freedom for life

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

I think I must have been twenty six when I went for my first Alexander Technique lesson. The primary reason for going then, as it is for many people, was to find help with a musculo-skeletal problem. In my case it was the sciatica that was at times crippling and limiting what I could hope to do with my life. While my progress was slow in developing the conscious control whereby I could live a full and active life, there were brief glimpses from the start of something different to what I was then experiencing. 

Those differences were not just in relation to my back, but in terms of being less stressed and these, along with the promise of conscious control, lured me further along the way that led me to train to teach Alexander’s Technique. Which has been a good decision and along that way, I have found that my reasons for travelling in that direction are reconstrued in the light of my ongoing experience, not least the ability of being able to live a full and active life, a possibility that seemed distant and was for my twenty-six-year old receding beyond the horizon.
One reason that has remained constant and comes ever more to the fore is using the Technique to adapt to changing circumstances whether they be physical, personal or political. 
Physical changes are present in our lives, whether we like it or not as we pass through the various stages of life from being an infant to childhood and beyond to the point where we start to fail and decline. There is a natural life cycle here which one sees in the way children choose to co-ordinate or use themselves, should that be given half a chance. Unfortunately, what they are faced with, whether it be school seating or small screens, distracts them from this journey into adulthood and they start to distort themselves into ‘distraction from distraction’ as TS Eliot put it and into end-gaining. Rare is the person who escapes this journey and does not need a practice of re-education, such as the Alexander Technique provides, to bring themselves back to themselves and the possibilities that are afforded to them from being present to their own unique arising and growth.

There are in this journey, times when we have to adapt to different levels and types of physicality for which Alexander Technique is most helpful in insuring that such transitions occur without injury and leave us more co-ordinated and integrated than before. Something I am very aware of having recently gone into a ten-day intensive dance retreat not dance fit and then having to readapt to a world where I have to find my freedom not in dancing but in sitting and writing. 
I am also aware of the importance of Alexander Technique to me in adapting to the changing world in which I live, where with Brexit and the election of Donald Trump old certainties are passing. As this old order passes and one waits with uncertainty in the unknownness of the new emerging order to find one’s way forward, I find it useful in avoiding too much ‘hostility’ with regard to changes I regret. ‘Hostility’ has a special meaning within Personal Construct Pyschology which Jonathan Raskin recently blogged about in Psychology Today.

‘Hostility’ is an attempt to ‘cook the books’ when our constructions of how the world is, or how we would like it to be, fails and we start trying to extort others into validating what has already failed in its predictive venture. We all do it at times but not necessarily on such a grand scale as President Trump and his inability to accept that the crowds at his inauguration were substantially less than at President Obama’s. It is easy to spot in others with regard to politics both here and across the Atlantic at the moment; the trick though is to see the beam in one’s own eye first. And, here it is back to basics, the basics of breathing and understanding one’s own position and that of the others that we disagree with. This is what allows politics to work with its inevitable compromises as people seek to work out what they have in common to move forward, despite their profound disagreements, rather than force others into their ways of being. The dialogue at this level, funded on courtesy is the basis of morality, at a more personal level the dialogue gives rise to ethics. Which ever level you are at, the important thing remains not to force your constructions on others but to stop, breathe and be curious about who you have in front of you.

Published in Lessons from the Chair
Friday, 25 November 2016 17:01

Getting Into Action

I started this blog back during the summer after a conference in Padua where I volunteered to organise the next European Personal Construct Psychology conference here in Edinburgh in 2018. I am coming back to it now, after a gap in blogging that has been too long. As a background it might not seem to augur well for a blog about getting into action and yet that is exactly what I have been doing. In that I have started an Apprenticeship in Movement Medicine, which is a conscious dance practice; put together the plan to bring the conference to Edinburgh; and prepared and delivered a training day for the Hampshire Counselling and Psychotherapy Association – which was in part about getting into action.

The blog has been there on my ‘to do’ list each week, only to get bumped to the next, as deadlines came and other priorities needed attention. Which is a familiar part of life for us all and involves prioritising and choice. Included amongst the choices is a choice of how we react, especially when there is a lot to do and we are in danger of, or actually become, overwhelmed.

That there is a choice there is sometimes missed and, if it is missed, we then lose the opportunity to grow and develop what Alexander would have called ‘constructive conscious control.’ This is the aim of his Technique and as a phrase is rather a mouthful and if approached too cognitively and intellectually misses the simple import of his work, which is that it is possible to gain control of our behaviour over time and channel our energies consciously in the direction we want to go in.

The use of the word control, for some people, including some Alexander Technique teachers can be off-putting, as it is often associated with forcibly making oneself do things by tensing up and discipline, which can be another problematical word for us, as it can also carry some pretty heavy connotations. Yet the essence of the work I do, both as an Alexander Technique teacher and as psychotherapist, is to help people put aside such habitual ways of being and acting towards themselves and to cultivate a ‘freedom in thought and action’ as Alexander put it, that allows them to be more fully themselves and to act as such.’

And ‘freedom in thought and action’ and therefore getting into action, is very much what psychotherapists are interested in, as the Existentialist psychotherapist Irvine Yalom has noted. Elsewhere he has written that the ‘mechanics of action’ are all too often missing from therapy trainings, and one of the strengths of Alexander’s work is the understanding of the ‘mechanics of action’ that it offers. This enhances my work as a psychotherapist. Which in turn, through my training in Personal Construct Psychology with its understanding of personal meanings, relationships and the roles we play, complements my Alexander training in helping people to become aware of their early habits of relating and moving. Habits which when unrecognised can lead to difficulties in personal relationships and musculo-skeletal pain, as they tighten up in anxiety and nervousness in an attempt to control their reactions. It was this part of my work that I presented in Hampshire, and as ever the necessity of knowing what to stop to allow ourselves to breathe and begin to see the possibilities of our way forward were highlighted as a first step in advancing along our way, whether our difficulties are with others or the mechanics of action. And learning how to do this for oneself is central to the Alexander Technique and the development of constructive conscious control for it is also central to any therapeutic endeavour, indeed any endeavour to get to know oneself and be fully oneself, alive and in action.

Published in Lessons from the Chair
Tuesday, 02 August 2016 20:46

Anxiety and the Mechanics of Action

Looking online, what is most elaborated in articles about anxiety, are how it feels in terms of fear, nervousness, panic etc., the physiological underpinnings of this and the sorts of thoughts that accompany it. One feature of anxiety that can be overlooked is how much it is tied to our anticipations of what is happening or going to happen to us. Yet, from a Constructivist standpoint, this is exactly where we might best begin to understand it. For it is where our ability to anticipate breaks down, where things are beyond our current understanding, that we experience anxiety in terms of a loss of ease, fear, sometimes to the point of being frozen and unable to act. 

In the case of panic attacks, it is sometimes more useful to make sense of what is happening, not so much in terms of our anticipation failing us, but in our anticipation of an imminent threat to our existence. Which highlights one of the puzzling features of panic attacks for people that have them. It is that they often occur when there is no apparent palpable immediate threat – it just feels that way, people react that way. 

A simple behavioural change with both anxiety and panic attacks concerns learning to stop and control one’s breathing. Such a change requires a good working knowledge of the mechanics of action, whereby we co-ordinate ourselves in the act of living, which is something that Irvin Yalom, the Existentialist psychotherapist, has noted is often missing from psychotherapy trainings. It is, however, central to the Alexander Technique which teaches pupils about the mechanics of action and how to consciously co-ordinate themselves for any activity or situation, in a way that gives themselves the control to find poise and the ability to cope actively, and creatively with what they are facing. The Alexander Technique excels in this and is a powerful tool in developing the kind of stance on one’s personal history that is one of the best predictors of psychologically overcoming traumatic life events. What is also very much needed, if successful on-going change is to occur at the highest levels, are helpful ways of enquiring into core non-verbal ways anticipating ourselves and events, such as the ABC model, which I blogged about last time. 

These core non-verbal ways of anticipating life events are tied to the early habits we develop in order to depend on the people we grow up with. As such they are helpful to us as babies and children. Unrevised they will subvert us, as we will then seek to depend as adults on others, as we did as infants or children, which never ends well. Living continually demands of us that we answer and revise, from the moment we are born to the moment we die, the question of whom we can depend on and for what?

Living consciously allows us to answer that question more easily, as it continually reappears in our lives, revising our constructs, as we grow older in the arc of life. For this to happen we need to accept our anxiety, for what it is, a feature our understanding of our lives, that tells us we are uncertain as to what will happen and happen to us. How we construe that anxiety, the stance we take on it is, what is important from a psychological viewpoint for an active, meaningful and rewarding life.

Both practices that I work with, the Alexander Technique and Personal Construct Psychology, PCP, have different strengths that compliment each other in this. The Alexander Technique for its understanding of the mechanics of action and teaching of conscious control in the act of living; PCP as a psychology for living that facilitates the reconstruction that is continually necessary for us to feel alive in the adventure of life and its uncertainties.

Published in Lessons from the Chair

I did a workshop last week on applying the Alexander Technique to Tai Chi, something of which I have no particular knowledge. However, Tai Chi like may things works with the principles of poise and balance, principles that are central to the Alexander Technique and the development of constructive conscious control. As a teacher, I am able to help students of Tai Chi improve their practice, in a way that I am able to help horse riders, musicians or anybody improve their practice and performance in physical activity. 
The knowledge of the principles of poise and balance, as well as a sound knowledge of the mechanics of use, which are part of every Alexander Technique teacher’s training, allows me to help others improve their skills in their chosen activities. My own approach, developed through my training in Personal Construct Psychology, is to recognise that pupils are experts in their own field and practice. I then work with them to integrate the Alexander Technique into these. Alexander Technique is so basic that you can take it into anything - something that cannot be said of Tai Chi, yoga, Pilates or any exercise programme!
Indeed, it is so basic, as Alexander knew, that through the control of one’s manner of use, one can control one’s manner of reaction. Something that he thought many people familiar with his work had missed – which is unfortunately probably still true today.

I use this knowledge with both my Alexander pupils and my therapy clients to help them not just with anxiety but with the sense of overwhelm that goes with being flooded. I will be blogging soon, on my therapy blog, about flooding and how it can lead to difficulties in relationships. The way to help people who flood, in therapy jargon, is to teach them to self-soothe, which basically means to find for themselves a way to breathe and focus again. Alexander Technique is a really helpful way of doing this, where inhibition becomes a form of gentling of the self, where negative, self critical thoughts are held at bay, in favour of a new way of being in the world, by oneself and then with others.

It is part of the foundation skills, that everybody needs in order to have fulfilling personal relationships, that some people learn in the normal course of things when they are young; and others need to learn consciously when they are older. Conscious control, developed through the Alexander Technique really is so basic, that you can take it into anything. It, as it involves the use of the self, really is central to the act of living, and can be made central to living a rich, rewarding and productive life.

Published in Lessons from the Chair