Saturday, 29 December 2007

Demystifying AT

Alexander's philosophy of "the Self" led me to believe that developing a more sophisticated use of my physical Self through his technique would lead to a deeper psychological and spiritual awareness. I was therefore hoping for great things from AT.

After 13 years of personal AT lessons, I enrolled on a three-year full-time teacher training course. I wasn't just looking to achieve physical improvements.

There's no doubt that, on the physical level, I changed significantly. It wasn't exactly a smooth transition, however. I went through periods of aches and pains, mainly brought about by trying to "do". There were times when I really thought I understood the AT process only to discover later that I had it all wrong. This mirrors the experience that Alexander had when he was trying to understand his own use.

On a psychological level, the change in poise, posture and attitude that AT brings about affects people's perceptions of you and that, in turn, changes the way you perceive your own life and increases your self esteem and happiness. I never had any major issues with self-confidence but my former stress levels caused me to appear a bit too assertive and overbearing. Now, I think people perceive a happier, more contented Jeff and instead, they tend to see me as amusingly eccentric. I'm pleased about that. Of course, I'm still the same person inside! AT can't change your personality: only your behaviour.

One of my hobbies for the last 19 years has been studying esoteric and existential philosophy: more specifically, the nature of human consciousness. This led me to a new scientific theory of consciousness and as a consequence I have spent time getting to know some of the religious views about it . Not wishing to subscribe to any of the major religions or (in the case of Buddhism) philospohies, I have always looked within my own being for a deeper understanding of mind. This was a factor in making AT look like a good thing for me to do.

The late Ray Evans, director of the Alexander Re-Education Centre training course had a profound spiritual dimension (connected to his mastery of Yoga and his Christian faith, I think). I was hoping that some of this might rub-off on me as a result of AT. During my private lessons with Ray, I used to ask him to tell me about the spiritual benefits of AT. The most I could get out of him was a knowing smile and a platitude such as "you will have to discover that for yourself, Jeff".

Alexander came from a humble though strongly Christian family. I've often wondered if his avoidance of spiritual matters in relation to his work was driven by a need to avert conflict with the (then) powerful forces of the Christian Church, some of whose most influential leaders he had befriended through his work. Walter Carrington, who effectively took over from Alexander after his dealth in 1955 also came from a religious background. I understand that he chose AT over a career as a Jesuit priest. Only time will tell whether he changed Alexander's message by overlaying his own spiritual beliefs on his teachings.

The conclusion I have come to is that AT has no automatic place in a spiritual or religious context. It requires no act of faith to develop good use, other than to trust the Technique enough to let go of your habits. That's not to say that AT can't help you develop a higher spiritual awareness - if that's what you are seeking - BUT spirituality is absolutely not a prerequisite nor an inevitable outcome of developing good use. To portray AT otherwise would, in my opinion, bring the Technique into disrepute within the professional circles in which we are increasingly moving.

I have become more spiritually attuned over the same period of time that I have been an AT teacher. That's a coincidence.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

The Right Way of Pulling

Last week I went to an AT workshop run by Ron Colyer, director of the Alexander Re-Education Centre. It was part 2 of a duet of classes entitled "Antagonistic Action" (AA).

I was the guinea pig in an exercise to apply AA to the most complex structure in the body: the spine. It involved taking the head of a pupil while she was lying in semi-supine on the table. The intention was to encourage the pupil to lengthen her spine without "pulling" her head with my arms.

I stood in "The Alexander Position" :-) at the head of the table and, guided by Ron's hands, put myself into "monkey" and placed my hands on the pupil's head. My instruction was to widen across the upper part of my arms and "pull" into my elbows whilst maintaining my direction: forward and up. Stimulated to pull down by the others in the class who were all watching for me to get it wrong (well at least that's the way I saw it) I made a complete hash of it and my pupil made no response to my efforts.

Evidently, Ron could see what I had done to myself and, with the skill of a sculptor smoothing and perfecting the final form of his work, guided me forward and up whilst bringing me into my back. "You have to use the right kind of pulling", he said. "Just direct your spine back then direct your spine up - back and up back and up". The resulting diagonal direction gave me a sense of connection to my pupil and, with no prompting from Ron, both she and I simultaneously released and took a breath.

I can't find the words to explain the sensation of what that connection to my pupil felt like but I know that it is real and that the simultenaity of the release that we both experienced was not a coincidence, but a result of that connection.

As I recollect, my first encounter with this phenomonen was on year 3 of my AT training course. I was working with Mike Cross and he was sitting on a chair and I was standing behind, hands on his shoulders. He invited me to send him forward or back, rocking on his sitting bones. It wasn't going well. Mike isn't the sort of person who will make it too easy for you! "What are you thinking?", he sternly interrogated. My response was not worth reporting because, in truth, I was only thinking of trying to get it right.

"Start again, looking after your own use and forget about me", he commanded. I dutifully did as instructed and placed my hands on his shoulders. "Now THINK the directions for me". Feeling a bit put-down by my obvious inability to do as instructed, I decided that under NO circumstances was I going to give Mike the slightest cue to move. I stubbornly waited, waited and waited again to see if he would start the movement himself. Just at the point where I was about to give up, the thought passed through my head "now MOVE back". At that instant Mike rocked back on his sitting bones and then announced "That's better: now you are thinking right".

I've given a LOT of thought as to what might be behind this almost paranormal experience. I'm not sure if I believe in telepathy - although I don't rule it out - but I prefer a more practical explanation. I'm going to label this phenomonen "proprioceptive communication".

Proprioception is often referred-to as the true 6th sense. It is your sense of being. It's knowing where your bodily parts are and what they are doing, without having to look. Without it, you would have to devote so much of your brain's conscious processing capacity to simple tasks such as walking that you would hardly be able to concentrate on anything else. But is it REALLY a sense in the same way as the "five senses" are senses?

I've debated this point with several more erudite people than myself (when it comes to the subject of physiology). One view that I support is that, for proprioception to be a true "sense", it must be capable of creating an awareness of the EXTERNAL world - the world outside your body. Knowing where your limbs are seems to fall into the same catagory as knowing if you feel hot or cold or whether you are hungry or thirsty or not feeling well. I don't think many people would elevate the feeling of hunger to the level of a "sense" in its own right.

So, in order to be a sense, proprioception needs to be able to inform you of what's going-on outside of yourself. That's exactly the experience that I have been describing when teaching AT. The pupil seems to be able to sense the state of being of the teacher and to respond by mimicking the teacher's use. The teacher's hands are communicating with the pupil at the level of proprioception and the pupil is sensing that external stimulus. Proprioception is therefore a sense.

This happens at a subconscious level. In fact I would go as far as to say that, if the teacher-pupil interaction is too consciously directed, then the subtlety of the subconscious connection gets lost.

If you need a precedent for subconscious communication, you need to look no further than the effect of pheramones, operating through the sense of smell. There have been numerous studies of how male and female pheramones affect the behaviour of individuals who don't consciously know that they can smell them. Of course we can communicate with our other senses consciously - our hearing is used to interpret speech, our sight is used to interpret body language or sign-language and communication by touch has a miriad of interpretations. Taste is less easy to see, but we all know expressions like "the way to a man's heart is through his stomach", which is probably an allusion to the sense of taste.

What makes proprioceptive communication different from touch is the level of consciousness at which it operates. Touch is essentially a conscious thing. Perhaps one definition of an Alexander teacher is someone who has learned how to perfect their ability to differentiate the use of their hands from that of simple touch?

Having said that, in ALL human interactions no single sense dominates. We receive messages from everyone that we interface-with using all the information that our 6 senses provide.

Even if this theory about the connection between a pupil and the teacher isn't quite right, there's one thing I'm sure about: soneone who has never experienced this connection first-hand cannot claim to be fully competent at teaching AT. This gives us a real dilemma in trying to define the nature of an AT lesson and I can see why so many STAT members object so strongly to the concept of a defined competence framework for AT.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Changing the habits of a lifetime

Last week, I read an article in the 01 December issue of New Scientist about the subconscious mind. The article described a four-part model of the conscious and subconscious control systems of the mind, developed by Peter Dayan, Nathaniel Daw and Yael Niv of University College London.

It made me reconsider my understanding of subconscious habit that forms part of the AT philosophy.

Dayan's model describes four systems of the mind, each with a different controller.

  1. the subconscious PAVLOVIAN controller
  2. the subconscious HABITUAL controller
  3. the conscious EPISODIC controller
  4. the conscious GOAL-DIRECTED controler
The pavlovian controller, described as "the brain's autopilot" performs reflex behaviours: primitive reflexes that we are born with and conditioned reflexes as demostrated by Pavlov's experimental dogs which, on the sound of a bell, were subconsciously conditioned to salivate in anticipation of food.

The pavlovian controller differs from the habitual controller inasmuch as habits are consciously learned and rehearsed until they become second nature.

When we respond to stimuli using conscious control, our resulting behaviour depends on the amount of information we have available on which we can make rational choices. In the case of incomplete information, our episodic controller recommends responses based on our experience of previous, similar situations. In an ideal situation, we focus our goal-directed controller on a well-defined problem and respond to it rationally in order to optimise our choice.

Contemporary experiments in neuroscience are revealing an increasingly important role that the subconscious mind plays in our day-to-day activities. The brain's capacity for conscious processing is a limited resource that needs to be rationed. The subconscious therefore monitors all sensory input - below your awareness - and decides which stimuli are worthy of being assigned to conscious processing.

Once the goal-directed controller has been assigned to a routine task, it aims to consign future responses to similar tasks to subconscious, habitual processing (or at least to the episodic controller) thus freeing itself to perform other tasks.

You can see this in action when we learn a new skill such as typing or driving a car. Eventually, the execution of that skill becomes an unthinking subconscious activity.

So, how does this relate to our classic understanding of the wokings of the body, as described by Mr. Alexander in his books - such as "Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual"? This is the question that I'm still evaluating, but here are my first thoughts.

Alexander spoke at length about the "evil" of subconscious habit and how it leads us to mis-use our body with undue tension. His technique for correcting this requires us to:
  • identify wrong subconscious habits (misuse)
  • inhibit the impulses that drive them
  • substitute different, consciously controlled (directed) means of using the body
  • repeat until the new use replaces the old habits

When a new pupil starts to learn AT, they arrive at their first lesson with their own unique pattern of use (or misuse). The teacher invites them to perform a routine task such as sitting in a chair - something which in most people is an unthinking, habitual process. Almost invariably, the teacher will observe that they are performing the task wrongly - for example by shortening in the back of the neck, pulling down at the front or pulling in with the knees and flopping into the chair.

The teacher then asks the pupil to repeat the task but this time, uses her/his hands to help direct the pupil "up" whilst sitting "down". For the pupil, this represents new sensory input that contradicts their habitual controller's understanding of the sitting process. Instantly, the task is reassigned. The episodic controller may switch-in and try to apply a previously learned behaviour to the task. For example, they might sit in the chair as if they were trying to balance a book on their head. A different pattern of use is observed although it bears little relation to the freely released, upwardly directed motion that the teacher had intended.

The teacher then explains the principle of sitting and repeats the exercise using modified hands to direct it. Eventually, the pupil breaks free of the episodic controller and assigns the goal-directed controller to the task. This is where the teacher may explain the "means whereby" (end-gaining) principle. The act of sitting is analysed in detail.

The next few attempts are awkward and unnatural, albeit that the pupil starts to direct upwards, while thinking about their knees ...etc. Too much goal-directed processing actually gets in the way of the act of sitting!

Now comes the part where this newly acquired skill needs to be reassigned as an habitual process. The pupil is instructed to continue to adopt the new method of sitting in their day-to-day life when there is no teacher to direct and correct them. It is ONLY by working on himself that the pupil will be able to learn to trust the new pattern of use enough to allow it to be handled subconsciously.

Of course, this improved way of sitting will be added to the pupil's library of episodic responses and it will start to emerge in his other activities.

As AT lessons progress, the teacher will take the pupil through a variety of other activities - such as walking, climbing stairs, stooping, lifting an object etc. Each new activity will be associated with new thinking and eventually - with the commitment of the pupil - the "thinking in activity" will become part of his non-thinking subconscious control system.

Returning to the starting point where the pupil is directed for the first time to sit in a new way: rarely, instead of directing the processing of the new stimulus to the conscious controllers, a pupil may respond with a reflex reaction. Their "startle reflex" may cause them to stiffen because they preceive that they are about to fall backwards.

This inappropriate triggering of a primitive reflex is an area of study that is about 40 years old. It's not a subject that I claim any expertise in, but is well understood by reflex therapists who have developed techniques to help the sufferer develop a more mature reponse. I think this body of knowledge will eventually become part of the curriculum for trainee AT teachers. Maybe this new model of conscious and subconscious processing will help to define its place in AT practice?

I invite you to comment on this blog.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Let's Get Straight to the Point About End-Gaining

In teaching the Aexander Technique (AT), we talk about the principle of "end gaining". We almost accuse people of end gaining as if it were some sort of moral crime.

So what is this principle according to AT? I'll come to that later. For the time being let's get something straight about end gaining in a general sense.

In life, I personally admire end-gainers - the achievers who have a vision and get things done. These are the people who make a difference. Without them, life would be reduced to a state of apathy and neglect where nothing ever changed. End-gaining is good. If you choose to live your life without goals, you'd might as well spend all your time sitting staring at a wall.

However, no-one likes a person who is so driven and fixated on achieving a goal that they insensitively trample over everyone and anything that gets in their way.

Then there are people who expect to have everything now. In this "fast track" society, we are conditioned to expect to satisfy our desires without having to "do" anything to achieve them. This is the age of instant food, instant communication and even instant fame. We don't expect to have to pay much attention to how our wishes are met, we just pay the money and expect it to happen. In my day we called people who lived their lives like this "greedy" or "spoiled brats".

In summary, there's nothing wrong with end-gaining per se but it's easy to see how end gainers can be a bit obnoxious.

So, how can you be an end-gainer and still look yourself in the mirror with a smile and a wink?

It's all about the way you go about it! There are more considered ways of achieving your objectives where you can avoid hacking everyone off and there's no gratification in achieving anything that you haven't had to work for.

This little rant is actually the essence of what Mr. Alexander was trying to convey when he talked about end gaining.

When you are stimulated into activity - for example turning your head in response to hearing your name spoken, taking a step out of the shower in the morning or teeing-off at the first hole on the golf course - you will have a natural tendency to just "do" it in the way you always respond to such a stimulation. This unthinking, habitual way of responding isn't necessarily the "right" way to respond, no matter whether it feels right or not.

In AT, we learn to resist our unthinking ways of responding to stimuli. In our heads, we say "no" to acting instinctively. We are saying "no" to the habitual way of responding. This is what we call "inhibition".

OK, so let's assume we've got this far - we have been stimulated into action and we have inhibited our natural tendency to just "go for it". What do we do now?

We think and then we direct the way in which we execute our actions. We choose a means whereby we can respond in an elegant way that doesn't cause undue tension in our body. I'm not going to try to explain here exactly how to do that. That's what having an Alexander lesson with a trained AT teacher is all about!

It's unfortunate that we AT teachers chose to describe this idea using the words "end gaining" because, in my opinion, this misses the real point - it's about the means rather than the end.

In modern language, we could describe it as "the go-for-it mentality". I like this expression. The "it" is the response to a stimulus - the "go-for" is the means whereby we achieve "it" - and it's a mental process.

This subject is sometimes misquoted by AT teachers - who ought to know better. They use the non-end-gaining principle to discourage their puplis from having goals in the first place. Wrong! To get the most out of life, everyone should have ambitions, set themselves objectives, goals and targets. The achievement of a goal is one of life's sweet experiences - provided it's done with good use.

You've got to have a dream
If you don't have a dream
How're you going to make a dream come true?

Friday, 12 October 2007

Psychophysical Unity

Let's jump-in at the deep end!

I must start here because psychophysical unity (PU) is the principle that AT teachers use to bring about changes in their pupils. Without PU I think it would be virtually impossible to teach AT.

Let me explain.

[Added in response to Comment 1] The principle of PU states that every physical aspect of your being is inextricably linked to your mental processes. Every mental process reflects or expresses itself somehow within your physical body. All "doing" is preceded by and contemporaneous with thinking and subconscious thoughts and feelings result in corresponding, unseen tensions or other "misuses" within your body.

I hope you are quietly whispering to yourself "yeh that's pretty obvious". To some people, this idea is revolutionary - even heretical.

The way we use (or mis-use) ourselves is a function of the three main operations of the mind - thinking, feeling and emoting. To see what I mean, picture someone with a slumped posture: shoulders hunched and pulled forwards, upper back rounded, neck pulled back and front of rib cage collapsed.

If this person were a teenager, this wrong use of himself might be the result of him thinking that it looks cool to slump - a bit "James Dean", if you will - slightly dangerous and rebellious. On the other hand, maybe the person is middle-aged and has spent the last 30 years maintaining this posture without realising it was "wrong". His sensory awareness - his feeling - is unreliable. The Dickensian "ever-so-'umble" office clerk feels that it's his rightful place to show deference to his masters and demonstrates it to them by hunching. Finally, the depressed and saddened person, who has a life that seems set against him, feels like giving-up and the weight of it all seems to rest on his shoulders and push him down.

I could think of other examples but I hope you see the point of how a person's state of mind affects their body. My example of pulling-down is obvious but the whole range of possible mind-sets have differing and sometimes quite subtle reflections in the physical body: both positive and negative. That's one side of the PU coin.

The flip-side of the coin is the body-mind link. I've lost count of the number of times that I've seen AT pupils perk-up and even smile after having a lesson. I did-so myself in the 13 years that I took individual lessons before I trained to be a teacher. Occasionally - rarely - a pupil will burst into tears during a lesson. The teacher has helped them access something in their physical being which was imprinted there by some traumatic or upsetting event earlier in their lives. By releasing the physical manifestation of that episode, the feelings and emotions are also released.

Every qualified AT teacher must have spent a minimum of 1600 hours, usually over three years, developing her/his own use and "hands-on" skills. With experience, the teacher develops ways of explaining the principles to the pupil. The words they choose are aimed at influencing the pupil's thinking: to help them inhibit undesirable tension and to direct themselves forward and up.

The experience of the teacher's hands-on combined with an encouragement to think correctly brings about - via PU - the desired results in the pupil.

In my own teaching practice, I explain to my pupils how certain muscles or groups of muscles can be over-tensed and result in this-or-that misuse. However, an awareness of the offending muscles does not in itself help the pupil to release the unnecessry tension or to correct the problem.

I saw a pupil this week who was complaining of pain and stiffness in his middle back. He has a recent injury around his T6 vertibrum and naturally he associated the pain with the injury. On examination, in standing, he was holding his latissimus dorsi muscles tense to the point that they formed two solid vertical ridges parallel to his spine. In sitting, the tension was only marginally reduced. I showed him, via the use of my hands, where I could see he was holding-on. He said he realised how stiff those muscles were but he just couldn't let them go. I invited him to think of the under-side of his feet and to create a sense of openness in the arches of his feet. I then asked him to connect that sense of openness - via whatever means - to an equal sense of openness in his jaw. Meanwhile, I monitored his neck and encouraged him to release it. His back began to release and by the time we were finished with the chair-work, the muscle tone in his back had returned to something resembling normality.

What I was doing was playing a little mind game with him to distract his subconscious fear of back pain and replace it with a sense of release between two points on each side of the problem. Without knowing it, he was using his PU to bring about a change that was impossible by direct, end-gaining means.

Now, let me put on record my total disgust with providers of so-called "AT distance-learning" packages. AT CANNOT BE LEARNED OUT OF A BOOK! The application of psychophysical unity is not theoretical. It requires interaction between teacher and pupil and that's something that can ONLY be develeoped with hands-on work. I'd better stop ranting now because the anger and frustration will pull me down!

Thursday, 11 October 2007

It's a matter of opinion

As a STAT-trained AT teacher, I spend a LOT of time considering and cogitating over the question of "what the heck have I spent 3 years of my life training to teach?"

Ask your local AT teacher to define AT in one sentence (or even one parapaph) and they will probably struggle. Read any of FM Alexander's books on the subject and YOU will probably struggle! He wasn't exactly "gifted" when it came to writing clearly.

I think it's fair to say that, after a little (or much) thought, your teacher will eventually respond with a statement delivered as if it were some sort of truth. No! It's just that teacher's opinion: one that should be respected however, because it's just as valid as any other AT teacher's opinion. It can never be "the truth".

Equally, MY opinion is not the truth - but it may ruffle a few feathers amongst conservative AT thinkers. I don't buy-into the "FM Alexander personality cult" view of AT. I think this body of knowledge is incredibly valuable - to the human race - and it is right that it should be developed and expanded in the light of contemporary thinking. Conservatives have tried to fossilise AT in the sense of "if FM didn't say it then it's not true".

Maybe FM would have been pleased to see his descriptions of the work preserved so literally. On the other hand, he tried 4 times in 4 books to explain his principles but still left the world guessing at it's meaning. AT is like Zen - all "explanations" are nothing more than clues.

What I want to achieve in these blogs, therefore, is to explain what I personally believe this work is about and how it fits-in with modern life. I'd like to see AT take its rightful place in "body knowledge" and be moved from the "alternative" shelves to the philosophy or science section in book shops.