Bruce Fertman, charming man and terrific Alexander teacher, has written a piece called ‘Constructive Doubt’.
I like what Bruce says, and I wanted to pick up on the word ‘rifts’ as I think this is an important issue in our AT community. Is the word ‘rifts’ helpful?
Certainly there are differences among AT teachers roughly according to lineages.
‘Vive les differences!’ say I.
‘Vive les differences’, with an attitude of humility. ‘My way’ is certainly not the only way. I teach in the way that I have been taught and learnt (starting over 40 years ago); and I teach in the way that my own work has evolved during those years. My goal is to maintain an attitude of not-knowing. I have learnt a huge amount from other teachers since qualifying from my very traditional training as an AT teacher. They include teachers from all AT lineages and others. Bruce, I remember being beguiled by your words at a talk you gave in Sydney in 1994. I still assume that I do not have the whole AT picture. I have enough to be able to help a lot of people, to teach them useful skills and a less fixed way of looking at themselves and the world. And I am still learning and having a ball. And I would still regard myself as a fairly ‘conservative’ teacher, if ‘conservative’ means sticking to basic principles. (Yes, cue question here…)
Emphases vary between traditions and between teachers. You can only teach out of your own experience. (This is where ‘rifts’ started – all the 1st gen were teaching out of their own experience, which necessarily were not identical). We mustn’t harden into any sort of position, least of all, one that you got from someone else. So it make sense to both deepen and to widen your experience. My own strong preference, and what I have encouraged in my trainees, is to do this after you have thoroughly steeped yourself in ONE tradition, mindful that it is not the only way, and mindful that other traditions may have pieces that yours does not articulate as clearly.
Here is a metaphor (geography buffs, please allow me some license – it is a metaphor, not a map!:
In the 1400’s and 1500’s traders sailed east around Africa to reach the Spice Islands in the East Indies. It took a lot of time for someone to try sailing west. Eventually it was realized that you could reach the same islands by sailing either east or west – same destination, different route. Main thing was, keep sailing! Certainty about the ‘right’ way to get there was shifted.
For Alexander teachers, keep teaching, with less certainty, out of Bruce’s ‘constructive doubt’, and stay curious. We can learn from one another.
We often get asked questions about how the Alexander Technique (AT) can help and how it relates both to effective pain management and to performing any skill better. Below are some answers to give you more insight into the AT.
1. Why is it so hard to maintain good posture?
Have you ever stopped to wonder what “good” posture means? It can’t be what we were taught in Kindergarten, because that version of “good posture” is stiff, uncomfortable and unsustainable. The AT can help you achieve light, easy posture and movement, regaining some of the grace and poise of young childhood.
2. Do you suffer from any of the following, either intermittently or continuously?
• Neck pain
• Back Pain
• Shoulder pain/stiffness
• Muscular Tension
When we use ourselves well, it feels good and there is no pain. Chronic aches and pains are signals. They may be your body’s way of alerting you that your way of (mis)using yourself, ie your “personal norm” of posture and movement, involves unnecessary strain. Your way of using yourself is unconscious and habitual. It feels “normal” even if it is uncomfortable!
The AT helps you to reduce strain in the ordinary, everyday activities of life; discover how you can ease that aching lower back, relax those stiff shoulders, avoid tension headaches, control sciatica…
3. Do you suffer from any of the following?
• Overuse-type arm or hand pain
Multi-factorial conditions invariably include poor Use, which keeps the sufferer stuck in a vicious circle of pain. Then the pain itself leads to potentially harmful adaptation.
The Alexander Technique can help you break the vicious circle of pain.
4. Have symptoms intensified or increased in frequency?
Our habits of movement, and posture tend to intensify with time. Whatever mildly bad habits you had at age 25 will be deepened considerably by age 50 or 60. Similarly the accompanying symptoms of misuse will tend to intensify, increase in frequency, or become chronic.
The Alexander Technique can help you to wind back the clock, easing poor postural and movement patterns, and any associated symptoms. Not only does it feel good, it also looks better!
5. Have you been involved in any car accidents or suffered major falls, eg from a horse?
Following an injury, we adapt and compensate for the injured part. It is difficult to avoid these compensations becoming part of our on-going base-line of co-ordination. Symptoms arising out of injury-induced adaptations may develop months later, and therefore be difficult to relate to the original injury. Whiplash is one of many examples.
The AT can help you to back-track and eradicate symptom-producing patterns of posture and movement which have arisen out of compensation or adaptation following trauma or injury.
6. Have benefits from manipulative therapy or drug treatments “levelled off”?
Once manipulated, you may get up feeling better, but your underlying, symptom-producing habits of (mis)Use remain. It may just be a matter of time before your habits of (mis)Use reassert themselves and start to hurt again.
The AT addresses your Use – how you use yourself affects the way that you function: with ease and grace, or strain and pain. Yoga, “remedial” exercise eg Pilates, gym routines etc. all are performed out of your habitual pattern of use. If your habitual use is implicated in the problems you have, then exercising in this manner may further entrench or exaggerate the problems. As the nursery rhyme puts it, “A crooked man walks a crooked mile”. The AT addresses your Use, coming in as a means of enhancing your Yoga or T’ai Chi practice, or other discipline.
7. Have you had to give up or reduce any exercise?
Any activity performed with poor form is likely to lead to strain and injury, as well as reinforcing the poor form.
The AT emphasises good use (ie good form). Exercise with good form – you perform better, last longer, tend to suffer fewer injuries, and deepen your good form into everyday life.
8. Do you suffer any type of breathing-related issues?
The AT is well known among actors and singers as being a great underpinning to their art: Voice projection, hoarseness, vocal depth and beauty, breathing related to sporting activity, playing music and singing, even asthma.
Early in his career, Alexander was known as “the Breathing man”. Optimising your use of your self generally is inseparable from optimising efficiency in the way you breathe: Deeper, slower and above all freer.
9. Are you able to avoid the build-up of tension or unnecessary internal strain?
Does pain make you suddenly realise that you have been sitting too long, or that you overdid it in sport or other leisure activity? Wouldn’t it be useful to notice before you hurt?
The AT gives you the basics which are relevant to staying comfortable whatever you are doing.
10. How effectively do you minimise musculo-skeletal wear and tear, particularly in relation to neck, back, shoulder and arm issues?
Wear and tear is a fact of life for most of us. But have you ever considered those who seem to function well, with no injuries or strains, well past the age that many start to suffer?
What are they doing that the rest of us aren’t? Perhaps they have learnt to use themselves without strain, the secret of the AT.
11. Are you able to maintain good “form” across the range of your activities?
The Grace and ease of childhood can be re-acquired! It feels and looks good!
12. How much would you value having greater control over your physical well-being?
A survey of our pupils (not “patients”) showed that what they valued most from the AT lessons was simply getting out of pain. What they valued next was knowing how to regain their pain-free state when they lost it. We all “lose it’ from time to time! Knowing exactly how to get yourself back onto a centred, even keel is invaluable.
The AT shows you how to avoid strain and pain.
We all know about the desirability of relaxation, flexibility, good posture and the absence of tension. Despite our best intentions, despite relaxation classes, fitness classes and Eastern disciplines, despite stretching exercises, posture exercises, taping and Californian know-how, we’re still tense and uncomfortable in our bodies, with aching backs, sore necks, stiff shoulders, injuries and named conditions. What information are we lacking?
There is no shortage of advice and injunctions.
We all know about the desirability of relaxation, flexibility, good posture and the absence of tension.
Yet by the end of the day your shoulders ache, or perhaps it’s your neck or your lower back. You’ve tried to improve your posture. You’ve done various exercises, stretches, treatments. They work, up to a point. Your approach is palliative, a management strategy. Things are OK most of the time, but occasional periods of more pain, or a real “back attack” get you. You see your therapist of choice, the pain mostly goes away, until next time. Perhaps you feel you are “just getting older”; some activities are a little circumscribed, perhaps knees are giving a bit of trouble, or your flexibility is decreasing.
Or else you’ve had a diagnosis of something actually “wrong” – scoliosis perhaps, or part of your spine is “too straight”, or else you have osteophytes, or disc degeneration. You have been told that “nothing can be done, you’ll just have to live with it”. Maybe you have a special exercise or stretching routine that keeps the symptoms under control, but you know you might be in trouble if you miss a day or two.
Despite our best intentions, despite relaxation classes, fitness classes and Eastern disciplines, despite stretching exercises, posture exercises, taping and Californian know-how, we’re still tense and uncomfortable in our bodies, with aching backs, sore necks, stiff shoulders, injuries and named conditions. Diagnosis of a named condition can also give the impression of permanence, so that one does not look further for a solution, not learning to exercise the choices that can make a big difference.
What information are we missing?
It should not have to be this way! If it’s aging, the passage of time, why doesn’t everyone over a certain age have these problems? And why do some very young people, in their 20’s and teens even, have these problems? Why do some of us recover more fully from accidents than others? Why do some of us remain fit and active far longer than others? What makes the difference between those who breeze comfortably through life, and those who seem to suffer successive aches, pains and injuries?
“Everyone wants to be right, but no one stops to consider if their idea of right is right” FMA
We don’t even know it is there.
The hidden part, the unseen portion of the problem, is that many of us get stuck at some point in a certain level of tension, or fixity, or distortion, or holding, which becomes built in to our habitual way of being. We become accustomed to “typist’s hunch”, “jogger’s slump”, “mother’s hip”, “driver’s neck”, “student’s shoulder” and the like. Because it is there all the time, our own individual holding pattern simply slips below the level of our conscious awareness.
Our own personal pattern
of “use” can levy a hidden strain, lowering performance and predisposing us to injury and back pain. Yet we remain unconscious of the fact that the pain we are in may be a cumulative result of strains we are inadvertently imposing on ourselves day in, day out.
Our individual movement, holding and postural patterns, comprising our way of applying ourselves across all our activities, may encompass compensatory mal-adaptations to earlier injuries or on-going adjustments that generate further strain and injury.
Our personal pattern.
Our personal pattern, for better or worse, comprises the matrix out of which all our actions are performed; exercise, relaxation, work, leisure. It is precisely in unravelling these patterns that the Alexander Technique of neuromuscular re-education sheds light and may be invaluable.
In other words, it’s the things that we don’t know that we are doing, that may be at the root of back or neck pain.
How are you “wearing” yourself?
Aches, pains and even degeneration may be symptoms of a hidden problem. Until the “conditions of use”, ie the individual’s habitual holding pattern or way of “wearing” themselves, has been adequately assessed, the diagnosis has only been partial. If there is an undiagnosed pattern of movement which involves, for example, unremitting pressure through the lower back, then until that pressure-producing habit is changed, the results of the pressure (ie pain) will continue.
Pain may start to dissipate.
An Alexander Technique teacher is highly trained to recognise poor habits of “use”, assessing where and how a person is introducing unnecessary strain into their way of being. The Alexander Technique teacher brings to your attention things you are doing that you are unaware of. That is, (s)he helps you to extend your choice in the way that you move, act and react. ….You learn a new way of moving; sitting, standing, applying yourself across the range of your activities with less strain, less effort and less energy. You begin to feel lighter and freer as old habits are unlearned. Pain, even of many years’ standing, may start to dissipate.
Whatever our situation, we can learn to minimise strain, and work with ourselves, rather than mechanically performing mindless exercises, stretches or forcing “right” positions, and ultimately fighting what is perfectly natural, comfortable, strain-free and sustainable.
© M Stenning, Canberra 2002
Last time we talked about the quality of your attention and asked, “Have you ever noticed the 2 typical modes in the way we use our attention?” In the one mode, discussed last time, we tend to be heavily and exclusively focused on a particular task, often to the exclusion of all else. The other extreme is when we “mind wander”. Our attention is definitely not “on the job” and we are operating on auto-pilot. An example: You decide to swing by the shops on the way home to get some milk, but then find that you are pulling up at home having followed the usual (habitual) route and having not visited the shops. This exemplifies a sort of “absence” of self, you are not really in the “driver’s seat” but rather operating out of blind habit. This may work, as long as nothing out of the usual crops up, but it is not really conscious or awake.
This is often how we perform many habitual activities, eg how we sit at work, or in the car, or how we respond in a particular situation. It becomes completely automatic, and curiously, it has a corresponding physical correlate. Your body becomes “heavy”, “dead”, un-responsive. (Again, this scenario, repeated day in and day out for years has an effect on the postures that become fixed into our way of being as we age).
Rather than this lack of focus, we want to cultivate a light, active, diffuse field of attention which is more inclusive (of our environment as well as ourselves), in which we are interested in information around us. This allows us to be more present in ourselves as well as in what we are engaged in. Eg Rather than either your field of awareness shrinking to the size of the screen in front of you, or else just drifting on auto-pilot, take an active but non-doing interest in the space around you, and the physical contact you are making with the chair. You can cultivate this much more useful, responsive and awake quality of attention.
Something we do not generally give much attention to (nor should we have to) is our breathing. Yet years of slumping or tension create restrictions in this most vital of functions. Your breathing reflects your habitual posture. Breathing regimes which don’t take this into account do not address how we breathe when we are not thinking about it (which is most of the time!).
It is interesting to reflect that the Alexander Technique began with one man’s breathing problem. Initially he described his work as “respiratory re-education”.
When we slump or hold ourselves with excess tension or both (it is possible!), the ribs cannot move naturally or in coordination with the diaphragm. In allowing the back’s natural length without effort, we simultaneously provide the conditions in which the ribs and diaphragm can move easily and be responsive to the demands we place eg being vigorous vs sedentary. Ideally we work towards the conditions of natural springy length as our way of being. A simple way of supporting this and helping to free the breath is to practice “active rest”, otherwise known as semi-supine.
Lie on your back on a firm surface (eg a carpeted floor) with your head supported so that it is not falling backwards and with your knees raised. This already places a very gentle stretch on your back. Just lie there, with the intent to be as quiet muscularly as possible. Gradually, you may reduce muscular excess while allowing your back to lengthen and to fan out. Don’t be in a hurry, but do be consistent! (I.e. daily) As you allow length and breadth, everything involved in moving air in and out can operate with progressively less interference.