Alexander Technique: A Field, Not a Method (Part 2)

In the last post, we discussed how we as teachers think about the Alexander Technique as a set of principles. This is not wrong, but as the basis for presenting our work, it’s inadequate. Recently, I have heard our work spoken of as a kind of kinesthetic re-education based on correcting inaccurate body schema in order to bring about improved muscle tone. This definition sounds very plausible on several grounds: it is consistent with modern neuroscience, consistent with what we do as teachers, and it offers the public something useful as part of making us meaningful. Everyone is happy.

What is not immediately apparent is that this definition fails to do justice to our work–to what Alexander discovered, to the science behind it, and to its real meaning in the spheres of psychology, education, and health. What is I think misleading, or so easily misunderstood, in the above definition is that it rather accurately defines what we do as teachers and so seems valid. We do in fact identify incorrect kinesthesia and help people to correct this. We do in fact re-educate body schema. And we do in fact redistribute muscle tone.

The problem is that there are so many things that this definition leaves out. You can, for instance, help someone to lengthen their back, or to be more kinesthetically aware. You can make all kinds of improvements in people. But when someone is stiff and pulled down and you make improvements, this approach begs two very big questions. Firstly, why does it work this way to begin with? This isn’t just about kinesthesia or more accurate body schemas but about how the postural system is designed to work properly such that is can be restored. We might say that we don’t really know, and don’t need to know, because our work is mainly a practical method for identifying tensions and reducing them in order to function more efficiently. But, implicit in that very statement is that there IS a more efficient way. Why do things work in such a way that the body can function so efficiently in the first place? To fully make sense of this problem, we have to know how this system works and why it goes wrong or else everything we do will be a kind of bodywork, just another method for making improvements and treating tension without understanding in a positive way what such improvements are based on. This may be fine if all you really care about is giving people relief, or helping them to move with more ease. But Alexander’s work is far more revolutionary than this. He demonstrated how the musculoskeletal system works, and the conditions under which it works properly. In doing this, he went far beyond bodywork and treatments and provided the foundation for understanding a fundamental aspect of human health and functioning with far-reaching significance for human wellbeing.

Even when we have restored this system, however, we still have a second problem–namely, to understand what has caused the system to get interfered with in the first place. Helping someone to redistribute muscle tone may seem to solve this problem, but in reality it does not. Even when someone is going up, even when the system is working beautifully, when we engage in a familiar activity, we will interfere with it because our actions are largely subconscious and habitual. As we saw in the last post, identifying how this happens and how to stop this–which is not about restoring the primary control but about preventing the interference with it–is the central theme of Alexander’s work, and something he speaks about in his books perhaps more than any other topic. The discovery of the primary control is revolutionary, but the discovery of the principle of prevention cuts to the very heart of what his work is about, making sense of the field in a way that no method can. If, in our zeal to promote ourselves as a kind of kinesthetic method, we lose this fundamental principle, we become just that–another method. The contrast between reorganizing tensions and preventing interference may seem like a small difference, but it is in reality the difference between forms of bodywork and education, between relief and empowerment, between reducing symptoms and understanding causes. The principle of prevention based on conscious control in action is the essence of our work and what makes it such a huge breakthrough in our understanding of human functioning and evolution.

Part of the problem behind all this, I think, is that our work has become increasingly defined by what we do as teachers and what we offer the public, and this is actually a very limited way of making sense of what we do. When people come to us, they are by definition going to be very ripe for improvements of all kinds because they suffer from problems of all kinds. We can help quiet the nervous system, reduce muscle tension, re-organize muscle tone. But you can work on someone’s body, show them how they shorten or have a shortened idea of this or that part of the body… and they will be exactly where they were before you started, and sometimes more confused than when you started. This is because the techniques we use, the teaching tools, the exercises and hands-on work–all of this is the pedagogy, and as important as the pedagogy is, it is only part of what we do and can’t speak for all of it. All forms of teaching need guiding principles and theories or else are aimless and ungrounded. The discovery of the primary control and the principle of prevention are central tenets of our guiding theory, and if we lose sight of these things, our work will degenerate into just another bodywork modality. Because we have increasingly tended to ignore these guiding principles and to rely on methodology, our work has become more and more watered-down and come to resemble forms of bodywork and movement techniques. Representing our work in this way may get us publicity and market share, but it is ultimately going to destroy the deeper meaning behind our work.