No learning process is perfect. When learning any skill, bad habits may creep in. The Alexander Technique is no exception. Recently I published an article about the bad habits one can risk acquiring when one is trying to give conscious directions as we do in the Alexander Technique.
Another potential source of bad habits and unwanted side effects is the activities and movements that are often extensively used when teaching, learning and practicing the technique. In this article I present some examples of the bad habits one can risk inadvertently cultivating from Alexander Technique procedures.
The sitting down, standing up movements used in chair work are artificial. They create something of a laboratory condition. We don't normally stand in front of the chair with our feet placed parallel, both arms hanging by the side, before sitting down; and we don't normally let both arms hang passive at our sides when standing up.
This non-use of the arms has a function, as one aspect of chair work is to engage the legs and back in an integrated way, reducing any unwanted and unnecessary activity in the arms, shoulders, and neck. We want to achieve uprightness with the least amount of effort.
But if this is all there is to the lessons, the pupil (as I did) might subconsciously begin avoiding using the arms altogether. We need to use the arms for a lot of things, obviously. What is not that obvious is the use of arms in our communication. We use gestures. Subconsciously avoiding the use of the arms may unintentionally block a channel of communication and hamper our expressiveness .
The movements in chair work are artificial, as mentioned above. They are two-dimensional. This do make things easier, but this lack of rotational movements can be a problem in the long run. As with the tendency to not using the arms, the pupil might not want to turn his/her head. This might lead to "alexandroid" tendencies mentioned in the first article. The lack of rotational movements could potentially defy the purpose of the Alexander Technique lessons. Rotational movements can be said to be the hallmark of free movements. The possibility for rotation is often what is suppressed by unnecessary muscular tensions.
The two dimensional character of the movements in chair work influences peoples perception of the technique. Anyone able to read Norwegian can see an example of this in the blog article "Foran og bak."
Sitting is an activity that is relevant for any Alexander Technique lesson whether it can be described as traditional or not. Sitting is an activity most people nowadays do a lot. Many people are not able to balance freely on their sitting bones. That is something they need to learn. (Or rather, they need to unlearn the bad habits that impede their ability). Naturally, we tend to focus on a kind of neutral sitting, sitting on a flat surface with feet flat on the floor.
It can be a problem if this way of sitting, which is ergonomically sound, consciously or subconsciously is seen as the 'correct' way of sitting. Then the pupil's repertoire of movements is reduced. It should be enriched. I remember after having had only six lessons insisting on trying to sit up straight on a soft sofa. It was an example of a rigid mind in a rigid body.
The ability to balance freely on the sitting bones is only the starting point which makes the pupil take the best advantage of any chair. I have several chairs in my teaching room. A couple of them 'bad' ones. I find them very useful in my teaching.
One basic problem with using walking as an activity is that it is innate and integral to our structure, much like breathing. Focusing on it may lead us to impede its natural functioning.
When using walking as an Alexander Technique procedure the activity is often either slowed down or broken down into its constituent components.
When walking slowly, the arms don't move very much, or they sometimes end up swinging in parallel. (Varying the speed of walking and observing the moment the arms start swinging alternately to the legs can be very interesting). Too much emphasis on slow walking could exacerbate the overdoing of non-doing, and as with chair work, the tendency to not engage the arms.
I remember walking in the streets of Oslo together with an Alexander Technique teacher friend not that long after my graduation as a teacher. At one point my friend turned to me and said: 'Now I know what's wrong with your walking. You are not using your arms!' She was right. I wasn't. It is possible to walk without moving the arms. But it is not such a good idea.
Walking very slowly can be more of a challenge than walking at normal speeds. One of the most tense persons I have ever worked with was someone who was an instructor of 'walking meditation'. When we slow down walking in Alexander Technique lessons we have to be a bit careful. Sometimes, the pupil slows down when he/she is trying to give directions. If they have to slow down to be able to think, their mode of thinking is wrong.
As the Alexander Technique concerns how we react to stimuli, it is only natural that the initiation of walking is of special interest to us. One problem here is that beginning walking from a stationary position is a dynamically different situation from being in movement.
One activity I have found useful for highlighting the effect of inhibition and direction is to have the pupil balancing on one leg. I do it with most pupils. In addition to be a fun challenge this can be used as a preparation for walking. When using it as preparation for walking there are however a couple of things to be aware of.
When balancing on one leg, we will naturally want to keep our centre of balance approximately over the centre of your weight bearing leg. This is not what is happening when we walk. During normal walking our centre of balance (or centre of mass) goes from side to side, but never so much to the side that it is over the centre of the foot. If it is, you are probably not walking efficiently. Cultivating a habit of walking very slowly probably exacerbates this tendency.
It has also occurred to me that seeking the feeling of having the weight on the whole foot, as when balancing on one leg, could cause the centre of balance to be too far back for walking. This could explain the tendency I discovered in myself of leaning slightly back which I described in the first article.
When using walking as an activity I think it is important to not only walk at slow speeds. Bringing the movements up to normal speeds, at least intermittently, might reduce the risk of the unwanted side effects mentioned.
Breaking the walking down into it different constituents can be extremely interesting and useful, but also potentially lead to all kinds of tendencies of silly walks.
In the latest Alexander Journal Lawrence Jones has an article titled 'Walking with Mechanical Advantage.' In his article Jones mentions the difference between the kind of walking typically performed in an indoor teaching situation and normal outdoor walking. Jones also comments on an activity described in Directed Activities by Grennell.
In the activity in question you are instructed to 'bend the knee, bringing the heel off the floor and the weight on to the ball of your foot,' (without transfering weight to the other foot), and then to 'flick your foot forward to where your toes were' (Grennell 2002, p.23).
Jones suggests a couple of changes to the activity to make it more compatible with normal walking. But I don't think the suggestions are sufficient to make completely away with potential unwanted side effects. The point of the activity is to accentuate the push off action of the foot in walking.
I once had a pupil who was familiar with this procedure and overdid this action as a matter of course in his daily walking. His feet were immensely tense. His argument was that it is similar to the action performed by toddlers in their first attempts to walk. Toddlers do this because they haven't yet got the strength to have all of their weight on one leg. I wasn't able to change my pupil's view that everything children do is perfect and so was unfortunately not able to help him with his tense feet.
One important point when practicing whispered ahs is to not take a preparatory breath but use the air at any time available to us. This is a good point, since it is what we do in preparation for speaking that coordinates or discoordinates us.
This insistence on not taking a breath could, however, be in conflict with natural functioning. Kristin Linklater in her Freeing the Natural Voice spends the first part of the book on how to nurture the natural impulse to speak. She describes how the impulse to speak might end up being habitually suppressed in her 'Chocolate Chip Story' (Linklater 2006).
In short it goes like this: A child comes running into the kitchen shouting for a chocolate chip cookie. The child is hushed upon and told to politely say 'please'. This repeats each time the child asks for a cookie and in the end of the story the child instead of shouting using a full voice asks very timidly and vocally restricted, 'can I have chocolate chip cookie, please?'
Linklater's point is that some of the musculature involved in making sound works subconsciously and needs the natural impulse to speak to be engaged and coordinated. The way we practice whispered ah aims at doing away with overpreparation for using the voice. Maybe we should be careful not to overdo it and so end up habitually doing away also with the necessary preparatory process.
Another important feature of the whispered ah procedure is to always close the mouth and let the air in through the nose. Some people make this into a general rule. We know that Alexander held the view that breathing in through the nose was possible under all circumstances (Alexander 1995, p.28). I think this is highly questionable. It works very well if you are reading a text out loud, but in the instances I have observed someone trying it during normal speech it has not worked. It makes the person sound stressed and out of breath.
Alexander seems to have been particularly found of the whispered ah. He could have had personal reasons for this. According to the literature, Alexander's problem was in part that his vocal cords were 'unduly relaxed' (Alexander 1985). When whispering, the vocal cords are more toned than in normal speech. This could have been helpful in Alexander's case.
Sometimes part of a voice problem is that the vocal cords are not closing completely. Practicing whispering in those instances is probably not optimal.
The whispered ah is a wonderful procedure in so many ways. As with any sharp tool we should be careful not using it in the wrong way.
Hands on the Back of the Chair
I love Hands on the Back of the Chair. I find it fascinating and useful to explore and practice. Delving into the dynamics of this procedure continues to give new dimensions to my hands on work, (I have written a couple of articles on HOBC, more are on the planning stage).
When doing Hands on the Back of the Chair, you hold the chair in a very particular and peculiar way. This is not the way you hold most things, and it should not be.
In addition to be an Alexander Technique teacher I'm a violinist and violin teacher. I once gave some lessons to an adult beginner. He had also had lots of experience with the Alexander Technique and was familiar with the Hands on the Back of the Chair procedure. This was an advantage, obviously, up to a certain point. He insisted on holding the bow as you do when taking hold of the chair. As a bow hold this just does not work. The violin bow is springy, and the bow hold needs lots of springiness to accommodate the dynamics of the bow as it travels over the strings. In the pincer grip or so called 'extensor grip' required for Hands on the Back of the Chair, the fingers are straight. This is perfect for that particular procedure, but is much too rigid for violin playing. In the case in question the advantages of knowing the HOBC procedure was unfortunately outdone by overdoing it.
Your own habits
These are some of the unintended bad habits I have encountered in my myself and pupils. As I write I remember more and more. But I'll save them for another time. Maybe you could add your own? What are your bad Alexander Technique habits? I'm sure you are perfect now, but maybe you had some once?
Fixed Knees and Fixed Ideas
Hands on the Back of the Chair
Alexander, Frederick Matthias. (1985). The Use of the Self. Victor Gollancz.
Alexander, F.M., Fischer, J.M.O. ed. (1995). Articles and Lectures. Mouritz.
Grennell, Gerard. 2002. Directed Activities. Mouritz.
Linklater, Kristin. 2006. Freeing the Natural Voice. 2006. Hern Books.