There is nothing as central to human communication as giving something a name, a process that is often the starting point for storytelling. Wherever we may look we see evidence that as humans we tell stories; breathe and tell stories.
For example Shakespeare’s work is riddled with these types of references to something or someone’s name:
‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.
Here the lovers dispel the importance of names so that they can be lovers. The tragedy of the story is that they give their lives over the misunderstandings arising from the conceptions and mis-conceptions that form around the names that we give things. Misunderstandings that tangle a hazy web over the possibilities of that thing’s development and promise.
To delve into what images, concepts and possibilities are communicated through a name can be a starting point for asking and answering questions for seeking the inner life of something (person/idea). I am not going to simplify this vast topic that relates to the core of human’s ability to build, imagine and create concepts around something’s name, but as a starting point of answering the question raised here: “does Alexander technique really work”, we have to consider what it is that we (you, me, society, various individuals and cultures…) may be referring to as “Alexander technique”.
Different cultures and languages use varied ways of communicating or naming concepts that represent a thing. The concept of ‘love’ is a classic example of the variations that exist in referencing the same concept. We may sometimes take it for granted that concepts are referenced in varying ways in different cultures and as with almost anything, there are variations arising from context and individual histories.
For example, even concepts as concrete as ‘land’ mean differing things in various cultures. My favourite example of this relates to the Australian and the Colonial concepts of ‘land’ or ‘country’. I want to use this example to show how looking at the same thing from differing perspectives can somewhat alter that thing’s reality.
The colonial or European conception of ‘land’ or ‘country’ goes something like this:
I own this land, I live in this country, and I have rights/responsibilities and the government does certain things and passes certain laws to make me feel that I have, I own and I am owed to by the governing bodies.
I wouldn’t even dare critique any of this, nor do I necessarily want to. But see how it differs with another way of looking at the exact same concept from the Indigenous perspective:
The land is not mine, the land IS ME. The land and my country’s landscape is the fabric of my identity, belonging and being.
This differing way of seeing the same concept immediately leads to and brings forth a different attitude. Land is literally me, and if I (the collective ‘I’) don’t take daily interrelated steps to tend to it, listen to it, learn from it and conserve it, then I (the collective ‘I’) don’t exist. The concept of collective custodianship is deeply embedded in ‘land is me’ conception of relating to land. Although on the surface this ancient and highly complex relationship has been replaced with a Colonial concept of private ownership and all that goes with it, it still exists in a very real sense.
In a similar way to how the fundamental differences between these two conceptions of ‘land’ continues to shift my perspective on land ownership and custodianship, my relationship and way of working with Alexander’s work has shifted. This is partly why I choose to call my work Movement Mastery and Movement Education. My current concept is almost diametrically varied to what I was taught in training school to be “Alexander Technique”.
Lost and found in translation (an insider’s view of the practicalities of answering the question)
I used to live under the rule of a translation of F.M. Alexander’s writings that can be expressed in terms of a closed circle. I wasn’t taught to open any part of the circle and I wasn’t told that what Alexander wrote about in his books was in relation to others’ writings: as all writing and thought process in fact are. I was told to accept biomechanics of movement and Behaviouralist Neurology that Alexander started to attached to his writings (out of desperation?) and presented in training school as Gospel According to First Generation Teachers and the acceptance speeches of certain Nobel Laureate.
And the same was perpetuated (and continues to be perpetuated) about Alexander’ Ulysses-like story. I was told not to ask questions and certainly not stop taking ‘lessons’. I was even once told by a senior teacher that if a teacher-trainee stops taking ‘lessons’ they will “loose it”. Meanwhile, objectively speaking what “it” referred to was not explained. I paid and paid and I waited and waited and I still didn’t know what “it” was.
To be sure, I didn’t go to training school to study the work of Alexander to become a know “it” all. But, the catechism of feeling to ‘feel’ and reciting the words one wished to ‘wish’ to be/become drew me deeper and deeper into a state of fear that was slowly broken by the realities surrounding the Alexander Technique of this type. At some point during training I stoped asking if “it” was “really working”. Politics of fear take a strong hold after a couple of years of that type of training!
Little by little I formed and unformed my practice and ideas around the so called “main principles of Alexander Technique” and settled for continuous questioning until I chanced upon the work of Jeando Masoero and his “stick to the facts” open circle translation of Alexander’s work. A translation that started to render the work as something that I thought I was looking for in my early lessons: a technique for learning to think so that I can do the creative work of my dreams. A technique for fruition.
To be sure, no single concept, thing, name or way of seeing or feeling can be ‘all things to all people’. But once I started to realise what parts of Alexander’s writings made sense and needed a different practical means to bring about and what parts of his writings formed the scaffolding of his business model, then my conception of the thing I called ‘Alexander Technique’ started to shift. For the better. In a similar way, what I now practice as ‘Alexander technique’ is fundamentally different to the ‘Alexander culture’ that was part of my teacher training. Fundamentally different.
Does Alexander technique work?
In some ways Alexander technique can be ‘filed under’ physical retraining/body work and in other ways in the health/wellbeing/yoga categories. Since currently in the west yoga tends to be used as a physical retraining and teacher trainees undergo extensive anatomy and physiology study, I want to answer the question in terms of filing Alexander technique in terms of physical retraining/body work; knowing that many would want to file it under ‘body based mindful practice’ as well.
To be sure, most Alexander technique teachers may conceive of their work as very different but compatible with various other forms of physical retraining/body work. Having said all this, I want to focus on the tools that both Alexander and other physical retraining/body work and mindful-based practice use in their work: A skeleton picture or model of some type.
Observe the difference in the following depictions/conceptions/referential diagrams of the human skeletal system:
The ones with the dark backing and the classic one that gives us a concept of something called ‘spine’ are ubiquitously used in physical education, physiotherapy and similar domains. But most people are not shown how to apply movements to the interconnected parts of these structures to bring about improved functioning and reduced pain. The picture of the spine with the white background is a grossly compressed depiction in the lineage of Henry Gray who live in a time when it was only possible to study dried up dead bones of stollen corpses. It is interesting to note that the more modern images (with the dark background) do not call the ‘bluff’ of the Gray image!
In another way, if you stand up and replicate the red ‘plumb line’ of the middle image, you will be sure to experience something called falling backwards. Be careful!
Perhaps the discrepancy between depiction of concept (name) and practice (movement retraining) is not an oversight nor a desire to keep a secret and keep the client coming back but it may be that a language that can relate the “lengthening and widening” movement concept of Alexander’s hasn’t been devised or put into use for the general population. The client is not shown how to put themselves into a series of related movements that create a more efficient relationship in movement to the one that may be causing them pain: Alexander’s famous Mechanical Advantage and Means Whereby (“lengthening and widening” movement concept) are applied to dead and dried up fixed depictions: again, without question or quibble. All of this led to many years of pain in my body and fear in my mind!
“Pain during teacher-training?” you may ask. Yes! I will answer and no I was not alone in this.
Returning to the “it” of it all: Teacher trainees are asked to patient:
“You will experience the hands and feel the what it’s all about!”
“The Alexander Technique concept” that I was shown at training school tends to see itself as above the other approaches to physical retraining/body work because, because, you know…
“You will experience the hands and feel the what it’s all about!”
This can work for some and that’s fine. But in my insider experience (during teacher training) it didn’t add up. I constantly saw people in teacher training school whose pain was not bettered by the ‘lessons’: the “secret sufferers” a colleague used to call this insider concept.
“You will experience the hands and feel what it’s all about!”
“A little better for a while, but then it’s gone and I’m back to square one….”.
Will Alexander technique work for your pain? There is no straight answer, because it depends on types of pain and injury and your relationship to sensory experience and learning new ways of movement in movement. In the next section I want to talk about an example and using some pictures and words try to depict how my current way of relating to the Alexander concept (call it Movement Eduction or Movement Mastery ) may be useful to someone who is experiencing physical pain patterns.
What if something starts to hurt?
I want to extend the idea of concepts and names to a specific but widely prevalent situation where a person’s joint or muscles start to give them pain. Since ‘pain’ itself is a hugely general concept I want to reference the type of pain that may have been caused by over-use or over strain either on one part of the body or in one’s life in general (which may have put undo strain on one particular part of an interconnected body).
When our ‘person with overuse pain’ (let’s call he/she PWOP) wants to address the issue through physical education of one type or another, one of the following images (with the black background) might be the starting point for a conversation around the concepts we in the west call ‘posture’, ‘alignment’ or ‘core strength’.
The practitioner advises and the PWOP processes the information and exercises to the best of their capacity. PWOP might get a standing desk, they may start to do less work and a little more exercise, they may aim to live a healthier life and deal with episodes of inflammation with anti-inflamatoires and be advised towards cortisone injections or surgery.
This is all very good! Physical therapy practitioners literally save lives with their work! But what about the portion of the population who’s symptoms don’t respond? What if all the advice is taken on, multiple sessions of manual therapy, cortisone injection and regular pain medication keep the PWOP just a little less in pain, but all the time? What if a common situation takes place where the PWOP is so completely in compliance with their in-studio (pilates comes to mind, awesome as it can be…) exercise regime that they simply can’t think about context variability in relation to movement. They can engage ‘core’ in a plank or in various loading exercise yet when it comes to pleasureful or curvy movement (dance and other activities come to mind) their movement vocabulary becomes rigid due to the fear of possible pain!
In many instances, physical therapists are used as the last minute ‘go to’ person who provides extensive manual therapy and helps the PWOP back into alignment. To utilise the knowledge and scope of a physical therapist in this cosmetic sense is not the most cost effective of long term strategies. The main question that is not provided sufficient research into is when the PWOP asks:
“If my posture or alignment is causing my pain, then how can I change it to reduce or eliminate this pain?”
The following two images don’t aid the effort required to answer this question simply because they are not representations of a series of interrelating movements. They are depicting a fixed and culturally unique perspective on a concept that we in the west refer to as Skeletal System Diagrams. If you start to see movement relationships that bring about Alexander’s Mechanical Advantage you will probably start to see the compression that the following 3 images depict:
This fantastic photo of a physical movement teacher expresses the same compressed and fixed Skeletal System Model Diagram as the one that related to the concept that our oboist used to perhaps become a PWOP or recover? It is not clear which one.
What is this italicised movement?
At this late point you may really be wondering why I keep writing the word ‘movement’ in italics? This is a reference to what Alexander’s famous Mechanical Advantage and Means Whereby illicit in movement education:
To lengthen and widen the torso
Alexander’s books already delve into this concept of movement to a degree. The problem with my particular and many other training schools in a similar vein arrises when there is a disparity between Alexander’s early writing and Gospel According to First Generation Teachers.
This is why in my current concept of Alexander’s work I don’t use generalised concepts that are depicted in these photos to engage in an educational dialogue about movement. There is no high cerebral note to the tools, language and relational means that I have learnt (and continue to research) to use, their aim is to break down generalisations that are meaningless with any type of practical probing and to allow the PWOP to find one possible avenue to improve functioning and resolve pain, or to bring their creative work to fruition.
To learn and evolve a system of seeing in relation to movements that can be practiced and put to practice in terms of a behavioural shift (aka learning) is the aim of the following type of diagram. This diagram represents a series of relational movements for lengthening and widening the mechanism of the torso and provides a learning tool that can be practice by the student on their own and applied to infinite contexts. This way, the name used to refer to the concept of healthy movement is both refined, dynamic and evolving. It is no longer just one thing (engage the core) but a combination of interrelated movements.
Thanks for reading and I hope I have relayed something useful about whether Alexander technique works:
It depends what we mean when we talk about the concept of Alexander technique and it depends if the “it” is given a depiction that makes practical and theoretical sense in the open circle of motor control (movement) training and biomechanics efficiency.
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