The Alexander Technique and the endless learning of freedom in motherhood

(an account of a personal experience)

After several years as an Alexander teacher, I had the joy of bringing a child into the world at the age of 38. This is such an intimate area of experience that I am sure each woman lives it in her own way and discovers her own guide-lines. Certainly I make no claim to declare any great "truth" about it; nevertheless, something urges me to shed a little personal light on this, my own experience of application of the Alexander Technique, the practice of which was an enormous help to me throughout pregnancy, during the birth of our son, and afterwards in learning the fascinating job of being a mother.

For anyone who doesn't know the Alexander Technique, I would just say that it teaches us a better way of using oneself, a better psychophysical co-ordination for everyday actions like walking, talking, eating, as indeed for more specific skills such as writing, using a computer, or dancing, singing, playing a musical instrument (to mention just a few examples in which the Technique has often proved helpful). Whatever we want to do, the Alexander Technique draws our attention to certain basic principles, briefly :

  • That time (however short) is needed for choosing a suitable reaction to a stimulus. (Learning this frees us from the tyranny of habits that may be inappropriate to a given situation. Alexander said "The right thing does itself" and this is often true, provided we can avoid a reaction that is too speedy and unconsidered.)
  • That certain key relationships between parts of the body affect the co-ordination of all the rest. (I'm not talking about fixed positions – but about dynamic relations that should be respected whatever we are doing. For instance, it has been shown that total co-ordination suffers if the head is not freely poised where it encounters the neck.)
  • That in everything that concerns how we use ourselves, the relation between "ends" and "means" can usefully be given more detailed attention than is usually the case. We should favour the means rather than the end, understanding that a well-directed intention (it may seem like "only a thought") can be the necessary means to guide us into freedom of movement.

These great principles, which are a source of discovery for me every day of my life, produce extraordinary echoes throughout the experience of child-bearing and child-rearing. Banishing fear, finding confidence, letting things happen naturally without interfering too much – letting "the right thing do itself" – taking the necessary time, accepting simultaneously one's responsibilities and one's freedom – these have been some of my constant allies.

 

Pregnancy

Carrying life within me offered a splendid opportunity to think doubly about my use of myself, for myself and for the child I was carrying. This double responsibility, towards myself and towards the child, contributed enormously, I think, to the fact that throughout the pregnancy I never suffered any of those disagreeable effects of which I had often heard tell: aching legs, back pain, problems of digestion, circulation, respiration, etc.

The new weight grows gradually, allowing time for adaptations, and the balance of the whole body changes bit by bit. I knew I should not try to compensate for the forward weight by taking the upper body backwards, producing a hollow back and collapsing the neck forwards as the centre of gravity moves forward. If I could avoid that, the whole organization of my balance would naturally adapt satisfactorily to the merest thought of a minute movement backward from my ankles. This new balance allowed me to carry the baby, not "in front of me", but "in me". I had an intense experience of the importance of thinking about width across and between my shoulders, back and front, and my back became fuller and stronger as it responded to the new demands on it. Thus the baby had the chance to rest comfortably in what I think of as a little "hammock" of abdominal muscles indirectly suspended from my head and shoulders.

Being thus aware of the importance of "staying in one's back, of maintaining good contact with the ground, while allowing one's back to have all its length and all its width, one preserves space, for the baby, and for oneself – which surely helps to limit digestive problems and breathlessness.

What could be more reassuring for a little creature than to be well supported from the earliest moments of his existence? The idea of carrying my baby well, of supporting him properly, while at the same time giving him the space he needed, was there long before he was born.

In this way, I was not at all "weighed down" by the baby's increasing weight. Walking remained a pleasure; so did going up and down stairs. If the legs don't have to put up with useless pressure on them from above, they can remain in good condition.

What is more, the Alexander Technique, by reminding us that we can take our time, that we can choose not to go forever headlong towards our various "goals", helps to maintain balance, mentally as well as physically. During this period when one can be emotionally quite fragile, the Technique offers tools for remaining – or even for becoming – calm and restful within oneself. Physically one is making space for the growing baby, while mentally preparing to welcome him. He will certainly benefit from both aspects.

 

Giving birth

(or, as I prefer to think of it, letting the child come into the world)

Regarding the actual birth, in my experience the essential is to let things happen, not to interfere too much in this process that is so natural, that has been around for so many, many years… to let the contractions do their work, letting small opening-up movements happen when and where they must, to make way for the child.

In this process, fear is certainly the chief enemy. Pain-engendered fear stops one allowing the contractions to do their work. Fear has a stiffening effect, and so causes additional suffering, which increases the fear: a vicious circle which blocks the flow of certain hormones that act as natural painkillers. It is important to be aware of the pathway followed by the baby as he makes his way into the world, and to understand how indispensable it is to remain available to the internal opening-up process which allows the baby's head to make its way through the birth channel.(1) Small adaptations in the sacro-iliac joints and at the pubic symphysis have already been prepared by hormonal change, and one remains available also to these.

Feeling myself loved and encouraged by my husband, totally confident in the team of gynaecologist, physiotherapist and midwife – these, for me, were indispensable factors. This is a time when the emotional element is enormous, and the sense of being well supported is correspondingly important.

I needed all that confidence, so as to be able to accept the pain, to accept the contractions without stiffening with fear when I felt them coming, thinking instead of letting go, of letting things happen, of allowing my neck to remain free. (Incredibly, that works! When I thought of letting the neck be free, I found that my whole body released its tensions, and the wave of contractions could, as it were, break over me without completely drowning me!)

That choice, not to tense up, not to stiffen the neck and hence all the rest of one, can, when all goes well, make it possible to cope without recourse to an epidural anaesthetic. It enabled me to live this birth to the full.

The work of preparation with an excellent physiotherapist, combined with my own practice of the Alexander Technique, helped me to direct my pushing to the best effect while at the same time continuing to think of my head going in the opposite direction, thanks to the freedom of my neck and thus of my back and pelvic region. All this helped me not to get out of breath. The physiotherapist told me – echoing Bernadette de Gasquet (2), who had trained her – "it's a bit like easing a glove off your hand!" That is to say, instead of expelling the baby, my task was now to retreat so as to allow him to enter the world. I think that is essential.

 

Confidence in the mother in me, confidence in the child who guides me

The work of the Alexander Technique does not stop once the child is born! All the principles involved are precious allies in motherhood.

First of all, confidence: confidence in oneself, confidence also in the "competence of the new-born child" as Brazelton says (3). Not wanting to do everything too well, which implies a fear of doing things badly; rather, I should be prepared to let the necessary skills develop naturally. Our pediatrician says "Don't do too much, don't try too hard." So, let me be, in Winnicott's words, "an ordinary, normally devoted mother" – no more! (4)

And then, giving myself the time to react. Faced with this little person, my desire to get everything right is such a strong stimulus! I discover that time given to myself when responding to the stimulus to take care of him, that also is time that I offer to the baby. If I can avoid rushing into action, perhaps patience will be easier for him too? At least, he will not be living with a continuous impression that I am under stress, that everything is urgent.

The absence of rush also gives me a chance of "listening" better, of being more aware of all the information my baby can give me. He tells me, in his own gentle way, Don't hurry, look at me, we are fine like this, don't worry, stay here quietly and enjoy this moment…Giving him time, to play with him, to rock him, to enjoy him in all sorts of ways, being available to him and at the same time learning to give myself time for me… that's how he will learn that we can all do good to ourselves, and that it can sometimes be really fun to play all alone.

Besides all that, I can benefit from mistakes: it is in recognizing them that one learns. Brazelton emphasizes this (to relieve parental stress, I suppose). And it's the starting point of the Alexander Technique: just being aware of mistakes already constitutes enormous progress, and will help us not to repeat them.

One's own co-ordination is reflected in the relationship with the child. Winnicott underlines the importance of "holding" and "handling". The way in which a child is held, carried, handled is certainly linked to the way one "holds oneself" – linked, too, to the fear, or its absence, of letting him slip – again, it's a question of confidence. Just as when he was inside me, when his father or I carry him in my arms, it is important to support him well, so that he feels safe enough to get acquainted gradually with the fact of gravity. On the other hand, we must leave him enough room, not clutch him tightly as though he were constantly in danger of falling. He should feel that we, too, are confident, sure of ourselves and of him.

My own psychophysical co-ordination, reflected in the way I carry the baby, has an effect on all the movements I make so many times every day – with a baby who, week by week, gets heavier and more and more active! The bending and straightening up again that are involved repeatedly, whenever I take him in my arms to change him, to give him his bath, to feed him, to put him to bed; or when I hold and cuddle him during long moments: all these activities could become painful if I don't take care of my own co-ordination. Now he is carried, no longer "in" me, but against me, all I learnt during pregnancy is still so useful: I know better than to lock my joints, I know the dangers of leaning backwards from the waist with my hips pushed forward; I have learnt to leave my shoulders quiet and not lift them or my elbows when I'm carrying my son, or while breast-feeding.

I have noticed, too, that the arts of "fathering" can also benefit from what the Alexander Technique has to offer! I am sure that at each stage we come to with our son, the Alexander Technique will accompany us faithfully, teaching us to have trust in ourselves and in him, helping us to be at the same time firm and reassuring. Each day, with him, we continue to learn a bit more: all three of us are learning that freedom goes hand in hand with responsibility, and above all, that we can make choices that help our life to be delightful, amusing, tender, and light-hearted.


(1) This is well explained in Blandine CALAIS-GERMAIN, Le périnée féminin et l’accouchement, éditions Désiris, 2000.

(2) B. de GASQUET, Bien-être et maternité, Editions Implexe

(3) T.B. Brazelton, On becoming a family, Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, 1981

(4) D.W. Winnicott, Babies and their mothers, Addison-Wesley Publishing Co. Inc., Reading, MA, 1987

 

© Claire Destrée-Nayer, Brussels, 2003