Feeling, Seeing and Effective Self-Improvement
by Robert Rickover
I can still remember the first time I ever saw myself on TV. It was about 30 years ago during a public speaking course run by my employer. As I watched it, I thought that I would never in a thousand years would I recognize myself if I didnt know I had just been taped! I felt that I looked and sounded one way, but what I saw on the screen, and what I heard, was totally different.
We have all had the experience of seeing ourselves - perhaps in a mirrored fitting room where we could see ourselves from an unfamiliar angle, or on television - and being quite surprised by what we saw.
As a teacher of the Alexander Technique, I see the gap between this kind of feeling, on the one hand, and reality, on the other, all the time. A student will be absolutely certain (based on feelings) that he or she is standing or sitting one way when the reality is entirely different. Indeed it is often that difference - that untrustworthiness of feelings - that contributed to the dysfunctional patterns of posture and movement that led to taking Alexander Technique lessons in the first place.
It is often a fairly simple matter to help students bridge the gap between their feelings about their physical state and what is actually going on so that they can begin to effectively make useful changes in themselves. Sometimes its as simple as getting them to really look at themselves in a mirror.
If you would like to do some Alexander mirror work yourself, here are a few suggestions:
Begin by standing in front of a mirror. A full length one is best. Pay special attention to the relationship of your whole head (not just your face) to the rest of your body. Notice how this relationship changes as you perform simple activities like talking, walking or raising an arm or leg.
How does what you see in the mirror correspond to what you think you're doing, and what do you feel you're doing? Which do you think is more accurate? Take plenty of time to explore these questions.
Experiment with changing the relationship of your head to your body, perhaps tilting it a little forward or backward from the top of your neck and observe what difference these shifts make to your movements and to your breathing.
F. M. Alexander, the developer of the Alexander Technique, found that the most useful change he could make was to mentally direct his neck to be free so that his head, followed by his body, could release in an upward direction - delicately, without any stiffening or undue effort.
Try this. What do you notice? Does anything look or feel different?
Now, try doing the opposite. Stiffen your neck a little as you gently push your head down towards the rest of your body. What effect does this have on your ability to breathe, speak and perform simple activities?
What happens when you just leave yourself alone? Is there a relationship between your head and your body that you tend automatically to go back to? Exaggerate yourself for just a moment. Notice what happens to your head/body relationship when you do this.
Feel free to experiment in other ways that occur to you. Pay close attention to the results of your experiments. Remember that you are both the experimenter and the object of the experiments. So you are always going to have to be careful that you are not deceiving yourself. Continue comparing what you see with what you're thinking about and what you feel.
After you've experimented in front of the mirror long enough to have made for yourself some useful observations, extend your self-study to your daily round of activities. Can you sense how your body reacts to stressful situations, for example? How about pleasant experiences? Does the presence of some people act as a stimulus to tighten your neck? Do others seem to encourage freedom and expansion in your body?
Spending a little time at this kind of self-observation and self-reflection can lead to some pretty dramatic improvements in how well you function - both physically and mentally.
The dangers of relying on our feelings as a basic of action were, interestingly enough, recognized by none other than George Washington, a hundred years before Alexander made his discoveries. In 1787 Washinton wrote:
It is among the evils, and perhaps is not the smallest, of democratical governments, that the people must feel, before they will see.
Washington was concerned with political decisions, and the wisdom with which they would be made. Alexander was primarily interested his own physical functioning, and how it interfered with his vocal career. Yet Alexander would have totally understood what Washington was talking about. Indeed, he might well have said something to the effect that the way we use our physical bodies has a lot to do with the operation of the body politic and that as long as we as individuals are guided solely by our feelings, both can go seriously awry.
Indeed John Dewy, the famous American philosopher and educator, and student of Alexanders, made that very point in his 1932 introduction to The Use of the Self, Alexanders third book:
In the present state of the world, it is evident that the control we have gained of physical energies, heat, light, electricity, etc., without having first secured control of our use of ourselves is a perilous affair. Without the control of our use of ourselves, our use of other things is blind; it may lead to anything.
Washingtons quotes are cited on page 120 of George Washington by James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn, Times Books, New York, 2004.
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.
Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique