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Making our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy

The importance of intensive Alexander lessons when learning to change our habits

Men who booked for a course of lessons with Alexander who taught in London in the first half of the 20th Century were advised that they should not get measured up for a suit prior to the lessons. Indeed over the course of 15 to 30 lessons, which they attended 5 times a week, there was frequently a change in shape which meant that the old measurement would be out of date: and this happened over the course of just three to six weeks.

We experience something similar on our training course. Over the course of the first thee to six weeks of daily work, we see very obvious changes in the new trainees movement and posture which is frequently accompanied by structural alterations. There then tends to be a leveling out of the pace of change over the subsequent three years of training with times of plateauing and times of big shifts. Women often find that they have to alter or get new bras, not because their breasts have got larger but because they have developed more width and expansion through the back and sides of the rib cage. Feet frequently become wider, necessitating the purchase of new shoes. And in my case at the end of summer in my first three months of training my arms seemed longer, and the arms of some of my long sleeved shirts to short, as the gripping of the arms into the shoulder girdle was undone.

Alexander was insistent that that anyone coming for lessons with him needed to come for lessons daily: he said that he didn’t want anyone to go away saying that his technique didn’t work And indeed he had great success teaching to this intensity even in exceptionally difficult and serious cases. This differs from the general practice of teaching the technique today, when people may come to lessons once a week, or even less frequently. People will frequently get benefit even from odd lessons, because if they are coming with a pain problem and can undo even a bit of the pattern which is creating and maintaining the pain that may take off enough pressure to relieve their symptoms. But this is different from making a deep change in the underlying pattern. And well-coordinated performers or athletes may get sufficient understanding of what they can do differently to improve their performance in just a few lessons.

The deep work of the technique and a process of profound change comes about most commonly by consistent work over at least several weeks. This should not be surprising given what we know about the process of neuroplasticity and how this works. Indeed Alexander was well aware of the plasticity of the nervous system, not only from his practical experience in working with many thousands of this “pupils” but also from his reading of William James, who coined this term for the nervous system in 1890.

Norman Doidge describes neuroplasticity as “the property of the brain that enables it to change its own structure and functioning in response to activity and mental experience.”(1) More than a century earlier, William James stated: “The plasticity of the living matter of our nervous system…. is the reason why we do a thing with difficulty the first time, but soon do it more and more easily, and finally, with sufficient practice, do it semi-mechanically, or with hardly any consciousness at all.” (2) Changing the structure and function of those parts of the brain which govern posture, movement and balance is the same as changing the structure and functioning of our whole psychophysical being.

As anyone who has learned another language knows the most effective way of learning is by immersion in that language. Very few people would develop any facility in another language by studying it once a week.

And Doidge describes the work of Taub who worked with stroke patients, many of whom were judged to have no further possible improvement. “Conventional rehab usually lasts for an hour and sessions are three times a week. Taub patients drill six hours a day , for ten to fifteen days straight. They get exhausted and often have to nap. …..Improvement begins rapidly, then lessens progressively.” He continues ‘For patients who continue to follow the exercises following the intensive treatment improvements continue over years after they have completed the program.” (3)

What we are seeing here is a similar trajectory to what happens with intensive Alexander work. Rapid improvement; frequently exhaustion over the concentrated course of lessons, as neuroplastic change is tiring; and students set on a path whereby they have the tools to continue the process of change and improvement over their lifetime.

Taub identified a number of training principles based on his work with stroke patients. “training is more effective if the skill closely relates to everyday life: training should be done in increments and work should be concentrated into a short time, a training technique Taub calls ‘massed practice,’ which he has found far more effective that long-term but less frequent training.” (4)

A unique problem with the Alexander Technique is that learners are called upon to practice something which they are unable to do: similar to the stroke patient, the thinking and motor action required has been so degraded by habitual misuse (or brain damage in the part of the stroke patient) that the person may be unable to access it, even if they have an intellectual understanding of what they are being asked to do. People’s ability to accurately sense what they are doing with themselves has, in many cases, become impaired meaning that if they rely on their kinaesthetic sense to guide them they will end up doing something different to what they intend and feel that they are doing.

Alexander technique works primarily via the nervous system to begin to change our underlying posture. The term posture is problematic, as people mostly understand posture as fixed positioning of their bodies and any fixed positioning interferes with rather than assists movement. Skilled and free activity requires a delicate balance of an upright flow or energy combined with a release of all tension not required for the activity at hand. It is this type of underlying posture as the neutral point from which we initiate activity, which we are referring to in the Alexander Technique. I discuss this in here. more detail here.

Our posture is affected by patterns of stress and holding of which we may not even be conscious, and by our interpretation of our kinaesthetic sensing to judge whether we are upright or not. Once our postural coordination is habitually interfered with our kinaesthetic sensing ceases to give us accurate feedback. Alexander described this as “unreliable sensory appreciation” and he compared our efforts to steer ourselves through the world under the influence of this unreliable sensory appreciation as akin to a sailor trying to navigate a ship which has a faulty compass.

One we correct our “compass” then we can begin to find ease in our simple everyday activities like sitting, standing and walking and we also have the underlying coordination to support us in in both simple and complex activities.

To overcome this problem Alexander would manually guide his learners repeatedly though simple movements, mostly from sitting to standing. In this process a skilled Alexander teacher helps the student firstly to rebalance by undoing extra holding in both sitting and standing postures and secondly to catch habitual fixing and tightening which they bring into movement. The way that Alexander described this processes was that he was giving “to the pupil the new sensory experiences required for the satisfactory use of the mechanisms concerned, the while giving him the correct guiding orders or directions which are the counterpart of the new sensory experiences which he is endeavouring to develop by means of his manipulation” CCCI (5)

"By this procedure a gradual improvement will be brought about in the pupil's sensory appreciation, so that he will become more and more aware of faults in his habitual manner of using himself; correspondingly, as with this increasing awareness the manner of his use of himself improves, his sensory appreciation will further improve, and in time constitute a standard within the self by means of which he will become increasingly aware both of faults and of improvement, not only in the manner of his use, but also in the standard of his functioning generally." (6)

In this process we "make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy." (7) What people take to be the result of aging, is frequently the result of unconscious habits - years of misuse, collapse, tension and mis-coordination which builds up and is accentuated over the years. This then creates a whole range of symptoms arising from the pressure and eventual tissue damage these years of misuse impose on the body. Alexander hoped that his technique would be used primarily as a preventive to these types of conditions rather than a cure. Much better to begin to reverse the habits of misuse before they cause problems. But even once problems are well established a change to better use of the body can begin to reverse many of the symptoms which people blame on aging.

(1) Doidge, N The Brain's Way of Healing : Stories of Remarkable Recoveries and Discoveries Penguin Books, London 2016 - Kindle edition Loc 74

(2) James, W Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life's Ideals (1899) - Kindle Edition Loc 584

(3) Diodge, N The Brain that Changes Itself Scribe p,147

(4) Ibid p.156

(5) Alexander F.M. Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual p.96

(6) Alexander F.M. Use of the Self p.43

(7) James, W Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life's Ideals (1899) - Kindle Edition Loc 598

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