by Bill Ross

Several years ago I became fascinated with the connection between physical and mental rigidity. This article is my attempt to summarize what I’ve found and, hopefully, to encourage others to think about how they might become more flexible in mind and body.

It all began when I took a series of lessons in the Alexander Technique, a method of learning how to use your body more efficiently as you go through life. I am not an expert in this Technique by any means, but I’ve learned enough about it to know that it is a truly powerful means of self-transformation – one that deserves to be a lot better known than it is at present.

My original motivation had been chronic neck and shoulder tension that was getting worse every year. I’m a senior pilot for a major airline and sometimes I’d be in so much pain at the end of a day that I could hardly function. I was concerned that this pain build-up might eventually cut my career short.

One of my co-pilots, hearing me complain about the pain, told me that his wife was a teacher of the Alexander Technique and that he had found it very helpful in dealing with the stress of flying. I knew him to be a very solid and sensible person and was persuaded by what he told me to give it a try myself.

I ended up taking a series of 20 lessons over a period of about 3 months, mostly with one teacher in my home town, but a couple with teachers in cities where I had a lay-over.

Those lessons changed my life completely. Within the first few weeks, I became almost totally free of pain – and on those occasions when little pain signals would reappear, I was able to prevent the pain from getting worse by the procedures my teacher taught me.

Because I’m not an expert in the Technique, I’ve decided not to try to explain of define it in detail – you can find lots more about it by going to the Alexander Technique website below. I will say that it is above all an educational method and that once you’ve had some experience with it, you’ll agree that it is a very practical process that makes perfect sense.

Of course I was very pleased by this fairly immediate pain reduction, and my ability to prevent the pain from recurring. But the most amazing benefits for me were a general sense of physical lightness, ease of breathing, what I can only call a lighter step in my walk – and a huge increase in physical flexibility.

Along with all these came something else quite unexpected: For the first time ever, I began to notice physical pattern of stress and tightness in other people. I remember one morning sitting next to a co-pilot Id known for years, but had not seen for several months, and thinking he must have been in some sort of accident because he was holding his head and neck so stiffly to one side.

I was about to say something when I suddenly realized that he had always been that way – I just had not noticed it before!

Airline pilots have lots of opportunities to observe people – other passengers, fellow pilots, other airline personnel – and I started spending a lot of time simply observing, trying to be as detached as possible. I also started observing friends, neighbors and relatives – always with the purpose of observing their patterns of posture and movement.

What I’ve discovered is a pretty high degree of correlation between physical and metal rigidity. It’s certainly not a hundred percent by any means, but its strong enough that I feel its worth paying attention to. So for example when I meet a new co-pilot who appears physically stiff, I’m a lot more likely to take the controls when unusual or tricky situations come up that might require fast and flexible thinking.

It’s definitely a lot easier to make these kinds of observations after you’ve learned how to release excess tension in yourself. But I think that with patience, anybody can learn to make the same sort of observations that I have learned how to do. And in my experience, cultivating an ability to make such observations can make your life a whole lot easier.

Let me give you a specific example – this one from my son who is a junior in high school and who plans to become a physical therapist. He was quite intrigued by my Alexander Technique experience and we spent some time comparing notes about our observations of others flexibility and stiffness.

One day, he came home and announced that his new American history teacher was not only physically stiff, but displayed a great deal of rigidity in her thinking as well: “Threre’s no point wasting time debating with her about her interpretations. It’s just a waste of time – she holds her opinions just like she holds her body. I feel kind of sorry for her.”

I would certainly suggest you give the Alexander Technique a try, particularly if you’re suffering from any of the many stress-related conditions so evident in our fast-paced society – things like back pain, stiffness and repetitive strain injury.

Ditto if you want to learn how to do things better. It’s no accident that the Alexander Technique is best known among performers like musicians, dancers, actors – people whose livelihood depends on their ability to use their bodies in an efficient and flexible manner.


Bill Ross, now retired, was a senior pilot at a major US airline for many years.

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