This column was written by Paulinna Lievonen.
When I attended my first aikido lesson I'd already had AT lessons for about a year. So it's something that has always influenced my aikido practice. Having now studied each of them for about ten years, I'd like to take a moment to sort out what kind of influence studying the Alexander Technique has had on my aikido practice. Of course my aikido practice has also had an effect on my AT studies, but this column got long enough before I even started to think about that! Maybe next time...
For a beginning AT student it's all about posture. And that's not untrue, although it's not the whole story about the AT. The one thing I've gotten compliments on during my aikido career has been my posture. So I guess that's one very direct influence. How important that posture has been for the effectiveness of my aikido technique is another question. Personally I do think it has made me somewhat more effective, but there are many other things that have influence on effectiveness of aikido technique, and I'm not necessarily very good in some of those other things.
The Alexander Technique isn't really anything in itself. It's a technique that needs to be applied to something, music, aikido, working at the computer, walking the dogs, doesn't matter very much what you apply it to. You can't say that you are "doing the Alexander Technique".
I'll try to explain some of the concepts of the AT that I (try to) apply to my aikido practice:
The central one is inhibition, and that is one that is very useful in aikido practice, but not very easy to apply, or to describe either. I've tried that here before so I should know! In AT jargon inhibition is the ability to not react to something. It doesn't mean suppressing a reaction with some force of will, but just simply making a choice not to react. One example that I like to use is this: Ask someone to move your arm about. Make a decision to not help them, but not to prevent them from moving your arm either. That decision that you make is the mental skill that I call inhibiting. It's a quieting of the signals that your are sending, in this case to your arm. If you try to force yourself to not interfere with the movement, the person moving your arm will inevitably feel that you are tightening. If you can make a clear decision of allowing the other person to move your arm about, they will feel it moving in a freer, lighter way.
There is a way to cheat with this experiment by just simply going away with your awareness and thinking about something else. That way you have a chance not to be interfering with the movement of your arm. It's not a useful way of cheating though, when you start to think about voluntarily moving yourself about and especially if you think of moving about in an aikido class! The real trick is to be able to not interfere while at the same time staying fully present and aware of what is going on.
I can apply that skill to making a connection with my partner in aikido. If I can make a decision to not send too many signals to my body, I can touch my partner and allow my touch to follow them anywhere that they are going. It's a great way to take light, "following", sensitive ukemi. I think this might be one reason my teacher likes to use me as uke when he wants to stop mid-movement to explain details.
Another instance where this skill of not reacting is very useful is in meeting an attack. In an AT lesson, people are first confronted with a very mild sort of "attack" in the form of my hands touching them. For many people this is enough of a challenge at first. A bokken swinging at my head is obviously a bigger challenge, but that is the only diffence I find, the difference is one of scale but the principles stay the same.
Not reacting to an attack doesn't mean my body doesn't react. I can feel a surge of adrenaline, my breathing may change, maybe I start to sweat. But I can leave those physical reactions to just continue on their course, without getting too involved with them.
The opposite of inhibiting would in AT jargon be called end-gaining. As the name indicates, it means going for your desired end without considering the steps you need to take to get there. A good example is a beginner doing ikkyo by trying to push ukes arm down forgetting all the necessary footwork and body movement. I don't know if it is immediately obvious why the opposite of this would be what I call inhibiting?
If we decide that a more effective way to get to our end is to take the necessary steps to get there, then we have to first know what the steps are, and at the moment of executing those steps we need to be able to make the choice of actually making those steps and not doing something else that possibly might feel more natural. To return to the beginner doing ikkyo -- if I tell a beginner to not push on the elbow, but to step to the side with their forward foot (this would obviously depend on your particular style of ikkyo) more often than not the first thing people do after that is to -- push on the arm of uke again. What I ask them to do instead is to stop for a moment, and let their mind go blank. Completely let go of the idea of going to do ikkyo in a moment (because if it's at the back of your mind, your old program of pushing down will keep running). Then, step to the side. They do, and the arms follow.
I think Lynn Seiser in his last column was writing, in different words, about this very same thing.
To return for a moment to my AT teaching room, the same principle applies to posture, too. We all carry an impressive load of baggage about what it means to stand and sit "right", and most of us are busy trying to gain those goals of "good posture" by subtly trying to do something, we are reacting to our own ideas about how to deal with gravity. It takes time but it's possible to learn to let our postural reflexes take care of the job, just like it's possible to allow someone else to move your arm around without interference.
Not reacting is one thing. But if all you do is not react, you still get hit on the head. So the next step is to have a direction to go to. In the case of our beginner it was stepping to the side. In the case of dealing with gravity it would be slightly forward from directly up (because the head isn't perfectly centrally balanced but balances with slightly more weight forward of the spine. This is a useful feature of the head that helps activate the whole length of the spine, but not really the focus of this article).
An AT student gets very familiar with giving him or herself all kinds of directions. I like the word direction in this case because it can mean something of an instruction at the same time as a direction to go to. Some aikido people will also be quite familiar with the idea, although maybe with a different name. Thinking of water streaming through your arm and out from the fingertips is an example of a way of giving direction to your body.
From here we come across a problem -- it's all very well to think of your arm as a water hose, or your head going forward and up, but if you don't quite trust that the thought alone will bring about an actual change, it's very easy to start doing something with your muscles to try and bring the change about. This applies on a less subtle level of movement as well. Our beginner for example will be very tempted to not only take a step aside but to still try to sneak in some arm involvement as well. Which is where the idea of inhibition comes back again. So I will tell myself "I'd like my arm to lengthen (my version of the water hose thought), but I won't do anything to get that happening, and I don't know exactly how it will happen" and then I just see where I get to. Or I inhibit my impulse to do something with my arms, and instead step aside, and see how that works out.
This might all sound very complicated, and time consuming, and it is, just like doing ikkyo is complicated and time consuming when you first try it! What I'm trying to say is: I'm trying to describe a certain way of thinking that it takes time and practice to make your own, and so just reading this explanation isn't going to do you any good or necessarily convince you of it's usefulness.
© 2009 Pauliina Lievonen
"The Mirror" is a collaborative column written by a group of women who describe themselves as:
We comprise mothers, spouses, scientists, artists, teachers, healers, and yes, of course, writers. We range in age from 30s through 50s, we are kyu ranked and yudansha and from various parts of the United States and styles of aikido. What we have in common is a love for budo that keeps it an integral part of our busy lives, both curiosity about and a commonsense approach to life and aikido, and an inveterate tendency to write about these explorations.