Yoga for Health 2000: Conference Presentation

Melbourne Saturday, August 19, 2000

"The essence of the religious outlook is that religion should not be kept in a compartment by itself, but that it should be the ever-present guiding principle underlying the 'daily round', the 'common task'. So also is it possible to apply this principle of life in the daily round of one's activities without involving a loss of attention in those activities." - F.M. Alexander

The Alexander technique deals with how we use ourselves in our day to day activities. The term use in the Alexander work refers to all our mental & physical processes. When we misuse ourselves, we will suffer from one or more of the following symptoms as enumerated in Patanjali's Yoga Sutra: "mental discomfort, negative thinking, the inability to be at ease in different body postures & difficulty in controlling one's breath." I.31 (Desikatchar's translation).

The Alexander work does not offer a set of exercises to deal with this misuse and its accompanying symptoms. Rather we deal with the habitual unconscious habits and reactions, which create a state of suffering. Alexander insisted that his technique was better used to prevent rather than to cure. In this, we are dealing in the same territory as Patanjali. "Suffering that hasn't arisen should be avoided" 2.16 We have a store of vasana (memory traces) which account for behaviour which we call instinctive - subliminal impression (samskara) and subliminal intention (asaya). These unconscious instinctive reactions are with us for moment to moment. Alexander referred to them in the title of one of his books as The Universal Constant in Living. Our habits and actions of mind and body, from moment to moment create our state of mind and body.

In the Alexander work we work with very simple reactions. Most people get out of a chair dozens of times a day. Do you know how you do this act? A very common reaction is for people to create a strong contraction in their neck back and shoulders. In fact if you look carefully at almost any movement we may carry out, you will be likely to find excess work and strain in those activities. If you work in an office or other work place just notice in yourselves and others the amount of tension and collapse most people bring into their work. This constant repetition of bodily misuse over decades creates a host of ailments impacted seriously on physical and mental health. Not simply muscular aches and pains but life threatening diseases may result from such misuse

Just because we decide to do asanas, pranayama or meditation, does not mean that these habits suddenly disappear. Indeed because they are unconscious we are sure to bring them to these activities. People with sore backs will sit collapsed or rigidly upright in meditation (often alternating between these two postures. They have no choice - they have lost the ability to find a posture, which as Patanjali recommends is firm and comfortable (2.46). As we know the third limb of yoga is asana - which in the yoga sutra may well refer simply to our everyday use of our physical body, rather than a sequence of hatha yoga exercises. There is certainly no mention of such exercises by Patanjali.

I can be quite sure if someone comes to my yoga classes and tells me they suffer from neck pain, that they will tighten their neck as soon as they attempt the simplest movement - even if I specifically tell them not to do so. They have no choice - it is unconscious. In fact whatever pattern of misuse people bring to yoga classes, they will tend to accentuate in practicing asanas and pranayama. Often there is a pattern of diminishing returns, as people experience the many benefits of doing the postures, despite a level of misuse, and then gradually the impact of the misuse becomes more evident. In my experience it is very common for people who do a lot of hatha yoga to have tight necks and backs. They may be flexible, but of what use is flexibility at the expense of bodily ease and comfort? In my classes the emphasis is on coordination - how to move into postures without any excess tightening whilst moving the whole body in a way in which it is opening and expanding.