Living At Ease With Stress

If you have ever attended a seminar on or read anything about stress relief, you have probably come across a couple of ideas which crop up repeatedly.  One suggests that ‘We are human beings, not human doings’ – that we have forgotten how to do nothing, and simply to be.  The other is that we can find peace by dwelling in the present moment. We sense the truth of these ideas, but might be justified in feeling some increased stress and frustration as we hear them yet again – how, we may ask, do we apply them in real life, where there is a mortgage to pay, children to raise, plans to be made and, usually, a demanding job to be done?   How can we stop dashing about in body and mind, even if we wanted to?  

 The Alexander Technique, surprisingly perhaps to those who think of it as just bodywork, has useful contributions to make here.  We certainly would not disregard these truisms (ideas do not emerge over and over again in many times and places without being at least worthy of further investigation), but we would bring a questioning attitude to them, and if they turn out to be valid, we would, as we do in all Alexander thinking, try to find strategies for applying them in our own daily activities, rather than requiring a radical change of lifestyle.   Let’s consider them one at a time.

 To do or to be – is that the question? 

 Most of us are aware of the fact that we do too much.  But this knowledge is not really a great deal of use to us – the things that we do are either necessary, in terms of keeping life ticking along , or are things we enjoy and would not want to give up, such as sports, playing musical instruments or connecting with friends and family.  We do often become aware though of negative effects, physical or mental, caused by some of these activities.  We may feel aches and pains, headaches, anxiety or exhaustion.   But what would we be willing to give up in order tofind time just ‘to be’? 

 Well, the Alexander Technique can help you to carry on doing most of what you do, if you want to, but to give up a great deal of the unnecessary effort which you may be putting into these activities.  This releases vast amounts of untapped energy, which previously had gone to waste.  It actually allows you to BE much easier and more efficient while you continue to DO what you are doing!  Let me explain.

 Driving with the brakes on

Simplifying somewhat, we have two different muscle systems.   One, a chain of muscles which run deep along our bones from the soles of the feet up to the top of the spine, is concerned with support and stability.  They work in association with gravity and with our skeleton to keep us easily upright for as long as we need to, without tiring.  This is because these muscles are composed of fibres (red, slow twitch) which are intended for endurance, and can easily keep the body upright and co-ordinated for as long as necessary. These are the muscles you see working most efficiently in small children, who do not end up slumping with exhaustion at the end of a hard day’s play. This system of muscles has not worn out or gone anywhere, whatever age we are - if rediscovered and used correctly, they will keep us in balance and at ease all day long.  We might call them our ‘Supporting and Being’ muscles.

 The other system of muscles wraps around these, and includes those we see on the ‘outside’ –including back and chest muscles, shoulders, arms and legs - the ones that athletes and body-builders develop.  We might call these our ‘Moving and Doing’ muscles – their job is to move us, and all the other objects with which we interact, around.  They can do this job very effectively, but only for relatively short periods. 

 Unfortunately we have got into habits of confusing these two systems.  We tend to be out of balance in one way or another – face pulling forward towards the computer perhaps, or leaning slightly to one side as we carry a bag, so that we end up having to use our outer ‘Moving and Doing’ muscles for support to prevent us from falling over – bracing back and legs, hunching shoulders and tightening the neck for example.  This requires a tremendous amount of unnecessary effort, and makes much more difficult the free and easy movement which these muscles are meant to be doing (walking or lifting our arms to the keyboard for example), rather as if we were driving with the brakes on.  This, unsurprisingly, tires us out and causes all sorts of problems with wear and tear on our bodies as well. We may try to solve these problems by pulling ourselves into a more ‘upright’ position, not realising that we are again misusing our Moving and Doing muscles by asking them to support us, which is not part of their original job description.  When this gets too much for us, we will slump in our chair, not realising that actually, it also takes work in these big muscles to pull us downwards, as it does to hold us upright.   Then at the end of the day we try to ‘relax’ by giving up altogether, collapsing on a sofa perhaps – but will probably not feel much better for it, as these muscles may have got so accustomed to overworking that they may have forgotten how to relax.  Meanwhile our true support system has been quietly taking a back seat all day long, overridden, unable to do its job, and, like any muscle, will become weak from underuse.

 Gravity is your friend

The Alexander Technique will teach you more about the anatomy of our support system, and why we appear to have lost it, but even more importantly, about how to access and rebuild it, working with gravity rather than fighting it, so that you can take full advantage of the  efficient, highly evolved, innate uprighting system which we all still have.  You will be pleased to learn that these muscles can be given a mini-workout while lying down for a short period, for example, if done in the right way!  We will also practise using our support system more effectively while sitting, walking and, eventually, in any activity you choose. 

 So you see, the answer to the question in the title is, perhaps, not either Being or Doing, but rather that we want to be at ease, and do only what is necessary and appropriate for any given task.  If we think of our support system as allowing us to ‘Be’ upright and easy all day long, while we continue to ‘Do’ all our activities with greater efficiency and energy, we can bring these two aspects of our lives into balance, without having to give up anything – except some of our stress and strain, and hopefully our aches and pain. 

"It is finding our own balance between going out to do and staying back to be that we will have an effect on others."  Annie Wilson: Wise Virgin  


Now is the only time we have ... ?

 We all have an idea of what ‘present moment awareness’ is and how it enhances our life – those times when we are unexpectedly taken out of our day-to-day fretting and concerns by the impact of a beautiful sunset or work of art, or the ones we try to factor into our lives by engaging in activities we enjoy – dancing, sport or playing our instrument, or occasionally just playing.  We ‘forget ourselves’ for a short while and we know that this is good for us.   But how can we live like this for more of the time?  What does the Alexander Technique have to offer us here? 

 This concept is in fact at the heart of the Alexander Technique, which is built on paying attention.  Most people come to the Alexander Technique wanting some sort of change – a reduction in pain or stress, an increase in ease and co-ordination in some activity.  We help our students to understand that to make this kind of change happen in the medium to longer-term, they have to do it for themselves rather than rely forever on a quick fix by somebody else (helpful though these can be in the short term).  And to make any change, we first have to know what is going on, what we are doing that might be causing our difficulty.   So we have to pay attention.  We begin to practise awareness.

 This kind of awareness is about coming to our senses – using our immediate, sensory input to pay attention to what is going on right here, right now, rather than disappearing into the tangled undergrowth of thought and feelings, or trying to abscond altogether into distractions.   It is no accident that pretty much every technique for stress relief, relaxation, or healing turns out to include some variation on this kind of awareness.   

Absent minded

Our human faculty to be elsewhere in our minds – remembering, planning, analysing, calculating – is one of our greatest gifts. It is that which distinguishes us from animals, and is a huge part of our ‘success’ as the most complex and intelligent creatures on the planet.  It is also what enables us to feel fear, anxiety and unhappiness, about things which are over and done with, or which have not yet happened.  This capability is an important part of our evolution, but does so often get out of hand, our minds running hither and thither quite out of our control, and causing what is often unproductive and unnecessary physical and mental distress. And often being literally ‘absent-minded’, adds to our stress by making us less efficient.

 The body has very efficient ways of alerting us to problems, physical or emotional – we feel pain of some sort.  This is our system’s way of telling us to do something about the problem.  But if we can’t or don’t do anything about it, then eventually the body-mind also finds effective ways of shutting off those signals for a while, so that we can continue to function.  This cannot continue indefinitely, however, and eventually, the pain increases in order to override the avoidance strategies - to make darn sure that something gets done.  This applies whether the pain is caused by physical or mental stress (and as we all know nowadays, there is no clear dividing line between the two). 

 The only way out of this bind is to go into it – to pay attention to the pain in order realistically to assess the situation and to find a way to change it.  It is trite but true to say that we can only change something if we are aware of it.   Conscious awareness will help us find a way through. 

Practising presence

But people in pain do not, understandably, want to give more attention to that pain. So we practice awareness at first on other things, easier things, pleasanter things, and eventually, as with training of any sort, we build up the strength to deal with the more difficult areas.  Awareness is like a kind of mind muscle – it gets stronger by being used.

 In the meantime, this sort of gentle, easy awareness of our immediate experience is enormously beneficial in itself.   When our minds are buzzing around with the ‘what ifs and what shoulds’ -  ‘pasturising and futurising’ as somebody once called it, our body reacts as if each of the memories, worst-case scenarios or dramas which we are thinking about are actually happening right now.  An all-out alert message rushes through  the whole system, it goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode as if we were faced with an immediately life-threatening emergency, producing many of the only too well known effects of stress and anxiety – and we carry this state of emergency around with us for much of the day.  When we are back in a full and free awareness of the present moment, the nervous system calms down, because you are signalling that the present situation is not, usually, a real emergency. 

With Alexander Technique we learn to balance our amazing facility to be elsewhere in our minds (‘lost in thought’), with the ability to choose to come back home to the present, which is the only place where change can happen.  We train ourselves, at first in the easier setting of lying down, to become aware of specific, relevant and constructive things, such as the support of the ground, our relationship to the space around us, and the messages being sent and received by our muscles.  It especially helps us to become aware of habits.  Habits are those multitudinous skills which we have learned so well that they go under the radar of conscious thought, and without which we could not function – or at least, it would take us all day to get out of bed and washed and dressed.  We should not rush to judge our habits as good or bad, they have all had a purpose in their own way, but some are no longer helpful, and it is vital that we pay some heed to them occasionally, in order to be able to sift out the useful from the less useful.

Giving a friendly, curious attention to what is going on in us right here, right now, is key to a more easy, constructive relationship with our habits, and to finding that we have options and choices – the Alexander Technique also teaches us strategies to change them if need be.  Present moment awareness, as a starting point in the Alexander Technique process, will help us both to calm down, and to open ourselves up to growth and change. 

“Down the ages we can see that all the real teachers of mankind have tried to make people understand this point, that change can only happen in the present. It is a recurrent theme in the great mystical writings. The Now is all we have.  We cannot inhibit last week, direct ourselves tomorrow, or even control our reactions five minutes hence. All this has to be done Now. The fact that we find it so difficult to BE in the present, is, I might suggest, also mirrored in the way we stand. How can we be all present and correct, if our heads are driving back into the past, our bodies rushing forward into the future, and even our feet are barely present in the Here and Now.“  

Marjorie Barlow, niece of FM Alexander: An Examined Life



The Spaces In Between

 I have come more and more to realise the special value of those times and places ‘in between’ – it seems to me that they are the most valuable opportunities for change, renewal and growth.  Just as a seed will lie dormant in the ground through winter, with apparently nothing happening before new growth appears, so we need our periods of doing nothing, which does not mean that nothing is happening – far from it.  During sleep for example, our bodies apparently heal and grow at a faster rate than when we are awake and active.

 Rest in the spaces in our days

‘Time-out’ such as holidays, meditation or activities which absorb us give us precious opportunities to be in a constructive state of present-moment awareness.  Alexander Technique lessons might also be seen as ‘spaces’ in our lives – a time and place where we are encouraged to drop the patterns of habitual behaviour and come to rest in awareness of ourselves right here, right now.  Lying in the Alexander position of constructive rest (semi-supine) is also a perfect example of a ‘space between’ in our busy schedules. 

Rest in the space between movements

We are encouraged in our lessons to pay particular attention to the ‘space between movements’ – the only place where we can stop our automatic pilot from taking over, and change our habitual reactions to a stimulus into a more conscious and constructive response.  In this space we have the option to choose something completely different to the usual - this is where change happens.

Create space inside yourself

We are also particularly interested in the ‘space between’ bones – the joints.  If bones are jammed together by constricted muscle and connective tissue, then there is much more wear and tear on them, and of course movement is also restricted and more effortful.  By learning how to release unnecessary tension in muscles, we create space for efficient folding and movement around joints, and also for more effective flow of lubrication, circulation, and sensation in and around the joints.

 We can take this further, and know that we are also creating space at a deeper level – within the muscles themselves as they become less contracted, between muscles and organs, and even between cells. So internal movements such as breathing and digestion will also happen more easily and efficiently, if they are not constricted.  It is said in Chinese medicine that, “All disease is congestion, all health is circulation”, and we become aware of and enjoy the feeling of better circulation, of flow, when we open upwards and outwards in the Alexander process.  

 Rest in the space between breaths

As Alexander practitioners, we are also aware of the vital importance of the ‘space between’ breaths.  If we are not interfering with our breathing by contracting around it, then we can learn just to wait, without holding or fixing, at the end of an out-breath, and we discover that the in-breath comes of its own accord, with no effort on our part.  If we have got into the habit of not trusting in this process, for all sorts of reasons, then we will rush to ‘take a breath’ right away, probably before the out-breath has even finished.  This makes breathing not only more effortful, but also much less efficient.   To learn to ‘rest in the space between breaths’ and trust that the new breath will be given to us is a great energy-enhancing benefit.   

We may find that this practice leads into a more restful, mindful way of speaking – one where we are willing to leave spaces in between our words or sentences, to listen, to allow others to hear and digest what we have said, to give us time to consider what we want to say next, or whether indeed we need to speak again.

 Rest in the space between thoughts

I have found that, gradually, these Alexander practices have led me to be more aware even of the ‘space between thoughts’.  Usually, our thoughts rush through our minds like a swarm of bees, one following and even overlapping with another, with no quietness anywhere.  As we learn to rest in the spaces between movements, between words, between breaths, we discover that there is, in fact, the possibility of space in our thinking – where we can find some peace, in mind and body. 

 Spacious thinking – spacious living

One way of describing what we are trying to do with the Alexander Technique is to cultivate ‘spacious thinking’.  Stress is a part of life, we cannot eliminate it, but if we increase our awareness of how we react to it, and give ourselves time and space to find and practise other options, we can live much more at ease with the inevitable pressures which come our way.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Viktor Frankl,  Auschwitz survivor:  Man's Search for Meaning