A CRUCIAL DISTINCTION:
MANNER AND CONDITIONS OF USE
TEACHING THE ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE
ALEXANDER TEACHER TRAINING
Earlier versions published in AmSAT News, Summer, 2003
and in Alexander Studies Online, March, 2015
Revised, November, 2021
In recent writing on voluntary self-regulation and unity in the Alexander profession, much of the discussion about what constitutes adequate teaching and teacher training seems to be missing a key factor that Alexander and most of the teachers he trained considered an integral part of both activities. I'm referring to the distinction traditionally made between the expressions "manner of use" and "conditions of use."
Manner of use pertains, of course, to how we do things—respond, behave, direct our head-torso-limb relationship, etc.—whether we do them consciously or subconsciously. Conditions of use pertains mainly to the quality of muscle tonus (anywhere from extreme tightness to extreme flaccidity) that exists in us regardless of how good or how poor our manner of use may be at any given moment and regardless of whether the qualities of tonus are long-standing or more recently built up. In either case, conditions of use usually cannot be altered immediately at will, whereas most aspects of manner of use can often be altered reasonably quickly through a brief application of the skills of inhibiting and directing.
Complete Alexander teaching and teacher training attempts to deal with both manner and conditions of use—perhaps emphasizing one more than the other at times, but never one to the exclusion of the other, since they are so interdependent. For instance, skilled traditional "chair work" (as with "application work") seems to focus mainly on pupils' manner of use, but their conditions can also be greatly influenced if the chair work is prolonged for more than a few moments. Likewise, traditional "table work" seems to focus on improving pupils' conditions, but their manner of use can be significantly addressed then too if their attention to inhibiting and directing is sufficiently engaged—for instance, with regard to speaking and listening during conversation, reciting a poem or text, singing, etc.
The absence of the concepts of manner and conditions of use in recent writing on self-regulation and unity seems to reflect the growing lack of understanding of them that has been especially noticeable in the U.S. among the newer teachers, trainees, and students I have met who have trained and studied here. Many of them speak as if the Alexander Technique is only about teaching an improved manner of use, which they usually signify just by the single word "use." When I bring up the term "conditions of use," most of them say they have never heard of it and do not have any idea of what it might mean. But both terms were commonplace during my own training (1969-1972) and continued to be a staple in most discussions of the Technique I've had both with first-generation teachers I've known well, such as Walter and Dilys Carrington, Peggy Williams, Elizabeth Walker, Frank Pierce Jones, and Kitty Wielopolska, as well as with most second-generation colleagues from my training years and before. Of course, as teaching the Technique solely in large groups was promoted by Marjorie Barstow beginning in the 1970s, the conceopt of its addressing conditions of use became even more obscured.
Alexander himself, as with other terms he used, seems to be in the process of clarifying the meanings of these two expressions over the course of his writings. For example, he appears to employ the terms "use" and "conditions of use" almost interchangeably in the following segment from Chapter I of The Use of the Self published in 1932 (1985 Gollancz edition, p. 39):
In the work that followed I came to see that to get a direction of my use which would ensure this satisfactory reaction, I must cease to rely upon the feeling associated with my instinctive direction, and in its place employing reasoning processes, in order
(1) to analyse the conditions of use present;
(2) to select (reason out) the means whereby a more satisfactory use could be brought about;
(3) to project consciously the directions required for putting these means into effect. (Underlines added.)
He doesn't bring in the expression "manner of use" until Chapter III, "The Golfer Who Cannot Keep his Eyes on the Ball" (p. 57):
In the present instance there can be no doubt that the particular end he has in view is to make a good stroke,which means that
the moment he begins to play he starts to work for that end directly, without considering what manner of use of his mechanisms
generally would be the best for the making of a good stroke. (Underlines added.)
Of course, the chapters on golf and stuttering are primarily concerned (as are the first two chapters of The Use of the Self) with manner of use because Alexander is mainly focusing on how the particular actions are performed in each case. Even so, by page 80, in Chapter IV, "The Stutterer," he is using the two expressions side by side in distinction from each other:
Change the manner of use and you change the conditions throughout the organism; the old reaction associated with the old manner of use and the old conditions cannot therefore take place, for the means are no longer there. (Underlines added.)
But by 1941, in Chapter II of The Universal Constant in Living, "The Constant Influence of Manner of Use in Relation to Diagnosis" (2000 Mouritz edition, pp. 16-22), he makes the differentiation between the terms clearest when he describes the result of a course of lessons he gave to "Mr. B," an osteo-arthritic patient of Dr. Caldwell of Westmorland:
Such a change could not have been brought about without the inhibition of his habitual manner of use, for this was associated with misdirection and the high degree of muscle tension throughout the organism, and was indirectly responsible for much of the overaction of the muscle groups resulting in the spasm. The change made in his use through the inhibition of this misdirection brought about many changes in conditions, including a lowering of the standard of muscle tension throughout the organism generally, and, with it, a reduction of the undue tension involved in the spasm. (Underlines added.)
Obviously, what Alexander was doing here with his hands while working on this pupil was definitely more than just helping him to inhibit the misdirection of his manner of use and instructing him in how to maintain an improved direction of his head-torso-limb relationship "in reaction to the stimulus of living" (UCL, p. XXVII). He was clearly simultaneously using his hands to alter Mr. B's conditions of use—"a lowering of the standard of muscle tension throughout the organism generally"—by gradually redistributing the more or less chronic tightnesses involved in both the specific spasm and in Mr. B's overall musculature. If the short film of Alexander working on people is an example of what he did with most of his students and trainees—and I take it that it is—it is easy to see that he is using his hands constantly to build up or add to the reorganization of the overall conditions of both of the people he is shown working on. You don't see him instructing them verbally or speaking to them at all; but presumably, by then, those particular people (one of whom is Margaret Goldie, a long-time teacher) had enough verbal instruction in inhibiting their habitual misuse and in directing an improved manner of use not to need much more from Alexander than the work from his hands on their conditions of use while they did their best to maintain a good manner of use as a collaborating factor.
See the short film clip of Alexander giving chair work to Margaret Goldie (narrated by Walter Carrington):
I think the best example of change in a person's conditions of use to be found in the Alexander literature is Lulie Westfeldt's dramatic description of what happened to her during Alexander's first teacher training course in the 1930s:
The high point in the training course for me was the change in my own individual condition . . . . I remember a cold spring morning in my rooms on Cromwell Road. My breakfast tray had just come up, and I was in my dressing gown and bedroom slippers, walking across the room to the table where the tray had been placed. Suddenly I felt a very strange sensation, not pleasant or unpleasant, but overwhelmingly strange. For a moment I did not know what had happened. Then I realized that my right heel was touching the floor. It was no longer up in the air but flat on the floor like the left one. It had not touched the floor for upwards of twenty years; shortly after the operation [at age 13] that had immobilized the right ankle, my right heel had drawn up and been unable to touch the floor. The sensation became more and more delightful. Almost at once, my balance became much more secure. (F. Matthias Alexander: The Man and His Work, 1998 Mouritz edition, pp. 86- 87.)
Clearly, Ms Westfeldt's drawn-up heel was not something that she had merely been subconsciously doing as part of her habitual manner of use that she then simply realized she could stop doing at that particular instant. It was obviously a long-established condition of chronic tightness over which she had no direct control—resulting, as she said, from the surgery performed on her ankle during her youth in an attempt to help her cope with the effects of polio. This conversion of local shortening into lengthening surely was due to the gradual build-up of the year's nearly daily work from Alexander's skilled hands in conjunction with her own conscious work on improving her manner and conditions of use both in the training course and in her everyday life.
When I was training, the expression "conditions of use" (usually shortened to "conditions") was used by our teachers mainly for discussing a trainee's particular level of development—though not usually in his or her presence, presumably because it might prompt the trainee to try to change the conditions directly by attempting to manipulate any of the aspects in question. You might hear a teacher say, "Oh, she has very poor conditions; but she does understand how to inhibit and direct fairly well." Or you might hear the converse: "His conditions have improved, even though he still can't seem to inhibit his habitual responses very well." But it was generally conceded by all the teachers there that good conditions of use were both a major goal and a necessity for everyone in training, no matter how "normal" they seemed on entering the course. As training progressed, it became ever clearer that without good conditions of use, an improved manner of use alone wouldn't be sufficient for managing a full teaching load—that is, the kind of teaching that includes working toward improving both a pupil's manner of use and his or her conditions of use with the view of achieving an "integrated (normal) working of the postural mechanisms" (UCL, pp. 107-110), which Alexander described as a main purpose of employing inhibition and a conscious direction of the primary control in reaction to the stimulus of living.
Of course, a main feature of conditions of use—maybe even more so than with the tensions and collapsings we make in our habitual manner of use—is that we don't usually, and often can't, feel our poor conditions of use in the early stages of learning and training in the Technique because of our faulty sensory appreciation. Many of our ingrained tightnesses and flaccidities have often existed in us for so long that, if perceived at all, they "feel right and natural," to use Alexander's oft-repeated phrase. Sometimes they can also harbor elements of strong emotion and attitudes; and we usually don't even begin to understand how deeply seated these conditions have been until they actually begin to change. Until then, it is easy to think that no particular improvement needs to happen other than in our manner of use. Accordingly, it's unlikely that, as teachers, we can assess what changes in conditions need to happen in our pupils and trainees or understand how to direct them with our hands toward those changes unless we've experienced enough improvement in our own conditions of use to know what we're looking for in those we work on. Being able to introduce people to the concepts of the Technique is one thing (as is mainly, or exclusively the case in the tpe of group work begun by Ms Barstow and pepetuated by the teachers she trained); but knowing what is required for taking them toward an "integrated (normal) working of the postural mechanisms" is quite another. It is worth quoting here what Alexander writes about "conditions" in Chapter V of The Use of the Self ("Diagnosis and Medical Training," p. 82):
When [man's] sensory appreciation is untrustworthy, it is possible for him to become so familiar with seriously harmful conditions of misuse of himself that these malconditions will feel right and comfortable.
My teaching experience has shewn me that the worse these conditions are in a pupil and the longer they have been in existence, the more familiar and right they feel to him and the harder it is to teach him how to overcome them, no matter how much he may wish to do so. In other words, his ability to learn a new and more satisfactory use of himself is, as a rule, in inverse ratio to the degree of misuse present in his organism and the duration of these harmful conditions.
This point must be understood and taken into practical consideration by anyone forming a plan of procedure for improving the use and functioning of the mechanisms throughout the organism as a means of eradicating defects, peculiarities and bad habits. (Underlines added)
This passage also brings to mind another aspect of Ms Barstow's group teaching where she frequently asked pupils how they "feel" after she had worked with them for a few moments as they prepared to do some action. In light of Alexander's words here, a pupil can't really be expected to make any reliable assessment of kinesthetic or proprioceptive changes due to his or her unreliable sensory appreciation.
Another the aspect of conditions of use is what we might call "short-term tightnesses," which can result from the more recent stress of a demanding activity, injury, emotional trauma, or illness. For example, I have had pupils who are string players in the Boston Symphony Orchestra and had Alexander lessons for many years. They worked long and hard at applying the principles of the Technique to improving their manner of use, particularly while performing, and they succeeded very well in doing so; but the very heavy demand of their rehearsal and concert schedules could often cause tightnesses to build up that they couldn't always fully reorganize back into a more balanced lengthening and widening. Although they had also learned how to work on themselves in order to do this reorganizing on their own, they still found that having hands-on work from me (I don't really consider it giving them "lessons") often helped change their conditions more quickly in order to get back on track with their manner of use much sooner in order to be in top form for an important or demanding performance.
A second example that shows the effect of the Technique on short-term conditions of use is of a woman with a diagnosis of relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis with whom I worked over a number of years—before, during, and after she was undergoing Alexander teacher training. The most striking thing about her early lessons was the condition of weakness and limpness I would find in her musculature during the times she valiantly came to a lesson in the midst of a flare-up of the illness. Her walking would be slow and heavy, her balance uncertain, and her usual bright demeaner considerably dampened. But after an hour of hands-on work—predominantly table work—a lively tonus would return to her supportive musculature, and by the time she left, she would seem fully functioning again. After several years of Alexander work, her symptoms were reduced so much that her doctors began to think that maybe she hadn't had MS after all. Of course, they dismissed her attempts to explain that she had been studying the Technique so intensively over the years—with, I should add, a diligence and determination that can only be marveled at.
A third example of changing short-term conditions is that of a musician who had taken a regular course of lessons with me and was especially successful in applying the principles of the Technique to playing her instrument. A few years after she had stopped having lessons, she phoned me one day to say that she had just been released from the hospital after a long recovery from a serious hit-and-run car accident as a pedestrian that had broken several of her ribs and both shoulder blades. However, on being dismissed from her doctor's care, she felt nowhere near being able to resume playing her instrument comfortably again, and, instead of the normally prescribed physical therapy, she persuaded him to allow her to have Alexander work to see if it would help her more quickly to get back on track for an important recital she had coming up. When she arrived at my studio, she was extremely rigid in nearly every joint, and it was very hard for her to move with ease in any direction or to be comfortable in any position. I thought, as I began to work with her with my hands, that it would probably take a number of sessions of Alexander work to bring her into a balanced enough state for her to resume playing her instrument fully and freely again. However, we were both quite astonished to find that in just a single hour we were able to reorganize many of those tightnesses into enough lengthening and widening for her to be in a near-normal state again by the time she left. It also seemed clear to both of us that this striking improvement in her conditions happened so quickly because she had already learned so well in her previous lessons how to inhibit and direct her manner of use of herself in order to collaborate with the reorganizing direction that I was giving her with my hands.
It's also important to add here that, in the last two examples, I don't believe that I could have helped these pupils improve so quickly and effectively if I had only been using my hands to instruct them in improving their manner of use. My training to address both manner and conditions of use at the same time was the definitely the determining factor in each case. Similarly, I don't believe that these pupils" severe conditions of use could be very effectively addressed, if at all, in a group setting—simply because so much time and attention was needed from the hands of the teacher. (Both of these last two pupils gave their consent to publish these descriptions and checked them over to ensure their accuracy.)
In teaching, I have often explained for pupils the difference between manner of use and conditions of use by telling them about two major experiences of my own. One happened to me after I'd had individual private lessons for two summers, and the other came midway through my teacher training. I give a detailed description of the first in my article "Reconsidering 'Forward and Up'" (Statnews, January, 2001), where I tell about discovering during the eight-week U.S. Army Basic Training how to maintain my primary directions while having to do the "low crawl," which is a way of propelling yourself along the ground on your stomach with your elbows and your knees. I found low crawling impossibly difficult and exhausting at first, but I soon discovered that if I practiced it very slowly I could direct my neck-head-torso-limb relationship to govern the integration of my manner of use frommoment to moment, instead of making the excessive tensions in my neck and torso that I automatically made when we were ordered to do it very fast. Eventually I was able to low crawl fast enough in this improved way to pass the final P.T. test easily—much to my amazement, since I'd never been very good at activities that required a lot of athletic strength in arms and legs like the low crawl seemed to demand initially. This was definitely an issue of how I was using myself from moment to moment: my manner of use that I had learned to manage through having traditional private lessons that consisted only of chair and table work.
A PERSONAL EXPERIENCE OF A CHANGE IN MY CONDITIONS OF USE
TEACHING AND TRAINING
As the Alexander Technique becomes more widespread and as attempts to teach it in groups have become common in certain quarters—both for introductory demonstrations and for extended instruction—we seem to get further and further away from appreciating the full potential of the Technique to alter a person's conditions of use. I think this is mainly because there simply is not enough time in such group work—even for a very skilled teacher—to deal with more than instruction in an improved manner of use. Working extensively enough on a person's conditions of use to bring about the kind of deep and lasting changes Alexander describes in his books takes close individual attention over an extended period of time, not just an intermittent putting-on of hands for a few minutes over an hour or two of instruction in manner of use. This duration-of-hands-contact factor is also, of course, one of the main reasons for giving individual lessons, as well as a primary reason for having a fairly small teacher-to-trainee ratio in a training course. Even a one-to-five ratio can be stretching it, depending on the experience and skill of the teacher(s).
This is not necessarily to say that there's anything wrong with primarily focusing on teaching people an improved manner of use—particularly if they are informed that this is only what is being offered and that traditional lessons focus on improving both conditions and manner of use thourhg chair and table work. For instance, cellist and Alexander teacher Vivien Mackie, who specializes in group work with musicians, teaches an improved manner of use beautifully in her classes for performers, but she has also made it clear to those who attend that they should have extensive private work on both their conditions and manner of use in order to experience the full benefit of the Technique and to best incorporate the insights about manner of use that she communicates to them so well while they are at their instruments. (I have assisted Mrs. Mackie a number of times in these classes, working in the background on the conditions of use of the participants—mainly through traditional chair work, with very little opportunity for verbal communication—as they watch her address the manner of use of the person performing, and that has proven quite effective for many, especially if they already had regular private lessons with me or other traditionally trained teachers.)
With these distinctions in mind, it's evident that several first-generation American teachers chose to focus almost exclusively on manner of use for purposes of group teaching or for the sake of giving a more educational impression of the Technique to the academic and scientific communities. I refer here, of course, to Frank Pierce Jones and Marjorie Barstow. If these teachers had only been clearer with their pupils that they were focusing primarily on improving manner of use, it might be easier for us today to examine teaching and training differences more objectively so that we could present a concise international standard to the public and authorities. What was seen by many as teaching innovation by Dr. Jones and Ms Barstow was really only a shift away from the total Technique to a focus on a part (or parts) of it. As a case in point, I cite one instance from the early 1970s when I was a fully trained teahcer and I asked Ms Barstow one day at tea with the Joneses what she did if she had someone come to her classes who had back trouble. She responded, "I send them to the chiropractor." This was astonishing for me to hear at the time, and it seemed even more unfortunate as I began to have more pupils come to me for lessons with back trouble who had formerly relied on chiropractic adjustments to help them cope with it. After having a number of Alexander lessons that helped them enormously with their back trouble and after learning how to work on themselves (particularly by directing while lying on a floor), most of these pupils came to the conclusion that chiropractic was no longer an alternative for them and that they couldn't imagine returning to it again for help because of it's invasive, endgaining approach. And the recent research study published by the British Medical Journal on the benefits of Alexander lessons for dealing with back pain also makes Ms Barstow's statement seem even more startling and unfortunate. I also asked her if she still did chair work with pupils, and her response was, "That's the quickest way to make someone stiff that I know of." I wanted to say that it didn't necessarily have to be, but she obviously didn't want to discuss the subject any further..
(See these descriptions of the BMJ research project: http://www.bmj.com/content/337/bmj.a884 and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=coVXuDjHrfM .)
Another example of the misunderstandings about teaching approaches comes from an experience I had observing a small class for pupils given in the early 1970s by Frank Pierce Jones who had chosen to orient his teaching toward an exposition of manner of use so that he could present the Technique in a way that appeared predominantly educational rather than therapeutic. In order to promote this impression Dr. Jones had also abandoned traditional chair and table work altogether, and when one of his pupils in the class asked him what the expression "table work" meant, he said to the pupil, "Come over to this [long classroom] table, and I'll show you." Dr. Jones had the pupil lie face-up on the table, and he proceded to go around to the pupil's head, arms, and legs and give them a cursory sort of joggling with his hands that was nothing at all like the careful, non-endgaining manner of directing that we had been taught for giving table work during my training course in order to acheive an effective change in a pupil's conditions of use. After a few minutes, Dr. Jones had the pupil get up from the table, and the pupil, looking quite disgruntled, said, "Ugh! I feel awful. Now I see why you don't believe in giving anyone table work."
The mistaken assumption by their pupils that these senior American teachers were developing "teaching innovations" has often resulted in pitting "advancement" against "convention." As a result, the real crux of the differences in approach has been missed entirely by many, frequently leaving those differences to be explained away merely as a matter of "differences in individual teaching styles." But a full understanding of the distinction between conditions of use and manner of use, as well as an understanding of the skill required for bringing these two aspects toward an integrated (normal) working of the postural mechanisms in pupils and trainees, are actually the main factors that distinguish the fully trained teacher from the partially trained, the experienced from the inexperienced, and particularly the fully trained from the fake—whether they are doing traditional table and chair work or application work.
One misleading feature of the power of the Technique is that sometimes the changes in manner of use experienced by pupils in just a few lessons or classes can be so astonishing that it's very easy for them to get the impression that there's not much more to gain from studying the Technique than an improvement in manner of use—particularly if their conditions of use happen to be especially good to begin with. And, in some instances, even a very lengthy exposure to the Technique might not reveal its full potential to pupils—especially if they have come to it with a limited goal in mind, such as improving the quality of their movement and poise as a dancer or actor. For example, before I did my teacher training I had lessons for four years (nearly daily for two summers with Joan Murray, and some additional lessons with her later, Walter Carrington, Frank Jones, and Rika Cohen), and these first lessons had such a profound effect on my life and on my work as a musician that I even thought I might be able to complete the training in less time than others. But those early changes were actually very minor in comparison to the ones brought about in both my manner and conditions of use by the daily, three-hour individual work in the full three years of training. I still needed every moment of hands-on table and chair work in class that I could get for those deeper changes to happen, and I don't believe they could have occurred if I had been holding down a regular job and/or had only been training on weekends—as has been more recently proposed as a training possibility for people who are employed full-time. These changes in my conditions of use required a steady, unimpeded, and nearly daily continuity. (During the ten years I ran a training course, that fact was further validated for me in working with my own trainees during the ten years I ran a training course, whose lives and jobs often required efforts or produced stresses that blocked or diverted the steady progress of improvement in their conditions of use.)
I think the lack of understanding that conditions of use are a central element in the traditional teaching of the Technique may be behind the idea that training can be effectively done in less than the standard, full-time, three-year period, or that it can be done on a series of intensive weekends. If an improved manner of use were all that is necessary to teach and learn, maybe a shorter or a weekend training could be enough. But, of course, even if teachers choose to confine themselves to teaching manner of use, it would still be preferable for them to have done the full training so that they could be as effective as possible at teaching manner of use. (This view is reinforced in the published collection of interviews with some of the first-generation teachers, Taking Time: Six Interviews with First Generation Teachers of the Alexander Technique on Alexander Teacher Training, Novis, Aarhus, Denmark, 2000 – www.novis.dk .)
To resolve the dilemma that we—in many ways unwittingly—seem to be in because of these oversights and misunderstandings, maybe we should have different classifications of Alexander training similar to the different classifications in the broad spectrum of medical training: "specialists, general practitioners, nurse practitioners, regular nurses, paramedics, nurses' aides," etc. Nurses' aides do their part in helping people toward recovery and good health, and they sometimes may even save people's lives, as surgeons, general practitioners, and nurses, each in their own way, also may; but no patients expect a nurses' aide to be able to perform, say, brain surgery.
Likewise, there are many thoughtful and well-meaning people at all levels of Alexander experience who can and do successfully communicate various aspects of the Technique to others—as I even did sometimes with good results to some friends in my Army unit before I entered the three-year teacher training course. But no matter how effectively a particular person might be able to convey some aspects of the technique to others, surely the public deserves to be presented with a clear distinction between such partial versions and the work being offered by those teachers who have the skill to impart the complete Technique as Alexander presented it in his writings and as it has been perpetuated by the majority of teachers he trained. Such a categorizing of teaching would undoubtedly be hard to develop and carry out, and it could also ultimately be seen by some as a form of discrimination. In the long run, however, it might be the only honest and effective path toward professional unity and voluntary self-regulation.
. . . Lately, in defense of their shorter "training" or their drawn-out training experience over many years, some people hold out the example of A.R. [Alexander], Irene Tasker, Ethel Webb, and [Margaret] Goldie who didn't go through the standard training that the rest of us have done. They claim since that was the case before F.M. actually began the professional training program , it still should be perfectly acceptable now as valid training.
. . . With regard to the points you raise, it is true that the early teachers learnt their work on an apprenticeship basis, but then it must be remembered that their Master was F.M. himself and his knowledge and skills were unique. The 'apprenticeship' that they all served was much longer than three years, and in A.R.'s case, he commenced at a very early age when the Technique was in its infancy, and he worked closely with F.M. for a great number of years after that.
F.M. always viewed the training process as a matter of apprenticeship, a student bound to a master-craftsman with of course the valuable assistance of the journeymen employed by him. I see the matter in the same light myself and I consider that three years of daily work, allowing for the normal breaks and holidays, is necessary if people are to develop sufficiently in themselves to be able to go on to gain the practical experience that they need to become "journeymen" and which can only be acquired by continual "hands-on" work. [Permission to quote letters by Walter Carrington courtesy of the Estate of Walter H. M. Carrington. Copyright 2017.]
I hope these observations and comments will be helpful to everyone concerned with the future of the Alexander Technique worldwide.