Before we can proceed with the ‘real’ work of the Alexander Technique, of noticing our habits which cause unnecessary tension and finding ways to challenge them, we need to have sufficient calmness in mind and body to be able to hear their quieter signals. If we are anxious, rushed or stressed, which is pretty much a default state for many people, we are unlikely to be able to learn new ways to change things. Our incredibly clever minds and bodies still function over a pretty basic operating system, which prioritises our safety over all else – a good thing, but unfortunately the dangers that we face are not of the kind with which the ‘primitive’ nervous system deals well. You can read an excellent article about this aspect of our physiology and psychology (which also helps to explain how these are inextricably intertwined) here. Living in a chronic state of fight, flight or freeze, or a mixture of these, does not help us deal with the very real stressors which we face in our daily lives.
So I often start lessons by establishing three steps towards a sense of safety and security. We may be perfectly aware that there is no actual emergency situation happening in our lives at this moment, but as long as we are rushing and leaning into the future, or constantly recycling thoughts of old wounds or of difficulties we have to deal with, our minds and bodies will remain in a state of high alert. We need to give ourselves conscious, gentle reassurance that all is well. These three steps will do that, and can be practised at leisure in lessons then called upon very quickly in any situation of stress or distress.
Step one is to acknowledge the physical support that is available to us. We are always supported (unless we are astronauts), whether sitting, standing, walking or lying down – there is ground beneath us. When we tune into this support and we are in good alignment with gravity (rather than holding ourselves up, or teetering forward or backward ) then a great deal of mental and physical tension can be released. So when sitting, for example, you consciously feel the contact of your sitting bones with the chair underneath and allow the chair do the work of supporting you. This is why we recommend sitting on a firm seat, as a soft one cannot give this kind of feedback – try walking on a sofa and you’ll see what I mean.
Step two is to be aware of the space around us. Try this experiment: with your eyes closed, imagine you are sitting in a box, a nice cosy one like the ones we used to play house in. ‘See’ in your mind’s eye the walls and roof of the box. As children we sometimes enjoy being in this kind of small space precisely because we are enclosed, and therefore can feel safe. As adults, we may feel a little restricted and constricted – which may manifest as compression in the body.
Then imagine the walls of the box falling away so you are in the whole space of the room. Still with your eyes closed, envisage the space under the chair, the support of the ground there, and the space above you. Then be aware of the space in front and behind you, and to either side. Imagine you have antennae reaching into those spaces, and sense if your mind and body open out a little. Open your eyes and ‘see out’ into that space and the space beyond the room. Can you see something you’ve never noticed before? Can you imagine the world behind you?
The point is not so much the size of the space we are in, although on the whole we tend to expand mentally and physically when we are in ‘wide-open spaces’ such as by the sea or hills. But whatever space we are currently inhabiting, the main thing is to be aware of it – our sense of security extends only as far as our awareness, and if we are ‘locked in’ to our buzzing thoughts, mind wandering everywhere but here, the body-mind assumes that nobody is home and can go into guard-and-protect mode, activating the ‘be prepared for danger’ functions of mind and body – ie tension. Taking an interest in the space around us is a short-cut to feeling safer and therefore to potential expansion of mind and body. It also often makes life more interesting than when we confine ourselves to the thought factory of the brain, and sometimes it will actually make us safer.
Step three is awareness of our breath – a common feature of many systems, such as meditation, yoga, tai-chi, whose aim is to quieten body and mind, . The breath is always influencing and reflecting our state of mind in wondrous and complex ways. The Alexander Technique has traditionally left the breathing to its own devices, and it will indeed become more naturally easy with general Alexander processes which create more breathing space inside the body. But it can be very helpful to use the breath to help us to come to quiet, by ‘re-minding’ our nervous systems again that we are not in an emergency situation. The in-breath is associated with energising, arousal and preparation for ‘fight or flight’, while the outbreath is the ‘rest and release’ phase of the breath cycle. The two should balance each other other appropriately for any given situation, but sadly we are often in situations which are at some level interpreted as ‘danger’, so that even daily stress of all sorts can trigger the emergency breathing function and cause effortful shallow breathing. Simply, if we gently pay attention to the outbreath, allowing it naturally to slow down and to flow fully, then things can rebalance. Try making a soft sound on the out-breath, such as ‘sssssss’ or ‘ssshhhhh’, gently repeated a few times, and if it happens comfortably, extend it and allow a rest in the space between breaths. The in-breath will then flow in fully and naturally – there is no need to ‘take a deep breath’.
You might notice that all these steps involve conscious awareness, ie coming into a closer relationship with the here and now. It is no coincidence – this is what our body-mind needs to feel safe, and therefore able to relax – to know that the mind is at home and awake in the body, and that all is fundamentally well.
These steps can be summarised as follows:
- Ssssslow outbreaths, or sussuration – a lovely word meaning soft, soothing sounds.
Put it all together
You can even combine these three steps into a wee game you can play anytime. Let yourself be in contact with the chair you are sitting on or the ground under your feet, and imagine that you are softly blowing bubbles, which flow outwards into the room around you. Take as many breaths as you comfortably need to fill the whole room, even the space behind you.
Why did I write ‘six steps’ in the heading when I’ve only described three? Well, because it sounded better! But we can usefully add a fourth – SMILE – a soft ‘inner smile’ which lights up the eyes will signal to your own nervous system as well as to others that you are OK. Can you find your inner smile while blowing bubbles … ??
And once our body-mind is settled and peaceful, we may find that some of the habits of holding and tension have already melted away, and we can focus more effectively on the Alexander tools for change: inhibition and direction – or, if you’d like to complete the six ‘ssss’s’, ssstopping the unnecessary, and continuing to ssspread ourselves outwards to engage more effectively with the world!
Enjoy experimenting with these ideas, and let me know how you get on.