Expanding Awareness

What is the Alexander Technique?

By Michael Ashcroft | 5 min read
Photo by Christophe Hautier on Unsplash

You’re probably familiar with this well-known, yet misattributed, quote from Viktor Frankl:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom." Not Viktor Frankl

But… how?

At its heart, Alexander Technique is a method to notice, expand and ultimately play within that space between stimulus and response.

This has an enormous range of applications. While Alexander Technique is most commonly associated with physical performance — and it’s often used by actors, musicians and athletes — in reality the entire scope of human experience can be enhanced by being able to make new conscious choices in response to things that happen in our internal and external worlds.

An example I often use is one of getting angry at someone in conversation. When in ‘fully automatic’ mode — which you could characterise as a kind of autopilot or ‘choice unconsciousness’ — you might just get angry and yell at them. The notion that you had any option to take a different path wasn’t available to you; there was no space between stimulus and response.

That’s what Alexander Technique is about, but the actual experiencing of it has another, much richer dimension to it, which is around the conscious control of awareness. And it’s this that I think has attracted so many people to want to explore the subject more.

A quick primer. You are probably very familiar with attention, that spotlight that you can move from thing to thing (with varying levels of success, depending on your executive function). You have your attention on these words right now.

Awareness, on the other hand, is the space that attention can move around within. Awareness is the capacity, moment by moment, to be able to notice things that could be noticed.

This graphic comes from the book “The Mind Illuminated” by Culadasa (John Yates), which describes the same distinction between attention and awareness. You can have your attention on the face of the person you’re talking to, while the sound of the aircraft or the dog are in your awareness

Right now, your attention is on these words, but you might also be able to notice the temperature of the air, ambient sounds or feelings of pressure in your body. And if you weren’t aware of these before, notice that you are now with me reminding you of them.

For example, let’s say you’re busy working on the computer: writing, coding, analysing, reading, whatever. Such intellectual things have a capacity to really pull you in and collapse your awareness… to the extent that you might not realise that you needed to use the bathroom hours ago. The feeling was there the whole time, but you didn’t (and couldn’t) ‘notice’ it, and as such it was outside your awareness.

Things that are outside of your awareness are not accessible to you; you cannot choose to engage with something until your awareness includes it.

Awareness is a characteristic of human perception that is independent of, but related to and highly affected by, attention. It’s like a ‘user interface’ that we use to exist and navigate as conscious agents in the world. We seem to think awareness is like a TV screen that we just passively watch or get guided by, when in fact we can reach in, interact with it and direct it.

Awareness has a shape, size and ‘boundary’ of variable permeability. It can be compressed, expanded and its contents can be made more or less vivid.

And all of this, bizarre as it may sound, can be brought under your conscious control. The spatial component is why I call this website “Expanding Awareness” — I mean this quite literally.

Now I know what some of you may be thinking here: “this all sounds suspiciously like silly woo”. It certainly crossed my mind when I first encountered it — my physics degree and career in low carbon energy innovation didn’t quite know what to make of it.

You’ll have to take my word for it, but in my three year part-time training as an Alexander Technique teacher, I was the annoying rational one, always trying to come up with falsifiable hypotheses, designing repeatable experiments and trying to catch out my fellow trainees. I was satisfied that there is really something here, something important and additional to the existing ‘mindfulness’ discourse — something I want to share more widely.

Like meditation and other contemplative practices, this is a way of exploring and increasing our capacity to be and act in the world, it’s just that we’re doing it subjectively — ‘from the inside’, so to speak. And, often, we seem to be accessing the parts of the brain that don’t use words, so we sort of have to point, gesture, and use examples and metaphors to gain entry to these new ways of being. Even though I don’t know how these things work, I know after years of testing that they work: I just don’t fully understand the physical mechanisms yet (working on it).

The Alexander Technique — at least the way I see it — is about showing you that awareness is so much more than you think it is, showing you how to gain conscious control over it, and how that conscious control of awareness can be used to develop a greater sense of ease and agency in any aspect of your life, whether it’s how you move, how you think, how you perform, how you speak, how you relate to others or how you relate to yourself.

Awareness is a User Interface
In What is the Alexander Technique? I defined awareness as "the space that attention can move around within; the capacity, moment by moment, to be able to notice things that could be noticed." Let’s play a game. First, please look at this optical illusion. Is it a
How to dance without trying to dance
There’s a particular way of being we inhabit when dancing. Dancing is a kind of availability, a capacity to respond to the invitations of each moment in a receptive, fluid and open way. When dancing without a partner, say in a club or at a concert, the music is
Disengaging your parking brake
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