The Spiritual Dimensions of The Alexander Technique
by Patty de Llosa
Like many of you, I've been a spiritual seeker all my life, a student of many religions and mind/body practices. One of the paths I wrote about in my recent book, The Practice Of Presence: Five Paths For Daily Life, is the Alexander Technique, which is, in my opinion, a direct path to the development of awareness of inner presence in outer life.
I came to the Technique late in life, after many years immersed in the Gurdjieff teaching and the practice of Tíai Chi. Although my first sporadic classes with David Gorman were tantalizing, as a hard-working single mother I had little time to explore it. Minor injuries following a car crash a few years later brought me to Judy Stern, whose teaching rekindled my interest. Finally, I retired from Fortune magazine to train at The American Center for the Alexander Technique (ACAT).
The daily 3-hour classes were a joyous combination of work and play as we pursued inquiries that renewed my exploration of wholeness and balance: "What am I doing?" "What am I thinking about?" "Am I lost in some interior dream instead of here in my body and in the world?" The most challenging was: "How do I use myself?" Having loved the adrenaline surge that comes with deadline pressure, I was forced to reexamine what years of stress might be doing to my body. As F. M. Alexander believed: "No matter how many specific ends you may gain, you are worse off than before, he [Alexander] maintained, if in the process of gaining them you have destroyed the integrity of the organism."(1)
But how was I to wake up from the passivity of my habits? As many spiritual disciplines tell us, a major stumbling block to living a more present life is the very remembering to return to ourselves. The Alexander training vibrated with a new question: "Where am I?" It became a path to centering which carried the authority of the age-old cry: "Who am I?" When I mentioned this at the Sweet Briar Alexander intensive, a companion pointed out that Godís first words to Adam, after that infamous bite of the apple, were: "Where are you?" So the search for where my attention rests, in space and in my body, can be a simple reminder to wake up to the present moment, or much more -- a call to reexamine the meaning of my life on earth.
This sense of meaning often escapes us in our day-to-day struggles to survive. A barrage of multiple stimuli forces us to adapt even as our environment literally changes under our feet, so we seldom have time to allow our nervous system to quiet down and return to its own natural rhythm. Alexander teachers work every day with unbalanced patterns that have become chronic.
I'm probably preaching to the converted, but the point I'm making here is that the service the Alexander Technique can bring to the suffering bodies and psyches of the 21st century contains a very special vibration, similar to that of many spiritual practices, whose effects are not limited to improved use of body or peace of mind. Whatever is going on in the hyperactive or depressed person or someone complaining of lower back pain or carpal tunnel syndrome, habitual patterns of misuse also point to an essential need for help on other levels. Hidden behind our suffering is a misunderstanding and sometimes even a lack of respect for the person we are.
In fact, a human being is a biological and psychological miracle. Many spiritual disciplines, using many languages and methods, seek to develop harmony between our three personal worlds, head, heart and body. The work they engage in aims at restoring our relation to the cosmos as well as our personal equilibrium. To bring the whole human being into balance, it's necessary to quiet and focus the mind's intelligence, study and defuse emotional stresses, and activate the organism in a way that allows it to move freely. Think "one at a time and all together."(2)
What are the practices these disciplines offer? Certainly they offer non-judgmental observation, awareness of mind-wandering and emotional stress, and relaxation of bodily tensions in meditation. But some spiritual teachings go further to add that while quiet concentration is essential, it's also important to develop the habit of noticing ourselves in the midst of the demands of life. Sound familiar?
My first path was that of G. I. Gurdjieff, a teacher and philosopher of the first half of the 20th century. As a teenager I grew up immersed in his ideas, which meant that I grew up questioning everything. Gurdjieff called on us to "remember ourselves," and by that he meant the whole of ourselves, not just a part. He invited us to discover in ourselves what he called real "I," with the aim of becoming a real person, not just a person "in quotation-marks."(3) Given to teaching in parables, he said that we live in a big and beautiful house, but spend most of our time in the basement, or even holed up in the coal cellar!
The study of this largely oral teaching has enriched every aspect of my life and shed light on all my other investigations. For example, in the early sixties Master T. T. Liang, just arrived from Formosa, introduced me to a new dimension of presence, grounded in deep body awareness. Although I had driven myself for many years in the pursuit of increased consciousness, like a light shining down from above, T'ai Chi offered a different approach, connecting me with forces below the mind. As Lao-tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching: "In the pursuit of learning, every day something is acquired. In the pursuit of Tao, every day something is dropped."(4)
Those words from the sixth century B.C. resound like an Alexander principle. We are trying to learn to do less, both in our own efforts and with our students. The human tendency to busy ourselves with "doing" calls to mind a comment F. M. supposedly made to a student: "I ask you to do nothing and you immediately do something to do nothing!"(5)
I taught the Gurdjieff sacred dances and T'ai Chi in Lima, Peru, where I lived for 18 years. When I left my husband and returned to New York with my three children a harsh time began for me. Depressed and miserable at ending my marriage, I began to read the works of psychiatrist C. G. Jung, who wrote about the dark side of ourselves, saying: "We have in all naivete forgotten that beneath our world of reason another lies buried."(6)
A scary thought, but I sensed the importance of knowing what was going on in that nether world of my unconscious, which I'd resolutely turned my back on all my life. So with the help of a Jungian analyst I began to face some of the darker aspects of myself, discovering how much energy can be available as one frees oneself from the prisons of fear, tension and guilt. I also took part in Marion Woodman's "Body/Soul Rhythms" intensives.
By now I was working at Fortune magazine where I later became deputy chief of reporters. Meeting Deborah Tacon for lunch after one stressful week, I complained that my shoulders and back ached. She asked me to lie down on the floor and gave me my first Alexander class. I became quiet, wordless and free of pain. Thus began a new chapter in my lifelong study of the practice of awareness to my own presence.
The Alexander Technique offered a fresh way to observe the opinions and judgments of my thinking brain, which dominated my perceptions of daily life when my emotions and reactions didn't. Here was practical work that featured the importance of the relation between the head and the body, the same crucial connection emphasized by the Gurdjieff teaching. At ACAT, we were encouraged to explore clear, directed thinking and apply it to our movements. This awakens a precious faculty Gurdjieffians call conscious attention. It can replace the often vague and directionless "thinking about" things that we engage in all the time and bring the experience of ourselves to a new level. But it demands our presence.
Alexander claimed that, "My work is the study of human reaction,"(7) a principle focus of my own self-study. The Technique provides a lifelong classroom for exploring one's emotional reactions, and more. It invites us to connect with a place in ourselves from which we can be aware of what is going on both in our inner world and outside us, which makes it possible to engage in life without so much identification and reaction.
The non-judgmental awareness Alexander students try to develop was familiar to me as a key part of Gurdjieffí's teaching. He compared the human being to a driver, horse and carriage, representing the thinking, feeling and motor/instinctive functions. The human problem was that our driver (head) was always schmoozing in a pub with his friends, drinking beer and dreaming of the trips he might take, while he left the horse (emotions) without food or affection. The carriage (body) also needed attention, greasing, repair. A Gurdjieff exercise of interest to Alexander students is to make a daily album of inner snapshots of oneself taken in life situations, noting what's going on in each of these three functions simultaneously at any given moment.
A central aspect of the Alexander experience is the development of an inner kinesthetic awareness, a sensation of the life of the body as it moves and flows from position to position. I came to the Alexander Technique after 25 years studying Taoism and T'ai Chi, and was amazed at Alexander's supposedly self-taught discoveries of similar principles. Here's an ancient Taoist exercise that may sound familiar to you. As you notice your weight on your feet, sink imaginary roots down from them into the ground. Let your legs grow out of your planted feet like tree trunks, consciously unlocking ankle, knee and hip joints as your knees move softly forward. Your arms are free to bend like willow branches responsive to the force of the wind. Your spine is straight as a plumb line, while your head floats above your body as if held to the sky by an invisible string. This is a description of "True Man," who stands between heaven and earth. His feet are deeply rooted in the earth on which he lives, and his head rises into the heavens where higher energy can descend on him.
If we tried that right now, we might have an experience similar to that of a teacher putting hands on us. A change takes place. What is it? A loosening? A re balancing? Certainly it's not a "doing," and explaining it doesn't help me arrive at this new place of being present to myself in my body. In other words, while it's not my doing, my attention and participation are necessary for it to take place. Alexander teachers often use the term "organizing." Whatever you call it, the process that unfolds also calls to mind the Christian prayer: "Thy will be done," or St. Paul's: "Not I, but Thou in me."
Process: a vital word I'm often too impatient to make room for. Not an explanation, not a doing, not a single movement, but a process that begins each time I become aware of my state of tension, observe what's going on, and make a wish to be free.
Another principle common to T'ai Chi and the Alexander Technique is opposition. We often think of our body parts as representing opposing directions at a single moment. For example, we could visualize the spine following the head as it moves up and the knees moving away from the spine, as we go into what we call Monkey. There's a Taoist exercise called The Primordial Stance in which one takes a similar position, with the addition of arms extended softly forward, palms facing each other.
The study of opposition goes far beyond kinesthetic awareness, because it works toward freedom from habitual psychological as well as physical tensions. C. G. Jung said the conscious recognition of emotional opposites in ourselves can lead to freedom from complexes that may have dominated us for many years. He advised us to "live in the tension between the opposites"(8) -- a difficult, often painful experience.
This conscious participation in our physical and psychic life is essential to maturation and freedom. Gurdjieff, like Alexander and Jung, believed it was our crowning development as human beings, and would lead us to become more authentic individuals. He urged us to recognize simultaneously that we love what we hate and hate what we love. Such conscious experiences of our divided psyche would bring us, through the suffering that accompanies them, to a hidden central place in ourselves he called Buried Conscience.
In any spiritual search, the work for consciousness, the practice of presence, reorients us to the essentials. But the central point I want to make, with which I'm sure you'll agree, is that presence needs to be practiced daily, not just from time to time. Our habits create pathways in the brain that deepen through repetition. Lucky for us, not all habits are bad! The Alexander Technique is thus a path to a new way of living as well as moving.
Alexander teachers, like Gurdjieffians and Jungians, call their version of this path "the Work." The I Ching, arguably the oldest spiritual guidebook in the world, called it "Work on what has been spoiled."(9) That phrase, first heard at a difficult time in my life, gave me such a tremendous sense of hope that it became the working title of my book. Right where I feel I've failed, there's a work I could undertake to re-establish my direction.
What does this work consist of? It includes certain practices found in many spiritual and religious paths and you will recognize aspects of the Alexander Technique in all of them. Each path starts with awareness. No matter what path we consider our own, each time we ask ourselves "What's going on in me right now?" a new awareness of ourselves is triggered. I can ask as often as I remember: "What's going on here? In my body? In my mind? In my feelings? It's as simple as the wonderful (and sometimes annoying) questions children ask -- "Who? What? Why?" This helps us access a voice in ourselves we seldom want to listen to, because it's often very small and almost always painful to hear.
A second practice is engagement, We are seeking a more complete contact with ourselves and the world, in order to live a full life in our ordinary daily activities, not in a monastery. Jung, who called his path to consciousness individuation, said: " individuation must be understood as life. Only life integrates, only life brings out the individual... Real consciousness has to be based upon life experiences, just talking about things is not enough."(10) How clearly I remember the teachers at ACAT requesting that I come out of my habitual interior focus to bring my attention out into the room as I experienced the inner changes taking place in me!
The third, and perhaps most important practice, is non-judgmental observation. Our habitual ways of thinking, feeling and doing keep us in a prison of accusation -- I'm bad; I'm good; you're right; you're wrong. That's the prison we struggle to get out of. As the Sufi poet, Rumi, said: "Out beyond wrongdoing and right-doing there is a field. I'll meet you there."(11)
That's the field we're looking for. That's where presence can be practiced.
Fourth, to be more fully present, I need to release unnecessary tensions in my body. As we well know, our habitual tensions inhibit inner and outer freedom. All spiritual practices call us to engage in this effort.
We can choose to focus on all four of these elements right now by turning our attention to the experience of ourselves, wherever we are. Such an exercise not only opens a door into new depths of experience as we teach or learn the Technique, it's also an ancient meditative practice which accesses in orderly fashion every inch of the body. For example, sitting in a balanced, upright position on our sit-bones, spine rising vertically, head poised freely on top, we can turn our attention to gently access the state of our limbs one by one, then the back, chest and head, while noticing how the breath comes and goes. Then, aware of the thrum of our body's inner liveliness, we can go on to notice whatever emotional reactions may be flowing through us and how thoughts come and go, as we discard all judgments of what's good or bad.
A new inner state flowers out of this exercise, a different state of being, As we try to describe it, words fail us, because after all's talked about and guessed at, we are facing a great mystery. These elements of becoming aware, gradually freeing ourselves from habitual tensions, having the courage to accept not knowing what's coming next (the "don't-know" mind of Zen), are both the path and the mystery.
Our new state might be called holy. It is certainly experienced as a state of being more whole. Like the aim of all spiritual practices, it is the sense of myself gathered together with all my parts and at the same time belonging to something larger. Here I am, sitting in the middle of the room, in the middle of the world I live in.
Finally, let's not forget the practice of direction. You may remember that Walter Carrington said we have only two choices -- we are either going down or going up. From the spiritual point of view, the latter corresponds to the direction mankind has honored for thousands of years in search of connecting to a higher power. Think of churches, mosques, cathedral spires. Remember the secret Christian sign in many religious paintings? One of the most famous of these is Leonardo da Vinci's last painting, "St. John the Baptist," with finger pointing up -- a silent message to us all.
In my thought I follow that pointing finger up. And if today is all I have, if now is the only moment I truly live, if eternity is here in this instant, then my aim would be not only to fill my day with conscious active engagement, but also with direction. Up.
St. John the Baptist
1. Frank Jones Pierce, Body Awarenss In Action (New York: Schocken Books,1976),
2. F. Matthias Alexander, The Use of The Self (London,
3. G. I. Gurdjieff, Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson, (New York: Dutton, 1964), 1201.
4. Lao Tsu translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, Tao Che Ching, (New York, Vintaage, 1989),50.
5. Edward Maisel, The Resurrection of the Body ( New York, Edward Maisel, 1969) p. 5.
6. Connie Zweig, Jeremiah Abrams editors, Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature (New York, Penguin Putnam, 1990), xxiii.
7. F. Matthias Alexander, The Universal Constant in Living (New York, Irdeat, 1997), 593.
8. Jung quote I canít find source but mentioned many places
9. Richard Wilhelm translation, rendered in English by Cary F. Baynes, I CHING or Book of Changes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 75.
10. See note 8.
11. Coleman Barks, translator, Open Secret: Versions of Rumi (Boston: Shambala, 1999), 4.
Patty de Llosa trained as an Alexander teacher at ACAT. Before that she was a reporter for Time, managing editor of American Fabrics & Fashions, associate editor of Leisure and deputy chief of reporters of Fortune. She is also a long-time student and teacher of spiritual and mind-body disciplines and author of The Practice of Presence: Five Paths for Daily Life, Morning Light Press, 2006 (see review in AmSAT News, Summer 2006). You can visit her website at practiceofpresence.com This article appeared in AmSAT News, Summer, 2007, a publication of the American Society for the Alexander Technique
The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique