar with the new sensory experience’.

F M Alexander ~ The Use of the Self pp. 25/ 64

Primary Control

F M Alexander used the term ‘Primary Control’ to refer to the way in which our Head Neck Back relationship is a primary influence and dynamic organiser, for the co-ordination of our body mechanism and our movements. Elisabeth Walker, who trained with Alexander, says that he saw the primary control as being ‘a master reflex in co-ordinating the whole psychophysical organism’. This subtle control is only possible when we do not interfere by tightening our neck muscles, but allow the head to balance freely and easily on the atlanto-occipital joint at the top of the spine. ~ Forward and Away ~ Elisabeth Walker 2008.

Alexander discovered that his vocal mechanisms and whole organism functioned best when he stopped tightening his neck muscles when he spoke and moved around. This tension pulled his head back and down, restricted his voice, shortened his stature, interfered with his balance, his co-ordination and the way his body worked. This happened both at rest and in movement.

Inhibition and Direction

Alexander found that to change, he first needed to inhibit this habit of tightening his neck muscles, which interfered with the way his body worked naturally. Then he needed to give himself directions to act in a way that allowed him to freely and easily lengthen into movement. Importantly, Alexander discovered that to lengthen I must put my head forward and up. As is shewn…. this proved to be the primary control of my use in all my activities’.

F M Alexander ~ The Use of the Self p.14

In Alexander Technique lessons we learn to be aware of how we interfere with this primary control relationship through our habitual patterns of tension, contraction and mis-use. We then ‘inhibit’ and unlearn those habits. We learn to give ourselves instructions and direct before and during activity. This allows the Head-Neck-Back relationship to re-establish itself and function as it is designed to do.

End Gaining

‘End gaining is a universal habit’ (F M Alexander ~ The Use of the Self).  End gaining is the tendency we have to keep our mind and actions focused on an end result whilst losing sight of, and frequently at the expense of, the means-whereby the result is achieved.

For instance, how many people push to the extreme in order to win a race or goal, or continue to write yet more pages when exhausted – and then tear a muscle or develop RSI, both of which may jeopardise their careers?  

From a global perspective, it worth the temporary end of gaining more wealth by cutting down the rainforests, whilst ruining the environment and putting the lives of people and many species of animals and plants at risk? Far better, surely, is to consider the means whereby we are earning our money and move towards sustainable development, which protects man and the environment.

When we end gain, we habitually rush into or continue an activity, often in a driven manner, without due consideration of the means-whereby we are using in order to reach our goal. Very often we will find that the more we try to reach our goal in this manner, the more distressed we become and the worse our performance of the task tends to get. When we do this, we often ignore the warning signs that could draw our attention to the fact that a problem is developing but instead, continue towards our goal.  This frequently results in conditions such as poor co-ordination, strains, injury and even illness.

An interesting exploration of learning not to end-gain, albeit from a Buddhist perspective, describes this process in archery. The student is aware that ‘drawing the bow is a means to an end and I cannot lose sight of this connection’ to which the Zen master replies ‘The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed’

Eugen Herrigal ~ Zen in the Art of Archery p. 46

The author Aldous Huxley, who had lessons with Alexander, describes the Alexander Technique as being :

‘a technique of inhibition, working on the physical level to prevent the body from slipping back, under the influence of greedy ‘end-gaining’, into its old habits of mal-co-ordination, and working… to inhibit undesirable impulses… on the emotional and intellectual level’.

Aldous Huxley ~ Ends and Means p. 223

Misuse

Misuse

The term misuse, as applied in the Alexander Technique, is a person’s inappropriate use of their body, involving poor muscle tone and co-ordination. This disturbs the body’s intrinsic poise and balance and the whole way in which it functions.

As Alexander researched the reasons for his vocal problems he found that ‘this new piece of evidence suggested that the functioning of the organs of speech was influenced by my manner of using the whole torso, and that the pulling of the head back and down was not… merely a misuse of the specific parts concerned, but one that was inseparably bound up with a misuse of other mechanisms which involved the act of shortening the stature.’

(F M Alexander ~ The Use of the Self p.13)

Common examples of misuse are:

  • Slouching and collapsing
  • habitual tension and stiffening
  • fixing or locking your joints, for example your knees
  • crossing your knees when sitting
  • standing on one leg
  • contracting the neck muscles, so that you pull the head back and down
  • thrusting the head and neck forwards beyond the central point of balance

Overuse is also a type of misuse. This creates increasing levels of pain and tension, resulting in problems such as Repetitive Strain Injury,  RSI.

Means-whereby

‘The means-whereby’ is the term F M Alexander used to describe how we use ourselves when performing actions.

Instead of focusing purely on the goal we wish to attain and forcing ourselves towards it at any cost, in Alexander lessons we learn to have an ‘increased consciousness of the physical means employed to gain the ends proposed by the will’ (Aldous Huxley ~ Ends and Means).

When we learn to inhibit and stop the habits of end-gaining and mis-use which interfere with our ability to perform a task, we can move towards having conscious control over the action to be performed. In preparing to act, we need to consider our mental attitude and remember that ‘the act performed is of less consequence than the manner of its performance’ (FM Alexander ~ Man’s Supreme Inheritance).

When we thus consider the means-whereby we will attain our goal, we can consciously direct our activity to have a new and improved use whilst performing the chosen task. This usually results in the goal being gained with more freedom and efficiency.

Alexander explained (rather wordily) his use of the term ‘means-whereby’ as being:

to indicate the reasoned means to the gaining of an end. These means included the inhibition of the habitual use of the mechanisms of the organism, and the conscious projection of new directions necessary to the performance of the different acts involved in a new and more satisfactory use of these mechanisms’.

F M Alexander ~ The Use of the Self p. 27