In my youth, I loved the rare opportunities for downhill skiing. There were what I considered inevitable bruises and soreness for days afterwards, but it was worth it for the thrill. After a twenty-two year hiatus, I returned to the slopes. the Alexander a Technique skills I have learnt during that time made an unexpected and remarkable impact.
I was returning to the slopes with no expectation of being able to access any former skill. Neither did I presume that I had a physical capability to match that of my youth. Within two days of being back on skis, I surpassed what skill I previously had. That improvement is due to application of Alexander Technique.
Being free of expectation gave me complete permission to have no skill. Trying to ski as I had in the past seemed inappropriate, and would have been an impediment. Rather than attempting to access existing skill, I was interested in developing new skill, based on healthy coordination.
When my former competence was able to arise, it was not through trying to impose some style onto my form. It arose by applying Alexander Technique principles and having an intention to move down the mountain.
Having nothing to lose put me at a great advantage. I was able to commit fully to directing the use of myself, providing a context for the body to coordinate the moves I intended. This freedom to be wrong is what many students lack in attempting to apply Alexander Technique. Too often there is too much investment in familiar outcomes for full attention to process.
Skiing is controlled falling. To ski, one has to succumb to gravity and slide downwards. Possibly, the thrill of the sport is in the rush of adrenaline which is the body's response to falling. In order to engage in the act of skiing, one needs to overcome an instinctive and logical protective reaction. The body braces and pulls away to prevent falling down the very slope we are trying to descend. This creates a contradiction within the musculature and interferes with the coordination required to safely ski.
Humans have the unique quality of being able to override instinctive behaviours. In this case, we want to acknowledge the length of our ski and the immobility of the ankle joint in the ski boot. One can learn to release in a way that allows a change in centre of gravity. This change initiates the controlled descent. It is like the instruction given to beginner skiers to “lean down the slope to go, lean up the slope to slow”, but with a more refined process.
Pulling backwards on the skis, bracing the body, locking the jaw or knees are some manifestations of fear of falling. Acknowledging that we want to fall, (or more precisely, we want to allow the sensation of falling) is a critical step. We can then look to how to coordinate ourselves for controlling the fall.
Note that 'release' is a release of counter productive tensions. The technical term is inhibition. It is a prevention of muscular work which would impede the coordinated implementation of form. Good coordination and the form of skiing each have their own requirement for muscular work. That is something which is not effectively engaged consciously, rather arises spontaneously in response to a general conscious intention. In other words, it is an indirect response.
Initiating the release is availing oneself for action in any direction. Continuing to do so, the next stage is to intend for positive coordination. Alexander Technique proposes that an expansive disposition and buoyant orientation of the head relative to the body is an effective way to initiate action in accordance with the body's capability.
This is the Primary Control which students will study in Alexander Technique lessons. Relative to skiing, the forms may be abstracted, such as sitting, standing or lunging, but the function of the principle is a constant across all activity.
Our intention to ski down the slope remains active throughout this coordinative procedure. The conscious process initiates a coordination of the infinite small movements required to execute intention. With each turn, bump or whatever, the tendency to brace or withdraw will be present, so continuing to have the intention for coordination will maintain the form.
There is a coordinative requirement for the head to lead the body into motion. To attend to the head's relationship to the body as a primary concern, facilitates this. With the equipment attached to one's feet, it is tempting to try to move the feet around to create the form of skiing. My experience is that ‘trying to do movements with feet or skis’ was less effective than ‘not trying to do anything with feet or skis’. So long as I was taking care of the head's relationship to the body, the feet seemed to do everything they needed to, and the skis went where they needed to, in order for me too ski where I intended.
Using the Skis
This constituted an effective use of the equipment - a characteristic of Alexander Technique. Allowing the head to lead the body into motion proved effective for shifting weight where it was required to negotiate the course. The shifting of weight utilised the ski's edges or flat, giving maximum control and stability.
Commonly, we think of control as being able to consciously will all the parts into motion. Here we have another example of Alexander Technique asking us to redefine control. Letting go of specifics actually puts one in more control. Balance works in this way - trying to balance engages all sorts of inappropriate actions. Intending for balance, and taking care of prerequisites above, is more effective.
I could also be confident in skiing faster and taking more challenging courses. Staying to principle meant I was in control the whole time. Since the recruitment of musculature was maximising efficiency, the anticipated ache the next day was conspicuously absent. I was previously using muscular strength to do what I discovered a subtle shift in body weight could do.
Inevitably, conditions presented challenges that were beyond my ability, and there were a few stacks. I seemed to find some grace in crashing which averted the bruising I expected. One sees this grace in martial artists falling, it is marked by fluidity. When I consider all that I was doing to mange the form of skiing, I was also preparing for graceful falling - a roll that spreads impact and diffuses forces.
The nature of downhill skiing lends itself to study of the use of the self. Use manifests in control and ease. There is excellent opportunity for reflection, analysis and planning whilst riding the lifts. I used this time similarly to the way we train the semi-supine position: observing where there are accumulated tensions, allowing their release, and planning for refined technique on the next run.
The processes involved can be very quickly applied. Their engagement enhanced the experience of skiing making it rewarding in many ways. Not just the rush of racing down the slope, but in the satisfaction of improving skills and an ongoing deepening of Alexander practice.
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