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The Alexander Technique: Notes on Body Awareness in Action

July 16, 2012

These are my notes from Frank Pierce Jones’ book Body Awareness in Action: A Study of the Alexander Technique (Schocken 1979):

F.M. Alexander

F.M. Alexander (1869-1955) discovered a method (a “means whereby”) for expanding consciousness to take in inhibition as well as excitation (“not-doing” as well as “doin”) and thus obtain a better integration of the reflex and voluntary elements in a  response pattern. The procedure makes any movement or activity smoother and easier, and is strongly reinforcing. Alexander and his brother, A. R. Alexander (1874-1947), developed a way of using their hands to convey information directly through the kinesthetic sense. They gave their pupils an immediate “aha” experience of performing a habitual act -walking, talking, breathing, handling objects, and the like – an a nonhabitual way. The technique changed the underlying feeling tone of a movement, producing a kinesthetic effect of lightness that was pleasurable and rewarding and served as the distinguishing hallmark of nonhabitual responses. (p.2)

F.M. Alexander published four books between 1910 and 1941. In them he presented a unified view of the organism, strongly opposed to any form of mind-body dualism. He maintained that under the influence of civilization, man as a whole – as a human being – had degenerated that he had reached a stage where his instincts were no longer reliable, and that if he was going to survive, his behavior had to be reintegrated on a conscious level. (p.2)

Applying a light pressure with his hands, the demonstrator changes the balance (or poise) of the subject’s head in such a way that the muscles in the nape of the neck lengthen, allowing the head to rotate slightly forward as it moves up from the shoulders. Care must be taken not to set up stretch reflexes in the muscles by using too much pressure or applying pressure too rapidly. Properly carried out, the procedure will establish a new dynamic balance between the weight of the head and the tonus of the muscles so that within a limited range (greater in some than in others) the head behaves like an inertial system which can move or be moved freely in any direction without a feeling of weight. The demonstrator then helps the subject to continue the changed relation between the head and trunk during a few everyday movements like walking, sitting down and standing up, or raising his arms. In the process the subject’s body can be felt by the demonstrator to lengthen and become lighter. Subjects regularly report that the movements are easier and smoother and that they feel lighter and taller while they are doing them. “More ease and lightness,” “a feeling of ease, of competence – very different from ‘relaxation’,” “a greater degree of ease and consequent pleasure,” are expressions that subjects have used to describe the experience. (p.5-6)

The feeling of pleasure in an everyday movement takes the subjects by surprise, and their faces break spontaneously into a smile as they notice it. “It’s a funny thing,” one of them said. “It’s as if my arms liked moving this way and wanted to do it again.” To some subjects the idea of moving against gravity (as in getting up from a chair) without effort is difficult to grasp – “a source of wonderment.” In describing the experience, one said: “First I was sitting down, and then I was standing up. I don’t know how I got there.” (p.6)

Francis Bacon said that in a scientific investigation “it would be an unsound fancy and self contradictory to think that things which have never yet been done can be done except by means which have never yet been tried”… It was only after I realized attention can be expanded as well as narrowed that I began to note progress. I order to move on conscious level in which I could be aware of both doing and not-doing (of the inhibitory as well as the excitatory part of the movement), I had to expand my attention so that it took in something of myself and something of the environment as well. It was just as easy, I found, instead of setting up two fields- one for the self (introsepection) and another for the environment (extraspection)to establish a single integrated field in which both the environment and the self could be viewed simultaneously. (p.9)

I had been aware of neckmuscle tension before but had not been aware that the tension increased in response to stimuli. Now the response pattern- began to stand out against the newly induced background of postural tone so that there was a clear-cut figure-ground relation between them. (p.10)

What the procedures I learned from A.R. had done was to remove a great deal of the “noise” from the tonic “ground” so that the tensional “figure” was easier to perceive. Once the figure was perceived for what it was- an increment of tension in response to a particular stimulus- it could be controlled; “inhibited” was the word A.R. used. (p.10)

After I had clearly perceived the pattern of neck-muscle tension and understood the part it played in one everyday movement, I began to notice it in other movements. It appeared when I started to sit down as well as when I started to stand up. I noticed it sharply in climbing stairs, in picking up a suitcase, in taking a deep breath, in writing a letter. Less sharply but unmistakably, the pattern appeared in everything I did. When it was inhibited, the same effect followed as in the first movement that had been demonstrated on me.The pattern was not confined to the neck. The neck was merely the distribution point at which the increase in tension began and from which it spread like a net to other parts of the body. I noticed it particularly in my arms and shoulders, the small of my back, and the adductor muscles in my legs. The significance of the neck was that the pattern began there, in time as well as space, and if it did not begin there, it could not be propagated to the rest of the body. (p.10-11)

Inhibition is a negative term, but it describes a positive process. By refusing to respond to a stimulus in a habitual way you release a set of reflexes that lengthen the body and facilitate movement. The immediate result of Alexandrian inhibition is a sense of freedom, as if a heavy garment that had been hampering all of your movements has been removed. (p.11)

By expanding the field of consciousness it is possible to enjoy an experience at both a sensory and an intellectual level. By ‘overviewing’ it you can detect and inhibit trains of thought or patterns of tension that otherwise would get in the way of your enjoyment. (p.11)

Having injured my back in an auto accident, I had never been able to sit at a desk for any length of time without discomfort. Now I began to notice that whenever I leaned forward to read or write I displaced my head downward and allowed my chest to collapse so that my torso was a dead weigh on my lower back. Since I had always done this, I assumed that there was no alternative except to make an effort to sit up straight. After experimenting with the technique I discovered that if I inhibited the preliminary displacement of my head I could move forward without becoming heavy and could work at my desk without discomfort.(p.11-12)

The field of attention has a set of kinesthetic coordinates which supply a framework for thinking. If my thoughts were pulled off the track (as they so frequently were) into irrelevancy, the change in direction of thinking registered kinesthetically as a disturbance in the level of tonus and my thought could be brought back before it had progressed very far along its stream of associations. (p.13)

Because the field of attention is not simply a theoretical construct but a kinesthetically perceptible state of tonus, any emotional disturbance affects it immediately and can often be perceived as a change in the level of muscle tone before a reaction in the autonomic system has begun. Anger for, for example, has a characteristic pattern that is easy recognizable. In one lesson I was suddenly aware that I was twitching with anger at something A.R. was saying (he was trying, no doubt, to provoke a reaction) and that the muscles in my neck and shoulders were being strongly activated. It was the same pattern that I had noticed before when A.R. was trying to get me to stand up in a coordinated way. This time instead of trying to control my anger (which I thought was well justified) I turned my attention to my neck and shoulders. I found that I could inhibit a further increase of tension and allow the muscles to lengthen; and that as long as I did this I could carry on a rational conversation in spite of my inward agitation. It was an altogether different process from suppressing anger, which used to tie me into a knot. The emotion (or the automatic manifestation of it), instead of building up to an explosive force, remained a potential for action but did not interfere with rational decision. The same procedure could be used to take the panic out of fear. Redirecting or containing an emotion in this way is not the same thing as relaxing or ignoring the stimulus, both of which would reduce the capacity for action if action should be needed. (p. 13-14)

F.M. Alexander called this process ‘keeping in touch with your reason.’ A great deal of ingenuity has gone into developing biofeedback devices for controlling various parts of the autonomic system directly. Alexandrian inhibition works indirectly. Skeletal muscles (neck muscles in particular) serve as both monitor and effector, leaving the behavior of the autonomic system to the ‘wisdom of the body.’ (p.14)

The changes that I observed in myself were often unexpected, but they were never accompanied by any sudden or violent release of emotion and never left me feeling defenseless. The Alexander Technique provides the knowledge and freedom to change, but it is change within a developmental model. There is no ‘must.’ Changes take place when you are ready for them and can permit them to happen. Habitual tensions that have grown up over a long period of time limit development and prevent the free expression of personality. They serve as a protection, however, in situations where, rightly or wrongly, a person feels vulnerable or incompetent. The Alexander Technique does not deprive one of this ‘character armoring’ as long as it is needed. Lessons in the technique release an organic process of change that gradually replaces old rigid habits with new habits which are flexible and can themselves be changed. The process of change is not mindless. It can be directed by intelligence into paths that lead to the best development of the individual’s own personality. (p.14)

 … relaxing muscles in his neck instead of tensing them, allowing his head to go ‘forward and up’ instead of pulling it backward and down, lengthening his spine instead of arching it, and widening his back instead of narrowing it… His final step was to bring the whole process of inhibiting and directing onto the conscious level and keep it there… These procedures, he said, would result in a different activity from the old, habitual activity “in that the old activity could not be controlled outside the gaining of a given end, whereas the new activity could be controlled for the gaining of any end that was consciously desired.” This is a compressed account of how F.M. Alexander discovered his technique of conscious control. The account is a paradigm for bringing the pattern of a learned response (any learned response) onto the conscious level where it can be controlled in such a way that when the associated stimulus is presented, three choices are available: to make the response as it was originally learned; to make a different and more appropriate response; not to respond at all. The procedure, Alexander said, is contrary to all learning procedures that have been followed in the past.(p. 17)

In 1906 and 1907 he published two pamphlets on “respiratory reeducation” and another in 1908, “reeducation of the Kinaesthetic Systems”… The problem he took up first was how to restore normal respiration, but realizing that “nature does not work in parts but treats everything as whole,” he decided that it was necessary to reeducate the whole person in order to accomplish a fundamental change… His thesis was that every normal child possessed at birth the conditions necessary for healthy development… If, however, the child’s natural activity was not encouraged and intelligently directed, his kinesthesis would soon become “demoralized” by the bad habits of the school room and the “crouching positions necessitated by useless and irrational desk work.” The result of the demoralizing conditions of schools and offices and of modern civilized life in general has been a faulty pattern of breathing associated with postural imbalance – “undue rigidity” in certain muscle groups and “undue flaccidity” in others. (p. 19-20)

Besides bad respiratory conditions like emphysema, faulty breathing habits, Alexander said, have produced a variety of postural deformities (“pot-belly attitudes,” Bernard Shaw called them) and a general deterioration of the muscular and nervous systems because imperfect oxygenation of the blood. (p.20)

Unlike other methods of re-education, his was designed to correct both mental attitude and the physical condition at the same time by combining “directive orders” on the part of the pupil (to change the mental attitude) with skillful manipulation on the part of the teacher (to change the physical condition). The directive orders activated the ideomotor centers in the brain without initiating movement… The pupil was instructed to give his attention exclusively to the orders (the means-whereby) and not to concentrate on the end or goal to be reached. The teacher would then bring the pupil into a “position of mechanical advantage” in which the back was widened and the spine more extended. In such a position breathing would be facilitated and stiffening of the neck and arms and other postural faults would be reduced. (p.21)

Alexander’s readings in anthropology and evolutionary thought combined with his observations of contemporary man brought him to the thesis that he advanced in Man’s Supreme Inheritance. Simply stated, the thesis is that “the great phase in man’s advancement is that in which he passes from subconscious to conscious control of his own mind and body.” Animals evolved through mechanisms of subconscious control in accordance with the laws of selective evolution… Man had reached a stage where in evolution he was no longer dependent upon the guidance of instinct and automatic learned responses… It was only by accepting this “inheritance” of conscious control and applying it to the body as well as the mind (to the whole psychophysical self) that man could cope with the stresses of modern life and adapt himself to the changes that civilization imposed. (p.24)

 “Inhibition” is a key concept in Alexander’s thought… the term later had a negative connotation stamped on it by the Freudian school; but Alexander used it throughout his career because it said what he wanted to say more exactly than any other term. To Alexander, inhibition had a definite, operational meaning. It means delaying the instantaneous response (learned or instinctive) to a stimulus until the response could be carried out in the way that was best suited to the well-being of the organism as a whole. (p.25)

To Alexander inhibition was not coequal with excitation: it came first. It is the fundamental process, conscious or unconscious, by which the integrity of the organism is maintained while a particular response is being carried out, or not carried out, as the case may be.(p.25)

Though Alexander sometimes used inhibition as if it were a synonym of reason and intelligence, he did not consider it an exclusively human attribute. Animals, he said, showed it in the natural state. A wild cat stalking its prey, for example, “inhibits the desire to spring prematurely and controls to a deliberate end its eagerness for the instant gratification of a natural appetite.”

In primitive man the power of inhibition increased side by side with the growth of intelligence.(p.26)

Believing that the fundamental problem of education – failure to move ahead onto a fully conscious plane – had to be solved first, Alexander had no use for partial solutions. In particular he deplored methods of education and therapy that aimed at controlling and using, for whatever purpose, the “subconscious self,” as if it were some kind of hidden entity subject to the force of suggestion or autosuggestion… In Man’s Supreme Inheritance Alexander does not give an exact definition of “subconscious self,” but he clearly means by it not a hidden entity (which would destroy the unity of the organism)), but a complex set of habits that operate automatically below conscious level and that are the result of either instinct or prior learning. (p.26)

Of the three factors that determine behavior – heredity, imitation, and learning (training) – Alexander considered only the last two to be significant. He dismissed heredity as negligible. “In the vast majority of cases,” he said, “it can be practically eradicated.” (p.26)

A conscious habit works automatically just as an unconscious habit does, but it is plastic and subject to change and hence is the servant rather than the master of man.

A habit need never be fixed. “It is merely a series of orders which will be carried out until countermanded.” (p.28)

Alexander’s aim in writing his books was “to alert the world to the degenerative effect that civilization was making on the human organism and to outline the steps that must e taken to reverse the process.” (p.39)

One of the examples he chose to show the degeneration of modern man was ‘mind wandering’. In the savage state, mind wandering would be fatal and the individual without the ability to respond appropriately to a novel situation could not survive at all. The answer, Alexander repeats, is not concentration, but a general alertness.(In conversation he illustrated the point by another example from his Australian experience: an amateur who went hunting in the bush looked for game by concentrating his attention first on one spot and then on another. But while he was concentrating, the bird would rise somewhere else and he would miss it. The true hunter, on the other hand, took in the whole landscape with his gaze and was prepared for whatever happened wherever it happened.) Closely connected with mind wandering is the increasing loss of memory evidenced by the prevalence of ‘memory systems’ and courses of ‘mental training.’ All of these systems and courses, Alexander said, were based on an end-gaining principle and were bound to fail. They start out by dividing the organism into mind and body, then proceed to treat what they call the mind separately, ignoring th psychophysical functioning that is present when the memory trace id formed. Everything that is remembered, Alexander pointed out, has come to us through one or the other of the senses… The decay of memory, then, is directly related to the lowering standard of sensory appreciation. (pp.39-40)

Alexanders final conclusion, that the way the organism is used determines the way it functions – “use determines functioning”… The Use of the Self shows an advance in Alexander’s thinking about the technique in two key concepts, “use,” which is brought into the title of the book, and “primary control.” (p.46)

Behavioral scientists usually feel that when they have accounted for genetic factors and environmental influences (including learning) they have said all there is to be said about the individual and that if all genetic and environmental factors were known it would be possible to predict behavior. There is a third factor however: the characteristic way the person uses himself in everything he does. Until this factor is known, no prediction can be made… Unlike heredity and previous experience, use can be brought under conscious control and redirected to enlarge the individual’s potential for creative development. (p.46)

In The Use of the Self, the term “position of mechanical advantage” is replaced by “primary control,” a different concept altogether. Alexander defines it as a control that “depends upon a certain use of the head and neck in relation to the body.” The primary control “governs the working of all the mechanisms and so renders the control of the complex human organism comparatively simple” (pp.59-60). Alexander apparently had the idea of a primary control in the relation of the head to the neck at least as early as 1912. In Conscious Control… he gives as the first in the series of directive orders: “neck to relax, head forward and up.” The idea does not seem to have crystallized, however, until after some of his medical friends had called his attention to the work of Rudolph Magnus… Magnus was struck by the central role played by the reflexes governing the position of the animal’s head in relation to space and in relation to the rest of the body. He and his colleagues published over three hundred scientific papers on the postural reflexes, culminating in the Korperstellung, a 715-page treatise on animal posture published in 1924. His work demonstrated that the head-neck reflexes, were the central mechanism in orienting the animal to his environment (“bringing space into the right position”) both in maintaining a posture assumed for a particular purpose and in restoring the animal to the normal resting posture after the purpose had ben fulfilled. (p.47)

It is through the meditation of head-neck reflexes that a “moving mouse impresses on [a] cat… an attitude, by which the cat is focused toward the mouse and made ready for movement. The only thing the cat has to do is decide: to jump or not to jump.

All other things have been prepared beforehand reflexly under the influence of the mouse…” (Animal Posture, p. 345). If then the mouse retreats, the stimulus to the attitudinal reflex is removed and the other set of reflexes, the righting reflexes in which head-neck reflexes again play the dominant role, take over and the cat is restored to the normal position. “In this way,” Magnus says, “all the senses of the body regain their precise relation to the outer world” (1930, p. 103)… In an important paper published in the British Medical Journal(December 25, 1926), Dr. Peter MacDonald (president of the Yorkshire Branch of the BMA) called attention to Magnus’s precept that “the whole mechanism of the body acts in such a way that the head leads and the body follows,” and pointed out that Alexander in his teaching had anticipated some of the results that Magnus and his colleagues had arrived at through laboratory experiments. (p.47-48)

Having described how he arrived at his principle of conscious control, Alexander goes on to apply it to two concrete cases: a stutterer and a golfer who cannot keep his eye on the ball… Both the golfer and the stutterer had tried many methods of cure but they were not able to overcome their reliance on feeling and their addiction to “end-gaining.” They knew what to do (or not do), but when the stimulus was received neither of them knew how to inhibit his old tendency to make a vast increase of unnecessary tension in preparing for the response. The solution for both of them, as it had been for Alexander himself, was to establish a control in which inhibition of the old response maintained the organism in balance until the new response was established. (p.48-49)

… Alexander argues for the introduction of the technique into the medical curriculum. If a young doctor understood the principle of the primary control, he said, he would posses an invaluable diagnosis tool, since he would be able to estimate how much a patient’s faulty “use” of himself contributed to his disability, and could add to the effectiveness of his treatment for mental as well as physical conditions… Alexander wrote, “that the end for which they are working is of minor importance as compared with the way they direct the use of themselves for the gaining of that end.” (p.49)

When the pupil perceives directly through the kinesthetic sense and can compare a habitual with a nonhabitual way of doing something, he doesn’t need words in order to grasp the significance of the experience… “If we become sensorily aware of doing a harmful thing to ourselves, we can cease doing it.” The key word here is “sensorily.” (p.51)

 For one who is familiar with the technique.. The Universal Constant contains much that is of interest. It starts out with an arresting sentence: “Few of us hitherto have given consideration to the question of the extent to which we are individually responsible for the ills that our flesh is heir to.” It is not so much what we have done in the past or what has been done to us that causes our troubles but what we are doing to ourselves through “the faulty and often harmful manner in which we ourselves in our daily activities and even during sleep”… “an improving manner of use” will exert a constant influence for good “in the restoration and maintenance of psychophysical efficiency”… When you understand the concept of “use”, you will stop saying you have a “bad back” or a “tennis elbow” or an “Oedipus complex” or a “phobia for cats” and find out what you are doing that keeps you from getting over it. (p.57-58)

The most important document incorporated into The Universal Constant is Coghill’s “Appreciation”… In a series of detailed and painstaking observations made over a period of more than thirty years he followed the development of motility and structural change from the earliest manifestations in the embryo… Movement, Coghill said, was integrated from the start, with the “total pattern” of the head and trunk dominating the “partial patterns” of the limbs. The primary function of the nervous system, he said, was to maintain the integrity of the individual “while the behavior pattern expands” (Herrick, p.122). In the total pattern of behavior there were two parts, “one overt or excitatory and the other covert or inhibitory.” the inhibitory factor was essential for the successful execution of specific reflexes… Though spontaneity gradually decreases with the establishment of conditioned reflexes (which like unconditioned reflexes “emerge on the motor side from a field of general activity”), the capacity for spontaneous and creative action is never lost. “Man,” Coghill said, “is a mechanism which, within his limitations of life, sensitivity and growth, is creating and operating himself.”


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