Throw it Away!

I love this quote* by F. Matthias Alexander!

For me, it gets to the heart of a major obstacle faced by students as they begin to explore Alexander Technique directions – the strong temptation to hold on to the nice changes they experience, whether from an Alexander Technique teacher’s hands-on guidance, of from their own self-directing.

In my experience, you can reason with them until you’re blue in the face, explaining that “you can’t fix a movement” or “trying to hold on to a feeling takes you away from the thought that brought it about” etc. etc. and they’ll nod their head in accent and then continue grasping at results at the expense of process.

So…what to do?

I’ve tried all sorts of approaches. and I find one of the most effective is to teach them to deliberately “throw away” the direction I’ve just asked them to use – and see what happens.  And then to bring that direction back, continue it for a bit, and then toss it away again.  And then bring the direction back.

I usually begin in the first lesson and the particular framework I use most often in which to run these experiments is walking.  It’s an activity they’re going to be doing over the course of their day, it has a nice rhythmical quality, and especially when it’s done on creaky wooden floors can produce some nice auditory feedback.

I might start by asking a student to think something like “I am free” or “My neck is free.”  I’ll go through a little explanation that these are very soft thoughts, not something to do.  The student’s job is to think the thought lightly with absolutely no concern about what it means or how it might be implemented.

Their job is to softly think the direction and leave all the messy details up to lower level systems.  Total outsourcing – or, really, in-sourcing!

I also tell them that they will almost certainly forget the direction, probably within a second or two.  No problem. When they notice they’ve lost track of it, just gently bring it back.  Over and over again.

Then I ask them to take that thought into a little walk around my studio.  After perhaps 10-15 seconds, I ask them to keep walking, but throw the thought away.  Then, a few seconds later, I ask them to gently bring it back.

I might go through 2-3 repetitions – any more and “throwing it away” becomes a little problematical.

Almost always, when they throw the thought away, they notice that they drop down into themselves.  Often they can hear the sound of their feet arriving at the floor becoming louder. This, I point out, is a direct experience of their old habit.

Then, when they bring the thought back, they lighten up and their footfalls become softer again.

I then ask them to go through this same kind of experiment on their own, with a variety of activities, a few times each day.

Deliberately throwing their useful self-direction away, and then bringing it back has the effect of lessening their desire to hold on to it in the first place.  After all, if it’s a simple matter to bring it back, there’s really no need to try to keep it.

After awhile (maybe a week or so) most students realize they don’t actually have to throw their directions away to use their directions in a light, “forgiving-of-forgetting” kind of way.

Here’s an interview Imogen Ragone did with me as part of her series about Alexander Technique teachers’ first lessons in which I talk a little more about this process:


How have you – teacher or student – dealt with the “holding onto” problem which Alexander so nicely identifies?  I’d love to hear about your own experiences with directing.

Please leave your responses below and/or on Facebook.

*Quoted in the diary of Sir George Trevelyan, which can be found in The Philosopher’s Stone – Diaries of Lessons with F. Matthias Alexander



Throw it Away! — 4 Comments

  1. Hi Robert,

    Great post! I have been exploring the technique through weekly lessons for just over a year now, and I find that trying to “hold on to” directions is one of the most difficult problems I have encountered in the learning process.

    For me, it becomes difficult to let go because the results of working with the directions are often so remarkable, you want to “go right for it”, especially if you are used to trying to be conscientious!

    It seems to me that there is a subtle kind of AT “end-gaining” that can happen if you become worried about the quality or effectiveness of your directions.

  2. Hi Robert,

    Thanks for following up. I’m just listening to the audio segment portion of this post and you talk a bit at the end about the “can of worms” that is the classic “forward and up” Alexander direction. I’ve talked quite a bit with my teacher about this subject, but I am interested to get your opinion as well.

    I’ll frame the question this way: Alexander talks about how the classic directions are given “all together, one after the other” yet my teacher and I primarily work with the direction “My neck is free” or “I am allowing my neck to be free”. My understanding and experience is essentially that once you begin working with this simple direction, changes may take place without you having to think about or say sub-vocally other directions.

    Has that also been your experience? Does that mean these other directions are not really necessary? If so, do we know why Alexander chose to use them to begin with instead of more simple words are phrases?

    Sorry, this topic is probably larger than a comment post! I’ve just started to look into Alexander resources on the web, and I am surprised to see so many different approaches to the work.


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