Using Nonviolent Communication to Enhance AT Practice

nonviolentNonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion by Marshall B Rosenberg PhD is a powerful tool that helps one connect to their own feelings and needs as well as the feelings and needs of others. Typically, I would be writing about how the Alexander Technique enhances some other activity; my primary focus in this essay will be how to use NVC to enhance your AT practice.

While the author comes out early and states that NVC contains nothing new, he has pooled together a wealth of information with practical application and exercises designed to free us from the cycle of reactions so that our words “become conscious responses based firmly on an awareness of what we are perceiving, feeling, and wanting.”

The NVC Model as stated by Marshall Rosenberg:

  1. The concrete actions we are observing that are affecting our well-being
  2. How we are feeling in relation to what we are observing
  3. The needs, values, desires, etc. that are creating our feelings
  4. The concrete actions we request in order to enrich our lives

Within this form, there are two parts to NVC:

  1. Expressing Honestly
  2. Receiving Empathically

Let’s take a look at the different aspects of NVC and how they apply to the AT.

Observations

Dr. Rosenberg makes the point that judgement, making comparisons, and evaluation is life-alienating communication and traps our focus on rightness and wrongness; the result being that we only think of analyzing and classifying wrongness instead of focusing on unmet needs. If you think of this in the context of the type of awareness we deal with in Alexander work a typical thought process of a student might go like this: “I can’t get into the chair without stiffening my legs, and my neck is tight! Sally can do it, she’s better than me. I’m not very good at this. What’s wrong with me?”

Instead of focusing on what we may be doing “wrong” if we turn our attention to what we are needing in the moment to achieve our goal we will find our goal more attainable. MBR, “We learn to be ‘up in our head’ wondering, ‘What is it that others think is right for me to say and do?’ Rather than to be in touch with our feelings.” What happens when we as Alexander students try to do what we think the teacher wants or even try to directly do what we think is right without being in touch with what we are feeling and needing in the moment? Alexander use to say, “You want to feel-out whether you are right or not. I am giving you a conception to eradicate that. I don’t want you to care a damn if you’re right or not. Directly [if] you don’t care if you are right or not, the impending obstacle is gone.”

Feelings

NVC differentiates actual feelings from “words and statements that describe thoughts, assessments, and interpretations.” Some examples relevant to AT:

“My ankle is tight” vs “My weight is on the front of my foot”

“The student has a lot of up” vs “There is internal movement happening in this moment”

“I’m pulling down” vs “My head is going backward in space toward my spine”

NVC also puts emphasis on taking responsibility for one’s feelings. Dr. Rosenberg reminds us, “What others do may be the stimulus of our feelings, but not the cause.” adding “We see that our feelings result from how we choose to receive what others say and do as well as our particular needs and expectations in that moment.” In the context of the AT it is very important to take responsibility for our feelings. People often say things like:

“My back hurts” not “Something I’m doing is hurting my back”

“My arm hurts when I play the violin” not “My reaction to the stimulus of playing the violin is hurting my arm”

The idea that you can’t trust your feelings is thrown around quite a bit in the Alexander world. While it may be true that our feelings may not accurately represent the situation, they do accurately represent our interpretation of the situation, so it’s best to pay attention to them and ask, “What am I needing that is causing this feeling?”

Needs

Dr. Rosenberg strongly emphasises that needs are the root of feelings and that previously mentioned life alienating communication is often an expression of our unmet needs. He suggests that, “Expressing our needs directly gives us a better chance of having them met than using evaluation, interpretations, and images” and that we ought to practice translating evaluations into unmet needs. Some examples:

“My arm is tight, there are flaws in my technique.” vs. “I have a (unmet) need for comfort while playing”

“I’m not good at initiating movement” vs. “I have a need to improve my skill of initiating movement”

Requests

MBR, “The clearer we are about what we want back, the more likely it is that we’ll get it.” This statement reminds me of the Alexander concept of direction. The clearer our conception and request for neck free, head forward and up, torso lengthening and widening, knees forward and away; the more likely we’ll get it. Dr. Rosenberg advocates for, “Making requests in clear, positive, concrete action language [as this] reveals what we really want.” adding, “How can you do a don’t?” This is an interesting point as it is common practice in the AT to say, “don’t do this, don’t do that.” When we choose to use this methodology we should be careful to at least hint at what we do want.

I recently heard a story from a music professor who had hired an Alexander teacher to teach a class and was horrified when the teacher proceeded to humiliate a student on stage saying, “Don’t do that!” repeatedly when the student didn’t have any idea how to not do what she was doing or what she ought to do instead. It is interesting to note that Alexander framed the directions positively, perhaps he was onto the same thing.

Expressing Honestly & Receiving Empathically

Worrying about what others think, that we might be wrong or not good enough can be a stimulus for us to be dishonest with ourselves and others. However, if we are not honest with ourselves about our problems we can’t possibly hope to resolve them. Dr Rosenberg’s instructions in regards to receiving empathically is striking similar to Alexander’s concept of inhibition. MBR, “When we sense ourselves being defensive or unable to empathize, we need to stop, breathe, scream nonviolently or take time out.” When we allow ourselves to be truly present, noticing what feelings and needs arise without reacting, we then can make a choice as to how to respond. MBR notes that our habits of reacting by advising, one-upping, educating, counseling, storytelling, shutting down, sympathizing, interrogating, explaining, and correcting get in the way of true empathy- simply being with the other person (or yourself) and listening for what they (or you) are observing, feeling, needing, and requesting.

The remainder of the book goes on to explore the power of empathy, expressing anger fully, the protective use of force, liberating ourselves and counseling others, and expressing appreciation in NVC. On a personal note, NVC has helped me become more empathic with myself and others which has enriched my Alexander practice. NVC has proved itself invaluable in interacting with people who have violent and/or passive-aggressive habits of communication. I use to avoid possible friction; now I see an opportunity to practice inhibition by not reacting with the same sentiment I receive, followed by searching for their feelings and needs in hopes that empathy can provide some healing.

Finally let’s compare a statement from Judy Leibowitz to one by Marshall Rosenberg:

JL: “Ultimately, the Alexander Technique will help you deal with any life situation. To accomplish this you must give yourself the most important gift you can give to yourself: time. It takes time to incorporate and direct your energies to learning the Alexander Technique, you will not only change in ways that you want but also discover new and unexpected beneficial changes in your life.”

MBR: “Probably the most important part of learning how to live the process that we have been discussing is to take our time.  We may feel awkward deviating from the habitual behaviors that our conditioning has rendered automatic, but if our intention is to live life in harmony with our values, then we’ll want to take our time.”

Interview with Walter Carrington

walter210pxIn the Interview with Walter Carrington by Sean Carey, Walter describes a plethora of events on the training course with F.M. including personal stories, clarification of historical events, and practical lessons- mostly from Alexander himself.

Walter was attracted to the work by the transformations he saw in his mother and friend who had taken lessons from Alexander. There was a common theme of some of the trainees (including Walter) of being young men with not much of an idea what they wanted to do with their lives; the training course seemed new and interesting to them.

Walter talks extensively about the problems on the first training courses, while simultaneously defending Alexander. He quotes F.M. as saying, “All they were doing was going around imitating me like a cartload of monkeys!” According to Walter, Alexander expected the trainees to read the books and figure it out for themselves. When the trainees realized that they wouldn’t be taught they were disenchanted, and similarly so was Alexander when he realized they were so clueless. Reflecting to my own training I do remember after the first year (all I had originally planned to complete) thinking that I hadn’t learned anything about how to teach the Technique, even though the following two years were mostly the same in practice. I think this, wanting to find out what it was really about, kept me coming back. Strangely, there is no secret; only further refinement. Sometimes I joked, “I realized that somehow I became an Alexander teacher while I was busy working on myself.”

Walter provides many insights into the development of the Technique, both F.M.’s own personal development and his own additions as well as the additions of the other teachers of his generation. He says about the use of the hands, “It was only gradually that he [FM] began to find more and more that it was what he did with his hands that counted. As long as he made the right kind of soothing noises it didn’t seem to matter what he said.” He admits that F.M. never said where to put or how to use the hands; which kept with his minimalist approach. The advantage of having such an approach, according to Walter, is that the students learn most this way. Another interesting point is the connection of Delsarte to the origins of Alexander’s work. While most teachers admit that Alexander’s discovery and development of the technique as outlined in his books is pure fantasy and that there is no way he could have created the technique from nothing, very few teachers ask questions about his influences.

Walter does tell to the best of his ability the origins of the procedures, most of which were not of Alexander’s invention. Particularly of interest is how the saddle came to be used in the case of a child without the use of her legs. Crawling, which was developed by Dart and incorporated into training by Carrington, was a point of contention; he was defensive of crawling (or creeping as they say in England), as it was a criticism of his style by other schools of thought in the AT community at the time. He criticizes the wide stance that Patrick Mcdonald had students use, saying that it makes it easier for the students to get in and out of the chair but students learn less about inhibition and direction. He also warns against straightening the back against the wall (Dr. Barlow). The stories clarifying infighting between teachers from the first training courses litter the book and are a pretty big waste time as the people in question are all dead and the quarrels have little relevance to the principals of the work.

Walter points out that it was only by chance that table work was created at all; that at some point someone had the idea that the assistant teachers ought to put people on the table instead of always laying people on the floor. Also interesting is that Alexander had little to do with the development of table-work and that it was mostly the assistant teachers. While on the subject of tables, Walter objects to massage stating, “Massage is a terribly bad thing except for the most superficial kind of massage” adding that deep massage can actually damage tissue and make working with people on the AT more difficult. He had similar feelings about Rolfing.

There are long sections devoted to examining Alexander’s life views. While interesting, these kinds of questions have an undertone of suggestion that F.M. Alexander was some kind of Jesus type character who knew the truth and therefore should be emulated. Not only is this obviously false, from what I can gather about Alexander he would have wanted nothing of the sort; I believe he would have wanted people to figure their life views out for themselves. Carrington and Alexander both had an attitude toward religion that can be summed up as, “I don’t know.” A some-what related point that Carrington makes is, “FM always contended that it’s almost impossible to know what’s right, but that one could with time practically establish what is wrong and then set-up measures to avoid it.”

Among Alexander’s views explored were his views on other modalities such as Reich’s work, Osteopathy, Freud, and the Bates method. He was strongly opposed to all of them for separating the whole into parts and/or being an unproven theory being worked out on people (rather than a method derived from practical work and its theories coming from said work). While he may have been “right” in both cases, the attitude did not help the spread of his own work and often alienated the work from others; such was the case with Feldenkrais.

I believe the infighting between “similar” methods is related to the infighting between the first generation teachers and it certainly didn’t help any of the parties involved. On the whole, I was disappointed to see how much of the interview was concerned with these matters. That being said, the interview does offer an intimate view into the work of Alexander through Walter’s unique perspective.

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:

1.Consciousness
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.”