Freeing Alexander’s Dream from the Cage of his Technique

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Photo of F. M. Alexander, taken towards the end of his life.

In my previous blog, Alexander’s Dream, I wrote that while F. M. Alexander began his career with huge hopes about the future of his work, things were looking bleak at the time of his death in 1955.

Since then, however, the number of Alexander Technique teachers, and Alexander teacher training courses, has expanded dramatically. In part this was due to popular books by Dr. Wilfred Barlow, Frank Pierce Jones and Michael Gelb.  But a good deal of the credit for this expansion also lies with the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT), which Alexander may or may not have endorsed before his death (the history is murky), and with the other Alexander Technique organizations that have sprung up over the years.

One of the self-assumed roles of most of these organizations has been to “safeguard”, as it were, the central ideas of the Alexander Technique, particularly a view of how it ought to be taught.

But organizations often have a tendency towards rigidity, and that’s certainly been true in the Alexander Technique world.  Thirty years ago, for example, there was serious opposition from within STAT about the validity of group teaching, “application” work and residential courses for reasons that would sound strange to most of us today.

I was actually present, as a trainee, at one of the key debates, held in Dr. and Marjory Barlow’s teaching area. It was an amazing spectacle to witness, but it came and went without a lot of notice in the greater Alexander world. (The “pro-group” faction ultimately won.)

What’s different now about attempts to restrict teaching methodology can be summed up in one phrase: The Web.

The web has changed forever the power of organizations in all sorts of fields, not least in ours.  In the past, for example, if you wanted to find a teacher, you pretty much had to go through the one professional organization in your country. Today there are often a couple of organizations to choose from and, in a sense, a professional organization is just one of many websites as far as potential students are concerned.

Even more significant is that the web is now the primary medium of exchange of ideas between teachers, students and potential students.  All you need do to confirm this is check out the discussions taking place on the various Alexander Technique Facebook pages and groups.

There have also been dramatic developments in what might be called “Alexander Technique teaching technology”. This started with Alexander Technique spin-offs such as Body Mapping, Posture Release Imagery and Up With Gravity – all of which are easily accessible to members of the general public and which are to a large extent web-based in terms of how people discover and use them.

More recently, several new methods of Alexander Technique directing have emerged, starting with Negative (sometimes called Inhibitory) Directions, which have gained a significant following among Alexander Teachers.  In the past few months, Freedom Directions have emerged as a likely successor to Negative Directions – one that is simpler to use, often a bit more effective, and above all, one that students can easily share with others.  They can used by pretty much anybody with an interest in learning them. (You can learn about all these and other new developments in Alexander Technique directing at the Alexander Technique Podcast page: New Directions in Alexander Technique Directing.)

As if all that weren’t enough, the web has also provided a new medium for teaching the Technique at a distance: Skype.  Of course there is at present no hands-on teaching with Skype, although this seems certain to change as existing new technologies become cheaper and more widely available.  Many teachers have successfully used Skype to teach students who would otherwise have no access to a teacher.  The new teaching developments mentioned above are fairly easy to convey via Skype.

What this all means is that the “cage” provided by professional Alexander Technique organizations – one that may well have been necessary half a century ago – has now opened wide, allowing new ideas to be quickly and easily tested and propagated throughout the Alexander world without any official involvement or control.  Alexander organizations still have important roles, but controlling innovation in Alexander Technique teaching is, in my opinion, no longer one of them.

Alexander laid out what he saw as the Big Picture of his work at the start of the first chapter of his first book, Man’s Supreme Inheritance (MSI) in 1910.  I quoted from that chapter in my previous blog and I think it’s worth repeating here:

…whatever name we give to the Great Origin of the Universe, in the words of a friend of mine ” we can all of us agree . . . that we mean the same thing, namely, that high power within the soul of man which enables him to will or to act or to speak, not loosely or wildly, but in subjection to an all-wise and invisible Authority.” The name that we give to that Authority will in no way affect the principles which I am about to state. In subscribing to them the mechanist may still retain his belief in a theory of chemical reactions no less than the Christian his faith in a Great Redeemer.

But, interestingly enough, at the end of his Preface of that same book, coming just before Chapter I, he also wrote:

I wish to do away with such teachers as I am myself. My place in the present economy is due to a misunderstanding of the causes of our present physical disability, and when this disability is finally eliminated the specialised practitioner will have no place, no uses. This may be a dream of the future, but in its beginnings it is now capable of realisation.

The ultimate elimination of any need for specialized Alexander Technique teachers was an integral part of Alexander’s dream.  I emphasize the word “specialized” because I think that what Alexander hoped for was a world in which there would be huge numbers of “non-specialized” teachers who would be quite capable of effectively teaching most of their friends, family and neighbors.  Perhaps a music teacher, a kindergarten teacher, a massage therapist – or just someone in the neighborhood, or someone halfway around the world using Skype – who has experimented with Alexander’s discoveries, and the many effective methods available to help others use those discoveries.

Freedom Directions are already being easily and effectively shared by Alexander students with their friends and families. Clearly we’re edging ever closer to the realization of this important aspect of Alexander’s Dream. If this trend continues, and I see no reason why it won’t, it will present some interesting new challenges for teachers and organizations.

I’m certain that the net effect will be a huge increase in opportunities for Alexander Technique teachers who are able to adapt to the new reality.  But as Kowalski, the country music loving astronaut in the movie Gravity is fond of saying, “It’s going to be a hell of a ride.”

And one filled with absolutely amazing and wonderful new opportunities to test our freedom to change.

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I realize this is extremely controversial terrain I’m covering and I welcome you comments – favorable and unfavorable – below.


Comments

Freeing Alexander’s Dream from the Cage of his Technique — 7 Comments

  1. Great post, Robert!
    I wish there were organizations dedicated to helping Alexander Technique students and teachers, instead of safeguarding “THE Alexander Technique”. We teachers are the Alexander Technique, and WE need safeguarding.

  2. I agree Mark. The sad thing is they don’t know what they don’t know. By “they” I mean the people running them who are trying to do the right thing in what is a pretty thankless job.

    Robert

  3. There is always a tension in any field of learning between innovators and safeguarders of the tradition.I know this well from my own experience as a student of Ayurveda (Traditional Indian Medicine). As you can imagine the weight of tradition weighs even more heavily in a field as old as that!

    Anyone interested in the idea of putting ‘specialised’ healthcare knowledge back in the hands of the common man should read Ivan Illich’s book Medical Nemesis. Not an easy read, but fascinating.

    Anyway, I, for one, thank you Robert, for your willingness to respectfully question the tradition. One thing I have wondered though, listening to your many podcasts concerning innovations in Alexander directions is that success with new directions might be due to the freshness of a change, rather than any inherent superiority in the new directions. Perhaps everyone needs to change the way they direct from time to time, in order not to fall into unnoticed habits, and to keep them more ‘in the moment’? And we need to be aware that successes of a few students or teachers with a new technique by no means constitutes rigorous research. Any thoughts on these questions?

  4. Hi Gavin,

    I have indeed read that and several others of Illich’s books – an amazing guy.

    I don’t think the success of the new directions is due to their novelty – I and other teachers have used them with students who had no knowledge of earlier directions and our experience is that they are more effective. As you say, however, this does not constitute rigorous research. So I guess a definitive answer will take time to uncover.

    On the other hand, has there been rigorous research for any directions? When I was training 30 plus years ago, there were a great many variations on AT directions, and a great many different interpretations of what they meant.

    Robert

    • Yes, I guess it would indeed be difficult to design a truly high quality trial to assess the effectiveness of various different directions. Impossible probably!

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