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Embodying Peace: An introduction to the Alexander Technique

By Ariel Weiss Holyst

This article is intended as an introduction to the principles of the Alexander Technique for both those already familiar with the work and for those who are not. For the first group, it offers another possible lens with which to view the work. The discoveries Mr. Alexander made about human functioning are profoundly simple and offer infinite potential for positive change. My goal here is to provide some kernels of ideas that can lead us to use this technique towards learning and growing that can literally build peace.

While introducing the work to a new pupil several months ago, the beginnings of these peace-centered ideas bubbled up. I have been excited and delighted to follow their lead ever since. I am indebted to all of my students. It is through the honor of my interactions with them that I continue to be inspired and to re-imagine this work.

In essence, the Alexander Technique is a study of the relationship of our thinking to our actions, that is, we do what we think. Always! Part of the adventure is to uncover the thinking that "drives the train," the sometimes deeply hidden belief systems that we adopt from experience, families and our culture that shape how we act, react and respond. With a clearer understanding of the motivation, or context, for what "drives our train," it becomes possible to choose to change the thinking and the quality of the resulting actions.

The Alexander work specifically explores how patterns of muscular interference disrupt our full capacity for functioning as humans.  Habitual tension in our necks disrupts the poise of our skulls on our spines, thus interfering with the functioning of our whole being. The premise is that all parts of our body are interconnected. Therefore, when we interfere with this primary relationship, we affect the whole system in a disintegrating fashion. We don't function in isolation. Each part of us affects the whole. When we tense our jaw, our breathing is shallow. When we grip our toes, our low backs ache, etc. With the clear intention and practice of the Alexander Technique, we learn to effectively change the primary piece of our disintegrating puzzle, and unleash ourselves into rejuvenating integration.

Even with this awareness, most of us persist in scrunching, pulling, shortening, and otherwise interfering with our head/neck poise. Why? Because it somehow feels "right." The familiar thing (pulling our heads off the poise of our spine) is translated as the correct thing, even if it causes us chronic pain, interferes with our breathing and dampens our overall sense of well-being. What feels most familiar, and even "right", however, does not always work to our best advantage.

As I observed my new pupil pulling on herself, I found that it looked as if she were "picking a fight" with her own neck. This idea resonated deeply with her both physically and emotionally. We have since gone on to explore, kinesthetically, what it would be like to find a more "peaceful" neck.

When we feel stiff or uncomfortable, most often our first instinct is to push our necks around. That is what I observed in my student. My experience tells me that this instinctual remedy is counterproductive.  It doesn't help our well being. Inevitably, we only feel stiffer. Tension begets more tension. Unwittingly we add stress in the pursuit of lessening the stress. We give our necks and/or shoulders, backs, etc. a big yank, and do so with aggression, force, judgment, impatience and urgency. When we most need comfort, we tend to pick a fight with ourselves. We employ fighting words like "must", "should", and "can't" in harsh, critical tones towards ourselves. We add stress to the strain and end up perpetually frustrated, stiff and uncomfortable. The stiffness begets more stiffness and more anguish. The tugging, or fighting, becomes a process which is ground into us, becoming a familiar cycle, a habit.

How can we change this dysfunction? What would a peaceful neck feel like? What thinking would lead us towards peaceful efficiency and away from our familiar, habitual pulling? A peaceful neck is one with less tension, without any extra effort or resistance. It exists peacefully with its neighbors and works cooperatively and in concert with the rest of us. The thinking that can lead us in this direction must shift from an oppositional model to a contextual one.

We have become so habituated to knowing ourselves through our tension that we have come to identify where we are, and even who we are, by the resistance we exert against ourselves and our environment. We know our strength by how our muscles squeeze into each other. We know where the floor is by pressing down into it and the chair by "slumping" down onto its surfaces. We know our own "stand" on things in relation to our opposition to another person's point of view! A teacher of mine likened this kind of excessive resistance to driving around with your emergency brake on. In a sense, we are trying to "go" and "stop" simultaneously, an endeavor which is neither effective or efficient.  It's also usually highly uncomfortable! A "dis-ease" of our coordination. When we busy ourselves by engaging in opposition, we are in effect, stuck. We are coming and going at the same time. This slows us down and cuts off our options. We become immobilized and unresponsive. Yet we persist in relying on the familiarity of our preset patterns, even though it often does not work to our best advantage.

I am proposing a shift in our thinking to precipitate a shift in our action. When we take away resistance as our primary tool of response and the tendency to "dig in our heels" with oppositional bracing, we are left with an efficient, balanced use of effort or energy.  Just right. No more, no less. I call this "working smarter" instead of the ever-popular "working harder".

It is possible, over time and with practice, to learn to know where and who we are without resistance. It is possible to move towards discovering ourselves contextually "in relation to" instead of "opposed to". With each moment of choosing peaceful non-tugging, we practice a new strategy that can begin to grow as familiar as the aggression of our own muscular resistance. We can question the authority of our own, sometimes strong, urges to "work harder" and "push on through". We can ask ourselves what is it we want before jumping first to what we don't want. Instead of buying into "more is better" with body and soul, we can practice "less is more". Instead of working harder, we can explore the possibility of pushing less and dare to find out how much is enough, and where and who we are without the supreme guidance of our old comfortable sensations of resistance. We can begin to recognize that pushing against ourselves hurts us, and causes a direct aggression towards others. Pushing begets pushing. We can model our new peaceful strategies towards our neighbors, coworkers and children so that we begin to breed familiarity and comfort with nonviolent, connected and open exchanges.

Finding peace, personal peace or world peace, through aggression will not, and cannot work. Just as jerking our neck around creates more "pain" for us, jerking others around creates more pain for both of us.  Excessive force does not work in our best interest. It is less efficient, less effective, and usually highly uncomfortable. My hope is that if we can come to better understand and recognize the deeply rooted urges we have towards aggression, pushing and fighting, we might begin to risk trying strategies that bring us success, comfort and peace. If our thinking does truly lead our action, and if we are actually connected to all that is around us, making the smallest change in our thinking has limitless potential to unleash an ongoing chain of peacefulness.

The next time you get stuck, internally or externally, take a moment to pause. Wait. Inhibit the urge to push and press your way through. Dare to not know in an old, familiar way for a moment and seek an unfamiliar option. Find out what it would be to un-push. If you want to share peace with someone because you love them, or because they're making you crazy, get peaceful, right down to your neck muscles. See what happens. See if changing a piece of your own disintegrating puzzle can effect a change on your whole self. See if by changing your end of things the interaction itself changes. See if by changing your interaction with the person in that difficult situation the world can change. After all, each piece affects the whole.

Peace. Embody it. Dare to wonder. See what happens.


Ariel Weiss Holyst has been in private practice teaching the Alexander Technique in the Philadelphia region since 1988.  She is also a modern dancer and choreographer, bringing over 35 years of movement training to her teaching practice.



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