The Ambivalent Relationship Between Alexander Technique And Mainstream Healthcare

Alexander Technique does not claim to cure disease. It does not pretend to be a therapy. Instead, it is an educational technique for learning to move the way the body likes to move.

I’m reading an interesting British study of Alexander Technique teachers and the profession’s relationship to medicine by sociologist Jennifer Tarr of the London School of Economics.

She writes: “Lessons often include activities such as standing and sitting from a chair, and are generally concluded with ‘table work’ where, in common with body work practices such as massage, pupils lie on the table and their bodies are passively manipulated by the teacher.”

This may be true for some teachers, but this is not Alexander Technique, which is first and foremost cognitive awareness, inhibition and direction. Passively manipulating a pupil without having the pupil’s mind engaged in what is going on is not the Technique as I’ve been taught it. I can’t think of any accomplished teacher in the Technique who would say that is OK.

I have never had an Alexander lesson concluded with table work and that is not the practice of any of the teachers I know.

The biggest problem with Dr. Tarr’s research is that she bases her methods on that psychopath (when he learned he had AIDS, he felt no compunction to inform his partners of his deadly and transmissable disease) Michel Foucault.

When I used to write on the sex industry, academics wanted to analyze my work based on the babble of Michel Foucault.

I’m quoted in this academic paper thus: “If Foucault was alive today, I’d like to kill him because of what he did in those (San Francisco) bath houses in knowingly transmitting a deadly disease. You can quote that if you like. I loathe the man… Anyway, Foucault’s nonchalance about infecting others with HIV reminded me of Marc Wallice’s attitude. Just Foucault had more jargon.”

I love what Pat Riley wrote: “With Hardcore, you know you’re in trouble by page three when she starts quoting Foucault with the phrase “Foucault reminds us…” as though he were the great god from whose lips all wisdom falls. You don’t know who Foucault was? He was the father of deconstructionism, a method of generating psychobabble that is much revered by academia. But he’s not quite so revered by the homosexual intelligentsia (although they don’t talk about it) because, when he found out he was HIV positive, he hopped on a plane to San Francisco (he was French) to make a tour of the bathhouses and thereby infect others. Totally unrepentant, he justifies it in his diaries with more of the usual psychobabble.”

Dr. Tarr writes: “The Technique is transmitted through the hands of the Alexander teacher, whose manual adjustments of the pupil convey the sense of the work and how the body ⁄ self is to be aligned.”

I was taught that the Technique is taught primarily by the teacher’s words reaching out to the pupil’s mind and informing the way the pupil thinks about himself.

Dr. Tarr writes: “Among teachers of the Alexander Technique, proximity to Alexander and⁄ or the teachers he trained is considered a mark of distinction.”

Yeah, but not nearly as much distinction as being a good Alexander teacher (as measured by the quality of your own use, and by the quality of the change you can achieve with pupils in the least number of lessons).

Robert Rickover writes in a review of Michael Bloch’s biography of F.M. Alexander:

I do have one major disagreement with Bloch: In the last paragraph of his book he writes, ‘…F.M, almost alone of the notable innovators of this time, had no discernible precursors….Alexander – apart from his training as an elocutionist and reciter, which taught him certain fairly obvious things about breathing, vocalization and posture – had nothing to build on.”

The facts simply do not support this view. We know, from the research of Joren Staring (1) and from Articles and Lectures (2) that Alexander was exposed to several outside influences, including the Delsarte system of speech, gesture and movement. Indeed he held himself out as a teacher of that method for a time in in Sydney. And if Staring is to be believed, all of his teaching procedures came from others.

To see Alexander as a lone genius who spent many years working entirely on his own – a view found in almost all accounts of his discoveries – is to encourage the notion that to have any hope of learning the Technique one needs a great many lessons from a teacher who has also spent years being trained by teachers whose lineage can be traced directly back to Alexander. The experience of a growing number of students, particularly in America where this traditional view is sometimes less strongly adhered to, shows that this is not necessarily the case – that it is possible to learn quite a bit with the help of occasional lessons or group classes, or indeed entirely on one’s own using books, videos and internet resources.

Robert Rickover writes:

Knowledge of this history can help us to release the separateness and aloofness which characterises the attitude of many in our profession. As a group, we tend to think and speak of the Alexander Technique as not only different, but somehow innately superior to other methods and procedures of self-improvement.

This has done us a great deal of harm. Rodney Mace, of the Sir Robert Menzies Centre for Australian Studies at the University of London, points to the failure of the Alexander teaching profession to consider the origins of Alexander’s ideas and how they connect to and draw upon the work and ideas of his contemporaries. This, he comments, coupled with an insistence by some that Alexander’s ideas are immutable, has inevitably led the Technique to be marginalised in mainstream health care and education. Alexander claimed his ideas were about change, yet resisted to the end any challenge by others to the supremacy of his ideas – a bad habit that has been inherited by many of his followers.

The truth is that many investigators other than Alexander have gained valuable insights into human functioning and have developed effective methods and procedures of their own. We would do well to investigate these with an open mind. We may even want to incorporate some of them into our own teaching – just as Alexander did.

Personally, I have made significant improvements in my use and functioning as a result of my experiences with the Feldenkrais Method, the Tomatis Method, acupuncture and acupressure. Cranial Sacral therapy has taught me more about freeing my neck than years of Alexander training. Others I know have benefited enormously from such widely diverse methods as chiropractic, massage, physical therapy, yoga, Tai Chi, Rolfing and Trager work.

There can be no doubt that Alexander was a creative genius. He made some very important discoveries on his own and he was smart enough to learn from the work of others. But as is the case with so many other geniuses, he had a number of serious character flaws, not the least of which was his unwillingness to acknowledge the debt he owed to others.

Dr. Tarr writes: “A teacher who trained with someone who was taught directly by Alexander has higher status than someone who is more removed from him. This is not simply because the former are likely to have more years of experience, but also because the work is seen as most authentic at its source.”

This might be true in England (where Dr. Tarr did all of her first-hand observation and interviewing for this paper) but it doesn’t wash in America where we are pragmatic. We first want to know — Does it work? Does a teacher’s teaching work? That’s what we care about. Everything else is just academic.

A predictable leftist, Dr. Tarr takes great exception to the idea that some civilizations might be more advanced than others.

She writes: “Two teachers more problematically echoed Alexander’s views on race and culture as well; as one put it, ‘there’s always examples of people or cultures that have good use, but they’re very few and far between, mainly people who live really away from Western life, more tribal sort of life, maybe Southern America, maybe some African tribes, maybe, I don’t know, remote Chinese, Japanese ones’. These discourses are not the rule among Alexander teachers, but
they do persist as an echo of Alexander’s own views of some cultures as less ‘civilised’ than others.”

So Dr. Tarr evidently believes that Nazi and Stalinist civilization is every bit the equal of modern American civilization. That Aboriginal culture before the white man arrived in Australia was the equal of 17th Century England. I bet if a bunch of New Guinea savages thrust Dr. Tarr into a boiling pot of water and prepared to eat her, her last thoughts would be, “This civilization is no better and no worse than civilizations that do not practice cannibalism.”

Dr. Tarr writes: “Being unwilling to let go of the authority of Alexander and his discourses of nature and evolution, where proper order will be restored through the application of conscious control to the self, inhibits the Technique’s more mainstream adoption.”

I’ve been trained by many of the world’s best Alexander Technique teachers and they’ve never emphasized “nature” or “evolution” to me. The Technique depends on neither of these. It depends on making movement easier and our lives more tranquil. Few of my teachers have felt any compunction about criticizing F.M. Alexander, let alone differing with him.

Dr. Tarr writes: “While Alexander teachers recommend courses of up to 30 lessons, the BMJ study suggested that six lessons, when followed by a prescription for exercise, were approximately 72 per cent as effective as 24 lessons and also retained their effectiveness after one year (Little et al. 2008).”

“While the Alexander Technique is a promising form of body work…”

Alexander Technique is not body work. It is psycho-physical reeducation.

Dr. Tarr writes: “By avoiding mention of the body itself, Alexander and his followers not only avoid mind⁄ body dualism but also the negative associations of the body with sexuality. Encounters of Alexander Teachers and students are thereby framed in a way which is clearly professional, if somewhat abstracted from the actual embodied practices, which do unequivocally involve bodies. Teacher trainee are also not taught about the body in their training, as they get little in the way of anatomy or physiology grounding. Rather, as described above, their training is experiential and they read the texts of Alexander as background. It is Alexander’s discourses, then, that they tend
to reproduce in framing their work.”

Much of this does not ring true. In my teacher training, we had an hour a week of anatomy training. Over three years, that amounts to about 120 hours of training. Also, our daily work constantly referenced the body and how its various parts worked.

Dr. Tarr is correct that there is an ignoring, or in Alexander jargon, a deliberate inhibiting, of discussion of the inherently sexual nature of hands on body work.

She writes: “This tendency to avoid talking about bodies is apparent from the author’s fieldnotes in both observations and the comments of the Alexander teacher. Body parts are referred to, but references to the body as a whole are less common. Moreover, they tend to take an abstracted rather than personal form: ‘the’ body rather than ‘my ⁄ your’ body. While mentions of bodies are more common in interviews and in lessons than they are in Alexander’s writings, this abstraction is still prevalent. It serves a depersonalising function in what is ultimately quite intimate and personal work. As in other forms of body work (Oerton and Phoenix 2001, Twigg 2004: 393) there are restrictions on which areas of the body are touched: head, neck, back and arms are touched often, while legs are less commonly touched, and areas around the genitals are strictly off limits. This regulation and self-policing ensures that the work never crosses over into areas deemed inappropriate.”

Bingo!

“Like most body work outside mainstream health and social care, the Alexander Technique can afford to be selective about which parts of the body it addresses and why. Processes of waste and decay are rarely touched on in this work, and the relationships developed between
pupil and teacher are not ones of dependence, but of education. This relationship is easier to sustain as egalitarian precisely because, as Wolkowitz points out, like most alternative practitioners Alexander teachers generally deal with whole, healthy, and continent bodies
(2002: 505).”

Dr. Tarr concludes: “While the Alexander Technique is a promising form of body work with potentially significant benefits for mainstream healthcare as a form of supplementary health education, the discursive knowledge systems in which it is embedded make it resistant to easy incorporation by biomedicine. If Alexander teachers want their work to be more widely recognised and appreciated, they would need to reframe it in terms which put less emphasis on Alexander as an authority figure and greater emphasis on physiological structures and processes, particularly during training. However, this may also serve to undermine the embodied knowledge which Alexander teachers possess, by shifting the focus of their learning toward biomedical and scientific knowledge frameworks and away from the less articulable forms of ‘knowledge in the hands’ which they practise. Whether Alexander teachers are
willing and able to let go of Alexander and his evolutionary framework, and whether biomedicine and healthcare would then be more open to its practices, remains an open question.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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