Scanning the body for tension - a limiting practice
Inevitably, students of Alexander Technique become aware of previously unrecognised habitual tensions. When interference with easeful movement or balance of tone is recognised, change for the better can be initiated. It may be tempting to perceive practice of Alexander Technique as based on looking for excess tension, then removing it. This potentially limiting view calls for an evaluation of process in using The Technique.
Checking in = zoning out
When a student is “looking for tension”, there is often visible evidence. Eyes may close or glaze over, breathing may be suspended, the body may become immobilised, and other activity is often interrupted.
For any awareness of self to be constructive, it must be inclusive of environment and activity, rather than exclusive of.
If you look up on a clear day, the colour of the sky is there for you to see. No effort to see blue can add anything useful to your capacity to see blue. Effort to see blue would be energy misdirected.
Looking for tension can create it
Those symptoms of “scanning the body for tension” are in themselves creating tension. If one makes and effort to find tension in the body, the very effort creates tension. Furthermore, the body is wired to respond to our desires, so a desire to find tension in the body may become self fulfilling.
There is always information about muscle tone being delivered to the brain. One needs not to go and look for it, but to be receptive to it.
It’s a little like listening to the radio. The ABC radio station is always broadcasting. One doesn’t need to go to the radio studio to get the news broadcasted. One simply needs to have the radio on and tuned in.
Whilst it might be pleasant to make listening to the radio an exclusive activity, we can function quite well at other activities whilst listening. If our name happens to be mentioned on air, quite naturally our attention is called.
Most of the muscle information coming into the brain doesn’t need our conscious attention. We do however, want the radio on in the background so that we can hear information important to us if it is announced.
The impartial Observer
The process of conscious observation a sort of mindfulness practice. If something comes to our attention, our conscious role is to notice, acknowledge and choose a response. New students of Alexander Technique may find the things they notice are so fleeting, elusive and nebulous that they want to hold on to sensations. This creates the same complications and trying to find a sensation.
A removal of tension is not the intention of Alexander Technique. We need a balance of tone appropriate to the task at hand. When one notices an imbalance of tone (excess tension, or flaccidity), and we apply Alexander Technique, we initiate a process of inhibition and direction. That process will present new sensations and give rise to new awareness. From here we may refine our practice.
Observation arises as a result of practice.
We may consider the Alexander process as a flow chart:
Observation -> Inhibition -> Direction -> Activity
Observation may be a spontaneous recognition of excess tension. It does not require looking for tension though. If there is no excess tension, Alexander Technique still has a very relevant context.
The observation as a first step, is an acknowledgement that one wants to apply Alexander Technique in the activity. It may be that the task at hand holds potential for injury (e.g. heavy lifting), it may be that one has recognised the activity is more effective when Alexander Technique process is followed (e.g. sports), or it may be that one recognises that using Alexander Technique in this activity is fulfilling an intention to maintain optimal health and functioning.
If that sounds too complex, try this:
Co-ordinate self -> Activity
If you were to find an inappropriate balance of tone, you would follow a process to manage it. That same process you can do without having first found tension. You can intend for coordination and balanced tone, weather or not an mis-coordination or imbalance existed. In that case, you are maintaining a positive state and promoting improvement. If there were inappropriate tension, you would be addressing it.
This is rather handy as it navigates the problem of our blindness to habituated tension or mis-coordination.
if it aint broke, don’t fix it
Alexander Technique does not require that one identify things one is ‘doing badly’. We don’t need a list of tensions, disco-ordinations or mis-directions. The paradigm of ‘find a fault then fix it’ will lead us into an endless cycle of finding (or creating) new faults requiring more fixing. It is also rather depressing to be continuously confronted by flaws. Aside from not being fun, depression is an obstacle to co-ordination.
If it aint broke, maintain it’s optimal performance, and promote further improvement (and in the process fix things we didn’t know were broke).
When tension is excessive
When we become aware excess tension, we can benefit from making explicit an otherwise implicit recognition. Tension is excessive only for a certain activity. In itself tension is not the problem. If it is inappropriate for the current situation, it is that which we recognise when we feel tense.
When forming an intention to co-ordinate ourselves for action, the activity and co-ordination together define what the appropriate recruitment of muscle tone is. Only in context of our task and co-ordination can we become aware of tone being excessive, insufficient or appropriate.
The same applies for a sense of ease; if a student experienced a pleasant freedom by releasing tension and allowing movement, he or she may want to make a practice of asking: “Is my neck free?”
If there is some concern over neck freedom or tension, it may be more constructive to “ask for appropriate tone of neck for me to [insert activity here]”.
If a request for appropriate tension is followed by release, we can then presume that there was excess tension. The observation of tightness comes after the practice of the solution, and is an encouragement to continue practice.
The positive cycle of awareness
When we follow this process of coordinating in order to act, the engagement of the central co-ordination governs what gets recruited elsewhere. When engaged appropriately, the central co-ordination orchestrates the whole process of activity with optimum efficiency.
Excess tension conflicts with our intention, so we notice it. It is brought to conscious attention - we don’t have to bring it.
The intention to co-ordinate has certain qualitative markers. We are interested in expansive and fluid movement. The intention to co-ordinate is also then giving a yard stick for when tensions are incongruous with our desired quality.
When we have directed co-ordination, the movement will be experienced against our intention. We become aware of the differences between what we asked for, and what we got.
A new kind of co-ordination will give rise to new sensations. New sensations are prioritised by the conscious brain, so we have effected observation. Observation here has come about as a result of engaging in process.
If a change has been made, there is more scope for observation to arise spontaneously. This awareness then fuels further refinement.
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