I pulled the big, heavy mirror down off the piano today and set it on the floor to watch some of my own asana practice, something I like to do now and then to see whether I am doing what I think I’m doing. Often there are surprises, like I feel as though I’m really keeping a long, lengthening back in chaturanga dandasana while the mirror shows me the truth of my sagging lumbar spine, or what feels like a strong, organized virabhadrasana III is actually totally off-kilter and slack. Today was a pleasant surprise in that there were no unpleasant surprises. Anyone who practices yoga for a time knows the experience of discovering, oh, I thought my arm was parallel to the floor but when I look, I really see that it is sagging down at least 45 degrees, or some version of that. Hm. Isn’t it peculiar that simply doing what we want to do with ourselves, even when all we want is a relatively simple gesture or act, is sometimes incredibly difficult?
This is one of the most basic things I work with as a student and as a teacher of the Alexander technique: that most of the time we aren’t even doing what we think we are doing. I mean, try to “sit up straight” and you will know what I mean. When I ask a class of yoga students to “sit up tall, lengthen your spine”, a few will arch their backs for a few minutes and then forget and slump forwards. Most of the rest will pull themselves into some position or other, sometimes leaning to one side, usually tipping their heads back but sometimes dropping them forward (in an attempt to “allow the back of the neck to lengthen”), but it’s a whole salad of different habits through which people are interpreting the instruction I’ve given. I know this experience first hand (from sitting on my own mat!) and still have it on a regular basis – as I said, this time what I saw in my asana practice was unusual and quite a pleasant surprise.
One of many things that amazes me about seeing my yoga practice is how fluid and elastic my movements can now be after all the years of peeling back my own habits. Learning to stop repeating my unconscious habits and to direct my awareness and my body in constructive ways, I really enjoy an enormous amount of subtlety, ease and pleasure in moving. I’ve come a very long way and I’m amazed and awed that I continue to improve. I give all the credit for this to the Alexander technique. Without a way to guide myself consciously, I would have injured myself in one yoga class and never gone back. I would have said that yoga hurt me and that it wasn’t for me. Instead, I feel I have struck gold: a practice that has been unfolding for over a decade now where there is a seemingly infinite metaphorical gold mine of discovery and insight into my habits and unconscious patterns of movement and what underlies them – my beliefs about myself and the world. What a gift.
I believe, and it is my experience, that the Alexander technique can help literally anyone access a new freedom and ease in movement, and often wakes up a latent interest in one’s own habits, in new activities, and even in life. I am so grateful to have found this work not only for how it has immeasurably improved and organized my own life, but also that I get to help and support and witness others having that experience, too. Awesome.