How can we explore the Alexander Technique for ourselves? It’s good to be able to learn and discover between lessons and also, because few of us want to pay a teacher for ever, it’s important to be able to ‘graduate’ one day and to feel we can continue to develop and grow independently. In this article I’m sharing a game that I’ve been exploring for many years, both with pupils and as part of my own practice. It offers a simple, gently structured way to help you to go beyond your ‘normal’, familiar patterns of movement without the guiding hands of a teacher, and enables you to discover for yourself new ways of coordinating activity that are open, balanced and free. It can also be a very interesting and revealing thing to explore with a teacher, if your teacher is willing to do so.
The game has several parts. I’m only introducing the first part here. The others build on it, and I will be exploring these in future articles.
Why a game?
I’m calling this a game rather than an exercise for a reason. Many AT teachers offer games to use to explore the principles of the Technique because, although there’s a serious intent behind what we’re up to, it’s also something to play with in a relaxed and unpressured way. It doesn’t make much sense to approach a practice that promises to help you let go of unnecessary tension and effort in terms of hard work, striving and trying to be right! So I’m inviting you to explore what I’m suggesting here in a gentle, and playful spirit. It’s not work, it’s not about right or wrong, it’s just a (hopefully) interesting and enjoyable opportunity to experience new and beneficial ways of moving and responding which are outside your familiar patterns and habits.
Freedom and bracing
So this is a game about finding our way into relaxed and effortless movement. Imagine two people. One has movements that are flowing and relaxed. The other moves lumpenly, with actions that are rigid, jerky, fragmented, tight and held. One important difference between what these two are up to is about the difference between freedom, and rigidity or ‘bracing’. Bracing is when when parts of our structure become rigidly fixed and ‘locked’ through the tightening and holding of muscles one against the other. When we are braced, joints become forcibly immobilised to act as a solid base from which other parts can move or be braced against in turn. All this tension puts our structure under a lot of stress and strain: it’s uncomfortable, it wastes energy, and it gets in the way of real freedom and poise because muscles that are necessary for free movement are engaged in grabbing on for support and security instead.
The vast majority of activities and movements that we get up to in our everyday lives do not require that our structure be braced. Instead, ideally, they ask for a delicate, open use of our musculature, in which opposing forces (of mass, tension, momentum, inertia) are finely balanced, and in which our whole structure is left open and free to respond from moment to moment. Rather than fixity and holding there is constant and automatic adjustment, accommodation and dynamic equilibrium.
Sounds like a tall order? Well, yes and no. Yes because to function like this is a long way from what, for many of us, has become ‘normal’. But no because the systems which underpin all this delicacy and balance are innate. They are ‘built in’, and to invoke them we need do little more than take the sort of decisions which leave them free to work and then keep out of the way.
Beginning the game
Ultimately you can explore this game using any activity you like, but to begin with I strongly recommend you stay within the limitations I’m going to suggest below. This is only the first phase of the game. More possibilities will be added later, and in the end you can apply it to anything you like. In fact in the end it becomes indistinguishable from life itself! But let’s keep things simple to begin with.
I suggest you start by lying down on your back in semi-supine position with your knees bent. Put a book or similar under your head for the moment if it’s needed to stop it tilting forward not back. There needs to be something under your feet to resist slipping, usually a carpet is fine. For most people this is a comfortable place to be, and being on the floor removes, for the moment, any fear of falling and the need to find support against gravity.
We start the game by coming into ‘neutral’ and giving ourselves permission to be present and free, and we will return to this neutral place again and again as we play the game. We allow ourselves to be open and receptive to our surroundings and ourselves, enjoy the support of the floor, and we let the background processes of the body, particularly the breath, do their thing without interference.
A little heads-up now! Many people will struggle a bit with this unless they’ve had some prior input from a teacher. A lot of people simply don’t know how to come to neutral — their nervous systems are so over-stimulated, and their lives are so busy, stressful or, sometimes, distressing, that not only are they are unable to access such a state, but they genuinely have very little experience of what it even means, and may not realise how different what I am suggesting here is from their pre-existing ideas about relaxation, ‘mindfulness’ or meditation. Without a bit of skilled guidance and feedback you may believe you’re being present and free while actually compensating in other ways that you’re not aware of. It’s not impossible to discover this on your own, but there are potential pitfalls in the quest which are non-obvious and can easily lead to misunderstanding or discouragement. You may even end up doing things that put more tension into the system without realising it. Far simpler and more effective to get a little help with it from someone who can support you effectively on your journey.
But let’s assume you’ve had a few lessons with someone who can help you, and you’re starting to be able to come to a place where you are genuinely neutral, present and free. Take a few moments to just be there. It’s nice, isn’t it, just being comfortably, quietly ‘here’, enjoying the sensations of being in a body, not trying or striving for anything?
So far, so good. But very often as soon as we decide to act from that quiet place, as we begin to do something, we grab straight for our familiar ways of co-ordinating ourselves — our well-worn habits — and this puts tension and stress right back into the system again. That’s one reason why you may feel great after a good massage, but if you then go back to living your life as you were before you’ll soon be needing another one! There’s not much point quietening your system down if the moment you need to get on with life you begin hauling yourself around with huge amounts of unnecessary muscular tension, bracing and effort.
What don’t we want?
So what we’re going to be exploring here is how we can go from a place of quietness and presence into activity, and carry that quiet, open, released state with us. And the key to this, as with so many things Alexander, is to begin by being aware of what we don’t want. We can’t act in a way that’s open, free and expansive if we’re busy acting in a way that causes us to be closed, tight, constricted, locked and braced. So we need to be gently saying ‘no’ to those sort of actions in order to open up a space for something different. We need to be choosing not to do them. But how can we reliably know what those things are? What do we need to say ‘no’ to? How do we know what we do which takes us further away from freedom and poise? Let’s find out.
Lying on your back in semi-supine with your hands on your belly, take a moment to come to neutral. Now, lift both legs off the ground. Notice what you experience in your torso as you do this. Most likely you’ll find that there is a general feeling of bracing and tensing in the musculature around your midriff and that your breath, particularly as you experience it in your belly, becomes restricted, held or interrupted in some way.
Now let’s come back to neutral and try a slightly more subtle example. Extend one of your arms out to your side and then lift it a few inches off the floor from the shoulder. Most likely as you lift it you will be aware of a muscular tensing somewhere around the shoulder and, again, a holding or tension in your torso, and a restriction of your breathing. Repeat this a few times, giving yourself plenty of time and space to return to neutral in between.
Next, try rolling from your back onto your side. If you’re like most people you’ll immediately start to hoik your shoulder or your pelvis or your head quite roughly in the general direction you want to go. Try it (just go half way and back again a few times) and notice what’s going on in your torso, and what happens to your breath. Most likely you’ll find that there’s a feeling of effort there associated with hauling yourself over, and that your breath, again, becomes restricted, tight, or stops momentarily altogether.
Finally let’s try something much more subtle. Again put one arm out to your side with your palm facing up and your fingers straight. Come to neutral. Now bend your arm upwards at the elbow without moving your wrist as you do it. Can you notice a subtle holding response in the shoulder and breath? Much more subtle than when you were hauling yourself onto your side. But still it’s there.
It’s important to realise here that the tension we’re noticing in the torso, and the restriction of our breath, is not (in this case at least) something we consciously decide to do, it’s not an action of our conscious self, of the ‘I’ — it’s something that happens in response to what we, ‘I’, have asked for. We have given an instruction (say raise the legs) that is impossible, from our current configuration, for the system to carry out without bracing the structure in some way. So our postural system (which is always extremely helpful and obliging) automatically does whatever is necessary to support the action we’re asking for — in this case holding onto and bracing the pelvis with muscles in the torso, which give the legs something fixed to move against. In the course of all this bracing the normal rhythm of breathing is disrupted.
Indicators we can use
What we’re discovering here are some indicators that we can use to tell us when we’re asking our body to act in a way which requires fixing and bracing — we notice a feeling of tension and bracing in the torso and that our breathing becomes held and restricted. The breath is so tightly intertwined with the systems that control posture, movement and balance — it’s such a fundamental a part of our functioning — that anything we ask of the organism that requires unnecessary bracing and tightening will tend to affect it in a way that we can immediately sense. The effect may be subtle or gross, but it will always be there and (unless we’re involved in lifting very heavy weights or working with very strong forces when some bracing may be appropriate and necessary) it’s a highly reliable indicator that we’re up to no good. In fact it can still be a reliable indicator even in these special cases, but in a slightly different way. More on this in later parts of the game.
Now, here’s the really clever part. Whenever we decide to act (say to raise our legs from the floor), the systems in our body and brain which regulate postural support and muscle tone start to get the musculature ready to provide the support needed to put our intention into practice before we’ve even begun to carry it out. The system plans ahead.
Try it now. Just think of lifting both legs off the floor. Take yourself to the very verge of doing so and notice what happens. You should be able to sense the muscles bracing slightly, and the breath becoming a little restricted even before you’ve started the movement, as your body prepares to carry out what you’re asking for. That’s your indicator. It’s what tells you that the thing you’re contemplating doing is going to require excess effort and bracing. Over time these can become a very subtle and fast registers indeed. Just the slightest thought of doing something and we know instantly whether we are asking for something that is going to require bracing of the structure to carry out. And, in the end, a lot of the time we won’t even need to use the register at all. We will be so sensitive to how the system works that we’re able to know what we don’t want without even needing to try it out, and we simply don’t go there anymore.
Back to the game
Phew! That’s quite a lot of information and several steps further on from where we are right now. Let’s take a couple of steps back again and think about our game. To begin with, the ‘aim’ we’ll be working with is very simple — it is just to be exploring movement without any particular end in mind beyond being playful about discovering things we can ask our body to do which don’t require that the structure is braced. So let’s come back to being neutral, present and free.
Let’s allow a few breaths to come and go.
Let’s give ourselves time.
Really give ourselves time.
How are you doing? Are you being present to the room, the floor, yourself? Are you able to allow the breath to be quietly doing its thing? Are you sure you’re not faking it, not kidding yourself because you’re in a hurry to get onto the next bit? Good!
Now, staying present and free think of any simple movement you like — raising an arm, rocking a leg, or whatever takes your fancy, and take yourself to the verge of doing it. Notice if there’s that tightening response, whether there’s a bracing in the torso, and whether the breath constricts a little. There is? Well, we don’t want that then!
Let’s come back to neutral and allow a few more breaths to come and go.
Many people, if they are being clear and honest and patient with themselves when they start to play this game, find that that they quickly become a bit stuck. This is because most of us have got into the habit of using fairly brusque movements which require our structure to brace as the basis for pretty much everything we do, and so almost everything which feels familiar, normal and ‘right’ will be accompanied by the indicators that we’re tensing and bracing in preparation. To be confronted by this can be a bit exasperating and unsettling. You may try a few things and then quite quickly feel you have run out of options. “What can I do then?”.
Well, you can wait.
You can give yourself time.
You can let some breaths come and go.
You can be open to the possibility of something new happening.
And you can leave a bit of space around all this.
This uncertainty is good, because when we don’t know what the right thing to do is, when we are unsure, when we can’t approach the thing on autopilot, it opens a door for creativity to come in, and that is what we want, because it is what can take us from the known into the unknown.
But still, there’s the question, “what to do?”
Joints and bones
Let’s pause and think about things from a different perspective for a moment. One thing we can easily notice about our structure is that it is articulated. We have lots of segments (bones) with many different types of joints between them. Think of the complexity of just the arms (which structurally includes the mechanism of the shoulder, the collar bone and shoulder blade). All those joints and possibilities! There is so much subtlety and delicacy available to us in how we can move, so many shades of it.
Yet many of us, when we move, tend to reduce all that delicate complexity and possibility into pretty big chunks. Mentally we chunk ourselves together. We forget for a while that we have elbows, or wrists, or delicately suspended shoulder blades, or forearms which pronate and supinate (rotate inwards and outwards). We overlook the intricacy of the hand and the joints of the fingers. We don’t conceive ourselves in a subtle way: we conceive ourselves in a gross way.
Say you think of lifting your arm. Instead of being aware of the intricacy of the structure and the possibilities inherent in that, perhaps you vaguely imagine a stick-like, roughly arm-shaped object attached to you somewhere in the shoulder area, and hoik it upwards from there. The infinite ways that the arm can articulate are reduced to a tiny handful that can exist within the limited way you imagine yourself. “This way, that way, or no way”. Likewise when we go into a roll, or rearrange our legs, or any other activity.
So if we want to escape from such self-imposed constraints and offer ourselves the chance to discover rather more open, free and beautiful choices, we need to allow our conception of the possibilities that are open to us to become richer. Perhaps lifting the arm can begin with the movement of a single finger at the knuckle joint, or a delicate plié of the wrist, or the forearm sensing the texture of the carpet as it rolls over, or a slight sliding and shifting of the elbow on the floor. I don’t know. Perhaps there are movements and shapes and configurations we can find ourselves in which we have long forgotten, or maybe have never known at all and which, through disuse or unfamiliarity now feel ‘unnatural’ and strange. Well, let’s be at least open to the possibility that there may be some richness in among the strangeness.
So we keep exploring. We keep coming back to being present and free, we keep saying ‘no’ to impulses which result in bracing or restriction of the breath, and in the face of them we keep coming back ever so gently to neutral.
And maybe, as we explore, gently, hesitantly, we will find some small thing that seems delicate and free — something for which the thought doesn’t cause the system to clench in preparation — and we go with it even if it feels tiny, or quite random, or odd, or not what we thought we wanted, or not directed towards where we thought we wanted to go. We embrace the sense of unfamiliarity, of wrongness. Staying open, staying present and free, we go with it. And maybe we’ll rest there for a while. Or maybe some other friendly, open, unfolding impulse will reveal itself in turn, and before we know it, we’re finding that an entirely new and unexpected coordination of the whole arm, or the whole self, unfolds without any need to hold on and brace at all. So easy it seems to almost do itself.
So even in this first part of the game there’s a lot to explore — with the head, the arms, the legs and, by extension, the pelvis and torso. It feels nice, this opening into the unknown, because the body may let go in all sorts of subtle and delicious ways as we encourage it to move freely, and this sort of movement is, in its own right, sensual and delicate and feels good.
And in time we can even choose to say ‘no’ to these new things we’re discovering if we want. Without really trying too hard we are gathering an increasing range of options for ourselves — ways we have discovered that keep a quality of quietness and openness as we go. That’s good, to have these options in our lives. Very useful. But this is an exploration game, so in time we can say no to these too as they become familiar, and continue to discover ever more subtle, sensitive and integrated ways of moving. There’s really no end to it. There’s always more to be found.
This, for me, contains the essence of the Alexander Technique. Through rather rigorously, rather doggedly saying ‘no’ to the wrong thing something new, unexpected and delightfully free can be discovered, and it then becomes a resource in our lives and a departure for further explorations.
For the moment we’re still working within limits though. You will most likely find, within those limits, that there are places beyond which it seems difficult to go. For example lifting a leg clear of the floor may seem impossible. And though you may find ways into starting to roll the pelvis and the torso in interesting ways, the big shift of weight involved in rolling right over onto your side may seem a step too far. Well that’s OK. There’s no rush. At least I’m not putting one onto you. To go further we need another little piece of understanding, and that is what we will be discovering in the second part of the game….