“Robert Rickover talks with Dr. John H. M. Austin, MD, Professor Emeritus of Radiology at the Columbia University Medical Center and internationally known chest radiologist about a study he conducted with the late Pearl Ausubel, an Alexander Technique teacher in New York City, which showed that lessons in the Alexander Technique improve breathing capacity.”
John: “Alexander lessons are wonderful for improving posture…and increasing the length of muscles throughout the torso. Because Alexander encourages the inhibition of the slouching and slumping, it lengthens these muscles. Longer muscles work better, whether you are throwing a baseball or breathing. Longer muscles can generate more strength. It’s purely mechanical.”
“With Alexander lessons, the muscles of the abdomen become unlazy. You use them rather than just slouching. If you use them, you will have increased strength.”
“Some people come in with tight muscles in the chest. With Alexander lessons, the muscle tension is reduced and you get increased function from those muscles. Think of the chest muscles as a corset. Tight muscles restrict movement. With Alexander lessons, you reduce the corset effect. The military posture is not good for breathing.”
“If you free muscles from unnecessary tension so that they’re longer and more effective, you’re going to have enhanced coordination of the whole musculo-skeletal system.”
Usually, you will feel great after an Alexander lesson. You’ll feel more at ease in your body, more balanced, and more tranquil. But there’s also a good chance that once you let go of your body armoring (unnecessary tension), you’ll be overwhelmed with fatigue, emotion and frustration.
Once you notice how much you interfere with yourself through needless compression, you might be frustrated at how much work you have to do. A few Alexander lessons might just open a window onto a bigger problem than you want. You might get angry at the expense and aggravation ahead if you want to rid yourself of needless tension.
Also, when you let go of some tension, you might get flooded with emotions you’ve been repressing.
I can well imagine that, if our hypothetical student has had a particularly tiring or stressful time, they may well make the decision that, for whatever reason, they are not able to allow themselves to rest. They decide to keep going. And in order to keep going and keep concentrating on their work, they turn on muscles (FM writes about this in Man’s Supreme Inheritance too).
And then they keep them turned on. And on. And on.
They forget, in fact, to turn them off.
So now, in addition to the original fatigue, our hypothetical student is expending energy on the needless use of muscles.
When, therefore, they come for their Alexander Technique lesson, and the teacher convinces them to give up the excess muscular energy that they were using to counteract the fatigue, our student is going to feel the full force of the tiredness that they were originally fighting. In the short term, they will probably feel terrible. But if they allow themselves to rest, in the long term they will feel better because they will have stopped the unnecessary muscular activity that was not just masking but adding to the fatigue.
I was talking to a group of psycho-therapists the other day.
I said every emotion requires a particular alignment of the body. Lose that alignment and you’ll lose the emotion.
For instance, when you take up your full space in the world, your full height and width, it’s hard to be overcome by the disabling emotions of depression, contempt, anger, disgust and the like. Instead, you’ll likely feel tranquil.
If you want to feel anger, you’ll have to tighten and compress your neck and pull down and in to that emotion.
There’s nothing wrong with feeling anger when it serves you, but we’re better off not getting stuck there.
“So we’ll feel better if we sit up straight?” asked one bloke, who pulled himself up.
“Not necessarily,” I said. “If we pull ourselves up straight, we’re likely to increase our body tension, and that does us more harm than good. It would be more effective to sit or stand like you’d just received good news. If you were feeling happy, how would you sit? Go with that emotion and lit it ripple through your body.”
Before I studied Alexander Technique, I always had bad posture and my dad would always get on me to sit up straight. That advice does no good. You can’t sustain it. It feels terrible. And when you do hold on to it, you’re increasing your muscle tension and doing yourself more harm than good.
If you want to go up, there are more effective ways than pushing up. One thing you can do is to listen to every sound around you. As your ears perk up, the rest of your kinaesthesia will likely perk up too.
If you’re a visual person, you might move up more effectively by seeing everything in front of you by paying attention to what you see to your sides and then taking note of everything in between.
Anything you can do to wake up your senses and to come in to the present moment will likely result in your torso untangling and your head moving to a poised position on top of your lengthened spine.
A familiar and painful emotion I feel frequently is shame.
It got instilled in me early in life that I was bad. That I didn’t measure up. That I was a real rotter. I was letting everyone down. I was selfish and slovenly.
I learned to talk to myself in this harsh way and to others.
Surprisingly, that didn’t make me popular. It seemed that most people did not enjoy it when I turned my scathing sensibility on their weak points.
After a lot of age, a lot of failure, a lot of psycho-therapy and Alexander Technique, I’m starting to talk to myself in a more gentle way.
I notice that some of my students beat themselves up continuously. It’s a stuck pattern of self-abuse. They don’t lack for good advice but all the imperatives they’re hearing aren’t enabling them to live on a higher plane.
Jennifer Mackerras, an Alexander Technique teacher in Bristol, England, writes:
In my teaching room, I have a cupboard. It has two main uses. Firstly, it stows my computer away out of sight. This is its practical use. But it has a far more important function than that.
It stores all of my students’ sticks.
Sticks? I hear you ask.
Yes, sticks. The sticks they beat themselves up with.
Obviously I don’t mean actual physical sticks. I’m talking about something far more insidious, though just as damaging. I am talking about the things that people believe about themselves and say to me during their lessons.
“I have such terrible posture.” “I sit really badly.” “My right leg is okay. But my left leg is really bad.” “I know that my walking isn’t good, but there’s nothing I can do to make it better.” “If my furniture at work was better, I wouldn’t have this neck pain.”
Fewer than one percent of the world’s Alexander Technique teachers teach the Technique full-time (more than 25 hours a week). Almost all Alexander teachers have fewer pupils than they’d like.
Alexander pupils are scarce and therefore particularly precious to the teacher. So it hurts when you lose one.
So why do Alexander teachers lose students?
I suspect the primary reason is that we make the student feel wrong.
It’s easy as a teacher to start pointing out to the pupil things he’s doing badly. Let’s say he holds his breath when he gets in and out of a chair, tips his head back, tightens his neck, compresses the torso, locks his knees and generally acts like a right wally in this daily task.
Telling the student, “G-day mate, you looked like a right wally there” generally does not create a lasting student-teacher bond.
The teachers who make a go of it with Alexander Technique make their students feel amazing. Julia Caulder and Michael Frederick are a couple of masters of this in Los Angeles. I want to be more like them.
I come from a background that gloried in pointing out to people where they were wrong. I’ve always enjoyed taking the mickey out of folks. It kept them at arm’s length.
As I head into my dotage, I’m trying to let go of my scathing ways. I want to help people, not hurt them.
As a teacher of the Alexander Technique, I assist people in noticing how they respond to stimuli and I show them various ways of letting go of responses that don’t serve them. Instead of telling them where they’re going wrong, I try to activate their thinking so that they can see themselves more accurately and not need a guru to point things out.
Many Alexander teachers hate the question, “So can you give me some exercises to do at home to get good Alexander Technique?”
Alexander isn’t so much a set of things that you do as a letting go of needless postures.
Still, there are Alexandrian things you can do at home or in the office or as you drive down the street that will enhance your life.
* When you can, try stopping. Yes, just stop. Think about what you’re doing and then go back to the task without hurrying and without unnecessary body tension.
* Stop telling yourself to hurry. Stop rushing. Stop telling yourself there’s too much to do and not enough time to do it. Instead, tell yourself, “I’m going to do what I can in the time available.” If you refuse to rush, you’ll likely get more done with more quality and less muscle tension.
* Listen for every separate sound around you. As your ears perk up, the rest of you will likely perk up with them. You might find yourself moving up as you let go of the needless ways you hold yourself down.
* See what’s to the corner of your right eye and to your left eye and everything in between. As you notice all before you, you’ll likely start moving up.
* If you keep some awareness of the world around you, the sights and sounds and smells and textures, you’ll be less likely to compress into the task at hand (such as sitting at the computer and writing brilliant blog posts).
* Ask yourself, can I do what I’m doing more easily? With less tension and effort? Can I be more gentle with myself? Can I be a good friend to myself?
* Slowly say the word “Boston” and notice how the second syllable — when fully articulated — sends your jaw down and away. If your teeth are coming together, it’s usually a dysfunction. Most of us carry way too much tension in our jaws. Saying the word “Boston” brings your lower jaw into its physiological rest position (so that it is neither being held or pushed).
* Ask your forehead to release unnecessary tension by thinking of your face widening. Bring your attention to your eyes and see if you can let go of needless muscular holding around your eyes and around your lips. Can you let go of facial and thinking postures and instead be alive to the moment?
* Notice the thought constructs you use that increase your body tension and diminish. Typical ones include “I’ve got to be perfect” or “I’m not good enough.”
I’ve become much more active over the past three years. Rising cholesterol and blood sugar levels convinced me I had to get more exercise. So I’ve been taking yoga and riding my white steed across the internet, doing battle with dark knights and rescuing damsels in distress.
During the course of my adventures, I’ve tweaked various things.
In February 2009, I was recommended to a great physical therapist — Lyn Paul Taylor in downtown Los Angeles.
After about six sessions, he undid most of the damage I’d done to myself in my first month at yoga (where I strained various ligaments and hurt my feet and my ego).
One romantic weekend in April, I went away to the beach with my girlfriend of the time and we methodically performed over Shabbat the first 47 positions in the Kama Sutra (“a guide to a virtuous and gracious living that discusses the nature of love, family life and other aspects pertaining to pleasure oriented faculties of human life”). At one point…
When I came home on Monday and tried to walk some books back to the library, my back went out and I fell to the ground. It was most embarrassing.
The next day I went to physical therapy and Lyn told me not to swing girls around when they’d clambered on to my waist and I was holding them up with my hands under their hips and we were screaming…
He brought the staff in to look at the damage I’d wreaked to my back.
Theoretically, I could’ve walked around in agony for six weeks while I Alexandered my way out of trouble, but I needed a quick fix.
Over the next three years as penance for my sins, I threw myself into the Patrick MacDonald approach to the Alexander Technique and found this caused great strain on my knees. Instead of being moderate, I sometimes worked to excess and frequently tweaked things, precipitating more trips to Lyn Paul Taylor who put me back together again.
In the spirit of ecumenical learning from other disciplines, I present the highlights of the following podcast: “Diana Rumrill, a Physical Therapist, in Washington, DC, talks with Robert Rickover about ways in which the Alexander Technique can complement Physical Therapy.”
Diana: “Alexander Technique empowers the person. A lot of physical therapy relies on the practitioner. The physical therapist assesses what needs to be stretched and what needs to be strengthened. The Alexander Technique takes feeling better and moving better and puts it into the hands of the person.”
Robert: “There are people who don’t want that kind of responsibility. And there’s no point in trying to force it on them.”
Diana: “Right! It’s just going to end up frustrating everybody.”
Robert: “The medical model in America is that you come to the medical professional and they treat you. There’s not a lot of emphasis on teaching you to take charge of yourself. The Alexander Technique does ask you to take charge of yourself.”
“There are pre-existing conditions where in theory the Alexander Technique will change over time. The amount of time might be many reincarnations long. You’d be better off to resort to physical therapy.”
Diana: “Musicians tend to have gotten where they are because they’re intelligent and focused and ready to put in long hours of practice to reach an ideal of sound. Those same characteristics can set them up for strong ingrained painful habits.”
Robert: “Musicians can be incredibly knowledgeable about their instrument but haven’t thought through some basic stuff about their body, the instrument that plays their instrument. They can get focused on their instrument and lose track of themselves.”
She’s from Armidale, Australia and now lives in Bristol, England. She has a PhD in Drama.
Here are some highlights:
Jennifer: “Most students when they walk through the door want to be given things to do to make whatever it is that hurts to stop hurting. What I want to do is to teach them the Alexander Technique, which will give them the tools to stop doing the things that caused the hurt in the first place. It’s a matter of finding the intersection between those two points.”
Luke: “I was shocked in my first lessons when my teacher [Julia Caulder] asked me, what are you thinking about? I was not thinking my directions. I was shocked that she could tell.”
Jennifer: “I learned early on that I shouldn’t teach friends. Friendship is a different transaction from a teacher-student transaction. It’s a different relationship. Some people don’t make the transition so easily.”
“I also learned early on to not give cut-price lessons. They’re either full-price or they’re free. When you cut the price of the lesson, you’re giving the message that you don’t need to take it so seriously because you’re not paying much for it. We are professional dealing with psycho-physical unity. We have undergone training. We know what we’re doing.”
“What I do is not medicine and is not related to medicine. The Alexander Technique does not cure anything.”
It is a common experience of Alexander technique students to feel more ‘alive’ after a lesson. They often report feeling more awake, more alert, lighter, and somehow more able to concentrate on tasks. So why does this happen?
The secret lies in the stuff we do to ourselves – unnecessary muscular activity.
FM Alexander noticed in himself, and subsequently in others, that it was something that he was doing in the way he went about activities that was causing his problems – the problems that led him to create the work we call the Alexander Technique. He noticed defects in the way he was using himself.
And in his first book, Alexander noted that when defects in the poise of the body are present, “the condition thus evidenced is the result of an undue rigidity of parts of the muscular mechanisms … Which are forced to perform duties other than those intended by nature.” In other words, if we are experiencing problems, it is likely that some of our muscles are working far too hard, and probably in ways that they are not designed to do.
So it makes sense that if we are using more muscular activity than we need, and using the wrong muscles anyway, that we would start to feel fatigued.
This is why feeling an increase in energy is a common experience in Alexander Technique lessons. Students not only decrease the work done by their muscles, but they work out for themselves (with the teacher’s assistance) the most effective way of carrying out the activity they are working on. They work out which muscles they need to use, and then experience using just those muscles, doing just the right amount of work.
When you tense your face, you make wrinkles. Your brow gets all furrowed and the skin around your eyes and lips becomes tight and scarecrowy.
By contrast, when you release unnecessary tension and let go of postures of your face, you can become alive to the moment. When you read one of my witty blog posts, for instance, your face will light up and you will rejoice to be alive.
Alexander teacher Lindsay Newitter writes: “Imagine that you are making a bed and there is a wrinkle in the middle of the sheet. If you try to smooth it out with your hand, you’ll probably just end up moving the wrinkle around. (Think of lower back compression as analogous to the wrinkle). The most effective way to eliminate the wrinkle would be to tug on the ends of the sheet and take out the slack that is allowing for the wrinkle (think of releasing the tension in the neck that pulls the head down as pulling on an end of the sheet).”
Alexander teacher and classicist Dr. Frank Pierce Jones said at Tufts University in 1964: “In an aging population, postural change is almost always a change for the worse. Between 20 and 80 there is an increasing tendency for the stature to shorten, the waist to thicken, the chest to flatten, and the head to thrust forward and down… a gradual surrender of civilized man to the inexorable force of gravity…”
Many people accept these deteriorating changes in their appearance as unavoidable. Others are relying on cosmetic surgery, fitness programs and equipment, supplements, spa treatments and weight loss programs to slow the effects of aging. Yet, even after success with these programs, a person’s tension and misbalance can degrade appearance and disrupt healthy functioning. Postural change is active rather than passive. Your muscles must contract to produce a change from good to bad posture. Due to stress, injury, unconscious or conscious learning, the disruptive contractions accumulate into a habit over many years. When this happens all the time and goes undetected, the result is poor posture and pain.