Alexander Technique teaches us how to release excess tension so that we can be more balanced, coordinated and poised. But is it a relaxation technique?
Well that’s not an easy yes or no answer. It depends what you mean by relaxation and even then it depends what your goals are in the moment (not forgetting the difference between goals and end-gaining, we can have a goal and allow for the process of reaching it to be mindful, whereas end-gaining in contrast is mindless).
What do we tend to mean by relaxation? What type of posture or body use do we think of when we imagine being relaxed? If we think of being slumped on a sofa, watching telly, without any thought of how we are positioning our bodies, I don’t feel that what we really think of as relaxation in Alexander Technique.
In Alexander we often use the word release rather than relaxation. We are learning to become more mindfully aware of our habits of excess tension and we are building tools and skills that allow us to consciously choose to release this tension. It is a conscious thought that allows this release, not a ‘doing’. We can not actively try to release tension through physical effort. We are not stretching muscles, the release of tension is a non-doing as we are doing the excess tension. The muscles are being contracted, shortened when they don’t need to be. This level of tension is not functional, rather than helping us in the way we do the things we do, it hinders us.
The purpose of releasing the excess tension is to allow us to function better in our bodies. We are then more balanced, efficient and at ease as we do the things we do. We are less likely to cause discomfort and pain or get injured. The release of tension is a letting go. Using thought, or as FM Alexander called it ‘directing’ sending a (neurological) message to our bodies that we don’t need to be working that hard, we can let go of the tension. It’s non-doing as release is an absence of tension. This allows vitality, flow and ease of movement. We feel energised and things become easier to do. We become more comfortable in our bodies. This ease transfers into any activity we choose, thus it is, in this way not as much about relaxation as it is ease, poise and dynamic presence.
So, relaxation? Yes, Alexander Technique can be relaxing too. But I need to define what this means to me as an Alexander Technique Teacher. When we release excess tension and allow our bodies to function better it has a multitude of positive effects. Absence of excess tension can help reduce blood pressure, we can breath easy. Tension and poor breathing habits can be part of the stress response our bodies display, along with increased stress hormones (adrenalin and cortisol). We can feel hyped up or on edge. As we learn to notice these tension habits, release, breathe easy and be present, engaging in the things we are doing more mindfully, it reduces the stress response of our bodies. This favours the relaxation (parasympathetic) side of the nervous system. Thus, a sense of relaxation can be a by product of the Alexander Technique.
We can add to this effect by choosing to practice regular periods of constructive rest. This means lying on our back with our head supported, knees bends and the soles of our feet on the floor (or even more relaxing, legs resting on a stool or chair as shown in the photo below).
We bring our attention to our body, noticing any tension and mindfully offering release (with no expectations or trying), but being conscious of the tone of voice we are using, (preferably one that is friendly and helpful rather than berating or finding fault). We are facilitating muscle release, letting our spines become ‘springy’ and able to respond to our free and easy breath. If we are tired, suffer with insomnia or have been stressed this can certainly be used as a relaxation exercise. It can be quite easy to fall asleep doing this and although it’s not normally it’s primary objective, why not use it for this purpose if that is something we need. Constructive rest is energising and a powerful way of restoring vitality as well as a great way of improving our embodied awareness and allowing our backs to rest. We let gravity give us a helping hand by giving our intervertebral discs a chance to rehydrate and plump up. It also allows us the time to stop and just be for a while, a really invaluable practice.
So is the Alexander Technique a relaxation technique? Well, yes and not. That is not its primary purpose, but it is one of its brilliant side effects. We can learn to relax and look after ourselves, a really valuable skill in itself.
If you are interested in finding out more please contact me by using the contact details on the contact page, see the menu.