Dealing With Pervasive Habits

by Franis Engel

(This article was written in response to a question posed on the Alexander Technique Email Discussion Group. A slightly edited version of that question is reprinted below in italics. Although the question is about piano playing, the issue is raises applies to just about any activity. In her answer, Engel makes some useful suggestions for any student of the Alexander Technique who is working on their own.)

I had a series of lessons on Alexander Technique some time ago. Lately I have had considerable progress with Alexander and reading my old books. I’m a piano student and I have noticed that as I play I raise my shoulders a lot or keep them raised all the time. This of course creates tension and eventually pain in the arm. In an effort of becoming aware of this, I realized that I do this all the time. I raise my shoulder when typing, when writing, when speaking at the phone, when eating, when walking, when walking, when reading. What does this raising mean in relation to the primary control and the head-neck unit? How is it is solved?

Hopefully there will be many more responses to your questions about how shoulder-raising affects your head-neck relationship. I’m going to offer some (hopefully useful) perspectives about some of the philosophical challenges present in stopping, avoiding or using substitution strategies in your unique situation of having noticed an all-pervasive mannerism.

First, it’s really a great observation that you did notice something so global about your manner of moving entirely on your own. The first thing to do is to realize how much of an achievement that is in itself!

It can be daunting to realize the extent that a habit such as this has crept into your life. Be encouraged that you can change it! Of course, this will definitely take some time. If it were possible to completely stop this habit now, it would take about three weeks before it would “go away.” Unfortunately, this isn’t possible without constant attention that is impractical. People seem to have a certain tolerance for experimenting that will be worthwhile to extend, just as you are familiar with during the process of learning new tunes and piano techniques in relation to playing things already learned.

Since you have a habit that has crept in everywhere and has become a mannerism, what you may usefully do now is to note slight improvements that may be celebrated right away. Strangely enough, celebrating small successes as if you were a two year old, (such as “how many moments or minutes can I go without intentionally raising my shoulder?”) makes for more progress than groaning in anguish every time you notice the targeted objectionable shrug. (Most handy for this is a sense of humor.) It’s all too tempting to demonize a habit!

Remember there are many ways for shoulders to be raised - and what we’re after (at least, by using A.T.) is to “free up” the ability of your shoulder to be raised in every way appropriate to a specific situation. You would want to avoid, sidestep or stop the raising of your shoulder in a PARTICULAR, HABITUAL way instead of raising it uniquely in response to a changing situation.

In fact, in a way it’s useful that you have a predictable, repeating habit. This is very handy because you will want to repeat it in order to make some observations about so you can use it as a starting point. In experimenting, scientists always establish a “control,” meaning, a ground zero. You might want to even write down and date observations to give you a chance to note how much you have changed as you proceed. Perhaps make a video of yourself in action for a starting point?

Asking some questions with observations concerning relative location would be useful. This would be so you may answer with your observations such questions as: How far are you already going with this shoulder-raising? You might want to establish additional criteria of “how far” by measuring distance in relationship to some observable condition.

For instance, how far in relation to your nose as you turn your head to the side? How far would your elbow move if you raise your shoulder in relationship to your leg while sitting down? How are the wrinkles in the neckline of your clothes affected by a particular frozen shrug? Perhaps choosing time-sensitive effects that you could describe would also be useful. …As in how long does it take until your piano playing seems limited and how is this affected by possible experiments aimed toward improvement?

The more of these answers and questions you have to orient yourself, the more useful your evaluations and comparisons will be for you as you make changes designed toward improvement.

You seem to have already answered the question of “Do I need to raise my shoulders?” Obviously not, but maybe that’s an assumption that would be worth asking on a routine basis, even if you cannot answer the question now. Because for some good reason you put the habit in place long ago. As an Alexander teacher, I don’t believe people train routines for themselves without a reason. (It’s just that the need to repeat them can be short-sighted when they can’t be turned off…as in the Disney Sorcerer’s Apprentice cartoon.) It would be handy to know when that happened for you personally. So you could make a different choice at the source, that would be a short-cut bonus answer to your quandary that would pay off big to be able to re-experience.

Alexander teachers find that timing is an important relationship helps clarity of observation. The questions including “when” are a very useful ones - When do I raise my shoulders? Can I pay attention and observe myself about to raise my shoulder in response to what stimulus? When do I bring my shoulders down? When do I notice my shoulders are up? Can I notice that I have already raised my shoulders sooner?…and so on.

There is a secret in using whatever you have remembered learning in A.T. to improve things for you, and the secret is this: As you observe and describe yourself before you have changed anything about yourself by experimenting with A.T. - you will find your habit. Observing and describing yourself AFTER you have moved or experimented with a new direction using A.T. head/neck relationship or any other experiment - you may find out something new. Simple as that.

Let’s say your original goal is to improve your stamina as you play the piano. You have correctly assumed that a starting point concerning timing would be handy to establish. When does this habit start? When you raise your arm? When you walk over to the piano seat? When you think about playing the piano?

The tricky part about changing habits is often that a gradually escalating standard for success may put the bar higher each time, keeping up with your ability to improve. You seem to have discovered this paradoxical stumbling block. To stop this sneaky perfectionist tendency which can discourage, it’s important to establish and seek what exactly constitutes progress. For this you need observations - VERY specific observations about the nature of the “shoulder-raising.”

Contrary to what you have observed - (since raising your shoulder can be done more or less of a vengeance!) it is possible to work with an intention to lessen the intensity of raising your shoulder less (rather than more) at the piano by working it into your practice time - perhaps each time you put your hands on the keyboard or each time you move your hands to a new location on the keyboard. You could parse for frequency - how often you have the urge to raise your shoulder? Location is also a useful parse: How far you seem to want to raise your shoulders? Then you’d reward yourself for raising with less height and also, sensing yourself doing the raising of your shoulders less often. (Because if it’s the sort of habit you describe, the doing of it is buried within the rest of your piano-playing routines.)

Since you have observed that this shoulder-raising starts during walking and many other common activities, nipping the urge to shoulder-raise in the bud by experimenting with it as you begin to walk or use the phone, etc. would be a useful long-term strategy. Since you’re having a problem with this issue, you won’t know where your shoulders should be. So don’t “put them somewhere” else, where you think they “should” go. It’s most constructive to just stop interfering with them so much - so often - so far. You’ll know you did that by allowing your shoulders to “feel a little weird” but easier by “un-sticking” them and letting them go where they want to go, without setting them somewhere.

What I’ve outlined here are merely procedural tips that anyone may use that follow along the lines of some of the principles of Alexander Technique. Hope they’re useful to you and that you can come back to using them often.


Since 1983, Franis Engel has been talking about Alexander Technique to anyone who expresses a vague interest. She writes and reviews for Direction (the profession’s trade magazine,) and has written a handbook on Alexander Technique principles titled, "Use Your Head" that her private Alexander students use as a textbook. She specializes in making the operative principles and terms simple to understand, and introducing Alexander Technique to groups and workshops in lecture demonstrations. She has been a guest teacher at circus & music summer camps, meditation retreats, physical therapist's & bodyworker workshops by invitation during the spring and summer months. Website Blog

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