Learning to stop reacting automatically

“We want to change. But how are we going to change if we go about doing things the way we have always done them?” FM Alexander

Often, when pupils come for lessons, one of the first things they’ll say is: ‘I Know I’ve got really bad posture.’ They are focussed on their physical appearance and physical feelings – what it looks like and feels like when they sit, stand, walk etc. Their initial expectation is that it is this physical end result that they need to put their attention on and attempt to change for a ‘better posture’. This expectation is likely to be reinforced as, during a lesson, the teachers hands gently guide the pupil towards something that looks more poised and feels more comfortable.

However, it is important to take a step back and to realise that it is not our physical habits of sitting, standing, walking etc that we need to change, it is the habit of responding habitually, automatically to the stimulus of the idea of sitting, standing, walking etc. This is the fundamental principle of the whole work – we are learning to stop reacting automatically.

The truth is that most of us react automatically most of the time. We’re running on autopilot – thinking of one thing (or several things) and doing another. If we get up in the morning and we’re running slightly late, the mind will try to be helpful by leaping ahead to think of all the things we have to do before we leave the house: have a shower, have breakfast, clean our teeth, get dressed, pack a bag, charge the phone…meanwhile, our bodies go around attending to all these chores. It’s pretty clever. However, when we do things on autopilot in this way – whenever the mind is not absolutely present with the body and whatever act we’re engaged in – we always end up using an exaggerated amount of muscle tension and a distortion of the body as a whole. The neck muscles become tense, the head pulled slightly back creating tension through the entire system, the jaw tight, the shoulders up, the ribcage held – the whole body becomes like a coiled spring. Even when we’re not in such a hurry, when we do things automatically, the amount of effort we use is out of proportion with the amount of effort that’s required. It’s almost as if the mind decides to go off and do something else but, as a precaution, to make sure the job gets done or that we don’t get taken by surprise, our system cranks up several gears and stays in constant alert and ready mode.

This has become an automatic habit. We overdo it. We overuse ourselves in all our daily activities. We don’t know we’re doing it and, if we do become aware of what we’re doing and try to change it, we can’t. It’s become an automatic response.

So, in a lesson, while it may appear that we are teaching a pupil to sit down and stand up, we are not actually teaching them to sit down and stand up – we are teaching them to stop responding automatically. This is so easy to become overlooked if the pupil and/or teacher work towards the goal of sitting down and standing up ‘correctly’. The real work is in the pupil learning to refuse to give consent to the desire to sit down or stand up. It is then up to the teacher to get the pupil in or out of the chair as they give their directions, so that they get a new experience of moving easily and effortlessly with conscious intention. As FM explains: ‘…I won’t take you up if you try to help me, because I don’t want you to get out of this chair unless you are going to have a right experience in the process. And you will have a right experience if you stop thinking about getting up. Don’t think about getting up!’

This inhibition, this refusal to give consent is often the hardest thing for a pupil to grasp and put into practice (and the hardest thing for a teacher to teach) and yet it is fundamental and the most exciting part of the Technique. Once it is fully appreciated and practised, it becomes a hugely empowering tool for the change of all human reaction. ‘You see, once you get hold of this idea, once you can carry out your decision to inhibit, then there is nothing you cannot change in yourself in the matter of old habits.’

Note: these posts represent my current thoughts and experience of the Technique and will probably be most helpful for existing students and new teachers of the Alexander Technique.

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