freedom for life

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

Richard Casebow

Richard Casebow

Back in the mid-1980s, I started to suffer from severe sciatica that often made walking and working difficult. At the time, I was training in London to become a Chartered Accountant and I left, as I was spending increasing amounts of time off waiting for the pain to subside. Around this time, I also became depressed, as my prospects seemed to darken with little hope of a normal life. In seeking help I found my way both to a psychotherapist and then to an Alexander Technique teacher, both of which helped enormously. The therapy with forming a life plan and understanding myself, encouraged me to dream of the life I have now. The Alexander Technique gave me the practical tool to help realise it and to allow me to rehabilitate myself to lead a full normal life.


The link between Alexander Technique, Psychotherapy and the art of living intelligently became something that has fascinated me ever since and is something I have continued to explore myself and with pupils and clients since. This blog is my attempt to elucidate the links, as well as to talk about Alexander Technique pure and simple and the benefits of therapy.


I founded the Edinburgh Alexander and Therapy Centre in 1994, Counselling Conversations came later after I became a practising therapist in 2003. Professionally I act as the Treasurer of the Personal Construct Psychology Association and sit on the board of the UKCP’s house magazine The Psychotherapist. When I am not to be found working, there is nothing better I like to be doing than spending time on a Scottish hillside, exploring the arts or just spending time with friends and family, including the family cat. 

 

 

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.

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!

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.

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.

Friday, 04 October 2013 08:57

The Advantages Of Conscious Control

The advantages of conscious control are often made clear to me, at points of difficulty and stress, such as when my mother died five years ago, and now recently with refurbishing new teaching premises, where I started to teach on Sunday.

When mum was dying, conscious control helped me to be present to her in her final weeks, helping transform it from a sad occasion into something else that was real in its acceptance of pain and joyous in making the most of the last moments we had together – most especially when I was sitting quietly at her bedside. I have rarely been more grateful for Alexander’s work and the possibilities it affords us.

My New Teaching Room

My New Teaching Room

The last few weeks have inevitably been different with a different focus. They have been equally demanding in managing a heavy teaching schedule while project managing builders, suppliers, designers and the like. In the end everything has come together, providing me with a beautiful space within which to teach and to practice as a therapist. At times in the process there were many competing demands, with decisions constantly needing to be made. It was here that I remembered Alexander and the need to put my use first, to always take the time to stop and allow myself to focus. Inevitably when I did the next stage of what needed to be done was made clear and I would find myself sequencing the next stage of action. In doing so I remembered one of Alexander’s claims that practice of his technique would not only give you confidence but help you think better. This is certainly my experience in that the more I understand the sequencing of the guiding orders, that go together as whole, the more easily I can sequence other things into a practical order for going on with things.

And sequencing is the basis for all practical and therefore scientific thinking. It is part of what gives conscious control its scientific character. Alexander’s work is based on a practical sequence of thinking about how we can use ourselves - one that allows us to gain a control of ourselves. That control allows us to improve our standard of functioning physically and mentally, in that unified whole, which is ourselves acting freely in the world, in our use and movement - breathing easily while alert to the changing possibilities that continually surround us.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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