“WHAT did you just say?” Alexander Technique helps tame our immediate reactions, a by-product of the practice”. (Photo courtesy of lanuiop, Creative Commons Attribution licence)

In answer to a question I was asked the other day, I don’t want to navel gaze too much but there are a few aspects of “personality”, whatever that means, that seem to change as you learn to do things more easily and with less muscular effort. There are also one or two potential pitfalls that are maybe worth a mention.

My first impressions
The quality of your perceptions is very much bound up with what’s going on with your muscles and body, oddly enough, and this is something I noticed when I first went for Alexander technique, in London about 9 years ago. I was lying on the teaching table and suddenly became very aware that an overhead light appeared in sharper focus, as though the light coming from it was in higher definition or something – this was in addition to the overall feeling of calmness.

Because I was being shown how to do things without a lot of my habitual tightening and tensing, especially of the neck and shoulders, I also felt strangely vulnerable during the sessions. And when I went into work afterwards, I was sure I must appear an odd sight to other people. But I could see in the mirror that I actually looked quite poised and natural, for want of a better word. I somehow looked less affected, less like I was trying to assert some kind of “personality” or manner of who I felt I should be.

This was just an initial experience of the mind/body connection and how we can adjust its tuning, if you like. And at the time these effects were far less important to me than the apparently “physical” changes – the fact that after a session I found I could walk up stairs more easily and that the joint in my left knee no longer made a worrying clicking noise all the time.

As I continued to learn, these kinds of experiences seemed to plateau, as I became familiar with the new way of doing things, and then every so often they would intensify again as I went through another period of change.

Taming your reactions
A prerequisite for the powerful changes produced by the Alexander Technique is to learn how to quieten down your responses, to allow something different to happen – rather than just doing something in the old familiar way. In doing this, you exercise a mental faculty that Alexander technique teachers call “inhibition” – essentially, making a conscious decision to withhold a habitual response to something (i.e. to stop tightening your leg or abdominal muscles so much as you get out of a chair).

Practising the technique develops this mental faculty much more fully, and it can be applied to many other things than just movement and the use of the body. You get better and better at not reacting to things – or not reacting habitually anyway, but making your responses more considered, if you want to. Some people reflect that this has helped them become a less addictive personality, or less obsessive, with fewer OCD-type tendencies, for example.

By stopping every so often, rather than just being carried along on the wave of habitual responses and familiar behaviour, you can also cut down on the waste activities in your life, and channel more of your energies into the goals you want to achieve.

Exercising this faculty to stop instead of reacting habitually also (it could be argued) merges with the goals of many spiritual disciplines, which place an emphasis on becoming less habitual and robotic in our responses to life, cultivating greater spontaneity.

Paranoid Android
People who tend to think “I’m not creative” or “I’m not spontaneous” are often very interested to discover that they can work on this aspect of themselves, and surprised to find the means to do this in a discipline that appears to be all about posture and the body (well, which is all about learning to make less unnecessary effort at a mind and body level, just to once again be clear).

Learning anything new can be tricky though, and it’s important to go easy on yourself if you don’t seem to ‘get it’ straight away. Many people go through a phase with Alexander technique – more often nearer the beginning of the learning process – where they become even more watchful and careful and cautious about how they are doing things. This can make you seem like a bit of an android (or “Alexandroid” as AT parlance has it). This seems a phase that it’s sometimes necessary to go through, but it should definitely be a temporary stop-off point, and if it persists then you’ve likely missed the point of what the technique is about.

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Lego man
Lego sculpture from the Nathan Sawaya exhibit at the Flinn Gallery in Greenwich, Connecticut (Photo courtesy of Tony the Misfit/Creative Commons Attribution licence)

Many people who engage in “creative” activities (writing, painting and making music being just the most obvious examples of this) find that they go through periods of high productivity and other periods where they feel somewhat blocked.
An insight into the psycho-physical aspects of creativity can be helpful. It may seem an unlikely correspondence but – and a little bit of Alexander work reveals this quite vividly – the best way to cultivate a free and expanded musculature is to give up our tendency to focus on the end result of an activity, instead to pay attention to what is happening in each moment.
This is an idea that is very similar to Zen concepts such as “act without any final goal”, “seek not perfection, but authenticity” and so on.
Adopting this kind of attitude is better for cultivating a free and easy use of the body, which in turn seems to make it easier to maintain a calmer, more aware, more open state of mind, better attune to entertaining unusual insights and making it easier to enjoy what you’re doing, to feel “in the flow”.
So if you are playing your guitar, for example, you could try to avoid thinking too hard about playing a particular sequence correctly (if that is your tendency), or of coming up with a tune that is good or which you think other people will like. Instead simply enjoy the feel of your fingers on the strings, the sensation of your breathing coming and going, the atmosphere in the room, the sound of birds chirping in the distance and so on.
After a few Alexander lessons you would also hopefully see the sense in giving some of this moment-to-moment awareness to letting your neck muscles remain un-tensed and allowing your spine to lengthen and your body to remain poised and balanced and relaxed.
If it’s not your habit, it can take a little work to cultivate the enhanced level of body awareness that supports this. But it soon becomes apparent that being aware of this mind/body relationship can be a useful tool for managing your own creative process. When people feel blocked or that their thoughts are focusing down quite a narrow corridor, that they’re struggling to think of something fresh or new, they often find that their neck has tensed up and they are tightening and contracting their musculature.
Purposefully cultivating a better relationship between mind and body can therefore be a useful tool for breaking writer’s block.
Lessons in the Alexander technique give you first hand experience of the relationship between mind and muscle, of how what you think about affects the body and posture, and vice versa.
Most people come to Alexander technique simply because of physical problems but are later fascinated to discover it can help them with activities that they previously considered purely to do with the mind.

Actors and creative people are often wary of Alexander technique, possibly because it involves something called “inhibition”. This can give the impression that it is about behaving in an overly controlled or “inhibited” manner (in the conventional sense).

In the Alexander technique we use the word not in the normal psychological sense (“feeling inhibited”, for example) but more in the way a biologist or neurologist would use it. In the context of the nervous system, “inhibition” is the opposite of excitation.

Being able to inhibit is simply being able to stop yourself before you carry out an action, such as letting your fingers twitch or move when you explain something, for example, or tensing up a shoulder when someone tries to make you angry. Rather than simply responding habitually, we can say to ourselves “right, is this what i want?” and answer “no, maybe it isn’t” or “yes it is” – in practice, and with experience, this thought process might occur in milliseconds, and be indiscernible to an observer.

In the context of artistic activity, Glyn Macdonald, an Alexander teacher who coaches actors at the Globe Theatre in London, made a casual remark at a seminar recently which I wrote down with interest: “Being an artist [ or an actor or a creative person ] is all about having a very refined control over where exactly you want to put a dod of paint”.

We all have physical responses that are instinctual and unconscious, but which are not really helpful or in line with what we want to achieve. But we can learn to increase our conscious control over these responses. Without wanting to sound too grandiose, this is a practice that enlarges our capacity for truly willed action, rather than habitual, unchosen “reaction”.