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Dimensions of Embodiment
Towards a Conversational Science of Human Action.

Part 1 of 3

by David M. Mills, Ph.D.


This is the last of three chapters excerpted from my 1996 doctoral dissertation, Dimensions of Embodiment: Towards a Conversational Science of Human Action.

Part 1
Chapter IV: "The Posture of Anticipation: Kelly and Alexander
considers the value of viewing Personal Construct Psychology and the Alexander Technique from each other’s perspective, using John Dewey as the link between them.

Part 2
Chapter V: "Evolution of a Technique and a Teaching Method"
considers the scientific character of Alexander’s work. It is based on a paper that first appeared in Marjory Barstow: Her Teaching and Training, Barbara Conable (ed.) 1989.

Part 3 (This page)
Chapter VI: "Commentary on the Principles Underlying The Alexander Technique"
a brief summary of the central principles underlying Alexander's work with comments.


Chapter VI

Commentary on the Principles Underlying the Alexander Technique


I would now like to give a brief summary of the central principles underlying Alexander’s work. The statements are drawn from Alexander’s writing, but the interpretations are my own.

VI.1 Use and Functioning

...a close connection exists between use and functioning (Alexander, 1932, p. 12) [and] ...our manner of use is a constant influence for good or ill upon our general functioning. (Alexander, 1941, p. 12)

At first consideration, in view of the fact that to use is a transitive verb, the concept of the "use of the self" might seem inherently dualistic. It makes sense to say that I "use" nails to hold the boards of my bookshelf together or that I use a hammer to drive the nails. I may even say that I use my hand to hold the hammer and I use my arm to swing it. There has been, however, a subtle shift in my use of "use." For although the hammer and nails are not parts of myself, the hand and arm are. So I have in some way split myself into the "I" who holds the hammer and the "me" whose hand I use to do so. This is where we face the phenomenological distinction between being for-itself and being-in-itself in daily life. An alternative construction would be to say that I have "incorporated" the hammer in the act of using it to drive the nail. That is, rather than treating part of myself as if it were not myself I treat an external object as if it were. In either case, the central issue is the instrumentality, the drawing on available conditions, whether internal or external, and somehow directing them toward some intended end. If we focus on the unity of the action in its relation to the intention rather than on questions of self and not-self, then my use of my hand is not dualistic but paradoxical. What Alexander found in his experiments with his own actions was that the functioning of his whole self was, in Dewey’s term, "instrumental." By his use of the phrase "use of myself" he was not implying a view of his bodily movements as something separate from himself but only that these movements were precisely the means to his end, and further that the quality of the relationships within this use of himself as a whole had everything to do with the quality of the outcome. Indeed we may say that it was only when he conceived of his task separate from himself or his use of his vocal apparatus, for instance, in isolation from the rest of himself that he was being dualistic–not in theory but in practice.

VI.2 Primary Control

...there is a primary control of the use of the self, which governs the working of all mechanisms and so renders the control of the complex organism comparatively simple. (Alexander, 1932, p. 59)

Every movement of a part of myself occurs in the context of the whole. For example, if I raise my arm to take a book from a shelf, the obvious movement is that of my arm–but there is also a redistribution of weight on my legs that accommodates the change in my centre of gravity; some of the muscles in my upper back area may contract to provide a stable reference from which my arm extends; some of the pattern of muscular action associated with standing upright releases in order to allow a slight lean forward. These are not things that I need to "do;" nor are the parts involved "controlled" by the functioning of other parts. The action, as a whole, is self-organized. If we could imagine a complex set of equations of motion that represented the change in balance, distribution of forces, etc. required to carry out the movement, then the self-organization of the action embodies the solution of those equations–by which I mean that there is no need to solve them nor to "apply" the solutions. The temporal structure of the action is the solution. The equations could, however, also contain parameters that describe conditions of the environment or of the intended goal. The matter is only "psycho-mechanical" if the system (myself) is psycho-physically coordinated. Alexander comments in Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual that, though for each of us, our functioning as an organism may be complex in that it is composed of "a large number of factors or means which are related to one another," it is, in "the act of using and simple." The working of these "psycho-mechanical structures" is only complicated when they are "out of order." (Alexander, 1923, p. 14) This is the fundamental level of what Dewey was referring to in his insistence that we must seek "the unity of mind and body in action."

This complex simplicity of natural coordination is for each of us a ready to hand paradigm case of self-organization. In physical terms, or perhaps more precisely, in biomechanical terms, there are three simultaneous global functions which must be maintained as the context for any specific action. I must continue to be mechanically supported; otherwise I would crumple in a heap on the floor. At the same time I must continue to be balanced; otherwise I would topple over if I raised my arm. I must also be free to move various parts of myself in relation to each other in order to accomplish the intended action. I do not have three distinct support, balance and movement systems, however, only the one whole system which is myself. Thus whenever I move (which is, of course, throughout my life) various parts of myself are contributing in varying degrees to each of these functions. Naturally, the support is provided primarily by compressive forces accepted by my skeleton. There is a subset of my muscular system which has as its primary function the maintaining of the components of my skeletal structure in such an orientation that they can provide the most efficient support. Other muscles are then free to produce movement around that support. As my relationship to the conditions of my environment (such as gravity, or the surface I walk on) change, a given muscle may be recruited into either the support, balance or movement function or some combination of these. The ability to seamlessly pass these functions among the parts of myself is one essential characteristic of coordination. A typical example of a condition of malcoordination (considered for the moment in only its mechanical dimensions) is what happens if I am already standing before the bookshelf using undue tension. I am literally pulling myself off of my optimum balance and out of the orientation where my skeletal structure can provide the required supporting forces. Following that habitual pattern then requires me to recruit muscles, primarily in my back and legs, into the support function, acting somewhat like the cables on a suspension bridge. I thus enter a vicious cycle in which it is the very excess contraction that maintains the conditions which make it necessary. Even worse, the muscles being used for support are therefore unavailable to contribute to either the specific movement of raising my arm or the general action of maintaining my balance as I do so. I am thus limited in the quality with which I can make the movement, I am working far harder than necessary to support myself during the movement and, since I do not have the flexibility of movement to make the constant small adjustments to balance that maintain my natural unstable equilibrium, I stiffen my legs and further tighten my back in an attempt to approximate a stable equilibrium. I am operating within a very restricted number of degrees of freedom, in both the mechanical and experiential terms. There is a now little used term, equipoise, which carried something of meaning I want to convey here. Among other things, it includes the idea of counterbalance, which is what head movements accomplish. We speak of a person’s head as being poised on the top of their spine. It is not merely positioned or supported, much less held–though this is often the practical effect of a rigid habitual mode of movement–but is poised. To refer to the equipoise of a person’s head is to point to its dynamic balance, the interplay of force and counterforce, movement and countermovement. It is a balance being constantly lost and regained. The more subtle that interplay, the more poised the person is. What Alexander is referring to with the concept of primary control is that there is an intimate connection between the dynamic sense in which we might say that a person’s head is poised and the more general sense in which we would say that the person is poised. My preference for the older term, equipoise, is based on its emphasis on that interplay of influences that maintains balance by dancing on the precarious edge of imbalance which is the possibility of movement. Indeed, from this vantage point we can find a simple way to bring the natural initiation of movement within the realm of intentionality. For if this equipoise is maintained by allowing and compensating for perturbations in balance, then any perturbation not compensated is already the initiation of a movement and no further preparation of effort is needed.

"Primary control" is then but a consequence of my being a whole self-organized system faced with those multiple functional requirements. In order for me, as a single system, to continue to integrate these functions in movement, the movement itself must be appropriately organized. Alexander's empirical observation that every action is an action of the whole person initiated by a change in the dynamic quality of the relationship between the person’s head and its support on the top of their spine may have been merely the discovery of a primary mechanical consequence of the self-organized character of the actions themselves. It is a no less powerful discovery for that. Still viewing the matter in purely mechanical terms, my head is a relatively heavy weight supported flexibly on the top of my primary support structure, my spine. It is thus the most immediately available counterbalance and at the same time its every movement affects the whole spine in both its support and balance roles. What gives this whole matter its significance is that these factors are inseparable from my very conception of any act I engage in. Whether implicitly or explicitly, consciously or unconsciously, these factors are present, and have their effect "for good or ill." It is not a matter merely of mechanics or biomechanics; it is psycho-mechanics.

VI.3 Psycho-physical unity of the individual

...Nature does not work in parts, but treats everything as a whole (Alexander, 1910, p.55) [and] is impossible to separate "mental" from "physical" processes in any form of human activity. (Alexander, 1932, p. 3)

In view of what was said regarding the primary control of the use of one’s self in action, psycho-physical unity does not refer merely to a unity, but to an intricate, coordinated unity. It makes little sense, of course, to say that a structure is coordinated; coordination is an attribute of the functioning of a system. It is the interrelatedness of the levels of organization expressed by that functioning within some context of action–and thus is also always to do with meaning. The properties of self-organization that seem to "emerge" within the action of the individual can be seen as the product of the way we ask our questions about that action. For instance, what do we find when we consider a person as a functioning whole and then ask simultaneously about support, balance and movement? And then what do we find if we expand our use of those terms beyond their usual biomechanical range of convenience? One practical consequence is that we find available in the language of "qualitative dynamics," not a model of reality, nor even merely an invitational hypothesis, but simply a way–a sort of grammar–of carrying on a conversation about the quality of the functioning of myself as a whole system. It becomes a conversation about coordination as a state of inner democracy in which any part that has a contribution to make to my intended action–no matter how physical or otherwise I may conceive that part to be, or how small or subtle the contribution–is free to make it.

VI.4 End-Gaining

[Many people employ a direct procedure when endeavouring to gain a desired end.] This direct procedure is associated with dependence upon sub-conscious guidance and control, leading, in cases where a condition of mal-co-ordination is present, to an unsatisfactory use of the mechanisms and to an increase in the defects and peculiarities already existing. (Alexander, 1923, p. 10 fn.)

This concept of Alexander’s relates directly to what Harri-Augstein and Thomas refer to as "personal robots" in Learning Conversations. If my attention is focused tightly on my end, or what is worse and perhaps more common, on my desire to attain my end, then there is nothing to direct the actual process of reaching that end except for an associated unconscious habitual program, that is, a robot. Thus typically the act is not only under the general direction of habit, but of a habit which Dewey characterized as fixed and isolated. And as mentioned earlier, the more importance we attribute to our particular end, the more we will rely on the particular unconsciously held opinion about how to carry it out. Thus making greater effort merely means doing the same thing harder, and if this occurs under conditions of less than optimal coordination, the very effort to perform the act "rightly" amplifies the distortions, making matters worse. Contrasting with endgaining is Alexander’s emphasis on attention to the "means-whereby" which for him must include, in fact must begin with, attention to the quality of my functioning as a whole psycho-physical system in the act of attaining my end.

VI.5 Faulty Sensory Appreciation

Almost all civilized human creatures have developed a condition in which the sensory appreciation (feeling) is more or less imperfect and deceptive, and it naturally follows that it cannot be relied upon in re-education, readjustment and co-ordination, or in our attempts to put right something we know to be wrong with our psycho-physical selves. (Alexander, 1923, p. 150)

In the practice of the Alexander Technique, the concept of "faulty sensory appreciation" has always struck me as representing a rather pessimistic view. The problem with sensory appreciation is not that there is anything faulty about our sensory apparatus, or even our use of it. Our senses are not in general so much faulty as they are adaptive. The fault lies in our tendency to take relative sensory data in absolute ways, which is not itself a perceptual difficulty. It is a conclusion that I am drawing from my sensory experience. Indeed to say that I "feel" right or I "feel" wrong doesn’t make sense. Strictly speaking, I cannot feel right. "Right" is a conclusion I draw from the set of sensory data which I feel; it is not itself a feeling. I can feel a certain pattern of muscular tensions, but whether that is right or wrong is not in the feeling. It is an interpretation, and the interpretation goes wrong when I treat it as, for example, not, "I feel forward of where I normally am," but, "I feel forward of vertical." That is drawing an absolute conclusion from relative information. Thus "feels right" is an improper translation of "feels normal" and to act on it is to employ a faulty appreciation of one’s sensory data.

My own interpretation of faulty sensory appreciation is that it is basically a matter of faulty conductive logic. As an example of such, the person whose habitual way of standing involves tightening her lower back and pulling her upper torso back will interpret this backward inclination as standing upright. When, with some guidance, she comes to a stance which is "objectively" upright (that is, which can be observed to be so by everyone in the room, including herself if she is provided a video image or such) she will likely have the feeling that she is now off balance forward. In reaction to this construed forwardness, she pulls herself back. But since she is not actually forward, when she pulls back she must tighten in front to prevent herself from going off balance backward. She continues to feel the tightening in the front which seems to confirm her opinion that she is leaning forward. All this muscular effort is quite "logical" as far as it goes. She is engaging in a bit of faulty conductive reasoning in which the muscular conclusions she draws from her kinesthetic premises do not follow. Indeed, I have often observed an alternative invalid conclusion in which the person comes to a vertical stance, looks momentarily disoriented and then leans noticeably forward just before reporting, "Oh, I feel forward." They have produced muscular effort that seems retroactively to "justify" their perception.

Sensory Appreciation is unreliable as a guide to how I organize my actions because I never know whether what it seems to be telling me is what is actually happening or not. In other words, I cannot assume that if something "feels right" then it actually is right. If the problem with sensory appreciation were simply one of inaccuracy, then the obvious solution would be to modify it so that now I can rely on it. The problem is both simpler and more subtle than that, however, and so the more useful solution is to learn a way of organizing my actions that doesn’t depend on whether my interpretation is correct or not so that I can use the information as far it will go without blindly assuming that it’s correct, nor on the other hand blindly assuming that it is not correct. That trap, to say in effect, "I have learned that my senses are unreliable so I ought to ignore them," throws me all the more strongly into my unconscious habitual guidance. If instead I can learn how to take account of the fact that I don’t know whether my senses have adapted or not, I find not only a freedom from the pitfalls of sensory illusion, but the possibility of finding ways of transcending the obviousness of my own history.

VI.6 Inhibition and Conscious Direction: Prevention on a General Basis

...the primary requirement in dealing with all specific symptoms is to prevent the misdirection which leads to wrong use and functioning, and to establish in its place a new and satisfactory direction as a means of bringing about an improvement in use and functioning throughout the organism." (Alexander, 1932, p. 45) [The application of this principle requires] "...consciously inhibiting interference with the employment of the primary control." (Alexander, 1941, p. 66)

As an illustration to distinguish the idea of direction from the common notion of control, consider the task of the orchestra conductor or the theatre director. What a good director does is give "directions" to the actors in such a way as to leave them individually free to bring their own creative work to their parts and yet also in such a way that these multiple individual acts of creation all blend together into a single coherent production with a clear interpretation of the script behind it. The conductor must perform a similar task in blending the individual creative work of the musicians into an orchestral interpretation of the score. Neither the director nor the conductor can play all the parts themselves, and if they direct their artists as if they were surrogates in such a process the result is inevitably poor art. Yet if they fail to communicate a clear intention to the actors or musicians the latter will have great difficulty being simultaneously creative and coordinated with each other.

Alexander sometimes described his work as being about "prevention on a general basis," that is, rather than either doing something specific to "cure" some difficulty, or even doing something to specifically prevent it, one can endeavour to bring about new general conditions which are less conducive to the difficulty. This is the sort of approach we take when we combat weeds in our garden by taking the trouble to amend the soil rather than continuing to do battle with the weeds in any direct way. It is all too easy to overlook the fact that we are not free to engage in this endeavour while we are still carrying out our commitment to our old familiar strategy. Perception of new options is always relative to what we would have been doing otherwise, and having a habit means that there is always a default. That default is usually subject to the blindness of familiarity. Thus to even consider not doing things in our usual way in order to leave our ourselves free to discover as yet unknown new ways feels like giving up any action whatever. This is why inhibition in Alexander’s sense seems so elusive. It is not that the new way is difficult; it is merely unknown. The problem is that we have become so "skilled" in carrying out our habitual conception that it requires no attention, no consciousness whatever, and thus we expect that anything else would be difficult in contrast.

Inhibition is usually thought of as a negative term, as a refusal to do or allow something. Rather than a refusal, it is an insistence on the continuing openness of unknown alternate responses, an insistence on that small dramatic space within which a true spontaneous response can be found. The words "react" and "respond" are quite often used interchangeably, but if we are more careful we find that "React" carries a Newtonian connotation, as in act and react. To "respond," however, is according to the second or third listing in several dictionaries, "to act as if in answer to." It is to act conversationally. Thus inhibition is a only refusal to immediately give an obvious reaction. It is thus a prerequisite not only to spontaneity, but to all conversation.

VI.7 Indirect Action: The Means-Whereby Principle

[There is a]...psycho-physical activity, associated with constructive conscious guidance and control and with the consequent satisfactory use of the mechanisms, which establishes the conditions essential to the increasing development of potentialities. [To act according to this principle]...involves a reasoning consideration of the causes of the conditions present, and an indirect instead of a direct procedure on the part of the person endeavouring to gain the desired "end." (Alexander, 1923, p. 10)

One defining feature of a coordinated movement is that anything that is identifiable as a "part" of the moving system is doing what it does according to its own local conditions. These local conditions are being determined by what all the other parts are doing, and so there is no separate need for the parts to "communicate." They are already connected in such away that the whole provides the context for the part. (In physics such phenomena are referred to as "cooperative.") Thus if any given part just does what it does under its own conditions, the action of the whole will already be organized. It does not require control, either external or internal, to make it so. As a consequence, much of the monitoring and control activity which we learn to engage in is, in fact, superfluous and, indeed, often interferes with optimal natural interplay of our parts. The way out of this difficulty lies in the recognition that among the implicit network of relationships between functioning and conditions, some relationships are more general than others. As a simple example, an action such as throwing a ball can be viewed as a process composed of a sequence of smaller actions. Something that occurs toward the beginning of the sequence is going to have a greater effect on the conditions under which the parts are working than something that occurs later. A change in the quality of my overall balance as I bring my arm forward will have a greater effect than will a shift in the motion of my wrist relative to my forearm, simply because the later takes place within a context given by the former. If I can take this consciously into account, if I happen to know what events happen when, and if I can make a choice about the quality with which these events happen, then I will have a much greater effect on the overall quality of the process if I make that choice earlier rather than later. If I do make that choice about the quality of early events, then I may be freed of the need to have a distinct perception of or make a separate choice about the subsequent details. The course of a river is much more easily influenced near its source than farther downstream. Or as we commonly say it, "an ounce of prevention...." The details of the continuing action are implied by the conditions I have brought about. It is in this way that the control of natural movement can be said to be indirect. Indeed, it is possible to learn to be more intelligently directive and at the same time more "natural" in my actions by directing my efforts not at my intended goal or end, but rather to the bringing about of those conditions which are that end’s natural antecedents. This is the essence of an indirect method. In Alexander’s context those natural antecedents have always to do with the conditions of the sustaining of my own psycho-physical coordination. Thus making that choice of quality that sustains my optimal condition of general coordination is the first means toward any particular end. To reverse that priority and make my end primary in my attention so as to neglect those conditions is the essence of the "end-gaining" discussed earlier. In contrast, if I can learn to recognize the early stages of an action, or even its prerequisites, and so become able to prevent my habitual way of carrying out that action, I leave myself free to make choices about the quality of the action as a whole.

Again Alexander’s contribution was not merely to recognize the psycho-physical continuity of this coordinated whole functioning and to point toward the possibility of a way of thinking and acting in a self-directed way (what he called the plane of "constructive conscious control"), but beyond that to develop a practical method for exploring and becoming more skilled in acting in concert with the factors involved in that continuity. Kelly similarly not only emphasized, but also developed a methodology for making explicit its dimensionality.

Indirect action is related to the idea of "non-doing," an idea which is often confused, on one hand with not doing, and on the other hand with inaction. As any action, any object, has meaning only against a background of alternatives, non-doing has meaning in any specific instance within a context of habitual construction. In other words, an object is this sort of thing rather than that sort. I am doing this rather than doing that, performing this action rather than some other. Because "what I am doing" is already an abstraction, in this sense "doing" something is carrying out a concept. "Not doing" is refraining from carrying out that same concept. The action, as conceived, is given up, but the construction, the concept, remains intact. In an habitual context it is often impossible in practice to distinguish between such not doing and "doing the opposite," which is the carrying out of a (possibly) new concept defined by the same construction. One of the unfortunate ironies of this lack of distinction is that we continue the original "doing" and merely add "doing the opposite" to it, and "thus we increase the disease in the means used to cure it." (Dewey, 1958, p. 296) "Non-doing" is also refraining from carrying out a concept, but in a way that is open to reconstruction–what is given up is the concept; there may well be action, but it is action outside the confines of the prior conception.

Thus in a case of "non-doing," what I am significantly not doing is what I would have been doing ordinarily. That is, non-doing is not inaction; it is rather a refraining from engaging in habitual action. Habit, whether in the sense of the general background of predisposition to act under present conditions or in the sense of specific habitual reactions to a given stimulus, provides the context for meaningful non-doing, for the meaning of what one is not doing lies in the relation to what one would have been doing otherwise. In particular, if the habitual action has any quality of direction to it, then so will the non-doing, and strange as it may be to think about, it often happens in practice that a person who does manage to refrain from such a directional habitual act actually perceives the directional quality of their non-doing. It is not surprising that they often find this quite a disconcerting experience. This experience is a projective cousin of the kinesthetic afterimage discussed elsewhere. What is disconcerting is the perception of the absence of what one is not aware of having expected to feel.

VI.8 How We Got This Way (Comments on the evolutionary account)

At an earlier stage in human development, according to Alexander’s account, the conditions of daily life tended to be constant from generation to generation. Thus the habitual, unconsciously directed "use of the self" of any individual tended to be in tune with that individual’s environment. A child who unconsciously acquired the habits of their community would grow to an adult with the same unconscious but well suited habits as the previous generation. There was never any biological need for any other than unconscious direction. Furthermore, most of the day to day actions of an individual were closely related to matters of life and death, which tended to insure that the common habitual mode was suited to the relatively unchanging conditions as maladapted habitual patterns tended not to be passed on. There was a continuing close relationship between these unconscious general patterns of organization and the needs of daily life. However as time went on the actions of human individuals, exercising their intelligence in relation to their environment, began to change those external conditions more and more rapidly (even to today’s exponential situation). At first the rate of the change was very gradual, however, as it is also in the daily life of any given individual, and so the same unconscious direction of use continued. There gradually came to be, however, a misalignment between the individual and their environment, and thus also between the individual’s perception of self-in-movement in relation to the environment and the facts of the situation. Alexander seems to have derived much of this evolutionary view from his reading of Herbert Spencer, and like Spencer’s view it is reasonable and illustrative so long as one does not try to push it too far. It is of particular significance in its lack of a separation between cultural evolution and individual learning. This is clearly illustrated in Man’s Supreme Inheritance in Alexander’s definitions of instinct and intuition as the products of accumulated unconsciously and consciously directed experience respectively. It is a definition of instinct that transcends the question of nature vs. nurture. From the individual’s point of view there is no practical distinction between patterns genetically inherited and those learned before the individual could tell the difference. In some regards this is true for the individual’s offspring as well. What my child learns from me at an early enough age might as well have been genetic. What Alexander considered the great evolutionary significance of his work was that this is not the end of the story, because it is possible to direct the same kind of reasoned attention to ourselves that we have brought to bear on the outside world. We can set about having experiences which are consciously directed, and thus may come to be, in his use of the terms, less instinctive and more intuitive.

This whole matter of sensory reliability and its evolutionary roots is illustrated by a piece of research done by Laurie Thomas some years ago. Blindfolded subjects were handed small metal rods, one by one, and were asked to sort them into five categories according to length, judging the length of each only by holding it between thumb and forefinger. The subjects soon became quite adept at discriminating among rods of differing lengths. As the sorting process went on, however, and unknown to the subjects, the experimenter began to hand the subject rods of gradually increasing length. If the increases were small and gradual enough, the subject would continue making accurate relative judgments of length without ever noticing that the absolute lengths of the rods were becoming greater–even to the point where those being judged shortest were the same length as the longest had been at the beginning. All this without any awareness of what was happening, until, that is, the rods became long enough that a slight stretch of the skin lying between the thumb and finger was great enough to be separately observed. At that point the subject was able to recalibrate their perceptions to the new scale. Generalizing this result to the question of a person’s habitual perception of self in the environment, it might be concluded that, because perception is always perception of significant difference, if the conditions in which they find themselves change slowly enough they will never notice. There is never enough relative difference. They will continue making effective relative judgments without ever becoming aware that the absolute relationships have changed. More than this, if the person is operating habitually and they implicitly assume that those absolute relationships are unchanged–and if they then act on that assumption–they are bound to be led into error. They will suffer unnoticed distortions in their "sensory appreciation." This is precisely what Alexander claimed we all do suffer, as a species and as individuals. It is important to make clear that the defect is not one of sensation but one of "appreciation." It is a failure to recognize the relative rather than absolute nature of perception and thus, even when the distortion is kinesthetic it would be more nearly correct to say that it is faulty thinking rather than faulty feeling.

VI.9 Which Alexander Technique?

There are a number of practical questions regarding the implementation of these principles. Dewey’s assessment of the value of Alexander’s work was as a method for generating a new sort of personal experience and it is significant that these principles were derived and born out through years of Alexander’s own practical experience and experimentation. The question is whether what Dewey was referring to, indeed whether what constitutes "The Alexander Technique," was what Alexander did on his own as described in "The Evolution of a Technique" or whether it was his use of his hands in his teaching work. A key fact relating to this central question is that Alexander, having no teacher but himself, had to find ways of generating new experiences for himself. The question that arises relative to Alexander’s pupils is whether what he did with his hands was the method of generating new experiences for the pupil or whether the pupil generated their own new experiences by the same means as Alexander had, though facilitated by Alexander’s use of his hands. Of course, the pupils had a kind of experience that Alexander never had, the experience of being assisted by expert guidance. This guidance has been often (and I believe mistakenly) described as "giving the pupil an experience." It is often assumed that because the pupil begins in a state of unreliable sensory appreciation there is practically no hope of escape from their habitual mode without that external expert guidance, and Alexander himself wrote of the need for the teacher to take responsibility for the pupil’s movement in order to free the pupil from the inevitable effects of their attempts to "get it right." This is in spite of the fact that it was precisely such an escape that Alexander himself made. Nor was he alone in this. After some years, Alexander’s brother, A.R., joined him in his teaching practice. According to various accounts A.R.’s "training" consisted of somewhere between two and six "lessons," and according to their niece, Marjory Barlow, it was A.R.’s "proud boast that F.M. never touched him." Unless we assume that there was a special gene in the Alexander family, it is clearly possible to learn to make these kinds of changes in self-use without the mediation of a teacher’s hands. That it can be very difficult seems undeniable, though to be more precise, the problem is not that the new is difficult but that we are so inescapably skillful at the old and familiar. It is for this reason that a teacher’s skilled use of their hands appears essential to the process.

The pupil in a "typical" lesson may be lying down, sitting in a chair or standing; they may be engaged simply in learning to stop unnecessary "doings" that they bring to even these simple activities. They may perform more complex tasks, moving a leg, or standing up or taking a step, or perhaps even more complex tasks like speaking or singing or playing the clarinet. Many teachers see the matter of inhibiting habitual response as so central–and so difficult–that it is the focus of the whole lesson. In this classical arrangement the pupil’s task is to do nothing, to only "give their directions" (that is, to specify the commands for the "means-whereby" for the new manner of use) without attempting to carry them out. Other teachers may take the integration of this inhibition/direction process into the pupil’s chosen activity (for example, learning to sing while consciously refusing consent to one’s habitual way of singing) as the central focus. These two sorts of lessons can look and sound very different, but the approaches are not contradictory. In either case an important part of the teacher’s task is to manually guide the movements involved in such a way that the pupil can have an experience of acting outside of their habitual conception of what they are doing. The question remains, however, What does an Alexander Technique teacher teach? Do they teach pupils to use the same technique Alexander used himself, or do they use Alexander’s teaching technique to get something else across?

Dewey claimed that of necessity people come to Alexander’s work for the "wrong reasons," that is, seeking the solution to some specific problem, and that it is only as we have experience with the process can we appreciate that how we achieve our solution and the context within which we achieve it is far more significant than the particular solution itself. By this very argument, of course, the vast majority of lessons in the technique involve pupils who would disagree with Dewey. In theory most teachers would agree with him, but in practice the meaning of the principles for any given teacher, and even more the means they employ in the endeavour to put them into practice, are greatly affected by those initial problems. Nor is this a criticism of such teachers; they are in practice to benefit their students, and the approach any given teacher uses is a product of their own understanding of the principles, their own training experience and their underlying model of learning. The divergence of various schools and styles of teaching has more to do with these divergent lines of practical experience and learning models than anything to do with the principles of the Technique as such. Thus the question "Which Alexander Technique?" is historical, and political within the community of teachers, but only reveals the absence of an adequate definition of what constitutes the foundation of the Technique. The Alexander Technique does not constitute a coherent theory, but is rather a body of practice grounded in the principles which Alexander derived in practice. What is common to all of its practitioners is their adherence to the principles discussed above, the fundamental premise being as Alexander put it,

that by means of a conscious employment of the primary control of use we can with confidence ensure the best possible use of ourselves at all times and in all circumstances, and that by this indirect means our psycho-physical self can be energized and controlled to the best advantage, no matter what our activities may be. (Alexander 1941, p. 215)

Whatever form a lesson may take, whatever problem or potential improvement the pupil may bring to it, and whatever the teacher or pupil may take "teaching" to be, what it is about, that is, what an Alexander Technique teacher teaches, is a means of acquiring this "conscious employment of the primary control."

There is, however, a context in which the earlier question of whether it was what Alexander did with himself or what he did with his hands that is The Alexander Technique is still relevant. While the scientific and philosophical importance that Dewey attributed to the work is, I think, clearly consistent with the former, the Alexander Technique community has always seemed, in practice, to tend towards the latter view. Kelly said of psychology that he was not so interested in what it is–to which I would add an implied, and how do we do it well–but rather in what it might become. If we consider Alexander’s Technique from the same perspective, Dewey’s comments become an invitation to take the same view of it that Kelly took of psychology. Alexander’s followers seem collectively to have taken the other view, which may account for the fact that aside from historical articles and the physiological research noted earlier there is almost no literature whatever concerning the underlying nature of the work, why it works as it does, etc. And though they are as pleased with his endorsement as was their originator, they seem collectively to be as uninterested in taking up Dewey’s invitation to a wider exploration as were Dewey’s own colleagues and students. This is not really surprising, considering that each teacher’s experience–and this was as true for Alexander himself as for any other teacher–is affected by the perceived needs of those who come to them as pupils. Dewey’s colleagues never understood the nature of his interest in and support of Alexander’s work, and neither have those who have continued that work. It is not a criticism of anyone who practices the technique to say that it has evolved as a means for self-improvement rather than the method for self-inquiry that Dewey saw in it. But that has often seemed to me to be a great opportunity missed, and it is the point at which my own work diverges from the Alexander Technique as such. Regarding the illustrative sessions in the appendices, one might ask, "Are these Alexander Technique lessons or not?" On the single criterion given above they certainly are, although they differ from most lessons in their explicit treatment of the student as a self-organized learner. They also differ in that their primary intent is not that enhanced "conscious employment of the primary control" as such, nor even any specific self-improvement (though such purposes are certainly present) but rather the employment of the principles of the Alexander Technique to open the possibility of a non-habitual response at the micro-level, in turn making possible the contrasts in experience that allow elaboration of dimensions of learner’s embodiment of their personal meaning.

Bibliography of Excerpt

Alexander, F.M. (1910) Man's Supreme Inheritance, Methuen, London (Reprinted by Centerline, Long Beach, 1988).

Alexander, F.M. (1923) Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Dutton, NY (Reprinted by Centerline, Long Beach, 1985).

Alexander, F.M. (1932) The Use of the Self, Dutton, NY (Reprinted by Centerline, Long Beach, 1984).

Alexander, F.M. (1941) The Universal Constant in Living, Dutton, NY (Reprinted by Centerline, Long Beach, 1986).

Dewey, John (1931) Philosophy and Civilization, Minton, Balch and Co., NY, 1931.

Dewey, J. (1957) Human Nature and Conduct, (reprint of 1922 edition) The Modern Library, NY.

Dewey, J. (1958) Experience and Nature, (reprint of Second edition, 1930) Dover, NY.

Harri-Augstein, S. and Thomas, L. (1991) Learning Conversations, Routledge, London.

Jones, F.P. (1974) "Learning How to Learn: An Operational Definition of The Alexander Technique," Sheldrake Press, London.

Jones, F.P. (1976) Body Awareness in Action, Schocken Books, NY.

Kelly, G.A. (1963) A Theory of Personality: The Psychology of Personal Constructs, Norton, NY.

Kelly, G.A. (1969) "Ontological Acceleration," in Clinical Psychology and Personality: Selected Papers of George Kelly, B. Maher (ed.), Krieger Pub., Huntington, NY, 1979.

Kelly, G.A. (1977) "The Psychology of the Unknown," in D. Bannister (ed.), New Perspectives in Personal Construct Theory, Academic Press, London, 1977.

Weyl, H. (1949) Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science, Princeton U. Press, NJ.

Dissertation Abstract

George Kelly’s Personal Construct Theory, especially as subsumed within the "conversational science" paradigm developed by Thomas and Harri-Augstein, is fundamentally a framework for a geometry of personal meaning in which all of the dimensions of distinction within a person’s experience are like the dimensions of geometric space. A person’s system of constructs is not just a framework for predicting the attributes of future events; it is a coordinate system for navigating the dimensionality of experience. The work of F.M. Alexander is primarily concerned with the "psycho-physical unity of the individual," and thus with the continuity of experience.

The present work has two aims. The first, drawing on the work of Merleau-Ponty and John Dewey, and culminating in the concept of "Conductive Reasoning," is to lay a theoretical foundation for a synthesis of the practical work of Kelly and Alexander. The primary premise is that the act of comprehending is an embodied act, and as such is as subject to the conditions of the coordination of the whole person as is any other act.

The second, practical, aim has been to develop a conversational methodology for dealing with learning in a more fully embodied way. This method of "conductive conversation," formally derived from the "Learning Conversation," evolved from the author’s teaching experience with the Alexander Technique.

Appendix 1, "A Conversational Introduction to Conductive Reasoning," is an interactive conversational structure which incorporates a development of these concepts in the context of personal experiments for generating the kinds of experiences from which the reader may draw something of the intended meaning, and some skill in using the conductive conversational tools for exploring embodied dimensions in their own meaning. It is intended as a piece that will stand on its own as a conversational research instrument for personal scientists.


About The Writer

David Mills
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