Finding your direction

DirectingFor most of us, most of the time, our ‘heads are filled to overflowing’ with a constant stream of thoughts, and not all of these are particularly helpful. We all have habits of thinking and often these are along the lines of ‘what if…’, ‘I must…’, ‘I need to…’,  ‘I’ve messed up again!’ etc. As we grow older, the cumulative effect of this constant ‘mental chatter’ is written in our bodies in our frown lines, pursed lips, hunched shoulders etc.

In fact, every thought we have manifests as some kind of physical quality in ourselves. This statement is simple but profound in its implications.  We cannot separate out the ‘mental’ and ‘physical’, as we are mind-body beings. Take the example of the experience of being stressed – as we begin to think about things, we notice a whole host of ‘physical’ happenings (perhaps our shoulders begin to hunch up and we might have ‘butterflies’ etc). These feelings lead to more anxious thoughts, and we soon find ourselves in a vicious stress circle. Similarly, thinking about something joyful results, not just in a smile on our face, but in a more open posture. Even seemingly abstract or theoretical thoughts translate into features such as a furrowed brow, glazed expression, downwards focus, and holding the breath. 

FM Alexander came up with a way of turning our thoughts to more positive effect and interrupting the constant mental chatter. The Alexander Technique is a powerful and practical self-help and self-development method that enables us to look after ourselves and to get more out of our lives. At the heart of applying the Alexander Technique lies the way we think – harnessing our conscious thinking to enable us to have more choice over how we respond to life, rather than living on ‘automatic pilot’, reacting unthinkingly and habitually to whatever life throws at us.

If we want to open up the possibility of taking a different path, then we need to first stop ourselves from going down the usual habitual route. This is one of the key skills that we develop through Alexander lessons. FM Alexander coined the term ‘inhibition’ to describe the process of consciously giving ourselves time to respond, or not as we wish, as we go about our daily lives.

So what is happening in that millisecond when we don’t just automatically react to a stimulus? Through Alexander lessons, we learn how to bring our attention and awareness back to our embodied self, with very simple thoughts that help situate us in this moment in time and space. This skill is called ‘directing’ or ‘giving directions’.

FM Alexander gave the following definition of direction: ‘the process involved in projecting messages from the brain to the mechanisms and in conducting the energy necessary to the use of these mechanisms’1

That’s quite a mouthful but what it means in practice is that we inform our (physical) self with useful thought. To take the everyday example of drinking tea – if I want to reach out for my cup then, rather than it being the habitual unconscious action, my Alexander directions enable the fingertips to lead the movement towards the cup without the usual ‘scrunching up the rest of myself up’; in other words, I can achieve my aim without losing my poise.

When we are directing we are thinking as embodied beings. In directing we use our conscious mind to influence, to indirectly bring about the conditions we want. We can know what we want and what we don’t want, and we can set the direction of travel. This is certainly not micromanaging – indeed, our conscious mind is simply not capable of dictating the complex automatic processes that coordinate movement. And it’s really important to recognise this fact, otherwise when we think we are ‘directing’ we will actually be trying to do something.

Some Alexander teachers use the term ‘directing’ or ‘giving your directions’ in a very specific sense, meaning a particular set of directions described by FM Alexander: ‘Let your neck be free, so that your head can go forwards and up, so that your back can lengthen and widen, and your knees can go forwards and away’ (although interestingly he never wrote down this precise phrase2). For many Alexander teachers and students, these particular thoughts form the mainstay of their practice. Sometimes though, there can be confusion between this particular set of directions and directing itself (see FM Alexander’s own definition above of what directing is).

I don’t personally use these particular directions and prefer to encompass my surroundings and whole self together simultaneously, with my head and spine at the centre of my thinking. So, for me, directing always involves being aware of the three-dimensional space we are in, including an awareness of where the support is coming from in this moment. I define direction as embodied spatial thinking, centred around the head / spine, and with the aims of enlivening postural support, and promoting balance and coordination of the whole mind-body self.

There is another reason to be clear about the distinction between the core skill of directing and any particular set of directions. We all think differently and part of the art of teaching is to find ways of thinking (directing) that work for the particular individual who is in front of you at that moment. From day one of Alexander lessons you will be learning how to inhibit and direct. Yet teaching the particular set of directions ‘Let your neck be free, so that your head can go forwards and up, so that your back can lengthen and widen, and your knees can go forwards and away’ on day one is fraught with difficulties and will almost certainly entice the person to try to ‘do these directions’. This conundrum was recognised by Walter Carrington, a leading first-generation teacher trained by FM Alexander.3 Unfortunately his solution – or at least the way it has sometimes been taken up – was to say nothing and over-rely on the hands-on aspect of teaching, at the expense of enabling people to discover the power of their own thinking.

Coming back to the beginning of this blog post – because our thinking impacts on our whole self, we are always ‘directing’ but unfortunately we are often misdirecting. Because of our habits we are often unintentionally channelling our energies in unhelpful directions. For example, as you read this, do you find yourself poised, expansive and open to what is going on around you, or is your attention narrowed onto the screen, your head and shoulders pulled down towards it?

Direction is integral to all aspects of life, from what’s happening in this moment to wider life goals. Faced with any challenge, however big or small, how do we respond? Typically we put a lot of effort into addressing an issue but this effort is often fruitless as it’s mis-directed energy. So if we want to bring about change, can we form a clear intention and humbly and patiently pay attention to how we are here in this moment? We need to know our direction of travel in life and Alexander directing in the moment helps keep us on course.

  1. F. Matthias Alexander. The Use of the Self. P 35. Orion.
  2. [here Jean Fischer sets out beautifully the history of FM’s discoveries and how these were recorded over time by himself and others and how even the first-generation of teachers differed in their understanding of and interpretation of Alexander’s work. See also:]
  3. Walter Carrington. Teaching directions to beginners. In Thinking Aloud. Mornum Time Press.