People often decry ‘releasing’ as not being a proper part of Alexander work. This attempts to explain why I disagree.

I’m puzzled by the implication that the Technique instructs us to not interfere (with the right employment of the Primary Control), but not to stop current interference; largely because stopping something we are already doing smacks of releasing, which isn’t considered a valid part of Alexander work.


“I’ve noticed that I get into an undesirable pattern a lot: I’ve learned to “release tension” without necessarily increasing my freedom.”


“It isn’t really possible to know why your recent lesson experience gave the impression that the Technique is concerned with ‘releasing’ or ‘freeing.'”


“I certainly had difficulties for some time with the paradoxical activity of ‘doing’ releasing or thinking that this was required – wrong conception of course, and definitely not what is required!”


The suggested order of events would seem to be:


1. Becoming conscious.


2. Recognising a stimulus.


3. Deciding to not interfere while responding.


Generally, whenever we become conscious we will, on some level, be interfering. If this wasn’t the case – if our default, unconscious mode was one of not interfering – there would be little purpose in learning the Technique.


Assuming we are aware of interfering, we have the option of stopping it. If we’re unaware, we don’t have that option. If we don’t stop it, we can’t then ‘not do it’, since not doing something we are already doing depends on our stopping doing it first. This is a crucial point. If we don’t stop current interference, all we can do, in the name of ‘not interfering’, is ‘not interfere more’.


Not interfering, or not interfering more, requires that we know how we have interfered in the past, just as stopping interfering requires that we know how we are interfering in the present. We can’t consciously stop doing, or not do, something we have, or have had, no kinesthetic knowledge of.


This means that in any decision to not interfere, we either:


a.����� Recognise we are already interfering as a result of our reaction to a preceding stimulus, cease that existing interference, and don’t re-start similar interference.


b.����� Recognise we are already interfering, don’t cease existing interference, but don’t interfere more.


c.����� Fail to recognise we are interfering, while desiring not to interfere.


These three possible ways of responding depend on the level of our awareness. For a beginning student, comprehension of interference, whether current or potential, will be slight, as in (c). As our knowledge of ourselves increases, so will our awareness of how we actively and potentially interfere. I would consider (a) an appropriate and (b) an inappropriate Alexandrian response.


Much of our time, any new stimulus we face will be virtually identical to the one we’re already responding to. In other words, on becoming conscious, we will find ourselves doing much the same thing, still sitting at the desk, continuing with the washing up, the walk, the swim, actively eating, talking, etc. The only difference will be our awareness of what we’re doing.


If we don’t recognize we are interfering, any decision to ‘not interfere’ will be meaningless, since the unchanged stimulus is unlikely to demand any major change in our behaviour, which already excludes interference we are familiar with. If we do recognize we are interfering, however assiduously we may decide to not interfere, unless we actively stop existing interference, we will again be doing nothing new. In both cases, there will be little scope for ‘not interfering more’, given the unchanged stimulus.


If the new stimulus we are confronted with is different to the one we are currently responding to, as in the doorbell ringing, being accosted in the street, learning something unexpected, getting out of a low chair, etc, we face a potential increase in interference. If we are unaware of existing interference, any decision on our part to ‘not interfere’ will actually mean ‘not interfere more than we are already, without knowing it’. Our ability to do that will depend on what potential interference we are familiar enough with to be able to recognize. I would call this beginner’s inhibition.


If we are aware of existing interference, we have the choice of whether or not to stop it. Stopping existing interference, and not restarting it, effectively inhibits any possibility of ‘interfering more’. However, any deliberate decision to not interfere, and to not interfere more than – but without stopping what – we are already doing, will result in far less of a change to our habitual response. Since we can’t not do what we haven’t stopped doing, we will be limited to ‘not interfering more than we are already, knowingly’. This would amount to partial inhibition, at best.


Effective, full inhibition is the process of becoming conscious, ceasing existing interference – as far as we are able to recognise it – and not restarting it. Naturally, for as long as we don’t restart interference, there will be no need to cease anything more, beyond the initial stopping; but in order to begin ‘not re-starting’, we have no choice but to cease existing interference first.


This ceasing will feel like, and in fact, will be, a release. Such releasing could happen many times a minute or once in half an hour, depending on how conscious we are. If we don’t perceive such a release, the odds are we haven’t successfully stopped anything. In all likelihood, if we’re aware of interfering, but not of releasing, we’re stuck.


Since ceasing existing interference requires us to perceive, kinesthetically, both its presence and its absence, the question then becomes, not whether releasing is appropriate, but whether our recognition of what leads up to it is accurate.


Personally, I would discount the possibility that we can be much mistaken in whatever we perceive as existing interference. This is because the main purpose of the Technique is to increase the reliability of our kinesthetic sense; and it would be absurd if we went from a position of knowing nothing about interfering in an Alexandrian context to being wrong about how we were interfering, as a direct result of the learning process.


However, much does depend on what an individual – whether teacher or student – understands by Alexander’s words, “interfering with the right employment of the Primary Control”. A mistaken understanding could result in piecemeal releasing of particular tensions rather than a general reduction of unnecessary (or redistribution of necessary) effort. A far greater risk, though, than over indulging in releasing, would be hanging on to existing interference out of fear of misinterpretation.


As a simple example, let’s say someone is driving, while thinking about next year�s holiday. In an Alexandrian sense, they are operating unconsciously. Then, they remember the Technique and become conscious. They notice immediately that their neck is tight and their head is being pulled backwards and down. This is unlikely to be a rare occurrence, though it might be more or less severe. Meanwhile, the stimulus of driving (with holiday thoughts supplanted by thoughts of use) is not greatly changed from moments earlier. The only real difference is they are now conscious of it.


They determine to not interfere, as they understand it, from this point on, and for as long as they remain conscious. This might last for any number of seconds or minutes. The question is, since they are already interfering, as a result of their prior unconscious reaction primarily to the stimulus of driving, how do they now not interfere while responding to the same stimulus?


The simple answer is that they stop interfering and they don’t restart. I can’t conceive how the effect of this could be construed as other than a release, if their neck untightens and their head is no longer pulled backwards and down. The alternative scenario is that they do nothing. In other words, they don’t stop interfering. Since they can’t not do something they’re already doing, they carry on driving, in an unchanged state, save for being conscious of it.


Let’s then say they lapse back into unconsciousness, and, a few miles up the road, the more demanding stimulus of a police car appears in their rear view mirror. Having sufficient presence of mind to remember the Technique prior to responding to this new stimulus, they again notice that their neck is tight and their head is being pulled backwards and down. This time, their choice is between stopping (and not restarting) existing interference, or not interfering more than they are already. In other words, they can either release their neck and not tighten it again, or they can maintain an existing tight neck but not tighten it any more.


For me, there is something absurd about setting out to not interfere, or not interfere more, while still knowingly interfering. It is the idealised act of refusing to do something we’re already doing, without stopping doing it first. To my mind, stopping interfering is as inseparable a part of inhibition as not interfering. The experience of release is simply the result of ceasing to send existing messages from the brain to the muscles.


This has nothing to do with (or at least, is a separate issue to) the sending of new messages, through direction; although directing might (or might not) appear to have a similar effect. That is because Alexandrian inhibition depends on kinesthetic feedback, utterly; whereas direction doesn’t, remotely.

What did Alexander discover – and why is it important?

This is an attempt to put into lay language what can sometimes seem overly complex.

What did Alexander discover – and why is it important?

When we consider what we pay attention to, from the minutiae of our daily lives to the big picture of the world around us, it is extraordinary how much we take for granted the continued smooth running of our bodies and minds, on which all else depends. The work we do, the food we eat, the attitudes we have, all contribute to, or detract from, our health; but our primary influence – the way we do what we do – remains outside most peoples’ awareness and control. This is what the Alexander Technique seeks to address.

F. Matthias Alexander was a reciter who had made a considerable effort to train himself optimally for the purposes of performing. He carried his body and projected his voice as he had been taught by experts in the field; but he found his vocal health and general presence faltering.

Over a period of years, he studied himself, using mirrors to gain an objective viewpoint of his actions, and contrasting this with what he felt subjectively.

He discovered a discrepancy between what he believed he was doing and what he was actually doing. In specific terms, his kinesthetic sense told him his carriage – not least the carriage of his head – was as he intended; while his eyes looking into a mirror told him a quite different story.

His discovery that he was not doing what he intended, and also that what he intended was not necessarily for the best, began a train of investigation that culminated with him becoming a teacher of ‘use’ (pronounced as in ‘useful’). By this, he meant the way people ‘used’ their minds and bodies in everyday life.

For Alexander, the mind and the body were indivisible. He believed the way people thought lay at the heart of the way they acted, and that the way they acted was the primary cause of their physical ills. He reached this conclusion after experimenting with changing his own patterns of thought and noting the subsequent changes in his physical habits.

This led to his conviction that the way we think in response to a stimulus largely determines whether we contract or release into movement, and whether we are impulsive or considered in our actions. His claim of mind/body indivisibility was far reaching for a turn of the century rural Australian who had no background in medical science; but today it seems little more than common sense.

So, how do we apply Alexander’s discoveries to our present day lives?

Most of us will be familiar with seeing ourselves in a mirror or shop front, not particularly liking the way we are, and making a few adjustments before going on our way. Next time we come across our reflection, we discover the changes we made have not lasted, and that we have reverted to type. We may make the same minor changes again, before moving on.

The odds are, we will have any number of habits of carriage and use we are unaware of; others we are familiar with but that we mistakenly believe are useful; others that may be the result of something once deliberately cultivated but long since forgotten; and still others that are fully intended but that we fail to recognise are not being accurately carried out.

These discrepancies may lead to nothing more severe that the occasional ‘twinge’, or moment of unease, or they can lead to our becoming totally incapacitated. Nobody can say what the effects of ‘poor use’ will be; but it certainly will not be for the good. What is certain is that we cannot expect to be aware of the way we really are until we see ourselves from an objective standpoint. We would be selling ourselves short if, once we understand the degree of harm we have inadvertently been doing to ourselves, we failed to act.

For anyone who wants to change their ‘use’ for the better, some sort of re-education of their kinaesthetic sense is essential. The reason for this is simple. However much we may desire change, and however aware we may become of what needs changing, because we have a mistaken sense of the way we are, any corrections we make will be suspect. We will almost certainly replace one set of poor habits with another.

Alexander devised a teaching method, the Alexander Technique, specifically designed to recalibrate the kinaesthetic sense, and to bring it into line with our conscious intention. For anyone who would like to know more about the way they function in everyday life, Alexander Technique lessons are an eye opener.

Some insight can be gained by self study which, when persisted with, can be extremely rewarding. Generally, though, because the way we feel is not the way we are, being guided by our existing sense of ourselves is fraught with problems of reliability.

The major benefit of learning the principles of Alexander work is that doing so enables us to uncover whatever it is we are doing to ourselves that is harmful and to stop doing it. This is different for each of us, but there are certain common areas of imbalance. The way we hold our heads, the way we flex our spines, the way we swing our arms and legs, all contribute to the way we are, as a whole.

Learning, first, how we are, enables us to gain insight into the differences between this and the way we believe we are. It can be disconcerting to realise how far the two are apart! Understanding, , how we ideally might be, and experiencing this at the hands of a teacher, enables us to recognise that change is always an option.

Eventually, with some Alexander training, we can have true choice, perhaps for the first time in our adult lives. We can, of course chose to continue as we are, even though, kinaesthetically, we now understand this is not ideal for us; but we can also choose to make a change, knowing our recalibrated kinaesthetic sense is sufficiently reliable to enable us to recognise good from bad, or better from worse.

Without this knowledge – that we are not necessarily as we seem – and the kinaesthetic appreciation gained from lessons – that we are more out of balance than we know – we will be unable to change anything with any degree of lasting accuracy. This is because, until we know what harm we are doing ourselves, we will not be able to stop doing it.

Even the most glaring (in retrospect) habits cannot be stopped until we recognise them for what they are. To do that requires an objective view of ourselves, which cannot be provided by our existing kinaesthetic sense. What we feel ourselves doing will almost certainly not be what we are doing. A teacher (or a mirror, or video) provides this objective view, which enables us to learn to stop doing what is harmful, while establishing a more reliable kinaesthetic sense in order not to revert to type afterwards.

An often asked question is why something as important to human survival as our internal sense of ourselves, which determines every move we make, should ever ‘go wrong’. The only satisfactory answer is that the complex lives we lead as adults require more learned behaviour than we evolved to cope with. When something occurs that places a greater demand on us than our existing habits can deal with, unless we consciously attend to the way we react (which we will have done when the habits were originally learned, in early life, but are unlikely to do now) we run the risk of overdoing our response, without knowing we are doing so.

When this largely unconscious process is repeated sufficiently often, we run the further risk of an existing, appropriate habit pattern being gradually overlaid with a new, less appropriate one. This new habit then becomes the norm; until it, too, is superceded. Over time, we will move from an overall position of ‘good use’, with a repertoire of smooth running habit patterns that are appropriate for the tasks at hand, to one of ‘poor use’, where – increasingly – less appropriate habit patterns are utilised to service our day to day needs.

This is the conundrum that lessons in the Technique are designed to circumvent.

Inhibition and the dangers of verbal ordering

If giving orders is linked to the good use experienced during lessons, in real life it is almost always linked to poor use. This is because we are seldom prompted to give orders in daily life other than during ‘bad’ moments. Is there a danger here?

Whenever I read about the power and effectiveness of directing, I suspect its importance is being overemphasised at the expense of inhibition.

Most of us can readily imagine, as children, sending messages to pull our heads backwards and down in response to a variety of stimuli. It isn’t hard to see how we might not always have stopped sending every last trace as each separate stimulus abated. Over the years, this would have grown into a permanent instruction on a subconscious level not only to maintain a residual tightness in our necks but to increase it incrementally at every opportunity.

In Alexander terms, this is our legacy. As students, when we give directions to lengthen and widen, their effectiveness depends on the prior inhibition of our acquired tendency to shorten and narrow. Unfortunately, we tend to act as if these processes were one and the same; but direction has to remain apart from our kinesthetic sense, whereas inhibition depends on it.

I generally explain my thoughts on this by asking any willing listener to tighten his or her neck. They usually agree the effect produced comes from messages sent by the brain to the musculature, and that to maintain such a state those messages have to continue being sent. I then ask them to �think� of their neck releasing, while continuing to send messages to tighten it. There is rarely much sense of releasing reported. Finally I ask them, instead of thinking of their neck releasing, to stop sending – first some and then all – of the original messages to tighten it. Gradually, their necks release.

These messages are conscious and deliberate. Had they been subconscious and habitual – as they are in most of us – the ability to stop sending them and release the associated tension in the neck would be dependant on raising that tension to awareness. Thinking of the neck releasing, while continuing to send unchecked subconscious messages for it to tighten, is not the answer.

In order for deep and lasting change to occur, we have to refer to the distinguishing characteristics of these subconscious messages, which are the kinesthetic effect they have on us. There is no way we can withhold consent for their despatch other than through our perception of their non-arrival. Inhibiting in response to a stimulus prevents the onset of customary tension; in situations where we have already responded, it will be experienced as a release of existing tension.

Directions are given to aid and abet this process. While we are able to inhibit those messages to shorten and narrow whose effect we are aware of, any further desire to lengthen and widen must stay aloof from the kinesthetic sense that might otherwise try and carry this out directly. Our hope and expectation is that a consciously projected wish – no more than a cerebral formulation – will displace some contradictory subconscious messages and prevent them being sent, thereby enabling us to become kinesthetically aware of their non-arrival. Again, this will be experienced as an absence or release of customary tension.

As each strata of previously hidden instruction to shorten and narrow makes its presence (or, more accurately, absense) known, we have the opportunity for further inhibition; and as its hold on us weakens – always assuming we continue directing – more messages from a subconscious repository we can assume to be bottomless become unearthed. In this way, inhibition and direction work hand in hand.

One of the particular dangers of verbal ordering, at least as it was taught to me, is its disassociation from this reciprocal process. A decision not to respond to a stimulus in an habitual way but instead to intone a series of sub-vocal phrases, with little reference to what those phrases mean or to the parts of the body to which they refer, hardly allows for the inhibition of contradictory subconscious messages that prevent (or at least severely hinder) them from being carried out, other than in a purely Pavlovian way.��

There is another danger here. It lies in our human tendency to apply the Technique more assiduously during bad times than good. When functioning well, we are likely to become blas� about the means-whereby; only while operating below par do we pay particular attention to inhibition and direction.�

Any new student who has had a series of lessons where they have been encouraged to give orders while their teacher has worked with them should have at their disposal a conditioned response of lengthening and widening linked to the repetition of those same orders outside the teaching room. Initially, this may work, despite the lack of meaningful inhibition. Over time, however, with verbal ordering likely to be resorted to increasingly when a student finds him or her self in a poor way – that is to say, actively shortening and narrowing, but with little understanding of how to inhibit this – a secondary conditioning will become established, based on how they are then.

The risk is of this secondary, ‘pulling-down’ conditioning growing at the expense of, and eventually superceding, the initial, ‘going-up’ model, leading to a deepening spiral of poorer use. The inevitable result would be the perception that ordering no longer worked, or had a detrimental effect, followed by a return to lessons, or else cessation of all interest in the Technique.

This may happen with non-verbal directing, too, if we approach it with insufficient attention. Personally, I find it only too easy to give directions without doing much more than going through the motions. Unfortunately, it seems that any process designed to alter an existing situation, if it is followed by rote, runs the risk of anchoring us more firmly to what we want to change. I suspect this phenomenon could account for many of the difficulties encountered during training.

The conclusions I have come to are that verbal ordering, at best, is a useful reminder of where we want to go, but is no different to any other form of affirmation, and could become a liability; and that directing without inhibiting is little more than a specialised form of positive thinking.

While there is nothing wrong with such approaches as prescriptions for change, even transformation, in our lives, inhibition, potentially at each and ever moment, remains the key to progress in the Technique. It is inhibition, assisted by direction, that helps reawaken the dormant links between our bodies and our minds.

Putting this into practice is a tall order, and I can’t say I live up to it; but that’s mainly because I forget to inhibit rather than because inhibition is particularly difficult. Arguably, a far greater challenge to students of the Technique than discovering how to apply its principles is learning to recognise and maintain the individual awareness of current conditions on which any success in carrying them out depends.

Judging from the available literature, inhibition is not something many teachers like to consider, even though they presumably spend large amounts of time instructing others in the skill. This is a shame, since everyone has a unique viewpoint, which it would help for others to know. As Alexander work grows, and grows away from its source, it becomes increasingly important for individuals to be clear, not so much about what it is or how it works, but how they make it happen for them.

The creative power of thought is a fascinating subject, central to Alexander work but going far beyond ‘directing’ in scope and application. I have always marvelled at how whatever is running through our minds at any one moment affects not only our bodies but our entire appreciation of life. What is odd, though, is how little control we have over this, how our automatic reaction to events determines the way we live rather than any preferences we may think we have.

This is where conscious control comes in; but I would love to know how to make it easier to exert. It isn’t difficult to understand why inhibition and direction should be hardest to apply when they are most needed. After all, however inappropriate our subconscious reactions may seem now, they were laid down by us in good faith at testing moments of the past. Nevertheless, it would be illuminating to discover what evolutionary purpose was served by making undeniably obsolete habit patterns not merely resistant to change but antipathical to health and therefore, presumably, survival.

Another look at inhibition

I wrote this in response to the question: “What is it about developing one’s coordination that precludes every activity, save inhibition, to bring about a change in one’s manner of use?” I don’t know if I answered the question; but I was certainly clearer, afterwards, in my own mind, on the subject of inhibition.

Inhibition happens a lot of the time without people knowing it does, or calling it that. Take someone who has a tendency to leap out of their chair and rush to do something, whenever the urge strikes them. They decide to change this habit, and to stay in their chair for a count of five first. Whatever they may call it, inhibition of a prior impulse must happen if this habit is to be successfully changed.

It could be argued, of course, that their desire to leap out of the chair is still present, but that they are constraining it with a greater desire to remain where they are; and that this isn’t true inhibition.

I think the notion of doing something different without having first properly stopped doing what that activity is replacing lies at the heart of the Alexander dilemma. Whenever I consider this, I am reminded of Alexander’s example of a cat inhibiting its desire to jump on a prey until it is truly sure of its catch. The original desire remains as strong as ever; but it is held in check by an even greater desire. Thus, it is being inhibited. However, neither the cat nor the person in the chair is applying inhibition to their ‘use’. In our specialised Alexander context, it is often easy to believe we have ‘inhibited’, when what we have done is acted differently, with unchanged use.

Suppose an Alexander student notices their head retracts when they stand. They know this from seeing themselves in mirrors, videos, etc. They also sense it, from their teacher’s hand, and to a certain extent, when alone; but let’s assume, in this instance, that what they sense is ‘it’ happening, or having happened, rather than the manner in which they are causing it to happen; and that instead of waiting to cultivate an increased consciousness of that ‘manner’, they decide to change things by deliberately preventing their head from retracting, throughout the activity of standing. They do this assiduously and end up with a new, better seeming – to them – habit. However, the likelihood is that whatever caused them to retract their head, is still very much present, but is prevented from exerting its unconscious influence by their stronger, conscious desire to do otherwise. In such an instance, inhibition of an unwanted activity has taken place, but inhibition of the manner of use that led to it has not; and that although there has been a superficial, and possibly beneficial change, on a deeper level conditions remain the same. Indeed, from an Alexander viewpoint, they are probably worse.

Such a student is doing no more, or less, than the person in the chair or the cat with its prey. All have a degree of knowledge of their actions and what they have to not do (inhibit) in order to achieve what they want. None is attending, consciously, to their use. For the cat, such inattention is largely irrelevant, since we can assume its use is uniformly reliable. For the person cultivating the new habit of staying in their chair for longer than before, any changes that come about in their use will be by accident rather than design. In the instance of the retracting head, the student knows it retracts, and that they would like it not to. What they don’t yet know, and therefore can’t inhibit, is what lies behind this ‘activity’. For such a student, whose desire is – presumably – to change their use, in order to do what they do differently, deliberately setting out to do things differently, regardless of their use, is like putting the cart before the horse.

In the simplest terms, there is inhibition of action and inhibition of use. Inhibition of action happens all the time. Inhibition of use happens rarely. We can inhibit what we are about to do, by doing something else; but that doesn’t mean we are inhibiting the way we usually do it, or the way we will do whatever we replace it with. Alternatively, we can inhibit the ‘way’ we act, without seeking to change ‘what’ we’re doing at all – although our actions will necessarily change, as a result of our changed conditions.

Unfortunately, in Alexander work, the more students look as though they are ‘doing things differently’, the more likely it is they will have inhibited their actions rather than their use. Those whose actions merely ‘look different’, may, indeed, be managing to inhibit the way they carry them out. To consider T’s question: “What is it about developing one’s coordination that precludes every activity, save inhibition, to bring about a change in one’s manner of use?” I should say that use determines, primarily, the quality rather than the appearance of coordination. Any change in quality would affect appearance, of course; but a change in appearance wouldn’t necessarily affect quality.

It is possible to ‘develop coordination’ (as I understand this term) without changing use one iota. Whether use would change as a by product of developing coordination would depend entirely on the individual. I’ve met people who have changed the way they act and look out of all recognition through one ‘regime’ or another; but their intrinsic ‘use’ doesn’t seem to have altered at all. Then again, I’ve met people whose use appears to have undergone a dramatic change, and who look vastly different, and act in a wholly new fashion, as a result of this, without them ever having had any conscious intention of doing anything differently.

I think the Technique is unique in addressing inhibition of use before, or at most, in tandem with, inhibition of action. It seems to require of students that they bypass their initial perception of a need for a change in what they are doing in order to focus on the way they are doing it. By changing this ‘way’ first, whatever they then do (whether what they first intended, or something else) will not only differ qualitatively from what they would otherwise have done, it will look different, too.

Alexander men and women

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

It was suggested there might:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An unusual lesson

I once visited Noam Renen, a ‘renegade’ Alexander Teacher. This is an account of my experiences.

Around the time I finished training, I was in correspondence with a teacher called Noam Renen. I didn’t know much about him, other than that he disagreed with something I had written. One day, out of the blue, he phoned from a nearby town, and invited me to visit him.

When I got to the flat he was staying in, he started working on me. He was either silent or talking of inconsequential things. Basically, for a half hour, he took me from standing to monkey and back to standing again. I never sat. There wasn’t even a chair in evidence. At no time did he touch my neck or head. His hands were most active around my hips.

When I commented on this he had me kneel on the ground and I went (assisted by him) from kneeling with thighs and trunk upright to sitting on my heels, again without him touching me other than at the hips and occasionally the shoulders. This continued for a while. Then, for half an hour or so I lay supine while he sat in a sofa at my head and held my outstretched hands.Neither of us moved or spoke.

At no time did either of us mention orders, directions, inhibition, or anything remotely connected with what I understood as the Alexander Technique. He never suggested I work on him and I wouldn’t have known where to start.

Later, he opened a tin of tuna and ate it with a fork, asking if I could get him an invitation to address the course I had just left. On the subject of training courses, he was fairly scathing. In fact, he didn’t have a good word for anyone in the Alexander world, being convinced he was the sole person teaching the ‘true’ Technique.

Prior to my visit, I had done something to my back and was in a degree of pain. It was only when I got home that I realised there was no longer any discomfort. Actually, I hadn’t felt so good for ages. I had difficulty putting this down to anything Noam had done; but I would have had far greater difficulty attributing it to my own prowess.

Since then, I’ve heard the odd fragment concerning Noam, little of it complimentary.

Oddly, the way he took me from standing into monkey, repeatedly, like a well oiled machine, opened my understanding up of how we move like little had over the full three years of my course. I’ve done something similar ever since; and every time I’ve been back on the training course, teaching students, the way I do this has been commented on. If asked to explain, I say it helps reveal the operation of a reflex response like nothing else. I don’t touch anyone’s neck or head, either. I’ve tried and it unquestionably interferes with the ease of the movement.

This story wouldn’t be complete without reference to Noam’s website, where he reveals himself to be something of an eccentric. Nevertheless, I feel I owe him a lot.

A second ‘Noam” website, created by Julio Maidanik, can be found at :

In a recent phone conversation with me, Noam claimed my recollection of him eating from a tin of tuna was wrong, and that as a vegetarian he would never have done this.

Working with difficulty.

I gave lessons over a period of several months to someone who was seriously disabled. This is an account of our progress.


Some years ago, I was asked by a mother if I would give lessons to her 19 year old son who had been severely handicapped as the result of a road accident.

I went along to see the family.They appeared very well off; possibly they had won an award of compensation following the accident; because their son lived in a purpose built annexe to their house, complete with swimming pool and live in help. In addition, numerous therapists of every persuasion visited daily.

I had mixed feelings about working with handicapped people; and when I was introduced to Simon, I felt these were justified; but the money was good, and the mother insistent, so I agreed.

Physically, Simon was whole, if grossly lopsided; but he appeared to have absolutely no control over any part of his body. His various helpers toiled to built muscle, improve co-ordination, maintain brain activity, etc; but I was left with the impression nobody was making much connection with whatever Simon himself thought – if, indeed, he thought at all – largely because he couldn’t speak and gave no appearance of understanding anything that was said.

Conversation was limited to the sort of cheery greetings and unanswerable questions I would have found myself in other circumstances addressing to animals or babies. Everybody did this – including Simon’s mother, sister and father – and I found until I got used to it that I was often reduced to tears before I had even arrived at the house at the mere prospect of having to converse in idiot fashion with someone who months earlier had presumably been a strapping teenager in full command of his faculties.

I gave my lessons in a conventional fashion. Simon would be ‘sat’ in a chair by his helper; then I would set to work, with the helper at arms distance to lend support if a crisis occurred. Putting my hands on I remember thinking how crucial it was for me to stay ‘in my back’. The trouble was, try as I might, I couldn’t rid my mind of teeming thoughts concerning Simon: the nightmare of his downfall, the stench from his colostomy bag, his blistering halitosis, his wild, staring eyes, the state of his neck, head and back, which seemed made of unyielding lead panels riveted together that every so often, with no warning, buckled alarmingly.

Sometimes, his arms or legs would take on a life of their own, waving or kicking violently. My hands, like fragile leaves, would be blown away; so I would have to compose myself and start again.

I talked as I worked, saying more or less what I would have said to any other student, but less of it. It seemed utterly fruitless to expect Simon to have any understanding of what I was saying concerning inhibition or direction. He couldn’t ask me questions; there was no certainty he heard me; he never once in all the lessons I gave him offered the slightest indication with his eyes or any other part of his face that he even recognised I was there.

We worked in a version of semi-supine, too. This was carried out on the floor. I laboured away, initially just getting Simon into an approximation of what I considered reasonable alignment. This was physically fairly demanding; and it left me wondering if I should just be ignoring his evident out-of-synchness and putting my hands on and simply directing instead. However, whenever I did do that, the lack of response I got, the lack of the remotest sort of feedback, made me believe I might as usefully have been working on a tree. Something could have been happening, but it was at a depth I had no comprehension of; and basing my ‘lesson’ on that sort of hope seemed an unnecessary form of wishful thinking.

Having rearranged the bulk of Simon, I would take a leg and try and move it. Sometimes, I felt the hip joint ‘give’ ever so slightly. More often than not it was like trying to encourage the raising or lowering of the socket of a bike saddle that had rusted fast. I didn’t want to force anything; but if I didn’t make a modicum of effort, absolutely nothing happened. The same went for the arms, and, sadly, the head. Taking Simon’s head when he was lying in semi supine was like taking hold of one end of a concrete object. His head, neck and back seemed all of a piece – a solid, unyielding piece.

Compared to his ‘helpers’, I was gentleness personified; but compared to what I was used to doing, I felt grotesquely heavy handed. Turning his head – trying to encourage Simon to ‘let’ his head be turned – was next to impossible. Once or twice I got a sense that there was the suspicion of a potential movement at one or other of the topmost vertebra deep inside his skull. Other times, I was convinced this was an illusion. Whatever movement took place in Simon’s neck, it was mostly spasmodic, and I had the impression it was initiated somewhere in the shoulder region.

As I struggled with Simon’s physical form, I tried to adhere to the conviction that the less I did and the more I thought, the greater the effect would be. I never had much evidence of that; and gradually my faith diminished. We worked at getting in and out of a chair, too. I would have my hands around Simon’s neck, not gripping him so much as trying to provide a cradle of support around which his head might have the possibility of not trampolining backwards and down as soon as it (he?) sensed something different was required. The helper would position himself on Simon’s other side, holding his trunk upright. We would then encourage Simon forward from the hips; but in all honesty I don’t know that I ever located Simon’s hips at all. He seemed to have an extraordinarily convoluted lower back, linked to a curiously misplaced pelvis; and given that his legs were different lengths and shapes with vastly opposing muscle mass, coming forward in order to rise from the chair was a haphazard business.

But we did it! Part way, at least. Simon would rise into a sort of truncated monkey, with us holding him from either side like guy ropes to prevent swaying. Finally, he stood, in tottering fashion. Then he would descend, falteringly. By the time he was back in the chair, his head had usually gone into a species of spasm that I then spent the next ten minutes trying to calm.

I gave Simon lessons twice weekly for a few months, then stopped as I was going abroad. On my return, I met and discussed him with the friend who had originally introduced me to the family. Simon’s mother, it seemed, was thrilled with the changes in her son. The friend produced a snapshot she had been given of Simon looking very dignified and composed in a dinner jacket in a wheelchair at some smart occasion. I was pleased; but I felt no inclination to return.

Looking back on the lessons I had given, my primary feeling was one of horror. I don’t think this had much to do with the nature of the lessons so much as the concern I felt at what I imagined it must have been like to be Simon, encased as he was in a muscular system that appeared to me to hold him in an indescribably fierce grasp. Teaching the Technique, I had got to feel how ‘tight’ an average body was; and there usually seemed to be a direct correlation between that and the degree of difficulty or stuckness or pain experienced.

Making a comparison between the worst case I had come across of seemingly unnecessary muscular tightness and Simon’s situation was meaningless. Simon was in another league altogether. My fear was that he was living within an unyielding knot of torment that he had no way of conveying to anyone around him, nor necessarily even being able to consider any alternative to himself; yet I had no evidence he was in pain. What degree of discomfort he suffered, I have no idea. I don’t know if he enjoyed or endured his days; or even if he had any viable means of knowing one way or the other.

What brought the memory of these lessons I gave Simon to mind again was when I recalled the ‘lesson’ I had had when supine where Noam Renen simply held my outstretched hands for thirty minutes while neither of us moved or spoke. Someone suggested that whatever the teacher’s state, something of it will have affected me, though their hands. Whatever I did with, or to, or for, Simon, it evidently had an effect; but I’ve always wondered whether, if I had done less, by putting my hands on with an absolute minimum of overt movement or even intention, the outcome might have been different.

The trouble was, I felt I had to ‘do’ something. At the very least, I had to encourage Simon to move. He did enough lying around, as it was. Besides, I didn’t have the nerve to pass myself off as an Alexander teacher who took no apparent interest in movement of any sort!

All this happened a long time ago. If I was asked now to do the same again, I don’t know what I would say. I’d like to think I might be able to take a leaf out of Noam’s book; but then I’ve no idea what was going on in his mind and body that made such an apparent impression on me at the time. Knowing what went on in my mind during the lessons I gave Simon, and assuming it would have been reflected in my body, I sometimes wonder that he benefited at all.

My Dad’s back

In later life, my father suffered badly from asthma. I went with him to what we both assumed was a competent osteopath. What ensued surprised us both.

My dad was thrown off an armoured car in the latter stages of WW2. His back and ribcage were never okay after that; and he used to make regular trips to see an osteopath. He always felt better afterwards.

When I was in my early twenties, I did something to my back as I tried to persuade a heifer calf to lie flat in the boot of a estate car. I went to see my dad’s osteopath shortly afterwards. It was a fearful experience, with grotesquely magnified clunks reverberating around inside me as he leaned his weight against my curled up body. However, there was no pain; and I particularly remember the subsequent night’s sleep being blissful; but as I stretched and clambered out of bed the following morning, there was an ominous click and my back relapsed.

As my dad got older, he succumbed to asthma. His original osteopath had died, so he sought out another. After a couple of false starts, he found a chiropractor he was happy with, who seemed to do both his back and his breathing amazing amounts of good.

Time passed. I was staying with my parents on the occasion of what turned out to be his last visit to the chiropractor; so I went along for the ride. I was encouraged to come into the consulting room; and was transfixed by what went on. My dad lay supine on a couch. The chiropractor took his head, made a few gentle looking adjustments, and then made one, very sudden, relatively violent twist.

There was a cry of anguish from my father, along with a rippling series of loud cracks from the area of his spine and ribs, as his body – fourteen stone, heavily built – rose from the couch, flailed helplessly, before landing on its back again. It reminded me of nothing so much as a rag doll being flipped through the air.

Almost immediately, my dad got up from the table and I could see at a glance how different he was. The entire right side of his body, which moments earlier had been taut, with his shoulder held several inches higher than on the left, was back in balance. I was astounded at the transformation; but I was also astonished that his neck hadn’t snapped during it.

I well remember my ambivalent feelings. I had been ‘working’ on my father during my visit – a fair number of three quarter hour sessions – but I had made virtually no impression; whereas this man, in less than five minutes, had effectively ‘cured’ him. Still, I would have had great difficulty not stepping in and stopping the proceedings – on strict safety grounds – if the chiropractor hadn’t signalled he had already done all he was going to do.

As it was, I was just drawing breath, when he came up to me, peering into my eyes. He announced himself as a consultant iridologist, and proclaimed after a brief scrutiny that I had a serious stomach problem that needed seeing to. He handed me his card, which I was further astonished to see claimed he was also an acupuncturist and a homeopath.

I mentioned my doubts to my father as we drove home; but I felt somewhat churlish doing so. Driving down for the appointment, his asthma had been so bad, we had kept conversation to a minimum. He had looked like a stuffed frog: hardly able to breath, rigid upper body. Furthermore, it was clear he was in pain. Now, he breathed like a baby, his eyes sparkled, and he appeared utterly relaxed.

He stayed well for several months, before the asthma gradually crept back up on him. He rang the chiropractor; but he had moved away from the area. He tried other practitioners, but none of them did him much good. Meanwhile, he sank ever increasing amounts of conventional asthma medication.

One night, his breathing became so bad, the doctor was called. He injected some adrenaline based drug that made my dad as high as a kite. His breathing improved no end; he became almost maniacally happy; but he died in his sleep that night.

Shortly after, my mum sent me a press cutting about the chiropractor. Apparently, several complaints had been received, not about his treatments but about what he had got up to with young children while alone with them in his consulting room. He was subsequently jailed; but what was particularly interesting was the emergence of the fact he had falsified virtually all his alleged qualifications!

Ten years on, I have no obvious signs of a stomach problem; but I remain eternally grateful to this ‘chiropractor? for giving my dad several new leases of life.

I’m not sure what the moral of this story is.