The Power of Habit

We all acknowledge the power of habit in our lives, and in general we tend to think of habits in negative terms, things we do that we would prefer not to do. However, imagine what it would be to have to think deliberately to control all our actions. Habits mean we do not have to think so much, and are free to focus on other things while the habit takes care of the details. In fact the term ‘habit’ is just another way of saying something has been well learnt and practised to the point of being unconscious.

But… what about habits, or learned reactions and behaviours that are harmful?

Just about anything will come to feel normal and automatic if we do if for long enough, including ways of thinking and moving that are harmful to health and well-being. Some straightforward examples of harmful movement habits include bending at the waist instead of the hip joints, holding the shoulders back, trying to stand up by contracting muscles in the neck and upper back. Each of these (and many others) tend in time to lead to stress and pain.

This is what Alexander faced when he found he could not use his voice to recite without tightening in his throat, a habit that was leading to pain and hoarseness whenever he performed.


Use and Function

Changes in the body due to poor habits of movement occur gradually and the effects build up over time. In this way poor habits have deep and long-lasting effects on health, well being and performance. The way you use yourself will affect your functioning over time; as Alexander discovered for himself, so it is for everyone…


The way you use yourself, affects the way you function

F.M. Alexander

How to change habits?

As many people have discovered, it is not so easy to change harmful habits. Some things are easier to change than others, willpower may assist with things like changes in diet and exercise, habits that have been ‘trained in’ by repetitive practise are often not changeable so easily.

To change habits may not be easy, however Alexander developed a reliable method that you can use.

First you have to have some idea of what you are doing. It is very often the case that a person knows they have a problem, but are not clear about what they are doing that is causing the problem. The Alexander teacher is often in the situation of helping someone stop doing something that they did not know they were doing in the first place!

The second reason habits can be hard to change is that they often feel right to do, even when they are harming you!

At first your habit feels ‘normal’ and any changes we make may seem odd or wrong. You may feel you are leaning forward for example, when you are actually upright. Alexander called this ‘faulty sensory perception’… and it can be corrected!

Alexander discovered these things by observing his own movement in a mirror over a long period of time. The Alexander technique as we teach it today also involves self-observation, your teacher will assist with how to go about this. This practise develops the skill of mindfulness in action.

Conscious Control

You can begin developing this skill by observing how you are moving without attempting to judge or change it at first.

It is necessary to be mindful in order to change habits, as we all have a tendency to jump into action without giving thought to how we are organising ourselves. Alexander called this “end-gaining” and it is the primary barrier to effective change.

To be mindful means you can pause or wait before reacting, and you can think more clearly about what you are doing as you do it. This allows you to begin changing habits by preventing them. Alexander called this process ‘inhibition‘. The process of inhibition gives the opportunity to make better choices about how to go about your activities.

So, what comes next?

Alexander discovered that there is a certain relationship in movement between the head, back and legs which promotes ease of action and reaction, preventing harmful pressure and loss of coordination between the parts. The Alexander Technique aims to assist you to improve this dynamic relationship. Alexander called it the ‘Primary Control‘ of our coordination.

Alexander had stumbled upon a fundamental aspect of the movement of all vertebrates that is normally controlled automatically by deep reflexes that support posture and action. These reflexes generate automatic muscle tone that will generate beautifully free and flowing coordination when they are not interfered with. Scientist Rudolf Magnus called this principle: “The Head Leads and the Body Follows”.

Thinking in Activity

The automatic muscle tone or reflex activity that supports you is not controlled directly. You can’t make a reflex work just by ‘doing’ it. You can however influence reflex responses. Alexander developed an effective method to do this involving an understanding of the directions of movement of parts in relation to each other. It is through the use of conscious ‘direction‘ of yourself that you can improve the use of the primary control and other aspects of your movement.

When you combine the practise of mindfulness in action described above, with a conscious direction of your primary control you can overcome previously difficult and unchangeable harmful habits. We call this “Thinking in Activity“.

The Result

Your Alexander teacher helps you to master this process and over time you will re-train your habits, taking away unnecessary pressure and re-invigorating your postural and movement reflexes. Your sensory appreciation will become accurate and it will no longer feel right to do the wrong thing. This is a process of personal renewal.

After having practised this for some time, Alexander came to the conclusion that


it is impossible to separate “mental” and “physical” processes in any form of human activity

F.M. Alexander

These days this is often called “mind-body unity”.


The Principles

In the brief discussion above we have covered the central discoveries and principles discovered by F.M. Alexander

These include:

  • The Power of Habit
  • Use affects Function
  • Faulty sensory appreciation – sensory re-education
  • Self-observation or mindfulness
  • Inhibition and Direction
  • Primary Control – the Head leadns, the body follows
  • Non-doing and Indirect methods for change
  • Thinking in Activity
  • Psycho-physical (mind-body) Unity

Whew, I hope you followed all that. Don’t worry, Alexander lessons are actually very practical and straightforward :-) .


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