Work alone

This was a response I made to an enquirer on the AlexTech forum asking if it was possible to learn the Technique without the aid of a teacher. It has many of the same ideas as, and formed the basis of, the Self-help article.


I’ve lived and taught (briefly) on an Indian Ocean island and I can well imagine how cut off you must feel. Still, there are compensations. As to what you can do by way of learning the Technique on your own, my advice is not to read too much on the subject, at least for the time being. You already have Alexander’s most concise book, and I would unhesitatingly recommend Frank Pierce Jones’Freedom to Change; but my early experience was that the more knowledgeable I became about the Technique (and I read all the books I could get my hands on), the less adroit I grew at applying it; and I had the – presumably – inestimable advantage of being able to take as many lessons as I chose.

The difficulty lay in my being clearly told by my teachers and in most of the literature that although the key to the Technique was not to stiffen my neck in response to stimuli, I mustn’t try and feel myself doing this; which led to much confusion and lack of progress. I no longer believe that was what Alexander meant by his repeated injunction to avoid ‘feeling’ things out; but I failed to appreciate at the time the essential difference between stopping doing what had begun to feel wrong and trying to do what felt right.

The only way for us to stop stiffening our necks in response to stimuli is to stop sending the relevant messages from our brains to our muscles; and the most expedient way, at least initially, for us to learn how to do that is to become kinesthetically aware of the consequences of those messages. In other words, until we feel what it is we are doing wrong, we will have little choice but to continue doing it.

Without an awareness of their kinesthetic effect any messages to stiffen our necks might just as well be being sent by another person for all the effect not wanting to send them will have on our behaviour. ‘Saying no’ while subconsciously declaiming yes is not going to get us anywhere.

So, C, I suggest you do the following. It’s just for starters, it may seem facile but it’s an interesting learning procedure, and it will provide something for you to work with. Sit somewhere, place the palm of one of your hands on the back of your neck (let it rest there like a poultice) and then decide to stand, while keeping your hand in place. You might stand quickly or slowly, in one movement or in stages; but pay close attention to what your hand is telling you is happening with your neck muscles.

Unless you’re markedly different from most I’ve run through this procedure with, there’ll be a palpable degree of activity in your neck out of all proportion to what needs to be going on to keep the head supported, and way more than you would normally be aware of. (Incidentally, you may perceive that this neck activity pulls your head backwards and down.)

Try this going from standing to sitting. Then repeat what you’ve just done, but rather than using your hand to measure the muscular activity in your neck, use your internal kinesthetic sense. Sit or stand normally, while paying attention to your neck. You’ll probably notice nothing, or else very little, going on there.

That in itself should be enough to clarify for you the enormous gulf between what you’re actually doing (pulling your head backwards and down) and what you think you’re doing (nothing untoward). If you run through this procedure often enough, you’ll gradually come to recognise unnecessary activity in your neck without needing verification from your hand. It will be going on most of the time, although it will be when sitting or standing that it is most noticeable.

All that is then required is for you to stop doing this. Stopping pulling your head backwards and down, which is the major prerequisite for it to go forwards and up, isn’t a discipline that comes about overnight; but there’s no reason for progress to be any slower than in other areas of learning.

There are loads of variations you can play around with on this same theme. You could move from sitting to standing, or standing to sitting, in stages, with a hand in place on the back of your neck, noticing at what point in the movement unnecessary tension starts to creep in. You could notice, too, whether this coincides with a tendency to lose your balance, or to stop breathing, or, indeed, to raise your shoulders and hollow your back, tightening in the stomach, groin and thighs, all of which are so common as to be almost endemic. However, learning to stand or sit – or do anything requiring a measure of effort – without tightening the neck unduly is the meat and drink of Alexander work.

Of course, this is no more than one way (Alexander used mirrors; video would be another option) of bringing home to those who don’t want or aren’t able to have lessons, the weird discrepancy between believing and feeling they’re doing nothing out of the ordinary and discovering they’re actually doing far more than they could have imagined; and hopefully enabling them to lessen that gap a little.

Here’s another trick I like to use in what I think of as more static situations. In other words, when you’re not doing anything much physically – sitting in front of a keyboard, for example – and there is no obvious stimulus you’re reacting to apart from the general flow of life; perhaps when you know you’ve got a stiff neck but you’re not aware of stiffening it.

You have to practice this once or twice to get the drift. Put one hand on the back of your head, as if you were checking out a haircut you’ve just had, and the other on your forehead, as if you were pondering great things. Now, using your hands as prime movers, gently rotate your head half way to where you would be able to look along the line of one shoulder, and then turn it back (switching hands if need be), so you’re doing the same on the other side.

As you do this, it’s good to think of your head rotating from a spot more or less midway between your ears, which is where the skull sits and turns on the two topmost vertebra. It also ‘rocks’ from this point; so, again using your hands, gently incline or nod your head an inch or two forwards (as if you were checking your shirt front for egg stains) and then tilt it the same amount backwards (that first step to looking at the stars).

Turn your head slowly back and forth, then nod and tilt it, a few times, paying as much attention as you can to allowing your hands rather than neck muscles to initiate the movement. Obviously, your neck muscles play their part, but you want the impression they are following rather than leading. Keep remembering that point between your ears.

Finally, return your head to its starting place, only this time, as you begin to apply gentle pressure with your hands to rotate towards the right or left, or to tilt forwards or backwards, use your neck muscles to resist the movement.

Don’t let this become a tug of war. A gentle inclination with the hands can be met by an equally gentle resistance. Maintain the pressure of your hands; then allow your head to be turned, or tilted, taking particular notice of what you ‘do’ to allow the movement that previously you had disallowed to now take place. That is the key moment, so pay attention to it.

Play around with this for a while, stopping and starting, noticing the difference between what you do muscularly to resist the urging of your hands and what you do to go along with it.

Now take your hands off your head, but pretend they are still there, trying to turn or tilt it. Initially, deny them the possibility. Let’s call that fixidity. Then, do whatever you did before that allowed your hands to turn or tilt your head, but this time without them being there and without you turning or tilting it yourself. We’ll call that poise. For as long as you choose poise – which is simply the absence of fixidity – you can be reasonably confident your head will be balanced rather than pressing down on the top of your spine. Whatever it may feel like – and it may feel no different to the way it usually does – this will affect you in more ways than you could imagine.

I suggest you work on the assumption that when you’re not consciously engaged in choosing poise you’ll almost certainly be subconsciously ensuring its opposite; that fixidity is your default mode for most of the hours of the day; and that when you’re doing anything remotely stressful you’ll be hard pressed to undo this. That way you won’t be too disappointed.

Practice this wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, whenever you can; but don’t make the mistake of moving your head to check it out. Apparent freedom of movement is of far less importance than the conditions underlying it. If you experiment, you’ll find it easy enough to simulate poise by moving your head while still resisting that movement; it just requires a bit more effort.

Making unnecessary effort is what most of us are doing, most of the time, without knowing it; and it is precisely the sort of internecine warfare involved when we consciously strive to overcome rather than inhibit subconscious habit (as in ‘trying’ to sit up straight) that the Technique is designed to circumvent.

You could also practice lying in semi-supine. I’m not a devotee of this but I think I might become one if I was in your situation. Essentially, it means lying on a firm surface (i.e., your floor rather than your bed) with the soles of your feet flat on the ground, hip width apart, the heels a foot or so in front of your buttocks, leaving your knees pointing upwards. Rest the palms of your hands on your front. Most importantly, place a goodish sized paperback book beneath your head.

The thickness of this book is important but obviously varies with the shape of a person’s head, how their neck muscles are, etc. One way of working out what to use is to stand with your back to a wall, your heels just away from the edge, your shoulders and bottom lightly touching it. Maintaining that position, reach behind you and gauge the distance between the back of your head and the wall. Add half an inch and use that amount for a very rough estimate of whether you need a slim Penguin classic, a larger James Clavell, or both. If you manage to lie in semi-supine for half an hour every day the results might surprise you.

Having said what I did earlier about not bothering to over read the available literature I should add that I was weaned on the older stuff – Wilfred Barlow, Frank Pierce Jones, Michael Gelb, Chris Stevens – and I have little knowledge of what’s been written since by people like Barbara Conable, Don Weed, Richard Brennon, John Gray, Jeremy Chance, etc. I imagine most modern books would have a helpful section on the intricacies – not that there are many, since the main difficulty is the discipline required to do it – of lying in semi-supine. My overall impression, though, is that beyond a certain point learning about the Technique is distinctly unhelpful when learning how to apply it, especially as most authors will assume your next step is to have a course of lessons.

If what I’ve said seems like gobbledegook to you, or you’re unclear in any way about what I’m suggesting, e-mail me and I’ll have another stab at explaining it.

Good luck.

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