The Alexander Technique − Teaching or Therapy?

Podium Discussion, Falkenhain 2010, near Berlin, Germany

Summer Intensive of the → School for the Alexander Technique Berlin, Dan Armon

Edited by → Sophia Seidel, with support from George Porter and Robert Würz

Panel: Dan Armon, Linda Hermelin, Shaike Hermelin, Odyssée Gaveau, Daniele Bottaro, Carsten Møller

Contributors: Jonathan Sheratte, Myrto Aretaiou, Andreas Kreymeier, Sibylle Havemann, Rita Röhr

Dan: We define the AT not as a therapy but as a teaching and Alexander talked about AT as preventive and not as a cure.

But in reality many of us work like therapists, even in hospitals or clinics.

And many people come to the AT for reasons of health, like back pain, or all kinds of problems, for example the golfer and the stutterer, who came to Alexander.

In a way there is a kind of antagonism which is not clear, if we say we are teaching and still we say we are working with problems.

So in reality it may be viewed as a kind of therapy.

But the question is: How we actually relate to the problems people bring to the AT? How we relate to somebody who comes because of back pain or because he has some kind of handicap?

I would like to let each member of this panel say something about it and let's see, how it develops ...

Linda: Whatever the pupil comes with − I really immediately start thinking about: How can I help this person? And if discomfort or pain is there, you cannot really work, you can't argue with pain.

So in the beginning I don’t mention the fact that I am a teacher, I just let it go.

I just wait until the pupil has had some experience of feeling a little bit better; so he can recognize the beginning of some kind of process and see that there is perhaps a way out. It already gives him enough hope to go on.

And if it there's pain or discomfort, I encourage the person to understand, that he is not alone with his problems, that his problems are something very typical.

I tell him, that I had such a process many times before and that everybody feels uncomfortable whatever the problem he comes with.

Dan: If I understand well, you bring the problem into the light of something more general. You say that the problem is something which you know, which you met in the work before and it has a kind of chance.

Linda: Yes, I get the people to understand that they are not alone because quite often someone thinks: 'This is my problem and no one else had this kind of problem before.' So, generally, I think it’s helpful for them to know that what they have is something well-known.

Dan: By this you also give the feeling that AT has experience in addressing such problems. So does he (the pupil) have something to wait for in the work?

Linda: I don’t try to convince somebody. But I try to give him the experience of something changing in himself, may be physically or otherwise, so that he can realize that there is a way out, there is a choice, but not by telling them about other cases.

For instance if somebody comes to me with pain and I work with them on the table, then I ask them if they still feel pain and they say they feel nothing, I think fine.

Dan: So, the moment of release is some kind of a sign that something can happen.

Shaike: First of all I have to tell the pupil, what the reason for his problem is.

I have to show him what the fault is.

If he has a sort of problem it means, that something in the body is telling him, that he is doing something to himself or that he is misusing himself.

Alexander discovered that use effects functioning.

Normally, if somebody has a problem he searches for somebody who can help him with his symptoms – a doctor, a physiotherapist or a psychiatrist; but the use of himself is in this case irrelevant. He does not see use as an important factor for his health, vitality and for everything he chooses to do.

So the teacher has to show him the fault, what he is doing to himself, by a simple thing such as standing and sitting in a chair.

Alexander said the moment someone came into his room and sat down, he could see the whole history of his misuse − he didn't need an X-ray – he could see that the person is an X-ray of himself!

The moment that the human being stood up on two legs, no longer on all fours, it became a new factor in his balance.

Then after I have told him, what he is doing to himself, I have to tell him, how not to do it, how to improve the use.

I start using the word of inhibition.

He tries to inhibit what he is doing, but he does not really know what he is doing and what causes the pain (nobody does something purposely which causes pain).

At this point I’m going to start giving the means, the thinking means, how to apply orders to improve the misuse.

And this is the beginning of a lesson.

I use mirrors; I use a chart of the body; I tell him what is where: I tell him where his neck, his feet and his hip joints are.

People don't know anything about this!

Alexander said: ‘From the first lesson I always send the person away with some knowledge he can take with him and he can think about it.’

And usually after the first lessons the pupil feels much better.

He asks me: ‘What did you do?’

I answer: ‘I did not tell you to sit straight, I did not tell you to do, to hold, to impress, to do anything, just think. And you can feel better. You can take something with you, everywhere you go.

So there’s nothing to do!

For the first time you have the choice - how you want to walk around; I want to contract my neck or I don’t want to.

Real freedom is freedom from your own problems − your own chatting mind.’

So it’s a process of long development, from when we began to stand on two legs, then to rush and gain our aims.

You have to see that there is nothing to discover somewhere else.

We have to look at what we're doing to ourselves.

So, that's the beginning of the lesson: how to stop doing things to myself; how to improve myself. And from now on, as long as the pupil wants to develop, we will continue.

It never ends.

By working on a person as a whole, problems disappear here and there …, but I'm not checking the problems.

It’s a lesson.

Everybody can experience for himself.

It’s only for those who want to learn and to develop themselves.

It's not for everyone.

If people want me to deal with their pains, I send them to the doctor or physiotherapist. I don’t deal with pain.

Everybody should deal with his problems.

As Alexander said: 'I don’t deal with your muscles or pains. I'm dealing with your conceptions, your wrong ideas, your prejudices.'

It’s a very common thought: people think there is something wrong, so there must be something right. All the teacher has to do is show the right way to do it.

What is the right? Who found the right? Where is the right?

People don’t like it. They want to do exercises and they don’t like to think.

They don’t like to be in charge of themselves.

I better stop here.

Dan: I understand that you make the pupil understand that, what we here call, the problem is part of the process. He created the problem by himself – it’s a part of the habitual pattern. He has to understand that before he continues.

Shaike: The pupil has to understand that he is responsible for what happens to him and nobody else, not the doctor and not the physiotherapist.

Some people make such big decisions in their lives about so many important things, but they don’t know what is happening to their own back. They think: 'I’m okay …, but my back, my neck.'

Everybody is his own back and his back is him. It's one entity.

Dan: Part of the teaching is to make the pupil understand, that his problem is part of his own creation and that he has to learn how to go behind it.

Shaike: Yes, and he has to change fully. He cannot continue not to be in touch with his sense of what is going on inside himself. He has to improve the standard of communication between the brain and the body.

He cannot anymore think: 'Let’s do some exercise!'

Dan: Odyssée, please.

Odyssée: I believe, we are not healers and usually when people come to see me, they had many doctors before.

They come at the last moment. They have all kind of problems.

I ask them, if they are ready to do some work on themselves because I'm not a doctor, I'm not going to cure them or to work for them.

As Shaike said, we can just work with them if they are ready to work on themselves. But usually there are very heavy cases and maybe we have to call in a psychoanalyst or a doctor.

We can't do it for them.

Dan: If one of the pupils who finished your school gets a job in a clinic, how would you tell him to behave there?

Odyssée: In France, AT-teachers don't work in clinics. The doctors are very much against it. We’d get a lot of problems if we would try to take care of such cases and I don’t believe that this will change in the next twenty years.

Daniele: First of all we should understand what is therapy and what is not therapy.

One possibility is to think, that therapy begins when the person in front of us starts to be an object of the process, instead of a subject of the work together.

With our Non-Doing-Technique we are helping people towards a process to help themselves so they are part of a relation, part of process of learning.

This puts it outside of therapy.

Therapy is, when somebody is a patient. A patient is an object of treatment.

In our kind of work we are in a learning process.

If we have this clear we don't have problems, even if we are asked to work in a clinic.

We are not asked to work as physiotherapists, but maybe to work in parallel.

I had this experience years ago, where people were having psychological treatment and physiotherapy. Some of them were having in parallel some body pedagogic work with AT.

As Shaike said so nicely, many problems come from years and years of bad use.

The problem is that mostly a long time passes by between the preparation and appearance of the actual symptom. So, when a problem is emerging, for example in the lower back, people say: 'Yesterday I had this problem.'

What they do not see is that they have prepared this through a long time of bad use.

Our job is to help people to understand the way they are using themselves and to help them find a way out to interfere less with what we can observe in a two, three, four year old healthy child.

In the first twelve months, the nervous system is working to bring the upright position and at the age of six or seven years the whole system allows the child to be with their feet together and eyes closed, standing quietly for about ten seconds.

Physiological systems (vestibular, eyes, proprioception) are harmoniously coming together and preparing us for life.

What we are doing in the AT, is learning to undo what interferes with what is there already in the physiology of nature.

Alexander was putting it in very simple words: 'If you stop doing the wrong thing, the right thing does itself.'

What we have to be clear about is: we can help someone to understand his misuse, but we don’t give therapy!

If we have a pupil with very strong problems, it may be that the person knows already the diagnosis and wants to work in parallel with us, trying to influence the whole story to good use.

In another case we can realize that a problem needs some special help.

Then it’s professional to say: 'Look, there is maybe such and such a problem, please ask an expert.'

If we are able to say this, it’s very good to go on with AT.

For example there are people who are suffering from cancer or being at the end of their lives with such problems.

They find it very nice to work with the technique. Because it’s a way to speak with ourselves, we are a body, a body in relationship with the world and in the body is the brain, too.

We are our use, we are our back.

And we are like Martin Buber says: 'Ich-Du in relationship'. The technique has a lot to do with the inner capacity of relating with each other, with ourselves and with the force of gravity.

Carsten: What more to say? For me it’s important to teach the individual to think.

The pupil often comes with wrong ideas, for example, a deep desire to have his problems removed, even if he theoretically understands, that AT is a kind of teaching.

Very often the use is based on wrong concepts and we as teachers try to find out the wrong concepts, like Shaike said: 'Where is my hip, where is my neck?' – that‘s only one level of wrong concepts.

Instead of talking about curing something we are trying to understand the way the individual thinks and to teach him to get better concepts.

The problem is that most of the wrong ideas are unconscious and are based on cultural influences.

For me AT is not about cure, it’s about education.

Dan: All what you said sounds very logical and convincing and the pupil can say: 'Yes, yes you are right!'

But still he wants you to help and to find a solution to his problem. This is stronger then any theory, even if he agrees with you − in practice he is still expecting something else.

How do we deal with this?

For example I give you a story. I had a private pupil who said: 'Dan, all what you talk is very nice, but I'm not interested. I come to you once a week and you are my talisman. I have no pain. I don't mind all your philosophy.'

That’s it. In a way I accepted this role – I continued the lessons but I never gave up my standpoint that she has to learn something.

There are moments in practice, when we have to use our intuition to find a way how to deal with this.

We can talk much to the pupil, but he does not have to understand. A beginner can understand things theoretically but not in practice. We have to be patient.

The main thing is how we as teachers relate to the problems, also of ourselves and then of the student without even explaining this to him.

In a more direct therapy the aim is to eliminate the problem, to kick away the pain or to find some support against the handicap.

In AT we look on the problem in relationship to the whole process of habitual pattern.

We don’t want to eliminate the problem!

On the contrary, we are are respecting the problem because every problem which comes up is a kind of reaction of the body to a long, long story.

So we give it its place, we respect it and more than that we use the problem in order to make clear the principles of AT.

Every problem has a kind of logic behind it.

We can take the problem and by showing how it comes up or goes away there is a moment of relief which can start to bring up a process of thinking about: why in this moment I have relief and in another moment I don’t have relief.

We can take the problem and use it as an instrument to start thinking about the use of the self.

So we can look on the problem in a positive way.

Or we can say even 'Welcome' to the problem because now it gives you a chance to start seeing all this questions of the use of the self.

Shaike: Many people don't come for a long time once their pain has finished.

Now they see how much more they have to learn.

The problem was just some kind of indication for misuse.

Actually most of the problems, the pressure, is coming from the head down and not from the feet up.

The head is at the head of the body.

Everything else you have to do is thinking in life, you have to think every moment. It seems to strange for people to think from the head to the body – they take it for granted.

It is a cultural problem.

We are all the time under pressure.

We have to push ourselves to do, to win, to be the best, to be the first. To win against whom?

So eventually it goes against ourselves.

It comes out by pressure, pain, unease, heaviness and all kind of problems.

Then we try to meditate and do all kind of release just to be a little bit free from everything that we do to ourselves and we say that life is difficult.

Alexander said that we forget that we are creating this kind of life.

AT is a kind of education, a learning process, an unlearning process and time is a very important factor for this process.

As long as we go with this, we still learn. It can be very misleading when people say: 'I don’t want to do see how wrong I am all the time. I want to be right,' but the body won’t let them.

It’s a challenge, a great opportunity for human beings to bring up the best in them all the time. We have very good virtue in us if we let it happen − if we unfold ourselves.

As AT teachers we have a big mission.

To teach people what good qualities they possess just by unfolding themselves – to let go, to let the neck be free.

Everyone has it without exception - all human creatures, all vertebrate animals – in all vertebrate animals the head is leading.

Macdonald said, when he finished the training school, he knew nothing.

So he stayed with Alexander for some years to find out more about it. And even when he was no longer a young man, he said, that he was still finding out more and more about “It” (the essence of Life).

As AT teachers we have to know what we are looking for.

If we don’t know what we are looking for, we are doing all kinds of manipulation here and there.

You have to know what is there – to let it happen.

Macdonald said, you have to look for 'It'. 'It' is the force of life, the energy of life.

It’s essential to know what we are after.

'It' is there in a certain condition. We are not creating 'It'. But in a certain relationship in the body we allow the natural force of life to assume.

Dan: The 'It' is doing its work if you don't disturb it.

Myrto: The 'It' is also the ability of human beings to heal a part of our organism, of our existence. You need to learn it again.

I sometimes have the difficulty to understand, why it is so important that AT is not teaching somebody to heal himself, but something else. Because I think it’s also teaching this – which is forgotten by the organism.

Dan: You bring AT back to healing by saying that the 'It' has a kind of healing power. You brought the healing to the picture from another point.

Sibylle: It helps me, when somebody with problems doesn't tell me before the lesson, because I can work much more freely. The effect for the pupil can be much better. It’s easier for me to relate to this 'It'.

Daniele: I see it in another way. The pupil comes and says 'I have pain in my right shoulder'. Now it is important not to react to this pain and to make people understand, that we are not interested directly in the shoulder, but in the whole person in a way he uses himself and this is going to affect the shoulder. Usually people understand this very well.

Sibylle: I meant more our own danger, when we know the problem, we want to help.

Daniele: That’s what I mean. We have to inhibit the reaction to the specific problem.

Linda: It is important that the pupil is allowed to talk about his discomfort. Their might be certain conditions the teacher has to know about, before he starts working.

Sibylle: Of course. What I wanted to say, for the first moment, in the first lesson, it can be helpful to stay more clearly with the technique, not to be too much involved in the heaviness of the problems. Of course over time I will come to know the problems.

Linda: That is the profession you can learn, to put the problems aside.

Attendee: Would you agree that the danger that the pupil has the idea of becoming cured or treated is bigger in table work than in chair work? Because as long as he is on the chair he is still an action whereas on the table he can have the idea that he is being treated.

Andreas: I would say you are working wrongly on the table if he gets this feeling. You should keep him awake and not to give him a smooth demonstration of how nice it is to be touched. Otherwise, he falls more easily asleep.

Daniele: I think the question was a bit different. It was: if I take somebody on the table maybe it’s easier for the person to have the idea of being cured because of cultural background because when you are lying on a table you are used to getting treatment? It does not depend on the teacher but it’s on the side of the person. It’s important to help the pupil not to think in this direction.

Attendee: Would you go so far, that you avoid table work? I have that case. On the one hand I have the feeling it would be good to work on the table, but on the other hand he has the feeling he had a good treatment and it helped him. I have the impression it does not help to explain not to think in this direction.

Daniele: You can make it 50:50!

Dan: Sometimes he can lie down and feel like this. But there is always a moment, when you take him up from the table! He does not stay all the time on the table.

It is a very important moment: You can show him that what happened on the table has a meaning, also when he sits after the table work. It doesn’t disappear. It is up to you as a teacher to make him think: 'What happened?'

Daniele: I found it helpful in such cases to have for example ten minutes table work, than take him up to the chair, then walking for ten minutes, then again five to ten minutes on the table.

So the pupil is able to see the differences, for example that he feels uncomfortable or strain in standing, sitting, but then also that the back is lying much better on the table afterwards.

Attendee: With time he gets clearer about what you talk about. He learns more, if you take him to different experiences.

Myrto: It's good when there are nice experiences and not stressful experiences. So the pupil comes back again … (laughing)

Daniele: I don’t agree completely because people often don’t know what they want, if you feed the pupil with what he wants, what feels nice, he has what he always was looking for.

If you work well, the pupil is confronted with feeling strange, with feeling not good and he is maybe closer to what is really good, even if he does not feel good at the beginning at least.

Myrto: But also on the table: many times you don’t feel good. It can become difficult especially to let go. For me while lying on the table not everything is good, perfect, easy. It's also a process. You can discover a lot.

Jonathan: In this slow process of learning the use of yourself, one thing that develops also slowly is our use or sense of responsibility.

In the face of problems, problematics, symptoms, hardships or things which are heavy, a sense of having the ability to respond is not something which can happen immediately from the first lesson.

I have the experience, that if people are fed the AT instantly as: 'You are responsible for your symptom, you doing it to yourself.'

But that experience, which is may be an intellectual or rational and not necessarily a psychophysical experience, something what has developed slowly over a period of time, can be too much or let's say not appropriate.

It’s actually seeing that close limitation and confirming it, putting it outside the door – interesting to see rather than treat it as something which can be developed.

So sometimes may be 50:50 or a slightly more therapeutic entrance to the work can be beneficial.

Linda: I get to the teaching aspect of it through the fact that I relate to the person’s problem which is very close to them. And from there I move on to teaching that this is something that you are learning not possessing.

Dan: To take the problem or the sickness as a kind of a first step.

Jonathan: In a sense it’s revealing, putting light on the relationship to the problem and not to the problem itself.

For me it's part of the teaching experience that people actually see, that relationship as something that they are possibly causing - this is the moment of recognition.

At the end of one very successful first lesson I had, the woman was standing up right and looking at me. She said: 'But how do you expect me to do something about it?'

And I said: 'What have we been talking about for the past 40 minutes? ...'

She said: 'This is very delicate work. Do you mind if I call you again?' And she never called.

But there was that moment of recognition, but it was too much for her.

Linda: Carrington said: it’s an educational process with therapeutic qualities.

Somehow we have to integrate the two.

I believe teachers just work differently and some are better at doing it some ways and some are better doing it other ways.

Dan: There is something in the lesson that has no theoretical recipe behind it.

You work with your intuition.

There is a kind of subtle dialogue between the teacher and the pupil.

Sometimes the teacher succeeds to make it clear how the problem finds itself in the process of AT and also give stimuli to the pupil so that he feels it's very interesting or relevant to his problem.

But all this is a question of a kind of subtext between the teacher and the student, how it comes out, how it gets more power to continue the process.

Rita: In my experience it's very useful to work on people on the table, particularly on those with pain.

I work on the table always with the expectation that the pupil works on himself at home.

It's very beneficial for him because it's uncommon and he has no pattern for this.

This is different in chairwork because it's part of everyday actions and it's full of habits and if the pupil works on himself with chairwork, he's coming back the next week with his own personal tensions and his old habits and I have to deal with them again.

Sibylle: I think that table work in the AT does not belong to our common idea of therapy and I have the experience that pupils on the table are quite astonished about this.

At first they think: 'I lie down, I know this situation to be manipulated.'

But then it's something completely different and it's so exciting what they discover here - it has not much to do with nice comfortable therapies and they are far away from repeating their habits.

Attendee: I have the experience with working on someone on the table and it was a completely revolutionary experience for him, especially because I said: “This is all you! The changes that are happening and what you feel that is all you – this is your doing.”

It's something other than therapy.

Dan: In the beginning, when a pupil lies down and I tell him that he has nothing to do now, the pupil often tends to fall asleep – 'It's a resting time so I should sleep'.

But in the moment a pupil understands that doing less is fascinating, then it's a kind of revolution, as you said.

Odyssée: I would like to ask Linda and Shaike, if they had a table work demonstration with Macdonald during their study time.

Shaike: Macdonald did not explain much. He worked on you and showed you how beautiful the work is.

He didn’t feed you with a little spoon.

(It was like:) 'I show you the work; you go and break your head (find it out for yourself).'

He would say essentially: 'Aim up and stay back, free your neck, aim up, keep your back back, knees away', all the time – whenever you asked him – the same answer.

Dan: He gave instructions but no explanations?

Shaike: His explanation was the work. He spoke very little, only again and again: 'You didn’t aim up, you didn’t think! Aim up, keep your back back, send your knees away.'

You had to participate with his direction and his touch.

He made you work very hard on yourself.

Dan: A propos her question about Macdonald: What was the proportion between chair work and table work?

Shaike: Usually he divided it half and half in private lessons. In the school maybe it was mainly chair work.

Odyssée: You were trained long before me. When I was on the training course, Macdonald worked much more on the chair. I think we did table work twice in three years!

Shaike: Actually, if you understand the chair work you have a chance to understand the table work.

Table work is harder then chair work because there is lying down and you have to make the whole body become alive, not to become heavy, not to say: 'How nice it is to fall asleep.'

You have to regenerate energy in the whole body while not moving.

As a teacher you have to engage the pupil’s brain all the time. You don’t have to let him go away from you.

So Alexander work is brain work all the time.

The hand completes the words, the hands are completing the thinking and they complete each other.

When people are coming and say: 'I like to start with lying down and so and so ...,' it’s up to you.

If you only do what they want, eventually they lead you.

You have to consider – if it’s right, it's right.

But it should not become a habit.

You don't have to fight with them, but gradually you have to take the pupil out of such habits, and show him the chair work is also nice – it’s the same.

What was good on the table you should take with you – chair work should not be harder.

The whole thing should be very easy and flexible.

If it's hard – something is not working properly.

It's your job to oil the machine – the brain.

The decision is done in the brain, not in the muscles.

You have to change before it is decided. The only change can be before you react. You change the order.

What are you going to direct? You are not redirecting yourself all the time.

Lying on the table should be same as work on the chair – the same principles apply.

Dan: Each position or each movement has what we call mechanical advantages.

In lying down there are some mechanical advantages because what we call 'end-gaining' is reduced to the minimum and so there is more chance to explore some other aspects.

But we also need situations where the end-gaining has more power so we can work on it.

So in the movement of up and down from the chair, where we have stimuli and we have ends and we say stop to the end, then there is more advantage to make clear what is inhibition and giving directions.

Often the end-gaining is disturbing for real learning; at least in the beginning – so you lie down.

You find advantages in every position.

And you can also invent new positions. We are not limited to three or four positions.

According to the situation sometimes 'sliding on the wall', 'hands on the wall' and all kind of things can help the teaching, as long as we teach the principle.

Shaike: I must say that Macdonald was lying much more on the table and people worked on him, than I was lying on the table and people worked on me. I almost never lie on the table because I feel it's a waste of time, if I lie on the table and people work on me. He did it much more. He liked it in a way.

Dan: (joking): And the whole class worked on him?

That's the best life for a teacher!