Acting Habits

As adults, most of us can relate to the term “the force of habit” in some way. The more of our lives that we live, the easier it is to see that the things that we choose to “repeatedly do” often become quite ingrained. The daily choices that we make about how and what we eat, how much rest we get, how we think, communicate, work, play, move and react to the stimuli around us, all become a collection of our personal habits.

Science shows that we, like most creatures, live and die by habituated thinking…meaning we humans are truly creatures of habit. Our bodies and brains lock into a way of approaching something and due to our nature, nurture and personal experience we begin to repeat the familiar, because familiarity equates safety to our animal brains…there is comfort in routine.

The way that our habits form is a little like taking a walk through the woods. We walk over some wild earth and eventually a path is created or a groove in the landscape. Over time, when we return to this territory it is simplest to take the path that we have walked before, the one that we know, rather than finding another route.

Some of these grooves and pathways both conscious and subconscious rightly serve us well, but undoubtedly some stand in the way of us living our lives more fully with freedom and ease, (not to mention enjoying some new scenery). Certainly it is clear that what we do repeatedly has a big effect on the outcome of our lives. Some have even argued that “we become what we repeatedly do.”

As an AmSAT certified teacher of the Alexander Technique I work closely with people’s habits. The Alexander Technique is an educational modality wherein a person may have the opportunity to learn how to undo unnecessary habits of muscular tension in the body as well as having some tools for approaching un-useful thinking and emotional patterns that are associated with certain situations. Essentially, “AT” is a foundational approach for working on the balance and coordination of the individual.

I work with people from all walks of life and I have seen how almost everyone can benefit in some way from taking some lessons in the Alexander Technique. One of the areas that I have seen a lot of success is in working with actors. The unique challenges that actors face in their profession are immense and can place a tremendous strain on a performer. Many actors discover in their careers that the unwanted habits that they have developed either over the years or that they are seeing crop up anew as a response to the stimuli of the job, can really become a roadblock to their success.

F.M. Alexander was himself a performer suffering from such a dilemma. A successful stage actor in his early twenties enjoying a budding career found only one cloud on his horizon: He was plagued by a persistent problem with his throat and respiratory function that was causing him to lose his voice regularly and requiring that he cancel performances. After visiting doctors and various vocal coaches who all prescribed “rest,” and after heeding their advice repeatedly, Alexander was frustrated that it wasn’t working. He would return to the stage and would soon have a hoarse voice and the same persistent problem.

Alexander decided to take matters into his own hands and investigate for himself what the problem might be that was causing him this trouble with his throat. He presumed that if there was nothing “wrong with him” physically it must be something that he was “unnecessarily doing” that was causing him to lose his voice. Luckily for us, he made some important discoveries that eventually led to him developing his technique. The first was, after much patient and careful observation of himself reciting in front of a mirror, he began to see that when he went to recite that he was pulling his head back and down ever so-slightly, causing an imbalance in his head and neck. This was in turn causing undue pressure on his throat and larynx.

“Eureka!” Alexander thought, he had found the source of the problem. He immediately decided that he would simply, from that moment forward, “not do” this previously unknown habit. He quickly came to terms with however, that “not doing his old habit” was not quite so simple and this lead to the second discovery which was the force of habit.
Having done this habituated movement with his head and neck for so long it now felt “right” to him and trying to simply “not do it” with his will was disorienting and nearly impossible at best.

He was trying to “feel it out” and it wasn’t working. Furthermore trying to push his head up instead of back and down wasn’t solving the problem either…It was only when he stopped and consciously allowed his head to release forward and up that the problem would dissipate.

Reflecting on his experience later in his life Alexander wrote:
“I was indeed suffering from a delusion that is practically universal, the delusion that because we are able to do what we ‘will to do’ in acts that are habitual and involve familiar sensory experiences, we shall be equally successful in doing what we ‘will to do’ in acts which are contrary to our habit and therefore involve sensory experiences that are unfamiliar”

In other words, when we do things over and over they begin to feel right or normal. If and when we decide to change these practiced actions it can be very difficult to do so alone because we lose touch with our innate sense of our coordination. This is due to the fact that we can’t rely on our perceptions and feeling to guide us. Over time our feeling becomes faulty, it tells us one thing when we are infact doing something quite different. This is another one of the principals of the Alexander work. That of “unreliable sensory appreciation” which means just that, under the force of habit our sense of ourselves becomes unreliable over time.

This is where a highly trained Alexander Technique teacher can come in and be of great help. A student who is willing and curious to take a look at their habits of misuse and mal-coordination can put trust in a certified teacher who is trained in giving them some reliable feedback about what is happening in their system during activity. This feedback is highly individualized and happens verbally and usually with the use of the hands.

A teacher speaks to both the body and thinking of a student and with gentle support can help a them begin to “undo” what they may be doing that is causing the trouble in the first place. Overtime with this “non-doing” approach, the student can make some headway in reducing the force of their habits and begin to exercise more choices about how they go about living. More choice often equates increased awareness, better overall health and energy, less stress, more efficiency, and a sense of ease.

The technique has worked for nearly a hundred years with performers, athletes, office workers, construction workers and just everyday folks….even people who might say “I’m set in my ways” have found some relief and new information from the technique. All you need is some curiosity and a willingness to try something new.

So the next time you find yourself with a sore back or dealing with some pain from a nagging injury, or perhaps even just dealing with the stress of everyday life, you might ask yourself, “how might my habits be contributing to this unease in my life?” More often than not, the answer is “greatly.”

There are other paths through the forest just waiting for your footsteps, new roads to be made with more ease and awareness! Come have a look!

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