by Robert Rickover

I’m from the factory and I know how instructions are put together. You go out on the assembly line with a tape recorder and the foreman sends you to talk to the guy he needs least, the biggest goof-off he’s got, and whatever he tell you - that’s the instructions. The next guy might have told you something completely different, and probably better, but he’s too busy. - from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Persig

I remember buying a new VCR back in 1990 that caused me no end of frustration. The VCR itself worked fine, but the programming instructions were so difficult to follow I finally gave up trying to use it. To preset a recording time required no less than 22 steps. The manual that came with the recorder only listed 21! Someone had forgot to include the crucial last step - which could only be found printed on a tiny untitled insert berried deep within the packing material.

VCR instructions and procedures are much simpler today, but anyone who has purchased computer software in recent years can attest to the frustration of working with poorly thought out installation and operating instructions.

There are usually two distinct sets of instructions for any piece of machinery: service manuals for the specially trained experts who will have to do maintenance and repairs and operating manuals for the user of the machinery. While it is conceivable the service manual for my VCR was well written, the operating manual was a disaster.

The most complicated piece of “ machinery” we’ll ever have to operate is our own body. Yet it comes without any sort of owner’s manual!

Sure, there are a great many training programs and “instruction manuals” designed for specialists in human functioning - doctors, psychologists, nutritionists and the like. Some of these instructions can be highly specialized indeed, such as those dealing with the specifics of skin or hair care.

But we - the owners and operators of our body - don’t have an easy-to-understand set of instructions about how it functions and how we can influence the overall quality of its operation.

Most of us come from the “factory” nicely wired up and ready to operate for years, maybe decades, without the need for any clear knowledge of how we function. But over time, as our body is subjected to the strains of daily life, we often find ourselves operating at less than peak efficiency.

Sometimes we can get by with occasional help of experts. If we are injured, medical help may be all we need. If our teeth develop cavities, a dentist can fill them.

But if, as so often happens, we develop restrictions in our ability to sit and stand with ease or to move with freedom and grace, we’re left pretty much in the dark as to how to improve the situation. A chiropractor or massage therapist may help alleviate the symptoms, but will probably do little or nothing to change the faulty underlying patterns that lie at the core of these restrictions.

A number of somatic methods and therapies have been developed designed to help people improve the quality of their physical functioning - The Feldenkrais Method, Rolfing, Somatics, Pilates, to name but a few. I am most familiar with the Alexander Technique, a method that has a long history of teaching people how they can improve their posture and coordination.

Teaching is the key word here; the Alexander Technique is above all an educational process that recognizes that real change must come from within. It is for this reason that practitioners of the Technique call themselves teachers rather than therapists.

One of the four books written by F. Matthias Alexander, the developer of the Technique, is aptly titled The Use of the Self. And while the Alexander Technique certainly does not claim to offer a complete “human instruction manual”, it does provide basic, practical information about how we humans function, and how we can improve the quality of our functioning.


Two other books that provide the beginnings of a human instruction manual are How to Learn the Alexander Technique - A Manual for Students by Barbara Conable and Mind and Muscle - An Owner’s Handbook by Elizabeth Langford. These books, The Use of the Self, and a great many other books, videos, DVD's and audio books about the Alexander Technique can be be found at The Alexander Technique Bookstore


Robert Rickover is an Alexander Technique teacher in Lincoln, Nebraska. He also teaches regularly in Toronto, Canada. He is the author of Fitness Without Stress - A Guide to the Alexander Technique and is the Alexander Technique Editor for America On Line, Suite101.com and OmPlace.com
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