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Practice of Jeremy Woolhouse, pianist and Alexander Technique Teacher in Melbourne, Australia

Specialist in working with musicians, RSI, posture re-education, neck, back and chronic pain management. 

Articles on Alexander Technique in life - by Jeremy Woolhouse

Monthly blog articles by Jeremy Woolhouse.  Alexander Technique for daily life, music performance, specialised activities, pain relief and management.

Sitting on the knife’s edge: the uncomfortable comfort.

Jeremy Woolhouse

There is a reaction known as “fight or flight” which is triggered when we perceive danger.  It is very appropriate when there is danger which needs an immediate fight or flight as a response.  This happens very rarely in modern society, the response is usually triggered by an emotional threat for which fight or flight as a response is inappropriate.  The resulting tension can create a massive limitation to performance and may guarantee a result which we were aiming to avoid.


Naturally, we want to avoid pain.  The fight or flight reflex may manifest in the context of pain as avoidance, or bracing.  One or the other, or both responses may be present as habits which interfere with our performance.

Avoidance (“flight” response)

If our reaction is for avoidance, then the task which has the potential for pain is avoided completely.  More often though, the task at hand is something we actually want to be doing.  For example, a musician who is in pain at the instrument: there may be a tendency to avoid the instrument altogether, but this is usually overcome by the desire to be at the instrument.

The avoidance in this situation is subtle and insidious.  Our musician may be simultaneously trying to engage with the instrument out of desire for music, and retracting from the instrument in an attempt to avoid the pain associated with playing.  These conflicting tensions are certain to create a painful situation, further reinforcing the association. 

Bracing (“fight” response)

If our reaction is for bracing, then as we approach the activity, there will be a holding of breath, an immobilisation of the torso, suspense of the arms, or some manifestation of tightness which is geared towards bracing for the onset of pain.  Often times, a habituated bracing response creates a condition which means the task we are trying to do is not possible in positive coordination.  The musician who holds his breath when playing the piano is one example of this.  In order to be in comfortable coordination, the player needs to be able to breathe.  The habit of bracing is creating a situation which compromises performance and again increases the potential for pain.

The knife’s edge.

Sometimes the resolution of these habits is simple.  The teacher can facilitate an experience of meeting the instrument with ease, construct directions which engage positive support, and the bracing or avoidance reactions dissolve.

In cases where there has been chronic pain, intense pain, or for some other reason a highly persistent habitual pattern, we need to work deeper.

A graceful poise and ease in activity is available to us all.  Since the habitual response we are investigating is a retreating or bracing, we need to approach and release.  To do this means letting go of something which we activated (probably unconsciously) to avoid pain.  It may feel like there is an increase in pain potential as the student chooses not to engage in these habits.  Once the pupil does though, instead of the habitual response taking him or her away from the point of comfort and ease, there exists the pathway to its attainment.

The point of choice means it may feel like a very fine balance is required.  The point of balance may be as fine as a knife’s blade.  Being at that point may also feel like sitting on the blade!  One can feel the potential for pain threatening.  The overwhelming temptation is to react by bracing or avoiding.

The uncomfortable comfort

Since the bracing or avoiding is also taking one away from the potential for ease, there exists here a significant challenge to progress.  Students at this point feel very stuck and confounded.  The teacher in a lesson may be able to take the student into graceful poise.  There will be a sense of comfort and ease in this.  Students sometimes describe it as a very natural poise, or a place in which they can function well.

Parallel to this, there may exists a great discomfort.  In its mild form, it is the discomfort of unfamiliarity or novelty.  Human nature is always to go for the familiar and predictable.  There is some satisfaction in feeling the same sensation and knowing what will happen.  The unknown is a scary place, and in its more insidious, the discomfort of facing an unknown potential is a deeply experienced fear.

The knife’s edge is the place of potential.  An unprecedented ease may result, or a familiar pain.  The blade has the comfort of positive coordination and no actual pain.  It also has the discomfort of a potential for pain which we want to avoid.  If we can sit truly in the moment, there is no problem with sitting on the blade.  The more we experience this, the less we experience the tipping over the edge. 

The knife’s edge is analogous to a ’T’ intersection.  We can go one direction towards freedom and ease, or the other direction towards pain and disability.  To brace, is to freeze at the sight of the intersection, and be caught in a current which sweeps one into pain.  To avoid is to run from the intersection and never see the opportunity for freedom and ease.  

To approach the intersection caution is needed.  The approach must be measured and we need supports in place to ensure the correct route is taken.  Your guide on that journey is your teacher, and the principles of Alexander Technique are the map.

image © Hyrons | - Knife Edge Photo

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