This was written for the Swimming Without Stress blog in April 2016.
Sometimes, after twenty years of Alexander Technique work, I struggle with my cornflakes. If I think about what I’m doing, I’m fine. But, rushing around before I’ve woken up, I don’t chew or swallow properly.
Quietly suffering with my breakfast stuck in my gullet, I’m right back at square one. Years of Alexander Technique count for nothing if I don’t remember, ‘I am eating my cornflakes!’ and give myself time.
To rescue myself, I direct my neck to be free, so that my head can go forward and up, out of my body, and my back can lengthen and widen. These Alexander Technique directions can be relied on to help get everything moving again. I wonder why I didn’t do this in the first place, before breakfast, and prevent the small crisis.
Looking on the bright side, there’s a lot to learn from this basic act of eating breakfast. I’m pleased to know that something which seems to be going so wrong with a bodily process is just my lack of attention to the process of eating. It’s satisfying to work on it, to stop myself from going wrong; to be able to carry out an everyday act with success.
People tend to see swimming with the Alexander Technique as a way to perform the strokes with good biomechanics, without undue tension, and with grace and flow, which it can be.
But both accomplished swimmers and people learning to swim benefit from giving attention to basic tasks in water, at a cornflake eating level. These tasks aren’t just stepping stones to real swimming, they’re important in their own right.
For example, I was working with Lucy this week on side balance for front crawl. We were observing each other to find out differences between our A and B sides. I asked her to put her hand on the crown of my head as I kept it still, rotated my body to the left with my right arm in front, and gently kicked. Then I asked her to do the same while I changed arms and repeated the exercise on my other side. ‘Your head felt harder,’ she said. So I did it again, with more direction, and she said it felt softer. But like almost everyone I’ve ever worked with, I’ll always have a preferred side.
It isn’t easy to feel what you’re doing yourself. So it’s useful to get feedback from someone else, or from something going wrong, like getting water up your nose when you turn to breathe on your B side, or choking on your cornflakes.
The further you swim, the less likely you are to notice your front crawl A and B side, or your tendency to gasp when you come up for air in breaststroke. Sometimes it’s nice just to get on with it, not thinking too much about what might be going subtly wrong. But with the enjoyable sense of rhythm and motion that continuous swimming brings, there is for most of us a corresponding lack of awareness of what we’re actually doing.
With Alexander Technique experience, when you’re splashing around in the shallow end and you notice something going wrong, you begin to enjoy that moment of clarification. Being in the water can help us learn more about our dry land selves. Marjory Barlow, Alexander’s niece, often reminded her pupils that ‘being wrong is the best friend we’ve got’. It doesn’t matter if we go a bit wrong in the shallow end. And it’s more useful and interesting than rushing around, or going along trying to be right.
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.