Mind your Manners

http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-images-hungry-dog-image23266694In my last blog, When will I finally get it?, I wrote about the impatience that students sometimes feel about their progress with the Alexander Technique.

F. Matthias Alexander, the developer of the Technique,  famously said: “We can throw away the habits of a lifetime if we use our brains.” Why then, after weeks, months – even years! – of Alexander lessons and working on our own, during which time we have experienced many obvious changes for the better, haven’t we completely “got it”?

I gave a short answer saying basically that while our habits can be dispatched quite quickly with effective Alexander Technique directing, there is no guarantee they won’t come back to bite us.  Nor does it mean that our body will change at the same speed as our habits of thinking.

A helpful way of thinking about this a little more deeply is to examine Alexander’s concept of “Use” –  a term he borrowed from horse trainers.

What did Alexander mean by “use”?

Use refers to the habitual and characteristic manner in which a person moves and uses their body, all the time, whatever they are doing. Our use is influenced by our thinking and by our emotions and to bring about changes in our use, we need to allow changes to take place in our thinking and in our reactions to things. – From Alexander teacher Hilary King’s excellent Glossary of Alexander Technique terms.

Alexander further distinguished two kinds of use: “Conditions of Use” and “Manner of Use”.

“Conditions of use” refers to the state of our coordination and physical structure that exists – whether we are directing ourselves or not.

“Manner of use” refers to the effectiveness of our self-directing. Over time, improved manner of use will improve the conditions of use. Improved conditions of use make it easier to improve manner of use.

Although it’s a bit simplistic, I’ve found an automotive analogy useful in thinking about and explaining the interplay between these two “uses.” A badly-designed and maintained car – one having, in a sense, poor conditions of use – might be driven by a skilled driver and thus have a good manner of use. Over time, this driver might well make some necessary repairs and useful adjustments, thereby improving the car’s conditions of use. And that, in turn, will make it easier to drive the car well.

In the same way, if you learn how to work on yourself effectively (improving your manner of use),  you will improve your conditions of use over time.  And that will make it easier for you to continue improving your manner of use.

It’s a very powerful positive feedback loop but there can be periods when one of those two “uses” (usually conditions of use) seems to get behind the other.  And that can lead to frustration and impatience.

When my conditions of use seem to be lagging behind for an extended period of time, I’ve sometimes found it useful to explore other methods of self-improvement. For example, I’ve used, and benefited from, chiropractic, a specialized form of physical therapy, and cranial sacral work.  Other possibilities could be exercise, nutritional coaching, psychotherapy – the list goes on and on.

These methods have in common the possibility of addressing harmful patterns for which Alexander Technique self-directing may not be very effective – at least within a reasonable time frame. For instance just one lifetime!

But I’ve learned over the years that in the moment – right this second! – it’s Alexander Technique directing that is probably going to be most useful for me to make a positive change in the my physical functioning.

In other words I would do well to mind my manner of use.

Here’s a very short interview I did about conditions of use and manner of use with Eileen Troberman for Alexander Talk

And here’s an article I wrote on this topic some time ago: What’s the Use?


I’d love to hear your experiences with conditions and manner of use.  Have you ever been impatient with your progress?  How did things resolve themselves for you?  What is your advice for new students of the Technique?




Mind your Manners — 9 Comments

  1. Great blog Robert.
    Funnily, it is sometimes “difficult” to explain “use”, even though in essence it is such a simple thing really. We have no difficulty in understanding “use” when it refers to things outside our own self-definition (who would argue that the effectiveness in the use a pencil is determined by the conditions in which we have to use it, and the manner in which we use it?)
    Thank you for the link to Hilary King’s glossary. That will be most helpful.

  2. Recently my Alexander teacher mentioned he had studied with Ida Rolf, and that Rolfing can go much faster than AT lessons, like how you said we only have one lifetime. . .but the AT approach can also lead to long lasting changes.

  3. Great blog, Robert. You mention other modalities you have benefited from that helped you improve your conditions of use. I agree many other modalities can be very helpful, but I believe particularly so if you have Alexander Technique training as well. As an example, you might go to a chiropractor and get an adjustment (or series of adjustments). However, unless you have good self-awareness (which you get through AT) and can consciously working with your manner of use (a skill learned through AT), in my experience the results will not be long-lasting as you have not changed any underlying habits that either caused or exacerbated the condition. So having some background in Alexander Technique can in many cases actually increase the efficacy and success-rate of various therapies, modalities or programs. Would you agree?

    • Imogen, I fully agree with what you say. I have noticed that effect in all areas of my life, and all courses and therapies I’ve undergone. The AT has helped me reap the benefits of other techniques much quicker and more comprehensively.

  4. I’m routinely impatient with my progress. Until I remember, it is the wanting to get somewhere other than where I am, which hinders me. With that epiphany progress continues effortlessly. After a few weeks I’ll forget again and so the cycle goes on. Now I just accept it’s part of the ebb and flow of my learning.

  5. In my opinion wanting to “have got it” may be a misleading approach in the first place. Why would I want that ? When everything has arrived at its “end” I´m dead. As long as I live there is change – for the better or worse and in every aspect of my life: my self (as in: aging body and growing mindfulness), personal relationships, work, …

    I have to admit, I´m an AT beginner. I am now in my 4th year of taking AT lessons and in the middle of my teacher training course. During this time my feet “grew” from shoe size 39 to 41 1/2, I had to purchase a completely new shoe collection twice ! So tremendous changes took place in my body (and not only the feet, but they are so easily measurable) as well as in my mind. I went from a business management background “brainy” person to someone who nowadays can listen to her gut feeling at least sometimes !
    And indeed, in the beginning of my AT journey I was often wondering: “will this huge progress go on and on … ?” Maybe it´s due to my very low starting level and beginner´s state but as I am becoming more aware and sensitive I realise changes in my self nearly every day – amazing !

    And I love to have to work on my progress, to be able to discover new ways of “using” myself. I have been able to change bad habits and get rid of fierce pain in my left shoulder, neck and fingers. If I understand your definition correctly then in this case my bad “manner of use” of gripping objects “only” with my fingers resulted in a bad condition of my respective joints etc… And with an improved manner of use, e.g. aligning the arm to the back and hence “gripping objects with the back” I improved my conditions of use, e.g. got rid of the swellings in my finger joints. Is that correctly understood?

    So, as for now I haven´t reached a period of standstill yet and I´d love to follow F.M. by saying: “I don´t dare to stop”.

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