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The Art of Non-Doing

By Jean McClelland

I’m realizing that “effort-ing” is counterproductive and creates lots of tension in my body, but when I let go, things seem to flow better. Effort versus letting go and allowing is a theme for me. – recent reflections of an Alexander Technique student.

In Alexander Technique we speak a great deal about non-doing. As Alexander teachers we are trained to have "non-doing hands" that we put on a student. But what does that mean?  Even in our three-year Alexander teaching training we grapple with understanding what non-doing really is. When we start to put hands on a student we are told by our teachers, "Take your hands off your student. You are doing too much. Free your joints."  In trying to make sense of this directive, we then do nothing, so our hands become limp and uninspired. Is that what non-doing means we ask ourselves?  Later, we come to realize that our hands must be open and in a state of allowing. As teachers we must be grounded in ourselves, permitting the earth to support us so that the message our hands give to our students is one of openness and fluidity. We don't impose on our students or try to "fix" them. Rather, we let a student open into our hands which empowers them. In so doing the inner muscles of posture, movement and respiration are integrated. We become coordinated and whole. Our bodies open and our joints remain free.

Perhaps you have heard of the ancient Chinese concept of wu wei. Wu wei is defined as “effortless action” and that seems particularly appropriate to Alexander’s understanding of non-doing and allowing. Try a little experiment to understand "effortless action."  The next time you have something in your hand see how little effort you need to hold it. A reasonably heavy book is a good practice tool. Observe if you are gripping the item and how that affects the muscles of your arm and the joints of your wrist, elbow and shoulder. You might become aware that your breathing becomes less deep and there is a downward thrust through your body. Little by little release the tension in your hand so that you are using the minimum amount of effort. You will notice that as you release your grip on the book you will begin to feel lighter as the weight of the object you are holding is distributed throughout your entire body. 

Many young musicians experience pain from playing their instrument. They grip their instrument with tension which contracts their muscles and pulls into their joints. When they can allow their instrument to rest in their hands so that it feels substantial and organic, pain disappears and playing becomes more satisfying and musical. 

See how many times during the day you can practice effortless action. You will soon notice that you will feel more buoyant and less tense. It is the magic of the mind-body.

Jean McClelland is on the faculty of the Graduate Program in Acting at Columbia University and a guest lecturer in the music department at William Paterson University. She is an AmSAT certified senior teacher of the Alexander Technique and studied with Carl Stough at his Institute for Breathing Coordination. She is one of fewer than a dozen people worldwide personally selected by Stough to teach his work. In addition, she has performed extensively in musical theater and is a member of Actors’ Equity Association. She teaches in-person at One Spirit Learning Alliance, in addition to other in-person and virtual private lessons and group classes. For more information, visit JeanMcClellandVoice.com.

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