Friday, July 03, 2009
The Alexander Technique has long been known as the Performing Artists’ secret weapon, helping a whole host of challenges from stage fright, (now referred to as performance anxiety) to improved voice production to injury prevention to improved dexterity and facility. In addition to these more physically based results, people often report clearer thinking, a sense of peacefulness and an awareness of how their own habits of thought can create physical tension and stress. The Alexander Technique is truly a body/mind tool.
When someone chooses to come for lessons, we have an invaluable tool to teach them about the mastery of being. The Alexander Technique is a robust addition to anyone's skills for living (whether suffering the effects or stress, or not) and offers a portable set of principles to assist you in self care.
To work with someone interested in managing stress and deepening their skill in tapping into the body/mind tool, I begin where I would with any other student: exploring habits. We perform highly complex tasks all day long, from brushing our teeth and writing our names to managing our balance as we carry heavy bags or negotiate the change in grade as we step off a curb. We are able to perform these activities without having to stop and think about them because they are habitual and familiar. If we have less than ideal muscle deployment in the way we do these task, over time this can take a toll. The Alexander Technique is a unique tool to learn to bring greater and greater efficiency and ease to the task of living by knowing how to identify overuse of muscles, mental and physical energy, and lessen that overuse.
With any new student, I am going to begin with the simple activity of moving in and out of a chair (chairwork). This is a rich "laboratory" in which to bring habits of thought and movement to light for a student and teach them how to interrupt those habits, allowing for new and more effective patterns to become available.
The process of learning the Alexander Technique asks the student to suspend their interest in being right. F. M. Alexander learned through his exploration that in trying to reason out a solution to his vocal problem (chronic hoarseness) he was using his sensation to tell him whether he was right or not. He was relying on his sensation to tell him he had the correct amount of muscle energy; the proper alignment; and the appropriate volume of voice to gain his end: reciting text. However, how he used his voice habitually had always felt right to him all along, and using his voice that way was how he had created his vocal problems to begin with. F. M. soon realized he would have to "ignore" sensation to find a solution to his self-created mis-use. That meant things would very probably feel wrong. So, I repeat: The process of learning the Alexander Technique asks the student to suspend their interest in being right.
How does the Alexander Technique reduce stress?:
F. M. Alexander identified the fact that most of us are in a perpetual state of "fight or flight syndrome", also know as the startle response. If you have ever seen a newborn or young infant react to a loud, unexpected noise, you may recall their shoulders come up to their ears and their heads are pulled or fall back – they are clearly startled by the experience. In a few moments, as the event passes, they return to their prior state, which is relaxed, alert, and engaged.
As we grow up in our fast paced society, we face a constant onslaught of stressful events. We are in the process of recovery from one event when yet another stimulus hits our systems, and so we begin to function in a constant state of startle response. Because our nervous system adapts to the new level of stress, we cease to register it as too much and so never fully return to the easeful state of the newborn. Instead, we increase muscular effort throughout our lives. The analogy I use to describe this constant state of over-contraction is that of driving with the parking brake on. We use much more energy to perform simple activities than we actually need, which is a wasteful process.
F. M. Alexander’s recognition that his sensory feedback was unreliable gave him a window into changing his chronic overuse of muscle effort to a more efficient, appropriate level when accomplishing his activities. By learning to inhibit his startle response upon receiving stimulus, he was not only able to change muscle tension in his body, he was also able to change the biochemical messages being sent through his nervous system. What was once stressful when performed with the old habit patterns became easeful, poised and appropriate to the task at hand. This tool of inhibiting the old response is a skill that can be learned and enhanced with practice. This is how the Alexander Technique reduces psycho-physical stress.
Examples of reducing stress with Alexander Technique:
When I began my teacher training course in January of 1987, I was experiencing anxiety attacks, which most often manifested in a feeling like a rush of adrenaline through my body, lightheadedness, a sense I couldn’t catch my breath and hyperventilating. I had already studied the technique for 3 years before I started having anxiety attacks, and so when an attack began I was able to regulate my breathing by singing long phrases, which brought my breathing back to a calm place and relieved the other symptoms. The reason I knew how to do this was that I had a certain level of skill at inhibition. As frightening as the initial rush was, I had a tool to keep part of my mind away from the panic and able to call upon the skills I had in order to preempt the chemical rush of the stimulus/response pattern that had been started.
A Professor of Singing, with an active performance schedule, came to me for a single lesson in January of 2001. She had only had one group Alexander course one semester while studying for her D.M.A. back in the mid-70’s and told me she had no recollection of what the technique was. I saw her April of the same year, and she recounted how since our lesson and some reading she’s done on her own, she has come to recognize herself as someone in a classic, chronic state of startle response. She is now very skillful at calming herself during traffic jams, releasing chronic vocal tension and improving her breath capacity for singing, and releasing tension is her arms and shoulder while she writes on the blackboard while lecturing.
As a teacher, I do not diagnose or treat physical conditions. I educate my student in the principles of the work of F. M. Alexander. When someone comes to see me who has stress, I work with them in the same way I would with someone who came seeking a better golf game, relief from back pain, or a desire to improve their skill on an instrument. The simple tool of inhibiting excess tension while reasoning out an efficient, simple way to perform any task has the delightful side effect of reducing stress levels.
©2001, N. Brooke Lieb, Certified Teacher of the Alexander Technique; Member, American Society for the Alexander Technique (AmSAT); Faculty Member, American Center for the Alexander Technique (ACAT); (212) 866-0679 o firstname.lastname@example.org o www.brookelieb.com