I used to know someone who had a limp, although he didn’t actually realise he had one! Bob told me that, when he was young, he was once asked by a friend why he had a limp. ‘What? I don’t have limp!’ replied Bob indignantly. Sounding surprised, his friend shot back ‘Of course you do Bob, you have for as long as I’ve known you’. It took Bob a while to figure out what was going on. His father had a very pronounced limp after being injured in the war. As a very young child, when learning how to walk, Bob unconsciously imitated his father. However, he was totally unaware of his limp until it was pointed out to him years later. I was recounting this story to a client of mine as an illustration of where some of our habits come from. She burst into laughter and told me what had just happened in her family. Following an accident, her father ended up with his leg in a plaster cast. A few days after his return from A&E, the family dog (who was devoted to her father) started limping. They were becoming increasingly concerned about the dog and were on the point of calling the vet, when they suddenly noticed that the dog sometimes switched the leg that it was limping on.
Unlike the dog’s limp, Bob’s limp was an example of a habit acquired early in life that then stays present all the time. Habits like these have become part of who we are, and so we may not ever notice them. Other examples of common habits are the practise of always breathing through the mouth rather than the nose, or holding the jaw clamped tightly shut with the teeth gritted.
While some habits are persistent and enduring, others are short-lived reactions that arise each time we’re faced with a particular situation. For example, an actor may experience performance anxiety every time they go near the stage, or a normally calm and considerate driver may be provoked into absolute fury whenever they see certain behaviours in other drivers. Many habits have a strong social or cultural basis. For example, when (usually) women tilt their head to one side when they are listening to someone speaking. Many of our habitual reactions can seem very mundane in nature – using a laptop or mobile can lead to us staring fixedly at the screen and becoming oblivious to our surroundings. Often people are not aware that they are reacting out of habit. Our behaviour can seem spontaneous and appropriate in the moment. But sometimes, if we take a step back and observe ourselves, we might find that we always behave in that way in that situation, or around that ‘type’ of person. However, whatever the habit, it’s usually difficult to disentangle the emotional from the social from the physical – we are complex beings and we are all complex bundles of habits.
The triggers for habits vary hugely from one person to the next, and from one context to another. If we can begin to understand our own particular triggers, we then have more of a chance of being able to change those habitual reactions that don’t (or no longer) serve us well.
Changing habits lies at the centre of the Alexander Technique because it is a method for change. Through Alexander lessons we develop greater self-awareness so that we can become conscious of what is always there, as well as what may be new or different. Through this practical method we discover how we can act and respond in the moment according to what we choose, rather than being governed by ‘auto-pilot’. We can learn an intriguing and deeply satisfying way of changing those habits that we don’t want.