Lessons and learning

My main quibble with the traditional approach to teaching the Alexander Technique, which is predominantly hands on, is the dependence it appears to foster in students, which can make for a lengthy and problematic learning process. At least, it did with me; although not everyone responds in this way.

My overriding impression from the initial course of lessons I had – and from subsequent ‘turns’ – was one of ‘being put right’. I don’t mean to imply I was handled roughly, or moved against my will, or anything like that; but I would say the emphasis throughout the learning process was on me experiencing ‘correct action’, rather than on experiencing what was preventing that action from taking place. Borrowing Alexander’s phrase, “If you stop the wrong thing, the right thing does itself”, it seemed to me my lessons concentrated almost exclusively on the right thing happening, with little or none of my attention (that is, my conscious attention) being drawn towards stopping the wrong thing.

Presumably, each teacher who worked with me will have had a clear notion of what the wrong thing was, and will have endeavoured, through the use of their hands, to circumvent it, so I, and they, could be rewarded with an experience of the right thing. Very, very rarely did we stop short of these experiences in order to pay close attention to what I was actively, but unknowingly, yet repeatedly, doing to prevent them coming about, habitually.

Whether these experiences were ‘given’ to me or whether I was ‘encouraged’ to have them is a moot point. I wouldn’t say I ‘chose’ to have them, but I certainly offered no resistance, or less resistance than usual, to the suggestion that I ‘might’. In other words, I willingly cooperated with my teachers to bring them about; but I hardly knew, as I accommodated myself to the indications and directional nuances I sensed from their hands, what it was I was no longer doing, by way of interference, that was contributing to this. Overall, thinking back, what I remember most clearly is the impression I had of being ‘moulded in movement’, so I ended up a different shape and with different frictional and gravitational relationships with the ground, the chair, the teacher’s hands, and the various parts of myself; but with not much idea how any of that had come about.

So, I was left, after each lesson, with an overwhelming impression of what was considered right, which felt great, but not much idea of what I had been doing wrong, and would no doubt continue to do wrong – even if a little less avidly, after each lesson – to prevent the right thing from happening when I was alone. This left me highly susceptible to trying to feel out, or rediscover, the right thing, the results of which I wore like an ill fitting suit. I know I was not alone in this, as I’d seen enough evidence of Alexander ‘tailoring’ to realise it is a major drawback to this way of teaching. Yet, it’s hardly surprising. If I found it difficult to grasp what I was doing wrong in the circumstances of a lesson, how could I hope to stop doing it elsewhere, in order to let the right thing do itself, without the manual guidance I was used to; and how could I resist trying to do the right thing myself, after so many repeated experiences of it?

I did a fair amount of reading during this time, and I realised what I was being taught was not what Alexander had learned. As I understood it, he tried to help people do what he had done, but got so frustrated with their progress he resorted to the expedient of using his hands. And so the Technique came about.

My primary interest, then as now, was in applying what I was learning to my life, so I could be independent of my teachers. I eventually figured out my own way to do this, which, I felt, happened despite rather than because of having further lessons. Certainly, people can learn – at least a measure of – what Alexander taught himself, without having to go to a teacher, at all; or if they do go to a teacher, without having to be taught in the traditional fashion.

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