It's probably at least a generation since we culturally believed in Descartes' duality of body and mind. Now it's the accepted norm that the mind and body are connected. But don't two things that are connected need to be separate entities? Saying the mind and body are connected is still hanging on to dualism. It's like saying someone is a little bit pregnant, or dead! You either are or you're not. They're either separate or they're not. To escape dualism the mind and body need to be seen as a functional and indivisible whole, a "mindbody" if you like, or even more simply, your Self.
This is the supposition on which F.M.Alexander (the originator of the Alexander Technique) based his work over 100 years ago now. He didn't coin the idea, there was even an educational establishment set up in New York, by the then well-known Thomas sisters, called "the Conservatory of Psycho-Physical Culture, Elocution and Dramatic Art" at the turn of the last century. Alexander was probably well aware of this as he had a passion for the theatre, and he certainly observed it to be true from tireless experimentation on himself and his pupils and frequently wrote about psychophysical unity.
Image used with permission by Depositphotos
So what are the benefits of experiencing yourself in this way? For me it changes my perception and awareness of myself to help me use myself as a whole better. I don't think of myself as the Adrian in my head that controls peripheral parts of my body. You don't have to impose thought on your body to move or have good poise, you just need to get out of the way of this wonderful unified system and let it do what it does best, whilst maintaining awareness of it. You don't just move your body, but your Self, your body and mind aspects together. Whenever you move, whenever you contract or release a muscle, this involves your whole organism. Not just 'affects', but involves. As Lichtenberg, an 18th century Natural Scientist, remarked: “When I remember something, even my thumb is involved!” (He was arguing against Descartes' dualism.)
When I hurt my foot I don't think I have a hurt foot, I consider that I am hurt. I see it all the time, when someone is in pain they mentally separate that part from their being, as if it's an alien entity. But placing that pain in a sea of surrounding support has profound effects on healing, reconnecting your sense of wholeness. It's not simply your back, shoulder or arm that hurts. You hurt. You hurt physically, emotionally, intellectually.
Stretching after exercise is not just a physical exercise to force the muscles into compliance and release their tension. Attempting to do so will just invoke the stretch reflex causing the muscles to contract against the stretch and defeating the purpose. Muscles don't like to be bullied into submission. Even by your Self! What is required is a mindful approach that allows you to release into the direction of the "stretch". It looks like the same activity to an outsider, except your eyes and face will communicate the quality of the experience that is being achieved. It's all about observation and exploration. This is what yoga is about when it's done well. Without the sense of competition that always seems to rear it's ugly head in large classes, yoga is also an exploration of the Self , and an excellent activity to bring Alexander Technique understanding too to improve it (David Moore has recently written a new book on this).
You'll be familiar with the outward manifestation of mind in simple everyday body language. You communicate as a whole. It’s often said that communication is eighty percent non-verbal (although that's not strictly true). We instinctively know this and our language often expresses it with phrases like "having a gut feeling", or someone being "stiff necked" (not in common use these days, a bit biblical). Being nervous isn’t simply an emotional mental state that affects your body, the butterflies in your stomach are part of an overall pattern. Your stress response is both your mental state and the tightening of your neck and shoulders, the shortening of your breath and your raised heart rate as a total pattern. Listening to and being aware of the physical aspects of your emotions can really help you fully process your emotions. This is the basis of Gestalt Therapy, which although a talking therapy such as psychotherapy, is the only other modality I’m aware of that fully embraces psychophysical unity.
Cognitive scientist Guy Claxton is now expressing this view of psychophysical unity as part of a new field called embodied cognition, which is an excellent description of what the Alexander Technique is too. To jump on the mindfulness band wagon I started calling the Alexander Technique embodied mindfulness for a while, but I think I prefer cognition. There's a common misconception that the Alexander Technique is about showing you how to move, sit and stand "correctly", but it's really about being able to do these things freely, and that's only possible by truly using your embodied cognition.
“You translate everything, whether physical, mental or spiritual, into muscular tension.” - F.M. Alexander
Please feel free to contact me for a no obligation chat to see how the Alexander Technique can help you too.