On using the self, part I

From the very first lesson, wing chun reminded me of another practice I taken up years ago, back when I was, in fact, an undergraduate. That practice was the Alexander Technique, perhaps a misleading name because although it was discovered by a man named F. M. Alexander, it was less a simple “technique,” at least in the diminished sense of something you could pick up in an afternoon. Rather, it was a process of re-education, the forging of subterranean connnections between body and mind.

The main problem, as Alexander found out, was not only that we slouched or overarched our backs or carried tension in our shoulders; not only that we were unaware, except at the crudest levels, of how we held ourselves; but also that we were helpless to change them. It took the better part of nine years for Alexander, a Shakespearean actor, to understand the cause of his career-ending hoarseness.

Alexander figured out any attempt to correct bad habits would invariably reinforce them. Our habitual selves were so ingrained it was impossible to feel otherwise. How, then, was change possible? The answer was radical doubt: to distrust all sensation of what felt “right,” and instead to observe, painstakingly, with the aid of mirrors, what one was actually doing. Once F.M. accepted the unreliability of sensation — our debauched kinesthetic sense (the sense of our body in space) — he set about bypassing habit itself.

In countless personal experiments, recounted at length in his absorbing The Use of the Self, Alexander found it was by means of negation — by “inhibition,” or saying “no” — that we could counsel our selves toward better use. Having refused to act in the usual way (itself a difficult task, or rather non-task), we could then direct ourselves in accordance with a strict, verbal procedure: “free the neck, let the head to go forward and up, and allow the back lengthen and widen.” These commands, uttered mentally again and again, yet effecting real change in the body, were the precondition for freedom. Together, they constituted what would be known as “primary control.”

The delicate relationship between neck, head, and back, once restored, enabled the body to retain a newfound sprightliness. It was also a return to the lightness we once enjoyed as children — that is, before being subject to the classroom, the office, and terrible seating. In Alexander’s vaguely Rousseauist drama, our fall was a fall from childhood, a natural state of uprightness bent by civilisation.

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