Most people I meet are genuinely interested in hearing about Alexander Technique. Yet students and teachers alike often have difficulty describing The Technique and relating experience. Talking about the work is a challenge worth meeting for many reasons and here I am exploring the task of doing justice to the vast scope of Alexander Technique.
Part 1. The Value of Conversation
Talking about Alexander Technique deepens your practice of it
Learning to express the process of change which Alexander Technique initiates is a valuable method of clarifying one’s understanding. To articulate experiences helps to make changes made through lessons tangible. Often, it is only when asked to reflect and contrast sensations that students realise change has happened. If one can concisely express this, then a clear understanding has been actualised. The better one is at verbalising, the deeper one’s knowledge and application can be.
The vocabulary used to convey the meaning of Alexander Technique is congruent to the language used in direction (the intentions we form and instructions we give ourselves). So to become competent in speech leads to more skill in directing. Talking to others challenges you to meet your current practice of The Technique as it is in that moment. Those who do this often enough can appreciate how one’s relationship with Alexander Technique evolves over time. It helps to give a perspective on progress and maturity of practice.
Bringing ease to yourself and offering ease to others
Many students have been grateful for their family’s support of them taking lessons. Being able to involve them in your experiences serves to honour this support. Sharing such a challenging, personal and profound path invariably deepens relationships between people. Your eloquent descriptions may also inspire others to examine the way they use themselves. Or maybe you will inspire them to investigate further the Alexander Technique, or another modality.
Your body talks too
Whilst talking about Alexander Technique, you can only do justice by it if you are also using The Technique. The subject puts us on slippery ground as we grope for ways to express our sensations, and scour our minds for words that might make sense of our experiences. It is a challenge to our use of self - and to employ The Technique is the best way to meet it. Continuing to talk about it is a very strong reminder and motivator to continue to practice the work.
Part 2. The Difficulty
The problem with definitions
If someone asks me “what is Alexander Technique”, I use this as an invitation to talk about the work. The enquirer is probably hoping to pigeon hole Alexander Technique. (Often times, they have done this already!) If I were to answer “bodywork” or “alternative therapy” that may satisfy them. Unfortunately it will also mean that they become closed to the real nature of the work. Any classification is going to limit the appreciation of the subject - the modality will get contorted into a shape that matches whatever label we give it.
We base our relationship with any practice on our concepts about it. If those concepts are limited, then our practice is limited. Once we define something, we can ‘understand’ it and our definition is conclusive. We can parade our ‘understanding’, put it on paper and feel very good about our achievement. We are accustomed to things being subject to definition. The modern scientific paradigm is based on “fact” - an unchanging, predictable, definable truth. But such an “understanding” has a very small scope in working with the human body and mind.
A technique that evolves with you
Alexander Technique is never static. It is not something that is unchanging, neither is our relationship to it consistent. The moment the work becomes predictable, you are exercising habit - the very antithesis of what we are about. Alexander Technique only really exists in the moment you are using its principles. Understanding Alexander Technique is expressed in moment to moment embodiment of its principles in action.
Any definitive description will become redundant immediately. One keeps re-defining understanding and application of the work every time one engages it.
It is commonly held that there are five senses- sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing. We have quite a vocabulary relating to these senses. Through study of Alexander Technique we come to be aware of a host of other sensations; including muscle tone, balance, position in space and sense of effort. These are senses many students were unaware of before studying The Technique and we lack vocabulary to describe their associated sensations. A certain creativity is required to express a change in poise that has minimal impact on the traditional five senses, but a profound impact on the whole bearing of the self - body and mind.
In articulating what students of Alexander Technique have changed in themselves, we are attempting to describe to the initiate an experience he or she has never had. They may draw on experiences of other modalities for comparison, but in doing so, will likely miss the unique essence of Alexander Technique.
The changes that come about through the work are quite intimate. It challenges the way one thinks, and this is something outside society’s conventions. Study of the way we use ourselves is often quite humbling, if not downright humiliating! Some of us come to the realisation that we have spent years cultivating misuse and indulging fallacious notions of our abilities to act on our intentions. The enlightened pupil comes to realise habit has driven behaviour in so many levels, and choice takes on a whole new meaning. There may also be emotional reservations to talking openly about such topics.
Outside the box
Our work confronts many commonly held beliefs. Without the context of experiencing a coordinative change through an unconventional approach, this is again difficult to articulate. For example, “try harder” is such a commonly given piece of advice. Alexander Technique teaches us to “try softer” instead. Rather than “if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again” we might say, “if at first you don’t succeed, never try again - at least not the same way”. Our methods are indirect, and process-oriented, in face of society’s disposition towards instant gratification, going directly for the end and being outcome-oriented.
Without compromising its therapeutic qualities, Alexander Technique shifts the paradigm from a passive patient being treated by an expert therapist, to an active practitioner being guided by a skilled teacher.
When the pupil comes to recognise improving the use of self consistently improves performance of any action, then he or she must take responsibility - not only for the condition he or she is in, but in undertaking the remedy of such. There are some who will never engage in Alexander Technique because they are unwilling to take responsibility and actively engage in self improvement. Yet it is this very commitment that empowers the individual to skilfully manage challenges.
An example of the above is in the language shift from “my shoulders are tight”, to “I am tightening my shoulders”.
The most confounding problem in talking about Alexander Technique to one with no experience of it probably lies in the fact that the journey and sensations described are entirely outside of the listener’s experience. It is not possible for them to experience by description, and highly improbable they will make a change on their own that elicits the change we have had. The limitations of verbal guidance were such that FM Alexander reverted to using his hands in teaching to guide the aspirant in movements and qualities that would give rise to new sensations.
Part 3. Talking the Walk
We can quite easily talk about the forms of Alexander Technique. The positional we lie in, the movements in and out of the chair - these are procedures that have convenient descriptors which may satisfy the listener’s curiosity. However such descriptions will be quite banal. The meaning of those forms comes from the principles we adhere to as we go through the procedures.
To talk about the principles is quite an interesting philosophical discussion. I’ve dedicated another post to them which you can read here. It is, however, in application that the principles have meaning. What is of most interest to people is what value Alexander Technique has. They want to know if it has impacted on your quality of life.
Contrasting your quality of use of self now, to your quality of use of self prior to Alexander Technique provides a good theme for talking about the work. If your audience begins to enquire about how those changes came about, you have a context for discussing the principles. With an application and experience of improved quality, the principles reveal their profound relevance.
First hand experience is something that is meaningful to the listener because you have a relationship with that person (even if they are a stranger). You can talk about your own journey authoritatively and sincerely. It relives you of any need for jargon or expertise, or expectation to address things beyond your own application.
Permission not to know
The body and mind are incredibly complex. It is one of Alexander Technique’s great attributes that it doesn’t rely on a massive technical understanding. Instead it engages with the innate coordinating mechanisms which have evolved over millennia. Exactly how Alexander Technique works is something we will never be able to fully explain. But so long as it can be effectively applied, there is knowledge about the body and mind that we can manage without. To allow yourself to “not know” is a fantastically liberating practice. (It also allows the listener to enjoy some sense of mystery and intrigue!) The same goes for allowing oneself the possibility of being wrong.
Our audience might not be so willing to be wrong. They may have some ideas about Alexander Technique that don’t match our experience of it. Everyone’s experience is valid, though many are ill informed. I endeavour to agree with limiting statements and expand on them rather than argue with them and pontificate my superior knowledge.
I’m wary of sounding grandiose and saying things that imply ‘Alexander Technique can fix everything.’ (It can’t.) But because it deals with human thinking and movement - how one manifests the body mind connection - it is dealing with something fundamental to all human activity. When I can draw on experience and be specific about what those situations are, I avoid much confusion and skepticism.
When someone asks me for information on Alexander Technique, I like to ask “what has prompted your interest?”. I get from the response information about how I can present my answer in a way that will be relevant. The inquirer usually has some interest in what The Technique would offer them. In a social situation, I might refer to the listener’s occupation or hobby to frame how the principles of Alexander Technique might have an impact on the quality of their own life.
Most importantly, no words will speak as much about The Technique as your embodiment of it. Your own refined use of yourself will be the best description of all. Like learning any new skill, your early attempts at describing your Alexander Technique experience will be clumsy, but with practice, refinement comes. I have to admit that one of my motivations for establishing a teaching practice was a recognition that through teaching I’d better understand my own use. Although chatting about the work is not teaching, I believe refining expression and communication is an invaluable method to deepen practice.
e each can play a small part in supporting the aims of the work in talking to others. I describe my the aim of Alexander Technique and my current motivation for teaching as ‘to offer an improved quality of life to all’.
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