What is inhibition?

An investigation into what we are saying ‘no’ to when we inhibit, and why an increased knowledge of this might be useful.

There seems to be some reluctance among teachers of the Alexander technique to clarify what they mean by inhibition, even while claiming it as the cornerstone of their work. Usually it is explained as ‘stopping’, or ‘refusing to respond’ to a stimulus to act. But is that all it is? In his last book, Alexander suggested:

“By this initial inhibition change becomes possible, and we pass on to consider what should be our next procedure.”

Often, the “next procedure” would be a general injunction to give ‘directions’ – in other words, the purely mental projection of desired physical conditions, with no particular reference to what current conditions actually are. But since the purpose of the Alexander Technique is to encourage a person to use more appropriate ‘means’, a prior need would seem to be for an active sensory awareness by them of what their present means are. Alexander goes on to say:

“Primarily our concern must be to find out in what way we are interfering with the right employment of the primary control, and decide to prevent this interference by consciously refusing to project the messages which habitually bring it about.”

This article is based on the belief that recognising how we ‘interfere’ with ‘the right employment of the primary control’ is essential if we want to know how to avoid doing it. The formal learning process, as I understand it, involves experiencing an intention to move, and, ultimately, the carrying out of that intention, while receiving trustworthy feedback that is is possible for this to happen, without what would normally be felt to be a vital part of the impulse-to-action taking place. As soon as even a small measure of interference has been kinesthetically perceived in this way, iot can be inhibited.

Interference takes many forms and is not going to be discovered easily. But we do have guidelines in our search. We know more or less that what we are looking for will be in direct contradiction to the directions as they are expressed verbally – in other words, a tendancy for our neck muscles to pull our heads ‘backwards and down’ onto our ‘shortening’ spines and ‘narrowing’ backs. But for inhibitory purposes they do not need to be actually expressed, so much as their preventative intention known. As Alexander continued:

“Only secondarily are we interested in the projection of the new messages which will in time lead us indirectly, that is, through a change in the employment of the primary control of our use, to the change we desire in our habitual reflex activity.”



I find it helpful to think of the inhibitory process beginning with ‘remembering’. Quite where on the stimulus/response cycle this initial remembering takes place would determine the next step. While it is obviously important to try and remember beforereacting to a stimulus-to-action, it certainly isn’t too late if we remember afterwards, so long as we are able to achieve something of a balanced state here and now.

As an example, we could imagine our phone ringing while we are at the breakfast table. If we are honest, few of us, out of a beginning condition of unconscious activity, are likely to register such an unexpected stimulus in time to prevent ourselves from reacting automatically.

However, even if we do manage, all we will have achieved is an ‘initial’ inhibition’. Not only does the main stimulus remain with us, but other stimuli – abandoning toast, coffee and an interesting conversation, negotiating the cluttered passageway, anticipating who is on the phone – will also be present. And as soon as we pick up the phone, a new group of stimuli will announce themselves. Each and every stimulus brings with it the threat of potential interference.

There is also the question of the interference – the result of already forgotten stimuli – that was present as an unnpticed part of our ‘beginning condition’. This will also be present for those of us who remember only after having reacted to the sound of the phone – perhaps mid-way out of our chair. We will be carrying, in addition, the interference associated with that reaction. What do we do about such existing interference?

Assuming we haven’t lapsed back into our prior state of relative unconsciousness, it is hardly necessary for us to ‘stop’ – en route to the hall – in order to ‘refuse to respond’ to the stimulus to continue walking, before the opportunity arises to inhibit interference. The opportunity is already there. Our inhibitory task is simply to cease or refrain from doing whatever we recognise as ‘unnecessary’.

So long as we remain ‘present’, we can go on to fulfill various ‘ends’, including terminating the conversation and returning to our breakfast, while simultaneously attending to our means. Although our ability to do this usefully will ultimately depend on whatever level of interference we have learned to recognise, it is still necessary for us to remember – in other words, to become ‘conscious’ – before we can change anything for ourselves, and to continue to remember if we want to go on influencing the manner of our use. It is this conscious, inhibitory Alexander ‘work’, which can only be done on our own, that I think can help determine the nature and quality of our lives.


Working on our own

Since it is doubtful if many of us could work innovatively in the way that Alexander set out in The Use of the Self, lessons will be our only means of obtaining ‘objective’ feedback. The more objective feedback we have, the better our sensory appreciation is likely to become. But we need to be careful not to confuse the formal learning process, when we try to hold existing sensory appreciation in abeyance, in order to experience something that would be impossible on our own, with the remainder of our time, when we have little choice but to rely on it.

The majority of this time is spent in relative unconsciousness, during which we are wholly reliant on ‘automatic’ proprioception. When we remember ourselves, we will often become aware, through ‘conscious’ proprioception, that we are ‘interfering with the right employment of the primary control’.

The degree to which we can ‘prevent this interference by consciously refusing to project the messages which habitually bring it about’, will depend on how much of the unnecessary behaviour we have learned to recognise lies within our control. This, in turn, will depend on the overall acuity of our proprioceptive sense. Assuming we are able to perceive, kinesthetically, some tendency to stiffen our necks and shorten our spines, then we only need to avoid doing this – and to the extent that we have already indulged the tendency, to cease doing it – in order to experience a change in our condition.

However, as soon as we ‘forget’ ourselves again, any such inhibited behaviour will pass out of our control and we will revert to our habitual state. This reversal will reflect the extent to which our proprioceptive sense, schooled through ‘formal’ work to recognise interference, is keener and sharper when it is conscious than when it is automatic.

It is precisely this differential that enables us to work on ourselves independently of objective feedback. As a general rule, each time we go through the process of remembering and forgetting, our habitual state and the kinesthetic sense that determines it will be subjected to an ‘improving’ influence. How often, and what, we remember will directly determine the cumulative effect of this influence. Initially, and for as long as any interference is indistinguishable from our normal state, we can make no progress at all. Clear recognition of what we are doing wrong is essential if we are to learn how to avoid it. It will need to be avoided repeatedly before it can become habitually absent, to the extent that that absence comes to feel normal.

The process feeds itself. Once something that has always seemed a vital part of us is perceived as unnecessary, and is inhibited sufficiently often for our habitual state to have begun to reflect this, it will start to fade from conscious awareness. As it does so, some other tendency – or the same tendency on a deeper level – having itself seemed equally inseparable from our essential self, will become recognisable as further interference.

In this way, the differential between conscious and automatic proprioception is maintained, or even increased, and a continuing process of change can take place. This would tend to happen by small increments, so that what feels normal today may not seem that different to yesterday or last week but would probably have felt unprotective a year ago and might feel imprisoning in a year’s time.

Such a changing appreciation of what constitutes interference would operate rather like the improving ability of a mechanic to recognise the appropriate torques and tolerances pertaining to his work; or a musician’s growing awareness of how best to play her instrument; or a rider’s recognition of more subtle ways of communicating with a particular horse. Time and a certain quality of application seem to be the common denominators. It is as well to remember that although this process offers the potential for improvement, it is not necessarily going to do much more than simply lessen or arrest our ‘natural’ inclination to stay the way we are, unless we give it considerable attention. It is, after all, only the inverse of the same process, operating on an unconscious level, that caused us to lose our innate good use in the first place, and pulls most of us in that direction still.



Working on ourselves in this way can begin at any level of expertise. As soon as we have recognised, kinesthetically, some form of interference, we are no longer totally reliant on a mirror or a teacher’s instruction to tell us where we are going wrong. Until then, our ability to stop our automatic behaviour will remain limited, since our knowledge of what we arc doing as we decide to move or act, and as we actually do move or act, will hardly exist.

How could this be otherwise? Without mirrors, and knowledge of how to use them, or a teacher’s assistance, effective inhibition depends on kinesthetic appreciation of potential and actual interference. The only trouble with such an emphasis is when it gets wrongly interpreted – at all levels – as a suggestion to ‘feel things out’. Teachers warn, rightly, of becoming “Alexandroids”. Patrick Macdonald, in his book, The Alexander Technique As I See It, includes, under Z, in his index the entry: “Zombyism – to be abhorred.” Becoming increasingly aware of ourselves sensorily is not a question of memorising the feeling of what seemed ‘right’ and trying to ‘do’ it: it is rather a matter of recognising what is unnecessary and endeavouring not to do it. Perhaps Alexander should have the last word:

“The employment of inhibition calls for the exercise of memory and awareness, the former for remembering the procedures involved in the technique and the proper sequence in which they should be used, and the latter in the recognition of what is happening”.



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