Conversations – Jerry Sontag

Jerry Sontag, Alexander Technique teacher and publisher

Jen: I asked Jerry about “his” current definition of the Alexander Technique.

Jerry: I don’t have one definition anymore since I seem to define it in relation to the person asking but if pressed, I’d say The Alexander Technique is a method that helps people recognize the relationship between habits and a specific pattern of tension in movement. Not eloquent, but relatively accurate.

Jen: What is Core?

Jerry: Well, I don’t resonate with that word. It comes from a different tradition. Core? Where does it come from? Pilates? Trying to work from core or trying to define core feels too limited. But if I must answer, Core – if anything – is a general coordination, or a generalized change in coordination, and how we are using ourselves BUT! I see the means of activating core as not necessarily physical in nature, fundamentally. In other words, it doesn’t come from a doing, or layering a physical correction on an already existing pattern. That being said, I acknowledge that there may be potential limitations to the Alexander Technique, especially around real chronic, long term pain. For example, what about people who are walking around in real chronic pain and when they let go and release and free their neck and so forth, they actually have more pain? What about people who actually feel pain when they release into gravity? Some people really do have less pain from “holding on.” (Very interesting question that needs some looking into).

But, even if we expand our definition of Core and include it in the Alexander perspective, it is essential to remember that it is the thought, first and foremost, that begins the process of a Core experience, or a release into gravity. The connection to the two directions of the spine and the freeing of the neck are a result of the thought to do so. There is not something that we physically “do” to access “core.” It is always there. Core is the way we are organized and coordinated and it starts first and foremost in the brain.

There is a transformation process that occurs when we free the neck and it must start with this “the head/neck balance, and relationship, is essential. Releasing the neck creates a series of reactions based on the relationships of “ourselves to ourself”. Freeing the neck creates a chain all the way to the feet and back up to the head again. Freeing the neck will create releases in certain areas and tonus in others. This is very different than releasing the body in parts or feeling out a release, or jumping from one release to another which is really just micro-managing our bodies and ourselves which is not at all sustainable as we go about our day and activities. We are a moving, dynamic beings that are completely integrated, body and mind, and this is how we function. When we go through the body, releasing one part at a time, each release in and of itself may be a good thing and may be right, but added together it creates a whole new layer of doing (conscious vs. unconscious) that is not functionally sustainable. We have to be careful of intellectually managing what’s going on, especially posturally.

Posture is a series of reactions that are quicker than we can manage. We may have brief seconds or moments where we can manage but we will always end up going back to habit. As an Alexander teacher, it’s therefore going to be my perspective that it’s better to stay in the habit and focus on freeing the neck, noticing what’s pulling on you, than to micro-manage ourselves, or think we can change by micro-managing oursleves with an unsustainable hyper-vigilance.

The trick is “can you actually tell yourself to free the neck, truly free the neck, and not react? For example, if you notice you are grabbing in the ankles, instead of micro-managing the ankle joints, can you resist working on that local level for something more global? Can you think in terms of the whole body? Can you simply not tighten at the ankles “which is different that consciously relaxing and waiting to feel out if they have relaxed. Can you just send the message and move on? Is freeing the neck enough? It’s comprehensive in nature but can it actually help someone? If it’s a use issue I think than yes, most likely it can. We have to take in our whole environment when we are working with ourselves.

Jen: Can you talk about “Inhibition”, something the Alexander Technique talks a lot about, and a crucial part of changing habits and patterns.

Jerry: Inhibition, as I understand it, creates inhibitory messages in the brain and nervous system which effects the muscles in a certain way. Just as an excitatory response causes a muscle to contract, an inhibitory one tells a muscle to not contract. Not relax”¦just not contract. Unless we are lying down, every single muscle fiber of our being is somehow engaged in some way. So, when we inhibit, we choose to not respond in a habitual way. If I always tighten my shoulders when I’m going to say something, the message would be inhibitory in nature to correct it: Instead of saying to myself, “Relax my shoulders” “which is a feeling-out thing, we simply send the message, “Don’t tighten the shoulders.” By “not doing” something (i.e. inhibiting and action), we are actually causing the change. Inhibition is about changing habits from the standpoint of the brain.

In changing the habit, we are aiming for better generalized coordination of the body, based on the bio-intelligence of the body, vs. doing a physical, mechanical change that creates a new set of tensions. The aim is to improve coordination. Is it possible to do a movement without reacting? Without doing it habitually? Without tightening the head/neck relationship? Of course, there will be muscle action to perform any given movement but can it not be over-ridden with tension?

Jen: Talk about the relationship of what happens in a lesson “sit-to-stand and stand-to-sit -“Monkey”, for example – to daily life movements.

Jerry: In a lesson, we practice standing to sitting, sitting to standing, squat variation, lying down, and a few other things. Within these movements are every other movement that we do. So these simple, few movements represent what we do in all our other movements. Practicing sitting to standing and standing to sitting is a way of practicing the directions we use in the Technique. Can I free my neck as I squat? Can I keep letting go of what’s pulling on me? How can we be interested in what’s pulling us away from our generalized coordination and function?

I will say this: I think it is very hard for us to believe that having a thought, a wish, an intention, is actually as powerful as it truly is. We are so biased towards muscular action precisely because we feel it. We don’t feel a thought. It’s subtle, or too subtle. But it doesn’t mean nothing happens as a result of that thought. It’s harder to trust in the thought; but this is the key to the Alexander Technique. Having the thought has much more power than we think.

There is one’s condition and there is one’s use of self. One doesn’t necessarily have to effect the other. We all have ideas about ourselves and these ideas, how we feel about ourselves, is key. What do you want? And can you truly conceive of yourself differently? Can we change our perceptions of ourselves in order to change our condition in order to use ourselves better? How we are thinking about ourselves is essential to having a change. So again, it has to start with the thought. What do we want?

Along the same lines, as much as we say there is no distinction between mind and body/body and mind, in general we do not believe we are fully integrated. We think we get this mind/body connection but we don’t. If we did, we wouldn’t try to convince each other of it. We would already believe it and know it. In reality, it is very difficult to conceive of this so we often want the feedback of “feeling” (vs. “thinking”) the changes we want. And, we are very impatient for the change. We impose “doing” on ourselves to make the change happen faster”¦because it is hard to wait. In reality, I think how we have used ourselves shows up in our older years. Old age is really the judge of how we’ve been using ourselves.

Together we pondered the question: How do we help people realize that how they think is the most relevant factor to the change they want?

Jen: We talk about letting go of what’s pulling on us but how do you know what’s pulling on you if you don’t “feel it out” and check in? Yes, we send the thought but how does awareness build, in other words, especially for the beginner?

Jerry: How do you know the parking brake on the car is off? Do you check each time, or do you start to go and discover that you aren’t moving? The firing from brain to body, this information is embedded in everything we do. The idea that we have to search directly for a “feeling” to know whether or not we are freeing a particular part of ourselves is losing the sense of the whole. It isn’t that we don’t have experiences that give us clues as to whether we are pulling down or tensing up, but searching for the answer by “feeling it out” actually makes you lose confidence and decreases your overall awareness of yourself and the world around you “so there!

February 2011