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Why habits aren’t habits at all … and the great news when it comes to stopping unnecessary tension you might be causing yourself

Airports are wonderful places to people-watch. When you’re standing there watching your unmoving line as the speedy-boarders rush past, do you ever wonder how we humans, who all have the same basic body parts all stand so differently?

We have the same number of bones, the same number of joints, same limb count. Yet when you start looking, humans really do pull a wide variety of shapes while ostensibly doing the same activity. Some of those "shapes" are clearly more comfortable and easy to maintain than others.

Read the blog below to find out what light the work of FM Alexander shines on this idea or Come to a taster evening on the 16th May, 6.30-8pm at The Family Practice, 116 Gloucester Road, BS7 and I’ll tell you more about it, and you can have a lesson. AND Book in for a 6 week course, starting 6th June same time same place and running for 6 weeks until the 11th July. Find out more.

I’ve often thought about this variety of movement in a yoga class too, or doing a drill in a handstand class. Why do people who are all “doing the same thing” do the activity so differently, when the combination of movements is the same?  

What you might also have noticed is that the specific results of the pose or drill are different in different people too. Some people might feel it in their thighs, some in their hamstrings, some in their abdominal muscles, some in their necks.  

There are a few reasons of course and combinations of reasons to consider… 

  • We all have proportionally different lengths of arms and legs 

  • Different ranges of mobility can be caused by structural differences e.g. where the thigh bone meets the pelvic girdle may vary. There might be injury, illness or disease – osteoarthritis for example can impact joint mobility, as can trauma or inflammation to a muscle, tendon or ligament, or nerve impingement. 

  • We might also consider genetics and nutrition to some extent. 

The work of FM Alexander gives us another perspective we can use to understand these differences and work with them so that we can help people and ourselves gain optimal benefits from any activity undertaken.

In the Universal Constant in Living, FM Alexander says: 

“All exercises are fundamentally the same in the sense that the activity that goes into their performance is inseparable from the habitual general use of the performer.”

In this quote, Alexander introduces a term which we find throughout his books: “use” 

When he talks about “use” he means the way we direct ourselves to move in an activity. These movements are through the process of sending messages from the brain to the body to create the movement. 

In the Interactive Teaching Method of the Alexander Technique, we identify two types of movement: Organising and Task-specific movements. 

Organising movements are those movements we “habitually” make to maintain the relationships of part to part within our structures i.e., what Alexander meant by our “habitual general use.” 

Whereas task-specific movements are those we add in to accomplish a particular task. 

To understand this let’s imagine someone simply standing in a queue: they are just standing there waiting their turn, but are they still? Almost definitely not. 

Muscles are working to move parts in a direction AND other opposing muscles are also switching on to counter that movement so that nothing visibly moves. Two sets of opposing muscles are working isometrically i.e., contracting but not moving the joint. 

For example, this queueing person might be engaging their hamstrings but to stop themselves leaning backwards in space, they are also using muscles in the front of their body to stay in balance. 

Note: If they didn’t make one movement, they wouldn’t need to do the other and standing would be MUCH LESS TIRING.

Now imagine they add in a task-specific movement – say reaching to get a wallet from a pocket. They don’t stop the push-and-pull battle between the front and back of their legs. Instead, they add more in… using their arms – maybe adding the use of muscles in the trunk and legs too. EVEN MORE TIRING

What FM Alexander found is that the habitual way we use ourselves, that is, the unique set of movements we choose to make to organise our structures, is a factor that works for good or for ill in all of our activities. It can help or hinder us. 

His work also highlighted some important physiological facts about humans and how we can employ these facts to use ourselves more efficiently. 

One idea which he proposed has been developed by the ITM Alexander Technique into this statement: 

“The poise of the head in relation with the body in movement is the key to freedom and ease of motion.” 

This 'one thought' is found at the beginning of most ITM Alexander Technique students' journey into the work. 

It comes from Alexander's discovery that it was what he was doing with his head in relation with his body (his organising movement) was the cause of his physical difficulties. He found that when he could prevent these unhelpful organising movements, which was a particular dynamic of his head in relation to his body, then everything else went better and he stopped causing himself difficulties. 

With this 'one thought' in mind, let’s go back to our queueing man, and imagine that instead of the front and back tug of war happening only in his legs there is a similar tug of war happening in his neck. 

There is most probably both, because what FM found was that the relationship between the head and neck is primary, in that if we interfere with this relationship, we also tend to cause ourselves difficulties elsewhere. The tension the queueing man is putting into his legs is almost definitely related to what he's doing in his legs and what's more - the unneccasary tension in his neck COMES FIRST. 

Alexander called the relationship of our head with our body the “Primary Control” of the use our ourselves. 

Why Habits aren't habits at all.

Alexander's work highlighted that humans have a preferred way of organising their structures which he called the "habitual use of ourselves." And that this use could either help us or get in the way when we go about the other task-specific activities in our lives.  

What I find most revelatory about his work is that he didn't settle for this idea of habit as something solid and unchangeable. 

He proposed that habits are simply a series of orders from our mind that are carried out faithfully by our bodies "until countermanded." That is until we DECIDE TO STOP MAKING THEM.

We move the way we move, in both our organising and task-specific movements, because of the way we are telling ourselves to move. 

In other words: What we think is what we get. 

This is great news and also a bit annoying.

The Great News: 

The great news is that because we are creating these movements, we can also change them. We can think differently and therefore move differently. We can examine how we move and bring more conscious reasoning to making new and more efficient plans. 

Annoying because it means that in theory we can just choose to move differently and we will and all will be well. But it’s hard to change the way we move even when it has proven to be inefficient for the activity. 

But there's more good news because this is exactly what we explore in an Alexander Technique lesson! Say you are the student – you come for a lesson because sitting at a desk and typing gets uncomfortable after about half an hour. 

Together we’ll think through what you need to do to sit at your desk and type and we reason out the most efficient way. Our plan will include thinking about the relationship between your head with your body because, as we have seen, this is what will make a big difference. Then we’ll work together to help you carry out the new plan. I’ll most probably use my hands to facilitate this new movement. 

Hopefully, you’ll find an easier way to type - or play the clarinet, or approach triangle pose or headstand. 

Ahhh, all of this sounds good on paper, but I promise you none of these words are a patch on having an actual lesson and realising you can let go of some tension that you have been causing yourself! 

Come to a taster evening on the 16th May, 6.30-8pm at The Family Practice, 116 Gloucester Road, BS7 and I’ll tell you more about it, and you can have a lesson. AND Book in for a 6 week course, starting 6th June same time same place and running for 6 weeks until the 11th July.


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