Be the boss of your habits

Black horse galloping

Over the past few months I’ve been learning the art of storytelling. In the class we’ve sat spellbound listening to tales from round the world. We’ve been on quests, slept in enchanted castles and followed camel trains through the desert. Sometimes the tutor has stopped at a key point in the story, allowing us to change the traditional ending and imagine our own

He’s also introduced Zen tales, inviting us to ponder life, learning and change from another perspective. Here’s one I like:

Be the Boss

 A horse suddenly came galloping quickly down the road.  It seemed as though the man had somewhere important to go.

 Another man, standing by the road, shouted “Where are you going?”

 The man on the horse replied “I don’t know! Ask the horse!”

How does this relate to the Alexander Technique? Well we’re all slaves to our habits.  Like the galloping horse, our habitual ways of moving and reacting dictate what we do. They kick in before we know it, set our course and run away with us. They are definitely in charge.

Compression and distortion

Habits are not all bad. They can be useful, as they stop us from needing to think through every movement.  How else would we drive a car or tie a shoelace? But they can also harm us.  If we always move in a habitual pattern without thinking, we’re probably using more muscle tension than we need as we grip, grasp, clench, twist, hunch and tense day after day.

As a result of this extra tension, compression and distortion build up in the body over time. Then we might develop back pain while sitting, our shoulders seem tight or we notice problems with balance. Maybe our breathing or voice becomes more constricted. Our habits have taken over and they're running away with us.

More conscious movement

Learning the Alexander Technique is a way of becoming the boss of our habits. But it’s not easy to recognise these habits by ourselves. That’s why initially we need the guidance of a teacher. Then we become aware of what our habitual patterns are – how we use ourselves on a daily basis. The next step is to learn to pause in the moment before our habits lead us astray.

As old habits drop away we become more conscious and mindful of how we move or react in everyday situations. This enables new ways of being to emerge. Instead of tensing up and constricting or compressing ourselves, we allow time to release into movement, which then becomes more fluid and dynamic. We’ve taken up the reins and we’re in control of our direction.

Bringing our habits to heel

Moving or reacting in this non-habitual way seems strange. Our habits don’t like being brought to heel. At every opportunity they re-assert themselves, especially if we’re tired or stressed. But we’re highly adaptable creatures and as long as we keep old habits in check, even deep-set patterns can change.

Awareness that we’re not in charge is the first step to being the boss. Only then can we reassess where we want to go and how to get there.   To go back to the storytelling class for a moment, sometimes it’s good to stop the tale in mid-flow. Then it becomes possible to change course and allow our own story to continue towards a new, and often surprising, ending.