Thursday 16 April 2009

What are the "AT Basics"?

I've been pondering this question for a number of years and I now find myself in a position where I must decide which aspects of AT that I should teach to a beginner.

Call me "old fashioned" if you like, but I believe that, as a provider of a training service, I have a duty of care towards my pupils to ensure that they have at least been introduced to the basics within the first 10 weeks albeit that this might be pushing them along at a relatively fast rate. Only after I have covered the core principles will I slow down and deal with individual aspects in more detail.

A ten-week course currently costs £300 and in this "credit crunch" world, people want to get value for money in the services they buy. Imagine their reaction if after completing a short course, they compare notes with another AT pupil and discover that there are some key things that have not been taught. But what are "the basics" of AT? Here is my attempt at a list. It's not supposed to be exhaustive and it's in no particular order.

  • An overview of the Alexander Technique including a summary of FM Alexander's life, work and discoveries.

  • How to do the daily practice of lying in semi-supine

  • Standing and sitting in a chair: the role of the postural mechanism of the body and how habit interferes with it

  • Inhibition: saying "no" (to habit) in response to stimuli

  • Direction: the "mantra" of allowing the neck to be free so that the head can go forward and up and the back can lengthen and widen, widening across the upper part of the arms and the knees can go forward and away.

  • The role of the ilio-psoas muscles in influencing core tensions

  • Whispered Ah

  • Positions of mechanical advantage with "hands on the back of the chair" as an example

  • Using the wall to inform the process of releasing the knees into bending - a precursor to walking

  • Walking

  • Stooping, crawling and lunging

  • Going up on to the toes

  • The neural control mechanisms of the body: spirals

That's a lot of ground to cover in just 10 weeks but my question is this: which, if any of these things could you leave-out in a short course?

Given that most pupils won't actually tell you how many lessons they are going to take, in what order should these principles be taught?

I fully accept the principle that no two people are the same and therefore a prescriptive system can never be defined that would cover all pupils' needs. We should always stick to principle and deal with the body as a whole and not focus on individual misuses or undue tensions. However, it's my view that customisation of the teaching curriculum to address the pupil's individual needs should only be considered when the basics have been covered.

As usual, I would welcome comments, especially from teachers but also from pupils who have a view on this.


  1. Hello Jeff,
    I am an Alexander teacher living and working in India.
    At the moment, I'm engaged in the process of marketing as much as teaching - awareness of the Alexander technique is naturally very low here, and I find that I need to keep up a steady stream of marketing effort, or the flow of pupils tends to peter out.
    I like the term you use - 'educational therapy' and I hope you won't mind if I use it to explain how AT works. I think it will make a lot of sense to people and bring together the two needs very effectively.

  2. There are three areas of marketing to pursue: Remedial (cumulative pain) performance (excellence & mastery) & as a mental awareness discipline,(thinking in activity.) Many come to A.T. as a last resort, but they leave having learned the art of effortless.
    I've also had success in describing it as: A.T.:How to undo what you've accidentally learned.
    I have had great success teaching A.T. as abstracted principles FIRST, (although students seem to remember the specific expressions or movement experiments connected to these.) The first principle I intro is: debauched kinesthesis = why our perception is untrustworthy, which is because human sense registers only relative difference, not absolute Truth.
    Then I teach constructive self-observation... which is how to ask really good questions and design experiments. That's when I tell F.M.'s story.
    Then I teach how to recognize whether or if you are doing what you intend to do - (of course, the answer is, for most people = you can't! Use external feedback or surrender seeking results. This lesson describes characteristics of perception.) We note how after using A.T., senses will "Wake UP" and sharpen, giving better feedback about what is happening than when back & down.
    Then I go on to primary control and how and why it works the way it does. Then caution about end-gaining... How the power of habit works and what you can do about fooling habits with inhibition.
    Then I go on with full disclosure of the one thing I'm selling, which is the value of effortlessness and the danger of a lack of forethought.
    By the end of the fifth lesson, a pupil now has a grasp of how to proceed for themselves. They know how to craft great questions and experiments in context with their own best ways to be willing to discover new info. Only then do I offer the liberal use of my hands and the rest of the solutions of A.T. as it is traditionally taught as the backstop for preventing their habits and their specific needs.

  3. This posting really got me thinking about the importance (or not) of a curriculum in AT teaching. Having a sense of long-term structure is not one of my priorities...or one of my strengths. I tend to teach each lesson as though the person will be coming back indefinitely. In each moment, I try to discover how the student is interfering with what he wants, and then see how I can help him to change. My intention is to wake up the student's awareness of how he can use his thinking even outside the lessons to bring a little more ease to any moment he wants.

    I found your list to be comprehensive and relatively surprise-free, other than "The role of the ilio-psoas muscles in influencing core tensions." That's not something I would ever have thought to put in a list of core AT concepts, and would love to know more about its significance in your experience and your teaching.

  4. Let me put this posting into context. The European Commission which develops "directives" that all the EC member states must comply-with is moving-in on personal services. In this respect all providers of "hands-on" services, including AT will, in due course, be regulated. STAT here in the UK setup a working group to explore the possibility that we might be self-regulating. To cut a long story short, we have now moved to voluntary regulation under the UK Government-sponsored "Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council". That's worth a blog post in its own right. (Starts scribbling notes!).

    Anyhow, this whole debate has given rise to the question of how do we define AT for the purpose of regulation?

    I had been teaching at the Alexander Re-Education Centre and I raised the issue of professional competences and regulation. What emerged from the conversation was that, by defining core competences for an AT teacher, a teaching curriculum was implied. I therefore wrote this post to try to get a debate going. It trurned everyone off! Not surprising.

    Some people accused me of advocating a curriculum simply because I can identify some core issues. I'm not so "black and white" about it. For me, the "grey area" is working with the individual and their particular patterns of use whilst at the same time having an underlying structure. They aren't mutually exclusive (IMHO). I used to run a management training company (in one of my several former careers) so course design is part of my skills-set.

    I think the idea of a curriculum is far more important on a teacher training course than it is in private tuition. Your "intention to wake up a students's awareness" implies an objective which in turn will require you to cover some of the "basics" as defined in my list. It's not contentious IMHO as long as you are willing to accept that there is structure underneath creative ativities (IYSWIM?)

    Let me answer the question about ilio-psoas in another comment.

  5. Now to the issue of the Ilio-psoas.

    I went to a workshop some years ago run by the late Chris Stephens (Alexander Teacher and Dr. of Biomechanics). He identified the core muscles associated with the postural self-righting mechanism of the body and ilio-psoas was amongst them. His point was that, as AT teachers, we should know about them. Our job is to encourage our pupils to stop over-using their motor-control mechanisms and allow the "anti-gravity system" to work poroperly. (Apologies Chris if you are looking over my shoulder and that's too simplistic!!)

    The late Ray Evans, director of the Alexander Re-education Center where I trained had a whole session (one of his Tuesday morning anatomy classes) devoted just to this.

    The important point about iliopsoas is that it's a group of very powerful core muscles of which we have very little sensory awareness and yet they are a key part of the system that we are trying to re-awaken in our students. He showed us indirect methods of working with them.

    My experience is that when my pupils release them at the bottom end, it's often associated with a rumbling in the belly. When they release them at the top they will "take a breath". We've all seen this in practise and now you know what's actually happening. It's a classic indirect process.

    When a pupil has developed the abiilty to release the psoases, it's often asociated with one of those "step-changes" in their use of the self.

    I sometimes give my pupils this diagram iliopsoas.gif. Feel free to copy this into your own AT anatomy file archive.

    However I don't show it to all pupils. This sort of thing is only suitable to the type of person who is seeking an understanding of the process on both intellectual and sensory levels. That's about half of them, I would say.

  6. Dear Jeff,

    I attended AMAS 2010 in Boldern at the end of July. You might be please to hear that one senior Swiss Alexander Teacher is keen on starting a project to develop an Alexander Didactics. I will send her an email and point her to your blog page. I myself am interested in all the points you make. I am keen to teach my pupils the technique, to give them tools that they can apply to their daily activities at home and at work, not just to make them feel better. So many thanks for your post!

  7. Thanks Magdalena
    This subject is a potential source of controversy among STAT teachers because of the implication that even considering whether there is a list if basics to AT implies a curriculum could be developed.
    In my view , providing the teacher pays sufficient attention to the individual needs if each pupil, an underlying structure is not a bad thing in a course of AT lessons.
    Jeff Hall