The Alexander Technique
Chapter Four - An Alexander Lesson
by Jeremy Chance
The Chemistry of Your Personalities
Some people want to be told. Others definitely dont. Some pupils want to please their teachers, other couldnt care less. We are all so different and the pedagogy of Alexander teachers reflects this: there are all kinds of teachers and teaching.
If youre someone who doesnt like asking questions, just likes to absorb whats going on and listen, then dont stick with a teacher that prods you all the time, especially if it creates anxiety on your part. If you feel anxiety during a lesson you are in no state to learn anything. Once I taught in a much more confrontational styledemanding that my students take responsibility for themselves by having them tell me what they thought was going on. Later I realised that exciting a pupils fear reflexes wasnt really a smart way of helping them to take responsibility for themselves, so I softened my approach and gained a little more patience.
Is your teacher patient with you? Its important to feel you have the space to make mistakes. Otherwise you will enter the frame "trying to please" and thats fatal to Alexander lessons. In Alexander lessons you are learning to change the habits of a lifetime and to do that its important to have a sense of support. Support, however, can appear many different ways depending on your personal outlook.
For example, I like a teacher who calls a spade a spademy teacher Marj was like that. Shed even smack me if I got out of line! In a playful way but sometimes in dead earnestId get scolded. Now, a lot of people couldnt contend with thateven ideologically, if not emotionally. They thought such behaviour on the part of Marj was wrong. But I didnt react that way. First, I realised Marj was born in 1899 and grew up with very different values. Second, and far more to the point, I knew that Marj actions were entirely motivated by a desire to help me learn and I wanted to learn. So, no problem. It didnt hurt and actually, I thought it was quite funny.
Alexander was known to have literally thrown people out of his teaching room because they wouldnt pay attention to their lessons. Ive not heard that happening these days but I would have enjoyed a challenge like that. Maybe you wouldnt, maybe Im warpedwho knows? This isnt about judgements, its about what works for you right now.
Alexander teachers are human beings and can be as insecure as the next person, so make sure the chemistry with your teacher works for you. If it doesyour experiences will deepen with each lesson. If not, you will always be protecting a little bit of yourself, and protection is nothing else but a kind of tension. Alexander lessons arent quite like anything else and thats why it is important to get the teacher you can work with before you start lessons.
Your Teachers Touch
Your teacher will touch you. Continuously. How will you feel about that?
I tell a story here which illustrates how special this touch is. Over the years I have conducted many experiments putting my Alexander hands-on skills to work with horses. Actually, most of them love itIve had them nuzzle me with their heads to keep on giving them a lesson. Its a heartwarming experience. However, I did observe one curious resistancethey did not like me to touch them with Alexander hands at the place of an injury. The strange thing about this is that I could stroke them or pat them in normal kind of way at the same spot, but as soon as I put my hands on with professional intentions, they pulled away. Its was as if they instinctively knew that those Alexander hands could mess around with their insides in a way that a normal stroking or pat never could.
Alexander hands-on work does mess around with your insidesit recalibrates the automated programs of co-ordination and, with a skillful teacher, you can it feel happen almost despite yourself. The more skillful the teacher, the less you have to think yourself. Theres a story of Alexander in his later years walking out from a lesson looking at his hands and remarking something along the lines of: "I dont need my pupils to think anymorethese can do everything."
I regularly help to train Alexander teachers and have done for years. One of the first lessons I give them when they are starting out is to tell them they can use their hands in three ways:
1. To listen
2. To invite
3. To tell.
It will be useful to analyse these in turns for, as a pupil, it is going to help if you understand what your teacher is setting out to do with their hands. It is unique.
Every teacher must train to do thisit is difficult to explain if youve never had a lesson but the closest approximation I can think of is this: imagine you are using your hands to maintain an incredibly heavy object in balance through its own axis. You dont want to support any of its weightyou couldnt, it would crush you. Nor can you lean on it, as it would fall the other way. So, in that manner, both you and the heavy object remain an independent balance, neither object uses the other to support its weight.
At the same time as there is this independence between you and the object, there is also a continuous, gentle interdependence of balance occurring. For example every time the object begins to fall off its balance, you gently correct it. Every time you feel that you are leaning too much, it begins to fall the other way, so you must correct that too. It is only by listening to the balance of the object that you are able to make these subtle corrections. The sooner you sense the change and counteract it, the less effort is required on your part.
Alexander teachers are trained to listen to your co-odination in that way. They can pick up an incredible amount of information about the continuously occurring shifts of balance in your co-ordination and, with that information, move to utilise the second aspect of their skill.
If youve read Chapter 3 "Anatomy of Movement" you will be familiar with the wide variety of directions that different parts of your body can be moving in the simple act of standing. Standing is an activity, a process of adjustment and readjustment. Sir Charles Sherrington, a Nobel prize winner and early century physiologist who made favourable remarks about Alexanders work, once pointed out that "The human being in the act of standing is constantly at the edge of catastrophe." Watching the first steps of an approaching toddler is testament to that. Its what Steve Paxton, a modern American dancer, calls "the inner dance".
So the Alexander teachers hands are listening to that inner dance you are making all the time: your head falling back, your neck pushing down, your rib cage collapsing and bending back, your hips thrusting forward etc. etc. I havent even begun to describe all the various subtle variations on a theme are contained within these larger movements.
Having understood the pattern of co-ordination you are currently making, the teacher then uses his or her hands to talk to your nervous system directly and invite it to make a different kind of inner dance, one that doesnt cause so much downward pressure and tension in your body. This can be a quite a complex invitation, because every second millions upon millions of motor neurons are causing excitation in millions upon million of muscle fibers in response to millions upon millions of continuously changing conditions. Its a surprise that an Alexander teachers hands can get a word in at all! It is why it takes three years of training for an Alexander teacher to have even the basic skill in their hands. It takes a lifetime to perfect.
Why doesnt a teacher ask you out straight out to co-ordinate yourself in the way their hands are inviting you to? Wouldnt that be quicker than fussing around with all this hands-on work? Actually, a good teacher willbut only AFTER they have used their hands to induce in you the sensation of co-ordination they want you to experience. Thats the meaning of the quote that heads this chapter. And the reason for this is simple: you arent the one co-ordinating yourself. I mean, think about itdo you really control, or even sense, all these subtle shifts and changes that are occurring every second in your head, neck, chest, pelvis, arms, legs and jaw while you are simply standing or sitting? You have no idea whats going on, in fact, as Alexander put it: " we do not know how we use ourselves any more than the dog or cat knows."
Something is energising this inner dance and if it isnt you then who is it? Well, of course its you but not the conscious, volition aspect of your self that most of us identify with. This inner dance is being controlled by brain centres below the conscious or cortical levelwhat some people might call the sub-conscious selfin centres with scary names like the basal ganglia, mesencephalon and metencephalon. Luckily these centres are open to suggestion so the Alexander teachers hands are inviting them to dance together in this new way. If things go well, and you co-operate with this invitation you soon feel a change in your body. This is the "sensation" that your Alexander teacher is inviting you to experience.
But if the teachers hands cant engage your mind, youll never move. Thats where your co-operation is so essential. There are very few teachers in the world now that possess the skill that Alexander was renowned to have had in his hands. He could take you out of a chair by placing one hand on the top of your head and literally draw you up into standing up by the sheer force of the direction in his hands. It felt like (I was told) that he was quite miraculously sucking you up into the air despite yourself!
Ive yet to experience such a thing myself, but when a teachers hands are really effective, they do tell your co-ordination what to do. You watch the results in amazement as your body transforms without you seeming to do anything. It really is quite the most remarkable thing to feel and its why people get addicted to their lessons. It just feels so good. (Havent I said this somewhere else?)
But telling hands can become pushy hands and this is something I warn all my students to watch. It isnt nearly so pleasant an experience to have a teacher manipulate you into a pattern of co-ordination that he or she feels is the right one for you. You go away from the lesson feeling like they look and it just isnt you. This can happen if the teacher is impatient, or a little bossy or just too full of their own ideas about what is right and wrong. You have to be the judge of thatafter all, lessons need to be giving you tangible benefits. If notwhy continue?
The crux of the matter is that a good teacher doesnt know what is right for youthats too presumptuous and sadly, there are way too many practitioners of all kinds who think that they do know. What we, as Alexander teachers, know is what isnt right for you! Alexander remarked: "The right thing does itself. All we ever need to know in this world is when we are wrong." Its learning how to stop the wrong thing from happening that emancipate the right thing into action.
To achieve this our hands talk to your sub-cortical nervous system, while our words talk to your conscious mind, so that together both pupil and teacher can learn how to prevent the mosaic of inappropriate movements that have collectively resulted in the condition of malco-ordination that brought you to the lesson in the first place. "All youll get", my teacher Marj used to tell us "is the absence of what you had".
And then thered be a little twinkle in her eye.
"An Alexander Lesson" - Part I
"An Alexander Lesson" - Part II
"An Alexander Lesson" - Part III
"An Alexander Lesson" - Part IV
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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