People studying the Alexander Technique learn a lot about their own habits. This occurs because habits are the primary obstacle standing between how Alexander students are and how they want to be. How do AT students want to be? Many people take AT lessons to improve their posture. Others want to reduce back, neck and shoulder pain while preventing future injuries. Another group seeks to move more easily, conserving their personal energy. Still others want to better manage stress and tension. Learning about habits helps students to achieve all of these benefits.
Although their specific goals may differ, all Alexander Technique students have two things in common. First, all AT students want more enjoyable, more comfortable and more satisfying lives. Second, to get more enjoyable, comfortable and satisfying lives, students need to see and challenge some of their strongest habits. To achieve real change, they will gradually leave their painfully comfortable habits — and the unreliable feelings governed by those habits — behind.
What is a habit, and how habitual are we?
A habit is a conditioned way of thinking, behaving or moving that unfolds nearly automatically and unconsciously. Basically, habits are mental short cuts. Because they occur with little to no conscious control, they can save us a lot of time. The efficiency of habit can be quite beneficial when we’re talking about an activity that’s easily performed and highly repetitive. But how many of our activities truly are easy to perform? And how many people even consider this question in relation to their own activities?
In fact, many of our activities are not as simple as we assume they are. And yet, most people rarely examine their own ability to correctly perform such “ordinary” activities as walking, sitting or standing. Once people learn to walk, sit and stand in early childhood, they engage in these actions while paying little to no attention to them. That is, their particular way of walking, sitting and standing become entirely habitual. This would be fine if the habits that people relied upon to guide their movements were good ones. Unfortunately, that’s often not the case.
Why habits are invisible…
Although most of our activity is habitual, we don’t recognize that fact. This is because only a small minority of habits are culturally highlighted. The most culturally highlighted habits are connected to the (mis)use of tobacco, alcohol and drugs. By contrast, other habits – including postural ones – fly under the radar and rarely enter our consciousness. Explaining this is simple: habits are, by definition, unconscious. Also, in the case of postural habits, we do not place a high value on the activities to which the habits relate.
Sitting is a great example of an activity that people perform without paying attention to it. We just assume that we “know how to sit” and focus our attention on whatever else seems more important. For example, a couple having dinner in a restaurant would typically focus most of their attention on their conversation. The second most compelling aspect of the situation would likely be the food and drink being consumed. The third priority would be to notice the restaurant’s ambiance and the people sitting nearby. The last thing this couple might notice is the act of sitting itself. Sitting comes last despite the fact that sitting makes all the other activities possible.
In fact, many people exhibit a very unhealthy way of sitting while eating. Look around any restaurant and you’ll see people slumping down over their food and craning their necks over their plates while eating. Slumping puts pressure on the spine and inhibits free breathing. And people craning their necks forward push their heads back on their necks, pressuring the spine and making swallowing harder. Diners exhibiting this self-defeating pattern are unaware of what they’re doing. Because their way of sitting and eating is habitual, unconscious and automatic, they can’t help themselves.
…and why habits are a problem
It is our common experience that paying attention to how we do something improves the result. Somehow, though, we rarely apply this obvious principle to our most basic daily actions. Absent a sudden injury or disability, our way of sitting, eating, standing and walking is invisible to us. This is because our habits create large blind spots.
The invisibility means we don’t pay attention to how we’re doing what we’re doing. The lack of attention, in turn, leads to movement patterns that cause widespread back, neck and shoulder pain. For many people, the quantity and quality of sitting has everything do with their pain. Even so, their blindness to the force of habit encourages them to continue ignoring how they sit.
It turns out that “simple” activities are actually quite complex. Any time savings our habits deliver when we sit, stand or walk are usually gained at the expense of our well being.
What we can do about the problem
The first step in addressing the problems caused by our own habits is to recognize that being on automatic pilot hasn’t worked out well for us. We cannot help ourselves out of poor posture or pain without acknowledging the role that habit plays in creating these difficulties. Given the universal tendency to multitask – using handheld devices in every possible situation – the simple acknowledgement of the existence and power of habits would be, in itself, revolutionary.
The second step in addressing the problems caused by our postural habits is to become well acquainted with the habits themselves. We need to spend time getting to know what we are actually doing when we sit, stand and walk. Once we become familiar with our habits, we can then have a realistic hope of letting them go.
The third step is to see that habits distort our ability to perceive ourselves in motion and at rest. The distortion of our bodily sensations and perceptions reveals the depth of our ignorance about ourselves. Once we are informed about the sensory distortion caused by our habits, we can then re-educate our senses to become more accurate.
The fourth step is learning to think about an activity while engaging in that activity. This involves all of the preliminary steps, plus the ability to substitute conscious choices for habits. We learn to prioritize conscious choices based on the ease, comfort and efficiency those choices deliver.
How the Alexander Technique fits in
It turns out that the four steps delineated above occur simultaneously in an Alexander Technique lesson. AT lessons allow people to see the force of habit, to get to know their own habits and to make conscious choices outside of habit. This sounds like a lot to learn, but it can pay enormous dividends in comfort, ease and efficiency of movement.
Alexander lessons also allow students to see the complexity of their daily activities not just as a fact they previously ignored, but also as a tremendous opportunity. Students learn to move with ease while taking an interest in whatever they do, no matter how mundane it might initially appear to be. This is the gift of the Alexander Technique, and I’ll describe the way we can receive this gift in subsequent blog postings. Please stay tuned.
You can also read about my own personal experience with habits in a previous blog posting here. Thanks for reading!
Photos courtesy of Manfred Richter (Pixabay), Skeeze (Pixabay) and independent.ie