I like to write, and am pleased to share my Alexander story. I like to think of writing as being, to some degree, a reflection of the mind. I can come back and read the stuff later and think ‘that’s nice’ or ‘that’s right’, or maybe just ‘that’s a load of rubbish’ and chuck it in the bin. Spontaneity in writing captures the moment; it’s our take on events at a particular time and depends somewhat on what’s coming through the senses. And what comes through the senses affects our mental and physical comportment. My Alexander teacher quite often homes in on this aspect of the Technique during a lesson, providing insight into the psychophysical world in which we live, easily borne out by observation of ourselves and others.
Spontaneous writing is also a good barometer for inner reflection, warts and all. A different mood brings a different perspective. Early judgements may be toned down and premature ego-based musings proven groundless. Occasionally though, things on the page come together and are worth keeping. It’s not really the subject matter that counts here, it’s the way we address it; it’s how we bring ourselves to the table. We have a degree of duty to ourselves to do things right. Later, when reading my own stuff, I will often have developed a slightly different take on the subject. Nothing is totally fixed; we move on and the mind is always tweaking and updating itself with new experiences.
Writing inhibits the constant backroom chatter where the mind loves to hang out, and directs us to a blank sheet where we can begin our stories and ideas. It’s a great accompaniment for the Alexander student. . The mind is slowed down to the pace of the pen and given a break from the mental humdrum to which it has been accustomed. I like to write down ideas and observations and discuss them with my teacher during the next Alexander lesson; not exactly homework, but a bit of an effort to describe how I might have perceived and made use of my previous lesson. It also lets me begin a dialogue with my Alexander teacher, and leads on to discussions on different aspects of the Technique. I quietly anticipate my Alexander lessons and meeting up with my teacher; I gain a tremendous amount from this relationship. So here’s to my teacher and friend.
At the beginning of my second Alexander lesson my teacher looked at me and asked pleasantly, ‘Do you think this is a load of rubbish?’
Over the following day or so, after some head scratching, I concluded that this was such a great question. It embodied the teacher’s confidence in herself and her profession. There was an implied ‘Come on board for the journey; I’ll be there, but the choice is entirely yours’.
Only lesson two, and I was looking forward to the next one. I already wanted to be where my teacher was. First impressions do count, and I was certainly impressed. My teacher has natural poise and a grace from times long gone. Movement, awareness and connection combined into a single action, the like of which I was seeing for the first time. I felt welcome, comfortable and at home. She has patience and commitment, and the defensive barriers I normally employ in any new situation soon began to slip away. It would be hard to imagine a better beginning for a student. In percentage terms, if I ever achieve just five percent of what my teacher already has, I’ll be a very happy chap. It goes without saying that I bought a season ticket and I’ve just renewed it!
So here was and still is the first and most important insight of my Alexander journey. My teacher mirrors her profession perfectly, she is the quintessential exponent of the Alexander Technique, the perfect fusion of mind and body the real deal absolutely no question.
A good few years ago I was on the beach after a day’s work in the far north of Scotland. Vastly overweight, with a twenty-five-a-day cigarette addiction and alcohol making up a large part of my social life, I was not the nimblest of people on the beach that evening. From a distance I might have been mistaken for some marine life washed up with the last tide. Still, life wasn’t too bad. I could pretty well do what I wanted, go where I wanted, and eat and drink what I wanted. Until, that is, I slipped on a shiny little rock and life was never the same again.
In the early hours the following morning I awoke with lower-back pain the like of which I would not wish on anyone. (Well, almost anyone, I’m no saint!) The period between waking and the receptionist arriving at work at 6 a.m. can only be described as survival.
That morning I swore that if I did survive the day intact, things would definitely change; but for now it was still today and I had this thing to which my head was attached, and it continued through my body and somehow fixed onto my legs. It was my spine and it didn’t work any more; it sent excruciating pain in uncontrolled spasms into my pelvis and legs. Maybe it needed treating with a little more respect. Spines are important, I thought, and I promised mine that for the. rest of its natural life I would be the picture of kindness toward it.
My first promise was to relieve it of the forty pounds of excess flab that hung over my trouser belt,and that promise I did manage to keep. Eventually I did kick my love affair with alcohol and nicotine but, for now, there was still the pain, and men and pain do not go together, believe me! Childbirth is said to be even more painful. Well, I’m not too sure about that! My wife has had two children and I was present at both births so I know about these things!
Later that morning a very nice doctor gave me an injection in the backside. The pain slipped away and I was back in the land of the living. He also phoned his friend down the road, a physiotherapist who saw me out of hours and, after some worrying manipulation of my back and legs, I emerged onto the street more or less intact, carrying strict instructions to seek further attention should things get worse.
Things never did go back to that painful day, but my back was never really the same again. I began calling myself ‘old glass back’. I seemed to ‘pull it’ all the time and l was visiting a physiotherapist with increasing regularity.
One day, local intelligence pointed me to a particular physiotherapist. Bad backs were the speciality. The tip was right, and this last physiotherapist, while doing an excellent job on my back, also suggested that I try some preventative therapy. She said I might try some lessons in the Alexander Technique. I had every reason to listen to her - she had fixed my back again - and so, despite never having heard of the Alexander Technique, I booked my first lesson. Definitely the right decision, absolutely no question.
I remember beginning my first lesson a little tense and defensive, but not unduly worried. I had never heard of the Alexander Technique before, save for the leaflet I’d got from my physiotherapist. The leaflet suggested to wear loose clothing but nothing much else that I remembered. I had entertained myself with the thought of some kind of head or body massage, which I must admit posed no undue trepidations for me!
With hindsight I can see how difficult it must be for the Alexander teacher. There I was, bent forward, leaning on my elbow across the desk looking confidently bemused! Forty-five years of amassing a vast armoury of habitual responses culminating in a permanent back problem, and now here I was sitting opposite my new teacher. As I’ve said (and I make no apologies for repeating it) my teacher was the model which got me beyond the first couple of lessons. She had made an immediate impact on me and I was keen to learn more, although my understanding of what ‘learning’ meant in relation to the Alexander Technique was a completely incorrect one when I began. I needed to begin to unlearn what I thought was the right way to use myself, and this was my teacher’s job, although I was blissfully unaware of the challenge ahead of her at the time.
Early on, my teacher introduced the idea of ‘primary control’ and the relationship between neck, head and back. She gave me a slip of paper on which she’d written, ‘Let the neck be free, so the head can go forward and up, and the back lengthen and widen’.
My first reaction was to check the handwriting style; I don’t know quite why, I just did that sort of thing in those days! Closer to the truth maybe was that I just noticed the style; it was nice and flowing and easy on the eye; no surprises there then!
I brought some real concentration to that piece of paper over the next few weeks. I pulled it from my wallet regularly until it became more of a mantra. I was beginning something and I was keen to learn. I don’t think this did me any harm; rather I was beginning subconsciously to build on the trust and perspectives my teacher was passing on. I think we need to nurture this inner feeling of wanting to progress as a whole person. Perhaps it’s a bit similar to yearning for a long-lost friend; but in our case our real self is not lost forever; he’s just around the corner and when we do meet up, it’s handshakes and smiles all round! It’s not end-gaining, which is a bit ego-based and selfish; it’s the correct direction to focus the mind. To become a truly wholesome person is surely the way forward for everyone.
My early understanding of the idea of the whole person was probably too much of an intellectual concept. I’ve seen dozens of books on the shelves of WH Smith and read similar material, but still from a distance, from just an intellectual stand point. While working with my teacher on my own use, and homing in on my own tensions in my body and mind, I slowly began to appreciate that each bit of it is interdependent. Even better was the realisation that the mind and intellect are inextricably linked to the physical bits. It seems quite extraordinary now to have thought otherwise. God knows how many pointers my teacher gave me in the process of attaining this insight. Somewhere else in the mix there are our emotions, the good ones and the bad ones. I often (and still do sometimes) confused negative emotions with rational thinking. It gets you nowhere, believe me.
My teacher has often explained that our physical self is bound to suffer if We are continually engaging in negative mental and emotional misuse. As a result, we can easily adopt a poor and withdrawn demeanour: chin down, drooping shoulders, or maybe an aggressive ‘what the ...’ attitude. A quasi-zombie like existence which, if we don’t watch it, becomes the norm. There are millions of people walking around in varying degrees of this twilight world. No wonder we have wars and world instability.
I’ll be quite open about it. Now I choose not to be unhappy. I can choose not to go to places which make me emotionally insecure. I don’t mean emotion doesn’t have its place; it does and I have genuine compassion for people on the planet who have such dreadful lives to put up with. Thinking of people who are regularly faced without the basics for human survival is making me feel a little emotional at this moment, and it is the correct response to this kind of reflection.
How do I sit this kind of mental use and thinking along with FM. Alexander’s? Easily. I have a duty to organise my own use properly, both mentally and physically. To achieve this I need good primary control and an appreciation of the workings of the whole self. I will then have the opportunity to engage properly with the rest of the outside world. So I did make choices. First of all, as I said, I have chosen, with proper balance, not to be unhappy. I have made choices under my teacher’s guidance to bring about the correct use of my own self, mental and physical, and have reaped the benefits. Choice is the main tool in my Alexander toolkit, which my teacher has freely given me. We all need to choose the correct use of ourselves. Get ourselves right and we can enjoy the journey.
I have seen some remarkable and welcome changes in myself since I met up with my teacher. I do not have a back problem, my back has actually become stronger and so have my legs. My back has regained much of the lost space and territory it used to own. Neither have I been troubled with my dodgy shoulder. I breathe better and may claim better vision and hearing. Most of all though, and this has only started to kick in over the last few months, I feel much happier. I wasn’t unhappy before and that may seem like a contradiction but it’s not. I have just chosen not to Visit those places which from time to time can make me periodically unhappy. I don’t need to engage in conflict, suffer from road rage or hold unhealthy opinions regarding politics or the world at large.
Even more importantly, we have to accept where we are: we cannot have everything, and sometimes we have to be happy with our own lot, with the bed that we have constructed. It’s not necessarily better on the other side of the fence. In other words, one has to choose not to give in to feelings of insecurity which, when looked at closely, are almost certainly baseless. Just like a marriage, we have to work on ourselves to find the real peace and harmony within us which we all seek. To me that’s something basic EM. Alexander was telling us. It’s perfectly legal to choose not to be unhappy or not to misuse our backs and necks. Yes, we can all choose to have a choice. Not my words; I’ve read that somewhere else. It’s truth, though, will set us all free.
Be breathed, be seen, be heard, be tasted, be well-used, be aware and be connected. Doesn’t that sound awesome! But few of us understand it.
It’s also important not to take life too seriously. Go for a drink or two with a pal. Chew the fat. Sort out the world over a pint; it’s all good Stuff, it makes us tick. Go home and tell the wife that ‘things are gonna change around here!’ Well, maybe not the last bit, she might take me up on it and I am pushing fifty! Dust off the Triumph Bonneville in the corner of the garage and let the wind rush through the holes! Chill, as they say.
Let me expand a bit more on those early lessons. I have done a lot of work in front of the chair with my Alexander teacher. I enjoy it just as much now as the early days. On my first lesson though, as I mentioned earlier, after introductions, I sat down and sprawled out over the desk nest to me and lent on my elbow, totally unaware of the message that sent out to my brand-new teacher. Which is such a strange thing. What I thought was quite well-mannered and fairly cool for a new occasion looked quite different from the other side of the desk. There were no wrong intentions; it was just a complete misconception of what I thought I was doing. With hindsight it definitely didn’t look balanced in any shape or form; neither was it particularly polite.
That left my teacher with few alternatives. A few well chosen words, and I was sitting bolt upright! I now know that what I thought was a pretty good sitting posture was in fact quite the opposite. This was only just a start. I was still wound up like a spring. with tension from head to foot.
Under her guidance I began standing and sitting, and repeating this again. I began to realise I was using this spring inside me to complete the movement. My brain was saying ‘ready, steady, here we go, blast off! Neck and chin disappear, elbows thrust back, back bends and legs attempt to push the floor down to the next level! The result was not very pretty, and with the landing, I just managed to secure one side of my backside to the chair. Or was she moving the chair to stop my rear end from completely crash landing? What was wrong with me?
With a truly remarkable touch my teacher used her hands on my neck and back to dissipate the tension and re-establish the spinal link between head and pelvis. She encouraged me to think of my ‘up’; ‘keep thinking up’. She let me understand that I could stand when I wanted: it was my choice how and when to stand and sit. I began to realise there was no need to bring this agenda of tension and wasted energy to the simple act of standing and sitting. I began to enjoy this Simple process using the minimum of effort: a big breakthrough, a big insight, and highly rewarding. I do like the interval between standing and sitting with a neck free from tension and connected to the lower back. When do I feel awkward and tense, wherever I am, I can go back and let my neck be free; just free; nowhere in particular; it already knows where to go; I don’t need to tell it.
It’s the same on my walks: too much interference is unhelpful. I like to be just aware of a freed-up neck, and the rest falls into place, especially the relaxed connection cascading down and releasing in the lower back, then all the way down to the feet. Breathing becomes natural and pleasantly unnoticed, fitting in with my walking pattern. Fictitious mental layers of self-importance dissolve and the senses zoom in to their real friends. I am not separate from anything or anyone anymore. It’s just me, some trees and a meandering brook.
I like working with the chair because it covers just about everything. My sitting bones know exactly where to go. My neck and shoulders release into my back and my weight Hows through the sitting bones and out the chair legs down into the centre of the earth. When I stand I can see the lovely hills outside, and my peripheral vision takes in the rest of the room. I know my teacher is behind me. The space is nice.
I was at a concert in Manchester last week and pre-booked my ticket
with care. Being tall, I didn’t want to feel uncomfortable for the two-and-a-half-hour duration. But I was fine, no different to being in my Alexander chair. If a bit of tension 'started to appear, back to basics and let the neck free up; the rest falls into place. With no cramped-up burn and no aching neck and back, I was left to enjoy the show completely at ease; a stark contrast to my previous existence as ‘old glass back’.
Very early on my teacher brought me up to speed with the importance of the lying down position, AKA semi-supine. I like incorporating some lengthening imagery centred around my breathing, but I do this while keeping my thoughts ‘high’, rather than direct concentration around my specific body bits. Sometimes I bring my attention on to my left hand and think about lifting it; instead I lift my right leg and carry on with this in various combinations. I may spend a full minute bringing attention to my hand then just pretend to lift it. The hand hasn’t moved but there is a lot of background tension just waiting to jump in. It brings me close to what’s actually going on and more aware of being able to choose what I decide to do, not jump straight into the action. Maybe I’ll make a good poker player someday! If I’m too whacked after a long day and fall asleep I don’t worry too much; my spine has rested and I can always start again later.
I don’t pretend to know much about the brain or how it works. All that I need to know for now anyway is basically what I’ve been taught, especially when doing chair work. In the beginning I was wound up before I even began to stand. I knew I was going to be asked to stand so I had adopted this tense, wound-up posture in readiness for takeoff. Why was I so keen to impress my teacher that I was the best person around when it came to standing up from a chair? Why had all this unnecessary extra preparation and energy been introduced before I had even decided to stand? Why did I want to finish standing before I even began the process?
I’m sure there will be a reason somewhere buried deep in my subconscious, but the point is, there is absolutely no need for it. I’m only standing up and sitting down, for Pete’s sake! Time and again she encouraged me to not respond to these initial stimuli, which would rush in preventing the correct response. I didn’t quite ‘get it’ in the early days but she persevered, using hand contact on my neck (how did she find it hidden away in my chest?) and back until eventually the penny started to drop, and I began slowly to ignore these ingrained habitual responses and choose, in my own time, a more rational response to the simple decision to stand up.
That’s the trick for me. Time and bad use have created many incorrect responses. I need to stick to a process of inhibiting these and then directing my attention to the idea of the job in hand. Then I can proceed with how and when I begin the job. It’s important for me to make this clear. There are no mysteries; it’s a very practical and methodical way to use ourselves best. That’s my take on this, and it works well for me. It’s never too late in any situation; if I do allow all these bad responses into my thinking, I just slam the door shut. It doesn’t matter; I’ve seen and heard them all before. I move my attention away quietly to the job in hand and I’m back where I should be. Simple.
My teacher often lifts my arms to help with the inhibition process, and still, occasionally, I try and give her some help. It’s a spontaneous reaction but it’s a good reminder that I need to decide what I need to accomplish; the old habitual responses don’t work anymore.
When it came to the actual moment of standing, I had ditched my normal forty-five-year-old approach. What choices did I have, though? Perhaps a growing awareness that I only need place my attention on the simple idea of standing; my body would do the rest; I don’t need anything else. I had help with the introduction of visual conceptions, and I always had the benefit of my teacher’s ‘think of your up’.
I mentioned early on to her that, as a substitute for stopping smoking and drinking and as a way to relax, I had gone back to the guitar, which I had abandoned decades earlier like so many Others. I began putting a lot of effort into music theory so I could ‘talk the talk’ with keys and chords and begin with a more generic approach. Previous methods attempted in my younger days had delivered little. I have also put in a lot of practice and I’m beginning to have some fun. When I began my Alexander lessons I mentioned all this to my teacher. I also explained to her that although I could happily play a few simple pieces in private in my own company, playing in front of anyone was a very different matter. I could not even record myself on my own mobile phone!
Well, she said, bring the guitar in with you next time!
Why did I mention it? I must be mad, I thought, I can never do this. No alternative, though, and next time I brought the guitar with me. I tried to play it but I was holding so much tension when I started that I just went faster and faster, missed a lot of notes and finished on a low.
She explained head-on that this approach was classical Alexander and that he had coined the word ‘end-gaining’ to explain it. I wanted to get a result before I had even considered the implications involved to achieve it. I had never considered my own use! She reminded me of the importance of inhibiting habitual responses. ‘Give the guitar some space; bring your attention to this lovely, spacious room for a moment and then, when you are ready, try something simple. Don’t attack the guitar; bring your own way to it. Start afresh with a more reasonable approach, forget the need to finish and proceed at your own pace when you decide’. She was right, of course.
My misuse of the guitar mirrored the same misuse of myself. The good news now is both of us are well and truly in the recovery room. I have left behind the old habits that have caused me so much misuse in the past. I’d like to continue as an Alexander student for some time yet, and check in for a lesson every couple of weeks. I like my lessons, I like the Alexander Technique and most of all I like and respect my teacher and friend, simply the best. Absolutely no question.