The Alexander Technique

Chapter One - Introduction

(Please note: This is a slightly longer version of Chapter One)

by Jeremy Chance

The Alexander Technique is really quite a remarkable thing. Is it like yoga? No. Is it like shiatsu or acupuncture? No. Is it a psychological thing? No. So what is it? Exactly. Aldous Huxley is famous in the Alexander world for inventing this metaphor: understanding Alexander’s discoveries without experiencing a lesson is similar to a life-long blind person’s understanding of red. You invent a meaning but it is only an approximation of the experience. Stanislavsky, a famous turn of the century acting teacher, once taught his students: "To understand it to feel".

The Alexander Technique, before anything else, is a "sensation", a new feeling. And what a sensation it is! You will come out of your first lesson felling like you haven’t done for years. Your step will be light, your neck will feel free–you will feel yourself moving as agilely as a cat. And all your Alexander teacher will have done is rightfully restore what was always yours to begin with.

Here’s the first fact that makes this technique such an enigma to everyone who studies it: you are not going to learn anything new–everything you will learn you already knew before you started–but you didn’t know that you knew. Confused? Good. You are starting to have your first Alexander experience. Get used to it. In fact, if you try to learn something ‘new’ you will only hamper your progress. Alexander: "Trying is only emphasising the thing you already know." The thing you want to learn is the absence of what you have, and that’s nothing. How can an absence of something be something? As my loved and treasured teacher Marjorie Barstow always used to remind me: "All you want is a little bit of nothing. The trouble with all you people is that you all want something. And the something is your habit."

Alexander’s discoveries are all about our habits, all about discovering what we are already doing to ourselves.... The primary premise behind Alexander work, so at odds with most educational systems, is that if something is wrong it will be because we are doing something to make it wrong. Find out what that thing is and stop it. Then, as Alexander always used to say, "The right thing does itself."

So Alexander work is about unlearning. It is about increasing an awareness of yourself so you can discover, right under your nose, the things you are doing that are causing you harm. I once had a pupil who came to me with a problem of a stiff neck, which was hampering his concentration at work and causing him headaches. He had tried everything. He had been manipulated, massaged, exercised–you name it, he’d tried it. And all that this great effort had brought him was only temporary relief. But as I watched him spin his tale of woe at the first lesson, it was no mystery to me why nothing had helped. His head never stopped moving the whole time he talked. Nothing too violent or obvious but nevertheless, constant, unrelenting tiny contractions occurred to empathise every second word. Here was his problem clear as daylight to see, but he was too busy looking to look at his looking.

That’s how Alexander lessons proceed–it is like you have to get behind your eyeballs and see how your seeing. You have to stop, make space in your mind, consider alternatives and make a thoughtful, wakeful response to your problem. It nearly drove this pupil crazy–and there was the deeper cause of his problem. A profound sense of impatience, an insatiable need to be filled, a need that motivated incredible tension in his body. Alexander teacher’s aren’t therapists and that is the limitation you meet in lessons.

I am not about to claim that Alexander can fix everything–it can’t. Although there are some teachers who think like that, I am not one of them. I used to be in fact but during my long teaching experience, I have come to see that changing patterns of behaviour can only proceed so far by observing patterns of movement. One pupil of mine had been violently abused by his father for many years. He had been clubbed, clipped, punched and pushed in the name of ‘manlihood’ and ‘love’. He was forever on standby, as though he still felt that at any second his father would approach him from behind, as often happened in his youth, and painfully box his ears, thinking it was funny as the frightened child cowered in fear.

Lessons improved his lot considerably but they never touched the heart of his profound tension towards life. What lessons did do, and here’s the advantage of the Alexander approach, is wake him up to the problem. By closely observing himself in the simple matters of sitting, walking, standing, talking etc. what slowly emerged for him was this profound pattern of fear. Lessons couldn’t resolve that fear, that takes a very different kind of work, but lessons led him to see it for the first time. And then he began to understand all manner of situations and reactions which had completely befuddled him before.

So, what the Alexander work isn’t is a therapy or counselling technique. Nor is it a treatment–although it will make you feel much, much better. You are a pupil, not a patient and you are going to a lesson. This is very important to Alexander teachers because it is easy to confuse this work with therapy for the simple reason that it cures ailments.

The list of conditions that have been favourably improved by Alexander lessons is almost embarrassing. Rather than take my word for it, it is better I quote from Nicholas Tinbergen’s Nobel Oration speech in accepting the prize for medicine in 1973 as testimony to this remarkable curative effect that lessons can have: " We noted etc...

These results, however, are not the aim of the lesson and not the reason to go. Alexander: "The whole organism is responsible for specific trouble. Proof of this is, that we eradicate specific defects in process." What the actual process is can be found in Chapters 4 & 7: a description of an Alexander lesson and Alexander’s own process of discovery that led the evolution of this technique.

What you will learn in your Alexander lesson is how you ‘use’ yourself, how you co-ordinate your body movements to do everyday things. ‘Use’ is a term that Alexander used in a particular way. It is meant to imply the manner in which you co-ordinate your whole self: body, speech and mind. One of Alexander’s earliest realisations was that thinking of body as just body and mind as just mind was deceptive. His longhand version of ‘use’ was "psycho-physical use of the self". In this book, we will stick to using the word ‘use’ or ‘co-ordination’ to mean the same thing.

There is an entire conceptual framework within which Alexander works rests–Alexander’s work, as much as anything, is a practical philosophy of life. "Organised common sense" was one pupil’s description. This view is not religious, not even spiritual–it is entirely practical, as Alexander was himself–after 10 years of painstaking research observing himself in front of mirrors–an eminently practical man. However, there is a similarity between the two. Alexander: "The essence of the religious outlook is that religion should not be kept in a compartment by itself, but that it should be the ever-present guiding principle underlying the ‘daily round’, the ‘common task’. So also it is possible to apply this principle of life in the daily round of one’s activities without involving a loss of attention in these activities".

In your lessons you will come to understand this ‘principle of life’ and whether up are a Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, atheist, agnostic or anything else matters little–Alexander’s work is still to you. Alexander’s can be summarised quite simply: it is a practical technique for changing your reaction to a given stimulus. There is no morality in this, no real criteria to be found within Alexander’s philosophy for discerning a moral response. Alexander used to claim that if you were a thief, his work could only make you a better thief. The criteria upon which a favourable reaction is judged in Alexander work is simply one that does you less harm, that encourages your good health and happiness. It is that simple.

Lessons will often make you happy. They are able to achieve that because they can ‘lighten’, quite literally, the pressure you feel in your body. That there is a relationship between emotion and bodily states of tension is not in dispute any more these days. Alexander work won’t counsel you on your emotional dilemmas–it will assist you in becoming aware of their consequences in the spheres of bodily tension. "Belief is a muscular activity" declared Alexander, and this work leads you to ‘see’ these activities in muscular action.

During a lesson a teacher will achieve this by using his or her hands. This is described at length in CH 4 "An Alexander lesson". The hands-on work is central to your lesson for without it you could not realise your habits. Sensing your habits alone is like trying to see blue against blue–it is difficult. The hands-on element of a lesson changes the geography of your co-ordination so that, against that change, your ‘habitual use’ appears more starkly to you.

The ‘critical moment’ will become a large part of your lesson. This is the key to the Alexander outlook. In life there is a stimulus and, usually, a pretty immediate response. Alexander work seeks to wrench open these tightly knit two and insert a little space of conscious awareness and thought. The messages that you insert within that moment, learnt from your Alexander lessons, are called ‘directions’ and chiefly concern the manner of co-ordinating your head-neck and body.

Those ‘directions’, if applied successfully, will result in one and one thing only–ease. Things can be done with a minimum of tension, a minimum of effort. The emotional truth of this is that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to be angry and have little tension. "Tenseless anger" is an oxymoron. So, in this manner, lessons can lead you to confront moral questions in your life. You observe that you are entering an unhealthy state of mind, simply because now you feel your neck getting stiff, your leg beginning to ache–whatever. What will you do?

As lessons progress you discover that you cannot apply the Alexander ‘directions’ and remain in the state that you are in. Either you accept your condition and give up trying to change it, or you start talking to yourself and discovering a means of making a change. And that’s the first danger in applying Alexander ‘directions’ to deal with unbalanced emotional states. Be very careful of this kind of application of Alexander’s work. When you reach this level of sophistication in applying Alexander’s discoveries it can be of great benefit to work with a therapist skilled enough to help you process the patterns of thought and feeling that you are meeting through your Alexander lessons.

The breadth of the work is breathtaking, if you really see it through. Yet, in application to emotional difficulties, Alexander work is open to abuse. Some people, a few Alexander teachers included, use Alexander ‘directions’ not to free themselves but to cover up, to put a mask over their emotions. They become, in my words, ‘Alexandroids’ and you can feel something false about them, something ‘put on’. If this is your feeling in giving ‘directions’ then you are not applying the work as Alexander intended it. No technique was ever created that didn’t have the possibility of going wrong built into it.

In this instance you still feel what you feel, and you still have the tension that goes with it, but you ‘put’ your body, not ‘release’ or ‘allow’, but ‘put’ your body into a position of holding and remain there ‘gritting your teeth’ so to speak. Moshe Feldenkrias, the inventor of a movement system of his own based on Alexander’s discoveries, used to claim that some Alexander teachers looked like they had a broom stick stuck up their back. They appeared ridged. In your enthusiasm to get things ‘right’ it’s very easy to fall into the trap I am talking about.

However, now I am leading into a territory that is advanced and that isn’t the purpose of this book. This book is written with the assumption that you are a beginner. If you are thinking of taking lessons, this book will give you advice on how to find a teacher, what kind of lessons you might encounter and what can be expected of you by your teacher. You will also find this book helpful once you have started lessons. In the beginning many pupils feel a little confused by lessons–this book is a little like the modern FAQ file: "Frequently Asked Questions". Although it isn’t written in that form, you will find that most of your questions will be answered as best they can in a written form.

For those of a more adventurous spirit, this book can be used to experiment on your own. Not everyone has easy access to teachers, if they have access at all. In CH 3 "Anatomy of Movement" I have attempted to set up a series of experiments for you to try that reflect Alexander’s own. they are quite difficult and require patience, diligence and concentration. Even better than trying these on your own, is to try them once you have had a few lessons. If you do that they will only serve to deepen your understanding of the work.

Taking Alexander lessons is an adventure and I have tried to reflect that in writing this book. Although everyone commonly thinks of it as a "body therapy" it really isn’t that at all. If you were going to label it anything, you’d have to say it was about your mind, and how your mind influences your body. Alexander lessons don’t start with your body parts, they start with your thinking. So in CH 2 "Physiology of Movement" that’s where we begin–looking at how our mind talks to our body at a biological level.


The Alexander Technique by Jeremy Chance is available from the Alexander Technique Bookstore(USA) in Association with AMAZON.COM and the Alexander Technique Bookshop(UK) in Association with AMAZON.CO.UK as both a book and an audio cassette book. (The later is called Thorsens Principles of the Alexander Technique and differs slightly from the book.) In both stores it is listed under "Introductory Books about the Alexander Technique"

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