The use of imagery to teach or learn the Alexander Technique is, to put it mildly, a controversial topic.
The diverse views were on full display in recent exchanges on the Alexander Technique Forum Facebook Page(1) include everything from general disapproval of using images to endorsement in some or many teaching situations.
Some members have also pointed out that a teacher’s verbal instructions can generate mental images in a student’s mind, so the distinction between using words while teaching – which has a long history in Alexander Technique teaching – and using images isn’t always clear.
Personally, I’ve had mixed results with using mental images.
While I was training in England, I had a great many lessons from a remarkable teacher (not connected to my training course) who used the “string pulling your head up” image during lessons.
On the plus side, that image did get me “out of my hips” in a way I’d never before experienced, and the teachers on my training course, who knew nothing about my unauthorized lessons, commented on it with surprise and approval.
However, when I used that image while walking, as part of a class with late Marjorie Barstow, she stopped me in my tracks and asked what I was thinking. When I told her, she said: “That’s exactly what it looks like! You’re stiffening yourself to try to be up.” When I dropped it, I found my walk was indeed more fluid and I haven’t used it since.
My take from this is that the image was useful for me as an intermediate step, but not as a continuing process. It did get me out a deeply rooted harmful habit of sinking into my hips. But once that was achieved, it became limiting – ultimately because the ideal “location” of the string would have to change so often, and so quickly, to accommodate the many tiny changes in my head orientation that I would never be able to keep up.
My string image had become a little like a broken clock. Accurate, but only twice a day!
I do use some simple images in my teaching to help students locate key places in their body.
For example, when working with students to help them make the best use of gravity, I use simple line images to help them find their centers of gravity, which has proved to be very useful and effective. Those centers are infinitesimally tiny, and tricky to mentally locate without using some form of imagery.
I’ve also found that simple line imagery can be very helpful for students in learning just where their head rests on top of their spine, and then how to tilt and rotate their heads freely.
When examining a question like the usefulness of imagery, it’s always interesting to see if F. Matthias Alexander, the founder of the Technique, had anything to say about it. As it turns out, he never used the word “imagery” in any of his four books, which is not surprising since using it they way I’m using it here really only became popular after his death in 1955.(2)
However, variants of word “image” do appear occasionally, but only once in a way that relates a bit to the kind of imagery we’re talking about here. In his first book, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, in a section titled “Race Culture and the Training of the Children” he writes about teaching children how to draw:
Now the act of drawing is in the last analysis a mechanical process that concerns the management of the fingers, and the co-ordination of the muscles of the hand and forearm in response to certain visual images conceived in the brain and imaginatively projected on to the paper (emphasis mine). And the standard of functioning of the human fingers and hand in this connection depends entirely on the degree of kinaesthetic development of the arm, torso, and joints; in fact on the standard of co- ordination of the whole organism. It is not surprising, there- fore, that hardly one of these more or less defectively co-ordinated children should have any idea of how to hold a pencil in such a way as will command the freedom, power, and control that will enable him to do himself justice as a draughtsman.
Any attentive and thoughtful observer who will watch the movement and position of these children’s fingers, hand, wrist, arm, neck, and body generally, during the varying attempts to draw straight or crooked lines, cannot fail to note the lack of co-ordination between these parts. The fingers are probably attempting to perform the duties of the arm, the shoulders are humped, the head twisted on one side. In short, energies are being projected to parts of the bodily mechanism which have little or no influence on the performance of the desired act of drawing, and the mere waste projection of such energies alone is almost sufficient to nullify the purpose in view.
But I have already said enough to prove that no free expression can come by this means. The right impulse may be in the child’s mind, but he has not the physical ability to express it. Not one modern child in ten thousand is born with the gift to draw as we say ” by the light of Nature,” and that one exceptional child will have his task made easier if he is wisely guided in his first attempts.
Speaking for myself, I’m convinced that imagery, and its cousin imagination, is an incredibly powerful tool – and that’s precisely why, if and when you use it, you need to do so wisely.
I would love to see your thoughts on this topic – either here or on Facebook.
1. Anybody with an interest in the Alexander Technique is welcome to join this group: The Alexander Technique Forum
2. Strictly speaking, imagery has been around for a very long time:
Believe it or not, guided imagery, or simply imagery, has been used for centuries as a medical therapy. Evidence shows Tibetan monks began using meditation as early as the 13th century, imagining Buddha curing disease. Others believe that this imagery technique has been used for even longer, going back possibly to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Today, guided imagery is an accepted form of complementary and alternative medicine and used in conjunction with traditional treatments by clinics, hospitals and health care providers around the world. – History of Guided Imagery
Here’s a great Country Music song – and surprisingly artsy for a Country video! – to listen to while you contemplate imagery and imagination: