Class Struggle

For many years, swimming has been my favorite sport and I usually manage to get to the pool 4 or 5 times a week.

As an Alexander Technique teacher I particularly love to explore being in a different medium, and in a different relationship with gravity.  There’s something about swimming that, for me at least, encourages a smooth flowing movement that I can carry over into the rest of my day.

Years ago I shared a pool with a water aerobics class held in the portion of the pool not set aside for lap swimming.  There were 2 women who led the class on different days and as I emerged from the changing room headed towards the pool area, I could tell right away which one was teaching.

One woman had a very calm demeanor and even when she got the class participants moving quite vigorously, never raised her voice to do so. When she introduced a new movement, she was  careful to describe and demonstrate it a few times.  She alternated between standing on the edge of the pool and being in the water with everyone else.

The other woman always stood on the edge of the pool and shouted out her directions.  As she did this, she demonstrated the exercise moves using with a rapid, jerky motion, typically tensing her body by pulling her head back onto her neck and arching her lower back.

The most interesting difference is how the class members reacted to these very different teaching styles.

During the first instructor’s classes, participants moved pretty gracefully and seemed to be enjoying themselves.  When the class is over, many stayed to gossip a bit before leaving the pool.

With the second instructor, it was quite a different story.  Every time she tensed herself, you could see a little ripple of tension spreading across the class. Participants retracted their heads down onto their spines, unconsciously mimicking what they see the instructor doing.

Their exercise movements were generally less fluid and they often seemed to be struggling to keep up.  Some left early.  When the class was over, everybody remaining left the pool right away, with very little conversation.

I doubt of most of the class members were consciously aware of these differences.  Certainly I never heard anybody make a comment.

Still, the differences were quite striking and I think it illustrates an important point for teachers, speakers and performers: the quality of how you organize you own body – which is what the Alexander Technique is all about – has an immediate and direct effect on your class or audience.

It may be a subtle effect, people may not be consciously aware of it, but it is almost certainly affecting their ability to take in what you have to offer.

F. M. Alexander, developer of the Alexander Technique, fashionably attired for a tension-free dip in the ocean.

We’ve all been to talks or performances where we’ve felt a bit uncomfortable.  Chances are that discomfort was due at least in part to the state of the person on stage.

We’ve also been to events were we’ve immediately felt at ease – again probably reflecting to some extent the ease we see and hear demonstrated by the presenter.

And of course this kind of transfer of one persons’ state of being to those around him or her is at work all the time in all our personal interactions.

An interview I did recently for the Alexander Technique Podcast with Sharon Jacubecy, an Alexander Technique teacher in Los Angeles, nicely brings out some of these points.  You can listen to it here:

I’d love to hear about experiences you’ve had with speaking, teaching and performing.


Swimming Pool© Carloscastilla |

Women in Pool© Andres Rodriguez |


Class Struggle — 13 Comments

  1. Sometimes in lessons my students who have to speak in public as part of their jobs try to tell me that “they simply don’t have time to think of their head and body” when they’re presenting. It is stories like the one that you have shared that give the lie to this.
    We make so many judgements about the person teaching us long before they begin delivering their content, purely on the basis of the manner of their presence in front of us. We decide, in fact, whether we are going to take the time to listen to the presenter.
    First impressions count. So taking the time to think about your head before you begin can save you a lot of time and stress in the long run, and make you a better teacher.
    Thanks, Robert!

    • That’s a good point Jennifer – do some thinking before you start.

      I also think that this kind of potentially stressful and overwhelming situation cries out for negative Alexander Technique directions – they are, in my experience, a lot easier to deploy. Not to mention that they are more effective.

  2. Great blog, Robert! Yes, there are so many signals we may be unconsciously giving off that are possibly quite the opposite of our intention. And I think you are right in your observation that we often unconsciously mirror the signals of those around us, especially those of a teacher or presenter to whom everyone is paying particular attention. Alexander Technique is wonderful in that you learn to know more accurately what you personally are doing with your body (and so avoid the unwanted signals), and you can better read the signals of those around you – both great tools for anyone who is a performer or presenter, but indeed all of us as we interact with anyone.

    • Thanks Imogen. One thing I come upon over and over again is my students who want to work with some form of public speaking frequently tend to pull their upper torso back when they start to speak. This sends a signal that you don’t really want to be there and it’s something they can fairly easily learn to change.

  3. Such astute observations about how we communicate bodily. What’s particularly interesting, in addition to students’ imitation of the less skilled teacher’s physical habits, is how physical disconnection leads to social disconnection, and how physical integration sparks warm interaction. Thanks for this!

  4. Great point Joan. If you start to look for it, you’ll be able to spot teachers/lecturers/politicians/clergy who’s harmful habits of posture and speech create that kind of social disconnection – and the opposite, the successful ones, who create social connection just by being there.

  5. Great blogpost! I think everyone can relate to what you describe. Gives the reader inspiration to observe the connection between use and functioning. Very instructive and informative.

    Halvard Heggdal

  6. Great post, Robert, I enjoyed reading it very much–especially because swimming is the one sport that I really love. I had two AT lessons with two different teachers before I found the teacher that was a good “fit” for me. I am SO glad that I instinctively knew the value of AT, and also knew that not all teachers are right for everyone at any given time. I remember very clearly the moment the third teacher opened the door for me and invited me into his home for the first lesson with me; I knew instantly that this teacher would be right for me–that this time, it would “work”–and I was right. How did I know? It must have been something about his use that put me at ease, instilled trust and confidence, and inspired me. It was unconscious, and quick. Yes, first impressions are very important, and we teach others through our own use, every moment, whether we are aware of it or not.

    • As a shoeshine guy at O’Hare Airport once said to me, in trying to get me to let him shine my grungy hiking boots, “You don’t ever get a second chance to make a first impression.”

  7. What happens if you’re too mellow when you talk and people fall asleep like flies on a hot day…and you’d like them to stay awake!
    That’s a funny problem to have, isn’t it?

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