Is Alexander Technique Body Work?

Most people I know who’ve heard of the Alexander Technique regard it as body work. Yet almost all Alexander teachers say it is not body work.

We think we’re teaching psycho-physical awareness. We’re teaching observation, inhibition and direction. We just happen to use our hands to teach.

London School of Economics sociologist Jennifer Tarr studied part of the Alexander Technique world in London and published an essay.

She wrote: “While clearly a form of body work in the sense that it ‘takes the body as its immediate site of labour, involving intimate, messy contact with the (frequently supine or naked) body, its orifices or products through touch or close proximity’ (Wolkowitz 2002: 497), the Technique goes out of its way to avoid addressing the body as such. By positioning itself as holistic in the sense that it works on the integrated body and mind, it strives to
overcome mind-body dualism by addressing the self, as phrases such as ‘good use of the self’ attest. This distancing from the body has a twofold effect: it both emphasises the conscious nature of the work which lies at its core, and also detaches it from a concern with the negative aspects of the body for which body work is stigmatised, such as its relation to sexuality, waste products, and decline (Twigg 2000).”

So what would be a typical Alexander teacher response to this? “She doesn’t understand Alexander Technique.”

This is the sort of response that makes me feel at times like I’ve joined a cult. Whenever an outsider makes an observation that differs with the dogma of the cult, they are dismissed as “not understanding.”

It was the same way with Christians in my youth and Marxists at college. Outside criticisms come from lack of understanding. Nobody who’s not in the dance can possibly get what we’re doing.

Well, I’m not sure that Jennifer Tarr does not understand Alexander Technique.

My opinion is that she’s right and my teachers are right. There’s truth in both views.

Alexander Technique works with the body and it sure looks like body work. On the other hand, the Technique is much more than body work and the emphasis of my three years of study has been on the cognitive direction of the self.

So, yeah, I say the Technique is and is not body work.

I love thinking out loud on this blog and having the freedom to say controversial things. I’m sure that some Alexander teachers read my stuff and say, “Luke doesn’t understand the Technique.” They’d dismiss me as a teacher. They wouldn’t send me students. They wouldn’t hire me to teach the Technique. They’d regard me as a pariah.

Oh well. I want the freedom to write even if it costs me professional success.

I look at most of my peers and I think, “They’re careerists. They tell their teachers what they want to hear. They do what their teachers want them to do. They don’t rock the boat. They develop good relationships with their mentors and use these relationships to get ahead. They refrain from saying anything publicly that could damage their careers. And as a result, they have an easier time getting hired and getting ahead and making money and moving forward socially.”

I envy their ease of success but I am who I am. I’m 45 years old and I am not always going to repeat back to my teachers what they want to hear. Sometimes I’ll risk saying things that they don’t like.

When I’m in these bouts of grandiosity, I think of myself as a truth-seeker atop a white steed battling for the right and the good.

Let’s say I tried to raise a discussion with experienced Alexander teachers on Jenn Tarr’s observation above. A senior teacher who knows me and my love of stirring up controversy and putting myself forward to get the maximum attention would probably say something to me like this, “Luke, I’ll know you’re serious about being an Alexander teacher when you stop wasting time with these fringe opinions and instead develop ways of marketing the Technique so that you can get lots of students and make money doing what you love.”

I understand this response. It’s smart. Unfortunately, I’m doomed to making my life difficult.

So why does any of this matter?

Well, imagine you’re in a room filled with people doing Alexander Technique. Half of them are teachers and half of them are students. You’d see all the teachers talking gently to their students and putting gentle hands on them and helping them to move with more ease. And you’d likely think, this is erotic stuff.

And you’d be right. This can be erotic stuff. Yet, as Alexander teachers, we’re trained to keep a neutral mind and to not get emotionally involved with our students.

In almost every three-year 1600-hour Alexander Technique teacher training program in the world, you would most likely go all three years without ever discussing eros.

Sure, you’d learn the code of conduct that prohibits taking advantage of your students in any way, but there’d be no discussions of the powerful attractions that sometimes develop between teachers and students.

I have a confession to make on this score. There are people who I never thought about romantically until I started putting my hands on them with the Technique. Then suddenly they became the most desirable objects in the world to me.

It did not, however, affect my behavior. I play within the rules. And I intend to stay there.

I get this silence in the official Alexander training about the messy nature of the body and the sometimes erotic nature of our work. The rules are clear. No more needs to be said.

It’s like the argument about sex education in public school. Conservatives say that the more you talk about sex to children, the more likely they are to engage in sex. Alexander training programs have this same attitude. They don’t discuss sex with students (except to forbid it) on the belief that to mention it is to enable it.

Alexander teachers tend to be proper in their public selves. Just watch a group of them try to dance. They look like they’ve got brooms up their bums.

On the inside, Alexander teachers tend to insecurity.

So do Alexander Technique teachers have sex with their students? I’m sure it happens. It is forbidden by the code of conduct. The professional bodies of the Technique would investigate anyone accused of taking advantage of a student and would expel such a teacher if found guilty. His fellow Alexander teachers would regard him as scum.

On the other hand, you don’t need any qualification or membership to call yourself an Alexander teacher.

Another messy part of the body that does not get much attention in Alexander teacher training is the messy nature of the body. While some physiques are beautiful, many are just gross. They’re fat or old or decaying. They smell bad. They respond awkwardly to our direction.

We’re taught in Alexander training to maintain a neutral reaction to our students. If we get emotionally involved, it can interfere with the work. It’s almost impossible, for instance, to teach the Technique a family member or an ex.

So, in the end, no matter how messy the body you’re working with, the best direction for an Alexander teacher is to follow the rules, maintain a neutral mind, and to concentrate on teaching observation, inhibition and direction. You don’t need to put hands on to make a difference. Instead, the primary thing you need to reach in your pupil is his mind.

About Luke Ford

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