The Art of Skiing
As one beginner skier complained, “My brain understands the instructor’s directions, but my body won’t carry them out!”. Recognizing that the way we approach anything is going to affect the outcome, the Alexander Technique pays great attention to how we’re doing what we’re doing. Discovering that not “trying so hard” can mean not only learning more easily, but also actually skiing better and with less effort, often comes as a pleasant surprise to many people.
The Alexander Technique is about improving self-awareness. We can learn self-mastery through gaining conscious access to the very delicate and precise mechanisms that control our balance, posture and coordination in everyday activities as well as, for example, in skiing. It is an approach which can be applied to learning or improving any skill, from playing a sport, or playing a musical instrument to dancing, just sitting in a chair, or meeting a complex emotional situation.
Recognizing that the way we approach anything is going to affect the outcome, the Alexander Technique pays great attention to how we’re doing what we’re doing. We quickly discover that we often have very little idea of our underlying mental or physical attitudes to activity or to learning new activities or to the way we express ourselves.
So not only do we need new knowledge, but we also need a means of putting that knowledge into practice. As one beginner skier complained, “My brain understands the instructor’s directions, but my body won’t carry them out!”.
The Technique is a way of becoming more aware of balance, posture and movement in everyday activities as well as, for example, in skiing. This can bring into consciousness tensions previously unnoticed, and helps us differentiate between necessary and unnecessary (appropriate and inappropriate) tensions and efforts. Put in other words, the Alexander Technique is a way of developing the skill of looking inside, checking our inner environment, so that we take care of the instrument through which we are achieving whatever we do in the outer environment.
The Alexander Technique is popularly supposed to be concerned with posture and relaxation but, of course, posture is far more complex than just standing or sitting up straight. It could be described as how we support and balance our bodies against the ever-present pull of gravity while we go about all our daily activities.
From Alexander’s own observations, since confirmed by scientific research, it has become apparent that there are natural postural reflexes to organise this support and balance for us without any great effort, provided we have the necessary degree of relaxation in activity to allow these reflexes to work freely. This has obvious practical application for skiers.
Most of us learn to ski on a more or less trial and error basis. Even when we have lessons it is clear that some people are simply more apt than others. These are the people in whom, unconsciously, those “postural reflexes” or “mechanisms of support and balance” are working relatively well (typically in younger people).
The mechanisms of support and balance (for which poise is a useful term) can be seen working beautifully in most small children, but they are very delicate mechanisms and are easily interfered with. The emotional and physical stress accumulated through life can soon become fixed into the body in the form of chronic muscle tensions and patterns of distortion throughout the physical structure. These patterns in turn restrict the workings of the natural postural mechanisms. Common language expressions such as “things are getting me down ” or “I’m feeling uptight” suggest a feeling for how our relationship with gravity is disturbed.
On the snow we are not only coping with these ongoing interferences to our postural mechanisms, which give us our “base line” of tension, but also with further interferences engendered by the unfamiliarity of the situation e.g. the fear involved in learning to ski.
In watching beginner skiers one is sometimes struck by their stiffness which, of course, severely impairs their ability to balance, and they fall over very easily.
Ease and poise on skis, as anywhere else, is characterised by an easy, upright carriage of the head which facilitates engaging the postural reflexes as a whole. Integral to this process is the quality of contact of the feet on the floor (skis, ground). If the feet or legs are tense, it will be much more difficult to have a real ease in activity.
Learning is often associated with anxiety and tension (this need not be the case, but that’s another story). In learning a balancing skill this is often more so, at exactly the time when ease of balance and an absence of tension would be most desirable. For anxiety-tension interferes not only with our balance and coordination, but also with our perception both of our inward environment e.g. failing to notice that we are tightening our legs or holding our breath, and our outer circumstances, so that hills appear steeper, or speeds higher.
Enhancing kinaesthetic awareness (awareness of one’s inner environment), and learning greater control of one’s mechanisms of balance and coordination is thus an enormous help to beginners.
More advanced skiers can also gain from this approach. Experienced skiers often have trouble improving past a certain point. Their initial learning may have taken place in a tense manner and this tension has become a fixed part of their skiing technique, limiting further improvement.
Discovering that not trying so hard can mean not only learning more easily, but also actually skiing better and with less effort, often comes as a pleasant surprise to many people.
The Alexander Technique gives us some simple ground rules through which we can observe ourselves, in order to achieve a gradual general improvement in balance and coordination, as well as simultaneously supplying ourselves with conditions most conducive to the acquisition of a new skill.
© M Stenning Canberra 1997