Conscious Control

This was originally published in Direction magazine.

What happens when "Alexander hands" are put on a horse, as Jeremy Chance describes in Direction Volume 2 No 1? This must be a matter of interest for anyone who has ever wondered what it was they were teaching.

The question is essentially one of control. In Alexandrian terms, it is only by exercising conscious control over the process of inhibition and direction that we can let go of subconscious control, or habit, in order to liberate the primary control. In the case of a horse, who, or what, allows any of this to happen?

Most of us accept the operation of the primary control is the same for all vertebrates, and that it functions reflexly. The thought processes and habit patterns of animals in the wild are essential for survival and are unlikely to interfere with a response system that has evolved alongside them. The kinesthetic sense exists to ensure this, and in the absence of special circumstances, can be assumed to be reliable.

The primary control isn’t exclusively muscular, any more than the mental impulses that activate it occur only in the brain. In this respect, the facculties of an animal in the wild will form a harmonious unity. Such a creature may think, and feel, but not to the extent of losing sensory contact with itself or its world. It is a problem to know how to describe this state of uninterrupted relatedness of mind, body and environment, other than as animal consciousness.

Animal consciousness is our birthright, too, whose original enjoyment becomes increasingly stifled by our denying ourselves ready access to it through the activity of what we call, confusingly, the conscious. The notions of a subconscious and unconscious result from this. Lacking such distinctions, animals can’t claim any sort of control over their reactions to stimuli other than that provided by fully reliable senses. It is on such a basis that we assume they operate unconsciously, and that unlike us, they have no freedom of choice; but this may only mean they are unable to chose to go wrong.

If an animal is domesticated, as most horses are, its primary control will already be constrained, with the nature and extent of that constraint determining the future unreliability of its kinesthetic sense. This will have been caused by the hiving off of part of its original consciousness into something resembling a subconscious, to accomodate whatever unnatural behaviour it has been required to learn, with any embryonic "conscious" acting in deference to that of its human overseer; and a lapse into relative unconsciousness for whatever associated portion of the primary control has become subdued.

If such a horse then "goes wrong", it will be further affected on all levels by increasingly harmful habit patterns disabling the free operation of the primary control and diminishing recognition and awareness of the sense mechanism on which that operation depends. This would be evident to the horse in physical and mental dissatisfaction and to those who knew it as poor functioning and perhaps being out of sorts.

If, as Jeremy reports, Alexander hands were able to restore something to a horse that was recognisable to a vet, presumably on a physical level, it would be odd if something did not happen at the same time mentally. This might be less obvious to an onlooker, but both phenomena would appear to the horse as the restitution of a lost part of its original consciousness.

Alexander hands certainly work on humans in a way that circumvent any requirement for them to knowingly inhibit and direct, even while that process is going on. In fact, it has been suggested that a pupil’s ability to discern a teacher’s intention, in order that they may learn to "leave themselves alone" satisfactorily during a lesson, constitutes a form of control every bit as effective, and possibly no less conscious, for not having been thought out.

It is unlikely that a horse could leave itself alone – and for any benefit to be obtained, that is what it must do – without a similar awareness of what the situation requires, and some control over it. In order for the hands to speak through the musculature, and in so far as the musculature is influenced, for the rest of the organism to become affected, that organism, whether animal or human, must be at least willing.

Such willingness on the recipient’s part would be both a reflection of the underlying urge of the primary control to reassert itself and a recognition that Alexander hands were helping with this. Neither of these need be articulated, nor necessarily formulated in any communicable way, but to come to any sort of fruition, they would have to be acknowledged.

However, leaving the self alone is not the same as being able to "look after" it. Gains can be made in functioning, with increases in consciousness, and weakening of habit patterns, through accomodation to a teacher’s initiative; but unless it is known why or how change is occuring, even though some form of individual check over subconscious reaction is what allows it to happen, it is unlikely to recur without the further assistance of Alexander hands. Constructive conscious control of the individual cannot mean getting out of the way in order to allow someone else to do the work for you.

A pupil, in responding, however ably, to the purpose behind a teacher’s hands, is abnegating responsibility. As soon as they are alone, the intention for the rehabilitation of the primary control, which was provided for them, and can only become their own, as it did for their teacher, through self-knowledge, will be lacking; and they are left as dependant on subconscious reaction as before.

This is not to imply they are necessarily worse off than their more knowing colleagues, at least during lessons; although whether Alexander hands would work better, or simply differently, or even less well, if the recipient was capable of inhibiting and directing at their own discretion, is difficult to say. Nor is it any easier to know how well those hands would work, if at all, without that same ability – assumed to be present in Jeremy’s case – on the part of the teacher.

What is certain is that independant conscious control requires, above all else, intention imbued with knowledge; this can’t be acquired by osmosis, and only comes about if a specific process is learned and a decision repeatedly made to put it into practice. At a stretch, a well trained horse might pick up something resembling this, but once alone, it would be as unlikely to decide to attend to it, or its use generally, as it would be to practice dressage movements when its rider wasn’t present.

Autonomy of this sort is inconceivable for animals; but it is precisely their lack of the uniquely human faculty allowing it – which creates the problem of faulty sensory appreciation in the first place – that should make them need it least. For animals in the wild, there is neither interference, nor any means of stopping it; whereas the extent of our potential for conscious control reveals how far we, and by association the creatures we misuse, have gone wrong.

Alexander’s original purpose was to encourage others to learn what he had. The use of hands was only a means to this end. He saw his technique as an evolutionary step forward, and deplored any suggestion of returning to the way things had been; but at the same time he emphasised our need to allow our organism to function as nature intended. His legacy shines in his writings; but sometimes today’s reality seems little more than palliative, helping counteract the worst effects of the over-development of the human brain, while their underlying cause remains unaddressed.

Without wanting to eulogise the lives of animals, it is clear that in their natural state they need us, and our Alexander hands, far less than we need them. For those that are domesticated, the results of our ministrations, given willingness on their part, should be little different from any other recipient: an improvement in functioning with a commeasurate increase in consciousness and its enjoyment, at the heart of which would be a less interfered with primary control; but not, and in the absence of any detailed explanation or instruction, not even for humans, any accurate understanding of how this happened, nor any means of ensuring it happening in the future.

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”.



In the zone

I wrote this after reading a newspaper report proclaiming how rarely even highly accomplished sportsmen and women experienced the sublimity of life “in the zone”

I talk to them, and find that they want nothing to make them the happiest people in the world, but the knowledge that they are so.

From the (seventeenth-century) letters of Dorothy Osborne.

I first came across this expression when I read a newspaper report of a tennis match during which the contestants, for short periods, played so sublimely they were considered to be "in the zone". This was described as a state of mind and body that few ordinary mortals could aspire to, during which the play, and the interaction between the two players, flowed so apparently effortlessly, and yet so flawlessly, it defied analysis.

Strangely enough, I felt I recognised an approximation of this state, not only from my own casual and infrequent tennis games, but other activities too. Far from being a phenomenon limited to sport professionals, it seemed to me it was available to anyone, anytime, since it was so clearly dependent on a particular balance of attention.

The state is widely recognised, but is generally considered to occur haphazardly, in unusual circumstances, when certain conditions are right conditions which supposedly can’t be forecast. It would seem at its most prevalent when events conspire to flood the senses, creating an acute awareness of what is going on, with at its centre ourselves, but leaving no spare attention for extraneous thought.

Presumably, this is why finding ourselves in the zone is relatively common during sport or adventure, when extremes are the norm; or else in unique circumstances, which demand our full attention. In semiautomatic living, which is what we are engaged in most of the time, awareness of ourselves and our surroundings is minimal and our minds are largely on other questions. For complex matters, we tend to concentrate, narrowing our attention and excluding even more from awareness. Only on special occasions or for truly demanding tasks, it seems, do we really come alive.

Although we will recognise when we are in this state, which is essentially one of direct sensory perception, and enjoy it while it lasts, we can only reflect on it and consider what it means once it is over. This is because, in order for it to happen at all, our normal train of thought must first have stopped. Most times, the condition ends prematurely, as soon as we start wondering how long it will go on for.

The exceptional nature of these experiences for humans is directly related to their infrequency and short duration. Unfortunately, the more out of the ordinary they seem, the more paltry by comparison we have to admit the rest of our lives are. If we were able to spend more of our time like this, it might be less immediately thrilling, but there would be a sense of heightened awareness overall.

It must be assumed that animals live in a version of the zone most of the time. Clearly, they neither enjoy the reflective pleasure we do in considering it exceptional, which for them it is not, nor suffer the problem of this knowledge precipitating its end. We are almost certainly born that way, too; but we quickly learn to leave the world of sensory experience behind, relegating it to relative unawareness, in order to concentrate on other aspects of our growing and evolving minds.

Although we call this process "becoming conscious", without its distracting influence it is difficult to imagine any animal behaving with less consciousness than us. All too often we are consumed with reflections and abstractions that are far removed from what we are doing, leaving us functioning like automatons. A horse grazing in a field is unlikely to be wishing it was somewhere else, or planning tomorrow; it knows where it is and what it is about, in the absence of any convincing reason not to.

Whether we subscribe to the view that animals are conscious in a way we once were but now can only aspire to, or we are conscious in a way animals can never be, the human faculty for higher forms of thought is what separates us from their world absolutely. These higher forms are essentially language based. Without the ability to conceptualise linguistically, we would find it as difficult as animals undoubtedly do to string more than two or three consecutive thoughts together.

Animals certainly think, very probably in the same predominantly pictorial, auditory, tactile ways we do; but they lack an inner voice to put these imaginings into context. Consequently, they cannot think about things in the abstract fashion we are used to; only of them, in the sense of something beyond their immediate perception becoming the focus of their attention. We call the animal inability to function at our multifarious level mindlessness, and deplore it, while at the same time hankering after the tranquility we believe it brings and commiserating with ourselves for having lost that.

If we accept evolution, this ability of ours must have been acquired gradually, enabling us to leave the animal world by stages; so that any rare instances of it in the earliest days will have seemed as extraordinary, because so vastly different, as their absence does now. The continuation of this learning process would probably have found us, at some point in time, uniformly at home both in our ability to consider ourselves and our world separately, and to experience them directly.

If today we were able to stop such thinking at will, for as long as we wanted, in order to enter more fully into whatever we were doing, and then start it again when we needed to, in order to consider and manipulate our environment, we might find we were not only happier and healthier, but also, being less neurotic, considering and manipulating that environment differently. As a result, our world could be a more pleasant place to live in.

Unfortunately, we seem to have managed to progress from the animal state, with its complete absence of what we understand as conscious thought, to our present day human state, where it is practically unceasing, without remembering how we got there. This blanket weight of cognition doesn’t alter the fact that a blueprint for living in the realm of direct sensory experience remains as much at our centre as it ever did, just as it does for all sentient creatures.

Accidental entry to this realm, which is what most humans have to rely on, seems to hinge on the creation and filling of a momentary vacuum, either when demanding circumstances silence our internal voice sufficiently to force a more immediate attention upon us; or when circumstances are so unusual we are transported by a radically changed perception.

What appears to happen at such moments is that one or more of our senses is suddenly overwhelmed and our questioning brain stops in its tracks, impressions flood in through every other sense and we become vibrantly alive. What triggers this is often something we are used to but suddenly see, hear, taste, smell or feel, as if for the first time. Standing in a garden on a beautiful day can organise our attention for us in this fashion. Bob sleighing, mountaineering, anything with an element of danger to it, will do the same, as will more prosaic activities requiring, or being given, our unconditional attention, just so long as we are sufficiently competent at them to avoid the necessity of having to consider, or think about, what we are doing.

It is in this state that cricketers are said to see the ball like a football and racing drivers claim if they were to reflect on their actions they would crash. Of course, they would need to have honed their inborn or acquired skill before any experience of it could be expected to be sublime; but they would also need to know how not to let undue reliance on technique prevent that sublimity from occuring.

Although such moments usually occur haphazardly, they should be more open to conscious emulation for most of us, even in stable circumstances, than a continual search for new or increasingly demanding challenges. One obvious way of experiencing life more fully is to behave as though each moment is our first, or last. This is what animals do, unknowingly, since they have little conception of a linear past or future; and it need be no pretence for us to do the same. All that is needed is for us to stop serial thought, even if only momentarily.

Unfortunately, trying to do this by an effort of will can amount to a severer repression of underlying sentience than that caused by such thinking itself. The alternative is for us to work directly at reopening our senses. Sensory perception, including proprioception, is what ultimately determines responses to stimuli, and is our interface with the world. In this case, there is no need to do anything, other than take in what is already present. It is unnecessary for us to try and stop our train of thought when that happens: it simply ceases to exist.

Knowing how to reopen our senses may seem a problem, but a far greater one lies in remembering to do so. Most of us would be astounded if we took the trouble to try this. Naturally, we would have difficulty getting through our days if we did not continue to exclude vast quantities of information from consciousness. It is only when we do this all the time, even while wanting not to, that it becomes inappropriate.

Wanting to stop thinking might seem to be in opposition to the spirit of Alexander work; but there is an essential difference between the sort of thought that enables us to organise our lives through the forming of intentions and the sort that allows us to experience life while holding those intentions in mind.

Thinking about something involves a complex series of imaginative processes; thinking of it can include one or more of these same processes, but in conjunction rather than succession. If, for example, we think of our front door, an image of it is all we are likely to be aware of; but as soon as we think about it, we may remember it lets in draughts, needs painting, squeaks on being opened, and is the entrance to a house we haven’t finished paying for.

Any intention to deal with these problems, or to behave in a particular way in another area of life, would itself be a thought of, rather than about, a plan of action. Although we can fulfill an intention while thinking about it – or of or about something else – it will be at the expense of our awareness, and probably the effectiveness, of what we are doing. If we want to maintain consciousness of our actions, which in its fullest sense would include consciousness of both where (our environment) and how (the "means whereby") we are carrying them out, we must avoid superfluous thought.

The same principle applies if we want to prevent the Alexandrian intent behind "thinking in activity" detracting from our enjoyment of that activity. As soon as we find ourselves considering, rather than experiencing, the process of inhibition and direction as it relates to life, it will no longer be a beneficial influence on our use so much as the cause of our lapsed attention.

For as long as that attention remains constant, and sufficiently widespread for us to be conscious of both where and how we are as well as what we are doing, we can expect a sharpening of perception generally. Because our senses are a unified whole rather than isolated mechanisms, the validity of what we feel kinesthetically will be matched by whatever we see, hear or touch. This should enable us, regardless of the actual state of our sensory appreciation, to enjoy an integrated consciousness. In other words, we will find ourselves in the zone

For those of us unfamiliar with Alexander work it is probable that by emphasising the direct experience of life through all our senses their gradual rehabilitation – including that of proprioception – will happen naturally. It would be unsuprising if this was the case, since a tendency towards homeostasis must exist; and if thinking about life is what has so disabled us for a proper appreciation of it, stopping that by returning our senses to consciousness should cause their reliablity to fall back into line.

Since such a process would also work in reverse, anyone enjoying the improving kinesthesia Alexander lessons promote could expect a commensurate quickening of their other senses. Even without lessons, by virtue of its insistence on our paying attention now, to as much that is going on as possible, the Technique would still constitute an invaluable discipline for anyone wanting to spend more of their time "in the zone".


This was a my contribution to a debate on the AlexTech forum questioning the validity of an approach known as Therapeutic Touch.


I don’t know what Therapeutic Touch is but I would say the phrase itself, without the capital letters, is expressive of something that happens to most of us on a daily basis. I have a wife and children: we touch each other a lot; this is definitely therapeutic. We also have two cats, who may be mysteriously selective about the approaches they make, but whose contact almost invariably leaves us feeling better. I even have chickens in the back garden who sidle up against me and to whom I respond in kind with a brief bit of feather stroking.

Such touch is presumably therapeutic without meaning to be. Formulated touch, as I suppose Therapeutic Touch must be, might work less well for being partially contrived. Evaluated touch, as in any testing of TT, would be so bound up with other concerns – primarily, success or failure – it might not have any effect at all; but we should hardly be surprised, nor necessarily dismissive of its value, if it doesn’t.

Why do we touch other people, or animals, anyway? I think the short answer is, we do it out of love, in order to connect. Leaving the question of TT behind, I have always found the most unfortunate aspect of the Alexander Technique to be the use of the hands. This is so fraught with problems, I’m surprised Alexander pursued it, particularly as he had taught himself in quite a different way.

The main problem with touching is that any instructive quality in the teacher’s hands (along with any facility for learning in the student) gets mixed up with and runs the risk of being overwhelmed by the extraordinarily powerful human instinct to connect on a non-instructive level through the same means. The result is that during a typical Alexander lesson far more is likely to be happening than meets the eye, or the hands, of even (or particularly) the most experienced teacher.

It is this aspect of what we do, largely without intending to, that we have no explanation for and occasionally go so far as to deny the existence of. Of course, it is actually not a part of our work at all but only the inevitable consequence of teaching manually. I believe this fosters a number of ills, amongst them an inordinate dependence on fresh imput from a teacher, leading to an extension of the learning process to sometimes farcical lengths; a craven subservience to the wisdom of the hands that often seems to result in a freakish parady of good use; and of course the widespread notion that our work is something that is administered rather than learned.

I don’t think there’s much point as Alexander teachers trying to explain what happens (other than what we intend) when we touch each other in a way that is professionally okay because it’s a learning situation but that is undeniably intimate in the sense that it’s to everyone’s advantage to be less than ordinarily defensive; but I do think we should accept the common ground we have with all other "hands-on" approaches, particularly the less active sort. We may think their explanation for what they do is ludicrous – it may well be – but that doesn’t mean the consequences of their touch won’t still be far greater than they – or we – will be able to understand.

None of this need matter to us as Alexander teachers if we could only learn to stop using our hands. Whether some invisible force or energy passes to and fro between people when they touch would become supremely irrelevant from the point of view of learning inhibition and direction if we could devise new ways of teaching what is, with all due respect to Alexander’s psychophysical whole, primarily a mental discipline.

I believe for this reason reports of the work of those such as David Gorman who, even if he no longer claims to teach the Technique, looks to remain far closer to Alexandrian principles than any "hands-on" approach I can think of, should be warmly welcomed, if only to encourage others to investigate and experiment in their turn.


Work on the self

This was written as a contribution for a projected issue of Direction magazine on the same subject.

The purpose of the Alexander Technique is to improve, at the same time as making more conscious, individual sensory appreciation, in order for the Primary Control – the relationship between our head, neck and back – to function more freely.

Although lessons from a teacher are the traditional means of bringing this about, Alexander never had any. He taught himself; and without necessarily suggesting we should do as he did, it certainly ought to be possible, as part of the learning process, for us to consolidate, or build on, benefits already gained during lessons.

How we might do this, and the way we perceive those benefits, depends largely on how we are taught. Insofar as learning the Technique hinges on our feeling kinesthetically wrong while receiving objective evidence to the contrary, Alexander’s way of working in front of mirrors is largely replicated by our ways of working with teachers. Through the provision of objective feedback, our initially false sensory impressions are gradually made more reliable.

This can only take place under artificial conditions, with our immediate ends in temporary abeyance. In everyday life, we can’t realistically abandon those ends, or doubt the veracity of our senses; but we can expect to progress, via lessons, from an original dependence on a kinesthesia that is largely hidden from us, and demonstrably faulty, to an increasingly conscious reliance on, as Alexander puts it, "a new sensory observation of the use of (our)selves".

That Alexander recognised a potential discrepancy between the need, during the learning process, for disassociation from the kinesthetic sense, and the desirability, in daily life, of association with it, is clear from his statement: "I wish it to be understood that throughout my writings I use the term conscious guidance and control to indicate primarily a plane to be reached rather than a method of reaching it".

This suggests he considered the formal procedure of working in front of mirrors, when he learned to disregard his kinesthesia in order to retrain it, and the various ways he devised for imparting the same principle to pupils, as distinct from, and a preparation for, the informal process of relying on that kinesthesia during everyday life while "thinking in activity".

For the average pupil, who only ever has a relatively short course of lessons, it may not matter how, or even whether, they are taught to work on their own (formally), so long as they are left with some (informal) awareness of what they are doing wrong, and some means of preventing it. Students and teachers, if they are to live up to their name, cannot afford to be so sanguine, however much they may feel their sensory appreciation has improved as a result of training.

In fact, the more that improvement can be attributed to the hands of others, the more they will need to know, once they are alone, how to consolidate and extend their understanding of themselves, if they are not to lose what they have gained. This is done largely informally, but in order to verify what is happening, an element of formal work would be necessary. If teachers prefer to rely for feedback on lessons from their peers, it will be at the expense of an incestuous dependence, however much insight may be gained, with what constitutes independent formal work becoming increasingly unclear the more rarely it is practised.

Any teacher who focuses exclusively on informal work runs the risk of their sensory appreciation regressing. This will begin innocuously enough, when something known to be wrong passes unnoticed so often it feels right; but the tendency, in a continued absence of objective feedback, will persist, particularly affecting those whose use has improved over the years, through hands-on work, without much conscious knowledge of how the changes came about.

It is unfortunate so few teachers openly acknowledge the importance of work on the self, or even recognise the phenomena exists. Although there is widespread willingness in the Alexander world to discuss different teaching approaches and styles, it is rare to find much in the way of explanation as to what lies behind them, still less how any degree of self-learning can be expected to take place.

The simple need is for teachers to be precise about what they themselves do, or whether they do anything at all; and not to assume the jargon they use necessarily means the same for others as it does for them. Difficult as it may seem to put any Alexander experience into words, the processes involved, if they are not to be thought haphazard, ought to be capable of being described.

To find out how teachers, students and pupils approached this subject, I devised a questionnaire. I realised it would be uncomfortable to complete, since it asked members of the Alexander community to put into words what they had so far, with the notable exception of Joe Armstrong, failed to touch on in their numerous articles, letters and books; but I still hoped I might discover a little of what they thought, and whether there was anything approaching a consensus of opinion on the subject.

I asked how people worked on themselves; and whether, and in what way, they used mirrors. I wondered how they inhibited, and if they differentiated between directing and ordering. I wanted to know whether teachers encouraged pupils or students to work on their own; and if this encouragement was considered adequate.

It would have been interesting to discover the practical difficulties encountered; how it was easiest to go wrong, or have a false impression of progress; whether it seemed possible to advance more readily alone than through having lessons.

Most of all, I would have liked to know how much importance was attached to the objective viewpoint normally provided by a teacher, and in Alexander’s case, by mirrors, in enabling someone to go from "the known to the unknown"; and whether it was thought this feedback was otherwise available.

I sent out enough questionnaires to have had something approaching a representative sample had they all been returned, but few were. I don’t consider this lack of response a failure; in a way, it is the most eloquent reply I could have had. It suggests, not that the questions were unanswerable, but that even fewer people than I had thought were able, or willing, to answer them.

In the absence of any new understanding, I reconsidered my own short history of working on myself. Prior to training, I had no real idea this was possible, never mind desirable. I had heard of inhibition and direction, and thought I understood them, as concepts; but I was more concerned with the aftermath of lessons, which were given in relative silence, and how I could maintain their effect, than with how I might recreate it for myself.

My training course was unusual in that it involved long periods set aside for work on the self. Trainees were advised to do what Alexander did, though it was understood we should find out what that was for ourselves. In the simplest terms, I learned to give myself a stimulus to move but to refuse to respond to it, to then order or direct, and finally to move. I carried on in this vein for about a year, until it dawned on me, following a re-reading of The Use of the Self, that I was failing to do what Alexander suggested.

Not only was I relying on mirrors, when I used them at all, for little more than preening purposes, I was glossing over the "critical moment" Alexander took pains to emphasise had made the difference between success and failure. I now saw, while working on myself, I had to be prepared, whatever I might initially have decided, to abandon my original plan, and do something else, or nothing, instead.

The problem was, I seemed to divine in advance what this would be, finding myself, time and again, going through the wearying charade of dreaming up a stimulus, refusing to respond to it, giving directions, and finally "reconsidering", only to discover, in a sort of belated, knee-jerk way, that I had either lost track of what was going on, had already moved, or had long ago decided to stay where I was.

Just as problematic as where and how I directed my attention was the difficulty I had in remembering with any constancy to direct it at all. Sometimes, I would catch myself, after setting out on a procedure designed to last a matter of seconds, emerging fifteen minutes later from a long, drawn out fantasy, to almost immediately, as I negotiated my way back to the present, begin wondering how long it was till the coffee break.

Without exaggeration, out of all the hours set aside on the training course for the purpose of working on myself, I must have wasted four fifths daydreaming, while still assiduously going through the motions of standing, sitting, or raising an arm.

Luckily, what I eventually found, and still find, far more interesting than a formal approach that even now, when I try it, seems more soporific than liberating, is the informal business of living with a sensed awareness of, and reliance on, current conditions. From that angle, the Alexander Technique is every bit as exciting as I had always hoped, but could never be quite sure, and frequently doubted until well into my training course, it would turn out to be.

The drawback was, this seemed to become mine not as a result of any diligence I had shown at formal work, nor of all the lessons I had received over the years, but as the seemingly accidental offshoot of having to learn to pay attention to myself while teaching. To my surprise, I discovered the background awareness I was left with, once I became committed to noticing what I was doing as well as the way I was doing it, far from being the poor relation of the "method" I had thought I was being taught, was itself the elusive "plane to be reached".

It wasn’t that I didn’t know this was supposed to happen – in theory, at any rate. The awareness Alexander talked of as being the basis of conscious guidance and control seemed to me when I first read about the Technique, and still does seem, paramount; yet it took me an inordinately long time to experience. This was partly because I anticipated something falling from heaven, or else having to be cultivated by myself; but when it was as obvious as learning to pay attention, all I really needed was to be told where and how to direct it.

If a teacher fails to articulate a role for a pupil to play other than responding to their hands, that pupil’s understanding of inhibition and direction will be limited to a kinesthetic memory. Such memories epitomised my early experience of the Technique. The converse is also true, when undue emphasis on giving orders or directions at the expense of the kinesthetic observation on which inhibition ultimately depends, can lead to cerebral isolation. This is what I later suffered from.

Long after the average pupil, not faced with the prospect of having to consider their use for professional purposes, not even if they were as steeped as I was in the intricacies of Alexander’s procedure for learning to do so, would have called it a day, I finally woke up!

I didn’t want my pupils to follow the route I had. It seemed important that they shouldn’t equate carrying out a mental procedure in order to produce a changed physical state, or even their later enjoyment of that state – rather than the experience of an existing state differently – with conscious guidance and control.

Despite this, I still believed I needed to be able to work on myself in a formal way, especially after leaving the training course, if I was to maintain, and possibly improve, the standards I had become used to. I felt it would be unrealistic to expect to subsist for the rest of my life on the work of the previous three years. I also wanted to be able to advise my pupils, even after a fraction of the number of lessons I had had, how they might become independent.

The trouble was, any of the more usual ways put forward as useful for the purposes of formal work ignore the fact that unless a teacher is present, or mirrors are being used knowledgeably, existing sensory appreciation will have to be relied on. Since it is on the discrepancy between what we feel is happening and what is verifiably the case that such work depends, following these procedures is more likely to strengthen existing habits than change them.

Reliable feedback is the basis of inhibition. In formal work it cannot be sensory based, since that is what we are trying to change. For pupils, it is tactile, or verbal, depending on the emphasis of the teacher. For Alexander, feedback was visual, as it needs to be for anyone wanting to work as he did.

Ideally, we would all know how to use mirrors properly, just as we could, presumably, learn to use live images through camcorders as a modern day replacement for them; but until someone describes in detail how they do this, and how they have personally benefited from it, and it is shown to be a transferable skill, we should treat the possibility of doing what Alexander did as something of a pipe dream.

Floor or wall work might seem to provide, in their undeniably flat surfaces, some sort of verification of what is going on; but this is still highly subjective, depending as it does on individual sensory appreciation. Moreover, although directing or ordering may go some way to compensating for the lack of objective feedback, if there is limited awareness of the need to inhibit, and to continue inhibiting, whatever end is in mind, during what Alexander called the "critical moment", and at the same time keep all other available options open, even the best laid procedure will become stereotyped.

The more simplistic types of formal work, where orders or directions are repeated without reference to any particular end, seem to be little more than affirmations of "the known". Used as a specific formula designed to produce a conditioned response, they largely ignore inhibition and place little or no importance on the question of freedom of choice.

I imagine most teachers, if they do formal work at all, fall short of doing it as effectively as Alexander did, and end up formulating their own idiosyncratic procedures to follow. Because these aren’t what Alexander specified doesn’t invalidate them, but teachers ought to know, at the very least, whether what they are doing does, or doesn’t, reveal the shortcomings of their existing sensory appreciation, largely by addressing the question of the "critical moment"; and if it doesn’t, try and account for its usefulness.

My belief is we need to share whatever ways we have devised of working on ourselves that take into account the fact most of us find Alexander’s own formal approach too onerous.

It is worth remembering that the relationship between the head, neck and back Alexander saw in his mirrors was not some ideal figuration dreamed up by him but was what he came to recognise, in himself and throughout nature, as the fundament of good use. In other words, if we didn’t get in the way of such a relationship, it would exist, and as soon as we stop interfering, will do so again, by default.

The way Alexander encouraged its re-emergence was through training himself to respond to circumstances while consciously avoiding misuse. This is not to say there are not other ways of achieving the same thing.

On the understanding we are born with a Primary Control that operates freely, any initial interference must begin as a conscious choice, when we will have decided, for whatever reason, to suppress an otherwise unconscious reaction. Once this has been repeated sufficiently often, it will become subconscious, or habitual. By degrees, we will reach the stage where most of our behaviour is subconsciously based. This acts as a powerful constraint on the free functioning of the Primary Control; but because the interference is largely outside awareness, we can do little about it.

Alexander’s answer was that "the conscious mind must be quickened". This is the purpose of lessons and of all formal work, as it is of the informal capacity for thinking in activity it fosters. The question needing to be asked is whether whatever we do in the name of the Technique satisfies this by increasing the reliability of our sensory awareness and encouraging consciousness of it in the face of circumstances.

One interesting way of working is through spontaneous movement, also known as co-ex, or consciousness expansion. This is a time honoured practice that traditionally takes place in small groups and has many adherents in diverse cultures worldwide. Although the guidelines, such as they are, differ slightly, depending on where they have evolved, the essence is the same: everyone in the group allows movement to occur, and if desired, sound to emerge, that is not consciously chosen.

Spontaneous movement is fairly easy to recognise from within once the initial hurdle has been cleared that tells you it should look or feel a particular way. Its trademark is its effortlessness and unexpectedness. Almost always, it is not the sort of movement, or sound, an individual would allow themselves to make at any other time, whether in company or alone. That is the key point. Movement and sound that we unconsciously want and need to make in order to keep ourselves healthy – and that may on that basis be presumed to be inextricably linked to our Primary Control – is usually held in check because it is perceived as unseemly.

The constant, daily checking of such impulses happens on a subconscious level, and is so well established we barely notice it. If we are to allow spontaneous movement to occur, it will be through the auspices of our conscious mind. We are then, in effect, stopping our habitual, subconscious tendency to interfere, thereby allowing the unconscious to function more freely. It may not feel like Alexandrian inhibition and direction, still less conscious guidance and control, but the principle is the same.

Spontaneous movement, repeated sufficiently often, on a regular basis, is profoundly rewarding, both on its own merits and as an adjunct to informal Alexander work. I hesitate to call it a formal activity in its own right – even though, through it, kinesthetic reliability can be assumed to increase, as the subconscious hold on the unconscious is gradually lessened – because it depends on existing sensory appreciation to guide us.

No objective feedback as to whether what we think is happening is happening is possible since learning to recognise spontaneous movement can only occur, and be verified, internally. There are no predetermined, or correct, or even desirable, movements to be made; every individual has a unique repertoire, depending entirely on themselves. There is, however, more than adequate scope for "reconsideration" as each and every movement is continually being evaluated for its spontaneity at what, in effect, constitutes a continuous "critical moment".

One of the difficulties in Alexander work is that of maintaining a conscious correlation between mind and body. This seems to be encouraged through the practice of spontaneous movement. Although it is possible to daydream while still moving move more or less freely, the nature of spontaneity tends to draw the body and mind into a synchrony that makes this unlikely. I recommend the procedure, without in any way suggesting it is more appropriate for anyone than what they already do. What they do do, and why they do it, is what would be so interesting to know.

The real work, of course, remains what it always was: the informal process of being present, inhibiting and directing, in the moment. This is something anyone can do, whatever the state of their sensory appreciation. Admittedly, an individual’s available options, in terms of how they might respond to stimuli, will be limited by the degree to which their kinesthesia is at fault; but even if they have only had a few lessons, once they have learned to "remember to inhibit", they will in many ways be in as strong a position as, if not a stronger one than, their teacher, because they will be far less indebted to the hands of others; and if they persevere, they should find their kinesthesia becoming more reliable, their use improving, and their consciousness expanding, independently of any additional formal work.

This is because long-term attentiveness to the means-whereby is bound to restore some of what a lifetime of inattentiveness put wrong. It is to our ability to function automatically that we must attribute the phenomena of faulty sensory appreciation; and the less reliant we are, or have been, on others to undo some of the damage done, the more likely we will be to make progress alone. This approach may not get us as far along the way, but our control of the process will be much greater.


This ‘lesson’ highlighted for me one of the downsides of advertising.

When I first started teaching I used to advertise in the local paper offering a free introductory lesson. The adverts would appear in the personal column, sometimes finding their way under HEALTH, sometimes ALTERNATIVE THERAPY, sometimes TUITION.

I expected to have calls from people who had no idea what the Alexander Technique was; and from those who thought they knew, but didn’t; but for some reason I never anticipated interest from the readers of newspaper personal columns whose primary interest is in those apparently common, occasionally coded references to discreet sexual practices.

I particularly remember one visit from a man who travelled over fifty miles to see me. I had disliked the sound of him from the first moment of answering the phone – he sounded so sibilant, I might almost have been speaking to Gollum – but having offered a free lesson, and having tried and failed to put him off, I had little choice but to agree a time for an appointment.

He arrived on the hour, in a flashy car, and stepped across my threshold with a look on his face that seemed to suggest he was game for anything. It crossed my mind that he was as nervous as me; but I supposed, half jokingly, that if he really thought the Alexander Technique was a strange and secret sexual practice, and if his interpretation of what I had said on the phone was simply that the form those practices took was too extraordinary to be explicit about, he had reason to be nervous.

We went into my small teaching room, where there were two chairs, but no couch. He looked around, but didn’t seem unduly surprised I studied him more closely. I suppose in many ways he was an ordinary looking man, even if he did have too many rings on his fingers, one of which held a semi-precious stone as large as a pullet’s egg; and as I began my usual pre-introductory lesson spiel, I started to think I had been mistaken.

After talking for some time I said if it was okay with him I would put my hands on his body and show him how I worked. He reacted nervously.

"No, no, don’t touch me. Don’t for heaven’s sake touch me. Just explain."

I thought I had already explained; perhaps he was waiting for the secret teachings: the code to decipher what I had already said. He was, I noticed, fiddling around with something in his trouser pocket. Was it his handkerchief? I didn’t want to stare; I didn’t want to look at all. Turning to his face, it reminded me of grainy black and white picture I’d seen of Alaistair Crowley on a bad day.

I stepped back and asked him what, in particular, he wanted to know.

"Just talk. I like to hear you talk. Explain this…this technique…"

I sat down and talked. I rabbited on, staring glassy eyed at the wall behind his head, every now and again casting glances at the man’s groin, my wall clock, the enormous ring on his finger. As for my "use", the best I can say is that I was unaware of it.

Suddenly, in the middle of a sentence, after he had sat silently for at least fifteen minutes, and I had pretty much assumed he was simply a harmless nutter, who for some obscure reason had travelled fifty miles on busy roads to hear something he could have easily have got out of a book, he spoke.

I was so stunned by what he said that I asked him to repeat himself. He did, very calmly and distinctly. The atmosphere in the room changed. Sweat burst out of all my orifices. He repeated himself for the third time, staring at me lewdly as he did so. The passage of time has dulled my memory of his words. All I know is they were crude and to the point. His was truly an indecent proposal, and it was directed at me.

There seemed no doubt he meant what he said. I started to wonder if he had a knife or a gun; he was certainly bigger and stronger than me. His fingers, I suddenly noticed, seemed pudgier than when he had arrived, as if they were swollen with lust. The independent movement in his trousers I could no longer ignore. I found myself incapable of responding, even when he reached across to me and almost expertly gave my genitals a testing squeeze, as if he was a shopper testing fruit.

What I consciously intended doing next I have no idea. I was trying to maintain the pretence that the introductory lesson was still going on, and that what he had said and done hadn’t really happened, and certainly didn’t matter. Then I heard myself speak, in what sounded like a high, squeaky voice.

"I’m sorry, I’m not like that".

Incredibly, my wife and children chose that moment to arrive back in the house. The noise they made, opening the door and piling through it, which I normally found so exasperating when in teaching mode, I lapped at as if it was a healing draught. Again, the atmosphere in the room changed. A shadow passed across my client’s face, and he rose without a word, rearranging his groin as he did so.

He was perfectly civil. We shook hands. He thanked me for my time, and I accompanied him to the door. As he got into his car, possibly anticipating the drive home, he cast me a tiny glance of what looked like resentment, but overall I thought he took any disappointment extremely well. I was disappointed, too, but only at the ease with which I had been thoroughly discountenanced.

I heard subsequently, from a masseur friend, that it is an occupational hazard of "body workers" to be inundated with calls from people seeking "relief" at their hands. In retrospect, I am only glad my client wouldn’t let me put my hands on him, though I still can’t understand why one sort of touch should have been anathema to him while another was apparently so very much to his taste.

Exercise and activity

This was a contribution I made to the AlexTech Internet forum whose members were debating the merits or otherwise of exercise in relation to the Technique.

I’ve been musing over some of the recent emails and wondering how the Alexander Technique relates to exercise. Clearly, it is not enough to say that by following the principles of inhibition and direction a full and healthy life will automatically ensue. It might be fuller and healthier than
beforehand; but much would depend on what that life consisted of. I imagine the vast majority of Westerners, including most Alexander teachers, lead far from ideal existences.

Despite his account of John Doe, Alexander wasn’t dismissive of a culture that encouraged people to live and work under conditions of relative restraint, even if they did visit the gym afterwards to try and rebalance things; what he railed against was their poor use generally.

I spend most of my time sitting or standing, moving quietly from room to room, doing quite a lot mentally but hardly taxing myself physically. To compensate for this, I garden a fair amount, play tennis regularly, ride occasionally, walk and bicycle when the need or mood arises; but I have become increasingly aware that I should do more with myself, energetically, if I am to stay healthy.

I’ve always made a distinction between activity and exercise, thinking of activity as something that is engaged in for its own purpose, and exercise as being done to produce an effect. Some activity can come to seem like exercise; exercise done in a certain way could become an activity.

If we define enjoyment in life as the pursuit of those activities where mind and body gel in such a way we are unable to say where one begins and the other ends, duration and effort, the cardinal virtues of exercise, become irrelevant. Alexander work seems particularly possible then.

At the other extreme, when we are engaged in something we don’t enjoy, we have to cajole our minds to stay with the matter at hand, and our bodies to keep going. We are neither fully present, nor actively engaged. When the mind detaches itself from what the body is doing, Alexander work becomes impossible.

Not wanting to play more tennis, garden unnecessarily, or do anything else I enjoyed for its own sake simply in order to get fit, I cast around for a form of exercise that might in itself prove pleasurable. I tried any number of approaches, all of which I found tedious. A case in point is the Astanga Yoga I am currently experimenting with. It’s very dynamic and I end the sessions feeling thoroughly integrated; but the process itself takes close to two hours to complete, and for the most part, as much mentally as physically, it is a struggle. Why, I wonder, should I be asking and telling myself, as I stretch and twist, a hundred and one irrelevant things, such as how much time this is taking up, what needs to be done in the garden, how grim the weather is, what’s going to be for supper, how my children are, what I plan to do tomorrow – instead of paying attention to what I am doing and how I’m doing it?

None of this tangential thinking happens when I play tennis, or if it does, it focuses on the way the game is going; even if I’m just hitting a ball against a wall on my own, I’m engaged in the activity. Cantering on a horse doesn’t incline me to think extraneously, either. Even sowing broad
beans involves me pretty fully. Sadly, I haven’t been present in this way very much or often when exercising; but then if I’m honest nor have I when lying on the floor in semi-supine.

Although inhibition and direction, and the mind/body gelling that makes them possible, require only a slight change in perspective to bring about, the ease or otherwise of “thinking in activity” does seem to depend more on the nature of that activity than any amount of conscious intention.
This makes me wonder whether it is better (both as an Alexander student and from the point of view of overall health) to pursue those activities where attentiveness to what is going on comes easily, rather than persevere with those where it hardly seems possible.

So far as specific abdominal or any other exercises go, I doubt such things exist. No exercise can isolate one part of us so long as we, rather than machines or electrical pads, are carrying it out. If the worry is whether something we do is in keeping with Alexander’s precepts, our concern
oughtn’t to be how trying to tighten up an area of ourselves might or might not affect overall coordination, but whether we are actually present, inhibiting and directing, while doing it. If we adhere to principle, and that principle is sound, our coordination will sort itself out.

Ideally, of course, there would be some activity we loved so much that we couldn’t do enough of it, that brought our minds and bodies together without apparent effort, made inhibition and direction second nature, handed us the shape we wanted and the tranquillity we sought as by products, giving us endurance and longevity along the way.

In the meantime, if most of our activities are sedentary, and we find inhibition and direction at least as possible while exercising as doing anything else, where’s the harm; especially if, as in the case of K, the perceived problem is associated with an activity like running, which presumably she enjoys? Assuming she is able to remain present (which seems likely, from what she says) amazing change can be wrought in moments, through the tiniest alteration in perspective, with no muscular effort whatsoever.

Anyone doubting this should spend some time with Malcolm Baulk, who has made working with runners something of a speciality. I’m just a chasing-after-the-ball lumberer myself, but I was glad to be reminded during a group lesson what sorts of change (kinesthetically perceived by me, highly visible in others) can come about during such an ordinary, seemingly automatic activity, through the expenditure of less rather than more effort, simply by consciously giving consent for it to do so. 

Whether this would apply to weight lifting I have no idea but I do remember reading some interesting observations by David Gorman years back involving a nautilus machine and how much more effectively it could be used through a reasoned, Alexandrian approach than simply piling on the pressure in the traditional manner.

Learning to apply the Technique

I wrote this during my last year of training to be a teacher. Most of it still makes sense to me more than a decade later.

I first became interested in the Alexander technique as a possible way of making greater sense out of ‘ordinary’ life. The idea of unity of mind and body while engaging in commonplace activities intrigued me. I anticipated from the outset learning a specific method that I could then ‘apply’ as and when I chose. When I started lessons and began reading more on the subject, I became confused about how I was supposed to do this. Only since joining a training course, and receiving considerably more tuition from experienced teachers than an average pupil could ever expect, have I begun to learn how to apply the Technique to my life. My reason for writing this article is to open the question of what intermediate stages it is necessary for a pupil to pass through before emerging with a recognisable method of applying the Technique to the ordinary activities of their own lives.


‘Inhibition’ was explained to me and I found the theory easy to understand. In practice, I perceived it as stopping whatever I was doing, both physically and mentally, in order to ‘give directions’.


Some study of the available literature seemed to me of value in understanding what was meant by this. As Wilfred Barlow said:

“He (Alexander) was asking for something completely novel from himself and also from his pupils: and the trouble was that he did not make very clear to them what it was that he wanted, so that innumerable versions – or none – of this part of his work began to appear.” (1)

I found that Alexander himself had stated, in connection with his use of the words ‘direction’ and ‘directed’:

“…I wish to indicate the process involved in projecting messages from the brain to the mechanisms and in conducting the energy necessary to the use of those mechanisms.” (2)

Although he was less than explicit when it came to the precise form such ‘messages. should take, my overall impression, gained at the time from his books, was that ‘directions’ or ‘orders’ were to be given verbally, in sequence, as he put it:

“…all together, one after the other.” (2)

I persevered with this, both during lessons and during my everyday activity. It seemed relatively simple, although rather odd: the main difficulty was remembering to stop and do it.


Some time passed before it was pointed out to me that I shouldn’t be merely ‘giving directions’, but that I must endeavour to ‘keep them going’ during activity. Did this mean I was supposed to repeat these words indefinitely? I thought perhaps it did, and since I wasn’t able to establish, either on my own, from my teacher, or through my reading, what else to do – at least not in specific enough terms to carry out – I tried without much success to do this. Then, one day I came across a passage in Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual where Alexander suggested, in connection with singing:

“…when once the necessary control has been gained, the pause required for inhibition and for giving the necessary orders will be only momentary.” (3)

How could a pause for something as pedantic as verbal ‘directions’, given in their proper sequence, be only momentary? Verbal ‘directions’ indubitably take time. Was this ‘necessary control’ that Alexander spoke of the key to being able to ‘keep the directions going’? I was beginning to suspect it could be neither possible nor desirable for me to repeat verbal ‘orders’ for any great length of time, whatever the activity. But how, otherwise, was I to proceed from ‘giving directions’ to being able to ‘keep’ them ‘going’? Then I discovered that Alexander had said, elsewhere:

“…if we are going to do, not a mechanical exercise, but something real that matters, you have to think out beforehand the means whereby you have to do it, and give the directions or orders for these means whereby, in the form of a wish, as it were, and keep that wish going all through the activity.” (4)

I decided that in order to do this I first needed to understand what ‘to think out’ actually meant. After some consideration I defined it as the actions of my mind in its representations of experience, past or potential, through ‘visual’, ‘verbal’ or ‘kinesthetic’ means.

I therefore had three main ways of mentally ‘representing’ such a ‘wish’. ‘Verbal thought’ I recognised as the words I had been saying to myself by way of ‘directions’. ‘Visual thought’ seemed to encompass the various images I could form in my mind’s eye of, or representative of, a neck ‘releasing’ and a head ‘leading’ and a spine ‘lengthening’ and a torso and set of shoulders ‘widening’. ‘Kinesthetic thought’ I came to consider as the imagined sensation, arising out of an accumulation of past experiences, of muscular ‘undoing’.

I discovered that these three ‘modes’ of thought’ rarely existed in isolation from each other. ‘Verbal thought’ might lead to ‘visual thought’, or vice versa; either could then be followed by ‘kinesthetic thought’; and so on. I recognised how a similar stream of mental activity – words, pictures, imagined sensations – was almost continuous in my daily life. I eventually realised I had probably been ‘directing – involuntarily – in the visual and kinesthetic ‘modes’, for some time, but that until recently I had remained oblivious to all but my intended use of words.

This changed my understanding of how ‘directions’ could be ‘given’ and allowed me more conscious flexibility in my attempts at ‘keeping them going’ during activity. There were still far too many times, however, when ‘thinking’ the ‘directions’ in this way seemed to interfere with whatever I was simultaneously trying to ‘do’, and I felt I needed an alternative, less distracting way of staying attentive to what Alexander termed the ‘means-whereby’ while getting on with the actual experience of ‘living’.

After a further period of investigation, I discovered that the ‘intention’ that lay behind the ‘wish’ that Alexander talked of could apparently remain extant even after the ‘formulation of thought’ which established that ‘wish’ had faded away. It was this residual ‘sense of direction’ that I subsequently learned to employ while ‘keeping my directions going’ during diverse activities. As Alexander put it, it was a question of:

“…merely framing and holding this desire in mind…” (5)

Outside of Alexander work, I appear to go through much the same abstract process whenever I experience a lasting impression or ‘sense’ of something without continuing to reflect on it. An example would be a visit to the shops. On the way, I might remind myself where I am going, either verbally (“I’ll go to Tesco, then Safeway…and I mustn’t forget the flour”) through internal pictures (the route to be taken, the cheese counter, the checkout point) or with a variety of associated sensations (an anticipated jostling in the aisles, the remembered warmth of underfloor heating). But during the moments when I’m not actively ‘thinking’, but am simply walking along the pavement, taking in the surroundings, I still ‘know’ I am ‘going to the shops’.

In this instance, as in virtually every other, an ‘intention’ is created and maintained by ‘thought’. Such an intention only remains constant until another thought countermands it; but it doesn’t necessarily need continuity of the original thought, or constant repetition of similarly-minded thoughts, in order to survive. It seemed to me, that in Alexander work, if my intention, or ‘desire’ had been adequately thought out, or ‘framed’ it could remain a pervasive influence on my behaviour, independent of any continuous verbal or visual or kinesthetic formulation, for as long as I ‘held it in mind’. Once it had lapsed, it might require a fresh infusion of ‘thought’ in order to be recaptured, just as it might, at any stage, require extending or redefining in a similar fashion.


Despite having learned – to some extent – how to ‘keep my directions going’, I still wasn’t satisfied that I was able to ‘apply’ the Technique to my life in any meaningful fashion. There seemed too little connection between what I was doing with my mind and what I may or may not have been doing with my body. Perhaps this hankering after ‘psycho-physical unity’ was what prompted me to wonder, over a further period of time, whether the nature of my attachment to ‘mental directions’ was somehow preventing me from allowing much of the ‘muscular undoing’ that they were designed to bring about to actually take place.

I eventually decided that if I was going to learn to recognise some of the ways I was interfering with my functioning, I needed to do more than simply ‘keep the directions going’. Such an approach may have had its uses, but I could hardly expect it to facilitate the delicate balancing task that I was beginning to suspect was implied by the phrase ‘thinking in activity’.

Rather than “stopping whatever I was doing, both physically and mentally, in order to ‘give directions'”, the process of ‘thinking in activity’ seemed one of continuously ‘wishing’ for certain conditions while at the same time becoming as aware as possible of any interference in letting these conditions come about. As I investigated further, and experimented with organising and maintaining varying degrees of ‘awareness of self’ concurrently with a separately constituted ‘sense of direction’, I found myself developing an increasing ability to remain ‘in the present moment’ – a state that I had long known as theoretically essential for ‘applying’ the Technique, but which I had never before understood how to enter voluntarily.

It was only at this late stage – two years on in the training course – that I began to find myself in conscious possession of the ‘useful tool’ for taking ‘into life’ that I had always hoped the Technique represented. Now, one year later, my abiding interest is in trying to ensure, whenever possible, that the inwardly directed attention involved in ‘thinking in activity’ is present, but not in such a way that it prevents me from experiencing (through one or more of the senses) my immediate environment. As Michael Gelb puts it:

“Attention in the Alexandrian sense involved a balanced awareness of oneself and surroundings with an easy emphasis on whatever is particularly relevant at the moment.” (6)

The problem is, of course, that such ‘balance’ and ‘ease’ is in itself unlikely to be come by easily. So when today’s teachers talk, as Alexander did, of a course of lessons, say, from twenty to forty, what do they mean to imply they can teach a pupil in that time? Alexander believed he could:

“Pass on in four weeks what it took (him) ten years to discover…) (5)

Would that have included the ‘control’ he spoke of as being ‘necessary’ for turning the somewhat lengthy process of ‘formal’ inhibition and direction into no more than a ‘momentary pause’? Such an ability presumably becomes more realisable the more one experiences what Alexander termed ‘the primary control’ working well; but how often is often enough for such experience to lead to a pupil being able to stay attentively aware of both ‘preferred means’ and ‘desired ends’ for any appreciable length of time?

Frank Pierce Jones said:

“To me it is an expansion of the field of consciousness (or of “attention” if you object to the term “consciousness”) in space and time so that you are taking in both yourself and your environment, both the present moment and the next. It is a unified field organised around the self as a centerô at the beginning it has a very simple system of organisation but it always takes in both the self (including the relation of the head to the trunk) and something in the environment.” (7)

For this “expansion of the field of consciousness” to be something a pupil might want to take the trouble to cultivate, it would surely help to know, early on, how important it is for applying the Technique, during lessons as in life. It appears, after all, to be virtually a pre-requisite for Alexander work in any but the most static situation. As Frank Pierce Jones put it:

“(it is this)…expanded field of consciousness (that) makes possible what Dewy called ‘thinking in activity’.” (7)

If the overall aim of the Technique is, in fact, to teach a pupil to ‘think in activity’ during everyday life, it would certainly be odd if it was not explained, throughout a course of lessons, how best to do this. Otherwise, confusion may result, as it apparently did for Nicholas Albery, as to what exactly is being taught:

“…I got fed up paying for hour-long sessions, just to be shown over and over again the same exercises, how to lie down, sit up, stand up and sit down.” (8)

Pupils are not always able to make the connections that may seem obvious to a teacher. While lessons certainly increased my sensory awareness of myself, and time spent attending to ‘directing’ resulted in a degree of understanding of the new conditions I wanted to establish generally; without the decision on my part to unify this, and use it to plan and enact the next move in life, my progress in learning to ‘think in activity’ was always going to proceed in a vacuum. And yet, in order to make that decision, in a situation where I believed I was learning a specific ‘methodology’ from a teacher, I think I needed to have it presented to me as an integral part of that teaching before I was even able to perceive it as an option. Walter Carrington points out:

“…there are a lot of highly educated and intelligent people who never make it to that point at all. they don’t want to and are willing to accept the experience without understanding or applying it. When people don’t want to understand or apply it, it’s very difficult in my experience to do much about it.” (9)

This is fair comment. And in such instances I suppose a pupil has no readily identifiable role to play. Whatever changes take place in them presumably occur without the active, chosen involvement of their conscious minds. But pupils who haven’t just come for the laying on of hands expect to be told, and if necessary, taught, how to use their brains in the particular way the subject demands. For this to happen, teachers presumably need to know not only how, specifically, they do want their pupils to think, but also how to get this across to them with a minimum of confusion. Communication between teacher and pupil is paramount, and it cannot seriously be left to ‘the hands’ to do all the talking.


F.M.Alexander was in no doubt about what was being sought, overall:

“I wish it to be clearly understood that throughout my writings I use the term ‘conscious guidance and control’ to indicate primarily a plane to be reached rather than a method of reaching it.” (5)

This sentence meant nothing to me the first time I read it. Now, however, the implication seems inescapable. whereas ‘formal’ inhibition and direction, as set out in Chapter 1 of The Use of the Self may provide, as it did Alexander, a means of access to another ‘plane’, via the acquired ability to ‘keep those directions going’, being involved in the ‘informal’ process of ‘thinking in activity’ is to find that one is already on it. If such distinctions are valid, and perhaps more importantly, can be separately taught and learned, it seems unnecessary to leave the possibility of transition from one stage to the other to the vagaries of chance. some degree of ‘conscious control’ is presumably available at many ‘levels’ of ‘use’, and if undue adherence to ‘formal work’ gets in the way of its enjoyment than it might help a pupil to know. Just as it could aid both pupil and teacher, when such a ‘formal’ way of working is dismissed from the outset, to know if this omission aids, impedes, or worse, deludes, progress overall.

It is easy to confuse wanting progress with ‘end-gaining’; but inattention to the ‘means-whereby’ is as likely while reaching for a pencil as in climbing a mountain. At a certain point in learning the Technique, perhaps progress in being able to ‘think in activity’ could be facilitated by ‘inhibition’ being explained not as ‘stopping’, which all too often seems to mean ‘stiffening’, but as ‘remembering to become aware of ourselves’. As Alexander put it:

“…(inhibition) is largely a matter of that process of remembering which is involved in ‘thinking in activity’…” (5)

In another passage, he elaborated:

“If we become sensorily aware of doing a harmful thing to ourselves, we can cease doing it.” (5)

Such ‘informal’ inhibition, rather than suggesting stopping everything, out of a blanket refusal to respond with the ‘wrong’ thing, would mean ceasing to do what we recognise, at whatever level of sensory awareness we have reached, as ‘harmful’. The effectiveness of this would seem to depend primarily on our willingness, during everyday activity, to raise to consciousness as much about ourselves and our interference with the operation of ‘the primary control’ as we can.

Naturally, during early lessons, our sensory awareness may be so minimal, that for inhibition to be learned, it may have to be expressed as ‘not doing anything at all’ in response to a given stimulus. As our sensory appreciation improves, we will hopefully learn to ‘discern’ a measure of our own interference, so that whatever the activity, whenever we remember to attend to ‘the means-whereby’, the unreasoned or unconscious hold on our behaviour may be modified.

As a general rule, the more regularly we can give such attention in daily life, the less manifest that influence is likely to become. Due ‘attention’ in this respect would seem to be whatever is needed to establish and maintain our desired overall ‘sense of direction’, and to allow this to effect our sensory-based experience of ourselves in our environment.

‘Conscious control’ appears to me to rest primarily on this ability to ‘keep the directions going’ without losing track of whatever else is happening. Acquiring this ‘informal’ skill may depend on having done, and on continuing to do, a certain amount of ‘formal’ Alexander work. But whether or not this is the case, such work belongs by definition to the ‘learning process’ rather than to ‘real life’. And if ‘real life’ is ever to become the ‘learning’ environment at the same time as being the ‘living’ environment, pupils of the Alexander Technique will necessarily have to learn to work ‘informally’. As Alexander suggested:

“…no more fundamental experience is available than that which comes to a person who, with or without a teacher, will patiently devote the time to learning to apply the technique in the act of living.” (3)

(1) Wilfred Barlow – The Alexander Principle.

(2) FM Alexander – The Use of the Self.

(3) FM Alexander – Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual.

(4) The Alexander Review, vol 3, no 1 – The Bedford Lecture.

(5) FM Alexander – The Universal Constant in Living.

(6) Michael Gelb – Body Learning.

(7) Frank Pierce Jones – Body awareness in Action.

(8) Nicholas Albery – How to save the Body.

(9) Walter Carrington – On the Alexander Technique.