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Last week several of my students and colleagues sent me a link to this Washington Post article. It described a 2018 publication that found approx 40% of youth between the ages of 18-30 years old within the study sample had developed a horn like projection on the back of their skulls just above the neck.
What’s thought to be happening is that extra bone is growing as an adaptation to deal with an increased downwards pull from muscles that attach to the head associated the postural support system (extensors). It’s suggested the muscles excessively pulling on the back of the head due are to poor posture (particularly when using the phone), and this excess strain at the attachment point to the skull appears to be causing the skull to adapt and grow a spur - creating a hornlinke projection on the skull (see above).
Sure it’s just a couple of studies… and there are various things that can argue against these findings…and the media is sensationalizing this to grab our attention…but it’s worth taking a moment to think how paying attention to this can help us. From an Alexander Technique point of view several connections can be made that can help us learn and enhance our skill.
The head, neck, and torso are connected
In the Alexander Technique students learn to develop an awareness of their individual patterns of habitual musculo-skeletal use; paying particular attention to release of unwanted head, neck, and spinal muscle tension (BMJ, 2009). An excess pull of the muscles on the back of the head occurs in many of our habitual movements (not just using the phone poorly). As Alexander students learn to prevent this pulling down between the head and neck as they do their activities (including using their phones), a broad range of changes seem to show up indirectly - such as reorganized muscle tonus throughout the entire body, increased ease in movement and poise, and improved posture to name a few.
Use connects to function, connects to shape
A key principle of the Alexander Technique is that ‘how you use yourself affects how you function’. What students begin to notice as they apply the Alexander Technique to their lives is that their function has an effect on the shape of their physical body and mental states.
This small study attempts to make a connection between using the phone in a slumped manner and an excess pull of the muscles in the back of the head - in it’s own creative way it tries to highlight the idea that how we use ourselves affects our overall shape. The key takeaway from an Alexander perceptive is that how you move and posture yourself everyday may be one factor that shapes your body, which is constantly adapting to how you use it - making itself more open and dynamic, or more rigid, collapsed, or inflexible.
Like gravity, this ongoing process of our organism adapting to how we use it is a constant force- from the moment we are born until our last breath, we continue to adapt and change from how we use ourselves as we engage in the world around us. One hour of exercise (although extremely important) simply can’t compete with 23 hours a day of using yourself in a horrible, or graceful and dynamic way.
Pulling down and feeling down are connected
Another key idea here is that these youth (at least in the sample) are literally pulling themselves downmore that other generations. Because the Alexander Technique is a psycho-physical practice it suggests that physical and mental aspects are directly connected in every action we make - and this includes tensions and states of embodiment. That a physical ‘pulling down’ it’s mental counterpart of ‘being down’ takes the findings beyond the physical implications, suggesting that a significant portion of this generation may actually (physically and thus mentally) be more ‘down’ than previous generations. That poor posture can have broad negative implications on musculoskeletal health with subsequent broad effects on mental health, and thus society at large, is a fascinating and scary idea traced back for generations (not to mentioned echoed by F.M. Alexander himself in the early 1900s). Still, these links aren’t perfectly linear - humans are incredibly resilient and adaptable - so much needs to be learned here to really help people live better lives. Regardless, viewing physical and mental aspects as a unified expression of your own self in action is a healthy way to enhance your self-awareness and to live a more embodied life.
How we connect to the world around us
At this point many people with a mistaken idea of what good posture is imagine that everyone should then be ‘fixing’ or ‘holding’ themselves upright, stiffly walking around. But to students of the Alexander Technique and other educational and movement practices along similar lines, it’s obvious that wouldn’t work. That it would only be the opposite side of the coin of pulling downwards; that of ‘bracing’ upwards. If the ‘perfect posture’ strategy worked then everyone would already have perfect posture. But it’s doesn’t work.
Instead, the idea would be that people can learn to not ‘pull themselves down’ (or pull themselves down less), so that the inherent postural supports that evolved to easily and gracefully support us upright can be there for us. To learn how to let ourselves ‘go UP’, to allow ourselves to move and act in our lives with more ease, upwards direction (less pulling down), and the subsequent physical-mental benefits associated with this quality of engaging in the world in a fuller, more open expression of ourselves.
Increased daily awareness can become an integrated part of the daily life. A re-education of how we use ourselves in activity can become an on-going process towards self-mastery that improves how we function in everyday life. With its focus on application in activity, the Alexander Technique provides a unique paradigm with specific tools to help joint efforts to cultivate this growing awareness and ability.
Ultimately, self-responsibility lies with each of us. People will continue to use hand-held devices, and one approach is learn how to use our phones, tablets, and devices in a way that simultaneously improves our posture and enhances our ability to modify and adapt ourselves to meet developing technology and a rapidly changing world in a healthier way.
‘We need to educate our children, not our furniture.’ - F.M. Alexander
For most, back pain is not a clear-cut mechanical problem that can be fixed with surgery. Instead, it’s multi-faceted, largely misunderstood, and approached in harmful ways ways that lead to a range of compounding issues that include less movement, more fear and confusion, greater pain sensitivity, less self-confidence and self-efficacy, and more depression and/or anxiety.
The good news is that more people are starting to recognize and share this reality with others as they shift towards new strategies and more movement. Some of these self-motivated people find themselves in an Alexander Technique lesson ready for change.
Interestingly, the Alexander Technique doesn’t treat back-pain (or anything else) directly. Instead, it’s an education and practice in awareness, posture, and movement applied directly to the activities and movements of your life. All benefits are a byproduct of this process.
It teaches how movement, posture, self-perception, and thinking all interact in real time to produce how we use ourselves in the activities our lives. You become a student of yourself in activity - and learn to use your awareness and intention to positively shape movement, postural tone, musculoskeletal use/ posture, reactions to internal and external stimuli, and more - such that you can reduce or rebalance excess tension and better self-organize yourself into more dynamically balanced and easeful movement as you go about your life.
In doing this, you learn to understand what you’re doing that may be contributing to your own back pain. You then learn to stop doing or ‘undo’ these things that may be limiting you, and to encourage natural responses that underlie health posture, ease, and freedom of movement instead. It’s through this practical, applied self-education that you decode, better self-manage, and overcome your back-pain.
This process is very different than receiving a treatment or performing a prescribed set of movements (even if helpful), but still not really knowing how or why things changed. Instead, this process requires clear self-discovery, self-responsibility, and self-empowerment - understanding what you’re doing with yourself that may be contributing to or causing the issue, then changing this for the better, with the result of moving better, feeling better, and gaining greater self-knowledge along the way.
In the post below a student of mine took an analytical look into her own relationship with back-pain and wrote a fascinating blog post. I wrote some responses (in quotes) to help further insight, learning, and practice; and she was wonderfully generous to share all this below to help others.
This is not news. I’ve been hurting my back since 2013.
About six months after I finished grad school, toward the end of my work-day, I noticed that my lower back was feeling sore. I hadn’t done anything in particular to it and I assumed that when I got home I’d put some heat on it, rest, and feel better the next day, the way I always had before. Except that it didn’t feel better the next day. If anything it felt worse.
It was a couple of months of constant pain and stiffness before I accepted that resting and heat and gentle stretching on my own was not going to fix the problem. I sought out a massage therapist (made it worse at the time) and then a chiropractor (made it better) and finally a physiotherapist who assessed my whole body and how it moved and gently broke it to me that nothing was working the way it was meant to. All the parts that should be strong and hold me up were weak and shaky. All the parts that should be supple and flexible had become rigid and stiff to compensate. I’d spent my entire life up to that point working my body into a pattern of habits that was unsustainable, culminating in two-and-a-half years of grad school where I poured every waking hour into my studies and research, often sitting in the same chair without moving for hours at a time, working ten- to twelve-hour days and six or seven-day weeks, with the occasional exhausted flop of curling up in bed for a couple weeks in between major deadlines.
So last week, when I started to feel a nagging stiffness and ache in my lower back as I tried to move around the house and get my day going, I thought I knew exactly what to do. I popped my ibuprofen, grabbed both a heat pad and an ice pack to see which worked best, tried to improve my posture throughout the day, and got in to see my RMT and chiro as soon as possible. I’ve been coping with this for over six years now (making incremental strides toward fewer and less severe flare-ups as I go) so I’ve been getting to be quite the expert in the way my body is now. What I’m not an expert in is the way I’d like my body to be.
Every time I hurt my back like this, I worry that this time it’ll be permanent. That the pain won’t gradually fade away and function return. And every time I get injured, it’s a little bit different. The things that worked the time before don’t work the same. At one point, a couple of quick adjustments from the chiropractor would bring immense relief. All I needed was to get a seized-up joint to release. This time it seemed to be an inflamed disc, something that massage and chiro can’t really touch, except to try to get the rest of my body to calm down while the disc sorts itself out.
After a couple of days of waking up in pain and struggling to stand first thing in the morning (the chiro tells me that the disc fills with fluid overnight, making it most painful in the morning and better throughout the day as I get blood flow through the area), I make a decision. I decide to accept this moment as a gift. The universe is once again offering me both opportunity and motivation to make a significant change in my life, and I’m going to take it.
I’ve been playing with the idea of evaluating my progress to recovery since the first twinge of pain. It’s impossible to avoid. I’m in a novel situation (new iteration of back pain) and I need to adapt. Therefore, I must evaluate. While I go about my day, I take stock of my physical experience, identifying indicators, running experiments, and assessing my progress toward restored well-being. The indicators are easy: how much pain do I feel, what type, and in association with which attempts to function? Walking around is fine and sitting isn’t too bad (until I try to stand up again), but reaching forward, bending down, and getting up and down are where it really hurts. After each of the interventions I try (heat, ice, lying flat on a hard surface, stretches, etc.), I go through a repertoire of movements and classify each experience under ‘worse’, ‘better’, or ‘no change’.
(In persistent pain/ longterm/ chronic pain issues (back pain being one of these) it’s common for the location, intensity, triggers, and feeling of the pain to change and move around throughout the body. This can be really scary and frustrating. This also leads to a negative process in which we narrow our attention onto the pain which causes our awareness/ nervous systems’ sensitivity to get turned way up in a protective fashion. Each time we ‘chase the sensation’ we actually change the internal neural connections that make up our perception of our pain and movement - in this case in a way that creates a negative cycle of more protection through less movement, which leads to higher sensitivity and more narrowed focus, which leads to more protection and less movement etc…)
What I learn from this is that I can’t tell what’s really helping and what’s not. It keeps changing. One day ice is better than heat. The next day heat is better and ice is terrible. About midweek, I go grocery shopping (a few blocks of walking away) and by the time I come back, the pain is almost completely gone (though it reappears by the evening after I’ve been sitting for too long again). I’d been out on a walk the day before without so much relief and, when I wake up the next day in the same amount of pain as before, the walk I take that day doesn’t help nearly as much. Was it something about slowly pushing the grocery cart around while I picked up arugula and milk with Sarah McLachlan playing softly in the background that was the real solution? Who knows. There were too many variables to pin it down. My body is a complex system with pain as an emergent property.
For many of us, part of the issue lies in an artificial (cartesian) division in which we see ourselves apart from our body: We imagine we live in our head, and our body (the darn thing!) is separate from us and not cooperating. Instead, in real life activity and movement the whole system acts as a integrated process (head to toe/ mind/ body/ emotion/ spirit/balance). It works like this whether we’re consciously aware of these connections or not. ‘Nature doesn’t work in parts’, and problems in how we use and experience ourselves can start to emerge when we isolate into parts.
Instead, what happens when we start to replace the word body with the word ‘self’? (i.e Self = how the brain/body/mind/emotions/nervous system interact to produce our actions, movements, tension, and feelings). The practice is then to develop and refine our ability to observe and shape shape how these aspects of us work as one unified process in action (Note: we learn to first understand and organize these aspects of ourselves via how we use our head-neck-and back relationship in relation to gravity/balance and stimuli). This gives us a way to understand and cultivate the conditions for new movement, actions, and sensations to arise, all as emergent properties of a change in the way we use or embody our whole self - head to toe, mind/body - in action.
At this point, I’ve tried the obvious things. I’ve consulted the experts. Now it’s time to change the way I’m thinking about what’s happening.
That’s great! Alexander himself came to the exact same conclusion when he first started developing the technique to overcome his own issue. See: Chapter 1, The Use of the Self
Since the first time I found myself wincing through a familiar movement, my strategy has been the same: identify the source of problem, intervene, return the system to previous state of comfort and function.
This strategy is really common. The issue is we ignore ourselves until some pain nags at us, which then shifts our attention back into ourselves, to the painful part of our body… we then try to shift around to move the pain away…then the pain/tension temporarily shifts so we move our attention back out of our bodies and again ignore ourselves until the pain nags us again…and the cycle continues. An alternative strategy is to use pain signal as a reminder to include more of ourselves (our postural supports in relation to balance/gravity) in our activity. Through this practice we become more ‘embodied’ in action and more skilled in how we balance and use ourselves in action.
Then, after the desired equilibrium has been restored, identify root causes of problem and implement preventative procedures (honestly, get a gym membership already, Carolyn). I’ve been pursuing that strategy for six years. I’ve had some modest successes in terms of reducing the overall number of days and hours per year I spend in debilitating physical agony (now there’s a metric), so I could chalk that up as a sign of success with room for improvement and continue to pursue the original strategy, placing renewed emphasis on the prevention component, which, despite six years of intention, I’ve barely moved the needle on. Or I could try something different, since I’m getting bored with fruitlessly nagging myself toward self-improvement while living under the threat of inevitable future pain.
There are several problems with trying to restore the system of my body to its previous state. For one, it’s impossible. If I accept my body as a complex, fluid system, then I’m not driving back down a road to correct a missed turn, I’m steering through rapids on a kayak. I can’t go back. Also, even if I could, my previous state was a precursor to my current state, with all its flaws already present if not actively raging. Better to keep moving forward. In this case, the entire strategy of intervene-stabilize-prevent is suspect. Not to mention ineffective, since I’ve demonstrated time and again that when I do return to “normal” (a new normal, at least), I’m terrible at the prevention side of things, shifting the pattern that put me here in the first place. And, no wonder, because at that point I’ve killed off the feedback loop (pain) that was giving me insight into the progress I was making, leaving nothing in its place to inform the next stage, and my only option then is to follow prescriptive advice about what I ought to be doing with my body and hope it takes. (It hasn’t. Still no gym membership.)
So instead of investing the bulk of my effort into restoring myself to a pain-free state, I have accepted pain as my indicator, not my outcome. My goal is not to be pain-free, my goal is to change my physical habits.
Truly amazing insight…Yes! Now expand that goal beyond changing physical habits to changing psychophysical habits (changing and refining the way you embody yourself in the movements and activities of your life - i.e how you develop and refine your ability to include more of yourself (your postural supports in relation to balance/gravity) into more of our activities in daily life. The end result being your bring more ease and poise to everything you do which changes how you function, your physical habits, and a whole lot more along the way.
Aside from a minimum of pain management tactics to keep myself functional enough to get by, I stopped experimenting with ways to make my back stop hurting and began experimenting with ways to introduce sustainable changes of habit in my daily life, trying to live the way I would want to be as if I were already pain-free. (The indicators for this are harder to come by and still emerging.)
One of the most common indicators, ‘does this hurt?” and ‘where exactly does it hurt’ easily narrows our attention (like seeing a tiger in the room we block out everything else and narrow down on the tiger!). This narrowed attention is very useful for acute pain such as when you cut yourself, but poorly adaptive for long term persistent pain such as back-pain.
Some new indicators could include:
Did I have any awareness of myself before the pain showed up, or was I unaware of myself until the pain brought me back in touch with my body/self?
What am I doing with my neck-head-back relationship right now? Especially in relation to my base of support). Compressed? Collapsed? Balanced and opening upwards?
Is my attention narrowing… or expanding to include more of myself, my directions, the environment around me etc..?
If I lie down in semi-supine what is my contact like with the floor? How does this change over time?
What am I doing with my breath? (i.e where am I placing my breath? Is my breath moving or not moving?)
This opened up a whole new horizon of opportunities. And since I’m already in a state of general disruption, interrupting old habits and substituting new ones has never been easier.
Great observations. In order to cultivate something new for ourselves and our movement (outside of habit) we have to simultaneously disrupt (or stop off) the old habit from happening while allowing for a new expression of movement to occur. In other words we inhibit the old neural path, and a new pathways is directed/ activated. Overtime this creates a new pathway (that strengthens with practice) and gradually unlearns the old pattern/pathway through non-use. This learning process is usually easier when we’re ‘in a state of disruption’ because we’re slightly out of habit so the ‘pull’ or ‘itch’ to do the old habit isn’t as strong.
I literally can’t sit the way that I normally would sink into without thinking, so I get to practice a new way of sitting (informed by my newly-renewed Alexander Technique practice, which is all about shifting sensorimotor habits). I can’t get up in the morning and go straight into emails for the next hour or more, so it’s a chance to stretch out while listening to a podcast or walk up to the pool for a swim instead. These are all things I’ve tried to implement before, with variable success and always as a struggle and a chore to remember and keep on top of myself to do it. The difference in what this feels like is subtle to measure and there are still too many factors to pin anything down with absolute certainty. That my back pain substantially subsided as of this morning could be a total coincidence and is most likely a partial one. It’s only been a week (less since I made this shift), I’m not going to claim miracle breakthroughs. It remains to be seen if new patterns settle or old ones re-emerge like acid reflux after midnight.
Perfect. As much as I sometimes wish it was a miracle cure for my students, the Alexander Technique isn’t a magic pill; it’s a skill, a practical education, and a practice. Sometimes it truly does cause a rapid positive shift in feelings of health, pain relief, and well being, but the strongest way to approach it, especially for self-motivated students who love the chance at taking on the responsibility for their lives and actions, is as a practice to continually grow your connection to yourself and skill in the way you use yourself as you engage in the world….and through this, to continually develop your ability to feel better, move better, and to positively shape many aspects of your life in the process.
But, if nothing else, I’m enjoying the freedom of the cognitive shift. To have stopped waiting until I got better in order to get well, to have moved right on to the good stuff, the place where change happens.
The ‘rest and wait’ strategy is only useful for the most acute period of back-pain. Beyond this very minimal time frame ‘rest and wait’ is a very harmful strategy to use when it comes to back pain. Unfortunately, it’s probably the most commonly adopted strategy even though it easily leads to less movement - a downwards spiral of loss of muscle mass - psychological depression or downwards mood and helplessness - the nervous system increasing sensitivity to pain signals - leading to less movement etc..- this cycles downwards fast and is hard to break out of. Instead, we can all use the reminder to…”get started with good stuff, the place where change happens!”
Summary: We commonly imitate others to learn new skills (addition). But when we imitate others we often also copy their bad and personal habits. At some point, to take our skill development further things need to get personal. This sometimes means removing (subtracting) the excess movement, tensions, or habits picked up in earlier stages of learning: To do less, so the skill can happen more easily on it’s own.
We typically learn new skills by imitating someone else. Let’s call this addition.
Playing an instrument, swinging a tennis racket, doing a dance step, or skiing down a slope; at one point in learning the skill you probably copied the movement and postures of someone else. You had no idea how to do it, you saw someone do it, you imitated them, and over multiple rough attempts you got the gist of it.
With practice your skill then became more automatic and unconscious (i.e ‘muscle memory’) - which dropped the cognitive load on your brain to allow you to think about and process other things while performing the skill.
Imitating someone to learn a skill is something we all do intuitively. It’s our ‘go to’ for learning new skills, and depending on a range of factors (such as prior training in something that transfers over, cognitive state, the kind of feedback you get etc), copying will be faster or slower for you.
The problem with imitation is that we often unconsciously add on more than we need from other person. We also add on their personal habits that might not match us or be the best way to do the skill.
Over-tensions, personalized ways of balancing, mis-sequencing in movement, old patterns of injury or stress that the person we’re modelling carries into their movement etc.. These are all personalized aspects of movement that we tend to copy, even though they don’t often match us.
It’s also the case that sometimes their movements don’t actually suit our own physical and cognitive needs. For instance, we might have longer or short arms than them which require different speeds and level of refined control of movement; or have a different length in our torso which can lead to us overly compressing ourselves to stabilize or make ourselves smaller - or to try to stretch and over brace ourselves when more fluidity may be what’s actually needed.
Addition is an essential aspect to help us learn and move forwards at key points in skill development, but sometimes to make more progress we might need subtraction.
Subtraction is the clearing away of aspects of movement, tensions, or patterning/ sequencing of movement that are getting in your way; those that limit your ability to perform the skill or movement in the most optimal way for you, personally.
This can involve learning to recognize excess or under tensions that get in your way, or eliminating extra movements while re-sequencing others.
For instance, the particular way the person you modelled balances themselves might not be optimal for the speed of your movements or for your height. The movement of their arms or limbs might not match the length of your limbs; which might work better for people with longer arms or legs than shorter ones etc…
The truth is that subtraction isn’t as easy or as sexy because
We’re not usually aware excess in our actions because they’re unconsciously integrated into our movement
Removing something can be more challenging than simply doing something new
It’s not cool or easy to show people all the things we’re not doing so it’s harder to talk about!
Still, subtraction is essential in many contexts, and once you become aware of the concept you can start to train yourself to see it. We get hooked on addition as the only way to get better at our craft so we keep looking for new add ons; but sometimes subtraction is the way forwards- removing the stuff that’s getting in your way. To do less so the skill can happen more easily on it’s own.
So the next time you’re watching someone else doing a skill that you can do…but they make it look easy…play with subtraction instead of addition:
“What movements do I do, that they don’t do?”
“What extra stuff so I do that get’s in the way of my supports or balance?”
“What is one obvious excess movement here? What happens when I don’t this? “
It’s fascinating to discover that a more dynamic, or ‘in-tensional’ upwards organization of your self (head to toe - and psychophysically) has a particular tone to it . You can think of cultivating this change in tone like tuning a stringed instrument.
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 a particular tone.
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 overall 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, or 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.
Making Music In Everyday Life
Any beautiful stringed instrument is alive with a sense of tension and tone that responds and changes with time; it can sound more rich as time goes on.
Once you have a general ability to use your conscious awareness and intention to move towards a state of dynamic tone, then growth comes with taking yourself into more and 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 make music in these interactions.
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.
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 and competitive, yet simultaneously self-aware.
The problem is 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 in the process (loss of awareness of an embodied self). (*Alexander called this engaging: 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 and function.)
On the flip of this, and much less discussed, is that we can (especially in the different stages of learning) become so process oriented that we loose track of what we are doing or where we are going. When students place all their attention on themselves they can loose the drive to move towards their objective and the benefits that arise when ‘moving’ towards an achievement in a desired way.
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 is a skill that can be learned and developed. It’s a practice to grow understanding of how to bring more of your fullest self to the activities and movements of your life.
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.
As a student of UP your practice is to continually: Discover what going UP is for you; learn how to cultivate more of it in your 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 movement and chosen 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:
Learns to open UP with gravity rather than pulling up against it
Learns to work with balance as an ongoing process (balancing) - rather than as a fixed position
Builds skill in self-awareness (as a prerequisite to make new choices)
Learns to recognize the external cues/ triggers that start habits which lead to unnecessary tension or collapse
Grows the skill to move and act more centred over one's base of support in stillness and dynamic movement
Consciously opens expands their field of attention - instead of getting stuck in a narrowed field of attention
Learns to work with evermore conscious and directed awareness of themselves in a evermore challenging (physical and mental) activities
Catch themselves in an old posture and uses the opportunity to learn what they are doing vs. Catches themselves and tries to fix themselves with perfect posture - thus missing the moment to cultivate UP
Develops the ability to undo habits they’ve found themselves in
Learns to see parts as integrated within a larger whole pattern of functioning
Learns to include both what to do and what not to do in their movements
Views the mind as embodied in action (brain, body, environment all influence each other)
Works to the idea that movement and stillness are never ending - there is only continuous direction to go/move in
Learns to use a growing awareness of the relationship between the neck, head, and back as both an assessment tool and as a place to influence whole body UP
Uses thinking in activity to positively shape their coordination, actions, and responses
Develops the mindset of being conscious but not self-conscious - practices suspending judgment and criticism
Learns to cultivate the conditions for the expression of a new movement or mobility to show up instead of trying to force it
Learns to use the ground and a downwards direction as an oppositional force (you have to come UP from somewhere)
Builds (or re-discovers) self awareness of themselves vs. ignores awareness of themselves until something hurts or nags at them
Learns to stop doing the old habit while simultaneously allowing for a new expression of balance, movement, and tension vs. tries to do something new while still doing the old habit
Refines their ability to see and influence the connections between the brain, body, and environment in action vs. seeing themselves as located only in their brain/head
Develops self-understanding of how the parts (i.e limb movements etc..) integrate into ones whole pattern of coordination vs. isolated the parts from the larger whole
Practices the ability to work with ongoing direction vs. an end position or fixed final destination/posture you attain
Uses any activity or movement as a fresh opportunity to cultivate more UP and grow towards their fullest potential
The Alexander Technique needs a framework to grow in.
This is because it’s not an activity or set of movements. It’s a practice that you apply to the things you do.
At first, the core framework is your basic movements (sitting, standing, walking, moving an arm etc..), and perhaps some Alexander procedures or directed activities to help you connect the concepts to everyday life.
Your framework may also be your professional or preference based activities.
Over time it can expand to include communication or social interaction, and more dynamic physical and mental challenges.
It is 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 we must keep expanding our frameworks with the challenges we apply the practice to if we want to keep growing.
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.
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 the practice is easy because it gives you the immediate reward of feeling great or takes you away from pain. But sometimes it can be demanding and challenging - 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 new choices away from old habits towards where you want to go 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.
A few reasons we continue to practice: Why we’re (still) here:
Practice 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.
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.
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.
Old Habit Loop:
Stimulus - Sit in the chair: Have little or no conscious awareness of the stimulus (action is on autopilot).
Response: Compress and tighten yourself as your lower into the chair (or whatever your specific habits are); end up sitting in a collapsed way.
Result: Old habit loop is completed and you get what you always got.
Stimulus - Sit in the chair: Step one is you have to become aware of the stimulus - enough to catch it in the act.
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).
Response: Continue to give the new intentions to open UP as you lower into the chair.
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.
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.
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).
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.