What to Expect During an Alexander Technique Lesson?
by Nicholas Brockbank
My idea of what to expect when I went for my first Alexander lesson was largely based on the books I had so far read, prominent amongst which was Dr Barlow's The Alexander Principle. I imagined the main instruction would be mental, with some physical 'measurement' and 'movement' thrown in. The lesson was nothing like that. I found I couldn't easily categorise it; and as I didn't have another for over a year, I was hardly any wiser when I began a full 'course' of lessons with a teacher whose name I picked randomly from the phone directory.
Over the succeeding months, I received what I later came to understand as fairly typical, middle of the road Alexander lessons, each one increasingly revealing of me, if slightly less interesting and more routine than its predecessor. Early on, I found myself thinking that when we had 'done' the sitting and standing business, we would no doubt get on to other activities. As for the lying down turns: I moved from mystification as to what was actually being taught, through a vague sense of disappointment that all I was expected to do was lie still, to resignation that this relatively static procedure seemed to be an integral part of every lesson.
I remember being mesmerised by the way my teacher, swooping over me like a bird of prey, would take hold of some part of my body, and then look soulfully into mid distance, before making a minor adjustment or movement. It wasn't until much later that I realised this pause represented 'inhibition' and its associated glance encapsulated the mysterious process of 'direction'.
I had very much wanted to learn about 'inhibition and direction', which, from my reading of Dr Barlow's book, seemed a fairly simple, if rather mechanical, procedure, crucial to any understanding of the Alexander Technique. However, I found I wasn't being taught this, at least not as a precise form of action or words. It was more a case of my teacher alluding occasionally to a vague, unformulated desire to 'lengthen and widen'.
One day, in desperation, I asked if we could do something different. I typed a lot at the time and I thought it might be useful to have a lesson in front of the typewriter. This was something of a failure, as I can well understand, now. I sat while my teacher made tiny adjustments, by the end of which I felt stiff and set.
I asked my teacher if I should have a lesson with someone else, just to see what it was like. He suggested not to, but I did, anyway. It was, in fact, not that different. I began then to realise the structure and tone of a typical Alexander lesson was solidly built around the chair and the table. Usually, twenty minutes or so was spent with each. That meant an essentially passive period in semi supine; and an only slightly more active period of sitting and standing.
I decided it must then be up to me to 'translate' what I learned during lessons into the rest of my life. This resulted in me sitting and moving rigidly most of the time, while 'thinking up' religiously. Once my 'course' of lessons was over, I felt vaguely dissatisfied, as if I had not been taught so much as led, by the nose, and was now left to fend for myself in unfamiliar territory.
Since that time, I have trained to be a teacher; and although my experience of teachers across the board is still not extensive, I have run into many, many different teaching styles.
My own teaching is fairly traditional. I don't always teach semi supine, though I am far more appreciative of the process, as a learning tool, than I was. In fact, I believe there is a case for only teaching this way. If a student is lengthened, or encouraged to lengthen, or taught to lengthen, exclusively while lying recumbent on a couch or the floor, there is little if any cause, incentive or temptation for him or her to try to 'feel out' the lesson experience afterwards. The reason for this is the absence of any kinesthetic memory of being upright in a 'lengthened' state, to use (or misuse) as a template of correctness, when 'applying the Technique' to life.
However, I use the chair a lot; and my main excuse for this - because I think an excuse, or at least a reason, is necessary - is that the movement from sitting to standing, and from standing to sitting, is one that we repeat on countless occasions every day; it is a movement that brings out the worst in us, in terms of 'interfering with the right employment of the Primary Control'; it is easy for a teacher to keep their hands on a student during it; and it is essentially active and much more fun, I find, than working in semi supine.
I have tried working with more varied activities and I have to admit to not finding it particularly fruitful. However, I am aware of the existence, though unfamiliar with the practicalities, of what is commonly known as the 'application approach'. This appears, to me, simple common sense; and I am full of admiration for those who teach it; but I find it difficult to venture an opinion on its usefulness. I mention it because they are many teachers around the world who do not teach traditionally, and they might be just the teacher an aspiring student needs.
However, I do spend a lot of time and effort in teaching a student how to apply what they learn to their lives. In my view, this is the most important aspect of every lesson. I use my hands a fair amount; but the less I need to use them, I find, the better the lesson works. If I fall - as I do, repeatedly - into the trap of trying to give a student a good experience through the prolonged, unexplained use of my hands, although I am (usually) as gratified as they are by the result, I consider this poor teaching.
Since there are as many different approaches as there are practicing teachers, I would suggest mine is simply a reflection of what I would like were I to have a lesson. Other teachers will act according to their own preferences.
Nevertheless, I imagine the vast majority of students will experience during their first lesson a variant of the standard chair/table scenario. Regardless of which is more dominant, the question then becomes how the lesson is conducted. My experience is of there being three main strands:
The silent lesson seems to me to operate in a way that encourages change to take place not so much through conscious choice as conscious acceptance. The student is persuaded, both in the chair and on the table, to 'not interfere' or to 'interfere less', through the use of the teacher's hands; and - presumably - it is hoped that this experience, by repetition, will result in a lower and lower level of habitual interference in their daily life. Little or no explanation is given of inhibition or direction. Essentially, this sort of lesson is conscious, in that a student allows certain things to happen, as well as unconscious, in that the teacher's hands elicit responses the student is unaware of. Outside of lessons, any lasting effect is likely to be 'by osmosis' only.
The resolutely chatty approach follows much the same format, with the body of the student being encouraged to respond differently, through the hands of the teacher, while their mind is at least partly engaged on other matters. The thinking behind this, evidently, is that it is a closer approximation of 'real life' than silence; although the same premise is shared that the repetition of being moved more easily during the lesson will automatically result (in other words, without much thought) in more ease outside lessons.
The informative lesson is one where a student will be encouraged to actively take part in the process of moving differently, with attention being given by both parties to inhibition and direction. The idea behind this sort of lesson is the belief that inhibition and direction are processes central to the production of all new experiences and that they can be best explained through explicit verbalisation.
However, as anyone who has had lessons with a number of teachers will know, there are more ways than one of teaching inhibition and direction. In fact, this subject is so varied, it deserves a book to itself. For an appraisal of how the subject might be taught, I recommend the writings of Joe Armstrong.
Generally, the less that is said, or the less that is said that is germane to the lesson, the more time a teacher is likely to spend with their hands on a student. The touch of a teacher's hands can vary enormously. I remember one teacher telling me how he had been taught to 'slap it on like a wet fish'! And, once 'on', what those hands do, and the way they do it, varies, too.
I've experienced many different forms of touch from Alexander teachers, and although there's a lot to be said for firm decisiveness, an uncompromising hold, etc, my own predilection is for the lightest possible contact, one that is barely discernible. This doesn't necessarily produce the profoundest effect, in terms of experience, but what it does permit is an appreciation of who, exactly, in the student/teacher relationship, is doing what.
I like the sort of touch that impels me into a different type of movement, but that might almost as easily not have been there, leaving the impression that the movement was my responsibility alone. I prefer this over the neck-lock model often seen in photos, where one hand moulds itself beneath the back of the head, with the other supporting the bottom of the jaw. As a student is hoisted (which is what it often feels like) into the air, or lowered precariously downward, the overriding impression is of being 'sat' or 'stood' like a ventriloquist's dummy. I'm sure this has its advocates, along with a rationale of its own, but it's not my preference.
The touch of a hand is a very personal thing; and every student will know what he or she best responds to. I do think, though, particularly with chairwork, that less is more. Working with someone in semi supine is slightly different. Occasionally, parts of the body are lifted and held for some time. Weight is often shifted, against gravity. This requires a firm rather than a slight hold.
A teacher's proximity can sometimes be an issue. Obviously, to use their hands, they cannot be further away than arm's length, but some teachers have a different perception of what is appropriate than others. For me, increased freedom and ease is not made more likely by a large part of me wanting to take a step away from what seems a major encroachment on my personal space.
At the other extreme, which I have not experienced as a student, though I would certainly like to, is the teacher who hardly uses their hands at all. I imagine them standing or sitting some way away from their student, guiding them through words alone. I've tried this myself, as a teacher, and find it very rewarding, as well as revealing. To a student, this may seem only a step or two away from learning from a book; but the key element in the teacher's physical presence is their perception of what their student is doing. Reliable feedback lies at the heart of making changes through the Technique. Such feedback is difficult alone.
To sum up, the main questions for a new student who would like to have Alexander lessons but knows no teachers personally, and also knows nobody who might be able to recommend a teacher, but who doesn't want to try 'pot luck', is firstly recognising what sort of teacher they want, and secondly, understanding how to distinguish between them.
Personally, I would look for a teacher who used their hands minimally, who was informative rather than silent, and whose main aim was not to give me new experiences, but to teach me how to make new experiences for myself. Knowing what I do now, I still don't think I could easily evaluate whether or not a given teacher met these criteria, simply by speaking to them on the phone. Correspondence by email might elicit the necessary information, though. Certainly, even for a beginning student, one lesson should be enough to know where a teacher's bias lay.
A student's expectations might be quite the opposite of mine. They might desire their teacher to work silently, with minimal input from them (the student). They might relish a fairly constant use of the hands. They might prefer a firm, decisive touch rather than a light, wavering one. They might like the feeling of being 'pulled and put into shape', and be more than happy with the repeated effect of this rubbing off on them, with no requirement on their part to think or act 'constructively', during or after lessons.
My advice to any student would simply be to play it by ear. Try, if possible, to find a teacher who gives introductory lessons for free. Have one. Then go away and think about it. Hopefully, a student will already have some idea about the sort of teaching they are hoping for. If not, it pays to consider what the main motivation is for having lessons. Is it to get sorted out; or to sort themselves out?
Of course, if there are very few teachers in a locality, who to have lessons with is not a matter of choice. Unless that teacher really rubs a student up the wrong way, it is probably best to persevere with what's available. If, however, an initial experience is bad, or unfavourable, and there are other teachers around, I would unhesitantly suggest moving on.
There remains the possibility that the sort of teacher a student hopes for is not, in fact, the sort of teacher they need. Thinking about this, it's undeniable that one of the best lessons I ever had 'taught' me nothing (as a student) but gave me an ineffable experience and was massively influential in the way I went on to teach. This is exactly the opposite of what I would have said at the time that I wanted.
I've always been ambivalent about the 'full twenty five lesson course' business. This is fine, if a student and their teacher develops their relationship so that each fresh lesson seems like a step forward. However, too often, I suspect, lessons become routine, to the point of merely filling in time. I would heartily recommend a student having lessons with as many teachers as possible; and not worrying about having more than one with any of them, let alone twenty five, until they find someone who truly suits them.
Some teachers may not like this approach; but it's as well to remember, the student is paying rather than the other way around. The only downside to this sort of attitude is if a student never stays for more than a few lessons with any teacher, thereby missing out on the depth of experience gained through prolonged, detailed application.
Overall, if a student's desire is to learn to apply the Technique for themselves, they should be seeking out someone who says they will teach them to do this. If, on the other hand, they prefer to pay to be provided with repeated experiences of good use, but little guidance as to how those experiences were achieved, they should be looking for someone different.
The best way to find out how a teacher teaches is to ask; and then to have an experimental lesson.
From the outset, it is as well not to make the mistake of thinking the first lesson - or any lesson - represents the definitive Alexander Technique. It doesn't. There isn't such a thing. The Technique is taught in so many ways, there is almost certain to be a teacher out there who would suit - or alienate - any intending student.
One last thought concerns the question of teachers adapting to the requirements of their students. I don't mean this in the general way we all adapt to those we come in contact with. I mean it more particularly. It would be agreeable to think most teachers recognise that certain students require a different approach, and change accordingly; but I'm not sure that's being realistic.
As in all areas of life, we assume far too often that what we believe someone else wants is exactly what we're giving them; so we never bother confirming this, let alone changing what we're doing. Often, our perception and reality can be wildly at odds. If a student has researched the Alexander Technique and is interested in learning and has a clear idea of how they would like to be taught, there's no reason for them not to articulate this, from the outset, in the hope they may have found an accommodating teacher.
Nicholas Brockbank is an Alexander Technique teacher living in Sussex, England. He also trades stocks and futures and his other interests include gardening, writing, tennis, and travel. He would like to hear from anybody interested in learing the Alexander Technique on their own.
Nicolas has a number of other articles on the subject of learning the Alexander Technique on your own on his Web Site; These can be found on his page: http://www.dodman.org
The Alexander Principle and a great many other books about the Alexander Technique can be ordered at The Alexander Technique Bookstore.
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