We, as human beings, and as a result of our constant evolution have an incredible capacity to do things in a simple and flexible way, with power and expressiveness. We are physically prepared to carry out very complicated tasks (manipulation, coordination, strength, balance) and we are also endowed with the intellect, an ability to understand which allows us to move around and adapt to the social world surrounding us, an ability to feel…. having therefore a natural capacity for physical and mental well-being; for what is known as the integral health of the human being. Nevertheless, too often and unconsciously we change this natural tendency in our daily activities. That which we could do with grace, without apparent effort, as the result of energy itself, we end up doing it either with an excessive load of tension or a great effort to fight laziness. We are in great part responsible for our health. We actually control factors that influence our physical and mental state. We can always learn how to make a better use of our capacities.
Alexander technique allows us to do exactly this in a systematic, practical and precise way. The teacher helps the pupil how to feel in a more clear and conscious way his or her own psychophysical unity. Gradually we learn how to recognize and promote it. We learn to appreciate better the role that attitude and mental predisposition have in determining our physical state and we learn how to develop a more efficient neuromuscular organization.
The Power of Habit
The sum of excessive tensions that we accumulate, for whatever reasons, configure our neuromuscular organization, which automatically acts as a pattern, as an inherent habit within us. These bad habits may interfere with our health, our potentials. As with any kind of habits, as we practice them, we reinforce and fix them. Often, we are unconscious of practicing these habits. As a result, there are changes in the way we act and move of which we are totally unaware, so much so, that they seem correct and necessary. Fortunately, the same way we have learned these habits we are able to un-learn them.
FM Alexander’s DISCOVERIES
Frederic Mathias Alexander (1869-1955) was an Australian actor. He soon experienced a series of breathing difficulties and frequent hoarseness, preventing him to carry on with his career. Physicians and professors recommended him periods of rest to recover his voice. He realized that this improved his vocal condition only temporarily for the same problems reappeared as soon as he started again with his recitations and performances. After observing this process repeatedly he arrived to the conclusion that it must be something he was doing wrong, when he spoke, which caused the problems and he decided to investigate it. Slowly, during the process of this investigation, he discovered that the problem was broader than he had expected. The basis of the problem should involve not only his vocal organs but also all of him, body and mind. His psychophysical condition was responsible for the quality of all he did. Later on he discovered that the object of his study was not something that affected him particularly, but was common to most of the people. He was able to change the habits that caused him trouble and later he found the way to teach others how to do the same. This way, during his life he developed the Technique, named after him, which is still taught nowadays.
The Use of the Self
From all his reasoning we can conclude that the options we have regarding what we do with ourselves determine, in great part, the quality of our lives. We will agree if we say that the efficiency of a tool depends on the way we use it. What does making a good use of our selves mean? It probably means trying to be capable of living as healthy and happy as we can, which we can accomplish by respecting the natural functioning of our psychophysical organism as much as possible. We will now make a brief description, a simplified general outline, of what we could call our tool as human beings, our body. We will explain the functional organization of the principal elements. First of all, the muscles should not be seen as separate stripes that connect bones together, but as a unique elastic tissue that covers the whole skeleton. This elastic clothing has two functions: it enables us to move and interact with the environment and it helps keep all the parts of the body in good correlation with one another. The basis of these two functions relies on the need to cooperate with gravity, to maintain balance when we are standing. In order to move efficiently in a gravitational field such as our planet, man, in his evolution towards standing on two feet, has developed a series of anti-gravitational mechanisms. Through practical, not theoretical, observation, Alexander discovered that the primary movement (opposed to gravity) could be enhanced considerably. This is accomplished by the conscious inhibition of the patterns of tension that interfere with it and by developing a conscious wish to optimize the functioning of the anti-gravitational mechanisms. The wish, the desire for it to happen, can influence favorably the adequate muscular activity. The desire is translated into a message of the nervous system that sends orders to the muscles. The brain communicates with the muscles, sending and receiving information through the nerves. When we respect this natural coordination, when we keep this desire, all the parts of the muscular system are elongated and in the adequate tension to help movement and coordination. Alexander described this situation as growing in stature or going up, creating an ideal interior atmosphere for breathing, digestion and blood circulation. Finally, we could ask ourselves: and who gives the orders to our brain? The answer is evident: I do, myself. The mental concepts we have concerning our acts are, in the end, those that order a specific organization of our psychophysical unity. And concepts can be changed, thereby recovering the capacity to govern ourselves as individuals, the freedom to choose, and the possibility to learn and change.
Once we have seen what is natural functioning, we could think that all human beings enjoy it with no difficulties whatsoever. But it is not so. As we said previously, the majority of us interfere with it, some way or another. Apparently, the pattern of conduct Alexander discovered by observing himself is universal in all human beings: an excessive tension that begins in the neck, and is followed by a general shortening and contraction. The muscular tension of the whole body is altered, affecting the normal alignment of the skeleton and therefore the support of the internal organs. Alexander based his work in this relationship which he named Primary Control: an appropriate relationship of the head with the neck and back stimulates an appropriate relationship of the whole structure and allows the primary movement of standing against gravity to happen.
Inhibition and Direction
So far, we have been talking about the good use, but not about how to attain it. At this point it is convenient to make clear that the Alexander Technique is not a therapy or a type of manipulation. It is education. It is about learning to choose consciously our own organization. What we intend is to break the strength of habit. We want to change the habits we have acquired creating a predisposition to react in a determined way in front of a particular situation. It is this repetition what we want to stop first. That is: when we receive an impulse and refuse to respond in the habitual (automatic) way, we produce the adequate conditions for the change to happen. In the first place we must prevent the neuromuscular system to continue sending messages through the wrong paths. Alexander used the word inhibition in the context of neurophysiology: to refrain the automatic and habitual response to a stimulus- the shortening that tension produces- granting ourselves the freedom to choose an adequate response- the lengthening produced by releasing the tension. Once we have mentally inhibited the automatic responses of misuse, once we have decided not to tense or press inward, then we can direct the neuromuscular system so it can lengthen, widen and expand, so that the postural mechanisms enable us with the natural force of going up as a response to gravity. Direction is a process of directed thinking or intention, of wish, of projecting orders to the system as a whole, which in turn organize the conditions for a good use.
How do we learn?
By means of the Alexander Technique we can learn to inhibit automatic responses and direct those which enable us to respect the primary control, to improve the head-neck-back relationship in order to re-establish the natural balance and coordination, creating the necessary conditions to improve the use of the self. This is what is taught in the classes. Alexander believed that neither words nor exercises were enough to stimulate a real change in our deepest habits, which would let us improve the use of our selves. He developed a method of individualized work, through which the teacher guides the process of learning inhibition and direction, with the help of hand contact and by giving the pupil the necessary verbal orders so he or she can gradually become the subject of his or her own learning. During a lesson, the teacher uses a chair and table In the simple act of standing up or sitting on a chair, we use all the baggage of forces, tensions and habits which are familiar to us, and this is where the teacher will be able to intervene, in order to teach you how to distinguish and change them, if necessary. With the pupil on the table, adopting a semi-supine position, the teacher will seemingly invite him or her to pay attention to all the tensions taking place, learning this way, the process of getting rid of them. This learning will be applicable to all the activities we carry out, because it is configured as a new neuromuscular organization, and will grow as we practice it. At a practical level, we can say that a lesson takes approximately 30-45 min. There are no special requirements, except that you should wear comfortable clothing and you will only be asked to take off our shoes. As we already said, this work is done on a one-to-one basis. The teacher and pupil will decide together the frequency of the lessons and extension of the educational period.