A Time-Tested Practice To Improve Your Posture & Mental Clarity

Written by Sian Beilock

Most great violinists play beautiful music that resonates from their instrument, but their body is often involved too.

Even masters such as Itzhak Perlman, who contracted polio at age four and plays sitting down, moves his body in fluid and balanced ways during his performances. The role the body plays in musical expression is one reason why teaching that, helps people learn to control their body.

Take the Alexander Technique, which music teachers think of as, "an owner's or operation manual which helps students to re-educate and restore beneficial postures and movements."

Founder of the mind-body method that took his name, Ferderick Matthias Alexander was born in Tasmania in 1869. In his thirties he emigrated to England, where he lived and worked as an actor for most of his life. His acting career was almost cut short when he began developing unexplained symptoms of laryngitis, losing his voice with the stress of an upcoming performance. He visited several doctors to find a cure for his problem, but they were of little help.

It wasn't until Alexander examined his body posture in a mirror one day, that he noticed something unusual: whenever he was about to speak his lines, he would tighten his neck muscles, pull his head back and suck in air through his mouth. This sort of posture couldn't have been good for delivering his lines, and he had a hunch it might be responsible for his voice loss too. Through careful observation of his own body movements, Alexander eventually taught himself how to loosen the tightness in his neck and head. Lo and behold, his attacks of laryngitis also went away. Amazed at the power of reeducating his body, Alexander started teaching his newly discovered kinesthetic sense to others and called it the Alexander Technique.

Alexander noted, "You translate everything, whether physical or mental or spiritual, into muscular tension." Retraining people to incorporate breathing and a body-centered focus into their daily lives could change how they think.

The Alexander Technique is a mandatory part of training in many leading music, theater and dance schools around the world, which believe that it not only improves musical and technical skill, but also lowers stress and anxiety in performers. Learning how to control the body, to quiet tension and stress, can have a profound impact on the mind. Michael Langham, director of the Juilliard School in New York, has commented, "Alexander students rid themselves of bad postural habits and are helped to reach, with their bodies and minds, an enviable degree of freedom of expression."

The power of the Alexander Technique extends beyond the musical world. We often think that our poor posture or back problems or how we carry ourselves when we walk, is a part of who we are — something we inherited. But we actually develop many bad movement habits through the types of repeated activities we do every day.

Sitting at the computer, we hunch over the keyboard, shoulders at our ears, motionless. Though people once moved around the office constantly, to make a copy, send a fax, or get a drink of water, most of these activities have now been replaced by the click of a button, an email or a text, or a large water bottle. This sedentary lifestyle can have a negative impact on our body, but it also takes a toll on our mind.

Many workplaces recognize that you can reduce strains — tight neck and shoulders, sore wrists and lower back pain — that accompany sitting for long hours, with a good chair and the appropriate desk. But no matter how high-tech your workplace is, if you sit slumped at your desk all day, your body will show signs of tension and stress.

The Alexander Technique teaches that the only way around these strains is to have a better idea of what your body is doing. Don't ignore those aches and pains in order to get the job done, but consider them to alarm signals that you need to take action. Just as Alexander changed his posture and regained his voice, you can develop body awareness that helps you feel better physically and mentally. Through touch and gentle body guidance, Alexander teachers help you become aware of how you perform everyday actions and take the tension out of them.

Sit upright, tap the keyboard lightly and release neck tension — these simple adjustments can go a long way to help you be more in control of your entire body and mind. Teachers of the Alexander Technique argue that simple adjustments like these will not only lead to more comfort physically, but that you will be better able to operate mentally as well.

I think of the Alexander Technique as an extreme form of integrative mind-body training. You gain a high degree of awareness of your body, which helps you focus on what's important and feel better; it can even help lift you out of a depressed mood. Knowing your body is key to getting control of your mind and your performance.

Excerpted from "HOW THE BODY KNOWS ITS MIND: The Surprising Power of the Physical Environment to Influence How You Think and Feel, by Sian Beilock. Published by Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2015

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