Alexander Technique Terms
The Alexander Technique is an educational method named after work of its charismatic founder. Like other educational such approaches (the Suzuki Method of music education, Pilates, Feldenkrais, Montessori, etc.), the founder has passed on and his work is carried on through his trainees and their trainees. His discoveries are still relevant today and indeed are being confirmed by various veins of psychological, physiological, and neurological research. Part of our job as teachers is to continue developing how we understand and communicate these powerful ideas to ourselves and our students. Below are some important terms that Alexander developed. I define them, explain briefly how he discovered them based on the first chapter of The Use of the Self, and reflect a bit on how I’ve come to understand them through my own study and experience.
Primary Control is the dynamic relationship between head and spine, which organizes and leads all our movements. The head and spine meet at the atlanto-occipital joint at the top of the spine, which is located way up between your ears. When free of interference, the head-spine relationship is fluid and easy—and so are your thoughts and movements. When this relationship is compromised or interfered with, there is tension and extra stress. Pyscho-physical Unity describes the mind and body as completely inter-dependent; humans function and respond to everything as a whole. Thoughts, movements, and emotions are intertwined. Movement is embodied thought and emotions involve movement. Universal Constant (Use Affects Functioning for better or worse) means that we move and respond as a whole: the coordination between head and spine determines the quality of all our thoughts and movements.
First, Alexander discovered that his head-spine relationship directly affected his voice. “If pulling back my head, depressing my larynx and sucking in breath did indeed bring about a strain on my voice, it must constitute a misuse of the parts concerned” (p. 27). “With the prevention of the misuse of these parts I tended to become less hoarse while reciting” (p. 28). Alexander began to discover primary control early on in his experiments. He needed to put his head “forward and up in such a way that I prevented the lifting of the chest and simultaneously brought about a widening of the back” (p.30). As he worked to re-position his head and body, he noticed an improvement in his symptoms. He concluded that humans move and respond as a whole: it is “impossible to separate ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ processes in any form of human activity” (p. 21). “all training…must be based upon the indivisible unity of the human organism” (p. 23).
In my first lesson, my teachers handed me a small metal spring. I pushed down on the spring and felt it pushing back on me. By removing the pressure from the top of the spring and allowing it to take its natural shape, I had a tangible understanding of primary control. While standing there and taking in that information, I got an inch taller! That first lesson was one of the most important days of my life. Since, I have gotten almost two inches taller and my spine has changed toward a more natural, healthy shape. I found out that some underlying structural issues with my bite were affecting my neck and whole system. AT has greatly enhanced the physical therapy and other work I’m doing.
The simple, but powerful, idea of primary control is the first thing I share with new students. In my violin teaching practice, I feel much more confident helping students position the violin between jaw and collar bone. I teach all of my music students some body mapping, the basics of primary control, and that the AO joint is the most important joint in the body. All of the violin technique I know how to teach works more easily when my students are well coordinated. In my experiences teaching the Alexander Technique, I use a spring in most early lessons. I am always so excited to watch a student process the information and begin to make changes for themselves immediately.
Inhibition is Alexander’s means for replacing habitual, patterned reactions with a constructive thought process that allows clarity, freedom, and choice-making.
As Alexander refined his new Technique, he found that he needed to take a slightly indirect route to his end goal of performing pain-free. Inhibiting, or not-doing, was an important piece of his discovery. “If, when the stimulus came to me to use my voice, I could inhibit the misdirection associated with the wrong habitual use of my head and neck, I should be stopping off at its source my unsatisfactory reaction to the idea of reciting, which expressed itself in pulling back the head, depressing the larynx, and sucking the breath” (p. 38). Putting a pause in between stimulus and response gave him the freedom to make a new choice.
As a student of the Alexander Technique, I learned how to ask myself to coordinate and carry that into my activity. My teachers helped me think through this and used their hands to help me along when needed, helping to disrupt my old patterns or giving me a suggestion for how to move differently, so I could have a new experience while doing my activity. We did some fun experiments such as beginning the activity just when I thought something might be changing in my coordination. Playing the violin while standing on one foot, or standing on a foam pad that adds instability, were also fun ways to disrupt old patterns. I’ve learned to leave space and think about my coordination in everyday life and when teaching.
Inhibition is one of the most important discoveries Alexander made, but the word itself can be a bit tricky for modern audiences. When I teach violin or the Alexander Technique, I try to use a balanced approach to my language, favoring “yes” language when possible. Using only “no,” “stop,” and “don’t” can cause tightening and worry for many students. Instead, I sometimes describe inhibition as overriding patterns of interference, by saying yes to a new idea. My Suzuki violin teacher training emphasized creating a “no fail” environment for the student, and I think of inhibition similarly. Students can be empowered to create new patterns, and while old myelinated pathways never go away, the new ways can become stronger. It’s my job to find ways to help them create this experience.
Faulty Sensory Appreciation means that our senses are helpful, useful, and report change—but they can vary from situation to situation and cannot be our sole source of feedback. You cannot be sure that you’re “right” by feeling for sensory feedback; what you can be sure of is your constructive thought process. At the same time, by studying the Technique, we become more able to observe changes and thus improve our sensory awareness.
Alexander discovered this fact during his long series of experiments. Alone, and faced with a puzzle of symptoms, patterns, and thoughts, he discovered that he wasn’t doing what he thought he was doing. “For I saw that at the critical moment when I tried to combine the prevention of shortening with a positive attempt to maintain a lengthening and speak at the same time, I did not put my head forward and up as I intended, but actually put it back. Here then was startling proof that I was doing the opposite of what I believed I was doing and of what I had decided I ought to do” (p. 31). I think everyone who loves the Alexander Technique has had their own experiences like this, and is thankful that F.M. was a persistent man!
I am fortunate to have worked with three master teachers who taught me this principle in the first—and every—lesson. In my first few years of study, I sometimes experienced an incredible lightness in my movements, which I now know was my kinesthetic sense registering a major contrast to how I had previously moved. My teachers were quick to point out that those sensations are great, but that they may not return in the same way ever again, and I shouldn’t seek them out. Indeed, I could be beautifully coordinated without that feeling, or any feeling at all. Also, I still have encounters with my capricious senses in my personal study of the Technique. Recently, I was refining my constructive progress and thinking about what it meant to ask my head to move “forward and up.” One of my teachers, Cathy, pointed out that what was doing was actually pulling back and down a tiny bit. How humbling! And what a great learning experience!
As I began to get interested in teaching the Technique, I’ve often watched students move from leaning back to upright, then comment they feel like they’re falling forward, or something similar. Sometimes, I ask my violin students to make a change and they do something other than what I was asking, but thought they were right because they relied upon their senses. I’m learning how to teach in a more proactive way, educating them on the AT process and keeping the senses’ role in mind each time I set up a learning experiment or give them instructions.
End-gaining is going straight for your end goal without using a reasoned process—you end up (re)acting in a habitual way, which includes any stress, cultivated habits, or tension you normally use. In contrast, Means Whereby is a process-oriented approach to learning. You create freedom to choose how you go about your task.
When Alexander discovered that he tightened before reciting, he realized that “this was the use which I habitually brought into play for all my activities…my desire to recite, like any other stimulus to activity, would inevitably cause this habitual wrong use to come into play and dominate any attempt I might be making to employ a better use of myself in reciting” (p. 34). Our systems are efficient, and habits help us move through our days without needing to re-learn everything. And we need goals, or ends. However, if you go straight for the end you risk missing the process by which you could get there more efficiently and freely. In the preface to the new edition Alexander admonished his readers “that to ‘try and get it right’ by direct ‘doing’ is to try and reproduce what is known, and cannot lead to the ‘right’, the as yet ‘unknown.’”
“How can I ____ in such a way that_____?” is a helpful guiding question I learned from my teachers. We function most clearly when we approach life with a process-oriented mindset. I suspect I end-gained much of the time before studying the Technique. It’s a subtle shift, but I notice a tighter, more fuzzy quality in my thinking when I’m end-gaining. I am most likely to revert to old patterns when dinner is running late, the house is messy, and my toddler is crying. Old scripts such as “ugh! I always have to take care of everything around here!” and tenser ways of moving may take over. I’m more likely to be tight, stressed, or to drop something. I try to recognize these situations now, pause, and then think about the means whereby instead. I actually do have a choice: I could turn off the stove, sit down on the couch, and order takeout, but I choose to cook from scratch because I value it for my family’s health.
When my students end-gain, I see a less clear expression on their face as they dive into whatever activity they want to accomplish, and they often tighten and do their task exactly the same way as they always have. In my masters research, where I studied teacher-student interaction in violin lessons, I noticed that the way in which I introduced a new activity was crucial. If I announced the name of the piece, the young student would be ready to launch right into it. I saw this again and again in the lesson videos I analyzed. However, if I asked them to do some related activities, got them ready, and then had them play, I was able to help them make improvements more efficiently. This idea carries over to teaching AT. Instead of saying “OK, please stand up,” to which the student might respond by shooting out of the chair without a thought, I instead think about my own coordination and means-whereby first. Then, I give them a process-oriented instruction, to create an environment where they have the chance to learn something new.
Conscious Direction is Alexander’s constructive thought process. During his experiments, he had discovered primary control and figured out that his sensory feedback wasn’t completely reliable. But, he struggled to go through the “critical moment” of maintaining the new use while going for his end goal. So, he decided to“cease to rely upon the feeling associated with my instinctive direction, and in its place employ my reasoning processes” (p. 39). He created a new thought process that allowed him to override his interference and continue on into his activity in a new way. His five-part plan is (1) inhibit his habitual response to his desire to gain his end, (2) project the sequence of directions for primary control, "my head to move forward and up, my back to lengthen and widen,” (3) continue to project the directions until he was completely clear about them, (4) the critical moment: while continuing to project the directions for the new use, stop and reconsider the plan, and make a fresh decision (5) choose to gain his end, do something else, make a new plan, or continue projecting the directions.
When I began to study the Technique, I had been experiencing overuse pain from long hours of playing the violin and years of cultivated habits around playing. I wanted to change my movements and playing, but during my years of violin study I had been given many well-meaning bits of advice like “keep your shoulder down,” or “just relax! you’re so tense!” There were a lot of patterns to override. One of the first things I learned in AT class was that I could use a clear set of conscious directions to create real change in my playing. I no longer needed to rely on vague sensory directives such as “trying to relax.” I learned to do my thinking and ask to coordinate every time I picked up my instrument. My coordination knew how to make the intricate calculations, and I learned how to consciously cooperate with it. The new use became part of my playing and my injury symptoms largely disappeared. Over time, I have refined my thought process and try to incorporate it into everything I do.
When I teach violin and Alexander Technique, I use a constructive thought process model based on Alexander’s five part plan. My job is to use the Alexander Technique as I teach, to empower the student to change so they can do what they want to do. I frequently gauge my student’s frames of reference. I often ask questions such as “what are you thinking? what do you notice?” which gives me insight to their thoughts and also trains them to pay attention.