How do I decide which training course to attend?

These are just some of the ways an intending trainee might approach the tricky question of training to become an Alexander teacher.

“How do I decide which training course to attend?”



I started training as an Alexander teacher in 1986. At that time, there were far fewer schools, and most of them had long waiting lists. They also had what I considered stringent conditions for joining those lists, including a lengthy period of lessons with the course directors.


I had had relatively few lessons, and I had no particular preference for one training school over another. I was vaguely familiar with the different approaches – Carrington, MacDonald, Barlow – from my reading of the available literature; and I suppose, if asked, I would have veered towards a Barlow based school, simply because I found Wilfred Barlow�s explanation of the Technique more illuminating and thoughtful than any other.


My eventual choice of school was entirely due to chance. I happened to have a lesson with a teacher who had heard of a new training course about to open. I visited it, met and got on with the directors, who had, as it happened, been Barlow trained, and joined shortly afterwards. I was one of nine, most of whom had gone through a similar process to me. Perhaps because of this, we shared a refreshing – I thought – non allegiance to any particular approach.


If I was planning to train now, I would be far clearer about where I would want to go. Not having the benefit of hindsight, I would suggest any intending trainee, having established a short list of financially and logistically viable schools, discover as much as possible about each before even thinking of visiting any of them. This is because an Alexander training school can seem a strange and sometimes intimidating environment. Visiting one isn�t necessarily the best way to obtain information.


Useful questions to ponder might be:


How structured is a course? Is that structure decided by the directors or the senior students? How rigidly is it adhered to? Would you consider such rigidity a good or bad thing? How much say, if any, might junior students have? Is there any provision for individual students to �take over� the occasional running of the course? Personally, I found I preferred a fluid structure; and I particularly liked it when students ran the course, temporarily. However, I loathed it when all structure became temporarily lost.


When does a student begin to use their hands? This can differ widely, from almost immediately to not before the third year. It might seem difficult to know as an intending trainee which is preferable. I, personally, would have liked to use my hands immediately, and not have had a special or precious thing made of it. Others might disagree.


How much hands on work is there, overall? An intending trainee might not know how much they would like there to be. Perhaps, if their experience of lessons had been that the more a teacher used their hands the better, they would prefer that sort of ratio to continue during training. For me, the opposite was the case, and I would have positively welcomed a more hands off approach.


There�s also the issue of how the hands are used. This is a subtle matter, and obviously requires time spent at the school itself. Some teachers can seem alarmingly heavy handed, or disconcertingly light fingered. My personal bias errs towards the latter.


How much time is set aside for �work on the self�? In truth, all Alexander work is work on the self, and a better question might be to ask �how�, precisely, such work is done. Any answer to this question from a course director outside a brief reference to inhibition and direction could prove very illuminating. Merely attempting to answer the question, in detail, would be a plus, in my view.


How much if any reading is done in class; and what books are read? If Alexander�s books are considered de trop or too difficult in any way, this might be a telling point. If someone is after an academic approach, it might be worth asking about any follow up to �reading�. One of my fellow trainees was disappointed we didn�t discuss in class, and later write about, what we had read, as he had done, in depth, with texts at university. For my part, I found reading in class of most interest not because of what we read but how we read it, out aloud.


Anatomy and physiology is a tricky question. How much formal study goes on? How much is necessary? If it is included, is an equivalent portion of psychology taught? Personally, apart from learning about the way the head sat on the atlas, and the atlas turned on the axis, the relative position of the hip joints and the striking mobility of the ribcage, I found most of this superfluous. Of far more interest, to me, was the mechanism of thought. For others, though, the exact opposite might be the case.


How soon do trainees put hands on other students, other teachers or � most importantly � visitors? I would simply say, the earlier the better, even with members of the public, so long as they are not paying. I don�t think this is common practice.


How many visiting teachers are there in a typical term or year? And, even more crucially, how many of them are from alternative strands of the teaching web? This is probably the most important question of all. Visiting teachers cost money, and if the school is a small one, the directors would obviously prefer to do as much work as possible themselves. What I clearly recall, though, is the massive advantage we all gained from visits from teachers whose approach we were not familiar with. Insights abounded, and blockages cleared, like magic. The key word here is familiarity. Having the same visitor, constantly, becomes less and less illuminating.�


What lineage are the directors from? Is this the same as the visiting teachers, the same as the trainees, before they joined the course? How important is this? Some schools may have a reputation for not only believing their understanding of the Technique is the only valid one, but expecting their students to believe it too. To further that end, any visiting teachers, as well as senior trainees, will probably teach along similar lines to the directors. This might, or might not, seem attractive.


Are there any extracurricular activities? By this, I mean anything that isn�t either straightforward Alexander work or directly relevant to its application. A trainee may, or may not, have strong feelings about this. In moderation, I didn�t, and don�t.


Is any time devoted to easing the passage from training into professional life? Some schools will treat this far more seriously than others. Again, much depends on how a person views becoming a professional.


Various ways to establish the above information might range from phoning or emailing the course director, checking the school website, if it has one, or asking for contact details of previous students. I would recommend the last approach. I�m sure that recently qualified trainees would be happier to answer questions in detail than course directors. They might be more honest, too. I�ve found, in other areas of life, if I want to learn about something I�m considering paying for, asking advice from those who have already paid for it is a great help.


Finally, there are the obvious questions that can only be resolved by a personal visit to a school.


Do you get on well with the course director(s)?

Do you like the place?

How do you find the other students?


These three are all gut level decisions. You either feel good about the place and the people or you don�t. We had several visitors on our course. I remember one, an Israeli, who came with his father, said nothing the whole day, and refused to be worked on. We never saw him again. Others couldn�t stop talking, or else never left the safety of the couch. Some came often but failed to become trainees; others made a single visit, and then joined the course a year later.


Only one person ever left our course, unqualified; and she completed her training elsewhere. This was a clear case of the school not suiting the personality. However, that doesn�t mean that everyone else was ideally suited where they were. Given a choice, it�s far easier to select the ideal place at the outset than move to it later.�����


To reiterate. For me, the most important issues, besides the obvious practicalities of locality, finance and rubbing along with everyone, would be how much emphasis was placed on work on the self, rather than work on others; how much hands off work was done; how early hands on work was introduced; how soon students got to work in real life situations; how frequently visiting teachers came; and how open to alternative strands of teaching a school was.


The one issue that would probably tip the balance for me today would be the amount of time spent teaching trainees to work with other people without using their hands. In other words, time spent investigating our thought processes, and how they affect our physical use, in action, in depth. I�m unaware of any training course offering this as a speciality.


Although I taught on a training school for many years, as a visiting teacher, I don�t run one. So my advice to potential trainees is strictly from the point of view of a teacher who remembers how it was to train and how he might have preferred it to be.


Good luck!

What to expect during an Alexander lesson

Some ideas I thought might be helpful for anyone thinking of have an Alexander lesson but unsure where to start.

What to expect during an Alexander lesson?


My idea of what to expect when I went for my first Alexander lesson was largely based on the books I had so far read, prominent amongst which was Dr Barlow’s The Alexander Principle. I imagined the main instruction would be mental, with some physical �measurement� and �movement� thrown in. The lesson was nothing like that. I found I couldn�t easily categorise it; and as I didn�t have another for over a year, I was hardly any wiser when I began a full �course� of lessons with a teacher whose name I picked randomly from the phone directory.


Over the succeeding months, I received what I later came to understand as fairly typical, middle of the road Alexander lessons, each one increasingly revealing of me, if slightly less interesting and more routine than its predecessor. Early on, I found myself thinking that when we had �done� the sitting and standing business, we would no doubt get on to other activities. As for the lying down turns: I moved from mystification as to what was actually being taught, through a vague sense of disappointment that all I was expected to do was lie still, to resignation that this relatively static procedure seemed to be an integral part of every lesson.


I remember being mesmerised by the way my teacher, swooping over me like a bird of prey, would take hold of some part of my body, and then look soulfully into mid distance, before making a minor adjustment or movement. It wasn�t until much later that I realised this pause represented �inhibition� and its associated glance encapsulated the mysterious process of �direction�.


I had very much wanted to learn about ‘inhibition and direction’, which, from my reading of Dr Barlow’s book, seemed a fairly simple, if rather mechanical, procedure, crucial to any understanding of the Alexander Technique. However, I found I wasn’t being taught this, at least not as a precise form of action or words. It was more a case of my teacher alluding occasionally to a vague, unformulated desire to ‘lengthen and widen’.


One day, in desperation, I asked if we could do something different. I typed a lot at the time and I thought it might be useful to have a lesson in front of the typewriter. This was something of a failure, as I can well understand, now. I sat while my teacher made tiny adjustments, by the end of which I felt stiff and set.


I asked my teacher if I should have a lesson with someone else, just to see what it was like. He suggested not to, but I did, anyway. It was, in fact, not that different. I began then to realise the structure and tone of a typical Alexander lesson was solidly built around the chair and the table. Usually, twenty minutes or so was spent with each. That meant an essentially passive period in semi supine; and an only slightly more active period of sitting and standing.


I decided it must then be up to me to ‘translate’ what I learned during lessons into the rest of my life. This resulted in me sitting and moving rigidly most of the time, while ‘thinking up’ religiously. Once my �course� of lessons was over, I felt vaguely dissatisfied, as if I had not been taught so much as led, by the nose, and was now left to fend for myself in unfamiliar territory.


Since that time, I have trained to be a teacher; and although my experience of teachers across the board is still not extensive, I have run into many, many different teaching styles.


My own teaching is fairly traditional. I don’t always teach semi supine, though I am far more appreciative of the process, as a learning tool, than I was. In fact, I believe there is a case for only teaching this way. If a student is lengthened, or encouraged to lengthen, or taught to lengthen, exclusively while lying recumbent on a couch or the floor, there is little if any cause, incentive or temptation for him or her to try to ‘feel out’ the lesson experience afterwards. The reason for this is the absence of any kinesthetic memory of being upright in a ‘lengthened’ state, to use (or misuse) as a template of correctness, when ‘applying the Technique’ to life.


However, I use the chair a lot; and my main excuse for this – because I think an excuse, or at least a reason, is necessary – is that the movement from sitting to standing, and from standing to sitting, is one that we repeat on countless occasions every day; it is a movement that brings out the worst in us, in terms of ‘interfering with the right employment of the Primary Control’; it is easy for a teacher to keep their hands on a student during it; and it is essentially active and much more fun, I find, than working in semi supine.


I have tried working with more varied activities and I have to admit to not finding it particularly fruitful. However, I am aware of the existence, though unfamiliar with the practicalities, of what is commonly known as the �application approach�. This appears, to me, simple common sense; and I am full of admiration for those who teach it; but I find it difficult to venture an opinion on its usefulness. I mention it because they are many teachers around the world who do not teach traditionally, and they might be just the teacher an aspiring student needs.


However, I do spend a lot of time and effort in teaching a student how to apply what they learn to their lives. In my view, this is the most important aspect of every lesson. I use my hands a fair amount; but the less I need to use them, I find, the better the lesson works. If I fall – as I do, repeatedly – into the trap of trying to give a student a good experience through the prolonged, unexplained use of my hands, although I am (usually) as gratified as they are by the result, I consider this poor teaching.


Since there are as many different approaches as there are practicing teachers, I would suggest mine is simply a reflection of what I would like were I to have a lesson. Other teachers will act according to their own preferences.


Nevertheless, I imagine the vast majority of students will experience during their first lesson a variant of the standard chair/table scenario. Regardless of which is more dominant, the question then becomes how the lesson is conducted. My experience is of there being three main strands:


1.Relatively silent.

2.Resolutely chatty.



The silent lesson seems to me to operate in a way that encourages change to take place not so much through conscious choice as conscious acceptance. The student is persuaded, both in the chair and on the table, to �not interfere� or to �interfere less’, through the use of the teacher’s hands; and – presumably – it is hoped that this experience, by repetition, will result in a lower and lower level of habitual interference in their daily life. Little or no explanation is given of inhibition or direction. Essentially, this sort of lesson is conscious, in that a student allows certain things to happen, as well as unconscious, in that the teacher’s hands elicit responses the student is unaware of. Outside of lessons, any lasting effect is likely to be ‘by osmosis’ only.


The resolutely chatty approach follows much the same format, with the body of the student being encouraged to respond differently, through the hands of the teacher, while their mind is at least partly engaged on other matters. The thinking behind this, evidently, is that it is a closer approximation of �real life� than silence; although the same premise is shared that the repetition of being moved more easily during the lesson will automatically result (in other words, without much thought) in more ease outside lessons.


The informative lesson is one where a student will be encouraged to actively take part in the process of moving differently, with attention being given by both parties to inhibition and direction. The idea behind this sort of lesson is the belief that inhibition and direction are processes central to the production of all new experiences and that they can be best explained through explicit verbalisation.


However, as anyone who has had lessons with a number of teachers will know, there are more ways than one of teaching inhibition and direction. In fact, this subject is so varied, it deserves a book to itself. For an appraisal of how the subject might be taught, I recommend the writings of Joe Armstrong.


Generally, the less that is said, or the less that is said that is germane to the lesson, the more time a teacher is likely to spend with their hands on a student. The touch of a teacher’s hands can vary enormously. I remember one teacher telling me how he had been taught to ‘slap it on like a wet fish’! And, once ‘on’, what those hands do, and the way they do it, varies, too.


I’ve experienced many different forms of touch from Alexander teachers, and although there’s a lot to be said for firm decisiveness, an uncompromising hold, etc, my own predilection is for the lightest possible contact, one that is barely discernible. This doesn’t necessarily produce the profoundest effect, in terms of experience, but what it does permit is an appreciation of who, exactly, in the student/teacher relationship, is doing what.


I like the sort of touch that impels me into a different type of movement, but that might almost as easily not have been there, leaving the impression that the movement was my responsibility alone. I prefer this over the neck-lock model often seen in photos, where one hand moulds itself beneath the back of the head, with the other supporting the bottom of the jaw. As a student is hoisted (which is what it often feels like) into the air, or lowered precariously downward, the overriding impression is of being ‘sat’ or ‘stood’ like a ventriloquist’s dummy. I’m sure this has its advocates, along with a rationale of its own, but it’s not my preference.


The touch of a hand is a very personal thing; and every student will know what he or she best responds to. I do think, though, particularly with chairwork, that less is more. Working with someone in semi supine is slightly different. Occasionally, parts of the body are lifted and held for some time. Weight is often shifted, against gravity. This requires a firm rather than a slight hold.


A teacher’s proximity can sometimes be an issue. Obviously, to use their hands, they cannot be further away than arm’s length, but some teachers have a different perception of what is appropriate than others. For me, increased freedom and ease is not made more likely by a large part of me wanting to take a step away from what seems a major encroachment on my personal space.


At the other extreme, which I have not experienced as a student, though I would certainly like to, is the teacher who hardly uses their hands at all. I imagine them standing or sitting some way away from their student, guiding them through words alone. I’ve tried this myself, as a teacher, and find it very rewarding, as well as revealing. To a student, this may seem only a step or two away from learning from a book; but the key element in the teacher’s physical presence is their perception of what their student is doing. Reliable feedback lies at the heart of making changes through the Technique. Such feedback is difficult alone.


To sum up, the main questions for a new student who would like to have Alexander lessons but knows no teachers personally, and also knows nobody who might be able to recommend a teacher, but who doesn’t want to try ‘pot luck’, is firstly recognising what sort of teacher they want, and secondly, understanding how to distinguish between them.


Personally, I would look for a teacher who used their hands minimally, who was informative rather than silent, and whose main aim was not to give me new experiences, but to teach me how to make new experiences for myself. Knowing what I do now, I still don’t think I could easily evaluate whether or not a given teacher met these criteria, simply by speaking to them on the phone. Correspondence by email might elicit the necessary information, though. Certainly, even for a beginning student, one lesson should be enough to know where a teacher�s bias lay.


A student�s expectations might be quite the opposite of mine. They might desire their teacher to work silently, with minimal input from them (the student). They might relish a fairly constant use of the hands. They might prefer a firm, decisive touch rather than a light, wavering one. They might like the feeling of being ‘pulled and put into shape’, and be more than happy with the repeated effect of this rubbing off on them, with no requirement on their part to think or act ‘constructively’, during or after lessons.


My advice to any student would simply be to play it by ear. Try, if possible, to find a teacher who gives introductory lessons for free. Have one. Then go away and think about it. Hopefully, a student will already have some idea about the sort of teaching they are hoping for. If not, it pays to consider what the main motivation is for having lessons. Is it to get sorted out; or to sort themselves out?


Of course, if there are very few teachers in a locality, who to have lessons with is not a matter of choice. Unless that teacher really rubs a student up the wrong way, it is probably best to persevere with what’s available. If, however, an initial experience is bad, or unfavourable, and there are other teachers around, I would unhesitantly suggest moving on.


There remains the possibility that the sort of teacher a student hopes for is not, in fact, the sort of teacher they need. Thinking about this, it’s undeniable that one of the best lessons I ever had ‘taught’ me nothing (as a student) but gave me an ineffable experience and was massively influential in the way I went on to teach. This is exactly the opposite of what I would have said at the time that I wanted.


I’ve always been ambivalent about the ‘full twenty five lesson course’ business. This is fine, if a student and their teacher develops their relationship so that each fresh lesson seems like a step forward. However, too often, I suspect, lessons become routine, to the point of merely filling in time. I would heartily recommend a student having lessons with as many teachers as possible; and not worrying about having more than one with any of them, let alone twenty five, until they find someone who truly suits them.


Some teachers may not like this approach; but it’s as well to remember, the student is paying rather than the other way around. The only downside to this sort of attitude is if a student never stays for more than a few lessons with any teacher, thereby missing out on the depth of experience gained through prolonged, detailed application.


Overall, if a student’s desire is to learn to apply the Technique for themselves, they should be seeking out someone who says they will teach them to do this. If, on the other hand, they prefer to pay to be provided with repeated experiences of good use, but little guidance as to how those experiences were achieved, they should be looking for someone different.


The best way to find out how a teacher teaches is to ask; and then to have an experimental lesson.


From the outset, it is as well not to make the mistake of thinking the first lesson – or any lesson – represents the definitive Alexander Technique. It doesn’t. There isn’t such a thing. The Technique is taught in so many ways, there is almost certain to be a teacher out there who would suit – or alienate – any intending student.


One last thought concerns the question of teachers adapting to the requirements of their students. I don’t mean this in the general way we all adapt to those we come in contact with. I mean it more particularly. It would be agreeable to think most teachers recognise that certain students require a different approach, and change accordingly; but I’m not sure that’s being realistic.


As in all areas of life, we assume far too often that what we believe someone else wants is exactly what we’re giving them; so we never bother confirming this, let alone changing what we’re doing. Often, our perception and reality can be wildly at odds. If a student has researched the Alexander Technique and is interested in learning and has a clear idea of how they would like to be taught, there’s no reason for them not to articulate this, from the outset, in the hope they may have found an accommodating teacher.


Good luck!


Thinking about how we think, generally and during Alexander work.

It was suggested to me that:

“…the function of the mind is to think, think about something.”

This seems a bit hard on animals, who also have minds, but who presumably don’t have the capacity to “think about” matters in the way we do. Nor would I call the ability to string a series of thoughts together an unmitigated blessing.

Most of my time is spent “thinking about” things that have little or nothing to do with what is going on around me. This dulls my appreciation of life to a considerable extent. On those rare occasions when I stop “thinking about” anything, I become more rather than less conscious.

This raises the question of how useful “thinking about” things is in an Alexandrian context. The connection I have always made between the Technique and Eastern approaches like Zen Buddhism was that both emphasised the need to be in the present. The Technique may do so more obliquely; but without this as a prior requirement, inhibition and direction would be impossible.

The problem is that whereas the Eastern ideal requires a stillness of mind that suggests an absence of thought, the writings of Alexander specify we should be thinking in a very specific way.

I was initially confused by this, before coming to the conclusion that the sort of thinking required to apply the principles of the Technique to life had to specifically exclude “thinking about” those principles, or indeed, anything else, at the time of application. Otherwise, we would find ourselves anywhere but the present moment.

“Thinking about” something involves a complex series of imaginative processes that takes us away from where we are; “thinking of” it, by contrast, can include one or more of these same processes, but in conjunction rather than succession, allowing us to remain present. 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.

This applies in much the same way to thinking “of”, as opposed to “about”, our neck, head and back.

Over the years, I’ve found the discipline involved in applying the Technique to life has as much to do with stopping “thinking about” things in order to be present as remembering, when present, to inhibit and direct. In fact, for a while now, I’ve harboured the suspicion that, by stopping thinking about whatever it is that prevents me paying attention, a form of inhibition and direction will have already taken place.

“Thinking about” things is both villain and saviour: the original cause of poor use, it lies behind all human achievement. Very little gets done by simply “thinking of” things. Unfortunately, Alexander’s belief that we could solve the problems of civilisation by attending to both means and end fails to take into account the difficulty involved when the majority of ends have to be “thought about” (often deeply) in order to be achieved.

The only way out of this impasse would be if we were able to think “of” one thing, at the same time as thinking “about” another, while remaining equally conscious of both. A simple example might be “thinking of” my head going forward and up, while “thinking about” my mortgage repayments. For my part, I can’t do this.

My conclusion is that “thinking about” things is not so much a function as a habit; it is incompatible with the application of the Technique; we over indulge in it at our peril; but that without it civilisation would grind to a halt.


I have often wondered about Alexander “attending to the means-whereby” while writing his books; and I assumed that either he didn’t, or else, if he did, he had an ability that few of us share.

Maybe I am being unduly pessimistic. After all, I can only know for sure how I think, which is that when I write anything original that requires a degree of reflective thought, I am unable to attend to my use at the same time.

Years ago, I made a list of activities I believed could be done “with attention to the means-whereby” and those that I thought couldn’t.

Predominantly physical activity – running, for example – whose intricacies had already been learned, tended to be in the first list; with predominantly mental activities – such as reading – which require imagination, in the second. I reckoned half my life was Alexanderable; but that it was probably the half that needed it least.

I imagine that “thinking of” and “thinking about” things are familiar patterns of behaviour to most people. What isn’t familiar is their conjunction; and what wasn’t familiar to me before learning the Technique was the conjunction of “thinking of” what I was doing with “thinking of” the way I was doing it. For me, that was the new, unfamiliar way of thinking Alexander and others described.

“Thinking of” one thing and “thinking about” another, however, I found, and find, impossible. It’s like trying to listen to two conversations at once. To me, thinking about something requires an imaginative shift that takes me away from myself, preventing me thinking of, or about, anything else. Simply put, thinking at more than one remove from reality takes me away from that reality.

So what happens if, to use my original example, I’m thinking of my head going forward and up when the thought of mortgage repayments floats into my mind?

Initially, my attention to the means-whereby needn’t be displaced by this new thought, since I am able to “think of” both ideas at the same time; but as soon as I consider or “think about” the mortgage repayment issue, anticipation and speculation based on remembered facts and figures flood in, and attention to the means-whereby goes out of the window.

As I said, I have heard people imply they thought it was possible for this anticipation and speculation to occur while still managing to attend to the means-whereby. I’d certainly like to know how.

It has also been pointed out that Alexander used his hands while chatting, etc, and that some form of thought would have been required to use the hands well, not to mention the thought required to talk at the same time.

Although special skills are obviously necessary, I don’t think the use of the hands is that different to any other predominantly physical activity. Once learned, it becomes largely subconscious, or hovers at the edge of consciousness, unless we chose to have it at centre stage. Some awareness is required, certainly, in order to think “of” what we are doing; but thinking “about” how the hands are being used, or what they are being used for, is likely to take us away from attending to our own use, and therefore detract from the quality of our hands – not to mention detracting from the line in chat.

Years back, when I taught evening classes, I used to see if I could attend to my use while talking; and the answer was, yes – so long as I didn’t think about what I was saying. That’s not as crazy as it sounds. So long as I talked “off the top of my head”, I was okay. As soon as I delved deeper and started “thinking about” the words I might use, I lost all sense of myself.

To reiterate, “thinking of” the use of the hands and “thinking of” whatever is being talked about can be done concurrently. However, should we need to think “about” the use of the hands, associated chat would be the first casualty. Conversely, should the flow of talk stumble, and the subject matter need to be thought “about”, for a time the hands would have to operate automatically.

The best way of describing what I mean is to use an analogy. Car driving straddles the lists I referred to earlier. It is a complex process that has to be learned consciously and then becomes semi automatic. Generally, if we are driving in easy traffic on known roads to a destination we are familiar with, we can get there while thinking about other things during the journey. There’s neither need to think “about” nor even to think “of” driving. Attending to the means-whereby would be relatively easy.

If, however, the traffic conditions are busy, or we are searching for the right road, or we have only a hazy idea of where we are going, thinking “about” or even “of” anything other than the task at hand is likely to prove impossible. We need to think exclusively of driving and of where we are going; occasionally interspersed with thoughts about how we are going to get there. Attending to the means-whereby is not a realistic option.


It always amazes me that people don’t talk more about the crucial role of ‘remembering’ in Alexander work.

When I first read about the Technique, I thought the task of learning it would depend largely on application. After I had had some lessons, I still thought this, but I had become confused about what, exactly, was being ‘applied’. I felt okay about that, since a certain amount of confusion seemed part and parcel of the learning process.

We call the work we do, ‘attending to use’; and it can mean giving directions, or refraining from stiffening the neck, in a host of different ways. In other spheres of life, of course, ‘application’ of a discipline could mean anything from smiling in the face of adversity to taking care not to tread on insects.

Although the nature of ‘attention to use’ interests me, what intrigues me more is how we remember that we are following any discipline at all: what keeps us on track.

In my case, it was only after a considerable number of lessons that I realised the major requirement, in practical terms, was not how well I was able to ‘apply’ the Technique, but how often I remembered to do so.

We tend to forget, especially if we are busy as teachers, that each lesson we give is a reminder to ‘attend’. For our students, this is also the case; but whereas we may have many such reminders during an average week, they will only have one or two. Eventually, the time will come when they stop lessons, and are left with no external reminders at all.

How do they manage?

Remembering cuts both ways. If someone I’m close to is ill, I have difficulty forgetting about them. If I have a large tax bill, its repercussions are hard to ignore. In cases like these, what I ‘remember’ is not my conscious choice.

If I deliberately don a purple top hat and stroll around town with it on, I have little difficulty ‘remembering’ – in fact, I’m unable to forget – I have this weird appendage on my head. If I wear it for days on end, eventually I’ll lose consciousness of it being anything out of the ordinary.

In a sense, every Alexander student is asking him or herself to walk around with just such a top hat on, in the form of a constant, conscious attention to their use; but not to get so familiar with this, that they forget.

Whatever we want to ‘remember’ it seems to require, first and foremost, the act of ‘being present’.

‘Being present’ can mean different things to different people

In the early days of my interest in the Technique, I believed ‘being present’ was something that would come automatically as a result of a number of lessons. When it didn’t, I started looking around for devices to help me. I first bought a knitting counter – a small numbered cog that slips onto a knitting needle and can be turned to keep the knitter on track – and hung it round my neck. My reasoning was, each time I ‘remembered’ myself, and then went on to inhibit and direct, I would turn the dial. I reckoned that if I ‘remembered’ ten times the first day, that might stimulate me to remember more often the next day, and so on. What actually happened was, after a few days of increasing scores, a plateau was reached, along with a sort of blindness to the counter’s presence; whereupon my score tumbled as quickly as it had risen.

It was the purple top hat syndrome! I got too used to wearing it.

I followed this with purchases of a tally counter – much easier to click on – and a golfer’s wrist counter. Both suffered much the same fate. They were carried around or worn for varying periods of time, diligently, and then forgotten about.

Part of the trouble seemed to be that these devices required me to start the ball rolling; and when it stopped rolling – whether through boredom, bloody mindedness, or disinterest – I didn’t seem to have the wherewithal to start it up again.

I then thought that if I set my ordinary wrist watch alarm to beep every hour, I could reckon on at least 12 moments a day when I would be guaranteed to ‘remember’. This worked quite well; but it soon resulted in me hearing the bleep, stopping it sounding, and then saying to myself I would ‘attend to my use’ in a moment, when I had a bit of free time. Needless to say, the next thing I knew, the next hourly bleep was sounding .

Or, instead, I ‘attended’ in a very quick, slipshod fashion. I originally thought this was fine. Peripheral attention, is, I believe, of the essence; but there is a degree beyond which ‘peripheral’ becomes ‘distant’, to the point of invisibility; and I got slacker and slacker in recognising this.

What I needed, I decided, was a random alarm device, that I carried around and that sounded or vibrated at different intervals. I located a computer based ‘random alert’ program, but I found this didn’t work for the simple reason that whenever I am working at a keyboard, ‘remembering’ anything other than what I am doing is, frankly, impossible. Seeing and hearing a random alarm, I would kill it with the same alacrity I might a mosquito.

I had already tried reminder cards propped up in various parts of my house. Then, a knot in a handkerchief; the handkerchief carried in a different pocket; my wrist watch worn on a different arm, so every time I noticed these anomalies, they stimulated me to ‘remember’ myself.

All of these approaches worked, up to a point; but, invariably, familiarity meant I soon forgot about them again.

Eventually, I settled into a routine of accepting I would ‘remember’, as and when I did; that I would do my best; and that I shouldn’t expect miracles but rather normality.

Recently, I’ve been wondering what ‘normal’ is in this area. We start from absolute zero. Not, necessarily, as children, but certainly as adults, we begin with a brand new awareness of desiring to change an existing situation. So far as the Technique is concerned, we start the game the very first time we ‘remember’ to inhibit and direct. This then becomes either something dismissed, after a number of attempts, as a waste of time; or else a life sentence.

I wonder, as I have wondered at intervals over the years, how much ‘remembering’ constitutes progress; and how little remembering might mean regression. I know, personally, the ability to ‘remember’ fluctuates tremendously, from ‘remembering’ frequently, through the day, to ‘remembering’ hardly at all, for weeks on end.

I’m unsure this is an area that should be left to chance. Alexander talked of “Conscious constructive control of the individual”. I understand “constructive control” as being ‘what’ we apply to ourselves and our lives. It is the ‘way’ we ‘attend to our use’. In order to do this attending, we need to be “conscious”. A person is simply not conscious unless they have ‘remembered’ to be. To remain conscious for any length of time, they need to continually remember. Being conscious, whether for its own sake, or in order to ‘attend’ to something, effectively means self-remembering.

I believe Frank Pierce Jones suggested that if we were able to acquire a device that would alert us each time we pulled our heads back and down, although it might seem initially to be the answer to our prayers, very soon we would get irritated by it and turn it off.

My own experience would seem to bear this out; but I wonder if such a device could be used, not in an ‘always on’ or ‘always off’ fashion, but occasionally, judiciously, so as to bring about an increasing awareness of current conditions, without alienating our desire to know more.

Certainly, there are any number of areas of my life, besides application of the Technique, where I would welcome improvement in my capacity for ‘remembering’. What I’ve outlined above may seem laughable and even trite and unimportant – as if devices rather than will power were the answer – but I think it might pay us all to consider how we ‘remember’ to change our mode of reaction, how often we ‘remember’, and how we might learn to ‘remember’ more readily. I would love to hear how others address this issue; or even if they address it at all.

I have a fond memory of my training course director bringing into class a letter he had received from someone at an Australian university researching the application and effectiveness of Alexander work. The letter asked heaps of detailed, academic questions; the last of which was “What is the single most important aspect of the Alexander Technique?”

The director told us he planned to write back with the single word, ‘Remembering’.


How easy or hard or even possible is it for us to pay attention to the means-whereby?

Over the years, I’ve heard recurrent talk about how we might attend to all manner of things, including our use, at the same time; and how, conversely, we can concentrate on one thing, until we are aware of little else.

I suppose most of us would agree that the first state is what we are seeking; while the second is what we wish to avoid.

I remember making a list once of daily activities I believed it was possible to carry out while ‘attending’ to use; and a list where it seemed downright impossible.

The first list contained already learned, well rehearsed, predominantly ‘physical’ activities, such as walking, housework, gardening, bike riding, driving in light traffic, familiar sport or dance, reading known material aloud, making inconsequential small talk, etc.

The point where it became more difficult to attend to use during such ‘first list’ activities was when they required a certain amount of ‘ongoing modification’ from the norm I was used to, such as driving in severe traffic conditions, using dangerous tools in house or garden, talking in public on a difficult subject, trying something different during sport or recreation, etc.

The second list was made up partly of those ‘physical’ activities that required a greater degree of presence of mind to be accomplished; but predominantly it consisted of ‘mental’ activities, such as reading, writing, planning, listening, understanding different points of view, daydreaming – in effect, all forms of ‘speculative’ thinking.

My two lists obviously coincide during the times we are carrying out a relatively simple activity – such as sitting or walking – while engaged in something more complex – such as reconsidering what we did yesterday. This is both a ‘first list’ activity (sitting) and a ‘second list’ activity (speculative thinking) that effectively prevents ‘attention to use’.

It seems the activities that allow us to pay Alexandrian attention are limited to those we are sufficiently familiar with to not have to ‘watch out for ourselves’; whereas, during activities that require so much of us there is nothing left to speculate with, or during such speculation itself, this is impossible. It is as if we have an ‘allowance’ of attention that can be spread or narrowed, depending on circumstances, but that can only ‘take in’ so much.

Personal examples of this might include my inability to listen to two conversations simultaneously; the fact that when driving in ‘easy traffic’, I can follow the action of a talking book, or think of my neck and head, or consider my life, but that when traffic conditions change for the worse, I can’t; the extraordinary way in which watching TV, reading a novel, writing an email, or thinking about the past or future, simply cannot be done while paying conscious attention to anything else whatsoever.

I wonder how much this is an individual trait; and if it is general, how much it can be changed? Somewhere in his writings, Alexander alludes to the ability to do several things at once; and I have heard others suggesting something similar. However, although ‘thinking of’ more than one thing at a time is easily done, I have yet to meet anyone, in the ordinary line of events, who can consciously ‘think about’ one thing, while ‘thinking of’ something else; still less ‘think about’ two different things at the same time.

The conclusion I originally came to was that it was unrealistic to expect Alexander students to be able to ‘attend to use’ during any but ‘first list’ activities; and that it was as well to know that trying to apply the Technique to ‘second list’ activities was unlikely to be successful, might be counterproductive, and could even be dangerous.

What I’ve discovered since hasn’t invalidated my belief so much as confused it. I start from the premise that whenever I am ‘unconsciously’ engaged in a ‘first list’ activity, I am invariably ‘thinking about’ something else at the same time. Additionally, most ‘second list’ activities are dedicated to such thinking; so this ‘thinking about’ is going on the majority of my waking life.

It now seems to me that during such ‘first list’ activities, rather than try to supplant my thinking with ‘attention to use’, I could simply stop it altogether. What that brings about is a state of being incorporating a more complete consciousness of me as a whole than I appear to experience during deliberate ‘Alexandrian’ attentiveness. Precisely how I ‘stop thinking’ is another matter.

As for ‘second list’ activities, I now make a distinction between those that require ‘single mindedness’ of both body and mind to be carried out

– such as, say, galloping through a forest on horseback – and those requiring ‘split mindedness’ – such as, listening to, taking notes on and endeavouring to understand, a complex lecture.

In the latter, poor use (in its fullest sense) seems inevitable. I simply cannot carry these sorts of task out without completely abnegating myself to unconscious control. In the former, a state similar to that obtained when ceasing mental chatter during ‘first list’ activities appears to prevail, but by necessity, rather than choice. There is an acute awareness of self, including use, that excludes deliberate attention being paid to any particular part of that self – including the neck, head, and back.

For a while now, I’ve suspected that the thinking that goes on so much of our time is the original and prime cause of poor use; and that during its absence – which, for most people, probably amounts to minutes a day at most – good use is the likely consequence.

This is because, during ‘speculative’ thinking, we become temporarily blind to what is going on, in and around us, including what we are doing to ourselves. The more regularly and enthusiastically we speculate, the more we ignore what our senses are telling us. Eventually, what would once have been an easily recognised and heeded warning to ‘stop’, falls below the threshold of awareness.

Simply put, thinking ‘about’ other things obscures us to what is going on. To remedy this by ‘paying attention’ to what we are doing with our necks and heads, rather than stopping the thinking that prevented us from knowing what that was in the first place, strikes me as somewhat superfluous.


Breathing is a deep subject. This barely scratches the surface of it.

The other night, I lay awake listening to my wife breathing. There was no doubt: hers was an effortful in breath, followed by a relaxed out breath.

I’ve noticed the same in children and animals.

I’ve only once in my life been in a situation – while meditating, which is not something I do regularly – of being able to ‘watch’ my own breathing, for a protracted period, without at the same time seeming to interfere with it. It appeared then that both in breath and out breath were happening by automatic reflex, with no discernible muscular effort on my part.

Recently, I came across the work of Ian Jackson, who teaches what he calls “the Rebound In-breath”.

Here is a quote from him:

“A similar rebound effect occurs with the insqueezing of the ribcage. You literally use muscle to bend bone here, and, like the bent wood of a bow when you release the arrow, the bone springs back when you release the insqueezing muscles. The rebound relaxing of the abdominal wall, the effortless flattening of the diaphragm, and the rebound release of the ribcage are all interconnected parts of the passive in-breath.

A reader, commenting on Ian Jackson’s work, said:

“These exercises are by far and away the most original and interesting that I have found in any book on breathing, and I’ve read multitudes. I particularly enjoyed ‘Upsidedown Breathing’ – actively pushing the air out of my lungs and then passively letting it in. Most breathwork teaches the reverse, i.e. to “take” one’s in-breath, and relax on one’s out breath. ‘Upsidedown Breathing’ is a lot more relaxing, and its result is that the in-breath becomes larger and easier.”

This put me in mind, inevitably, of the ‘whispered ah’.

I appreciate the ‘whispered ah’ is a great deal more subtle than the “Rebound In-breath”, as described (and “Upsidedown Breathing”, too); and it involves a lot besides breathing. However, I’ve always assumed that when I breathed out during a ‘whispered ah’ (particularly, a ‘silent whispered ah’), I was deliberately employing a degree (however small) of muscular effort to cause a contraction of my rib cage; and that when I stopped making this effort, my rib cage would ‘spring’ open again, allowing air to rush in. Any time I’ve listened to someone else’s ‘whispered ah’, it’s usually sounded like this: an effortful out breath, followed by a relaxed in breath.

In his writing, Ian Jackson suggests that evolution has somehow got it wrong, and that we are habitually breathing the less effective way around. Needing reminding what, in fact, the physiology of ‘normal’ breathing was, I did a cursory on line check and came up with the following:

“Breathing consists of two phases, inspiration and expiration. During inspiration, the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles contract. The diaphragm moves downwards increasing the volume of the thoracic (chest) cavity, and the intercostal muscles pull the ribs up expanding the rib cage and further increasing this volume. This increase of volume lowers the air pressure in the alveoli to below atmospheric pressure. Because air always flows from a region of high pressure to a region of lower pressure, it rushes in through the respiratory tract and into the alveoli. In contrast to inspiration, during expiration the diaphragm and intercostal muscles relax. This returns the thoracic cavity to it’s original volume, increasing the air pressure in the lungs, and forcing the air out.”

This suggested that during a ‘whispered ah’, when air flooded – seemingly effortlessly – into my lungs as I ceased to breathe out, it was actually being ‘drawn in’, indirectly, through unconsciously employed muscular contractions; and it also implied that when I breathed out, deliberately, far from requiring to make an effort to do this, I merely needed to relax those prior contractions and exhalation would take place automatically.

I saw how making a conscious effort (however small) to breath out, when no effort was required, and consciously discontinuing that effort while making no additional effort to breath in (other than ‘allowing’ the necessary reflex to occur) may, inadvertently, have created, in me, an understanding of optimal breathing, along the lines suggested by Ian Jackson.

Clearly, during a ‘whispered ah’, it is important to discriminate between innate and extraneous muscular effort when breathing in, eliminating the latter rather than the former; and to recognise that the only effort required in breathing out (so long as the necessary relaxation of contracted muscles occurs as it should) is in controlling the sound being made. In the case of a ‘silent whispered ah’, breathing out would be effortless.

For a long while, whenever I’ve had one of those moments when I realized (yet again) that, for no physiologically sound reason, I’d stopped breathing, rather than kick start the process through a deliberate effort, I’ve tried to ‘undo’ whatever it was that appeared to be preventing breathing from proceeding normally. I used to perceive this as the ‘closing down’ of my trunk, that required, rather as a dead man lever on a train, to be physically reactivated.

Recently, I started recognizing this ‘closing down’ had to do with a certain type of thinking – generally, the type that took me away from myself – and that if I stopped that thinking, breathing would resume automatically.

Belatedly, I saw that the ‘closing down’ wasn’t the cause, but the manifestation, of me ‘stopping breathing’; and both were due to my way of thinking.

Incidentally, by ‘stopping’ that ‘way of thinking’, I don’t mean to imply any particular Alexander connotation. The sort of skill I’m talking about here is that commonly employed by anyone emerging from mental abstraction in order to attend to whatever is going on.

I certainly find it worth remembering that however apparently good physical use may be, it is easy to be mentally absent; and that that mental absence is often accompanied by intermittent bouts of stopped breathing. It never ceases to amaze me how often I catch myself holding my breath.

This ‘evolution in understanding’ may seem paltry to those for whom the ‘whispered ah’ and breathing in general hold no mysteries; but I thought it was worth recording.

More on ‘droidism’

I’ve always believed one measure of success in ‘applying’ the Alexander Technique to life is not to look as though you are.

A couple of years ago on British TV there was a two part drama called “The Tribe” about a disaffected group of relatively well-to-do oddballs who lived in a converted warehouse, had some sort of business in drug production or dealing, and regularly make the journey across town, en masse, sweeping through parks, down side streets, and across wasteland, to see their connections.

Their trips across town were something of a set piece. The group strode rather than ambled, wrapped up in either leather gear or swirling greatcoats. None smiled; most wore an intense scowl. Without exception, they had well squared shoulders, and moved rather woodenly, their heads appearing to turn only in conjunction with their shoulders. Often they would stop, gazing out ahead, looking into mid distance.

They stood out like a separate race from the general populace, who were clearly intimidated by them; until, at the denouement of the film, cracks in their armour appeared and they disintegrated into a disorganised rabble, at which point they looked almost normal.

After watching this, I read a damning review in the following week’s Sunday newspaper, and was amused by the writer’s description of the group crossing the town as “looking like Alexander teachers on an outing”.

Inhibition and ‘droidism’

Why the two so often go hand in hand.

J made this observation:

“I have seen people involved in what they call ‘inhibiting’ and I wonder what the conceptual framework for their practise involves – in practise it produces an ‘Alexandroid’ condition. It looks like they are ‘inhibiting’ their freedom.”

I would say the conceptual framework for this is largely one of trying to inhibit a thought pattern whose theoretical nature is more apparent than its actual presence or effect.

At every stage of learning the Technique, the degree to which we are able to kinesthetically notice ourselves pulling backwards and down will be limited by, and will itself limit, the degree to which we are conscious of our intention to do so. The two go hand in hand.

However, since, in all of us, a varying amount of misdirection will remain subconscious, there will always be the temptation to ‘deal’ with this, by stopping doing as much as we can in the area concerned – the neck, head and back region – in the hope of successfully inhibiting what we aren’t aware of.

Hence, the familiar appearance of having swallowed a coathanger that is so prevalent amongst Alexander students.

In a nutshell, I would say Alexandroid behaviour is a result of trying to consciously inhibit more than we know we are doing.