freedom for life

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

Friday, 01 February 2013 18:44

Poise in the Act of Living

The continuing radical nature of Alexander's thought and work has been brought home to me, as I prepare to write an article next week. Which means no blogs for the next two weeks. 

Published in Lessons from the Chair
Friday, 25 January 2013 20:03

Posture – A Radical Change

Old solutions to problems that persist, reappear, rebranded, as wholesome technology. The promise is of effortless relief, with little or no demands on people’s powers, intellectual or physical. Of course, from the Alexander perspective, separating the intellectual from the physical, the mind from the body, is a category mistake that divides what is unified in the psycho-physical. The need is to repare a separation that arose in practice and thought many hundreds of years ago.

The habit of separation, hardened to the point where mind, body and soul became seen as separate substances, not part of a single unified whole, continues to inform solutions that miss and ignore the facts of our corporeality and embodiment. Our ability to act is compromised in being bypassed by misunderstandings that have developed over centuries. 

This can be seen in the return of the fashion for corsetry, this time for men, as well as women. A guinea-pig reporter in today’s Independent finds himself ‘almost breathless and strangely upright’ in a T-shirt that promises ‘Zonal core muscle compression’ that ‘sculptures, shapes and slims the torso,’ according to the maker’s website. The problem with this approach is expressed succinctly and accurately, in the second comment, at the foot of the article – ‘Yeah- that's what your own muscles are meant to do!’

Well said Anne! Corsetry, artificial supports, are rarely helpful, weakening what needs to be strengthened, strengthening what needs to weakened, putting an over reliance on something external rather than using the rather wonderful support and mechanisms that evolved for keeping us upright and breathing. It is the use of that support and those mechanisms that is fundamental to Alexander’s work. To use them requires a consciousness of them that is usually lacking; a consciousness that only develops in practical experience and can be gained quickly and easily in Alexander lessons. Where the emphasis is not on posture as a static holding, but as a dynamic preparedness for action, which is poised, balanced and alert, to the possibilities of a situation. 


This shows itself rather differently to the sculpted form of corsetry; it is free and easy, dynamic and related in its form, aesthetic in the ease of movement, poise and balance. It relies on the muscles deep to the spine to support us, as they evolved to do. It relies not on a direct effort to hold ourselves up, but goes the indirect way, inhibiting where we pull ourselves down, where we pull ourselves out of shape, so that the work falls naturally and easily on to the muscles that evolved to support us, give us shape, grace of movement, lightness on our feet, lightness in our being.


Posture as preparation for action, which is maintained in action, is a radical departure from common perceptions of posture. It is one that is concerned with the ’co-ordination of parts within the whole’, or physiology as Claude Bernard defined it, that respects the integrity of the organism within the frame of action. Where Alexander radicalizes this even further is in taking it from the realms of theory into the realms of practice, making it available to everybody, as a ‘constructive conscious control’, that is practical, simple, and available to all. 

Published in Lessons from the Chair
Friday, 18 January 2013 08:30

Physical Literacy in Schools

The Telegraph yesterday reports that Baroness Campbell, chairwoman of UK Sport, has complained that eleven-year olds in Britain ‘can hardly move’. Indeed apparently ‘they can’t catch, throw, jump or run – the fundamental basic movements of every sport’. The remedy is for more primary school teachers to be trained in PE.


There are some basic assumptions in this that can usefully be questioned. The first is the priority given to sport in terms of everyday fitness and movement. It’s simply not necessary to make movement subservient to sport; people can get what they need from dance, from everyday movement, from learning to sing well, from having an active life. This is not an anti-sport point, sport if you enjoy it, is a valuable thing in itself, to be commended and I teach many sports people how to use themselves well in their chosen activity. Equally, I teach actors and singers how to look after and use themselves well in their chosen activities. The athleticism in terms of stamina and endurance of the opera singer is quite the match of the top-flight athlete, with both relying on good co-ordination and control.


This then is the point missed, that the Baroness has got the wrong way round, namely that good co-ordination and control exist prior to sport in everyday activities of sitting, standing and walking. Good co-ordination and control is not sport dependent, although it can be enhanced and developed in sporting activities. It exists in everyday life and too often when you look at children they are badly co-ordinating themselves in the above tasks of everyday life, as well as writing, drawing and using a keyboard. Good co-ordination and control shows itself as much in these activities as sport and the fundamental basics are not catching, throwing, jumping or running, but the use of the head, the neck and the torso in relation to each other. 


Having re-iterated one of Alexander’s points, it is also important to re-iterate another, namely that prevention is the key. Too often children’s use deteriorates when they enter school and here, yes, primary teachers could do with knowledge of how people use themselves, so children’s co-ordination improves in their daily round of lessons by preventing the kind of habits that evolve which makes movement sluggish and un-enjoyable. Children learn to be inactive, as much as they learn to be active, there is a great deal of need to exercise the principle of prevention here. This recognises that the primary co-ordination centres on the head and neck, Alexander’s primary control, and that when this goes wrong consequences follow. Co-ordination evolves in the context of inter-personal relationships and the basic achievements of standing and walking through control of the head and neck are too often not fully mastered by the young before the demands of throwing, catching, running and jumping are made on them. Mastery of this basic grammar of movement does not just facilitate successful sporting achievement, but success in all areas of life. This is basic to education, something that John Dewey noted of Alexander’s work many years ago. 

Published in Lessons from the Chair
Saturday, 12 January 2013 09:31

New Year Resolutions and The Need To Stop

The turning of the year with the lightening and lengthening of the day brings with it blogs and newspapers full of plans to detox, get fit, change your life, become a new you. Questions abound, as to which fitness plan, which diet, how to stick to it? Experts differ and everybody tends to assume that if you just tell people what they need to do, it happens, despite the abundant evidence of failure of far too many people with their diets, fitness plans, lapsed gym memberships and the like, in trying to change. WHY IS THIS?


It is not as if it is a new phenomena, rereading Alexander’s four books over the holiday season in preparation for an article, one finds the same themes, the same problems, exactly one hundred years ago. The problems persist, despite greater knowledge as to undesirability and damaging effects of certain behaviours, certain habits. For example the consumption of too much sugar is known to be linked to the rise in obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other major forms of illness, which waste lives in later years, eating up precious health budgets in care. 


Alexander himself wrote about the corruption of taste that goes with adding sugar to a babies’ milk and how it establishes a habit for sweet things that persist through life. A modern equivalent of which might be giving a child flavoured water, which is laced with large amounts of sugar. Now, specific dietary advice is beyond the normal remit of this blog, what is in its remit is the process of re-education, the process of change and here Alexander has much to say that is as relevant now, as it was, when he was writing. 


Perhaps the most important is the power and importance of being able to STOP and say NO to habit, to suspend it and close it out, in favour of something new, something that is a reasoned chosen choice. Too often no thought is given to what needs to be prevented, where we go wrong, where we have gone wrong, when we seek to help ourselves; too often little thought is given to how we get the fundamental experience of change, that is pervasive and persisting; too often we fail to consider that we might need to re-educate ourselves at a fundamental level, in terms of constructive conscious guidance and control in order to achieve our aims, realise our hopes and our dreams. 


Realising our hopes and our dreams, becoming more fully human in coping with inevitable disappointments that lie along the way, the tracks of our lives, will be the themes of the blog this year. I will blog about them both in the context of developing and gaining constructive conscious control and becoming a personal scientist; that is both within the context of Alexander’s work and Kelly’s work. Kelly, through Dewey can be seen as taking on many of Alexander’s elements of change, and applying them to the topic of human relationships, personal and social rather than the improvement in general function that comes from being well co-ordinated in carrying out the practical acts of daily life. 

Published in Lessons from the Chair

What does it mean for you to be wrong? When you are wrong, as we all are at times, are you able to recognise it and then set out to tackle the problem or do you give up and hope it will go away. The answer to these questions will give a good indication as to how you learn and how successful you are at it. 


These two approaches involve different mindsets according to Carol Deweck who researched them and recently published her results in an easy and accessible book Mindset. Her research backs up what both Alexander and Kelly demonstrated and advocated, namely that solving your problems, by viewing them as a learning opportunity, is the way to grow and succeed this is the growth mindset. Its contrast is the fixed mindset which views ability as fixed, limited and finds set backs difficult to bear. 


You can have both mindsets and use them in different areas of your lives, growing in one, limiting yourself in others. In either case, both mindsets have been learned and can be learned allowing you to change from one to the other, although hopefully no one would choose to limit themselves by consciously adopting the fixed mindset. 


Which mindset we learn at the beginning, is often determined by how others handle our success or failure. Too often children are fixed by parents or teachers as being of fixed ability, with a certain kind of character, which at its very worst persuades children into construing their natural curiosity and spontaneity in learning as bad. Very often in families this can be done to protect the parents from being exposed as the emperor who lacks any clothes. A conspiracy of silence is then imposed, the breaking of which can threaten and bring a scapegoating. The terror of this perpetuates silence, narrowing lives into further sadness and anxiety. Where this happens therapy is one place people can go to tell their story, to find that the world can be different and receive them; and accept them for who they are and who they can be.


In this, learning to be present to their sense of sadness, the sense of anxiety and to transform it into a readiness for action that is calm and focussed can be invaluable. This requires self-understanding and self-acceptance and an end to self-hatred. Inhibition as taught by Alexander in its deepest psycho-physical meaning can be of use here allowing the suspension of hatred, the fear and the threat of being wrong in favour of a curiosity in what is there now or what we might like to project into the future, as a life to be lived. For this, the growth mindset is invaluable as is the presence of another. 


PeggyThe presence of another in learning and development is hugely beneficial and here I would just like to say  a few words about Peggy Dalton whose death last week is one of the reasons this blog was delayed. Peggy supervised me for six years, including my training. She was a remarkably gifted and talented therapist but what, more than anything, marked her out was her presence and engagement to others despite her severe chronic pain. This presence gave me and others great support and encouragement in developing our work and she will remain a great inspiration to the constructivist ideal that anything can be reconstrued, including chronic pain, as this touching blog by my friend and colleague Mary Frances makes clear. Peggys life was proof that even in the greatest of difficulties, meaning can be found and lives can be lived. She will be missed and remembered by all of us that knew her. 


Published in Lessons from the Chair

‘Imagine you’re clever’ might be an insult to some, but for others it might be the instruction that liberates them into a whole new world of learning. As an instruction it has a lot to teach us about learning and the power of expectations, others and our own.

It was used in a lovely bit of research by Robert Hardy to investigate how young people’s attitudes to learning affected their performance. He invited them to carry out some tasks by acting ‘as if they were clever’. Young people with poor and error prone learning styles, became efficient and fluent learners when acting ‘as if’. One girl was so discomforted by the gap between how she normally experienced herself and her new performance, that she claimed not to have done the experiment - that someone else must have done it!

Two inter-linked truths about learning are apparent here. The first is that expectations are important, the second that self-consistency is important, the experience of difference for some, is something to be disavowed. Others though welcome it and are able to make sense of it, and use it to launch themselves into whole new worlds of discovery.

This importance of self-consistency and our need to be predictable to ourselves is sometimes poorly understood. Not just by ourselves but also by other people including teachers and therapists, who are there to help us learn. Without it, we or others, at our extremes, can seem unpredictable, chaotic and even terrifyingly mad, yet deep down there is always a logic, which makes sense in the light of day, in the context of past experience and choice.

Discovering that logic, which is primarily is an emotional and narrative logic, is a task we all have to face. The ease and fluency with which we accomplish this, is primarily determined by the type of self-consistency we seek. If we seek consistency as fixed characters, then eventually no matter how talented, being wrong, as I will elaborate further next time, becomes something to avoid. If we seek consistency as beings capable of learning, of developing and growing, then through time, patience and hard work, we can change and master our chosen skills. If we act ‘as if’ we can learn, we will; if we act ‘as if’ we were clever while we do so, then the learning will be easier and more fluent.

There is no blog next week, as I am in London for a board meeting. The following week, I will turn to the importance of ‘mindsets’ and start to look at some of their implications for learning the Alexander Technique and therapy.

Published in Lessons from the Chair

A pupil returned last week and reported how their sleeping had improved as a result of their last lesson - they were getting a good night's sleep and waking up more refreshed. The need to think about how we use ourselves while sleeping, in my experience, is quite common. Alexander thought people’s use while sleeping was often worse than their waking use and, in many respects, this is probably true.


Published in Lessons from the Chair
Friday, 12 October 2012 00:00

The Importance of Alexander's Work

Every so often I find myself reflecting on what the Alexander Technique is a technique for – it is a subject I have blogged about before. Last time, I addressed the question with what I thought Alexander's answer might be in terms of Constructive Conscious Control.

Published in Lessons from the Chair
Friday, 06 July 2012 00:00

Knowing How v Knowing That

I first became aware of Gilbert Ryle’s distinction between ‘knowing how’ and ‘knowing that’ while studying philosophy at Aberdeen University as an undergraduate. It is a distinction whose importance I have found myself reflecting on for a number of reasons, not least the importance Alexander placed on it in emphasising the importance of the ‘means-whereby’ we go about our business.

Published in Lessons from the Chair
Saturday, 21 July 2012 00:00

Introducing Inhibition

Withholding consent, refraining from doing what one has always done, stopping yourself from relying on old habits, inhibiting, to use Alexander’s word, is the first step in his technique. The second is directing, but that can only come when one has first inhibited what one does not want.

Published in Lessons from the Chair
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