One of the nice things about learning the Alexander Technique is discovering how many things we can apply it to. It’s not a coincidence that many teachers of the Technique are also quite creative in one way or another: musicians, actors, dancers, artists—many of us come to the Technique because we realise it can help us to improve an existing skill or to learn a new one.
With this in mind I’ve been playing with a new toy recently—a slackline. For those who don’t know, this is a bit like a tightrope but it is made of nylon webbing and so has a bit of bounce. The idea is to walk along it, preferably without falling off, or to perform tricks of one kind or another. Activities involving balance have never come to me particularly easily, and I was attracted to the challenge of learning to do something which, on the face of it, seemed almost impossible for me to achieve.
So how can we set about making learning something like this easier for ourselves? As always with the Technique, we begin by thinking about what we don’t want. Alexander talked a great deal about the dangers of what he called ‘end-gaining’. By this he meant focussing on the end we are trying to achieve (i.e. walking along the line without falling off) rather than paying attention to the ‘means whereby’—the way in which we are trying to achieve our end. In learning to walk on the slackline, the temptation is to approach it by repeatedly stepping onto the line and immediately launching into some steps. We may manage a few (the momentum of moving forward helps itself helps to stabilise us a little, in the same way as it is easier to balance on a bicycle when we are moving than when we are standing still) but in itself this forward momentum is not usually enough to help us balance for more than a couple of steps before the extreme instability in the system topples us off.
So we need a more effective and considered ‘means whereby’. The answer is to slow the whole process down and to start by learning to just stand on the line on one leg. To many people this seems unintuitive but it is in fact much easier to do this (leaving the other leg free to help us balance) than it is to walk or stand with both legs on the line which leaves us perched on a very narrow fixed centre.
Balancing is a great litmus test for how we respond to challenging stimuli. As soon as we feel unstable, or that we are about to fall, most of us will tense up. We will start to hold our breath, and brace ourselves against falling, which will tend to interfere with the all important freedom of the head in relationship to the torso which is such a key part of our balance and co-ordination system. In addition we will probably try to second-guess our balance system by throwing out an arm or leg as we think is appropriate, but find that we are not able to do so accurately or quickly or subtly enough to compensate adequately for our shifting centre of gravity and the bouncing line.
This is a classic example of how what feels like the right thing—in this case tensing up and trying to balance—is often exactly the wrong one. The human organism is beautifully designed to stay in balance and will do so if we can only leave it alone and not interfere with the mechanisms which achieve this. So if we can hold the quiet intention to not tense up inappropriately when we are faced with the stimulus of feeling we are going to fall, we may gradually find that we are more and more able to resist the temptation to do so. We then start to discover that, as we stop interfering, the organism begins to make all kinds of subtle adjustments and compensations on its own—and these are far cleverer and more appropriate than anything we could do by consciously trying to, or by feeling things out. It all seems rather magical.
If we have the patience (it may take a few days or weeks of practice) we find that it is not so hard as all that to balance on one foot even on a live, elastic line. We start to feel at least a little at home there, and from that place of comfort and poise it becomes natural to take a single step so that we are now standing comfortably on the other foot. And from there we may take another. And another. And so we are walking down the line, but it feels completely different to the way it did when we started. We are now walking from a place of balance and security rather than from a place of panic, tension and hurry, and in time we are able to walk from one end of the line to the other.