This blog article is written with teachers and advanced pupils in mind.
In January a very nice interview with Alexander Technique teacher and running coach Malcolm Balk was published on The Developing Self Youtube channel. In the video, titled "FM.'s knees forward and away revisited
," Balk tells about how new insights changed his understanding of the directions.
His former way of thinking had been one-dimensional and thus led him to inhibit (in a negative sense) the natural rotational movements of the legs and feet. At first I was a bit puzzled. These rotational movements were something I learnt about when I was training to be an Alexander Technique teacher more than twenty years ago. On the other hand, having a limited or even wrong understanding of the directions is fairly common. I'm sure we have all been there.
It is like learning to play an instrument like the violin. First, your ability to play in tune is limited. Later, you are able to adjust, and add vibrato.
In the beginning, our understanding of the directions is bound to be limited. With time our understanding will change and evolve. The basic directions as formulated by Alexander by others are only general descriptions. There is nothing wrong with them, unless you have put a meaning into them which is not intended, or you are trying to apply them inappropriately. Blaming your problems on the directions is like blaming your inability to play in tune on the violin.
No learning process is perfect. Misconceptions about directions can ensue, and we can, ironically, develop bad habits in the attempt at eliminating them. Some of these habits are very basic and very common, others can be quite sophisticated and cultivated even by experienced Alexander Teachers. Here follows a few examples.
When a "free neck" or anything related is mentioned in lessons I have sometimes observed that the person wiggles his/her head about. It is as if they want to make sure that the neck isn't tense, and then they go on tensing it in the process. This wiggling can become a habit.
The other extreme may also happen. With the intention not to tense the neck the pupil might try to avoid moving the head at all, turning themselves into what's aptly defined as "alexandroids".
Another response to the idea of a "free" neck can be to tuck the chin in. This could possibly be because the feeling of stretching the neck muscles is associated with release.
Forward and up
Alexander wrote that this is a "dangerous instruction to give" (Alexander 2004, p.113). Head balance is a delicate thing and easily interfered with. I remember trying to put my head "forward and up" after having read Body Learning by Michael Gelb prior to having my first Alexander lessons. I was standing in front of a mirror, stretching my neck trying to put the head into the assumed correct position.
The forward and up direction is seemingly two-dimensional and can potentially lead to the same avoidance of rotational movements in the neck as Balk describes relating to knees forward and away. This adds to the "alexandroid" tendency.
Forward and up can also be the inspiration for a similar tucking in of the chin as with the idea of "freeing" the neck.
The average person thinking of "lengthening" or "up" would possibly try to straighten the back. Other tendencies associated more generally with the idea of "up" can be to look up and raise the eyebrows, and maybe move the head backwards, lifting the chin.
Some years ago I happened to watch myself in a shop window as I was walking past. It looked like I was leaning backwards. It wasn't entirely clear that I was due to it being winter and me having lots of clothes on. I kept watching myself over the following days and found that I was indeed leaning backwards from the hips when walking. I came to the conclusion that once having had the habit of leaning forward I associated the feeling of leaning backwards with being "up". Last year someone posted a video on a Facebook group showing an experienced Alexander teacher doing the same. Our sense of direction can become corrupted if we rely on feeling.
The unwanted responses to the idea of widening is maybe not as obvious as with lengthening, but they do occur. They can show up as an unnecessary movement of the shoulders or the pushing out of the ribs.
The above are some examples of bad habits that can appear associated with attempting to give directions relating directly to the organisation of the body. But we also have to organise ourselves in relation to the rest of the world and in relation to our activities. Frank Pierce Jones describes this very well as "the organisation of awareness" (Jones 1996).
To continue using the musical metaphor - we have to relate to our surroundings just like musicians needs to be aware of the conductor and/or fellow musicians.
Various ways of thinking about points of contact, of surrounding space or the field of vision can be very useful and have positive influence on bodily organisation. This category of directions can include any conscious idea intended to inhibit interference with natural functioning. The ideas not directly involving the physical body are probably less likely to cause negative bodily habits. Believing that they don't at all, is a mistake however.
Suggesting to someone that they are aware of their field of vision, for instance, can make them tense their eyes and hold their breaths. Suggesting to a performer that he/she is aware of the space behind them can tempt them to a tendency to lean backwards. Suggesting to someone that they say to themselves that they are "free" can make them dissociate and space out. Any thought is an act, and any act can potentially lead to unnecessary "doing".
If you think you have found a way of directing, or of teaching giving directions, which have zero risk of leading to bad habits, you are dangerously and gravely underestimating the creativity of your pupils.
To direct or not direct
Walter Carrington writes in his diary from 1946 published as A Time to Remember:
At tea F.M. said that he had, at last, decided that we must cut out in
future teaching all instructions to order the neck to relax or to be free
because such orders only lead to other forms of doing. If a person is stiffening the neck, the remedy is to get them to stop projecting the messages that are bringing about this condition and not to project messages to counteract the effects of other messages. He said that
the implied contradiction had worried him for a long time but, after
working on Hallis this morning, he saw that it must be changed so all
orders in future will be framed so as to emphasise “non-doing.” (Carrington 1996, p.59).
Some have used this as an argument for not teaching pupils to direct, or to even stop giving directions themselves. This is clearly a misinterpretation.
There is no such thing as "not giving directions". Alexander writes in Constructive Conscious Control:
They [pupils] 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)
If the process of consciously giving directions has become fraught with bad habits, then it is definitely worth considering giving it up for the time being. Maybe you have misunderstood the whole thing and need to reconsider.
In my view, not giving conscious directions is not an option for teachers of the Alexander Technique. Basically, we need to be aware of our bodily intentions. The nature of the direction process, however, should be up to individual teacher, "evolved from a consideration of the requirements". It doesn't have to be "let the neck be free", etc.
The same goes for our pupils. As Alexander expressed after apparently a bad day at the office, we should be very careful with what we present to our pupils. We need to be pragmatic about what we teach each individual. Their personality, attitude, interests, aspirations and present situation must all be taken into account. Not everybody will learn the same, or learn it to the same level. This is similar to violin teaching, to continue the musical reference. Not all violin pupils need to learn the key of G flat major. (It's not for beginners).
The Art of Directing
You wouldn't judge the value of the violin as a means of expression based on what you hear of someone who hasn't mastered it. Similarly you should not judge the value of mastering the skill of giving conscious direction on instances when it goes wrong.
The examples of bad habits related to giving directions mentioned above are normally caused by misunderstandings and misconceptions. These could be:
1. Doing the directions. The directions are thoughts, or rather intentions.
2. Not realising the directions are preventive. You wont necessarily feel any direct effects of giving directions.
3. Not understanding they are indirect. Directions are not ends in themselves. They must be seen in relation to the organisation of the body as a whole.
4. Mistaking the words for directions, and giving the words a fixed meaning. Any verbal formulation is only a general description of the thought. (Similarly to a musical note being only a limited description of the sound).
5. Idea of directions not in accordance with the facts of physiology, e.g. not allowing the rotational movements inherent in most movements.
6. Wrong mode of thinking, for instance trying too hard, or narrowing the focus, or not adapting the mode of thinking to the situation.
Giving Alexander Technique directions is a skill, and an art. Part of that art is to continually refine the thought process, making the directions increasingly accurate. This entails continuously rooting out any bad habits, because they will arise. We humans have an incredible capacity for learning, this includes the capacity for acquiring bad habits. As we progress we become increasingly aware of this fact.
Part of the art of giving conscious direction is also to become increasingly mentally flexible. As we change, our directions must also change. Our conscious directions should be the opposite of fixed ideas.
Related blog posts
Alexander, Frederick Matthias. 2004. Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual. Mouritz.
Carrington, Walter. 1996. A Time to Remember: A Personal Diary of Teaching the F.M.
Alexander Technique in 1946. Sheildrake Press.
Jones, Frank P. 1997. Freedom to Change- the Development and Science of the Alexander Technique. Mouritz.