The Alexander Technique

Chapter Four - An Alexander Lesson

by Jeremy Chance

Part II

The Chemistry of Your Personalities

Some people want to be told. Others definitely don’t. Some pupils want to please their teachers, other couldn’t care less. We are all so different and the pedagogy of Alexander teachers reflects this: there are all kinds of teachers and teaching.

If you’re someone who doesn’t like asking questions, just likes to absorb what’s going on and listen, then don’t 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 style–demanding that my students take responsibility for themselves by having them tell me what they thought was going on. Later I realised that exciting a pupil’s fear reflexes wasn’t 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? It’s important to feel you have the space to make mistakes. Otherwise you will enter the frame "trying to please" and that’s fatal to Alexander lessons. In Alexander lessons you are learning to change the habits of a lifetime and to do that it’s 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 spade–my teacher Marj was like that. She’d even smack me if I got out of line! In a playful way but sometimes in dead earnest–I’d get scolded. Now, a lot of people couldn’t contend with that–even ideologically, if not emotionally. They thought such behaviour on the part of Marj was wrong. But I didn’t 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 didn’t hurt and actually, I thought it was quite funny.

Alexander was known to have literally thrown people out of his teaching room because they wouldn’t pay attention to their lessons. I’ve not heard that happening these days but I would have enjoyed a challenge like that. Maybe you wouldn’t, maybe I’m warped–who knows? This isn’t about judgements, it’s 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 does–your 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 aren’t quite like anything else and that’s why it is important to get the teacher you can work with before you start lessons.

Your Teacher’s 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 it–I’ve had them nuzzle me with their heads to keep on giving them a lesson. It’s a heartwarming experience. However, I did observe one curious resistance–they 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. It’s 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 insides–it 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. There’s 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 don’t need my pupils to think anymore–these 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.

Listening Hands

Every teacher must train to do this–it is difficult to explain if you’ve 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 don’t want to support any of its weight–you couldn’t, 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 it’s 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.

Inviting Hands

If you’ve 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 Alexander’s 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. It’s what Steve Paxton, a modern American dancer, calls "the inner dance".

So the Alexander teacher’s 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 haven’t 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 doesn’t 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. It’s a surprise that an Alexander teacher’s 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 doesn’t a teacher ask you out straight out to co-ordinate yourself in the way their hands are inviting you to? Wouldn’t that be quicker than fussing around with all this hands-on work? Actually, a good teacher will–but only AFTER they have used their hands to induce in you the sensation of co-ordination they want you to experience. That’s the meaning of the quote that heads this chapter. And the reason for this is simple: ‘you’ aren’t the one co-ordinating yourself. I mean, think about it–do 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 what’s 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 isn’t ‘you’ then who is it? Well, of course it’s ‘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 level–what some people might call the sub-conscious self–in centres with scary names like the basal ganglia, mesencephalon and metencephalon. Luckily these centres are open to suggestion so the Alexander teacher’s 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.

Telling Hands

But if the teacher’s hands can’t engage your mind, you’ll never move. That’s 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!

I’ve yet to experience such a thing myself, but when a teacher’s 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 it’s why people get addicted to their lessons. It just feels so good. (Haven’t I said this somewhere else?)

But ‘telling hands’ can become ‘pushy hands’ and this is something I warn all my students to watch. It isn’t 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 isn’t 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 that–after all, lessons need to be giving you tangible benefits. If not–why continue?

The crux of the matter is that a good teacher doesn’t ‘know’ what is right for you–that’s 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 isn’t right for you! Alexander remarked: "The right thing does itself. All we ever need to know in this world is when we are wrong." It’s 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 you’ll get", my teacher Marj used to tell us "is the absence of what you had".

And then there’d 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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