Before and After - Uncovering the Obvious

By Nicolas Brockbank

My experience is that sensory appreciation of what we are doing is not so much faulty as hidden, and that we can become aware of it quickly and effortlessly, if our attention is appropriately drawn in that direction. I think this requires insight and cleverness on the part of the teacher, but not necessarily any manual contact. I've known it happen in students I've taught and often, when it hasn't happened, I've felt it would have if I'd said or done something different.

As an example from my own past, I had my first Alexander lesson in the early eighties. Initially, the teacher started leading me through what I later recognized as the traditional lesson format; but after a short time she stopped, moved away, and asked me, with my arms hanging by my side, to pretend I was carrying two heavy buckets. Almost immediately, my shoulders dropped about six inches. As they did so, an immense sigh escaped me. I realized I had been holding my shoulders up around my ears, pushing my head forward to good effect, for what I later worked out must have been nearly two decades, all without knowing it.

This trait had begun when I was at school during the time it was fashionable to have long hair. The school disallowed hair to touch the collar at the nape of the neck so I had learned to pull my shoulders as far back and away from the rest of me as possible and push my head in the opposite direction.

This was a conscious effort and took some doing but eventually it became habitual. My mother and later my wife used to comment on what they saw as my deformed upper torso and try and reshape me but I laughed them off. I couldn't relate to what they were saying; nor could I see in the mirror what they saw. So far as I was concerned, I felt, looked and was normal. Yet, ten minutes into my first Alexander lesson, a teacher had enabled me to recognize how wrong I had been.

I had that first lesson in London. Since I lived in Portugal, where there were no teachers, I wasn't able to have another for more than a year. During the intervening months, I became increasingly conscious of what I was doing with my shoulders. Whenever I wasn't thinking about them, they rose up and my head pushed forward. As soon as I did think about them, I became aware of an almighty tightening taking place.

It staggered me I could be making so much effort without realizing it. Each time I remembered, and thought of the 'heavy buckets', that effort ceased, my shoulders dropped, and my head righted itself. I used to see it happening in shop windows as I walked past. The pain of this release was extraordinary, like being strung up by meat hooks. I found it hard to believe simply stopping doing something should produce such torture.

By the end of that first year, the habit of jacking my shoulders up had more or less vanished, although vestiges remained. Throughout that time, I don't remember 'getting in before the event' in the sense of ever finding myself in a balanced state and preempting the shoulder raising. Instead, I 'undid' it whenever I came across it, at first increasingly often, then with gradually decreasing frequency and amplitude, until eventually there was nothing to undo any more.

Looking at old photographs at the time, I couldn't believe how deformed I had been. My wife and mother remarked on the change and reminded me of how often they had chastised me in the past, to no avail.

The point of this story is not whether the single lesson I had or the approach I followed could be considered to be the Alexander Technique. Rather it is to show that is is possible for an aspect of self-use that was deliberately conceived, became established, then became habitual, and that I was wholly unconscious of for many, many years - despite having it pointed out to me on numerous occasions - could suddenly become as obvious to me as it was to others; and that the insight I gained was not only lasting but grew daily.

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Nicholas Brockbank is an Alexander Technique teacher living in Sussex, England. He also trades stocks and futures and his other interests include gardening, writing, tennis, and travel. He would like to hear from anybody interested in learing the Alexander Technique on their own.

Nicolas has a number of other articles on the subject of learning the Alexander Technique on your own on his Web Site; These can be found on his page:

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