Illustration by Rachel Woodend.
For as unique as our bodies and individual life experiences and stories are, we all share a quite common experience when it comes to the stories we believe about our bodies. Most of us have long-held beliefs that our bodies are broken, unattractive, unacceptable, and less than perfect. These stories are often a cumulative result of many things, which can include anything from trauma, chronic illness, abuse, negative messaging from our caregivers and friends, unrealistic expectations set by society and the media, ageism and ableism. Storytelling is one way we, as humans, make sense of the world around us and our experiences within the world. But what do we do when those stories perpetuate harmful ideas and stereotypes about ourselves, or others? How can we begin to become conscious of some of these messages so that we might begin to challenge and change them? And, most importantly, how do we change harmful narratives?
I have personally found a powerful tool in an unlikely place: The Alexander Technique. Long believed to be a technique that only changes postural habits, I have found through my personal study of this technique that it truly is a well of wisdom that offers so much more than just the ability to have ‘better posture.’
There are several main principles when it comes to this technique, which include: awareness of our habits, recognition of faulty sensory appreciation, the primary control of our head-neck relationship, non-doing or inhibition, and sending conscious directions to our body of what we desire it to do. All of these principles happen within the container of our mind and body. Psychophysical unity is a pillar of the Alexander Technique; after all, we are not just a mind or just a body, but we are a whole being that is always using our mind and body together, whether conscious of this fact or not.
So, how might one use some of these principles of the Alexander Technique to begin to become aware of and challenge harmful bodily narratives? Let’s take the principle of Awareness. Many times, our thoughts come rushing in throughout the day and become the backing track to our daily activities and therefore, our lives. Thoughts come and go, and at times we pay little attention to these thoughts. If I find myself standing in front of the mirror in the morning, maybe a habitual thought is one of criticism as to what I find is undesirable, or ‘wrong’ with my appearance. This voice is definitely louder than maybe a passing or fleeting thought. Maybe a thought is louder still if I find myself in a dressing room trying on a pair of jeans or on stage in front of an audience as I prepare to perform. Perhaps these thoughts are so habitual and loud that I feel they are automatic and out of my control. Becoming aware of these thoughts can be a challenging but necessary first step to changing our personal narratives. I often think, who does this voice in my head sound like? Me? A parent or caregiver? A bully in grade school? Do I truly, truly believe this horrible, unkind thought about myself?
This is where the next principle of inhibition can be so powerful. Inhibiting, or hitting ‘pause’ on these thoughts, can be empowering. It gives us a moment to truly examine these thoughts for what they are: toxic, harmful narratives that only perpetuate a sense of shame or self-loathing instead of acceptance and love. Traumatic events rob us of our sense of power and autonomy over our lives; in this small, but profound way, we can begin to take ownership over what we allow into our minds, and therefore, into our lives. To really take this work into the realm of psychophysical unity, perhaps we can even begin to become aware of how these thoughts affect our bodies. When a harsh, critical, or unsafe thought enters my mind, what happens to my breath? Do I feel tension in my neck and shoulders? Do I collapse into myself and tighten as if bracing for impact? I feel confident in saying that not a single negative belief about my body will result in having a freer neck or in overall less bodily tension or pain.
Acknowledging how our thoughts impact our bodies, for better or worse, is essential for the next principle in the Alexander Technique, which is beginning to consciously direct our thoughts, and therefore our bodies, into the direction we desire them to go. If I know the belief I have about my body no longer serves me, but only causes me further harm, it serves little use to just become aware of it. Even inhibiting or ‘pausing’ the thought will only get me so far if I don’t also introduce a new thought to replace the old. The old thought will still come, surely, over and over again. But each time it does is an opportunity for me to make a choice: will I allow habitual thinking to keep me stuck in a negative cycle, or will I begin to do the hard but necessary work on choosing what I would like to believe about my body instead? This new idea will certainly feel uncomfortable, forced, or fake at first. It’s not my habit, afterall! But what if I make this choice for myself over, and over, until it does become my new inner narrative? Like stripping wallpaper from an old house, stripping away old stories and beliefs is hard, hard work. But we can start with acknowledging and voicing our desires. What do you want to believe about yourself? Your body? How do you move through this world? What hopes and dreams and aspirations might you possess?
Desires can give us powerful information and help direct our energies in a much richer, positive direction. Pay attention to the moments you feel the most at home within your body: is your jaw clenched? Are you struggling to breathe freely? Or do you find yourself feeling more at peace and more at ease in these moments?
Because of the Alexander Technique, we don’t have to wait for the rare occasion that we notice ourselves in a more desirable state; we can begin to cultivate the life quality we would like for ourselves by creating space throughout our day to pay attention, inhibit harmful thoughts, and make a new choice of what we would like to think and how we would like to move throughout our day. Our body is our original home, one we carry with us through all of our living days. I know the desperation that comes with feeling so unsafe and unwelcome in one's body. But what if this body, this home, could be one of safety, comfort, and refuge for each of us? Think of the peace and gratitude each of us would experience to be welcomed into such a wonderful, beautiful home! We ultimately get to decide what kind of home we inhabit.