freedom for life

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

Friday, 22 November 2013 10:36

Means Whereby - A Technical Blog

Becoming aware of how we approach specific tasks is a major part of developing and exercising constructive conscious control. For Alexander we can either approach a task by end-gaining or by stopping to think of how we are going to use ourselves in the task. For Alexander the how is the means whereby. The awareness of our means whereby applies, whether we are engaged in a physical act such as running, swimming or sewing, or mental acts such as anticipating an activity through rehearsing the guiding orders themselves. It also applies interpersonally, of which more, perhaps another time.

To talk of the means whereby is to talk of how we use ourselves in order that we take account of two inter-dependent implications. The first implication concerns how our use, effects our functioning. We need to ensure that our use is constructive so that it will raise our standard of functioning and health over time. This includes in physical acts using ourselves well, in order that we minimise the risk of injury, from poor co-ordination and relying on an inadequate mechanical understanding of what is required. The second implication is to do with the implications of our use for the performance of the task we have set ourselves.

Included in our means whereby is the psycho-physical attitude that is adopted in approaching a task, which has its own use. So in being determined to do or complete a task, a pupil will often pull their head down and grit their teeth, interfering with their balance and breathing, and therefore their ability to do the task, safely and in the timely manner they are actually seeking. What often happens in this determination, is the shift that marks end-gaining, in the use of the eyes, which fix on a time, a feeling or something other, rather than focussing on the task in hand - or where we are going if we are running or swimming.

Changing what we are attending to, to what we need to focus on, without concentrating, requires both inhibition and direction in the use of the eyes, as well as the neck and head. When done properly there is the overall lengthening, that marks a poised preparation for action which needs to be maintained through the proper sequencing of the guiding orders in their inhibitory and directive aspects for the action concerned when we come to actually sew, run or swim.

In teaching pupils about the importance of their means whereby in each of these activities this week, we went through the same sequence in terms of approaching their chosen activity and task, in terms of means whereby. Rather than as they had been doing, in terms of being determined to do it speedily, where they end-gained by pulling their heads down, fixing on speed so that they rushed and dis-coordinated themselves into injury. This if continued would disable them from the very activities they enjoy. By learning to approach it from a means whereby perspective they have ability to lessen the risk of injury and be more efficient in their movement, thereby increasing the chance of attaining the speed they desire. This come with the means whereby of knowing to focus, where to focus and understanding and controlling the mechanics of their use. Which is what it all about!

Published in Lessons from the Chair
Friday, 18 October 2013 18:50

The Use of the Eyes

In his teaching room, Alexander had a roundel of stained glass hanging in his window. He would ask pupils to look at it during lessons. I have been thinking of this intentional use of a focal point in teaching a lot since moving to new premises.

In my old teaching room, there was a large window, offering a changing street scene, providing events which would capture a pupil’s attention. This sometimes lessened the need to intentionally direct their attention. In my new room this is not the case. The window does not provide a scene and it has been necessary to create a focal point using an ANTA cabinet and a Wemyss Ware goblet. For pupils this has worked very well; they like the combination and find it an attractive and useful focal point.


The Wemyss Ware Goblet


As a teacher, I find the new focal point highlights better the importance of conscious control of the eyes to pupils. Alexander wrote a lot about the use of the eyes, most often in relation to concentration as solution to mind wandering. As Alexander pointed out, people when they concentrate, fix their eye and facial muscles in such a way that they end up holding their breath.

Learning to focus rather than concentrate is the solution, where focusing is understood as learning to use one’s eyes without interfering with one’s breathing. Learning to focus is one thing. Learning to direct one’s attention where one wills, without tightening or interfering with one’s breathing, is another. Finally, one needs to know where one wants one’s attention in skilled activity and in life. Where one looks determines what one tends to elaborate, what occupies one psycho-physically. Conscious control demands all three skills be intentionally mastered and co-ordinated with one’s breathing.

So it is important to be aware of when we are not focused, when our minds are wandering, when our eyes are scanning for threat, and to learn to gentle ourselves to the point where we begin to find a focus. Where that focus comes to rest is determined by whether we know where we want it to be. Quite often in skilled activities there is a place it needs to be. At other times, when we are pulling down to control a sense of overwhelm, or fixing in flight or fight, when we do not know our way forward, it is the stopping which allows to look and see a way forward that is important, that comes first in the act of living.

Published in Lessons from the Chair

A Technical Blog

Formally, the Alexander Technique has two parts to it: inhibition and direction. Understanding the two and how they are different can be difficult; what follows is meant to make it easier. First up are what Alexander originally called 'guiding orders' and then 'directions.' Anyone who has had lessons will be familiar with them and the words that go with them, which have a definite sequence in terms of the neck being free, the head going forward and up, the spine to lengthen, the back to widen, the knees to go forward and away, with other directions added in for the feet, arms and hands.

The sequence is vital and I will do a technical blog later in the year on sequencing, when I return to blogging in September, after my summer break. For now, it is simply important to understand that without sequencing the directions in the correct order, everything will break down and not work. To sequence in the correct order is also a matter of keeping all the directions going though the sequence, one after the other and all together at the same time. We sequentially and parallel process them. 

Each direction has two aspects to it, one inhibitory, stopping what you don't want, the other directory and concerned with what you do want. If you have not mastered the inhibitory aspect of a direction first, you will not be able to get the direction right. So, for example, when it comes to the neck being free, you have to stop tightening it and pulling the neck forward before you can release it, at which point the column of the neck will move backwards, necessitating the need to prevent the head being pulled back, which is what the inhibitory aspect of the head going forward is there to prevent.

All the guiding orders/directions should be understood this way, firstly in what they are they to prevent and then in terms of what you want. This means that each guiding order/direction is based on a distinction. The distinction itself is ultimately based on either the shortening or lengthening, or the narrowing or widening of the parts concerned within the overall sequence. If you understand the distinction within the sequence, you have a concept of what you want both in terms of what you want to inhibit and then in what you want to happen. Successful application of the concept within the sequence and within one's awareness, rather than attention, establishes the desired conscious habit. As a conscious habit it allows for increasing levels of control to be established through different areas of one's life - one can then achieve constructive conscious control.

Published in Lessons from the Chair
Friday, 05 July 2013 15:35

Relax Can Equal Collapse

Relax Can Equal Collapse It is holiday time and people are heading off for what they are hoping to be a relaxing break. It is often at this point that newer pupils often think they can take a holiday from the Alexander Technique, which they have been learning to apply in their daily life. What then happens is that they fall back on habits for relaxing which are really habits for collapsing. The equating of relaxing and collapsing, while culturally re-enforced, emerges, I think, from the fact that if you have been over tensing and clenching everything up, a jolly good slump and collapse initially feels great. It comes at a price though, of less energy, poor organisation and poor preparation for action. These often bring with them the return of various symptoms that had brought people for Alexander lessons in the first place.

In learning new habits of coordination, it often takes time and this experience of discomfort to bring people to the point of reconstruing their habits for resting and relaxation. Alexander Technique is as much concerned with this, as with the active phase of action. If we are poised and balanced while at rest, then we are well organised to act dynamically, we do not need to brace ourselves for action. Both phases of the movement between action and resting can and should be done without disturbing poise and balance, otherwise we move between excess tension and collapsing as a matter of course.

Semi-supine is a great way to learn about the resting phase. It makes all the difference and with it, one learns that you properly relax by allowing yourself to expand through lengthening and widening. You also learn that proper relaxation ends with a feeling of being lightly energised, ready to do the next thing rather than sleepy relaxed. Learning this involves not just understanding the mechanics of action through how you use yourself, but breaking out of cultural norms that equate collapsing with relaxing. If you do both, then an active or restful holiday, depending on your choice, becomes possible that leaves you poised and balanced, as well as relaxed and refreshed for the return home and the return to normal everyday life.

Published in Lessons from the Chair
Friday, 21 June 2013 18:47

Hearing Yourself Think

Stopping to the still point where everything is releasing, lengthening, poised, with balance achieved, is primary to the Alexander Technique. It means ceasing to do things by rushing; it means not chasing after thoughts but giving yourself time; it means creating time and space for everything to still, for quietness to come. This can be hard even for experienced pupils, yet it is the first stage in what Joseph Rowentree called 'reasoning into the unknown,' a phrase that Alexander was to pick up and use himself.

 Reasoning into the unknown is something we can do at the start of everyday. Sometimes the anticipation of the day or the future carries more uncertainty than others. How we experience that uncertainty is effected by our stance towards the future, our 'posture of anticipation' as David Mills once called it.

That stance is based on our use of ourselves and therefore is open to conscious control using the Alexander Technique's two steps of inhibition and direction. To inhibit, is to stop and to still and it is here that our manner of use influences our manner of reaction. The influence of manner of use on manner of reaction is something that, as Alexander noted, people miss about his work. It is the point where we are able, through conscious control of our use, to have a conscious control of our breathing. This allows us to control our manner of reaction and be calmer and less stressed in life, including when we anticipate our day and future events.

The learning and practice of this occurs in lessons, where a sense of stop is cultivated, it can allow a person, as one pupil said this week, 'the time to hear themselves think' thereby realising how much they rush and make an effort. It gave them a sense of what they need to learn in lessons for life. This is what lessons are for, and hearing yourself think is a first step in reasoning into the unknown, where you not only anticipate the future, but project yourself forward and create a future, where you have conscious control of your potentialities.

Published in Lessons from the Chair
Friday, 07 June 2013 11:25

Alexander Technique and Gardening

Alexander Technique and Gardening The weather in Edinburgh has finally turned into Summer, the grass is just starting to grow and it is time for many people to tend to their gardens. My Osteopath friends tell me that they get busy at this time of year with people seeking treatment for the injuries they do to themselves, in what is supposed to be an enjoyable activity but involves people in physical work they are not used to. It is also a time when I find myself teaching pupils about how to use themselves in the garden, which is a terrific place to learn about one’s use and apply the technique. The lessons are often necessary as newer pupils have often not thought about their use in the garden and are therefore prone to snagging and hurting themselves. What follows are a few observations about what one can learn to look after oneself while gardening in order to make it a more enjoyable experience. To understand them, you really need the experience of lessons and the help of a teacher. All of them can be easily demonstrated to ensure a proper and correct understanding and then it is practice; practice all the time in putting the use of yourself, and particularly your head and your neck, first.

Firstly, it is useful to learn how to squat well. This takes time and those people that can squat often do it by tightening and shortening. It is important to lengthen up in order to go down into a squat. It takes time to learn how to do this but is well worth the effort, making low level work easier and allowing safe lifting of heavier objects through a proper use of the back.

Secondly, learn how use your back when lifting without narrowing it by tensing and shortening the arms.

Thirdly, learn how to use your hands when placing them on something in order to lift it and how to make pincer and power grips without shortening the flexors of the hand and arms. This is very easy to learn and when you do, you will find that you can be aware of your back widening in support of whatever activity that you are undertaking. A good thing to remember here is that in taking hold of anything, whether in a pincer or a power grip, somebody else should be able to easily remove the object from your hand without a struggle. This applies not just in gardening, but in sport with a club or a racket, in musicianship with holding a bow or an instrument, and in art or writing in how you hold a brush or a pencil.

Fourthly, when digging, learn how to drive the spade by extending the leg and not leaning heavily forward and down on the spade and trying to push it down.

Throughout it all of course you need as a first consideration to be keeping your neck free and your head going forward and up before letting the back lengthen and widen. These are always primary to anything else. Putting it all together is sometimes tricky, as is properly understanding what is meant in each instruction, which is why lessons are important. When you do manage to put it all together, the work involved in gardening should seem easier, there will be less risk of injury and more time to enjoy your garden if the weather holds.

Published in Lessons from the Chair
Friday, 24 May 2013 10:48

Snagging 2

As I continually remind people, the Alexander Technique is a technique for developing constructive conscious control. This is rarely why people come for lessons in the first place. Usually it is for help with some other sort of problem, often to do with posture, musculoskeletal pain, voice work, breathing, stress or improving a skill such as horse riding or playing a musical instrument. In all of these cases, constructive conscious control is initially a means whereby a problem can be solved rather than an end in itself.

This is how it should be; it was how the technique came into being, with a practical problem that Alexander had with his voice. It was a problem he imagined he might solve himself, by observing his use in the mirror and reasoning out how he might use his voice well, so it no longer would cause him problems. In terms of his approach of imagination, practical experimentation and reasoning it was and is 'scientific' as John Dewey noted.

In reasoning out the use of himself, Alexander took a step towards putting his health and healthy functioning first. He was by this time all too well aware of how potentially crippling and disabling poor health could be in terms of his voice and his aim to be an actor. His aim initially was to look after himself in performance and as he more fully understood the concept of use that he was elaborating, he realised that he had to look after himself in all his activities.

Everybody who comes to learn the Alexander Technique in order to develop some level of conscious control, as Alexander intended it, goes through a similar set of transitions based on the increasing awareness of their use that goes with ‘thinking in activity.’ Transitions and increased awareness go together. While knowledge of the need for a transition often precedes increased awareness; increased awareness is always the basis for the transition; without it, we are unable to properly inhibit what we do not want, where we cause ourselves harm.

Inhibition plays a dual role here; firstly, it provides the pause where we can become aware where we are prone to habitually tighten, pull down and hold our breath in wanting to do something. Secondly, within the awareness that inhibition creates, inhibition is the stilling of the newly discovered or rediscovered habit in its subtlety that can itself be inhibited in action and activity.

It is the subtlety of habit that often catches us out, where we snag ourselves both at the beginning and in the continuing of conscious control. In these transitions rushing and increasing our effort closes out awareness, hiding it within our attention, when we direct it onto ourselves or overly exert it in the outside world. Only by STOPPING in the caesura and lacunae of existence do we create the time and space of awareness that allows for conscious control to develop. With the application of both inhibition and direction, we find our way forward both in the world and in the use of ourselves through imagination and reason, as Alexander did. We can then get to the plane of Constructive Conscious Control, where we can direct our use, improve our functioning in all its aspects, as we go about our business in the daily act of living.

Published in Lessons from the Chair
Friday, 03 May 2013 17:41


In the process of developing and extending constructive conscious control, one of the things that sometimes happens is that people can start to experience discomfort and pain. Sometimes this involves a return of the symptoms that brought people to Alexander Technique in the first place; at other times the pain and discomfort arise in new places. When this happens, there is often a divergence of opinion as to what is occurring between the teacher and pupil. This divergence can be quickly and easily cleared up by understanding, what I refer to with pupils, as snagging.

Snagging occurs most often for some very particular and inter-linked reasons, two of which concerning context and structure will be outlined today, and two of which I outline in the follow up blog in three weeks time. Before I turn to the reasons, it is worth looking at the divergence in judgement as to what is happening between pupil and teacher.

The pupil understandably is concerned about their experience of pain and discomfort. In judging this experience the tendency is usually to immediately judge things negatively and to make certain assumptions. The most common is that no progress has been made, that they have gone backwards to the beginning and that they have learned nothing. Invariably none of these things are actually the case when looked at from the point of view of learning the Technique and developing conscious control.

From that point of view, there is a contextual element to developing conscious control and this provides the first reason why snagging occurs. It is simply much easier to be aware of our use in some activities rather than in others. With new pupils, it is often much easier to apply the technique in walking, for example, than elsewhere. As their use improves in walking, it highlights their old habit of shortening and narrowing in other activities, which become noticeably uncomfortable. Often this is because through the improving use, as the muscular and connective tissues adapt to the new carriage, their physical structure changes. When this happens other things often need to change and free off to allow everything to work together, to flow together. At this point, where there is a need for structural change and things become stuck and uncomfortable people often understandably revert again to their old habits for dealing with pain and end up going in the wrong direction. It is at this point that they need to stop and to allow themselves to lengthen and connect so that everything frees off and becomes comfortable as it regularly does in the lessons when this needs to be addressed.

Context and structure, separately and together, provide reasons for snagging which can always be overcome through application of the Technique to further develop constructive conscious control. This applies as much to the beginner as to the adept. We are always, always learning and developing, deepening and growing in conscious control provided we remember to stop and allow ourselves to find our way up to freedom, where we can breathe through lengthening and widening.

Published in Lessons from the Chair
Friday, 19 April 2013 07:01

Being Free In Your Tensions

There is a common misconception about Alexander Technique that it is about standing up straight. This is often associated with the common misconception that it is about posture. It is about neither, although posture improves and people do often end up being more upright and therefore straighter. One has to be very careful here in using both upright and straighter. When people try to straighten themselves they often succeed by physically bracing themselves and shortening in stature rather than allowing themselves to lengthen to occupy more of their full height. This is something I sometimes see at parties, if someone asks me what I do for a living and I tell them that I teach the Alexander Technique. To demonstrate their knowledge of the Alexander Technique they shorten, hold their breath and do the very thing that Alexander Technique recommends not doing!

Lengthening is required for people to straighten up. It lessens the ways that they twist themselves out of shape by inhibiting the distortion that comes with pulling down in the use of themselves. The judgement of this, in our felt sense of ourselves, is usually woefully inaccurate. Alexander told a story about teaching a young girl who was badly twisted out of shape. Once he had helped straighten her out by getting her to lengthen, she had the impression that she was now twisted! Another problem is that action and use is spiral not linear in its nature. Linear thinking, which is common leads to puling down and introduces rigidity and distortion into the frame, as well as stiffness in movement interfering with both poise and fluidity of movement.

Poise and lengthening, like straightening, is never a direct aim. It is an outcome of the aim to find a way to be free, so that the breathing is released. From that everything else follows. So it is important not to try and directly lengthen or straighten up, which is what the people above are doing at parties. What is important is to inhibit this and then find the tensions where one is shortening and narrowing and release them so that the work for standing up upright begins to fall where it should on the extensors and deep muscles of the back. That way lengthening starts to occur, as well as straightening up. It may still leave someone twisted - straightening up is not always structurally possible - but it will leave them free, with their breathing released, within their particular and necessary muscular tensions. Being free within your tensions of whatever kind is what Alexander Technique and Conscious Control are all about.

Published in Lessons from the Chair
Saturday, 23 March 2013 15:09

You have to make a picture!

So said the caption in the exhibition* explaining how to explore the nano world which has been opening up wonderfully strange landscapes of the molecular world not visible to the human eye. The opening of this world with its intriguing technological possibilities of adventure made me think of Alexander's discovery of a world from looking at himself in a mirror. There he had to suspend the usual way of looking at himself, as all who undertake mirror work have to do. Instead he observed himself in various activities and formed a picture of how he did things, how he used himself. He identified a new world, different from the one he had inhabited, one where instead of relying on the feeling of what he is doing, he directly observed his behaviour to identify how his habitual way of acting interfered with his general functioning and how he caused his own throat trouble.

This picturing of yourself aids in understanding how you use yourself. It is one of the reasons why role play is important in teaching people to become aware of their use of themselves as well as its implications. To talk of picturing is not to recommend visualisation. This is not some obscure academic point. It is of immense practical importance to do with bringing what Alexander called 'mental acts' under conscious control, so we do not interfere with our functioning while we are thinking. Too often people tighten and stiffen when visualising, thereby getting themselves into a bizarre contradiction of shortening when trying to lengthen.

Part of the difficulty is that people are directly attending to themselves and end-gaining in aiming for a result rather than attending to a focal point that is external to themselves. Even if that focal point is an object of thought like an idea or a picture. So in making a picture or working with a picture we have to be aware of our use, while attending to something external to ourselves. Understanding the difference here between attention and awareness is crucial to the development of conscious control.

Attention involves a focal point external to ourselves which allows us to be aware of ourselves in activity, as actors in the world. Awareness is subsidiary to attention but it is only within our awareness that we can learn to use the technique’s two component parts of inhibition and direction. Awareness is something that is developed in lessons and in applying the technique in life. It is something that continues to develop through life, allowing us to become more aware of the micro actions that leave us shortening and narrowing rather than opening up to the possibilities and adventures of the human world. Like with the nano world if we keep forming a picture, using the mirror or role play, we see new possibilities at a micro level in the world of action that allow for an increasing and developing levels of conscious control.

* The exhibition was in the Deutsche Museum in Munich

Published in Lessons from the Chair
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