freedom for life

The Edinburgh Alexander and Therapy Centre has been offering Alexander lessons and workshops since 1994.

Thursday, 02 October 2014 11:39

Imagine…

Imagine a world of work where people were ill less often, where there were fewer accidents and performance improved. Imagine world of work where employees were better at stress management, had improved self-esteem, were more creative and worked better in teams. Imagine a world of work where people had improved muscle tone, postural co-ordination and balance with greatly reduced pain and disability. If you can imagine this, then you are imagining a world where Alexander Technique has been brought into the workplace in a significant way with benefits to the employers in terms of reduced employment insurance costs and improved costs-profits relationships.

Actually, you do not have to imagine it; if you are lucky it is a world that is already here in parts of some major corporations, such as Victorinox, Unicible, Siemens, the Alliance Insurance Corporation and Chevron-Texaco. All these companies were included in a study of Alexander Technique in the world of work, which you can read about here in the National Back Pain Association’s quarterly magazine Back Care.

Let us hope that more employers appreciate the benefits of Alexander Technique and support their employees in learning and developing constructive conscious control, so that we live in a world of work where there is less pain and stress and more creativity, teamwork and personal fulfilment.

Published in Lessons from the Chair
Friday, 05 September 2014 12:21

Practise Works!

With summer and the Festival over and life returning to normal, it is good to get back to blogging. I will be blogging this year once a month here on matters relating to Alexander Technique on conscious control. I will also be blogging once a month on therapy matters at Counselling Conversations. 
To start, it is always good to stop, to pause, which is the discipline of the Technique. This is always where we start, with stopping to make sure we are lengthening, breathing with a light focus and using our peripheral vision.

Published in Lessons from the Chair
Friday, 30 May 2014 14:59

Structure Sets You Free

We depend on structure - without it our worlds would fall apart. Without power supplies, without transport, without communications, without sanitation, without fields, we would return to a state of nature, which depending on your inclination, might allow for a state of natural grace or a life that is 'nasty, brutish and short.' For my own part, I think any process of getting there would be Hobbesian, depriving us of the many wonderful opportunities that the world currently affords us. That is, if we use our intelligence to think about what a good life is for ourselves, what gives us purpose - and then structure our lives accordingly.

Which can be quite humdrum, in terms of reorganising one's workspace and flat, as I am currently doing, but it sets you free, to do what you want, to be creative in the rest of your life. At this point, I would like to acknowledge my constructivist colleague and mentor Mary Frances for summing this up for me with the phrase which titles this blog: ‘structure sets you free.’ It is a phrase I wish I had come up with, as it nicely captures the importance of structure in, not just how we organise our lives, but how we organise our use.

Conscious control involves an intentional structuring of how we use ourselves. Without it we are prone, in current conditions, to evolve ways of moving, ways of thinking, ways of being, which interfere with our organic structure’s ability to function in terms of breathing, postural support, freedom of movement; all of which affect our ability to function in the tasks of every day life; both in terms of our skill levels and in terms of our health.

Without conscious control, we often rely on what we have learned by chance, to help carry us through. For example, we think that we know how to stand, yet most people stand badly, shortening in stature, holding their breath. And, as Alexander pointed out to John Dewey, if you ask someone who is standing badly, to stand well, they just do a different form of standing badly. To believe that wish and will alone can effect change is really a form of magical thinking. You have to start with ‘intelligent inquiry’ to bring about an ‘intelligently controlled habit.’ Alexander believed that this applied to everything, not just the conscious control of our use.

Here, it is the sequential and parallel working of the guiding orders and directions that structures conscious control, allowing for a freedom of our different parts, within a whole that is lengthening and expanding in activity. This structuring, this putting together of the parts, by allowing them to work together as a whole, is dependent on inhibition, on saying 'no' to what in the end limits us, narrows us, shortens us. Saying ‘no’ to gain freedom is a paradox of the technique. By limiting ourselves this way, by knowing what to say 'no' to, we gain freedom, not just in movement, but in thought and action. Inhibition sets us free, structure sets us free, as long as we know what to say 'no' to, as long as we know the structure we need. And in the use of ourselves, that means getting out of themselves way and not interfering with our organic structure's ability to function.

Published in Lessons from the Chair
Friday, 16 May 2014 15:42

Singing and Dancing in High Heels

When I started teaching twenty years ago, I think it fair to say that most Alexander teachers, or at least the ones I encountered, were prejudiced against high heels and would have recommended something more ‘sensible.’ I was happy to go with that and tended to recommend ‘sensible’ shoes, flat shoes. This suited me, shoes for me are for walking in, I have always hated buying them and once I get some that work for me, I will keep buying them, until the shoemaker changes them or stops making them. That though is me, and not everybody, thankfully, is like me, something that was vividly brought home to me when I attended a workshop, some years ago, run by Viv Burr who was at that time researching how people construed their footwear. Viv had us elaborating how we all construed our footwear in small groups and while my constructions were very limited, the two young Italian women I was working with had elaborate and detailed meaning worlds for the shoes that they and other women wore.

Since then heels have got taller, more commonplace, and I am beginning to see a lot of women out in town in the day with reasonably flat shoes on who are significantly distorting their frames from walking in high heels at night. It is a growing problem that is creating a series of functional problems that can only get worse with time. This is a pity, as it is easy to learn how to walk in high heels, providing you pick the right heels and keep them off during the day.

The right heels are heels that do not rock if you gently push them, if they do, you are much more like to fall over. (Chyna Whyne demonstrates the rocking test here.) Once you have got the right shoes on it is a matter of trusting the heel to support you as you lengthen up and then it is easy to walk and from walking you can easily get to how to dance in high heels. Or even dancing and singing as I was teaching a couple of professional singers to do at a workshop this weekend. They wanted to be able to dance and sing in high heels without pain, so we looked at application of the technique in relation to high heels, dancing and singing, so they can put it all together like Beyonce. It was a great workshop as their singing became much more emotionally connected and moving, while being able to stand and dance in their high heels.

If you want to see how it is done, it is worth checking out this video of Chyna Whyne, a former backing singer to, amongst others Eric Clapton, and Alexander Technique teacher, who now specialises in teaching women how to walk in stilettos. Chyna demonstrates how it all goes together. In doing so she makes the point that Alexander made about chairs when asked about what sort of chairs he would recommend. He answered that what really matters is your use and it is the same with heels, once they pass the rocking test it is up to you, and with a little bit of learning and application, you can save yourself a whole lot problems later on.

Published in Lessons from the Chair
Thursday, 01 May 2014 19:47

Live Long and Prosper

No, not a blog on Star Trek, but a blog on how to help make this a reality by looking after yourself through learning the Alexander Technique and developing Constructive Conscious Control. What put me in mind of this were reports this week in The Independent and The Telegraph of how various simple functional tests in adults, such as being able to stand on one leg for more than 10 seconds or get in an out of a chair more than 37 times in a minute, are good predictors of life expectancy for people in their early fifties. At 51, I am glad to say I passed both tests easily when I did them this morning.

The research was carried out by Rachel Cooper of the Medical Research Council who specialises in this kind of work. The conclusions drawn from this kind of research all emphasise the importance of keeping active in daily life, developing better balance and maintaining freedom of movement in activity. These are all things that Alexander Technique helps with. In fact, they are central to Alexander work with its emphasis on poise and balance in everyday activities; its emphasis on conscious control in the act of living. For what Alexander discovered was a practical method of becoming aware of the effects of how we co-ordinate or use ourselves on how we function.

Too often our use establishes patterns of movement that gradually limit our range of movement and weaken what needs to be strong. So, when it comes to sitting to standing, many people by their fifties are unable to stand up without using their hands to push themselves up. This weakens their backs and puts pressure on all their joints, interferes with their balance and breathing, not just in the act of standing up, but in the standing itself, and they commonly take this interference into their next activity. Like compound interest the misuse here grows, reducing their standard of general functioning, creating risks for the future, reducing the quality of life of the present.

It does not need to be like this; while the practice of the Alexander Technique is for life, the basics of getting out of a chair unsupported can be taught in minutes. The journey towards a longer, fuller life starts with stopping yourself before you next stand up and ensuring that you move with poise and balance. If you do not know how, then you can come and learn. Along, the way, you will find yourself better at almost any skill you choose to practice, for at the heart of most things done well, are focus, poise, balance, and Alexander Technique gives you a way of finding them easily, continually throughout your life, a life in which I trust you live long and prosper.

Published in Lessons from the Chair
Friday, 18 April 2014 09:22

The Pause

The word stop has acquired two main meaning in the Alexander world, which sometimes get run together, creating confusion and unnecessary difficulties for pupils. The first meaning of stop is simply to pause, to give oneself time to think about a situation and how you want to respond. Within that pause, one then goes on to the second sense of stop which is to stop or inhibit those habits that are considered unhelpful in terms of functioning before going on to give those guiding orders or directions that are deemed helpful. 

 

When learning the Alexander Technique, many extraneous features of the situation are put to one side to help develop the necessary awareness of the use of the eyes and the relationship of the head, neck and back which for Alexander formed the primary control by which we can coordinate ourselves to meet and respond to any situation. This is the basis of constructive conscious control and as we practice that we become able to not only create time for ourselves but to put aside responses that are based on feared outcomes to allow ourselves to think creatively in terms of our deepest values.

 

In other words Alexander Technique effects how we think, what we think and in the end the outcomes we achieve by helping us change our behaviour. I was reminded of this when someone sent me a link to five simple steps for leadership published this month by McKinsey the global management consulting company. The need to pause to prevent oneself getting caught in destructive patterns and connect with deepest values is in there at No2, for changing leadership behaviour by learning to stop what does not work by trying to avoid threat and replacing it with an openness and integrity to learning what will take the organisation forward. 

 

The link to thinking in Alexander’s work is sometimes missed, yet it is there at the deepest level in his work, as I tried to show with my last blog. It is about being there in any situation, present to the possibilities that are there whether at work or in our deepest encounters with ourselves and others. There is the very simple structure there for all to use and many people talk about it. It is present in spiritual traditions, in sport, the arts, music and leadership. Talking about it is  one thing, practicing it another, and for that you need to learn it, usually from somebody else. Although you can do it for yourself as Alexander did, but then you will have to take the time to discover all the pitfalls he found, if you are to have a chance of succeeding. It is much quicker and much easier to learn from somebody else, particularly an Alexander Technique teacher who cannot only give you the experience but coach you through it, so that you can use it to find solutions for you, your loved ones and in your work that are right for you and integrated with your deepest values, as you experience more fully higher levels of functioning. 

Published in Lessons from the Chair
Friday, 21 February 2014 17:47

Chopping the Onion

I thought I knew how to chop an onion, and so I do; it is even a professional way to do it, as I was taught how by a friendly chef. On Saturday, I learned a much easier and better way to do it, when I went to Nick Nairn’s cook school for the day. Chopping the onion, the new way, is something I want to become a habit. So, in the near future, I will need to remember, when I pick an onion up, to stop chopping it the old way and start chopping it the new way, until the new way is habitual. The stopping of one habit and replacing it with another is a powerful way of exercising control and enacting change in all areas of life. In essence, this stopping of one habit and replacing it with another is the basis of the Alexander Technique – which is one of the reasons the technique works so well. Indeed, it matches the formal definition Alexander gave of his technique as involving inhibition, that is the stopping of the old habit followed by direction, which involves enacting the replacement habit. Of course the habits that Alexander was concerned with, were the habits involving use, and use of the self at that. It is too easy to misunderstand Alexander’s work and think of it in terms of use of the body, when it is the self that counts, which is all of us integrated, focussed on the task in hand. Which, in this case, is chopping the onion.

Now, in chopping the onion, I had to handle the onion and make a different set of slices to those I am used to, while implementing some new knife skills. All of these depended on my use of myself – it is the forgotten factor in much, if not all, of learning and it is there even in the simplest of activities, like chopping an onion. When Tristan, our tutor, explained about the importance of the right grip on the knife, I thought not just about my actual hand but the use of my neck, head and back to make sure everything was lengthening first. While continuing with this, I then made sure the power grip I was using was light and firm and not interfering with my breathing, which is what most people do, as soon as they take hold of anything. In doing all this, I exercised conscious control both with regard to my habits of use and my habit of chopping the onion, where it is all too easy to tighten in the neck, as the knife slices through the onion, rather than keeping free and getting an easier, cleaner cut, in the new way.

Chopping the onion and keeping the neck free and everything released and breathing might not seem much, until a chef tells you how many kilos of onion he had to chop by hand when out of college or until you fully appreciate that in most things we do, we come into contact with the world using our hands. Our habits for using our hands have a profound effect on how we function. Just ask anyone with RSI, or a rider, fencer, artist, golfer, musician, in fact anyone who has a skill with their hands like a chef or a cook chopping the onion. There is always a skill, and where there is a skill, there is a habit that operates for good or ill in terms of both the task in hand and our functioning, as in chopping the onion.

Published in Lessons from the Chair

I did a workshop last week on applying the Alexander Technique to Tai Chi, something of which I have no particular knowledge. However, Tai Chi like may things works with the principles of poise and balance, principles that are central to the Alexander Technique and the development of constructive conscious control. As a teacher, I am able to help students of Tai Chi improve their practice, in a way that I am able to help horse riders, musicians or anybody improve their practice and performance in physical activity. 
The knowledge of the principles of poise and balance, as well as a sound knowledge of the mechanics of use, which are part of every Alexander Technique teacher’s training, allows me to help others improve their skills in their chosen activities. My own approach, developed through my training in Personal Construct Psychology, is to recognise that pupils are experts in their own field and practice. I then work with them to integrate the Alexander Technique into these. Alexander Technique is so basic that you can take it into anything - something that cannot be said of Tai Chi, yoga, Pilates or any exercise programme!
Indeed, it is so basic, as Alexander knew, that through the control of one’s manner of use, one can control one’s manner of reaction. Something that he thought many people familiar with his work had missed – which is unfortunately probably still true today.

I use this knowledge with both my Alexander pupils and my therapy clients to help them not just with anxiety but with the sense of overwhelm that goes with being flooded. I will be blogging soon, on my therapy blog, about flooding and how it can lead to difficulties in relationships. The way to help people who flood, in therapy jargon, is to teach them to self-soothe, which basically means to find for themselves a way to breathe and focus again. Alexander Technique is a really helpful way of doing this, where inhibition becomes a form of gentling of the self, where negative, self critical thoughts are held at bay, in favour of a new way of being in the world, by oneself and then with others.

It is part of the foundation skills, that everybody needs in order to have fulfilling personal relationships, that some people learn in the normal course of things when they are young; and others need to learn consciously when they are older. Conscious control, developed through the Alexander Technique really is so basic, that you can take it into anything. It, as it involves the use of the self, really is central to the act of living, and can be made central to living a rich, rewarding and productive life.

Published in Lessons from the Chair

So said an article, on some new research, in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph. It confirmed what every Alexander Technique teacher knows, that in texting while walking people are shortening in stature, interfering with their balance, and holding their breath. Of course, it is not just in walking and texting that this happens but when people are sitting down as well to text or work on their iPads or tablets. What happens is that they pull forward to look at their screens and then the trouble starts.

This is not something that needs to happen. Alexander Technique gives people the power to stop this and to develop balance and co-ordination in all the activities of everyday life – this is what it is there for. It involves the development of conscious control to direct one’s use in everyday activities rather than simply relying on the habits of co-ordination that have been developed without awareness while growing up.

With regard to texting, Alexander Technique is also preventative. It will remove the possibility of ‘text neck’ and problems to do with the thumbs and hands that come from not understanding the mechanics of the situation. It is so much better to learn now, before the problems start, than once they have.

As we move into our more connected and virtual world, intelligent thought needs to be applied if our basic mechanics and our organic functioning is to be respected. There is an increasing necessity to teach children about their use, in an intelligent way, that makes it easy to learn, that will save them from the problems that will otherwise predictably result.

What Alexander thought, and Alexander teachers know, is that it this descent of man is not inevitable. By using our intelligence we can cultivate the poise and balance, and easy respiration, that is our birthright; in walking, texting and any activity we care to undertake; in any situation we happen to face; with any person we happen to be with – conscious control gives us the choice and capacity to be different, to be free in our movement and breathing.

Published in Lessons from the Chair

A relatively new pupil came in this week, fed up. The pain and discomfort associated with arthritis was making life difficult and they were finding it difficult to stop and get things all working again. It is how things usually are with chronic conditions and comes from the standard pain reaction, which is to become aware of pain and then to attend to it. Awareness precedes attention. In this direct attention, where we orientate ourselves to the pain, we tighten our musculature, establish maladaptive habits and elaborate the implications of the pain. This is the territory of the psycho-physical, where conscious control in how we use ourselves can make a big difference both physically and psychologically.

The difference was rather nicely summed up by my pupil at the end of their lesson when they said that they felt ‘held by my body without any strain. Rather than me holding it, it was cradling me and I was not trying to protect it.’ Which is a lovely description of the change conscious control can make.
 We had started on the table working with the use of the eyes, to change the focus of attention from the awareness of the pain and discomfort, to the possibilities of conscious control and being able to turn things round for oneself. It is very important that attention is not forced elsewhere and that the distress, which is present in the emergency response to pain and its implications, is acknowledged. What this involves is different for different people, depending on who they are, what sort of pain is involved and its actual implications. What is important, in that the we seek to gentle ourselves, soothe ourselves for the more psycho-analytically minded, and find a gentle way to talk to ourselves. One that allows us to move our attention to thinking about what we might do next and how we use ourselves to do it. 
When this occurs, there is a palpable change in breathing and a lengthening in stature, as well as a widening of the back. This is a better place to think of the implications of what is happening, of what we need and what we want to do next. For which we can then rehearse the guiding orders for moving ourselves into action, in a free and supported way, where we are breathing easily and have freed ourselves from the self-imposed restrictions of the standard pain reaction.

This is the last blog for this year – I will restart in January. In the meantime, Happy New Year, when it comes and all best wishes for 2014.

Published in Lessons from the Chair
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