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?

Friday, 12 October 2007

Psychophysical Unity

Let's jump-in at the deep end!

I must start here because psychophysical unity (PU) is the principle that AT teachers use to bring about changes in their pupils. Without PU I think it would be virtually impossible to teach AT.

Let me explain.

[Added in response to Comment 1] The principle of PU states that every physical aspect of your being is inextricably linked to your mental processes. Every mental process reflects or expresses itself somehow within your physical body. All "doing" is preceded by and contemporaneous with thinking and subconscious thoughts and feelings result in corresponding, unseen tensions or other "misuses" within your body.

I hope you are quietly whispering to yourself "yeh that's pretty obvious". To some people, this idea is revolutionary - even heretical.

The way we use (or mis-use) ourselves is a function of the three main operations of the mind - thinking, feeling and emoting. To see what I mean, picture someone with a slumped posture: shoulders hunched and pulled forwards, upper back rounded, neck pulled back and front of rib cage collapsed.

If this person were a teenager, this wrong use of himself might be the result of him thinking that it looks cool to slump - a bit "James Dean", if you will - slightly dangerous and rebellious. On the other hand, maybe the person is middle-aged and has spent the last 30 years maintaining this posture without realising it was "wrong". His sensory awareness - his feeling - is unreliable. The Dickensian "ever-so-'umble" office clerk feels that it's his rightful place to show deference to his masters and demonstrates it to them by hunching. Finally, the depressed and saddened person, who has a life that seems set against him, feels like giving-up and the weight of it all seems to rest on his shoulders and push him down.

I could think of other examples but I hope you see the point of how a person's state of mind affects their body. My example of pulling-down is obvious but the whole range of possible mind-sets have differing and sometimes quite subtle reflections in the physical body: both positive and negative. That's one side of the PU coin.

The flip-side of the coin is the body-mind link. I've lost count of the number of times that I've seen AT pupils perk-up and even smile after having a lesson. I did-so myself in the 13 years that I took individual lessons before I trained to be a teacher. Occasionally - rarely - a pupil will burst into tears during a lesson. The teacher has helped them access something in their physical being which was imprinted there by some traumatic or upsetting event earlier in their lives. By releasing the physical manifestation of that episode, the feelings and emotions are also released.

Every qualified AT teacher must have spent a minimum of 1600 hours, usually over three years, developing her/his own use and "hands-on" skills. With experience, the teacher develops ways of explaining the principles to the pupil. The words they choose are aimed at influencing the pupil's thinking: to help them inhibit undesirable tension and to direct themselves forward and up.

The experience of the teacher's hands-on combined with an encouragement to think correctly brings about - via PU - the desired results in the pupil.

In my own teaching practice, I explain to my pupils how certain muscles or groups of muscles can be over-tensed and result in this-or-that misuse. However, an awareness of the offending muscles does not in itself help the pupil to release the unnecessry tension or to correct the problem.

I saw a pupil this week who was complaining of pain and stiffness in his middle back. He has a recent injury around his T6 vertibrum and naturally he associated the pain with the injury. On examination, in standing, he was holding his latissimus dorsi muscles tense to the point that they formed two solid vertical ridges parallel to his spine. In sitting, the tension was only marginally reduced. I showed him, via the use of my hands, where I could see he was holding-on. He said he realised how stiff those muscles were but he just couldn't let them go. I invited him to think of the under-side of his feet and to create a sense of openness in the arches of his feet. I then asked him to connect that sense of openness - via whatever means - to an equal sense of openness in his jaw. Meanwhile, I monitored his neck and encouraged him to release it. His back began to release and by the time we were finished with the chair-work, the muscle tone in his back had returned to something resembling normality.

What I was doing was playing a little mind game with him to distract his subconscious fear of back pain and replace it with a sense of release between two points on each side of the problem. Without knowing it, he was using his PU to bring about a change that was impossible by direct, end-gaining means.

Now, let me put on record my total disgust with providers of so-called "AT distance-learning" packages. AT CANNOT BE LEARNED OUT OF A BOOK! The application of psychophysical unity is not theoretical. It requires interaction between teacher and pupil and that's something that can ONLY be develeoped with hands-on work. I'd better stop ranting now because the anger and frustration will pull me down!

Thursday, 11 October 2007

It's a matter of opinion

As a STAT-trained AT teacher, I spend a LOT of time considering and cogitating over the question of "what the heck have I spent 3 years of my life training to teach?"

Ask your local AT teacher to define AT in one sentence (or even one parapaph) and they will probably struggle. Read any of FM Alexander's books on the subject and YOU will probably struggle! He wasn't exactly "gifted" when it came to writing clearly.

I think it's fair to say that, after a little (or much) thought, your teacher will eventually respond with a statement delivered as if it were some sort of truth. No! It's just that teacher's opinion: one that should be respected however, because it's just as valid as any other AT teacher's opinion. It can never be "the truth".

Equally, MY opinion is not the truth - but it may ruffle a few feathers amongst conservative AT thinkers. I don't buy-into the "FM Alexander personality cult" view of AT. I think this body of knowledge is incredibly valuable - to the human race - and it is right that it should be developed and expanded in the light of contemporary thinking. Conservatives have tried to fossilise AT in the sense of "if FM didn't say it then it's not true".

Maybe FM would have been pleased to see his descriptions of the work preserved so literally. On the other hand, he tried 4 times in 4 books to explain his principles but still left the world guessing at it's meaning. AT is like Zen - all "explanations" are nothing more than clues.

What I want to achieve in these blogs, therefore, is to explain what I personally believe this work is about and how it fits-in with modern life. I'd like to see AT take its rightful place in "body knowledge" and be moved from the "alternative" shelves to the philosophy or science section in book shops.