lørdag 24. februar 2024

May the Force be with you

This article is a translated and rewritten version of the blog post "Kraft" in Norwegian from 2012. This version is written for Alexander Technique teachers.

When someone comes for Alexander Technique lessons she is normally much too tense. ("She" is used throughout for simplicity but is meant to cover any pronoun). Naturally, we want to reduce the level of tension, and the focus often turns to not tensing up. This is in line both with the principle of the Alexander Technique of inhibiting unwanted reactions and also with common sense - if you don't tense up, you don't get tense.

Avoiding tension can turn into a problem if it means avoiding anything that requires use of muscular force. Activities in traditional Alexander Technique lessons have mainly consisted of sitting down and standing up. This is great for reorganizing the pupils musculoskeletal system, but apart from getting in and out of the chair, it doesn't demand any use of force on the part of the pupil. The pupil is not required to use the hands, and it is through the hands we very often exert force in daily life.

There are several good reasons for having the use of force as a theme in Alexander Technique lessons
  1. It is useful for the pupils in their daily life. A lot of things we do requires a certain degree of physical force. The Alexander Technique is very useful in those situations.
  2. It helps reduce unnecessary tension. Very often, too much tension comes from tension applied wrong, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. In that case, being clear about the right use of tension can help reduce or do away with the wrong tension.
  3. It is useful for understanding the Technique. If you think the Alexander Technique is just a relaxation technique, you have missed the point.

Below I present a series of activities I use in lessons. The aim is to introduce the pupil to Alexander Technique thinking in relation to the use of force.

These are simple activities that can be done even with beginners. For advanced pupils they can be modified into quite sophisticated experiments. Sometimes I briefly go through all in one lesson just to present the principles. Even if the quality of performance is crude, going through this series of activities can make a huge difference in how the pupil, by the end of the lesson, deals with the demands of applying physical force.

Receiving weight through the hands
All activities begin from a neutral position, while doing "nothing". In a standing position, I ask the pupil to hold her hands out in front of her, palms up. I then place a heavy object on her hands. It should be sufficiently heavy to make the pupil sense the change in contact between the feet and the ground. I often use some telephone directories or a small chair.

The pupil's reaction is often to stiffen the arms, lean back from the hips and push the pelvis forward (and so on). I do not address these tendencies directly. There is a good chance they will be reduced indirectly during the process.

I make sure the pupil is aware of the change in contact with the ground and point out that the weight of the object now acts as part of her own weight. It has to go "through" her to reach the ground. We want to let that happen without doing anything unnecessary, which would mean stiffening, bracing or squeezing ourselves.

I take back the object and replace it with another fairly heavy one. This time the pupil will react differently. There will be less of the unnecessary reactions and so the pupil will stay better coordinated.

Lifting an object
I now give the pupil the task of lifting something. I don't put much emphasis at this stage on how well (or not) the pupil is lowering herself to pick up the object, only that she again starts from a neutral position. I ask her to first make contact with the hands and then see if she can take the weight of the object gradually.

The weight is transferred from the floor and into the pupil's body. The weight of the object is still in a way resting on the floor, but now via the pupil's feet.

The pressure of the weight of the object will squeeze and slightly expand the palms of the hands, (as well as the soles of the feet). I explain that letting the body expand is what we want, and it can help to imagine the back expanding just like the hands and feet.

Having the idea of letting the weight of the object cause expansion of the body connects the lengthening and widening with the actual force used to handle the object. This way the process of directing is naturally integrated into the activity and not something extra added on.

If the pupil happens to have a bag or backpack that is not too small, I have the pupil use this as the object to lift. An object in daily use can act as a nice reminder to apply the Technique in everyday life.

Leaning against a wall
The next step is to take weight by leaning with the hands against the wall. The pupil stands approximately arms length from the wall, lifts the arms and comes forward from the ankles to put a little bit of weight on the hands.

When leaning against the wall for the first time, the tendency will often be for the pupil to "relax" and collapse in the middle, the pelvis sagging forward.

I suggest to the pupil to imagine letting the "push" from the wall travel through the arms, though the back and legs and feet and into the ground. This is similar to the weight of an object "travelling through" the body when holding it. The "push" from the wall causes the hands to expand and we can imagine that it also helps the shoulders and back to widen.

We can think of this as allowing the workload be distributed across as large an area as possible, sharing the work among as many muscles as possible.

The second time the pupil perform the activity of leaning against the wall, sufficient tone is maintained and the body stays integrated.

This activity can be varied in a lot of ways. The distance to the wall can be changed, arms can be bent or not, legs bent or not.

Pushing or pulling
I next have the pupil actively pushing something. In my office, I have a clothes stand with a fairly heavy stone base. I ask the pupil to push this to make it slightly tilt, and then play around with receiving the "push" back, thinking of utilizing this push to let the body expand. If done well this becomes a dance of two integrated masses- the stand and the pupil's body.

A useful variation is to pull on the stand instead of pushing. The direction of forces have changed, but the same kind of thinking is required. It can be used in all situations.

A variation I use here, If the pupil is up to it, is to have the pupil lift the clothes stand. It is quite heavy, but can be lifted with one hand by most adults.

Lastly, I have the pupil push me. We stand facing each other, feet placed diagonally, with one hand raised. This is the same position as used in Tai Chi "push hands". This activity reveals the level of the pupil's thinking. It becomes very clear whether the pupil expands or contracts, is "going up" or "pulling down". Beginning from neutral can be extra challenging. The pupil is often eager to try to push me over, and will start pushing way too soon.

Summing up
I often end the lesson or series of activities with something practical, like moving a chair or having the pupil pick up her bag or her shoes. The process has gone from passively receiving weight, via actively pushing (or pulling), to awareness of the use of physical force in daily activity.

The idea for the way of working I have described here is originally not my own. One of my sources is Carolyn Nicholls, especially the "directed activities" we did during my training based on Tai Chi "push hands"; and a workshop with her and Stephanie Smith at the 2004 international congress in Oxford which was my first introduction to working with pupils with hypermobility. My other source of inspiration is Pedro de Alcantara, and especially exercises and experiments found in the second edition of Indirect Procedures, and his trilogy The Integrated Musician.

Related blog posts
Kraft (Norwegian)