freedom for life

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

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

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
Monday, 04 November 2013 12:15

The Benefits of Conscious Control

As a phrase, 'constructive conscious control' draws a blank for most people; it is meaningless both intellectually and practically and therefore something that seems best avoided. Yet, for Alexander, it was the aim of his work and technique whose meaning can be understood quite easily, if the constituent parts are explained separately before being combined together. But this is only illustrative of something that has to be known in practice and practiced until it becomes a set of habits - a way of thinking that is engrained because it is useful. This is constructive conscious control itself. 

When introducing people to the phrase, I usually start with the middle term - conscious. In simple practical terms it means being aware of, the how of, the means whereby, if we are to use Alexander's terminology, we go about things. Normally, we just sit, stand, walk, speak, sleep, think etc. without any thought of how we actually co-ordinate or use ourselves in activity - how we control ourselves. Lacking explanation of how we control our co-ordination or use in these activities, we have little or no awareness of the implications of that co-ordination in terms of functioning or performance. We do not realise that use affects functioning or that we potentially have control of it which allows us to cultivate a use and control that is constructive in improving our standard of functioning and performance over time. 

Pupils when they first start lessons are usually not looking for constructive conscious control. They are looking for relief or improvement with something. Both relief and improvement can and often do occur for some pupils very quickly after only a few lessons. This is good, it is in a sense what they came for, but it does not mean that they have yet developed conscious control. 

This takes more work and a realisation of the importance of prioritising thinking about one's use in life, putting it first, putting one’s own health and functioning first in everything that one does, in the hope that not only is this good for oneself but good for others. So it becomes in time, intentionally predictable, that if you use the technique, you can control your use and influence your functioning in a positive manner, consistently and in increasingly stressful circumstances. 

In concrete terms this means, as with a pupil this week, they have gone beyond welcoming the relief that lessons were giving them in terms of long-term back problems to welcoming the fact that they are aware of when they are tensing and tightening parts of themselves, which they are able to stop and then release into new and improving use and co-ordination of themselves. It is this increased conscious awareness and constructive control that is the aim of Alexander's work and needs to be prized beyond the simple relief and help that Alexander lessons offer and deliver in the short term. With it a pupil moves beyond their teacher with a capacity to apply the technique in ever more complicated situations, with ever more skill in using themselves, in achieving poise and balance.

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, 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