Upon Reflection

by Joseph Boland

After almost forty years as a student (since 1969) and teacher (since 1979) of Alexander's work it has become my strong belief that the "Alexander Technique" is long overdue for a rigorous review and overhaul if the promise of Alexander's work is to ever be realized.

Whether this conclusion has merit or not depends, I suppose, on what one considers is the purpose of Alexander's work.

I've come to believe and be guided in my own work by the following: Alexander's purpose was to devise 1) an effective means for improving his own use and 2) an effective means for communicating this information to others such that within a reasonable amount of time a motivated and reasonably intelligent person could become autonomous in the maintenance of his/her own good use.

 I continue to hold the view that Alexander was apparently able to resolve his own "use" issue, but it's been a long time since I believed that the "traditional" pedagogy came anywhere close to accomplishing the second part of the above-stated "purpose".

The crux of Alexander’s work and that which distinguished it for its time and place was in my view his application of a methodical process of observation, experimentation, and above all, reasoning to the phenomenon of human psychophysical “use”. This was his essential “technique”, that which led him to the observation that in the absence of the interference of habits of misuse, it would seem that the human organism is predisposed to efficient performance.

Alexander’s “technique”, the means whereby which he progressed from recognition of dilemma, to reasoned observation and experimentation, to recognition of the limitation of that which is “known” (habit), to transcendence of the “known” is very much the template for what could otherwise be called “how to learn”. At the very least it is a disciplined process with which one must be familiar and adept if one wishes to substantively alter habitual behavior and its symptoms.  

This is the “technique” that I now teach, that I endeavor to communicate to my students, my objective not being to provide answers or kinesthetic experiences with my hands, but to enable them to articulate and explore a progression of observations and questions that will lead to their own independent discovery of productive “answers” and improved “use” experiences.

As a teaching model it is completely Socratic and largely hands-off.

I feel comfortable presenting myself as a teacher of Alexander's "technique", but if the "Alexander Technique" is going to, erroneously, continue to be propagated as a conflation of Alexander's ideas and a traditional pedagogy that even Alexander acknowledged as a work-in-progress and not up to the task, then it seems to me that Alexander's purpose indeed will remain unrealized.

"What would Alexander think of what has become of his work in the hands of his heirs?" is a thought-provoking question half a century after his passing.

In the years that I’ve been associated with Alexander’s work I've seen little evidence that would suggest to me that the AT community that is coalesced around the traditional pedagogy is anything but antipathetic to anything that fundamentally challenges the institutionalized AT mindset. Certainly the responses that I have observed to the innovative work of Marjory Barstow and the insightful thinking of David Gorman provide revealing examples of this institutional, and I would argue counterproductive, resistance.

I no longer know the purpose of the “Alexander Technique”; but if Alexander’s purpose was indeed as heretofore noted and it is that purpose that is recognized by those who purport to further his work, then it seems to me that some serious reflection and action is long overdue and at the very least the time is long past to acknowledge that the traditional “approved” pedagogy is fundamentally flawed and in need of change.

One could argue that students of Alexander’s work would be better served if they were equipped with better learning tools; and I don’t disagree that it would be lovely if they could acquire these “ tools” prior to coming for “a personal experience of the AT”.

This way of thinking, however, is illustrative of the extent to which we, following Alexander’s lead, have lost sight of that which we need to be teaching, for it is, in sum, these very tools, the formula/template/map for how to learn that should be the bedrock of what we teach, the map that we follow in every lesson that we have with a student.

This, again, was Alexander’s “technique”, a methodical progression of observation, experimentation and above all reasoning that enabled him to eventually understand and transcend the psychophysical mechanism of habit, the indispensable means whereby he restored (independently and without anyone giving him hands-on experiences) his own innate efficient “use”.

It is OUR responsibility as teachers of Alexander’s work to provide these tools, to guide students through a personal experience of Alexander’s “technique”.

From everything that I’ve read and experienced over the past thirty-nine years in the matter of the Alexander Technique it is clear to me that Alexander never succeeded in creating a pedagogy that was an effective vehicle for communicating his “technique” to others. He did develop a means for manually facilitating in students an experience of “improved use” which produces lovely and seductive, albeit short-lived, kinesthetic experiences and can provide an experience of what is possible.

It has been my observation that providing such experiences has largely become the raison d'etre of an approved traditional Alexander lesson, producing students in an unending state of confusion and dependency, but this was and is not the same as communicating to others the skills and information necessary to enable them to effect and sustain “improved use” independently of a teacher within a reasonable amount of time.

Copyright 2007
Joseph Boland


Schooled and certified in the traditional AT pedagogical model, Joe Boland now lives and teaches Alexander’s “technique” near Yosemite National Park in California. He can be contacted at at .yosemite@sti.net.

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