Many people have the misconception — and I have to admit to my own deeply ingrained version of this misconception — that the Alexander Technique is about relaxing. Don’t we all want to live with the minimal amount of muscular effort? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is not really. At least, not minimal effort in the way most of us mean these words.
There are actually at least two different kinds of effort that we employ as we go about our activities. One is familiar: it’s the effort we expend to perform various actions. We expend effort to lift a stone, to sing a note, to walk across the room. The other kind of effort goes largely unrecognized for most of us: it’s the “background” effort that supports our bodies in response to gravity. It takes a certain amount of energy to be upright to varying degrees in standing or sitting or even lying on a couch. (Dr. Wilfred Barlow, one of the first teachers trained by Alexander, attibutes to him “a vision of a way of life in which the body was to be used well and actively during even the most sedentary of pursuits.” [Italics mine])
I’m beginning to tune in to the inverse relationship between these two types of effort. It seems that if I expend a little more energy to organize myself into a more dynamic uprightness, I actually need to expend a lot LESS energy to perform the lifting of stones and singing of notes, etc, that make up my daily activities.
Of course, this extra effort has to be wielded intelligently. Just pulling myself up with blind force creates interference, not ease. (This is what generally happens when people try to “sit up straight.”) Employing Alexander’s principles helps me to invoke the strongly supportive system of oppositional muscle forces in my body — an available resource that it’s easy to neglect. But if this system of forces is not activated, I have to use far more “local” effort to lift things and move. (Local as opposed to global; I have to tense my biceps, say, to lift a book, rather than letting my whole body cooperate in this effort.)
When I think of relaxation as the goal, I am reluctant to expend the beneficial effort to bring about the oppositional forces that can support me and make all my activities easier. With this much vitality of energy coursing through my whole body, it can feel as though I am working harder just to be here — and in a way I am. (Every activity becomes a whole-body toning exercise — I especially notice more engagement of my abs.) I have to remember that the energy savings will accrue as I begin to move and to do things, which will take less effort.
Sometimes, I do like to let down completely, relinquishing my oppositional energy for true relaxation. After a yoga class, for example, I may spend a few minutes in corpse pose, releasing as much muscle tension as I can. But I need to remember to “turn on” my oppositional support system before moving out of this pose, or I risk exerting effort unwisely, putting local strains on my body and potentially injuring myself.
Alexander developed a procedure — which he rather unimaginatively named “hands on back of a chair” — to develop a person’s sense of oppositional organization in activity. (Maybe sometime I’ll make a video about HOBOC.) Ask me to explore this procedure with you at your next lesson. . .learn how to tone your abs while you work at the computer!