SPORTS AND THE ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE
By Adam Bailey
The Alexander Technique is a century-old discipline that helps athletes to improve their performance, among other applications. It involves an educational process in which the student learns a set of skills that he or she can apply in all facets of life. One of the assumptions underlying this process is that most people carry more muscle tension than they need in order to carry out activities. The first skill that students learn, then, is how to lessen these areas of undue muscle tension. The result is easier, less effortful movement. Second, they learn that, without the interference of the tension, they can cultivate a more natural alignment of their head, neck and spine that has associated with it qualities of balance, strength and coordination.
In order to describe the ways in which the Alexander Technique can benefit athletes, let me start by telling my own story. Ive been a life-long athlete. As a child in grade school, I played soccer and baseball. Outside of school, I rode horses. As I got older, I also did a lot of skiing, sailing, hiking and bicycling.
During high school and college, my favorite sport was rowing. In college, I rowed on the lightweight crew. I took a year off from college and lived in Crested Butte, Colorado; that winter I skied every day that I wasnt working. More recently, after a long period away from it, Ive gotten deeply involved in horseback riding again, and Ive continued to ski every winter.
As you can tell, Ive always adored sports. And yet, for a long time, I felt that there was something intangible missing in my relationship to them. One aspect of this was that I was never quite as successful at them as I wanted to be. It was only when I started taking Alexander lessons that I finally was able to figure out what that "missing piece" was.
What I learned through the Alexander Technique was that, in many cases, I was putting more effort into a given sport than I really needed to, with the result that my body had a lot of extra muscle tension tension that I wasnt even aware of! The Alexander Technique taught me that, if Im having difficulty with a given sport, the best thing to do is to try a different approach. To be more specific, this means doing less subtracting effort and then trying the activity again.
I was so impressed with this learning that I decided to train to become a teacher. Ive now been teaching for almost nine years. The results of this process are clear: at the age of 41, Im skiing and riding better than I ever have before. And best of all, I no longer have the feeling that something is missing. At the same time, I have much more frequent experiences of "the zone" that amazing experience of ease, control and well-being when you dont feel as if you have to make the sport happen because it almost seems to be happening on its own, and youre just going along for an intensely pleasurable ride.
The implication of this article thus far is that the Alexander Technique is simply about learning how to lessen undue muscle tension. While that is a central theme of the technique, there is more to it than that. Its also about cultivating an alignment of ones head, neck and spine that has characteristics of strength, control and balance. As you might imagine, its this alignment (known as the primary control) that is central to the experience of the zone.
Let me provide an example. Recently, I was skiing the moguls at Mt. Sunapee ski area in New Hampshire. Moguls are natural bumps that are created in the snow by skiers turns. They make skiing both more challenging and more interesting because they mean that you cant make your turns wherever you want to: they "predetermine" your turns.
Although the moguls I was skiing on that day were very close together, I found that I could negotiate the turns that were necessary using my knees, while my upper body stayed still. What helped in making this distinction were Alexander Technique thoughts about minimizing tension in the areas of my head, neck and spine so that I could allow my head to remain poised and so that I could allow my whole spine to slightly lengthen upwards. The result was that I found my balance improving, the quick turns became easier and I had more control over them. Best of all, I had a day-long experience of the zone!
Now I dont mean to imply that there was some miracle at work during that experience because what happened was the result of a lot of practice in both disciplines. Still, the benefits of combining the two disciplines are irrefutable.
Id like to provide a second example of the benefits of the Alexander Technique for sports. It involves a student that Ive worked with for a period of time; Ive given her both Alexander Technique lessons and ski lessons. Until she started taking Alexander lessons, her experience of skiing had not been altogether positive: in her words, "for years, Ive skied with fear and stiffness". In particular, she had a fear of falling.
During her ski lessons, we did two things. First, we worked on her skiing skills: more specifically, I told her that I thought the most important skill for any skier to have is good "brakes". I showed her how she could bend her knees during her turns in order to slow down or stop. In my opinion all other skiing skills are built on this one. The second thing I did with her was Alexander Technique "hands-on" during the ski lessons. As a result, she became more aware of the fact that a big part of fear is the tension that it causes in our body. At the same time, the hands-on gave her an experience of what skiing can be like when there is less tension in her body. Specifically, she experienced a quality of upward lengthening and lightness in her spine. (Previously, the tension in her body had had the effect of pulling her down, giving her an overall feeling of heaviness that was associated with her fear of falling.) Finally, once she knew for sure that she could stop whenever she wanted to, she began to enjoy herself more.
Now again, I dont mean to imply that any miracles happened with this student. The results came only after she had had a course of Alexander Technique lessons away from the ski slope, and thus had had a chance to practice the skills associated with it. In addition, as I mentioned, she had a lot of experience skiing under her belt when I met her (even though not all of it was positive). Having said that, it was clearly the combination of the two sets of skills that allowed her to experience a "great breakthrough" (her words) in her skiing, and in her sense of well-being associated with it.
Adam Bailey is a teacher of the Alexander Technique. He lives and works in the Boston area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (978)461-0946. Website: http://www.alexandertechniqueboston.com
For more information about the Alexander Technique, click on the link below:
The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique