(Visionaries is a work in progress, so if you would like to read the articles so far please go to the page ‘Visionaries’ in the menu at the top of the page)
Every thought we have affects every cell of the body.
Alexander, like Feldenkrais, was a body re-educator and a visionary. He also realised how crucial it was for people to be happy and comfortable in their bodies, and for them to find their true nature and live according to it. Unlike Feldenkrais, he was not a scientist but an artist, so having both of them in my life has provided an element of great balance. Feldenkrais was interested in organisms in movement, while Alexander was fascinated by stillness and the power of the mind and hands. He was a healer, and he came to teach others because he healed himself. His story in brief will follow, but first, my introduction to the Alexander technique.
I remember so clearly the first Alexander lesson I had. Alexander preferred the terms ‘lesson’ and ‘pupil’ even though he, like Feldenkrais, was handing over techniques for body-re-education, not cultivating a following. So, from that point of view, they were very similar in their determination that people should be independent and have the resources to change and heal themselves. In other words, they were both devoted to the notions of self-realization and self-education. The foundational position for Alexander work, and the position of ultimate rest for the ‘head-neck-spine,’ known as the centre of primary control of the body, is called the semi-supine.
One lies directly on a hard surface, ie. the floor or a table, and rests the edge of the skull on 2 or 3 centimetres of paperback books. This is not a relaxation exercise, so there should preferably be silence, and no soft covering under the length of the body. The hard surface provides stimulation, the books the same, because only when the body is stimulated, can we interact in a meaningful way with gravity.
Alexander made a clear separation between relaxation and body work, encouraging pupils to utilize their full concentration to visualize the body and make changes inside it. Feldenkrais movement sequences are learned to bring about changes to reveal the natural self; whereas Alexander taught how to harness stillness to gradually return the body to its natural state.
Lying in this position of optimum rest for the central headquarters of the body, the spine, and gathering the energy of the mind to attend to areas of tightness and distortion, was such a relief to me in my busy life when I first started the Alexander Technique. Although, unlike other people I knew, I did not seek out the technique due to illness or accident. I was a professional musician and teacher at the time, interested by Alexander work applied to performance and stage fright among my students, as well as to my own performance skills. As I employed it more and more often in my own teaching, I could see before my very eyes, performers casting off layers of artificial conditioning, of negative suggestions and fears of criticism, which were often the result of old-fashioned teaching methods designed to induce fear.
The way Alexander created his Technique and the fascinating interfering mind-sets that he observed and then set about changing to make them more natural, is inspiring. Like all visionaries, the main topic of this series of articles, he had the determination to search doggedly and persevere through great hardship, to ease the dis-ease that many people experienced in their lives.
He was born in 1869 in Tasmania, and worked as an actor or reciter, and soon became established as an elocutionist. However, it is significant that as a child he suffered from acute respiratory ailments and then went on to embark on a career, which relied solely on his respiratory stamina. We could say that there was strong karma ripening in Alexander, and that mastering his breathing was part of his destiny.
In those days, a reciter would perform alone for long periods of time, without any electrical means of projection of the voice, so great stamina was requisite. In addition, the style of acting and posture was stiff and rather military. One can imagine Alexander standing ram-rod stiff, the head held high, jaw protracted, the knees locked back, the arms in tension by the sides, wearing his formal evening dress, on a dim stage illuminated by gas lamps or candles. It is perhaps predictable that it was not long before he became hoarse and lost his voice entirely, which was a major problem as far as his livelihood went. He then set about finding medical treatment for his condition from the best larynjologists, none of whom could find the cause although they of course could treat the symptoms.
So, as this failure of the voice went on occurring even after rest and all manner of medicine and balms, Alexander concluded that there was something he was doing as he performed which was causing the blocking of the voice. He became determined to identify the exact cause for himself by closely observing his performance techniques. He set up a series of mirrors which allowed him to see every part of his anatomy as he stood in reciting position, and eventually he realized that the problem lay in the way he pulled back his head, and raised his jaw, so shortening the back of his neck and constricting his larynx.
At last he had the solution to his personal problem which was to lower his jaw and lengthen the back of his neck so allowing the larynx to relax and lie in a natural position. There were no further problems with his performance, but in addition he realised the importance of his discovery and its implications for performers and for anyone with a dis-ease, and set about teaching others. This is another feature of a true visionary – the Buddha, Christ and other spiritual leaders, etc – who are not content to become enlightened for their own benefit, but generate true bodhicitta (see my article:http://wp.me/p3O6mn-6K) in order to lift all sentient beings out of their suffering. Of course, many may say that Alexander craved fame and power by developing his technique, but having studied his works, I feel strongly that this is not the case. His motivation was I am certain pure.
Lying in the semi-supine is a perfect preparation to receive the hands of an Alexander teacher working to encourage release of tension in the areas of primary control. This position allows refuge from the constant bombardment of gravity when we are vertical. The low back is often a cause of pain and dis-ease because we generally do not get the correct type of rest during long busy days.
In the semi-supine position, with the legs bent at the knee and the feet flat on the floor, the low back can naturally and gradually release downwards, thus using gravitational forces to advantage. The stimulating surface, which supports and helps release the length of the spine, gradually supports the low back also. This process usually takes about 20 minutes. As the low back returns to its natural shallow instead of pronounced curve, the other natural curve of the spine at the level of the neck correspondingly softens and drops downwards.
Once the spine is functioning more naturally, the arms and legs, which are connected by nerve fibres into the spine also, begin to lose the excessive tension needed to sustain long periods without refuge from gravitational pressure. The elbows soften and increase their contact area with the supporting surface, as do the soles of the feet. Eventually, the whole skeletal system starts to change and the breathing deepens, all of which has a profound effect on the way the mind works.
Of course, it is difficult for some people to slow down or end their habitual patterns of anxious thought and inner dialogue, in order to simply be, breathing naturally and lengthening and widening; in other words, recovering from excessive gravitational stress. But once the mind slows down in tandem with the breathing, it can begin to appreciate the changes which are in progress, and to build up experience of well-being, which it then craves.
I remember when I started to crave this sense of balance and this quality of mind and attention. It seemed that nothing else mattered during my time lying in the semi-supine and the following lesson, so that I could focus myself in order to recharge my energy. This meant that I could go back into the vertical better prepared to avoid undue compression and exaggerated curving or tightening.
At a physical level, this became a marvelous resource which I could access any time independently of teachers or doctors, etc. But at the mental level, there was a new sense of balance and a realization that reality was here and now, exactly in each second as my mind voyaged around my body acquainting itself in a novel way. It became clear to me that Alexander had uncovered a way of complete meditation into the body.
On the spiritual level, many things happened: I became acutely aware; the tears flowed freely as I released into my natural state; a sense of pure joy arose as I was able to simply be. I felt as if I was a plant or animal in a state of harmony lying on the face of the planet, under an infinity of blue sky, breathing and filling with light which flooded into compressed areas of my body. Both my uniqueness as a fully functioning organism, and my role in universal terms, became so clear.
As a Buddhist seeker, while working with my Buddhist Alexander teacher Don Burton, I realized that unwittingly Alexander had opened up a route to emptiness, mindfulness and the revealing of Buddha Nature. (see: http://wp.me/p3O6mn-cF;http://wp.me/p3O6mn-ck) He was not a self-confessed religious man, but his determination and vision made it possible for anyone to aspire to polish their Buddha Nature, and in the process to ease the body, relieving it of discomfort and pain.
The body work can speak for itself along with the healing hands and attention of the focused Alexander teacher, but in addition there are two psychological facets of the technique which can help us to change our ingrained and often detrimental patterns. The first is the notion of end-gaining; and the second, inhibition.
End-gaining: staying with the process
From his observations of himself in an array of mirrors, Alexander realised that sincere intention and motivation were the key to using the body naturally. In other words, actions usually start from thoughts, so if our thoughts are pure and altruistic, overflowing with the love that we can embody, then our skeleton and muscles will move smoothly and beautifully. Also, if that sincere thought is carried into an action, then that action constitutes a process, and if we give our full attention to that process, the outcome will take are of itself. Conversely, if we are not sincere and we are only focused on results and outcomes, perhaps the process will break down and the outcome will be flawed.
In Buddhist terms, this has parallels with emptiness and Buddha Nature; in other words, the realization that the self-serving ego, the self that is created by the mind and imposed upon the natural self, always needs a witness and usually an ongoing dialogue. In terms of performance or martial arts/sports, etc. this is known as the condition of ‘no mind:’ if we want to execute a skill efficiently and smoothly, we should not allow the synthetic mind to interfere in that process. We can see excellent examples of bodies functioning without the critical mind with its negative tendencies in the animal kingdom and healthy human children.
Take the example of serving tea to someone. If we are under the control of our negative mind, or if our mind is visiting another time or place other than the present one, we are likely to spill the tea or drop the cups, etc. If however, we are serving tea with loving thoughts, standing in the shoes of the recipient, then our bodies will behave naturally: for example, the teapot will be lifted in harmony with the gravitational force exerted on it, and the body will accurately measure its weight; the wrist will tip the spout of the pot smoothly and accurately so that the tea is poured efficiently, and it will stop the flow of tea easily and accurately, etc. Eventually, the tea cup or its saucer will be lifted and moved through the air to be placed elegantly within reach of the recipient, etc. Such a seemingly simple process is complex, but the body has all the skills it needs to execute it perfectly.
Of course, when it comes to intricate processes like virtuosic piano fingering and velocity, or outstanding sporting or dancing feats, the absence of ‘mind’ and a state of emptiness, is essential. The skill itself and the skilled executant should be in complete balance and harmony. Invariably, Alexander teachers use the example of a ringing telephone to illustrate this point.
We habitually react to the ringing of a bell, which by its very nature signals something about to happen. In the case of the phone, we hear the bell and usually tighten all our muscles in order to answer it, so we often ignore the process of preparing properly to answer it. Modern life is filled with such kind of compulsions and external stresses, which we are expected to react to without question. This idea neatly leads to the next of Alexander’s seminal ideas, Non-doing/inhibition.
Non-doing/Inhibition: changing habitual reactions and mindfulness
Human beings are conditioned in order to live in social groups and to control the possibility of anarchy and total destruction, and so we are trained as children by parents and schools, to develop the correct habits and responses. In order to change such habits that may be executed badly and be causing physiological or psychological damage or detriment, Alexander proved that we can inhibit such a habit and so change it or eliminate it totally. Again, answering the telephone mindlessly is a good example.. We can inhibit this by mindfully preparing to get up to answer the phone, and if we do this many times, we stand to change that habit from the negative to the positive.
Mindfullness in Buddhist terms has similar possibilities. If we focus on the moment and our sense of now and here, we can eliminate fears of the unknown and regrets about the past. We can train to fully realise that there is no moment except this one; and that any other moment is a product of the mind. Living in the centre of the moment is something we do quite naturally, but modern life prohibits it. This is our true nature; to live in emptiness always from the position of our higher selves. We can observe this disposition in children before heavy conditioning starts, and also in indigenous peoples who spend their life-time in close contact with nature.
Animals can be tamed or trained by humans beings so that they can be controlled or domesticated. But humans are basically animals and so they also are trained in order to live in densely populated societies. Such training can repress or even replace one’s true nature, a notion which motivated Feldenkrais and Alexander to re-educate the human organism.
Spiritual training can help us to live harmoniously with awareness, and to allow altruism to be a driving force in all that we do. If we can allow ourselves to be exactly what we in essence are – breathing, loving creatures with higher consciousness – then we have an improved chance of regaining our balance as a species, and of in turn balancing the organism of the planet of which we are each a vital component.
Non-doing is another Alexanderian term, which basically means stillness as opposed to inertia; so many of us have to work hard to eradicate the traces of doing because our lives are so busy and stressful. We produce too much adrenalin through fear and desperation to meet society’s high requirements, which becomes trapped in the body. Alexander teachers can only work to aid release and return to a natural state, if the pupil is non-doing. Insights into this technique from the teacher’s point of view, can take this comparison with spiritual training to another level.
In addition to perfecting skills, the Alexander Technique can bring about magical changes in people who are emotionally blocked or chronically sick, which is the healing element of the technique. I trained as an Alexander teacher for 3 years and worked to develop the non-doing qualities of my hands. Traditionally, an Alexander lesson begins with the pupil sitting and standing into and out of a straight-backed chair; the Alexander teacher positions him/her self behind the chair. Then, non-doing hands are placed lightly around the back of the neck, and gradually, with instructions, freedom and mobility are facilitated. However, the pupil needs to also be non-doing, succumbing to gravitational pressure, which means not helping the teacher in any way.
This is achievable only by letting go of the mind, by trusting the teacher, and by removing any end-gaining or human struggling. Both the teacher and pupil need to access their higher selves in order to activate the level of awareness needed to bring about deep changes and releases; and both can work on their own unconscious minds during this process.
As Feldenkrais did, Alexander found a way of touching the unconscious mind, the mass of ice below the surface, to bring about lasting changes and stimulate new aspirations, by accident and without any spiritual training. Many people I know who were opposed to direct spiritual training or membership of a religious group at a conscious level, were easily touched by this kind of body work to create new awareness and to become a bigger spiritual vehicle. In the same way as Feldenkrais’s system, Alexander training touched trainees indirectly, addressing their higher consciousness and often leading them to be open to more direct spiritual notions of the invisible world.
It would seem that Alexander, following his own higher self, created a system that would appeal to modern humans who have created their own synthetic worlds with their minds, and who have become isolated from their own hearts. His Technique meets trainees as their world, providing a way to use the energy of their minds to heal their ills and change deeply within.
I have witnessed so many people removing their masks during lessons, and then one day, taking them off forever. Once the principles of the Technique are assimilated and multiple experiences of freedom in the area of Primary Control are stored in the unconscious mind, then we can become our own teachers heightening our awareness of ourselves, and working to be our natural selves while living often unnatural lives.