I’m always experimenting with new Alexander Technique self-directions and the other day I came up with this one: “I am not constricting myself” – a variant of the more frequently used “I am not compressing myself”. Both of these are Negative Directions, and for both the Freedom Direction version could be “I am free”.
Alexander Technique directions, and the Technique more generally, provide a powerful way to avoid creating excess tension in response to external events.
Like other directions, this new direction can also be applied to specific parts or regions of your body. For example: “I am not constricting my neck, or “….my face” or “…my feet” – the list of possibilities is limitless.
I decided to learn a little about the animal whose very name refers to constriction: the dreaded Boa Constrictor. I discovered that contrary to popular belief, Boas are not usually dangerous for humans and they don’t actually squeeze so hard that their prey stops breathing right away. Rather it kills by constricting it’s victim just enough to shut off blood flow to the brain and heart.
We humans sometimes act as though we were a self-constricting species. We’re prone to tighten our bodies in all sorts of harmful ways that interfere with our natural functioning.
This is nothing new. Sure, there’s a lot going on in today’s high-stress situations, excessive use of video screens etc. that can be a stimulus to self-constrict. But we’ve been doing it for thousands of years. The Bible, for example, has many references to self-constricting: stiffening the neck, hardening the heart and so on. In one particularly scathing rebuke, God says: “I am planning such a misfortune against this clan that you will not be able to free your necks from it. You will not be able to walk erect.” – Micah 2, verse 3
Unlike the Boa’s victims, we don’t usually die from all this harmful self-inflicted tension. But it certainly gets in our way, and can lead to severe and chronic pain, poor posture and the like.
And unlike the Boa’s victims – rodents, lizards, mice and the like, who are painfully aware they are being constricted – we often have no idea that we are doing this to ourselves. The effects of our habits of self-constricting have become so deeply ingrained that they have often come to feel normal.
One of the reasons I sometimes prefer to use the word constricting instead of compressing in a self-direction is that, for me at least, it conveys more the idea of an action originating from within us that we’d like to stop. I also like the word because those self-constricting patterns are often exceedingly complex and, again for me, the word compressing implies a little less complexity.
If you’d like, try some constricting directions for yourself and see how they compare to their compressing direction counterparts, or other Alexander directions you are using. Please let me know, below and on Facebook, what you discover. And if you are not clear just how to use an Alexander direction effectively, this podcast, also from the Body Learning Podcast, may be helpful:
American Country Music dwells a lot on self-inflicted tension in its many forms. Here the Late Great Hank Williams learns that modern medicine is often powerless to help:
Years ago I had a good friend who whose job it was to visit bookstores on behalf of a major publisher and convince the owners to stock the publisher’s new books on their shelves. This was in the 1980s and early 1990s – pre-Amazon. Amazing as it may seem now, back then lots of people actually read books, and would go to their local bookstore to explore the latest offerings!
Later my friend became a Feldenkrais Practitioner and we would often discuss the challenges we faced in promoting our type of work – I had already become a teacher of the Alexander Technique – given it’s unique nature.
My friend told me that one of the lessons she learned during her publisher representative days was that she should always be able to answer this question from a store owner about a book: “What shelf would it go on?”
For many new books, the answer was obvious. Shelves had titles like History, Art, Fiction (which had sub-categories like Westerns, Science Fiction etc), Travel, Biographies and the like which were easy fits for many books.
But if she didn’t have a good answer for a book whose shelf wasn’t obvious, the owner or buyer would pass it up no matter how interesting it might seem. Space was limited and with limited shelf space, a book that couldn’t easily be categorized was too risky.
As she went about marketing her Feldenkrais work, she took that lesson to heart and made sure she had some possible “shelf” categories to describe her work.
I think you can guess where I’m going with this. The Alexander Technique isn’t likely to have its own shelf in one of the few remaining bookstores, although it might be at home in the the Self-Help or Personal Development shelves. It does have its own “shelf” on the web – as does everything and everyone – but a very small and obscure one, facing a huge amount of competition.
In recent years, it’s become so small, as a proportion of all web activity, that Google no longer bothers to provide analytics for it.*
If a typical bookstore back in the day was too small for the Technique, today’s web is way too big!
On the other hand, as Alexander teacher Niall Kelley has pointed on several occasions (twice at American Society of the Alexander Technique meetings) there are categories that have a large and growing “shelf” on Google. He argues that these are all categories we can legitimately attach ourselves to.**
The categories suggested by Niall include Mindfulness, Back Pain, Posture and Stress, among others. The Technique can certainly be considered a specific form of mindfulness. It has a long track record and several medical and scientific studies showing it can help with back pain. And a lot of teachers and students see it as a way to improve posture and reduce stress.***
Needless to say the shelf size of categories like Reaction to Stimuli, Primary Control and Use have an even smaller shelf than Alexander Technique. From a purely marketing point of view, there’s not much point attaching to them!
If you’re an Alexander Technique teacher, what categories have you attached yourself to, and why?
If you’re an Alexander Technique student, did a particular category lead you you to take Alexander lessons?
If you’re hearing about the Alexander Technique for the first time, what category is most likely to get you to learn more about it and perhaps even take a lesson?
I’d love to hear your answers. Please post your answers below and/or on Facebook.
*Alexander Technique searches have declined sharply as a share of total searches. In absolute numbers, after growing sharply in the early days of the web, for the past 15 plus years the number of Alexander searches has grown very slowly.
** Click here to download Niall’s presentation. Click here to download the slideshow that goes with it.
*** How can you attach yourself to these categories? The easiest way is to mention them by name on your website, blog posts etc. Google will find and remember these listings almost instantly and it then becomes more likely that people interested in them will discover the Alexander Technique when they do a search for those topics.
There is one Alexander teacher who makes it a point to declare that the Alexander Technique is not about posture. Many teachers, myself included, believe he is incorrect but oddly enough his mention of “posture” actually increases the interconnection! Google is fantastic at finding and connecting, not so great at understanding!
Emmet Fox was was a New Thought spiritual leader of the early 20th century and is well known for the insightful stories he told to illustrate important spiritual concepts. Here’s one that resonates nicely with basic Alexander Technique principles:
A little girl was watering her garden flowers when suddenly the flow of water stopped. She called out to her father, who was also working in the garden, saying “The hose isn’t working anymore! Come fix it.”
He walked over to her and gently lifted her up a bit and the flow of water instantly resumed. “Always make sure you’re not standing on the hose when you’re watering in the garden” he said and all was well after that.
Emmet Fox was of course using this to illustrate the important spiritual principle that you’re not going to get what you want, no matter how much you pray, if you’re blocking the very channel that would bring the good to you.
Anyone familiar with the Alexander Technique will immediately recognize the Alexander parallel: You can’t become freer if you persist in tightening yourself. Put another way: You have to stop doing what’s getting in the way of change if you actually want to change. Or, to use a bit of Alexander jargon, you have to inhibit your old way of doing things if you want to do them differently.
All of this seems pretty obvious when you read it. But again anyone who has explored the Technique will tell you that it can be quite a challenge to implement. And not because of its complexity.
As the late Alexander teacher Marjorie Barstow used to say to groups she was teaching, “You people won’t believe how simple this work is.” She also would say: “It’s so simple it’s shocking.”
Simple and easy aren’t always the same. We humans sometimes like to make simple processes complex, and thereby ineffective.
In the case of Emmet Fox’s little girl, had she actually paid attention to what the soles of her feet were trying to tell her, instead of putting all her mental energy on the flowers, she would quickly have solved her problem all by herself.
With us, it’s a bit trickier because the things we have to learn how to notice are often deep-rooted habits that are so much a part of us that they have blended into the background of our consciousness in a way which makes noticing them them a challenge.
Often our feeling sense has become, as F. M. Alexander, the founder of the Technique, liked to say, debauched. A strong but accurate way of describing the situation.
Here’s a little experiment, inspired by Emmet Fox’s story, you can do yourself to explore the Alexander approach to making a useful change in how you function:
As you’re standing or walking, gently say to yourself: “I’m free to notice how the soles of my feet contact the ground.” You can test the usefulness of this strategy by alternating that thought with a nonsense one like: “I’m green” and notice what happens when you shift back and forth.
You may notice a difference – but only if you keep things very simple. No extra thoughts or hopes or anticipations or judgments or analyzing of any kind!
Keep it simple.
I’d love to hear how this example of Alexander Technique self-directing works for you, below or as a comment or on Facebook.
Country music has always understood the dynamic of self-inflicted pain. Indeed it lies at the core of the genre. Here’s a nice example by the greatest of the Late Greats, Hank Williams:
My friend and colleague, John Macy, has thought a lot about the two functions of muscles: movement and stabilization. John is an Alexander Technique teacher, a physical therapist and the owner of a Pilates Studio in Omaha, Nebraska. These are some of his insights, posted here as a guest blog.
Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?
Stability and Mobility in Movement and Life
by John Macy
When I was in training to teach Pilates, I was struck by how different the activities were from the standard exercises I had been taught in sports or physical therapy.
The difference was that the Pilates activities often required me to change which part of me was moving and which stayed stable, with a strong emphasis on being able to truly maintain the stability as the main focus of the activity.
If there was a choice between moving through space with some muscles while losing the stabilizing contraction or staying stable and not moving any further, the latter was always the correct answer. No real surprise given that Josef Pilates called his work Contrology, learning to control your body and mind. What I realized, however, is that the function of stability and the interplay with mobility is often overlooked in movement training.
I have found in my practice with clients that understanding this idea can greatly increase a person’s exercise or movement ability.
First, let’s define a few terms in the context of human movement.
Stability is the ability to maintain the relationship of body parts to each other. There is static stability, as when you do a plank and hold the whole body still, and there is dynamic stability in which you keep some parts in the same relationship while other parts are moving. An example is when you keep your torso stable and aimed forward and upright when you walk across a side hill.
Mobility is the ability to change the relationships of body parts, such as when you lift your arm above your head when you reach up to get a mug from the top shelf.
Notice that you can, and often are, doing some of both when you move; some parts stay stable while others are moving.
All skeletal muscles can either hold things together or move things relative to each other (stabilize or mobilize) depending on the position you are in and how you want to move. Because of their position and connections, most muscles PRIMARILY stabilize or PRIMARILY mobilize. The ones that mainly stabilize are generally closer into the midline or center of the body or deep around the large joints to add control to how the contact surfaces of the joints come together. The ones that mainly mobilize are closer to the surface of the body and out in the limbs.
Generally speaking (some would argue too generally, but I like to think big), the muscles whose PRIMARY function is to stabilize in daily movement can be considered the core. There is debate on exactly what constitutes the core group, ,,but to my thinking that means all the way from the inside of your big toe (adductor hallicus), up the medial leg to the pelvic floor and on up the abdominals and paraspinal muscles to the deep muscles of the neck at the cranial base along with the deep muscle of the hips and shoulders.
So how does this interplay of mobility and stability play out in real life?
Think about walking for a minute. You swing the right leg forward and set your foot on the ground. Now the foot needs to stay there and not slide because you are about to put all your weight on it to swing the other leg past. Once your foot lands, you have to keep it in place on the ground using ankle muscles, the knee stays straight, and the hip has to come forward and stack the femur on the knee. The muscles have to make the leg a stable post (no change in bone relationships at the joints) so you can put your weight onto it. Now you swing the left leg past and place it on the ground in front and it’s time for the right leg to pick up and move. This means you have to pick up the foot, bend the knee and swing the hip, mobilizing (changing the bone relationships at the joints) of the various parts of the leg. But it’s not the same muscles in the leg that stabilized it that will now move the leg. Within the leg, the various muscles have different jobs, some mainly stabilizing, some mainly mobilizing, and some do a bit of both.
This variety of muscle functions is true not just in the leg but throughout the entire body. It is the constant shift of stabilizing and mobilizing that enables us to move in a controlled fashion. It follows that if we improve our control of that shifting and our ability to use our muscles for the job they are best suited for (stabilizing or mobilizing) we can improve performance.
Many of the injuries and problems I see in people related to exercise and training stem from problems in assigning the right jobs to their muscles. Going back to the walking example- think of what happens when it is time to get the weight off the back leg and onto the front one. You can use the large gluteals (buttocks) with their connections from the pelvis to the hip to push the weight forward as the lower leg pushes off the ground while you keep the vertebrae and pelvic floor stable. Alternatively, you can thrust the stomach forward, arch the back and compress the discs as you throw the pelvis to fall forward off the rear leg which you just use like a pole vaulter’s pole. Both will get your weight forward.
However, the first one is using mobilizers as mobilizers and stabilizers as stabilizers while the other has reversed the roles. If your reason for walking is to strengthen your legs for dynamic activity like lifting and squatting, then which pattern is going to achieve that goal? Clearly, using the gluteals and leg muscles to move your weight forward puts you on track for that goal.
But if you want to compress your discs and strain the pelvic floor muscles and overstretch the hip ligaments, the latter is a much more effective choice. You get to decide!
The concept of stability and mobility and the interchange and control of them is what I consider one of the primary concepts in understanding how to learn and enhance movement in ourselves and our clients.
Next time you exercise try experimenting with these questions:
What has to move and what doesn’t?
How stable you can be?
What are the fewest muscles you can use to do a motion?
Can you remain stable in an area while something else moves?
This type of self-discovery and analysis, where you ask what really needs to move and should or could remain stable in any activity, is a means to really tune in on how to adapt and change your movements and exercise patterns and keep things interesting. It lets you train the body and the brain at the same time. Neural and muscular training, two for the price of one! Who doesn’t like a deal like that?
My friend and colleague, John Macy, attended the recent Alexander Technique Congress and chose that venue to do a little research about which of F. M. Alexander’s books teachers had read, when when they read them. In addition to being an Alexander Technique teacher himself, John is a physical therapist and the owner of a Pilates studio in Omaha, Nebraska. Here are his findings, posted below as a guest blog. (If you would like to weigh in on this, or any other topic relevant to the Alexander Technique with a guest blog of your own, let me know. You can contact me here.)
Tuning Into FM: Have You Read Your Alexander Lately?
by John Macy
I recently wrote a blog in this space, Why Study and Teach the Alexander Technique?, about the questions I asked teachers and trainees at the International Congress in Chicago. This time I want to address another question I asked teachers: “Have you read Alexander’s books?”, and “When was the last time you read them?”
The most common answer was “I’ve read some of them, just parts of several.” The second was “We read through them in my training but I don’t remember much and I have not read them since.” Usually people also mentioned that they found them difficult to read due to the language and the concepts. Often people had read other books or articles about the Alexander Technique that were more modern, but not F.M. Alexander’s writings. Even people who were doing research on the Technique told me they had not read all his books.
As a professional with experience in medicine, archeology, and astronomy I find this to be very odd in a group of people whose careers are based around teaching the discoveries of one man. In other areas it is common, in fact expected, that one will to go to the source material as some point during training but also to return to it later, particularly if you intend to do research or teaching. A standard part of science research in any field is to go back and look at the first paper(s) written about the thing you are researching as well as any others that may have bearing on the topic. In this way the researcher can see the total evolution of thought on a topic and prevent wasting resources on reinventing the wheel. It also can illuminate new paths of inquiry based on ideas of people who have already analyzed the topic.
For example: In astronomy researchers and teachers are expected by their peers to understand what Einstein discovered and his arguments (equations) for his view of the universe because they are the source material for how we understand the cosmos today. This leads to new ideas in how to search and understand the universes. In medicine, any researcher of infectious disease would certainly know well the story of John Snow and his role in the London cholera epidemic of 1854. His was the first study of its kind using epidemiological information to find the source of a disease outbreak.
It is expected in the sciences that a researcher or teacher is familiar with the source materials – the first writings – as part of knowing the complete data set on the topic. So why aren’t Alexander Technique teachers doing this?
I think one part of the problem is that in many teacher training programs students are not taught to see themselves as researchers, or even teachers, at first. But they are. Every time they work with each other, every time they give a talk or demonstration they are seeing what happens when they interact and apply the Technique. Over time their teaching style, language, and methodology changes based on their research. Just as F. M. Alexande’sr did.
Which brings me to what I think is the second reason Alexander teachers don’t read his books. Most teachers had their one and only attempt at them while they were training to teach. However, Alexander wrote his books after hundreds and thousands of hours of experience – depending on the book. He wrote about overarching issues and ideas on human perception and learning derived from his observations and he makes sociological arguments about the ramifications of his theories. The student, on the other hand, is just beginning to see some of the individual data points Alexander draws from.
Trainees are busy learning how to do things like use themselves in a lesson and organize their time and run a practice. In short, students don’t yet have the experience to understand much of why Alexander says the things he does. The student must struggle to follow F.M.’s argument from the ground up every time because they have not seen enough to say, “Oh, yes. people do that a lot in my teaching so I understand easily what Mr. Alexander is basing his generalization and conclusions on.” Teacher trainees are learning to identify trees and Alexander is talking about the forest ecosystem.
I have read Alexander’s books several times since I began studying the Technique and each time they become more useful to me. A few years ago, I read all of them over a summer in preparation for writing a chapter on Alexander Technique for a physical therapy textbook.* As I read I realized how much deeper I understood his ideas (and disagreed with some) since the last complete reading, five years before, because of my experiences in teaching and working with people in those intervening years. And, as it has every time I read the books through, it made a significant, positive change in how I understood the work and how I taught.
As to the argument that the books are too difficult to read I must ask: If we apply the concepts of the Technique, such as using our conscious reasoning to determine our actions, then why would we let who we were several years or decades ago decide what we are capable of comprehending today? At the very least, why not run the experiment today to see if you view these books differently after years of experiences teaching and observing, just as Alexander had before he wrote these books?
I submit that reading F.M. Alexander’s books at least several times over a career is a reasonable expectation of ourselves as professionals and educators. These books are the source materials for our field of inquiry. Alexander has been dead for over 60 years, and there are few people alive who met, let alone studied with him. Alexander’s writings are the primary sources that we have, and are our best source for understanding what he discovered, thought, taught and envisioned for the future of his work. It is the glue that binds us all together in this field of study.
It’s Robert again. We’d love to know what you think of this. Please post your comments below and/or on Facebook.
*Here’s a podcast interview I did with John some years ago titled “The value of reading all Four of Alexander’s Books”:
I was having an Alexander Technique lesson with the late Walter Carrington, a well-known and highly respected teacher in London in the early 1980s and somehow the subject of the civil war then raging in Lebanon came up.
I had recently become certified to teach the Technique and having been immersed for three years on my Alexander training course, I naively believed that pretty much everybody should avail themselves of this wonderful method. I said to Walter, “Well it’s too bad they don’t have any Alexander teachers there. They could certainly use it.”
There was a long pause, and then Walter said something I’ll never forget. This is not an exact quote, but essentially he said: “Well, you know Robert, we have it pretty easy here in London compared to what’s going on in Beirut.” Another long pause, and then: “The real test of one’s mastery of the Technique is: Can you apply it when your house is burning down?”
Walter had an elliptical – to put it mildly! – manner of speaking and it wasn’t until I was on the Tube (the subway in American) going home that I realized he was gently chastising me for having such an arrogant view of something I still knew so little about.
A couple of times since then, I’ve had the opportunity to experience first-hand my own limitations in using the Technique for myself when the going got rough. Both involved severe pain and in both cases, particularly the first, that pain overwhelmed me to the extent that I was unable to mobilize my Alexander constructive thinking to help myself until the pain subsided to a more tolerable level.
I suspect many other Alexander Technique teachers have had this sort of experience themselves and have seen it with their students. Often the work-around is to simply lie in the Constructive Rest position, or in the case of students, work with them on the table for all or most of the lesson.
In my own experience, continual practice of Alexander Technique self-directing over a period of many years has enabled me to make better use of the work in stressful circumstances. I think in large part because self-directing has become second nature and over time I’m better able to let go of my tendency to subtly and unconsciously do the directions. I would also credit new developments in Alexander Technique directions that are easier to use and more effective than earlier ones – you can learn about them here: New Directions in Alexander Technique Directing
Still, unexpected stress remains a challenge and so I was particularly impressed by Gary Ramsey’s account of his sudden, and totally unexpected, brush with death and how he was able to use the Technique almost right away when his doctor unexpectedly told him he had an extremely serious condition and that he could die at any moment. And how he continued to use it as he explored alternatives and eventually had a full recovery.
You can also listen to his account, “How the Alexander Technique Helped Overcome a Deadly Predicament” here:
Have you, as an Alexander teacher or student, had experience of successfully using Alexander’s principles in a dangerous or particularly stressful situation? Please post your story below and/or on Facebook.
Country Music has always been at the cutting edge of danger and heartbreak – imminent death by execution, spousal betrayal, car wrecks, the sinking of the Titanic – the list goes on and on. This song by Carl Rutherford is a prime example – and was featured in a recent episode of Better Call Saul!
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a napper. In college, I’d break up my studies to rest my head on the desk and doze off for a few minutes once or twice a day. Occasionally I’d nod off in early afternoon classes and once, in graduate school, I fell asleep during a seminar I was leading! An awkward moment in my academic career, to put it mildly.
Nowadays, I usually lie down in bed after lunch for a nap which usually lasts between 20-30 minutes. Sometime when I’m reading, I’ll close my eyes for a very short bit of sleep. I always feel surprisingly rested after these short naps.
Ever since I discovered the Alexander Technique some 45 years ago, and even more since becoming an Alexander teacher a few years later, I’ve spent 15 or 20 minutes a day in the Constructive Rest (CR) lying down position. When I get up from that, I usually feel more ease in my body and have a sense of my body being a bit decompressed. (You can learn about the many benefits of CR, and how to do it yourself at Constructive Rest.)
If all that time napping and lying in the CR position seems a little excessive, I also find that when I’m able to to go to sleep at night without setting the alarm, my “natural” sleep time is generally fairly short – usually 6 or 7 hours at most. On those few days when I have to skip my mid-day nap, my sleep time usually gets a little longer.
In retrospect, it’s a little surprising to me that I’ve kept these 2 self-care practices separate in my mind. If I was in the CR position and felt drowsy, I’d hop off the table and take a short nap. And when I’d go over the details of the CR position with my students, I advice them to do the same, saying something like: “If you’re starting to fall asleep, that means that you’re better off taking a nap in bed and then returning to CR later.”
A few months ago, the thought occurred to me that since I always napped on my back, and usually fell asleep almost instantly, there might be some advantage in sliding a 6″ foam roller under my knees to provide some of the benefits on CR. Doing this in no way diminished the refreshing benefits of my nap and, additionally, produced some of the same helpful effects of “true” CR.
I mentioned this new practice of mine on my colleague Imogen Ragone’s Facebook Page in response to a post of hers about the benefits of napping. My comment was a partial inspiration for her to write a brilliant blog titled Can You Nap Constructively? I highly recommend reading it.
Here is Imogen demonstrating one version of CR:
What was eye-opening to me in her blog was that really there is no reason why you can’t start with CR and then, if you do get sleepy, make a little adjustment and morph right into a nap! And then when you wake up, shift back to CR! Seems obvious in retrospect but it had never occurred to me before.
As you may know from all the recent favorable press it’s received, napping has been shown to have all sorts of beneficial effects. It’s even become acceptable in the business community with some companies providing “Nap Rooms” for the benefit of their employees. These companies have found a bit of napping makes their employees happier and more productive.
Although not as well known, Constructive Rest has a long history of helping Alexander Technique students and teachers – and others – improve their functioning.
They’re both powerful self-help methods and, it turns out, they can be combined at times, allowing you to get the benefits of both.
I’d love to hear your experiences with napping and CR below and/or on Facebook.
Years ago, I was quite intrigued with Neuro Linguistic Programing (NLP) and at one point was even certified as a “Master Practitioner” although I certainly didn’t think of myself as such and never actually had any NLP clients. I did find it very useful in a number of ways, one of which was discovering just how peculiarly I responded to the question: “What is the Alexander Technique?”
Unbeknowst to me, I went into some sort of weird altered state in which I averted my eyes from the questioner and acted in other ways that clearly showed this question was not one I was comfortable answering. Pretty strange considering that I actually was a certified Alexander Technique teacher!
I’ve overcome this unfortunate pattern to a large extent, but I do see elements of it surfacing when, at the start of my podcast interviews, I ask Alexander teachers the same question. Often, their answer will be prefaced by a statement something like, “Well that’s a challenging question.” Or “I was afraid you’d ask me that.”
By contrast, if you ask a professor what she does, she’s likely to give a clear answer – “I’m teach history at a university, with a specialty in the early Medieval period.” A plumber might say: “Well, I install and repair water pipes in residential and commercial properties.”
Lately, as a result of my experiences on some of the Alexander Technique Facebook pages, where hundreds, sometimes thousands, of Alexander teachers and students reside, I’ve gained a new perspective on why Alexander teachers so often hesitant about answering this basic question.
There are widely divergent views within the profession about just what an Alexander teacher should be doing in order to be a “real” teacher. And at times those differing views can lead to nasty interchanges.
So, dear reader, I’d like you to consider the work of some pairs of fictional Alexander Technique teachers. For all the pairs:
Teacher 1 has happy students who have changed some ways in which they function which they, and most observers, consider beneficial.
Teacher 2 also has happy students who have changed in some other ways and which they, and most observers, consider beneficial.
Students of both teachers would be glad to give glowing testimonials about the Technique, and about their teacher. And those testimonials could be very similar:
“Teacher 1 (or Teacher 2) helped me with chronic back back pain.” Or: “Teacher 1 (or Teacher 2) helped me deal with performance anxiety and I am a better musician now that I’ve learned how get out of my own way.”
But if you were to observe Teacher 1 and Teacher 2 as they were teaching, (and here’s where multiple versions of the two teachers enter the picture) you would clearly see they have very different approaches to sharing the discoveries of F. Matthias Alexander. One teacher might have a fairly standard lesson format while the other’s lessons might be more varied in appearance. One teacher might work primarily with individual students, the other with groups. One teacher may use her hands a great deal of the time while teaching, the other might use his hands very little. One teacher might teach in-person students exclusively, while the other might use Skype or Zoom. One teacher might use classical directions, the other might use newer ones.
The list of possible differences goes on and on.
Both teachers have helped their students, by using different ways of teaching with somewhat different, sometimes overlapping, results.
Are both teachers real, legitimate, teachers of the Alexander Technique?
Of course to answer that question, one would have to go back the very question I started with – the one that is challenging for so many teachers.
So, again: What is the Alexander Technique?
Alexander himself didn’t provide a lot of help. He started his teaching career as a Delsarte Method teacher and his teaching process changed several times over his lifetime. Also, he didn’t seem ever to have actually used the phrase “Alexander Technique”.
His writings can be used to support multiple views of what the Technique is, and is not. In places he describes in great detail specific ways in which he works with students. Elsewhere he makes in pretty clear that he sees his work as just the very beginning of an evolving process. In the introduction to his first book, he even states that he’s looking forward to the time when there will be no need for teachers of his work!*
So we’re left with the same question: What is the Alexander Technique?
Can you come up with a definition (or even the beginnings of a definition) that would take account of all this? Or do you think that some – or none – of this is important in the formulation of a definition? I’d love to see your own replies below and/or on those Facebook Alexander Technique pages.
*Here are a couple of relevant quotes by Alexander:
After working for a lifetime in this new field I am conscious that the knowledge gained is but a beginning…my experience may one day be recognized as a signpost directing the explorer to a country hitherto ‘undiscovered,’ and one which offers unlimited opportunity for fruitful research to the patient and observant pioneer. (This quote appears in the Introduction of The Universal Constant in Living, Alexander’s fourth book.)
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. (This quote appears at the end of his Preface to Man’s Supreme Inheritance, his first book)
My friend and colleague, John Macy, attended the recent Alexander Technique Congress and chose that venue to do a little research about what what motivates Alexander teachers today. In addition to being an Alexander Technique teacher himself, John is a physical therapist and the owner of a Pilates studio. Here are his findings, posted here as a guest blog:
Why Study and Teach the Alexander Technique?
by John Macy
I recently attended the 14th International Congress of the Alexander Technique in Chicago where over 600 people from around the world interested in the Alexander Technique gathered. Most, but not all, of the participants teach the Technique in some capacity which meant most everyone has at least several years of experience with the methods and ideas used.
Because I had not been to such a gathering in a long time I decided to ask everyone I met the same several questions to see what, if anything, was a common theme in the Technique today. As it turned out there was such a theme and it surprised me a bit.
Two of the questions I asked were “Why do you do/study/practice the Alexander Technique for yourself?”, and, “Why do you teach the Alexander Technique?”
The answer I received to the first question in all but three cases were almost identical, “I do it because it makes me feel good.”
In the remaining cases one said it was the fountain of youth and kept her young in body, heart and mind. Another spoke of how it made her think differently and see the world in way that let her change in a constructive manner and the last said it was a way for him to understand the world.
When asked why they taught almost all the people I asked said they did it to give others the same experience they had, to feel better. The three outliers mentioned above all said they wanted to help people change their lives.
This was an admittedly non-scientific survey as I asked about 35 people, around 5% of the attendees. I tried to use the same language asked each time I asked and was conscious to give no prompting after I asked the questions.
The respondents included students on training programs, people who run training programs and teachers with 2 to 30 years of experience teaching. They came from multiple countries including England, Ireland, Australia, Japan and the United States.
Does this mean anything? I will let you, the reader, decide but it got me musing about the repeated mention that Alexander teachers are struggling to get students, training programs have had declining enrollment numbers and that much of this was seen to be due to competition for the time and money of clients by other wellness education modalities such as yoga, soft martial arts, massage and others.
As the owner of private Physical Therapy practice and of a Pilates studio my marketing mind began to wonder: If the primary attraction to the Technique for practitioners is “feeling good” and what they sell is “feeling good” how well can what they sell be differentiated from other things that make people feel good?
Does the Alexander Technique have something more, something that makes it fundamentally different from the modalities it competes with in the marketplace? Is it even competing in the right marketplace?
Is the demographic that buys yoga and Pilates lessons, massages and essential oils really the people who want and need and can support the Alexander Technique?
Or is there another aspect of the Technique that can appeal to a completely different group of people who have the resources to support teachers and training programs and research?
This is Robert again: Please post your comments/replies to John’s post below and/or on Facebook.
A few months ago I was asked to take part in a panel discussion about marketing the Alexander Technique at the 2018 Congress in Chicago. I agreed to join the panel and make a few remarks about the Technique’s internet presence before we would respond to questions from the audience. What follows is a fuller – and probably better organized! – version of what I plan to say. This blog will be posted a week and a half before the panel discussion takes place.
The web is the most important marketing opportunity we have ever had, and yet for the most part we have done a poor job of taking advantage of it. There are success stories of course, but the vast majority of teachers and Alexander organizations have failed to use many of the opportunities now available with this new technology. Today there is a huge, and growing, “digital divide” between those teachers who are using the web effectively, and the majority of teachers, who are not.
To understand why this divide came about, and how it can be narrowed, let’s start by traveling 25 years back in time, to 1993. There was essentially no internet beyond a few interconnected academic and military sites and only the very beginnings of email. Few members of the public were involved but there was talk about the forthcoming “information highway”, and debates about who would control the “on-ramps” to that highway, and in the US there was something called “AOL” (America On Line), that was just starting up.
If you wanted to learn about the Alexander Technique, your options were books, printed flyers, word of mouth, and lists of teachers from professional societies.
Fast forward a mere 7 years to 2000 and the web was everywhere. There was Amazon and Google and just under a billion people worldwide who were using the web. And that number was growing at a rapid pace. In a few years, there would be Facebook (2004) and You Tube (2005) and Twitter (2006).
What was going on in Alexander land at that time? There was an active email discussion group and a few hundred individual web sites, a very small fraction of the 4 thousand or so teachers worldwide.
Although the web was not yet at its fully mature phase, it was already obvious that it was the perfect vehicle for members of a small, diffuse and relatively coherent community like ours to promote our work at very low cost to a huge audience. It was also a perfect platform to exchange ideas about how to do this, and for exchanging new ideas about the work of F. Matthias Alexander.
Move ahead another 8 years to 2008 and we are now clearly in the mature version of the web. A great many people have a high-speed connection and the total number of people using it has more than doubled, to just under 2 billion.
There are of course a lot more Alexander Technique websites, but still the majority of teachers do not have a web presence, and many of those that do have sites that are hard to find, poorly designed and lack basic information about where the teacher is located! (This remains true to a shocking extent today.)
Today, ten years later, a lot more teachers have websites, but a great many still do not. Over 4 billion people are using the web and not having a website has become a clear message to prospective clients that you’re not a professional. For an Alexander teacher today, having a website is more important than having a phone number.
These days I receive on average 8-10 calls and emails each week from potential students asking if there is an Alexander Technique teacher in their area. They’ve checked my teachers’ listing and can’t find one. Often it turns out there is a teacher, but usually he or she doesn’t have a site. Upon hearing that information, most of these inquirers say they aren’t interested in pursuing the matter further. A few opt to try distance learning sessions.
Why so many missed opportunities? Why this failure to take advantage of the web?
In the early days, two key factors were lack of technical expertise and in many cases actual fear of the web – worries about pornography for example. But today pretty much everybody is using the web and there are lots of inexpensive options for getting a website with little or no technical expertise needed.
Sadly, there has not been much leadership from Alexander organizations – professional societies and teacher training courses. I think a large part of the problem here is that the internet is, as its name implies, a network and organizations are, well, organizations. Nobody is in charge of a network, traditional hierarchies are not recognized, and so organizations of all kinds have found that even though they understood the importance of the web, as organizations they were often ill-equipped to interact with it successfully.
This is clearly the case in the Alexander world. Leaders of Alexander Technique organizations know that the web is important for the success of their members and ultimately for their own survival. A teacher who does not succeed is not likely to remain a member of a society, or have many opportunities to refer students who want to train to become a teacher to the training course they graduated from.
And so in the Alexander world, with the very best of intentions, a fair amount time and money has been spent on large web-related projects. Unfortunately those projects have often not helped individual teachers to any great extent.
Of course Alexander organizations need to have an effective web presence of their own, but in my view, they would be far more effective if they acknowledged that their individual members are potentially far better suited than they are to take advantage of the web.* An individual can try something and quickly modify it if it doesn’t work. A committee is more structured and less nimble, and it’s projects are less likely to be effective, given the nature of the web.
For this reason, I believe our organizations would do far better to direct their efforts into encouraging and empowering individual projects, and ultimately creating a talent pool of members who have learned how to make use of the web.
For example, training courses could (and I believe should) require that every trainee has a website up and running by at least the end of their first year. Then, when they qualify, a quick wording change and they have a teacher site with 2 years’ buildup of Google ranking ready to go. And perhaps an interest in blogging, or creating an email marketing list.
Professional societies could (and again I think should) stress the importance of having a web presence in every newsletter, and at every meeting. They could also provide modest support for their members’ web-related projects – the production of a short video introduction to the Technique posted on You Tube for example.
It’s my opinion that if they hope to survive, this has to be their number one priority.
*A striking example of this can be seen on Facebook. There are several very active Facebook Alexander Technique groups, some with thousands of members including teachers, students, and others who are interested in the Technique. These pages were created by individuals, not organizations.
Imogen Ragone and I did a podcast that covers many of these questions – you can listen to it here: