The Alexander Technique

theatliebconnThe Alexander Technique by Judith Leibowitz & Bill Connington opens, not with a technical definition or theoretical/philosophical description as many books on the Alexander technique do, instead the authors choose to begin with a relatable list of a variety of imaginary people with stress related ailments asking the reader what they have in common followed by a very straightforward explanation that excess tension and stress are direct results of misuse of the body. They even go so far as to list a number of conditions that can be alleviated by using the Alexander Technique.

Many modalities preach awareness, however, few directly improve specific awarenesses. The authors assert that Alexander’s technique heightened his awareness on many levels; including (from the Introduction):

  • kinesthetic- He became aware of (1) the feelings and tensions in his body and (2) his body in space.
  • visual- He saw his habits more clearly.
  • structural- He had greater knowledge of his anatomy and movement.
  • intellectual- He was more clearly aware of his thinking process.
  • emotional- He saw how he interacted and behaved with other people and his environment.

The book has a warm, personal and relatable style, detailing the personal journeys of Judy (who overcame many aspects of Polio) and Bill (who overcame personally learned mal-coordination to hone his skill as an actor). After the authors’ stories the book moves into case studies of many Alexander students which are more akin to personal stories of transformation from students than scientific case studies keeping the tone personal. Along with the theme of personal transformation, there seems to be an interest in childhood development as the later crops up repeatedly throughout the book and it’s importance is stressed; the authors on the subject, “We have to overcome our schooling and conditioning, which was of a goal-oriented or “end-gaining” nature that often leads to a fear of learning and of succeeding.”

Another theme that is recurrent is mindset. The authors assert that mindsets or beliefs create muscular holdings in the body and that leaving one’s self alone is key. They cite Zen in the Art of Archery as an accurate description of the Alexander process and go on to describe the relationship between the principals of the AT; Inhibition, Mental Directions, and Sensory Awareness (in that order). They detail the primary directions and their meaning. Interestingly, the direction, “and let my shoulders widen” is given equal value to the other directions.

The authors make a case for learning basic anatomy stating, “Because the mental directions refer to the anatomical structure, understanding the structure will help understand direction.” The authors make a case against visualization which is interesting as many teachers do not follow this advice, “Unlike some teachers, we do not ask our students to think of their bodies as balloons filled with helium, or to imagine the tension draining out of their bodies like water down a sink drain- in other words, we do not work with what is usually known as visualization.”

In the next chapters on mind-body connection and self-image & psychological factors there are more stories from the authors about how the AT accelerated progress in psychotherapy, relating the experience to the work of Reich. There are also many more stories of personal transformation related to those topics from students keeping with the overall personal and relatable tone of the book.

Some interesting tidbits to put in context of time are the questions, “How much does an AT lesson cost?” and “How often should I take lessons?” The answer to the former is $30-70, which means the cost hasn’t risen all that much since the book was written in 1990. The answer to the later is also interesting as she mentions that Alexander would tell people to come for a “course of lessons” meaning five lessons a week for six weeks. The authors advocates for three lessons a week for two weeks, two lessons for two weeks, then a lesson per week citing financial and time constraint changes in the average person since Alexander’s death. Also interesting is the advice to get a referral from your doctor and send in an insurance claim/reimburse form for your Alexander lessons; I wonder what the success rate for this practice is.

Following this is a section on what happens in lessons which in addition to the overall style and tone of the book make it an excellent introduction to the Alexander technique. The authors note that group classes are more economical but, “You must remember that the hands-on help is the most important part of the lesson.” Also in this section is useful information for student and teacher, “The Alexander teacher never forces a change upon a student but asks the student to think the directions so that messages are sent from the student’s brain through the nervous system to the muscles.”

The second half of the book contains “The Leibowitz Procedures” which Judy developed while teaching actors at Juilliard. While Judy notes that the Leibowitz Procedures and the Alexander Technique are not the same thing, they include many of the movements a teacher would guide a student through in an Alexander lesson. The section opens with instructions on how to observe yourself accompanied by a long list of questions leading to awareness of specific parts. This is then taken into activities including speaking, sitting at the computer, writing, talking on the phone, driving, climbing stairs, lifting heavy objects, vacuuming, carrying bags, sleeping, and gardening.

Following this trend Judy takes the procedures and applies them to sports and exercise activities such as weightlifting, swimming, biking, aerobics, walking, running, golf, tennis, dancing, skiing, riding, horse riding, and yoga. Judy mentioned earlier in the book that one of the purposes of the book was to offer a chance for the many people who don’t have access to an Alexander teacher nearby something to work with on their own. The Liebowitz Procedures are some of the best instructions for self-study that I’ve come across, however there is much less of a chance for success without a teacher’s hands as the authors admit.

The book concludes by stating that the Alexander technique is a tool for living and will help you deal with any life situation, but that you must give yourself plenty of time. As Judy had a hand in training most of the teachers that trained me, I can clearly see her influence in their teaching. It’s interesting to me to note the points where my trainers departed from her methodology as she didn’t have a cookie-cutter process. It’s clear through her writings and her influence on several generations of teachers that her commitment to the principals and skill made her a master teacher of the Alexander technique.

Body Learning

LB-body-learningBody Learning by Michael J. Gelb was one of the first texts I read on the Alexander Technique, as it was required reading in the very first group introduction to the AT class I took. Upon re-reading it I see now why my teacher and so many others recommend the book to people with little or no experience with the AT. The book contains all of the core concepts of the Alexander Technique with minimal pontificating on possibilities of the future of mankind and other dense topics that plague many AT books, including ones written to be introductions. Also somewhat important in an introduction to the Alexander technique, which can sometimes be seen as a strange and esoteric practice, is the fact that Michael Gelb carriers some weight as an author from his other books which lends itself to the AT; not to mention the many endorsements by well-known individuals in related fields and a foreword by Walter Carrington.

I don’t remember being very taken by the book when I read it in college except for a few points here and there which were revolutionary for me at the time, mostly to do with observing without judgement and the effects of trying to be ‘right’ vs letting the right thing do itself. Being such a stereotypical Westerner, anything resembling Zen was far outside my experience except for the times I’d stumbled into it while practicing the viola. The author quotes F.M. Alexander, “Everyone wants to be right, but no one stops to consider if their right is right.”

As I read the book more recently, I was interested in the book as a potential teaching tool for my students. Right off the bat, I have to say I love the title and cover photo. As with his other books, he shows off his cleverness with double-entendre (ex. Thinking for a Change). I was more than satisfied with the descriptions of Alexander, the detailed timeline of his life and the development of his work, as well as his organizing the principals into ‘operational ideas’ which comprise the first two sections of the book. Mr. Gelb repeatedly makes it known that it is essential to work with a qualified Alexander teacher as the book does leave one wanting something to practice. At one point he describes the “ultimate Alexander exercise” as picking up your phone and making a lesson appointment. In all fairness, there are questions designed to broaden ones awareness at the end of each chapter but the book is hardly a do-it-yourself guide- the primary focus seems to be on building awareness which is the first and arguably largest step.

In fact, I get the sense that Mr. Gelb may be intentionally leaving certain explanations vague as to let a teacher fill in the blanks with hand-on experience (the best way to learn the work). He moves very quickly through many concepts and one is left with a general idea of the technique without a lot of specifics about the inner workings, which again may be best for the beginner as it is somewhat well-known amongst Alexander teachers that a lot of theoretical knowledge of the technique can actually slow learning in the practical sense, the two must be cultivated together, organically.

The author sums up what is commonly known as the mind-body problem quite concisely by stating, “[so long as we keep in mind that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.] Most personality problems are the result of conflict between these parts. Our bodies tell us one thing, our thoughts another and our emotions yet another (for example, I want to eat some cake; no, I shouldn’t, I’ll get fat; I feel guilty about eating, and so on.)” Another favorite quote of mine from the author illustrating that habits are always there but we can choose not to indulge, “I use to be characterized by a raised chest, tight stomach, set jaw, and hunched shoulders- the classic male defensive-aggressive posture. Now I am free to save this for special occasions!”

Mr. Gelb moves from the principals of the AT into a section “Learning how to Learn” which contains relevant ideas to the AT such as, how children so easily learn, fear, cultivating attention, experimentation, and non-interference vs effort. He then uses a number of illustrations of himself applying the principals of the technique to learning skills including: singing, juggling, teaching, riding a unicycle, speed reading, writing, running, swimming, public speaking, and Aikido. This is the best part of the book in my opinion as it shows the AT in action vs concepts out of context. While his explanations of the concepts earlier in the book are sometimes only adequate, the personal stories of his application of the technique are very useful and entertaining. The only exception to this being the section on Alexander work and organization change as he never bridges the gap between philosophical ideas and practical applications; although it is a cute look at the subject of organizational change through Alexander jargon, showing how organizations behave like organisms.

In Body Learning, Michael Gelb also manages to bring together most of the gems from many of the authoritative Alexander Technique texts; you would normally have to wade through many pages and chapters of dense writing to find these otherwise, and that’s asking a lot of someone who isn’t terribly invested in learning the technique. You could argue that this is the best aspect of the book, as many of the source materials are out of print and there is no shortage of explanations of the principles and applications of the work available nowadays, perhaps this was different when the book was written in 1981.

Overall, Body Learning is a worthwhile read to anyone interested in the Alexander Technique, even those with a lot of experience as the wonderful quotes, application descriptions, and pictures alone make it worth reading; it also makes a great gift to friends who are curious about the technique. The organization of the book also lends itself well to the group class setting as you can have a class per section in the book, giving the next section as homework to speed-up the understanding, and reduce the amount of time in class spent on explaining the concepts so you can get to the most important part- the hands-on work.

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.”