Perhaps you’ve heard of the Alexander Technique, a tried-and-true method to help actors and singers with their voices. But that’s only the beginning. It’s also known to dramatically help people with neck and back pain, to build poise and even boost your mood.
I just finished a 5-day retreat on the Alexander Technique and now believe it is the perfect body-focused complement to meditation, which focuses more on the mind. I’m excited to share an interview with one of my mentors, who literally wrote the book on the Alexander Technique, Michael Gelb. He’s also an expert on leadership and recently published The Art of Connection: Seven Relationship Building Skills Every Leader Needs Now. From poise to pain to management, here are some insights from Gelb to delight and inspire you:
What is the Alexander Technique and is it fair to say it’s a nice complement to meditation?
More than 100 years ago, F. M. Alexander discovered that when we are stressed, when we feel fear or any negative emotion, we tend to reflexively contract the whole body and hold the breath. Dr. Frank Pierce Jones of Tufts University called this ‘The Startle Pattern.’ Jones observed that in a world overloaded with stress and fear-inducing stimuli, many people form an unconscious habit that locks in these contractions. The Alexander Technique is an ingenious method for becoming aware of — and gradually releasing — these unnecessary tensions, thus bringing more grace, awareness, and poise to life. Alexander lessons provide a “tune-up” for your kinesthetic sense so it becomes easier to notice and prevent patterns of habitual contraction in our daily activities. This includes sitting in meditation, or sitting and walking in Vipassana… So, yes, it is an ideal complement to meditation.
In your life and with your clients, how important do you find the mind/body connection?
Very! In 1978 I introduced Meditation and Alexander Technique to the executive team of a multinational computer company. That was my first corporate program, and it was called The Mind & Body Seminar. In a popular TED talk Amy Cuddy, PhD shared her research demonstrating that when you adopt certain postures ( like Wonder Woman!) you feel more powerful. I know her research is controversial now, but I do think it’s fair to say that in a “power-posture” it’s difficult to feel depressed, and also that if you slump and contract your body you’ll discover it’s hard to feel optimistic.
Since Descartes we’ve tended to view Body and Mind as separate entities, but this idea is beginning to shift. In 1918 Alexander [the founder of the Alexander Technique] wrote, “The so-called mental and physical are not separate entities. All training must be based on the indivisible unity of the human organism.” His insights were early but incredibly prescient now that it’s becoming mainstream to integrate the body and mind and learning to understand ourselves and our world from a more “integral” or “holistic” viewpoint.
Are people better leaders when they meditate and/or learn the Alexander Technique? How and why?
Yes! The Alexander Technique is taught at The Juilliard School and many other of the world’s elite institutions for training performers. Why? It is the best method we have for developing a compelling stage presence. Over the years I’ve introduced it to leaders at all levels to help them strengthen their “Executive Presence” and presentation skills. It works! I’ve also taught meditation to my clients to help them manage stress and access deeper creativity. I’ve worked with many leaders as they’ve evolved their careers, and these two complementary disciplines continue to be critical elements in my clients’ growth. Moreover, Alexander Technique plus meditation helps put the “consciousnesses” in Conscious Capitalism. I’m passionately dedicated to contributing to a better world by championing this movement.
Can You give us a quick tip on how to apply the Alexander Technique?
Yes. Begin to monitor the amount of energy you put into simple, everyday tasks. Do you need to hold your breath and raise your shoulder to use your toothbrush or cut a carrot? Can you hold the steering wheel of your car with less of a death grip? Every meditation class begins with an invitation to sit upright, aligned around your vertical axis. Are you sitting in this poised manner when you join a meeting or meet friends for lunch? Alexander discovered that the way we use ourselves in everyday life has real consequences for our awareness and well-being. You can try this today, even right now as you read this article!
I know you just published a book on The Art of Connection (for leaders). Is it fair to say connecting with yourself makes you a better leader?
Yes. As my colleague, Professor James Clawson, emphasizes: “Leadership is about managing energy, first in yourself, then in others.” In order to manage energy, connection with oneself is essential. Doing this effectively in our crazy world means that we all need all the help we can get, but Alexander Technique and meditation are great ways to start.