What Are Your Movement Practices?

Although the Alexander Technique is intimately connected to movement, it is not actually a movement practice.

Instead, it uses movement as a framework to enhance awareness and intention in the connection between thought and physical action: Often with the end goal to enhance movements and activities you already do.

The Alexander Technique was created with movement in mind, and is designed so that all your movements and activities become a playground for self-understanding, exploration, and development. It acts like a skill multiplier, and for some, a key starting point to understand and better the movements and activities you already do.

So what are your movement practices?

Alexander Technique Key Terms Reference Sheet

Here's download link for a free 2 page reference sheet on key Alexander Technique terms.

Heads-up! This reference sheet has too much info on it. It's recommend this handout is best for students who have taken about 10 lessons in the Alexander Technique. If you haven't had a chance to do that no worries, there's lot's of other info on the blog that may be a better use of your time. 

Recommended way to use the sheet:

  1. Start with the top principle (psychophysical unity), and read about it.
  2. Go about your day thinking about what that one term means to you (Don't worry about the other terms!)
  3. See if you can find an example of that principle in your life. (If you found one tell me all about it!)
  4. Move to the next principle down the list and repeat steps 2 and 3 until the list is done!

Alexander Technique Research: Mini-Collection

Here's a collection of some research on the Alexander Technique.

Understanding the science behind the Alexander Technique is a real passion of mine, but if this seems to you like the most boring thing ever, no worries! Check out other posts blog, and feel free to get in touch about something you're curious about. If this is your cup of tea though, I hope this helps you better connect with some of what's out there. Read on and enjoy!

A FEW ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE STUDIES

  • Chronic Neck Pain Alexander Technique Lessons or Acupuncture Sessions for Persons With Chronic Neck Pain: A Randomized Trial (2015)
  • Medical and Health‐Related Conditions Evidence for the effectiveness of Alexander Technique lessons in medical and health-related conditions: a systematic review (2012)
  • Chronic and Recurrent Back Pain Randomized controlled trial of Alexander technique lessons, exercise, and massage (ATEAM) for chronic and recurrent back pain (2007)
  • Musicians and Performance Anxiety The Alexander Technique and musicians: a systematic review of controlled trials (2014)
  • Parkinson's disease (2015) Lighten UpSpecific Postural Instructions Affect Axial Rigidity and Step Initiation in Patients With Parkinson’s Disease
  • Parkinson's disease Randomized controlled trial of the Alexander technique forIdiopathic Parkinson's disease.Clinical rehabilitation (2002)
  • Parkinson's disease Retention of skills learnt in Alexander technique lessons: 28 people with idiopathic Parkinson's disease (2005)

RESEARCH HAPPENING RIGHT NOW

DISCOVERING HOW A.T WORKS

MORE

Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique Research Page and Directory
Above is the website of the UK Alexander Technique governing body. I've linked you right to a nicely organized page that contains a lot of decently up to date research. It also includes some nice writing on the early history of 'science and the Alexander Technique'.

Alexander Studies
Above is a website being developed in collaboration with the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique. It aims to develop a platform for further publication and research opportunities to further understanding the Alexander Technique.

Setting up your bike - link

With summer on it's way, I usually get asked about how to better use yourself well when cycling. Although this question is well within my scope, I'll have to write another post on this shortly. Not a great way to start a post I know! But see below:

For now, here's a short and useful post from the Allen McGavin Sports Medicine clinic on something beyond my scope: How to set up your bike to prevent cycling injuries and enhance performance.

http://www.allanmcgavinphysio.com/prevent-cycling-injuries-and-improve-performance/

Lack of choice makes strain habitual

Awareness Through Movement is a book by Moshe Feldenkrais. There are many gems in it and deep, fundamental overlap with F.M. Alexander's early writing. I think Moshe did a remarkable job to write so simply and clearly on some pretty fundamental concepts. Here's a short blurb from Moshe on habit that I loved:

Lack of choice makes strain habitual (Pg. 84)

'As long as superfluous effort is invested in any action, man must throw up defences, must brace himself to great effort that is neither comfortable, pleasurable, nor desirable.'  

'The lack of choice of whether to make an effort or not turns an action into a habit, and in the end nothing appears more natural than that to which he is accustomed, even if it is opposed to all reason or necessity'.

'Habit makes it easier to persist in any action, and for this reason it is extremely valuable in general. Nevertheless we can easily over indulge in habits until self-criticism is silenced and our ability to discern is diminished, which generally turns us into machines that act without thinking.'

Feldenkrais, M. (1972). Awareness through movement (Vol. 1977). New York: Harper & Row.

 

Free Resource - The Anatomy of Directing

The Anatomy of Directing (30min): 

A nice, short, downloadable free e-book by Ted Dimon, an Alexander Technique teacher from NY.

It has several mini-movement and body mapping experiments an comes with a few pictures.

You can read it and test out the experiments in each section a chapter at a time. Perhaps over a coffee on Sunday morning...sound good?

I think some of this may be too advanced for brand new students; dependent on your experience/background/motivation-level. Still, a useful and worthwhile quick read. Don't forget to actually try it out and figure out why (or why not) it's working for you.

Huge thanks to Ted Dimon for sharing his work,

-Mark

Some Book Recommendations

I'm not sure if people are interested in reading books about the Alexander Technique anymore. Let me know!

I would guess other mediums are likely the way most people are headed.  Also, books seem to have the most impact after you've studied AT for a little while and often seem confusing if you're brand new to the technique: Student's tell me they help with making sense of their experiences. That was (and continues to be) the case for me too.

In any case, I've definitely read my fair share of Alexander Technique related books, so here are a few recommendations to start for those interested. Enjoy - M





Other Interesting AT Related Books:

Thinking Fast and Slow By Daniel Kahneman

Chair: Rethinking Body Culture And Design  By Galen Cranz

Awareness Through Movement By Moshe Feldenkrais

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World By Christopher McDougall

Think, Feel, and Move

In an earlier post I spoke of using separate aspects of awareness: thinking, sensing, and feeling as a way to better articulate your self-observations when engaging in activity.

The problem with this is that most people are so used to using the words feeling and sensing interchangeably that a distinction between the two is complicated. Too complicated = less useful/used.

Instead, start with something simpler:

THINK, FEEL, and MOVE

Observations of your thoughts, feelings, and movement (and the connections between these three aspects) can be a tool that enhances your personal understanding of how you do what you do.

 

 

Just Right

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Feels good + Simple = Self-motivated change and results

I can't remember where I read this, but it's a great goal for the learning process. The truth that people don't always mention (as anyone knows who's tried), is that changing habits of movement at times be more like:

Feels strange ( 'not normal or habitual') + Confusing (complex habits) = Real life

So how to deal with this?

The key is matching your present state and ability with your level of challenge such that you (at least) start each day in the first one (Feels good + Simple). This removes a large initial obstacle from which you can then ramp up the challenges from there.  Many people have spoken along these lines and I would recommend checking out the following if you're more interested:

Flow - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
https://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow

 

As you get going you build skill/confidence and tackle more complex, sometimes strange challenges. In some ways, as you build up and up you gradually turn complex challenges into simple ones.  Furthermore, overtime you train yourself to feel great when performing movements/behaviours that feel un-habitual and often strange.  That's when things really start to happen.

So start in a place that feels good and is simple..then ramp it up.

Deep Practice vs. Application

The Alexander Technique is meant to be applied, and this is the focus/goal of the work. But...dependent on your stage of learning (and life circumstances) you can speed up your development by better balancing your Alexander Technique 'deep practice' with you AT 'application'.  You can think of this like the difference between practicing your instrument (deep practice) for the show, and actually performing the show (application).

Now you could just practice in your basement and never play any shows, but you'd never develop your ability to handle and enjoy interacting with other people and environments. On the other hand, you could just play a whole bunch of shows and never practice but, especially in the early stages of learning, you simply might not give yourself enough clarity with the work to improve on the mistakes you keep making. Thus, you ingrain bad habits and slow your progress.

The truth is the answer to what your balance should be is something largely based on and determined by your goals.  The key is really to not completely ignore one for too long.

My balance this morning is at about 5% deep practice and 95% application.  These days when I'm really 'on' it's probably more around 10-15% deep practice and 85-90% in application; for instance I shift the balance more this way so that when I teach i'm definitely 'on' for my students (teaching keeps me sharp!).

When I've gone through big learning jumps, especially in the beginning, it was likely closer to 40-50% deep practice and 40-50% application; and usually I took it too far.

So what's your balance between deep practice and application?

Beginner's Mind

Beginner's Mind isn't a new idea, and it's certainly not mine. In fact, I hesitated to put this post out because the idea of beginners mind is so overly discussed that it's practical application is easily lost. Nonetheless, I would argue the beginner's mind concept is essential if you're aiming to  self-generate new experiences of movement.

Here's a simple explanation of two major pitfalls and beginners mind in practice. From Andy Puddicomb (spoken when describing meditation practice):

".... it’s really tempting if we’ve had a few days perhaps where the exercise has felt really nice, left us feeling really kind of good, and we might turn up to the exercise wanting to re-experience that....and rather than allowing a natural process unfold, instead we try to project  onto the exercise what we’d like to experience."

"Alternatively, if we’ve had days when it’s been difficult, we’ve felt like there really hasn’t been much change, we might turn to thinking, ‘well it’s going to be the same again’..we go into the exercise rather than allowing something to happen organically... projecting our own ideas onto the exercise."

"So beginners mind...is really the idea that every time we turn up to the exercise we leave behind what has come before, and we simply follow the exercise through, allowing it to unfold in the way it unfolds on that day....in this moment...right now."

Thinking - Sensing - Feeling

It might be the case that the largest barrier to changing habitual movement and reaction is a limited awareness of ourselves.

It consistently surprises me how most of us (myself included) feel we clearly know what we're doing with ourselves/body/etc in action... However, it appears that when push comes to shove we're much less able to articulate the awareness of our actions than we think.

Most of the time we go about our actions on autopilot. Sitting, walking, picking things up with little direct attention to what we're doing.  It's not necessarily always bad, and it might be the most appropriate allocation of attention (if not certainly a personal or characteristic configuration of our attention in activity), but in any case it's just what is happening.

There also appears to be large differences of self-awareness between different people, and for the same people between different activities, times of day, and pressures.  Quality, accuracy, and depth of awareness is flexible, is generally underused, and can be trained like any other skill.  One way to get more detailed with your self awareness it is to articulate your observations as thinking, sensing, or feeling.

  • Thinking = Observing thoughts (i.e. thoughts about future, past, present, etc..)
  • Sensing = Any of your senses (i.e. what you see, hear, feel/touch, taste, and locating body segments and yourself in space *what's closer to the ceiling, my right shoulder or left shoulder? And does a mirror show me the same thing I'm sensing internally?)
  • Feeling = Any emotional/affective colouring

Changing Up The Blog

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Someone once told me that F.M Alexander said, "The surest way to loose it is to hold on to it."  So in that spirit, it's time to change up the blog.

Notes will be more raw, sketch-like, and exploratory. Out with any search for perfection, and in with the pursuit of growth.  Mistakes and all...it's craft development.

So as I clean out old ideas and flush out some new ones I hope something helps or inspires along the way.  Let's get to it...

Nursing Home In a Post-Texting World

OK, I admit this picture is a bit dark, but don't give up texting quite yet, the relationship between movement and posture isn't quite that causal (2).  That said, the comic does reminds us that our postures (and behaviours) are not just a single event, but the end product of movement and choices expressed over a lifetime.

Each time you text, each step you take, how you move at work or at the gym;  over time, you are shaped in the ways in which you consistently perform these acts.  It’s an incredible and continuous act of learning that occurs between you and your environment, with and without your awareness and attention (3).

The opportunity lies here:  With each and every movement you're offered a fresh chance to observe, learn, and develop how you interact in the world.  This can include expressing new movement, positions, and behaviours that taken over time, can positively influence how you perform and experience the things you do; including how you use and shape your 'body'.

The opportunity is for the taking.


Resources/ People/ Ideas related to the Alexander Technique in this post

1. Bizarro.com

2. Massion, J., Alexandrov, A., & Frolov, A. (2004). Why and how are posture and movement coordinated? Progress in brain research, 143, 13-27.

2. Krakauer, J. W., & Mazzoni, P. (2011). Human sensorimotor learning: adaptation, skill, and beyond. Current opinion in neurobiology. 21(4), 636-644.

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Posture Without Bracing?

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Forcing yourself to sit or stand up straight simply doesn’t work well. We've all tried (myself included), yet despite this strategy failing to work we pretty much continue to do the same thing.

Sure, a select few people with will-power of steel have successfully 'fixed' themselves upright.  Unfortunately this usually results in a stiff bracing with limited freedom of movement, restricted breathing, and elimination of the sense of ’naturalness’ in posture or poise.  Try it out yourself (though I recommend doing your best not to become desensitized to your own stiffness in the process).

Now Einstein supposedly said something to the effect of ...'insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results'.  So are we all insane? Maybe, but I think we've actually got quite a few tools to re-imagine this problem.  Here's one:

Re-imagine Posture as Readiness For Movement

The science behind how posture works is tricky business and there’s still much to discover.  Sometimes what’s found seems counter-intuitive to our normal approach.  For instance, some research suggests that overly bracing yourself may actually work against your own automatic (largely subconscious) postural control; sort of like interfering with your own postural auto-pilot.¹

Excessively contracting your trunk muscles to hold good posture may be causing more ’noise’ in your system, limiting the ability of your brain to do this skilled balance work for you.¹

One idea to re-frame what ‘good' posture means in your own life is to view it as a state of readiness for movement.² For instance...

If you’re slumped, collapsed, or (it’s opposite) stiffly braced, then you’re less ready for movement in any and all directions.  If you’re balanced, engaged, and lighter on your feet or seat, you’re more ready for movement in any and all directions.

In standing, sitting, working at a desk, and everything in-between, a fuller expression of ‘good’ posture is often a simple by-product of being more ready to move.

 

So the next time you catch yourself ‘fixing’ your posture, instead of ingraining a worn out old strategy, why turn an old idea on it's head? Re-imagine posture without bracing and test out a new state, position, or set-up to access your readiness to move.


Resources/ People/ Ideas related to the Alexander Technique in this post

1. Reeves, N. P., Everding, V. Q., Cholewicki, J., & Morrisette, D. C. (2006). The effects of trunk stiffness on postural control during unstable seated balance. Experimental Brain Research, 174(4), 694-700.

2. Jones, F. P. (1997). Freedom to change: The development and science of the Alexander Technique. London: Mouritz. *"posture as a phase of movement”.

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Posture, Expression, and Experience

Like Father Like Son Like Grandfather

You engrain and intertwine the ways you move and posture yourselves with the ways you express and experience your life.  This affects how others perceive you, and how you perceive yourself.

A common reason people learn the Alexander Technique is to improve posture.

What's interesting is that at some point in learning to improve you posture, you might end up gaining insight into the relationship between your postures and how others perceive you:  It can be a surprising moment when you become acutely aware of how your own postures and movements are so visible to others, yet much less so to yourself.

What's really interesting though is that your postures and movement go beyond how others see you; your movements and postures appear to influence how you see yourself.  In fact, they may influence your self-perceived levels of energy, the types of memories you recall, and the extent to which you feel assertive and powerful in stressful situations.

"Professor of Health Education Erik Peper found that simply choosing to alter body posture to a more upright position can improve mood and energy levels.” He argues that it’s not just the brain that influences the body, but the body that influences the brain; it's a 'two way street'.1 

For instance, in one study found that walking in a slumped manner “... actually increased feelings of depression and loneliness, and decreased subjective feeling of energy”,  but by changing postures subjects could experience greater levels of energy.2

Sitting Texting

This relationship goes even deeper in that postures may actually affect the kinds of memories you think of.  A study in 2009 found that “...posture significantly affects the recall of positive or negative memories... when sitting in a collapsed position and looking downward, it was much easier (for people) to recall hopeless, helpless, powerless, and negative memories...”

Clara Shih

Clara Shih

The opposite was true when people sat more upright and looked upwards, from which position, ‘... it was difficult and for many almost impossible to recall hopeless, helpless, powerless, and negative memories and easier to recall empowering, positive...” ones.2,3 

In her 2012 Ted Talk, researcher Amy Cuddy described how the relationship between movement, posture, and self-expression is a fundamental factor that shapes who you are. She found that by taking on empowering movements and postures you can actually make yourself feel more powerful and empowered, which over time, can become part of how you go about your life.4

Like a 'who came first, the chicken or the egg?' scenario it seems postures are not only positions that happen after something happens, but also positions from which different kinds of feeling and memories arise.


Movement Awareness Training

Photo by Stig Nygaard

There are many ways to explore movement, and the Alexander Technique offers one unique lens on this process.  Regardless of the approach(es) you choose, developing clearer awareness of how you move is a fundamental skill.  Here's a common example.

Hidden in Movement and Posture

You massage your over-tense back and it brings relief, but later in the week the problem returns... You have a nagging injury that always seems to ‘show up’ at the worst of times... You don’t feel your movement or posture is an issue; in fact, what does how you use yourself have to do with your performance or health?

When an underlying performance or health issue relates to how you normally use yourself in activity (e.g move or posture yourself) it can often lie below your level of awareness.

When this is the case, then downstream issues from the underlying issue can be excessively frustrating and difficult to deal with.  Your everyday level of awareness may still show you the symptoms, but these symptoms often hide the underlying problem even more.  One way to break this cycle is to learn your own patterns of movement and posture inside and out; so much so that you discover what is normally hidden to you.

Movement Awareness Training

Movement Awareness Training is about making a switch from unhealthy self-judgment and self-criticism, to a healthier state of non-judgment (or suspended-judgement) when observing your movement. It's about training yourself to be curious or even feel good when you observe your movement and 'mistakes' in movement, rather than beating yourself up with your observation to avoid having to do the hard work of training your movement awareness.

This is more than someone telling you that you’re out of alignment, that you should have better form, sit up straight, or be more 'present or grounded' when your perform.  This well intentioned advice simply points out what we're not aware of in ourselves.  It often fails to make lasting change because this external advice doesn't match up with how we internally perceive our movements and postures; leaving our issue still largely 'hidden' to us.

What's empowering is that if a performance or health issue is related to how you use yourself in your activities, then to an ever growing extent you can learn to sense how, when, and where these issues may be arising. You can build your awareness like a muscle.

In some instances you may even be able to develop your baseline level of self-awareness to the degree that it simply doesn’t feel right to move, posture yourself, or do your activities in many of the same old limiting ways.  And when it no longer feels right to do things the way you always have, then you'll change how you do them; you prevent the underlying problem from happening and catch off the symptoms in the process.

Remember, if an underlying problem is hidden in your movements, postures, and way of using yourself in your daily activities then problems often seem to come out of nowhere.  But by developing your self-awareness of personal habits of movement and posture you can increase your independent understanding of why these issues continue to come up.

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The Art of Everyday Movement

Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso

It's impossible to learn the Alexander Technique without increases awareness of how you move in everyday life.  Sometime ago I thought to myself, 'there's so much expression in everyday movement that it may as well be it's own art form'.

Making Art with Everyday Movement and Posture

Here's an experiment: Think about your everyday movement as if you're making art.  Regardless of the extent to which you're aware of your own movement, one could say your making art as you move and posture yourself throughout your day.  For instance, it's often the case that your friends know the art of your movements better than you do; they can pick you out of a crowd from 100 meters away just by the way you walk.

Here's another question along those same lines: If you were a character in a novel how would you describe your movement?  Smooth...stiff...light...heavy?  Dancers use entire systems to embody words to make art¹, thought it's rare for any of us (perhaps dancers included) to place this level of attention on our everyday actions, movements, and body-language.

Marsha Barsky³, a professional dancer and student of the Alexander Technique stated, " I move all the time, in all activities, and to cordon dance off from my other movements during the day was creating an artificial boundary between me as a dancer and me as a person outside of the studio...(Once I made that discovery) I ceased to think of myself as a 'dancer' or a 'mover' in the studio, and someone else outside of it"²

Picture from Monocle.com

Picture from Monocle.com

Sure you might not aspire to be a dancer (or maybe you do?), but building deep awareness of your every movement can provide one foundational skill for improving your movements and postures. It's a simple, practical, and powerful step towards accessing a fuller expression of your movement and self in everything you do.

In the art of posture and movement in everyday life what kind of art are you making?


Resources/ People/ Ideas related to the Alexander Technique in this post

1. Laban Movement Analysis

2. Barsky, M. D. (2010). The Alexander Technique and Contemporary Dance: An Interview between Marsha and Robert Barsky. AmeriQuests7(2).

3. Marsha Barsky

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What This Blog Is About

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Sometimes I think of the Alexander Technique like a great meal.  It takes effort to prepare and skill to make, but the satisfaction you get out of it is fantastic.

Like any great meal, the Alexander Technique also requires the right ingredients. But, having the right ingredients alone doesn't necessarily mean you're going to make a great meal.  This is because how you combine the ingredients also matters, and doing so is a skill and art in itself.  This same concept applies to the Alexander Technique.

So how do you learn to combine the ingredients to make a great meal?  Just like learning any other skill: exploration and practice, ideally sped up by excellent resources and guidance.

So what is this blog about?  This blog is one more avenue for me to share a few of the ideas I've discovered along my own path while exploring and practicing the Alexander Technique.  Along with it's challenges and work, learning the Alexander Technique has given me well over a decade of truly amazing experiences and growth that I continue to develop and gain inspiration from each day.  So here are a few of my thoughts related to the Alexander Technique, and with any luck something here will help or inspire you along your way.

- Mark