The Alexander Technique is the teaching that imparts the meaning of the use of the self.
Ron Dennis Alexander Revisited
The Use of the Self is the title of F. M. Alexander’s third book and essentially, that is what the technique is all about. Not the book per se, but rather the idea of using one’s self. How, we ask, can we use our very selves efficiently and effectively?
Understanding the idea of self-use is key to learning how to stop misusing one’s self, which Alexander maintained is a prerequisite to doing any-and-everything if one wants to avoid, or at least mitigate, misuse-induced physical, mental and emotional wear-and-tear and, potentially, reach new heights of achievement.
When introducing the Alexander Technique to people, I tend to start by explaining what we Alexander teachers mean when we use the term ‘self-use’ because to us, it is a concept – and not as self-explanatory as it may seem.
I find it can be helpful to compare the idea of self-use to the idea of self-care. Most people have a pretty clear understanding of what self-care is about: good nutrition and hygiene, adequate sleep and exercise, meaningful employment and relationships, down-time, me-time, Miller-time and sunscreen… The list goes on but basically, we are talking about having, and getting more of, things that are good for us.
Self-use, by contrast, can be confusing because we normally don’t give much thought to using ourselves, much less to the use of the entirety of the self. It just doesn’t make sense the way ‘the care’ – or the maintenance – ‘of the self’ does. We do sometimes use body-part specific expressions such as ‘use your head’ and ‘use your back’ or provide action specific instructions such as ‘bend your knees’ and ‘take a deep breath’, but we don’t really ‘get’ how these instructions apply to the whole self the way self-care recommendations such as ‘drink eight glasses of water daily’ or even ‘make your bed each morning’ applies to our whole self.
And yet, use is soo important! Think for a moment about how we use things other than ourselves, and how vital competency is to using that thing. Imagine a neighbor wanted to borrow your sewing machine or chainsaw – you wouldn’t worry too much about whether they know how to clean out the lint or change the oil (in fact, you’d probably prefer to do that care and maintenance yourself…) but, you’d certainly hope they’ll use your appliance in a responsible manner and trust they have sufficient experience and skill – because a misused tool will likely get damaged and worse, the user could be harmed in the process.
Being a skilled user of something goes beyond mere safeguarding the item-in-question and its user. A skilled user can also compensate when confronted with lesser tools or compromised conditions. A good pianist, for example, can play any tune even on an out-of-tune upright in a smoky saloon, while a beginner will still only be able to play chopsticks even on a concert-hall grand.
By the same token, when we are knowledgeable and skilled users of ourselves, we are better able to deal with challenges such as illness, injury, hazardous work conditions or aging without making things any worse than they need be, and, we can find ways to get better at things we are hoping to master. So even if we’ve thrown our back out (yes, it can happen even to an Alexander Technique teacher…) we stand a better chance for a remarkably speedy recovery, or if our jobs are physically challenging or our workplace provides really crummy office chairs, we can still make do without incurring the common back-neck-and-shoulder complaints that many workers succumb to. If age-related frailty makes using a cane sensible, we can use it as a stately walking stick rather than an enfeebling crutch and if, at any age, we find wielding a saber while learning a new tai chi form makes our arm hurt, we can figure out better ways to absorb the saber’s weight so that it gets easier before we feel like just giving up.
Another thing that can be helpful to note is the fact that we are more inclined to assume and assign responsibility for self-care than to assume and assign responsibility for self-use. We will sometimes point fingers at manifestations of poor use such as poor posture, clumsiness, or odd affectations such as ‘vocal fry’, yet we are less inclined to extend credit for manifestations of good use such as poise, liveliness or confidence. Instead, we tend to view these as traits that some of us are just lucky to have more of, or that have been painstakingly cultivated over considerable time.
However, before assuming that the cultivation of good-use is too hard or too superficial, consider the fact that we do, consciously or unconsciously, use ourselves, and that using ourselves well enough to avoid misuse-induced wear and tear (and\or fatigue, anxiety, under-performance, etc.) can be simply a matter of not misusing ourselves. Understanding self-use as a concept sets us on a path wherein misuse becomes easier to recognize and good-use is simply manifest by efficiency, effectiveness and relative economy.
Alexander Technique teachers do not ‘fix’ people’s use. We help people observe and understand their own use so that using themselves better becomes a possibility. We can help them experience better use so that the possibility is not just theoretical, and we can give them the tools to use themselves well on their own, in real-time, without overthinking it, or without thinking about it all. Misuse is only one of the reasons we may fall short of our potentialities but, it is one that is within our control and because we are inherently capable of better use, we are all capable of changing our use.