Often people are aware that certain habits they have are harmful but still cannot bring themselves to give them up. More often still they are simply not aware that something they repeatedly do is habitual and not natural. In fact they may not even be aware that they are doing it at all. For example, most of us do not go around with any awareness of how we breathe. We simply do not notice if we have a tendency to breathe shallowly rather than to our full capacity. Similarly, we may not notice that we tend to hunch our shoulders on certain occasions, such as when we are in company.
Human beings have a very interesting tendency to ‘protect’ their habits using a variety of devices. Generally speaking these devices appear completely normal they feel right to each of us. But they usually appear odd, and sometimes very bizarre indeed, when they are someone else’s. It is obvious that some habits such as drinking excessive coffee or smoking cigarettes can be discarded, though it usually takes a great deal of willpower to do so. What is less obvious is what we can do about other kinds of harmful habits such as the way we sit or stand, or the amount of nervous energy we bring to speaking.
The Alexander Technique works by confronting habits. In an Alexander lesson the teacher uses his hands to demonstrate to the student where he is habitually going against his natural mechanism by introducing unnecessary muscular tensions or collapse. The student may be either standing or sitting, or lying on a table. (The student always remains fully clothed, apart from removing shoes while on the table.)
What happens in an Alexander lesson appears to be rather strange when compared to most other human interactions. The teacher instructs the student, again and again, to allow his or her neck be free while he moves him with his hands. Should the student pull his head back in the habitual way that he does when performing the activity in question, the teacher prevents him from doing so.
What is implied here is that this pulling back of the head is the first unconscious habit. Alexander referred to the relationship of the head, neck and back as the primary control. As such, it is the first area where we need to exercise conscious control to see if we can overcome it.
All human beings have habits. Some of these are relatively instincive or natural; some are cultural and derive from social conventions. It is an instinctive habit to eat when we’re hungry. But what we eat, who we eat with, and the kind of occasion we turn it into are all cultural and differ very considerably from one society to another, and from one community to another.
For the most part we tend to think of our bodily habits as natural and instinctive (or unlearned)how we breathe; how we hold ourselves when sitting or standing or walking; how we tense our muscles when we perform an activity. We are generally convinced that’s just the way we are. But most of us also at some time or other can see that certain habits that other people have are quite unnecessary. We can also often see that certain habits that other people have are not doing them any good. For example, we might notice that someone is always slumped when they sit, or that they stoop when they stand, or that they seem to be perpetually tense.
Usually, even if we have no professional expertise in this area, we can easily link these physical patterns to psychological tendencies. We may not immediately associate back pain or RSI with nervousness. However, it’s not difficult to see that someone’s tension or collapse is connected to their habit of getting angry or agitated or depressed in reaction to things that other people take in their stride. We may also be able to connect physical patterns to what we more conventionally regard as ‘bad’ habits smoking; eating large amounts of sugar; drinking tea, coffee, cola and alcohol; consuming drugs, both legal and illegal. Of course we need to eat and drink. What enables us to distinguish a physiological necessity from a ‘bad’ habit is the observation of dependency on, or craving for, something that we simply do not need.