Explaining the AT 1
Most teachers have difficulty explaining the Alexander Technique. It’s easy to get bogged down in jargon that does not communicate anything meaningful to the average newcomer: terms such as “use”, “primary control”, “non-doing”, “non-endgaining”, “inhibition”, and “direction”, while valuable once their meaning has been experientially understood, can seem overly abstract and verging on cultish until that time. Or explanations focusing on consciousness can evaporate in wisps of neo-zen philosophizing that leave us seeming barely distinguishable from the many mindfulness based practices available. So while consciousness is clearly important, I think we do better to begin modestly with the unique physical elements of the Technique and sneak up on consciousness later.
Alexander’s four books also do not communicate well to a twenty first century reader. However in FM’s second book, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual (CCCI), which he also considered his best, he makes a very helpful distinction between “coordination on a general basis” and “coordination on a specific basis.” Most people think of coordination in relation to specific skills: playing a sport or a musical instrument for example. But that is coordination on a specific basis. General coordination is a pervasive quality that we bring into every specific skill or even the most mundane of our activities. It is touched on simplistically when sports trainers exhort their students to pay attention to their “form” as they execute a specific exercise. But this is often little more than a rather crude idea of maintaining body alignment. If we look more deeply into this we could say that the main muscles of the body (the skeletal muscles) have three basic functions to perform:
1. They assist in holding us up, giving us postural support in opposition to gravity. A skeleton cannot stay upright without muscular help.
2. They move us around, enabling us to interact with the world around us and with other people.
3. They “breathe” us. Although the physiological process of respiration takes place in the lungs, it requires the musculature of the diaphragm, thorax etc. to move air in and out of the lungs.
These three functions should operate in harmony with each other, synergizing so that each facilitates the others. Indeed that synergy can often be observed in small children, although we shouldn’t assume that all small children are perfect in this regard. (As with all talents and functions there is variability of general coordination among children.) But in most adults the three basic muscular functions of postural support, movement, and breathing are more often getting in each other’s way rather than facilitating each other. Collapsed or rigid habits of posture are restricting movement and breathing; awkward habits of movement are interfering with optimum postural support and breathing; and habits of restricted breathing are limiting movement and postural support.
How these three functions operate together could be called, echoing FM in CCCI, “general coordination” to distinguish it from the specific coordination of, say, the hands and fingers to play the piano, or the hands and eyes to play tennis. In Alexander jargon it largely corresponds to use but is somewhat easier to explain. So we could say that F.M. Alexander, in the course of trying to overcome his own issue with the specific coordination of his voice and breathing, came upon the realization that he needed to consider the larger issue of his general coordination, the synergy (or lack of it) of postural support, movement, and breathing. That would seem a very daunting challenge to tackle, were it not for another remarkable observation that he made. In the course of observing himself, he wrote that he realized that “a certain use of the head in relation to the neck, and the head and neck in relation to the torso and the other parts of the organism… constituted a primary control of the mechanisms as a whole…”
Now the term primary control, and its description as the relationship of head, neck and back, also do not usually communicate well. With regard to a head, neck, back relationship people may be inclined to think “Well, we all have a head, a neck, and a back, and yes they are related to each other. So what’s the big deal?” And the term primary control can seem to suggest some amazing control system embedded within the nervous system but hitherto unnoticed by anatomists and physiologists. So let’s see if we can find another way to talk about it.