Responding rather than reacting

For three years, while training as an Alexander Technique teacher, I commuted by train from my home in Medway, Kent, to St Pancras Station where I would then have a 25 minute walk to City Alexander Technique School near Old Street, North London. As I made this journey throughout my first year I would become quite proud at how much better my posture and movement was compared to the general public. With my head held effortlessly high on top of my spine I admit I felt like I had more confidence and enjoyed it. So many people moved like they had the weight of the world on their shoulders and their movements were slow and cumbersome. They heavily trudged while I floated along.

During my second year I would get slightly irked towards what I could only vaguely say was people’s lack of awareness of their surroundings. They looked preoccupied with their own thoughts as if they were bored of using their eyes to see the world and people around them. I became a bit overconfident as my movements gave off a sense of purpose and intelligence.

But come my third year, I forgot my bravado and would simply be a little sad by what I saw as I walked across a reasonably busy part of London. Because now when I looked at people I not only saw ‘bad posture’, as I had in my first year, nor people whose thinking was preoccupied with other things, as I had in my second year, but I saw many of the general public as being almost as if they were in a trance, rigidly walking along an imaginary groove in the path as if they were a Scalextric slot car, without the freedom to choose a different way of moving or engaging with the world and it’s occupants. I guess the drudgery of their daily routine meant they were on autopilot and controlled by habit, under too much stress to think about a better way of moving. And, like a slot car, there was an accident waiting to happen…

On one occasion I saw a delivery man walking with a trolley crossing the road without even looking at the traffic. He came to the cycle lane, and, owing to the fact that he simply didn’t think to look left or right, clattered into an oncoming cyclist sending them both sprawling. The saddest thing is that the poor cyclist, who had done nothing wrong, came off worse as he hurt himself by falling off his bike. Not a serious injury, but the accident simply shouldn’t have happened.

When I arrived at the training course I looked at a picture of F. M. Alexander on one of the walls. I had always liked the picture but couldn’t say why. Now I realised what it was that I saw. He was standing in a way in which he could respond rather than react.

What do I mean by this phrase? Well, I see the words reaction and response as describing what type of movement or activity a person has available to them at any given time. By reaction I mean that there is a learnt behaviour or muscular pattern that is so ingrained it cannot be countermanded easily. It is a habit that the person has little control over. By response I’m describing a state where our movements can be chosen and performed at whichever speed we choose, in the present moment, and usually with the greatest efficiency.

Applying this to the picture of Alexander then, consider that most people seem to have to undo a number of self-imposed muscular knots and locking at joints before initiating movement. Think of those people you sometimes see standing at traffic lights with one leg crossed over the other so that the legs are arranged in an X shape. If they had to move suddenly they would have to rely on a reaction; there would be no control, no opportunity to respond effectively. Alexander on the other hand seems prepared for any interaction with the world. If someone came in and spoke to him you sense he would just raise his eyes or head slightly to look at them and then has choice whether to walk towards them or not as separate decisions that can be made quickly. You sense his initial movements could be as quick as he chooses. In fact, he looks as if he can respond at whatever speed he chooses. Certainly a stillness full of energy!

Applying this to my own emotional response I feel that my intent is more successfully carried out by the body than is achievable by habitual reaction. My upbringing meant I felt it was frowned upon to show anger. The Alexander Technique has enabled me to acknowledge there is nothing wrong in being angry at times. Walking through crowds I get frustrated by some people’s lack of awareness, irritated at how they are ignoring the world around them. I don’t use the Alexander Technique to judge whether or not it is appropriate for me to get angry or not at what I realise is a trivial thing. Instead I use it to choose how I respond or perhaps I should say what I choose to do with my anger in this situation, in relation to how it can inform my movements. For example, do I use it to move more purposefully, to think more purposefully, to give more presence to my movements, to give more confidence in myself? Can I let my voice and choice of words respond to and convey my anger? In this way the Alexander Technique stays interesting and allows me to avoid any sense of prescriptive behaviour which would not allow me to respond how I wish.

So responding rather than reacting is not a superimposed calmness, it is not moving with deliberation or talking with long pauses before each sentence to gain control of your breath, but a way in which our intent is more likely to be performed accurately, very much as we intend it to be. In this way we can gain a greater sense of control and wellbeing by using the principles of the Alexander Technique.

Utilising lightly poised positions which enable us to have a mechanical advantage in everyday activities means we have freedom to respond to the busy world around us with an efficient movement always available to us.

David Orman (2018)