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.

It’s About The How

The Alexander Technique can be hard to describe because it’s not about what you do, it’s about how you do it.

Although it informs, the Alexander Technique leaves the choice of activity (or response) up to you.

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It doesn’t have mandatory movements, patterns, or physical exercises. Instead, the Alexander Technique brings practical intelligence to the things you choose to do; to include more skilled use of yourself in activity - and to grow through the process.

But should I exercise? What about Tai chi? Bodyweight Training? Dance? Meditation? Etc.. Are these in line with the Alexander Technique?

Yes.

Because it deals with balance, posture, movement, and awareness of how thought and physical responses interact it can be applied to a surprising number of things. Most activities you choose can become a framework for your practice.

These things might include work tasks, performance, exercise, communication and social interaction, or everyday activities and movements.

The difference from how you normally do these activities is that instead of doing them unconsciously - you practice placing just enough attention on yourself in activity (in particular to your neck-head-back in relation to your ground) to foster the whole body response as you do these things.

This practice acts like a flashlight to your awareness to help you discover the personal ways you may be limiting yourself through overly compressing/ collapsing/ or tensing yourself in these actions. To discover how you get in the way of your full stature, and to influence a change in the pattern of your movements and action through conscious attention (to encourage the whole self to respond with length and expansion) is the game.

Going ‘UP’

Going ‘Up’ is a fundamental experience of the Alexander Technique.

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Cultivating this ‘whole body response to gravity’ is a central aim of both the Alexander Technique lesson and of a personal Alexander Technique practice; and how to tap into this response during your everyday life is a real skill.

To describe the experience with words always falls short, but it’s helpful to work towards a shared understanding. John Nichols, an Alexander Technique teacher in New York describes it as,

” ….this natural, whole body response to gravity so that from the contact of your feet on the ground you’re opening up all the way through. You have this springy dynamic that takes you up through your spine and opens you through the thorax, the back of the shoulders, the hips, everything is coming up and out in response to the contact of the feet on the surface of the planet.”

Going ‘Up’ can also seem elusive in that you can’t get directly. Instead, the response shows up (or emerges) when your attention and attitude, biomechanics and muscle tone, inhibition and activation of various aspects of our motor commands and movement, all come together together with just the right timing in just the right way.

But once you consciously set up the conditions to tap into this whole body response - you go ‘Up’.


Here are a few more things people notice about it

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  • It often comes with a feeling (kinaesthetic perception) of lightness; as if you’re lighter in weight or ‘floating’ in your movement.

  • The experience is of it happening to you, with you, or through you - as opposed to you doing it. It seems to be an unconscious process, which can be cultivated by conscious processes.

  • It makes you more, rather than less ready for movement and response.

  • You lighten upwards instead of pulling up.

  • It leads to a state of being more open and responsive to yourself and the environment as a single unified experience.

  • It can involves opening up and out, like a flower in bloom

  • It’s expanding the self vs. compressing the self; as in expanding into the space around you (height, width, and depth).

  • Under touch, the person ‘going up’ feels lighter and easier to guide or move - like a responsive dancer as opposed to a collapsed or overly tight dance parter.

  • It often occurs with state of open focus as opposed to a narrowed focus

  • It’s clearly not yet communicated to others well without direct raw experience, nor accessed easily enough by students without significant skill

  • For most students it is a self-reinforcing experience; it feels good so you want more of it, or want the feeling to remain. Sometime the experience is so unique in sensation that the simple judgment of good or bad simply doesn’t match what students feel.

  • It can stay through further change and growth, but once you try to hold onto and keep it the same you loose it

  • It can feel like a reflex because it can ‘happen’ in a suddenn moment - but through reflexes may play a part, it’s more that a reflex.

  • It’s opposite includes all the various forms of compression (through pulling down or collapse, or tightening/ constriction in movement, posture, and reaction etc..).

  • Once you’ve had the experience of ‘going up’, it becomes much easier to talk about the Alexander Technique, to read an alexander Technique book and know what in the world the author is getting at, and to articulate at least one clear result of the practice.

  • Going ‘UP’ is not exclusive to the Alexander Technique.


Pause the Prediction

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Perception is our belief of what happened.

It’s the combination of the unconscious prediction of our movements and the world around us, with our self observations*.

When our prediction and our observation combine to create and determine a perception, we generally feel we know what happened. But what happens when we pause the prediction?

Given that prediction in movement is involuntary, this likely isn’t possible. But what if we simply remove the whole idea of the act from our minds before (and as) we act?

Talking but not talking…

Walking but not walking…

Playing the piano but not playing the piano…

This concept seems totally crazy… until it happens. Artists, athletes, and people of all backgrounds have describe something similar when in a state of flow - when things just ‘happen to you’ or ‘happen through you’.

So what happens when you pause the prediction? Where does the ball land?


* Biological Learning and Control: Shadmehr and Mussa-Ivaldi).

Muscle Tone, States, and Dancers

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One way to simplify how you think about the way you carry yourself is to imagine possible dance partners: The collapsed/ sluggish dance partner; The tight/ stiff dance partner; The disconnected dance partner; or the responsive dance partner.

Collapsed / Sluggish

The contact you feel with the collapsed dancer is that of heaviness. When they still (such as sitting or standing without movement) they are under-engaged and often look or feel compressed, deflated, or like a ton of bricks. Imagine trying to pick someone up who doesn’t want to be picked up…they can’t be moved.

Tight / Stiff

This person is doing the opposite of the collapsed/ sluggish dancer; It’s as if they’re trying to hold themselves off the floor. They’re over engaged and often look or feel tight, strained, anxious or inflexible. The interesting thing is that they can also feel heavy, but in a different way; they too can’t easily be moved (internally or externally).

Disconnected

This person is often a mixture of the two above: They’re both collapsed and sluggish in some parts of themselves and tight or stiff in others. They’re often quite flexible in some areas, while very rigid in others. Moving with them, or dancing with them, really relies heavily on your own coordination/organization as a way to create the consistency (or framework) for their easeful movement - if you’re heavy, tight, or disconnected yourself, then the other person will be difficult to move with.

Responsive

The responsive dancer feels toned, attentive, calm, and ready to move. They’re not leaning on you for support so you don’t feel weighed down by them, and they’re not stiff so they don’t block movement. The seem like they’re listening to your every move and thought, and to their own internal intentions. They’re present and they emanate presence. They feel light under your touch but not flimsy or held, and when you move together they respond quickly and without the need to ‘get ready’ - they’re already there but they’re not far ahead of your movement - you get to be a part of a dance with them.


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In life we all have our habitual states that follow one of the above characters more than the others. It may even be the case that we need all these different states to navigate life.

Moreover, we often flow in-between these states as we embody ourselves in action; sometimes we even combine them in different ways (For instance: Heavy and collapsed but then held tightly or pulled down in a compressed way).

Nonetheless, there seems to be a certain aliveness that comes when being in the state of responsiveness that is a truly remarkable way to live. Like the curiosity of a toddler in motion looking around and responding to the world in flow.

Cultivating thought, intentions, and practices to access more responsiveness from head to toe in yourself is a game worth playing.

How many lessons?

How many Alexander Technique lessons should I take?

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An important question when considering lessons, here are some things to keep in mind to help you make a more informed decision as you consider developing your own Alexander Technique practice.

Your Personal Goals Matter

The truth is that ‘how many Alexander Technique lessons’ largely depends on three factors:

  1. Your own personal goals

  2. The condition you are in when you start

  3. Your practice of the material between lessons

These three factors all greatly influence how many lessons you may need to attain the result you’re hoping to achieve.

A First Lesson

Because the Alexander Technique is understood and communicated through direct kinaesthetic experience (our sense of body positions and tensions) it’s quite common that between 1-3 lessons with hands on guidance truly help people experience and clarify if the Alexander Technique if right for them. It can also help them determine if they’ve found a teacher that is a great match for their learning style and needs.

One thing to keep in mind is that it’s simply not possible to learn the whole Alexander Technique in one lesson. Instead, a first lesson can provide you with an embodied experience to help you decide if the Alexander Technique is a direction or skill you truly want to learn more about and have in your life. It can also be a simply fascinating and rewarding experience.


An Education

A common misunderstanding when considering the number of lessons is to view the Alexander Technique as a treatment instead of an education and practice.

When we think of treatment we think, ‘how many treatment sessions do I need to cure my problem’. For example, will it take ten physiotherapy sessions to cure my knee pain?

Education is different from treatment in that it’s about learning something new; and learning the Alexander Technique is similar to learning any new a skill. For example, it may take 10 lessons to learn how to play a basic song on the piano, or to learn a few conversational sentences in a foreign language, but this really depends on how much you practice in between lessons, if you have any previous background in the material or not, and to what level you want to perform at.

So is the Alexander Technique a treatment or an education? On the continuum of treatment and education - Alexander Technique lesson falls on the side of education.

Still, the truth is that the Alexander Technique is an education and practice with ‘therapeutic’ side benefits. Learning follows an educational approach; self-knowledge and skill development are always the main focus of any lesson (you learn how to organize your movements, posture, attention, and self-organization in action). The therapeutic benefits are a distinct by-product that show up indirectly as a part of the learning and growth process. For most people, these therapeutic benefits are the motivation for taking lessons. Often, as your skill in the Alexander Technique develops and you’ve worked past your the issue that brought the person to lessons, then the motivation for learning comes from performance enhancement, or from wanting to move towards personal transformation.

To use an analogy, learning the Alexander Technique is more similar to the piano example above than to the physiotherapy one. To learn the very basics may be all you want or need and so may only require a basic course of lesson (see below); while to gain more mastery of the instrument would require a whole different level of practice and commitment.

Specific Conditions: Back pain, Neck Pain, Parkinson’s, and Anxiety

One area where a guidelines exist on how many lessons to consider is back pain; research suggests that positive results have lasted over one year for people who took 24 Alexander Technique lessons. 6 lessons with consistent exercises (non-Alexander technique exercises) also had positive results for persons with back pain, but the results for 6 lessons didn’t show the same retention over time. For reductions in neck pain and associated disability 12 lessons have demonstrated positive results.

Students take lessons for a variety of other reasons that commonly include (to name just a few): Posture related concerns, anxiety and/or performance anxiety, stress management, and self-management strategies to assist with Parkinson’s. For these challenges a first lessons, then a basic course of lessons (see below) is recommended.

Side note: As a teacher I would caution potential students of falling into the limiting trap of viewing the Alexander technique as a treatment in which you go and have 24 sessions to cure your back pain. This approach greatly limits the benefits you can gain as it interferes with a focus on the learning process. Instead, try a couple lessons to see if you feel the technique is something you want to learn and incorporate in your life at this time. If it’s not for you then no problem, you can invest your time and energy somewhere else that might benefit you more at this time. If it is for you then great, dive in and develop your personal Alexander practice!

General Guidelines

Over the years many students, through a basic course of lesson and self-application, have developed their own personal Alexander Technique practice. They’ve integrated the Alexander Technique into their everyday life and professional activities - and have resolved the issues that brought them to lessons in the first place while further enhance their own lives in the process. Learning is not rocket science, it’s real self-motivation and practice.

Here are some basic guidelines shared between many teachers:

  • A basic course of around 30 lesson provides most practicing students with the ability to practice the Alexander Technique with significant independence.

  • Depending on the condition they are in, 12 lessons can provide many people with a general introduction. This means that you’ll have experienced the Alexander Technique enough to generally know what it’s about, and will have started to develop some tools to integrate it into your life. If you’re highly self-motivated and practicing the technique in your life then you may have also started to make some real and significant changes for yourself in this time.

  • Most students report a frequency of 1 lessons per week a minimum for consistent learning during their course of lessons. When out more than a week most beginning students don’t seem to be able to keep their development going in an effective way. The general rule seems to be that in the beginning increased frequency can help with retention; later, increased space between the lessons can help facilitate independent application/ practice.

  • Students wanting to go even further, or those continuing to find benefit often continue beyond a basic course of lessons or do periodic ‘refresher’ lessons or mini-intensive. This is particularly the case for performers or people who travel for work.

The Teacher, and The Teacher-Student Relationship Matters

Over the years the Alexander Technique has seen a few branches of teaching styles in regards to how the technique is thought about and communicated to students. Some teachers are able to teach in different ‘styles’ to accommodate their students, whereas other teachers have a particular approach they find most beneficial. What’s important here is that when considering lessons you:

  1. Learn with a certified teacher - regardless of ‘style’ this means they share the base level appropriate training and follow a professional code of conduct.

  2. You enjoy working with and learning from this person. A great student-teacher relationship can make a large different in the rate of learning and retention. I always recommended taking at least a first lesson with a teacher to ensure you’re a great match before diving in.

Basic Guidelines To Make a More Informed Decision

To summarize, here are a few guidelines to help you make a more informed decision about your learning.

  • The number of lessons depends on your goals, how much you apply the Technique between lessons, the condition you are in when you first start, and how far you would like to take it.

  • People commonly take lessons for health related issues, performance enhancement, or personal transformation. The approach to all three is similar in that in all cases you learn to practice the Alexander Technique in your life and the benefits and specific goals follow as an indirect result of the practice.

  • 1-3 lessons are recommended to start. Committing to this can help you determine if the Alexander Technique is right for you at this time and ensure you’re teacher is a great match for your learning style.

  • A basic course of 30 lesson can provide practicing students with the ability to practice the Alexander Technique with greater independence.

  • 24 lessons is recommended to help with back related concerns with longterm positive outcomes.

  • An course of 12 lessons can provide you with a basic introduction, and (if you are a person who already exercises regularly) some basic skill to better self-manage issues associated with back and/or neck pain.

  • Most students report a frequency of 1-2 lessons/ week minimum for consistent learning during their course of lessons. In the beginning increased frequency can help with retention; later, increased space between the lessons can help facilitate independent application/ practice.

  • The story is that students of F.M. Alexander (the founder of the technique) used to take 30 lessons for 30 days straight to get right to it - they would then take refreshers or build from there as needed.

  • It’s common for students to continue to take lessons after their original concern has been resolved because they enjoy it and continue see benefits in other areas of their lives.

  • Consider speaking with your teacher to create a plan to start your learning, and remember that how many lessons you take is always ultimately up to you.

Final Considerations

Learning the Alexander Technique can be a truly rewarding and life changing experience. Remember, the real lesson always starts when you leave the teacher’s studio and walk back into your life - it’s the your personal practice that drip by drip can make a truly incredible wave of positive change.