Published in the spring 2008 edition of the AmSAT News - the quarterly publication of the American Society for the Alexander Technique. Copyrighted - all rights reserved
Not long ago, we had the pleasure of hosting a visitor to our training course who had taken many Alexander lessons and was considering studying to be a teacher. She was visiting courses to begin the process of deciding where she wished to spend the next three years. She was a lovely addition to our course that day, and seemed to enjoy herself. She contributed to the ongoing discussions and made herself available as a willing “student” for the trainees.
When class ended, I spent a bit of time with her to talk about the day. Her first and only comment about her experience was “You only said forward and up a time or two. I like it better when teachers say it a lot.” When I asked what “forward and up” meant to her she replied, “You know, neck free head forward and up” demonstrating by moving her head vigorously from side to side. I had the impression that she added a bit of unintended muscular stress and tension to the directions “neck free, head forward and up.”
It seems clear from Alexander’s writings that he found no amount of excess muscular stress or tension would allow anyone to free the neck or direct the head to go forward and up. These “directions” are states of being that become available when we learn to access them. Perhaps there’s a contemporary issue with the word “direction.” It’s possible we take it a bit literally, something to be followed unconditionally and without much consideration.
John Dewey in an introduction to Alexander’s Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual states that the principle of the Alexander Technique is so badly needed because:
“…in all matters that concern the individual self and the conduct of its life there is a defective and lowered sensory appreciation and judgment, both of ourselves and of our acts, which accompanies our wrongly adjusted psycho-physical mechanisms. It is precisely this perverted consciousness which we bring with us to the reading and comprehension of Mr. Alexander’s pages, and which makes it hard for us to realize his statements as to its existence, causes and effects. We have become so used to it that we take it for granted.” *
The difficulty in studying the Alexander Technique (which Dewey believed everyone should do) is that we tend to bring along our usual thoughts and considerations, judgments and reactions. It seems likely that our training course visitor had certain preconceived notions about head forward and up. Perhaps if she were able to let go of these predetermined ideas, she would be open to experiencing something other than what she expected.
Of course, our visitor is not alone in this experience. It seems that many of us are tightly attached to our habits, and rather than consider the difficult and challenging alternative of letting go, we continue our usual journey, often with the murky understanding that we are not making a very good choice. about how to proceed.
Since our habits are customary, how do we give ourselves the opportunity to look at things in a different way? The answer to this question is crucial to the understanding of the Alexander Technique, and it is what I stress in training teachers.
Alexander provides a statement about the process that allows us to reconsider our habits on Page 124 of the Mouritz 1996 edition of Man’s Supreme Inheritance. In the section titled “The Processes of Conscious Guidance and Control,” Alexander describes what he calls the four essential stages “in the performance of any muscular action by conscious guidance and control.” This seems to be a key to Alexander’s thinking. Virtually everything that we do includes muscular action, so it appears Alexander is suggesting that if we follow these steps, we can be in control of all our activities. Perhaps the best way to proceed is to reevaluate Dewey’s observations and not try to do these four steps in our usual way; but rather to give up anxiety, anticipation and muscular effort, and replace with little expectation and lots of curiosity.
Step 1: the conception of the movement required. Alexander acknowledges that our lives are filled with purpose, and he never disavows the importance of intention and goals, without which we would not get far.
Step 2: the inhibition of erroneous preconceived ideas which subconsciously suggest the manner in which the movement or series or movements should be performed. Using the term “inhibition”, Alexander suggests we not proceed in the usual fashion, allowing us the opportunity to detach from our habitual patterns. In the preface to this same book, Alexander states that “the use of the inhibitory processes is the necessary first step in the reconditioning of human behaviour.”** Only through the practice of stopping and reconsidering can we hope to liberate ourselves from our habits. The challenge is enormous. Our lightening quick reflex to stimuli is a valued characteristic of the growth and development of recent civilization, and we are reluctant to apply anything that we fear may slow us down.
In his writings, Alexander indicates that in order to be clear that we are not carrying along unintended ideas, thoughts, and methodology we must stop and take time to reconsider. Frequently, we have the luxury to take a great deal of time before continuing on with our actions; but at other times not quite so much. The inhibitory process of stopping and not proceeding with the normal and familiar action needs to remain in place regardless of the time we have available. Both my personal and teaching experience have shown that we can get so good at inhibiting that we learn to abandon what we don’t really need. Rather than inhibition becoming a time consuming burden, we learn to use it as a tool to help us function more efficiently.
Step 3: The new and conscious mental orders which will set in motion the muscular mechanism essential to the correct performance of the action. Each of us has our unique pattern of thought and action. Alexander seems to suggest that through the process of inhibition we give ourselves time, and with that time we can encourage the thoughts that will allow the neck to be free, the head to go forward and up, the back to lengthen and widen, and the knees to go forward and away from each other. These instructions to ourselves (or directions, orders or wishes) are crucial to the proper functioning of the whole system, and they help us to not rush and not careen thoughtlessly through life’s activities. We must take care that the directions do not become ends in themselves, but rather available states of being which we have given ourselves permission to choose.
Step 4: the movements (contractions and expansions) of the muscles which carry out the mental orders. And now after carefully considering the previous steps, we get to decide what to do about our original intention. It’s possible the road to that objective won’t look the same as it did, because once we stop to reconsider, we may find that we have many choices about how to proceed. In the end the Alexander Technique is about taking time to think, and once we do take that time, we find that we have room for choice.
Ultimately, the choice to embrace Alexander’s few steps helps to liberate us from our reliance on our usual and habitual ways of doing things. On our training course, we often acknowledge Alexander’s four-step process to help keep us on a thoughtful and reasonable track. The suggestion, usually simply referred to as “page 124”, serves as a valuable reminder of what is essential to each of us in the study of the Alexander Technique.
© George I. Lister 2008. All rights reserved.
1. Alexander, F.M. Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual. London, Mouritz, 2004, xxv.
2. Alexander, F.M. Man’s Supreme Inheritance. London, Mouritz, 1996, xiii.
* The Universal Constant in Living, Mouritz Edition, Introductory p xxxiii
** The Universal Constant in Living, Mouritz Edieion, Introductory p xxxiv