Thoughts on Learning and Teaching the F.M. Alexander Technique

by Stacy Gehman.

At the 3rd International Congress of Alexander Technique Teachers I attended a Master Class with Adam and Rosemary Nott. In their class they presented their ideas and questions about how to enable students to work constructively with themselves between Alexander lessons. They deftly summed up the basic problem involved in working with oneself as due to the fact that we all live under the constant "cloud" of faulty sensory appreciation. This image struck a responsive cord in me because it conveys the feeling of isolation and loss of sense of direction that can come over us when we are faced with the implications of faulty sensory appreciation. Is it possible to find our way through that cloud ourselves, at least between lessons?

As a result of that Congress, and a variety of other experiences, I realized that I have a perspective somewhat different from some other teachers on how we learn the Alexander Technique, and how that perspective on learning accounts for, at least in part, the way I approach the question of how we, and our students, can work constructively with ourselves using the principals of the Technique. Throughout the Congress I was continually struck by the similarity of understanding of the principles of the Alexander Technique by the various teachers that I met or observed teaching. Because my primary study of the Technique is with Marjorie Barstow, I have read and heard many opinions from more conventionally trained teachers that led me to think that I would find great differences in understanding between those of us who studied with Marj and those who study with other teachers. Instead what I observed was that everyone emphasized observation, thinking and inhibition, and the principle of the primary control, and that almost everyone had a sense of the importance of the Technique to the evolution of humanity. There were differences in emphasis, but not great enough to explain the differences in the style and content of lessons presented by representatives of the various schools of thought or traditions within the Technique. Personal style also did not seem to be a sufficient explanation for the differences. Even though within representatives of one school there were differences in personal style, there was a cohesion of approach between teachers trained in one school that was observably different from that of a different school. As I puzzled over the differences and similarities that I saw, and discussed my questions with other teachers, I began to think that a possible explanation for the differences between us all might lie in our different ideas, or understanding, of how people learn, in particular how people can best learn the Alexander Technique. I think that this distinction between the principals of the Technique, and the way we choose to help our students learn them, is important to make, especially as we attempt to come together as a community. If we can see the care, integrity and honesty in each other's approach, and can recognize a certain degree of commonality in the principles of the Technique, then we have a basis that will maintain us as a community even as we differ, and even argue passionately about the differences, in what we choose to do in our teaching.

I have thought a great deal about what I do to teach, and have become much clearer in my understanding of what I believe happens as people learn. In this paper I will present my ideas (which I will call "consciously guided observation") and contrast them with a different explanation of how the Technique is learned, one that I have read and heard discussed by a number of other teachers, which for lack of another name I will call the "conditioned response model."

The Conditioned Response Model:

If we live under the constant "cloud" of faulty sensory appreciation, how is it possible to find our way to an improved use of ourselves? If the fault lies in our senses that have become insensitive and inaccurate through years of misuse, we appear to have little choice in improving ourselves, but to seek a teacher who can retrain our senses so that we can use them reliably.

There are several things that seem common in the experience of all students of various styles of Alexander teaching: 1) It takes time to learn the Technique. 2) Repeated exposure to movement directed by the teacher is necessary before the student begins to get the idea. 3) The repeated projection of orders by the student is useful to the student. 4) A direct attempt by the student to do a movement frequently interferes with the way of moving being suggested by the teacher. There are probably more such observations. The conditioned response model of learning is one approach to understanding these observations.

I will state this model briefly. The student, while being guided through a movement, is asked not to try to do the movement, but instead is to project (or think) directions suggested by the teacher, who will bring the movement about for the student. By repeating this experience the student will gradually begin to associate the giving of the orders with the new experience. Through repetition, this association becomes strong enough so that when the student repeats the directions without the teacher's guidance, then an experience similar to that obtained with the teacher's help will be repeated. This model of learning neatly explains the four observations above. Conditioning takes time before a new response can override an old one; the 'directions' serve as a stimulus to evoke the newly conditioned response; and any attempt by the student to do the activity would undo the conditioning. This use of conditioned response differs from the behaviorists' experiments with animals - the difference being that the conditioning has been brought about with the conscious cooperation of the student, and in fact through the conscious effort of the student in inhibition of habitual responses and the projection of orders.

These are essentially the instructions and explanation given to me by one of my early Alexander teachers. It is possible to find similar explanations in Alexander's writings. But I can recall that, at the time this was suggested to me, my thought was "what has that to do with constructive conscious control of the individual?" Even though I was gaining great benefit from the lessons, and I liked my teacher a great deal, I rather defiantly, and secretly, thought to myself "Perhaps that's how you think I will learn this, but it's not how I am going to learn it." I continued lessons, but considered the experiences much the same way I would any other experiment I might perform in my work as a research engineer - I observed what I could, I thought about what I observed, and wondered about what I couldn't make sense of. In fact I remember that sense of wonder at those new experiences rather fondly. This model (the conditioned response model) of how the Technique is learned is not one that Alexander derived from his own experience in discovering the technique for himself (as I will discuss in the next section), but has instead been borrowed, with modification, from behaviorist psychology. The model was originally derived from observations of experiments with animals, and then extended to human beings. Concepts borrowed from behaviorism, such as positive reinforcement, conditioned response and even to a certain extent the idea of training, have all been derived originally from experiments with animals. When we use these concepts to explain our own and our students' actions, do we not diminish our strictly human qualities, such as understanding, love and freedom? Even though I may cooperate in my conditioning, is a prison that I have constructed for myself, even one that is very comfortable, any better than any other? I realize that these questions are stated in a somewhat extreme way. I believe that it is important, however, to recognize that a conditioned response is not a free response. I do recognize that there are some of those who come to us for lessons who are so debilitated by their misuse of themselves, that they have little energy for any approach other than this, that in these cases the conditioned response approach is a true kindness, at least in the beginning. Even though students of those who teach with this model in mind do improve and learn the technique, I do not believe that any of us human beings really learn anything in the way described above. The observations in the first two paragraphs of this section may seem to compel this way of thinking about learning, but I will present in the next sections a different way of construing these observations that will explain them and will suggest a new freedom in what we do as teachers.

I do not believe that anything that a human being does is a "conditioned response." I believe that we are continually making decisions about what to do (the so-called response) when a particular set of circumstances arise (the so-called stimulus). Those decisions are based on observation and thinking - our observation may be either thorough or casual, and our thinking may be insightful or sloppy, or we can choose to accept what someone tells us (i.e., instead of thinking for ourselves, we accept the results of someone else's observation and thinking), depending on our personal inclinations and capacities. When we have once made the decision about what to do in a particular set of circumstances, and then, when similar circumstances arise again, if we then act without going through the process of thinking again, our actions appear conditioned on the circumstances. If we have forgotten what those reasons for our earlier decision were, then we ourselves may be led into actually believing that our response is conditioned. To my way of thinking, the idea that we have conditioned responses is dehumanizing and debilitating. If what I have described above is correct, then we always have the chance to recall to consciousness, or to re-workout, what the original thoughts were that led to a particular set way of acting. Then if we want to change, what we need to do is to rethink the situation, and to realize the implications of the new way of thinking.

(As an illustration of the differences between these two ways of thinking, it is sometimes said that athletes train themselves so that they can automatically repeat complex, precise movements without thinking. An alternative description of the process might be that athletes train themselves to become acutely sensitive to the subtle differences in movement that determine the difference between success and failure.)

Escaping the Cloud:

The fact of faulty sensory appreciation seems to require an approach to teaching the Technique such as the conditioned response model outlined above. I believe that the reason that this approach seems so compelling is because we have assumed that the fault in "faulty sensory appreciation" lies in our senses, which have become debauched by years of misuse. If this were the case we would have little choice in escaping the cloud of faulty sensory appreciation, but to go to an expert whose standard of use is excellent and whose senses are accurate. In helping us, that expert would need to ask us to ignore what our own senses are telling us, at least for the time being, then to provide us with experiences which will retrain our own senses.

I would like to suggest a different possibility. What would happen to our view of what is necessary to help a person learn the Technique, if we assumed that the fault in "faulty sensory appreciation" were to lie in our appreciation, not in our senses; that the fault is in the way we interpret and use what it is that our senses are really telling us, not in the senses themselves. If this view is the case, then the job of an Alexander Technique teacher becomes one of helping the student find a new way of paying attention to what it is that our senses are telling us; i.e., paying attention to how we direct our attention. I have found this approach to teaching (and working with myself) both very effective and a great deal of fun. It leaves me free to do whatever I need to do in the moment (by using my hands, asking questions, etc.) to help students wake up to what they are doing and what their possibilities are.

What Alexander himself did in making his discoveries is our first example of how this view of learning works. How did he find his own way out of the cloud of faulty sensory appreciation, when he had no one to "train" him? Some suggest that Alexander found his way out of the "cloud" by looking in a mirror, that he could see what he was doing, and could then use what he saw as a way to retrain his other faulty senses. Underlying this explanation is the belief that vision is special among our senses in that it immediately presents reality to us - seeing is believing. This is an erroneous conception. We learn to see, as we learn to use any of our senses. What we see is strongly determined by what we expect to see, that is, by our unconscious habits of seeing. The cloud of faulty sensory appreciation applies to all of our senses. I believe it is important to realize the hopelessness of our situation as long as we believe that it is our senses that are at fault. (Philosophers have debated this issue and its consequences for a long time. I presented a brief summary of these ideas and their relationship to the Alexander Technique in my paper "Finding a Way to Know," published in The Congress Papers by Direction, 1992.)

If we look at Alexander's story in "Evolution of a Technique" (from his Use of the Self), we can begin to get some ideas about what it was in his approach that allowed him to "do what he did." First was his realization that it was something he was doing in performance that was causing his trouble, not a condition that needed to be altered by some means. He then decided to watch himself in the mirror to see if he could determine what it was that he was doing. He began by watching himself in ordinary speaking, in which he had no apparent trouble. He knew that he didn't know what to look for, so he hoped to find a difference between an action that gave him no trouble and one that did. Notice that he did not at first observe the pulling back of his head, depressing of his larynx, and sucking in of his breath when he observed his ordinary speaking, but only observed these three responses when he went on to reciting, even though he later saw himself doing all three things in ordinary speaking as well. In a footnote he tells us that "This could hardly have been otherwise, seeing that I then lacked experience in the kind of observation necessary to enable me to detect anything wrong with the way I used myself when speaking." (Italics mine.) Thus his past experience in seeing limited what he could observe; he had to develop a new "kind of observation." What can we learn of the character of this new way of observing himself from what he tells us of what he did?

First he looked for a difference between two different ways of using his voice, and it was a difference that made a difference (to paraphrase Bateson's definition of information) - i.e., one way his voice was OK, the other way he tended to become hoarse. Second he directed his attention to the beginning of the activity. I believe he directed his attention to the beginning of reciting, since that was when the contrast was the greatest between what he was doing when he was reciting, and what he was not doing when he was not reciting. Note that there are two strong characteristics of his observation here: 1) look for a difference between two alternatives, and 2) direct your attention to the beginning of the action where you can see the contrast between "not doing" and "doing" the clearest.

But Alexander tells us that despite the discovery of the three things he saw himself doing in speaking, he still found himself "in a maze." Which of the three was the causative factor? He thus set out to experiment, to see what difference it would make in the other two if he changed one of them. By this systematic observation he was ultimately led to the discovery that "when I succeeded in preventing the pulling back of the head, this tended indirectly to cheek the sucking in of breath and the depressing of the larynx." This discovery "led on to the further discovery of the primary control of the working of all the mechanisms of the human organism..." All of his subsequent observations and discoveries were guided by this discovery of the primary control, and by this new approach to observation (look for a difference, look at the beginning of the action). This process that Alexander recounts for us is not one of someone conditioning his responses, but one of careful observation guided by thought, experimentation and inspiration.

In this discussion we have seen that Alexander anticipated that his usual way of observing himself in a mirror would not serve his purpose (of discovering what he was doing that was causing his loss of voice), so he had to develop a new kind of observation. The characteristics of this new kind of observation were to look for a change in what he was doing when he went from 'not doing' to 'doing' some activity, and to direct his attention to the first thing that happened as he began, when the contrast was highest.

These two characteristics are, as it turns out, firmly rooted in the way our nervous systems are organized. The first characteristic of this new kind of observation can be based on the fact that all of our sensory organs are much better at telling us when something changes than at telling us about an absolute level of stimulus. For example, the cursor on my computer screen blinks, because the software designer knew that it would be easier to find the cursor if it blinks. For every sense, if the nervous impulses from the sensory organ are monitored electrically, there is a tremendous burst of activity when a level of stimulus changes, followed by a gradual dying out of activity if the new level remains constant. When we want to judge the weight of something, for example, we don't hold it in our hand as still as possible, as a mechanical weighing device would require, but we bounce it in our hand a few times. If we recollect our own struggles to learn the Alexander Technique, we can sympathize with our students who want to know if they are sitting up straight, or if their heads are in the right position. It takes a long time to believe that position and shape are not really relevant, but that sensitivity to movement is. Position is not relevant because we are terrible at judging position - our nervous systems are not designed to be good measurers of position, but are designed to be sensitive to changes. Our judgment of position uses the information about the changes we experience in movement to infer a new position. Thus, position is not the result of sensing directly. Our judgment of position is not reliable because the thought process of integrating what our senses tell us about change is subject to habituation. We don't need to throw out what our senses (including feelings) tell us; we have to learn a new way to pay attention to what they really tell us (i.e., about movement), not what we would like them to tell us (position or shape). The second characteristic of this new way of observation, i.e. directing attention to the first thing that happens, can be based on the fact that the sensitivity of our senses to change is roughly proportionate to the absolute level of the stimulus. For example, we can easily see the change in light due to lighting a candle in a dimly lit room, but the same candle lit in a brightly-lit room would not be noticed. By directing our observation to the very beginning of an activity we are, therefore, increasing our sensitivity to small changes that we might otherwise miss if we tried to observe the whole activity from the beginning. Alexander first applied these two principles of observation to what he saw when he looked in a mirror. (Although Alexander may not have known these two abstract physiological facts, he did experience their implications.) By actively thinking about and planning his visual observations, he educated his process of seeing, and through it he discovered what he came to call the primary control. Until the plan at the end of "Evolution of a Technique," he continually returned to his educated sense of seeing to tell him if he had successfully carried out his plans or if he had instead reverted to his habitual response. He could use what he saw to tell him what he had actually done, but he couldn't use what he saw to change the way he did it. He was only able to change his habitual response when he employed the final plan mentioned in the chapter. The next section presents my experiences, as I attempted to 'relive' the experiences Alexander described.

Consciously Guided Observation:

If I wish to improve my quality of performance in some activity, then I must inhibit my usual way of doing it. But if there is something about my usual way of doing the activity that is so familiar, and that seems so necessary, that I don't ever question it or even realize I am doing it, then it is not possible to inhibit it until I can bring it clearly into my consciousness as something that I am actually doing. My first task, then, is not inhibition, but observation - what Alexander called "to analyse the conditions of use present." When I refer to observation in this context, I am not limiting myself to sight only; I am referring to the process of paying attention to whatever I can sense, including what I feel (i.e., whatever I sense coming to me from within myself).

In "Finding a Way to Know," referenced above, I have presented a detailed account of how I like to organize this process of observation so that it can be a way out of the "cloud," instead of a way to lose ourselves in feeling. The following paragraphs present a synopsis of this process. (It is also detailed in "Consciously Guided Observation.") I like to use the three ideas discussed in the previous section to guide me in the process of observation: 1) My sensory organs are organized to tell me when something changes, but are poor at telling me about a relatively continuous, unchanging state. 2) My ability to sense a small change is best when the overall level of stimulus is low. 3) There is something about the relationship of my head to my body that is in someway a controlling factor in my experience of myself. (This statement is how I like to state the idea of the primary control - it is a bit vague, but it leaves me free to discover what the relationship is, and what this peculiar concept of control means, instead of being tempted to force myself into some specific preconceived relationship.)

After I have chosen an activity to explore, the first two ideas guide me to direct my attention to the change that happens when I change my activity, for example, from standing to walking. To become more sensitive in my evaluation of that change, I direct my attention to the first moments of the new activity, continually asking myself to notice earlier parts of it. These two ideas allow me to discover many subtle aspects of an activity, but I need to apply the idea of the primary control to help me organize my observations. Thus, as I experiment with a particular movement, I will continually redirect my attention to what I notice change in the relationship of my head to my body. I do not begin by trying to direct a change in that relationship. I simply begin an activity, with my goal being to discover what my habitual response is. Once I actually experience myself tightening my neck and pulling my head down, once I have made it conscious as I actually do it, I have a chance to inhibit it. I believe that by using this process we can educate our use of what we feel in the same way that Alexander used this process to educate his use of what he could see. When guide a student through this process of observation and questioning for the first time, they almost never feel the change in the relationship of their heads to their bodies in the beginning. But after a few minutes of working their way through this process, almost everyone can actually feel themselves tighten their necks as they begin a movement. (I occasionally have to use my hands to help a student notice it, by delicately placing my hands on the student's neck so that they provide a reference against which the student can perceive what happens.) At the beginning of the process there is no question that what the student feels is unreliable and inaccurate, but through this process of thoughtful observation, what the student feels is educated to become more accurate and reliable.

So far we have observed what happens when we move from one activity to another. In beginning to take a step I might notice that I tighten my neck, the muscles of my chest, back, my abdominal muscles, and the muscles of my legs. If I stop the activity very soon after starting, as soon as I notice that I have actually moved, I can simply go back to standing. If I have become sufficiently conscious of the tightening process to take the step, then I can release the tightening associated with taking the step as I go back to standing. If I observe this process of returning to standing, I will see that my head moves up, my torso lengthens and widens, and I move up off of my legs - these are just the directions that I need to project in order to inhibit my habitual response to taking the step, and I am actually experiencing them as they are happening. I can then continue to project these directions as I go on take the step, and observe what happens. I personally use this approach when I have a spare minute, and want to find a more delicate way of directing myself. I usually only spend a few minutes at a time doing this kind of work, because it is all too easy to build an elaborate web of thoughts and 'experiences' that are not really helpful. If I find that I am not making any progress, then I give it up for awhile.

Again, this description of what I have called consciously guided observation is more fully developed in "Finding a Way To Know" and at "Consciously Guided Observation." I have presented it here to show how we can use what we sense (including what we feel), together with a way of thinking about and organizing our observations, to find our way out of the cloud of faulty sensory appreciation. One of my goals in this discussion has been to develop ideas that point to a way in which we can work constructively with ourselves without the immediate aid of a teacher. I have found that these ideas also free me in how I approach teaching. Whether working with myself or teaching a student, whether guiding the student verbally through the above process or using my hands, I keep in mind this understanding of how learning takes place. I also like this way of working because whether I am working with a beginner, another teacher, or myself, the way I work stays the same - the difference being primarily in the student's ability to organize their observations and thinking along the new lines being demonstrated. This process of working interweaves observation, thinking and experimentation so that each of these aspects can inform the other.

To return to the four observations of the second section, to which I promised an alternative explanation: 1) it takes time to learn the Technique because we began to form our ideas about what is necessary to move before we even had words to express those ideas. It takes time to sort through all of our assumptions and ideas, and all of their implications. 2) Repeated exposure to movement directed by the teacher (both the student's own movement and the observation of other students) is necessary because it continually challenges the student's ideas by presenting contrasting experience from the studentís usual way of doing things, and can provide emotional support while trying out new ways of being. 3) Having students project verbal directions helps them learn because it directs their attention to what is happening in the movement. The directions bring the student's attention to the causal sequence in the movement - i.e., in "my neck to be free so that my head can move forward and up, and my body can lengthen and widen," each succeeding step depends on the previous. The directions help us perceive what is happening in movement. 4) We interfere with the learning process when we do a movement according to our usual way of doing, whether we are being guided by a teacher or are guiding ourselves, because we have then left the realm of experimentation. In either case (i.e., continuing with inhibition and direction, or responding habitually), if we are careful in our observation, then even the habitual doing of an activity can provide a new learning experience by helping us see the habitual response and its consequences more clearly. In this sense there is no such thing as a wrong (or right) movement, only varying degrees of awareness of what actually is happening in the movement.

Implications for the Teaching Community:

I have elaborated and contrasted these ideas about learning because I believe that ideas have consequences. These ideas not only affect how we think about ourselves and what we do to teach, but also influence the relationships between us. The conditioned response model of learning does not leave us free in our teaching - it almost requires a particular way of working. It assumes a kind of direct transmission between teacher and student, a transmission in which we have to admit the possibility of error, and I believe we each know this intuitively. Because we each have received tremendous benefit from our lessons in the Technique with our own teacher, and because when we each teach we see our students improve, it is reasonable, then, to assume that the way our own teacher works is the right one. To the extent other teachers differ, they must be very suspicious characters. This specious bit of logic turns on the way in which the conditioned response model of learning limits our choices in what we do to teach. What I am suggesting here is that the degree of divisiveness we see in our teaching community is due in large part to the assumption of the conditioned response model of learning.

As we make more conscious our individual choices about who we are and what we do, and in particular, our choices in what we do to teach the Alexander Technique, we are necessarily going to further differentiate ourselves from each other. It is possible (I keep reminding myself) that perfectly reasonable, loving people can make different choices than mine. It helps me in this regard to remember that any explanation, including my own, of how human learning takes place tends to be somewhat shy of the complete truth. Every teacher of the Technique works at least a bit differently - and each almost invariably explains why they do some unique thing by saying words to the effect, "because in my experience it has helped my students to learn." I like to listen carefully at that point, because I know that I need every idea I can get to help me communicate this work (and to improve in myself). I like the "consciously guided observation" way of working because it helps me to become conscious of the integrity of my thinking, feeling, and doing, and through that, it helps lead me along the way to the "individual freedom in thought and action" that is the hallmark of what Alexander left us. I have seen love of this freedom, and a sense of its importance to humankind, in every Alexander teacher I remember meeting. I believe that it is this shared love, and this shared goal, that can serve as a basis for building a community of teachers and students of the Alexander Technique.

Back to home