Saturday, June 25, 2011

About Inhibitory (Negative) Directions

In my last post (Three Simple Steps), the third step is framed in the negative ("I am not stiffening the neck"). I have often been asked, "Why not use a positive construction, such as 'I am letting the neck be free', instead of the negative?"  I'd like to attempt to answer this question here.

Apparently, towards the end of his life, F.M. Alexander told others that he believed we should only be giving inhibitory directions (instructions to 'not-do').  It seems that too many of his students were trying to do his direction, "Let the neck be free," and thereby actually stiffening as a result of their habitual mental-muscular doing/trying/effort.  I have also found this to be true with myself and my own students, so I have been experimenting with alternatives.  Missy Vineyard, who continues to be a great source of inspiration to me, speaks about this in her book, How You Stand, How You Move, How You Live, which I highly recommend to anyone wanting to further explore this topic and the Alexander Technique.

I have long been taught from various sources that the brain apparently does not understand the command "do not".  I also understand from my own life experience that positive thinking is essential in order to get positive results.  For this reason, I don't often give myself or a student the direct command, "Don't stiffen the neck" (unless I determine through observation that he/she can internally translate this for him/herself by understanding the hidden positive meaning behind these words).

Instead, I simply encourage the thought, "I am not stiffening the neck, or "not stiffening the neck".  To my mind, and to those of my students (because we arrive at a common understanding of the words we use while we work together), these are actually positive directions, especially the direction that begins with the words "I am".  This construction indicates a positive state of being, not a doing, even if it is then followed by the word "not".  What is being "done" is a stopping, an "un-doing", which is a very positive, active process.  There is nothing passive about un-doing or non-doing.

I also use clearly positive directions, such as "Let the neck be free," or "I am allowing open, loving Flow," or "aiming forward and up," etc., because I do think that we need to learn to respond constructively to both positive and negative instructions.  However, I am currently working with using the negative construction before adding the positives (if I do use them), and I am very careful with these, since I know that people tend to try to "do" the letting, or the allowing, and thereby get an opposite result.  I am also liberal (yet again very careful to note the student's reaction) with encouraging/praising words such as "Yes," or "That's right," or "Good," or "Yes! That's beautiful! Perfect!", as well as liberal-careful with preventive words such as, "No," or "No, not that way," or, "Stop."

I want to really emphasize that expressing, "I am..." or using another present-tense verb such as "Letting," or "Aiming..." or "Allowing..." tends to lend a better (more direct) result than expressing a command, such as "Let..." or "Aim," etc., because, besides implying something to do, the second option too easily implies privation in the present, rather than a positive state in the present.  Expressing the positive in the present requires a high level of trust, too.

When using inhibitory (negative) directions, it is also very important that a positive goal or motivator be uppermost in mind to begin with.  I often begin a lesson by having a student remember and/or explore his/her own positive goals (such as health and well-being, freedom, mobility, openness, life, flow, energy, happiness, etc.), so that everything we then do in the lesson is framed within an overall positive atmosphere.  I do my best to create and maintain an atmosphere of light-heartedness, smiles, curiosity, and laughter to that end, whenever possible.  I have a great pin that I picked up at an AT conference that says, "It is too serious to be serious about it.  F.M. Alexander Technique"!

So, in a nutshell, this is about using and including everything, both the negative and the positive, uniting opposites to bring everything back to wholeness, which, to me, is overwhelmingly positive!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Three Simple Steps

1. Notice the habit.
2. Realize there is a choice: to continue in the same direction, or to stop.  Choose to stop.
3. Give the new direction.



1. "Doing something unnecessary."
2. "Choosing to stop."
3. "Not doing that."

1. "Stiffening the whole self."
2. "Choosing to stop."
3. "Not stiffening the whole self." 

1. "Stiffening the neck."
2. "Choosing to stop."
3. "Not stiffening the neck."


1. Awareness:  We notice the reality of what is, right now.  There is no judgment involved in this step.  What is noticed is simply a fact, neither positive nor negative.
2. Free Will and Inhibition:  We recognize that we have free will; once we realize this, we are exercising it, by choosing either to continue on in the same habitual direction, or to stop that direction.
3. Direction:  We very actively, with real strength of purpose, certitude, and conviction, aim our thinking (not our habitual muscular activity) into the direction we wish to go.


This process implies a "pre-direction", something that motivates us to work through these steps.  We need to first know what we want; that there is a goal that we're aiming towards.  This goal may be as simple, general, and as huge as Life itself.  Or it may be something more specific, such as "good health", or "less pain in the knees", etc.

A "post-direction" is also a good idea: to celebrate the successful completion of those three steps.   This is not about celebrating the result; it is about celebrating that we were able to carry out those three steps.  Gratitude for our thinking minds.  Gratitude for free will and the ability to exercise it.  Gratitude for the fact that every time we follow through on these three steps, we are taking a positive step towards our goal.


Everything is contained in these three, simple steps.  But two essential elements are required for them to bear fruit: patience and trust.  Trust in the fact that every single thought has an immediate corresponding effect on the whole self, including the body; trust that there is an internal organizing factor within us which carries out those effects; trust that, in good time, with much repetition, the effects will be felt by us and the goal will be reached, without our needing to do anything else.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Not using "I" and"Mine"

When I teach, I often explain to my students that I like to use the first person when giving a direction, so that they can skip the step of translating my words into their own, and they can just silently (or out loud) repeat the same words for themselves, if they choose to.  For example, instead of saying, "Now, think of not stiffening your neck," I would say, "I am not stiffening my neck," and the student would then simply think, "I am not stiffening my neck." I also explain that in this way, we both derive immediate benefit, since I, of course, want to be thinking the same thing for myself.

Today, I'm wondering if the process could be made even simpler.  Might it be equally helpful not even to use the words "I" or "mine"?  Is it possible to avoid these words while I teach?  While I talk to my student?  While I think to myself?
Revised, subject-free version of those questions: Is it possible to avoid using the words "I" and "mine" while teaching?  While talking? While thinking?

One of the habits is to compulsively use complete sentences.  Another habit is to tend towards egoistic self-absorption.  Eliminating the subject from the sentence prevents those habits.

Experimenting with subject-free language:
  • Notice a habit.  For example: "Stiffening the neck" or "Holding the body up" or "Pulling down" or "Compressing the spine", etc.
  • Realize that there is now a choice: to continue the habitual direction, or to stop.
  • Make the choice: "Choosing to stop."
  • Change direction; give the new direction.  For example: "Not stiffening the neck" or "Not holding the body up" or "Not pulling down," or "Not compressing the spine", etc.
  • Or, framed in the positive: "Allowing fluidity" or "Releasing " or "Aiming up", etc.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Letting Others Live Their Lives

As an Alexander teacher--and maybe just because of who I am--I tend to see things that are going on in other people that they may be unaware of.  Sometimes, they are beautiful, positive things, and I rejoice to see them and share in that beauty with them.  At other times, I see some of the ways people are hurting themselves, creating their own pain and inner strife.  Sometimes, I see a person going in what looks like a healthy, loving direction; at other times, I see walls going up which create more hardening and separation.

I'm guessing that you can see those things happening in people, too.  The question is, how do we react when we see those things?  Do we react in a way that causes us to put up our own defensive walls of separation, or do we aggressively try to convince or change or correct the way others are behaving, risking triggering more reactions, likely to lead to more suffering all around?  Or, do we first respond in a way that softens us into openly accepting what is, making room for everything?  Clearly, we have a choice.

Only if we can first allow ourselves to release into fully accepting the whole of the other person--including even what seems wrong or hurtful--can we do anything really, truly loving for the other person.  Any action taken to help another needs to come from a place of love, and that love must first include unconditional, complete, total acceptance of the other person's free will to be who they are right now, and to go in the direction they are choosing.  Only if we allow them that freedom will they be able to trust us enough to then let us gently guide them into a better, healthier, more loving direction.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Making Good Use of Memory

When you have a few quiet moments to yourself and are not in a rush, try this experiment.

  • Close your eyes and conjure up a beautiful memory.
  • See and feel the details in your imagination.
  • What happens in your body as you re-live the experience?
  • Do you feel a release of tension?
  • How does this affect your breathing?
  • Arms? Legs? Neck? Torso? Feet?
  • Can you let the relief of this re-lived experience spread to fill your whole body?
  • Does it bring up a smile? Does your face relax?
  • Notice how consciously directing your thinking affects your body; how your state of being shifts, just because of the thought-images that you have allowed to permeate the rest of you.
  • Now, as you open your eyes and turn your attention back to your surroundings, notice how you react.  Do you want to stay more open and released, with more consciousness of beauty (peace, nature, love, presence, etc.), or do you want to shut down into a more habitual mode of going through your day?
  • Can you choose to bring this state of greater ease into your next activity, while letting go of the specific thought-images that brought you to this state?
  • Can you merge your experience of the past with your experience of the present, to become a new experience of your future?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Unblocking energetic, loving Flow

When we notice that one of our habitual reactions is to put up inner walls, shut things out of our experience, pull ourselves down, and block the life-flow of energy within; and when we know that this is not what we really want to be doing because it is inconsistent with our ultimate Goal of loving, joyous, generous Life--towards ourselves and others--this can be a helpful direction to give ourselves:

"I am not blocking open, energetic, loving Flow."

Repeated over and over, surrendering to the deepest part of us that knows exactly how to re-organize everything into a positive, upward direction, these words can seem to work magic to carry us effortlessly towards our Goal.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Accessing your Strength

"You're strong!" my new students often say to me in surprise, as I easily lift them up into a sitting position from lying down on my massage table.

This comment never ceases to amaze me, though, because my lifelong habit has been to believe that I am not strong at all.  The little old voice in my head immediately starts laughing and saying things like, "Ha! Little do you know! Me? I have no muscles at all!  I don't even remember the last time I exercised!  Me? Strong? That's ridiculous!" etc., etc.

Funny thing is, the more I practice the Alexander Technique, the more I discover a deep, inner strength, which has very little to do with muscle-power, but which has a real, effective power to move and do things in this world that I never would have dreamed were possible. For instance, I remember very well admiring my first Alexander teacher many years ago, thinking to myself: "What an amazingly beautiful profession!  He's so lucky!  I could never do that!!...and here I find myself, years later, teaching the Alexander Technique!

The way I see it, there are several essential components that combine with one another to access real, inner strength: (1) a very clear intention/goal, (2) a strong desire to carry out that intention/reach that goal, combined with (3) a strong refusal to do whatever gets in the way, (4) a letting go of the habitual effort associated with the patiently surrendering and trusting the deepest, most inner part of us that knows exactly how to bring about whatever it is we want done.

Example:  When I want to lift someone up off the table, that interfering voice in my head that tells me I'm weak and can't do it needs to be stopped.  When I stop that self-defeating chatter, then I can focus on my goal.  When I trust that there is an inner strength in me that can lift my student off the table, I need to surrender to that.  I then release my muscles instead of tensing them, find the support of the floor, make contact with my student, and aim us both where I want us to end up, and suddenly, there we are.

  • Is there something that you want to achieve in life, but believe it's impossible because you're too weak?  Whether it's creating your dream job or just lifting a heavy box?
  • What would happen if you stopped believing the thoughts that you're weak and incapable?
  • Can you start trusting that there is a deeper, greater part of you inside (which may be quite dormant at the moment) which does actually have the required strength?
  • Can you focus on your goal, stop the self-defeating inner chatter, trust your inner strength, and take the first step to take you in the direction of your goal?
  • If you can take one baby step in that direction, can you trust that you can then take the next one?
  • Do you see that letting go of habitual thoughts of weakness could potentially reveal a stronger Self?