One exercise that comes up a lot in my Alexander lessons is a way of working with the exhale: to count rapidly by fives, either silently or aloud, while exhaling.
I’m not sure that I understand this: if I’m counting, I’m using up breath and so actually shortening rather than lengthening the exhale, aren’t I? The point of the exercise (I think) is to note how long the exhale was and so make it a bit longer each time, but when we do this, I often wonder if the effect isn’t self-fulfilling: the breath you’re taking tends to mold itself to however long you want it to be: so if I’m counting to ten, the breath will be about that long, and if I’m counting to forty-five, it will be about that long instead. There is of course an upward limit to your natural exhale-length before you have to think about how large a breath you’re going to take, but within a range I don’t really think that it matters.
The reason for putting attention on the exhale in the first place, as I understand it, is because the inhale is always coming anyway, while the exhale is where we have more conscious choice. So counting while exhaling makes sense on principle, but I often find it distracting in practice. If I want a really pleasurable exhale, I’m not going to count out loud while exhaling. What about counting silently? If I try it, I find that, even moreso than with counting out loud, it’s hard to use as a yardstick of the exhale-length; my breath tends to adapt to however long I know I’m going to be counting for.
So what do I really learn from this exercise? I suppose I notice the ways in which my mind plays tricks on me. I’ve found that Alexander lessons in general tend to show me the various little ways in which my mind and body play tricks to hide tension or hide a lack of relaxation, expansion, openness. This often creates a feeling that I’m “stuttering” through the lesson in a physical (and sometimes verbal) sense.
And though I’ve been taking lessons for a few months now, the “stutterings” tend to happen with about the same frequency as they did when I began working with Leland. Does this mean I’m not making progress? Or that I’m making constant, steady progress? I don’t know – apparently I haven’t yet found a way of gauging progress. Small habits that aren’t necessarily great habits to have – like my tendency to crack my fingers and toes – haven’t changed (yet) as a result of my Alexander lessons, though it’s been pointed out to me many times that this doesn’t release tension from the joints, but actually does the opposite: creates tension. More tension within my body is not a desired goal, but I keep doing it for the same reason a smoker smokes: something about it just feels good.