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The Alexander Technique - Seeing with Fresh Eyes: Review by Jonathan Whitaker.

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Alexander Technique
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This very enjoyable book on the Alexander Technique (AT) also includes tributes to Don Burton who founded the Fellside Alexander School in 1985 and tragically died too early in 1996. The author, Gentian Rahtz, commenced her training there in 1986 and has been a teacher of the Alexander Technique for 30 years. The book itself is short, just under 100 pages, but contains a great deal of interesting material, as to be expected from a teacher with such a pedigree and length of experience.

It begins with a short chapter on the biography and career of FM [Alexander] and the evolution of the technique, focusing on the wish to bring about positive changes and the need to face the challenges of ‘carrying out activities against the habits of a lifetime’. FM set up a teacher training course from which Walter and Dilys Carrington qualified and went to form their own school, from which Don Burton himself qualified 1973.

History is important and having set the scene, the author discusses the development of Western intellectual thought and its influence on the life and times that shaped Alexander. In particular the prevailing culture at that time separated mind and body yet Alexander’s early researches convinced him that the mental and the physical were so intimately connected that it was impossible to separate them in any human activity. The author rightly stresses how innovative and ground-breaking this was for its time. The unity of mind and body is much better understood and acknowledged today than it has ever been in our culture.

The AT is described as a gradual process of re-education whereby we may re-capture the lost freedom and functioning that we had as children. This includes a discussion of the ‘primary control’ and how the special relationship of head, neck and back influences our overall co-ordination and there is nice quote from Don Burton: ‘…we are teaching people to leave themselves alone…’. This chapter also references the area anatomically, describing the atlanto-occipital joint and the role of the sub-occipital muscles.

One of the aspects I most enjoyed about this book is the feeling that once I was 'into it’ I did not get any impression of it going anywhere, nor arriving anywhere - it just flows in and out, picking up individual points of interest seemingly at random, making unique and original observations and then moving on to another aspect. It was reminiscent of the Technique itself in that it naturally avoids ‘end-gaining’ by gentle explorations of diverse aspects of the AT. I am sure the author planned each section in great care but I was happy that, once the introductions were over, the various sections can be read in any order.

There is then a discussion of inhibition, the ability to decide not to go instantly into a preliminary set of our musculature but to pause and allow what happens next to come from a better organised place of lengthening and widening. In connection with inhibition there is reference to it being organised by the ‘higher’ brain, the pre-frontal cortex, rather than the hard-wired older reptilian brain. This is not related to the AT as such and is popular pseudo-science. It has been debunked by Neuroscience and was in fact never accepted by it.[1] We are not descended from reptiles as we are synapsids and reptiles are diapsids, and hence both descend from something earlier over 320 myo. In addition reptile brains have much the same structure as mammalian brains including a cortex, and if you ever see a crocodile hunting its powers of inhibition are way beyond that of a cat stalking a bird.

The section on ‘Directing’ is again very insightful. We learn how FM thought about ‘imagery’ in directing and the important of vocabulary for directions. In particular, it can become ‘a fluid pulse of intelligence moving through the system from a body memory of previous experience of directing’. This is entirely original and expresses the thought that learning the AT is the development of a skill that builds upon previous successful demonstrations of the skill - and that  it has to be applied!

This excellent section is somewhat marred for me by a brief journey into ‘qi’ or ‘chi’, which like Chakras and Astral Projection, benefits from having no evidence for it and no way to disprove it. Still, what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. The author carefully distances such ‘woo’ from the AT and FM’s opinions as a rational man, so we must be tolerant and acknowledge the author’s clarification. However it is interesting that various post-New Age junk-science seems to attach itself to the foothills of the AT. One example is the ever popular right-brain/left-brain malarkey. In fact we think with our entire brains, and we can be neither creative, logical or insightful without using all of our brain and over its trillions of synaptic connections we have no conscious control whatsoever.  Amongst other romantic ideas given approval is the ‘discovery’ (!) that ‘the thought of expanding ... the cornea ... helps to open the chest’. One wonders if this ‘discovery’ (made elsewhere I must stress, not by our author) was accompanied by any form of evidence? I have tried this and found it be true for me, but then again I have also discovered that thinking about expanding my big toe improves my auditory experience. If you try this for yourself you will be able to confirm it. Which is food for thought as to why it is rarely appreciated that psycho-physical unity means precisely that if I lengthen my tongue with the prior expectation that my left knee will free up, that is exactly what is going to happen! I even managed to widen my forehead by thinking that the bathroom tap was expanding, once I primed the link.

Perhaps these things are harmless fashions, like the idea that our brains with its trillion cells is not good enough and we have to enlist the enteric system, which is 200 times smaller and controls localised digestive processes, as if it were the seat of our intuition. This despite neuroscience having demonstrated that intuition is associated with the basal ganglia in the brain (the precise mechanisms are subject to further research). Of course the internet is rife with woo about ‘gut-feelings’ being somehow the product of some inner homunculus residing in the intestines. Who knows, perhaps this will one day elevate itself to a new cult or religion and we will one day be the first to worship our own dung!

Chapter 3 introduces the concept of kinaesthesia and its importance for movement and some advice on how to tune into this inner senses of ourselves. We often focus on the senses as conveying external information from the environment but it is important to balance this with our internal body sense and of where we are spatially in movement. Alexander thought we had ‘unreliable sensory appreciation’ or ‘debauched kinaesthesia’. There is an extended and useful discussion of this in connection with a reduced sense of ourselves, denoted as ‘kinaesthetic dystonia’. This is somewhat shadowed by further erroneous references to ancient reptilian brains and the limbic system (there are no anatomical criteria for deciding which tissue belongs to a "limbic system" and which does not and the term has no reputable scientific boundaries or function).

Chapter 4 explores the transformative effects of the AT, which is surely correct per our personal experiences. It is also claimed, correctly I’m sure, that many artists claim their processing of information tends to be more ‘right-brained’. I’m sure they do, they just cannot possibly mean anything by it! There are suggestions that emotional body-armouring needs to be released otherwise the technique may be just papering over the cracks, however this is not more fully explored. There is though a real issue here as to whether the AT should be supported by other rather more ‘speculative’ techniques such as chakra healing and re-birthing and all sorts of other psyche-invading techniques. I understand that Fellside was once much more eclectic than it later became and perhaps our author studied there during that time.

There is a useful discussion of ‘hands-on’, its origin and development and how you could put hands on the ‘whole person’, whereas FM did not actually know the person he was teaching.

Chapter 5 discusses our bipedal stance, its origin and development and how we do not have to hold ourselves up but that there are anti-gravity postural reflexes which promote buoyancy if left to do their jobs. The truly remarkable structure of the foot and its role in supporting our upright stance is then explored to good effect.

There are a number of further topics comprising a theory of emotional body-memory, mirror neurons, fascia and stretching, semi-supine and stopping, meditation and in this context Yoga, Tai Chi and Qi Gong all show their faces. There is an interesting excerpt from a Don Burton talk on semi-supine and a final chapter on Breathing, Nature and Trees.

Altogether a nice book to have on your bookshelf for those interested in starting their journey in the Alexander Technique.

© Jonathan Whitaker. January 2023. (link is external).

First published in STATNews vol. 12, no. 1, January 2023, pp. 39-40.

This edition Mouritz 2023. All rights reserved.

[1]. See Dr Sarah McKy ‘Rethinking the Reptilian Brain’ 24/6/2020 (PDF available for on-line review or download).