Give yourself a moment

Drop of water What is it we’re actually doing when we put the Alexander Technique into practice in daily life? Well, we’re bringing our awareness to our embodied self and the surrounding environment and consciously giving ourself a moment before responding to a stimulus – whether that’s a thought, a person, an action, an email… 

What does this giving ourselves time allow? By not immediately and automatically reacting to whatever life throws at us, we give ourselves options, creating a possibility for choice over whether and how we respond. This is powerful in itself as it creates more agency and sense of control. But it’s not only this. We are using the moment of not reacting to bring our attention and awareness back to ourselves – for example to the support coming up through our feet or our sitting bones, to our back, to our breath, to what we’re seeing and hearing. All of this allows time to organise ourselves – our coordination and balance – and also has a calming effect. In addition, if for example I become aware that I’m holding my breath in that moment (a common reaction to many stimuli) then I can let the breath out. If I find I’m pulling myself down towards the stimulus (for example, when the mobile rings and I go to answer it), I can expand my awareness to include the space around the screen and myself (which tends to bring us more upright without having to actually do anything).

If you already have experience of the Alexander Technique, you’ll be familiar with this concept of stopping and not just immediately and unthinkingly reacting to a stimulus (i.e. reacting in our habitual way). FM Alexander called the process ‘inhibition’, it is key to the possibility of change, otherwise we just keep on doing what we always keep on doing.

So by stopping before acting, we open up new possibilities of responding in ways that we might really wish, or perhaps choosing not to respond at all, rather than just acting out of habit. It’s helpful to recognise that this ‘stop’ is not just a ‘pause’. Pausing implies only two choices, either continuing to pause (not responding at all) or resuming what you were initially intending to do. But if we resume what we were initially intending to do, we’ll do it in more or less the way we always do it. That’s not how we can change. It needs to be a real stop, not just a pause, so that different things can happen, perhaps new choices, perhaps easier ways of moving and being. Just to clarify, when I say ‘real stop’, I’m referring to thought and intention here; I’m not talking about any particular amount of time – it might, for example, take me 1 second to quieten myself and choose, or 4 milli-seconds, or 10 seconds; it depends how powerful a particular stimulus is for me.

I remember when I first read FM’s description of inhibition many years ago, it seemed a bit strange and artificial to me. I was also puzzled by the fact that inhibition always seemed to be described (by FM and others) as relating to a specific action in time. For example, when I realise that I’m just about to reach for the ringing phone I inhibit; or I inhibit before taking my first step before going up the stairs – but what about the rest of the journey to the top? Life is a continual flow and I couldn’t quite work out how you were supposed to apply this ‘stopping’ if it meant mentally dividing all of life into separate actions.

It’s taken me time, and a lot of practical experience, to see my way through this.

Perhaps there are several different aspects to inhibition? There is of course the classic description of inhibition that I’ve talked about above. In other words, the process of giving yourself a moment whenever you become aware that you’re faced with a stimulus that is likely to make you react automatically in a way that you’d probably rather not. As we’ve seen, this allows other possibilities to unfold as well as the time to direct (thinking spatially from an embodied perspective) so that we organise and come into support and balance. It may be helpful to think of another aspect of inhibition as an ongoing process of self-awareness, so that we are constantly noticing our levels of reactivity to life (habits of muscular tension etc), enabling us to renew our intention not to get pulled into what we don’t want. We could also think of a third aspect of inhibition as our general state of being. As we practise the Alexander Technique over time, we experience a longer-term quietening of the whole mind-body self – a more constant change, a re-calibration. In this different state, our reactivity comes from a calmer starting level – so we can still be reactive but it is more like little waves than a choppy sea.

So, give yourself a moment, say to yourself ‘I have time’, allow yourself to ‘come to quiet’, or simply ‘stop’ – all different ways of expressing inhibition. Does one of these appeal to you? ‘Stop’ can be the perfect word for some people but for others it can sound like you’re telling yourself off. Actually, it’s just as much the tone of voice of your thought as the words themselves that is important. Inhibition needs to come from a kind place within you.