“It’s great! It helps me keep working” B.L. – middle manager
“It helps me to think more clearly” W.G. – senior public servant
“I can control stress levels. It’s an immediate stress management technique” M.T. – mother and consultant
What creates stress in us is the way we respond to a situation, not the situation itself. Stress involves a loss of poise. Our response to a stressful situation can disturb our own balance and distort our perceptions so that problems assume greater proportions and available time appears to shrink.
How to keep a level head
The Alexander Technique provides us with a way of being conscious of our reactions and choosing when, where and how to give expression to them without being at their mercy. This enhanced awareness can help us to choose to behave differently at the moment of response to a situation. It helps us to maintain distance and perspective on a situation.
Balance, posture, muscular tension and awareness
Relationships between balance, posture, muscular tension and awareness, aspects not usually recognised as interrelated, are taken into account in The Alexander Technique.
It embodies a three-pronged approach.
It works first through the muscular system by recognising that there is a primary control of muscular tension throughout the whole body. This obviates the necessity for the individual to come to relaxation and stillness by trying to progressively and laboriously relax every muscle in turn. Then, by understanding how to make use of the “primary control” of muscular tension and releasing physical tension, one frees energy and attention. Finally, practising the Alexander Technique involves schooling one’s attention. The discipline of this centering (in the central axis of the body) helps to keep attention in the here-and-now. Furthermore, centred body awareness cues us in to when we are going off balance. The Alexander Technique offers the possibility of control in process, rather than a palliative measure in dealing with stress build-up after the event.
“You translate everything, whether physical or mental or spiritual, into muscular tension” F.M. Alexander
“People are not disturbed by events, but by their reactions to events” Epictetus, 1st Century A.D. Rome.
© Michael Stenning
We all know about the desirability of good posture, of flexibility, relaxation, and the absence of tension. Yet, despite the considerable attention given to the externals, ergonomic chairs, stretching exercises, “correct” posture, stress management techniques, etc., we are still tense and uncomfortable in our bodies, susceptible to stress, and often suffer miscellaneous aches and pains. The statistics make very clear that the “externally applied” measures do not work for everybody.
How much is strain costing you?
What is needed is a method of self-management which gives us the self-knowledge we need in order to implement our good intentions. The Alexander Technique is such a method. It is simple, effective and it is used all over the world. The Alexander Technique allows you to optimise the way that you perform or function. It provides ground rules for reducing the risk of injury or stress-related problems. About 100 years ago, Alexander introduced the idea that the way you use yourself affects the way that you function – Use affects Functioning . He demonstrated that there are basically two ways of using yourself; either your tendency over time is to contract, shortening and tightening; or, it is to release and expand. Some of us have occasional glimpses of the latter as when, for example, everything goes right on the tennis court, always being seemingly in the right place and with plenty of time to hit the ball; or that perfectly balanced, flowing ski run; or doing the perfect interview. Yet how often do we experience this “on form” quality in everyday life?
Most of us are more familiar with the weight, effort and discomfort of the “contracting” tendency. In sitting, for example, we all know the daily yo-yo between slouching and “sitting up straight”. The endless attempts to get the posture “right” need to go on because they don’t change the underlying conditions. Our co-ordination, that pattern of muscular pulls which is peculiarly ours, is in place whether slouching or “holding ourselves up”, driving a car or driving a computer. It is what we use to support ourselves against the ever present pull of gravity. It forms the basis of the “How” of everything that we do, including “sitting up straight” or the performance of exercises or even relaxing. Our pattern of muscular pulls provides our posture and our overall orientation in the way that we respond to our world. It is a suit of clothes which we never take off; it is there all the time and if we are aware of it at all, we tend to take it for granted, as a fixed given, even when it hurts or malfunctions in some other way.
Simply knowing just what your co-ordination consists of, why it is, for example, that you are not falling over as you read these words, can be a tremendous tool in the on-going business of taking care of yourself and avoiding problems.
The rule of habit
If somebody suggested that you should daily practice tightening your neck and shoulders, say, 200 times, you would think their advice misguided. Yet half an hour with an Alexander teacher may reveal that this may be almost exactly what you do, albeit unconsciously. The teacher’s role is to make you aware of the subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, habits of contraction whose effects, multiplied by days and months and years, make themselves felt sooner or later. Tightening up, slouching down or any of a thousand variations on a theme of compression and distortion, predispose us to a host of musculo-skeletal ailments. They also constitute a “pre-stressing” of yourself, so that margins for coping with the day-to-day external stresses are narrower. They are almost always implicated in any sort of overuse injury. Becoming aware of what your familiar “norm” consists of, discovering previously unnoticed “holding patterns”, provides a choice and a way out of the monkey-trap of habit.
A desk-bound worker is highly likely to be placing demands on their arms and shoulders. But how much are they tightening elsewhere at the same time? Are they, for example, tightening their legs in such a way that their lower back is obliged to clench, thus affecting support and strength for the arms and shoulders? Might they be tightening around the ribcage, constricting the breathing and similarly unintentionally withdrawing support and strength from the shoulders and arms? Are they holding their head off-balance and then requiring compensatory tension elsewhere, or even using some muscles to pull it down whilst trying to “sit up straight”? Exhausting stuff! Sound silly? It is silly. It is also a tremendous waste of effort and a virtually guaranteed route to injury.
The Alexander Technique can add another dimension to our understanding of how we work. By paying attention to the small but significant things which you can influence right now, you bring the bigger picture and the longer-term picture under control. Learning greater control of that inner, muscular environment provides an on-going tool for life. Improving your use of yourself, raising the standard of your “norm”, your pattern of muscular pulls, can allow injuries a chance to heal and prevent their recurrence.
© M Stenning, Canberra 1997
The connections and interdependence of parts related to the voice are complex and multi-layered. The larynx is suspended from the skull in a cat’s cradle of muscle and ligament. Thus head balance may affect the larynx, while the skull finds a balance on top of the occipital condyles, potentially affected by a multiplicity of forces: The collar bones are attached to the back of the skull (via sternocleidomastoid) and also to the ribs which in turn can be pulled upon prodigiously from below, indirectly pulling on the skull and also influencing the action of the diaphragm via the ribs. This again implicates head balance and the relationship of head and trunk. The tongue, attached to the hyoid bone, is also influenced by this relationship, as is the jaw. Even the way the shoulders rest (or not) upon the ribs again influences the neck, and the balance of the skull, which directly affects the suspension of the larynx as well as the responsiveness of the ribs to the need for air. Any particular part exists as an element in a complex ecology of balance and coordination. It is easy for things to go wrong.
How to take care of this complexity? How to know where to start?
From the outside it may all look like “posture”. But posture also relates to balance and to muscular tension. Everyone has an idea of “good posture” but usually admit that they don’t maintain it. Posture itself is judged from the inside, highly subjectively. We hold ourselves and move in ways that can be highly idiosyncratic, yet they feel completely “normal”. “Normal” may include regular pain, accepted as “normal”, breathing restrictions which go unnoticed because they are “normal”, postural issues – “that’s just the way I stand…”, even hoarseness and loss of voice under certain circumstances. Again a question: how can I get perspective on my “normal”?
The Alexander Technique is often associated with posture, but it is often forgotten that it all started with F M Alexander’s vocal difficulties. His teaching career began in the 1890’s with actors who had seen and heard Alexander on stage, wanting to improve their vocal production and breathing. Then they began to notice other, unexpected benefits.
If we do not misuse what we have, it tends to work fine. Misuse (of ourselves) can make the difference between a performer with vocal limitations or even damage, and one without. What Alexander discovered was how to regain the simplicity and uncomplicatedness in “posture” that we had as infants. Posture is perhaps an inadequate term, since we are talking about attitude of our bodies and relationships between parts of bodies as we move through our day. It can be useful to think about this in terms of how we support ourselves against gravity, as we move through all of our activities. We each develop a characteristic way of moving and supporting ourselves against gravity. We tend to acquire layers of misuse over the years, unconsciously creating interference with what is easy and natural. It can be seen in our posture, how we move, how we breathe and even how we sound. It can levy a hidden strain on everything we do and create apparent limits to good technique in any activity.
It is recognised that “good posture” is a good idea and that posture affects breathing and sound. What is not so deeply understood is the relationship between postural support, breathing and movement. The Alexander Technique of neuro-muscular re-education gives us a sophisticated means of unravelling and re-connecting these; gradually acquiring our maximum height with a minimum of effort (no effortful “standing up straight”), which allows us to move freely and allows our breathing to be entirely responsive to the demands placed on it (rather than being something separate or special that we do). Under these circumstances of easy length and space with the absence of unnecessary tension, freedom and support for the vocal apparatus is a natural and inevitable part of the package.
The Alexander Technique is taught in leading Performing Arts institutions around the world as a way of both cultivating vocal skills and of ongoing care of the professional voice. Singers and actors as diverse as Emma Kirkby, Sting, Paul McCartney, Hugh Jackman, Judi Dench and Mara have found that lessons in the Alexander Technique have helped them either to recover from vocal difficulties or else to maintain their performing edge.
The Alexander Technique provides a basis in good (body-)use, ie integrated whole-body coordination, to encourage a system that does not get in its own way, allowing the possibility to better acquire or use vocal skills. It is a proven basis for vocal health in everyday life and for care of the professional voice.
The Australian Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (AUSTAT) is the largest professional organization of teachers of the Alexander Technique in Australia. AUSTAT-certified teachers have completed a minimum three-year full-time training. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Phone: 1300 788 540
Michael Stenning, email@example.com
© Canberra 2013