Health and Wholeness
A Talk at TriHealth Fitness and Health Pavilion
May 14, 2001
Our language is full of expressions which reflect how close the connection is between body, mind, and spirit. Your name TriHealth, while it derives from three hospitals, also suggests this idea of Health in Tri or three – the unity of mind, body, and spirit that is the foundation of health, well-being, and dare I suggest happiness. We have all felt at some time that exquisite wholeness which allows us to simply ‘be’. When we say we feel ‘on top of the world’ or we feel ‘in great shape’, we are expressing a fundamental and easily recognizable truth.
Unfortunately, for most of us this is a rarer experience than the more familiar expressions of disharmony. How often have we said ‘I’m scared stiff’, ‘I’m out of touch with myself’, ‘I’m spineless’, ‘I must pull myself together’, ‘I’m tied up in knots’, ‘I just wish this day would end.’ We can recognize quite easily when someone is not well, or depressed, or so commonly now that over-used expression ‘stressed out’. It was from just such a situation over 100 years ago that Mr. Alexander realized that he had to do something about his own problem.
He was born in Australia in 1869 on the remote island of Tasmania. In his early youth, one of his chief pleasures was studying the plays of William Shakespeare. He became interested in the art of reciting and decided to take it up as a profession. He began to have serious problems with his throat and at times lost his voice completely. This medical condition known as aphonia is the result of stress, nerves, fundamental malfunctioning of the larynx, and inefficient working of the vocal respiratory mechanisms. It is a very common problem affecting not only performers, but teachers, lecturers, and indeed anybody involved in having to stand in front of a group of people and speak. (Here’s hoping that I am practicing my beloved technique). The medical advice which he received was the same as what would be suggested by many ear, nose, and throat surgeons today: ‘Rest the voice. Speak as little as possible and the problem will probably go away. Mr. Alexander did what was suggested, but unfortunately the problem immediately returned, so that at the end of his next recital he could hardly speak.
He asked his doctor whether it was fair to conclude that it must be something he was doing in using his voice that was causing the trouble. His doctor agreed but could not say what the “something” might be. Mr. Alexander decided that he would have to try and find out what was happening and began on the long journey of self-help – for that is what this is all about: helping oneself and trying to understand the nature of our problem.
He set up a series of mirrors to see if he could discover what he was doing that was causing the problem. As he watched himself closely, he began to notice he was making many movements of which he was totally unaware. He became very discouraged, but refused to believe the problem was hopeless. He began to see that what he thought he was doing was not what was actually happening. He realized he needed to stop. He had seen so many postural problems begin to happen as soon as he decided to speak: he retracted his head, lifted his chest, and stiffened his legs. All of these attitudes happen when we are frightened. We call this reaction “ the startle pattern reflex”. If I were to clap my hands suddenly and you got a fright, you would exhibit this response. (Demonstration) This always happens when I have a fright and prepare the body for flight or fight. While it is very helpful for our survival (like not being hit by a car), it is probably a little excessive for everyday fears – like speaking in public. So the first thing Alexander realized was that he must try not to stiffen his neck and hold his breath prior to speaking. It seems a simple thing to say, but this habit is one which we all find incredibly difficult not only to change, but indeed to be aware of in the first place. If I were to ask you now “Is your neck stiff?”, or were to suggest you may be slightly holding your breath, would you have known?
This relationship of your head, neck, and back is of fundamental importance to good psycho-physical use. The word psycho-physical is a neat way of combining the ‘psyche’ – mind, and the ‘physical’ – body, for, as we shall see there is so little difference between them. They are either working easily together or not – the very word dis-ease shows this breakdown or lack of ease. Of course, I am not suggesting that there are not problems of viral infection, birth defects, injuries, and the myriad number of (to quote Shakespeare) “ill the flesh is heir to” – but I am suggesting that often our problems can be considered in a psycho-physical way, and we, like Alexander, can ask ourselves ‘could it be something I am doing that is causing, or at least not helping the problem?’.
Mr. Alexander had made a very significant scientific discovery – he was not a scientist, but through his experiments and observations he was able, by an indirect route, to formulate a technique which leads (as he listed in 1903) to better oxygenation of the blood, to greater ‘vital capacity’ or greater lung capacity and efficiency of the breathing mechanism, better digestion, removal of strain from speaking, and improvement of heart function. Later in the last century, Professor Nikolaas Tinbergen, when he accepted his Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1973, spoke of the great importance of Alexander’s work. He noted (and I quote) “very striking improvements in such diverse things as high blood pressure, breathing, depth of sleep, overall cheerfulness and mental alertness, resilience against outside pressures and in such a refined skill as playing a musical instrument.” – This leads me to the final part of the triangle of mind, body, and “spirit”.
The Greek word ‘pneuma’ can mean either breath or spirit. Our breathing pattern is called Respiration – when we breathe in we inspire ourselves. All of us are creative beings. Sometimes we may feel that it is only the performer or the artist who is creative. These people are in the public eye and indeed earning their living through their art, but all of us have the possibility of creating the life we long for. Again Shakespeare says it so simply when in Julius Caesar he says “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in our selves.” We have the chance to claim our inheritance to make life easier for ourselves, to fulfill our potential and to start to take the pressure off ourselves. The unity of mind, body, and spirit is not something that we can acquire immediately. It takes, like all skills, time and practice and we need to allow ourselves to make mistakes.
There is an old Sufi tale that tells of our search for answers. After the gods had created the world, they decided they would create truth. In order that we humans should not discover it immediately, they had to decide where they should hide truth. Should it be put on the highest mountain, or in the deepest cave, or on the farthest star? All the gods had different ideas as to the best hiding place, but the oldest and wisest god had the best idea. He suggested hiding truth in the very heart of us, knowing we would look all over the world long before we thought to look inside ourselves.
In this new millennium we are realizing that getting to know ourselves, coming back in touch with ourselves, is the true route back to health – Tri Health. Again, William Shakespeare gives us the words: “What a piece of work is a man. How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form, in moving, how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god. The paragon of animals, the beauty of the world.”