Alexander Technique and Physical Therapy
Nearly a century ago, an Australian orator, Frederick Matthias Alexander, plagued by recurring laryngitis-like symptoms that threatened to end his career, stood before a three-way tailor's mirror observing his bodily habits in the act of speaking. He identified specific patterns of movement that compressed the spine, compromised the breathing mechanism, and predictably short-circuited his efforts to use his voice fully and expressively on stage.
Eventually, his experiments and observations led him to a practical method that develops body awareness, flexibility, energy conservation, and ease in daily activity. Central to this method, now called the Alexander Technique, is the principle of non-doing.
Non-doing produces a state of emotional peace and physical release, whether riding a horse, playing the piano, driving a car, or reaching for food in the refrigerator. The paradox is that while we are doing less we heighten experience and enhance performance.
Non-doing asks that, when still or in movement, we use only the required amount of physical effort, that is, the least amount of muscular tension while engaging a particular balance or poise of the head, neck, back and limbs in a state of conscious, active direction or energy. The whole body is in flow with all of the joints free of compression, the breath unrestricted, coordinated and seamless.
Non-doing is not possible without an understanding of the concept of "end-gaining." To end-gain is to focus solely on the end product, goal, or accomplished task without regard to what we are doing/thinking in order to complete the task. End-gaining is typically associated with a hurried state of mind or an unthinking response to a stimulus to act.
For instance, we might focus on reading this article without regard to our state of neck tension, support of our torso in the chair or feet on the floor, our breathing, openness of brow, softness of eyes. By the time we finish reading, our neck is cramped, our back is tired, or our brow is furrowed. By consciously inhibiting these recognized patterns, the reverse occurs, and our mind engages in the content of the article while our body remains at ease, yet energized.
The ramifications and applications of the principle of non-doing to every aspect of life can transform the most habitual unconscious mundane daily action into an experience of calm presence, alertness, and well-being.
For those engaged in more complex tasks of performance, (i.e., gardener, computer technician, cook, mother/father, violinist, surgeon), this practice can heighten awareness and skill, enhance expression, and free the mind to respond creatively and effectively. And what's more, we avoid the recurring response to stress and repetitive motion: the all too familiar neck, back or shoulder fatigue and pain or just the uncomfortable feeling of bodily tension.
My experience with the Alexander Technique (now in its 26th year) continues its evolution toward the noble goal of non-doing in activity. I will recognize an old behavior pattern and make a conscious decision to alter that pattern. My torso expands as the air rushes in and the tension in my neck/shoulder muscles dissipates.
The inner dialogue infuses my dance improvisation, dressage riding, and Yoga. It enhances the creative process of choreography, movement improvisation, teaching an Alexander lesson, and writing. When digging, planting, stone arranging, and weeding in the garden I call on all my Alexander skills. I know where I am: spine lengthening, body breathing, perceptions keen, senses alert.
We desire elegant, efficient use of the body/mind, and yet we run into trouble daily with our efforts to achieve these desires. Excess muscular tension and recurring patterns of undesirable postural and behavioral patterns creep into our movement repertoire.
The key to making a profound change is multifold: heighten awareness, learn to inhibit undesirable patterns, take time, engage the breathing mechanism, and activate the desired poise of the head, neck, back and limbs with clear intent.
This process is enhanced and accelerated by working with a teacher of the Alexander Technique who can offer valuable manual and verbal feedback to engage you in this new way of thinking during activity. "Practice" at home coincides with life's activities; you become adept at recognizing harmful habitual movement patterns and learn how to inhibit these patterns before they result in undue tension or pain.
Non-doing in action becomes familiar enough to choose while engaging in any aspect of life achieving ease, mobility, dexterity, and expression without strain. © Idelle Packer, 2002
This article appeared in Rapid River Magazine, volume six, issue two, October 2002.