Nelson, a musician, was a lifelong smoker and had tried to quit many times. He also struggled with a tendency to overeat and had attendant blood sugar issues. He had tried so many diets that he said he was pretty sure he could write a book about nutrition. It wasn’t as if he didn’t know what to do to improve his life; he just couldn’t find it in himself to develop the new habits that would really effect change.

And then, last summer, he had neck surgery for an old injury, and as part of his rehabilitation, a friend suggested the Alexander Technique. “Nothing I have ever done has had such a global impact on my health,” Nelson says. “It is on the order of learning to read. I learned to inhibit my habits,” he explains, referring to the Alexander Technique’s method of breaking bad habits.

The Alexander Technique was developed in the 1890s in Australia by Frederick Matthias Alexander, a professional orator who had lost his voice. Through a lengthy course of trial and error, Alexander discovered that some unconscious habits in his body, breath, and mind were causing him to inhale hoarsely and tighten his neck, affecting his vocal production. As he unwound his habits, over time his voice recovered. His teaching methods continued to evolve over the course of his life, and the scope of the Technique has widened. In addition to being a great method for reducing chronic pain, it is in the curricula of many prestigious arts training programs. Most actors have studied it, as well as violinists, opera singers, and other professionals in the performing arts.

The Alexander Technique is great for the voice, for posture, for unraveling old habits. But its effect isn’t merely physical. We become aware, for example, of how we inhale—and how we might direct ourselves to create new habits around how we breathe. Or stand. Or move. Or think.

We all have an inner voice. The craving for a sandwich, for example, is part of it; so is the series of decisions around making it (turkey or peanut butter? whole or half?); and so is the self-punishment (the chastisement if we eat too much of it or drop it on the floor). It may not speak in whole sentences, but your inner voice is a powerful tool that can be used to break old habits and develop beneficial ones.

This can work on a minute level. If I’m sitting down and I get the impulse to stand up, it can happen quickly—suddenly I’m out of the chair, and maybe I feel an old injury act up in my back and go through my day unconsciously compensating for it. But if I can develop a process of attentiveness in my actions, my whole self becomes more integrated.

Here’s what it might look like: I can train myself to become aware of my impulse to stand…begin to notice my tension patterns before I’ve even gotten out of the chair…slow down my thinking to the point that I feel myself begin to tighten…ask myself not to (inhibiting the habit of tension once I’ve caught it)…ask myself for an easy neck and a wide, long back…and get out of the chair without yielding to my old tension patterns. This thought process doesn’t have to take longer than a breath but, because of that moment, I’m less at the mercy of my old back injury.

Of course, this is easier to practice with a teacher, who can guide you and give you feedback gently with his or her hands and voice. More often than not in an Alexander Technique lesson, the emphasis will be on the relationship between skull and spine, where most adults carry excess tension. Releasing it has a global effect on the body.

Of his experience with the Alexander Technique, Nelson reports, “Before, I was ignorant of my body except for its injury and how it felt bad. Now, as I’ve learned to release some old patterns, my balance is better, I have more energy, I feel lighter, and I carry myself differently. People I haven’t seen in a while notice right away.”

For Nelson, as for many practitioners, the profound awareness the Alexander Technique began to awaken in him was not limited to the physical realm. It gave him access to greater emotional awareness as well, which was what really let him make headway in changing some ingrained habits around eating and smoking.

“I began to watch myself smoking,” he explained. “Was I bringing my head to the cigarette, or the cigarette to my head?” As he became more aware of what his body was doing, he was increasingly attuned to his sensations as well. “Suddenly I could feel the effects of what I was doing to my body.” His craving for cigarettes abated over the course of two months. “It didn’t taste good anymore, but it also didn’t feel good.”

He had a similar set of experiences around food. “I became aware of a level of satiety as I got more in tune with my body. The Alexander Technique helped me make a connection between my mind and my body. Now there’s a different quality to the cue to eat. I’m no longer eating from an emotional place.”

Whatever Alexander’s intentions were when he started experimenting with his own habits of voice, he unlocked a set of distinctions that let us analyze how we learn anything. Creating a new, efficient, well-coordinated habit is at the heart of gathering a new skill, whether it’s a way to sit or stand, to recite, to play the violin, to type, or to eat. Our degree of awareness of how we use ourselves is directly linked to the minute choices we make in every moment of our lives, and attending to them—rather than surrendering to unconscious habits—improves those choices exponentially.

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Read about Kyra Miller Himmelbaum.

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