A few years ago — during a road trip from Boston, MA, to Burlington, VT — I noticed the engine of my hire car was working quite hard and the steering was heavy.
When I stopped at a farm to investigate, and to sample some maple syrup and cheese, I realised that I hadn’t fully disengaged the parking brake when I started driving.
I’m re-reading the book How You Stand, How You Move, How You Live, written by Alexander Technique teacher Missy Vineyard, which uses this analogy to frame a kind of chronic muscle tension that we all have (emphasis mine):
When we move with too much muscle tension, compressing vertebrae and joints and pulling ourselves out of balance, [the locomotor] system can’t function well. It’s like driving the car with the emergency brake on. Tension and imbalance put stress and strain on your muscles, joints, bones and nerves. It restricts your breathing, interferes with your circulation and more. Over time this can lead to all sorts of problems.
It’s a helpful, real-world analogy, because if you find yourself driving with the parking brake on you immediately know that the correct course of action is to disengage the parking brake. And I’m sure you know what would happen if you didn’t realise the parking brake was on and just kept driving anyway. I bet you were even cringing a little as you read my story.
What if I told you that your 'muscle tension parking brake' is on right now — at least a little bit — and you just don’t realise it?
Can you notice it? Can you disengage it?
Actually, these are both trick questions, in a sense.
It’s likely that you can’t notice this chronic tension easily because it’s familiar. It’s already a background part of how you do everything that you do. Imagine if I had driven all the way from Boston to Burlington with the parking brake on. I would have just thought I had been given a crappy hire car and put my foot down more, damaging the car in the process.
The easiest way to notice what this tension is like is to experience what happens when it’s removed, perhaps with the help of an Alexander Technique teacher. During an in-person lesson you might get a sense of “aha, this new way of being feels so light and easy, I now recognise all the tension I was carrying before!”
From there it might seem reasonable to expect that you could remove that tension by yourself, but — I’m sorry — probably not.
When you’re driving the car with the parking brake on, there is a state “parking brake = on”. Another way of saying this is that, moment by moment, the car is continually asserting the state “parking brake = on”. And what you want is to change that state to “parking brake = off”.
But imagine that you don’t know there is a parking brake at all — you just know that something isn’t quite right and something needs to be done. You push every button and try every pedal in different combinations, and everything you do either has no effect on the car or makes the situation worse.
The solution is actually to stop doing something that you don’t know is being done!
This is what it’s like with chronic tension. Even if you know it’s there, chances are that everything you try to do to make it go away either has no effect or makes it worse, because you haven’t yet figured out the ‘move’ you have to make that points to stopping doing something instead of doing something else.
This is the trap that Alexander Technique frees you from.
So how do you do it? How do you escape the trap?
Paradoxically, you do it by not trying to, because to try is to put more effort into things that you already know how to do, and ‘stop doing tension’ is not something you currently know how to do.
Trying is only emphasising the thing we know already."
Instead, I invite you to follow this process:
And then wait, patiently, without expectation, and keep noticing what you notice.
You may assert a gentle intention of “I want to stop doing this” if you want, but be careful to keep this non-judgemental, because judgement will incline you towards trying not to do the thing, which is what you want to avoid.
What you’re aiming for is to ‘decline to give consent’ to your urge to fix — the Alexander Technique skill of inhibition — while maintaining a clear intention that you want to stop doing the thing.
Then watch as your system changes itself.