The Alexander Technique

A Talk With Joe Armstrong

New Visions had a chance to talk with Joe Armstrong, a teacher of the Alexander Technique in Boston, Mass. The Alexander Technique has been taught for over a hundred years. It was developed by an Australian, F. Matthias Alexander, and during his lifetime—1869-1955—he taught the method mainly to British and American artists and intellectuals. He also trained about two dozen people to carry on the teaching, and they have, in turn, trained others, so that there are now over 1500 teachers of the Technique worldwide. The real burgeoning interest in it has come in the last thirty years through the performing arts, and it is now taught in many leading theatre and opera companies and music and drama schools.

Joe has taught the Alexander Technique in Boston for over 35 years and is a graduate of one of the main teacher training schools in London directed by several of the teachers trained originally by Alexander himself. He also conducted research on the Technique at the Tufts Institute for Psychological Research (http://www.joearmstrong.info/JoeThesis.html) while doing graduate study there with the late Dr. Frank Pierce Jones, one the first American Alexander teachers, who also did extensive research on the subject at Tufts. For Joe, the Technique is not "bodywork," as it is sometimes mistakenly called, but a way of managing every aspect of our lives. Joe is concerned that the scope of this technique be understood in its fullest, including its potential to influence the fields of education, philosophy, psychology, sociology, and medicine. We took this opportunity to go beyond our surface understanding of this system of psychophysical integration.

NV:  Why is there a gap in our knowledge of the Alexander Technique? We hear the name over and over again, but many of us don't really know what it is about.

Joe: I think it's partly because there's so much more to the Alexander Technique than meets the eye at first glance that people who've studied it in depth tend to shy away from trying to describe it in passing conversation. It's hard to explain in just a few words how developing a constructive conscious control over the dynamics of your head-neck-torso relationship can become a major factor in improving your whole attitude to life, or how that control can give you a basis for freeing yourself from unwanted habits and unreasonalbe prejudices. Unfortunately, to say anything less than that just doesn't do the Technique justice at all.

But even then it's difficult, if not impossible to verbalize exactly how the Alexander Technique really works in a practical, moment-to-moment way, because our vocabulary is so limited for describing the complete psychophysical activity involved in it and the resulting experience it can bring of well-being, freedom, and wholeness, whether we're solving a math problem or running a mile. We usually label experiences as either "physical," "mental," "emotional," or "spiritual," or speak of them as some combination of the four, but the Alexander Technique is trying to unify the whole person in every waking moment, so that you no longer experience or even conceive of yourself as a collection of parts—"mind," "body," "spirit," etc. There are very few words in English that stand for this self-integration, and even so-called holistic practitioners tend to perpetuate the view that we are made up of separate components by using these terms. With that in mind, I think it's interesting that the Native American Wintu language of northern California does not have a word for "body" but only one for the whole person. And you can't say in Wintu, for instance, "I have a headache" as if "you" have some "object" inside you that you're carrying around. Instead, Wintu expresses only what you're actually experiencing by saying "I headache." (See Jamake Highwater, THE PRIMAL MIND, Harper & Row, NY, 1981, p. 73.)

NV: So you don't consider the Alexander Technique "bodywork"?

Joe:  No. The Alexander Technique is over a hundred years old, and the field of bodywork is a more recent development that includes many approaches that are essentially "physical" in nature, as the term implies, and that are primarily done to you and don't usually focus on developing your conscious control of your reactions to life's stimuli as a crucial part of the experience. The Alexander Technique doesn't really fit into the bodywork category at all because it is aiming for a synthesis or unity, a way of using yourself as a whole from moment to moment in thought as well as in action. So, it shouldn't even be compared to bodywork because what it gives you can be applied to receiving bodywork—or to meditation, to psychotherapy, to computer programing, to singing. It has the potential to enable you to do all things in life better and to reap their rewards more fully.

But, on first impression, many people mistakenly assume that the Alexander Technique is bodywork—or a type of posture or movement training—because such an important part of the self-integration you experience in lessons comes from the contact and guidance of the teacher's hands, which is a unique and extremely refined skill that depends upon an extraordinary self-control developed through intensive years of training and practice. And adding to these misunderstandings is the fact that the action of going from sitting to standing and from standing to sitting is traditionally focused on in the lessons. But this everyday movement is only used as a framework, or paradigm, for helping you to become aware of and gain a conscious control over any habitual reactions, subconscious thought patterns, or preconceptions that may get in the way of maintaining your self-integration, usually at the moment when you merely start to think of what you're going to do next—stand up, sit down, or play a concert next week—when your thinking often surreptitiously begins to turn into action.

Unfortunately, these misconceptions that the Technique is bodywork or a type of movement training are reinforced by many watered-down versions of it that have taken this manual contact aspect and the movement framework only at their surface value to promote it chiefly for giving physiotherapeutic relief from injury or stress, or for improving movement awareness and coordination. The Alexander Technique certainly can help with these "physical" things—often magnificently so, and when many therapies and other disciplines have failed— but these improvements are simply side-effects of learning something much more central and important. Alexander called this field of study "psychophysical re-education"; and, from reading his four books on the subject, I'm sure that he would reject the label "bodywork" too.

Here's what Alexander had to say in the first paragraph of his third book, The Use of the Self, written in 1932, where he goes into great detail about how he developed the Technique:

"My two earlier books, Man's Supreme Inheritance and Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, contain a statement of the technique which I gradually evolved over a period of years in my search for a means whereby faulty conditions of use in the human organism could be improved. I must admit that when I began my investigation, I, in common with most people, conceived of 'body' and 'mind' as separate parts of the same organism, and consequently believed that human ills, difficulties and shortcomings could be classified as either 'mental' or 'physical' and dealt with on specifically 'mental' or specifically 'physical' lines. My practical experiences, however, led me to abandon this point of view and readers of my books will be aware that the technique described in them is based on the opposite conception, namely, that it is impossible to separate 'mental' and 'physical' processes in any form of human activity."

NV: When someone comes to you for lessons is there a certain series of exercises they have to go through?

Joe: Not exercises. It's a learning that mainly involves your ability to use your consciousness to maintain the most constructive state of being while reacting to world. We are looking for a way of organizing your perception so that you perceive both yourself and the external world from a central focus we call our "primary control." It's a focus on the relationship between your neck, your head, and your torso and on how that relationship is functioning either to the benefit or to the detriment of your whole self and everyone and everything around you at any given moment. You learn to orient whatever you may be thinking, feeling or doing around this central focus, and you filter all these things through the best integration of your neck-head-torso-limb relationship. Everything you do and experience is gathered together into what we call "the use of the self as a whole." Sometimes, though, we find that the best way to improve your Primary Control on your own—especially when you are fatigued, injured, or stressed—is by lying quietly on your back on the floor for ten or fifteen minutes and simply projecting the messages from your thinking to your musculature that promote the most integrated working of these parts. But no actual motions through space are involved in this process. In fact, many people liken it to meditation—particularly because improvement in your Primary Control can often bring about a marvelous experience of peace and a refreshing flow of energy throughout the whole of you. There are, however, some advanced procedures that you learn that have to do with breathing and to do with developing more of an integrated use of your arms and hands with your torso; but, again, we wouldn't consider them to be "exercises"—at least not of the type you'd do at your gym or that you'd practice on the piano.

NV: Does the student learn to become a kind of director?

Joe: Yes, absolutely. In fact the words "direct," "directing" and "direction" are crucial in understanding the Alexander Technique. Through lessons, you're really learning how to direct your intention in a certain positive and constructive way that influences how your musculature works to support you from moment to moment in relation to gravity's downward pull, whether you're standing erect or curled up in a ball on the ground, and whether you're speaking calmly with a friend or being yelled at by a drill sergeant. And this directing of your intention is what gives you the control and the freedom to choose a way of thinking or a course of action that's the most appropriate for the situation at hand—whether it's remaining silent, for instance, if you're angry, or really allowing your anger to be seen and fully felt for what it truly is, or mustering the superlative control needed for performing a violin concerto.

Alexander explained it: "When I use the words 'direction' and 'directed' . . . I wish to indicate the process involved in projecting messages from the brain to the mechanisms and in conducting the energy necessary to the use of these mechanisms." (F.M. Alexander, THE USE OF THE SELF, Methuen/Gollancz, London, 1932/1985, p. 20/35.)

I usually demonstrate the process of directing when I'm giving someone their first lesson by asking them to let their hands rest quietly in their lap while they're sitting opposite me—since I begin by having a conversation about why they've come and about whether or not the Technique can offer them what they're looking for. Then I ask them simply to be aware of their index finger on their right hand—without moving their hand or finger at all. And then I point out that their finger is already pointing in a certain direction through space just as it's resting quietly there in their lap.

From there, I ask them to go on leaving their finger resting there, and, without moving it at all, merely think of, intend for, or imagine their finger pointing more in the same direction it's already pointing. Almost without fail, they experience the texture of their finger become more alive and vibrant as they continue to project that direction from their imagination into their finger as they leave it resting there on their lap.

I also encourage them to go on directing their finger in that same way as we continue talking about other aspects of the Technique, and I explain that this continued use of direction is what we're eseentially trying to cultivate through lessons in the Technique by applying it not just to this or that part of ourselves, but to the whole—and in a particular sequence, starting with their neck, and going on to include their head, back, and limbs. But, of course, their sense of the heightened condition of energy in their finger usually fades as their attention becomes more focused on the other subjects we go on to talk about. However, this procedure serves to get across the big distinction that Alexander made between "directing" and "doing" that's at the very root of the Technique—both in terms of the use of the teacher's hands to convey understandings and in terms of bringing about changes in the students' own self-reliance in continuing with those understandings outside the lesson in their everyday lives.

NV: Is the Alexander Technique about self-improvement?

Joe:  Yes. In fact Alexander used to say that it was the poor person's psychoanalysis, I guess because it usually doesn't cost as much as analysis—although it probably should—and because the process of learning the technique can eventually evoke an examination of your habits, difficulties, shortcomings, pre-concieved ideas, fixed prejudices, beliefs, and fears, even though this comes about in quite a different way from the conventional psychoanalytical and psychotherapeutic approaches that rely mainly on talking about your problems and your past. In the Alexander Technique, the process of unraveling the tangled skein of stimulus and response in such a simple act as getting in or out of a chair often unmasks your hidden or subconscious, automatic tendencies for reacting and behaving that you were never aware of before. Sometimes it can be quite a shock to realize that your motives for action were not as positive or altruistic as you believed them to be. Often people go through quite amazing personality changes when their habitual, neurotic patterns of behavior just drop away and you can see that they've become able to wait and give time for a much more positive and truly compassionate choice of response to take place—which can sometimes also mean delaying or witholding a response until a more appropriate moment. Of course, the Technique can also improve your general health because it can balance out excessive pressures you may be making with your musculature, both within yourself and upon the surfaces you are in contact with. It can improve your whole manner of reacting and your ability to think and reason more clearly, because you learn to allow more time for the wisest response or more logical reasoning to take place.

And, ultimately, I think it can bring you to an understanding of a quality of happiness that comes as a result of freeing yourself up from inner pressures and tensions that are often a source of irritation, malaise, and depression—in contrast to a happiness that's dictated more by external factors. I think that there's a neuro-muscular aspect to depression and so-called "mental disorders" that has been largely missed by the medical profession because of its readiness to alter the corresponding "brain chemistry" by prescribing medications. No doubt there is a chemical component to these, and all other, "emotional states" of being, but Alexander would be quick to point out that they are also manifested in the operation and functioning of our neuro-muscular system as well. So this medical oversight also raises the question that, if you're dealing with depression or other "emotional problems" by using a medication that alters your brain chemistry, does that chemical alteration then stand in the way of your learning to reckon with the condition through your own powers of directing? At the very least, I can see that people on medications for these conditions could think that they're "taken care of" by the medicine and that there's really no need, then, to look any further into possible self-help arenas. This question is poignantly highlighted in the book-length interview I did with senior Alexander teacher, the late Kitty Wieloposka, on her experience of dealing with the effects of schizophrenia by using the skills she learned from training to be a teacher of the Alexander Technique with Alexander himself. (See my introduction to the book, Never Ask Why http://www.joearmstrong.info/NeverAskWhy.html.)

But the common perspective on dealing with depression and emotional conditions is also part of a more general attitude taken by people who have learned to rely so much on the medical profession and its remedies that are focused very much on treating symptoms rather than underlying causes, and which understand next to nothing about how the use of the self as a whole can be improved or that it should be considered as a key part of any diagnosis of illness or injury—as Alexander took great pains to point out in 1932 in a chapter called "Diagnosis and Medical Training," which is included in The Use of the Self. Alexander found over and over—and a number of esteemed medical people of his day corroborated his findings by seeing the results he achieved with their patients whose symptoms hadn't responded to medical treatments—that if you simply improve the use of the person as a whole, many symptoms of illness or injury will just drop away. And that was certainly the case with his own severe hoarseness and loss of voice that was drastically hampering his early career as a dramatic recitalist, and which his laryngologists could not "cure"—also described in that book's first chapter entitled "Evolution of a Technique."

NV: If someone went to a teacher and could only take ten lessons, would that be enough to be considered a serious beginning?

Joe: It could be. But it depends a lot on how receptive the student is and how skilled the teacher is. As with most skills, there can be a wide variance in ability from teacher to teacher, which often depends on training background and years of experience. And, like learning most things, there's a "chemistry" factor involved in the communication between the student and teacher too. Most of the time I find that even in three lessons I can give someone a pretty complete picture of what we're looking for. But that's not to say they achieve long-lasting results. They usually need thirty to fifty lessons to begin to be able to apply it to their lives. Many people need to study the technique for several years, because the progress is often very gradual, and we're up against a whole lifetime of habits. And I hate to say it, but I think there are some people who might not be able to learn the Technique, mainly because they have such a severe split between "physical" and "mental"—between their thinking and their feeling—that they can't really project the directions that integrate their neck-head-torso relationship or perceive the changes that a skilled teacher is able to bring about in them with his or her hands. I've only had a few students in this condition though. But, even then, I often think that maybe their failure to experience what the Technique has to offer is due to some failure on my part to understand the way they think and perceive well enough to be able to figure out exactly what help they would need verbally and manually to bridge the gap in communication between their thinking and feeling and that another Alexander teacher might be able to hit on just the right ways of communicating with them that would provide them with the means to cross that chasm.

NV: Most bodywork practitioners work nowadays with releasing built-up tensions and psychological patterns stored in the body. Does the Alexander Technique touch upon this?

Joe: Yes and no. Again. It's the word "body" that's problematic to our way of thinking and working, as part of Alexander's insistence on the impossibility of separating the so-called "physical" and the so-called "mental" in any form of human activity. We would say that "psychological patterns" are also muscular tensions—maybe not quite the same as the muscular tensions we make in moving, lifting, or throwing, but they certainly include the muscular tensions involved in our breathing and our ways of carrying and supporting ourselves in relation to gravity, which in most people are largely subconscious and habitual. As we adopt personality traits, and as we repeat certain types of emotional responses over and over, these holdings and actions tend to become rigidified or "set" so that they seem like independent entities in and of themselves that are "stored" in us. But as these accumulations of tightness are converted over time by the unique manual skill of the teacher into the flowing elastic and supportive condition most of us originally experienced when we were children, the underlying actions and reactions that are the sources of the tensings and holdings are unmasked. You eventually realize that you created these built-up tightnesses through years of carrying yourself and reacting in certain subconscious ways that are unique to you, rather than their being something extraneous that you've been lugging around as excess baggage that has no connection to your behavior and your attitude to life.

NV: How does one try to change those patterns?

Joe: Only on the basis of first experiencing and learning a new pattern of reacting and directing that is constructive and integrating in terms of your thinking and your emotional feeling and your muscular activity being one and the same. As the new pattern is repeatedly given to you in lessons and you experience it more and more clearly, then the old habitual patterns begin to rearrange and actually transform into the new pattern as you begin to be able to maintain it on your own. So, you're not merely "releasing" the old pattern and not bothering to replace it with anything except "release." If the new pattern of directing your neck-head-torso-limb relationship is not there working strongly enough in you, it's not really worth very much in the long run only to release or disperse the old locked-in tightness. You'll probably still be reacting according to your old behavior patterns in the situations that usually set them off, and these tensings will very likely begin turning back into locked-in tightnesses again. But in the Alexander Technique we don't try to force or coerce these changes to happen though, because we feel that they will occur gradually, on their own, when people become skilled enough at maintaining the new integration and when they realize that it gives them something constructive to replace the old response patterns with.

NV: Where does this new pattern come from? Who gives it to you?

Joe: The teacher. That's what's so unique about the Alexander Technique. It's not something you can learn from a book or a lecture series but has to be given to you through the teacher's hands at the same time you are taught the particular verbal instructions for directing it. And Alexander teachers can only give it to you because it was given to them by their teachers and because they are maintaining it in themselves at the very moment they are transmitting it to you. Alexander found very early on in his teaching that if you try to achieve the integration for yourself you'll usually only be using your old patterns of feeling and holding yourself in a slightly different way. The new pattern can't be based on or created from the old or habitual. A skilled teacher can give you in one lesson what it took Alexander a number of years of intense self-scrutiny in front of a set of mirrors to develop for himself as he watched himself recite lines from Shakespeare and saw that he severely distorted his neck-head-torso relationship in a way that he couldn't perceive at all when he turned away from the mirrors and recited. When he finally succeeded in changing this reaction pattern and could continue with it away from his mirrors—not just in reciting, but in everything else he did too—he he called his discovery "constructive conscious control of the individual." Much later he discovered this unique and subtle way of using his hands to help other people experience and learn it much more quickly. Many of the people he taught were astonished by the changes he could bring about in them with his hands, especially after he'd spent many years working at developing the skill. And my guess is that there are not many people teaching the Technique today who have achieved that level of expertise—though even a very limited degree of it can sometimes "work wonders, especially if it's accompanied by a fairly good explanation of the concepts involved in the Technique."

Originally published in New Visions
Spring 1994

Revised on ... December 18, 2008

© Joe Armstrong