Introduction to Alexander Technique – It’s Not Posture

Most people know Alexander Technique as something about posture, or something to remove muscle tension or aches.

It can have those effects, but that’s not what I’ll be discussing here.

This article explains it as a way of thinking, a way to approach action of all sorts (whether mental or physical), and as a way of improving your interaction with the world.

I explain, as briefly as I can, the theory behind Alexander Technique. In particular, I cover: awareness, non-doing, inhibition, and intention — plus some practical remarks. To get a gut-level sense of what I’m talking about and be able to do some of it in practice, I strongly recommend trying the (quick n easy!) linked exercises.

I am not trained, so take this with salt. These ideas come from conversations with and tweets by Michael Ashcroft, plus my own thinking.

i. Awareness

Awareness is what you’re aware of, what your attention is available for, what you’re keeping track of or tabs on.

An object outside your awareness can’t be responded to — at least not directly — because when you’re unaware of something, you don’t know it exists or is there right now.

The same goes for mental objects. You can have thoughts or processes in your mind that other parts of your mind are not aware of.

When you are aware of objects, you can account for them. You can avoid banging your head on an open cupboard, or avoid banging your mind on an uncomfortable thought.

Awareness has a size: it can be expanded to include the whole room, or contracted to just these words you’re reading.

Expanding awareness makes it easier to deal with things as they come. It allows one to be more dynamically responsive to stimuli, new information, events, unexpected things. Awareness helps give you space between a stimulus and your reaction to it. (It feels like there’s more physical space between you and the thing — instead of you and the thing kind of being merged as one reactive entity, as if you can’t do anything but respond to it in a certain way.)

Contracted/collapsed awareness means that you won’t immediately notice things outside that point of awareness, so won’t be able to respond to them until they catch your attention. (vs everything being covered by your attention)

Awareness can change how ‘close’ an object or problem feels. When awareness is collapsed to the space immediately around you, it feels harder to get up and pick up something from the other side of the room. If you expand your awareness to cover the entire room, then even if the object is on the other side of the room, it can feel easy to pick up.

Likewise with mental objects: if a problem or emotion feels overwhelming, it can feel as though we’ve become the problem or emotion; we’re inside it; it almost feels like there is nothing else; it dominates our mental attention. Eugene Gendlin in his book Focusing describes how you can distance yourself from your problems just enough that you can think about them clearly, while still giving them your attention. Expanded awareness is how you do this. It allows you to have a more ‘objective’ or ‘outside’ view of yourself, your problems, and your environment. It feels as though things are close enough to see in vivid detail, but not so close they obscure your vision.

But unlike certain(!) meditative practices, there’s no dissociation. Alexander Technique is inherently anti-dissociative. A mental object becomes just one of many objects, both mental and physical, included in your awareness.

Awareness in this sense is primarily physical, secondarily mental. Whereas, in many meditation practices, I understand this to be flipped. In meditation, you’re expanding awareness of your inner thoughts/mind; in Alexander Technique, you’re expanding awareness of the physical space around you.

Expanding this kind of awareness is learnable, via fairly simple exercises. It may take practice/study to get the hang of it and make it your default state. (But once you can do it without conscious attention, especially when combined with “non-doing” described below, really cool things can happen: increased sense of peace, decreased muscular tension, improved memory, ease of movement, etc.)

All this includes awareness of your own body — but many people find it more difficult to change awareness size in/around the body. (For example, I initially found it very difficult to put my awareness inside my skull while at the same time having it include the rest of the room.) Awareness of your body helps with movement, muscle tension, performances like public speaking or music, and can even help with knowing how you’re feeling and what you want.

Practising this kind of physical awareness helps with things like muscle tension and posture as a byproduct. Alexander Technique is not about posture — posture ‘just happens’ when you have expanded awareness.

It’s kind of nuts, actually: you can see how expanded or contracted someone’s awareness is just from their body language.

It isn’t only your own body you can be aware of. This state of mind allows you to more easily pick up on how other people are feeling and thinking, while still having space for thinking about your own things. It helps you read and understand people.

To try out expanding your awareness with a simple exercise, see: Michael Ashcroft’s thread on awareness.

ii. Pause

When you’re aware of a stimulus, instead of reacting to it unthinkingly (or react to it over-thinkingly), you can pause, and decline your first reaction, and wait, and see what else comes up.

In Alexander Technique, the exercise is to not do these first reactions… and indeed, to not ‘do’ anything. (More on this below.)

This is also like expanding awareness in time. If your normal reaction is stimulus→response, you can expand your awareness to notice the stimulus and then you have space to either react or decline that reaction.

The pause is where you can give consent to a reaction, or not. We spend a lot of time just going with our first reactions, which may contain inner conflicts or tension. Acting while you have a conflict is uncomfortable, yet happens all the time. Our first reaction may not represent all of our opinions and desires.

This is much like how ‘true/authentic self-expression’ is not just saying the first thing that comes to your head — because that may or may not be what is most true to you. We can feel loss of self-expression both in situations where we just go with the first thing that pops into our head (feels out of control, inaccurate to deeper thoughts/feelings), or where we only say what we think is ‘proper’ to say (feels like it denies part of ourselves). True self-expression is about having free choice in what you express, instead of railroaded into a narrow band of expression.

Pausing gives you space to make decisions using your full (body)mind.

iii. Non-doing

AKA non-trying AKA wu wei AKA effortless action AKA not end-gaining AKA declining/choosing to consent to reactions AKA spontaneity

Instead of reacting, what do you do? You don’t. Or rather, you non-do.

This phrase comes from wu wei, a concept from Taoism, which is the idea that you don’t need to consciously deliberately do action, but rather you can ‘let action happen’. It’s a state of mind where you are not consciously aware of how or what you’re doing, but your body is moving — effortlessly.

Fortunately, despite how vague(-yet-cool) it sounds, this is also very learnable, in a practical way. (You don’t need thousands of hours of study with a Chinese master to get it!)

Non-doing could be thought of as non-trying. Can you pick up a ball without trying to pick up the ball? It sounds contradictory, but it turns out that there is a specific behaviour we do when we are “trying”, and this behaviour is unnecessary to pick up the ball.

How is this possible? Well, consider when you’ve picked up something to fiddle with without realising. You didn’t consciously intend for it to end up in your hand, but there it is. There was an effortlessness to it.

Now, that’s a case where you’re unconscious of it and just reacting. Maybe you picked it up because you’re nervous. In this case, perhaps the reason you picked it up without noticing is that it was outside your zone of awareness. You may have been paying attention to a conversation, and not your hands.

But this kind of non-‘deliberate’ effortless action needn’t be automatic and unchosen, like a nervous fiddling habit; nor need it require redirected attention / collapsed awareness, like not noticing you picked up the object. You can be fully aware of what you’re doing, and ‘watch’ yourself doing it, while choosing to do it, and yet still have there be this effortless “it just happened” quality.

For most people, the moment conscious choice is involved, the ‘trying’ or ‘doing’ process takes over: you are now deliberately performing the action, in order to get the result that you decided on. In Alexander Technique, you learn how to have choice without the accompanying deliberate/conscious performance aspect. You make choices, but after the choice is made, the effortless process takes over.

The way this works is: see what happens if you don’t try to ‘do’ anything. This is not the same as ‘do nothing’, like sitting around. It’s noticing when you are trying to do something, and then choosing not to, or choosing to ‘do’ less. It’s giving yourself space, letting yourself pause before engaging in a habitual reaction, and declining to do that reaction.

To learn this intuitively via a simple exercise, try Michael Ashcroft’s non-doing floor exercise.

Including the pause and having expansive awareness give non-deliberate action a different kind of quality from mindless fiddling. It’s no longer running you against your will; you are no longer a helpless stimulus-response machine. Rather, this kind of unconscious action + awareness means you can act harmoniously with your intentions and with the world around you. The whole mind-body(-world) system gets into sync.

If you juggle, you may have had this experience: you don’t try to catch each throw, your hand just moves to where it needs to go. (This is especially obvious if someone throws a ball at you without warning. Your unconscious mind does a split-second calculation and moves your hand where it needs to go.) Likewise if you play tennis.

Fiction writing can also have something of this experience. You can find yourself surprised by what comes out of your own characters’ mouths. You’re ‘watching’ them; they ‘have a life of their own’.

When editing, many writers switch modes where they ‘make’ their character say something (it feels like you created the dialogue, rather than the dialogue coming from outside you). But with non-doing, you can edit in a different way: instead of putting words in your characters mouthes, you can decline their first response, pause, and then see what else they might say.

This is the same phenomenon as when games of “Should Have Said” in improv comedy go well. Should Have Said is a game where audience members can at any time yell “Should’ve said!” during a scene, and players must change the last thing they said to something totally different yet still fitting in the scene. Magical moments can happen when the audience keeps “Should’ve said!”-ing a particular line to exhaust the player’s existing ideas: the next line they say is spontaneously generated from nothing — surprising even the player — to the cheers and guffaws of the audience.

When all the ‘doing’ (effortful) actions have been exhausted, what happens is a natural ease that is in harmony with your intentions. There’s no longer any internal conflict or friction, so there’s nothing to think about – you don’t react, you just act.

iv. Inhibition

AKA declining the reaction AKA pause+non-do

When you have an impulsive ,’doing’ action, and you pause and decline to do it, this is what Alexander calls ‘inhibition’. It’s inhibiting your automatic, habitual response, giving you freedom to behave differently.

This is not the same kind of inhibition as “social inhibition”, where you tone yourself down in attempt to be acceptable to a social group*. It’s not inhibition as in making yourself small, or suppressing a part of yourself.

If anything, using the technique of inhibiting your ‘doing’ allows you to be a more true version of yourself: it gives you space to really choose, using your full mind. When you have full awareness, your attention isn’t collapsed down on a single point, and you can take into account a range of different information that would help you make decisions — naturally and effortlessly.

[* The word ‘inhibition’ had different connotations before Freud’s use got popularised. Alexander was drawing on the use that predates Freud.]

v. Intentions

There is an apparently paradoxical issue of how to deliberately do something — make a choice — without holding that choice, or ‘trying to do’ it.

Non-doing does not mean ‘do nothing’. It doesn’t mean getting rid of plans, projects, dreams and aspirations. It’s simply a different way of approaching these things.

A whole book could be written on this (and apparently already has been), but here is the basic idea:

Suppose you do actually want to pick up that ball over there. But you don’t want to ‘do’ picking-up-the-ball.

The solution is to set an intention.

[1] Have the intention to pick up the ball. [2] Expand your awareness to include what’s all around you, the room, the route to the ball, and your body inside the room. [3] Notice any reactions of trying to do picking-up-the-ball (like “I am going to march over there and pick up that ball”, or “I am going to get ready to stand up so I can go pick up that ball”, or “I am going to approach the ball to pick it up”) — and decline those reactions. [4] Wait. Patiently hold the intention to pick up the ball. Don’t stop yourself from moving — stopping yourself is another kind of ‘doing’ — yet don’t try to deliberately/consciously move. [5] Let movement happen.

After you’ve declined all the ‘doing’-type actions, if you still have the intention to pick up the ball, you can find yourself naturally moving to bring about the state of the ball being in your hand.

This natural movement feels light and easy, almost trivial. Thoughts don’t get shut down while you’re doing this kind of expanded-attention movement: with some practise, you can find yourself having plenty of space to think about other things, or feel the space of the room, or attend to sensations in your body, while performing the effortless motor action of picking up the ball.

Motor actions aren’t the only thing we can non-do. The same basic structure applies for anything we want to do.

You can think of Alexander Technique as coming in 5 steps, or 5 key ideas:

1. Intention

2. Awareness

3. Pause (take a moment instead of react)

4. Non-doing (actively don’t ‘do’; decline ‘doing’)

5. Spontaneous, effortless action

In the above example, it looks as though I have ‘non-doing’ and ‘pause’ flipped. It’s kind of a repeating cycle, because when you decline one ‘doing’, another reaction can come up, which means you have to pause again.

Inhibition can be thought of as the pause, or pause+decline. Non-doing is the result of pausing+declining. So, they sort of bleed into each other.

The exact ordering doesn’t matter so much. So you could think of it going like: expand awareness, intend something, pause instead of react, notice ‘doings’ and non-do them, wait for more to come up and repeat the ‘pause’ step, do this until all the ‘doings’ are out of your system, then allow yourself to act spontaneously.

You can even non-do while having contracted awareness! It’s just that the spontaneous action would be limited to the parts of you and your environment that you’re aware of.

In this brief overview, I don’t go into exactly how to put this into practice (save for the brief exercises I link to), nor do I cover troubleshooting. But I hope this gives the theoretical background to try stuff out yourself, read up on it, or get an Alexander Technique teacher to help put it into practice.

Update: There is now an online Alexander Technique video course by Michael Ashcroft called Expanding Awareness. I recommend trying in-person lessons, but this course is great for the mindfulness aspect.