This post was written for the Swimming Without Stress website in September 2015
For my birthday, I got a mug with this on:
GRAMMAR: THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN KNOWING YOUR SHIT AND KNOWING YOU’RE SHIT.
Perhaps you can’t have one without a bit of the other.
When I started having Alexander Technique lessons 20 years ago, I was pleased to have a method for getting it all right. The secret is to keep your neck relaxed and your back long and wide. If you get it, your breathing will be natural and your movements free. I felt I was in a special club, knowing about this secret. And in a way I am, because it’s all true and most people have no idea about the importance of it.
The trouble is, with more Alexander Technique experience comes more awareness, of failing to apply it, of going wrong. It isn’t as easy as I’d first hoped. You can’t learn to do the right thing for your body and then just go round being right. You have to keep questioning what’s actually happening. The wrong patterns persist without us realising. Twisting our necks. Holding our breath. Tightening our buttocks. A better, natural way is always there, waiting for us to find it. We can’t make it happen by doing something.
Helping people in the water, I find it useful to remember how much I wanted to get it right when I started having Alexander lessons, how being told my neck was tense made me tighten it more.
My understanding now – that the best thing most of us can do for ourselves in water is just let it support us by doing nothing – has taken 20 years of work. So I can’t expect learners to get it in five minutes. But sometimes I’m too ambitious and sometimes they are.
‘Being wrong is your best friend in this work,’ Alexander was saying about 70 years ago. This isn’t a fashionable idea but it’s true. And I guess it’s a bit like knowing you’re shit, an equally unfashionable teaching but better, if you’re looking for greater freedom, than trying to be right.
If you catch yourself tightening your neck and holding your breath when you’re about to do a breaststroke kick or take your arm out of the water in front crawl, is this a positive or a negative experience? If you’re working on yourself, it can be positive. But if you’re too busy trying to get to the end of the pool as fast as possible, you probably won’t notice it at all and can’t learn anything from it.
‘Stop doing the wrong thing and the right thing does itself.’ The right thing might do itself. But when it doesn’t, knowing you’re shit is better than trying too hard not to be.
For more posts on swimming and the Alexander Technique, visit the Swimming Without Stress blog
Visit the Cardigan Alexander Technique website for more information on Alexander lessons.