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A pupil's personal journey through the Alexander Technique:

 

The Alexander Technique has changed my life in the most profound way imaginable. By luck I was introduced to an idea that has become the fundamental core of my experience. It imbues every moment of my life, for I have become physically mindful and am able to decide 'how to be'. I may not make the best choices, but at least I am aware that I am making them. Until I came upon the Technique I was a victim of my circumstances. At twenty-one, I had joined my father in the seemingly inevitable slipped-disc department (sharing the condition created a strange, yet pleasing, bond with him), as well as suffering from chronic indigestion and an excruciating hammer toe. Having suffered from undiagnosed glandular fever for two years, I was also weak and overtired. Since the age of thirteen, when I had grown six inches in six months, a droopy exhaustion was, for me, the norm.

 

Had I not had the great good fortune to have my first lesson in y early twenties I believe that I would still, thirty years later, be droopy and tired with that myriad of painful conditions that seem to beset so many of my middle age friends. I changed because I learned to think differently. I changed because, unenthusiastically at first, I recognised that I I needed to change. It took my poor teachers a great deal of patience and understanding to help e in my attempt to fulfill my potential. For this I am, and always will be, deeply grateful. 

 

Never well coordinated as a child, I became hopelessly incompetent when my growth spurt left me a dizzying six-foot tall in my early teens. Games was the worst part of every week, worse eve than the endless teasing from fellow pupils and unpleasantness from a surprising number of teachers who felt inferior when addressing a taller pupil. I never stooped and was frequently praised for my excellent posture. What this meant was that I stood on one leg and and dropped the other hip, creating many weird angles to compensate, collapsed internally but never, never rounded shoulders. The effect was, I was told, 'too romantic for words'; in reality it was an apologetic attempt to avoid physically dominating those around me. Modelling was suggested, half-heartedly, but I fell at the first casting couch hurdle by running away from an elderly  agent who favoured nude romps in his office.

 

Eventually finding enjoyable employment in the theatre, I led a typical girl-about-town life, marred only by the persistent lower-back pain, chronic indigestion, and painful toe that was awaiting surgery. I was blissfully unaware, at twenty-one, that there was an alternate approach.

 

Unable to stand for any length of time without pain, I went to a chemist and bought a corset - not a sexy basque, but a surgical garment full of metal reinforcement to hold up my sagging back - in the belief that this was the only way forward. I cycled every day, was slim and fit and had no idea why my back muscles could not support me. wary of doctors since being treated for conditions I had never had, i refused pain relief and operations. hence that hideous and uncomfortable corset; it was my version of self-help.

Luckily a random conversation over lunch with a friend changed my life. She had found the Alexander Technique. She bullied me into having a lesson, not because she remotely understood the benefits, but because she felt I was bored and it would take my mind off my troubles. A work colleague, deeply concerned at the step I was taking, begged me to investigate further. He had heard that I would be obliged to lie down with my head on some books, and that the Alexander teachers believed that the texts would permeate my mind. At the very least, he insisted, I must check what books I was lying upon.

 

I arrived at my first lesson full of bizarre concerns. Fate decreed that my teacher would be an Australian woman bursting with good humour, wisdom and down-to-earth common sense. The teacher had talents I little understood - what I would later realise were great 'hands' - and with them she coaxed and persuaded my body and (eventually) my mind to develop it's own strengths. Crucially, she taught me to breathe.

 

I was a keen singer, taking lessons in opera, so I believed that breathing was my forte. It took a while for me to be persuaded otherwise. Now my greatest joy is to breathe and, as a tool to get through difficult times, it never fails. Events and ill health can temporarily knock the system about but, essentially, breathing freely is a lifesaver. It took me several years to realise this, as changing my physical habits felt ‘wrong’. My friends saw the difference in me long before I could appreciate the transformation. The essential ‘me’ was being tampered with. I had to stop draping myself over any available surface and learn to stand on my own two feet. 

 

My teacher admitted that my first visit had filled her with concern: I was like a long bit of overcooked spaghetti. Not a case for reducing undue tension, more a case of injecting a bit of life into this long, lax frame. Like a kind of Chinese water torture, she patiently repeated her instructions on a weekly basis. I often left full of embarrassment that she had had to repeat herself so often but, gradually, her message took root and I grew in strength and confidence. 

 

The Alexander Technique filled me with wonder and admiration and, after a few years, I realised that I would love to train to be a teacher. I lacked the confidence to even suggest it. Thankfully, after many lessons, my teacher did. She felt that I had progressed well enough to consider training and believed that I had the qualities necessary to become a teacher. I had learnt to trust her judgement, so applied to become a student at one of the London schools. It is one of the best decisions I have made in my life.

At twenty-eight, nine months after having my first child, I started the three-year training course. It was pure joy despite the soul searching that change demands (I was too immature to enjoy it at first). The greatest hurdle, for me, was letting go of what I thought I already knew. I think I still find it the greatest challenge in all aspects of life. Coming from a position of physical weakness, I also found it trying to be tired again. It took me a long time to realise that tiredness does not always indicate weakness, but can be a sign of good work. 

 

My strength had increased immeasurably since my first  lessons. Now, my coordination improved too as I applied thought to activities previously too difficult to enjoy. I became a good skier once I realised that ‘monkey’ was the perfect position to be in, rather than the knock-kneed style I had previously favoured. A game of tennis was still tough, but at least I could hit the ball with the racket even if the direction and speed remained dodgy. My singing was transformed, partly by the Alexander Technique and partly by a change of singing teacher. I had always been asked to sing with ‘a little more charm, dear’, an instruction which crippled me with insecurity about my size and talent. Now I was told, 'That’s an awful pissy sound for a woman of your size'. That idea, along with an application of good Alexander directions did the trick, and I have never stopped learning. 

 

I took a part-time job as a textile conservator and was the only one in the workroom not to suffer from the tension and pain caused by the working conditions. Thinking about how I addressed the worktables - how I ‘used’ myself in the process -prevented any work-related injuries. Pregnancy and childbirth were wonderful opportunities to focus on ‘use’ and its benefits both to my babies and myself. The same is true of all activities: thoughtfulness prevents most problems from occurring. I found that with the help of the Technique I became aware of strain and stopped it before it created pain or damage. This is the tool (the ability to choose) that the Technique gave me.

One unforeseen consequence (at least by me) of the path I had chosen was that my height, keeping pace with my wellbeing, would increase. In F.M. Alexander’s words, I was achieving my full height potential. I ran home and found that I had grown by an inch and a half. I was horrified, not stopping to think that this dead weight had been compressing my spine and stomach, thereby causing all my ills. Getting any taller was my worst nightmare. Had I been told at the start of the training course that the cost of a lifetime of understanding and improved health would be a fractional increase in height, I would have turned away and given up. The negative experiences I had suffered as a direct result of my height had been so unpleasant that I would not have been able to accept changing in that way. 

 

Thankfully no one mentioned any such thing. I was allowed to grow both literally and emotionally so that, eventually, I was able to accept my height without too many concerns. Interestingly, my natural height, as opposed to the earlier collapsed version, elicited far less comment despite the extra inch. Good body language, another benefit.  

 

The Alexander Technique is an ongoing process that continually enlivens every day. Responding to stimuli by thinking rather than reacting -whenever possible - is a process that keeps brain and body alert. Profound changes are possible with the smallest adjustments, often a form of controlled release that allows one’s own potential to re-emerge. 

 

I feel now that it is my Technique. With it I have been able to weather many storms. It has empowered me in a real sense, in that I have, if I wish, conscious control of what I am doing. It allows me to attempt to do my best - I haven’t won Wimbledon, or sung at Covent Garden, but I have enjoyed improving my own performance. Insecure, collapsed, reactive, unmotivated, unable to sustain any activity for long that was the young adult I had become. A chance encounter gave me the opportunity to change. It also gave me a legacy to pass on to my two children, born when the journey started. I will never cease to marvel at the luck that came my way and bless both my younger self for accepting the challenge and all my Alexander teachers, pupils and colleagues for facilitating the transformation. 

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What follows is Jacqui Hinton's personal story of how he came to have Alexander lessons and how he benfitted from them.

 

The first time I encountered the Alexander Technique was when staying on business in a small village just outside Abingdon in Oxfordshire, around 2007. The setting was stunning: not the usual bed-and-breakfast type of property; it was a lovingly restored manor house. The landlady was able to offer guests Alexander Technique lessons. At the time I thought it was well worth bearing in mind for the ext visit, which sadly never took place.

 

In  May 2010, I remembered my brief brush with the Alexander Technique teacher in Oxfordshire, and found the information I had got at the time. Thanks to the Internet, typing `Alexander Technique in the Midlands` brought about the discovery of a website with a directory of teachers. In visiting the teachers websites, i found one Midlands-based teacher I was drawn to, a very important part of therapy, I feel.

 

Waiting to receive that first response call to my telephone message, I remember,  felt different from most. It's hard to describe, but today, ten months on from calling this lady, I can only look forwards to facing each day in my life, which at the time was so hard to imagine ever doing again. On the second day of 2009 my world as I had known it stopped turning: I lost my adoptive mother that day to a series of strokes. This scenario was in fact the first of three. I was told a month later the results of an MRI scan by my GP and backed up by a letter of concern from my osteopath.

 

The last fourteen months of the decline in my elderly mother saw my own health disappearing: the loss of reflex feeling in the whole of the right side of my body, and very little on the left, had to be addressed. The way forward recommended by the medical profession was to get an MRI scan first; the results came one month after losing my mother. I was shown one slipped disc in the lower back, and another one which had started to move.

 

Working very successfully for myself with a transport training business, teaching men and women all over the UK from every walk of life to drive all sizes and type of trucks , was to be no more after being given the MRI scan results. Twenty-four years of pioneering as a female truck-driving instructor and breaking down the barriers in more ways than one - also being from an ethnic minority, British-born and educated privately in the male-orientated transport industry - ended. Going against medical advice, due to losing my mother, I continued to train drivers and eleven months down the line, the business was over, not just because of my medical condition, but also because of the economic decline in the country.

 

I started the Alexander Technique in May and ten months on, with lessons weekly, most of the time I have become confident and happy to rebuild life slowly and in a still manner; I had never experienced this prior to taking Alexander Technique lessons.

 

I owe so much to my AT teacher. A unique bond has formed over the ten months I have known her, and because the lessons are one-to-one and the setting being in a comfortable private home, it's just right for me.

 

The changes were made over a relatively short period of time, not quite forty lessons, I think at this point and in my case, forty-five minutes a week. The powers of this work are inexhaustible. Full belief and confidence in the world of the Alexander work and your teacher must be present in every sense of the word. Self-investment in re-education for the use of your own body,, mind and spirit coordinated to function as one, that's how I have now come to understand and experience the Alexander Technique.

 

The experience of having your body and mind looked at and examined in a whole new way by a stranger in their own home feels odd at first, it really does. The way I overcame my concerns and worries, if you like, of the work was to research the Alexander Technique, starting with the gentleman Mr F.M. Alexander's life  and his fascinating discovery, to a point where I sometimes feel I have met this remarkable man.

 

The information from the Internet in the form of websites and watching YouTube, not to mention reading numerous books, all make this globally practised Technique clearer by the minute.

 

All that remains to be said is `thanks` to my teacher, who is worth her weight in gold. My life has been changed for good. If it's meant, maybe one day I will become a teacher myself, who knows?

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Have you ever felt the need to find a way to manage back pain, to play your instrument better, to increase your confidence, to recover faster from a serious accident, to take control of certain aspects of your life, or to ease some of the difficulties of old age?

 

Can it be that there is a skill that can be learned which provides a 'yes' answer to all of these? According those that that have tried the Alexander Technique, the answer is, there is.

 

The key concepts of the Alexander Technique are: the recognition of the force of habit, inhibition and non-doing, unreliable sensory appreciation, sending directions and the primary control of the use of the self. 

Recognition of the Force of Habit

Man is beset by his own habits. Not that habits are a bad thing. we could not live without them. We have limited capacity for processing information. Thus,making regularly repeated activities habitual and (to a degree) unconscious allows us to function in the present. The way we walk is habitual: wed do not often think about the process of walking while talking to a companion (or, increasingly, on the mobile phone) as we carry on our daily life. And so on...

 

However, some habits are harmful: the way we bend may cause us pain; the way we play the violin may prevent us from reaching our potential as a violinist. The Alexander Technique is a means of accessing dysfunctional habits and consciously choosing to replace them with better ones. It is a means of exercising choice in the way we respond to the stimulus of life.

 

This 'means whereby' we access and change habits is described by the four remaining concepts of inhibition, giving directions, unreliable sensory appreciation, and the primary control of the use of the self, ideas which interlock to form the Alexander technique.

Inhibition

Firstly, in order to give ourselves choice, we need to prevent of inhibit our immediate reaction to initiate a habit.

 

This starts with inhibiting any psycho-physical distortions (e.g. tensions) which are about to interfere with our response. Inhibition is a two-stage process which involves firstly pausing before reacting and then preventing the distortion which is about to intervene.

Working on inhibition lying in semi-supine
Sending Directions

Once this inhibition has taken place, we are in a position to work out a means of reacting differently. To do this we need to give our self two sets of guiding instructions or orders. One set establishes a coordinated state of the organism and the other gives consent to a chosen response. This course of action is not without its difficulties; the most important is due to our unreliable sensory appreciation.

Unreliable Sensory Appreciation

This concept means exactly what it seems to, namely, that our feelings (in particular our bodily sensations) may not be reliable. In practical terms our familiar old habits are likely to feel comfortable (even if they are causing pain or other disturbance). Any new kind of response may feel uncomfortable, awkward or even painful. This is not a defect in the organism but an adaptive characteristic. Our limited capacity for processing information means that we learn to walk as toddlers, for example, we take into account all sorts of sensations. The manner of standing and walking becomes habitual and unconscious. This enables other activities to occupy our attention.

 

If, however, we want to change our manner of walking - for example, in order to prevent a backache - any change is likely to feel initially uncomfortable, awkward or stilted.

The Primary Control of the Use of the Self

This is the unifying feature in the process of practising the Alexander Technique. In fact, there are two key concepts here: firstly, primary control and secondly, the use of the self.

 

The term primary control refers to both an anatomical entity and a mental activity, that is both an underlying physiological mechanism and the means of controlling it.

 

"I wish to make it clear that when I employ the word 'use', it is not in that limited sense of the use of any specific part, as, for instance, when we speak of the use of the arm or the use of the leg, but in a much wider and more comprehensive sense of applying to the working of the organism in general. For I recognise that the use of any specific part such as the arm or leg involves of necessity bringing into action the different psycho-physical mechanisms of the organism, this concerted activity bringing about the use of the specific part." (The Use of the Self, 1932, p. 22n).

 

To summarise, practising the Alexander Technique consists in preventing distortions in the use of ourselves in our everyday activities by means of the primary control of that use. Any changes we make by the process of inhibition and direction may well feel unfamiliar and strange - even wrong, initially. We can check their appropriateness by observing ourselves (as Alexander did with mirrors) or by having other observe us (a teacher, for example).

 

The above terms used in Alexander's sense, differ subtly from their dictionary definitions; in keeping with their holistic nature, the concepts are not discrete, but merge into each other as an organic whole.

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