Written by Bob Quinn, DAOM, LAc
“People do not decide their futures, they decide their habits and their habits decide their futures.”
―F. M. Alexander
“It is not the degree of 'willing' or 'trying', but the way in which the energy is directed, that is going to make the 'willing' or 'trying' effective.”
The Alexander Technique (AT) is a little-known gem. Musicians and actors at the best programs around the country study it and recognize its value in bringing them to a higher level of performance, but it has had limited success in gaining entrance to a larger audience—despite being around for more than 100 years. But just as musicians and actors rely on their bodies for their work, so do acupuncturists.
F.M. Alexander developed his work as an answer to a perplexing vocal problem. What he ended up discovering are core principles that are broadly applicable to poise (not many speak of poise as something that can be learned) and life in general. One such principle F.M. Alexander called ‘inhibition.’
We understand inhibition in our normal use of the word as the ‘repressing,’ or ‘blocking’ of some process or action. But in the Alexander Technique, ‘inhibition’ simply means not to activate a process. F.M. Alexander said, “stop doing the wrong thing and the right thing will do itself.” This way of thinking of inhibition is clearly a different meaning from our normal understanding of the word. I believe AT’s teaching on inhibition has important implications for us in the acupuncture field in a number of ways, perhaps most importantly in acupuncture education.
In any new skill, we have to learn the specific actions of the skill: first find the point, then place the tube on the point and tap the needle in, then advance the needle to the proper depth, etc. (AT calls this the ‘procedure’). What we almost never pay attention to is the vast arena of what we should refrain from doing while performing the action (this is what AT refers to as ‘inhibiting’). There are many things we need to inhibit in order to learn a new skill: over-efforting, worrying about the outcome, becoming distracted, holding the breath, etc.
Let’s look at the example of a student trying to learn a needle, moxa, or teishin technique. Many of our techniques require a high level of manual dexterity. Some students seem to get on the right track fairly quickly while others struggle mightily for months, or in some cases for years. This becomes particularly obvious when students try to learn some of the gentle techniques developed in Japan. Many of these techniques look rather straightforward at first glance, but they are not at all easy to master.
Why do some students struggle so much more than others in learning manual techniques? If one watches their hands as they attempt these techniques, it becomes clear that the hands of the frustrated learners are doing too much; there is far too much muscular ‘efforting’ in what they are doing. They need to be able to simply stop—full stop—and ‘inhibit’ their current approach. That is a first step. What they want ideally is a sort of wu wei of the technique, a non-doing way of doing, an effortless ‘efforting,’ but they are doing the exact opposite. No amount of trying will get them where they want to go because ‘trying’ will always involve excess muscular exertion.
When I was taught point location in various seminars, iI was instructed to start with a completely relaxed hand (as much as I could manage) on my practice partner’s body. If we cannot let go of the tension in our hands, then we are already off to a poor start with any technique. With a tense hand we will miss subtle distinctions as we look for the precise point location. That is simply the reality of our nervous system. With a relaxed hand we can scan lightly over the patient’s skin and hope to pick up on interesting differences.
In the Alexander Technique, there is no such thing as a relaxed hand without having the proper balance of relaxation and effort overall. I remember one student in a bamboo tube moxa (aka Mizutani-style moxibustion) seminar who was so worried that she would burn her partner that her entire upper body was positively frozen in muscular tension. I jokingly referred to her grip on her moxa tube as the “Vulcan death grip,” and she appreciated the humor. She could recognize the pickle all her over-efforting had gotten her into. This is an extreme example in which wu wei was entirely absent.
I am reminded of one famous juggling teacher whose first lesson was to throw the balls up and let them fall to the ground without making the slightest effort to catch them. Brilliant. What this student needed was to simply sit with a relaxed hand on the tube and meditate, let the tube become a part of her sense of her body, an extension of her hand. Just relax and breathe and not even think of the next step in the technique.
This could be extended to needling techniques as well. Some students are so fearful of causing their patients pain, that they are almost guaranteed to do so. They simply have too much tension in their body. The insertions become so much more comfortable when AT-like inhibition takes place first, then the student moves forward with minimal effort and a well-executed technique.
The AT focus on inhibition is an invaluable step in learning any new skill. Of course, repetition has a role as well—every musician can attest to that, and it is no different with acupuncture. We need to log hours in practicing needle techniques. For us it is unfortunately not as obvious as it is with musicians; many people seem to think it is a simple affair to tap a needle in. Of course, at a certain level it is indeed simple, if the goal is merely to get the needle in, but it is not so simple if the goal is actual healing. But as we engage in practicing a skill over and over, we want to include Alexandrian inhibition. We can “just say no” to the habitual and make each iteration conscious. Our hands enjoy the automaticity brought on by sufficient practice, so that we do not need to put our conscious attention on the step-by-step details of a particular technique. But rather than falling into a machine-like dullness, we practice with full awareness. AT inhibition is a doorway to that awareness.
P.S. There are many books on the Alexander Technique. I recommend people who are interested start with the books from F.M. Alexander himself. His language is at first a challenge, but it is important to hear the core message from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. I also like Michael Gelb’s book, Body Learning.