One of the main aims of the Technique is that you learn to undo, and not-do. But understandably one of the commonest questions at the end of an introductory workshop is “What can I do now?” and even those having regular lessons want to be able to “Do something” in between. So for those perplexed in this way – here is my best stab at some suggestions.
AT is a very practical approach to life, and the reason we recommend 1-1 lessons is to help students experience the changes for themselves, so they can “be” rather than “do”, and allow the intellect to catch up later. But there is one thing that benefits just about anyone and that is what is variously called “lying-down work” “semi-supine” or in some quarters “active resting”. This is a DIY form of table-work and as teachers we try and fit it in regularly – daily for about 20 minutes if at all possible. It is the optimal position to allow your back and muscles to release and come to a balanced neutral state.
NB – if you are well into pregnancy ( 4-5 months) I suggest once you are lying on the floor you roll on to your side rather than stay on your back. See instructions below.
If you are not confident about getting onto or off the floor you can
a)have a chair ready to assist you getting there and up, or
b) use a bed and accept that the support will not be quite as effective at helping you release, or
c) try a sitting version – see instructions futher down the page.
Where. Find a space on your floor where you won’t get cold/jumped on by too many children, cats etc and put down a block/books/videocases in a stack of the right height to support your head. If you have had lessons you will know what this is likely to be, though remember it can change from day to day, depending on what you have been doing. If you haven’t had lessons, try about 2″ and keep some extra books or similar handy. If you know you will struggle to get up, put a chair nearby ready to hold onto. If you have a slippy floor or socks then a piece of rubber mesh or yoga mat is also useful. If you can’t or daren’t risk getting on the floor then doing this on a bed is better than not doing it, but has some pitfalls – you will need the mat to stop your feet slipping, you won’t get quite the same feedback about where your spine is, due to the curves in even a very firm bed, and you do need to use blocks, not your pillow.
Getting on the floor. Preferably take your shoes off before you start, though you can wear thick socks if your feet get cold. Then thinking of the top of your head staying up, and facing your blocks, step back with one leg and let your back knee drop to the ground as your front knee bends. You should now have your back knee, lower leg and toes on the ground, your body coming up in a line from your back knee to your head, your front foot flat on the ground and your front leg bent at the knee in a right angle or thereabouts. Tilt forward slightly at the pelvis to give you room and bring your front leg back to match the back leg – you should now be kneeling.
Keep thinking up through the top of your head to keep your spine long then allow your hips to swing to one side and towards the floor so you swivel round to sit on the floor facing the opposite direction. You should now have your back to your block(s) and your bottom and feet on the floor, with knees bent. Lower your head onto your books/block, using your elbows to support you if you wish, as you roll your back onto the floor, but keep your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. You should now be lying down, with the bump at the back of your head resting on your block, your neck bridging the gap to your shoulders, back and pelvis that are supported on the floor, and your legs making a triangle shape with the floor – so your knees are pointing towards the ceiling and your feet can spread out on the floor.
Check your head. If your blocks are the right height, you should feel a very slight stretch on the back of your neck but not feel that your chin is catching your throat. If you are not sure, try thinking of the top of your head drifting out towards whatever wall is behind you, and of allowing the muscles around your jaw to release. If you feel your head is tilting backwards, first try to let your chin drop a little and if this doesn’t make the feeling go away, roll over and sit up so you can add a further inch or so of block. If you feel your head is tilting forwards, take some height off your block by swapping for something thinner, then lower yourself down again and check once more. If you aren’t sure, try leaving it as is for a while until your body gives you a better clue, or if you have someone you trust to hand, ask them to check if the line of your ear where it joins the head looks level. There can be a wide variation on the height of block people need, from an inch to 5″, 6″ or even more. It isn’t a competition, it’s there to give your neck and shoulders the best chance to release. Nor is it a good thing to do without a block – there is a natural forward curve in the spine from the top of the shoulders into the head, so if your head is on the floor you are probably pulling it too far back.
Your hands can either be flat at your sides or across your tummy with elbows supported on the floor – up to you.
Checking round your body. Now for as long as you are reasonably comfortable up to about 20 minutes, just enjoy being there. Notice if any part of you feels tense and think of allowing the muscles there to release the tension they are holding. If you get muscles twitching just notice them, don’t worry or try to fix things. But do stop if you are in pain and gradually come up to sitting then standing – over time you will find you can stay there longer.
Without doing anything, think of allowing your neck muscles to release, together with your jaw and around your eyes. Imagine your shoulders flowing away from each other across the floor, spreading out down your arms, through your elbows, wrist and hands and out through your fingers. Picture your chest muscles letting go, so your ribcage is opening up and expanding. Think of all the little forgotten muscles between your ribs and allow them to release.
Come back to the thought of your neck muscles releasing, notice your head again and be aware of how long your spine is, down from the level of your ears through your neck and back to your tail-bone. Notice how much of it feels aware of the floor, but don’t try to force it down into the carpet. Come back to thinking of your shoulders and ribcage widening across the floor, then add your pelvis into this thought, allowing your hips to release. Imagine your knees floating up to the ceiling and stretching your leg bones as they go. Think of allowing the large powerful muscles in your legs to release. Become aware of your feet on the floor. Which parts are in contact? Imagine your toes flowing away from your feet and lengthening onto the floor. Allow the arch to let go and spread. Think of the ankles releasing. Finally come back to your neck and spine again. Then allow yourself a few minutes just to notice how your body now feels. You can keep going round yourself like this, noticing the differences and any tightness. When you find your mind has drifted off to other things, come back to thinking about your neck and shoulder muscles releasing
Getting up. When you are ready, let your eyes roll towards the side you want to get up and lead your head over to the side. Allow you knees to drop to that side and your body to follow, bringing one arm over so you are on your side with your upper hand on the floor. If you need a chair make sure you roll towards the side where you left it! Bring your knees up towards your body and roll onto your knees/hands. Stay here a moment and notice how your body feels. Now walk your hands back toward you and let your hips come backwards so you are sitting back on your heels. Come up to kneeling, and if you need a chair to hold onto, put you hand on it now. Tilt backwards slightly at the pelvis so you can swing one leg through and forwards. You should be back in the “proposal” position – i.e. one knee on the floor, one bent forwards. Lift your back heel and bend your back toes under your foot. Then while you keep thinking of your head going forwards and up, rock some of your weight back onto your back foot, rolling your back heel onto the floor and straightening your back leg as you lift yourself up to standing. Use the chair for balance if you need to. Pause for a moment in standing before moving on.
An alternative way if you are more mobile is to follow the above until you are on hands and knees, then tip your toes under onto the floor and “walk” your hands up to your feet, lifting your knees as you go. so you are on hands and feet. Keep your knees slightly bent and push with your hands – your weight should go back onto your legs/ffet and you can come up to standing.
A Pregnancy version:
You will need more blocks/books in your pile and one or two pillows to hand before you start. Get down to the floor using the instructions above, if you are able, or use a bed if you are not.
Don’t worry about the block height as you get onto the floor. From your lying on your back with feet flat, let your eyes roll to one side and your head to follow. Allow your raised knees to drop over to that side and let the other arm and your body follow. The blocks need to support your head so your spine is approximately horizontal, so add or slide out blocks to suit. Then tuck a pillow between your knees to support your upper leg, leaving the knees bent. You may want another pillow under your bump for comfort and support. Put your arms wherever they feel most supported. You won’t be able to feel your spine against the floor but you can still follow the instructions above to work round yourself looking for tense areas and asking the muscles to release. You may want to roll onto the other side after a while to avoid pressure on the underside, moving the pillows across.
You may notice that general semi-supine has similarities to the position you are expected to adopt for internal inspections by midwives/doctors. I found that Alexander thinking (of monitoring tension and releasing muscles around the body) can really help at those moments too.
Sitting version :
If you are worried about lying down, or stuck in the office, you can try a seated version of active resting.
This is best in a firm dining chair and sitting in line with a mirror, to help you see if you are holding or balancing your head, but this isn’t always practical so improvise around what you have – you just may not get so much of a result. If you can slip your shoes off you will be more aware of the floor under your feet. If your feet are not on the ground put a block/book etc under them if you are able. Rest the backs of your hands on your thighs.
As you are sat, first become aware of your head resting on your spine. Let it rock very gently backwards and forwards until you are aware of the muscles in your neck, chest and shoulders tensing and untensing as they support its weight. Reduce the rocking and stop when you think the tension is even – this may not be where you expect your head to be! If you have a mirror let your eyes become aware of the image of your head and shoulders as you do this. What happens to the head in your image? Is it held to one side? Is it rocking evenly? Now think of just the crown of your head moving up to the ceiling/sky and at the same time ask your neck and jaw muscles to release. For most people their face and jaw will drop a little towards the chest at this point as the head rotates forwards, but don’t force anything. This puts the weight of the head in a better state of balance, allowing the spine to extend to its true length.
Next consider the chair supporting your bottom. Your weight should be on your sitting bones – the base of the pelvis that loops under each buttock. Think of these as the rockers on your internal rocking chair. If you are not sure if you are balanced on them, rock gently side to side so you become aware of each in turn. Then stop rocking at the point where you feel the weight is balanced evenly between the two. If you can’t feel them, ask the large muscles above and below the thigh bone to let go and see if this makes a difference.
Now think of your lower back muscles, ask them to release and allow the sitting bones to sink into the chair. You may notice you move slightly backwards in the chair.
Redo the thoughts above about your head again.
Now become aware of the floor supporting your feet. Consider if you can feel your heels, your toes, the inside or outside of each foot. Think of the floor supporting your feet, so they can spread and release. Think of the ankles – just under the sticking out end of your lower leg bones. Ask the muscles and ligaments around there to let go. Ask the calf muscle to release and allow the heel to ease down to the floor or block. Think of softening the backs of the knees and the thigh muscles. Finally think of the whole leg releasing away from the body, opening up from the hip joint and pelvis.
Go back to consider the head and neck and as the spine extends think of the rib cage opening out. Ask the shoulders to release and extend away from each other. Think of the hands and arms flowing out and way from the shoulders. Then think of the shoulder blades sliding back and down unto your back as you ask the large back muscles to release.
Finish off with a few minutes sitting and noticing how your body feels. Which bits are tense? Ask them to let go. Do any bits feel different or weird – notice how they feel and leave them be. Are you still breathing? Does this feel different to usual?
Now there are very many AT books, for those who like to read up and understand the theoretical background, but as their authors would I’m sure be the first to admit, they are best used alongside practical experience, not instead of it.
I recommend newcomers who want to read more to try BodyLearning by Michael Gelb which is an accurate but very accessible summary, as well as being usually available via large online book retailers at an affordable price.
Noel Kingsley, who has often had pieces on the Technique in national papers also has a couple of very clear books in paperback with some beautiful photo illustrations to go with the text. He has “Free Yourself from Back Pain” (Clue to the focus in the title, but it does cover the breadth of the Technique,) and “Perfect Poise Perfect Life”, of which I have a copy but I’m afraid it is still a few down the “to read in bed” stack at present, so I can’t comment from experience.
Glynn Macdonald’s “Complete Illustrated Guide to the Alexander Technique” is also a good easy one to dip into and often available second hand online – not sure if it’s still in print.
FM’s books are of course the absolute source but generally not one I recommend for beginners as the text can be a bit too dense for modern taste. Once you are more experienced in the technique they are something to read and read again.
Or for the online-oriented there is a bewildering array of information on the net. As well as the STAT , ATE and ATEUK pages, linked to on the right, Robert and Anne Rickover’s site at www.alexandertechnique.com can help you navigate your way into the sometimes confusing wealth of information, or there is David Reed’s www.alextech.tv, for those who prefer film to text. As I write this it has a feature video interview with Ken Thompson, a long-standing AT teacher, trainer and yoga expert with whom I trained.