The Use Of The Self

"It is what man does that brings the wrong thing about, first within himself and then in his activities in the outside world, and it is only by preventing this doing that he can ever begin to make any real change." (FM Alexander, Universal Constant in Living) 


The last two books FM Alexander wrote were called The Use of the Self, and The Universal Constant in Living. What is universally constant in our living is the way we use ourselves. Our use is the way in which we do things in our daily lives, from the way in which we get out of bed in the morning, the way we stand up, sit down, or walk around, the way in which we do all the hundred and one activities of the day, to the way in which we lie down and go to sleep at night. We tend to go about the simple everyday acts of living in the same way, day in, day out. This concept of the ’use of the self’ is central to Alexander’s work, because he discovered a way in which we can continually improve our use in all that we do. And by learning to change our use we affect fundamentally every aspect of our experience. Everything we do can be done in a good way that promotes healthy functioning or it can be done in a way that is harmful to our good functioning; that is, we can operate with good use, or we can misuse ourselves. Alexander discovered that we all shared common habits of misuse, and here I will explain what Alexander meant by misuse, what he meant by good use, and how we can learn to stop the misuses and allow a new improved use of the self to develop. 


Until Alexander made the discovery that our use affects our functioning there was no clear understanding of the importance of misuse as a reason for malfunctioning. The main reasons for malfunctioning were considered to be hereditary factors, on the one hand, and physical trauma on the other. For example, if you had a backache it was because you had inherited a weak back, or a weak constitution generally,or because something ’had happened’ to your back which was causing it to malfunction, something like a car accident, or similar physical trauma. These are valid reasons for back pain, and there are excellent therapies for dealing with these problems. Nowadays we are aware that malfunctioning can be caused by many different factors in addition to heredity and physical trauma, such as emotional factors and dietary ones. What Alexander discovered was that one fundamental cause of back pain and of many other malfunctions is the way we use ourselves. In the course of his life Alexander worked with people suffering from a diversity of health problems, all of which improved as a result of learning the principles of his technique. 


When a student comes to an Alexander Teacher with a problem such as a back pain, shoulder tension, a postural defect, a stress problem, or another of the many reasons that brings a student to this technique, the teacher’s approach will not be to focus on the particular problem. The teacher may consider what the student is doing to cause the problem. Her concern will be with the use of the person, not with past traumas and problems, but with What is actually happening here and now. Specific problems are seen as manifestations of a more general dis-ease, the dis-ease of misuse. Although people often come to the Alexander Technique because they have a specific problem, Alexander Teachers do not claim to cure these problems. They offer to teach an improved use of the self, in the course of which the problem may clear up. 


An Alexander Teacher can help you to understand how you are misusing yourself, and for a short time she can give you an experience of an improved use, but ultimately students must take responsibility for improving their own use, in their everyday lives. This opportunity to take responsibility for oneself is an important aspect of the Alexander Technique, and it is why we call ourselves teachers and not therapists, and why we work with students or pupils, not clients or patients. As soon as you understand that something you are doing may be causing your problems, then it is your choice Whether you learn how to alter that situation or not. The teacher is there to help you make those changes if you wish to. 


There are several possible reasons why civilized human beings suffer from habitual misuse. The first is evolutionary, and pertains to the human race as a whole. It suggests that we have not yet adapted well to being poised upon two legs. Our spines are now subject to the constant pressure of gravity, unlike four-legged animals, whose spines are more or less organised along the horizontal plane, and we have not yet learnt how to use gravity to our advantage. In addition we have a much longer lifespan than most other animals, and so there is more time for degeneration of the spine to take place.


"...the head moves in human beings in order to extend the range of vision; to better his vision man became completely upright. Perhaps the richest comedy presented by the evolutionary process is that the creatures nature designed to have perfect posture and vision should today present a picture of bespectacled decrepitude" (R. A. Dart, The Attainment of Poise.) 


Scientific experiments have shown that the human spine degenerates much more rapidly than the rest of us, so that on average it can be said to be twenty years older than the rest of the body. In this light the Alexander technique is of evolutionary significance, because it teaches a person how to operate well in the upright, counter-balancing the gravitational pressure on the spine, so that the spine lengthens upwards rather than collapsing downwards. 


Another important reason we develop habits of misuse, and the one that Alexander himself emphasized, is that the society we are living in today demands enormous and constant adaptations when compared to the life of people living in a more natural environment. The rate at which change is occurring in our civilization is phenomenal, as new technology is introduced and older technology is discarded. One noticeable change for most Western people 18 that the mental aspects of life have become increasingly dominant, and the physical ones less essential, and so our lives have become comparatively sedentary and mentally oriented. Because of this we are more in touch with our minds and less in touch with our bodies (insofar as it is possible to separate the two). In Alexander’s words: 


"'Mental' growth continued even after a deterioration had been recognized in the 'physical' self, and this deterioration caused, as it were, one limb of the tree to grow at such a pace that it over balanced the tree, bent it too much in one direction, seriously disturbing the roots responsible for its equilibrium and healthy growth." (FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual


The nature of our complex civilized society is mirrored in our own nervous systems. There is a constant demand to adapt to a changing environment which creates stress, excitement and over stimulation, and there seems to be too little time for the nervous system to calm down and undo the stresses we have been dealing with, and so the stress responses take on a chronic pattern because they do not have time to release. The way we respond to our environment differs from individual to individual, and whereas one person may be hyperactive, another may be chronically depressed and lethargic, and another may suffer acute back pain or some other dis-ease. All these extremes show an inability to balance the demands on the nervous system, and can often be traced to habitual patterns of misuse. 


The Alexander Technique teaches you how to release these chronic patterns of misuse, not only when you are at home, recovering from the trials of the day, nor simply during the period of an Alexander lesson, but actually during the times that the stress is at its greatest. It is possible to apply the technique to any situation in your life. Actors, musicians and performers of all kinds have. found the Alexander Technique very beneficial, because to perform in front of an audience is to put the mind and body into a very stressful situation and a performer will often respond to this stress by mis-using the body in a very extreme way, as Alexander was the first to discover when he lost his voice during public recitals. It was no accident that Alexander was a performer. If he hadn’t been, his voice problem, which was a result of his extreme misuse on stage, might never have developed. But the misuse would still have been there, since misuse during performance is usually an exaggeration of our everyday misuse. If Alexander had not been an actor and had not developed his technique in order to cure his voice problem, he might well have developed neck or back pain or some other malfunctioning symptom as he grew older, as a result of his habitual misuse. Fortunately for us he was an actor who found the solution to his voice problems by studying his misuse of himself, and then teaching his discoveries to others.