Time for Pause: Reflections on the Alexander Technique

By Adam Rolleston.

Here is a personal perspective I would like to share with newcomers to the Technique as well as those with a bit more experience.

It’s so easy to overlook, but whatever challenges we encounter in our day to day lives we always have the simple power to pause for just a moment if we choose to, and attend with curiosity to what reaches our senses, including how we physically occupy our space. It can really be a relief to realise that the feeling of stress and worry we may have been experiencing was no more than our own unnoticed pattern of “doing too much”1 and “pulling ourselves out of shape.”2 If we can observe this activity without doing anything about it we will already have let go a little and started to bring about real change in our lives.

When starting to learn the Alexander Technique, I quickly developed a desire to keep on improving my use because I could see it was making life more fulfilling, and less dominated by fearfulness and worry.

But is there a problem here? I was completely focussed on improvement, which meant I had a vested interest in seeing immediate results. A further cause for anxiety!

I discovered that if I decided to pause and bring a gentle awareness to the experience of sitting for example, to the contact of my feet with the floor and my sitting bones on the seat of the chair, immediately there would be a change in my experience of being in the world. I seemed much more connected and present. Then I would really notice the “extra” work going on, what seemed like undue effort, and now there was a chance to let this go.

Was I reacting to the experience of pulling myself out of shape as an unpleasant stimulus in itself? I could register this effort in my arms, particularly when I placed one hand around the forearm of the other arm, an arm which I thought was doing nothing, and was totally relaxed. It was very clear that muscles were contracting there, even though my arm was not overtly doing anything. I was also aware of my pelvis being tipped forwards and what seemed like a pulling in of my lower back3.

There was also a lot of judgement around what I was registering about my own use in any given activity, say in doing the washing-up. This would show up as something like: “I’m not doing it right!”, or perhaps noticing that I hadn’t been attending to my use at all – and then basically pulling myself out of shape further in response to this realisation.

I found though that if I could pause, say at some point in my working day, and bring awareness to my use, including acknowledging whatever patterns of thought were present, then the whole experience would be transformed in that moment. What became clear was that the experience of anxiety, fear, worry, was one which always depended on me drifting off from the present, and was only a reality when I lost touch with my use.

Note, I haven’t said anything about “good use”4. I realised that I didn’t need to have good use in order to bring about this instant change, just an interest in broadening my attention from what was going on in my head, and beginning to include bits of sensory information – like “where are my feet?”, or “what’s going on in my shoulders?”

From here it was possible to build my awareness and through this to recognise, without being self-judgemental, what I was doing that was unnecessary and to let that go. There was no need to berate myself for what I noticed. I was actually discovering more about the way I had learned to deal with life’s demands, real or perceived, and this information was like gold dust!

Allowing braced legs or raised shoulders to be there in my awareness would change my experience for the better – even if I couldn’t quite let go of them at that point. And then I could also start to include directing my fingers onto my keyboard to type something, and notice again any extra work that was not needed.

There is something really valuable to savour in this experience. For example, in typing this blog I become more aware of some additional contraction in the arms and hands. Then, to get away from what I perceive as this slight unpleasantness, a desire arises to drift off, to go onto autopilot, or go somewhere in my head. At this point, I have the chance to pause (acknowledging this desire without judgement and without changing anything at all), and to gently bring my attention back to my feet, sitting bones, neck, head, back, arms and hands. Each time I manage to pause I am practicing and developing my ability to consciously direct sitting and typing, or whatever it is I choose to do.

It does take time and practice. I have at times, retreated for extended periods from this awareness of myself in space; times when I just couldn’t seem to make that pause, or even want to pause. Here I would be reacting to this awareness that I was using more muscular effort than needed (which was perhaps accompanied by an unsettled or agitated state of mind) by doing something to numb myself to this experience. I would be actively creating a distraction from what I was registering, and really detracting from my experience of being in the world!

I know now that in this shutting down of sensitivity to my use, I am also shutting down sensitivity to my environment in general. Whatever the nature of the distraction I am creating., I have found the solution is always to pause and come back to welcoming that simple awareness of myself in space without trying to improve anything.

Summing up, the more I give myself space to explore what it is to welcome the whole experience of “just being”5, and to notice the movement of thought away from that, the more I see that it is only this habitual looking away that creates the problem for me. Life is so much nicer when I can catch the desire to look away, and instead of reacting, pause and return to the reality of my feet on the ground and that nice support of the chair and respond whole-heartedly with “oh look I am stiffening my arms – how helpful it is to notice that again?”!

1 This is shorthand for using more muscular effort (contraction) than needed to achieve something. It results in our “pulling ourselves out of shape”

2 Our very flexibly human framework (bones and joints) means that if we contract our muscles more than necessary for an activity e.g. standing or sitting, the extra energy goes into distorting this framework. Because we work as a unified whole, there is a pattern of pulling ourself out of shape, always including stiffening the neck, pulling the head back, arching the back and bracing the legs.

3 Pulling in of the lower back is an expression used in AT to describe the over-arching of the lumbar spine.

4 Use is an expression which explains how we engage the whole self in activity

5 by this I mean what it is like to be me at a given moment, what do I register in terms of my experience of sitting for example, of the wider environment, and of thoughts coming and going.