One Student’s Story

by Ellen B.

            In the beginning it was a pain in the neck.  I’d tried massage, chiropractic and yoga to work it out.  Finally Erik’s wife Meredith said, “Oh Erik is wonderful with necks.”

            I had heard about Alexander Work for twenty years, and knew about lying on the floor with your knees up and books under your head.  I knew furthermore that it purported to teach you better posture and movements.  Of course, Rolfing had made claims of posture adjustment or “structural integration” and although I had been “Rolfed”, my posture was still an unyielding target of my self-improvement resolutions.

            First lesson, February 15, 2002:  I had no clue what to expect.  I showed him how I habitually hung my chin forward, chest collapsed, belly out.  He had me sit on a hard wooden chair; he held the back of my neck; he wiggled my knees; pulled gently on my arms, had me bend forward.  From time to time he would say things like, “Yes,” or “That’s it,” or “That’s nice,” often in response to some mysterious body change that I could not perceive, but sometimes he would say these things as a piece of tension I didn’t know I even had would release, giving me a sensation of relief and pleasure, sometimes small, and sometimes huge.  He suggested to me images to help with the process, things like, “Imagine that you are letting go with your hands and arms, but the clenching is not at the outer ends of your arms, but rather is strangling your neck with habitual tension.”  I would think about the image, and he would be studying me closely, then suddenly say, “That’s it!”

            Erik himself seemed to have perfect posture.  He moved and talked with unusual deliberateness and thoughtfulness.  He was a great deal more quiet in himself than I was.  My M.O. in life was to apply to every situation novel or challenging a principle of “electrification”, as though by dazzling the person or situation with my energy I could win through.  Erik was doing something different.  There was a space, a separation, seemingly, between himself and the world, as for instance, the separation in someone who was taking wry amusement in the scene around him.  Yet clearly, amusement or judgment or cynicism was definitely not happening here.  Sometimes people who are extremely shy show this kind of separation.  Yet there was in Erik none of the self-covering seen in a shy person.  His eyes were always twinkling and open, unusually ready to engage.  We laughed a lot at our shared frustrations with body posture and ageing and foiled vanity.  We hit it off.

            After the chair work he had me lie on the massage table; on my back, knees up, three paperback books under my head.  He pulled on my head and neck.  He pulled out my arms and twisted them gently.  It felt like he pulled my legs four inches longer from the hips.  I was feeling no pain.

            When he swung me down from the table and I stood up I was astonished at the difference in my body.  Yes, I felt relaxed and comfortable all over; yes, the nagging cramp in the side of my neck that had vexed me constantly for six weeks was gone.  But the most striking thing of all was that although I felt relaxed and at ease, my chest was all lifted and full, my head erect.  I looked great!

            Erik assured me that although we couldn’t expect this hour’s transformation to remain, I could expect more lasting postural improvement after just two months of regular lessons.  I wanted it.


            15 October 2002

            A key concept in Alexander work is called “inhibition”.  This has nothing to do with being “inhibited”.  For the longest time I just didn’t get it.  I just wanted my muscular tension to release, like it did during a lesson with Erik.  Then I thought I was getting it, but I was wrong.  That was when I though I was learning to “do” muscle release.  Erik said, “No, when you see or feel your muscles doing tense things or hurting or looking bad in the mirror, don’t do anything.  Just see how long you can stand it, just noticing that.”  Then I really didn’t get it.  Now, maybe....

            Another thing that mystified me was when Erik said, “I’ve been working recently on inhibition of my thought patterns.”  Huh?  I really didn’t get that.

            So here’s what I am doing now, in my eighth month of regular weekly lessons:

            A.R. Alexander, the brother of the founder, F.M., and also a practitioner of Alexander Technique, had a bad fall off the end of a horse and crushed his tailbone.  They thought he’d never walk again.  He had to just lie in a darkened room for a month or more.  He said, “I had nothing to do so I practiced inhibition all day long.”  I think about this a lot.  What could that mean?

            I lie in bed and think of the “directions” I have learned from Erik.  You have to say it just right.  “The neck to be free.”  “The head to move forward and up.”  “The back to lengthen and widen.”  “The knees to go forward and away.”  Then there is: come up off the legs, move the elbows away from the hands and the shoulders.  Move the knees away from the hips and the ankles.  It is important not to “do” anything, but just to think the directions.  I think them with the verb “allow”, as in, “Allow the neck to be free”.  I also think about the day he showed me a model of the spine and explained that the exaggerated and harmful curvature that is the pattern of most of us is the result not of our falling in on ourselves, but rather of excessive muscular tension pulling us down.  If we but release this exaggerated tension, the spine springs erect.  What a concept!  I had always thought I was supposed to pull myself erect, using muscular effort.  Alas, when I turned my attention away my posture immediately would revert to the same old worsening pattern, chin jutting forward, chest collapsed, belly flaccid.

            So now I add to my direction litany the idea of releasing muscles that pull down from my thoracic spine to my sacrum; that pull down from my upper chest to my waist.  I think about allowing such muscles to relax.  Of course I have no voluntary control on any such muscles, so I couldn’t “do” this even if I tried.  But I don’t try, because I have actually learned, slowly and painfully, that doing doesn’t work.

            Recently on a ten hour driving trip I was having discomfort in my lower back, over the sacrum.  I found that if I spent about a minute imagining that I was allowing muscles to relax that were trying to pull down on my spine from that spot that hurt, that the pain miraculously would disappear.  For about five minutes.  Then I had to do it again for about a full minute.  Fascinating.

            The other morning as I was coming to wakefulness I spent about ten minutes practicing inhibition.  I did my ankles and knees, my hips and knees, the spine thing, the free neck, the head forward and up, the shoulders releasing and widening away from the sternum, the elbow thing.  Then I did the “LSD trip thing” where I notice what my psychological discomfort is.  That’s not as easy.  Like muscular posture, habitual psychological posture is elusive, invisible.  If I look towards it, however, asking myself, “What exactly is the idea behind this sense of malaise?”  I can come to notice something like, “Oh yeah, it’s that feeling that I have a million things undone in my life and I am a shit because I am not getting them done.”  So then I say, “OK, let’s just inhibit that idea.”  So I can kind of let go of that, by directing my will to let it go.  Just as though I were unclenching my fist.  It is so cool.  Immediately I get a feeling of inner relief, and I even feel muscles relax that I didn’t know I was tensing and have no voluntary control over.

            Once many years ago I learned about doing something just like this when coming down from an LSD trip.  I could see my habitual psychological clenching and flinching, and I could then realize that I need not do them.  Then I felt so much better.  It left a calm, quiet place in the middle of my consciousness, where previously there had been cacophony.

            What is more, there is a fascinating parallel with the practice of Step Three in the AA Twelve Step Program.  Step Three says that the 12-Stepper turns her life and her will over to the care of her own idea of a good, all-powerful divine force.  There is an aspect of this that is repugnant to many people.  It feels too much like the “knuckling under” that we do to a socially dominant, bullying man.  Subservience.

            That’s bad.  However, the twelve step adept experiences a marvelous release of tension and I am starting to think that this is precisely the result of Alexander inhibition, and actually is the same as the LSD insight thing.  Not only that, I am also seeing great parallels with the beneficial result of sitting in Zen meditation or Vipassana.

            All these liberation approaches seem to have the same beneficial result: the shackles of inner self-oppression seem to fall away.  Because I am not draining my resources with needless tension, I have more energy.  Because I am not bumming myself out I feel buoyant and there is actually a joyful and even a merry quality to my consciousness.  Whew!  I’ll take it.

            So today, my practice is to inhibit all day long.  And I must be careful lest I indulge in “end-gaining”.  I can get attached and desirous of that good feeling associated with the inhibition.  The joy, the merry feeling.  And of course, when I direct myself to “do” that remembered state of mind, it becomes impossible to attain.

            Instead, I want to focus on the “means whereby”.  Today, my understanding of this is to return frequently, and especially when distressed psychologically or physically, to the recitation of my directions:  ungrip the spine, open the front of the hip joints and unlock the knees, allow the shoulders to widen, notice bummer cognitions and inhibit them.

            Come to think of it, I can see that my habit has been to revere these bummer ideas and make them a Higher Power.  These are things like,

“Ellen, you are a defective fool and you have so many tasks that any reasonable person would have accomplished.  Just look at the condition of your butler’s pantry this very minute.  Clutter on the rampage!  You must be crazy or stupid that you can’t get stuff done and live in peace and order.  So go in there and start slaving away.  Maybe after a thousand years of drudgery you’ll be at least decent.”

            No wonder I wasn’t merry!  Worshipping at this altar has the one solitary benefit:  it deadens fear.  Without this voice giving me direction, things are very quiet inside.  How do I know I am not heading for the drop-off?  I feel I am driving blind.  I’ve just got to get used to it.  I am driving an unfamiliar road in the dark with no lights and I seem to be traveling about 40 m.p.h.  Oh well!  There seems to be a good feeling of well-being here in the cab.

Alexander Technique    
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one student's story