Category Archives: Explorations

2. Stepping Back

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.

1. Feeling Secure by realising you’re unstable

These short pieces between the long essays are meant to give you something graspable to think about or to do so that you feel more aware of, and more able to influence, how you move, how you are active, how you go about the business of your life with all its plans and purposes, constraints and possibilities.  I believe many of the experiences I will describe or point you towards can most satisfactorily be explored with the help of a teacher, perhaps a trained teacher of the Alexander Technique.  I will try to limit myself to things which words can cope with, with, for me, the background hope that you will want to deepen your experiments, on your own or together with a teacher.

I will begin with our instability.  We are tall creatures, standing, sitting, walking with no more than two feet on the ground, and often less.  A dog walking along on his four feet can stop at any moment and be stable.  Our narrow height, with the joints which allow us to move, faces us with a basic choice about how we live with our unstable structure.  We can retreat with our awareness into our heads and cope with our instability through tension, contraction – all the actions and strategies of holding yourself up, standing straight, pulling yourself down: compression.  Many features of modern life – screen-watching, fast mechanised transport – encourage this separation into busy mind and locked body.  The instability, though, can also lead us into a sense of wholeness and connection which the walking dog will never know.  This requires the opposite of compression: it asks of us to widen and lengthen, to expand into wholeness.  If we live into our elastic instability then mind and body are drawn into one another: our sense of self expands into being a body.

As an Alexander Technique teacher I will be awakening my student to appreciation of the support of the floor, the path, the grassy field, the chair, which is always there.  To find that support, to use that support, needs us to inhabit our bodies right down to the feel of the ground under our feet.  I will often try to help my students feel balanced, at ease in stillness.  That balanced state allows you to know you are supported.  But it is not a fixed condition; it is hovering on the edge of movement, of the next steps in the ongoing flow as we move from one place of support to another.  So, notice what is supporting you, let that awareness draw you out of confinement in your head – so that you have a wider and more immediate experience of where you are and what is happening.