This introductory essay on the Alexander Technique and the nature of habit was originally published on the "learning" page, before a recent redesign. Rather than delete it, I thought I would post it here on the blog. Plus, any chance to show a picture of my sister wearing plaid should not be missed.
The Alexander Technique is an education in movement. It teaches us to attend to movements that are so fundamental to us that we largely take them for granted. We don't think, "This is my habit." We think, "This is who I am."
HABITS: WHY WE HAVE THEM
Most movement is habitual, meaning it is automatic and unconscious. Past the age of two, we usually don’t think about how we are moving. We don’t attend to the particulars of our gait or how we’re balancing in the chair. We simply walk or sit.
Habits free us to think about other things. My sister at three isn’t thinking about how she is standing, she’s thinking about everything she has to say—beginning perhaps with why she has to wear so much plaid.
This habitual coordination becomes the basis for later skill.
My sister at ten shows a poise at the softball plate that would make an Alexander teacher rejoice: free neck, relaxed shoulders, a lengthening back, bending at the hips and knees, not the waist—and a smile to boot. Moreover, her coordination is at the service of her larger goals. When she goes to slug the ball out of the park, she doesn’t have to micromanage her coordination. It happens for her.
This is the ideal for skilled movement—automatic and goal-oriented. And it is an ideal experienced by almost everyone: when driving, typing, riding a bike, or playing an instrument.
THE PROBLEM OF CHANGE
Unfortunately, the same learning process that gives us fluid, effective movement can leave us oblivious to the causes of our discomfort or pain. My experience as a violinist is a case in point.
The violin is a notoriously awkward instrument to hold, and by the age of thirteen, I had made it more awkward still.
I pushed my chin forward to hold the instrument, tensed my neck, rounded my shoulders, and pushed my hips forward. By college, the pattern was set. I was playing four or more hours a day and experiencing regular tightness in my wrists and forearms and more mysteriously to me, spasms around my shoulder blades.
In spite of my discomfort, I was unaware of the fact that I was doing anything wrong.
My self-image was of the heroic school of violin playing—standing nobly, violin raised. I remember being surprised to see myself hunched over the instrument in photographs. I assumed that the photographer had caught me at a bad angle. I didn’t make the connection between how I engaged the instrument and my discomfort after a day of practicing.
This lack of awareness is typical when we try to change a deeply ingrained habit.
A bad habit is still a habit. It is still automatic and unconscious. We feel pain, but don’t notice the actions that are causing the pain. We may be frustrated by our inability to perform our best, but we do not perceive the habits that undermine that performance.
An Alexander lesson is foremost an opportunity to attend to the subtleties of coordination, and learn to accurately interpret what you notice. Developing this awareness lays the foundation for lasting change.
WHAT AN ALEXANDER LESSON IS LIKE
Like many, if not most Alexander teachers, I teach the Technique out of my home, in the same room where I teach violin lessons. Because you can apply the Alexander Technique anywhere, you can teach it almost anywhere, and my studio is a familiar, comfortable learning environment.
You don’t need to buy special exercise clothes to learn the Alexander Technique and for heaven’s sakes, you should keep your clothes on. You could learn the Alexander Technique in formal clothes, if you had to, but most students choose to wear normal, everyday casual clothing. Because we’re working with movement, wearing something that is unrestricting is a good idea. (Avoid skirts or anything too tight to move easily.)
A classic Alexander lesson often begins with sitting and standing. This is not because Alexander teachers are obsessed with perfect chair comportment, but because sitting and standing are deeply habitual. When you start to notice how unconscious and automatic your habits are in sitting and standing, you gain insight into all your habits.
Sitting and standing are also relatively low stakes activities and simple. People aren't very emotionally invested in how they sit and stand, so they have more of chance of seeing their patterns objectively. Plus, when you go home from your lesson, you’ll be sitting and standing all the time—so you can start to apply what you’ve learned right away.
GUIDED MOVEMENT: PUTTING THE FOCUS ON THINKING
An Alexander lesson is hands-on, but it doesn’t involve direct manipulation of the body in the way that a massage or chiropractic adjustment does. The teacher’s hands are designed to put your focus on your thinking—on your moment-by-moment awareness and your intention to move.
One of the most important roles of the teacher’s hands is to give you feedback. Because our habits are largely unconscious, we need to raise the level of our basic awareness. This is one of the most fundamental things you will gain through lessons: calibrated, accurate awareness—that you are doing what you think you are doing.
Another important feature of an Alexander lesson is that movement is guided. For example, if you’re working on sitting and standing, the teacher will actually sit and stand you. This is an unusual experience, but one that you rapidly get used to. The guided nature of the movement puts the focus on your thinking. You can practice noticing how you react and experimenting with different intentions, rather than worrying about translating a teacher's instructions into action. Ultimately this practice helps you change your habitual reactions to a real sense of poise and purposeful, healthy action.
APPLYING THE TECHNIQUE
Alexander lessons begin with sitting and standing, but we will ultimately work on whatever unique challenges you face in your activities. Maybe you’re a photographer and want to learn how to stop tensing your neck when you bring the camera up to your eye. Or you’re a pianist who collapses your shoulders forward towards the keys when you play. Or you’re a graphics designer who grips in your shoulder when you use the mouse. Or you’re a chef who rounds your back when you bend down to take a sheet pan out of the oven.
Whatever your habits, we will spend time in your lessons learning what triggers these habits and how you can overcome them. By overcoming such habits, you develop a true skill for life— the ability to care for yourself, whatever challenges you face in the future.