Letter to Direction concerning breathing

I wrote this in some exasperation at what I perceived as the general view – within the Alexander profession, as in the outside world – of the Technique concerning itself almost exclusively with people who used their voices, and their breath, ‘professionally’.

Dear Editor,

Interesting as the articles in the Voice issue of Direction were, I found myself wondering how useful, in a practical sense, the information they contained would be for the average reader, even allowing for the likelihood of that reader being experienced in the Alexander Technique.

Far more relevant, and certainly more fundamental, than what we might do in order to breath more freely, would have been a reminder to stop what most of us, pupils, students and teachers alike, spend vast quantities of time already doing. I refer to the all too common practices of holding our breath and sucking in air.

Anyone can check this for themselves by noticing next time they slice a loaf of bread, sign their name, thread a needle, get out of bed, change gears in their car, scrub out a pan, lift any sort of weight, or – heaven forbid – rise from or descend into a chair, whether they stop breathing; and while talking – or shouting, singing, chanting or whistling – whether the quality of their inspiration leaves anything to be desired.

The point is, we don’t have to be opera singers or seekers after an elusive inner voice or even experienced Alexander people to benefit from breath work. What we do need is a degree of perspicacity, and also, I’m afraid, humility. So many of us hold our breath when we do anything even remotely stressful, and gasp audibly as soon as our vocal functions are called into play, that it sometimes seems a natural process rather than a sign that that process is being interfered with; yet it is well within our capacity to rectify this, not by learning to do anything new, but by stopping doing something we are overly familiar with.

Yours sincerely,

Nicholas Brockbank.

A Letter to David Gorman concerning a debate on AlexTech about LearningMethods

David Gorman went from being an Alexander teacher of considerable renown to the originator of a new and, I believe, entirely different, approach to human use and functioning. He wrote at length about his work on the AlexTech forum. I joined the forum just before he left it.


Thanks for replying. I suppose the debate did get a little over personal, although obviously there’s a lot of history behind this I don’t know about; but ‘heated’ discussions always tend to be a bit fruitless in terms of actually exploring ideas.

What I wanted to say wasn’t so much to you as an individual, though it seemed to centre round your work, as to anyone who was interested in the issue of what the Technique is, what it does and how it does it; but I’m sending you my thoughts as I would have thrown them into the debate, anyway.

The only problem with this is it makes me sound rather impersonal towards you, as if you are a third party figure. Of course, you would be if this was just something for anyone to read. So, please bear that in mind.


Reading through the contributions to this long debate, a number of issues strike me. The most prominent is the question of the Primary Control.

Either this, or what is meant by it, exists or else it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, fair enough, those who believe in it are fooling themselves; but if it does, then it exists in everyone regardless of belief.

If the Primary Control is a fact, and if interference with it debilitates us in the way Alexander suggested, believing we can only improve matters by stopping that interference shouldn’t mean dismissing out of hand any possibility of doing so other than through our fairly limited definition of inhibition and direction. All approaches that engage us as human beings and bring about beneficial changes in use – even if this is incidental to their intention – must not only be worthwhile (from an Alexandrian point of view) but ought positively to be encouraged.

I’m sure I’m not alone in having seen, marvelling and despairing in equal measure, massive – and I mean, huge – changes in use taking place in Alexander students after they have attended some non-Alexandrian workshop that had no pretensions to doing any such thing.

On this basis, I have no problems whatsoever making comparisons and seeing connections between the Alexander Technique and other approaches, whether they are therapies or disciplines. Alexandrian attention may be more directly tuned to doing away with interference, but that is not to say NLP, or Yoga, or Creative listening, or even intra-family cuddling – especially on as prolonged and repetitious a basis as people are expected to have Alexander lessons – won’t do something similar. Ours is only one approach among many. The major difference is that we like to think we are working consciously towards better use as a goal; but we all know how easily this can be confused with rigidity.

That was the question David Langstroth started this debate off with. Then everyone seemed to forget about it and go off at a tangent to discuss David Gorman’s new way of teaching. This brings me to my second point, which concerns use.

I had always thought that what Alexander meant by use incorporated a person’s state of mind and body. Presumably, since he equated muscle tension with character, he believed he could ‘read’ one from the other. This, after all, was the basis for his stance on psychophysical unity.

I find David Gorman’s insistence that the ‘real’ person – what he calls "the conscious human being" – acts separately from (in his description, going "way out ahead of") his or her "body", leaving ‘it’ to somehow sort itself out, decidedly odd, even allowing for the fact he no longer claims to teach the Technique. The implication that our mental state, consisting of what we are conscious of, is somehow more authentic than what ‘it’ doesn’t know the rest of the self is doing, seems unnecessarily divisive.

Surely, it is not only in Alexandrian terms that the self includes everything? We are indivisible, mind permeating body. I don’t think any useful distinction can be made between the aspect of use that is thought and the aspect that is muscular, since they are essentially one and the same.

The sole rationale for making such a distinction would be on the level of intervention. David’s way of working, as he describes it, is based on his and his student’s perception of their mental state, which when subtly altered, produces gratifying though not directly sought after physical changes; but why this should be any more surprising than the reverse effect of a changed mental state being brought about through the physical touch of a teacher’s hands, which Alexander teacher’s lived with for years, I can’t imagine.

David’s main contribution here is obviously not the reiteration of one of Alexander’s most basic insights – the phenomenon of endgaining – but his discovery of a means for ameliorating this without the need for touch, as well as, apparently, doing away with the concomitant requirement for endless repetition of lessons. This is a huge development, the truly "explosive" nature of what he proposes – always assuming it works!

As for whether or not what he is teaching is the Alexander Technique, I think Stacey Gehman put David’s current position clearly. If David believes in the Primary Control as she describes it and is knowingly working towards stopping interference with that (and if, I might add, he believes this leads to conscious – ie, individual – control over the same process) then, yes, he is teaching the Technique, albeit in a radically different way. If, as I suspect, he has lost faith in the existence of a Primary Control, but prefers to work with the unspecified concept of allowing general use to improve through an indirect, hands-off approach, then I would say he is teaching something else.

Nevertheless, from the way David describes his session with the violinist, and from the way Peter Ruhberg later describes his more traditional (in a hands-on sense) lesson with the ironist, I have to conclude that David’s approach is markedly more indirect and in keeping with the notion that something in us that is unknown and largely unknowable will put us right so long as the rest of us gets out of its way.

If that makes what Peter is doing ‘not the Alexander Technique’, then perhaps we should be thinking of redefining it rather than expecting everyone who doesn’t adhere to strict principle (neck first, all else follows) to branch off on their own.

Incidentally, concerning the ironist, I am surprised David should tell Peter that his student "didn’t know about the third degree of mobility in the shoulder joint before you told her". I would have thought she almost certainly did, in exactly the way I know about it, without having a clue what it means – unconsciously, from early learning experiences. Their only difference (David and Peter’s) lies in how they might remind her (and me) of what had earlier in life been obvious.

David suggests that what he is doing is too far removed from the current general consensus to be comfortably included within the mainstream. He doesn’t say so but I can readily imagine a moderator from a traditional training course, where hands-on work predominates in relative silence – or even noisy abandon – but where without a chair or a couch nothing much would be expected to happen, having problems authenticating people from David’s course. Besides, why should he or his students want to be so authenticated?

If David’s approach works, if the Primary Control exists, it will be happening on that level anyway, in which case his insights should eventually be incorporated into the traditional Alexander means; if the Primary Control doesn’t exist, but some other, inherent internal wisdom does, which his approach helps elicit, then "LearningMethods" will come into its own, while the Alexander Technique either fades away, bereft of its central thesis, or becomes the pre-eminent system for purely postural improvement it often looks like doing anyway. If David’s approach doesn’t work, or doesn’t work sufficiently often or well, it will presumably die a natural enough death.

This leads me to the tricky question of whether the specific approach David describes – which, I am happy to acknowledge, I cannot properly comment on without having experienced – sounds realistic. Initially, we have to go by what we are told, just as my first Alexander lesson only came after I had digested all that I could find out about the subject.

My biggest problem with LearningMethods is David’s rather too simplistic offering of "being present in the moment" as the universal panacea. Please, don’t get me wrong. I happen to believe, and have believed for some time, that this is the universal panacea. The difficulty is putting it into practice.

Assuming we we are born ‘present’, in a unified state of consciousness of both mind and body (with or without a Primary Control that lies at the heart of such consciousness) as we grow up, whether through the effects of civilisation or as the inevitable result of our human nature, our instinctive impulses are overruled by the requirement for reasoned decision making. Insidiously, as this area of our consciousness grows more dominant, it becomes decreasingly aware of what it is dominating.

I see this as the creation of what we call our conscious mind (David’s "conscious human being") which is where ‘we’ reside; beneath it (constituting David’s "body") a subconscious – made up, in simplistic terms, of learned behaviour – forms, leaving the instinctive remainder largely unconscious.

Obviously, this is a personal view; but I believe ‘present moment living’ only takes place when the edges between these three aspects of our consciousness blur sufficiently to enable no such distinctions to be made. This is as it was at birth, becoming less so as we grow older.

In adulthood, we find individuals are rarely fully present. I don’t think this is any exaggeration. The majority of us most of the time are somewhere else: generally, reflecting on the past or anticipating the future; or isolated in a vacuum of non-time, exactly as I am now, writing these words

This absence from ‘now’ is pretty much continual; and although it may on the surface seem an exclusively mental predisposition, from an Alexandrian point of view our bodies are there with us – in the imaginary past or future, or ‘out of time’. No part of us is really present.

For me, Alexander work has been, first and foremost, a superb means for returning to where I am. I firmly believe ‘being here now’ is our natural state; but because of the enormous effort we have expended over the years to get away from it (as an example, think what has led to our being able to contribute to this debate, in terms of abstraction) it’s not so easy getting back.

Of course, the ability to reflect is the human condition. It’s what separates us from animals. In fact, it’s all that separates us from animals. I believe as a species we have overdone this, and that we should endeavour to find a way back to moment-to-moment living, at least occasionally, so that for some of the time we can return to full consciousness.

Alexandrian attention to, and awareness of, the self, which by definition engages us both physically and mentally (you can’t be aware of the body other than through the mind, and you can’t attend to the self – at least, in waking life – other than through the body) has enabled me to spend a lot more time – I’m talking of minutes, here, rather than nanoseconds – in the present than any number of alternative approaches.

I’ve been working on this for years. Not professionally, but off and on, along with trying to become more reasonable, loving, charitable, etc. Nothing ever seemed to work to get me even momentarily ‘out of my head’ (a telling expression, when you think about it) except excitement or fear. That was, until I came upon the Technique. Even with this, it took me years to realise that what I wanted was not what the majority of teachers were endeavouring to sell me; but that’s another story.

All this might help explain why I am intrigued to know what exactly happens to David and his students when they are "present in the moment". Or even how they know when that is. What, after all, is their awareness of it? I am also keen to know what David believes happens to the use of those who have made ‘present moment living’ the study of their lives. My knowledge of these things is shaky but I assume Buddhists and others (including, presumably, all mediators) have an interest in this.

Intriguingly, I am reminded of Arthur Janov, originator of Primal Therapy, whose studies of advanced ‘be here now’ enthusiasts – many of religious persuasion – showed that however calm their brain patterns appeared to be, their bodies were bundles of repressed muscular tension. How he measured this, I don’t know. Nor do I know what his results say for psychophysical unity. I do think, though, that it’s probably a fallacy to imagine the ‘present moment’ is necessarily going to be tranquil.

If David has some new insights into ways of being "present in the moment", particularly how to enter this state at will, and remain there for longer than it takes to reflect on it; and if he is willing to share those insights, I for one would be extremely grateful to him.

Thanks for reading this,

Nicholas Brockbank.


All that was said, David, in the knowledge that actual experience of your work is the only way I’ll ever get to understand it. You may remember me writing to ask if I could visit your London training course in its final weeks and you ringing to give me some possible dates. This was after Adam Nott mentioned to me you had evolved a ‘new’ approach.

To my regret, I didn’t pursue your offer. I have a complicated fear and loathing for training courses, primarily associated with the perceived disparity between the personal use and the nature of the hands-on work a visitor presents needing to conform to that pertaining on the course, and Alexander’s exhortation to teach any way but the way he did. Had I known you had abandoned hands-on work altogether, it might have been different!