— cognitive science and the Alexander Technique

The emotional and intellectual evolution of an Alexander teacher: a challenge

Affiliations: Université de Paris 1, Panthéon-Sorbonne and CREA, École Polytechnique

Postal address for correspondence: Rachel Zahn, 6 rue Greffulhe, 75008 Paris, France



In this paper I will look at the different reasons why we become Alexander teachers, the unexpected benefits of the work, and also the difficulties of fully integrating the Alexander Technique into our emotional and intellectual lives. I would like to open a discussion about the weaknesses and strengths of the Alexander Technique in our lives. The purpose is to produce a discussion of ideas for a more extensive future workshop.

Table of contents

1. Introduction

As always, I prefer to begin with the present moment, in which you are reading this text. We are already at the edge of the issue I wish to address: why and how is it that many Alexander teachers have a problem maintaining their psychophysical congruence while attending a lecture or confronted with a block of print on a page?

The second issue I would like to address is: why and how is it that many Alexander teachers who come together as a community to discuss the development of the profession are rarely able to express their points of view while maintaining psychophysical and emotional congruence?

We all know the amazing benefits of the Alexander Technique which allow us to diminish stress and to refine our skills of balance. Having once learned the Technique, we also know how to reorganise previously acquired skills such as skiing, singing, driving, riding horseback, dancing, and a myriad of other mundane tasks. How is it that intellectual skills and emotional expression have not been integrated as well? If you have read Damasio’s book, Descartes’ Error, [1] you will know that emotion is essential for intelligence and for cognitive development. If you are an actor you know that emotion, well expressed, gives both richness and credibility to a performance... as long as the language is clear and coherent.

So, what is going on?

This paper will address these issues in the hope that a stimulating discussion will cause us to evolve together. I will begin, as always, with a recalibration of psychophysical congruence as a basic practice for ensuring our well-being.

Throughout this paper, I refer to images and videos which are available from the companion website at the following address:

2. Psychophysical congruence and the needs of the autonomic nervous system

First things first: ‘psychophysical basic practice’ [2] consists of two five-minute awareness exercises. The first five minutes will align our intellectual mind with the autonomic nervous system, establishing the simplest form of mind-body association. The second will introduce a visual exercise in order to prepare a neutral engagement with the written word and to avoid a negative regression into old schoolday concentration crunching of our bodyminds. You will need a kitchen match for the second exercise and it is best to have one nearby. You may use the image of the match that appears throughout this document, but the real thing is always better.

In approaching a new task, my assumption is that we must achieve a balance between anxiety and calm. These two exercises are simple ways to be sure that your mind is truly embodied.

Let us begin.

While we are observing the existence of our next spontaneous exhalation…

we will attach the number 1.

As we continue in good relations with our breathing…

we will attach the number 2 to the next exhalation...

and to the next one, the number 3...

and the next one that comes through easily will be the number 4.

And for the next cycle, we will begin again with 1. The image of the Möbius strip [3] will recur throughout the paper, reminding us of our breathing.

picture of a moebius strip
Repeat 1-4 exhalations for 5 minutes

Now, let’s move on to the next experience. The visual exercise is an excellent preparation for more sophisticated observation, whether it be seeing a student or reading a block of print. Find your match and place it where you can easily see it or hold it. Also, centre your sitting experience so that a match can easily be integrated into your already stable well-being.

A match is nothing of importance. That is why it was chosen by Dr. Lawrence Le Shan during the 1970s when he directed a research group that concerned itself with the quality of non-intrusive (non-doing) attention that created an ideal interface between caregivers and cancer patients.

I would like you to maintain your awareness of your exhalations. If you can continue the counting as well, that’s fine. If you prefer not to count, but simply to stay with your awareness of breathing, that’s fine too. Now that you have established this awareness, let’s add a very simple observation of the match. I do mean very simple. No stories, no associations. Simply observe the match while breathing, and continue this for five minutes, please.

picture of a match

If you happen to be in the presence of another living being (human, animal or plant), or a treasured object like a photo, please hold the match so that you can see the match and the ‘other’ at the same time. Consider what you would need to do or not do to see the ‘other’ with the same quality of simple observation you give the match. Explore this image for a few minutes.

The muscles of the head and neck [4, 5]

The purpose of these two exercises is to bring you toward a quality of attention that I would like you to use while reading this paper. Just as I said at the Oxford Congress, your well-being is more important than the demands of either listening to a lecture or seeing the printed letters on this page. You may hear my voice as you read, and that’s fine, but it does not merit more attention than your breath. Choose your loyalties well, and stay with your breath.

3. Why breath is essential to our well-being and cognition

Life wants to live, it wants to survive. Here is a recent example of a training film used to educate future doctors, which you may wish to look at if you are near a computer. This video is an insider’s view of life’s intention to grow. You can either type the following address into your web browser or go to my companion site referenced in the introduction to this paper:

Your entire organic self needs, first and foremost, oxygen – an element that is colourless, odourless, and tasteless. Oxygen is so profoundly necessary that, deprived of it for even a few minutes, we can suffer irreparable brain damage or die. I said minutes! Do we really believe it? Do we live that significant other relationship or do we barely notice it? If the latter is the case, what might we be doing that could merit our attention elsewhere? Is it thinking? Let’s return to existential reality. Your brain, my brain, is only 2% of our body’s weight, yet it uses 20% of our body’s cellular energy! Do you know that, as you read this text, 8 gallons (roughly 32 litres) of blood are passing through your brain, my brain? During a day, 198 gallons (792 litres) of blood will pass through each of our brains. My brain knows this, even if I don’t, which is why it will not allow me to hold my breath for extended periods. High-performance activities require even more oxygen. A key focus in high-performance training is the mastery of oxygen enhancement and the optimisation of muscular effort to reduce the need for oxygen. There is another category that I call high-performance amateurs, the workaholics who drive their bodies (a dissociated perspective) as if they were in the Grand Prix every minute of the day. By contrast, professionals or amateurs who are psychophysically well-trained, push their limits only in seconds or, at the most, for two hours a day. Marathon and long-distance runners, triathletes and Tour de France cyclists are exceptions. Well trained high performers calculate the risks of endurance training, pacing themselves appropriately, whereas the workaholic simply keeps whipping herself into a frenzy of activity without consideration of the cost to life.

picture of a moebius strip
Enjoy the oxygen that awaits your next exhalation!

You might want to drink a glass of spring water, because the transporter of oxygen is fluid, and the next need you have is a minimum of 8 to 12 glasses of water a day. You don’t mix the gas in your car with Coca Cola; it’s a good idea not to mix your oxygenated blood with it, either. I hope my point is made. Live your breath and it will live you.

4. Oxygen and the autonomic nervous system

It is the autonomic nervous system that refuses to let you hold your breath forever, and it is the same system that alerts your brain to danger when you chronically keep your breathing to a minimum while thinking or emoting. Lack of oxygen produces a stress reaction and it sets up a cycle of confusion within the brain. The danger signal translates into a shift to survival mode, independent of the situation’s gravity. We humans have a bad habit of thinking of a relatively safe situation in life or death terms, whether it be an exam, a job interview or a first date. Unfortunately, the brain believes you, and before you know it you are breaking out in a sweat, your eyes are squeezing into tense marbles no longer capable of perceiving shadows and light, your heart is racing and you are wishing you were anywhere else on the planet.

Let us review the reactions of the autonomic nervous system. The sympathetic (fight or flight) system dilates the pupils, inhibits salivation, accelerates respiration, accelerates the heartbeat, inhibits digestion, secretes nora-adrenaline, increases sweat, raises ‘goose-bumps’, relaxes the bladder, and stimulates orgasm.

The parasympathetic (rest and digest) system constricts the pupils, stimulates salivation, relaxes respiration, slows the heartbeat, stimulates digestion, decreases sweat, relaxes hair follicles, constricts the bladder, and stimulates sexual arousal.

Managing these two uses of the autonomic nervous system is a constant challenge for humans who live in a civilisation that insists on quantitative production rather than qualitative performance process.

How are you doing? Are you breathing? Are your eyes easily seeing this text, as they did the match?

picture of a match

Since your brain responds to your thoughts, and every thought generates a physical response, let’s not pretend that the intellectual exercise of reading this paper is more important than the freedom you have at the occipital joint, a close neighbour to your beautiful brain stem.

If not, look at the sky and come back when you are whole. It is the same lesson Judith Leibowitz gave when she said to me, ‘take your hands off and take care of yourself’.

5. What are the reasons we become Alexander students?

I have interviewed several training school directors and these are the reasons I found:

  • We have chronic pain, stress, injury, illness, or disability that has not been fully resolved or rehabilitated.
  • We want to move with grace and poise for social reasons.
  • We wish to realise our human potential.
  • We have read about its unusual success (riding, philosophy, dance, etc.).
  • We have seen a difference in Alexander Technique students that we know.
  • We have studied other disciplines with teachers who recommended the Technique.
  • We have been impressed by the list of actors and famous people who study it.
  • We have attended a school that offers it (e.g., Juilliard)
  • We received recommendations from psychologists, doctors, and osteopaths, etc.

6. What are the reasons we become Alexander teachers?

Based on interviews with teachers around the world, this is what I found:

  • We have experienced a sense of profound change in our well-being.
  • We are curious as to how this all works and want to be immersed in the work every day.
  • We are searching for a more meaningful (less mechanistic and more holistic) approach to helping others.
  • We are performers or teachers of dance, voice, acting, etc., desiring to add new skills.
  • We wish to be self-employed in a career that allows us to work anywhere in the world.
  • We want to spend our working days doing something that improves our own well-being.
  • We have a sense of finally finding something we are really good at.

7. What are the unexpected benefits of being Alexander teachers?

There are some almost humorous responses from friends and family. People often say that we have lost weight, that we are more sensitive or receptive, that we look younger, happier, etc. But the most significant benefits are to do with having a sense of ease as we move through the world and being calmer in situations that previously destabilised our well-being. The following list states some of the new behaviours:

  • We can sustain psychophysical unity during auditions and interviews.
  • We have more sensitivity to pleasure (e.g. sexual) via parasympathetic availability.
  • We have a point of existential reference independent of external social events.
  • We have more coherence in our thinking.
  • We know what works for us.
  • We have more physical stamina.
  • We are better at sports, dancing, etc.
  • We know when and how to stop.

8. What are the difficulties of being Alexander teachers?

There is an interesting paradox rarely spoken about within our profession to which I would like to draw your attention. Let’s prepare for it.

picture of a moebius strip
Four exhalations for two minutes

8.1. The positive–negative paradox

The paradox is that the greatest strength of the Alexander Technique is also its greatest potential weakness. The Alexander Technique is able to bypass pathology.

Let me explain the way I am using the concept of bypass. A practical example exists in French hospitals. It is an innovation used during the reanimation of comatose and stroke patients who are experiencing disorientation upon awakening. The French specialists discovered that odour bypasses the trauma and allows the brain to re-access previous associations. A specially trained nurse visits a patient, bearing a valise full of small vials containing the basic odours of normal life. A cotton swab is dipped into one vial after another and presented to the patient. Gradually, sensory recognition of an odour occurs and, soon after, the brain begins to access memories associated with that particular odour. Vial after vial reconstitutes a basic cognitive knowledge of life that had been suspended during the trauma. Such a simple sense of completion and recognition re-establishes confidence, and the patient’s identity rediscovers itself. It is a brilliant intervention that saves enormous recovery time.

By the way, it is wise to adapt this method for those having to undergo a procedure under general anaesthetic. Simply identify a familiar positive aroma, anchor it by having the person smell it during the week before surgery, and have someone present it to the person as soon as possible after the anaesthetic has worn off.

8.2. A positive bypass

Bypassing pathology is one of the Alexander Technique’s greatest contributions to psychophysical re-education. A student may have poliomyelitis, arthritis, amputated limbs, chronic asthma, or any of a number of other diseases; the process of teaching the Technique bypasses the problem, establishing an entirely new pattern. (This is why we say that the Technique is not a cure.) An anxious student is taught that nothing needs to happen. The Alexander Technique experience is going to be different from all of those medical interventions. A student is taught to identify one or two physiological points of reference, to have head–neck, hip–knee, knee–ankle awareness without doing anything. She is taught to be curious about spatial relations: up–down, length–width. She is taught to experiment with separating a command from an action, i.e. doing. Most amazingly, the student is taught to recognise the effects that negative thought and unconstructive criticism have upon simple movements. Each lesson reaffirms to the brain that this new experience is to be wired into the previously stimulated neural pathways established by earlier lessons. Each lesson creates more densely knit neural connections, which in turn result in neuroplasticity.

The brain loves familiar categories. As the Alexander Technique proves itself to be consistently useful in establishing coherent directions for balance, the brain responds with an almost childlike delight in learning a way back to psychophysical unity. As this pattern becomes normalised, a student will be able to use it as a self reference and to begin to consciously interact and manage the pathology (whether this be poor proprioceptive habits or a major handicap). We know that the Technique slowly eliminates many compensatory symptoms which complicate the management of the disease. However, the disease will still need treatment. The student has learned skills that improve her use regardless of the situation. The old medical tradition of simply saying, ‘I’m sorry, madam, you will just have to live with it,’ is no longer the only option.

Within our profession there is confusion concerning expectations and disappointments attached to ‘good use’. We say that the Alexander Technique is not a therapy that cures, and yet we are often judgemental (i.e., abusively critical) of students and other teachers, based on an idealised use that excludes the deeper reality of a pathology that is being bypassed.

We speak of ‘non-endgaining’, but often an imprecise hidden expectation asserts itself in judgemental endgaining. Surely, it is more useful to develop a discipline of constructive observation that would generate working ideas about the why and how a student may look or move as she does.

As I continue to focus on the idea of a bypass, I hope you will see more clearly into that amorphous area of what can and cannot happen in a lesson. As living organisms, we will always be full of surprises, which is why, as teachers, we must refrain from promising too little or too much.

8.3. The negative bypass: bliss vs. chronic anxiety

There are a few negative – or potentially negative – side effects to bypassing pathology. An example: It is common knowledge that many rock singers and musicians use cocaine to improve the intensity of their theatrical effect. The high of cocaine takes them beyond normal limits, bypassing these limits. This can be very exciting, except for the fact that cocaine is an anaesthetic and there are side effects. The drug allows singers to injure their larynxes, since they receive no sensory feedback.

How might that apply to Alexander teachers? Well, there is a very different sort of high that comes from an Alexander Technique shift into a parasympathetic sense of well-being. It’s more like a high tranquillity or bliss state. For someone who has never previously experienced it, there could be a great temptation to bliss-out. Certainly F. M. Alexander would be turning in his grave at the thought. I do remember that, in the 1970s and 80s when I was on the ACAT faculty, trainees often passed through a bliss period; some reported psychic experiences and often needed to be gently told that this was simply a side effect of the parasympathetic state and was to be considered a bit like fool’s gold, not the real thing.

picture of a moebius strip
Now take a nice breath

Suppose a student — let me say ‘I’ — suppose I have had a chronic level of anxiety for most of my pre-Alexander Technique (AT) life. My anxiety is not a unique incident but has its own well-established pattern of neuroplasticity. The first AT lesson I receive probably destabilises the pattern of anxiety, and I leave the lesson feeling more ‘relaxed’. Chances are I have a sort of amnesia about the significance of the lesson. Amnesia of this sort can be expected when those amazing AT teacher hands slip under the radar of my anxiety habit. So far, so good. Gradually, through a series of lessons, I become aware of the choices of inhibition and direction. I begin to find the parasympathetic calm more accessible. I am bypassing my habitual reactions and establishing a sort of island away from that history.

What could possibly be wrong with this? It sounds wonderful and it is wonderful. But what if I have not attended to the habitual stimuli that created the former chronic state of anxiety? In some cases, spontaneous resolution is possible, just as it is possible to have a spontaneous remission of a disease. However, it is equally possible for me to misuse the Alexander Technique by fixating a calm persona, a chronic parasympathetic state which is not at all spontaneous. The Technique is a genuine method of realigning myself with my biological potential, a potential capable of calmness and excitement, humour and sadness and, yes, anger and compassion. Chronic anxiety exists for a reason. If at all possible, it is wiser to clean all the bits of habitual anxiety out of the corners of my cognitive architecture, thereby avoiding their surprise intrusions in the future.

Another possible difficulty is that the chronic sympathetic anxiety leads to an internal conflict with the Alexander Technique parasympathetic new learning, whereby a student’s anxiety to ‘get it right’ competes with non-doing. A metaphor can be found in the computer science term thrashing, which is used to describe an irresolvable competition between two programs that results in freezing the main system. You may be more familiar with the rabbit or deer in the headlights who is caught between fight and flight.

If the newer program is written in parasympathetic code and the older in sympathetic code, then why doesn’t my brain choose the better partner and erase the anxiety from my system? Is it simply because the older one has had more time in the system? Or might it reflect nature’s evolutionary need to pay more attention to danger than to tranquillity? After all, survival depends both on not forgetting the lessons associated with danger and on embedding this knowledge in my easily accessible readiness potential strategies.

As my Alexander lessons continue, I am likely to have both insights and misunderstandings until I recognise the early signs of this thrashing. When I do, the lesson of inhibition will provide a new strategy for neutralising the conflicts, followed by the new idea of spatial orientation (direction) which will fill the void created by the missing conflict.

picture of a moebius strip

8.4. A negative bypass: emotional dissociation vs. integrated inhibition

It seems more useful to focus on the human emotion of anger, rather than love (which humans also have difficulty expressing), because we have really not faced up to our use of anger. We socialise anger with laws and polite rituals, but we have never truly evolved a psychophysically congruent use of anger in the same way that Alexander Technique teachers have learned to interact with the greatest proprioceptive challenge on the planet: gravity.

A variation on this theme is Dr Lucy Brown’s recent research [6], which focuses on what happens at the end of romantic love when the relationship has failed. The rejected partner experiences pain, rage and addiction withdrawal (according to the fMRI results, the brain is activated locally in the area related to withdrawal from cocaine dependence). Given that Alexander teachers are trained to use inhibition, it might be interesting to interview teachers to learn if the Technique helped them manage break-ups better than the average person.

Whether we are dealing with seemingly positive exhilaration or with raging anger or even its cousin, irritability, have we found a way to use our Alexander Technique inhibition appropriately to detach (not dissociate) from the main force of these feelings? Have we integrated skilled use with these profoundly human experiences in a way that modulates the force driving them, in the same way a singer modulates the resonance of a musical note? Do we admit emotion into our practice with the same ease that we welcome ‘chair work’? I am not suggesting that Alexander teachers become psychotherapists or Zen monks. I am suggesting that there is a way to introduce micro-emotional situational learning into our teaching and continued learning.

‘Chair work’ is a micro-situation that offers a lesson of ‘mechanical advantage’ that can be applied to many other human movements. I believe it is possible to do the same with emotion. Actors are trained to do this, why not us? An acting class might be instructed to work with one emotion. Actors learn to access a stimulus memory for the emotion and experience how they move, speak and touch others while in that state. Alexander students using the same method might also deliberately induce the experience, first without the Technique and then with it.

When I was training teachers, we used to explore what we considered automatic reactions like sneezing, coughing, laughing, crying, hiccupping. It was fascinating to see how many versions of these activities there were and further, how different they were when we stayed with our direction and inhibited excess effort.

I remember that, in the late 1960s, there was an Alexander Technique attitude that said the position of ‘head back and down’ was to be avoided at all costs. This caused quite a lot of confusion amongst Alexander Technique students such as dancers who were very skilled in improvisational movement.

It was probably the influx of dancers into our profession that changed this fundamentalism into a view that any position can be well used or misused. Actors who have to play such parts as Richard III, a ‘hunchback’, must find a way to negotiate physical distortions while maintaining good use. Actors are particularly devoted to the Technique because it builds an internal mind-body unity that they can maintain no matter what the role or emotional expression. We need to learn from them as they have from us.

picture of a moebius strip

8.5. A negative bypass: missing stages of coordination development

Now, let’s look in another direction, towards an area that is even more controversial. We will need the match for this.

Those of you who were at the Congress in Lugano no doubt experienced a sense of wonder at the variety of Alexander teachers who were there. Would I be right in thinking that you scanned the population for the quality of use and head direction, comparing one to another, comparing yourself to this one and that one, horrified to see distortions that you never imagined an Alexander teacher could have or envious of those who seemed to have ‘it’? And what did you say to yourself when the person you hoped would be a perfect example of the Technique was not?

group photo of Alexander teachers picture of a match
Group photo courtesy of Anita Tosoki,

Now, imagine you could scan this crowd again, but with the same non-intrusive observation you gave the match. It is possible to imagine this because the brain is so wonderfully improvisational: it can dream, imagine the worst, and even the best.

Here we go. Try it again. Seek out one memory and review it as if it was a match. Judgment will not be necessary. What are you seeing? Explore this memory. Take your time. If we were together, you could tell me what you had seen.

Here is what I remember:

I am seeing someone (an Alexander teacher) move in and out of a sitting position during a group class. I see direction functioning very well indeed. I also see a profile of her head and neck in a distorted and unexpected position to the one I would normally associate with good direction. I am still seeing the match. I am wondering about this. I am beginning to form opinions. I am admiring the courage of this person under what I assume to be enormous peer pressure. She is directing through all of this, and she has bypassed and managed her distended head-neck relationship. I become more neutral and ask myself what is happening. My brain answers, ‘She has a deeper problem, one that occurred long ago in the developmental stages of proprioception or balance. When a particular neurological connection should have spontaneously aligned her new coordination, something disrupted the process. Perhaps she had surgery at a critical developmental moment. It could have been many things.’ Her facial expression is glowing and yet I see sadness. The match again. My intuition says the sadness is due to a sense of helplessness, particularly in the company of so many for whom the Alexander Technique has re-established head–neck fluidity. The Technique can help her bypass the problem, but not correct the underlying architectural dysfunction. I admire her courage even more, wondering if potential paralysis might have been averted by her commitment to good use. I see all the compensations she has put in place, all the strategies she has tried in her effort to gain grace and poise despite the pathology. I imagine that the Alexander Technique was the first and only learning that taught her how to organise herself around this disability.

How are we doing? Are you wondering what this disability of coordination portends? Might some of us who are not so visibly distorted have something similar going on? At the level of child development, did any of us miss a beat? A missed developmental step in coordination can lead to a functional pathology that can be misdiagnosed as structural. What is the answer for this? The brain can correct this situation if it can learn anew the step that it had previously missed.

I suggest reading the work of Esther Thelen [7], who revolutionised long-standing beliefs about proprioceptive intelligence in children. You will find Thomas C. Dalton’s [8, 9] account of the Dewey, Coghill, McGraw theories of child development equally important. Also take a look at Lise Eliot’s [10] book on the first five years of a child’s life. Take another look at the deeper significance of the Dart Procedures [11]. Another resource is Gitte Dollerup Fjordbo [12] (an Alexander teacher) who has written about early neuromotor patterns. Where does this all lead? It leads to an understanding that your students may need more than the Technique to establish or rediscover psychophysical congruence. You may discover that a student or teacher, such as the one described above with the distended neck, may do well to attend a Dart Procedures course or a coordination class with a good Feldenkrais [13] teacher. Depending on the nature of the underlying pathology, she may be able to self-correct if her brain finds that missing developmental movement pattern.

Once the dysfunction is processed and the coordination is back on track, her Alexander Technique knowledge will have a chance to thrive. I realise that, for some teachers, this may seem like heresy. It is not heresy at all. This is the 21st century and we are involved with research about the human condition that is far more important than territorial disputes. F. M. Alexander gave us a precious gift. Each one of us has understood it personally and differently. We must learn to respect the integrity of teaching and look forward to understanding how many different ways we and our students actually learn.

picture of a match

Let’s look at ourselves with the same generosity we gave the match. What can you observe? Can you see the presence of direction stimulating a spatially intelligent interaction, a refinement of human proprioceptive skill? Can you see beyond? Can you see the objections that do not permit full agreement to this fine tuning? Is there a shortening on one side? What about those extra 30 pounds? What is that sadness, tiredness or feigned perfection? Do you see all of this as you scan? I can align the match with myself and see the pathology. I do not ask you to avoid seeing my pathology; I invite you to. If I am your student, a day will come when my ability to bypass pathology is strong enough for me to explore and heal it while continuing to develop congruent forward and up.

picture of a moebius strip

You may want to savour that and return to hear my last bypass story about Alexander teachers whose pathology lies in damaged intellectual skills.

8.6. A negative bypass: intellectual trauma and learning disability

I have just one more story to tell about another sort of bypass that may prove to be the most significant for the future of the Alexander Technique. The story begins years ago, during a teaching trip when I was presenting a weekend course on intellectual skills for senior Alexander teachers. It was an interesting group of men and women who seemed to share little in common. I was surprised by this, since they were all pioneers of the Technique. I used my match eyes and I began to wonder. I saw a few ‘young children’ in grown-up bodies dutifully attending to the teacher’s will. I saw some few looking for the truth, willing to challenge, or rather hoping that challenge would be acceptable. I saw a soft face glad to be touched by something I said, although I was not sure which word had done that touching. There was a cheery strong face filled with helpful ‘yeses’ and ‘ahas’. Another face was filled with cold derision, waiting to have his personal expertise validated, his ears closed except for those mistakes I might make. There were faces that glowed but offered no words. There was a face fixed in perfection with flickers of direction bypassing behind the scene. I paced my breathing and continued…

Here was a group from one of the smallest professions in the world, Alexander Technique teachers and trainers; a community with extraordinarily privileged knowledge that so few humans have, and there was no apparent consensus of good will. My match eyes scanned again, scanned myself and wished for miracles. This was not going to be easy. It might not even be polite. I introduced several perspectives on mind-body dissociation and the errors of Western education and was soon interrupted by a beautifully glowing young man. Out of all this light came a voice expressing enormous pain, accompanied by a short history of intellectual abuse by a teacher in his youth, accompanied in turn by a justification for avoiding anything except ‘experiential learning’ and a request to lie down in the back of the room.

A bit of derision floated through the air from more intellectual achievers and sympathy from others knocked the derision from its perch.

As the day wore on, the glowing young man spoke again, this time with a low-key intense outrage. I do not recall the exact sequence of his contributions. It was plain that his experience with teaching students about the autonomic nervous system differed from mine, and that my suggestions were not useful for him. Finally, he spoke as if he was alone with me and his demand (which was all the more voiced in pain) expressed itself in anger. I cannot recall the content of his words. It seemed that his emotional message was directed through me to someone else. How had I merited this? Who had I become in this person’s mind? Perhaps my match eyes were weakening. I decided to respond by asking him if he was aware that he was speaking to me with aggression and as if we were alone. I questioned him if he was aware of the effect that this interaction was having on the group. He seemed shocked, as if I had awakened him from a dream. I am not sure that my intervention was the wisest. I tried to make it clear that past traumatic experiences need to be dealt with so that clear communication is possible within the actual context of the situation.

We ‘feelers’ often burst forth with our inner experience, expecting others to contextualise (mind-read) our intentions. With unfinished business, we can easily misuse the present moment by casting others as ghost figures in our resident nightmares. The Alexander Technique can bypass these nightmares until an unwitting stimulus, such as I was for that young man, awakens the pathology. As teachers, I suggest that it is wise to clear these bits of pain from our systems. In 1900, F.M. Alexander’s era, there was no opportunity to do so. It has taken most of the 20th century to develop a psychotherapy for the general public interested in self-improvement. Today, there are many methods for resolving traumatic memories. That glowing young man with such good use could be a wonderful spokesman for the Technique. To do so, he must find his proper place in the present century, having recognised and reconciled his memory as a residue of experience which he successfully survived long ago. Otherwise, he will remain forever bypassing, but never healing, the wonderful human being that he so clearly is.

9. Conclusions

I would love to see our Alexander community heal its phobias of intellectual abuse, enabling teachers to learn about current scientific research in proprioceptive development, and coherently express appropriately formed ideas that add something of our knowledge to the interdisciplinary discussion. May I say that few Alexander teachers seem prepared to enter one of the most serious debates of this century: does psychophysical congruence have any connection to what the cognitive scientists call ‘consciousness’?

Lugano is a perfect example. Some teachers told me that they understood perfectly well the information imparted to us by the plenary speakers. Others were incensed that the speakers had no knowledge of the Technique and spoke authoritatively about the body in ways we know to be incorrect. Many teachers did not attend the lectures because it had nothing to do with them personally or it was not ‘experiential’.

I cannot say enough times that Alexander Technique knowledge is privileged knowledge! Yes, it might have been wiser to make sure these speakers had been given a few lessons but, regardless, they are from the very real world that makes decisions about our lives. Perhaps it is our responsibility to heal our derision and the lack of tolerance that masks our ignorance of where we actually belong in a 21st century modern world. Isn’t it time we prepared ourselves to teach these scientists what we know and what they clearly have never even considered? They came to us, which you may not realise is enormously significant. My message is this: it is time to coherently integrate Alexander Technique direction with our wonderful, patiently waiting, embodied minds and, hopefully, mindful hearts!

picture of a moebius strip


1 Damasio A.R. (1994) Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Avon Books.

2 Zahn, R. (2005) “Francisco Varela and The Gesture of Awareness: A new direction in neuroscience and its relevance to the Alexander Technique. In The Congress Papers: Exploring Principles, Oxford: 7th International Congress of the F.M. Alexander. London: STAT Books

3 Image from, where it is published under the Creative Commons License.

4 Image appears at Picture reproduced with permission of the W. K. Kellogg Health Sciences Library, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada


6 Lucy Brown (2008).  Research group website:

7  Thelen, E. and Smith, L.B. (1996) A Dynamic Systems Approach to the Development of Cognition and Action. Cambridge: MIT Press

8 Dalton, T.C. and Bergenn, V.W. (eds and contrib.) (1995) Beyond Heredity and Environment: Myrtle McGraw and The Maturation Controversy. Boulder: Westview

9 Dalton, T.C. and Bergenn, V.W. (2007)  Early Experience, The Brain, and Consciousness: An Historical and Interdisciplinary Synthesis. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

10 Eliot, L. (2000), What’s Going on in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life New York: Bantam Books

11 Goldberg, M, (Editor), Murray, A. (Collaborator), Murray, J. (Collaborator), Ahern, K. (Collaborator). (1996), Beginning from the Beginning: The Growth of Understanding and Skill. Washington, D.C.: Alexander Technique Center of Washington

12 Fjordbo, G.D., (2005) On the Development of Habit-from the viewpoint of the Alexander Technique and early neuromotor patterns of development. More Dimensions.

13 Feldenkrais, M. (1972) Awareness Through Movement: Health Exercises for Personal Growth. New York/London: Harper & Row

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