In order to function well, we need a certain amount of muscle tone. Unfortunately, though, most of us have more tension than we need, because of the stress of daily living. This tension interferes with the natural alignment of our head, neck and spine – and that’s one reason why so many of us are in pain or have difficulty with activities.
Through private lessons in the Alexander Technique, you can become aware of your unnecessary muscle tension and reduce it. At the same time, you can rediscover the natural alignment that we all had as children. This alignment will give you better balance, coordination, and ease of movement.
If you’d like to read a shorter version of this article, you can go here.
When I was a young child, I had a natural alignment of my head, neck and spine. Even though I wasn’t aware of it, that alignment gave all of my movements an effortless quality, and it helped me to be balanced and coordinated. As a result, my life was joyful and fun.
Now it may sound as if I’m blowing my own horn here, but the fact is that I’m not unique. We all had this natural alignment of our head, neck and spine when we were young. We were born with it, so it was – and is – a part of our design. When we’re embodying it, movement is easy, and we have plenty of energy for the activities we enjoy. That’s because this alignment gives us the support we need in order to move with a minimum of effort.
Next time you see a child under the age of six, take a closer look. Chances are her head, neck and spine are beautifully aligned. And not only that, she preserves her alignment when she’s moving. For example, when she bends down to pick up a toy, she doesn’t create an extra joint in her neck or at her waist. Instead, she only bends at her hips, knees and ankles.
As a matter of fact, I would encourage you to find some photographs of yourself when you were young. If you look closely at your alignment back then, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised!
In my case, my good alignment helped me learn sports easily. I started riding horses when I was six and I started skiing when I was nine. When I was 12, 13 and 14, I went to a summer horseback riding camp, and twice I won the award as the best rider in camp. I also loved bicycling, running and playing games with my friends. In school, I played baseball and soccer.
Of course, in all of those sports, I never gave a second thought to my approach or to my alignment. I just loved participating in them.
Unfortunately, though, the story didn’t end there. As I got older, the sports gradually began to feel like more of a struggle. That didn’t happen overnight: it happened little by little, over a period of years. But more and more often, I felt as if something was missing. The sports just weren’t as much fun, or as easy, as they’d once been.
Something else also began to happen. I didn’t do nearly as well in competition as I once had. For example, in high school and at Harvard, my main sport was rowing. At Harvard, I only made the junior varsity lightweight crew. It was a source of profound disappointment to me that I didn’t make the varsity.
For a long time, I didn’t know why the sports had gotten more difficult, and why I no longer did as well at them. It was only much later, after I’d started taking Alexander Technique lessons, that I figured out what it was. Over the years, I’d been taking a particular approach, both to the sports and to all other activities. I’d been trying as hard as I could.
Of course there was a reason why I did that. My coaches would always say,
“If at first you don’t succeed, try again – only this time put more elbow grease into it,” or words to that effect.
I really wanted to succeed, so I tried to do what they said. But that approach, combined with the stress of competition, had only one result: I ended up getting tense. Over time, all my extra tension began to interfere with my performance and made it much more difficult for me to achieve my goals.
The strangest part was that, until I started taking Alexander lessons, I wasn’t aware of all that extra tension.
Some of you may have heard the story of the monkey who had her hand in the bottle. I like that story because it reminds me of the way I used to approach sports. The story goes that some hunters in Africa came up with an ingenious way to catch monkeys. They tied a bottle to the base of a tree, and put a piece of fruit inside it. Then they went and hid nearby, and watched the bottle.
Eventually, a monkey would come down out of the trees to investigate. When she saw that the bottle had a piece of fruit inside, she would reach in and grab it. But that meant she was making a fist, so now she couldn’t get her hand out of the bottle. After that, the hunters could come and catch her without any difficulty. Why? Because she wanted that piece of fruit so badly that she would rather get caught than let go of the fruit, take her hand out of the bottle and run away.
Once again, that was the way I approached sports over the years. I was totally focused on “grabbing that piece of fruit” – on doing well and winning. But as I said before, that narrow focus on the goal got me into trouble. All my effort and trying left me tense, and then my extra tension interfered with my performance.
I learned something else when I started taking Alexander Technique lessons. All my extra tension had developed into a series of patterns that had become deeply rooted in my body. They’d become habits. And by the way, it turns out that I’m also not unique when it comes to those habitual patterns of tension. Almost everyone develops them, without realizing it, because of the stress of daily life. Of course, the exact nature of the patterns varies from person to person – but unfortunately, they’re extremely widespread.
Interestingly enough, though, there are a few rare individuals who don’t develop those habits as they get older. As a result, they preserve the natural alignment they had when they were young. And that means their movement continues to be balanced, coordinated and graceful, as they get older. As you might imagine, these individuals tend to be very successful in sports, in the performing arts, or in whatever discipline they choose.
For the rest of us, the patterns of tension that we develop have a number of effects. First of all, they throw off the alignment of our head, neck and spine. As a result, they put extra pressure on our nerves and joints. That’s why many of us experience pain or have difficulty with activities.
Now let me get back to my story. The third stage of my development began when I discovered the Alexander Technique. Thanks to private lessons in the technique, my approach to sports, and to all other activities, changed dramatically. It began to dawn on me that I would enjoy the sports much more if I could let go of that proverbial piece of fruit and take my hand out of the bottle. In other words, things would go better if I focused less on the goal of winning and more on the way I was approaching the sports.
Let me be more specific. During the lessons, I finally became aware of those habitual patterns of tension that had built up over the years. Of course, I also learned how to reduce them. Most important of all, I rediscovered the natural alignment of my head, neck and spine that I’d had as a child.
As a result of these wonderful discoveries, I’m enjoying the sports much more again. I’m also having more frequent experiences of “the zone” – that beautiful experience of ease, control and well-being when we don’t have to make the sport happen. It just seems to happen easily on its own. We’re not doing the sport, the sport is “doing us,” and we’re just going along for a very enjoyable ride.
And finally, I’m having more success again – even though I’m focusing much less on winning. An amazing paradox! At the age of 54, I’m skiing and riding better than I have since I was a young child. Who knows, maybe if I had had the knowledge that I do now, I would have made the varsity lightweight crew at Harvard!
To end, let me give you an example of a wonderful experience I had skiing recently. One day last winter, a friend and I were skiing at Mt. Sunapee ski area in New Hampshire. All day long, we skied the moguls. Moguls are natural bumps that are created in the snow by skiers’ turns. They make skiing more challenging because you can’t turn wherever you want to. You have to turn between the moguls.
That day at Mt. Sunapee, the moguls were very close together – and yet it wasn’t difficult for me to make the turns through them. I did that by moving my knees, my feet and the edges of my skis back and forth. But here’s the special part. While I was doing all those quick turns, I was able to keep my upper body aligned and still. So in the end, my head, neck and back were staying just a little bit separate from my legs, as my legs carried out the movement.
Of course it was the Alexander Technique that helped me maintain that separation. By minimizing the tension in the areas of my head, neck and spine, I could make sure they stayed aligned with each other, and independent of the movement of my legs. My head stayed poised on top of my spine and my whole spine lengthened upwards slightly. As a result, my balance improved, the turns became easier and I had more control over them.
And best of all, I had a daylong experience of the zone!