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.


  1. Interesting post, Jeff.

    '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...'

    I'm not sure if your description of this episode would make any sense to anybody who hadn't experienced this kind of phenomenon, or if anybody will ever be able to nail down exactly what happens in terms of neuro-physiology but, regardless of the validity or otherwise of your thoughts on proprioceptive communication, I think your descriptions here of your actual experiences touch on the centre of Alexander's technique of inhibition, which is akin to a Zen koan -- give up the idea of moving the miserable bugger, and yet cause the miserable bugger to move.

    In the final chapter of Lulie Westfeldt's book, a chapter titled "Alexander's Technique of Inhibition," she writes:

    "Alexander now asked himself, where did the trouble start? He went over very carefully in his mind what actually happened and decided that he had no control over what he did with his body once the idea of speaking had come into his head. It was the idea that caused the trouble and brought about a reversion to the old pattern in spite of all his intentions and desires. He then decided that the idea of speaking and the body pattern he had always used when speaking must be inseparably fused, and that to eliminate the old faulty pattern he would have to eliminate the idea of speaking. His problem was to get rid of the idea of speaking and yet speak!'

    That is what Marjory Barlow endeavored to guide me towards in many hours I spent lying on her teaching table... Give up the idea of moving the leg. No! Really give up the idea of moving it. Completely give up the idea. And yet move it!

    Totally give up the idea of changing a situation and thereby, via that backward step, totally change it. That, to me, is also part of the subtlety and mysterious power of Ron' s work, which is so very indirect, so totally non-intrusive... "The Art of Not Changing."

  2. Just a thought..

    "Completely give up the idea. And yet move it!"

    With reference to my previous post "Changing the habits of a lifetime", perhaps the key to moving is to completely eliminate the "goal-directed" controller and to move the limb using the subconscious controllers. This begs the question as to which programs are running in the subconscious neural net: the old, bad ones or the newly-learned "means whereby".

    I agree that we will probably never be able to nail-down an explanation of good use but it's in my nature to develop models which might give me clues. I can't just teach blindly. It helps me to explain a procedure to my pupil if I feel I understand the basic underlying mechanism.

  3. Even as you write, Jeff, part of you knows that what you are writing is just an old model-developping control freak struggling to hold onto what might give him a false feeling of security, in the face of real actual evidence to the contrary.

    Part of you knows that Jeff Hall, MSTAT, Alexander Teacher Inc, is just a front for a fraud who knows that he is a fraud.

    Because the better part of you knows it, you continue to seek deeper understanding of the kind that Ron has. So you went to Ron's workshop.

    But then and there, because the fraudster in you didn't want to own up to his own fraudulent reliance on an unreal model, you couldn't allow yourself or your pupil to breathe -- until Ron brought you back out of your end-gaining old model and back to the actual reality of yourself.

    Not only you, but behind the pretense of being an Alexander teacher trainee or being an Alexander teacher, every one of us is, on some level, lying to ourself. We preach allowing while grasping for a model that might give us some security. We all do it. One of your redeeming features is that you do it honestly, consciously. You are up front about it -- even though, in so being, you are revealing yourself to be an out and out Alexander fraud. A fraud who preaches allowing while all the time hoping to grasp a model that will help you be in control.

    Oh.... and Happy Christmas!

  4. Am I supposed to rise to your bait here Mike? OK. If you want to call me a fraud then that's your right but, before doing so, consider what it would take for me, you and all AT teachers NOT to be subject to the same accusation.

    The alternative to finding my own sense of security by using "unreal" models is to either claim to know some sort of absolute truth or to declare total ignorance about what this game of AT is really about - neither of which I do.

    Maybe you consider that you are the keeper of the truth. I don't think so - read my first post "It's a Matter od Opinion".

    In describing me as "Jeff Hall Inc" (etc) you missed the most important part - MSc. I did my masters in Operational Research - ie modelling - and then spent the next 10 years applying those skills to everyday business situations. I claim an understanding of the modelling process which is clearly more sophisticated than your primitive prejudice.

    EVERYTHING which represents one's "understanding" of something is the result of a model constructed somewhere in one's psyche - even if you are in denial about it. Models are simply tools - like language - which help us to test our beliefs and share our understanding. There's nothing fraudulent in attempting to explain AT with models.

    Before using the expression "end gaining" you should read my 16 October 07 post. I was simply distracted and reverted to an inapropriate means-whereby.

    Am I capable of pulling down whilst simultaneously teaching my pupil not to do so - err.... YES! And I'm sorry if this bursts one of your bubbles but even Ron pulls down - after all he's a human being.

    You'll not be surprised to know that I intend to keep developing my models because I want to develop my understanding and to share these clues with others.

    I wish you a happy, if fraudulent new year.

  5. Looks as if the scientific world is finally catching up with me :-)

    I wrote this post in 2007 introducing the concept of "proprioceptive communication" and today (March 2012) I discover that the "Embodied Mind Workshop" in Paris (Feb 2012) introduced the idea of "Enkinaesthesia", which relates to the affect we have on the neuro-musculature of others.

    See the article on Sara Solnick's web site:
    Embodied Mind Workshop, Paris, February 2012

    The link is