I very distinctly learning how to drive and having my step mom in the car worried because I hadn’t been checking my mirrors.
I remember singing at a competition and having the judge’s only feedback be that I should lose a few kilos.
I remember choir teachers telling me to sing as if I was holding a potato in my throat.
F.M. Alexander recounts, in his third book The Use of the Self, an acting teacher who told him to “take hold of the floor with your (his) feet.”
Often times, when given advice, we take it, no questions asked, and apply it to what we are doing under the assumption that it will make us better. This is not always the case. As Alexander found when delving into his patterns of misuse, these tokens of so-called wisdom, often become layers of habit, not all of which are helpful.
Now I truly believe that people are good and people want to do good, generally speaking, so when they give advice, even when misguided, there can be a nugget of truth, something generally helpful, that they are hoping to convey, albeit not always in the best manner. We have many such sayings that are unhelpful when copied and obeyed without question, but hold a remnant of helpful truths.
Sit up straight
Stand up straight
Tuck your tummy
Lift your chest
Pull your shoulder blades together
Tuck your chin
Raise your eyebrows
Bend your knees
Feet shoulder width apart
Keep your feet flat on the floor
Don’t bend at the waist
These are things I think most of us have heard at one point or another in our lives. And while they contain a nugget of truth, they are not, by themselves, helpful pieces of advice.
Take for instance, “Don’t Slouch” which is often accompanied by “Sit Up Straight,” these ask us to take ourselves out of a position and put ourselves into another position. But how do we do that? Do we use extra muscular effort? How long are we able to sustain those new, supposedly better positions? If “sitting up straight” is the correct way to sit, why does it sometimes hurt us?
The truth is that slouching + sitting up straight are both potentially damaging, painful, and pain inducing positions. The reason they are both wrong, is that the crux of what they are after is a change of shape. This change of shape requires muscular effort to hold a position that looks like proper alignment, but is not. When we are in a habit, of say slouching, it’s as if we are wearing a scarf. When we are asked to do something like sitting up straight, we don’t take off the scarf of slouching, but instead layer on a jacket of sitting up straight. We end up doing a lot of work. This is why these phrases, phrases that focus on shape, are not helpful.
What the Alexander Technique looks to do, is to notice that we are in a habitual place, wearing our scarf of slouching, but to, with the guidance of a teacher, learn to take off the scarf of slouching, and find an unencumbered way of sitting in a place that is better for our alignment. This doesn’t mean we will be “sitting up straight;” we don’t want to layer on any extra muscular efforts, we want to remove the effort that is already in place, to bring us closer to something that is the proper use of our bodily structure. This place is not a shape, it doesn’t look the same for everyone, it feels entirely different, and it is sustainable.
We have a lot of habits and therefore wear a lot of hats and scarves and coats, so to speak. To be able to do something specific or requiring honed skills, we suddenly have extra habits and activities on top of our baseline habits. Imagine if you were able to remove these harmful habits. Muscularly, instead of fighting to hold onto many habits and activities, you’d be instead able to use your whole self to do whatever you are looking to do.
This is what Alexander discovered. He had a lot of habits and a lot of extra doing. He found that if he could un-do, he’d be in a better place to find the most efficient way to be. And in doing so, be present with all of his facilities able to go after any activity he desired.