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.

If you are interested in finding out more please contact me by using the contact details on the contact page, see the menu.

 

 

 

 

Learn to Destress and Unwind with the Alexander Technique

IMG_2408We have probably all been slightly stressed from time to time. We can put ourselves under pressure or feel pressurised by external situations; jobs, household stuff, exam pressure or illness, to name just a few possibilities. This low to moderate level stress can leave us feeling tired, tight (especially our neck, shoulders and back), not quite our usual selves and reduces our emotional resilience. We may have even experienced deeper episodes of stress or a feeling of anxiety in particular situations. This is all normal and part of the human condition. (I have experienced both stress and anxiety at different times, in my mid twenties I had a period where I suffered with panic attacks and later in my early thirties the lose of someone close to me had a deeper impact.) Our bodies are well designed to cope with short periods of stress or anxiety, but problems tend to occur if we get stuck in a habitually stressed and anxious state. Something we often don’t recognise, it creeps up on us!

The Alexander Technique, along with my meditation practice, have proved to be great tools to combat the effects of stress and anxiety. I find them empowering and calming. The Alexander Technique gives me ways to help myself release excess tension in my body. It also gives me greater understanding of my physical, mental and emotional reactions to stress and anxiety. Mediation and AT skills allows me the opportunity to ‘check in with my body’, by increasing my embodied awareness, I notice my habitual reactions, pause and think of the techniques I have learnt, so I don’t get stuck.

Alexander Technique has been part of the training on offer in many top music colleges and conservatories since the 1950’s, one of the reasons is its proven usefulness in combating performance anxiety. We may not suffer from performance anxiety as musicians do, but we do experience ‘everyday performance’, times when we are in different situations outside of our comfort zone, AT is therefore, a useful technique for all. In a recent article ‘Research Reveals How To Deal With Negative Emotions’ by Matt Bodnar, he writes that there are two reasons to learn to handle our destructive emotions (e.g. stress and anxiety) well; performance and peace of mind. Alexander Technique skills certainly prove useful for both.

Alexander Technique lessons teach us how to deal more effectively with all life’s stimuli; physical, mental and emotional. Therefore it’s very interested in our flight, fright, freeze response, the ‘startle reflex’. This is the response that we often get stuck in with the pressures of modern day living. The ‘startle reflex’ is a helpful and appropriate response to sudden danger that should only last a short period of time. As Elissa Epel PhD* put it recently in an interview with Rick Hanson PhD** during The Resilience Summit, if this becomes a chronic condition it can have the same potent long term effects as smoking on our bodies! This increases physical tension and changes our breathing pattern, increases blood pressure and stimulates the sympathetic nervous system (making us hyper vigilant or on edge). It also increases the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. These responses left unchecked can damage our bodies as well as reducing our ability to think clearly. But the good news is that by learning to look after ourselves with mind-body techniques such as AT, we can undo the damage created by bouts of stress and also reduce its effects when we experience stressful situations in the future.

As well as learning to be more aware of our thoughts, emotions and bodies, in an open, curious and self compassionate way, the Alexander Technique offers us other tools to reduce the effects of stress and anxiety and empowers us to become more resilient.

1) It gives us an understanding of how to release excess tension and bring our bodies into greater poise and balance, this brings better co-ordination throughout our whole bodies enabling us to function better. This is Alexander’s principle of use affects function, if we function better, we feel better and improve our wellbeing in general.

2) It teaches us how to carry out ‘constructive rest’ 10 mins to stop and check in with ourselves, allowing our bodies to release and rest. Click here to find out more about how to practice this.

3) Lastly, it teaches a procedure called The Whispered ‘Ah’, a breathing exercise. This is brilliant for many reasons, but in terms of stress reduction, it helps us to think about breathing in a different way. We focus on doing the out-breath, and allowing the in-breath to do itself. This out-breath focus lets the parasympathetic nervous system be more engaged, which calms us. (Also, as an aside, in a recent presentation I attended by a local sound healing practitioner, when she was asked what sound she thought was the most healing, in her opinion it was an ‘ah’ sound!). For more details on the Whispered Ah, click here.

If you would like to find out more about how the Alexander Technique can help you, email or call me using the details at the top of the page. I will be very happy to answer any questions you have or to book you in for a consultation and lesson.

*expert in the effects of stress on our bodies.
**Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Centre at UC Berkley, psychologist and meditation teacher.