One simple thing
Alexander’s work is a small thing. It’s a very simple and limited thing. That’s probably not the message you expected to get from an Alexander teacher, and some of you may be wondering when the punchline is coming.
If you google Alexander Technique you can read about life-changing experiences and miraculous improvement. You will see stories of debilitating conditions that have gone away and read countless testimonials from people whose lives are richer and more fulfilling. My own website is no different, indeed my own story is a typical example of a life that has been transformed by Mr Alexander’s work.
So how do I reconcile such grand outcomes with the claim that the work itself is really quite limited? The following analogy is one of the best I’ve come across.
Many tiny returns
Suppose I told you that with a little know-how you could perform a certain kind of transaction on the stock exchange in which you could invest £10,000 and get back £10,001? Guaranteed.
Would you do it? Would it be worth your while to invest £10,000 in order to make a profit of £1? Most people faced with this kind of offer don’t get all that excited.
What if I then told you that you could do it again? And again? What if you could set up your computer to repeat this same transaction 100,000 times per day or more? Interested now? One simple transaction bringing one tiny little benefit, repeated over and over, will soon start to look like a very large benefit indeed.
That’s not a bad analogy for studying Alexander Technique. Sometimes, it’s true, lessons can be spectacular. Sometimes people experience a level of change that leaves them breathless and dazed. Sometimes chronic pain will vanish forever and people feel as if a new life has opened up before them.
More often than not, though, doing Alexander’s work is about taking one small step followed by another, and sometimes it can feel like a £1 profit on a £10,000 investment.
What’s the big deal?
I remember teaching an introductory class many years ago to university music students. After working with a young guitarist for a few minutes and after he’d experienced some small but interesting changes in how he was moving, one of the other students said: “I don’t mean to be rude, but couldn’t you get the same effect from a massage?”
I learned very early in my teaching career that when somebody starts a sentence with: “I don’t mean to be rude, but…” I should pay close attention, because what they say next is a) almost never actually rude, and b) almost always intelligent and on point. That was certainly the case here.
The implied question, of course, is: “why should I struggle with these principles you’re trying to teach us when I could be having a nice relaxing massage?” For a beginning student, this is a reasonable question because very often their attention is on the purely physical, measurable outcomes of the lesson (which were not particularly impressive in this instance).
But what if the purpose of an Alexander lesson is actually something else?
If I spend a few minutes working with somebody and he feels more relaxed, or lighter, or maybe it seems easier to move, well, frankly, what’s the big deal? A simple little thing like this is not going to transform anybody’s life — that’s not the point.
What makes it a big deal is not the nature or size of the change. What makes it a big deal is who is responsible for the change.
In the early stages of learning Alexander’s work, there is one thing that most students have a hard time accepting. And yet this is the very thing that makes his work powerful. It is the reason to get excited.
With the appropriate skills I could have stood behind my young guitarist friend and dug my thumbs into his trapezius until it went soft, and I bet he would have felt more relaxed and lighter afterwards. There are all kinds of techniques that could be used to get those muscle fibres to let go, and they all have their uses.
But that’s not what happened.
What happened in that lesson was that I interacted with him in such a way that he was able to figure out how to stop making those muscles tense in the first place. We were both agreed that my hands did very little — certainly nothing resembling massage or manipulation. He made that change himself.
If I were the one responsible, if I made him relax, then that would be the end of the matter until he came back for another dose.
If, on the other hand, he did it himself, then things get really exciting, because that means he is the one in control. He can do it again any time he chooses. And again, and again. Once he has learned how to do the process, just like that transaction on the stock exchange, he can just keep on doing it.
It’s a very small thing, this lightness and ease of movement, but what would 10 small changes like that look like? What would happen if he made 100 small changes like that?
To me this is already exciting, and I hope you can start to see why. But now I have another question for you.
What if that one small thing just happened to be at the core of everything else you do? What if that one small thing was able to affect every activity you perform, and to have a positive impact on every aspect of your daily life?
At the core of everything else
“From my early youth I took a delight in poetry…” Thus begins the epic tale of the birth of Alexander’s work. The chapter called Evolution of A Technique is the first chapter of Alexander’s third book: The Use of The Self, published in 1932. It contains a complete history of his investigations, discoveries, revelations and, very importantly, red herrings and failures.
He begins, like any good story teller, by setting the scene, describing his love of Shakespeare, his desire to become an actor, some clues about how hard he worked to achieve his dream, and the physical problems that showed up and threatened to put an end to his career and his passion.
Then the detective story begins, and he takes us with him on his quest to find the source of his problems and eliminate it.
One of the first, and possibly most important of those discoveries comes very early in the story, and it has to do with the relationship between his head and his body.
When Alexander started to look for whatever was stopping him from reciting, he soon identified several potential culprits; movement behaviours that he decided were problematic, and which he called a “misuse” of his mechanisms. Having identified them, he set about trying to change or stop them.
This long process of experimentation led to two very interesting and exciting discoveries. The first was that, for the most part, he could not stop himself from making these movements when he started to recite. They seemed to be completely outside his control…..except for one. One of these “misuses” was different from the others. One of them he could prevent, to some extent. It was a movement he described as “the pulling back of the head”.
The fact that this one class of movement behaviour was amenable to direct control while the others didn’t seem to be, makes it interesting. What makes it important is what happened next.
The second discovery was that when he was successful in preventing this “pulling back of the head”, the other problematic movements that he had identified started to disappear as well.
In other words, a change in that first movement of his head in relation to his body seemed to lead to a change in those other movements, which he could not access directly. Almost as if he had found a key that would unlock a pattern of “misuse” throughout the system.
Now that’s exciting.
Over the course of many years of continuing study, practice, and teaching others to do what he had done, he was able to show that a positive change in that first relationship has a high probability of initiating a positive change everywhere else. He developed ways to take advantage of this phenomenon and make practical use of it in daily life, and to pass those skills on to others.
Today there are many different traditions within the Alexander Technique teaching profession, and different ideas about how to teach. But almost anywhere you go for lessons, learning to monitor and govern this relationship is likely to be a key concept, a skill that will help you to unleash your full potential in anything you choose to do.
Small is powerful
So, this is how I can put my hand on my heart and say that Alexander’s work is a very small thing, and at the same time say that it is a powerful tool that has transformed my life for the better, and done the same for many others.
If you can learn how to change one small, simple thing about yourself, and take full responsibility for that change; if you can discipline yourself to keep making that change over and over and over again; and if that small thing happens to be at the core of everything else you do, then you will have taken the first steps towards unleashing your full potential in anything you want to do.
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