Put together the postural analysis of Alexander Technique and a gentle approach to Hatha Yoga and you get Hands-on Yoga. Let me explain…
How many yoga practitioners regularly experience pain? Go on, admit it; even those of us who teach or practise a “gentle” style of yoga sometimes find that particular postures don’t agree with our lower backs, for example. Or as we get older our knees give us more-than-occasional twinges.
And how many of us get stuck with our practice? We find ourselves repeating the same routines without the freshness of the “beginner’s eyes” we once had?
I found a new perspective on both these problems when I was introduced to the Alexander Technique by one of my students.
Australian actor F.M. Alexander (1869-1955) devised what became known as the Alexander Technique in the 1880s when he attempted to discover what was causing him repeatedly to lose his voice on stage. Using mirrors, he observed that the main cause of the problem was that he stiffened his neck muscles and pulled his head back when performing. When he corrected this tendency, he found that as well as his voice problem disappearing, he also showed a remarkable improvement in his general health.
Today the Alexander Technique (A.T.) is still used by actors, musicians and sportspeople wanting to achieve their full potential, but it’s also used to help people suffering from persistent pain.
I began to explore its overlap with yoga when A.T. teacher Tanya Shoop joined my yoga classes and attended a week-long retreat I was leading in 2011. The host of our retreat centre, Les Aleis, in southern France, is also an A.T. teacher, and in conversations over dinner and on long country walks, we discovered how much there was in common between A.T. and my “no-pain” approach to Hatha Yoga.
Coming to yoga teaching in my 40s, my own practice has been influenced by the gentler traditions of therapeutic, restorative and Scaravelli-inspired yoga.
What I discovered in my discussions with Tanya and our host Lucy Ackroyd was that, like yoga, A.T. is all about awareness – of body, mind and the relationship between the two.
A.T. teachers help their students observe in detail habits of everyday actions such aswalking, sitting, using a computer etc. They help them identify habits of harmful posture, excessive effort and tension-holding. Then with a combination of hands-on guidance and “re-thinking” messages between mind and body, they replace those habits with patterns suited to the body’s natural structure and design.
“The aim,” says Tanya, “is to feel more at ease, more confident, to reduce pain and look after yourself for the long-term.”
Over the six years since then, Tanya and I have developed a workshop style we call “Hands-on Yoga”. Tanya explains some of the principles of A.T. to our students, which I then bring out in teaching classical Hatha Yoga asana. As I guide with words and demonstration, Tanya, brings a gentle, hands-on touch to adjustments, helping students experience the feeling of free and easeful movement.
It can have a very powerful effect on people’s experience of yoga. “It’s truly brilliant,” says Kate Byron, who joined us on retreat in 2013. “The attention to detail has really helped me understand what yoga can be and helped me start to feel in touch with my body, which I haven’t felt for years.”
A primary principle described by the Alexander Technique is the importance of the relationship between head, neck and back. In a Hands-on Yoga session, we will frequently ask students to check in with this relationship: what is the quality of sensation in the head-neck connection? Can you allow there to be ease? Can you let go of tension?
We have also explored A.T’s emphasis on pure movement in the hip joints. So many of us don’t really know what it feels like to move through our hips; look around a yoga class and in postures such as forward bends you’ll often see hips stuck and spines over-flexing or extending to compensate. The A.T. approach helps students to feel the difference between moving through hips and spine.
Tanya explains: “Alexander Technique is about understanding your body’s natural design and structure and through knowing how it’s meant to be, becoming more aware of what habits you have and what tensions that interfere with this. By becoming more mindful we can learn to change those habits.”
Unsurprisingly, we have discovered this mindfulness aspect of A.T is hugely helped by the meditation practices of yoga.
“People who meditate have the quietness in thinking to be able to think to the body more easily,” says Tanya. “They’re more used to quietening down all the constant mind chatter. It makes us very present and that’s what A.T. is very much about, trying to be in the moment.”
For me, the yogic principles of satya (truth) and ahimsa (non-violence) are perfectly expressed through Alexander Technique’s emphasis on becoming aware of the reality of our body’s patterns and its principle of less effort, more ease. It’s the opposite of the competitiveness and harshness we exercise when we push ourselves through pain.
While Alexander Technique doesn’t have yoga’s roots in spiritual endeavour, there are other intriguing similarities. Both are essentially optimistic undertakings, says long-time yoga practitioner and director of Australia’s school for F.M. Alexander Studies, David Moore, because both are based on a faith in the potential of human beings to alter their conditioning, or karma.
He says: “Both recognise the necessity of awareness and a keen understanding of ourselves and our habits, as the basis of change. Both stress the necessity of working with ourselves in such a way that our understanding of ourselves and the world around us, becomes more accurate. Both emphasize the necessity of eliminating the tyranny of focusing on ends instead of means.”
F.M Alexander himself wrote about his technique in terms of mankind’s search for “full individual freedom within and without the self”.
He wrote: “Its translation into practice will call for individual freedom in thought and action through the development of conscious guidance and control of the self. Then and then only will the individual be liberated from the domination of instinctive habit and the slavery of the associated automatic manner of reaction.
“It will be found that every single thing we are doing in the work is exactly what is being done in Nature where the conditions are right, the difference being that we are learning to do it consciously.”