freedom for life

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

Sunday, 18 December 2016 18:10

How to Have A Peaceful Holiday Season

With the holiday season fast approaching, three small but powerful and effective habits to work with, to help ensure a smoother time with friends and family, if things are getting a bit fraught and fractious.

1. Stop and breathe – breathing is highly recommended for everything, period. We need oxygen to function effectively and to remain calm. When we manage to calm ourselves, situations are less likely to get out of control.We are also more able to do the following:

2. Stand in the other person’s shoes. Where there are disagreements, our curiosity often fails us and we end up wanting to assert our own views and position rather than learn about the other person’s position and views. Standing in the other person's shoes does not mean you have to agree with them, it just means that you take the time to see the world from their vantage point. This is a practical form of acceptance and allows you to have a relationship with them based on respect and understanding.

3. Check out that you have understood the other person, to their satisfaction. And, don’t be afraid to ask someone to check out their understanding of your position, so that you both understand each other before getting into an argument. You might find it is not necessary and find it easier to identify both where you have things in common and where you have genuine differences that need to be resolved between you.

The first of these habits of stopping and being aware of one’s breath is of course central to the practice of conscious control using the Alexander Technique. One thing that strikes many new pupils is just how often they are going about their daily business holding their breath. Good self-management requires a practiced ability to stop and not just react; to come into breath and to use all of one’s intelligences to respond creatively and flexibly in each given situation. It also provides a solid foundation for developing our social awareness of being able to stand in another’s shoes. Without this ability, relationships tend to break down or fail to form adequately. It is central to my work as psychotherapist, with both individuals and couples, where the capacity to intentionally form and manage relationships rests on knowing who the other is, not in your world but in their world – only then do you accept them. Where relationships break down, the knowledge of who the other person is to themselves has often failed to develop, and if we want a relationship it is our job to be curious about who the other person is, especially if they are the person we have chosen to spend our lives with. And this brings me to the final habit, which is the one, more than any other that I invite couples to take away from couples therapy, which is to check out to the other person’s satisfaction that you have understood what their position is. There are all sorts of advantages to this not least in that if a person feels understood they are more likely to be able to listen to you. It also accords them a respect which is otherwise often missing and helps to prevent criticism which escalates into conflict and contempt which is toxic to relationships. It provides one of the important foundations for long lasting and nourishing relationships which are central to life and human flourishing.
All of the above are habits to be practiced. They are small-scale habits with profound long-term benefits for living well and can help reduce conflict and strife when things are getting bit a bit fraught and fractious over Christmas.


Published in Lessons from the Chair
Wednesday, 11 November 2015 17:58

How To Sing Upside Down

I am awe of the athleticism of opera singers generally, and Wagnerian singers in particular, although not because of the popular misconception that they are loud. Wagner operas are conversational in style and he scored them so that the orchestra gives room for the singers to be heard. So the idea of singing upside down suspended from the set by a wire, leaves me somewhat amazed. Yet it is what Robert Lepage asked one of Karen Carghill’s colleagues to do in his production of ‘The Ring’ at the Met.

She was talking about this at an SCO study day on Wagner and in speaking of the technical challenges her colleague faced, I was delighted to hear her mention the Alexander Technique as the way to meet the problem that allows you to get back into your back and give you the ‘strength’ that allows you to breathe freely. For Karen Carghill, ‘breath is petrol for singing’ and you could easily adapt that to say that breath is petrol for life and it is useful to know how to co-ordinate things well to make the most of your natural capacity to breathe.

Rather than focusing on the mechanics of breathing though, I would rather talk about direction and the relational nature of Alexander’s work. Alexander was very clear that it was the relation between head, neck and torso that mattered and not the position - which is how most people approach postural problems and Alexander’s work. The trouble with thinking in terms of position is that it invariably involves trying to fix things by holding yourself somewhere, interfering with breathing and dynamic movement.

Breathing is something that starts when we are born and continues throughout life. It starts before we master activities such as sitting or standing which are foundational achievements for making progress with all skilled activities which human beings undertake. It also starts before we learn to co-ordinate and control sound for speech. It is useful to note that babies are capable of crying for long periods until they are heard, without any harm to their voice. They do not lose their voice, or become hoarse, they just cry. They have not learned to interfere with breathing by articulating sounds or being upright.

It is only as these things are learned that we can talk of good or bad use, although personally I prefer to keep such terms out of the whole thing when teaching and think in terms of better or worse and what is helpful in a given situation, including singing upside down. Which brings us to the problem of how to stay in you back while hanging from a wire. Well the answer is to think up even if your head is pointing down and here is a relationship that we have within ourselves that is often hidden, one that goes to the deepest layer of muscles that allow us to extend, that attach to our spine, at our core. These muscles allow us to lengthen and for that to happen the head needs to go in a certain direction, which would be described as ‘up’ in terms of our normal orientation and relationship with external space. The ‘up’ though in Alexander is always in relationship to how our heads, necks and torso are connecting and that means in swimming front crawl, up is towards the end of the pool to which we are swimming, or in semi-supine, to the wall behind our head. Remembering this facilitates much more dynamic movement and of course will help you, should you ever be faced with the challenge of singing upside down!

Published in Lessons from the Chair
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