Alexander's Paradox

by Susan Perkins

(This article was originally printed in the Fall/ Winter 2006 issue of the ACAT News, © 2006 Susan Perkins)

To explain the Alexander Technique to someone for the first time, it might be easier to say what it isn't. Without being unduly negative, of course, it is helpful to understand what the Technique doesn't do, or what is not done in a lesson.


There is the first keyword: lesson. The Alexander Technique is not therapy; there aren't patients who come for treatment. The relationship is that of student to teacher. A student comes to investigate something about the Technique, and the teacher teaches the student the basic principles of the Alexander Technique.

Alexander students do not get a massage. The hands on work in an Alexander Technique lesson is gentler and lighter than a massage and is usually accompanied with verbal instruction. Clothes are not removed in a lesson, though it is helpful for the student to where non-restrictive, loose fitting clothing.

The technique is not a cure for diseases or infirmities. As one studies the Technique, symptoms of pain are often relieved, such as back pain, neck pain, sciatica, repetitive strain injury, carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, etc.

The technique is not about fixing posture or breathing. However, those are usually two aspects of one's use of the self that are improved through study.

The technique is not about relaxation, though many experience releases of tensions and become more relaxed as they study the Technique.

The technique is not about getting in and out of our chair. This is a tool used by many teachers because Alexander used it himself to teach, and to change people's habits of use. In the act of sitting to standing and vice versa, most of the major joints of the body are used to some degree, such as the hip joints, knee joints, and ankle joints, etc. Alexander found that by using an every day movement, he could easily discover a person's particular habits of use and then teach them something about their use that would be helpful in bringing about a more efficient and useful way of moving.

So what does one do when one studies the Alexander Technique? Every teacher's approach is different but all teachers are instructing their students in the basic principles of the technique, and all teachers are practicing the technique themselves as they teach. What are the principles? There are three general principles: awareness, inhibition (pausing for stopping) and direction. There are also three important concepts: primary control, end–gaining, and debauched kinesthesia. Below is a brief description of the concepts and principles:

The Concepts

The first concept is something called primary control, which can be thought of as a state of coordination, that when this state is working well, there is the least amount of interference of the working parts of an organism. F. M. Alexander figured out that he could quickly change a person's way of moving by addressing a certain area: the dynamic balance of the head (skull) to the neck and back (spine). During his own development of his work, he discovered that if the balance point of the skull to spine during a particular activity is in its optimal range, the whole body is affected positively, with muscular effort and tension in its most efficient range. If the balance point of the skull to spine is off center during an activity, usually with the skull pressing back and down onto the spine, the whole body is affected negatively, with muscular effort and tension often increased in areas where it is not needed, and decreased in areas where it is needed. The place of choice to help a person changed their coordination for Alexander Technique teachers is at the relationship of the head and neck to the back (one change affects the other.) This primary control is central to the overall coordination of humans.

The second concept of the Alexander Technique is the term means and ends - something Alexander called "end-gaining," which is the extremely important manner in which he finally learned to change unconscious habits, over which previously no amount of will power would change them. He did this by learning to be in the moment, not focusing on his goal of his activity (end), but how he was doing it, his steps to get there, his preparation, is thinking, etc. (means/"means whereby").

The last concept is about one's physical sense of self in space being unreliable. Alexander had a term for this, too: debauched kinesthesia. It means one is so used to his habits and the way he does things, when something changes it feels wrong, or even impossible. It also means sometimes someone thinks he is doing one thing when he is actually doing something else. The Alexander Technique helps one become more aware of his kinesthetic sets, and importantly, how to discern and distinguish between habitual (old) and consciously controlled (new) ways of doing things.

The Principles

In order to change a habitual response to a stimulus (a habit), the first step is an awareness that one is responding somehow to that stimulus. Awareness Is learning or knowing what one is doing. Most people are not aware of their habits up unnecessary tension. In an Alexander Technique lesson, a teacher helps a student identify what he is doing that is preventing him from achieving his desired results, i.e. having less pain, a better performance, etc. Over time the student becomes more educated about his own use of himself and begins to identify previously unconscious habits.

After the student has become aware of the habituated response, he learns the next step in the process of change, inhibition. Inhibition is the act of stopping or pausing. Alexander discovered that will power alone was not enough to change the way he was doing a certain activity. His response to beginning a common activity, for example speaking, brought such a strong habituated memory of the way he spoke, he had to stop for a moment before continuing. If he didn't stop, the force of the habit took over. If he did stop, he was able to choose to do something different instead of his habit.

Doing something different instead of the habit became known as direction. Direction is the ability to use thought to do something new (non-habituated response.) Alexander learned to 'direct a new use of himself' after applying inhibition to a habit. He could perform the same activity, such as speaking, with improved use, or he could choose to do something entirely different in the moment of beginning to speak. He did this by consciously thinking certain thoughts about how he wanted the activity performs, i. e. with a neck free, head forward and up, torso lengthened and widened, etc. These thoughts produced the desired effect of decreased muscular effort, and an overall improved coordination.

The paradox of the Alexander Technique is that many things people think the Technique is about is not what it is about, although the Technique does the very things they think it is about. A few examples: it is not about re-educating the kinesthetic sense, but it does just that. It is not about curing pain, improving posture or breathing, or relaxing, though it does those things as well. It is not about getting a massage, though one lies on a massage table and receives hands-on work. It is not about getting in and out of the chair, though even Alexander himself said, "people will think this work is about getting in and out of the chair, but it's not about that at all." Another paradox is that the three main principles of awareness, inhibition, and direction are very simple and seemingly separate, but ask an Alexander Technique teacher to describe any one idea, and they may speak for five minutes and cover all the principles and the concepts of the technique. It is impossible to separate and categorize the work, because to do so compartmentalizes concepts are interdependent.

During my second year of training I made up some one-liners. Explaining the Technique to novices often eluded me, and still does. I began this writing in an attempt to simplify or clarify what it is we teach. I had hoped for one page and am now on the third, which is just a reminder of how all encompassing this work is.

The Alexander Technique is a way to be in the moment.

The Alexander Technique is a way to be easier with oneself.

The Alexander Technique is stopping the wrong thing, so the right thing can do itself.

The Alexander Technique is finding something new without looking for it.

The Alexander Technique is rediscovering our innate ability to be coordinated.

The Alexander Technique gives us conscious control, or choices, over the habitual, giving us more freedom to choose.

The Alexander Technique combines thought with movement.

The Alexander Technique is regenerative, rather than degenerative.

The Alexander Technique can be a way of living.

The Alexander Technique gives you more of your real self you forgot you had, and finally...

The Alexander Technique helps you change what you thought you were stuck with.

Susan Perkins.jpg

Susan Perkins graduated from ACAT in 2004. She currently teaches at Wake Forest University and Salem College in North Carolina. She earned her undergraduate degree from the University North Carolina School of the Arts and earned her Master’s Degree in Violin Performance from Florida State University. In 2001 Susan moved to New York City to study the Alexander Technique at the American Center for the Alexander Technique in Manhattan, a rigorous three year program entailing 1600 hours of study. As a Nationally Certified Teacher of the Alexander Technique since 2004, Susan teaches the Alexander Technique to people who have back trouble, postural issues, musicians who have physical difficulties performing, or people who want to improve their overall health and well being. She completed John Nicholls’ post graduate course “The Carrington Way of Working” in NYC in 2016. In addition to maintaining a busy private practice teaching Alexander Technique and violin in Winston Salem, Susan is the Alexander Technique and Violin Instructor at Salem College, and teaches the Alexander Technique at Wake Forest University and University of North Carolina School of the Arts.


B.M., Violin Performance, University of North Carolina School of the Arts

MM, Violin Performance, Florida State University

MAmSAT, American Center for the Alexander Technique, New York

Election Cycle Fatigue: What you can do to take care of yourself and those around you

by Brooke Lieb The first time I voted in a Presidential election was 1984. My memory is far from perfect, but I cannot recall a presidential race that began as early as the 2016 race, with one party's campaigning for the nomination starting in March, 2015; nor can I remember the type of rhetoric I am hearing as overt and extreme in US politics as it is during this election.


Frankly, it frightens me. And I am not alone. There are a plethora of articles about the heightened anxiety levels precipitated by this current election cycle. A search for "election anxiety" yields online articles from The Atlantic, US News, Newsweek, Time Magazine and The Washington Post, among other news outlets.

As an Alexander teacher, I spend my days teaching my students how to self-regulate so they can manage moments of spiking anxiety. To be an effective teacher, I use the very tools I am teaching, at work and in my life.

No matter which side of this debate you are on, it is likely that you feel strongly, believe in your own point of view and fear the outcome. It is also likely that your feelings are being heightened by the coverage you are exposed to.

What can you do to take care of yourself? Here are some resources, including simple tools I teach my students.

1. Remind yourself that you don't have to hold your breath.

When we experience fear or other strong emotions, we sometimes freeze. It may be a tight jaw, it may be subtle or not so subtle clenching in shoulder, chest or abdomen. Frequently, tension reduces the mobility of our torso, and breath requires movement in the ribs.

2. Stand with your back touching a wall or door.

Use the contact with your back against the surface to bring you into the present environment. See and name what is around you, in as much detail as you can. (Example from my studio: Area rug with floral patterns, in beige, burgundy, sage green; massage table with a green cotton sheet that has stripes; dark brown wood computer desk with a cordless phone/answering machine and an iMac; fireplace mantle surrounded by teal tiles).

3. Research what actions you can take to assure your vote counts and that your elected officials represent your values.

Search your state and federal nominees to find out where they stand on the issues (search "[your state] 2016 candidate platforms". In addition to finding out where they stand, you can find out how to support the campaign of those who represent your views.

4. Learn how to bring awareness to, change the subject, and minimize participation in conversations that upset you.

It is possible to effectively bring awareness and shift the conversation without shaming anyone. This article from the New York Times is entitled "Lessons in the Delicate Art of Confronting Offensive Speech"

5. If someone has decided who they are voting for, there is no need for discussion. If speaking to an undecided voter, learn how to listen to what matters to that person.

Here is an article "5 Ways To Have Great Conversations"

6. Limit your exposure to media

Once you have done your research and know which candidates represent your values, and how you can take action to improve their chances in the election, take a media vacation. This has not been easy for me, but I have designated media black out days, when I do not read or watch anything about the election.

7. Have an Alexander Lesson

Alexander Technique teaches mindfulness in daily living. Akin to meditation, Alexander Technique teaches conscious inhibition, or how to calm your "flight or fight" response.

This article in Wikipedia explains the neural mechanisms of mindfulness techniques.

This blog was originally posted at

[author] [author_image timthumb='on'][/author_image] [author_info]N. BROOKE LIEB, Director of Teacher Certification since 2008, received her certification from ACAT in 1989, joined the faculty in 1992. Brooke has presented to 100s of people at numerous conferences, has taught at C. W. Post College, St. Rose College, Kutztown University, Pace University, The Actors Institute, The National Theatre Conservatory at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Dennison University, and Wagner College; and has made presentations for the Hospital for Special Surgery, the Scoliosis Foundation, and the Arthritis Foundation; Mercy College and Touro College, Departments of Physical Therapy; and Northern Westchester Hospital. Brooke maintains a teaching practice in NYC, specializing in working with people dealing with pain, back injuries and scoliosis; and performing artists.[/author_info] [/author]

Ease on Skis

IMG_2167by Emily Faulkner This past February, I had the good fortune to travel to the Alps to take Erik Bendix’ one week Ease on Skis workshop. I am a passionate skier, and not too bad at it, but having started skiing late in life, I am always frustrated by how slowly I seem to progress and how hampered I am by fear. As a dancer, I love to move. The technique of skiing - the rhythm and the fluid motion – is magical when it comes together, but frustratingly elusive. As soon as I approach a pitch that seems too steep, a patch of ice, or some unexpected bumps, fear takes over, my technique goes out the window, and skiing becomes a matter of survival instead of joy. The Alexander Technique is, of course, the perfect medium by which to analyze fear and response. Enter Ease on Skis!

Ease On Skis is a combination of a new skiing technique and the application of the Alexander principles to skiing. There is a general methodology to skiing, but there are infinite variations in how different skiers approach the specifics. The most unique aspect of Erik’s approach, it seems to me, is how tall he asks you to stand. One thinks of skiers in a deep monkey, but to watch Erik ski is to see something entirely different. Erik has a unique style of skiing that is much more elongated and upright than any skier I’ve ever seen. It reminds me of how one works on a flying trapeze. In order to maneuver on a small bar hanging in space from ropes, you need to extend your limbs and torso. You need to really spread out in order to counterbalance your body, from head to feet and use it like a long lever. Erik dances down the mountain like a trapeze artist. His basic technique is the same as any good skier – transfer the weight from one ski to the other and glide, like ice skating – but the manner in which he accomplishes this, his speed and power, come from a place of ease, length and balance as opposed to compression and strength.

The way Eric teaches is, of course, quite unique, and we did a lot of interesting exercises both on and off the slopes. We practiced falling and getting up again with and without skis. Skiing is basically controlled falling, so it is helpful to get comfortable with actually falling. We examined walking and turning to see how we can allow our heads to lead our body into a graceful curve around a corner. We examined breath to see how the breath can contribute to a graceful turn. We rolled on the ground allowing the body to spiral, as opposed to rolling in one piece like a log. This helped us access our spirals when we got on the slopes. One exercise that was particularly interesting and satisfying was twisting. While skiing down a slope, you slowly turn your head to one side or the other and then patiently wait for the twist to make its way down to the feet and skis in order to turn. Thus by turning your head and merely allowing the body to follow, you inhibit almost all doing and simply allow yourself to turn.

The week of the workshop happened to be particularly foggy and so I, coincidentally, have an entirely new relationship to the fog. Having calmly directed for a week in fog, I actually sort of enjoy the fluffy comfort of being enclosed in white, and I associate it with the Alexander Principles.

By the end of the week, my fear reflex had dampened considerably. I’d had ample opportunity to breath, relax and direct while careening down a slippery hill, and I was starting to trust my new calmer responses. The internal voice saying, “you are safer and happier when you use the Alexander principles” was finally stronger than the voice saying, “at all costs, hold on tight, and just don’t get hurt!” what Eric calls “crisis management.” From the lens of the Alexander Technique, I also had the opportunity to consider my whole approach to skiing. I love the feeling of skiing, and I love the sociability of it, but if it is so hard for me to become the sort of skier I want to be, can I still enjoy skiing? Watching one of my fellow participants really helped clarify that. She didn’t have particularly impressive technique, but she was calm, she looked with her head and let her skis follow, and low and behold, her skis turned, and she negotiated all sorts of challenging terrain. And she did it quite joyfully. As with all Alexander discoveries, sometimes you realize you need to examine your goal, and sometimes you discover an option you hadn’t realized existed.

About a month after the workshop ended, I happened to go skiing again in the Spanish Pyrenees with my nine-year-old daughter. I was a little frustrated with my technique, but I must say that I felt pretty safe. My habitual feelings of fear were far less than they had been. Skiing in new terrain with my friends and family is my goal, and it was awesome! The Ease On Skis workshop was filmed so hopefully in the next year or two, Erik’s technique will be on display for all.

[author] [author_image timthumb='on'][/author_image] [author_info]EMILY FAULKNER graduated from the American Center for the Alexander Technique in New York City in 1999, and has been an AmSat certified teacher ever since. Faulkner is also a dancer, dance teacher and choreographer.She is on the faculty of Movement Research, a world renowned institution for experimental dance, and has presented her choreography nationally and internationally. Her most current project is a dance film using Steady Buckets players. Emily teaches privately in New York City, and can be found at Email her at  [/author_info] [/author]

Spreading The Word, Even If The Word Is "Posture"

image1by Karen Krueger I'm a big believer in speaking up about the Alexander Technique whenever I get the chance. So I jumped right in with a comment when I spotted an article in the New York Times about the importance of posture:

New York Times: Posture Affects Standing, And Not just The Physical Kind

When I checked the comments section again a few days later, there were over a hundred comments -- most of them singing the praises of the Alexander Technique!

Not only that, but I saw no reluctance to identify the Technique with "posture" and no striving to convey all the complexity of the Technique in a few sentences. Rather, each comment mentioned that the Alexander Technique is a great way to improve posture, and added something about the studies that have shown its effectiveness, gave a personal testimonial, or mentioned ways to find a teacher or books to read. Some also responded to other comments in a constructive way. Anyone who reads even a handful of the comments would come away with the clear message that if you are concerned about your posture, you should check out the Alexander Technique.

Because the comments on the New York Times website are moderated, and perhaps also because of the nature of the Times' readership, the comments are often the best part of the articles. The Alexander community's vigorous response to this opportunity to publicize our work will reach thousands of readers who otherwise might never have heard of the Alexander Technique.

So thanks to all of you who added your comments to this story. It only takes a minute or two to add a comment to a news item or a magazine article; I hope we all will make it a practice to mention the Alexander Technique whenever the opportunity arises.

[author] [author_image timthumb='on'][/author_image] [author_info]KAREN G. KRUEGER practiced law in New York City for 25 years before training at ACAT, and has now been teaching the Alexander Technique for almost five years.  She is the author of the recently published book A Lawyer’s Guide to the Alexander Technique: Using  Your Mind-Body Connection to Handle Stress, Alleviate Pain, and Improve Performance (ABA Publishing).  Website:  Buy the book.[/author_info] [/author]

"Physical Therapy May Not Benefit Back Pain," But The Alexander Technique May

nytimes screenshotBy Karen Krueger and Witold Fitz-Simon Just this week, Nicholas Bakalar of the New York Times reported on a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on back pain and Physical Therapy. The  goal was to determine whether or not treatment with Physical Therapy in the form of manipulation and exercises was effective in treating the back pain of recently-diagnosed individuals. Participants were between the ages of 18 and 60, had no lower back pain treatments of any kind in the past six months, and had symptoms for no more than 16 days. All the participants received education about lower back pain, while one group received four Physical Therapy sessions over four weeks. The results in relief of pain for those who received the physical therapy was reported as "modest," but in the long run not distinguishable from the care received by the control group.

Some back pain is caused by poor posture and movement habits. Physical Therapy, yoga, Pilates, and other approaches can help strengthen muscles, add needed flexibility, etc. But too often they do not change a person's habits: when the person gets busy, they go right back to the habits that got them into trouble in the first place. It makes sense to us that people would not show significant improvement after three months.

The only approach that actually provides a systematic way to change habits that really "sticks" in real life is the Alexander Technique—a set of skills that you learn—rather than a therapy. Sadly, lessons in the Technique are not covered by insurance in the United States (though they are in the United Kingdom). But the skills you can learn can last a lifetime. It worked for Karen's chronic neck pain and headaches, and we know many people who found it solved their problems with back pain.

If you experience back pain and would like to learn an effective alternative way to care for yourself, find a qualified teacher of the Alexander Technique here.

[author] [author_image timthumb='on'][/author_image] [author_info]KAREN G. KRUEGER became a teacher of the Alexander Technique after 25 years of practicing law at two major New York law firms, receiving her teaching certificate from the American Center for the Alexander Technique in December 2010. Her students include lawyers, business executives, IT professionals and others interested in living with greater ease and skill. Find her at her website: [/author_info] [/author]

[author] [author_image timthumb='on'][/author_image] [author_info]WITOLD FITZ-SIMON has been a student of the Alexander Technique since 2007. He is certified to teach the Technique as a graduate of the American Center for the Alexander Technique’s 1,600-hour, three year training program. A student of yoga since 1993 and a teacher of yoga since 2000, Witold combines his extensive knowledge of the body and its use into intelligent and practical instruction designed to help his students free themselves of ineffective and damaging habits of body, mind and being.[/author_info] [/author]

Alexander Technique for Non-Surgical Treatment of a Cervical Herniated Disc

by Witold Fitz-Simon This video features Judy Stern—Alexander Technique teacher and faculty member of the ACAT teacher training program—on how the Technique can help people with herniated discs in their neck. The video is made by the medical practice of Seth Neubardt M. D. and Jack Stern M. D. (Dr. Stern is Judy's husband.)

If you experience chronic pain and would like to know more about how the Alexander Technique might be able to help you, find a teacher near you here.

[author] [author_image timthumb='on'][/author_image] [author_info]WITOLD FITZ-SIMON has been a student of the Alexander Technique since 2007. He is certified to teach the Technique as a graduate of the American Center for the Alexander Technique’s 1,600-hour, three year training program. A student of yoga since 1993 and a teacher of yoga since 2000, Witold combines his extensive knowledge of the body and its use into intelligent and practical instruction designed to help his students free themselves of ineffective and damaging habits of body, mind and being.[/author_info] [/author]

The Alexander Technique in Education [video]

by Brooke Lieb Produced by STAT and The Alexander Trust, "Alexander in Education" is a film about how the Alexander Technique is helpful for students, in developing skills for life.:

Alexander’s greatest wish was for his method to be integrated into primary and secondary education as part of the standard curriculum. This video, from the UK, shares firsthand accounts from students of many ages, who were fortunate enough to have Alexander Technique as part of their education before college or adulthood. The Alexander Technique not only gives us tools for managing the physical demands of life, it teaches us critical problem solving. For education to be fully rounded, a knowledge of our own inner workings seems like an obvious foundation, and yet there is little in the US curriculum that teaches us about ourselves in the practical, concrete way the Alexander Technique can.

In my own practice, I have found children are just as subject to stress and anxiety as adults. By virtue of the fact that they are younger, their habits and beliefs is not as entrenched as with adults, so often they are keen students, they grasp the concepts quickly and successfully apply the ideas to change their behavior. They change more quickly.

There are no short cuts for certain things in life, and just as you need to floss, brush and take care of your teeth to keep them healthy, taking care of your mental and physical wellbeing is one of those things. Whether you are young or old, a course of study in the Alexander Technique can give you a lifetime of skill at reducing the effects of stress, tension and wear and tear on your system, as well as improving performance and adaptability.

To find a teacher near you, visit

[author] [author_image timthumb='on'][/author_image] [author_info]N. BROOKE LIEB, Director of Teacher Certification since 2008, received her certification from ACAT in 1989, joined the faculty in 1992. Brooke has presented to 100s of people at numerous conferences, has taught at C. W. Post College, St. Rose College, Kutztown University, Pace University, The Actors Institute, The National Theatre Conservatory at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Dennison University, and Wagner College; and has made presentations for the Hospital for Special Surgery, the Scoliosis Foundation, and the Arthritis Foundation; Mercy College and Touro College, Departments of Physical Therapy; and Northern Westchester Hospital. Brooke maintains a teaching practice in NYC, specializing in working with people dealing with pain, back injuries and scoliosis; and performing artists.[/author_info] [/author]

Video: "F. Matthias Alexander and the Alexander Technique"

by Witold Fitz-Simon Here is an interesting short film about F. M. Alexander culled from footage available on YouTube, and information from Wikipedia.

This video was posted to YouTube by Lisa Block.

[author] [author_image timthumb='on'][/author_image] [author_info]WITOLD FITZ-SIMON has been a student of the Alexander Technique since 2007. He is certified to teach the Technique as a graduate of the American Center for the Alexander Technique’s 1,600-hour, three year training program. A student of yoga since 1993 and a teacher of yoga since 2000, Witold combines his extensive knowledge of the body and its use into intelligent and practical instruction designed to help his students free themselves of ineffective and damaging habits of body, mind and being.[/author_info] [/author]

The Nature of Thoughts

nprby Witold Fitz-Simon “Invisibilia” is a new radio show/podcast from NPR that combines science and personal stories to explore the unseen forces that shape our behavior. In their episode “The Secret History of Thoughts,” they use the story of an unfortunate young man who is suddenly overwhelmed with violent thoughts as the medium through which to look at the way the mental health profession has evolved its understanding of thoughts and the way they do or do not define us.

In the segment “Dark Thoughts,” we meet “S,” a normally easy-going man, who is triggered by a film he watches into seeing violent images over and over again. He begins to identify with them to the point that it begins to impact his life, causing him to withdraw more and more. The piece is a story of his search for help as he attempts to understand and deal with his thoughts, and through it, we are introduced to three major ideas about thoughts and their significance to the whole person. According the piece, the first stage of "thought history" grew out of the work of Sigmund Freud. According to Freud, and those who follow his ideas, the content of "S's" thoughts would be an indicator of a problem in his psychological make-up. They revealed some inherent quality about him. The second stage grows out of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which would say that "S's" thoughts do not say anything particular about who and what he is. Instead, they would be the result of some form of prior conditioning or stimulus, either internal or external. Whereas in Freudian psychoanalysis, patients go through an extended exploration of their lives, thoughts and feelings, in Cognitive Behavioral Therapies, the patients are given strategies to directly challenge and deal with the thoughts. A more recent "third wave" approach is Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy, where the patient is taught to allow the negative thoughts to just be and, in so doing, disarm their power to contribute to negative side-effects such as depression and addiction.

Though not a form of psychotherapy, the Alexander Technique has its own way of dealing with negative thoughts that ties in quite nicely with some of these ideas. F. M. Alexander was one of the first Westerners to realize that mind and body were all part of the same, larger whole of the individual person. A person's thoughts are a part him or her as are their arm or leg. Your arm is part of you, but it is not in any way all of what you are and can be. The same can be said of your thoughts. As part of the larger whole of who you are, your thoughts have an impact on both the structure and the physiology of your body. A thought can create the constriction and tension of anxiety as much as it can create the lightness and freedom of joy.

The Release of Inhibition

Alexander originally called his technique "Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual" (the title of one of his four books). The name is a bit of a mouthful, but with it he was attempting to convey how it is possible to live consciously and constructively. This is to say, we each have many instinctive or habitual ways of thinking, reacting and being, but as thinking, rational people, we have the capacity to choose. Do we live at the mercy of these instincts and habits, or do we live with a mindful, embodied relationship to ourselves and our environment?

One of Alexander's great discoveries was that of inhibition, although his use of the word is very different to Freud's. Alexander's "inhibition" refers to our capacity to neurologically inhibit our responses to a stimulus. We can choose to react habitually or we can pause and let the habitual reaction go. It is a release of energy, of tension, which can bring the body and mind back to a state of ease and poise.

The American Center for the Alexander Technique is home of the oldest training program in the United States. If you are curious about finding out more about the Technique and how it might be able to help you find poise and ease in your daily life, contact one of our teachers in your area.

[author] [author_image timthumb='on'][/author_image] [author_info]WITOLD FITZ-SIMON has been a student of the Alexander Technique since 2007. He is certified to teach the Technique as a graduate of the American Center for the Alexander Technique’s 1,600-hour, three year training program. A student of yoga since 1993 and a teacher of yoga since 2000, Witold combines his extensive knowledge of the body and its use into intelligent and practical instruction designed to help his students free themselves of ineffective and damaging habits of body, mind and being.[/author_info] [/author]

“Text-Neck”: a Modern Epidemic and its Elegant Solution, The Alexander Technique

textingby Witold Fitz-Simon The internet has been a-buzz this week with the publication of a new study by surgeon Kenneth Hansraj, M. D. Using computer modeling, he was able to determine how much stress we are actually doing to ourselves when we drop our heads and collapse to look at our cell phones.

An adult human head weighs anywhere between 10 and 12 pounds. When posture is good, with the top of the spine in a neutral position relative to the rest of the body, and the head poised in balance on the top vertebra, that weight is safely and effectively transferred down through the spine to the feet and the floor (or to your ischial tuberosities—your sitting bones—and to your chair if you are seated). If you take the head and the top of the spine forward by 15°, so Dr. Hansraj has determined, that weight effectively becomes 27 pounds. At 30° it becomes 40 pounds, at 45° 49 pounds, and at 60° it becomes 60 pounds. If you spend any amount of time with your head dropped forward, it’s as if you are carrying the equivalent of several large bags of groceries around at the top of your neck. Dr. Hanraj estimates that people spend an average of 700 to 1400 hours a year with the head stooped like this, and speculates that the average High School student might spend 5,000 hours a year like this.

Fixing a problem like this might seem simple. All you have to do is not drop your head. The reality of this is quite different. Dropping your head to look at your cell phone can be such an ingrained habit that you don’t even realize when you’re doing it. And when you do, just pulling your head back is not going to be the best solution. If you do that, you will have taken the tension in your neck from having your head forward and and added to it the tension of pulling your head back. A better solution is to learn how to free your neck and allow your head to remain poised on the top of your spine while you negotiate your phone in the first place. Luckily, the Alexander Technique can help you do just that in a simple and effective way.

The America Center for the Alexander Technique has a 50-year tradition of excellence in training Alexander Technique teachers. If you would like to find out more about the Technique, find one of our affiliated teachers here.

[author] [author_image timthumb='on'][/author_image] [author_info]WITOLD FITZ-SIMON has been a student of the Alexander Technique since 2007. He is certified to teach the Technique as a graduate of the American Center for the Alexander Technique’s 1,600-hour, three year training program. A student of yoga since 1993 and a teacher of yoga since 2000, Witold combines his extensive knowledge of the body and its use into intelligent and practical instruction designed to help his students free themselves of ineffective and damaging habits of body, mind and being.[/author_info] [/author]

"Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life" by Marshall Rosenberg

NVCby Tim Tucker Note: The ACAT Faculty began working with NVC to meet our need for effective and empathic ways of communicating with our teachers-in-training. Alexander's work asks us to address our use on every level. Many of us found NVC supported that desire in the areas of perceiving, listening and speaking in ways that inhibited end-gaining and allowed us to support ourselves and our students in accessing a non-defensive and thoughtful internal state in which to learn how to teach the Alexander Technique. We added the book to our required reading so our teachers-in-training were introduced to NVC while on the course. All of our students are asked to write a response paper to a number of texts, including NVC, as part of their certification requirements. The following is Tim Tucker's response paper. —Brooke Lieb, Director, Teacher Certification Program

When I arrived at ACAT and reviewed the list of books we would be reading, I was pleased to note the inclusion of Marshall Rosenberg’s “Nonviolent Communication” among the titles.  My Zen teacher had already introduced me to Rosenberg’s work, but my knowledge of NVC remained quite superficial and I was pleased to have an opportunity to deepen my understanding of how it works and what it has to offer.

“Nonviolent Communication” is not a long book (212 pages) but the concepts explored in it seem so novel and the information is so dense in its presentation that it took quite a lot of time and effort to read the book.   This is probably because I have labored, like so many other people, under a significant degree of confusion about my perceptions and behavior.  I was (and often still am) in the habit of inappropriately melding things that ought to be looked at separately, while simultaneously separating things that need to be considered together.  Consider the following basic schemas:

Neutrally observe

Identify Feelings

Identify Needs

Make a request of the other person

The NVC model above, which is grounded in vulnerability, compassion and the ability to offer empathy (as opposed to giving advice or reassurance), stands in striking contrast to the way I, and many others, have typically operated:




Spin in self-validated feelings

Try to change the other person

It’s fairly obvious when two alternative behavioral models are laid out this clearly which one will likely lead to better results.  Yet NVC, which appears to be a much more direct route for people to get their needs met, is hardly the norm in our society.  Analysis, assessment, criticism, diagnosis, evaluation, interpretation and judgment take the place of neutral observation without our even being aware of it.  We don’t even see our own behavior, or that the “pain engendered by damaging cultural conditioning is such an integral part of our lives that we can no longer distinguish its presence.” (p. 165) In this state of near-unconsciousness, hypnotized by our habits and conditioning, it’s very easy to never examine feelings or to reflexively attribute them to other people who in our eyes are inevitably at fault and need to change whenever they fail to act in accord with our values and preferences.

I am very interested in why I and so many other people frequently exhibit the self-defeating patterns of communication delineated by Rosenberg, but the book does not delve much into that fascinating question.  What exactly is this “damaging cultural conditioning” alluded to by Rosenberg, and why does it happen in the first place?  Early in the text, Rosenberg says “I find that my cultural conditioning leads me to focus attention on places where I am unlikely to get what I want.”  (p. 4) In the chapter “Expressing Anger Fully,” he comments on a Swedish prisoner’s confusion of the stimulus triggering his anger (external) with the actual cause of his anger (internal), “By equating stimulus and cause, he had tricked himself…This is an easy habit to acquire in a culture that uses guilt as a means of controlling people.  In such cultures, it becomes important to trick people into thinking that we can make others feel a certain way.” (p. 136).  As for what Rosenberg thinks causes these unhelpful behaviors, a pretty clear indication is given on p. 23:

Most of us grew up speaking a language that encourages us to label, compare, demand and pronounce judgments rather than to be aware of what we are feeling and needing.  I believe life-alienating communication is rooted in views of human nature that have exerted their influence for several centuries.  These views stress our innate evil and deficiency, and a need for education to control our inherently undesirable nature.  Such education often leaves us questioning whether there is something wrong with whatever feelings and needs we may be experiencing.  We learn early to cut ourselves off from what’s going on within ourselves.  Life-alienating communication both stems from and supports hierarchical societies, the functioning of which depends upon large numbers of docile, subservient citizens.  When we are in contact with our feelings and needs, we humans no longer make good slaves and underlings.”

Thus, Rosenberg thinks that our communication and behavioral problems actually serve the interest of those in power in our society.  He is effectively saying that the dysfunction and pain so prevalent among the mass of people and so vividly displayed in their misguided, violent communication sustains the dominance of the elites who control most of the wealth and resources.  Simply put, the proletariat is voluntarily colluding with their oppressors in big business and government without even being aware of it, and on an extremely intimate level.

Whether Rosenberg is correct or not in his view on the genesis of life-alienating communication, it clearly is a conditioned behavior; life-alienating communication is the NVC equivalent of F.M. Alexander putting his head back and down and gasping for breath when he wanted to recite Shakespeare.  And just as we find in our practice of Alexander, breaking our habit of life-alienating communication in NVC requires us to rein in conditioned, habitual, reflexive behavior by stopping and thinking before engaging in an activity – in this case, before speaking.  This stopping, by definition, requires us to slow down and take more time to do whatever we’re doing.

Consider the following passage from “Nonviolent Communication,” which strongly echoes Walter Carrington’s “Thinking Aloud”:

“Probably the most important part of learning how to live the process that we have been discussing is to take our time.  We may feel awkward deviating from the habitual behaviors that our conditioning has rendered automatic, but if our intention is to live life in harmony with our values, then we’ll want to take our time.” (p. 146)

Carrington’s version of this way of thinking is:

“I always say to people, ‘Think about time.  Realize how much time is a personal thing, how much time is an individual possession….you’re the only person who can give yourself time.  Nobody else can give you time.  You’ve got to take the time.  You’ve got to be prepared to take the time it takes.”  Thinking Aloud, pp. 130-131.

NVC and Alexander Technique both provide lenses for people to look at how they unconsciously and habitually harm themselves, and tools for people to learn to stop and apply the “new, correct messages” that can return them to a more natural and healthy way of being and relating.  Both AT and NVC require that we slow down and apply a great deal of scrutiny to how we perform a host of deceptively simple activities we formerly took for granted (and often still take for granted).  By slowing down and paying careful attention to ourselves and our behavior, we practitioners of these remarkable disciplines are swimming against the tide of our cultural conditioning.  Although the tide of cultural conditioning can seem overwhelming it will, through diligent self-work, be overwhelmed.  Put another way, if everyone in our society were to suddenly begin to diligently practice these disciplines, the entire machinery of our frenzied, addictive, commercial culture would quite simply collapse.

[author][author_info]TIM TUCKER, a fourth-term teacher trainee at ACAT, was drawn to the Alexander Technique because of its strong affinity with his Zen Buddhist practice.  A former stock market analyst and artist, Tim is very interested in studying culturally promoted patterns of addiction, violence and waste in American society.[/author_info] [/author]

The Alexander Technique and Back Care

BMJ_cover-227x300by Witold Fitz-Simon In 2008, the British Medical Journal published the results of their randomized controlled trial of Alexander Technique lessons, exercise, and massage for chronic and recurrent back pain. This is not exactly news for those in the Alexander Technique community, as word of favorable scientific studies travel fast. The results were so positive in favor of the Technique, however, that it is worth giving them another look.

579 patients with chronic or recurring back pain were selected from 64 general practices in the United Kingdom. 144 people were given normal care for back pain that you might receive from any general practitioner. 147 were given six sessions of massage. 144 were given six Alexander Technique lessons. 144 were given 24 Alexander technique lessons. Half of the people in each of these groups were also given an exercise program.

The participants in the study were interviewed three months after their interventions were given, and again after twelve months. As you might expect, the control group showed no improvement after three months or beyond. Of the other groups, all showed some improvement. What is remarkable is what was found at the one-year mark. Those who had received massage reported they still experienced around 21 days of pain in the previous four weeks, whereas those who had taken six lessons in the Alexander Technique reported around 11 days of pain. Those who had taken 24 lessons in the Technique that ended a year previously reported only around 3 days of pain in the prior 4 weeks!

Here is the video that the BMJ produced explaining their study:

The American Center for the Alexander technique has a 50-year tradition of excellence in training teachers of the Alexander Technique. Click here to find a teacher near you.

[author] [author_image timthumb='on'][/author_image] [author_info]WITOLD FITZ-SIMON has been a student of the Alexander Technique since 2007. He is certified to teach the Technique as a graduate of the American Center for the Alexander Technique’s 1,600-hour, three year training program. A student of yoga since 1993 and a teacher of yoga since 2000, Witold combines his extensive knowledge of the body and its use into intelligent and practical instruction designed to help his students free themselves of ineffective and damaging habits of body, mind and being.[/author_info] [/author]

Alexander Technique Shown to Benefit Business

business-graphics-1428672-mby Witold Fitz-Simon In a study conducted in 2011, Alexander Technique teacher Mireia Mora Griso undertook a study of large companies who gave their employees training in the Alexander Technique. If you have studied the Alexander Technique, the results are, perhaps not surprising, but for the business world at large, they should be a wake-up call to Big Business of the power of the Technique to improve productivity and cut health-care costs.

Griso’s research protocol whittled down her subjects to ten major companies:

  • Victorinox (Swiss knife company)
  • Unicible (an IT company)
  • Siemens AG (an electrical engineering company)
  • Treuhand GmbH (an accountancy practice)
  • Ville de Lausanne (a town services organization)
  • D. E. V. K. (an insurance company)
  • Steuerberaterverban Schleswig-Holstein (a tax consultancy company)
  • Alliance Insurance Corporation (an insurance company)
  • Chevron-Texaco (an energy company)
  • Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center (a hospital)

In each of these companies, more than 50 people were given significant training in the Technique (more than just an introductory session). In each of the companies, the training was given substantial support as an important part of policy over, at minimum, a three-year period. The Alexander Technique teachers conducting the training all reported that the people they worked with recognized the need to improve their quality of life in the workplace and, despite initial resistance in some cases, the majority of people became positive about the work.

The study produced a fascinating list of benefits of the Technique reported by the participants:

Physical Benefits

  • Reduced pain and disability
  • Improved muscle tone
  • Postural coordination and balance

Psychological Benefits

  • Stress management
  • Improvements in self-esteem
  • Improvements in public speaking
  • Improvements in creativity
  • Improvements in conentration
  • Improvements in team work

Business Benefits

  • Reduced work hours lost to illness
  • Reduced accidents
  • Reduced employment insurance costs
  • Improved cost-profits relationship
  • Improved work performance

To read about the study in “TalkBack” the quarterly magazine off BackCare, the U. k.’s National Back Pain Association, go here.

[author] [author_image timthumb='on'][/author_image] [author_info]WITOLD FITZ-SIMON has been a student of the Alexander Technique since 2007. He is certified to teach the Technique as a graduate of the American Center for the Alexander Technique’s 1,600-hour, three year training program. A student of yoga since 1993 and a teacher of yoga since 2000, Witold combines his extensive knowledge of the body and its use into intelligent and practical instruction designed to help his students free themselves of ineffective and damaging habits of body, mind and being.[/author_info] [/author]

The Alexander Technique and Yoga: Parallel Inquiries Into Freeing The Self

by Witold Fitz-Simon On the face of it, Yoga and the Alexander Technique would seem to be two completely different disciplines. Comparing them would be like comparing a dog with an iPad. Although they originated in very different times from very different cultural traditions, and would appear to have emerged out of very different intentions, thematically, they do have a lot in common. In a lecture given in 1985, John Nicholls—a senior teacher of the Alexander Technique—sought to put the work in a larger context of world traditions that aim to delve into the deeper nature of humanity. He identified seven general themes common to abroad array of such traditions, including disparate bodies of work as Freudian psychology, Osteopathy and Zen Meditation. The full text of his lecture can be found here.

The seven themes he identified are these:

  1. Consciousness becoming conscious of itself and the unconscious/subconscious
  2. Need to understand and control our reactions
  3. Being out of touch with feelings
  4. The integration of the body and mind
  5. The search for natural functioning (non-interference)
  6. Search for a central core to integrate the parts, a Center, Self or "I"
  7. Renewed interest in "vital force", bio-energy, Chi, Prana, etc.

A quick overview of how these themes interweave through Yoga and the Alexander Technique reveals that, although the terminology and the larger philosophical frameworks of each system might be different, the underlying concerns and observations are quite similar.

1. Consciousness Becoming Conscious of Itself and the Unconscious/Subconscious

The fundamental cause of human suffering from the perspective of both Yoga and the Alexander Technique is an essential misunderstanding of who and what we are. We act and react mindlessly and instinctively to the stimuli of life without clear, conscious reasoning. Each time we do so, we further ingrain the habits, misperceptions and faulty assumptions that have led us to where we are in the present moment.

Both systems hold that the only way to rectify our tendency for this kind of automatic behavior is to undertake the task of self-knowing. In Yoga, an awakening is necessary to discern what is real from the unreal in order to transcend the endless wheel of suffering in birth, life, death and rebirth. In the Alexander Technique an awakening is necessary to become aware of restrictive habits of mind and body in order to create the freedom and wellbeing of proper functioning of the human system. For both, this means, delving into that which is initially obscured from mundane waking consciousness. Both offer clear, well-considered practices and procedures to the student, giving them a framework With which to explore themselves in a formal setting and in the chaotic and uncontrollable outside world.

2. The Need to Understand and Control our Reactions

Both systems understand that it is not so much the doing of things that gets us into trouble as it is the underlying frame of mind that does the damage. In Yoga, every action has a consequence (the law of karma). Each of these consequences further deepens our suffering, be it physical, mental or existential. Some of these consequences will not necessarily come to fruition in the present lifetime, thus hurtling us forward into further births. We must learn the underlying causes of our actions in order to learn to act in such a way that we undo the harm we have done to ourselves.

The Alexander Technique also holds that every action has a consequence, although the consequences F. M. Alexander was concerned with were all of them much more immediate and written on the body. Every reaction based on habit, or the result of the sympathetic nervous system’s startle response, is a compression and a restriction that puts more stress on the body and mind of the individual, that contributes to greater discomfort and deterioration of proper functioning of the person’s entire system, edging them closer to the possibility of emotional upset, injury and disease. Only by learning to observe and inhibit our reactions, and to project specific intentions for more organized, balanced functioning can we avoid and retrain ourselves to greater ease and wellbeing.

3. Being Out of Touch with Feelings

Both yoga and the Alexander Technique have an interesting relationship to the senses of the body. Both are of the opinion that the way we use the senses causes us more harm than good. In Yoga, the thought is that paying attention to the senses draws us away from the Self, where the important knowledge lies, into the outside world. The Alexander Technique shares that thought, positing that we are too quick to respond to the stimuli that the senses bring us. Both believe it necessary to create a dispassionate distance between the object of the senses and the awareness so as to watch and direct the reactions of the self. The Alexander Technique even recognizes an additional sense, kinesthesia (the “feeling” sense), which needs to be regarded with a healthy degree of skepticism for the faulty impressions it can bring.

4. The Integration of the Body and Mind

Both Yoga and the Alexander Technique recognize that there is no separation between body and mind. They are two aspect of the larger whole of the Self. The body can be directed to influence the mind just as the mind can be directed to influence the body. The two must come together and work in unison to create the desired change in the individual.

5. The Search for Natural Functioning (Non-Interference)

In the Indian philosophical tradition, the human body is made up of a network of 72,000 subtle energy channels. These channels feed into seven wheel-like energy centers, or chakras, that align along a central column running from tail to head. If these channels are open, and the wheels are spinning freely as they should, then the snake-like spiritual energy known as kundalini coiled at the bottom of the spine will be free to rise and higher consciousness will be achieved. The goal of a physical yoga practice is to purify and open all these channels so that spiritual energy can flow freely.

From the Alexander Technique perspective, the human system is pretty much perfect when we are young children. Having emerged from the womb a largely blank slate of potential, the infant develops naturally, learning to push and pull, to lift its head, reach and grab, eventually learning to pull itself upright to stand an move about. It is only as it gets older that the child starts to learn bad habits that pull it away from the perfect poise of the toddler. The Alexander Technique aims to undo all the interferences and to get the individual back to that state of wasteful poise.

6. and 7. Search for a Central Core and Renewed Interest in Vital Energy

In some ways, these final two themes are where Yoga and the Alexander Technique are perhaps the most closely aligned. Both gave a strong sense of rising energy along a central channel with the head playing an important role in the final integration of body and mind.

In Yoga, the kundalini energy is encouraged to rise up the central subtle energy channel, the sushumna nadi. When it reaches the head, it blossoms out of the energy wheel at the top of the head and joins with the energy of the universe around it. In the Alexander a Technique, the upward flow of energy is directed through the torso along the lengthening and widening spine where the head is encouraged to balance in a poised state of freedom, leading the movement and subtle functioning of the whole system.

This post originally appeared on Witold Fitz-Simon's blog.

[author] [author_image timthumb='on'][/author_image] [author_info]WITOLD FITZ-SIMON has been a student of the Alexander Technique since 2007. He is certified to teach the Technique as a graduate of the American Center for the Alexander Technique’s 1,600-hour, three year training program. A student of yoga since 1993 and a teacher of yoga since 2000, Witold combines his extensive knowledge of the body and its use into intelligent and practical instruction designed to help his students free themselves of ineffective and damaging habits of body, mind and being.[/author_info] [/author]

The Shoulders: To Rest or Not to Rest?

519px-Pectoral_girdle_front_diagram.svgby John Austin Finding neutral for the shoulders is one of the most challenging things one can do in terms of the use of the self in my experience. Add a complex activity that requires a certain level of ease in the shoulder girdle on top and you’ve got a recipe for paradox and frustration.

Let’s begin with the basic anatomy of the shoulder girdle. When I refer to the “shoulder girdle” I mean the hands & arms, shoulder blades, and collar bone. You may be surprised to learn that the only jointed (bone to bone) connection of the shoulder girdle to the rest of the skeleton is in the front of the torso at the top of the sternum.

Find your collar-bone (clavicle) by palpating the bone and follow it toward the mid-line until find two roundish protrusions at either side of the top of chest bone (sternum). You are on top of the sternoclavicular joint(s) where the shoulder girdle meets the rest of the skeleton.

If you follow the collar bone out from the mid-line toward the arm until it reaches the furthest bony protrusion you’ve found the point where the clavicle meets the shoulder blade (scapula), the acromioclavicular joint. It’s called the acromioclavicular joint because it is where the clavicle and the point of the scapula furthest from the mid-line, called the acromion process (processes are protrusions that allow for muscle and ligament attachment), meet. This should not be confused with the glenohumeral joint where the upper arm attaches to the shoulder blade; there is no direct bone to bone attachment of the upper arm to the collarbone.

John Austin, aged 11

Now, palpate your way back to toward the mid-line from the acromion, this time following the shoulder blade until it reaches what will feel like the corner of a triangle. You are feeling the “spine” of the scapula. Depending on your muscle build you may have to press quite firmly and the scapula may seemingly disappear into muscle. The strong muscles of the back are what support and stabilize the shoulder girdle as there are no bone to bone attachments in the back. The structure of the shoulder girdle, while providing extreme freedom of movement, also brings an ambiguousness when looking for a neutral position for the shoulders and arms.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that how we use ourselves in our daily activities has a profound effect on the resting lengths of our muscles. It is this phenomenon that we are observing when we see pianists and people who spend hours at the computer still in the shape they work from when walking, eating, watching TV, etc. In the case of the shoulder girdle this can be quite extreme. Because of the lack of bony structural support, the resting position of our shoulders is almost completely determined by the resting lengths of our muscles. If we overstretch our muscles in daily activity, we run the risk of deteriorating the support that allows the shoulders to find a comfortable resting position.

johnnorestAlong the way to becoming a “serious” violist, I was told to keep my shoulders relaxed. So I went about figuring out how to do that. I am meticulous in the practice room and before long I had discovered that I could relax my left shoulder while playing although my right didn’t really follow suit. The static nature of the left shoulder in violin & viola playing allows for a certain amount of relaxation (release of all/most muscle tone) while the larger more dynamic movements of the bow require the arm muscles which originate in the back to be active for movement to occur. The left shoulder can relax even more if you use a shoulder rest as you then virtually never have to move your shoulder.

On the surface you’d think that one less thing to worry about (moving the shoulder to balance the instrument) and a little less muscular effort would be good; so for years I ignorantly thought, “I’m raising my right shoulder, that’s not good.” Yet, after hours of playing it was not my right shoulder that cracked and popped, it was my left. Even after years of receiving praise for my tone which of course comes primarily from the bow, I thought, “But my left is down so it must be better than my right,” and went about trying to lower my right. Needless to say I was unsuccessful.

It wasn’t until years of Alexander work that I realized what I was actually doing was relaxing my left shoulder to the point that it was resting on my rib cage. This was the grinding bone on bone I felt in the form of constant cracking and popping when I moved my arm. I was robbing my shoulder girdle of it’s muscular support by relaxing it and then dragging it across my rib cage.

It turns out that the last thing we want to do when doing any activity is rest. The word activity even contains active! To remedy my issue, I had to relearn to play the viola without the shoulder rest. I found that every little shift was a welcome opportunity for movement in my shoulder girdle. Rather than trying to hold myself still or relax into a blob I was free to move and the movement had an organizing effect on my shoulder girdle which helped remind my shoulder blades where neutral was. I had been taught that raising my shoulder was off limits movement-wise on the viola. How ridiculous a notion it was to make a movement off limits when all of the great violinists and even Primrose himself did this subtle lift of the shoulder.

This rule I assume was a reaction to the common problem of violists & violinists clamping down on the instrument between their necks and shoulders, which isn’t much better. Although, too much tension is less likely to destabilize your shoulder girdle. In my case, relaxing has left me not being able to let my left shoulder be in it’s neutral resting place without pain. I’ve over-stretched the muscles and they now rest on bone and nerves. It takes subtle conscious direction of my shoulder for the pain to subside, which is annoying to say the least.

I’m not sure if it is laziness, bad teaching, or what exactly is at the root of the shoulder rest debate in the string playing world. I’ve already written about the laziness possibility here. String teachers having a very small part of the body of knowledge necessary is possible, pun very much intended. It could just come down to the fact that playing the viola is extremely difficult and the shoulder rest is a seductive little crutch that can allow us to avoid having to learn how to properly use our shoulder girdle in the process of playing the viola, which is not simple and takes a long time to do.

Once again the most healthy option seems to be to stop trying to gain our end without reasoning out a means whereby to attain it; not to mention means that at the very least don’t leave us physically and mentally destroyed and/or with a mediocre end: the music which we care so dearly about.

This post originally appeared on John Austin's blog.

[author] [author_image timthumb='on'][/author_image] [author_info]JOHN AUSTIN started pondering and pontificating on the probable and possible reasons for the tragic loss of joy in himself and his fellow musicians as he approached his breaking point in a music conservatory. In fact, he was nearly a casualty of the music “busi-ness" when he stumbled on the Alexander Technique. Since then he's been inspired by his training at the American Center for the Alexander Technique to write in an attempt to better understand what was happening to himself and others. Mr. Austin has an active performing career, blog, and teaching studio in West Harlem, Manhattan.[/author_info] [/author]

Why What "Feels Right" Can Be The Wrong Thing To Do

skeletonby Witold Fitz-Simon Every one of us has a "sixth sense." Unfortunately, it's nothing fancy. It's not telepathy, or the ability to see ghosts, or anything supernatural like that. It is pretty cool, in its own way, even though most of us take it completely for granted most of the time. Our sixth sense is a "feeling" sense made up of information we get from our bodies.

Kinesthesia and Proprioception

This feeling sense, called either proprioception or kinesthesia, works a little differently than our other five senses. Each of the traditional five senses, has its own sense organ: sight has the eyes, sound has the ears, etc. The feeling sense is different.

Instead of getting all its information from one source, your brain takes information from organs in different parts of your body and knits it together into one sense. It compiles information from your muscles, joints, tendons and your inner ear to give you an awareness of movement, effort and the position of your joints and limbs. This awareness, your proprioceptive sense, becomes the foundation for the way you sit, stand, walk around or work at the computer. It informs everything you do.

Why it "Feels Right"

Last week on the blog we looked at habits and how hard they are to break. In an nutshell, this is because our brains take complex behaviors and reduce all the different parts that make them up into a single behavioral chunk. This chunk then gets imprinted into our brains with a positive reinforcement mechanism that includes the chemical dopamine. The way we use our bodies, and the proprioceptive memory associated with that use, is part of that chunked behavior. As a result, it feels good or "feels right" to do the habit in a particular way.

Why "Feeling Right" Can Lead You Wrong

Just because a way of doing something has that feeling of "rightness" to it, that doesn't mean it is necessarily your best choice in any given moment. Your proprioceptive or kinesthetic sense often feeds you bad information. The sense receptors in your muscles, tendons and joints register change. If you raise your arm, for example, they tell you that the position of your arm has changed from one place to another. They tell you that the muscular effort expended by the muscles in your shoulder has changed from one amount to another, as well as the rate at which that change took place. After a while, if there is no more change happening, they reset themselves to this new state. They no longer send information to your brain.

This can lead to two problems. If you do the same thing wrong the same way over and over, after a while your proprioceptive sense will no longer register it. Say you tense your neck all the time you are sitting at your computer, your proprioceptive sense will begin to tune it out. This will begin to carry over into other activities. The misuse will get folded in with all your other behavioral patterns and will begin to feel right. You will only be reinforcing the bad habit.

This, then, leads us to the second problem. In order for your sense receptors to pick up any new information, you will have to create change. If you try and "feel out" a part of your body, perhaps to learn more about it or fix it, you will most likely be adding more effort to that place.

Do the Right Thing

So what's the solution to this awkward situation? Change your relationship to your proprioceptive/kinesthetic sense. Rather than getting caught up in the sensations of your body, open your awareness out to include the space around you as well as the information you get about yourself. Rely on that visual and spatial awareness instead. Staying connected to your other senses and the space around you will give your system the message to be a little less compressed, a little less effortful, a little more expansive.

Better still, try taking an Alexander Technique lesson with a certified teacher. They can show you a whole new way to relate to your body that will help you identify and release your bad habits. They will show you how to repattern the way you use yourself to a more efficient and easeful standard.

[author] [author_image timthumb='on'][/author_image] [author_info]WITOLD FITZ-SIMON has been a student of the Alexander Technique since 2007. He is certified to teach the Technique as a graduate of the American Center for the Alexander Technique’s 1,600-hour, three year training program. A student of yoga since 1993 and a teacher of yoga since 2000, Witold combines his extensive knowledge of the body and its use into intelligent and practical instruction designed to help his students free themselves of ineffective and damaging habits of body, mind and being.[/author_info] [/author]

Why Are Habits So Hard To Break?

mazeby Witold Fitz-Simon A recent cover story in Scientific American revealed how the brain creates habits and why they are so hard to break. In their article, researchers Ann Gaybriel (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Kyle S. Smith (Dartmouth College) outline three stages to laying down a habit:

  1. Explore a new behavior
  2. Form a habit
  3. Imprint it into the brain

Exploring New Behaviors

As you explore a new behavior, three parts of your brain—the prefrontal cortex, the striatum and the midbrain—communicate together to form positive feedback loops that help you determine whether nor not the behavior helps you achieve your goals.

Let’s take as an example, reaching down to pick up and put on your shoes. When you first learn to do this, you might make the choice, consciously or not, to counterbalance as you reach forward to pick the shoes up by allowing your head to drop back and down. To reach your shoes, you are extending your arm out quite a way beyond the stable support of your mid-line and your center of gravity, and taking the weight of your head back creates a feeling of stability. It may not be the best way to do this, but it works in the moment and, anyway, you are more concerned with getting your shoes on than you are with anything else.

The next time you put your shoes on, your brain remembers the sequence of behaviors you performed to fulfill your goal and sets up an expectation of success or failure. You put your shoes on the same way you did before. It works again. The brain makes a note that this sequence of behaviors is an effective way of achieving the goal. This process is repeated every time you put your shoes on, reinforced each time.

Forming a Habit

A habit, from the perspective of the brain, is a sequence of actions or behaviors that get lumped together into one single unit: a chunk of brain activity. When you are first exploring the action, the brain acts with deliberation. It has no expectations and needs to make conscious choices. Let’s take our example of putting on your shoes. The sequence of deliberate choices to get your shoes might look like this:

  1. You see your shoes.
  2. You reach out and down to pick them up and drop your head back to counterbalance the reach of your arm.
  3. With your head thrown off balance, your back gets stiff as you bend down to get to your shoes, so you support yourself by putting your other hand on your thigh.
  4. You sit down with a plop and slump forward to pick your shoes up and put them on.
  5. You try and stand up from your slumped position with your head back and down and need to push off the chair to get up.

As I said, these might not be the most efficient or elegant set of choices you could make, but your goal is to put your shoes on and not necessarily to bother with the details. After this has happened enough times, the process gets simplified in your brain to this:

  1. You see your shoes
  2. You put them on

Your brain takes all those different choices and lumps them together into one behavioral package.

Imprinting The Habit

Once you have repeated the behavior enough for it have become combined into one single chunk of neurological activity, the infralimbic cortex and the striatum work together to make it semi-permamanent in the brain. When you need to put your shoes on, you use the habitual chunk. As the chunk is in there semi-permanently in your behavioral repertoire, your brain won’t necessarily distinguish between your shoes and a wet towel on the bathroom floor, or anything else that you need to pick up from below your current level, so it uses the same chunk.

What Makes A Habit So Hard To Break?

Once the habit is “chunked” and imprinted like this, very little neurological activity is required to use it. In an experiment, rats were trained to run down a maze and turn left or right when they heard a particular sound to receive a reward. When they were first being trained, activity in the brain was very high. As they started to learn how to respond to the signals they were being given, brain activity got less, except for when they had to make a decision. Once they were fully trained, there was high brain activity at the beginning of the run and at the end, but while they were performing the habitual behavior, brain activity was significantly lower. To say when we do something habitually, we are doing it “without much thought” is a fair description of what is actually happening in the brain. Sometimes, when we do things habitually, we are barely conscious of them at all, let alone capable of breaking down the habit into the successive choices that make it up.

How The Alexander Technique Can Help You Break Your Habits

The Alexander Technique teaches how to think in activity, rather than be at the mercy of habitual "chunks" of behavior. It gives you a framework within which to observe the habits as they arise. It teaches you how to let go of the habitual behavior and how to replace it with deliberate, conscious alternatives. To find a certified Alexander Technique teacher near you, click here.

To read the article in Scientific American click here. (You will need to purchase a copy of the issue to read the full article.)

To read an interview with Ann Gaybriel, click here.

To read a technical article on the research, click here.

[author] [author_image timthumb='on'][/author_image] [author_info]WITOLD FITZ-SIMON has been a student of the Alexander Technique since 2007. He is certified to teach the Technique as a graduate of the American Center for the Alexander Technique’s 1,600-hour, three year training program. A student of yoga since 1993 and a teacher of yoga since 2000, Witold combines his extensive knowledge of the body and its use into intelligent and practical instruction designed to help his students free themselves of ineffective and damaging habits of body, mind and being.[/author_info] [/author]