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Practice of Jeremy Woolhouse, pianist and Alexander Technique Teacher in Melbourne, Australia

Specialist in working with musicians, RSI, posture re-education, neck, back and chronic pain management. 

Articles on Alexander Technique in life - by Jeremy Woolhouse

Monthly blog articles by Jeremy Woolhouse.  Alexander Technique for daily life, music performance, specialised activities, pain relief and management.

Alexander Technique Thinking: Inhibition and Direction

Jeremy Woolhouse

Alexander Technique is a skill which is practised in order to experience associated benefits. The many ways in which we may study or apply the Technique are all based on two particular kinds of thinking: inhibition and direction.

 
Alexander Technique Thinking - Direction
 

A minimum of jargon in Alexander Technique helps to make it accessible. However, our everyday language doesn’t have simple words which capture the essence of inhibition and direction. When we use these words in a lesson, we create an understanding through verbal description and physical experience.

Alexander Technique offers a student a different experience from the familiar. For the student to access this independently, he or she will need to learn a slightly different way of thinking. Practically, this means that Alexander Technique education will involve creating new use of language. The specific words used in lessons not only help teachers to instruct the students, but also become the foundation for the words the pupil may use in his or her own thinking.

Inhibition

In an action such as raising and lowering a finger, we can identify two kinds of messages sent along nerves from the brain to-the hand moving muscles. One kind tells muscles to act - in this case, to lift the finger. It is an excitatory message. The other kind, telling muscles to stop acting so that we can lower the finger, is called inhibitory.

Alexander Technique uses the term inhibition in its neurological sense. In Alexander Technique, inhibition is a message ‘to stop doing,’ or ‘to not do.’

Inhibition is a natural process. If we have a compulsion to eat more cake, we are using inhibition when we decide not to. Should we be tempted to go faster on the freeway but inhibit the desire, we stay within the speed limit. The winner in the game of ‘Simon Says’ is the player who most successfully inhibits the response which would otherwise have him or her spontaneously comply with an instruction.

Alexander Technique asks us to consciously use inhibition. We are called on to refrain from action which compromises coordination and/or performance, and in doing so, we create the opportunity for a different quality of action. Inhibition gives us the space to attend to coordination before going into action.

Inhibition also gives scope for changing habitual, impulsive or reactive responses. It is a process for creating new ways of moving. Inhibition may also modify non-constructive thinking: we can inhibit a habit of chasing a train of thought, and instead consciously choose a different tack.

A change in thinking will inevitably be associated with a change in movement, and vice versa. If there is a habit of pulling a shoulder forward, for instance, the solution is not to pull it back, but to stop pulling it forward. This is but one example. Anything we recognise as being non-constructive, we can inhibit to make way for something more effective.

Humans are inherently stubborn. There is a natural predisposition to choose stasis over novelty. Inhibition can get us out of the rut, averting our fixation in mind or body. FM Alexander famously said, 'Everyone is always teaching one what to do, leaving us still doing things we shouldn't do.' Until we stop our normal movement patterns, we will have difficulty doing something differently.

A decision to use inhibition doesn’t require something painful or bad to trigger the process: it can be a preventative strategy as well as an optimisation tool. We can avoid engaging poor habits of coordination even if we are unsure whether or not we are doing something poorly. We can also use inhibition if we suspect we are operating short of our potential, even if we are not sure why. This is handy because if a pattern is habitual, it is likely to feel normal, and the negative impact may not be easy to discern.

However, inhibition as a process is incomplete. On its own, it might just lead to collapse. We need the moment of inhibition to give us space for direction.

Direction

Try lifting up an arm and holding it there. Put it down again, then choose something across the room to point to. Your arm’s position may be more or less the same in each case. However, when you point at something, there is a different quality in your arm. Without your having asked for any special change in muscle tone, your arm organises itself differently when you give it something to point to, rather than just being held up.

Alexander Technique uses the word direction to describe this qualitative difference. By choosing something to point to, you let your body recruit what it needs to fulfil your intention. Directing in Alexander Technique is choosing a quality or orientation and letting the body manage the specifics.

Direction is a thought. It is an intention which doesn’t directly ask muscles to work. There will be some muscular response, but it may feel more like the body doing the movement itself than you doing the movement.


When you SMS friends the details of a party and ask them to come along, this is like sending a direction. You are not going to grab them physically and drag them along. Your job is simply to send the invitation, thereby making it possible for your friends to join the party. They may or may not attend, but without the invitation, there is no chance.



Students who slump need some clear intention to be upright. To ‘sit up straight’ volitionally usually involves way more effort than needed and upright sitting becomes tiring. The normal kind of ‘sitting up straight' is an imposition upon the body which denies it the chance to coordinate itself. Having an invitation for buoyancy, or intention to be upright without doing the ‘up,’ is a much more refined way to engage the body’s natural postural balance.

We may need to make the invitation very compelling at times, but it is never an imperative. We are using direction to animate the body’s postural intelligence. Direction is giving the body a clear message about what we want, but not interfering in the execution of action.

What to direct

Any time we are interested in improving our poise or performance, the first thing to direct is the coordination of the head in relation to the spine, which is known as Primary Control.

FM Alexander proposed ‘Free the neck’ as an act of inhibition, and ‘Head forward and up, back lengthen and widen’ as a direction. In this blog, ‘availability' has been presented as an inhibition preceding ‘buoyancy’ as a direction.

A well-coordinated head-spine relationship means that specific movements of hands and arms are well supported. A positive quality of the central coordination increases ease and skilful engagement in our work. Directions for the particulars of each task are necessary, but secondary. Our directions must first attend to the head-spine coordination, and then to technical considerations of our instrument or tool, also including attention to artistry or whatever outcome is relevant to our task.

Exactly what to inhibit and direct is very individual. An Alexander Technique teacher or pupil may identify some interference with natural coordination - for example, the pushed-forward shoulder mentioned earlier - and use inhibition and direction in response. Inhibition and direction may also be used proactively for improved ease, confidence or performance.

Students come to develop a skill in creating inhibitory or directive thoughts. The words used are critical as the body will try to manifest what is being asked for. With study and practice, students refine their words, addressing individual needs and interests as they arise.

The performance, outcome or task at hand will always be the guideline for constructing directions. The pupil’s habits or physicality also inform the words of inhibition and direction that are needed.

Noticing the effect of inhibition and direction helps us learn which words are most constructive. This kind of observation also gives us knowledge of what to inhibit and direct. Searching for problems in one’s performance or scanning the body for tension is not called for here. Bringing attention to a certain area, or being aware of some habitual tendency, may be useful, but observation may serve us best when we choose just to respond mindfully to what is noticed.

Integration

Inhibition stops us doing too much, whilst direction stops us doing too little. Our observations tell us what is too little and too much, in each moment and for the task at hand.

When inhibition is helping to avoid problematic habitual action, it may be worth considering what the habit was attempting to do. Our new direction must fulfil the need with which our habit was struggling.

The description of inhibition as a message 'not to do' something may sound like we are asking for relaxation. If we are too relaxed, however, we can’t expect to be able to meet the energetic needs of posture or action.

The role of inhibition is not to stop everything, but to allow for new directions to function. It’s like a Give Way sign. You don’t have to come to a complete stop, but you do need to give yourself the time to ensure safe passage and re-affirm where you are going.

Inhibition and direction never exist independently, They are two sides of the same coin, inseparable. When we phrase our instructions cleverly, we can encompass both direction and inhibition. If we learn it as such, to ‘invite buoyancy’ implies both the stopping of anything compressive, and the animation of something expansive.

In this way, inhibition is reframed from ‘stop doing this’ into ‘do this instead.’ What we choose must contradict the old pattern comprehensively so that the ‘stop doing’ is implicit in the new intention. FM Alexander saw a ubiquitous pulling-down in people. Rather than telling them to ‘stop pulling down,’ he framed it positively and asked for ‘freedom so you can go up.’

When you recognise that something is not working so well, inhibit whatever you are trying to do. Send directions for a positive head-spine relationship, and for whatever you need in order to carry out your task. In other words, ask for availability (inhibiting restrictions) invite buoyancy (directing head-spine) and ask for continuity of these qualities into your actions.


In order to improve on ease of poise and grace in movement, there are so many ways to engage constructive thinking. A study of Alexander Technique will give you many! By ensuring you attend to inhibition and direction as you explore, you are skilfully orienting yourself towards the ease and grace which characterises Alexander Technique.



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