You could begin with the simple action of standing in a clear space, feet side by side or one foot behind the other as though you were stopped while walking. Then take one step backwards, and then, slowly, a few more, as the space allows. My description carries with it the possible risk of walking backwards: you can’t see where you are going. But this act of, I hope, confident stepping back opens up a basic mode of learning which the Alexander Technique develops: being able to withdraw physically, emotionally, intentionally from what one is doing, being able to step back. Here, with the physical step back, you are practising this possibility in the most simple way, without having to cope with a strong interest that might be drawing you forward. You can then take this act of disengagement into practical activities both when things are going well and also when the fishing line is in a tangle or the rusted nut simply will not shift and your knuckles are bleeding. But with the practice of ‘stepping back’ the Alexander Technique is helping you to do something more interesting, more subtle and more significant, than cultivate composure.
There are words attributed to F M Alexander which can help deepen our concept of stepping back: “When you think you’re thinking you’re feeling, when you think you’re feeling you’re doing”, a comment typical of his gnomic style and good-humoured exasperation. Out of his own experience of himself as he developed the Technique which bears his name, and then as a teacher, he became aware of that strong draw, the strong attraction, of deed, of action, which can suck us in and overwhelm (if we have one) any plan or hope of doing the deed in some new way we think will be more efficient, or pleasant, or healthy. Although we are thinking creatures, the impulse to do something is usually very powerful. As so often with the Alexander Technique we will root our exploration of that impulse in small, everyday bodily movements and discover the emotional and thinking charge such simple actions carry. We practise and gain the possibility of stepping back from the act, and indeed from the preparations for the action, the idea of the action. In so doing the hope is not that we freeze, or become mindless, but engage our thinking with how we will enter into the activity, how we will enact our intention.
In learning the Alexander Technique you will be learning a universal ‘how’ which is always there as a focus for your attention as you move towards any particular action, and which prevents established ways of doing things, which you no longer want, from taking over. It can also help you develop ways of doing things which are more fulfilling. This “how” doesn’t ignore the bigger questions of why you are doing whatever it is you’re doing but it begins with thinking that lives in the bodily structure, in the body’s possibilities of movement. That thinking, though, is in itself a stepping back from actual doing, although it has vitality and purpose. This is a crucial and unfamiliar skill: to be able to step back in different ways. We need undemanding situations to try it out in.