Reading FM Alexander ~ One, in what will likely be a series of essays
In the second chapter of Man’s Supreme Inheritance (MSI), FM Alexander rails against popular cures for the, “mental, nervous and muscular debility,” (pp. 5), which even in 1910 London were common symptoms of the type of work/life stress that we are all too familiar with today. Specifically, Alexander picks on physical culture (i.e. structured exercise), deep breathing and relaxation methods – which, with the exclusion of dietary modifications, are still the most common (non pharmaceutical) prescriptions for wellness.
What did Alexander have to say, and how do his conclusions shore up against modern research/thought?
In the first case, exercise, Alexander observed that an hour or two of vigorous exercise a day cannot make up for a majority of hours spent in inactivity. His warnings about the limited benefits of being, in modern parlance, an “active couch potato” are supported. Scientists have found that an hour or two of vigorous activity does not counteract the negative metabolic effects of sitting for over eight hours a day. Worse, the more hours spent sitting, the greater risk of premature death. In contrast, outside the box thinkers like biomechanist Katy Bowman, make a distinction between movement and exercise. Bowman’s state of the art recommendation is to lead a life that includes a rich variety of movement, including floor sitting, carrying, throwing, hanging, squatting and lots of walking – conducted all day long. Victorian Alexander was certainly not advocating crawling or hanging from tree branches, although the one video of him teaching in his 80’s does show him proudly demonstrating a deep squat and lifting a leg over a chair, and likely living in cobble-stoned London before the advent of the iPhone offered a much richer diet of movement opportunities than we have today. Still, Alexander took his thinking in a different and perhaps even more revolutionary direction: Continuous and conscious attention to movement quality, whatever the activity or position, creates the conditions for health and ease.
Does it sound like Alexander was an early advocate for mindfulness? He was definitely one of the first Westerners to promote the idea that mindful attention could be successfully applied to the problems of coordination, breathing and health.
What about Relaxation? Alexander differentiates between relaxation methods that encourage physical collapse (usually practiced sitting or lying on the floor) and relaxation which is actually, “due tension of the parts of the muscular system intended by nature to be constantly more or less tensed, together with relaxation of those parts intended by nature to be more ore less relaxed,” (pp. 8). Mistaking relaxation with collapse is still a problem. Everyone is familiar with the constant struggle to sit up straight, which causes pain, and the inevitable collapse into a slump which provides temporary relief until a glance in the mirror prompts straightening, ad infinitum. Isn’t relaxation together with support the holy grail?
But what about all the well established benefits of doing exactly the sort of deep relaxation that Alexander warned against? According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCIH), Scientific studies support the use of relaxation methods for, “Asthma, Childbirth, Depression, Epilepsy, Fibromyalgia, Headache, Heart Disease, High Blood Pressure, Insomnia, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Menopause Symptoms, Menstrual Cramps, Nausea, Nightmares, Pain
Pain in Children and Adolescents, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Ringing in the Ears, (Tinnitus), Smoking Cessation, Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction.”
Moreover, the ability to accurately sense the body and send direction (Alexander’s term for imagery that stimulates a physical change) is usually what is practiced when “relaxing.” Let’s remember that even Alexander employed a lying down relaxation procedure (aka semi supine). To insist that Alexander’s lie down practice is fundamentally different from other relaxation methods is splitting hairs. People who practice one or the other will likely receive similar benefit. If you disagree, please propose a study where we can measure outcomes. I’ve written more on this here: Relaxation ~ its many hues
Alexander concludes that Deep Breathing methods are a, “step in the right direction,” although only a partial solution. While deep breathing is unlikely to do harm and frequently offer some benefit, the methods of achieving deep breathing sacrifice coordination. As a teacher of Alexander’s method, I would have to agree with him. It is widely known (and supported by research) that slowing and deepening breath immediately decreases stress – both psychological and physiological. Controlled breathing, in yoga pranayama, is the ultimate way to hack your HPA axis. Unfortunately many students who learn diaphragmatic, or belly breathing, also learn to restrict movement of their ribs. They may have been taught that moving the ribs while breathing is “bad,” or even a sign of the quick shallow breath that accompanies panic attacks. There is no doubt that belly breathing creates a relaxation effect, but when the coordination of the torso is sacrificed to achieve this, ease is lost. Alexander’s solutions for freeing natural breath via improving movement coordination is, in my experience, more elegant and efficient.
Alexander is leading up to the conclusion that he has the answer, and his method is best. Unfortunately, I no longer believe in single solutions. No modern person can get away without exercise (or more precisely moving), and everyone of us will probably benefit from relaxation and deep breathing. At the same time, we can do all of this, while all the time practicing Alexander’s more integrated solution.
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