COMPANION

Visualisation and Imagery

Visualisation here refers to generating mental images that simulate or re-create sensory perception without any immediate input of the senses. Imagery refers to using visually descriptive or figurative language, for the purpose of changing people’s ideas, beliefs and perceptions about themselves. As there is considerable overlap between the two terms (and they are frequently used interchangeably) they are here treated together.

Imagery means to use figurative language to represent objects, actions, and ideas in such a way that it appeals to our physical senses. Usually it is thought that imagery makes use of particular words that create visual representation of ideas in our minds. The word “imagery” is associated with mental pictures.

F. M. Alexander

There is no record of Alexander using visualisation or imagery.

First generation teachers

Walter Carrington was not keen on visualisation techniques:

In teaching different people, a teacher might resort to all sorts of experiments, so I wouldn’t rule out these things completely. Still, it’s a good idea to keep as down to earth and as practical as possible, . . . Of course, if you’ve been working in front of a mirror, then afterwards it’s perfectly legitimate to visualise what you’ve seen in the mirror – you can remember in you mind’s eye what it was like – and you can order and direct accordingly. But you still order and direct: you don’t try and feel it out. You don’t want to get involved in fantasy.[1]

Wilfred Barlow makes a brief reference to visualising in a lecture in 1955:

The position [‘monkey’] now is one of the greatest value in re-education, provided that the patient has first been familiarised with the directions to the head and the back. Here again there is a fundamental homoeostatic equilibrium of contrary pulls, with the head going forward, the knees going forward, but the back coming back. One can visualise arrows taking the head forward, the knees forward, but a contrary stretch as the lower back comes back, lengthening to separate joint surfaces.[2]

However, in 1961 Wilfred Barlow does not recommend visualisation:

[Q:] Does it help to visualise what you are teaching me?

[A:] No. The kinaesthetic (muscular) sense is separate from the visual sense. Visual imagery, which is almost certainly associated with old, wrong muscular sensations, is liable to lead to a muddled awareness of the body and to result in a compensation which suits this distorted imagery. It is far safer to use a brand new symbolism to link up with the improved new kinaesthetic sense.[3]

Rosemary Nott remembers Marjory Barlow using descriptive images:

One was when working with arms. ‘Imagine,’ she would say, ‘you have egg shells in your armpits. too much pressure and the shells will break, too little, and the shells will fall out!’ Another one she often used was to liken the head to a ping-pong ball playing on top of a fountain.[4]

Erika Whittaker reports on receiving a lesson when she was eight years old (i.e. 1919) from Ethel Webb:

I had lying-down turns on the floor with the simplest of directions, suited to a child. One of them was to think of your back spreading like strawberry jam on the floor.[5]

Examples of imagery in the Alexander Technique

  • In Let Your Life Flow by Alex Maunder: ‘the powerful image of the back being like a tank full of water . . . , with the arms joined like pipes at the shoulders . . .’[6]
  • In The Art of Changing by Glen Park: ‘Now imagine a stream of energy, like white light entering the body through the right foot. Imagine the light flowing into your foot through the ankels, calves, knees . . .’[7]
  • In Riding Success Without Stress by Joni Bentley: ‘Imagine that your arms and rib-cage are like big wings opening and stretching forwards, up and out to their full extent.’[8]
  • In Teaching by Hand, Learning by Heart by Bruce Fertman: ‘Imagine your whole body is a sponge. Imagine it’s soaking up warm water from a deep puddle below and the more it soaks up, the softer and wider and deeper it becomes. There is so much water to soak up, so the water seeps and soaks its way higher and higher as the sponge swells, getting wider and wider, fatter and fatter, fuller and fuller, until the entire sponge can accept no more water. It’s important to take this image right up to the very top of your head and beyond.’[9]

Writings discussing the use of visualisation

  • ‘Appreciating differences in Alexander teaching styles’ by Aileen Crow considers the value of different sensory teaching modes, and gives the example of using imagery and visualization.[10]
  • Let Your Life Flow by Alex Maunder argues that ‘[i]f you . . . merely visualise the most balanced, easy and natural way of carrying out that action, then you have a chance of re-educating the body and nervous system and eventually you will actually be able to put into practice what you visualised as a perfect image in your mind.’[11]
  • ‘Use and the use of imagery’ by John Appleton argues that ‘certain image exercises are valid and useful ways of demonstrating the basic principles of the Alexander Technique’.[12]
  • ‘Refurbishing image-making in actors and others’ by Cathy Madden have observations on how to use images in acting and how they affect our movements (based on teaching Suzuki Theatre training which demands the use of images).[13]
  • ‘Images and sensory awareness: An inquiry’ by Robin John Simmons discusses the pros and cons of using images, and arguing that some images can be useful.[14]

Discussion

There is very mixed use of visualisation among teachers of the Technique; some who never use it, some who use it sporadically, and some who always use it.

There is scientific evidence that visualising a previously rehearsed or well-known movement (e.g. visualising the movement involved in playing a piano piece) aids the training of that movement. For example, as Lawrence Jones writes in ‘Hierarchial human control’: ‘Motor level imagery is only useful when you have a quite good level of skill in the activity already.’[15] Such techniques are not on record for being used in the Alexander Technique.

The term ‘ideokinesis’ is used in other circles (for example people following the tradition of Mabel E. Todd) to mean ‘the image or thought as facilitator of the movement’. André Bernard’s four rules for using an image for movement are: 1. the image must be moving such as a stream; 2. the student must be clear about where the image is in the body; 3. the student must be clear about the direction of to the image’s movement; and 4. the student must make no voluntary movement.[16] There is some overlap between these rules and ‘directing’ in the Technique.

For anatomical based visualisation, see The use of anatomy and physiology.

See also Ideomotor.

References

[1] Personally Speaking by Walter Carrington, Seán Carey, (Mouritz, 2001 [1986]), pp. 128-29.
[2] ‘Psychosomatic Problems in Postural Re-Education’ in The Lancet, 24 September 1955, vol. 266, issue 6891, pp. 659–64. From an address given to the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy at the Cowdray Hall, London, in March 1955. Also in Postural Homeostasis by Wilfred Barlow (Mouritz, 2014), p. 157.
[3] ‘Posture and Rest’ by Wilfred Barlow in Health Education Journal, December 1961, vol. 19, pp. 174-90. Also in Postural Homeostasis by Wilfred Barlow (Mouritz, 2014), p. 208.
[4] ‘“No” is not a negative’ by Rosemary Nott in Paths to the Alexander Technique edited by Shelagh Aitken (HITE, 2015), pp. 132–39.
[5] ‘Conversations with Erika Whittaker’ interviewed by Bruce Fertman in The Congress Papers 1999, An Ongoing Discovery edited by Jean M. O. Fischer (STATBooks, 2001), p. 162.
[6] Let Your Life Flow – The physical, psychological and spiritual benefits of the Alexander Technique by Alex Maunder (C. W. Daniel, 2002), p. 84.
[7] The Art of Changing – A New Approach to The Alexander Technique by Glen Park (Ashgrove Publishing, 1989), p. 197.
[8] Riding Success Without Stress by Joni Bentley (J. A. Allen, 1999), p. 97.
[9] Teaching by Hand, Learning by Heart by Bruce Fertman (Mouritz, 2018), p. 65.
[10] ‘Appreciating differences in Alexander teaching styles’ by Aileen Crow in The Alexander Review vol. 1, no. 2. (Centerline Press, 1986), pp. 37–39.
[11] Let Your Life Flow – The physical, psychological and spiritual benefits of the Alexander Technique by Alex Maunder (C. W. Daniel, 2002), p. 31.
[12] ‘Use and the use of imagery’ by John Appleton in AmSAT News issue no. 64 (Summer 2004), pp. 20–21.
[13] ‘Refurbishing image-making in actors and others’ by Cathy Madden in Direction vol. 3, no. 4 edited by Paul Cook (Direction Journal, 2005), pp. 9–12.
[14] ‘Images and sensory awareness: An inquiry’ by Robin John Simmons in STATNews vol. 9, no. 4 edited by Jamie McDowell (STAT, May 2016), pp. 21–22.
[15] ‘Hierarchial human control’ by Lawrence Jones in STATNews vol. 9, no. 2 edited by Jamie McDowell (STAT, September 2015), pp. 19–21.
[16] Ideokinesis by André Bernard, Wolfgang Steinmüller, Ursula Stricker (North Atlantic Books, 2006), p. 24.