Updated: Jun 16
The Alexander Technique is unique amongst somatic and mindfulness modalities in that it explicitly teaches us how to free ourselves from the idea that "doing more" will help us to successfully achieve our goal. If anything, we learn again and again in this work (to my continual surprise and delight) that less truly is more, and that more is actually unconscious, habitual tension. So let's take a deep dive into one of the most beneficial and unique aspects of Alexander Technique: the Art of Doing Less.
In modern society, we have been conditioned to believe that when the going gets tough, it is valuable to keep increasing our effort. We have a lot of language that is used to express this mindset: girding your loins (lol such an old-school expression), digging in your heels, gritting your teeth, powering your way through, and many more. These widely used phrases seem to suggest a forcefulness with the body that is not particularly thoughtful or friendly. And the result of this mindset, as many people and myself have personally experienced, is that we become so locked, tense, stressed, that we get in our own way of what we want to accomplish and/or accomplish our goal to the detriment of our physical and mental well-being.
Actually, we don't even need to have a particularly daunting task or goal we are trying to achieve for this over-doing to be present in the body. As F.M. Alexander discovered, due to the lack of awareness in the body and general deterioration of the use of the self, the overwhelming majority of people have excess tension in their body. If there were a sliding scale to represent ease and freedom within the body, where 0 is complete freedom and 10 is locked in tension, most people probably live their day to day lives within the 2-8 range without even realizing it and without realizing we have the power to free ourselves from this.
Students often retort: "But isn't effort and trying a good thing? If we don't try, we'll just become lazy, indifferent, and stuck." To which I usually respond, yes, but there is a difference between conscious effort in activity...and trying. It is important to realize that because of the sliding scale mentioned above, the perceived amount of effort doesn't match the reality of the required amount of effort. (This concept is further outlined in my blog on the principle of Faulty Sensory Awareness). To make a simple equation, Trying = the activity + an unconscious preconceived idea about what it takes to complete the activity. Without the necessary ingredient of consciousness, effort and trying will always result in habitual muscular effort. How could it be otherwise? As, F.M. Alexander says: "Trying is only emphasizing the thing we already know", so the more we try, and push, and pull and effort ourselves, the more we are simply using and reinforcing our habitual muscular response.
(Only Coode and Williams took AT lessons with STAT teacher Caroline Chisolm and it shows in their poise. Does it actually help the other rowers to lean to the side, strain the muscles of the face, and create labored breathing?)
Picture Credit: PA Photos Anecdote Credit: Caroline Chisolm
So what is the alternative approach? In the AT, the art of non-doing is the understanding that instead of immediately responding to a stimulus by doing more (societal conditioning), you first check in with the body and say, "What is the necessary effort I need to accomplish this? Is it possible to accomplish this with less?" When we take the time to pause (inhibit) and ask this simple question, we are giving ourselves the time and space to bring consciousness rather than old habitual conditioning to the situation. You are in essence making the decision to prevent yourself from doing too much before you engage in an activity, and then continuing that decision as you carry out the activity. Hoorah!
But enough talk! Let's do an exercise. Say you have a simple task to accomplish: picking up a drink and bringing it to your mouth.
1) First let's just observe our habit. Start by drinking as you normally would on auto-pilot and place the cup back down, paying particular attention to your head, neck, and shoulders. Do you feel squeezing and compression there?
2) Continue to explore this tension. Before you pick up the cup, sense if you have any tension in your neck (if you are gripping the head into the body).
3) This time before you pick up the glass, pause and say to yourself, "It is not necessary for me to stiffen or tense my neck to pick up this glass. In fact, it does the opposite of help."
4) Make a decision to unstiffen and undo the tension your neck by letting those contracted muscles go (as best as you can). Say to yourself: "I am going to unstiffen and free my neck and head by stopping whatever I am holding there." See how the thought allows for a small and subtle release and freedom in that area of the body.
5) As you go to pick up the glass, continue to tell yourself to unstiffen your neck. When your fingers touch it, free the neck. When you go to lift it, free the neck. If you find yourself stiffening, never mind! Just renew your intention to free and let go of the neck/head at each step along the way...and then the cup is at your lips and your neck is free!
It's quite wonderful when you realize the stiffening was unnecessary. It may even feel impossible at first, but stick with it and you will see how little effort it actually takes to lift a glass. You may even laugh at yourself for thinking it took so much effort. That's usually what happens to me. I end up thinking, "Why in the world have I been doing to much?"
So to recap: non-doing in AT is the idea that we are preventing ourselves from going into habitual misuse by not-doing the habit that is getting in the way of our natural freedom. It is a less is more approach that asks us to make a conscious decision to undo tension before, during, and after an activity, resulting in freedom, ease, and flow in all activities of life. It is a beautiful approach that asks us to believe the impossible, to exert our free will and consciousness, and to trust that life is actually more simple than we are making it. In this way, we become empowered in a very tangible way in how we choose to respond to the stimuli life.
If you have questions, or are interested in learning more about this work, please contact me at 617-797-9142 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I can help you find a local teacher (or if you live near Northeast FL, you can book a session with me.)