In the following interview I respond to questions put to me by Kaye Ashton.
Kaye spent several weeks as a post-graduate student on my training course in Sydney.
Kaye: How do you view the teacher / student relationship?
Simon: I see no reason to complicate this issue. The student is a student, and the teacher is a teacher. Students come to the teacher because they believe the Alexander Technique can help them, and the teacher endeavours to teach the student the Technique.
This of course does not imply that the teacher knows everything or never learns anything, nor that the student’s role is that of passively and unquestioningly receiving knowledge. Few if any really believe this is the way learning works or should work. Any such attitude, whether held by the teacher or the student, would be a product of their own psychology, not of the Technique or the way it was being taught.
Teaching the Technique is something you engage in with your student, not something you do to them. Learning the Technique, as with any other practical skill, requires attention, practice, experiment, reflection and time. Teaching it requires observation, persistence, creativity, and is also subject to the aforementioned aspects of learning, as teaching must be approached as a learning experience if we wish to become a better teacher.
Kaye: In AT teaching I think there is an ongoing query about the student/teacher relationship in the ‘more hands-on’ approach and whether it sets up a paradigm of power, the teacher being the one with the power. Your thoughts?
Simon: I can’t see why this would be any more of an issue with hands-on teaching. Either way, it should not be controversial to say that the teacher has more experience and knowledge about Technique than the student. This is, after all, why the student has sought out a teacher and is the one who pays at the end of the lesson.
If a teacher doesn’t believe this is the case, I would ask what they believe their training was for. If, on the other hand, a student has a problem with the idea that their teacher knows more about the Technique than they do, they should reconsider why they’re coming for lessons.
There’s no reason why these differences between the teacher and student necessitate an unhealthy relationship. If I need some plumbing work at home, I am not offended by the fact that the plumber knows more about plumbing than I do. I accept it gleefully as this was why I called for help. This knowledge and experience deficit does not diminish my human value and only represents a power relationship in a very banal way. I would obviously not be satisfied with a plumber who didn’t feel they had more experience or knowledge than me about the job I was paying them to do.
Kaye: This query arises especially around the idea that the teacher will give or bestow or elicit an experience of freedom or ‘upness’, for example, that the student may be awed by but cannot attain by themselves, at least not until they can coordinate themselves. Your thoughts?
Simon: I was amazed how my third class teacher could pluck the answers to questions like ‘3 x 5 =…’ seemingly from nowhere. But my teacher didn’t present it as a magic trick. It was presented as a skill that I too could develop. What’s more, I was shown how. Likewise, the changes brought about by the teacher in an AT lesson can be amazing, but the lesson doesn’t stop there. Students are shown a way of working which will in time allow them to get it themselves. This is the whole point of the lessons.
I could not answer questions like ‘3 x 5 =…’ until I put in the effort to learn my multiplication tables, and so it is with the Technique. We won’t get it for ourselves until we’ve done the work necessary to achieve it.
You may be aware of the story of Alexander saying that with the skill he had developed in the use of his hands he could give his students the new experience ’whether they wanted it or not’. Some have taken offence at this idea but I feel this offence is misplaced. Alexander wasn’t strutting down Oxford Street, London, freeing the necks of strangers against their will. He was finding an effective way to work around the obstacles that people who wanted his help had unwittingly put in his way. Change is very difficult for most people, and many will insist on doing things as they always have, in spite of the trouble it has got them into. Having the experience, however, is not the end of the learning process. The student must then do the necessary mental work to understand the experience and the process that got them there. Then, through practice and experiment, they’ll be able to implement this process by themselves with ever increasing reliability.
Kaye: Have you had experiences where you have been able to detect the student or yourself crossing into an unhelpful interaction that is, psychological or emotional territory out of the scope of your ability to address?
Simon: These sorts of problems can arise, but are less likely if there’s clarity from the teacher as to the scope of their expertise. For example, a student may request a medical diagnosis or treatment, seek psychotherapy or advice about other things going on in their lives, etc. It’s very important that teachers be upfront from the outset that the Alexander Technique does not qualify them to help in these regards.
Kaye: I’m interested in the phenomenon wherein I’m blind to my habit until it bubbles up into my awareness. During my ‘turns’ with you, initially and repeatedly you used quite firm pressure and direction to lift my ribcage up away from my pelvis. How do I deal with the impasse whereby I know where I want to go but I don’t think my thinking can get me there?
Simon: Often it’s more a case of someone being aware of their habit, but not of how to get out of it. In your example, I did lift you up. I was taking you somewhere you could not conceive of, let alone get to by yourself. To maintain this relationship, you did need to provide your own energy (direction). What you seem to mean by ‘thinking’ here is thought without any real intention, without energy. This is not directing. Without a change in the way your energy—or effort— is directed, nothing will change. It’s not a question of reciting magic spells, the misdirection of effort is what we’re aiming to correct.
The underlying confusion here is an example of what happens when AT theory is divorced from the actual experience. If you’re clear about what you’re after, it becomes a practical question of how to get there and not one of doctrinal purity. The ‘thinking’ you reference in the phrase ‘I don’t think my thinking can get me there’ would be more accurately described as ‘thinking about’ something. Directing is an active process: not only the projection of messages but also the necessary energy for things to happen.
Kaye: What and where is the role of intention in relation to non doing and direction?
Simon: A clear concept of what is meant by ‘doing’ as opposed to ‘non-doing’ in Alexander jargon will help here. By ‘doing’ we mean deciding beforehand what the correct result is, what should happen, and then directly setting about to achieve this. The focus is on doing the ‘right’ thing, and in this sense; ‘relaxing’ is just as much a ‘doing’ as ‘trying’ to have good posture.
‘Non-doing’ doesn’t mean nothing happens. It would be a useless concept if it did. The difference is that we focus on preventing what we don’t want. We’re less clear about the specific result. The attitude is: if I prevent (or diminish) this tendency, what happens? For example, a non-doing approach to breathing is not to stop breathing. We must stop trying to change the breathing and figure out what is actually interfering with it and then trying to prevent that as much as we can.
It’s primarily through experience and experiment that we learn to distinguish between doing and non-doing. The difference isn’t ideological and it’s not ethereal, but it does take time to develop the necessary understanding and sensitivity. It’s part of what we need to learn. A good place to start is to ask yourself, what am I trying to prevent? Directing is an active process. The energy is the result of intention, or what Alexander termed ‘giving consent’. It’s not a question of just thinking about my head going forward and up, rather that of definitely intending my head to go forward and up. A useful analogy might be the difference between thinking about going for a walk and actually getting up and going out the door.
Kaye: What is the role of primary directions and their introduction into a lesson? How would you use ad hoc directions, for example, thinking the fingertips away from the back?
Simon: The primary directions relate to the overall postural organisation; our response to gravity. They form the basis of the new and improved use and are primary in the sense that they must be sorted out first. We need to discover why the neck is not free, why the back is shortening and narrowing, etc. To go with your example ‘trying to direct fingertips away from your back’ when your back is stiffened or collapsed is demonstrably ineffective.
This doesn’t mean we must only direct the neck until it’s free before moving on to the next step. There may be many reasons why the neck is not free or why it cannot be free. This is where prevention, inhibition, faulty conception, etc, need to be considered. For example, if someone believes that they should be relaxing, and their understanding of relaxing is actually a postural collapse, no amount of asking for a free neck is going to turn that situation around. The first step here is they need to stop ‘relaxing’ as they understand it.
As for the timing, I introduce the primary directions when I think they’ll be helpful. There’s no point in talking about directions until the student is capable of directing to some degree. In the early lessons, most students will understand the directions as a result (correct position) instead of a process, and therefore ‘giving their directions’ will only create a further layer of postural confusion and probably a great deal of stiffening.
Kaye: Is there a way the teacher can help the student to conceive the directions as other than ‘correct positions’ or is this misconception an occupational hazard so to speak?
Simon: It’s an understandable and perhaps unavoidable error. I remember my zeal as a young teacher: I was going to make sure no student of mine ever fell into that trap! I later realised that they all do and this is a necessary part of the learning process. Learning is a process of making mistakes, understanding those mistakes, and correcting them.
Kaye: Are the primary directions an ideal to move towards rather than a means in themselves?
Simon: No, I don’t think so. Directing is a process, not an ideal, not a result. We’re not describing a position or posture, rather a tendency. We’d like the back to lengthen, but we don’t decide how much. We do however understand that over time we will tend to lengthen more and more consistently. This tendency is independent of what we’re actually doing and in fact the point of the Technique is to bring this tendency to whatever we’re doing.
Kaye: How can we avoid doing rather than thinking any direction, but especially FM’s directions?
Simon: ’Doing’ implies having a preconceived idea as to the result and making it happens, whilst ‘thinking’ as it’s used here is akin to the ‘thinking about’ I mentioned earlier. Neither is satisfactory.
I think the active verb here should be ‘direct’. We should not think the directions nor do them. Rather, we should direct. What this actually involves is best learnt through experience.
Kaye: In my sessions with yourself, John Nicholls and Caren Bayer there was an emphasis that as a teacher I am touching you locally but thinking of you (and me) globally and spatially. What are your thoughts?
Simon: The changes we wish to bring about are global and so our perception and conception of our students needs to be global. If I have my hands on someone’s shoulder, for example, the question I am asking myself is to what extent is this shoulder interfering with the overall upward and expanding tendency. I’m not interested in the shoulder in isolation. A shoulder may be a bit tight, but if relaxing it drags the student down, then this relaxation is not an improvement, regardless of how far from ideal the shoulder may be in its current state.
As for movement, regardless of the specifics, our aim should be to not interfere with this overall pattern. The only way to know how successful we have been at this is by paying attention to the overall pattern. The overall pattern happens in space, and thus spatial awareness, both conceptually and sensorially, is essential to be able to direct consciously.
Kaye: Do directions have a use-by date. They are effective when new (novel) but does their charm wear off?
Simon: No, I don’t think so. What can happen though, is that someone believes they’re directing but aren’t really directing at all. They’re thinking an idea that distracts them enough to be able to get out of their own way for a moment. They’re momentarily distracted from their attempt to get something ‘right’ and something new happens. This process is very inconsistent—it works one day but not the next—and can give the impression that the magic has gone.
Kaye: Do you use your hands more or less, and your verbal instruction more or less, depending on the student’s needs and progress?
Simon: I use my hands almost constantly as their principle function is to feel what is going on in the student, and thus help me ascertain what the student needs to learn.
Verbal instruction varies depending on the student and the moment. My lessons are practical, and so I don’t talk about what is not immediately relevant or useful. I don’t mention things that are going wrong, for example, unless I feel doing so is going to help and there’s a procedure I am suggesting in order to correct it.
Kaye: Whose responsibility is it then to work out what needs to be prevented?
Simon: The teacher and student work together, though at first the teacher has a greater responsibility—and capacity—due to their greater experience. As the student progresses, they quite naturally take on more and more responsibility.
Kaye: I gather you mean that you carry on a conversation with the student, as Walter Carrington did about generalities, but you don’t necessarily home in on the specifics of a student’s use unless useful to do so?
Simon: That’s correct. Pointing out problems before there’s a way around them only creates anxiety, and anxiety is one of the major obstacles to learning. And bearing in mind that many specific problems fix themselves as the general conditions improve —overall freedom, overall length— dutifully informing students of everything that’s going wrong makes no sense at all pedagogically.
Kaye: Is it chicken or egg? Does the head/ neck influence freedom in the rest of the body or is it toning of the torso, and or, release of the tyrannical hold the arms and legs exert on the torso, that causes freedom and change throughout the whole?
Simon: As an aside, let me point out that eggs predate chickens by millions of years …
The variations are infinite. The primary directions are not primary in the sense that you only attend to the neck until it’s free, then proceed to the head, etc, without reference to the whole. If the neck tends to stiffen (which is almost guaranteed), the next question is – why? The why can be something localised, but more likely not. There might be a problem with the overall postural support, interference from the use of the hands and arms, an incorrect conception, fear, anxiety or any number of factors.
Kaye: What part does observation play in a lesson. I notice that you are not necessarily looking at the pupil or your hands all the time. Some schools of thought suggest that the teacher should be looking / scanning the student continuously to see the effect of changes in breathing, etc.
Simon: Observation is the primary part of the lesson. Without an idea of what is going wrong, you don’t know what needs to be taught. My observation is both tactile and visual, though I would rarely be looking at my hands because I can already feel what is going on underneath them. I will most likely be looking elsewhere. Through my hands I can also get a sense of what is going on elsewhere and generally. This is a sensitivity that we develop with practice. I also use the various mirrors I have around the room to get a different perspective and a long view of the student. I compare the information I receive from these two channels (tactile and visual) to get a clearer and more reliable idea of what is going on.
Kaye: How would you describe what you feel underneath your hands when someone is tightening, or conversely, releasing?
Simon: Tightening feels like tightening and releasing feels like releasing. The subtlety of perception comes in the form or understanding how all these tightenings and releasings are related. A tight neck in isolation tells us very little.
Kaye: Is it enough for a teacher to put ‘hands on’. What informs your movement of hands from one place to another?
Simon: Little if anything can be achieved without the active participation of the student. Think how useless a lesson would be if given to someone who was asleep. At first, this participation may only consist of leaving themselves alone, to stop trying to make the right thing happen. As the lessons advance, the teacher will begin to place higher demands on the student capacity to inhibit and direct. The idea that the student in a hands-on lesson is there to passively receive ‘the experience’ that the teacher gives them is not how an accomplished hands-on teacher would describe what they do.
As for where I put my hands, the first consideration is curiosity. I use my hands primarily to feel what’s going on in the student. When I say ‘what’s going on’ I mean the overall pattern. I try to form a global idea of what is going wrong and more importantly, why. Armed with this knowledge, or at least a hypothesis, the next step is to demonstrate to the student how to avoid the difficulties I’ve detected. That is, the hands show the student what not to do, rather than any ‘correct’ movement or posture.
Kaye: Thank you Simon for participating in this little Alexander exploration.
Simon: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
Kaye Ashton graduated from the Melbourne Alexander Teacher Training School (MATTS) in 1994. She taught AT until 2000 and then worked full time in an office environment at RMIT University, using the Technique to advantage. The love and interest in the Technique did not wane, however, and she has recently started teaching again.