It’s the Thought that Counts – Some Comparisons between the Alexander Technique and Psychotherapy

Article added April 3, 2012

Written by Keith Silvester. 

INTRODUCTION

When you mention Alexander in conversation the usual response is “oh I better straighten up” and the person usually stiffens like a new army recruit.  Or I get, “oh I’ve got such back problems, can it cure me?”  I then find myself ‘at pains’ to explain that the Technique is not really about improving posture, and isn’t specifically about curing backache – although these two things are often recognisable by-products.  It’s about the way we ‘use’ ourselves, in the sense of the mind-body connection in response to stimuli and the way habits get ingrained.  Just as we have mental or emotional patterns that keep repeating themselves till we have shaped a particular worldview or opinion of ourselves, we have psychophysical habits that eventually lead to chronic postural or mobility difficulties, or emotional problems such as anxiety and depression.  By the time we reach adulthood, the constant repetition of stimulus-response has ingrained itself in our neural pathways and we can’t get out of it except by re-educating these neural pathways to respond differently.

Although F M Alexander originally worked by giving verbal instructions, he quickly found that he had to communicate by direct hands-on the pupil.  It was through the hands that a certain quality or state of mind-body could get transmitted and facilitate change.  One of the common misunderstandings, still prevalent today, is that Alexander is a subtle form of body manipulation, a kind of ergonomic retraining.  In fact it is a relational communication of good use of the self, from the teacher to the pupil.  In therapy terms, this is comparable to the empathic relational field created between counsellor and client.  As with psychotherapy, the application of ‘fancy’ techniques and interventions counts for relatively little if the empathic positive regard is not there or experienced.  As we know, it takes years to develop this capacity in counselling and therapy training; equally, it takes years of developing good use on the part of the Alexander teacher to be able to transmit this to a pupil through the quality of mind coming through touch.

 

TWO CONCEPTUAL ISSUES

Inevitably, as I progressed through the training, I started to compare the way Alexander worked and the way psychotherapy, my existing profession, worked.  There were some conceptual problems to get over.

First of all, why is Alexander termed a ‘psychophysical education’ rather than a therapy?  After all, both practices help people with problems and, to a large extent, you could consider psychotherapy – at least the type I do, which is psychosynthesis – as a form of life education around emotional and relational wellbeing.  Similarly, although Alexander is not a medical treatment as such, practitioners can register as complementary health professionals.  Indeed most pupils would report that the effects are definitely therapeutic, and F M Alexander used the term ‘therapeutics’.   From my point of view the court is still out on the question of education versus therapy.  The issue seems to be that the Alexander practitioner is definitely teaching something about correct use, whether by direct hands-on communication or by means of verbal instructions in the process.  It is not a medical treatment in which the recipient is passive.

The second conceptual issue in comparing Alexander and psychotherapy is more of a philosophical one.  Alexander works on the premise that if the natural use of the self is restored, the rest will take care of itself, or will at least have the best chance of doing so and thereby preventing potential future ailments.  That is to say, Alexander is not concerned with fixing specific symptoms in any direct way.  Is the same true of therapy? Do we simply work on the assumption that if the client looks after their psychological and emotional health, then we don’t have to pay attention to individual symptoms and problems?  Would such problems simply disappear in the wash?  Probably not.  Yet there are some protocol-based methodologies such as Lifespan Integration or Emotional Freedom Technique which work on the premise that the strengthening of the core energy system probably does the trick and the function of therapy is not particularly to get involved in philosophical issues about the meaning of life.   I suppose it depends on the context of the therapeutic model one follows.

 

SIX SPECIFIC AREAS WORTHY OF COMPARISON BETWEEN ALEXANDER AND PSYCHOTHERAPY 

1. Awareness, mindfulness and contact

One of the major issues pointed out to me at the start of the Alexander training was the need to keep my visual attention outward into the environment.  More precisely, this was about maintaining a sense of myself-in-space, as though I was part of a continuum with what was around me.  Others, however, might be shown how to direct their visual attention differently, such as not staring or focusing unduly.  Easy for me you would have thought, given how much Gestalt-based awareness work had made up my psychotherapeutic training.  But this was hard, not least because so much of psychosynthesis experiential work involved visualisation and meditative practices with the eyes closed.  The ‘going inside’ which I was so accustomed to was antithetical to the type of awareness needed for Alexander.  I was most impressed by the Alexander teachers’ ability to spot two no-nos: mind-wandering and over-concentration of thought, both of which could be detected by changes in muscular tone, particularly in the neck area, as well as through observation of the eyes.  The levels of contact required – both externally with the environment and internally within the body – and of course through hands-on with the other, need to be very refined to be a successful practitioner.

 

2. False sensory appreciation

One of the most difficult ‘sacred cows’ that go out the window in Alexander is the idea that what we feel is reliable, particularly in respect of sensory feelings such as “I feel I’m standing straight”.    By ‘feeling’ here we are not talking of emotions such as happy or sad, but a kinaesthetic sensory feeling of rightness in space. What is new and unfamiliar may feel wrong at the beginning. This can be upsetting when we are taught as therapists to value and respect our feelings and experiences and those of our clients.  But there is a parallel with therapy in that what we claim to feel is frequently misjudged or misplaced through such processes as projection, deflection and displacement.  As in therapy, coming to know ourselves better, those feelings can be relied upon with greater accuracy – what in Alexander we think of as an improved sensory register.

 

3. Habit, inhibition and end-gaining

Earlier I mentioned the importance of recognising habits.  Closely connected with this is one of the key Alexander principles of inhibition.  The capacity to not do something we habitually do.  In many ways this is the key.  It is not about actively doing something new, but allowing in what happens when we stop doing something.  Here I found a direct parallel with therapy work.  In fact I regularly use this strategy with my therapy clients and supervisees.  In Alexander, the inhibition may be something that to the outsider seems quite small, for example, not throwing the head back in a gesture each time we sit down.  In therapy the inhibition might be something like not withdrawing from eye contact when someone offers a ‘hello’ in the street or in a bar.

One of the key paradoxes in this experience, and which is also connected to the idea of negative capability discussed later, is the principle of not end-gaining.  We all know this as the effect of trying too hard creates the opposite result.  If I force a key to turn in a tight lock in a raging hurry, it’s more likely to jam or snap off!  This is not about saying that we don’t aim for a goal in what we do or want in life.  It’s more to do with our micro-actions – many undetectable to the lay person or onlooker – which contribute to misuse of the self.  To have the freedom not to react in particular habitual or set ways to certain stimuli, such as things which startle us, gives the organism a choice.

 

4. Direction and the will

In psychosynthesis we put great store on working with Assagioli’s concept of the will.  By this, we don’t necessarily mean just ‘strong will’, but something akin to the appropriate use of one’s life force to survive in the world, make appropriate changes, and realise one’s goals in a relational and ethical manner.  The tendency to give up, be weighed down by life’s woes and past conditioning is immense, as any therapist well knows.  There is a direct parallel in Alexander work where we are constantly in relation with the force of gravity, which for some people may act to drag them down unnecessarily in ways which are unhelpful to good use. This is about our vitality or chi energy reflected in our poise.  An example of this is the tendency for many people to slump, causing a shortening of the head-neck-back relationship.  Thus Alexander emphasises something called ‘direction’, or ‘the up’.  By this I am not referring to the commonly-held stiffening up mentioned at the start of this article, but a type of subtle direction of the head which most people are likely to get wrong unless shown through the hands-on of the teacher.  We work with the relationship between gravity and anti-gravity.  Exactly what constitutes the ‘up’ in Alexander is not straightforward to describe given that the human body may follow various trajectories of movement and direction in daily activity.  This may seem paradoxical in that we might be moving down in space whilst being directed up, but the flow of vitality is the important objective.

 

5. Emptiness, doing less and negative capability

Here is the bit that is possibly harder to explain because we are describing a sort of negative skill set – the ability to empty oneself and do less, not more.  In therapy, the more the therapist or counsellor gets their ego out of the way, the more the client can fill the space and do the necessary work.  The silence and calm that a therapist creates in the consulting room also models or creates the conditions for the client to explore issues from a more centred place inside themself.  In Alexander this translates into modelling or facilitating a stillness that allows the pupil to recover or remember the correct use of the mind-body system.  What we are taught in Alexander is, in fact, to do less and less!  This does not mean passivity or doing nothing, but not interfering with our natural optimum state. This stillness, in turn, also encourages the pupil to do less, which calms the nervous system and fosters the best chance to be able to inhibit habitual responses to stimuli.  The idea of negative capability, probably originating from the poet Keats, is about creating the conditions for something new or unknown to be received.  In Alexander terms, for the new experiences of the self to emerge requires the capacity for non-doing and non-reacting.  There may well be useful comparisons which can be made with forms of meditative practices such as vipassana.

 

6. Relationship, opposition and the intersubjective

It is very hard to convey the quality of ‘empty touch’ offered in Alexander.  In some ways this is the most loving form of touch one could imagine, because the teacher is not wanting anything from the pupil.  This quality of touch is very special as it works not simply on the structures of the visible body, but also at the subtle level.  But we know from therapy that to be in relation with the other requires not just empathy, but a ‘meeting’ of the client’s energy, so that the client experiences themself as real by coming up against ‘the other’.  In Alexander, this is called ‘opposition’, where the pupil lengthens and widens in response to meeting the ‘direction’ of the teacher.

 

Another aspect of relationship, where there is a direct comparison between therapy and Alexander is the unknowability of the subjective experience of the other.  One can infer it by the client or pupil reporting a feeling of wellbeing, but we never really do know the other’s inner experience.  As practitioners, we never know what it is actually like to be on the receiving end – what others are really experiencing of us; in Alexander this is no different.  In both activities we are working with the intersubjective.  The idea of the intersubjective, although common in the humanistic and integrative therapies, is gaining currency in psychodynamic therapies, owing a lot to the work of Stephen Mitchell and Jessica Benjamin.  Put simply, it involves the creation of a ‘third’ – the energetic space created by two people working together.

 

COMPARISON WITH TWO THERAPY MODELS

The first comparison I would like to make is with the basic psychosynthesis model, affectionately referred to as the ‘egg diagram’, developed by its founder-thinker, Roberto Assagioli in the early years of the twentieth century.

From Figure 1, the important feature is the increasing alignment of the ‘I-Self’.  The stronger that alignment in an individual, the more authentic is the life-affirming experience.  This is similar to the idea of ‘vitality’ as I have heard it used by Anthony Kingsley in the ATTS.  One of the things I teach is that the I-Self alignment in the therapist has a therapeutic impact on the I-Self alignment of the client.  As a supervisor, particularly of trainee counselors and psychotherapists, I have started to give more attention the I-Self alignment of trainees than the apparent clinical diagnosis of the client as the agent of change.  This has been a great influence of the Alexander training.

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The second comparison is with Gestalt Cycle of Experience, developed by Zinker.  The cycle, shown in Figure 2 has a number of reference points: sensation-awareness-mobilisation-action-contact-satisfaction-withdrawal.  It is debatable whether this is a sequence, or whether it is all simultaneous – in much the same way as we might wonder whether an Alexander ‘slump’ or mind-wandering occurs prior to or after the loss of primary control.   On this cycle, I believe Alexander has much to observe and say about the mobilisation stage, and how particular actions give rise to particular forms of contact with inner vitality (or not). Restoring the link between mobilisation, action and appropriate contact creates a new experience of satisfaction and hence a new Gestalt.

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FINAL REMARKS

Inevitably, it is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to use words to describe a psychophysical process, without the actual experience of the ‘hands on’.  It is even harder to convey the type of inner transformation that occurs – emotional, physical and energetic.  I have found the actual training process in Alexander to be profound, and at times both liberating and disturbing.  Like therapy, it is not a linear process.  Systemic change always involves shifts and adjustments which can be uncomfortable.

April 2012

 

Bibliography:

The Use of the Self by F Matthias Alexander (Orion Books, London, 2001). Originally published in 1932.

Freedom to Change by F Pierce Jones (Mouritz, London, 1997). Originally published in 1976.

Gestalt Counselling in Action by P Clarkson (Sage, London, 1989)

What We May Be – the visions and techniques of psychosynthesis by P Ferrucci (Tarcher/Putnam, New York, 1982)

Teach Us to Sit Still – a sceptic’s search for health and healing by T Parks (Harvill Secker, London 2010)

Relationality – from attachment to intersubjectivity by S Mitchell (Routledge, London, 2004)

This essay is an adaptation and extension of my article written for the journal Private Practice, published by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, Winter 2011.

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