The LearningMethods Library
Thinking About Thinking About Ourselves
The F. M. Alexander Memorial Lecture
by David Gorman
Delivered by David Gorman on October 27th,
The Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique
Copyright (C) 1984-1995 David
Gorman, all rights reserved world-wide
Lire une traduction complète en Français
This article is the transcript of the F.
M. Alexander Memorial Lecture I was invited to give to STAT
(the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique) in 1984,
just 4 years after I’d become an Alexander teacher. I had begun
to have intimations of just how deeply our ‘problems’ and ‘misuses’
were bound up in our belief systems, our constructs — in short,
our current ‘reality’. Whole new vistas were opening up for
me and I was very excited about the discoveries I was making.
So I decided to talk about it all. The feedback I got was that
very few people had any clue about what I was saying and, looking
back at those times, I’m not at all surprised.
Even though I
can re-read what I said and see clearly in those insights the
seeds of so much that I am doing now, the fact is it has taken
me over a decade to realize and bring into practice the implications
of the discoveries that were just forming then. These implications
have exploded recently into fruition in a whole new understanding
that has revolutionized my way of working and brought about
a new work I am calling LearningMethods. This, however, is the
subject for another day and I am ‘retiring’ to the south of
France for a few years to develop it — London, 1997
I want firstly to thank the STAT Council
for the honour of being here to give this talk, and secondly
to thank you all for coming. What I want you to join me in playing
with tonight is how our ideas affect our physical use; how our
thinking affects our bodies. I want to explore how we think
— particularly the aspects of thinking that involve our beliefs;
how our individual beliefs tend to organize themselves into
a system of beliefs and how these belief systems then coalesce
to become a 'reality', producing for us a relatively self-consistent
overall perception of ourselves, the world and our manner of
living in it.
We'll then look further at how different
belief systems constitute different 'realities', and how these
different realities lead into their own correspondingly different
worlds of experience. Our belief systems, that is, tend to imply
certain patterns of use. It is inescapable once we operate from
the basic premises of certain beliefs that we will tend to have
a way of use in accordance with them — be it a poorer use or
a better use. In other words, we use ourselves the way that
we think of ourselves. Of these realities, in still other words,
some are more constructive than others.
Let us begin with some very general cultural
beliefs... We are creatures who believe that we live on a rather
large planet that is whizzing around in a rather large universe.
We believe that on this planet there are a variety of 'things'.
Some of these things appeared on the planet without us having
very much to do with them. Some of these things we actually
put together and made out of parts of some of the other things
that were there without us having very much to do with them.
We believe that we move about on this planet among all these
things making a living, doing activities, and responding to
events. We believe that we 'have' bodies which 'belong' to us
and which are separate from other things since they come along
with us when we move among the things in the world. We believe
also that our bodies have different parts with different functions;
some of which we can control and some which we can't.
It is not difficult to find, in our culture,
subscribers to these beliefs. We believe in the system not only
because it 'works', and is confirmed, for us in our lives, but
also because a lot of other people tend to believe too. An immense
amount of power is carried by the system because it's so common;
a sort of 'common-sense' pervades and renders it true. But is
it so true? And, maybe more importantly, does it really work
We believe that there are stars and a moon
out there. We believe that the sun comes up every morning...
Ah, but here we've got something interesting! We all know the
sun comes up every morning; we experience the sun coming up
every morning (except, of course, here in London where the clouds
get there first). But, on the other hand, we also 'know' that
the sun doesn't really come up; rather the earth turns and each
day we are brought around to a new morning. It is obvious that
these are different ways of looking at the same thing; different
'points of view' of the same phenomenon.
Another example of these different points
of view is how we find it very easy to speak of taking a breath,
thinking of it as sucking in air. Yet at the same time we know
that what we are 'really' doing is opening a space inside ourselves
for the pressure of the atmosphere to push the air into us.
Our deepest beliefs tend to be based on our own experiences.
We'll see as we go on how very important it is for us to become
aware of the implicit point of view contained within any particular
The difference between the point of view,
for instance, of the sun coming up and that of the earth turning
(or of sucking in air versus it being pushed in) is the difference,
respectively, between 'subjective' and 'objective'; the difference
between us 'experiencing' something and 'knowing' something.
We experience the sun coming up in a direct sensory way while
we don't actually experience the earth turning. The fact that
the earth does turn is an objective point of view. It is a point
of view from outside ourselves; a bird's eye view; or better
yet, the universe's point of view. The experience of the sun
coming up is more subjective. It is a point of view as we see
it from within; from the information of our own senses; from
our 'still point at the centre of the universe'. Both are, of
course, different, but equally valid, ways of looking at it.
Each has different implications and different uses. Of necessity,
each takes us into different modes of thinking and experiencing.
With this in mind I want to dig into some
of our fundamental beliefs about our existence on this planet,
and look at the 'givens' behind them. By 'givens' I mean that
which is given; the phenomena which are just there, in and around
us all the time (of which: "sorry, nothing you can do about
it; just happens to be the way that it is"). We'll see how
our point of view shapes and shades these givens, channelling
us to respond within the framework of the belief. This structuring
occurs such that fundamental and basic beliefs about the nature
of the givens provide the foundation (and the architectural
style) upon which further beliefs about our own nature are elaborated,
which in turn imply still further beliefs about using ourselves.
We live on the surface of the Earth. The
world is rather large compared to us, and one of the most obvious,
taken-for-granted aspects of living on Earth is a very commonly
held belief in this thing called Gravity. Gravity is a name
that surrounds and holds within it an experience that we all
have. It's a point of view and a framework for describing the
relationship between ourselves and the planet. Using our beliefs
about this relation to the ground as a foundation — a very appropriate
place for a metaphorical foundation — we can trace the implications
of these beliefs to see what sort of superstructure constellates
around them, and what are the results of living within such
When asked, most of us will respond that
the biggest attribute of gravity is that it 'goes down'. Thanks
to Newton, we all know that it is gravity's fault that things
fall back down when you throw them up. We tend to think of it
as a sort of omnipresent force all around us which is constantly
drawing things downward to the ground, rather like a steady
and never-ending drizzle. The implication of this downward force
is that gravity gives us 'weight'.
Now, we as creatures are built of many different
parts quite closely, but loosely, connected with each other.
That is, we are flexible and moveable creatures. We as humans,
in particular (compared to the other animals), are very unstable
creatures. We have so much of ourselves so high up off the ground
over such long moveable bones that our 'weight' is constantly
threatening to fall because of the down of gravity. Within the
terms of this belief system we will find it very difficult not
to have gravity, weight and instability conspire to make us
do 'effort' in order to deal with them.
Does it make sense to most of you that to
do this effort, which is needed to deal with our unstable body-weight
in gravity, we have to use our 'muscles'? Do we not think of
our muscles as the 'active' parts of us? They are the parts
we use to get hold of our rather inert bones to keep ourselves
from falling. In other words, to hold ourselves up. If we let
go of ourselves we fall down. Of course, what I'm describing
here is the majority belief-system in this culture. It will
not necessarily be what we each believe individually. It also
seems self-evident to most of us that most 'movement' doesn't
take place without muscles doing effort — effort that they do
by 'contracting'; by working as if they were a whole group of
active little hands that grab hold of our bones to keep us upright
or to pull us into activity.
Well, so far so good. Most people (you know,
the mythical Mostpeople) will think that the above makes
perfect sense — "I mean, everybody knows that!" In terms of
our metaphor, we've come up from the foundations in the basement
to the ground floor where most of our daily life takes place.
Company is plentiful here, however, if we follow the implications
just a bit farther, we can see that this set of beliefs has
already created somewhat of a problem for us.
When we hold our unstable selves up in gravity
by using contracting muscles, we can't avoid that fact that
we are 'holding' ourselves. This is not just semantics here,
but a very real physiological event. Consequently, we've got
ourselves in a bit of a bind (pun intended). We need to be able
to be upright to move around in the world and do our jobs; yet
we are getting that uprightness by holding ourselves. In addition,
we all have a desire to be as free as we can be. Yet, through
gravity, weight, effort, muscles, and holding we've arrived
in a situation where we get our 'upness' by holding onto ourselves.
We're either up and holding (that is, postured and not very
free) or, when we let go the holding to free ourselves, we collapse
and go down. We can either get the up at the expense of the
freedom, or we get the freedom at the expense of the up.
There are not many ways out of that bind
without a great deal of confusion entering into the attempt
to explain how one can go about freeing and still be upright
while doing so within the terms of gravity, weight, effort,
and so on. We have, in effect, a contradiction in terms. As
long as we stay operating within these terms, this conflict
becomes difficult to resolve without becoming overly simplistic,
vague, or somewhat mystical.
So what is the significance of all this?
With this way of organizing ourselves we are operating in a
situation where we are constantly in a struggle — we are fighting
gravity. Gravity is the bad guy who gradually and inevitably
pulls our tissues downwards, and eventually drags all of us
six feet under the ground. When we think of gravity as a force
all around us with the attribute of having 'down-energy', we
are making the relationship between ourselves and the planet
into an abstract concept; we are objectifying it. By conceiving
of it this way, from a point of view outside ourselves, we constantly
put ourselves in the position of having to do something about
it. Our beliefs are structured so that we have to react to gravity
to achieve what we want — hence the conflict.
The significance here is that we are not
really fighting the abstract of 'gravity' at all; we are fighting
ourselves. If we are holding ourselves up (getting a grip on
ourselves) by means of muscles contracting, then we are organizing
ourselves with a way of operating based on contraction — we
are contracting ourselves. We stay upright and move around by
getting hold of parts; pulling and levering them around other
parts. Our muscles then work by shortening, by squeezing our
bones closer together and pressuring our organs. We end up hanging
onto our skeleton for dear life! And there's not much freedom
in that. Those of you who are Alexander teachers, and probably
even those of you who have had lessons in the Technique, can
recognize this essential approach in the problems with which
people come to this work — those common habit patterns of either
getting hold of themselves and tightening into themselves or
of slouching and collapsing when they 'relax'.
What we have done with this point of view
is to objectify ourselves. We've made ourselves into an object
— a series of falling weights that we have to hold up. We have
to use one part of ourselves to do something to another part
of ourselves. This is the essence of the mind/body split. We
have an objective part of ourselves, our body, acted upon by
gravity while the subjective part, our consciousness (the little
man behind the TV screens up in your brain), is monitoring and
operating your body. As a mode of approach, this way continually
shrinks our 'self' inwards, from our bodies, up into some little
point of consciousness inside our brains. In our metaphor, we
have now moved up the stairs to the first floor above the ground
level where, in the privacy of our bedrooms and bathrooms at
the end of the day, we admit of our tensions, our symptoms,
and wonder what's going wrong.
If our 'common-sense' beliefs lead us directly
toward our problems, what do we have to do to resolve this seeming
paradox? The Alexander Technique teaches us effectively in practice
to break out of our habits to a freer, more open, and 'up' way
of use. We might ask here, what is so different in the way the
Alexander Technique gets us using ourselves? How is it such
a different way of thinking and operating than most people are
Let's go back to the basement, to our relationship
with the earth, and see if a different point of view will get
us a different 'reality'... The planet is poised in space and
we dwell on its surface. From a more subjective point of view
what gravity is about is that no matter where you go the planet
will always follow you around coming right up underneath and
supporting you. No matter what you do (in normal activities)
you can count on being supported.
Let us use a different name to encompass
this different aspect of our relation to the planet. We can
change Gravity to Support. There is a far bigger difference
than just a name here. Gravity is an enemy; support is your
friend. We need support and if we can learn to use it skilfully
then we have a very powerful tool at our command.
When we allow the planet to support us (or
allow ourselves to simply rest on the planet) as we move about,
we get quite different results. Instead of experiencing the
struggle and effort of reacting to the abstract of the 'force
of gravity', we directly experience something much more tangible
— the planet itself. Our point of view now spreads out from
ourselves to include the planet and our relation to it, instead
of shrinking us back into a small point of consciousness. We
now perceive 'gravity' as our in-the-moment contact with the
ground, and as a bonus we instantly perceive our changing relation
to our support as shifts in this contact. From the other point
of view we had a system of concepts in which we constantly had
to react in order to avoid something we didn't want. Now we
have one where the more we use it, the more we get what we need.
The weight and effort resulting from the other point of view
are also very tangible experiences; but they stem from an approach
that is not nearly as constructive in practice. So, down in
the basement we've found there are two doors; each leads to
a very different space. It's up to us to choose which we enter.
We will carry on deeper into this in a moment,
but first to give a little concreteness to all of this I'd like
to ask your indulgence to play a game. There's an exceptionally
full hall tonight, but I think we've got enough room to do this.
I'd like you all to stand up, find someone nearby to work with
and face them. Now I want each of you to come to a way of standing
where you have a sense on the bottoms of your feet of a more-
or-less even distribution of contact with the floor — as much
contact to the front of your feet as to the back; as much to
one side as to the other. Then one of you bring up your two
hands in front of you with your palms facing each other and
all your fingers pointing up to the ceiling. The other person
bring up one of your hands and place it right in between your
partner's two hands so that your fingers are pointing up too.
Now, the person with the two hands up, quite
simply bring your hands together onto the other person's one
hand until you sense on your palms and fingers roughly the same
amount of contact as you feel on the bottoms of your feet. I
want you to do this fairly quickly; take just enough time to
go: "Hmm, yeah, that's sort of about it; no, that's too much;
now that's too little; yeah, it's sort of somewhere around in
there". When you've got your hands and feet feeling about the
same pressure, let the other person know and both of you just
take a little snapshot in your memory of what it felt like,
then switch and do it the other way around. When you've all
had a turn, I want to make a statement to you and then ask you
a rhetorical question...
(Several minutes pause here for people
to do the experiment...)
The statement is: "What I asked you to do
was to recreate on your hands your subjective sense of your
entire weight." The question is: "Did it feel like it?" You
objectively know that you weigh a hundred- and-some pounds.
You can stand on the scale and read it off. Did it feel like
you were squeezing with or being squeezed by a hundred-and-
"No no no no no")
Did it feel like twenty pounds?
("No no no no no")
Like five pounds?
("No no yes no no")
("Yes yes yes yes yes")
We have here a rather large mismatch. A mismatch
between what we objectively know and our kinaesthetic reality
of the moment. What your senses are actually telling you is
that you are just very lightly resting on the planet. What happened
to all that 'weight', and why are we doing all that holding
and gripping when we are just lightly resting there? As you
can see there's quite a broad gulf between the implications
of these two points of view.
It's very easy for us to 'know' that we weigh
a certain number of pounds because we have these little measuring
instruments called scales to tell us. I stand on it and it says,
"one hundred and forty". If I was to walk over and pick up a
sack of flour labelled "one hundred pounds" (which is lighter
than most of us), then compare that hundred pounds with my even
greater 'weight', I will naturally think: "Gee, am I ever heavy."
It's not difficult, once we make that correspondence, to begin
to think heavy and start to feel heavy. We begin to move heavily
and go around carrying, literally, hundreds of pounds through
the world in our daily life. (No wonder we want a good collapse
now and again.)
But there is a very big difference between
a sack of flour and you. One is something that is outside yourself
which you are using yourself to feel; the other is yourself.
You need to hold up the sack of flour, but the planet will hold
you up. We have, in effect, sensitive scales in our feet to
reassure us of it's support. The reality that your feet are
telling you is, in a sense (another pun), a much more direct
reality than the abstraction of pounds on a scale. We can learn
to deal directly with this tangible support, allowing ourselves
to bring a sense of security and lightness into practice, but
only if we choose to direct our attention to it, not becoming
seduced by how much weight we 'really' have and how much effort
must be necessary to keep us up.
You can all sit down now... When you were
standing there and as you sat down, were you aware of being
lightly supported as you began to move? As you were moving?
Even as you were touching the chair? And as you let the chair
lightly support you? Or, did you drop back into the chair, feeling
your weight and the increased effort to control it, only now
becoming aware of support and contact? This necessary security
of supportedness is an undeniable reality that is, at any moment,
accessible to us. All we have to do is look for it. Then, and
only then, do we have a chance of using it as a basis for movement.
Remember also, that what you're feeling on the bottoms of your
feet is all of you on the ground. No other part of you has all
of you over it, so every other part of you could be used even
more lightly than what you feel from your feet.
Let's go on to some further implications
of that belief system which has lead us to weight, effort, and
holding. What is the objective of this holding up? That is,
what constitutes successful 'up'? Is it just that we don't fall
down? Obviously not, since we also want freedom served with
Well, it doesn't take too much to figure
out that the less instability we have, the less we will tend
to fall, the less effort and holding up we will need, and the
more freedom we will have. So, naturally, we will be looking
to get our collection of unstable weights as much up over themselves
as possible. In other words, we'll be concerned with 'balance'
— the sort of balance where perhaps, if we could stack ourselves
up over ourselves (like piling up building blocks), getting
it just right, we could let go the holding and become free.
Thus, as soon as we become concerned with balance we also become
concerned with 'alignment', and when we're concerned with alignment
it's difficult for us not to start to pay attention to 'positions'.
Am I straight? Am I vertical? Have I got myself sort of up over
myself? Is this good alignment?
This sounds eminently reasonable if you imagine
those stacked-up building blocks again. However, we are not
a set of blocks with our parts symmetrically arranged or symmetrically
moveable on each other. Because of two structural 'givens',
it is not possible to balance our human bodies in the same sense
that you can stack up blocks. The first is the simple fact that
we are alive — we move and breathe, our hearts beat constantly,
upsetting any static balance. Thus, the best we could hope for
would be a dynamic, constantly-reaffirmed balance with our muscles
forced to grab us when we go off balance and then pull us back
to alignment. While it is possible to 'stack up' your leg bones
in this kind of dynamic balancing, even though they keep wanting
to go off balance, we generally find it easier to lock or hold
our legs (quite often in an alignment which is not even remotely
Your torso, however, is a different story.
There are entirely different kind of joints in your spine —
what I call distortion joints. Your discs are flexible elastic
structures, meaning that there is no movement in your spine
without those discs being distorted in some way — either squashed,
bent, twisted or stretched (with no particular connotations
at this point about whether these distortions ultimately are
'good' or 'bad' for your discs). Your torso is also inherently
unstable in a forwards direction, as we all know. When we get
tired of holding ourselves up, we start to slouch out forward.
To put it in different words, there is more of you in front
of your spine than behind your spine. We cannot 'balance' our
torsos in the sense of getting all its parts up over each other
without pulling ourselves (using grabbing muscles) up out of
that inherent instability and then holding ourselves there against
the elasticity of our now distorted discs.
In the face of this elastic and unstable
liveliness of our bodies, whatever 'alignment' we do achieve
is going to require constant and fine adjustment. Naturally,
we will want to get our balance as well-aligned as we can, then,
hopefully, keep that good alignment where we've got it while
we see if we can get a little bit more. To the degree we are
successful at this aligning, we will end up deviating from this
'right posture' less and less, hence allowing less and less
flexibility, until we get into a position where we hardly move
at all anymore. We are no longer poised, we're postured.
As a matter of fact, as you're all aware
in yourselves and the people you work with, it doesn't take
long before the range of deviation from the good alignment in
which we carry ourselves becomes so small that it is smaller
than the range of flexibility needed for free breathing. In
other words, we hold onto our breathing so it doesn't disturb
our 'free' balance. Huh? This seems like pretty strange territory
to end up in, considering that our path began with beliefs that
made so much sense in the beginning. The more we follow this
path the further away we get from what we want; and the more
confusing it becomes to try to get what we want and discover
that we keep getting something else!
Time to go back down to our structural 'givens'
— one of which pertains to the game we played earlier. Built
into you is a very powerful tool for recognizing and coming
to support. As an upright creature, a very unstable upright
creature, you so happen to be built that when you rest on the
planet in such a way that your sense of contact is more or less
evenly distributed on the bottoms of your feet, you are directly
over the planet and it is supporting you totally. This means
that within that range of contact you cannot fall. That is,
all of you cannot fall since you are already on the ground and
there is nowhere lower than the ground to fall to! This simple
evenly-distributed contact is directly tangible and very easy
to find. All you have to do is look for it and go there. You
then know that you've taken care of your major security in terms
of support on the planet and a base for movement.
All of you can't fall when you are directly
over the ground. However, it is conceivable that part of you
could fall off another part of you. This toppling over is what
we usually mean when we speak of falling down. But there's another
'given' that takes care of that one. We are so built that it
is not possible for a part of you to fall off another part of
you unless you give permission for it to happen. Not only do
you have to give permission for it to happen, but you have to
give very active permission. And, better still, the more that
you begin to topple, the more active permission you have to
give to allow it to continue. Most of us, especially on a floor
like this, won't give that permission more than just a little
Putting this all together, perhaps we can
get a little closer to understanding the strange territory we
were in a minute ago, where the very way we try to be free gets
us more tangled up in holding. If it's so easy to know when
we're over the ground, and if (short of tripping or stumbling)
we have to give permission to fall, then what exactly is going
on with this holding up stuff anyway?
It is inevitable that once we force ourselves
into habitual holding we will begin to feel that holding. Most
people don't know exactly how they're holding, but after a couple
of hours they can feel the soreness, the tension, the stopped
breathing, whatever are the symptoms of that holding. It's here
that we can see how important our point of view is. For, if
you believe that you are holding yourself up and you let go
that holding to free yourself, where is the only place you can
Down! It's built into your way of approach.
You let go holding up, you'll come down. Every time you 'relax'
your holding, thereby losing your uprightness, you will have
your belief system reaffirmed. You'll say: "Ha! See I told you,
I have to hold myself up because if I don't I will fall down!"
Right there is the permission we have to give to topple over.
It's implicit in the belief that if I don't hold myself up I
will fall down. So when we stop holding ourselves up, we drop.
In fact, what we're really doing when we make parts of us into
weights that other parts of us are forced to hold up, is dropping
ourselves and then holding up the dropping. We must be still
dropping while we're holding up, because if we weren't, we would
have nothing to have to hold up — another conflict in which
our way of thinking can tangle us.
Hang on, it becomes curiouser and curiouser!
If we return to our structure again with a different point of
view, we find that even when we think we're holding ourselves
up, we're not really doing that at all. What we're doing is
holding ourselves down.
The fact is that there is more of you in
front of your spine than behind it; in other words, we are unstable
forwards. When we turn off our holding up, the upper part of
our torso slouches down forwards with our lower back and hips
slouching backwards. When we haul ourselves back up again, we
do so looking for the result we want — to get up. We pay attention
only to the end we are trying to gain and don't really notice
what we're actually doing to get there. There are no skyhooks
up there, of course, to grab onto and lift ourselves up, so
the only way to pull ourselves up is to use that powerful set
of muscles that runs up and down the back. These muscles have
to pull down on our back in order to lift up our front and squeeze
our lower back forward. They then must keep on holding us down
to keep on holding us up! So the actual muscle work of it, the
actual doing, is a pull down the length of our back. Thus, we
see that 'weight', in any experiential sense, is a self- created
phenomenon — we weight ourselves with our own muscles by pulling
down on ourselves.
Until we can reveal to ourselves the 'doing'
side of it — the actual pull down — it's inevitable that we
are going to be stuck in our point of view, and consequently
stuck with our habit of holding up and all the symptoms that
go with it. Now, if we can start to catch ourselves in our pulling
down, and we can release that pulling down, where can we go?
Up! Quite a different direction — approximately
180 degrees different — from what we normally think of as gravity.
Hard to imagine how one could let go upwards — it seems to defy
that whole other belief system. And yet we got here by picking
at a few loose thread on the 'reality' and finding that we've
unravelled a line of reasoning which, at the very least, gives
us a different perspective to work with. As we begin to catch
ourselves in these 'mismatches' between systems, we begin to
have the opportunity of choosing a point of view which might
actually lead where we want to go.
If we can catch ourselves at the actual doing
of holding ourselves down and manage to release that holding,
we go up. We are then, in the deepest way, changing our whole
way of organizing ourselves so that, instead of trying to hold
ourselves up, we can get up by releasing our holdings-down.
In other words, we can use our muscles to let go of parts into
activity — into more freedom, more openness, more length, more
breathing, and more flexibility.
When we ungrip to let ourselves go up and
open out, we allow an expansion to come in. That's the opposite
of the contraction and inward pressure we saw before. The expansion
allows more freedom of movement and more sensitivity, not only
inside ourselves, but also outward to the planet and our daily
life. This increased sensitivity makes it easier to notice our
changing supportedness and, also, to respond accordingly. When
we are weighting ourselves and holding up the weight, we tend
not to be aware of where our support is — we aren't looking
for that kind of information. Instead, we're looking for alignment,
hence, we can't use our sense of lightly being supported and
are stuck in the vicious circle of balancing weights.
It is very difficult, when you are subscribing
to one belief system, to allow the elements of another system
to come in — they tend to exclude each other. A belief system
will always tend to expand outwards until it equals 'reality'.
Operating within a system gives you corresponding sensory feedback
such that you experience yourself and the world in terms of
that system, which in turn corroborates the whole approach of
Let me give you another example of this.
There is a lot of attention these days in our fitness-conscious,
beauty-conscious, thin-conscious, culture focused on our abdominal
area. We generally have a conception that all our organs are
just going to come plopping out if our abdominal muscles don't
do their job of holding everything in. So we work hard to get
those flabby muscles trim, toned, and strong so they can keep
everything nicely in there. The usual way to achieve this is
through 'strengthening exercises' such as sit-ups, leg-raises,
rowing exercises, and so on.
Structurally speaking, these muscles stretch
between your ribs and your pelvis. The major set of muscles
run in a criss-cross fashion diagonally, while others run up
and down from the front of your chest to your pubic bones. When
we work hard at these exercises, we are practicing getting very
good at shortening our abdominal muscles; we're getting very
strong at pulling our ribs closer to our pelvis; at pulling
our ribs down. We are training ourselves to use these muscles
to reach down from our ribs, grab hold of our organs, pull them
up and in, and then hold them there. We are hanging our organs
from our ribs — in essence, hanging weights from our ribs. Since
the criss-cross muscles narrow our chest when they shorten,
these pulls act not only downwards, but inwards as well, pressuring
our organs. No wonder they want to pop out the moment we let
go — it's not in spite of the 'strength' of the muscles, but
because of it!
Strangely enough, moreover, it seems to be
that our ribs have a lot to do with breathing. Breathing seems
to be the sort of thing that has to do with expansion — an expansion
where our ribs open upwards and outwards all the way around
us. Thus, if we do any abdominal holding- in, we're using our
own muscles to interfere with our breathing. In addition, it
is inevitable that if we do any contractile 'effort' with these
muscles in front, we also force ourselves to do similar effort
in our back. Our spines are, after all, flexible structures
and if we pull down with these front muscles without any compensatory
pulling-down in back, we simply bend ourselves over forwards.
So now we have two sets of muscles pulling down on us — and
we wonder where our heaviness and tension comes from?
Here we are with a skeletal structure, with
it's connecting ligaments and capsules, that is very free. There's
absolutely nothing in your skeleton to stop free movement. The
only thing that can stop us from moving freely in ourselves
is that our muscles won't let go of our bones. As soon as we
start any grabbing on with our muscles to shape or posture ourselves,
we will have to begin compensatory holdings elsewhere until
the contraction spreads all over us. (Each person's patterns
of holdings and droppings, tightenings and squeezings, will
naturally vary according to their own ingenuity and determination.)
In a manner similar to holding-up posturally,
if we notice our abdominal holding (up and in) and then let
go of the holding, of course our organs are going to drop out.
This reaffirms the need to hold them in, and around we go again.
But if we sense how we are holding ourselves down and, instead,
let go of our ribs upwards and outwards, we simply allow ourselves
to breathe again. We give ourselves more space; our organs are
happier; our muscles lengthen and are more 'elastic'; and our
in-built breathing reflexes are freed and activated — all because
we stopped interfering.
Let's come back to this concept of balance
again. There is another problem we create for ourselves. When
we search for good alignment, we tend to gradually freeze our
liveliness and flexibility into 'right positions'. As we become
stiffer and more stuck we begin to have a sizeable amount of
inertia to overcome when we go into movement. That is to say,
it becomes easiest for us to go into movement by actually going
off balance so as to get the momentum of our 'weight' working
for us. Walking, for instance, is described in many texts as
a 'continually-arrested falling' — we lean forward off our supporting
surface area then force ourselves to react by catching ourselves.
This is very obvious in sitting and standing
also. It is astounding how so many people sit down by heading
blithely back off their feet to begin. As they leave their supporting
surface little stiffenings increase in their necks and backs;
tension starts in the front of their thighs; their arms may
reach out; their toes pick up a little off the ground and you
can see the tendons in the front of their ankles stand out.
All these events aren't extraneous habits we have picked up,
they are balance reactions — the sort of things which happen
when you go backwards off balance.
Similarly, if I pose the question to a group
of people: "What do you have to do to stand up out of a chair?",
they will tend to describe a combination of the following: "I
have to lean forward", or a little more actively: "I have to
thrust myself [or pull myself] forward". "I have to then push
down [or push myself up] with my legs to get up". (Everybody
knows you have to push; how can you get that weight up unless
you do some work?) "I have to lift [my bottom] off the chair
in some way". (They will probably not be aware of all the tightening
in their neck and the arching of their back during this sudden
'oommpphh' of pulling off the chair.) "I reach out with my arms
as I get up", or sometimes: "I put my hands on my knees and
push myself up". (This is an interesting one — pushing down
on a part of yourself in order to lift another part up!)
From a different point of view, these things
we experience as essential parts of standing which 'I have to
do in order to get up' aren't things we are 'doing'; they are
simply things we have become accustomed to feeling because every
time we try to get out of the chair before we are remotely over
our feet. All of the above efforts — the tightening of our neck,
the arch of our back, the reach of our arms, the grab in our
thighs — are not really actions. They are the balancing reflexes
of us suddenly having to grab ourselves from falling and reach
for balance because we aren't over our new support (our feet)
before we try to leave our old one (the chair). We just get
so used to them happening that we think we're doing them. Interestingly,
there's nothing like going off balance, then grabbing and lifting
the off-balanceness, to give an experience of weight and effort.
Thus we become convinced that we have to do quite a bit of helping
out to get our heavy old selves up off that chair.
Of course, in a sense, we are doing all those
efforts. We force ourselves to do them because we have almost
no awareness of where up-over-the-ground really is. We don't
have any real experience of balance and support — all we've
got is a series of experiences of reaction when we've gone way
off it. We have no real set of experiences of what it's like
to use gravity intelligently and skilfully. And one thing the
Alexander Technique is about, is learning a skill. At least
on the physical side, we refine a skill of using ourselves in
the world, in whatever activities we are doing, in such a way
as to free and open ourselves (not only the self we are at that
moment, but to all our as-yet undiscovered possibilities).
There are so many different ways we can move;
different shapes we can get into; and different activities in
which we can partake. We are such free structures with so much
potential. If we don't have the skill to manage all that freedom,
we still have to go on living and functioning, so our only recourse
is to shut down parts of that freedom in order to be able to
manage it. We generally accomplish this by using our muscles
to freeze joints by gripping our bones until, for practical
purposes, there is no joint there to manage. We end up reducing
the possibilities until there become only a few places of movement;
few enough for us to deal with. Alexander's discovery of our
constructive central organization, and his technique for getting
across how to access it, teach us how to gradually discover
for ourselves the skill of letting ourselves be freer, lighter
and more open — and the further skill of staying with (or keeping
coming to) that new central organization so that, while being
freer, lighter and more open, we can learn how to go about our
Well, so far tonight we've explored how our
thinking affects our use, and the implications of applying a
more constructive point of view to the fundamental 'givens'.
Let me begin to finish by using this tool to climb up into the
attic and look at our thinking itself.
Our brain (that is, our forebrain) is built
in two functionally somewhat different halves. The left brain
is primarily concerned with analysing. To use our point of view
of subjective/objective, it is the objective part of our brain.
Processes in that half attempt to deal with movement by breaking
it down into components and directing parts individually. That
mode of thinking is very well-suited for directing activities
out in the world. That's the part which can figure out how things
work. That's the part which conceptualizes, gets insights into
mechanisms, sees patterns in things and connections. That analytical
mode works beautifully when focusing our attention outside of
ourselves, using these insights and ideas as a guide, to recruit
and direct our parts in the manipulation of objects, in making
things, and in invention. That part of us is not very well-suited
to dealing with directing us as a whole in postural 'activity'
or in movement because it inherently wants to break it down
into bits and direct us as a series of parts. That mode is very
linear, very cause and effect, very 'objective'. When we operate
that way on ourselves, we inevitably start to lose our integration
and sense of coordination — we end up splitting ourselves and
losing the whole.
On the other hand, the right side of our
brain 'experiences' movement rather than analysing it. Through
that area we experience as a whole. This is the part of your
brain which is sensitive to your kinaesthetic feedback. This
is the part of your brain which can perceive support; which
can perceive openness, and freedom, and liveliness, and all
the incredible amount of information which we need in order
to use ourselves skilfully. We have no hope of being able to
use ourselves with a highly responsive skill without a great
deal of reliable information. If we don't have enough information
available to us, we have no choice but to shut down possibilities
and respond with a relatively crude level of activity in whatever
we are doing. Thus, when we embark on a process of integrating
and unifying ourselves; of gaining a sensitivity and an appropriate
responsiveness; of freeing and opening ourselves we are largely
developing our right brain functioning.
However, it is the left part of our brain
which handles verbal explanations; which figures things out;
which is able to talk about things. We are going to have a bit
of a problem if we successfully allow ourselves to experience
ourselves and the world around us as whole, and then try to
analyse it and talk about it, since our left brain didn't have
the experience and so can't really explain it. If we attempt
to explain it in left brain mode, we'll have to reduce the experience
down to something that is figure-out-able. This abstracting,
conceptualizing mode of consciousness is only part of us — there
is a lot more happening in us than this part can isolate and
focus detailed attention on. This 'objective' mode is like Procrustes
when it encounters a new experience outside it's territory.
It will encompass and explain the whole by chopping it down
to fit it's present concepts and terms. When we do this, we,
as a whole, shrink a little bit along with our thinking. As
our point of view narrows down to concentrating on fiddling
with the parts, our muscles also contract us, pull us down,
narrow us; and at the same time our experience of our self shrinks
up into a point somewhere behind our eyes. When we use the products
of that reductive thinking in communicating with other people,
in stimulating their thinking, and encouraging their potential,
our effectiveness will diminish proportionally.
This doesn't mean, though, that we can't
use words constructively at all with this process, because obviously
I'm doing it right now. We need to learn to use the language,
not as an end in itself to model or 'explain' the experience,
so much as to prepare us and lead us up to the experience. I
think the best use of language is to lead us into a point of
view where we can catch the mismatches of our belief systems
in action; where we can reveal and understand the premises of
our habits. We need also to explore and/or expand the repertoire
of language for more constructive concepts and phrases which
more closely mirror the quality of the experience we discover,
so that in thinking and speaking it, we are greasing the way
to living it.
This means allowing our thinking to lead
us to inherently paradoxical places; somewhat circular places;
places where we don't need to immediately try to figure out
and resolve everything. After all, hopefully, they are new and
unknown experiences — a little larger than our 'old' selves.
Let me emphasize here that I'm not disparaging
the objective point of view. It is, of course, a point of view
that describes the way things work when considered objectively,
i.e. from outside ourselves. However valid (and valuable) it
is when directed outwardly (and that includes looking at the
human body as an object), it ceases to be constructive when
turned inward and used on our own selves as a basis for activity.
That left brain mode of understanding only leads us right back
into the sort of use and experience which we are trying to get
out of. For, we cannot figure out this new reality — the only
understanding is the actual experience itself. After we've allowed
ourselves to reorganize into a new experience of activation,
of opening ourselves, of release and lightness, it all begins
to make sense, and we can say: "Ah, now I see what you mean!"
Our mind and our thinking can be a very powerful
tool if we can gain command of our attention and learn to direct
it constructively. When we learn to use that tool appropriately,
our language and the way we use it can engage people's thinking
in such a way as to facilitate them letting themselves have
the experience. As a result, they will find, gradually, that
the point of view of this new pathway (the means) will be reaffirmed
by the understanding that comes with the actual experience itself.
In other words we have to become comfortable
with that left brain part of us feeling a little hungry, a little
unsatisfied, while we stay close to the experience and avoid
abstracting it. That left brain part likes to consider the right
brain contribution as only supplying 'raw material' of sensory
experience which it then has to polish into a finished product,
nicely wrapped in meaning. We need to respect the reality of
the experience — its awesome depth, its emotional scariness,
its open-ended newness. We have to embrace the seeming paradox
of getting what we want by giving up what we have. We have to
acknowledge those mismatches — those parts which don't fit —
between the old and the new and just let ourselves exist, for
the moment, as two different 'realities' in the same place at
once. There is an immense amount of energy-of-discovery generated
by the conflict of two different realities in the same place
at once. The inevitable resolution of that conflict will occur
by itself. Our job is to create and maintain the forum where
that working out can take place for us. It is an extremely constructive
place where we will grow and change and become more free. In
other words, it's a process of evolution which we can choose
to enter at any time.
That's really all I wanted to say... Thank
There is a small biography
of personal details about the author below.
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About the Author
David Gorman has been studying human
structure and function since 1970. He is the author of an illustrated 600-page
text on our human musculoskeletal system, called
The Body Moveable (now in
its 6th edition and in colour), and numerous articles and essays, including
the book, Looking at Ourselves (2nd
edition in colour).
David has been working with performers (singers,
musicians, actors, dancers and circus artists) for over forty years. He is a
trainer of teachers of LearningMethods and of the
Alexander Technique and has taught all
over the world in universities, conservatories, performance companies, and orchestras;
for doctors in hospitals and rehabilitation clinics; and in training courses
for Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, physiotherapy, osteopathy, massage & yoga.
Over the years, his changing understanding about the
root causes of people's problems led him to gradually extend his Alexander Technique
teaching into the development of a new work, LearningMethods (and an
offshoot, Anatomy of Wholeness about our marvelous human design), which
is being integrated into the curricula of performance schools in Europe, Canada
and the United States by a growing number of LearningMethods
Teachers and Apprentice-teachers.
Since 2010, David has been running online post-graduate
groups for Alexander Technique teachers and groups for those who want to learn to
use LearningMethods in their own lives, as well as those who want to integrate the
work into their existing professional work as a teacher, therapist, medical or
Telephone: +1 416-519-5470
78 Tilden Crescent, Etobicoke, Ontario M9P 1V7 Canada (map)