The Alexander Technique

Chapter Four - An Alexander Lesson

by Jeremy Chance

Part III

The Actual Lesson

Depending upon the lineage of your teacher, a lesson can proceed in many different ways. As I have discussed these differences at length in Chapter 6 "Teachers", here I will just describe the central components of any Alexander lesson, regardless of the ‘style’ the teacher is working in. Maybe some of these components will be missing from your lesson–well, ask yourself the question: am I learning? If it’s yes, be content. Every teacher has a right to use their own methodology and it may not be the one I have described so neatly here. This is how I give a lesson.

Every lesson has a primary purpose of offering you a new sensation. It is a sensation of co-ordinating yourself in a new, easier and natural manner. A good teacher should be able to give at least a small taste of this experience in the first lesson. However, if that was all the lesson was about we shouldn’t be calling ourselves teachers.

A lesson aims to do a second thing: to put that new "sensation" into a context that you understand. What you are there to learn is how you can generate this "sensation" for yourself. It is the working material of a lesson, the substance of what we observe, experiment and discuss with you.

The classic device around which to centre these observations, experiments and is what is quaintly called "chairwork": we take the simple act of you getting in and out of a chair. I once had an eccentric older man with a big bushy moustache come for a lesson and at the end, as he was walking out the door he suddenly stopped, turned back, looked at the chair, looked at me, shook his head and declared "What an extraordinary way to earn a living!".

It is extraordinary. Where else would you pay a lot of money to learn how to get out of a chair? About this Alexander remarked "It’s not getting in and out of chairs even under the best of conditions that is of any value; that is simply physical culture–it is what you have been doing in preparation that counts when it comes to making movements."

So, actually, you aren’t learning how to get out of a chair–it is a device, a method, not an end in itself. We could just as well be watching you play an instrument, walk, talk or, in fact, do anything. I once saw Marj help a woman put her overalls on! This is another puzzling thing about your lesson: there are no exercises, no set ‘routines’ that you can go home and show others or practice on your own. Try to tell someone what happened at your lesson and their eyes will glaze over, a lesson is about changing the state of your consciousness and, as such, can only being understood through experiencing this change.

So a good lesson consists of a delicate interplay between observation, interpretation and experimentation, centred around the theme of getting in and out of a chair–or anything else you care to do.


My teacher Marj once told me "I don’t teach my pupils anything until they have made an observation for themselves". So, at the start of the lesson, you will be asked to offer any observations you have about your co-ordination as you get in and out of the chair. This may be done before the teacher works on you or after the teacher works on you. Most people are totally confused by this request. what, actually, am I supposed to observe?

They say things like "I felt I pushed" or "It was hard". Of course, these aren’t observations, their interpretations, so begins the first aspect of your learning–to understand the difference between an observation and an interpretation. If you say something like "I felt I pushed"–pushed what? Be specific. Your arms? Your legs? If you say something like "It was hard"–that isn’t an observation, that’s a subjective judgement based upon your experience. What was the actual experience you had–can you describe that? What were the elements that lead you to interpret it as "hard". If we can come to understand these elements, it becomes possible to alter them, or at least experiment with altering them.

A rough definition of ‘observation’ that I use for my pupils to ask them to imagine they are explaining to blind person what they did with their bodies. Could they visualise that if you used words like "hard" and "pushy"? Not accurately–they have to make it up. But if you said something like "I pulled my knees together and lifted my shoulders as I pushed them on my legs and that was why it felt hard" then our blind friend would be closer to understanding what you actually did, as opposed to how you felt about it.

My teacher Marj taught that one aspect of an Alexander lesson is to train you in a whole new language–discovering a vocabulary that will allow you to confidently navigate the terrain of your co-ordination. A surgeon friend of mine once declared to me that a London cab driver knows as much as him: they both need to know the name and location of hundreds of objects so that they can help other people. The principle is the same–its only the vocabulary and their objects that differ. In that way, Alexander lessons consist of defining a new vocabulary–in this case the ‘objects’ are sensations and movements.

Having got thus far it is time to make sense of all these observations, to interpret them in a way that renders them useful.


"This chair is very uncomfortable!"

That simple statement, so often thought by people everywhere every day, has an interpretation at the back of it, an assumption that leads a person to think a particularly way about the problem of feeling uncomfortable in a certain chair. Actually, it is a quite a useless way to think, depriving you of all control over your situation and making the chair more powerful than you! However, I don’t say it isn’t true–it’s an interpretation, so it’s as true as you want it to be.

What’s an alternative interpretation? How about "I do something in my co-ordination when I sit in this particular chair that causes me to feel discomfort!". Now who’s the villain? Not the chair anymore–you just took responsibility for yourself and stop blaming the chair. While that may not so comfortable to live with, it is far more useful, for within that interpretation a different kind of action is available to you.

Now, instead of spending your life looking for the ‘perfect chair’, you can spend the time more usefully discovering what you actually do and learning to stop it. Think of it this way: does every person have exactly the same experience of discomfort that you do when they sit in that chair? Of course not! So that suggests that the discomfort doesn’t really come from the chair’s side of this interaction, even though that may be how you experience it, it comes from your side, it comes from something you are doing. Your Alexander teacher will help you discover what–it is one of the reasons to take lessons in the first place. The way that you discover that ‘something’ is by experimenting with different sensations of sitting in that chair, compliments of your Alexander teacher’s hands.


The proof is in the pudding–personally, I love to take a pupil who is thinking "This chair is uncomfortable" and work on them till they do feel comfortable. Then I casually ask "Oh, by the way, is the chair still making you uncomfortable?" For themselves they realise the shortcomings of their previous way of thinking and start on the long road of taking more responsibility for their experiences. This particular procedure is actually an experiment designed to change a pupil’s thinking.

A good Alexander lesson should be full of such ‘experiments’: where your old idea of doing something is challenged by a new experience of it, thereby leading you to rethink your whole reaction to a given problem and to decide to respond to it in a different way. Alexander: "Boiled down, it all comes to inhibiting a particular reaction to a given stimulus. But no one will see it that way. they will all see it as getting in and out of a chair the right way. It is nothing of the kind. It is that a pupil decided what he will or will not consent to do."

Who cares if you got out of a chair in a ‘better’ way because the lesson isn’t about that–the point is: can you duplicate this process on your own?? Alexander: "If you apply the principle to the carrying out of one evolution, you have learned the lot." In your lesson you will come to understand how to apply the concepts of ‘direction’ ‘inhibition’ and ‘faulty sensory perception’ in your everyday life. Although I analyse these three concepts in greater detail in CH 7 "Alexander’s Story", let me briefly introduce them in the context of an Alexander lesson.


This word can have a number of different meanings, even in the context of Alexander’s discoveries. In a lesson it refers mainly to the four ‘directions’ that are explained at length in Chapter 3 "Anatomy of Movement" as well as to the actual process or how of thinking as opposed to the what (you are thinking about). Alexander teachers also talk a lot about ‘doing’ and ‘non-doing’ in regards to giving ‘directions’. These are subtle shadings of meaning of this word ‘direction’. Didn’t I warn you there’s a whole new vocabulary to learn?

‘Doing’ directions are the kind everyone does when they are trying to "sit up straight", "pull the shoulders back", "chin up"–all that sort of thing. they can be defined by saying they are thoughts that result in volitionally contracting muscles.

‘Non-doing’ directions are inhibitory in nature–they aim to prevent certain patters of contraction, thus they can be defined as thoughts which result in the indirect inhibition of unnecessary contractions.


Notice I used that word in the last sentence "…the indirect inhibition of unnecessary contractions. Just as with the word ‘direction’, ‘inhibition’ has many meanings, even in an Alexander context. In the sense of ‘inhibiting’ muscles it is necessary to understand that this is a positive biological function of certain motor-neurons. It is not to be equated with ‘suppression’ which is quite a different thing. Let me explain.

"Excitation" and "inhibition" are two technical names that physiologists use to describe the function of a motor-neuron–one of the essential components of our locomotive system. Previous to the discovery of "inhibition" physiologists used to think that motor neurons only "excited" muscles to contract. It was quite revolutionary to discover that there were actually motor neurons devoted to the "inhibition" of muscle contraction.

Alexander discovered this long before the physiologists proved it in the laboratory. He quickly realised that if he could ‘inhibit’ one set of reactions, it was not possible to supplant them with another. To do it any other way simple meant he would merely be "layering" one set of actions on top of an older set. Alexander: "You can’t do what you don’t know if you keep doing what you do know". So in Alexander lessons first you discover what the directions you are giving to yourself are at the moment, then learn to ‘inhibit’ those directions and instead give the ‘directions’ that the Alexander teacher’ hands are giving.

There is a much profounder meaning to ‘inhibition’ than this simple ‘chemical’ description of the physiologist, although this is still the basis of any change we make. Changing a simple habit of co-ordination might involve us in letting go of an identity that we have built up of ourselves–all the emotional complexities inherent in achieving this. I explore this in greater depth in CH 7 "Alexander’s Story" but essentially it means that we have a ‘false’ view of ourselves, a view that is based on our ‘sensory appreciation’ and gets us into whatever the trouble was the brought us to lessons.

Faulty Sensory Appreciation

It is extremely import to understand this concept of Alexander’s and many people don’t, including some Alexander teachers . The key aspect of this concept is that it says your appreciation or ‘interpretation’ of the event is faulty. It doesn’t mean your perception of the actual event is faulty but many people are under the understanding that it does.

The concept is best understood initially in psychological terms that we are all familiar with. If Beatice tells Tony, Ingrid and Sally to be quiet, that is an event. None of those four will dispute that Beatice said that. As far as hearing, seeing etc.–there’s nothing ‘faulty’ about their senses. However, how does each appreciate that event? Well, Tony thinks that Beatice is trying to boss everyone around and has it in for him, so he’s irritated. Sally, on the other hand, is happy, because she perceives that Beatice is trying to help them all. Ingrid is puzzled–she’s just met them all and wonders just why Beatice is saying that. One event, three different perceptions. Who’s right?

That’s where we leave this example for the criteria to assess the answer to that question becomes very complex, even impossible to define. Luckily, as far as our co-ordination goes, it is easy to define what is ‘right’. What is ‘right’ is what is easy. What is ‘right’ is what leads us towards freedom, flexibility and general good health. However, many ideas of people’s ‘right’ for example, is at odds with this. A perfect example of this is that many people feel that a slump is ‘relaxed’. Relaxed? A slump? When did slumping for two hours ever leave you feeling relaxed–so that all the stiffness, heaviness and strain was completely lifted from you body? Think about it and you’ll realise what an absurd idea it is to think that slumping is relaxing. Yet–that is our appreciation of it, that is how we think about it when we slump and, in Alexander’s terms, that appreciation or thinking is faulty. To us, we feel like we are relaxing when we slump, yet all the objective evidence refutes that. Still, even knowing this, we still feel that way. We need to re-educate this feeling or belief. We need Alexander lessons.

Sometimes, in other Alexander books, it might be referred to as ‘faulty sensory perception’ but this is misleading for the word "perception" refers to your interpretation, not your actual perception of the event. It might seem like nit-picking but, as you will, this distinction is vital. Without it, no work could be done alone.

"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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