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Concept Spotlight: Inhibition

by Ellen on April 15th, 2016

I’ve been talking a lot with my students recently about the Alexander concept of “inhibition.” I originally posted a Concept Spotlight about Inhibition back in 2011, but it’s one of the most important concepts in AT, and as such certainly bears repeating.

One of Alexander’s main principles is that habits are so thoroughly ingrained in us that all it takes is the mere thought of a course of action to send us halfway into a habit. Remember, for Alexander a habit is defined as a conditioned response to a stimulus, so merely thinking about the stimulus itself can send us into the habit right from the beginning. If we attempt to correct a habit after noticing that it is already happening, we will be so far into the pattern that change at that point is nearly impossible. In order to change the habit, we must go all the way back to the instant the stimulus is given, and stop the habit before it starts. This is where Alexander’s “inhibition” comes in.

Think of inhibition as a game of Simon Says. You are given an order, such as “please take a seat.” Since Simon didn’t say to do it, you withhold your action, refusing to allow yourself to start a habitual movement pattern. In a practical sense, you stay standing. This opens up space for you to make a choice about HOW to complete the action. If you just sit without thinking, you’ve lost the game. In an Alexander Technique lesson, the teacher works with you to hone your skills at this Simon Says game until you yourself can play both parts, giving orders and at the same time withholding action upon them until you’ve made your choice.

If you’ve ever played Simon Says, you’ll quickly realize that the idea of playing it by yourself doesn’t really make sense, since you know the order is coming and are not actually reacting in the moment in the same way as when the order is external. This is why it’s so hard to practice the process of inhibition – you have to catch yourself in the moment. Practicing in a lesson inevitably feels forced, since your teacher has informed you ahead of time of the incoming order. Like much of the Technique, you can only really arrive at inhibition indirectly. My general strategy, therefore, is to assign the student inhibition ‘homework’ rather than working directly with it during lessons.

One of my favorite non-Alexander quotes is from Socrates, who said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Inhibition is like that; it’s learning to entertain a thought without your whole self jumping to embody it.

Forward and Up! is a Pittsburgh-based private practice offering quality instruction in the Alexander Technique in a positive and supportive environment.

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