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. 

 

 

Friday, 03 May 2013 17:41

Snagging

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.

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.

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

Friday, 01 March 2013 20:08

Going Up

I have been excitedly showing pupils the image below on my iPad for the last week. It comes from a trip made by Dan Leahy into the Papua New Guinea highlands in the early 1930s. Dan Leahy, an Australian on the left, shows all the signs of civilisation and modern living with his shoulders slumped forward and head pulled back.

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

Thursday, 13 December 2012 18:33

The Bliss of An Infant

The bliss of an infant can haunt a life, casting long shadows over a life-time of regret, for time passed with a life not lived. Perplexing its central character, this tragedy passes, hidden away, leaving its few spectators confused, angry and disappointed. The visible human dimensions of talent wasted, dissipated in fragmentation, hide the real confusion of anxiety and most of all rage. That rage is so often turned against a self that, otherwise might been real, imaginative and loved. 

 

This bliss of an infant lies in its perfection, which is always imagined, yet compellingly necessary for its survival and growth. Hopefully it comes from the mother for whom this baby is the most perfect, at its moment of arrival, its moment of welcome. Mother and baby both need this, the mother for the sacrifices that lie ahead, the baby to be assured of its welcome. Perfection is a transitory experience for both, one to be returned to in its bliss, in the initial stages of adjustment. When things fail to fit, when they go wrong, where disappointment lurks, it is the bliss of perfection that soothes and eases the path and ways of early life. 

 

Without the bliss of perfection, terror of abandonment and obliteration freeze the baby in a perpetual terror and search for safety, the glance is always backwards to an imagined garden into which they were never welcomed. For those who entered the garden but were ejected too early, into a world that was harsh, unwelcoming and without respect, life can become the perpetual journey backwards, forever seeking what has been lost. The safety and surety of love and perfection predominates and obscures the possibility of being able to ‘follow one’s bliss,’ in Joseph Campbell’s phrase, by finding purpose and living so fully, that they know they have been alive.

To search for perfection, is really to look backwards for what has been or might have been, to have purpose in contrast is to turn one’s aim to the future, to look forward to what might be and will be. To have purpose requires the preparation of learning to stop, look and face the unknown, until the possible paths of venturing forward clear, and we can step into the unknown prepared for what ever uncertainties, we will certainly meet.

Thursday, 03 May 2012 00:00

How Do We Know?

This is one of the four fundamental questions that philosophy seeks to answer according to Kant, it is also something central to applying the Alexander Technique to develop Conscious Control. It is a question that most new pupils come to ask in learning Alexander’s technique, as they realise that they can no longer rely on their sense of feeling, it is unreliable, the judgements it contains are not to be trusted.

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