Whats the Use?
by Robert Rickover
In the Alexander Technique teaching community there are those who emphasize the importance of improving students conditions of use and others that lay greater stress on improving manner of use(1). I am very much in the latter camp. This is an issue of great importance to our profession, and I would like to explain why I find it is so important.
Conditions of use refers to the state of musculature and physical structure that exists whether we are directing ourselves or not. Manner of use refers to the effectiveness of our self-directing. Over time, improved manner of use will improve the conditions of use. Improved conditions of use make it easier to improve manner of use.
Although its a bit simplistic, Ive found an automotive analogy useful in thinking about and explaining the interplay between these two uses. A badly-designed and maintained car - one having, in a sense, poor conditions of use - might be driven by a skilled driver and thus have a good manner of use. Over time, this driver might well make some necessary repairs and useful adjustments, thereby improving the cars conditions of use. And that, in turn, will make it easier to drive the car well.
In the same way, if you learn how to work on yourself effectively, over time, you will improve your fundamental use. And if your lessons with your teacher improve your use, that improvement will make it easier for you to work on yourself effectively. When it comes to teaching manner and conditions of use, I believe that it is of primary importance to help students develop a strategy for working on themselves in activity. In order to explain why, Id like to briefly share some of my own experiences with manner and conditions of use.
My first Alexander teacher never mentioned directions, but relied almost entirely on the quality of his hands to bring about an improved head, neck, and back relationship. The only things I was asked to do between lessons were, first, never to cross my legs while sitting, second, to refrain from sitting on padded surfaces and third, to always tuck my head down onto my chest when we sat down or stood up. This latter instruction was designed to make sure I did not pull my head back and down.
I did not learn about direction from this teacher, but I had read about it and I was eager to learn how to direct when I arrived in London a few years later to begin teacher training. I was dismayed to discover that different teachers seemed to have quite different explanations of just how one was to direct oneself. At one point, I did a survey among my teachers, including several outside the school with whom I was taking private lessons, and found at least five distinct meanings for the phrase forward and up. I found this very confusing. Perhaps because of this confusion, I still tended to see lessons and turns on the training course primarily as a way of improving my head, neck, back relationship and general alignment and coordination. And, indeed, my conditions of use certainly did improve during that period. But I still did not understand how to work on myself.
One of the London teachers with whom I studied had developed a system for self-directing based on lines of energy flows and for several years I used them for myself and in my own teaching, Later, I found them to be somewhat limiting and dropped most of them. While I used them, however, they were quite effective at bringing about additional improvements in both my conditions and manner of use. Most important of all, directing myself with these lines of energy marked the first time I could reliably direct myself and influence my own manner of use.
Midway through my training course I went to Nebraska to do a 2-week course with Marjorie Barstow. Her approach clearly emphasized helping her students to become aware of what they were doing in activity and enabling them to change how they performed an activity. This approach made sense to me, because it provided a clear strategy for me to follow in working on myself. I felt I actually had begun to understand how to use Alexanders directions constructively for myself.
All the approaches to the Technique Ive experienced produced significant improvements in changing long-standing imbalances in my muscle tone, alignment, and in the coordination of my head, neck, and back relationship, although they varied dramatically in their attention to how I was to proceed on my own. From that I conclude that if what were primarily interested in is improving our students conditions of use, it doesnt matter much which of the uses we emphasize in our teaching.
Several years ago I interviewed a number of Alexander students, asking them just how they applied the Technique in their daily lives and, in particular, what they would do if they discovered they were not functioning as well as they would like. Some had effective strategies worked out, but most could not provide any answer to the question other than to book an appointment with their Alexander teacher.
I am disturbed by this lack of understanding of conscious self-directing. If we want our students to be able to look after themselves, and continue to make improvements in their use and functioning on their own, then we need to show them how to do so. In other words, we need to teach them how to improve their manner of use.
Of course there are risks in emphasizing manner of use. Some students will make quick and dramatic changes in how they perform particular activities and neglect the more time-consuming project of bringing about ongoing changes in their basic neuromuscular coordination. But there is, I have come to believe, a more serious risk in emphasizing conditions of use. Its very easy for students to see lessons as a fix (as did I for many years) and fail to take responsibility for bringing about changes in themselves.
The Alexander Technique is by far the most powerful way I have encountered for using conscious direction to improve ones manner of use. For me, thats what mans supreme inheritance, constructive conscious control of the individual, use of the self and the the universal constant in living are all about and what makes our work so important and valuable. And thats what I feel we ought to be emphasizing in our teaching, both for private students and especially on training courses.
(1) This does raise the question of just how one is to determine the level of use in any given individual. While manner of use may be subjective, Alexander does give us a precise, if bizarre, method by which he claims allows us to measure conditions of use (in his words, ...an index to imperfect muscular co-ordination) in MSI. It can be found in Chapter VII, Section III (What are the outward signs of improvement to be noted during treatment?) - about 3 pages from the start of that Section. Click here to read this "use test". More on this can be found in my article, The Universal Use Test in Direction, Volume 2, Number 3.
This article is a shorter, somewhat sanitized, version of an earlier article: A Response to A Crucial Distinction: Manner and Conditions of Use by Joe Armstrong
Robert Rickover holds degrees in physics, metallurgical engineering and economics from Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Following a career as a research economist, he trained at the School of Alexander Studies in London from 1978-1981. He is the author of Fitness Without Stress - A Guide to the Alexander Technique and the creator of The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique web site He has been the Alexander Technique Editor for America Online and a regular content contributor for several general interest and health-oriented web sites. He is a teaching member of STAT, AmSAT and ATI.
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