In this blog post, written primarily for Alexander teachers, I discuss ideas presented in the article Beyond Posture in the Congress Papers from the 10th International Congress of the F.M. Alexander Technique in Limerick, Ireland. You can also find the article online: http://www.alexander-technique-london.co.uk/beyond-posture/
The article Beyond Posture, written by an experienced Alexander Technique teacher, is interesting in that it touches upon many common misconceptions. In my last blog post I commented upon what the author had to say about 'Conscious Inhibition'. This time, I'll have a look at what he says about the principle of giving directions.
In the article from the Congress Papers, the author tells us that:
I have not come across anyone (including myself) who, when attempting to give directions or sending orders, doesn’t glaze over and perform some rather bizarre muscular contortions. As we explore the value of giving directions, we need to question how we are using ourselves when we are carrying out these instructions (Kingsley, 2016, p. 80).
I couldn't agree more. We must indeed question ourselves how we go about giving directions or 'sending orders'. If our eyes glaze over and we perform 'bizarre muscular contortions' we are not going about it in the right way. We are not directing ourselves in the way we should, even if we believe we are.
This is a very common problem among beginners, but even experienced Alexander Technique teachers (including myself) may find themselves doing something unwanted in the process of directing. This is why we always have to question whether we are actually doing what we believe we are doing.
In my experience. most people when asked what they are doing while giving directions, will usually report that they are focusing on some postural part or parts, or visualising some energy movement, or trying to sense some uplift or stretch in the neck and spine. But all this can only lead to a harmful form of concentration and effort. Conversely, it may induce a form of self-paralysis that creates a deadening impact upon our vitality. Have you ever had a conversation with someone who was consciously directing themselves? It’s not a nice experience. It feels like the person has vanished (Ibid).
Again, the author describes very well what the process of giving directions should not be like. When finding yourself in a situation like this it is a good idea, both for pupil and teacher, to try to describe the process in words so that misconceptions can be addressed.
When the process of giving direction is not working there are at least two factors that should be considered: the level of skill and the mode of thinking.
Level of skill and modes of thinking
The art of giving directions is a skill. As with all skills it is something that takes more thought and consideration to begin with, and becomes more automatic with time. You can compare it to learning to drive a car. A beginner will have to focus his or her attention on the task at hand to be able to apply the clutch and change gears. An experienced driver is able to change gears smoothly while at the same time having a general awareness that includes both the movements of the car and the surrounding traffic.
If someone is trying to give directions while speaking and this adversely affects their ability to communicate, then it could be that the person is trying something that at the moment is beyond that person's level of skill. It could also be, of course, that the person is trying the impossible and is using the wrong mode of thinking. Thinking the wrong way is often associated with level of skill, as a beginner often will try too hard and 'concentrate' too much.
A common and related misconception among beginners is a tendency to try to “relax”. Directing is not relaxation, although it can lead to muscular release. This is touched upon when the author of the article points out that:
On a simple neurological point, we activate muscle contractions from the motor cortex. There is no separate pathway for releasing messages of contraction. The relaxation of a muscle or group of muscles can only take place as a consequence of the stopping of the original signal activation, i.e. prevention and inhibition (ibid p. 81).
The general problem is that people think that giving directions is more difficult than it is. The level of awareness needed is like the inclusive awareness the driver of a car has of the surrounding traffic, the difference being that we are dealing with an awareness that includes our general coordination.
Another analogy is the awareness a musician in an orchestra has of the music, the other musicians, and the conductor. The musician doesn't have to try to see the conductor. On the contrary, focusing too much on one aspect of the situation could be detrimental to the process.
There are times and situations, however, when it is appropriate for the musician to have a more specific awareness. This depends on the context.
The author of Beyond Posture points to additional potential problems encountered when giving directions:
The idea that directions are simply a holding or framing in mind or little wishes or a kind of hopeful intention is equally problematic. It shares the same fallacy that the mind should be occupied with some spatial or imaginative content of the head, neck and back, thinking about one’s directions or some energy moving along the spine, an idea of “up”. The moment we request our pupils to hold any particular content in mind, we are actually compromising their spontaneity and their ability to fully participate in the present moment (ibid p. 80-81).
Unfortunately, the author does not differentiate between 'thinking about something' and 'having and intention'. It is necessary to understand the difference to understand the concept of Alexander Technique directing.
What the author seeks to address here, I think, must be the mistake of 'thinking too much', of trying to think in too much detail, and of having in mind ideas that can not be related to the situation at hand. If we can't relate the content to present activity; if the ideas we have can't be integrated into our activity, they are useless, even if they could work perfectly well in another context.
There are two situations where quite specific and detailed directions could be warranted. This is when dealing with specific habits, as exemplified in the chapters The Evolution of a Technique and The Stutterer in Alexander's The Use of the Self; or when learning new motor skills like learning to play a musical instrument.
When for instance applying the Alexander Technique to the execution of a difficult passage on the violin, it is necessary for the player to ensure that he/she has a clear concept of the patterns of fingering and bowing required. This concept is part of what we call 'the means whereby'. This concept is the plan for what we could label 'secondary orders'. These are the messages necessary for the execution of the planned movement.
An increase in mental content might potentially lead to lack of quality, and as the author says, quite rightly, quality is everything.
The real ‘change in thinking’ that Alexander was ultimately aiming for, and the real essence of “thinking in activity”, is not intended to lead to an increase in mental content and mental clutter, but rather a change in quality of thinking. Content thinking embodies mere ghosts in a machine, detached from the sphere of true relationship, whereas quality thinking offers the potential of a way of being in connection to the world (ibid p. 81).
But the author seems to be equating any specific content to a lack of quality, regardless of context. Instead, he sees directions as a “state” rather than elements of a practical skill:
Directions can be understood as the ongoing state of harmony or distortion that is present within each of us and at every moment (ibid p. 81).
This description is correct, of course. We are directing all the time, for the most part subconsciously, and with good 'use' this will entail a state of harmony. Sometimes, when all is working well, all we have to do is to make sure that we don't get in the way. 'The right thing will do itself,' as Alexander said, and the author writes, quoting Margaret Goldie.
The question is: how do we get to this desirable state? How do we stop doing the wrong thing? The author can't really tell us. What he does tell us is that:
The idea of giving directions has confused generations. (ibid p. 79)
This might be true, but again, this is because we are making things more difficult than they are. According to Alexander, giving directions is not difficult at all:
Another difficulty which pupils make for themselves is in connexion with the giving of guiding orders or directions. They speak sometimes as if it were a strange and new thing to ask them to give themselves orders, forgetting that they have been doing this subconsciously from their earliest days, else they would not be able to stand up without help, much less move about. The point that is new in the scheme we are considering is that the pupil is asked consciously to give himself orders, evolved from a consideration of the requirements, not of a subconscious, but of a conscious, reasoning use of the organism, (Alexander, 2004, p. 104).
Instead of trying to explain how to give directions, the author resort to mysticism:
The way out of this maze is to ask ourselves, “Who is the Director?” Do we really believe that the source of our directions resides in the neocortex, our relatively new brain? How can our limited brains comprehend the vastness of the flow of life, much less direct it consciously? It is much wiser, and more true to know that we are directed by Nature rather than the other way around (Kingsley 2016, p. 79).
It seems that the author thinks that the process of giving conscious directions, as Alexander suggested, is pointless. We have to leave it to 'Nature', whatever that means. Somewhere else the author says the state created by the directions is: 'a vital force'. The author probably adheres to a vitalistic world view. This way of seeing the world is old fashioned, outdated, and based on superstition. Vitalism is unfortunately quite common among Alexander Technique teachers. I will address this in another article.
The author is probably right when he says that the directions do not come from the neo-cortex. As with all our intentions they probably originate at the subconscious level. But we have no reason to believe that they originate anywhere else than in our brain.
Thinking or imagining, however, that the directions come from somewhere else, could possibly be of some practical use. It could facilitate giving directions without interfering by trying to do them. François Delsarte, one of Alexander's sources of inspiration, taught pupils to direct themselves while looking in the mirror. It is worth trying.
The directions we use in the Alexander Technique can take many shapes and forms. My view is that anything is allowed as long as it works, and as long as we are clear about potential pitfalls, and about what is real and not.
As a basis, however, I think it is fundamentally important that we take as a starting point the physical facts of the landscape of our bodies. (“Nature,” if you like).
Vitalists, as the author of Beyond Posture, tend in my experience to not regard facts as particularly important. The author writes:
If it is true that we are directed by Nature, then consciously sending the head forward and up makes no sense. And where is forward and up? It cannot exist geographically. It can’t be a place, nor an angle, nor a sensation, and not even a relationship ... In fact, the less we know about forward and up the better (ibid p. 80).
For a beginner, the instruction 'forward and up' is potentially more of a problem than an aid. (I have been there myself). For us professional Alexander Technique teachers, however, it is part of our job, (and training I hope), to understand it as fully as possible. Although we might choose to not address the phenomenon at all in our teaching, 'forward and up' relates to basic anatomical facts about how our bodies work. These facts are the same whether or not we choose to support the idea of the existence of a primary control. 'Forward and up!' is, ironically, what 'Nature' tells us.
The author seems to discard of the classic directions, with one exception:
The most helpful element of the classic directions is the 'let' or 'allow' rather than the postural details that follow (ibid, p. 80).
Using the words 'let' or 'allow' could possibly help us to not try to hard, poetically described:
If we chase after butterflies, it will surely fly away, but if we move towards inner stillness, the butterfly might just alight on our shoulder (ibid).
The author says about the words 'let' or 'allow':
This was a dramatic shift from Alexander’s earlier request to “put” the head forward and up. (ibid).
In the notes to the article he says:
Alexander first used this new formula in Use of the Self, 1932, but he does not indicate when he changed his formulation (ibid, p. 88).
This is not correct. In The Use of the Self Alexander uses the phrase 'put the head forward and up'. He did not use the words 'let' or 'allow' in connection with directions or orders in any of his books, except that in the description of performing 'hands on the back of a chair' in Constructive Conscious Control he writes about the wrists:
(2) To allow the wrist of the left arm to be curved inwards towards the right, and the wrist of the right arm to be curved inwards towards the left.
(3) To allow the elbow of the left arm to be curved outwards towards the left, and the elbow of the right arm to be curved outwards towards the right. (Alexander 2004, p. 119)
Alexander seems to have used the word 'let' in teaching, though. In the Bedford Lecture from 1934 he says: '… I am going to let my head go forward and up out of my body' (Alexander 1995). The change in use of words most likely happened between 1932 and 1934.
Towards the end of the section 'Giving Directions' the author finally comes to the crux of the matter:
Alexander described the giving of directions as primarily preventative, that is to neutralise our unconscious reactions of mind-body distortion. This is non-doing in the fullest sense. (Kingsley p. 81).
The directions are primarily preventative. They are part of the process of 'stop doing the wrong thing.' This is why they work, when understood and applied mindfully.
For example, the direction “stay back and up”, is not simply a spatial demand. It is rather a description of a psychophysical attitude of alert and relational non-merging that we are supported in maintaining by the teacher, and increasingly in our everyday life (Kingsley p. 81).
There are no reasons why other, 'classical', directions like 'head forward and up' couldn't be given in the same way as 'stay back and up'. As always, we end up coming back to the basic Alexander Technique premise that if something doesn't work, like giving directions, then maybe it isn't the directions, the 'what', that is wrong, but how we go about it. We need to change our thinking, not the wording of the directions.
Alexander, F M (1995): Articles and Lectures. Mouritz.
Alexander, FM (2004): Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual. Mouritz.
Kingsley, Anthony (2016). "Beyond Posture". InThe Congress Papers - 10th International Congress of the F.M Alexander Technique. STATBooks.