Habits: Friends or Foes?

by Robert Rickover

As a child, 'helping' in the kitchen, it was by watching my mother that I learned how to beat eggs with a fork. Along with the rapid forearm movement, I copied what she did with her shoulders - and soon began to feel cramped and tired. How could I know, young as I was, than the tension I had copied was merely an expression of my mother's anxiety to hurry on to the next task, that it contributed nothing to the speed or effectiveness of the egg-beating. Whipping the whites was done with a knife on a large plate, but since this skill, even more fascinating, was demonstrated by my grandmother, a dignified old lady who operated at how own speed, it never involved me in muscular problems, then or later. As an adult, I have been able to analyze the difference, and have become passionately interested in disentangling skills from the snares surrounding them. - Elizabeth Langford, Mind and Muscle - An Owner's Manual, page 220.

Like fire, habits are excellent servants but can be very dangerous masters. They're necessary for us to get through life without thinking about every little detail of our lives, freeing our minds for more important things; we want, for example, to carry on a conversation while chopping vegetables for - or beating eggs - for dinner.

But it's precisely because much of what we do is relegated to the unconscious realm that our habits of posture and movement can be quite inefficient and even harmful. I'm sure you can think of people you know who have odd ways of holding themselves, of walking, speaking etc. - mannerisms that have no obvious cause such as an injury or disease.

For the most part these people are blissfully unaware of these patterns, even ones that are quite pronounced and easy for all to see. And while this lack of awareness may seem like a blessing - relieving them of something to worry or feel embarrassed about - it also ensures that the habits will persist. And the harmful tensions and pressure they're unconsciously generating in their body can eventually lead to pain and even serious injury in later life.

What can one do about physical habits of this sort? The usual solution involves exercises and other attempts to "fix" the problem by doing something else. "Stand up straight", "Pull your shoulders back", - these are the kind of things slouching children are often told by their parents for example.

And adults too. How many times have you read a magazine article advising you to "sit up strait"; while using a computer, or "walk tall" or "hold your head high"?

What this kind of advice ignores is that it's asking you to change what your body does without changing the way your body functions.

It's a little like taking an automobile that's pulling to the right and driving it with the steering wheel always turned a little to the left to keep the car moving strait ahead. You've certainly changed the way the car moves, but it's still not functioning properly.

Most drivers understand that's only a temporary solution and take steps to adjust the car's alignment - a fairly simple job for a trained mechanic.

But with human beings, the problem is a quite different - we have to be our own "mechanic". And that poses special challenges: Our posture, coordination and balance are directed by our thoughts. If that directing is done sub-consciously - if it is habitual - then in order to make changes in it, we have to learn how to make the directing process itself conscious.

And that's not all. As any experimental scientist can tell you, it's a very tricky business to make fundamental changes to a system when you're using that very system to make the change. As John Dewy, the great American philosopher and educator said, "No one would deny that we ourselves enter as an agency into whatever is attempted and done by us. That is a truism. But the hardest thing to attend to is that which is closest to us, that which is most constant and familiar. And this closest "something" is, precisely, ourselves, our own habits and ways of doing things..."

F. Matthews Alexander faced precisely this challenge in confronting a serious problem with his voice. In the course of overcoming his difficulty, he developed a method - today known as the Alexander Technique - which can be systematically taught to others.

If for any reason - pain, discomfort, the desire to be able to do things better - the idea of making a fundamental improvement in the way your function appeals to you, the Alexander Technique is well worth your investigation.


Mind and Muscle - An Owner's Manual and a great many other books, videos, and CD's can be ordered from The Alexander Technique Bookstore at http://www.alexandertechnique.com/books

Information about the connection between John Dewey and F. Matthias Alexander can be found at http://www.alexandertechnique.com/articles/dewey

Robert Rickover is a teacher of the Alexander Technique living in Lincoln, Nebraska. He also teaches regularly in Toronto, Canada. Robert is the author of Fitness Without Stress - A Guide to the Alexander Technique and is the creator of The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique

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