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(Image courtesy of animaster)

I used to find it really hard to do things when I knew someone was watching. I’d become self-conscious, uncoordinated and clumsy (or more so anyway). It’s interesting to observe this effect in other people at close quarters. The desire to be right – and associated fear of being wrong – is no doubt developed within us at a young age. But it seems to be a great enemy of, well, of excellence (that maybe sounds a bit prattish – agh, I feel like you’re looking at me while I’m writing!).

What happens when you become self conscious, or when you start to worry about not being right? Well, maybe you feel yourself getting a bit sweaty, feeling a bit worried. From a muscular point of view, there is a subtle sense of certain muscle groups contracting and the person beginning to lose height and width, to squash themselves. If the feeling was ramped up continuously you would probably end up curled up like a ball on the floor (I’m sure we’ve all wanted to do that at some point in our lives, or when watching The Office).

It’s a variant of something physiologists call the ‘startle response’, which covers the whole range of postural responses to stress. Fearful emotions like self-consciousness and embarrassment tend to come on with a kind of “withdrawing from the world” response, something like the shape shown below (shown in exaggerated form for illustration purposes).

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Image (above): A version of the “startle response”. The withdrawal reaction that can accompany a fearful situation (includes tensing of jaw and face, pulling forward of neck, lifting shoulders, tightening abdominal muscles, contraction of hamstrings)

It’s a helpful shape to adopt if you want to hide yourself from a predator, which is probably why we evolved to do it. But it also makes you quite stiff, tense, unbalanced (making it harder to do anything requiring good balance – caution, tight-rope walkers!), as well as bringing some quite uncomfortable emotions in its train. So that helps explain why I found myself becoming uncoordinated when I was practicing keepy-ups in the school playground and suddenly noticed that girl from fourth year looking out the window.

So exponents of Alexander Technique work on themselves to develop the ability to withhold this kind of response, and to allow the body to come into a state of muscular expansiveness, balance, poise… whatever you want to call it. Even in the face of difficult or fearful situations.

What feels right might be wrong
Related to self-consciousness is the desire to be right. One unhelpful aspect of the desire to be right is the fact that people believe their own kinaesthetic senses can be trusted. If we believe we’re standing up straight, then we must be, we conclude. Most people persist in this delusion even when the evidence is stacked against it (even the odd nasty surprise in years past when noticing my stooped form reflected in a shop window wasn’t enough to make this clear to me).

Most of us develop a kinaesthesia very tuned to our current repertoire of postures and habituated actions. Moving outside of this limited range of movements makes us feel like something is wrong. If you develop a habit of standing like the crouched figure depicted above, then over time this will come to feel to you like standing up straight. To then be shown how to actually stand up straight would feel odd, like you were going to fall over backwards. For me it also felt slightly embarrassing as well, like I was now holding myself in an unnaturally upright manner.

Reading an article the other day about one of the first generation of Alexander teachers, Marjorie Barlow, the author Mike Cross mentioned that “Marjorie did her best to persuade me that, in the field of working on the self, being wrong is the best friend we have got.” And those working in this discipline – which is a fascinating one for its track record in helping people become much better coordinated – generally find that this is one of the major obstacles to progress, this unwillingness to allow yourself to be wrong.

So it’s worth exploring on your own. Notice your need to be correct for the tension it brings in the neck and shoulders. If you’re a juggler, for example, practise letting the balls fall to the ground and not being bothered about it. Let all that neck or shoulder tension – your preparedness to duck down to catch a falling ball – fall away. And then practise juggling after a period of this practice and notice if you find it easier to remain relaxed, upright and in good balance.

If you already have some familiarity with Alexander concepts like inhibiting and directing, you can apply these to situations that make you embarrassed or “in the spotlight” to an uncomfortable extent. So you can quieten bodily responses like shoulder tension, and carry on breathing, and lengthening and widening outwards (sorry if this means nothing to you).

Anyway… this has been a ramble on the subject of self-consciousness and fear. And I don’t even feel like curling into a ball and disappearing. 

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On being an explorer

June 2, 2012

In making improvements to our overall poise and use of ourselves, one of the difficult ideas to grasp at first is that of allowing something to happen, rather than making it happen. Most of us (well, certainly adults) are accustomed to doing things in an effortful way, so it doesn’t feel like we’re doing something properly if we aren’t making an effort, and if we can’t feel something very definite happening in our muscles.

This is a factor that can hamper your attempts to become less stiff and uncoordinated. We can undo some of these muscular knots we’ve tied around ourselves, and learn to do things more easily.

When I’m attempting to show someone how to move more easily, and improve the way things are working, I might say something like “let your knees go forwards” or “let gravity fold you at the knees and ankles” and they will be a bit puzzled and say something like “uh… so you just want me to bend my knees then?” At this point it will be clear that they simply want to do something they’ve done before, selecting a familiar program (“bend the knees”) from a storehouse of remembered kinaesthetic experiences; in this case, one that – in many cases – involves using the leg muscles in a very stiff, controlled way (with an accompanying tendency to stiffen unnecessarily in the back).

To experience a new way of moving your legs, for example, requires a certain bravery or willingness to just let something happen that may be unfamiliar, and that hasn’t happened before. To this end, Alexander Technique teachers sometimes recommend viewing yourself as an explorer. Or at least, someone who is willing to have experiences and perform movements that are alien and unfamiliar to you, kinaesthetically.

The Alexander Technique outlines a fairly clear principle that you want to work to (instead of just trying to perform a movement the way it feels familiar to do so), which is to do with allowing the neck to be free, so the head can balance more on top of the spine, and you avoid narrowing or shortening the back so much… there are many more details but I won’t go into it here.

But the unfamiliar kinaesthetic experiences you might have when working with an Alexander teacher, or working on your own, can be a little unsettling. If we find ourselves standing in a way that doesn’t feel like we’re standing (even if we can see in the mirror that we are) then we might simply want to revert to what feels like standing again, because it’s safe and familiar, even if the new way feels much easier and more pleasant… You can view it as a struggle between your feeling self and your rational, thinking self. 

I was recently reading an account by an Alexander Technique teacher, Missy Vineyard, of one of her early lessons in the technique, after which she felt like her body had disappeared. She felt like she wanted to look in the mirror to confirm that it was still there. 

It’s one of the odd experiences people can have when working with this discipline. When things are working well, and you’re not used to it, it might feel like your body is not quite “there” in the usual way. This is partly because there is a relative quietening down of muscle activity. If you think about it right now, if you’re aware of certain parts of your body as you read this – perhaps the backs of your hands or the back of your neck – it’s because there is muscle activity going on there (perhaps muscle activity that you don’t really need).

After a good Alexander lesson, there will tend to be an overall quietening down of a lot of this unnecessary activity, which can produce a sense that you’re not really as aware of your body as usual. But it’s important not to misinterpret what this sensation means.

In my early days of going for Alexander lessons, I wrongly believed the feeling of “my body’s not really there anymore” meant that I wasn’t in touch with my body any longer, that in future I should recreate this improved use of myself by shutting out the sensation from my body, screening it from my awareness.

At first this seemed to work a little, to help me return to what felt like a state of good use, of lightness and freedom in movement, but not for long. I was – I now suppose – simply relying on a conditioned response, produced by the lesson, to this feeling of “I’m not very aware of my body right now”.  When I returned to that feeling, some of the good use I enjoyed in the lesson would seem to return.

What was really happening in the lesson was that a lot of my muscle activity had quietened down. In fact you’re more aware of sensations than normal when you’re using yourself a bit better – it’s just that there’s maybe less going on for you to be aware of. Well, it’s probably also the fact that the new use has an unfamiliarity about it that can create the (wrong) impression that you’re not aware of your body so much.

So yes, I guess I would advise my earlier Alexander self not to try and ignore bodily sensation (this is probably very important – the “repression” alarm bells will possibly be ringing in some people’s heads as they read this). And also, now, I find it helpful to scan my body and notice what parts of me I can feel, and allow the activity in these areas to quieten down a little, allowing myself to maintain more of an easy, poised state.

Conversation
Many people are unconscious of the postural habits that take over when they’re in conversation. (Image courtesy of *clairity*, Creative Commons Attribution licence).

It’s often fascinating to be shown how you can exercise a greater level of choice over how you respond to situations, and to be less of a slave to unconscious habit.

This has far reaching implications, from improving posture (and ridding yourself of problems like a sore knee or back) to approaching situations of all kinds in a more spontaneous, fresh and creative way, including social situations.

Just to give a concrete example: I used to find myself gesturing compulsively with my hands when I spoke. It was something that people often commented on, but I didn’t think there was much wrong with it. I felt it helped me get my points across if I had to make a speech, for example.

It wasn’t necessarily a problem except that it had become a habit which I had less and less control over, so that even when lying down, supposedly still, in an Alexander Technique session, my hands twitched and moved a little as I spoke. I wasn’t aware of this until it was pointed out to me.

I think it’s reasonable to say that you want to find yourself doing things because you’ve chosen to do them, rather than just because you’re in the grip of an unconscious habit. And I realised that my relentless gesturing had become something slightly robotic and compulsive.

On a postural level, this is obviously particularly relevant to actors. If you habitually hunch your shoulders and slink your head and neck forwards as you speak then that’s no use to you unless you’re playing the role of a slightly shy, fumbling person (notwithstanding the fact that this fixed way of holding neck and shoulders will be contributing to a general sense of postural collapse, affecting breathing and increasing your likelihood of developing back problems).

So if this is your tendency, for example, experiment with stopping it. Perhaps if you find yourself in a slightly dull conversation where your mind is tending to wander, you could practice this skill while you listen. Notice your tendency to do whatever your postural habit might be in conversation – whether it be hunching the shoulders or nodding compulsively or tightening your neck – and see if you can stop it or do it less.

You might notice some slightly uncomfortable feelings coming up, such as a fear that you are being rude or that you look odd. See if you can just calmly observe these feelings while carrying on the conversation, and see if they gradually pass. Or they might alert you to some problems you have with social anxiety that you want to work on.

If you want to go back to the habit of hunching your shoulders or whatever, then try to do so only as a conscious choice. On the other hand, you might notice that you feel a bit less tense and a bit calmer letting yourself quieten down these compulsive muscular responses. It might be something you want to carry on with, or adapt into your movement repertoire.

And if you practice Alexander Technique already, you’ll find it a bit easier to let your whole body just come into a natural, non-held state of poise.

So it’s useful to keep an eye on your postural habits and consider whether or not you want to carry on with them, particularly in social situations – which tend to cause most of us to stiffen a little, especially in the neck region. You don’t need to spend your life in the grip of unconscious habits. As well as improving your poise and general well-being, making you less prone to feeling tense or stiff or tired, this kind of practice is also cultivating your natural spontaneity and ability to respond to situations in a fresh and considered way.

Mirror
(Image courtesy of gothick_matt, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)

Having trouble with posture? Not able to get comfortable? Or maybe you’re struggling with activities that require good co-ordination. It could be that you’re relying on faulty kinaesthesia.

This is something we all appear to suffer from, to some extent. To put it another way, the information coming from your muscles and joints – which you rely on to orient yourself and your body parts in space – is unreliable. If you read further on, you’ll perhaps get a chance to notice this in yourself.

When teaching improved patterns of posture and movement, Alexander technique teachers tend to make use of a mirror. During a session, someone will say: “Oh, it feels like I’m leaning way backwards” or something similar, when they aren’t actually leaning back at all, or not as much as they think. It just feels that way because of long-standing habits of posture and the associated feelings of muscle tension.

A quick look in the mirror confirms this, often with slight shock or hilarity.

If you’re in the habit of slumping forwards a lot, for example, this will feel normal to you, and the physical sensations from your body – or kinaesthesia – will tend to keep you stuck in that habit.

Try something just now: fold your arms. Take a moment to notice how you do it. Perhaps you fold them right-over-left. You probably do if you’re right handed.

Now try it again. Only this time, do it the other way (left-over-right if the last paragraph applies to you).

It may well feel slightly strange. But if you look in the mirror you’ll see that it looks perfectly normal.

This tendency to cling to familiar sensations – even when they might be associated with bad or unhelpful posture habits – is pretty universal. We all tend to suffer from it. But it will hinder your attempts to make constructive changes to the way you sit, stand or carry out physical acts. So it’s something to be aware of.

You can help yourself by using a mirror. If you’re practising yoga or martial arts at home, or even if you’re just trying to get a better position in front of the computer, set a mirror up nearby so that you can verify that your physical sensations match what you see with your eyes.

In practice many of us find it difficult to observe ourselves objectively. As an Alexander Technique teacher pointed out to me recently, we’re much like the anorexic who always sees a fat person in the mirror. It’s taken me a long time to be able to really observe my own postural twists in the mirror, when they occur, and to use this as the basis for changing things. I now find it a great help when I’m doing slightly tricky or strenuous things – for me – like practising new tunes on the guitar.

If I can check my tendency for one shoulder to gradually creep upwards, with the accompanying increase of strain on one side of the body, then I can play more easily and for longer periods.

Care has to be taken here though. It doesn’t do to try and change things directly. If one shoulder appears to be higher than the other, for example, forcing them both to be level to each other will likely mean that you’ve just acquired another layer of unhelpful muscle tension, which might cause other problems. You want to be looking for ways that you can release muscles, and bring yourself into a more poised, balanced, use of the body – where the shoulders are more likely to be level.

If you think this is a problem area for you, it’s worth going for an Alexander lesson, to see what they can show you. Or if you feel you’re not able to do what you want to be doing, in terms of carrying out some physical act, you might want to start exploring this. Maybe you’ve taken up yoga or a sport and found yourself frustrated at your inability to properly carry out some of the directions given by your instructor, and you don’t know why.

Some useful study resources are available here.


“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.

There’s a lot of subtlety to how you can go about the task of freeing the neck and directing the head forwards and upwards (an important key to applying the Alexander technique, for those who are newcomers).
A lot of A.T. teachers will conceptualise “forwards and up” to their students as being like a line pointing in a diagonal direction to a point located above and in front of them. But another teacher I spoke to recently feels quite strongly that this can lead to people pointing the head in this direction in quite a fixed way, which is obviously undesirable.
It’s better to keep these two ideas – of “forward” and “up” – separate, she said. So you should be thinking of the head going forward (relative to the backwards direction) and up (relative to downwards). In that way, you will probably find it easier to direct the head while freely moving it around, back and forth – looking at the sky, looking down at your shoes and so on.
In our efforts to “free the neck, to let the head go forward and up” we can sometimes forget that this corresponds to quite a light, non-fixed balance of the head. It should be easy for someone to come along and move your head this way and that (rotating it from side to side or tilting it up and down, for example) with ease, while the head simply balances freely on top of the spine. Well, obviously give them a slap if they do it without asking.

Empty posturing

March 15, 2010

It’s easy to assume there must be some benefit to holding ourselves upright in what we believe to be a straight position, and that this is the way to improve posture. Unfortunately it’s not quite so simple (how did you know I was going to say that?).

During movement, your posture – the relative position of different parts of your body – is changing all the time. So there isn’t a correct posture that will help you perform a dance move or take a free kick more effectively. These acts require a dynamic and fluid transition between hundreds of different postures.

Runners who want to improve their technique or reduce a tendency towards injury will often pick up on the idea that they need to hold their pelvis or their chin or some other part of the body in a particular position. Unfortunately this tends to restrict breathing and movement – and any position that has to be held in place is going to require extra muscular effort in the long run, leading to tiredness.

But it is possible to cultivate a naturally better posture, one that doesn’t have to be held in place and doesn’t require muscular effort. And this can have enormous knock-on benefits for your ability to perform skilful or strenuous activities for long periods with fewer injuries and less of a tendency to tire out.

Physiologists and anatomists have long recognised that there are muscular reflexes that naturally operate to keep us upright, in a way that uses involuntary musculature – deep, postural muscles that seem to operate well in children and well co-ordinated adults, but which most people are out of the habit of using.

You can encourage these muscular reflexes to operate by resting in a position such as semi-supine (see image below) for a few minutes every day. All you need is a few books under your head so it is elevated off the floor slightly. Feet should be flat on the floor (about hip width apart), thighs parallel and hands resting on your front. Try this out for 15 minutes a day for a week or so and see how it feels.

semi-supine position

The correct attitude is also helpful. It’s good if you can be calm and refrain from any tendency to grip or hold onto muscles, and to keep your eyes open and remain aware of your surroundings.

It’s easy to be sceptical of the idea that what looks like “doing nothing” will bring about any benefit. But lying in this position is an opportunity for our normal muscular reactions – which in most of us interfere with natural, healthy co-ordination of the body – to ease off so that we can allow the deeper, involuntary musculature a chance to come into play a bit more. Less is more, you might say, when it comes to using the body well and cultivating good co-ordination.

It’s a position used extensively when teaching the Alexander technique, a form of movement re-education that has been shown in clinical trials to be highly effective when used to treat back pain, for example (as this video explains).

The jaw is an area where problematic muscle tension can be held, interfering with attempts to improve the way we’re using ourselves. For one thing, it’s a very strong part of the body. Witness the feats of circus acrobats or the fact that we can demolish some fairly hardy foodstuffs in a few seconds by flexing these muscles.
But they are quite closely linked to the muscles around the head/neck region, and therefore exert a pretty powerful influence on them. If we want to cultivate an easy, less-fixed head/neck relationship, then it’s important to ensure that we are not inadvertently tensing the jaws too much. It can be useful to think of releasing the muscles under the chin or those in the tongue, especially the root of the tongue. Directing the top row of teeth away from the bottom might also be helpful.
Jaw tension sometimes signifies an unacknowledged attitude of determination or “I must do this correctly”, all of which is obviously anathema to the kind of non-end-gaining, easy-going mindset that is key to working with the Alexander technique successfully. Let go of the jaws a bit and you’ll feel yourself better able to let go of this kind of unhelpful attitude. And you might find things going “up” another notch if you do.

If I had to summarise the Alexander Technique in a sentence, I might say that it’s about finding a way to stop pulling yourself down, and to activate the postural mechanisms that take you “up”.

That these postural mechanisms exist is widely accepted, and they have been studied and written about by physiologists (often cited as the first important text in this area is Neurophysiology of Postural Mechanisms by T.D.M. Roberts. London: Butterworths, 1967).

It’s the practical implications of these postural mechanisms – this innate tendency to go “up” – that we’re concerned with in the Alexander Technique. Most of us do a lot of stuff that gets in the way of the working of this mechanism. Perhaps we grip our shoulders or biceps unnecessarily while writing or using the computer, for example.

So the technique is about clearing away all this unnecessary stuff so the postural mechanisms can work unhindered – as they do in young children and some well co-ordinated adults. And when they do, the result is a noticeable “lengthening up” of the spine and a poised and balanced use of the self. Maybe you can observe it in the picture below of a child walking a dog.

A child waking a dog
The postural mechanisms of young children work well, and it is easy to notice a tendency to lengthen upwards