The Finger That Points at the Moon

A series of reflections on 30 years of Alexander practice

Part 3: Unnecessary Roughness

The early weeks of my Alexander lessons were a revelation. Everything was a surprising discovery to me, because I hadn’t begun my study with any expectations or goals. I wasn’t trying to address a specific pain or recover from an injury or learn to perform better. In the beginning I’m not sure I knew exactly why I was taking lessons, but I enjoyed them and immediately liked my teacher Alan, and I began to look forward to our work together. My vague sense that I was out of touch with my body quickly became an acute recognition of just how disconnected I was. I began to notice weird movement habits and areas of my body that held chronic tension.

Alan emphasized that the Alexander process addresses not what we do but how we do it, and what I discovered initially was that not only did I not have awareness of how I was doing things, I literally did not know what I was doing as I did it. I was so absorbed in my mental formations, so caught up in constant thinking, that I was not present much of the time. Thus the result of my early lessons was that I began to show up for myself more often.

Like all mindfulness practices, the difficult part was remembering to remember. Alan instructed me to pay attention to how I sat, walked, stood, breathed, and so on. At first I couldn’t remember to do this at all, except maybe on the day I had a lesson, and then I might be prompted to check in with myself a few hours beforehand so I’d have something to report. After a while I tried setting intentions, like “pay attention while you walk to the subway in the morning” or “notice how you’re sitting when you’re at your desk.” I forgot these intentions most of the time, and berated myself for this, feeling that I had no discipline and doubting that I truly had the capacity to change.

A hand using a can opener.

A hand using a can opener.

Then one day, while I was opening a can of cat food, I caught myself doing something strange. As I turned the key on the can opener – an action of the hand and wrist – I saw that I was lifting my whole shoulder up to my ear and pulling my arm into my side with a great deal of force. I was also holding my breath. The moment I saw this happening I let it go, dropping the shoulder, relaxing my arm, and allowing my breath to return to normal. I wondered why I did that, and if I always contorted myself like that when I fed the cats. It was obviously not necessary to use such effort to simply open a can. I paused, as my teacher had suggested I do, and considered the task I was engaged in. I resumed the activity, this time staying focused on using the can opener without shoulder tension and while allowing my breath to flow freely.

This was one of my early “aha!” moments. It stands out because it was one of the first times the effects of Alexander work shone through my mental fog. I saw directly how I was doing what I was doing, even though I had not been consciously paying attention. Somewhere in my neuromuscular system the message was getting through; somehow I was more able to sense my gripping and over-efforting.

This began a series of weeks in which I started to see all sorts of oddities in my use. I stood almost exclusively on my left leg, rarely allowing the right side to participate in supported standing. Unless occupied, I held my hands in fists about 90% of the time. I crossed my right leg over my left when I sat (never the other way around), sometimes even wrapping the foot around the calf. When I tried to “sit up straight” I invariably arched my lower back and lifted my chest, which was tiring and eventually led to slouching down in my chair. And then there was the general tension that pervaded my whole body. I discovered that I was pulling in on myself, holding my arms against my sides, clenching my buttocks, gripping my thighs, clenching my jaw. I was a bundle of effortful, fixed positions, holding on for dear life as if body parts were going to fly off into space at any moment.

It began to dawn on me that I treated myself rather harshly. They way I toweled off after a shower, brushed my teeth, styled my hair, held a glass, stirred a pot, walked down the street – I performed these routine daily tasks with a great deal of roughness. I used too much energy. I was hard on me.

I wish I could say that when I made this discovery I became more gentle and kind toward myself, but the habit of harshness was well established, and my first response was to double down on the negative judgments. I was appalled that all these unconscious habits were operating so much of the time. Instead of appreciating the fact that I was waking up and becoming more aware, I used the new information to beat myself up, be even more hard on myself. I set an impossibly high bar of attempting to notice what I was doing every moment of the day. Every time I remembered to check in I saw that I was doing one or more of my inefficient habits. This is only natural and to be expected (why do you think we call them habits?) but since I didn’t quite understand this yet, I became discouraged and felt frustrated and inept.

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I brought this into a lesson. “I’m a total mess,” I remember saying. “I try to let go of the tension, try to stand in balance and do the other things we practice here, but it’s not working very well. I can’t seem to stop any of these habits. Every time I look I find more and more that is wrong with me. I don’t think I’m able to change any of it.”

Alan paused and smiled. “Has anything changed since you started taking lessons?” he asked.

I thought about it and replied ruefully, “Yeah. Now I know how messed up I am.”

“You’ve started to see the many ways you interfere with yourself, the unnecessary energy you waste, the tension you carry around. And you didn’t know about this before, right?”

“No, I had no idea. It really freaks me out.”

“What freaks you out?” he inquired.

“It bothers me that all this goes on all the time without my knowledge or consent. That I’m doing things in weird or harmful ways and don’t know it.”

“But now you do know,” Alan said quietly. “The change I have been observing in you is that you are more available to yourself, more able to clearly see what or how you do things, and can make different choices. You can’t expect to solve a problem you don’t know about. This process begins with a lot of uncomfortable bumping up against habits we don’t like, as well as times that we can ease up and be more relaxed and balanced.”

I realized that I could no longer “unsee” the ways I moved through my life. I was at a point of recognizing not only inefficient habits of body but also the unhelpful habits of mind that complicated my ability to unhook from them. My habitual harshness was a default mode of operation for me, and it was this that largely determined the quality of my movement.  Was it important to notice when, for example, I was standing only on the left side and then rebalance to include the right side? Absolutely. More importantly, in the little pause after noticing and before shifting the weight, was I willing to see the habit of judgment about it and also let that go? Could I stop being so rough with myself?

It was around this time that Alan started ending every lesson by saying to me as I walked out the door, “Have a good week. Be kind to yourself.” That always landed like a little tonic for my soul, as I began to rely on his patient, clear support more and more.

To be continued. . .