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How does it work?
Your daily life can be seen as a continuous chain of stimuli and your usual habitual response to those stimuli. A stimulus can be anything: from receiving a phone call, to riding your bike, playing high notes on your instrument, or the computer in front of you. A stimulus can come from the outside: someone calling your name, a red traffic light, or seeing a spider. And it can come from the inside: your own thoughts, feelings and emotions.
When starting Alexander Technique lessons you will learn to allow for a brief moment of choice and calm, right after you’ve received a stimulus. During a lesson you’ll learn to implement this ‘choice moment’ by practicing to not immediately sit down in a chair or stand up from a chair. By calmly observing yourself you give yourself a chance to think about how you want to sit down or stand up, before doing so, so that you can perform this simple movement by releasing unnecessary tension, and coordinating yourself.
Practicing how to respond to this stimulus -the chair- with a moment of release, inner harmony and coordination is very helpful. But obviously the chair is a relatively easy stimulus! Once you get the hang of it, you can apply this moment of choice, observation and calm to more challenging stimuli like playing high notes on your musical instrument (see the example below), your computer screen, leaving late for an appointment; or even an audition or a concert.
By learning to respond to a stimulus with more calm, less unnecessary tension and better coordination, you can prevent your old unhelpful habit from getting in the way, making it a lot easier to move with a bit more flow, freedom and ease.
Take a look at the drawing on this page. Let me explain this drawing with a clear example from my private practice:
Meet Lucia, a talented double bass player, who came to me with pain in her hands and arms. In a series of 15 lessons her physical, mental and, indirectly, emotional aspects were all addressed:
First, Lucia slowly became more aware of her unhelpful physical habits; she started to notice she was unconsciously creating unnecessary tension in her neck, shoulders, arms and hands, mainly while playing high notes on her double bass, but in many other daily activities as well. She also noticed she was holding her breath a lot.
In addition, she found out that just before playing high notes she thought unhelpful things like; ‘oh no, maybe I won’t make it and it will be out of tune’, or, ‘playing high notes requires a lot of tension and force in my hands and arms’. These were her unhelpful mental habits and beliefs.
You can imagine that these physical and mental habits made her feel stressed and frightened. To become more at ease and feel safer she started to practice more and more, but in that way she also had more and more pain. The vicious circle was born.
Clearly, Lucia’s physical patterns would not have been changed successfully if her mental habits and feelings of discomfort and fear had been overlooked. Also it is clear why people’s well-meant advice to ‘just relax’, or ‘make sure you get stronger hands, arms and shoulders’ could not and did not work; she simply didn’t know how to relax and at the same time be strong enough to press down the strings. Exercises to strengthen her muscles made her more tense, leading to more pain.
Lucia’s Alexander Technique process had to start with increasing her self awareness; because only when she started to notice her unhelpful habits, could she change them into helpful habits.
She learned to think more helpful thoughts like ‘my back is strong, long and wide’, ‘the power comes from there, instead of just my hands and shoulders’. Simultaneously she learned how to release unnecessary tension from her neck, shoulders, arms and hands, so that muscles started to be less shortened and cramped, becoming long and strong instead, in this way diminishing and preventing pain.
Now she was able to stop before shifting to a high note, so that she could choose to play the high notes differently; from a lengthening neck and a strong long and wide back, with free flowing breath, expanding shoulders, and strong lengthened arms. As a result from these physical and mental changes she started to feel more comfortable and more confident.
Now, 15 lessons down the track, her playing has become easier, and more efficient: her sound is fuller and the pain has almost completely disappeared. Her feelings of stress, fear and hopelessness are almost gone. She practices more intelligently, making daily choices to practice for short blocks of time with high quality and awareness, rather than long blocks, repeating passages habitually and mindlessly with too much tension. And if she notices the pain coming back she now knows where it is coming from and how to release it.
In this story the ‘stimulus’ in the drawing on this page is ‘playing high notes on the double bass’ followed by a moment of choice (yes/no). Each time, Lucia is able to choose which path she wants to take in her brain; the old habit, or the path of freedom, release and coordination. This is true ‘prevention’ — dealing with a problem at the source, not just treating the symptom!