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.
Finally a couple of interesting points of comparison between yoga philosophy and Alexander technique.
A well-known principle of yoga living is the renunciation of the fruits of action. In other words we don't get focused on achieving a particular goal, to the exclusion of everything else. Alexander pointed out the difference between acting in an "end-gaining" manner and paying attention to the means we use to gain the result. "End-gaining" refers to a state of mind where our sole attention is on the end to be achieved. The harder we try the more we accentuate our misuse. "Trying only emphasises what you already know." F.M. Alexander
Let's look at a very simple action like raising one's arms above one's head. Done in an "end-gaining" manner a person thinking only of getting the arms up is likely to tighten his neck, lift his shoulders, contract his lower back and lock his knees. Applying attention to the means the person would firstly make sure his body was in a firm, easy and upright posture, and would consciously refuse to send the messages to tighten and constrict. He would also observe when his flexibility prevented him from raising his arms any higher without having to constrict himself.
In yoga and Buddhist philosophy, our suffering is rooted in avidya (ignorance). This state of not - knowing or mistaken perception, is said to be the source of all the klesahs (impurities, obstacles). One of the most basic understandings we work from in the Alexander work, is that if a person is misusing himself it is because his sensing of what he is doing is faulty. In hatha yoga classes when people are given instructions to move in a certain way, they do so according to their own sense of where they are in space - hence a great variety of interpretations. In fact most people cannot sense this accurately, but almost everybody assumes that they are able to sense accurately what they are doing with themselves in movement. People are sure that they are doing what they think they are doing. This is frequently a misconception. People who think they have "bad posture" and then try to correct that by "standing straight" and pulling their shoulders back, simply exchange one form of disco-ordination with another.
This difficulty lies at the heart of the Alexander work, and Alexander had a lot to say about this problem. "Everyone wants to be right but no-one stops to consider if their idea of right is right" and "When people are wrong, the thing that is right is bound to seem wrong to them."
Alexander teachers have been trained over a three year full time course which emphases changing their own patterns of use, to work with their hands to help to guide people out of their habitual habits, to a more balanced coordination. This is how we help guide people out of their faulty patterns of movement to deal with the problem of faulty sensory perception. We guide people in movements which they cannot do by themselves, mostly not because of lack of flexibility, but because the motor cortex has lost the pathways to reproduce these movements.
In applying the Alexander technique to teaching hatha yoga I deal with people as individuals, and understand that different individuals require different types of work, that asanas that are good for some individuals are harmful for others and that peoples use of themselves is of prime importance.