I recently began taking lessons in Alexander Technique and just finished a book called Body Learning, by Michael Gelb about the Technique. The Alexander Technique is a discipline which aims to change your habits in order to achieve balanced physical alignment and eliminate unnecessary muscle tension. I’d heard about Alexander Technique through Neil Strauss and also through a few of my Yoga instructor friends. I’d heard that it was a good way to improve posture.
If I told you to have good posture, the first thing you might do is tense up your back and neck as you try to “sit up straight.” However, if you’ve tried to do this, you can see that this is a difficult position to hold. With Alexander Technique, good posture is as much about relaxing certain muscles as it is about holding others in place in order to achieve an equilibrium that is maintainable.
I’ve had a few lessons and what I am currently focusing on is what is called a “forward rotation of the head.” To do this, you want to begin to slightly look downward but then raise your head as high as possible. This eliminates unnecessary neck compression and brings about spinal lengthening. Other disciplines describe this by having you find the very top vertebrae in your back, which is probably about an inch or two below your hairline and imagine a string were tied to it pulling it upward.
Along with this forward rotation, I have been working on making sure that my shoulders are as relaxed as possible. In trying to maintain good posture, the first thing I was doing was lifting my shoulders when in actuality the shoulders should be as relaxed as possible–you don’t need your shoulders tense to maintain posture.
As you can see, it gets fairly complicated and difficult to describe in words and text, which is why they recommend lessons in person. Alexander Technique is taught in one-on-one lessons with the teacher using hand contact and verbal instruction. As you stand, sit, walk, and lie on a flat surface, she gently guides your movement and gets you to relax and change your patterns.
Alexander Technique really is about learning (and learning new ways of learning, as they say.) There are no exercises, and they even tell you not to “try.” This is where I have some criticisms of how the Technique is taught. Sometimes the language can be unnecessarily elitest. For example, teachers and Michael Gelb as well insist things not be referred to as “right” or “wrong,” yet he uses these very same words to describe actions later in the book.
There are some amazing insights that the Technique provide that relate to how we learned bad habits and posture and what is necessary to correct it.
Schools for children are battlegrounds for winners and losers. Children are monstrously cruel to one another and rapidly create hierarchies. Experiencing this stress and fear imparts a physical change in children and young adults. Through body language, like posture and eye contact, people reveal their learned status. This learned posture follows you all the way into adulthood. As Lance Mason put it, when you walk into a room full of people, you quickly know who is cooler than you and who you are cooler than.
Babies and young children usually have almost perfect posture, but over and over again, experiencing events that effect their stature, they begin to develop a permanent ‘startle pattern.’
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Jone’s work is his research into the ‘startle pattern,’ a stereotyped response elicited by a sudden noise. The characteristic response starts with a disturbance of the head-neck-torso relationship, followed by a raising of the shoulders and a tensing of the chest and knees. All of this results in a loss of tone in the antigravity system. Jones reports that ‘whenever the stimulus was strong enough to elicit a response, it appeared in the neck muscles and in many cases it appeared nowhere else.’
Professor Dart has described the startle pattern as a prototypical response to fear. Jones, who calls it a paradigm for malposture, has shown that it varies very little from person to person and that it serves as a model for other slower response patterns. He points out that fear, anxiety, fatigue and pain all show postural deviations from the norm similar to those seen in the startle pattern. When one falls into a period of depression, pain or fear, the balance of the head, neck and torso are acutely disturbed. When the difficult period clears, one is often left with a habit of carrying the head in an unbalanced way.
I found that this correlates with how I carry myself when I am in a position of anxiety. I have been attempting to use the Technique in various situations. When walking down the street, at work, when I go out at night. I found that it is actually more difficult for me to maintain the positions when I go into a bar at night. I experience slightly higher anxiety levels and sense the hierarchy and differences in status in those places more than if I’m walking down the street alone. It’s almost as if my mind won’t let me stand as tall when I am in a social situation.
I’ve also begun to notice how I subconsciously cast value judgements about people’s status based on their posture. If someone has bad posture, I tend to see them as lower value, and vice-versa if they have good posture. I also feel like people have been reacting more positively to me now that I’ve made some changes to the way I carry myself, although it’s always difficult to tell exactly why people respond to you the way they do. However, it’s not a stretch to say that people with upright stature look more dignified, seem like they are wiser, less needy, and a whole host of other positive attributes we place on people who are well-poised.
Changing Your Habits
Another important aspect of the Technique is that it is about changing habits. Habits are the most difficult thing to change. I advocate turning pickup itself into a habit. Some would say you as a person are the product of the habits you create. So how do you change the habit of bad posture?
One finds a fantastic insight when reading about the Technique that is touched upon in Zen and the Art of Archery. In Zen, the important thing is not to hit the target, but the process of learning how to reach a perfect state of shooting. The same goes for posture and pickup in general. At first pickup seems to be about a goal, getting more women in your life. But as you get deeper into it, you find that it’s more about making fundamental changes to yourself than anything else.
In archery, to reach a state where all is in alignment requires being able to let go of the idea of hitting the target. You have to stop wanting it and “do without trying.” Emphasis is placed on the process of learning rather than on the results. This process is as much physical as it is mental. This passage from Body Learning was particularly poignant:
An eight-year-old boy with poor coordination was sent to me for help. Although he was very bright and a talented musician, he was constantly ridiculed at school because he was no good at games and, in particular, because he was quite unable to catch a ball. I did not need to look far for an explanation. The first time I saw him try to catch a ball he went into a pronounced startle pattern, pulling his head back, closing his eyes and flailing his arms. His reaction to ridicule at his lack of natural aptitude was to become yet more afraid. As his fear increased his use of himself in this particular activity became worse, as did his actual performance. (This cycle of misuse / failure – misuse / failure to which I have already referred.) After giving him one or two fairly conventional lessons, I adopted a more radical approach. I stood on the opposite side of the room from him with a ball in my hands and asked him to stand still and look at me while putting his attention on the feeling of his feet on the floor and the easy balance of his head on his neck. When he was able to stand in a poised manner I threw the ball past him, having asked him not to respond to it but to maintain his own poise. At first he found this very difficult and jerked his head back as soon as the ball left my hands. Then I decided to play a game with him in which I counted to three before throwing; on three I would either throw or fake a throw. He often jumped when I pretended to throw. This enabled him to notice how he was preparing to catch, and he was even able to laugh at being caught out this way. Soon he was able to stand quietly as the ball whizzed past him. The next step was for him to hold his hand out and let the ball bounce off it without trying to catch it and without flinching at all. We played the ‘one-two-three’ game with this exercise as well and he masterd it fairly quickly — and had a lot of fun at the same time! After this he tried to catch the ball, but only if it landed in his hands. We continued in this way and eventually he learnt to catch quite well. Then we went on successfully to work in the same way with throwing and kicking.
What an excellent analogy to body language during pickup. When you first begin doing pickup, your body is so tense that it belies your status. I would argue that losing this tension and becoming completely relaxed and comfortable during pickup would get you 90% of the way to where you want to be. I believe this strongly coincides with learning to manage approach anxiety by building the skills necessary for relaxation and thus attaining confidence, both physically and mentally. And this involves changing your habits, changing your way of doing, changing your focus from trying to hit the target to the ultimate zen: not caring anymore whether you hit the target but rather focusing on relaxing and how you pull the bow back. And that’s when you begin hitting the target.
Learning in Person
It is stressed throughout the book and most places you read, that Alexander Technique must be learned through working in person with a teacher. The reason is for the same exact reason you might take a Pickup 101 weekend workshop. It’s one thing to read about this and another thing to learn in person. It is particularly important when it comes to body language that you see how people do it, try it out yourself, and most importantly, get feedback from a teacher.
What may feel and seem right when you do it, often is not the best way to do it. It is difficult to both monitor yourself and approach women at the same time, having someone to tell you how to change things can be an invaluble lesson, particularly when it comes to body language.
Beyond that, the Technique teaches you that you cannot always trust your sensory perception. What feels right in one circumstance may not necessarily feel right in another and a teacher can tell you more accurately what you need to do to change.
Here in New York lessons cost about $75 for one hour and they recommend taking it at least once a week, possibly more. They also say it’s possible to learn everything you need to know after about thirty lessons.