Alexander men and women

I wrote this in 2001. I still feel much the same.

It was suggested there might:

"… be a fundamental difference between those who view the AT as a way of restoring "natural" use and functioning and those who believe the AT can take people on to the "next step" – producing (though not necessarily stated this explicitly) ‘Alexander men and women’."

A friend of mine went to a mutual appreciation meeting made up of roughly equal proportions of Feldenkries and Alexander teachers. As she entered the room, mildly apprehensive since she knew no one there, she found two groups sitting in opposite corners; one looked, as she put it, like any other collection of people; the other sat in a rather stiff, regimented fashion. Sadly, as she reported, she had no doubts where her allegiance lay.

It is a major quandary for Alexander students to know how to acquire better use without making an unnecessary and often counterproductive effort to do so. I’ve thought for some time that the main cause of this, and the main reason behind the widely held perception of our being somewhat two dimensional, is the use of the hands in teaching.

In an Alexander ‘chair lesson’, as soon as a teacher uses their hands, a student makes him or her self available to be moulded; and however subtle the touch, a sense of having been placed in a position is what will stay with them; and the feeling of it is what they will search out afterwards. Hence the stiffness. Whether such ‘modelling’ is overt or covert, it can feel like being cacooned in a state of implied perfection, from which it is difficult to emerge. Having emerged, it is equally difficult to know how to satisfactorily replicate the conditions that led to it.

I believe this use of the hands, whether in the form of direct manipulation, indirect guidance or barely perceptible suggestion, fosters a far from ideal learning environment that supports the development of contrived "Alexander men and women" at the expense of the restoration of their "natural use and functioning".

Far less is ostensibly taught, or learned, during an Alexander ‘couch session’; but, paradoxically, natural use and functioning are more likely to benefit because of this. Given the relative passivity of the situation, and the emphasis on direction rather than position, a teacher’s hands will be working on a level most students are unlikely to be able to conceive of, let alone attempt to emulate in their day to day behaviour.

Many teachers currently utilise both approaches, some favouring one over the other; but neither conveys the principles of the Technique particularly well. Giving students new kinesthetic experiences in movement is an irresistible invitation for them to copy those movements later, with unfortunate consequences; having muscular change elicited on your behalf, while remaining studiously recumbent, teaches little in the way of conscious control.

If Alexander work continues developing, it will presumably suffer (or enjoy) a series of splits. The predominant strand, currently accommodating those who teach primarily with their hands and already divided along factional lines, is likely to further separate into increasingly disparate active and passive threads. Meanwhile, it is certain the numbers who teach the Technique other than by touch will grow apace.

What constitutes the "real" Alexander Technique is difficult to say. It may be it is a subtle mixture of hands on and off; but such equipoise is rare in practice. STATs recent claiming of the supposed middle ground is an understandable attempt to establish their dominant position, especially in Britain, where an open letter has gone out to all concerned from a separate organisation calling itself the Professional Association of Alexander Teachers, championing a centrally co-ordinated, closely monitored, formulaic hands-on discipline. At the other extreme, David Gorman, whose LearningMethods is resolutely hands-off, and makes no reference to any notion of a Primary Control, has disassociated himself from the practice of the Technique altogether.

Having long believed that extremes in understanding and teaching the principle handed down to us by Alexander would become more and more varied the further in time we got from that source, and that this would inevitably spawn numerous definitions, conflicting claims, considerable misrepresentation, huge variations in teaching skills, and much confusion for potential students, but also wonderful insights in the field of control and reaction, I think we should welcome these developments.

We only have to take a look at what has grown out of Freud’s initial work (regardless of his current standing) to realise where such things lead. Alexander Lowen’s Bioenergetics and David Burns’ Cognitive Therapy may seem world’s apart and yet they address similar problems and have undeniable common ground and could be said to have the same origins in Vienna. In between these two extremes there probably lie as many approaches to psychological well being as there are current Alexander teachers.

Anyone experiencing such problems today may feel they have too many options when it comes to where to go for help; but I would rather that than be restricted, as in the case of ‘use’, to one or two orthodoxy’s. I equate the traditional Alexander course of many lessons – the more the better – with traditional psychoanalysis. It never seems to end. Although Freud’s insights weren’t necessarily wrong, his method left much to be desired, not least in terms of time and expense. I think we could say the same about Alexander.

It is worth remembering, that just as changes can occur, when learning the Technique, in areas not appearing to have anything to do with use, so use itself can change without ever needing to be considered an issue, and certainly without reference to the Technique.

During the first term of the second year of my training course, our common tendency as students – straining to become longer and wider – was particularly evident in one of us because of his angular physique and the greater amount of effort he was putting into getting the most he could out of the course. Working with him was like rearranging differently shaped and sized pieces of immaculately hinged, rigidly controlled body mass. It would have been funny had we not all secretly known we were much the same.

When this student told us he was going to do a weekend workshop with a group called "Life Training", which lasted a day and a half and had the theme of "sexuality", we rather superciliously brushed it off, knowing he was going through a tricky period with his girlfriend and hoping it would help him in that respect.

The following Monday morning, when he entered the room, the mien of intensity he usually carried about him had vanished, to be replaced by a soft, compassionate glow. He looked so wonderful, I was stricken with envy; but I consoled myself with the knowledge that this must be a superficial change.

As the morning progressed, it became clear that he had undergone a transformation, not simply in his inner state, but in everything affected by it. For most of us, this was a withering realisation. Here we were, a year and a bit into an intensive learning process purporting to show us not only how to use ourselves for the best but to teach others to do the same; and we were more tied up in knots of confusion than we had been at the outset. Now, one of our number, who three days earlier had been who we all looked to as the frozen warning of an extreme we mustn’t, under any circumstances, become, had changed into the most entrancing example of balance, suppleness, and ease. Sitting or standing, he remained effortlessly poised. He was effervescent; he sparkled with conviviality; and what was most irritating, he was clearly making no conscious effort to be any of these things.

Putting our hands on him on that and subsequent mornings seemed utterly pointless. We said as much, openly. I remember our raised arms dropping back to our sides. His use had, over the course of a single weekend and without the slightest reference on either his or the workshop participants’ part that it should do so, become faultless. We, by comparison, looked like tailor’s dummies; we acted charmlessly; we moved, sounded and came across almost as a separate species.

Needless to say, the effect didn’t last; but it lasted long enough – months rather than weeks – for us not really to notice how it was gradually fading; until, one day, probably in the third term of our second year, we started referring wistfully to "the way he had been", not meaning when he had first come on the course, but when he had first come back after that weekend experience.

We all consoled ourselves at the time with the knowledge that what we were gaining was an understanding of a more lasting nature; and because we believed we were becoming conscious of how we were bringing changes in ourselves about, that seemed undeniably more valuable than any sudden transformations.

Now, more than ten years later, I have little doubt this relatively short lived metamorphosis was that of a "natural" man coming into his own; and that the rest of us, whose ranks he rejoined shortly afterwards, were "new Alexander men and women" in the making; and that the wisdom of our choosing rationality over whatever it was that had brought the transformation about remains distinctly questionable.

Strangely enough, years before this, my mother had gone through a similarly radical change. Almost overnight, her entire demeanour became that of an altogether different person to the one I had grown up with. I was sixteen when this happened and unaware of the concept of use; but what was unmistakable was the sudden disappearance of the stiffness that had dogged her physically, and an absence of the distance and reserve that had always seemed integral parts of her character.

Although the "natural" woman who emerged was in many ways extremely attractive – my father kept talking about his second honeymoon – she was initially difficult for everyone in our family to cope with. We all hoped and expected the phenomena would quickly pass. In fact, it continued for more than two years, and my mother never fully returned to ‘normal’. Instead, as we grew used to her in her ‘new’ guise, so the ‘old’ person partially resurfaced, until, eventually, the two became one, and a happy compromise resulted, for which we were all grateful.

I mention this because my mother neither went to a Life Training workshop nor had Alexander lessons, nor ever thought she needed to change. She simply visited Africa on holiday, was bitten by a mosquito, and got malaria.

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