Alexander Technique: A Field, Not a Method

IMG_1057We often speak of the Alexander Technique as a set of principles that can be applied to the use of ourselves in any activity, all working around the concept of the primary control. But describing what we do in these terms, while useful up to a point, has greatly limited the scope and purpose of our work, which is based on key discoveries that go far beyond the practice of principles. When we refer to the primary control, for instance, we often speak of it as a head/neck/back relationship that is interfered with, and introduce the directions as a way of re-directing or re-establishing a better working of the primary control. While this description is true, it hardly does justice to the importance of the primary control to functioning and health. All of us agree in one way or another that the relationship of the head to the trunk is primary in organizing movement and that, by directing the primary control, we can greatly improve functioning and performance. Since we’re not entirely sure how the primary control works, we speak increasingly about the fact that, at the very least, we can improve functioning and muscle tone by directing the head, neck, and back and improving this relationship, even if we’re not entirely sure about the science behind it, or if there even is real science behind it.

But conflating the primary control and direction in this way is a big mistake, because the primary control is first and foremost a natural system that is interfered with in our daily activities, and it is crucial to understand how this natural system works independently of the problem of direction. It is true that, when the primary control works well in nature, we see direction: the head goes up, the back lengthens and widens, and so on. But how and why do these directions work? If we describe and explain the primary control entirely in terms of what the directions are and how to encourage them to work in people, we may understand something practical, but we do not fully understand why the directions work the way they do–that is, what this system is behind how these directions work. Because of this, we end up with nothing more than some observations about how our students pull down and how they can prevent it by organizing thinking around the head-trunk relationship, and are unable to make any kind of meaningful claim beyond this. In short, we end up becoming a method for lengthening the spine and organizing muscle tension–and how is this different than what the dancers say, or Pilates, or other methods that make similar claims, but with a slightly different focus? Our theory goes much deeper than just reorganizing tension and lengthening the spine, and we need to be clear on why. We possess an inherent, inborn, natural system and how this system works, and what it means to reinstate it, constitutes one of the most important discoveries ever made in the field of science. The knowledge of how this system works–not the principles, not how we help people, not the experience of having someone put hands on you, not how we reorganize bodily schema or redistribute tension–is the first and primary element of our theory, and what makes it so revolutionary.

The second discovery of Alexander’s work that goes beyond the practice of principles is the understanding of habitual or subconscious action, and the need to prevent this habitual activity by raising the process of performing actions to a more conscious level. We all know we interfere with the primary control and that, when we direct, we are learning to maintain these directions in action as a way of preventing the wrong use. In this context, we often speak about inhibiting interferences with the primary control. But Alexander did not define wrong use primarily in terms of the primary control; in fact, the central theoretical claim of his work was not about the primary control at all but about subconscious guidance and the need to replace subconscious actions with consciously-directed action, based on the principle of inhibition. It is action itself that is subconscious, and the real problem is not to prevent interference with the primary control but to make possible a new level of conscious action. If we define the process of inhibition entirely in terms of the primary control, then the very notion of conscious control is diminished. Alexander’s work is in fact a behavioral principle and not just a form of bodily control, and when we conflate the direction of the primary control with subconscious action, we lose the real meaning of this problem and end up with just another body method.

There are two ways, then, that we trivialize our work, first by conflating the primary control with the process of directing and reeducating our kinesthetic sense; second, by conflating the process of not interfering with the primary control with conscious control. In the first case, we need to be clear that we don’t just work with a head/neck/back relationship but that this relationship is a fundamental discovery in nature on which movement and functioning depend. In the second case, we need to be clear that we don’t just inhibit interference with the primary control but are learning to raise action itself to a more conscious level. Understood properly, these two insights raise Alexander’s work from a useful method to a new educational field of study based on an understanding of how we function, the unconscious nature of behavior, the principle of prevention, and the possibility of raising the working of the human organism to the conscious plane.