Body work - Listen to Your Body
by Luis S. R. Vas
FM Alexander (1869-1955), an actor who began his career as a Shakespearean orator, developed chronic laryngitis while performing. Determined to restore the full use of his voice, he carefully watched himself while speaking, and observed that undue muscular tension accounted for his vocal problem. He sought a way to eliminate that restriction. Over time, he discovered and articulated a principle that profoundly influences health and well-being: when neck tension is reduced, the head no longer compresses the spine and the spine is free to lengthen. Alexander restored his own natural capacity for ease by changing the way he thought while initiating an action. From this work on himself and others, he evolved a hands-on teaching method that encourages all the body’s processes to work more efficiently – as an integrated, dynamic whole, which attracted practitioners worldwide. Below is some advice and a range of hints on how you can use the Alexander principles in practice to improve your health and well-being.
Here are just a few principles of the technique:
• Observation: Analysing yourself to see how your posture and movements may be incorrect. It may be easier to observe this in others first.
• Inhibition: Learning to restrain your first impulse to move. Most improper movements and postures are habitual, so the body must be retrained so those no longer feel natural.
• Sensory awareness: Achieving a sense of lightness, ease and freedom with corrected movements and positions so they feel natural.
Alexander was very clear in his published writings that a serious student of his work could accomplish a good deal without the assistance of a teacher. “Anyone who will follow me through the experiences I have set down, especially with regard to non-doing, cannot fail to benefit,” he wrote in the 1945 preface to the new edition of Use of the Self.
Begin observing yourself in a mirror. A full length one is best. Pay special attention to the relationship of your whole head (not just your face) to the rest of your body. Notice how this relationship changes as you perform simple activities like talking, walking or raising an arm or leg.
How does what you see in the mirror correspond to what you think you are doing, and what do you feel you are doing? Which do you think is more accurate? Take plenty of time to explore and compare your experiences with Alexander’s.
Experiment with changing the relationship of your head to your body, perhaps tilting it a little forward or backward from the top of your neck, and observe what difference these shifts make to your movements and to your breathing.
Alexander found that the most useful change he could make was to mentally direct his neck to be free so that his head, followed by his body, could release in an upward direction – delicately, without any stiffening or undue effort.
Try this. What do you notice? Does anything look or feel different?
Now, try doing the opposite. Stiffen your neck a little, as you gently push your head down towards the rest of your body. What effect does this have on your ability to breathe, speak and perform simple activities?
What happens when you just leave yourself alone? Is there a relationship between your head and your body that you tend automatically to go back to? Exaggerate yourself for just a moment. Notice what happens to your head/body relationship when you do this.
Feel free to experiment in other ways that occur to you. Pay close attention to the results of your experiments. Remember that you are both the experimenter and the object of the experiments. So you are always going to have to be careful that you are not deceiving yourself. Continue comparing what you see with what you are thinking about, and what you feel.
After you have experimented in front of the mirror long enough to have made for yourself some of the same kinds of observations that Alexander wrote about, extend your self-study to your daily round of activities. Can you sense how your body reacts to stressful situations, for example? How about pleasant experiences? Does the presence of some people act as a stimulus to tighten your neck? Do others seem to encourage freedom and expansion in your body?
Notice the effects of sound on your physical mechanism. Experiment with scanning your auditory horizon, and noting the effects of actively listening to the highest pitched sounds available to you. These could be high musical notes, the chirping of birds, even the sound of wind blowing through the branches of a tree. Then, shift your conscious attention to the lowest-pitched sounds you can hear – drumbeats, the sounds of heavy machinery, for example. What effect does this shift have on the way you are using your body?
Alexander’s purpose in performing his investigations was to improve the quality of his performance. So begin to observe other people, animals and small children, with a view toward becoming a good judge of quality of movement. Keep a lookout for particularly good examples of ease, balance, and co-ordination. Look also for particularly bad examples. Can you generalise about quality of movement and the nature of the head/body relationship?
• Every activity, no matter how apparently simple or complex, is really an activity of your whole self. One way of thinking about this idea suggests that your emotions affect your thoughts and your body; tensions in your body affect your emotions, etc. This is not a bad way to think about it, but there is a subtle way in which this way of thinking perpetuates the apparent separation. What appears to be your body, emotions and thoughts are really three views of one thing, perceived through different avenues of perception. Learning to see the one thing in all that multiplicity, is like perceiving a red piece of silk as one thing, instead of as separated sensations of red, soft, and the idea that it is a piece of cloth woven from threads derived from a worm. This idea is not unique to the Alexander Technique, but the Technique is the most precise and useful for realising the wholeness of yourself in practice.
• The Alexander Technique is an indirect process. When your back hurts, it can draw all of your available attention to it; it feels as if you must do something to fix it. Aching backs, etc., can be great motivations to change, but they can also distract you from redirecting your attention to all of you, to find the patterns of activity that are the real source of the problem. Most people occasionally need to seek therapeutic interventions to return to healthy processes of body, emotions or thoughts. The Alexander Technique is not a replacement for any therapeutic intervention, but it can be invaluable for helping you understand therapies that you may have sought, and for integrating the changes from them.
• These first two hints are really ways of orienting our thinking. The next hint is a specific bit of information to organise our explorations and experiments with ourselves. There is something about the relationship of your head to your body that is a controlling factor in how you co-ordinate yourself in activity. When you habitually tighten your neck in an activity that restricts the free movement of your head, that pattern of tightening to accomplish the activity continues throughout your use of your torso, arms and legs. When you can stop that initial tightening of your neck, and leave your head free to move as you continue into activity, then you have a chance to discover a new, freer, easier, more effective way to bring all of you into the activity.
• If you find, as you explore some activity, that some effort or use of force feels necessary, question it. Along with that effort, do you also tighten your neck? Find out where you start making that effort, and play with it, ask your neck to stay free, and think about the directions in which your fingers, elbows, knees, etc. need to move to accomplish the activity. Spend a minute or two really being strict with yourself about what you observe and think about the activity. Then say to yourself, “OK, that was interesting. Now I’m going to let my neck be free, and just do the activity, and see what happens.” I have had a great deal of fun surprising myself after spending a few minutes in this kind of observation and experimentation.
• When you think about the relationship of your head to your body, and how you might change it, ask yourself to make the change so small that you barely know you have done it, then allow that little change to have its effect on the rest of you. Proceeding in this manner, you will have less of a tendency to push yourself around, making yourself stiff, and trying to make something happen.
• When you notice some tendency to tighten up somewhere, ask yourself what it might be like not to be tight. Just allow the question to be there, without trying to answer it. Then wait for the answer to come to you. The answer is usually quick, surprising and pleasant.
Alexander spent a long time observing himself in a mirror before he made his important discoveries. Don’t expect overnight miracles. Alfred Redden Alexander, FM’s younger brother and a brilliant teacher in his own right, gave this wonderful piece of advice to anyone using Alexander’s discoveries as a tool for self-exploration: Be patient, stick to principle, and it will all open up like a giant cauliflower
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