In Tune With Tone

In Tune With Tone

It’s a remarkable moment when a student experiences that a more ‘in-tensional’ upwards organization (head to toe, physical muscle tone , and cognitive awareness) has a particular tone to it. You can think of cultivating this change in tone throughout yourself like tuning a stringed instrument.

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An instrument can be out of tune in many ways. Sometimes the entire instrument is too sharp or too flat. Sometimes it’s a mix of the two - some strings are too tight while others are too loose. To tune an instrument is really about finding the needed tensions for the entire instrument to resonate to produce its fullest sound.

For some ‘high strung’ students this means reducing excess tension - letting down and finding support from the ground - discovering how your habits of tone connect to the interactions with your environments, activities, and thoughts; how these relate to excess tension, tightening, or compression in very personal or unique ways. Learning to interact with the world in a less tight way so you can express and embody your actions in a more responsive and ‘in-tune’ version of yourself.

For other students, this means activating, or an increase in tension in your state of muscle tone. Learning to experience and deal with the change in feeling associated with this different tone can be a real challenge as you engage with the world around you. Resorting to a lower tone is a safe and ‘natural’ ‘home’ - a habit from which known expressions of movement, thoughts, and sensations can arise from.

In both cases, it’s perhaps more about getting really clear on how you’re holding or collapsing yourself - increasing this awareness - then giving yourself a direction that you want to go and letting your brain/nervous system figure it out. This can be exciting, scary, freeing, funny, frustrating, or even bring a sense of deep relief - the feelings and sensations come and go, but the in-tension of the process remains the same: Cultivate a dynamic and responsive tone throughout the self in activity.


Making Music In Everyday Life

Any beautiful stringed instrument is alive with a sense of tension and tone that responds and changes with use; it can sound more rich as time goes on. I believe the same is possible in all of us.

Once you have a general ability to use your conscious awareness and intention to move towards a state of dynamic tone, then growth comes from taking yourself into ever more stimulating movements, environments, activities, and aspects of your work and life; to learn and practice how to manage, recover, expand your range and expression of movement - to manage your own ‘tone’ and make music in these different parts of your life.

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When you bring more intention and awareness, a more ‘in-tune’ or toned self to stimulating places, then growth becomes inevitable. There is no fixed system here, just constant making music with the self: Succeeding, failing, growing, loosing motivation, gaining motivation, developing skill, and changing your baseline tone. How far you go is up to you.

It’s an ongoing expression of self towards a greater state of dynamic and responsive tone throughout the whole self - more responsive to both internal experiences and external challenges. With the goal to discover and bring more of your fullest self to everything you do.

Both Together - As One

One or the other

A challenge for many of my students (especially because they tend to be highly driven and self-motivated people) is to be in a state where they can be both goal oriented or competitive, yet simultaneously self-aware.

The problem is that when they focus on the end goal they want to achieve (the finish line of the race - movement - activity - or performance), they forget or ignore themselves (loss of awareness of an embodied self). (*Alexander called this end-gaining: When in an attempt to get your goal, you place all your attention on the end goal without enough attention to optimize your whole coordinated self; thus, negatively impacting your health, function, or thus your ability to achieve your outcome.)

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On the flip side of this is that we can (especially in different stages of learning) become so process oriented that we loose track of what we are doing or where we are headed. When students place all their attention on themselves they can loose the drive to move towards their chosen objective and the benefits that arise when growing towards a goal oriented action or outcome.

In other words, when they drive themselves in a competitive achievement oriented way they loose awareness of themselves and the process; but when they focus on themselves and the process they loose the powerful internal drive (and it’s unconscious positive affects) that come with moving towards a goal: It’s one or the other.

But that’s were a key issues lies: The idea that it’s one or the other.

Instead, what if you can train yourself so that it’s not just one or the other, but so both occur simultaneously as one single unified experience.

Towards a unified experience - expanding awareness

If the goal is to bring your fullest self to your task, one way is to build the skill to work with an expanded field of awareness in activity. This means you’re simultaneously aware of your objective/task, and of yourself (not just perfect form or alignment, but a conscious awareness and shaping of your voluntary and unconscious movements and coordination). You are both the actor and the observer simultaneously; aware of and influencing how these processes operate, not as individual parts, but together as a single process that allows for the expression of new movement and a fresh outcome.

This isn’t a static 50/50 split, but a flowing balance between conscious awareness, direction, and internal unconscious motivation. It’s a constant opening up of your awareness such that you can include and cultivate more UP in the process and actions that are required by context of the goal or motivation.

The balance between how much attention you need to place on yourself in activity to cultivate yourself so you are going UP, and how much attention you can include of your end goal is one that shifts throughout the learning process. For example, in the beginning the thought alone of achieving the end goal is so powerful for most students that it immediately starts in motion the whole habitual way of moving and eliminates the opportunity for any new expression of movement/coordination in the action itself. To counteract this the student may need to entirely ignore the idea of their end goal and place attention entirely on the awareness and intention they need to cultivate their fullest coordination.

Later, they gain enough skill to observe what the thought of achieving their end goal brings up in them - and to make choices to inhibit and direct themselves in such a way as to move towards their goal while still cultivating the most UP they can for themselves in the activity. This process often brings on a state of flow and interestingly a much higher level of performance/ achievement towards the end goal. In this case, the student begins to ‘Run their own race’ - aware of and using the motivation from goal attainment, while remaining process oriented and embodied in action.

Doing, or rather cultivating this unified experience that can be learned and developed.

It’s a practice in which you continuously grow a deeper and deeper understanding of how to bring more of your fullest self to the movements, moments, and activities of your life.

A Student of "UP"

Going UP is a nickname for the coordination or ‘whole body response to gravity’ that we cultivate in the Alexander Technique.  When you learn the Alexander Technique you become a Student of UP.

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As a student of UP your daily practice is to: Re-find UP for you; learn to cultivate more of it in movement, actions, and life; use it to bring dynamic postural tone and readiness to your postures, actions, and way of being; and learn to deal with unconscious habits that bring you down.

As a student of UP your growth in posture, movement, structure, awareness, well-being etc.. all occur as a by-product of integrating UP into the framework of your movements and activities.

The more advanced a student of Up, the better you can:

  • Cultivate going UP on your own

  • Recognize and prevent unnecessary compression or constriction in activity

  • Cultivate Up in ever more challenging movements and activities

  • Get back UP on your own after you’ve lost it


A Student of Up practices:

  • To open UP with gravity rather than pulling up against it

  • To work in balance as an ongoing process (balancing) - rather than as a fixed position

  • To move and act more centred over your base of support (in both stillness and dynamic movements)

  • To catch yourself in an old posture and uses the opportunity to learn what you are doing vs. To catch yourself and immediately fix/stiffen yourself with perfect posture - missing the moment to go UP

  • To work with ongoing direction vs. an end position or fixed final destination/posture you attain

  • To learn both what to do, and what not to do in your movements

  • To bring a dynamic state of postural tension to life - a calm, yet readiness for movement - instead of a state of constriction or over relaxation/ collapse

  • To grow awareness of the relationship between your neck, head, and back as both an assessment tool for your coordination and as a place to influence your whole self to go UP

  • To think in activity as a way to shape your coordination, actions, and responses

  • To cultivate the conditions for the expression of a new movement or mobility to show up instead of trying to force it

  • To use the ground, gravity, and a downwards direction as an oppositional force (you have to come UP from somewhere)

  • To not do the old habit while simultaneously allowing for a new expression of balance, movement, and tension vs. trying to do something new while still doing the old habit

  • To refine your ability to see and influence the connections between your brain, body, and environment vs. seeing these parts as un-integrated in activity with your self located only in your brain

  • To see that long term changes in posture, structure, and postural tone (that we can influence) occur through the steady/ persistent accumulation of actions and movement over time rather than any single moment

  • To see and integrate internal and external sensory feedback as a unified experience

Awareness:

  • To build skill in self-awareness (as a prerequisite to make new choices)

  • To recognize the internal and external cues that start your habits - which lead to unnecessary tension or collapse

  • To consciously expands your field of attention - instead of getting stuck in a narrowed field of attention

  • To bring evermore directed awareness of themselves in a evermore challenging (physical and mental) activities

  • To see how the parts (i.e limb movements etc..) integrate into the larger whole pattern of coordination vs. isolating your parts from the larger whole in activity

  • To see the mind as embodied in action (brain, body, environment all influence each other)

  • To use the mindset of being conscious but not self-conscious - the practice of suspending judgment and criticism

  • To build (or re-discover) self awareness of yourself vs. ignoring awareness of yourself until something hurts or nags at you

To use any activity or movement as a fresh opportunity to cultivate more UP and grow towards your fullest potential.

The truth is that as you become more advanced with the Alexander Technique you find that there isn’t an obvious, simple set of step-by-step tactics. But there is a compass: A true north for learning that can head you in the right direction as you learn. I would call this UP.

Framework

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The Alexander Technique needs a framework to grow in.

This is because it’s a practice that you apply to the things you do.

At first, the core framework is built of your basic movements (sitting, standing, walking, moving an arm etc..). It can also quickly expand to include your everyday activities - and maybe some Alexander procedures or directed activities to help you connect the concepts to everyday life.

Your framework might also be your professional activities. These also provide a clear motivation for building your practice and can be challenging as the stakes are generally higher than in activities of normal life.

Over time it your framework can also expand to include areas with dynamic physical and mental challenges such as exercise, social interaction, or anything else that matters to you.

They key ideas is that it’s through application to novel activities that the brain and nervous system responds with growth and adaptation to meet new challenges. We need friction to grow, and for this reason if we want to keep developing we must keep expanding the framework that we apply our practice to.


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Framework Template

Why We're Here

Reasons for learning the Alexander Technique vary significantly between people. It’s one of the most interesting, yet seemingly ‘woo woo’ things about the practice; people learn it to address so many different aspects of their lives.

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Sometimes the reason is to get out of pain. Sometimes it’s looking for the edge in performance. Sometimes it’s curiosity. Sometimes it’s being encouraged (or forced) by a loving family member to fix your posture.

But what really matters for the student hoping make a change is not the reason for starting, but the reason to continue with their self-practice. For doing the honest observation to get clear on what you’re actually doing with yourself as you move in your life; for putting in the real work to build the skill necessary to integrate the practice into your movements, postures, and reactions; and for stepping up to make new choices for how you embody yourself and act in the world - over and over again.

Sometimes finding motivation to practice is easy because it gives you the immediate reward of feeling better or because it takes you away from pain. But sometimes to continue you practice can challenge your motivation - to become aware of what you’re doing, and to face it head on with new choices can be psychologically and physically (psychophysically) hard. To continue to make these new choices, away from old habits - towards where you want to go and where you want to grow - sometimes requires a deep level of drive.

Because of this, your reasons to continue your practice matter so much more that the one that brought your there in the first place.

Why we’re here:

Practice empowers us to help ourselves
It empowers us to be more responsible for aspects of ourselves that we can be more responsible for -
We can’t control everything in our lives (and the Alexander Technique is not a magic cure to address all our issues), but we can absolutely build so much more awareness and choice in how we embody ourselves and shape the actions and movements we do - especially those that ones limit us. And this often takes care of quite a lot.

Practice helps us connect to the big picture when our focus narrows down -
The Alexander Technique helps us organize our whole self in action; we learn to see how any one part (physical or mental) occurs within a larger overall pattern of your entire self in action. The practice of opening vs. narrowing our attention can positively influence many aspects of behaviour and action, our experience of the environment around us, and thus our lives; often addressing our specific issue along the way.

Practice gives us a way to stay more present in everyday life -
The Alexander Technique can only be practiced in the present moment - our health history and issues, and our concerns about what we think the future holds for us really aren't in question. In practice, those take us away from where we need our attention to be; which is using our moment by moment awareness and intention to figure out what we’re actually doing with ourselves, and to create something new right now.

Practice offers an endless source of new starts and a unlimited means to grow -
The Alexander Technique opens up the opportunity to use any single moment to develop and express more skilled awareness, choice, and enhanced coordination; to make new choices in line with a fuller expression of ourselves and abilities. Any moment becomes an opportunity for a new start, to advance your learning, and to tap into a never ending source of growth towards your fullest potential.

Habit Loops Part 1

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Although there’s no magic pill to change habits, you can change your habit loops.

Different strategies to change your habit loops are usually related to the work of psychologist B.F. Skinner who described our behaviours as a series of responses to different stimuli.

You can think of this as the simplest form of a habit loop:

STIMULUS -> RESPONSE

A stimulus happens (also know as a cue or trigger), which is followed by a response.

For example, by ringing a bell just before he fed his dogs, B.F Skinner created a connection (or habit loop) between the stimulus (ring a bell) and the response (dog salivates to get ready to eat). After a while this habit loop became established so that when he rung the bell (stimulus), the dogs would automatically salivate (response)…even without the food being there.

This model helps us to understand our automatic behaviours (habit loops), but to understand how this model connects to our movement let’s look at something called reflex theory.

Reflex Theory: Stimulus - Response and Movement

Way back in the late 1800s and early 1900s before B.F Skinner (when F.M Alexander was first developing his work) a neuroscientist named Charles Sherrington laid the foundation for a theory of motor control (of how we move) that later became know as Reflex Theory. Later, this theory became the popular way that Alexander Technique teachers explained their work. Reflex theory gives us a way to connect the stimulus - response model to our movement; and it goes something like this:

Our complex behaviours are built up of combinations (or chains) of reflexes that happen automatically in response to a stimuli. Once a stimulus happens to you, then a bunch of reflexes happen in a sequence. Together these reflexes act as the building blocks to create your movements and behaviours.

From the simplest reflex (i.e your leg kicks up when your doctor taps your knee with a hammer *this is still correct), the theory was extrapolated out to explain all complex behaviours we do. Today we know this the full picture of how we function. The problem with reflex theory is that it doesn’t fully explain many of things we can do (such as making very fast or voluntary movements). Still, keeping it in mind can be a helpful way to start your Alexander practice. Here’s how.

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Pattern Interrupt: Creating a New Loop

One way to develop your Alexander Technique practice is to think of it as a game: Interrupt your old habit loops - and create a new loop.

For example:

Old Habit Loop:

  1. Stimulus - Sit in the chair: Have little or no conscious awareness of the stimulus (action is on autopilot).

  2. Response: Compress and tighten yourself as your lower into the chair (or whatever your specific habits are); end up sitting in a collapsed way.

  3. Result: Old habit loop is completed and you get what you always got.

New Loop:

  1. Stimulus - Sit in the chair: Step one is you have to become aware of the stimulus - enough to catch it in the act.

  2. Pattern Interrupt: Stop off your old response before it gets you in a knot; and instead use inhibition/ direction to influence yourself to go UP (to uncompress or expand from head to toe).

  3. Response: Continue to give the new intentions to open UP as you lower into the chair.

  4. Result: Find yourself moving and sitting in a new (often more poised) way.

The practice is to run this pattern interrupt game over and over until your conscious awareness and intention for the new loop to occur is strong enough to move beyond the tremendous force of habit (your old loop) - to shape your coordination and self in a new direction.


Summary

  • Although there’s no magic pill for habits, you can change your habit loops.

  • Most habit change models are based on the stimulus - response loop

  • Reflex Theory says our behaviours are made up of a whole stack of reflexes that happen in response to a stimulus. This model is limited because it doesn’t explain voluntary movement, but it’s still useful to help us connect our habits of movement and posture to other stimulus-response habit change strategies.

  • One way to develop your Alexander Technique practice is to play a game in which you interrupt your old habit loops - and create a new loop.

  • Every new movement, every new stimulus you encounter, every action you do is another opportunity to break your old habit loop and to develop the skill of your new loop - and to shape a new you in the process.

Sensorimotor Habits

Habits are largely unconscious automated behaviours that our brain uses to help us navigate life.

They’re shortcuts that have (at some point) helped us, and now run in a loop - sometimes helping us, sometimes limiting us from something better.

Of course we all like to feel in control, but the reality is that unconscious habits shape us more so much more than we are aware of. Habits direct much of our lives, and we have much less choice in the matter than we’d be comfortable to admit.

The Alexander Technique fundamentally deals with habit change; with increasing our ability to choose. Or perhaps more accurately, to exert more influence over ourselves - to direct us towards where we want to go while simultaneously directing us away from where we don’t want to go (the previous habit).

Sensorimotor Habits

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At it’s core the Alexander Technique doesn’t aim to teach you how to improve broad habits such of flossing your teeth or not eating that cookie every time you see the bag on your counter. Instead, it deals with what we can call sensorimotor habits.

Our sensorimotor system processes sensory messages (such as vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch, vestibular, and proprioception) and produces responses (motor outputs - such as making goal directed movements or adjusting postural tone to maintain balance).

Sensorimotor habits relate to how we integrate our sensations and movements.

These habits are the unique ways we move, balance ourselves, perform skills and actions, manage our attention and awareness, and experience and integrate sensations of ourselves and the environments around us. Through this they’re fundamentally connected to all your other broader habits.

Sensorimotor habits can be thought of as how you embody yourself in action: A keystone or core group of habits that make up all our actions. Because of this they are part of everything you do - exercising, performing on stage, washing the dishes, sitting at the computer, meeting new people at a party…everything.

Just One Habit

One way to simplify your Alexander Technique practice is to make progress on just one habit: The unconscious habit of compressing yourself (or pulling yourself down) as you move and do your activities.

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One single habit, that we’re consistently unaware of, done in very personal ways, in pretty much everything we do.

Sure there are countless variations (different environments, balance, awareness, unique way of embodying ourselves, etc..) but keeping it simple can still be a great place to start.

For example, the simple act of drinking coffee:

We compress the torso onto itself and collapse forwards; compress the head backwards onto the spine which compresses the full length of your spine; squeeze our shoulders upwards and into the body as we bring the cup towards us to take a sip; and pull/ compress your neck forwards and downwards as we take a sip.

The opposite is un-compressing, expanding, or tapping into the opening upwards with gravity response - cultivating dynamic postural tone and balance in yourself in any movement or activity:

Un-compress the torso and open upwards from your points of balance; undo the squeeze of your head from the top of your spine as you reach for the cup; let your shoulder rest to the side and remain easeful as you bring the cup towards you to take a sip; allow your neck to lengthen upwards in space away from your base of support as you take a sip. Savour and enjoy.

This is a simple, but challenging practice. Real progress is made through the accumulation of many small 1% changes each day in this single habit: 1% less unconscious compression, 1% more awareness in activity, and 1% more conscious un-compression or expansion; small changes that become exponential over time.