Pete’s Blog – 23rd Sept 2017 – What is the Alexander Technique?

Photograph of Peter Ribeaux, Centre for the Alexander Technique

It has been fashionable over the years to pose the question, “What is the Alexander Technique?” in the hope of providing a definitive answer.  It was always clear to me that if it took Alexander four books (and some) to answer the question, I was unlikely to  be successful in creating a simple and succinct answer.  From time to time there have been competitions and the like in the search of the best answer.  Now, from the perspective of the twenty-first century, I suspect that all the simple answers have been used up without anything really satisfactory emerging.

So where do we go from here?  Having observed the scene over the years it strikes me that the Technique has undergone a number of changes.  Mainly, it has become more diffuse and the number of variations has increased, to the extent that nowadays more appropriate questions would be, “How many Alexander Techniques are there?” and “What does each of them consist of?”.

For example, at one extreme the simple process of stopping to consider how to carry out one’s next action could be considered a use of the Alexander Technique.  At another extreme the employment of a particular ostensively definable relationship of head, neck, back and limbs could be the defining feature.  And then there are variations on each of these two.

A question then arises as to which variations and combinations of these two fall within the defining features of the Alexander Technique.  This is germane to the question of who can call themselves an Alexander Technique Teacher.  For example, a particular set of criteria defines who falls within the acceptable limits for STAT.

My experience from attending conferences and giving workshops all over the world has taught me there are a variety of activities which go under the name of the Alexander Technique.  This has from time to time posed a problem for me.  But the reasons for this have changed over time.  At first there was no problem because I was trained in one particular way and had very little exposure to anything else.  Difficulty arose when I started to explore further, at conferences and congresses.  I realised that the variations were so extreme that I began to wonder how they could all fall under the same umbrella.  I resolved the issue for myself by continuing my own development along the lines set down by my initial training but at the same time recognising that others who taught very differently had also received their training from a first generation teacher.  I  don’t want to go into which training was the genuine article.  We could not possibly resolve that issue some fifty plus years later.  So I came to accept that there was an Alexander “community” who practised and taught the Technique, but in a variety of different ways.

Were there points in common between these?  In a pretty rough way I decided that if individuals were engaged in some way with Patrick Macdonald’s list of distinguishing features (recognition of the force of habit, unreliable sensory appreciation, inhibition, direction and the primary control), that would be enough to make them members of the Alexander Community.  This is different from being teachers or being a member of a professional Alexander society.  That was my position in 2004 when I co-organised the Oxford Congress.

At the same time I was becoming clearer and clearer about my own development as an Alexander Teacher.  Indeed,  problems arose when “my way” clashed with someone else’s way.   Should I confront or act like a chameleon?  Or something in between.  Personal development requires some personal assurance.  And on what can that be based except persistence, which in turn requires a bit of resilience in the face of negative feedback?!

There are so many dimensions to this psycho-physical technique – one can start with the psycho- and the physical- with variations on each, not to mention the different lenses through which it can be viewed,  the internal or first-person lens, the third-person or “objective” lens and so on.

I am  rapidly coming to the conclusion that there are good teachers (I may not always agree with them!) both inside and outside the Affiliated Societies and that what is important is the possibility of some kind of dialogue between them.  Anything less will lead to factionalism.

It is inevitable that there will always be this distinction between the “Alexander Technique” as a generic entity,  “brand name” or community and the “Alexander Technique” which is practised and taught by individuals.  It has become a broad church.

Pete’s Blog – Monday 30th January 2017

EDIT

Photograph of Peter Ribeaux, Centre for the Alexander Technique

I’ve been reflecting on a couple of ideas recently.  The reflections are brought about partly by working with students and pupils with particular difficulties, partly from reading the latest STATnews (January 2017) on Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, in particular the articles by Laura Tuthall and Melissa Kelly and partly by memories of the ATI Conference last October.  These reflections have a degree of continuity in that they harp back to my blog of 11th May 2016.

Firstly, I’ve been surprised by my change in attitude to the study of anatomy over the years and, secondly, I’ve always been intrigued by the question of when to use my hands in order to loosen the muscles around joints and when to compress the joints in order to provoke an expanding resistance (in the manner of the way FM places his hand  on the top of the head of the pupil he is working on in the video clip we have of him).

When I trained the study of anatomy was always a kind of optional extra, only something to be encouraged in order to communicate with the medical profession and related disciplines.  The  result was that I finished up with a pretty scanty knowledge of musical-skeletal anatomy and I don’t think I was the least well informed AT teacher at the time.  Clearly, one can do good work and teach people a lot by teaching the principles of inhibition and direction in a predominantly  “thinking” manner without making exact anatomical reference.  However, questions such as, “What precisely is this neck which one has to allow to be free?” did arise.  Over the years a more precise knowledge came to be needed in relation to fingers, wrists, elbows and shoulders, particularly when working with musicians and others with particular requirements.  Now I believe that the more accurately one can locate bones and muscles mentally the more effective one’s thought directions become.

This is where the “thinking in” versus “thinking out” issue raised by Laura Tuthall comes in.  As an example, the shoulder joint (the glenohumeral joint) where the upper arm meets the shoulder girdle is surrounded at the deepest level by a set of muscles ( the rotator cuff) whose name partly belies their function.  They do in fact individually serve to rotate the head of the humerus in the glenoid fossa or cavity.  However, acting in concert, they serve along with various ligaments to keep the head of the upper arm (humerus) snugly seated in the cavity.  When this function becomes distorted or slackens the heavy duty movement muscles e.g. the deltoids and teres major, not to mention a number of muscles connecting to the thorax take over this work.  The resultant unnecessary tension needs to be “undone” in order to restore proper functioning of the shoulder joint.  This is where “thinking in” comes in.  “Thinking in” and connecting bone to bone snugly in an articulation is a better fit than “thinking out” which in the worst case can lead to dislocation as described in Melissa Kelly’s STATnews article.

This relates tangentially to some impressions I had when attending the ATI Conference in October 2016.  There seemed to be a view  that, in the interest of marketing the Alexander Technique it was best not to over emphasise the physical (posture, use etc) but rather market  it as a vehicle for gaining freedom to make choices, promoting change and bringing about effortless movement, thought and happiness. Nothing wrong with this, but to confuse what may be appropriate for the marketing of the Technique with what the Technique actually is does not serve it well.  Why not both the psycho- and physical? Whatever happened to the psychophysical nature of the human organism?  Please, let’s not throw the body out with the bathwater and let’s recognise that psychophysical change is unlikely to be achieved without attending to each.  It is  a question of which lens one chooses to use (or both) for both teacher and student. Not to use both does a disservice to the Technique.