freedom for life

The Edinburgh Alexander and Therapy Centre has been offering Alexander lessons and workshops since 1994.

Whenever I seek to introduce Alexander’s technique to someone, I ask the rhetorical question of 'what is it a technique for?’ The answer I give is drawn from the title of Alexander’s second book, 'Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual'. Which is a bit of a mouthful and it is all too easy to imagine a present-day publisher objecting to this and demanding something snappy like ‘Improve Your Posture’, ‘Fix Your Back’ or even just ‘The Alexander Technique’. Alexander, I think, would have objected and tried to explain just how well the title does tell you what his work is about, if only you had the technique to stop and be curious as to what is in front of you.

So let me explain what I understand the title means and why constructive conscious control is important for each of us as individuals, in other words why it is a good for us that we might want to invest our time and money in.

The first term I usually start with is the term 'conscious' and, like all the terms in the title, it is a word we approach with our prior understandings, connotations from other theories that can get in the way of understanding what Alexander is writing about. The term 'conscious' in Alexander’s work is used to talk about being aware of ourselves and very specifically being aware of how we are going about controlling ourselves in the activities of our daily lives.

These activities rely on a set of basic actions such as sitting, standing or walking, actions that we learn before we are two and before we have a memory to recall how we learned them. Which means that most of us have no conscious idea of how we do any of these actions, that is we have no idea of the habits of how we control or coordinate ourselves, and lacking any idea, we have no ability to assess the implications of what we have learned, whether it is a tendency to be beneficial to our health and performance or not. We are in Alexander’s language relying on subconscious control and, in doing so, if our habitual manner of controlling ourselves interferes with our postural support, it will interfere with our breathing and therefore our vitality and our functioning generally - in this respect it is not constructive. The interference with our general functioning has many symptoms not least the sore necks and backs that bring so many people to Alexander’s work.

Constructive conscious control involves many things, not least becoming aware of our subconsciously learned habitual manner of controlling ourselves, in order that we can assess the implications of these early habits. We can then replace them with consciously learned habits if necessary, that do not interfere with our general functioning and vitality but rather enhance it. In this move to conscious control we get away from many of the negative aspects of control that people can be concerned about in terms of rigidity, tightness and worrying about the correct way we should do things. Conscious control brings with it a lightness, flexibility and a freedom, which allows for spontaneity. If we follow this path, many symptoms that bother us lessen or disappear - as our general functioning improves – we feel alive. We also find that we become more balanced and successful in performing skilled activities, whatever they maybe.

Amongst the great benefits of practising constructive conscious control is that it allows for constant successful adaption in terms of general functioning to changing circumstances including our ageing, so that we make the most of ourselves and the opportunities and possibilities that life and our current age offers us. So for a teenage musician it might be about instilling habits that will help them avoid career threatening injury as well as helping with the quality of performance. For someone older it may be about re-educating themselves out of habits of moving that are a major cause of their neck or back pain, or to improve their performance skills in a particular area. Or it might be to help prevent problems with movement from occurring as they get older. At any age it might be helping with the recovery and rehabilitation from illness including surgical operations. Or it might be looking at habits which are deeply psychological in terms of how we face and interact with others, which are important and need to be worked with at some point. We all face such challenges at different points in our lives and conscious control is a great help in meeting them. The earlier one starts in some senses the better, but no one is too old to learn if they want to feel more alive and make the most of the opportunities afforded to them.

Published in Lessons from the Chair
Friday, 24 May 2013 10:48

Snagging 2

As I continually remind people, the Alexander Technique is a technique for developing constructive conscious control. This is rarely why people come for lessons in the first place. Usually it is for help with some other sort of problem, often to do with posture, musculoskeletal pain, voice work, breathing, stress or improving a skill such as horse riding or playing a musical instrument. In all of these cases, constructive conscious control is initially a means whereby a problem can be solved rather than an end in itself.

This is how it should be; it was how the technique came into being, with a practical problem that Alexander had with his voice. It was a problem he imagined he might solve himself, by observing his use in the mirror and reasoning out how he might use his voice well, so it no longer would cause him problems. In terms of his approach of imagination, practical experimentation and reasoning it was and is 'scientific' as John Dewey noted.

In reasoning out the use of himself, Alexander took a step towards putting his health and healthy functioning first. He was by this time all too well aware of how potentially crippling and disabling poor health could be in terms of his voice and his aim to be an actor. His aim initially was to look after himself in performance and as he more fully understood the concept of use that he was elaborating, he realised that he had to look after himself in all his activities.

Everybody who comes to learn the Alexander Technique in order to develop some level of conscious control, as Alexander intended it, goes through a similar set of transitions based on the increasing awareness of their use that goes with ‘thinking in activity.’ Transitions and increased awareness go together. While knowledge of the need for a transition often precedes increased awareness; increased awareness is always the basis for the transition; without it, we are unable to properly inhibit what we do not want, where we cause ourselves harm.

Inhibition plays a dual role here; firstly, it provides the pause where we can become aware where we are prone to habitually tighten, pull down and hold our breath in wanting to do something. Secondly, within the awareness that inhibition creates, inhibition is the stilling of the newly discovered or rediscovered habit in its subtlety that can itself be inhibited in action and activity.

It is the subtlety of habit that often catches us out, where we snag ourselves both at the beginning and in the continuing of conscious control. In these transitions rushing and increasing our effort closes out awareness, hiding it within our attention, when we direct it onto ourselves or overly exert it in the outside world. Only by STOPPING in the caesura and lacunae of existence do we create the time and space of awareness that allows for conscious control to develop. With the application of both inhibition and direction, we find our way forward both in the world and in the use of ourselves through imagination and reason, as Alexander did. We can then get to the plane of Constructive Conscious Control, where we can direct our use, improve our functioning in all its aspects, as we go about our business in the daily act of living.

Published in Lessons from the Chair
Friday, 12 October 2012 00:00

The Importance of Alexander's Work

Every so often I find myself reflecting on what the Alexander Technique is a technique for – it is a subject I have blogged about before. Last time, I addressed the question with what I thought Alexander's answer might be in terms of Constructive Conscious Control.

Published in Lessons from the Chair