The Alexander Technique: As I See It

atasiseeitThe Alexander Technique As I See It by Patrick Macdonald is a charming, clear, and at times laugh out loud funny take on learning, teaching, and practicing the Alexander Technique.

Clearly not one to spend much time pontificating, Mr. Macdonald opens the book with three simple questions that are not only the most commonly asked in the AT but also three of the most difficult questions to give a concise answer to:

What is the Alexander Technique?  What does it do? What is its value?

Keeping with his no nonsense approach, the majority of the book is contained in the first section, “Notebook Jottings.” In these jottings he gives his opinions and insights on most themes even remotely related to the Alexander Technique. These entries include musings on trying, feeling, exercises, directing, breathing, doctors, learning, seeing, relaxation and collapse, egotism, thinking, time, nervousness, the Bible, hoping, imitation, specialists, responsibility, judgements, luck, statistics, laziness, shaving, and even siesta. Some of my favorite jottings from the first section include:

On Trying: When at first you don’t succeed, never try again, at least, not in the same way. Trying almost always involves extra and excessive tension.

On Right and Wrong: If your right is wrong, then it follows that any attempt on your part to be right will produce the wrong result. Rather it is better to be prepared to be wrong. This leaves the way open for the real right to take place. Do not forget that right and wrong change; What’s right today should be wrong tomorrow … Remember, you are slowly eliminating the wrong. Finality, for most of us, and that includes me, is not in sight.

On Managing to Exist: The ability of some people to be terribly dis-coordinated and yet to remain alive is one of the marvels of Nature.

On the Modern Arts: A good number of people, nowadays, confuse gross mal-coordination with originality.

On Change: You cannot change and yet remain the same, though this is what most people want.

On Thinking and Doing: In the first place you must learn to think and not to do. After that you must learn to let the doing come about as a result of the thinking … It is alright to do, as long as you do the right thing.

On Ends and Means: I think it was Aldous Huxley who wrote, after lessons with Alexander, that it was of the utmost importance to see that the means used to any end did, in fact, bring about that end and no other. It will be seen that the controversy about whether ends justify means or not has no basis in reality. What is real is that means condition ends directly, and that ends condition means indirectly. All the rest is verbiage.

On Yoga: I may have been unlucky in having pupils who came to me after incorrectly studying Yoga. They were rigid both in neck and brain, and it would appear that learning to stand on one’s head had not done any good to the one or to the other…

On Up: You need to know where up is, and what up is. One has to learn the Art of falling upwards.

Learned Ignorance: John Dewey, when asked by Alexander what a conference of philosophers had been about, replied, “Learned ignorance, my dear Alexander, learned ignorance.”

Once you get through the very entertaining and informative jottings, the very short (only about 40 pages) formal book appears. The first chapter details Alexander’s Discovery very concisely. There are extensive quotes from Alexander’s book, “The Use of the Self” detailing the ingenious process that Alexander worked out to change his habits of use. One interesting note is that he substitutes Alexander’s terminology “Primary Control” with “Master Reflex.” Stating that when the head/neck/back relationship is well established the subsequent organization of the whole body does itself reflexively.

In the second chapter Mr. Macdonald begins by reminding us of the changing meaning of words, specifically in regards to the technique once one has had additional experiences with the technique (ex. Neck free, head forward and up, etc.). He uses an interesting example of a child, John Smith age 10 and then John Smith age 12. While he is the same John Smith, he is also different.

He then goes on to explain the primary directions (and what directions is) mostly focusing on what not to do, as well as describing many of the common tendencies of pupils and what is seemingly behind those tendencies such as belief systems. Another great analogy that Mr. Macdonald uses is that the AT is as simple as A B C; it should be borne in mind, however, that A B C is only simple to the non-native english speaker after he has learned what A B C is about.

The third chapter is about why people study the AT and after some useful general and specific information about Use and the forces in play within the body the chapter makes way for several inspiring case studies of Mr. Macdonald’s students. The students were suffering from problems including: Asthma, Bronchitis, Paralysis (from stroke), Depression, Slipped Disc, Migraines, Rheumatism and Arthritis, Heart Trouble, and Childbirth Complications.

In chapter four (on teaching the technique) Mr. Macdonald further explains direction and gives a very clear and unique description that is helpful in understanding the nature of direction. He distinguishes direction, muscular movement, and position explaining that direction should be taking place consciously within muscular movement and position and that the internal direction does not always go in the same direction as the muscular movement. He uses the analogy of a magnet being drawn to a piece of metal, even if you move the magnet away from the metal it is still being oriented in that direction. In sitting even though you are moving down in space with muscular movement, the internal direction should be a lengthening spine with the head going forward and up.

He further explains that the internal direction or flow is always going on whether conscious or unconscious and that the primary job of the Alexander Teacher is to persuade one’s student to exchange contracting impulses with expansive ones. Before reading this I had thought direction was something I did while being a mindful Alexandrian, however this is not the case, even as I sit still internal direction/flow is happening; you can make a choice to be aware and influence it or let your habits take the lead.

Also included in the chapter are notes about style and originality in teacher the technique, which he mostly warns against. He reminds the reader of the importance of the teacher’s use and gives tips on getting expansive responses from the student and gives a good deal of different explanations and practical applications of inhibition and direction. He frames giving the directions in a sequential way, noting that each direction depends on the last one being maintained and reinforced.

Let the neck be free

Let the neck be free for the head to go forward and up

Let the neck be free for the head to go forward and up for the back to lengthen and widen (etc.)

The final chapter is a compilation of letters and excerpts expressing appreciation of the technique by professors, doctors, scientists, authors, and various former students. Mostly written to various medical associations and newspapers to encourage greater awareness of the technique, they reflect the general lack acceptance by the medical and academic communities at the time. The chapter concludes with a timeline of Alexander’s life in relation to the development of the technique- something that is not completely agreed upon within the AT community.

Overall the book is a must read for any serious AT student or teacher. Patrick Macdonald was a unique figure that was highly educated (Cambridge), had a medical background, and also had a physical background as an amateur boxer. He is reportedly (in the accounts from other teachers that were on the training course with F.M.) the one who discovered what Alexander was getting at in the first training course, before this Alexander had little faith that anyone could learn to teach his technique. The book contains gems from sixty years of teaching, it’s a real shame that it is out of print. If you find a copy, buy it immediately!

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