My teacher, Walter Carrington, taught the Alexander Technique for over 60 years and he wrote very little.  He was a highly intelligent man, and he lived and breathed the technique.  He also spoke very well, and he gave a daily half hour talk on the training course, many of which were recorded. Some of these talks have been transcribed and collected into books.  However, in his foreword to one of these collections he said:

“In ‘thinking aloud,’ … which is how I was speaking, words are chosen and explanations adapted to our audience, and we are influenced by the reaction that we get.  With the written word, however, the reaction and understanding of the reader must be a matter for conjecture….So it is up to the reader to bear in mind that these thoughts were my thoughts and ideas at that time; and like everything else in life, subject to change (which…Alexander said was the Ultimate Reality!)”

I learned very early on in my training with Walter, not only to mistrust the written word, but also to see that all verbal communication needs to be understood within the particular context it is made, if it is to have any chance whatever of not being misunderstood.

So, when I was recently asked to explain the Alexander Technique in my own words, both at a superficial and at a deeper level, as an exercise for a fellow teacher, I approached the task with caution.

On a superficial level, the sort of level in which we might try to explain the benefits of the technique to a new pupil for instance, this is not so difficult.  It is possible to describe the work in terms of how our habitual methods of engaging with the activities of life, have an effect on our general functioning.  We can talk about how we look at and learn to change some of the habits we have, but which are not helpful to us.  We learn to think about how we do what we do, and not rush headlong into activities.  We learn that we can move in mechanically advantageous ways to avoid injury and improve functioning.  We can look at specific activities, and learn to do them with greater consideration and ease, and we can learn to breathe more freely by noticing how we habitually interfere with the normal workings of our respiratory process.  All these things can be, and have often been, explained well, and in considerable detail.  And it can communicate enough to a newcomer to AT for them to be able to consider whether this is something they want to explore in lessons.  

But for me, while very important, this can only ever be a basic and partial explanation.  What has held my attention in AT is much more subtle and much less easily expressed, and it starts with the fact that we teach a hands-on technique in which we ‘think’ rather than ‘do’.  So how does it work?

To explain the technique at the level of what happens between teacher and pupil is hard – For me, I think it is impossible outside the context of the teaching situation, and this is why.  First of all, the language of the technique, while not complex, is used in a very particular and, context-dependent way, which changes and develops with the experiential understanding of the pupil, and with the perception and intention of the teacher.  Some teachers consider AT to be burdened with unhelpful jargon and think that we should change our vocabulary.  I feel that it doesn’t much matter which words we use, because what is required is a shift in our perspective which is gradually achieved during lessons, and which makes such paradoxical statements as ‘non-doing, doing’ begin to make sense.

I have recently been reading Fritjof Kapra’s The Turning Point, and I think he is a helpful reference.  Our normal thinking, stuck as it is in a Newtonian, Cartesian, mechanistic and dualistic view of the world, finds any explanation which goes beyond or challenges this perspective, very hard to maintain.  In the AT we regard the ‘self’ as a psychophysical whole, but we are still bound to talk about mind and body as if they were separate because this is what our language does.   Talking about a leg, suggests a physical limb, a part of the body.  Talking about a thought, suggests a mind is working, even if we do not know quite what it is.  And try as we might, we do not easily regard these as the same sorts of things.  We might conceptually agree that we are embodied minds, but on a practical level we habitually act and experience the world as though we were physical bodies inhabited by, but not co-extensive with, thinking selves.

When we, as teachers, put hands on a pupil, we meet them where and how they are.  We join them in space, and we listen.  Even though we may not be ‘doing’ anything to our pupil, we are effecting change.  All contact with others involves a dialogue of kinds, and that dialogue need not be with words, or indeed with another human being.  We are all continually interacting with our environment in ways which change us and the world of which we are a part.  One of the things the Alexander Technique teaching can demonstrate to us, is quite how entangled we are with others and with our environment.  In a sense we are one another’s environment.  Not only does the mind-body split become inappropriate, but also the distinction between self and other begins to dissolve.  And not only this, but time too changes.  If we are fully engaged with the processes involved in an AT lesson, then past and future disappear, and the timeless moment is always present.  All this may sound vague and insubstantial, but that is, I think, because without the accompanying experience – they are.

A description of an experience is not the same thing as the experience itself, and what happens during a lesson, sometimes, involves a process which is past description only in the sense that to deconstruct it is disengage from it, while understanding is only achieved through immersion and direct intuition.  Afterwards we can try to find ways to describe what happened, but it will always be incomplete, and will in any case have most meaning in close proximity to the event, and in conversation with the co-respondent, and perhaps too with observers who may sometimes participate, in the event.  The AT is not unique in this – it is certainly true for descriptions of religious experience, but also of deep emotion – love, for instance, and sensory content; for example describing a sunset to someone who has never been able to see, will communicate something, maybe something very fine, but not the experience of seeing a sunset.

My conclusion is that, while for many of us, reading explanations in books or papers is a very good way into new areas of potential interest, this is also a difficult and dangerously ambiguous activity.  If I hadn’t read books about the Alexander Technique, I may never have had lessons – I like to embark on things with a bit of information.  However, having had lots of lessons, I realised that the information I had relied on, I had not only mainly mis-understood, but I later came to realise was inadequately written.  My re-evaluation was coming from a different, more informed perspective.  So is there not a case to be made for attempting to explain the AT anyway?  I think there probably is, and there is no shortage of people doing it, but I think that while it can lead to new interest, it can also lead to great mis-understanding.  For myself the only way to authentically communicate what I have to say about AT is in the moment, in a lesson, when I allow myself to ‘think aloud’ in a totally immersed and reciprocally responsive way.