A Response to “A Crucial Distinction: Manner and Conditions of Use” by Joe Armstrong

by Robert Rickover

After reading Joe Armstrong’s article in the Summer AmSAT News, I found myself in the unusual position of being in agreement with everything he wrote - except his primary conclusion!

The article is thoughtful and very well written. I urge you to read it if you have not already done so as it addresses an issue of great importance to our profession.

Armstrong writes: “Manner of use pertains... to how we do things - respond, behave, direct our neck-head-torso relationship, etc. - whether we do them consciously or subconsciously. Conditions of use pertains mainly to the quality of muscle tonus ... that exists in us regardless of how good or how poor our manner of use might be at any given moment...”(1)

Over time, improved manner of use will improve the conditions of use. Improved conditions of use make it easier to improve one’s manner of use. Armstrong elaborates at some length upon the inter-relatedness of these two “uses”, drawing upon the writings of Alexander and others, and upon his own experiences.

He argues that a well-trained Alexander teacher will have made improvements in both their manner and conditions of use. While one’s manner of use can change fairly quickly (“We can throw away the habits of a lifetime in a few minutes if we use our brains.” - FMA), it may take considerably longer to make major changes in our conditions of use. This is one reason why training courses are as long as they are.

Armstrong goes on to state that recent trends in group work, and the emphasis placed on manner of use by “certain first-generation American Teachers”, have caused some teachers, and their students, to overlook the importance of bringing about longer-term improvements in conditions of use. A key problem with group work, in Armstrong’s view, is that “...there simply is not enough time...to deal with more than instruction in an improved manner of use.”

It is here that I take issue with Armstrong. But first, I’d like to briefly share some of my own experiences with manner and conditions of use.


My first Alexander teacher was an Israeli, trained by Patrick Macdonald. After a year or so of lessons I asked him about the mysterious “Alexander directions” I had heard about. He replied, “When I first started teaching (in Canada) I told my students to free their necks. But they just tightened them even more. So I don’t teach directions now.” Looking back on it, I can see that the adverse effect on his students’ necks was probably due to his personality, and to his poor command of English. He had a tendency to bark out instructions that were not always intelligible.

His “solution” was to rely almost entirely on the quality of his hands to bring about improved conditions of use. The only things we students were asked to do between lessons were, first, never to cross our legs while sitting, second, to refrain from sitting on padded surfaces (he sold sitting boards for us to use on couches, or in our cars) and third, to always tuck our heads down onto our chests when we sat down or stood up. This latter instruction was designed to make sure we did not pull our heads back and down!(2)

Bizarre as some of this sounds, many of his students (myself included) experienced dramatic changes in their conditions of use. Several went on to become Alexander teachers.

A few years later, I arrived in London and began teacher training in the Carrington style. There was, of course, quite a bit of talk about directing but for the most part I found it to be curiously vague. Furthermore, different teachers seemed to have quite different takes on 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”. Perhaps because of this confusion, I still tended to see lessons and turns on the training course primarily as a way improving my conditions of use. And, indeed, my conditions of use certainly did improve during that period.

However, one of the London teachers I had lessons with was a Macdonald-trained teacher who had some very specific ideas of how to direct. She had developed quite an amazing system based on lines of energy flows. For several years I used them for myself and in my own teaching, although after a few years’ exposure to the work of Marjorie Barstow, I found them to be somewhat limiting and eventually 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, it 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 - who I assume is one of the first generation American teachers to which Armstrong refers. At that point, Marj was eighty years old and she had been working almost exclusively with groups for several years. Her approach clearly emphasized helping us to improve out manner of use. After a few days, and for the first time in my Alexander experience, I felt I had begun to have a clear understanding of Alexander’s directions - and how to actually use them constructively for myself.

I happily completed my training course in London, but for the next 15 years, I considered Marj to be my primary teacher and, along with several others, frequently assisted her during her workshops. I had the opportunity to observe many of the same people workshop after workshop. As I’ve said, she worked mainly with students’ manner of use, but there were obvious and significant improvements in their conditions of use as well.

Sometimes changes in their conditions of use were quite rapid, sometimes they took place over a period of months and years. The “results” were, on balance, at least as profound and rapid as those I’ve seen with students taking private lessons with teachers of varying backgrounds in England, Canada and America.

In summary, all the approaches to the Technique I’ve experienced produced significant improvements in conditions of use, although they varied dramatically in their attention to manner of use.


Returning to Armstrong’s statement that recent trends emphasizing manner of use have caused teachers and students to overlook the importance of improving conditions of use, the evidence I’ve seen simply does not support that view. On the contrary, it suggests that a more common problem is a failure to adequately teach improved manner of use.

Of course there are risks in emphasizing manner of use. As Armstrong argues, it possible that some students (and teachers) will make quick and dramatic changes in their manner of use and neglect the more time-consuming project of bringing about changes in their conditions of use.

But there is, I’ve come to believe, a more serious risk in the “classical” approach. It’s 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.(3)

I’d like to make a final (and perhaps heretical) point: If a student or teacher feels that his or her conditions of use are not satisfactory and wishes to improve them, the Alexander Technique may not always be the most effective way to do so. I’ve used Feldenkrais work, the Tomatis Method, Pilates and, most extensively, CranioSacral work to improve my own conditions of use. I’ve also observed their impact on some of my friends and students. At times these methods have done for us what I believe no amount of Alexander lessons, or Alexander directing, could do - at least not in one lifetime!(4)

Relying on conscious self-directing (or on taking lessons in the Technique) may not be best way to release some of the subtle and often extremely complex restrictions lying far below our conscious awareness that can nonetheless have profound effects on conditions of use. CranioSacral work may be more effective in doing this.

Nor is the Technique always the best way to change long-standing gross imbalances. If over the years, for example, your postural muscles have become weakened due to disuse, some Pilates conditioning might be just the thing to try.

While the Technique may not always be the quickest or even the most effective way of improving one’s conditions of use (although of course it often accomplishes this very well), it is by far the most powerful way I’ve encountered for using conscious direction to improve one’s manner of use.

For me, that’s what “man’s 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 that’s what we ought to be emphasizing in our teaching.


(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. More on this can be found in my article, “The Universal Use Test” in Direction, Volume 2, Number 3.

(2) When I first visited the School of Alexander Studies and demonstrated this to Paul Collins, he took delight in calling all the teachers and students over to observe my head tucking technique. Mercifully, it turned out to be quite easy to let it go. In Toronto, on busses or the subway for example, one can still spot this teacher’s students as they sit down or stand up.

(3) 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. Many of those who had studied with Marj had quite effective strategies worked out, but none of those who had lessons with other teachers (in this case, mostly in the UK) could provide any answer to the question other than to book an appointment with their Alexander teacher.

(4) As I said, I’ve had extensive experience with CanioSacral work. I’ve taken Level I of the Upledger approach and have encountered about 20 CS therapists over the past 15 years. With only one exception, they all had what I considered to be quite good conditions of use. Only one, to my knowledge, had ever taken Alexander lessons.

Of course I’ve also encountered a great many Alexander teachers (far too many to count!) and while on balance their use was considerably better than that the general public, it was certainly not as consistently good as those CS therapists.

I can’t help thinking about the dining room employee at the Second International Congress in Brighton who, when asked by a colleague, just who these Alexander people were, replied, “I don’t know, but they all seem to have something wrong with their necks.”


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 at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and the Ontario government, he trained at the School of Alexander Studies in London from 1978-1981 and subsequently served on the faculty. He regularly teaches in Toronto, Canada and Lincoln, Nebraska and at several colleges and universities in North America. 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 is an Alexander Technique editor and regular content contributor for several general interest and health-oriented web sites. He is a teaching member of STAT, AmSAT and ATI.

Click here to return to "What's the Use"

Click here to return to the Alexander Technique Teacher and Student Resource Page

Click here for The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique