Wednesday 3 December 2014

Botox and Emotions

Just in case you have been considering paralysing your face muscles for reasons of vanity, perhaps after reading this post you will think twice!

Botox is a drug made from a neurotoxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum called "botulinum toxin". Given that botulinum toxin is one of the most poisonous substances known to man. you won't be surprised that there are lots of web sites (such as this one) warning about its dangers. Yet those warnings seem to be going unheard if the growth in face-freezing salons is anything to go by!

Disabling the muscles of the face takes away its ability to express certain emotions which use those muscles. A 2010 study by Barnard College in New York State demonstrated that if the ability to express emotions is lost, then the the intensity of those emotions is also impaired!

Researchers have given the link between botox and emotions the rather grand title "The Facial Feedback Hypothesis" which states that facial movement can influence emotional experience. Of course those of us familiar with AT will immediately recognise this as Psychphysical Unity. We know that it is a mechanism that isn't just restricted to facial muscle feedback. I have written about psychophysical unity in a previous post.

Study: Botox Erases Wrinkles, Maybe Emotions Too

Not surprisingly, the multi-million pound botox industry has defended itself by casting doubt on the validity of the study and publishing interviews with famous "frozen visages" stating how happy they feel with their new "youthful" appearance. Not that "happy" was the emotion that the study focussed-on. They have even countered by suggesting that the facial feedback effect could be used to control depression! They don't specify exactly which muscles are responsible for expressing depression or whether those muscles are also involved in all the other emotional expressions.

Given the risks associated with the toxin itself, my view is that whether or not this study is repeated and validated, the risk of impairing your emotional responses is too high a price to pay for vanity.

The full paper describing the study is shown here. I have not found any studies that have refuted the claims.

Thursday 4 April 2013

Integrating the Alexander Technique into your life

On December 13th 2012, I had retinal surgery on my left eye. The operation was called an "epiretinal membrane peel" (EMP) and involves scraping off the membrane that sits between the vitreous humour and the retina. I had had the vitreous humour removed from my eye 2 years earlier in an operation called a "vitrectomy" and I had had both a vitrectomy and an EMP on my right eye 15 years previously, both of which went well.

So, I had no undue fears of undergoing surgery again. On December 14th the dressing was removed from my left eye and that was the point at which my life changed: suddenly and possibly forever, I was now completely blind in that eye!

The surgeon explained that this happens in about 1 in 20 cases: the retina had become fluid-logged (known as "macular oedema") and hopefully it would eventually settle down. I asked him how long it may take and he replied casually " about 1-2 years although, in rare cases (about 1 in 10,000) it never recovers.

For the previous 12 years I had been running a successful IT business single-handedly and my first thought was how I was going to continue managing the business, given that, as a result of my previous history, my right eye wasn't strong enough to work intensively on jobs that required sharp vision. My next realisation was that legally I may not be able to drive. Only later did it dawn on me that my favourite pastime of reading blogs and writing this blog and my existential philosophy blog ("The Dimensions of Consciousness") was going to be curtailed if not completely prevented.

How would you have reacted if you were me?

I think it would be completely normal to panic. But I didn't. OK, I got angry about what I at first thought was my surgeon's complacency (and maybe incompetence) but that feeling didn't last. Instead, I said "NO!" to that sort of knee-jerk (habitual) reaction and instead, adopted a consciously-considered response. I decided I would meticulously follow the post operative regime of daily eye care (inserting steroids into my eye 6 times a day) and to stay calm and try to have the patience to wait for an improvement in my vision.

I spoke to my friends about my fears and they mainly helped to reassure me and offer their help if I needed it. I ignored any advice that sounded like negativity. (e.g. "why don't you sue the surgeon") and I tried to stay positive

Today, almost 4 months later, I have about 40% blurred vision and here I am, blogging again :-)

I realise that the way I went about responding to this awful event in my life was a perfect example of the application of the Alexander Technique to this massive stimulus to "pull myself down". I had applied inhibition to any unthinking, habitual reaction and I had applied conscious direction in my response to it.

I've explained before that AT is not purely physical but "psycho-physical". It's not just that your thinking  affects the way you use your body but your whole attitude to life in general can be guided by the same principles.

I would be misleading you to suggest that there weren't times when I felt down and depressed about this sudden life-changing calamity BUT I have ignored (inhibited my response to) the advice of friends, some of whom are professional medics and therapists, to take prescription anti-depressants. That's the knee-jerk response of the Western medical paradigm: unnecessary in my case. I had identified the reason for the way I was feeling and I inhibited the response which might otherwise have sucked me into a "black hole". Instead, I directed myself to think "up" and positively: to count my blessings rather than my woes.

The Alexander Technique principles that I teach are integrated into every aspect of my life, not just my physical well-being.

Tuesday 31 July 2012

Being in the "Now"

"The clock is running. Make the most of today. Time waits for no man. Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That's why it is called the present.

Back in Autumn 2011, I decided to take a break from this blog in order to spend some time working on myself and considering what I wanted from The Alexander Technique and what it can give to me. Sooner than expected, I've now realised what this stuff is all about!

AT enables you to live in the current moment - the "Now" - with minimal effort or distraction.

It's not the same as meditation, relaxation or deep contemplation, however. For that you could take-up meditation techniques such as Za Zen or Transcendental Meditation. There is a huge world of techniques for relaxation, visualisation and spiritual development which you could also choose from. So, what makes AT different and special?

For me, it's all about the activity of living here and now, rather than simply experiencing or observing the "Now" in a static way. I accept that there are other methods (including Yoga and Tai Chi) which can also help you actively to experience the current moment but, to my way of thinking, they require you to perform artificial, "ritualistic" movements that, although good for you physically, bear little relation to "real" life.

AT trains you to perform your normal daily activities and routines in a new way - one which minimises undue effort and involves the whole of your psycho-physical being.

You might be asking the question "what's so important about living in the Now?". In answer to that question I would point out that most meditation and relaxation techniques encourage you to focus on the present moment because that's the only point of power you have to change or create anything. We can't live either in the past or the future.

Don't waste your effort reminiscing about the past, because you can't change that. Don't get tied down and attached to a particular future that you wish for yourself, because there is an infinite number of possible futures out there to be experienced - any one of which becomes more or less likely to occur according to what you are doing Now!

AT teaches you to use your senses passively. What I mean by this that, instead of sending your eyeballs out of your head to grab an image and bring it back for analysis, you allow an image to float into your eyes so it can be perceived calmly. Don't try to pull sounds into your ears, smells into your nose or tastes into your mouth. Let your ears take-in what you hear, your nose and mouth respond to what you can smell and taste and your physical senses become aware of your interaction with your immediate environment.

And - importantly - don't over-react to what you sense. Make conscious choices about the appropriate degree of response to all the stimuli that you are receiving at any given moment. In AT we call the process of controlling your unthinking, habitual response to stimuli "inhibition", and I've written about this before here.

In my post Can we define inhibition? I explained that our awareness of the energy that our senses are receiving is up to half a second later than the point in time that we actually receive the energy! This is a slightly shocking revelation. It means that what we believe is "Now" is actually not! Given what I've said about the point of power being in the present moment the only way we can actually take control of the true Now is by somehow getting ourselves back to that point half a second or so in the past! The practise of inhibition helps you to bring your responses closer to that point. In so doing, you discover an improved feeling of being in control of your life and a greater sense of personal fulfilment.

What makes AT special is that it teaches you to direct your "normal" physical responses with a sense of freedom - no special postures or ritual movement to practise - just being you in the "Now".

Try this as an exercise.

Stand or sit in a comfortable place, preferably with access to the outside, or near to something that's pleasant to look at and experience. Don't try to do anything. Just relax your neck and head so that your back can lengthen and widen. Relax your pelvis, hips and legs directing your knees forward and away from one another. Let everything that your physical senses can perceive wash over you and don't focus on anything in particular. Remind yourself that the picture inside your head isn't the real Now. Everything in your world is coming from your mind. It's your interpretation of what you are experiencing. 

Remember to include yourself in the frame of your world - at the centre, where you belong - like the controller of a computer game. Except this is the game of life - your life. Be pleased with the way your world appears to be, knowing that everything that would benefit from being changed can be changed - by you.

Now that you have found yourself in the centre of your world, carry on with the rest of your day, maintaining that image of yourself. Book yourself an AT lesson (or a few) so you can learn how to keep this feeling going.

Thursday 22 September 2011

The Power of Attention

About a year ago I was sent a book "Faith and the Placebo Effect" by its author, Lolette Kuby. She had taken an interest in some of my online posts in relation to a new book she's writing. I finished reading it in the last few weeks. I now wish I'd moved it up my reading list as it was fascinating.

The basic message of the book is that we have the power to heal ourselves using our belief system - our thoughts. She gives numerous examples of how your attitudes and expectations influence your body's repair mechanisms, even if you are not actually receiving any "conventional" medical treatment. A professor of literature, rather than a medical author, her authority for writing was the positive effect she had had on herself by invoking her own placebo response to breast cancer through positive thinking.

This got me thinking about how the Alexander Technique produces its peripheral effect of improved physical well-being purely by employing conscious inhibition and direction to the use of the self.

Well, we know that "use affects functioning" or in other words - if you use your body with undue tension you can cause physical problems. Use it well and you can improve your health and well-being. We also know that the body is a "psycho-physical mechanism" - in effect, what you think affects the way your body functions. But, there is another thing to take into consideration: it depends where you direct your attention.

I did some further research on the placebo effect and came across David Hamilton, a former research scientist working for a pharmaceutical company. In the following lecture, he explains how a positive attitude, properly directed can cause beneficial effects at a cellular level and can even affect our DNA.

Dr. David Hamilton: The Placebo Effect (5 of 9)

If you have time I recommend that you watch all 9 of the videos in this series.

In an AT lesson our attention is drawn to areas of undue tension and poor use. We are encouraged to think 'up' and to release the tension. We change the way we 'hold' ourselves in the context of the whole self. In 'directing' the head forward and up, lengthening the spine, widening the upper part of the arms and sending our knees forward and away, we are systematically putting our attention in the areas that Alexander realised were key to good use and functioning.

Bearing in mind Dr. Hamilton's revelations about the effects this can have on us at the most fundamental level of our functioning, it's hardly surprising that after say 6 months of studying AT, many pupils are transformed beyond mere postural improvement.

Saturday 10 September 2011

You really should read this

I have the privilege of calling Ian Robb a friend. You would go a long way to meet a nicer gentleman.

I met Ian through my AT work when he came to me for some Alexander lessons. It didn't take long for me to realise that he was the sort of person I wanted to get to know socially as well. Subsequently my wife and I have met-up with Ian and his partner Zofia.

It wasn't until months after his first lesson that he happened to recount a harrowing experience he'd had being stuck in a lift. Being a bit of an amateur "bard" he had written a short story to describe that event. WOW! What an amazing thing.

He has given me permission to publish the story on my web site. I recommend that you read it - all the way through - then tell me what you thought.

Going Up? A true story by Ian Robb (PDF format)

There is also an article about Ian on page 5 of the Marlow Free press 02/09/2011 (September) edition I was late - I ran to the lift.

Monday 20 June 2011

AT in the Modern World

Oh dear! One of my worst fears about the Internet's effect on AT is coming true! I have today followed a link tweeted by Robert Rickover (@bodylearning) which took me to a YouTube video in which Pop music backing singer Chyna Whyne was demonstrating to a bunch of eager "thirty-somethings" how to Walk in Stilettos.

(Youtube link updated August 2012)
If one of my pupils asked me for advice on how to walk in stilettos it would be very simple: DON'T!

Chyna is a STAT-registered AT teacher and, searching the Web for references to her AT work, it appears she runs a successful business "educating" women on how to use stilettos in a way that slightly mitigates their crippling effect on the wearer.

Now I can hear some of my readers shouting at the screen "Get real Jeff, this is the MODERN world. Women wear fashionable shoes: period!" OK fair enough BUT should the label "Alexander Technique" be included in the online promotion of this seemingly end-gaining way of teaching it? Maybe a 20 minute video doesn't do justice to the way Ms Whyne runs her workshop but I'm guessing that not much mention of inhibition and semi-supine are made! I know that if I donned a pair of said fashion accessory and wiggled my booty in a style demonstrated at the end of the video, not only would my onlookers not be wowed but they would probably laugh me all the way out of the fracture clinic.

So what else is the Internet being (mis)used for in relation to AT?

How about remote AT lessons ON SKYPE!! I kid you not. This seems to be be a growing trend in the USA and I'm dismayed to see Leland Vall (@freeyourneck) offering this dubious (or should I say ludicrous) service - see I understand that there is a growing lobby of AmSAT teachers forming a group opposed to this "development".

Now I admire Leland and I regularly follow his blog and we are Twitter buddies BUT COME ON MATE... where is the hands-on in a Skype lesson? How can you tell if a pupil has actually understood a word that you've said? In my experience most novice AT pupils are very good at holding themselves in an "alexandriod" position and fooling themselves they are thereby "doing AT".. WRONG! How do you manage a Skype session to ensure this isn't happening...?

Now Charlotte I want you to release your neck higher than you can feel. Send me a text message when you've released your neck.

All joking aside, I have nothing against AT teachers finding new and innovative ways of teaching the technique and using all the modern wonders of social networking and mass-communication to promote it. I equally admire those who have the business acumen to make a few extra shekels using new media. BUT... its virtually impossible to regulate the content of online promotional material so when a respected (ie qualified and licensed) AT professional presents a cut-down, half-baked AT solution on the Net, what other choice has a member of the public got other than to think "Ah, so that's what the Alexander Technique is about!

Views expressed in this post are MY personal opinions and do not necessarily represent the views of ANY official Alexander Technique organisation. If you disagree with me or have your own views then please add a comment below. To reduce spam I am personally authorising all comments prior to publication but rest assured that I am happy to publish all relevant comments.

Thursday 13 January 2011

Coping With Pain

December 2010 is going to be one of those months that I won't wish to remember. I was in hospital twice. The first time was for an eye operation in which I had the vitreous removed from my left eye. The second was an emergency - as I was passing a kidney stone! They say its more painful than childbirth. I don't know about that but it was certainly the worst pain I've ever experienced - by a factor of about THREE!

So this prompted me to write a post about pain.

I want to talk about how to deal with pain. I'm not a medic so I do not claim to be an authority on the physiology of pain. My experience has taught me that some pain can be managed in ways that do not involve drug therapy.

"Pain is the body's smoke alarm," according to Robert Coghill, a neurophysiologist in the USA. There is a rare medical condition known as "congenital analgesia" in which the victim is unable to feel pain. They usually die in their 30's from injuries that they weren't aware of at the time with their bodies severely damaged and bruised. Pain is not only a necessary part of the functioning of your body: its vital.

In my post on psycho-physical unity I explained that our thoughts are intimately and inseparably bound up with our physical bodies. Severe or persistent pain can affect you psychologically, making you angry, anxious or depressed. This process works the other way round: a positive and joyful attitude can actually reduce your perception of pain.

"Pain needs to be treated with more than just pills" says Dr. Coghill. "The brain can powerfully shape pain, and we need to exploit its power."

Well, the pain of passing a kidney stone is more like a ship's foghorn than a smoke alarm! It was 2:00a.m. on Christmas Eve and I had already spent an hour or two limping around the house, gasping in pain and going "arghh...arghh..."! There seemed to be nothing I could do to alleviate the agony. An ambulance was called. While I was waiting for it to arrive, the pain diminished. This was because I knew help was on the way and therefore my mental attitude to the pain was more positive. Getting distressed and fretful about it wasn't actually helping me to deal with it: in fact, the opposite was true.

With my eye operation a few weeks earlier, the initial "glass in the eye" sensation gave way to a more persistent, dull throbbing of the eyeball. This sort of pain wears you out in a different way: it depresses you because its chronic and lasts for days. I consciously chose to adopt a positive mental attitude to help me to deal with the pain. I was kind to myself. I treated myself to lots of hot tea beside a warm fire, watching old episodes Star Trek Next Generation. Marvelous! Before long, my eye was feeling better and the pain had subsided to nothing more than a mild discomfort.

I recently read that up to 90% of the pain we perceive could be due to our emotional response to it. That would partially explain why techniques like hypnotism can be used to alleviate it. I don't want to step on anyone's toes here but there are many alternative therapies for pain that owe their efficacy to this fact.

A recent New York Times article reported that a Stamford University study had shown that feelings of love can relieve pain. I think my wife, Cas, helped me in this respect by looking after me and caring both for and about my suffering.

I also use peer support to help me through difficult illnesses. After my eye surgery, I posted messages on my Twitter and Facebook pages, telling my friends how well the surgery went and how much better my vision was going to be. In return, they sent messages of support and well-wishes which lifted my spirits and thus helped me to deal with the pains. I didn't subsequently post a message to tell them I'd had a setback - a bleed from my retina which obscured my vision completely. That's because I didn't want to create a negative "cloud" around my recovery process. (The blood clot disappeared within a few days and my eyesight is almost normal now - a month after the operation.) I recommend that everyone should send messages of support to their friends when they are ill, even if they don't specifically request it.

Now I want to talk about the sort of pains that the Alexander Technique can help you to deal with.

I refer to musculoskeletal pain. This might be the result of an injury or an underlying pathological cause such as arthritis or spinal stenosis. Regardless of its source, very often the victim of muscle or joint pain suffers a greater severity of pain than is justified by the underlying condition. There are at least two reasons for this.

The first reason is that pain itself induces more pain because our reaction to it is to tense-up the muscles in the area of the pain. This affects not just the motor control muscles but also the deeper, skeletal muscles over which we have little or no direct control. Tightening muscles in response to pain has a similar effect to over-working your muscles in a gym: causing muscle fatigue and still more pain. However, it doesn't stop there.

Pain from tightened muscles itself produces more tightening which in turn intensifies the pain. A positive feedback loop is created which amplifies the level of discomfort. Pain creates more tension which creates more pain and so-on. The muscles can eventually spasm. This is called "hypertonic muscle spasm". In acute conditions, especially with back strains, the tension in the muscles surrounding the trauma can persist weeks or months after the underlying damage has healed.

The second reason that people suffer more pain than they should is that, following trauma, they often repetitively strain the weak, injured area of the body by trying to continue using it in the same way as they did before the injury occurred. This is particularly the case when analgesics are used to mask the pain. In the absence of the smoke alarm people assume its OK to continue using the damaged area as if it wasn't injured. Just like the person with congenital analgesia, they continue to damage themselves in a way that they would not do if they could feel the pain. So, although I would not advise people against taking pain killers, I would offer the warning to take them sparingly and remember that just because you can't feel the pain that doesn't mean the underlying cause has been cured! If you choose to take a pain killer, ideally, do it at the onset of the pain rather than when it has become established.

Using the Alexander Technique can help to break the pain-tension-pain cycle on the "tension" branch of the cycle by teaching you to inhibit your reaction to the pain. It requires a positive attitude of mind, even though you may not feel very positive. You need to accept that you have a pain and consciously say "no" to responding to it by tightening the muscles around the affected area.

One step beyond having a positive attitude to your pain is to use your body in a way that protects the injured area from further abuse. Be extra-specially kind to it and above all, leave it alone and DON'T go trying to stretch or work the affected muscles just so you can see if they're getting any better! Choose massage over exercise and remember that most injuries can take 2-3 weeks or more to heal naturally, so give it time before you try to go back to normal activity.

Whilst developing his technique, Mr. Alexander uncovered a fundamental truth about personal health and well-being which he expressed as "use affects functioning", in other words: how you use your body directly affects the way it works and also the amount of pain you experience.

It wasn't until 2008 that the results of a formal medical study into the effects of AT on chronic lower back pain vindicated his assertion. The following link opens short article containing a video from the British Medical Journal

From my personal experience of pupils with chronic musculoskeletal pain, I have yet to work with someone whose levels of pain cannot be reduced by applying the Alexander Technique. With back pain, it is often difficult to avoid repetitive strain to an existing injury, as most people only know one way of using their backs: their habitual way.

Author's Note
Nothing in this article is intended as medical advice. Always seek help from a qualified medical practitioner if you are suffering unexplained, chronic or persistent pain.

Further Reading
Headaches which are caused by bad posture.

The effect of the mind on pain
US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Srokes

Tuesday 24 August 2010

Choose Your Restaurant Table Carefully

Last week, Cas and I spent a week on the River Thames on our boat "Ten Forward" named after the recreation area on the USS Enterprise (Star Trek for those of you living in a bubble!)
Ten Forward

On one of the nights, we ate at the Riverside Brasserie at our local marina. The food at the Brasserie is always excellent and their wine list is well selected. BUT... their dining tables represent one of my pet hates! They are square, single pedestal tables with four stabilising "feet" at the bottom off the central pedestal.

The way these feet are supposed to be arranged is that the they should point to the centre of the table edge and not the corner of the table. See the pictures below to see what I mean.

Good and bad table designs

I found myself sitting at a table where the feet were arranged diagonally relative to the table edge. That means I probably would not be able to enjoy my meal. Let me explain what I mean by this.

How many times have you sat in a restaurant and seen diners perched uncomfortably on the edge of their seat with their feet pulled back under the table - even sometmes wrapped around the front legs of their chair as if trying desparately not to fall of the chair? They can't possibly be comfortable! Sitting like this tightens the groin muscles and this in turn causes the pelvic floor and lower abdominal muscles to be held with too much tension.

What most people won't realise is that this unnnecessary lower body tension will induce the iliopsoas muscles to contract. The "psoas major" branch of these muscles runs up behind the intestines and stomach and connects into the spine in 5 places beginning immediately below the diaphragm. See the diagram below

When your psoas muscles are in tension below your diaphragm it will give you a tight feeling below your ribs and make your stomach feel a bit tense. There's no way you will be able to enjoy a relaxing meal in such a state!

We have very little sensory awareness of our psoas muscles and therefore we have to use indirect means to control them and prevent them coming under too much undue tension.

This is where the diagonal-footed pedestal table commits its crime! The diagonal feet prevent you from placing your feet flat on the floor under the table and, as a result, you either fold you feet under the chair, put them uncomfortably on top of the table feet, or move backward so you can no longer reach the table comfortably.

To reduce the possibility of the psoas muscles getting into this state, you should always sit at the dining table with your feet flat on the floor, forward of the lip of the chair seat, vertically below your knees. You should free-off the muscles in your groin and sit with your bottom well-back in the chair and your head vertically above it. You shouldn't be leaning forward or backward. If the chair-back is not vertical, but instead leans backward relative to the seat then don't use it!

Sitting vertically like this, you might be tempted to pull your shoulders forward or even to slump forward in order to reach the table. Don't! You will need to pull your chair closer to the table so you won't need to over-extend your arms or to slump.

So the moral of this story when entering a restaurant is to request a different table if its feet are in the wrong position. Don't forget to explain to the restauranteur the reason for your choice!

As to my meal at the Brasserie, I managed to spin the table-top round relative to the feet, so that I could put my feet in a comfortable postion. I explained to the waitress that this was the reason why I'd managed to spill the wine and water all over the cloth but I don't think she was too impressed :)

Finally, a tip about getting into and out of a restaurant chair.

Stand with your back to the side of the chair so you are looking along the edge of the table and not across it. Sit in the chair, remembering to free your neck, ankles knees and hips. Remember to think "up" as you go into sitting. When you are on the seat, rotate yourself so your feet are under the table. Getting out is the reverse operation. Rotate your feet to the side of the chair then lean forward from the hips, following your head up to standing while keeping your neck free.

By chance, Bill Plake, a fellow AT teacher published a blog the very next day which talks about sitting comfortably.

Wednesday 4 August 2010

Love, Relationships and The Alexander Technique

A question that doesn't seem to be addressed very often in Alexander Technique blogs is how the practice of AT affects your love life and relationships. I can only speak with any authority about the way it affects me but in relating my experience I will try to explain some general points which should apply to everyone.

So let's begin by stating my position.

Picture of Cas
I've been studying AT since 1989 and I would claim that my life is very happy and stable, partly because of AT. I've just celebrated my 35th wedding anniversary with my childhood sweetheart, Cas, who I've been with since we were 16. We are best friends and rarely argue seriously. We have a love for one another that is profound and unshakable.

Before you put your fingers down your throat and start gagging, let me tell you that it wasn't always so. I used to work in the UK coal mines. That was a tough environment within which I was ruthlessly ambitious. Although not a particularly violent person I was often "on a short fuse": very impatient and unforgiving. I tended to expect others to behave in the way I wanted them to. I now realise that my behaviour in those days was due in no small measure to the amount of undue tension that I kept myself under. This "wound-up" state caused me to suffer frequent headaches, stomach upsets and what I used to call "strangle-throat".

Strangle-throat happens when the tension in your neck and throat gets so great that it affects the way you speak. It is the same problem that Mr. FM Alexander suffered-with when he was in his 20's and which he set-out to overcome. His technique was the result of solving that problem.

Now that I practise the Alexander Technique 24/7/365, I keep my neck free and allow my spine to lengthen and my back to widen. I hardly ever feel stressed and on those brief occasions when something does stress me, I can deal with the effects of the stress using AT principles. My tension levels are lower and my mood is much more consistent.

So where does "love" come into this you may be wondering?

I have no doubt that I always loved Cas but I used to find it hard to express my feelings, emotionally or physically, towards her when I was fighting so hard to keep my own, undue tensions under control. In another post I have described the process
"psycho-physical-unity" that controls this link between our thoughts, emotions and feelings and our physical bodies. Too much tension in the physical body always reflects itself in a corresponding psychological tension that affects your relationships with others.

Your physical tension affects your ability to express affection and positive feelings towards others. In turn, the way you treat others affects their perception of you. The way you appear to others - the way you "hold" yourself - gives those with whom you interact a subliminal cue as to what sort of person you might be. One doesn't have to be trained in AT to sense that someone hunched-over and "tight-looking" might be angry or stressed. Your instinct on meeting such a person for the first time might prevent you from instantly warming to them as potential friends or, indeed, lovers.

From the perspective of a (former) up-tight "stress merchant": me, a few months of practising AT brought about physical improvements in my body that I wasn't immediately conscious of. However, I began to notice that other people were acting more relaxed when they were in my company. At social gatherings, people were tending to approach me more, rather than shying-away from me. I began to see myself in a different light. Although still the same old ambitious Jeff, I wasn't as intense or ruthless as before.

So where does "love" come into this you may STLL be wondering?

My relationship with Cas had been profoundly changed. She saw such a difference in me that she decided to take AT lessons herself. Our passion both inside and outside the bedroom seemed to blossom over the next two years - and is still as strong today. We were able to express our feelings to one another in a less "inhibited" way. I refer here to "inhibition" in the AT sense which I discussed in my post "Can We Define Inhibition?. Nowadays, we inhibit the sort of knee-jerk reactions to the things we say and do to one another which, in the past, might have sparked an argument. This has allowed the space for our love and passion to continue to flourish.

There are other ways in which AT has improved our relationship.

By way of an example, let me offer an Alexander Technique Teacher's perspective on kissing. Before trying this at home, make sure that the person you pratise with gives you their full permission and that you BOTH have (or want) the sort of relationship that goes beyond simple social networking ;) To underline this point, I will refer to the "other" person as your "lover".

First of all make sure you are relaxed and that your neck is free and your back is lengthening and widening. If you detect any tension in your body, try to let that tension go. This is particularly important if your feelings for your lover are running particulary strongly at this point because your psychological state could, via the process of psycho-physical unity, induce unnecessary tension in your physical body.

Take your lover in your arms - gently - wrapping one of your hands around to the back of their shoulder and rest the palm of your hand loosely on the base of their neck. Ask them to do the same with you. Use that feedback from their hand to remind you to keep your own neck free and ask them to do the same with yours. Draw your mouths closely together tipping your head sideways to prevent your noses banging! Don't allow the angle of your head to induce your neck to tighten.

Now, touch lips with one-another remembering to think about yourself! Don't be tempted to try to give the other person an experience. Just concentrate on keeping your neck and back free and enjoying the feeling you are receiving. Think about your feelings for your lover, but don't try to show it. Trust the process of psycho-physical unity to act on your behalf to express what you are thinking through the light contact that you are already making.

Repeat as often as you like for a long and happy relationship! I will leave it up to you to imagine other potential benefits of AT in your physical relationships ;)

I recommend the Alexander Technique to everyone, not only because it can help you with things like improved posture and chronic back pain but also because its effects will, in due course, change significant aspects of your emotional life.

Tuesday 23 February 2010

Heading in the Right Direction

You guessed it. It had to happen next. Now it's time to look at direction.

It took Mr. Alexander 8 years to develop the "golden egg" of AT - namely directions.

Allow the neck to be free
So that the head can go forward and up
And the back can lengthen and widen
Widening across the upper part of the arms
And the knees can go forward and away
Towards the second toes

"That's not much of a poem" I hear you say "and it doesn't even rhyme!"

I think of it as a mantra which I encourage my new pupils to learn and repeat daily. I've produced a couple of PDFs which they can choose to download and have a copy on their desk or sideboard.
The first (as quoted above) is slightly more proactive than the second and it makes YOU responsible for freeing your neck (without doing it). It's more suitable for the novice AT pupil. I personally prefer the second as I like to remind myself that my neck IS free.

Those of you who are familiar with the AT directions might be used-to a mantra that's worded slightly differently although the essence should be the same. Most of you will not have seen the line about sending your knees towards your second toes. This came from my mentor, the late (and great) Ray Evans. Think of a line drawn down the front of your thigh. You should project this line towards your second toe. Don't bend your knees, just direct them with a thought. Project the line too far out and you will look like you just got off your horse. Project it too far in and you will look like you are trying not to pee yourself :-) A line from your left knee through your groin to your right knee should look more like an upside-down "U" than a "V".

I'll probably return to the individual directions in future posts but that's not my purpose here.

Just as we did when we learned to ride a bike, drive a car, type on a keyboard, dance, play an instrument... I think you see where I'm going with this list... learning to direct begins with a somewhat kludgy effort to hold all the individual aspects together at the same time. As we gradually learn the meaning of each direction, we apply it with less and less thought. Eventially it becomes automatic. I'm so glad that I no longer have to search for each individual letter on the keyboard as I type - otherwise I'd get no pleasure at all out of blogging! So too with giving my directions. These days I apply them one at a time, altogether so I can give directions - all of them - in about the same time it takes to click my fingers.

The process of giving directions is like the principle I described in my recent post on inhibition. At first we apply the directions consciously but eventually it becomes subconscious and the new directions can then be applied - preceded by inhibition - in good time to supplant wrong habits.

I've described the process of consigning conscious processes to subconscious activity in my post "changing the habits of a lifetime". It's not a particularly easy read - especially the first half where I explain the 4 processes of the brain. But if this interests you, I recommend you to read it. This is where I originally proposed my four bullet points to explain the Alexander Technique.

I imagine that you will be wondering whether Alexander's concept of Constructive Conscious Control plays any part in my explanations of applying inhibition and directions at a subconscious level. Let me assure you that the principles of AT always begin with conscious choices - decisions to replace old bad habits with new posititive means whereby we use our body. Life itself is an ongoing process of learning to adapt to the ever changing environment. No matter how much we try, we will never reach a point where our use of the self becomes totally automatic. We must remain consciously aware that our habits are lurking around every corner, waiting for a momentary lapse of conscious control to slip-in and pull us down.

Thursday 11 February 2010

More About Inhibition

My previous article on inhibition was recently cited in a paper on inhibition posted on That article equated inhibition with self control and came to a conclusion that inhibition was "A state you find yourself in".

I decided to post this article to address these points and hopefully to add clarity to the understanding of inhibition in the context of the Alexander Technique.

First of all let me summarise what I was trying to say in my blog post:
Inhibition allows us to suppress our subconscious habitual responses to stimuli. Because our awareness of a stimulus occurs a fraction of a second after we have responded to it, we must apply inhibition subconsciously so that it can afford us a window of opportunity to choose a better consciously directed response. Practice will, in time, develop a simple act of 'saying "no" to a stimulus' into a state of being and the new consciously chosen responses will become the new habits.

In a lecture Mr. Alexander clearly distinguished his use of its meaning from that in psychotherapy: "Many people would take exception to the word 'inhibition' but this inhibition is not the inhibition that we usually hear of... It is not the inhibition of supression".

The opposite of inhibition is volition. "Volition [stands] for the act of responding to... stimuli [with] psycho-physical action (doing), and inhibition [stands] for the act of refusing to respond to... stimuli [with] psycho-physical action (non-doing)"

Self control, on the other hand is perceived as self-denial: the act of denying yourself; controlling your impulses; the trait of resolutely controlling your own behaviour. Controlling emotional responses such as "angry, upset, shy" as quoted in the BodyPlusMind article is in the realm of self-control, rather than purely inhibition. Emotions transcend the simple stimulus-response mechanisms that pure inhibition deals with. However, we don't ignore their effect on the body. The indirect approach of inhibition and direction can affect emotional states via the process of psycho-physical unity. For example, it's not uncommon for a pupil to burst into tears in a lesson as a direct result of releasing tension. That tension would have been the physical manifestation of an underlying emotional state.

Frank  Pierce Jones described it perfectly:
...I found that the paradigm of inhibition that had been demonstrated for physical movement could be applied equally well when the activity would be classed as mental or emotional. ...any emotional disturbance affects [the field of attention] immediately and can often be perceived as a change in the level of muscle tone before a reaction in the autonomic system has begun. Anger for example has a characteristic pattern that is easily recognizable.  [When stimulated into anger] I turned my attention to my neck and shoulders. I found that I could inhibit a further increase in tension and allow the muscles to lengthen; and that as long as I did this I could carry on a rational conversation in spite of my inward agitation.

I would never describe inhibition as "a state you find yourself in". Finding yourself in a state happens at a level of conscious awareness. It follows-on from the subconscious stage where inhibition must actually be applied. It implies a lack of positive conscious control. Inhibition is an attitude of mind which will result in you being able to choose the state you find yourself in.

In my original blog post I described someone who is exercising inhibition as calm, confident and un-flappable. This is not to suggest that they do not appear alert and poised to respond in an instant to any given stimulus. There is no inevitable time-delay in receiving a stimulus and responding to it in a consciously controlled way. This is because the inhibition and the choice of response have been applied in sufficient time for a response to appear instant. It often amuses me when a group of AT teachers get together and try to out-inhibit one another - like a blinking competition where the winner is the one who blinks last.

Thursday 21 January 2010

Can we define "inhibition"?

(I've re-posted this article to add dark blue colour to "hover links" for words that may be unfamiliar to you)

In my 2007 post Changing The Habits of a Lifetime I presented an analysis of how the brain rations its conscious processing power in controlling physical processes. Whether or not anyone would understand or agree with that explanation, the important point is to appreciate the extent to which the brain tries to assign physical activity to unconscious processing. In effect, the brain wants to develop habits to drive our use of our body.

I went on to suggest my infamous "4 bullet points explanation" of how the Alexander Technique addresses inappropriate habits:
  • identify wrong subconscious habits (misuse)
  • inhibit the impulses that drive them
  • substitute different, consciously controlled (directed) means of using the body
  • repeat until the new use replaces the old habits
Strictly speaking, there should be a mention of responding to a stimulus under the first bullet point - but for this post, I'll use it to explain the word impulses in the second.

Just what is "inhibition"? Type define: inhibition into Google and you will see a variety of dictionary definitions. In AT, we use it in a particular way as defined by Mr. Alexander.

Inhibition is a psycho-physical process that is applied to prevent an undue response to a stimulus. For example, I may ask a pupil to sit in the chair and I want him to inhibit his response. I want him to say "no" to the stimulus. He is saying no to the force of habit - the subconcious habitual way of sitting. I want him to substitute a constructive, consciously controlled means of sitting in the chair. As he does this, I guide him with my hands. What he experiences may not feel right to him. Hopefully he won't be stiffening his neck and pulling his head back. He will release his hips and direct himself up.

If he repeats this process enough times both in lessons and, more importantly, in his day to day life, eventually the newly directed means of sitting in the chair will become his new habit.

So, returning to the starting position, what is the point at which the inhibition - the saying no - is applied? Think of an actor jumping off the stage. Where was she when she jumped? On the stage? No, that was before she jumped. In the air? No, that was after she jumped. When was my pupil supposed to be applying inhibition? (Marjorie Barlow would say "How far back do you want to go?") Can he say no to a stimulus before the stimulus is received? Saying no after the stimulus has been recognised is actually too late. His brain has already instantly prepared itself to respond habitually.

This is a bit of a conundrum!

To try to answer this question let's consider for a moment that scientific experimentation has shown that we have actually taken actions several milliseconds before we are aware that we have done so! This is not science fiction. What this means is that our response to a stimulus has already been chosen before we are aware that we have been stimulated. If we are to inhibit our response, and substitute a different one then we are going to have to apply inhibition prior to what we perceive as the present moment! Oh dear, this is beginning to sound a bit esoteric.

In practice, it means that inhibition has to be applied on a subconscious level in order for it to be able to "get ahead of" our conscious awareness. Maybe this is one of the reasons why so many people don't really grasp the subtlety of the Technique.

So how can we develop our ability to inhibit? We start by actually saying no to stimuli as we recognise them. We accept, for the time being, that this isn't actually inhibition in its true sense. We repeat this process - both inside lessons, where the teacher's stimuli are discrete and obvious, and outside lessons where all sorts of stimuli are constantly bombarding us. Eventually, with enough repetition, inhibition will become a habit. Only at this point will it actually have the desired effect in preventing subconscious bad habits. Is this beginning to sound familiar? It's the four bullet points used recursively to define the second one.

Inhibition eventually becomes a state of mind, an attitude if you like. It manifests itself in the practitioner as a state of calmness and confidence; an un-flapability. This is because we are all stressed and excited by the constant bombardment of stimuli in our day to day lives. In inhibition, we now have a mechanism for switching off our unthinking responses. Mr. Alexander spoke of this back is the early part of the 20th century so you can appreciate how the problem has expanded exponentially up to the modern day!

It takes time, understanding and persistence to develop inhibition. I believe that, throughout your life, if you continue to apply what you have been taught in your AT lessons, you will continue to develop a deeper understanding of the use of the self through the application of inhibition and that will bring you untold satisfaction and enjoyment. It has for me.

Monday 7 December 2009

Which way is "Up"?

I cried the day my brother died.

I had the rare privilege of having my "Alexander hands" on him as he took his last breath. I felt the energy leave his body. He had had a cardiac arrest 5 days previously which he had survived - physically - but which had catastrophically damaged his brain due to oxygen starvation. Although he was unconscious for the whole 5 days, his body was not limp.

I realised that the energy which held his body together in that hospital bed was not just blood pressure. It was more than Tensegrity. It was that "thing" that we are constantly trying to direct "up".

"Upness", if I can call it that, is the lightness that we feel when we have had an Alexander lesson. It's that sense of being tall and free: no sense of being pulled-down. It's good. Much as we might wish to, we can't actually "do" anything to bring about upness. It's a reflex that's built into our bodies that is always trying to counter the forces of gravity that pull us down. To experience it, we just have to get out of its way (i.e. inhibit the tension that blocks it) and give it direction.

Think of it like a hose pipe lying on the lawn which you want to use to water the plants in the borders. Left to it's own devices, it will thrash around under the water pressure and the flow of water will go almost anywhere except on the flowers as intended. You pick up the hose to stop it thrashing and you direct it towards the flower beds. You are inhibiting the hose's tendency to go in the wrong direction and you are directing it to where you want it to go. You are not trying to make the water flow. It's doing that on its own.

In a lesson - and in your day-to-day life - you should not try to "create" upness. When you are standing, say while waiting for a train or a bus or to get served in a shop, feel your feet and your heels on the floor and allow the floor to push up through your bones until it pops out of the top of your head. If the upness does not seem to be flowing, it's not because it's not there: you just need to release the unnecessary tensions that are impeding it.

You can direct the flow upwards, beginning by freeing your neck and allowing your head to go forward and up. This freedom of the head and neck lets your back lengthen and widen, widening across the upper parts of your arms. You release your knee caps and allow you knees to go forward and away - towards your second toes. Keep repeating these directions to yourself - not necessarily by verbalising them. At the end of each cycle of directions, just check that you are not "doing" anything to make the directions work. Remember to get out of the way to allow the upness to flow.

Don't under any circumstances, beat yourself up if it takes time to master this art of non-doing. The more you practise the better you will understand what is required for you NOT to do!

Oh, and which way is "up"? It's the direction from the bottom of your spine to the top of your head. It's vertical when you are standing and horizontal when you lie down. The flow is always in this direction whatever you are doing.

Thursday 16 April 2009

What are the "AT Basics"?

I've been pondering this question for a number of years and I now find myself in a position where I must decide which aspects of AT that I should teach to a beginner.

Call me "old fashioned" if you like, but I believe that, as a provider of a training service, I have a duty of care towards my pupils to ensure that they have at least been introduced to the basics within the first 10 weeks albeit that this might be pushing them along at a relatively fast rate. Only after I have covered the core principles will I slow down and deal with individual aspects in more detail.

A ten-week course currently costs £300 and in this "credit crunch" world, people want to get value for money in the services they buy. Imagine their reaction if after completing a short course, they compare notes with another AT pupil and discover that there are some key things that have not been taught. But what are "the basics" of AT? Here is my attempt at a list. It's not supposed to be exhaustive and it's in no particular order.

  • An overview of the Alexander Technique including a summary of FM Alexander's life, work and discoveries.

  • How to do the daily practice of lying in semi-supine

  • Standing and sitting in a chair: the role of the postural mechanism of the body and how habit interferes with it

  • Inhibition: saying "no" (to habit) in response to stimuli

  • Direction: the "mantra" of allowing the neck to be free so that the head can go forward and up and the back can lengthen and widen, widening across the upper part of the arms and the knees can go forward and away.

  • The role of the ilio-psoas muscles in influencing core tensions

  • Whispered Ah

  • Positions of mechanical advantage with "hands on the back of the chair" as an example

  • Using the wall to inform the process of releasing the knees into bending - a precursor to walking

  • Walking

  • Stooping, crawling and lunging

  • Going up on to the toes

  • The neural control mechanisms of the body: spirals

That's a lot of ground to cover in just 10 weeks but my question is this: which, if any of these things could you leave-out in a short course?

Given that most pupils won't actually tell you how many lessons they are going to take, in what order should these principles be taught?

I fully accept the principle that no two people are the same and therefore a prescriptive system can never be defined that would cover all pupils' needs. We should always stick to principle and deal with the body as a whole and not focus on individual misuses or undue tensions. However, it's my view that customisation of the teaching curriculum to address the pupil's individual needs should only be considered when the basics have been covered.

As usual, I would welcome comments, especially from teachers but also from pupils who have a view on this.

Sunday 1 February 2009

It's time to protect our market

I've been thinking for a long time about how I can do justice to the subject of marketing AT services. My views on this subject have not changed since I first began my teacher-training in 2002.

The publication of the ATEAM study in August 2008 heralded a new era in the AT profession. At last we can put to bed the futile argument about whether AT is a therapy or a form of education. When used to help people with bad backs, it's educational therapy. The study showed that AT was more effective than other forms of remedial treatment because the educational element of AT extended the period of its effectiveness as a therapy for chronic lower back pain.

If we continue with the line that AT is purely education then we cut ourselves off from this potentially lucrative market of new pupils seeking treatment for their backs. Ask a random sample of the population why someone might book AT sessions and the vast majority will say something about improving their posture or about back problems. Ask them where they might expect to see AT advertised on the Net and they will invariably mention the words alternative and therapy. They might even use the words medical or treatment but I'm willing to bet that virtually none of them will say anything about education.

If we really insist on disabusing our pupils of the notion that AT is therapy, there is a time and a place to do it - and that's in a lesson, once the new pupil has committed, and absolutely NOT at the time where we are prospecting for new pupils.

So what's my point about protecting our markets I hear you say.

We are entering the mother of all recessions since the great depression of the 1930's. Thousands of people are losing their jobs every week and those who are still employed are getting anxious about their own particular job security. Whether or not there is any need for it, people are beginning to tighten their belts and economise, preparing for the possibility of bad times to come.

Those who may have been considering taking-up Alexander lessons or even training to be AT teachers will be having second thoughts. It's going to be tough for existing AT practitioners and for teacher training schools.

So when I read in the recent newsletter that new teacher training schools (heads of training) had been applied-for, I immediately wrote off an email to STAT to suggest that they refused permission - at least in the UK.

We are a private society of members who are each invited to join STAT, when we apply for training at STAT-approved schools. There is no automatic right to membership and, as a private society, we have the absolute right to refuse membership to anyone for any reason provided such refusal is within the remit of our constitution and represents the will of the membership.

I think the time has come for STAT to protect existing practitioners and established training schools from an over-supply of qualified teachers. In the current economic climate, I would be furious if STAT were to grant an application for a new teacher training school in my geographical locality. Business is hard to find and the prospect of a local school churning-out newly qualified teachers into an already saturated market would fill me with dismay.

Nowithstanding the possible new demand that may be stimulated in the medical sector by the ATEAM study, we should not continue to undermine our existing, limited markets by opening new AT teacher training schools.

As it happens, the current proposals for teacher training schools don't particularly affect my geographical area, so I'm therefore arguing my point from common sense rather that from a NIMBY attitude. Unlike many struggling AT teachers, I have my own alternative form of income that means I'm not dependent on an income from teaching so again, I'm not being self-serving by arguing for more regulation of the market.

You only need to look at what has happened to the acting profession to see the effect of over-supply. Most actors spend more time out of work than in-work because there are probably 10 actors (or more?) available for every one job. It's a classic example of an unregulated market. There is no framework to enable the supply of new actors to be stemmed, unlike in AT, where accreditation by a recognised professional organisation is seen by our customers as an important requirement, if not exactly a prerequisite.

We know from recent salary surveys of AT teachers that there is a crisis amongst those who are teaching AT as their primary source of income. Compare today's typical lesson fee of £30 to the 4 guineas charged by FM Alexander 90 years ago. His fee corresponded to around £200 by modern standards! It's my understanding that he expressed concerns about the dilution of the market by newly qualified teachers: fears which evidently were well-founded.

I therefore intend to propose a motion for debate at the next STAT AGM, providing I can find a seconder. At the moment, I'm thinking of something on the lines of the following:

"The membership feels that too many teachers are being trained at present and would like Council to explore a moratorium on new schools in the UK for 5 years. After this time, the granting of new heads of training will be strictly controlled having regard for the demand for AT lessons in the geographical location relative to existing supply in that location and to the will of the membership."

If you have a view on this or would like to second such a motion, please Send me an email or comment on this blog.

Tuesday 2 September 2008

The ATEAM Study

Last week, the British Medical Journal published the long-awaited results of an NHS-funded study into the effectiveness of AT in helping people with chronic and recurring lower back pain. The results showed that 24 AT lessons or 6 AT lessons followed by a program of prescribed exercise was more effective in the longer term in relieving the symptoms than massage or exercise alone.

I'm pleasantly surprised at the effect that the publicity has had on the number of enquiries I have received. Within one week of the results being broadcast on the BBC and appearing in the national press, I had signed-up six new pipils and had several other serious enquiries.

Several thoughts spring to mind about how this new understanding of AT might evolve.

One of my closest friends is an NHS GP. He has always ribbed me about AT being "a degree in advanced navel-gazing" and my response to that is not printable! However, now that AT has been awarded some legitimacy as a therapy, he says that he could now recommend AT to patients with chronic back pain. However, he could only do so on the same basis as he would recommend osteopathy - i.e. he could suggest that a patient might try it but he can't pay for the patient's lessons.

I wonder if health insurers will now place AT in the same category as the other approved "alternative therapies". If so, how many lessons might they be prepared to pay for. My guess would be six (typically at a cost of £180 total) and not the 24 (£720) that the study seemed to be justifying. It seems to me that the ATEAM study showed a statistically significant outcome at 12 months for those who had received 24 lessons over those that had received 6 lessons plus prescribed exercise but that the difference between the two may not have been clinically significant from a cost-benefit point of view. I understand that a post trial cost-benefit analysis is to be undertaken and if so, I will be very interested to see the results.

As for AT teachers, I can foresee a number of reactions.

After getting over the initial euphoria of this new market of pupils, they will have to get used to a new kind of pupil: someone who comes seeking a specific therapeutic outcome. This idea goes somewhat against the grain of what AT is about. We are not there to "treat" a specific problem. Rather, we apply a tested and trusted formula developed by FM Alexander for dealing with the whole person. In due course, with an improved use of the whole body, the specific symptoms (back pain in this case) will subside.

It will become more important for teachers to resist the tendency of pupils to want to control the agenda in a lesson. Yes, they may think they have paid for the teacher to "treat" their back pain but actually they have paid to be taught how to prevent undue tensions in their bodies including their chronic back pain. They are there to learn how to treat themselves.

I have no doubt that the old guard conservative teachers will see this development as a step in the wrong direction. It's not. There has always been an argument put forward that AT is education and not therapy. This is despite the numerous references that Alexander made in his writing of people who had been sent to him because of this or that ailment! I've never really understood why some teachers are so hung-up about promoting AT as a therapy. It's "educational therapy" - by teaching pupils to undo their bad habits, a therapeutic outcome is achieved - even if that wasn't the reason why they originally came for lessons.

The important thing to understand is that we are now on the threshold of a new era where AT will finally take its rightful place as a respected healing technique. Those who achieve a positive outcome for their chronic conditions will also experience the fringe benefits in terms of a greater sense of well-being.

There are also dangers. As money becomes available for AT therapy there will be those who want to cash-in by posing as AT teachers when, in fact they have only ever read a couple of books on the subject and possibly attended a few group sessions. Only yesterday, I had to fire-off a few emails to a distance-learning provider and their accreditors for offering a certificate in AT by distance learning. They had might as well print their certicicate on a piece of bog paper!

Saturday 29 December 2007

Demystifying AT

Alexander's philosophy of "the Self" led me to believe that developing a more sophisticated use of my physical Self through his technique would lead to a deeper psychological and spiritual awareness. I was therefore hoping for great things from AT.

After 13 years of personal AT lessons, I enrolled on a three-year full-time teacher training course. I wasn't just looking to achieve physical improvements.

There's no doubt that, on the physical level, I changed significantly. It wasn't exactly a smooth transition, however. I went through periods of aches and pains, mainly brought about by trying to "do". There were times when I really thought I understood the AT process only to discover later that I had it all wrong. This mirrors the experience that Alexander had when he was trying to understand his own use.

On a psychological level, the change in poise, posture and attitude that AT brings about affects people's perceptions of you and that, in turn, changes the way you perceive your own life and increases your self esteem and happiness. I never had any major issues with self-confidence but my former stress levels caused me to appear a bit too assertive and overbearing. Now, I think people perceive a happier, more contented Jeff and instead, they tend to see me as amusingly eccentric. I'm pleased about that. Of course, I'm still the same person inside! AT can't change your personality: only your behaviour.

One of my hobbies for the last 19 years has been studying esoteric and existential philosophy: more specifically, the nature of human consciousness. This led me to a new scientific theory of consciousness and as a consequence I have spent time getting to know some of the religious views about it . Not wishing to subscribe to any of the major religions or (in the case of Buddhism) philospohies, I have always looked within my own being for a deeper understanding of mind. This was a factor in making AT look like a good thing for me to do.

The late Ray Evans, director of the Alexander Re-Education Centre training course had a profound spiritual dimension (connected to his mastery of Yoga and his Christian faith, I think). I was hoping that some of this might rub-off on me as a result of AT. During my private lessons with Ray, I used to ask him to tell me about the spiritual benefits of AT. The most I could get out of him was a knowing smile and a platitude such as "you will have to discover that for yourself, Jeff".

Alexander came from a humble though strongly Christian family. I've often wondered if his avoidance of spiritual matters in relation to his work was driven by a need to avert conflict with the (then) powerful forces of the Christian Church, some of whose most influential leaders he had befriended through his work. Walter Carrington, who effectively took over from Alexander after his dealth in 1955 also came from a religious background. I understand that he chose AT over a career as a Jesuit priest. Only time will tell whether he changed Alexander's message by overlaying his own spiritual beliefs on his teachings.

The conclusion I have come to is that AT has no automatic place in a spiritual or religious context. It requires no act of faith to develop good use, other than to trust the Technique enough to let go of your habits. That's not to say that AT can't help you develop a higher spiritual awareness - if that's what you are seeking - BUT spirituality is absolutely not a prerequisite nor an inevitable outcome of developing good use. To portray AT otherwise would, in my opinion, bring the Technique into disrepute within the professional circles in which we are increasingly moving.

I have become more spiritually attuned over the same period of time that I have been an AT teacher. That's a coincidence.

Thursday 20 December 2007

The Right Way of Pulling

Last week I went to an AT workshop run by Ron Colyer, director of the Alexander Re-Education Centre. It was part 2 of a duet of classes entitled "Antagonistic Action" (AA).

I was the guinea pig in an exercise to apply AA to the most complex structure in the body: the spine. It involved taking the head of a pupil while she was lying in semi-supine on the table. The intention was to encourage the pupil to lengthen her spine without "pulling" her head with my arms.

I stood in "The Alexander Position" :-) at the head of the table and, guided by Ron's hands, put myself into "monkey" and placed my hands on the pupil's head. My instruction was to widen across the upper part of my arms and "pull" into my elbows whilst maintaining my direction: forward and up. Stimulated to pull down by the others in the class who were all watching for me to get it wrong (well at least that's the way I saw it) I made a complete hash of it and my pupil made no response to my efforts.

Evidently, Ron could see what I had done to myself and, with the skill of a sculptor smoothing and perfecting the final form of his work, guided me forward and up whilst bringing me into my back. "You have to use the right kind of pulling", he said. "Just direct your spine back then direct your spine up - back and up back and up". The resulting diagonal direction gave me a sense of connection to my pupil and, with no prompting from Ron, both she and I simultaneously released and took a breath.

I can't find the words to explain the sensation of what that connection to my pupil felt like but I know that it is real and that the simultenaity of the release that we both experienced was not a coincidence, but a result of that connection.

As I recollect, my first encounter with this phenomonen was on year 3 of my AT training course. I was working with Mike Cross and he was sitting on a chair and I was standing behind, hands on his shoulders. He invited me to send him forward or back, rocking on his sitting bones. It wasn't going well. Mike isn't the sort of person who will make it too easy for you! "What are you thinking?", he sternly interrogated. My response was not worth reporting because, in truth, I was only thinking of trying to get it right.

"Start again, looking after your own use and forget about me", he commanded. I dutifully did as instructed and placed my hands on his shoulders. "Now THINK the directions for me". Feeling a bit put-down by my obvious inability to do as instructed, I decided that under NO circumstances was I going to give Mike the slightest cue to move. I stubbornly waited, waited and waited again to see if he would start the movement himself. Just at the point where I was about to give up, the thought passed through my head "now MOVE back". At that instant Mike rocked back on his sitting bones and then announced "That's better: now you are thinking right".

I've given a LOT of thought as to what might be behind this almost paranormal experience. I'm not sure if I believe in telepathy - although I don't rule it out - but I prefer a more practical explanation. I'm going to label this phenomonen "proprioceptive communication".

Proprioception is often referred-to as the true 6th sense. It is your sense of being. It's knowing where your bodily parts are and what they are doing, without having to look. Without it, you would have to devote so much of your brain's conscious processing capacity to simple tasks such as walking that you would hardly be able to concentrate on anything else. But is it REALLY a sense in the same way as the "five senses" are senses?

I've debated this point with several more erudite people than myself (when it comes to the subject of physiology). One view that I support is that, for proprioception to be a true "sense", it must be capable of creating an awareness of the EXTERNAL world - the world outside your body. Knowing where your limbs are seems to fall into the same catagory as knowing if you feel hot or cold or whether you are hungry or thirsty or not feeling well. I don't think many people would elevate the feeling of hunger to the level of a "sense" in its own right.

So, in order to be a sense, proprioception needs to be able to inform you of what's going-on outside of yourself. That's exactly the experience that I have been describing when teaching AT. The pupil seems to be able to sense the state of being of the teacher and to respond by mimicking the teacher's use. The teacher's hands are communicating with the pupil at the level of proprioception and the pupil is sensing that external stimulus. Proprioception is therefore a sense.

This happens at a subconscious level. In fact I would go as far as to say that, if the teacher-pupil interaction is too consciously directed, then the subtlety of the subconscious connection gets lost.

If you need a precedent for subconscious communication, you need to look no further than the effect of pheramones, operating through the sense of smell. There have been numerous studies of how male and female pheramones affect the behaviour of individuals who don't consciously know that they can smell them. Of course we can communicate with our other senses consciously - our hearing is used to interpret speech, our sight is used to interpret body language or sign-language and communication by touch has a miriad of interpretations. Taste is less easy to see, but we all know expressions like "the way to a man's heart is through his stomach", which is probably an allusion to the sense of taste.

What makes proprioceptive communication different from touch is the level of consciousness at which it operates. Touch is essentially a conscious thing. Perhaps one definition of an Alexander teacher is someone who has learned how to perfect their ability to differentiate the use of their hands from that of simple touch?

Having said that, in ALL human interactions no single sense dominates. We receive messages from everyone that we interface-with using all the information that our 6 senses provide.

Even if this theory about the connection between a pupil and the teacher isn't quite right, there's one thing I'm sure about: soneone who has never experienced this connection first-hand cannot claim to be fully competent at teaching AT. This gives us a real dilemma in trying to define the nature of an AT lesson and I can see why so many STAT members object so strongly to the concept of a defined competence framework for AT.

Thursday 6 December 2007

Changing the habits of a lifetime

Last week, I read an article in the 01 December issue of New Scientist about the subconscious mind. The article described a four-part model of the conscious and subconscious control systems of the mind, developed by Peter Dayan, Nathaniel Daw and Yael Niv of University College London.

It made me reconsider my understanding of subconscious habit that forms part of the AT philosophy.

Dayan's model describes four systems of the mind, each with a different controller.

  1. the subconscious PAVLOVIAN controller
  2. the subconscious HABITUAL controller
  3. the conscious EPISODIC controller
  4. the conscious GOAL-DIRECTED controler
The pavlovian controller, described as "the brain's autopilot" performs reflex behaviours: primitive reflexes that we are born with and conditioned reflexes as demostrated by Pavlov's experimental dogs which, on the sound of a bell, were subconsciously conditioned to salivate in anticipation of food.

The pavlovian controller differs from the habitual controller inasmuch as habits are consciously learned and rehearsed until they become second nature.

When we respond to stimuli using conscious control, our resulting behaviour depends on the amount of information we have available on which we can make rational choices. In the case of incomplete information, our episodic controller recommends responses based on our experience of previous, similar situations. In an ideal situation, we focus our goal-directed controller on a well-defined problem and respond to it rationally in order to optimise our choice.

Contemporary experiments in neuroscience are revealing an increasingly important role that the subconscious mind plays in our day-to-day activities. The brain's capacity for conscious processing is a limited resource that needs to be rationed. The subconscious therefore monitors all sensory input - below your awareness - and decides which stimuli are worthy of being assigned to conscious processing.

Once the goal-directed controller has been assigned to a routine task, it aims to consign future responses to similar tasks to subconscious, habitual processing (or at least to the episodic controller) thus freeing itself to perform other tasks.

You can see this in action when we learn a new skill such as typing or driving a car. Eventually, the execution of that skill becomes an unthinking subconscious activity.

So, how does this relate to our classic understanding of the wokings of the body, as described by Mr. Alexander in his books - such as "Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual"? This is the question that I'm still evaluating, but here are my first thoughts.

Alexander spoke at length about the "evil" of subconscious habit and how it leads us to mis-use our body with undue tension. His technique for correcting this requires us to:
  • identify wrong subconscious habits (misuse)
  • inhibit the impulses that drive them
  • substitute different, consciously controlled (directed) means of using the body
  • repeat until the new use replaces the old habits

When a new pupil starts to learn AT, they arrive at their first lesson with their own unique pattern of use (or misuse). The teacher invites them to perform a routine task such as sitting in a chair - something which in most people is an unthinking, habitual process. Almost invariably, the teacher will observe that they are performing the task wrongly - for example by shortening in the back of the neck, pulling down at the front or pulling in with the knees and flopping into the chair.

The teacher then asks the pupil to repeat the task but this time, uses her/his hands to help direct the pupil "up" whilst sitting "down". For the pupil, this represents new sensory input that contradicts their habitual controller's understanding of the sitting process. Instantly, the task is reassigned. The episodic controller may switch-in and try to apply a previously learned behaviour to the task. For example, they might sit in the chair as if they were trying to balance a book on their head. A different pattern of use is observed although it bears little relation to the freely released, upwardly directed motion that the teacher had intended.

The teacher then explains the principle of sitting and repeats the exercise using modified hands to direct it. Eventually, the pupil breaks free of the episodic controller and assigns the goal-directed controller to the task. This is where the teacher may explain the "means whereby" (end-gaining) principle. The act of sitting is analysed in detail.

The next few attempts are awkward and unnatural, albeit that the pupil starts to direct upwards, while thinking about their knees ...etc. Too much goal-directed processing actually gets in the way of the act of sitting!

Now comes the part where this newly acquired skill needs to be reassigned as an habitual process. The pupil is instructed to continue to adopt the new method of sitting in their day-to-day life when there is no teacher to direct and correct them. It is ONLY by working on himself that the pupil will be able to learn to trust the new pattern of use enough to allow it to be handled subconsciously.

Of course, this improved way of sitting will be added to the pupil's library of episodic responses and it will start to emerge in his other activities.

As AT lessons progress, the teacher will take the pupil through a variety of other activities - such as walking, climbing stairs, stooping, lifting an object etc. Each new activity will be associated with new thinking and eventually - with the commitment of the pupil - the "thinking in activity" will become part of his non-thinking subconscious control system.

Returning to the starting point where the pupil is directed for the first time to sit in a new way: rarely, instead of directing the processing of the new stimulus to the conscious controllers, a pupil may respond with a reflex reaction. Their "startle reflex" may cause them to stiffen because they preceive that they are about to fall backwards.

This inappropriate triggering of a primitive reflex is an area of study that is about 40 years old. It's not a subject that I claim any expertise in, but is well understood by reflex therapists who have developed techniques to help the sufferer develop a more mature reponse. I think this body of knowledge will eventually become part of the curriculum for trainee AT teachers. Maybe this new model of conscious and subconscious processing will help to define its place in AT practice?

I invite you to comment on this blog.

Tuesday 16 October 2007

Let's Get Straight to the Point About End-Gaining

In teaching the Aexander Technique (AT), we talk about the principle of "end gaining". We almost accuse people of end gaining as if it were some sort of moral crime.

So what is this principle according to AT? I'll come to that later. For the time being let's get something straight about end gaining in a general sense.

In life, I personally admire end-gainers - the achievers who have a vision and get things done. These are the people who make a difference. Without them, life would be reduced to a state of apathy and neglect where nothing ever changed. End-gaining is good. If you choose to live your life without goals, you'd might as well spend all your time sitting staring at a wall.

However, no-one likes a person who is so driven and fixated on achieving a goal that they insensitively trample over everyone and anything that gets in their way.

Then there are people who expect to have everything now. In this "fast track" society, we are conditioned to expect to satisfy our desires without having to "do" anything to achieve them. This is the age of instant food, instant communication and even instant fame. We don't expect to have to pay much attention to how our wishes are met, we just pay the money and expect it to happen. In my day we called people who lived their lives like this "greedy" or "spoiled brats".

In summary, there's nothing wrong with end-gaining per se but it's easy to see how end gainers can be a bit obnoxious.

So, how can you be an end-gainer and still look yourself in the mirror with a smile and a wink?

It's all about the way you go about it! There are more considered ways of achieving your objectives where you can avoid hacking everyone off and there's no gratification in achieving anything that you haven't had to work for.

This little rant is actually the essence of what Mr. Alexander was trying to convey when he talked about end gaining.

When you are stimulated into activity - for example turning your head in response to hearing your name spoken, taking a step out of the shower in the morning or teeing-off at the first hole on the golf course - you will have a natural tendency to just "do" it in the way you always respond to such a stimulation. This unthinking, habitual way of responding isn't necessarily the "right" way to respond, no matter whether it feels right or not.

In AT, we learn to resist our unthinking ways of responding to stimuli. In our heads, we say "no" to acting instinctively. We are saying "no" to the habitual way of responding. This is what we call "inhibition".

OK, so let's assume we've got this far - we have been stimulated into action and we have inhibited our natural tendency to just "go for it". What do we do now?

We think and then we direct the way in which we execute our actions. We choose a means whereby we can respond in an elegant way that doesn't cause undue tension in our body. I'm not going to try to explain here exactly how to do that. That's what having an Alexander lesson with a trained AT teacher is all about!

It's unfortunate that we AT teachers chose to describe this idea using the words "end gaining" because, in my opinion, this misses the real point - it's about the means rather than the end.

In modern language, we could describe it as "the go-for-it mentality". I like this expression. The "it" is the response to a stimulus - the "go-for" is the means whereby we achieve "it" - and it's a mental process.

This subject is sometimes misquoted by AT teachers - who ought to know better. They use the non-end-gaining principle to discourage their puplis from having goals in the first place. Wrong! To get the most out of life, everyone should have ambitions, set themselves objectives, goals and targets. The achievement of a goal is one of life's sweet experiences - provided it's done with good use.

You've got to have a dream
If you don't have a dream
How're you going to make a dream come true?