Studying the Alexander Technique can seem like a never-ending road filled with mysterious obstacles and seductive bunny trails that often lead to dead-ends. However, it can be less so if you become aware of these potential pitfalls:
1) Doing the directions
Alexander called the directions “preventative orders” because they are meant to stop you from actively shortening your stature, narrowing your back, and pulling in your limbs. Any new found expanded state is a result of getting out of the way of natural upright. You can’t do an undoing, so don’t force yourself to lengthen or widen. Think (wish, intend, imagine) the change you’d like to see happen and then allow yourself to breathe. Repeat.
2) Relaxing (releasing all muscle tone)
The Alexander Technique is about finding an easeful way of balancing, moving, and being; where your mind and muscles work for you, not against you. We are looking for healthy muscle tone without excess, thinking without effort; that doesn’t mean no work. Don’t let non-doing become nothing doing.
3) Letting your feelings guide you
If we do what feels right, we are doing our habit. A general rule of thumb: if it feels right, it’s wrong; if it feels wrong, it’s new. This is different from learning to recognize your habit(s), which we all must do. Eventually your kinesthetic sense does become more reliable, but we must move out of the realm of feeling and into the realm of thought to improve even then. Alexander once said, “When the time comes that you can trust your feelings, you won’t want to use it [kinesthetic sense].”
4) Trying to levitate
No matter how much up direction you give yourself, you must still be grounded for it to be useful. A lengthening of the body comes from the ground and goes up. Don’t be so concerned with your head going forward and up that you lift your feet off the ground.
5) Focusing on specific parts without relation to the whole
Concentrating often narrows our view, not allowing us to see the entire system we are affecting. We then start “fixing” specific problems only to move on to the next problem that we faultily perceive to be independent of the last one. We then feel like we’ve accomplished something by “fixing” many little things, but in reality we haven’t achieved anything useful if we don’t account for part’s relation to the whole; in fact, you even run the risk of destabilizing the entire system.
The most common example of this I see is “putting the head forward and up” as if forward and up were a position of the head, not a relationship of the head to the whole body. When we perceive a problem, it’s best to take a wider view of the area surrounding the problem rather than directly fixing it.
6) Believing that the startle pattern is a habit
We go into the startle pattern (head and limbs pulled into the torso like a turtle going into it’s shell) because we are afraid of something. Whether it’s stage fright or fear of falling on the ground; the startle pattern is a reaction to a thought or feeling; either of which can be habitual. If we don’t want to startle, the thing to do is find the thought/feeling that is causing the startle pattern and inhibit (say no to) it. This is not to say that you won’t have to explore why you are having those thoughts or feelings.
7) Inhibiting doing the activity instead of inhibiting the thought of doing the activity.
This sounds complicated, but it’s actually very simple. Inhibiting (or saying no) can end up being plain old stiffening if we are not clear about what we are inhibiting. Are we saying no to the thought (and therefore the habitual reaction) of sitting or standing while doing chair work, or are we saying no to the activity and muscling through? It is helpful to ask, “What am I inhibiting?” then “How am I doing that?”
Going inside to try and figure things out, thinking about what you’re going to do later, or anything other than what’s going on in the moment (being present and aware of your thoughts, seeing the room, hearing, and feeling your contact with the ground) just gets in the way of your goal. Even if you are planning for a future event, it’s not helpful to leave the present while thinking about it.
9) Trying to get it right
One of the most powerful experiences in my practice of the Alexander Technique was in a chair turn with Barbara Kent where I realized that no matter how hard I tried to get it right, I couldn’t sit in the chair without stiffening and plopping down into the chair. Barbara picked up on this and said, “Let’s try it again and this time, let’s both be wrong.” I then effortlessly made it to the chair with no plop. Barbara then followed up with a smile, “It’s never going to be perfect, so there’s no point in trying to be.”
10) Being hard on ourselves
Our habits have gotten us to where we are in life. Thank them, and then gently let them know that they are no longer needed. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction- therefore the more effort we exert in trying to overcome our habits the more difficulty there will be in doing just that.
In my experience it’s much easier to tell when we are headed in the wrong direction than when things are going well. This list is far from exhaustive, but if kept in mind it provides clues about when we’ve fallen off the straight and narrow path and makes the difficult journey of personal transformation easier to navigate.