The AT: In Conversation with John Nicholls and Sean Carey

JNbookjpgHaving had a fair amount of personal experience with John Nicholls in lessons and classes, I had some preconceived ideas about how this book would read. I expected a straight-forward pseudo-medical explanation with scientific research to support the ideas without the “hippie stuff” that comes with many of his generation’s group of teachers. I was surprised that within the first chapter the conversation had already included Buddhist meditation, Gurdjieff, and possibilities for world change as a result of AT work. The subject of morality came up as John Dewey, Dr. Frank Pierce Jones, and Aldous Huxley believed that the technique lead to a form of ethics/morality. John Nicholls inferred that, “[the AT] may help the construction of a personal morality out of one’s own experience;” that the AT helps “to connect with the inner guide.” JN drew connections through many seemingly unrelated areas; he pointed out an interesting parallel to the schooling of horses, noting that the idea of “Self-carriage” or support of the limbs by the back is very similar to the idea of Primary Control. All of the subjects were approached and discussed in very practical ways without making any far reaching claims lacking evidence.

Coming back to the practical wisdom put down in the text, John offers many practical tips to young teachers including the need to tailor one’s teaching & explanation of the technique to the individual needs of the student. A particularly interesting opposition in this area that Alexander teachers often come up against is the reluctance to call the technique a cure for any specific ailment as it’s true nature is an educational (or re-educational) method and any cure comes about as a side-effect; however JN states, “It would be quite wrong and unfair to deny the technique to people who just wanted a cure for their back pain and say ‘We’re not talking to you because we’re educational and not therapeutic folk’.” Once the subject of scientific proof of the AT comes up there is an interesting point that, “any lack of complete scientific explanation of how the Technique works has a lot to do with the absence of explanation in the whole neurophysiology of posture, balance, and locomotion.”

One thing that was clarified in my own process of thinking when I first read this book was the simultaneousness of inhibition and direction. At an earlier point of my process I thought of inhibition as something one did before directing, not continuing to inhibit my habit while simultaneously directing the new intent, but now it’s obvious that the two really go hand-in-hand.

He also makes good points about the different “styles” or “schools” of AT teaching noting that “the general public doesn’t always find the vast differences that we [teachers] often find.” He warns about being a “paper-back psychologist” repeatedly; noting that, “if we start presenting ourselves as quasi-psychotherapists, we are inviting a big load of psychological transference and projection.” More so than any other teacher I’ve encountered, JN discusses psychodynamics in formal terms and points at a potential weakness in AT training as there is a general lack of knowledge in this area amongst Alexander teachers. He does not suggest combining the two within the same session, in fact he warns against mixing various therapies within an AT lesson with many good examples of why it’s not a great idea.

An interesting theme that runs through the book is John Nicholls obvious interest in deep psychological processes and consciousness itself, he states, “If we are to be consciously present in the moment then we must be consciously inhabiting our own bodies, not trying to be disembodied intellects.” A point that is made repeatedly in different ways is that the AT helps put the insight of many other disciplines into action. On the contrary he makes the point that insight without practical application isn’t of much value stating, “We all know people who’ve had endless counselling and who can talk with amazing insight into their problems but still carry on behaving quite stupidly. They’ve failed to take that final step of translating insight into behavioral change.”

The appendix includes the 1986 FM Alexander Memorial Lecture which further expands on position of the AT in relation to “Depth Psychology” (starting with Freud and Jung), “Body Work” (Feldenkrais, Rofl, etc.), Eastern Practices (Mindfulness, Zen), and the interconnectedness of these modalities through a set of themes:

2.Understanding and Controlling Reactions
3.Connecting with feelings
4.Integration of Body and Mind
5.Search for Natural Functioning
6.Search for a central core Self, I
7.Vital force, bio-energy, Chi, etc.

John describes the AT as, “a very precise tool for putting into practice the ideals of these larger movements.” It seems to me that No.7 is actually the most common through-line as all of the aforementioned disciplines seek to remove blockages of energy. A related point that is made and also serves as a through line is a reminder of the emphasis that F.M. Alexander put on “reducing thoracic rigidity.” John Nicholls adds, “Figuratively it’s as if the ribs are indeed a cage for most people, symbolically and physically imprisoning themselves. But undoing that cage can be a liberating and joyful experience.”

While the Alexander community doesn’t throw around the term master teacher, John Nicholls certainly would be in the running if there were such a distinction as his hands-on skills are excellent, he is extremely clear in his explanations, is active in learning relevant skills and information, yet is committed to not distorting the technique. This book is a very good read for anyone training or teaching the technique- especially for those interested in the Alexander Technique’s place in what John describes as “a larger context.”

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