freedom for life

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

Friday, 21 February 2014 17:47

Chopping the Onion

I thought I knew how to chop an onion, and so I do; it is even a professional way to do it, as I was taught how by a friendly chef. On Saturday, I learned a much easier and better way to do it, when I went to Nick Nairn’s cook school for the day. Chopping the onion, the new way, is something I want to become a habit. So, in the near future, I will need to remember, when I pick an onion up, to stop chopping it the old way and start chopping it the new way, until the new way is habitual. The stopping of one habit and replacing it with another is a powerful way of exercising control and enacting change in all areas of life. In essence, this stopping of one habit and replacing it with another is the basis of the Alexander Technique – which is one of the reasons the technique works so well. Indeed, it matches the formal definition Alexander gave of his technique as involving inhibition, that is the stopping of the old habit followed by direction, which involves enacting the replacement habit. Of course the habits that Alexander was concerned with, were the habits involving use, and use of the self at that. It is too easy to misunderstand Alexander’s work and think of it in terms of use of the body, when it is the self that counts, which is all of us integrated, focussed on the task in hand. Which, in this case, is chopping the onion.

Now, in chopping the onion, I had to handle the onion and make a different set of slices to those I am used to, while implementing some new knife skills. All of these depended on my use of myself – it is the forgotten factor in much, if not all, of learning and it is there even in the simplest of activities, like chopping an onion. When Tristan, our tutor, explained about the importance of the right grip on the knife, I thought not just about my actual hand but the use of my neck, head and back to make sure everything was lengthening first. While continuing with this, I then made sure the power grip I was using was light and firm and not interfering with my breathing, which is what most people do, as soon as they take hold of anything. In doing all this, I exercised conscious control both with regard to my habits of use and my habit of chopping the onion, where it is all too easy to tighten in the neck, as the knife slices through the onion, rather than keeping free and getting an easier, cleaner cut, in the new way.

Chopping the onion and keeping the neck free and everything released and breathing might not seem much, until a chef tells you how many kilos of onion he had to chop by hand when out of college or until you fully appreciate that in most things we do, we come into contact with the world using our hands. Our habits for using our hands have a profound effect on how we function. Just ask anyone with RSI, or a rider, fencer, artist, golfer, musician, in fact anyone who has a skill with their hands like a chef or a cook chopping the onion. There is always a skill, and where there is a skill, there is a habit that operates for good or ill in terms of both the task in hand and our functioning, as in chopping the onion.

Published in Lessons from the Chair

A relatively new pupil came in this week, fed up. The pain and discomfort associated with arthritis was making life difficult and they were finding it difficult to stop and get things all working again. It is how things usually are with chronic conditions and comes from the standard pain reaction, which is to become aware of pain and then to attend to it. Awareness precedes attention. In this direct attention, where we orientate ourselves to the pain, we tighten our musculature, establish maladaptive habits and elaborate the implications of the pain. This is the territory of the psycho-physical, where conscious control in how we use ourselves can make a big difference both physically and psychologically.

The difference was rather nicely summed up by my pupil at the end of their lesson when they said that they felt ‘held by my body without any strain. Rather than me holding it, it was cradling me and I was not trying to protect it.’ Which is a lovely description of the change conscious control can make.
 We had started on the table working with the use of the eyes, to change the focus of attention from the awareness of the pain and discomfort, to the possibilities of conscious control and being able to turn things round for oneself. It is very important that attention is not forced elsewhere and that the distress, which is present in the emergency response to pain and its implications, is acknowledged. What this involves is different for different people, depending on who they are, what sort of pain is involved and its actual implications. What is important, in that the we seek to gentle ourselves, soothe ourselves for the more psycho-analytically minded, and find a gentle way to talk to ourselves. One that allows us to move our attention to thinking about what we might do next and how we use ourselves to do it. 
When this occurs, there is a palpable change in breathing and a lengthening in stature, as well as a widening of the back. This is a better place to think of the implications of what is happening, of what we need and what we want to do next. For which we can then rehearse the guiding orders for moving ourselves into action, in a free and supported way, where we are breathing easily and have freed ourselves from the self-imposed restrictions of the standard pain reaction.

This is the last blog for this year – I will restart in January. In the meantime, Happy New Year, when it comes and all best wishes for 2014.

Published in Lessons from the Chair
Friday, 19 April 2013 07:01

Being Free In Your Tensions

There is a common misconception about Alexander Technique that it is about standing up straight. This is often associated with the common misconception that it is about posture. It is about neither, although posture improves and people do often end up being more upright and therefore straighter. One has to be very careful here in using both upright and straighter. When people try to straighten themselves they often succeed by physically bracing themselves and shortening in stature rather than allowing themselves to lengthen to occupy more of their full height. This is something I sometimes see at parties, if someone asks me what I do for a living and I tell them that I teach the Alexander Technique. To demonstrate their knowledge of the Alexander Technique they shorten, hold their breath and do the very thing that Alexander Technique recommends not doing!

Lengthening is required for people to straighten up. It lessens the ways that they twist themselves out of shape by inhibiting the distortion that comes with pulling down in the use of themselves. The judgement of this, in our felt sense of ourselves, is usually woefully inaccurate. Alexander told a story about teaching a young girl who was badly twisted out of shape. Once he had helped straighten her out by getting her to lengthen, she had the impression that she was now twisted! Another problem is that action and use is spiral not linear in its nature. Linear thinking, which is common leads to puling down and introduces rigidity and distortion into the frame, as well as stiffness in movement interfering with both poise and fluidity of movement.

Poise and lengthening, like straightening, is never a direct aim. It is an outcome of the aim to find a way to be free, so that the breathing is released. From that everything else follows. So it is important not to try and directly lengthen or straighten up, which is what the people above are doing at parties. What is important is to inhibit this and then find the tensions where one is shortening and narrowing and release them so that the work for standing up upright begins to fall where it should on the extensors and deep muscles of the back. That way lengthening starts to occur, as well as straightening up. It may still leave someone twisted - straightening up is not always structurally possible - but it will leave them free, with their breathing released, within their particular and necessary muscular tensions. Being free within your tensions of whatever kind is what Alexander Technique and Conscious Control are all about.

Published in Lessons from the Chair