Monthly Archives: January 2016

Breaking Vicious Circles


Professor Frank Pierce-Jones describes the  phenomenon of the vicious circle so eloquently in the introductory chapter of his book, “Body Awareness in Action” (later called “Freedom to Change”)

Escape from the Monkey Trap.

“It is said that a simple way to trap a monkey is to present him with a nut in a bottle. The monkey puts his paw through the bottles narrow mouth, grasps the nut, then cannot withdraw his paw because he will not (and hence cannot) let go of the nut. Most people are caught in the monkey traps of unconscious habit.”p4

I think that this is such an interesting metaphor. There are three strong elements represented.   The first is having tried a strategy that fails, that we continue with it against all reason.   Einstein is widely sourced as saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and expecting different results.” The poor monkey is at an impasse. It cannot retract its arm and it cannot have the nut. Surely it would recognise this?

Like that monkey, I continue to expose many of my chronic patterns as doing the same thing over and expecting different results. Why do I do this? Generally, it’s because I am focused on symptoms that I am experiencing rather than observing the patterns around those symptoms. When I recognise that each bout of the same physical ailment has the same language, the same voice tones,the same posture, the same complaint, it’s a shock to recognise that I am doing the pattern of my ailment. When I intervene by changing my responses all my symptoms tend to quickly dissipate. It gives me an insight into how the way I respond is directly influencing my state of health. A student who came to me recently quite suddenly said,” I’ve been a pain in my neck.” She realised that the gripping that she had habitually employed in her neck muscles was the reason that she was experiencing neck pain. It was a great breakthrough. Nevertheless, I have had to constantly remind her to become aware of that pattern. She forgets that she is doing it, even though it causes significant discomfort.

The second element is the “nut”. Everyone wants the nut but how many consider the “means whereby” they can get that nut. Theatre director Peter Brook (in his book called “The Empty Space”) called this phenomenon the difference between “product” and “process”. He claimed that much of modern theatre is bogged down by needing to have a successful product. Consequently the whole creative process is ignored which leads to what Brook calls “the deadly theatre”.

I see this product and process issue a great deal in organisations that I advise as a consultant. They want to tick off  their compliance and lower their LTI’s (Lost time injury rate) but this quite often becomes an end in itself, and loses meaning and relevance for workers who are not involved in a meaningful process. Their experience is having to follow safety procedures from which they are totally disenfranchised. Safety becomes yet another constraint in the mundanity of the everyday work life. It’s a terrible and ludicrous outcome in a society that values the lives of its workers.

The final element in the metaphor is lack of awareness. That monkey is trapped with its hand in the bottle. Surely, it would realise its plight and let go. Alas no.  What would it take for the monkey to realise and free itself.  At one logical level all that monkey has to do is let go of the nut. As I understand it, to achieve this the monkey would have to have a new awareness of itself and its context. It would have to travel into the future (with its mind) to understand the consequences of its current response. It would have to become aware of the predicament that it was now facing, possible entrapment.  Then it would have to make a decision against its driving instincts to food.  Can you see why people say that Alexander Technique is a simple skill that’s incredibly difficult?

The tools for breaking vicious circles are not exercise, muscle development and stamina. Instead it is awareness, decision making and action against the habits of a lifetime that allow for new solutions. When those new solutions occur, it seems to many of us as if a miracle has taken place, but not so. Alexander has discovered a reliable process that can be used by anyone to develop constructive strategies to meet life’s demands. It opens up new possibilities for individuals and for the collective humanity.

I am amazed at how often I am met by the vicious circles of my habits in all the dealings of my life. It took me a while to understand that my learned behaviours, my habits operated constantly in my life at every level of my response and activity not just where I was experiencing pain.  Alexander Technique has been instrumental in opening up choice in my life and in allowing me to breaking vicious circles. This has not led to a product-the new improved Michael, instead it has led me into a process of discovery that continues each day of my life.

Against the grain

questionAlexander discovered a simple skill whereby people can overcome destructive habits and achieve significant health gains and improvement in performance -easily. He also made profound observations about the nature of human behaviour and the interconnectedness of mind and body, the organisation of movement and the quality of human decision making. Some very eminent people-Dewey, Huxley, George Bernard Shaw, Coghill heard what Alexander had to say and in turn supported his observations. Brilliant.

Why isn’t Alexander Technique a household name? Why isn’t Alexander celebrated by the mainstream and why on earth is Alexander Technique the last thing that people think about for dealing with problems? Most of my Alexander colleagues would have shared my experience of seeing many  clients improve their lives dramatically. I’m talking complete management of back and neck pain, abatement of RSI conditions, significant improvement in playing an instrument, rehabilitation from injury and so on, so forth and so much more.

Over at least the last hundred years, Alexander’s technique has been scrutinised by many scientists and medical luminaries. Recently there have been at least three random controlled trials carried out. In each instance, Alexander technique has been demonstrated to be effective, cost efficient and long lasting in its benefit-all without drugs and invasive surgery while working in with the pupils existing treatment. I don’t know of measures that have been used to quantitatively measure improvement in sports people and in musicians, actors and so on (Janet Davies in Australia is currently carrying out a study-results to be published). I do know that Alexander is given some credence in many performance institutions around the world. Do you know of any studies done with musicians or performers? I’d be interested.

So back to my question, why is Alexander technique relegated to the obscure? It’s interesting to me that many people I meet, speak with some respect about Alexander but in reality know nothing at all about it. In my work with companies there appears to be a great deal of respect for Alexander Technique skills and knowledge-especially when I carry out ergonomic assessments and do one-to-one coaching of clients. However, this does not translate into demand (in the marketing sense.) Companies, with a few exceptions, are not saying we should bring in AT teachers to deal with our ergo problem or our manual handling problem. That seems strange given that ergonomic and manual handling injuries are consistently high, expensive and chronic in Australian workforce. Why aren’t they being proactive about this? When they do call us in, the feedback seems to be very positive. Click on my Corporate link to find a download of research carried out by Mirela Mora i Griso from Spain and you will see that some big  European companies are now speaking very positively about AT training for their staff.

Aldous Huxley talked about the difficulty in describing what occurs with AT. He said (with apologies & to paraphrase) that it was a little bit like describing the colour red to a blind person.  I’m not so sure that I buy into that,  given that today there are so many books on AT available-dozens in fact and new ones coming out all the time. Do these books sell well?

Many of my Alexander colleagues are carrying out research and coming up with very interesting findings. In Australia, Michael Gleeson has been looking at AT and changes in the gait of elderly pupils. Janet Davies has been conducting research into impact of AT with classical musicians. Interested to hear more about this one. Nevertheless, I find it curious that my post office sells books on Yoga and Pilates but not a sausage on AT.  Is a mainstream acceptance of AT possible, enviable or necessary?

One of the issues for AT is that, in Australia, there are very few training schools.  I have been involved with both SOFMAS in Melbourne and SATT in Sydney and I can attest to the fact that the cost of training is high and there is next to no government assistance available. Consequently, the number of teachers in Australia is very low. If there was a surge in demand for AT the current teachers wouldn’t be able to cope. Does acceptance mean that vocational demand goes up and funding becomes available? Is that a pathway that is constructive for AT?

Now, from my experience, it is possible to promote an AT business in Australia and get a decent number of people through the door.  This rant isn’t about getting clients it’s about influence.

Given the scope of Alexander’s discoveries, given the continual destructive behavioural loops being played out by world leaders and world communities do you think AT should be more prominently placed within the psyche of the population?





Flat feet?

ankleA mother rang my practice asking for an appointment for her young daughter. The daughter had sore feet. I didn’t think much of it  at the time and we made a booking for her to come with the daughter.

At the appointed time, there in my waiting room was Gina and her mother, Madeleine. Gina was a delightful looking child of maybe nine or ten. She had very pretty features but feet that belonged to someone else. They were big feet.  Here was a young girl dressed in pretty fashionable clothes wearing the most hideous clumpy looking orthopedic shoes. They were black, grim and serious forming a complete contrast to the rest of the young child’s appearance. Looking at Gina walk into my room, I could see her knees rotating strongly inwards so that there was twisting all the way down through her legs into her feet which were collapsing under the strain of the twist. Gina’s feet were so flat that she had red sore callousing happening on the inside of the arches. This caused chronic discomfort in the child.

Gina had started  ballet at three years old. Eventually, because of her foot pain she had to stop dance altogether. As we talked, I discovered that they had been here, there and everywhere for many months, seeking some kind of assistance. During that period, Gina had been told to forget ever having normal feet. Her feet would remain flat for the rest of her life and she had best get used to it was the advice.

Alexander observed a causal effect between the manner of use and functioning. It’s  really too simple an idea. The precept is that the way in which you organise your movement (your pattern of movement) will directly influence the way that you function. Further, that the way that you function will influence your physiology. The structure of your body is plastic and will grow in response to muscle pulls, pressures and so on.

Looking at Gina’s pattern of movement, it was possible to identify extraordinary excess effort that was twisting, gripping and crushing her body from top to toe. Her pelvis was arched, her thighs were gripped, her chest was pushed out.

iStock Photo

© iStock Photo

An Alexander teacher considers the overall organisation of movement and the effect that has on the overall functioning of individuals. My experience is that there are consistent benefits to be had by individuals with chronic conditions through the examination and diagnosis of the organisation of movement.

For Gina, it was obvious that the excess effort that she brought to bear to her activities was impacting on her well-being including that of her feet. After having been given such negative messages about her future, I knew that it was essential to demonstrate to her that improvement was possible.

Some delicate guidance of her movement with my hands provided an opportunity for her to experience savings in tension. Her stature changed, her alignment also. It’s slightly complicated to describe the series of guided movements that I assisted her to explore. However, after a short time I said to her, ” I thought you told me you had flat feet?” She nodded agreement. Then I said, “Well what do you call those?” pointing to the arches of her feet that had risen. Madeleine burst into tears as did Gina.  After a short moment I said,” You need to understand that it will take you some time to learn how to do this for yourself. You will need to learn to move differently with much less tension but as you learn your body and your feet will reward you.”

The last time I saw Gina she had finished her first year at high school. She had had regular Alexander lessons for about six months and then continued to have refresher lessons once a month and then once a quarter for some time after that.   Once confident that Gina could maintain her ease of movement without further intervention I said “Good Bye” to her and Madeleine for a final time  and I couldn’t help but notice the beautiful red shoes that she had on.