Alexander vs. the mainstream, part 1
As I may have mentioned in a previous post, when I explain to someone the nature of the problem that Alexander identified, and the nature of his solution to that problem, it makes complete sense to them. Logical, simple, easily demonstrated to anyone who wants to know.
This raises an obvious question: if it’s so simple and obvious and can bring about the wonderful changes we keep talking about, then why isn’t everybody doing it?
I think there are quite a few reasons why Alexander’s work is still lurking in the shadows rather than transforming civilisation as we know it. The one I want to talk about in this series of posts is an obstacle that Alexander Technique teachers face on a regular basis. I’m going to call it “received wisdom”.
Alexander’s work defies and denies certain ‘mainstream’ ideas that are so common and so familiar that they are accepted without question by many people as if they were self evident truth.
I’m sure you know the kind of thing I mean. The kind of statement that starts with: “Of course, everybody knows…” or: “Well, obviously…” or my personal favourite: “It stands to reason that…” when, in fact, it doesn’t stand to reason at all.
Sometimes, of course, ‘received wisdom’ really is wisdom — the combined experience of many experts who have gone before. On the other hand, how often does a piece of received wisdom turn out to be an old wives’ tale? Quite often, in my experience.
In and of itself, the presence of unhelpful received wisdom is not a big issue. My job as a teacher is to challenge people’s ideas and beliefs – it’s what I do. When the ideas and beliefs that need to be challenged are also in the category of received wisdom, well, that just makes things more interesting.
However, the job is made infinitely more difficult when certain kinds of mainstream idea are repeated by people of influence; respected, educated people; professionals and experts in different fields, and even, once in a while, scientists.
Under these circumstances, not only do my students have to ditch some of their favourite ideas — a hard task in the first place — they have to do so while the rest of the world is telling them that their old ideas were right and proper — a near impossible ask.
Let me give you a prime example.
The phantom menace
More than once, in recent years, I’ve seen science programs in which gravity is presented as, at best, a problem that we need to overcome. I’ve heard gravity blamed for all kinds of postural issues, including the stoop that some people associate with old age.
One well-known presenter recently declared, on national television, that “gravity grinds us down”, and that there will be dire consequences if we don’t take positive action to steel ourselves against this invisible enemy.
To illustrate this lurking menace, we are sometimes shown an experiment in which someone is measured first thing in the morning and again last thing at night, showing that the subject is slightly shorter at the end of the day.
The conclusion, we are informed, is that we are no match for the relentless, brutal pounding of the force generated by the Earth’s gravitational field.
That is to say: the relentless, brutal pounding of the natural environmental conditions under which our species evolved.
(For some actual research into this phenomenon, which, by the way, has very little to say about gravity and finds that the most significant factor is occupational activity, see the link below*)
There are actually two serious problems with this conclusion, and I’m sure you can see the first already.
All life on Earth has evolved in the presence of gravity. So, what are the chances that hundreds of millions of years of evolution have produced creatures that are poorly adapted to the one environmental factor that (as far as we can tell) hasn’t changed?
Even if we only take upright creatures like us, 6 million years is probably long enough to iron out the kinks.
The second problem is this: I seem to recall that if you are going to claim that A causes B, then you are supposed to eliminate all other possible causes of B from your experiment. In this case that would mean eliminating all other forces besides gravity that act on the human body during the day.
For a student of Alexander’s work, there is an obvious alternative candidate for that relentless, brutal pounding. The reason it’s obvious to Alexander students is because they have experienced its absence.
I am referring, of course, to excess muscular activity.
The force is with you
There are a couple of things to bear in mind about muscles. The first thing is that most of your muscles produce significantly more force than the Earth’s gravitational field. You can prove this to yourself quite easily by standing up. Or by juggling.
When you take into consideration that the muscles which enable you, for example, to bench-press 30Kg are, for reasons we don’t need to go into here, operating from a position of extreme mechanical disadvantage, you can start to get a sense that human skeletal muscle is capable of generating very large amounts of force indeed.
The second thing to bear in mind is that most of us have no idea how to use those muscles or to direct that force in a useful way.
How could we? Most of us were never taught how. We were just handed this immensely complex bio-mechanical vehicle and left to work it out for ourselves. The result of this is that most people most of the time apply far more force than is necessary in carrying out a task, and frequently use inappropriate muscles in an inefficient manner in an ill-considered sequence.
This continuous, excessive and poorly directed muscular activity is a far more likely candidate than gravity for any “grinding down” of our bodies.
If you have or watch an Alexander Technique lesson, it becomes a very likely candidate indeed. Because when we successfully persuade our students to stop inflicting all that unnecessary force on their own bodies, what almost always happens is that the student gets less short and finds it easier to move, without – and I cannot stress this enough – without the need to turn off gravity in the teaching room.
So, why is it that so many people are so determined to blame anything but excessive muscular force when observing and making judgements about the condition of human bodies?
I have a suspicion.
Also, the buck is with you
The thing is, once you accept the possibility that it’s your own muscular activity that is causing your problems, you must accept something else.
Yup, the buck stops with you.
It is so much easier to blame gravity, or the furniture, or the shoulder brace I wore when I was 8, or even genes. It’s easier because if those things are to blame, it’s either somebody else’s job to put things right, or it’s impossible to fix. Either way, I’m off the hook.
If gravity is making me stoop and giving me a backache, then that’s just the way it is and there’s not much I can do about it.
But if I am making me stoop, then there most certainly is something I can do about it. In fact, I am the only person in the world who can do something about it. But my experience is that people generally don’t want to hear that.
Right now, as I write these words, my social media newsfeed is being bombarded with adverts for a clever little electronic device that, it is claimed, will relieve the tension in your neck. I am sure the makers are doing good business. That’s another mainstream idea, isn’t it? “My neck hurts, tell me what’s the best pill/device/therapy to take the pain away.”
The sad truth is that as long as there is a reasonably priced gadget promising neck nirvana, few people are going to ask why their neck is tense in the first place. They certainly aren’t going to want to take responsibility for it.
The good news?
So, how do we introduce the world to Alexander’s fabulous, life-enhancing ideas when the first step (self-responsibility) is so distasteful, the mainstream response (buy the latest doohickie) is so much easier, and respected authorities perpetuate and give weight to some of those deeply unhelpful ideas?
The good news is that when people do start their Alexander journey they quickly realise that the kind of continuous, self-directed discipline represented by Alexander’s work is not distasteful at all. It’s endlessly fascinating. It’s often frustrating, for sure, but also often exhilarating and sometimes downright hilarious.
Also, people really are blessed with common sense. And because they do have common sense, and because Alexander is all about common sense, they quickly start to see that it makes complete…er…sense.
So maybe that’s all we can do — keep making sense. Most of us don’t have access to an hour of airtime on the BBC, but we can still keep making sense as often and as loudly as we can. I suspect that’s why many of us started blogging in the first place.
Perhaps we just need to take a lesson from gravity and be relentless in our making of sense and stating of the obvious until we grind the received wisdom down.
Next time… In part two of this series, we will meet perhaps the biggest and toughest received wisdom bugbear for Alexander students: our devotion to “doing”.
I would like to thank Dr. Diana Bailey, who kindly gave her time to mitigate my lack of scientific precision. Any remaining imprecision is entirely my own.
* Vuvor F, Harrison O. A study of the diurnal height changes among sample of adults aged 30 years and above in Ghana. Biomed Biotechnol Res J [serial online] 2017 [cited 2021 Oct 29];1:113-9. Available from: https://www.bmbtrj.org/text.asp?2017/1/2/113/219118
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