This was originally published in Direction magazine.
What happens when "Alexander hands" are put on a horse, as Jeremy Chance describes in Direction Volume 2 No 1? This must be a matter of interest for anyone who has ever wondered what it was they were teaching.
The question is essentially one of control. In Alexandrian terms, it is only by exercising conscious control over the process of inhibition and direction that we can let go of subconscious control, or habit, in order to liberate the primary control. In the case of a horse, who, or what, allows any of this to happen?
Most of us accept the operation of the primary control is the same for all vertebrates, and that it functions reflexly. The thought processes and habit patterns of animals in the wild are essential for survival and are unlikely to interfere with a response system that has evolved alongside them. The kinesthetic sense exists to ensure this, and in the absence of special circumstances, can be assumed to be reliable.
The primary control isn’t exclusively muscular, any more than the mental impulses that activate it occur only in the brain. In this respect, the facculties of an animal in the wild will form a harmonious unity. Such a creature may think, and feel, but not to the extent of losing sensory contact with itself or its world. It is a problem to know how to describe this state of uninterrupted relatedness of mind, body and environment, other than as animal consciousness.
Animal consciousness is our birthright, too, whose original enjoyment becomes increasingly stifled by our denying ourselves ready access to it through the activity of what we call, confusingly, the conscious. The notions of a subconscious and unconscious result from this. Lacking such distinctions, animals can’t claim any sort of control over their reactions to stimuli other than that provided by fully reliable senses. It is on such a basis that we assume they operate unconsciously, and that unlike us, they have no freedom of choice; but this may only mean they are unable to chose to go wrong.
If an animal is domesticated, as most horses are, its primary control will already be constrained, with the nature and extent of that constraint determining the future unreliability of its kinesthetic sense. This will have been caused by the hiving off of part of its original consciousness into something resembling a subconscious, to accomodate whatever unnatural behaviour it has been required to learn, with any embryonic "conscious" acting in deference to that of its human overseer; and a lapse into relative unconsciousness for whatever associated portion of the primary control has become subdued.
If such a horse then "goes wrong", it will be further affected on all levels by increasingly harmful habit patterns disabling the free operation of the primary control and diminishing recognition and awareness of the sense mechanism on which that operation depends. This would be evident to the horse in physical and mental dissatisfaction and to those who knew it as poor functioning and perhaps being out of sorts.
If, as Jeremy reports, Alexander hands were able to restore something to a horse that was recognisable to a vet, presumably on a physical level, it would be odd if something did not happen at the same time mentally. This might be less obvious to an onlooker, but both phenomena would appear to the horse as the restitution of a lost part of its original consciousness.
Alexander hands certainly work on humans in a way that circumvent any requirement for them to knowingly inhibit and direct, even while that process is going on. In fact, it has been suggested that a pupil’s ability to discern a teacher’s intention, in order that they may learn to "leave themselves alone" satisfactorily during a lesson, constitutes a form of control every bit as effective, and possibly no less conscious, for not having been thought out.
It is unlikely that a horse could leave itself alone – and for any benefit to be obtained, that is what it must do – without a similar awareness of what the situation requires, and some control over it. In order for the hands to speak through the musculature, and in so far as the musculature is influenced, for the rest of the organism to become affected, that organism, whether animal or human, must be at least willing.
Such willingness on the recipient’s part would be both a reflection of the underlying urge of the primary control to reassert itself and a recognition that Alexander hands were helping with this. Neither of these need be articulated, nor necessarily formulated in any communicable way, but to come to any sort of fruition, they would have to be acknowledged.
However, leaving the self alone is not the same as being able to "look after" it. Gains can be made in functioning, with increases in consciousness, and weakening of habit patterns, through accomodation to a teacher’s initiative; but unless it is known why or how change is occuring, even though some form of individual check over subconscious reaction is what allows it to happen, it is unlikely to recur without the further assistance of Alexander hands. Constructive conscious control of the individual cannot mean getting out of the way in order to allow someone else to do the work for you.
A pupil, in responding, however ably, to the purpose behind a teacher’s hands, is abnegating responsibility. As soon as they are alone, the intention for the rehabilitation of the primary control, which was provided for them, and can only become their own, as it did for their teacher, through self-knowledge, will be lacking; and they are left as dependant on subconscious reaction as before.
This is not to imply they are necessarily worse off than their more knowing colleagues, at least during lessons; although whether Alexander hands would work better, or simply differently, or even less well, if the recipient was capable of inhibiting and directing at their own discretion, is difficult to say. Nor is it any easier to know how well those hands would work, if at all, without that same ability – assumed to be present in Jeremy’s case – on the part of the teacher.
What is certain is that independant conscious control requires, above all else, intention imbued with knowledge; this can’t be acquired by osmosis, and only comes about if a specific process is learned and a decision repeatedly made to put it into practice. At a stretch, a well trained horse might pick up something resembling this, but once alone, it would be as unlikely to decide to attend to it, or its use generally, as it would be to practice dressage movements when its rider wasn’t present.
Autonomy of this sort is inconceivable for animals; but it is precisely their lack of the uniquely human faculty allowing it – which creates the problem of faulty sensory appreciation in the first place – that should make them need it least. For animals in the wild, there is neither interference, nor any means of stopping it; whereas the extent of our potential for conscious control reveals how far we, and by association the creatures we misuse, have gone wrong.
Alexander’s original purpose was to encourage others to learn what he had. The use of hands was only a means to this end. He saw his technique as an evolutionary step forward, and deplored any suggestion of returning to the way things had been; but at the same time he emphasised our need to allow our organism to function as nature intended. His legacy shines in his writings; but sometimes today’s reality seems little more than palliative, helping counteract the worst effects of the over-development of the human brain, while their underlying cause remains unaddressed.
Without wanting to eulogise the lives of animals, it is clear that in their natural state they need us, and our Alexander hands, far less than we need them. For those that are domesticated, the results of our ministrations, given willingness on their part, should be little different from any other recipient: an improvement in functioning with a commeasurate increase in consciousness and its enjoyment, at the heart of which would be a less interfered with primary control; but not, and in the absence of any detailed explanation or instruction, not even for humans, any accurate understanding of how this happened, nor any means of ensuring it happening in the future.