Alexander Technique- Tension and Release, but what about Relaxation? February 2019.

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?

mural1Well 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).








TMP00196We 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.

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Alexander Technique helps improve your posture, does that matter? – 5th July 2018

Alexander Technique teachers often have a problem with the word posture! It might have something to do with the fact that often, when we are talking to someone and they find out what we teach, they straighten up and pull themselves into a military style posture all tight and uncomfortable. They have heard that we are something to do with teaching ‘good posture’ and we, the posture police, are ready to judge them for slouching!

This idea of holding yourself in the correct position is often thought of as ‘good posture’

relaxation-1967892_1920but this is definitely not what we teach. So, as a consequence, we sometimes ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’ and reject the word posture altogether. My feeling is that we need to take a page out of Humpty Dumpty’s book 😀 (in Through the Looking Glass). He says ‘When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less’. We can redefine what we as AT teachers mean as posture, after all most of us have the right gist about what ‘good posture’ is and that it might be good for us, but generally we don’t know how to achieve it without a lot of pulling, pushing and excess tension.

I am reading a great meditation book at the moment (I read and meditate regularly) and in it there is a description of ‘good posture’, it has great resonance with the Alexander Technique.

‘Good posture…puts the body into a position wherein it’s energies tend to circulate in a bright and calm way. The ‘good’ of good posture is not about an outward appearance; it’s that which remedies stagnation or tension. However, the balanced alertness of good posture doesn’t come around through bodily effort alone. It is a matter of settling the body into balance with a steady and sensitive attitude. The patience and care with which we develop good posture is a development for the mind in its own right: rather than forcing ourselves to sit up straight, we’re learning to massage, give and relax our attention to attune to a poised alertness……a moment-by-moment application is needed.’ Ajahn Sucitto, Meditation, A Way of Awakening.

I teach people good posture by giving the tools they need to use their bodies in a poised, balanced and well co-ordinated way. AT provides a practical way of reducing excess tension (that can be a physical response to stress). This can improve health and the way we function. These skills allow us to look better (have better posture) and feel more at ease and confident in ourselves. Having ‘good’ posture as I define it aids free, efficient, pain free movement and gives grace and reduces effort we need to achieve our goals.
Good posture is not just important for aesthetic reasons or for our physical wellbeing, the way we use our bodies affects the way we think. We are psychophysical beings, there is no real separation between mind, body and emotions. AT trains both the body and mind, we can use the body to calm and positively affect our mind (as well as the other way round). We know that mindfulness meditation can lead to feeling more relaxed physically; but if we use our bodies in a poised, calm and balanced way we can bring calm and clarity to the mind.

In a fascinating book I read a couple of years ago (How the Body Knows it’s Mind by Sian Beilock) there are many examples of this body to mind influence. One short example that stands out is ‘when you are in a slumped position you don’t feel as good about your accomplishments, such as how you just performed at a presentation. Simply assuming a happy or sad bodily posture, a confident or anxious mien, conveys to your brain what emotional state we are in.’ Emotions are expressed in the body as changes in physical tension, destructive emotions adding tension to our system. But the good news is that with the embodied awareness AT teaches, we can recognise these reactions and use our thinking to change our bodies and relieve this tension enabling us to look, feel better and move better.

‘Good posture’ is so much more than just standing up straight, achieved through the skills Alexander Technique empowers us with, it’s leads to improved physical and mentally wellbeing.

If you would like to find out about ways to learn AT  contact me via the contacts page.