The Alexander Technique and Psychological Relief

I was a dancer, and then I became a writer. However, the thread between the two was the Alexander Technique: my training, life practice, and teaching of it (now 26 years). Though most people study the Alexander Technique for the purpose of a “physical” application of some kind—whether it be to address a musculo-skeletal issue, a pain syndrome, a neurological condition, or to improve their use in performance, public speaking, daily tasks and hobbies, a career, or general presence and holistic integration—as someone who trained to be a teacher (in the 1990’s) and has used the work regularly since then in all physical aspects of my life, I must say the initial draw was—and continues to be—the behavioral component and the way it related to my life psychologically. First introduced to the work in 1991 by Tommy Thompson, as a student at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, I perked up at his presentation and comment that the work was about “who we take ourselves to be in the world.”

I trained (and received my teaching certification) under Alexander Technique International, specifically Chloe Wing in New York City. Chloe’s orientation was Eastern bent as she had a background in meditation and various Buddhist/Hindu influences. This read for me, as I too had a background in similar practices. She also recognized in me, early on, the confluence of a psychological application of Alexander’s work, and though I did not quite put things together at the time, years later when I began writing my first book, “Body Over Mind: a mindful reality check, attaining psychological freedom by confronting thought with reality” I harkened back to her acknowledgment. In other words, although I am fully dependent and steeped in the physical application of the Alexander Technique on a constant basis, I am therapeutically engaged on a psychological level as well. In fact, it is hard to distinguish the two—though I do treat them separately.

The psychological angle for me lies in the awareness of the head’s attachment to the rest of the body, something Alexander pointed out that is obvious, though completely disregarded in our default awareness of ourself. Habitually, we live inside our head as the phrase goes. By living inside our head (or as he referred to it “mind wandering”), i.e., being lost in thought, it escapes us that our body is a physical whole, that there is no way to separate parts from each other or the whole, and that there is no part of us that can remove itself from the rest of the organism to attend to anything that might be on our mind. Noticing mind wandering is an awareness that ties in with Eastern philosophies and practices, as well as a misbelief in an inner “self” that is addressed in the former as well as in western philosophy, cognitive science and neurophilosophy. It is this aspect that can be used on an emotional therapeutic level, and that has gelled in me in my own development of a body of work I call Mindful Reality, in which I have written several books.

How does the Alexander Technique speak to the (mis)belief in an inner self, and one that lines up with the ways eastern and western philosophies (in addition to neurophilosophy and cognitive science) do? Again, I will say it is about Alexander’s emphasis of the fact that we have a structural head (skull) that makes a joint with the top of our spine (Atlas), which we tend to not be aware of, perceptually. Formally, this is called the Atlanto-Occipital joint (A-O joint). So, what is the big deal? Misperception was very much at the heart of Alexander’s work (although for a reason that does not necessarily align with most of what I will address in this article). Misperception is what interests me in terms of the psychological benefits of recognizing this head/spine connection.

Somehow, mind wandering (being lost in thought), is connected to habitual muscular tension of the muscles that attach the skull to the spine. We can see this by allowing those muscles to ease up—a classic application in the practice of the Alexander Technique. When that is invited, not only does one feel more at ease and perhaps without pain, but thought is obsolete, for the moment—one could say the mind quiets down. This leaves us with a state of presence, a sense of being integrated and whole with our environment and the rest of our body. Another way of referencing this coming out of head/neck contraction is to come out of fight-or-flight, otherwise known as startle reflex, which of course involves the A-O joint because it is part of the organism as a whole. One can even touch their head and ask themself to come out of startle reflex and they will notice the absence of thought for that moment. Some hook-up becomes unhooked.

It is this hook-up that very much interests me, and which was introduced to me by my Alexander Technique teacher trainer Chloe Wing. She would frequently say, “Thought is the biggest muscular contraction.” This wasn’t typical information in the Alexander Technique world, or so it seemed to me. Rather, it was more common to acknowledge that we were learning to notice our reaction to the thought of doing something, or even thinking something, I suppose. But nothing I had ever read or heard before mentioned this phenomenon that when one came out of muscular tension, thought disappeared. Especially because Alexander teachers often call the practice, thinking in action, or an application of thinking to allow a change to happen. Which is of course the case, but in a very subtle manner. And the word “thought” can be thrown around to mean different things.

So, I will clarify that when I refer to this hook-up of muscular tension and thought, I am specifically indicating that without the muscular contraction (especially in the skull spine/torso relationship) all thought disappears, for that moment. And that means that without thought, there is no sense of a self. It thus becomes clear there is no separate self from the organism as a whole, even though when we are immersed in thought it feels like there is an inner “I” that can leave the rest of the body to go off and attend to our needs in the world. It seems like we are (or can be) at the supermarket (because that is where our mind has wandered off to) even though we are simply standing in our kitchen. This absence of a separate self is what ties in with eastern and western philosophies, as well as cognitive and neuroscience. In fact, simply touching the top of your head and allowing it to gently nod or right itself on the top of the spine is a reminder that the skull and spine are forever structurally connected, making it impossible for some part of the organism to abandon the rest of the person/body. This also relatedly flies in the face of Descartes’ claim that the body was physical, but the mind was not—duality—and promotes a nondualistic reality of the human condition.

And, so, I ask you to try it out for the purpose of some momentary emotional relief. Just as you would apply the Alexander Technique to absolutely any and every activity—picking up a pencil, tying your shoe, jogging, talking on the phone, eating an ice cream cone—experiment with what it’s like to consider thinking (especially the uncomfortable kind, i.e., worry, anxiety, impatience, wanting, as some examples) to be an activity. Play with coming out of your global muscular tension (my teacher used to call it a full-bodied stress reaction) and notice that when you get a change, there is also an absence of worry, anxiety, impatience or wanting of anything in that moment. Enjoy and feel free to comment on your experience!

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