Prayer, Spirituality, Well-being and the Alexander Technique

Prayer, the body, the Alexander Technique and bad backs

What’s your body got to do with prayer? Isn’t it the soul that prays, anyway??

Over the years – and in different traditions – the way we stand or sit or kneel to pray has changed and some would say it doesn’t much matter what our bodies are doing when we pray. But perhaps it does matter and perhaps thinking about how we stand or sit or kneel might even deepen and enrich our prayer lives. IMG_20140814_140412

The bible has a lot to say about bodies. In the Old Testament, when the people of God ignored God’s law it says, ‘They turned a stubborn shoulder and stiffened their necks’ (Nehemiah 9. 29). The psalmist exhorts ‘Do not harden your hearts’ (Ps 95) and tells us to ‘Stand in awe’ (Psalm 4) and ‘Lift up your hands in the holy places and praise the Lord’ (Psalm 134).

The Alexander technique also has a lot to say about bodies. Many people, myself included, first encounter it because it can help to ease or prevent bad backs. And happily, after a few lessons, my bad back got a lot better, But what made me carry ON having lessons was noticing in myself psychological and emotional changes – I felt calmer, less likely to over-react to situations. I decided to train as a TEACHER of the Alexander technique – which is a 3 year full time training – at least partly because of the psychological – and spiritual – depths it seemed to offer. And also because it is undoubtedly a good way of helping other people with bad backs!

The Alexander technique, which has been around for over 100 years, was first seen as a voice or breathing technique and only later became associated with the relief of chronic back and neck pain. Really, it is about the WHOLE of you – body, mind, emotions, spirit – and how you do the things you do every day – how you ARE in the world. As you become more aware of how you do the things you do, you also become more able to keep calm and think and notice and choose how to respond to the things life throws at you.

Which brings me to the body and prayer. Prayer is sometimes called ‘paying attention’ (Simone Weil) – paying attention to God, to what is really there. In the Alexander technique you learn to pay attention to your usual patterns of thought, movement and behaviour – and gradually to notice what is really happening. And you can learn to press the pause button, to quieten down and choose not to move carelessly, not to react without thought, not to get drawn into endless rumination.

All of these are skills we can use in prayer. In prayer we are choosing to open our eyes rather than to close them, to open or soften our hearts rather than to harden them. We can choose to give ourselves permission to let go – of unwanted thoughts, of unnecessary tension. And we can choose to pay more attention to ourselves and our bodies, which God has created and which God delights in. When I teach the Alexander technique, either in 1:1 lessons or in groups, my underlying aim is always for people to enjoy their bodies – and their lives –their whole selves, a little bit more.

Learning the Alexander technique has certainly changed how I pray. I now tend to keep my eyes open, rather than to close them, as it helps me stay alert and tuned into the world and myself. St Francis prayed that way too so I am in good company!  I vary the position I pray in. When I notice tension creeping in I allow myself to let it go.

So, is there a right way to pray, physically speaking? In terms of position, no. We can pray in any position at all – lying, standing, sitting or kneeling. If you are tense or uncomfortable, however, then it matters because YOU matter.

Here are some ideas to play with to deepen your awareness of your body while you pray:

  • Consider whether your posture suits the kind of prayer you want to practice. If you are engaged in confession, a position with bowed head might be suitable. But is it as suitable for praise? Or for thanks giving?
  • Play with different positions for prayer and consider introducing more variety into how you pray.
  • Pray while moving, walking, bread making or dancing even! I have learned some prayers to say by heart so that I can say them while running in the hills in the morning.
  • Notice tension in your body as you pray and just give yourself permission to let it go.
  • Ask God for a soft, open heart. What might that actually feel like physically?
  • Smile when praying – it lifts the spirits and softens the heart
  • Try praying with your eyes open – like St Francis – so that you can enjoy God’s creation

Fundamentally, consider how you treat yourself, in body, mind and spirit. Jesus told us to love our neighbour as ourselves. So that means treating our neighbour – AND ourselves, ALL of ourselves – with consideration and respect.

As well as being an Alexander Technique teacher, Jenny is also a member of the  Third Order of St Francis and part of a lay leadership team in in the Church of England.

Character Strengths, Prayer, Silence and stillness, Spirituality, Well-being in education

Character Strength of the day : spirituality – the season of advent


Today, with the help of my pupil project team, I led the first Advent assembly at St Paul’s Poynton (ok, a little early, Advent starts this Sunday!).

The children came into a dark hall. They listened and watched as we started to tell the story of the Road to Bethlehem, hearing ancient words from the prophet Isaiah, ‘the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light’.

We lit a candle, for Isaiah, to light the road to Bethlehem. We sat in silence, by the light of that candle, enjoying the silence, enjoying the beauty of a moment with nothing to do, nowhere to go, just quietly waiting – waiting and watching.

Why did we ‘waste time’ like this this morning? Why were the children not cramming an extra 5 minutes of literacy or numeracy into their day? Why bother with a difficult character strength like ‘spirituality’ and why bother with advent in a multi-cultural society?

Well, when I first developed the Road to Bethlehem story with Riddings Infants School, in Scunthorpe, in 2004, we felt that 5 minutes silence, stillness and beauty was an important experience for today’s children – and for today’s teachers, too. We wanted the children to learn to read and write – and to be able to be still and reflect, to notice the beauty of the world around them. We wanted the staff to have a moment of stillness to reflect and breath.

So I invited the staff to explore the ancient Christian festival of ‘Advent’ – a time of preparation and waiting – in the run up to Christmas. During the weeks of our Advent Festival there were moments to be still, moments to pause from the rush and the busyness of the Christmas term, moments to think that perhaps there might be more to life than numeracy and literacy, valuable though these are. Waiting is not a priority today – we want everything to be ‘now’ and ‘instant’ – but in the past, people valued the skill of waiting and we wanted the children to experience it for themselves.

And we wanted the children, the pupils of Riddings Infants, to have magical memories of school, of beautiful moments, so that when they become parents, they will feel positive about their own children’s schools, perhaps breaking a cycle of fear and mistrust about education that can be handed down the generations.

Spirituality is a difficult word to define; it is about things of the spirit, the spiritual life. I sometimes say it is to do with thinking about things ‘bigger’ than ourselves. It points us to something beyond ourselves, beyond our own desires and wishes.

This morning it was my privilege to tell, with my fellow #pupil #storytellers, the first part of an ancient story that we will continue over the coming weeks; to sit, with children, in silence and wait for something magical, something spiritual – the birth of a child; to remember the ancient story of the Road to Bethlehem and to look forward, in hope, to the weeks ahead.

We didn’t talk about religion, we shared an ancient story and we enjoyed a moment of silence together.

We practiced ‘spirituality’ rather than worrying about what it meant. And we did a very unfashionable and counter-cultural thing – we waited….

My version of the story, The Road to Bethlehem, was inspired by Young Children and Worship by S. Steward and J. Berryman, 1989, London: Westminster John Knox Press