The LearningMethods Library
On Belief Systems and Learning
A journey from the Alexander Technique to a new work
by David Gorman
From an article first posted
to the Alextech on-line forum, June 25/98
(small editing changes made subsequently)
Copyright © 1998 David Gorman, all rights reserved world-wide
NOTE: This piece sparked an intense and
fascinating debate in the Alextech e-mail discussion group
(an Alexander Technique online discussion group) which raged
for several weeks.
For those interested, there are two on-line
versions of this debate.
A record of the original Alextech list debate
hosted on the
Direction Journal web site.
original debate as above PLUS extra new material
from further correspondence directed to the author (this
version is hosted on this LearningMethods web site.
On Belief Systems and Learning
David Langstroth wrote on June 22nd in an
Alexander Technique e-mail discussion group:
"The important point for this forum is that the Alexander
Technique, like most practical bodies of knowledge, is BASED
ON the assumption of the existence of objective reality. It
is only WITHIN this assumption that you can speak meaningfully
about the technique." [capitals are his]
This is certainly true. As he says, if we
didn't assume there actually was some sort of reality outside
of our interpretations, there wouldn't be much point in talking
It is not so much this fundamental assumption
but rather our assumptions of the particular premises and 'objective
reality' of the Alexander Technique that my experiences over
the years of being a teacher and trainer eventually brought
me to question. Though in the end, these new experiences and
my changed understanding of them brought me to a very different
sense of what that outside reality might be.
I'll tell the story as much as possible from
the chronology of my own realizations, because that is the way
it happened; For someone else to come to the same place, often
the best way is to follow the same pathway.
Let me start with a very brief outline of
the general assumptions and premises of the Alexander Technique.
Note that I am not trying to be exact here but just to give
a general flavour of the nature of the Technique to make sense
out of what follows. Of course, the Alexander Technique has
many strands, but near as I can tell, having got around in these
different strands quite a bit over the last 25 years, the common
basic ideas behind the Technique go something like this (substitute
your own details to suit yourself):
People go around living their daily lives
and doing all their activities within their usual habits or
'manner of use'. They go to do an activity like stand up from
a chair (or recite Shakespeare) and, in doing so, they habitually
pull their heads back and shorten their backs (or some other
such habit). They don't know that they are doing this because
it is an 'unconscious habit' that has come to feel 'instinctively
right', but Alexander teachers can show them with their hands
or with a mirror that they are, in fact, doing these things.
These kinds of unconscious habits are called 'misuses' (misuses
of the self) and these misuses 'affect functioning', sometimes
quite soon (e.g. cause neck tension, effort), sometimes after
a period of consistent 'misuse' (e.g. hoarse voice, lower back
or disk problems, etc.). They also bring about a general tendency
to poor health in indirect ways.
Part of the job of Alexander teachers is
to help the pupil become aware of these 'misuses' (these unconscious
habits) so that they can inhibit them and direct (or re-direct
if you like) to allow the neck to be free, to allow the head
to go forward and up and the back to lengthen and widen (or
some similarly expansive directions).
It was particularly around the part about
having these unconscious habits where we are doing things like
pulling our heads back and shortening but do not know that we
are doing them that I first began to question.
I was working one day (many years ago) with
a young man and going about things more or less in the way described
above. He had just stood up from the chair and (from my 'trained'
point of view) had pulled his head way back like so many do.
I said to him, "Were you aware that you pulled your head back
when you stood up?"
He looked at me and said very definitely,
"No, I didn't!"
"Let's stand up again and I can show you
in the mirror that you did," I replied confidently.
"Oh, I'm sure that it happened," he said,
equally definitely, "But, I didn't do it."
It suddenly struck me that what he had said
was completely true. It was obvious that his head came back
(something he wasn't disputing in this case), but, of course,
he did not do it in the sense of saying to himself, "Hmm,
now I'm going to pull my head back to stand up."
Equally obvious to me was that normally I
would get busy showing him the 'fact' of his head coming back
as he stood and then further convincing him that he was actually
doing it, but as an unconscious habit or misuse which was why
he didn't know that he was doing it. Then we'd get further involved
in helping him to inhibit this 'unconscious habit' in order
to prevent it and so on... And of course we'd do this because
I already knew through my training and teaching experience
that this is what was happening.
All well and good so far. But what also suddenly
struck me in that same moment was that, if he, the person,
was not pulling his head back, what was he, the conscious
person, actually up to in those moments when his head was
At the same time, I realized that because
we'd normally both get busy with making conscious the 'unconscious
habit' and then inhibiting and directing (with me guiding his
movements and 'giving' him new experiences, etc.), neither of
us would normally ever find out what he was doing. In
fact, because I already knew what was happening, I normally
wouldn't even think to ask the question...
However, the question had now occurred
to me and I was determined to find out just what were people
up to when these events we call 'misuses' where occurring? That
is, what they were up to in their 'world' (how they saw things
from their point of view) while I (in my 'trained' world) was
seeing their 'misuses' and 'unconscious habits'.
It was a quite exciting prospect — a "whole
new field of endeavour" I thought. I also thought it might take
me a while to tease out what was happening to/for people, but
it turned out to be a lot easier and faster than I thought.
I decided to take the most direct route I
could think of which was to simply stop people in the middle
of any activity when those 'misuses' (heads pulling back, backs
shortening, etc.) were most noticeably happening, and then immediately
ask them where they were in their attention, what were they
thinking, feeling, intending, etc.
I also realized quickly that I would need
to carry out this experiment only with quite new pupils if I
was going to find out what they were up to in their 'normal'
or 'natural' habits, because once they'd had a few lessons,
what they were up to (at least in the lesson situation) was
what their teacher(s) had taught them to be up to.
Initially, I was using those common Alexander
activities of standing and sitting from chairs and bending,
but later on things got even more interesting when I explored
with people what they were up to in activities where they themselves
noticed they had problems — playing their violin, caught in
an argument with their partners, and so on. But it will make
more sense to stay with the order in which it came to me.
As we began to explore, it took a while for
each person to understand what I was asking of them in those
moments when I stopped them. They were so used to just doing
what they were doing, and thinking and feeling what they were
thinking and feeling, that they just took it for granted and
had never thought to articulate it. However, they soon got the
hang of it and within the first few weeks of exploring, certain
patterns were starting to emerge.
The first I noticed was in standing when
I'd stop people at that point just when they were about to 'lift
off' the chair and their 'thigh-tightening', 'head-pulling-back'
and 'back-arching/shortening' was usually at its most prominent.
The most common thing people reported when asked where they
were and what they were up to, was that they were way out ahead
of themselves with their awareness on where they were trying
to get to.
The same sort of thing happened when they
sat down. Almost as soon as they started to sit, they'd be already
on the chair in their attention — where they were 'present'.
It also happened when they were standing and went to pick up
a pen from the floor. When I saw them, from my point of view,
'pull their heads way back', 'stiffen their legs' and 'bend
in their lower backs', they were reporting that 'they' were
way out with the pen and their hand and their intention "to
reach for it."
Ah, I thought. Of course! This was familiar.
They were out ahead of themselves. They were end-gaining. I
sort-of already knew that (as some of you may now be saying,
"of course, that's obvious"). They were way out ahead, closer
to their intended future goal than where they were in space
at the moment. In my teaching, I'd just never seen it that way,
from their point of view, even though I, myself, had had the
same habits and experiences as a student not so many years before.
So far this was all, for me, still quite
within the context of the Alexander premises. I was just seeing
(I thought at the time) more clearly how the pupil's conception
and end-gaining brought about the misuses of his or her self
(the head pulling back, etc.).
But then I realized why people with these
habits were not aware of their heads pulling back and such like.
They weren't at all aware of what was happening in their 'body'
because they weren't there! They were way out ahead paying attention
to something else — namely, where they were trying to get to.
No wonder all these 'misuses' went unnoticed...
What the actual conscious, feeling, thinking human being was
doing was "reaching out to get up", or "going down to the chair."
Their own words said it all. It just so happened that when the
human went about things that way, the result was all these physical
reactions which they were not specifically aware of (though,
of course, they did feel them in a general way as the effort
and strain of standing).
Now I really understood what my pupil had
meant when he said that he wasn't pulling his head back.
He was absolutely right. What he was doing, though, was
rushing out ahead of himself to get up — something he'd always
figured he had to do in order to get up, and something he always
experienced the same way thereby reinforcing his sense that
he had to do it.
This got me thinking. Which was 'primary':
the 'unconscious habits' of misuse that I was seeing from the
outside, or the beliefs and the particular intentions and acts
of the human being on the inside who was doing the standing?
By primary, I mean, was one more the cause and the other more
the secondary effect? Or maybe they were simultaneous? Which
did it make most sense to work with? Obviously the more primary
one, whichever that was. Certainly, how I was trained and how
I had been working up to that point was to ignore what the human
beings were actually up to and instead get them to inhibit
something that they, the conscious human beings, were not
actually up to.
So, with this question in mind I carried
on and decided to see how closely the onset of these 'misuses'
(which were 'objectively' seen by me) correlated with people's
inner experience and way of going about things. Specifically,
I wondered what the person was up to at the very start of the
'misuse' pattern as detected by me — in other words which was
first and therefore primary.
So, for a while, we spent time tracking backward
the events until it was clear that the very moment that pupils
took their attention out ahead and began to stand or sit was
the exact moment I could see (or feel with my hands) the slightest
beginning of the 'misuses'. The moment before they started to
stand, their 'use' was relatively fine. But the moment they
'decided' to go to standing and rushed out ahead of themselves,
all these characteristic 'misuses' manifested, seemingly at
the same moment.
I wasn't much closer to seeing directly what
caused what, until I realized (again) that it was clear at the
moment of the beginning of the pattern, that the human beings
were deciding to stand and reach out as they thought they had
to. The human beings were not deciding to pull their
Suddenly, the possibility of a whole new
range of experiments appeared. The people I was working with
were now becoming much more conscious of their rushing out ahead
and aware of exactly the moment when they started to do it.
Thus it occurred to me that rather than have them inhibit the
'pulling back of their heads' which 'they' weren't 'doing' anyway,
I'd get them to inhibit the 'getting ahead of themselves', which
they actually were doing.
It took a little while to accomplish that,
because they were so deeply convinced that they couldn't get
up without doing what they normally did, but after a few attempts
most people were more or less able to just 'stay with themselves'
the whole way. That is, to come to standing being where they
were at each moment, feeling whatever they felt, thinking what
they thought and allowing themselves to remain aware of their
goal but not to rush out beyond their own experience of the
moment in any way, nor in any way to try to change anything.
When they more or less managed this they
all reported that the movement was so much easier than normal.
There was no particular strain or effort and they were so much
more aware and 'present' all the way. Many said it was like
they weren't really 'doing' anything, even though they did achieve
I was amazed, because from my point of view,
those 'habitual unconscious misuses' had more or less disappeared
all by themselves! I had not done any guiding with my hands
or verbal 'directions'. The pupil had not released or directed
or made any change at all in their 'use'. All I had done was
to keep coaching them to stay in the moment with where they
were as they allowed themselves to stand and that was the only
change they had made from their normal rushing.
When we played with the same process in bending
to pick something up, the same thing happened. Just by getting
them to refrain from their normal tendency to get out ahead
of themselves and narrow to the pen, they went instead into
a flowing movement with the most enviable 'monkey' and obviously
supported balance. Again they reported much less sense of effort
and so much more presentness and wholeness. And no one had been
taking care of any of those details at all!
What was happening in front of me in their
physical co-ordination and functioning — what I had been used
to calling their 'use of the self' — was just happening all
by itself when the pupil stopped doing what they had actually
As a process, it was very easy to help them
catch what they were actually doing because they were
actually doing it. When they could choose not to do that (which
meant making a choice against their reinforced belief system),
their whole system functioned differently without anyone having
to direct it. And I do mean their whole system. Not just a free
neck or a sense of more free hips or better breathing, but a
whole person was present.
In fact, most people didn't even report changes
in specific parts at all, just that 'they' were more there,
feeling more easy and more whole. They didn't become more
aware of their body and their pullings down, they didn't
even have a body. They were just themselves all the way
out into the room around them. This was one of the most distinct
differences that people reported, especially those who were
used to the experiences from inhibiting pulling their heads
back and directing while the teacher guided them in action.
I was beginning to get my answer as to what
was more primary...
At this point I'm tempted to go on with another
example of what an important difference it makes when we find
out what the person is actually up to compared to when we assume
that they are unconsciously pulling down. And I will. Later.
But that example shows a quite different
aspect of how we work and in any case, came quite a few years
after these first discoveries. Therefore, first I'd like to
look at the conclusions I drew from these initial experiments
and what seemed to be happening in them, because the light it
throws on our Alexander belief system, suggests some very different
interpretations from the ones Alexander drew. If you are impatient,
you can jump ahead to the section titled, "The Violinist" for
the other example and come back here later.
When I'd repeated these experiments enough
times over a number of months, and when other teachers and trainees
around me had also made similar experiments and we'd all seen
the same sort of thing happening again and again, it was clear
enough what the events were that occurred to hazard a theory
of what was going on.
On the face of it, what seemed to be happening
was that when people — the actual thinking, feeling, intending,
human beings — got out ahead of themselves (for whatever reasons)
there took place a set of consistent physical reactions (heads
pulling back, legs tightening, etc.) that simply did not
take place if they were not getting ahead of themselves.
When they were not getting ahead of themselves
they were operating in a way that I was coming to think of as
just being present in the moment (because that's how
people often described it). Being present in each moment of
whatever activity, neither out ahead, nor in any way looking
into the physical feelings or parts observing or correcting
or inhibiting anything in the body; just accepting whatever
state they are in, whether they liked that state or not, simply
because that IS where they are at the moment.
Since they were not doing anything at all
at these moments except allowing themselves to go into activity
as they are and since, when they did that, everything seemed
to work quite well, co-ordinated and whole with a definite good
use, I found it hard to avoid drawing the conclusion that when
someone was just being themselves in the present moment,
some inherent integrating function was taking care of everything
in a quite satisfactory way. The human beings sure weren't doing
it — they weren't doing anything at all except being themselves!
This was as literally non-doing as you can get, seems
Furthermore, since the only thing they had
changed was to register what they had actually been up to and
then choose not to do it, it was also an obvious conclusion
that those habitual 'doings' constituted an interference
to this integrating function (or primary control or whatever
we choose to call it). Sounds kind of Alexander doesn't it?
Except here we're not talking about 'unconscious habits' of
misuse of the body (necks, backs and legs) interfering with
the functioning, but rather people's experienced actions based
on their reality construct.
From this new point of view, then, the learning
possible and available for any individual, is not that they
have unconscious habits of pulling their heads back, etc. which
they need to inhibit and preventatively direct, but that they
have had a whole belief system, reinforced by their tangible
sensory experience (which is why it seems like a 'reality' to
the person — they 'feel' it). The precise form that this construct
has taken for any particular individual will, of course, depend
on their experiences and history.
The further learning for that person is that
their 'old reality' was an unreliable or false appreciation
of what was happening because when they refrain from rushing
out ahead and doing anything to help themselves up, they actually
get up more easily. How can they escape for long the conclusion
that what they thought was helping them get up, was actually
making it harder to get up? That is, that they had been suffering
(literally) under a delusion as to the way that the world (gravity,
muscles, everything) works and now they were coming to a
more true (or accurate or reliable) construct or interpretation
I was coming to see more and more clearly
the distinction between what the person was up to and the physical/physiological
effects of that doing. And that when someone changed what they
were doing, the physical/physiological effects immediately also
changed. That is, I was beginning to see that what was happening
physically or functionally (heads pulling back, legs tightening,
etc.) was simply the organization or coordination of that particular
kind of doing that the person was up to.
There was a piece of the puzzle missing to
me when I had got this far. Why those particular kinds of coordination
(or mal-coordination if you like) when the person, for instance
got out ahead of themselves, and why the change to a much better
functioning when they came back to just being as they were in
I had to play around with these experiments
myself so that I was, as much as I could, experiencing that
same change before I understood this one. It is easiest to understand
what I found by looking at what is happening in sitting down.
When I just go 'in the moment' (not getting ahead of myself)
I find myself balanced and all parts moving together. I could
change direction and walk or stand up again at any time. There
is no particular sense of effort and nothing standing out in
any one part of me more than any other. It was nice — 'nothing'
When I switched to 'end-gaining' or taking
my attention out ahead to the chair I was now trying to get
to, I had an immediate experience of going off balance backwards
and my arms and chest reached out to regain balance — the effect
of which was that, relatively speaking, my head came back. This
reaching certainly helped with my balance, but I still came
with a bump onto the chair. This definitely felt familiar from
Try it yourself by standing in front of a
hard chair and going to sitting by sticking your bum backwards
and going for the chair. You'll see (and feel) the immediate
reaction as your legs grab and your arms reach a bit forward.
I realized that the same thing was happening
when I stood up my 'old' way. I was rushing out ahead to get
up off the chair at a moment when I still wasn't over my feet.
The pull of my upper body and the grab of my legs was again
part of a balance reaction. The same thing also happened
when I went to bend by narrowing my attention out to what I
wanted to pick up and reaching out with an arm, my upper torso
following forward. My legs had to grab to save me from slamming
into the floor. As my legs grabbed, they were unable to go into
their inherent monkey-like bending and I had to pull and strain
my arm and torso even more to 'reach' the pen.
Looking at things this way was suddenly turning
everything up side down. The pulling back of the head and tightening
of the legs in sitting had been, in 'Alexander' terms, a 'misuse'
— a so-called 'unconstructive and unconscious habit'. Now it
could be seen to be not only a perfectly normal balance
reaction, but, in fact, a very good and essential protective
reaction. Without that response, you'd be in deep trouble
as you went off balance and smashed into the chair or the floor.
That is your millions-of-years-evolved system saying, "You're
the boss. If you want to go out ahead like that, I'll just do
my best to cope with it and try to save you." And it's a totally
coordinated, whole pattern to boot, perfectly appropriate to
the situation and automatically coming into play.
In other words, Alexander's phraseology was
more right-on than he probably realized. The use of the self
was exactly that — what the 'I' was up to, not what my body
was up to. What happened in your body was the consequent completely
coordinated pattern of functioning of that particular
use of the self. Coordinated, that is, in the sense of
an entire pattern from top to bottom even though that pattern
may be full of contractions and stress points because of what
is needed to cope with what you are up to. And for sure,
use affects functioning. Not some time later, but immediately
and always. Indeed the 'body pattern' is nothing more or less
than the automatic and highly-coordinated functioning of the
use of ourselves.
From this construct, it can be seen that
there is absolutely nothing 'wrong' with these 'functionings'.
They are simply the inevitable and appropriate coordination
of what the person is up to. This is obvious when we invite
someone to stop doing what they were actually doing (their
use) and the next moment the entire system is in a different
coordination — one that is much better, much more whole and
much easier. The misuse is in what the self is
doing, not in the coordinated body functioning that arises.
And misuse is really an inaccurate term for it. You, the self,
are doing what you are doing because, in your reality construct,
that is what makes sense to do. That is, it is mistaken appreciation
or inaccurate conception of how the universe works. This can
only change by exposing the misconceptions so learning can take
This also explains why we don't normally
feel our heads pulling back, etc. We're not meant to. All that
coordinated functioning is already taken care of 'naturally'
by millions of years of evolution so that we don't have to pay
attention to it. Indeed, we have no business in there, which
is why we're not set up to feel what goes on inside — all we'll
end up doing if we try is to interfere. Just because we can
see a head pull back we assume we know how it all works and
we further assume it's up to us to do something about it.
Well, I can tell you, my assumptions were
certainly being blown all apart!
(this section has been extracted
into an article in its own right - see
The Violinist (aussi
Fast forward quite a number of years to a
small group class of about 5 people in London just after I had
ended my training school.
A violinist had come for the first time.
She wanted help with a painful tension in the forearm of her
bowing arm. If I remember correctly (it was well over a year
ago), she had been forced to give up playing for a time and
had recently gone back to playing some professional concerts
of chamber music with 4 or 5 other musicians. She'd begun to
have the problem again and was worried that it would get worse
and disrupt her chances of playing. She had previously had some
Alexander lessons with a teacher near where she lived and that
work had made her feel better at the moment and for a while
after, but the problem kept coming back. She had come to me
because she had heard that I had a different way of working
and that maybe I could help her get rid of the problem.
I invited her to notice that she already
had a belief system in which she identified the problem with
the symptom. The 'it' she wanted to get rid of was the tension
and pain. I explained that in my approach we were not going
to do anything to change her arm or relieve the tension or learn
any procedures that would enable her to get rid of the tension
if it returned, but rather we were going to find out what was
causing the problem so that she could change the cause and not
have the tension at all any more.
And how we were going to find the cause was
to look carefully at the situation to gather information to
become clear about what was happening — the actual events, her
thoughts, feelings, etc. and the sequence of these. If we could
see clearly what was happening then maybe we'd see what the
actual problem was. Part of the larger situation was that she
was here to see what she might be able to do to change. So the
first place to look is always to see what she herself may be
doing or be up to, the effect of which is (probably among other
things) to make her right arm tense and sore. Only afterwards,
if this does not change everything, does it make sense to look
at what she might need to learn about how to go about changing
her arm or her 'posture' (as she put it) or learning better
bowing technique, etc.
So I began to ask questions to get more information
about what was happening. First I asked her when she noticed
the tension and pain? She said that it happened on and off,
but that it was almost always when she was playing the violin.
I asked her what happened when she felt these
symptoms — how did she respond to this event? She thought a
moment and replied that she was usually busy playing, but that
she tried to relax her arm because she could feel that she was
gripping the bow too tightly and that lately she'd been trying
to release her neck too, but that it usually didn't help much.
I pointed out again that it seemed that she
felt that what was wrong was the symptom and because of that
reality construct (or belief system) it seemed to make perfect
sense for her to do something to change her state of tension
in order to get rid of the 'problem'.
Then I asked if she knew why she had
this symptom when she played the violin? She said that she didn't
know exactly, but it must be something she was doing wrong in
her bowing or her posture or maybe because she was just too
I asked if she knew what the 'something'
was that she thought she was doing wrong. After a moment she
had to admit that she really didn't know at all, but had been
to quite a few teachers (music and otherwise) to see if they
Notice, I told her, that you don't actually
know what may be happening to cause the tension, yet you are
assuming you can change it by somehow altering the body state
to get rid of it. Notice also that this doesn't seem to be working.
At the very least you can sometimes (or your teachers can) manage
to change the tension state, but then there it is back again
the very next time you do...??? What?? Well, the bare fact of
the matter is that you don't know what you're doing each
The most important thing in learning is for
anyone to know what they don't know, then they'll know
what they need to learn. If they don't really realize that they
don't yet know what is causing these symptoms, of course they
have no option but to try to cope with them. If they are led
to think that the symptoms are the problem, they will
not even think to look for the cause, but only the 'solution'.
Since she now knew that she didn't know what
the cause is, we turned our attention to how we can find out.
So how can she do this? Notice that she always has a 'natural'
place to start, which is at the moment of her symptom, the tension.
This was the moment in which her wonderful system sent a loud
message to her with red lights and sirens saying, "oh oh, wake
up, something is wrong! Something is happening that you need
At this point in the learning process, she
only had the 'wake-up call' but not the information as to what
it was that might need changing. So I asked her if she ALWAYS
had the tension and/or pain when she played the violin. And
she answered that no, only some of the time. For instance, last
week her group was playing a small promotional gig that they
were not even being paid for and there was no problem. In fact
she played well and it was quite fun to play. But then two days
later they played in a bigger hall and there were three critics
present so she was hoping it would be the same, but she had
the symptoms quite strongly.
The next question was obvious: so if you
have the symptoms some of the time while playing and not other
times, what is different between the times when you have it
and when you don't?
She thought a bit again and then said, well,
when I don't really care I don't get it, but as soon as I start
to care how well I play, there it is. (I'll bet this sounds
familiar to any musicians out there on the alextech forum, eh?)
I pointed out to her that she had had available
to her a lot of information: she had recognized the symptoms,
she knew when she had the symptoms and when she didn't, she
even knew the kind of situations where one happened versus the
kind of situation where the other happened. What she hadn't
thought to do was to compare them for the difference. One simple
question from me and there it was.
It is important to help people recognize
when they have information from their own experience that was
already there and available to them. It is also important
to affirm for them that their wonderful information gathering
systems are working very well. It is the construct placed on
that information that hides its meaning for them. They have
been having the experience, but missing the meaning.
That is, they can 'have the experience' until the cows come
home and not be able to help themselves one little bit if they
fail to understand what it is an experience of.
So there we were with this clue that after
she started to 'care', she started to experience the tension.
What's important at this stage is to distinguish very clearly
between the things that are happening 'to me' and the things
that 'I am doing'. Remember our young man above — the head pulling
back was happening to him; he was not doing it. But he was doing
the rushing out to get up. When he stopped doing that, the head
pulling back did not happen.
For our violinist, the tension was happening
to her. She didn't say to herself, "now I'll tense my arm and
make it hurt." It just happened — she didn't even want it. It
was important for her to realize that the 'starting to care'
was also happening to her. She didn't say, "hmm, now I'll start
to care here. Yes, there it is, now I've got it. I'm starting
to care." She just found herself caring more at some times than
at others. This is clear if we look at it the other way around.
If she mistook her caring for the problem and tried to change
it, just how would she do that? Can you decide not to care?
If you try it, does it really work?
Thus, we were still one step away. We had
not quite found what she was doing, but we were very close.
I asked her if she did anything differently in those situations
where she started to care? She replied that, for instance when
the critics were in the audience, she wanted to play wonderfully.
And she got quite nervous before the performance that she wouldn't
be able to play as well as she wanted. So she tried to play
really well. Whereas, when she didn't care, she didn't do anything
There we had it: 'she tried to play really
well'. In her belief system, of course (and many other peoples'
as well) it made perfect sense for her to try to 'improve' her
playing when it was important. And because it made perfect sense
she went ahead and did it, every time...
I asked her whether, in those situations
when she cared and tried to play better, she actually did manage
to play better? She said, "No, not at all! Worse. I play better
when I don't care." Even though she had just said the words,
she obviously was not taking in the significance of her experiences
or she would have seen that these direct experiences over and
over were not at all matching her belief system. But in the
beginning stages of being liberated from delusion (if I may
put it that way), the ideas of the belief system are far more
'real' than the actual real life experiences. And someone will
hang onto those ideas or ideals even in the face of constantly
contradictory experiences. As long as they are hanging on, their
constructing nature simply 'construes' these experiences in
another way that fits the belief or filters them out. More on
At any rate, having found something that,
as near as she could tell, she was 'doing' — trying to play
better — we were now in the position to make an experiment.
What if she could meet that moment and not do what she usually
did? Fortunately, I had made sure that she brought her violin
and we had a group there who could be her audience of critics.
We set up the experiment so that she could play one of the pieces
she wanted to play well. It was realistic enough for her because
she was already nervous about playing well and what the others
I told her that she could not fail at this
experiment, because the goal here was not to play well, but
to see if it was possible to meet that situation in which she
would normally react to her caring by trying to play better
and instead to not do anything at all to play better. To just
play however she plays and no better. In other words, to go
about it the same way she does when she doesn't care, even though
she may be feeling very different. The worst that can happen
is that it won't come out the way she wants.
She started to play and I let her go on for
about a minute or two, long enough for the experiment. The first
question is always, "how well did you manage the experiment?"
There is, after all, no point in looking at the results of an
experiment that we haven't even succeeded in making.
She said she had not managed it very well.
She'd been doing OK for a while, then when it didn't sound the
way she wanted, she started to try to play better and she could
feel the tension already in her arm. That's good, I told her,
that you see that as soon as you start trying, you get the symptom.
That symptom is what it feels like to try to be better than
you are. What an idea, eh? To try to be better than you are!
Just think of it.
It's also good that you could notice exactly
when you started trying. Right there in the moment, I asked
her, precisely what sort of trying you were doing?
She reflected back for a moment and then
said that she had focused on those notes to get them right.
A few more questions revealed that she started to narrow her
focus to the notes after some notes had been 'wrong'
and that by 'focusing' on the notes she meant taking her attention
specially to the area where the bow touched the strings — where
she thought 'the notes' came from.
We now had more precise information about
the exact nature of what she was doing. And, more importantly,
her doing had now been a tangible experience for her. Of course,
it was before too, after all, SHE had been doing it. She just
had never quite 'realized' that was what she started to do,
even though she had been there experiencing it. Perhaps, more
to the point, she had not had a construct where this was potentially
important information about what she might want to stop doing.
She had a construct where this was precisely what she had
to do to play better.
So, we went into the experiment again, choosing
to not do anything to play better no matter how she felt or
how it sounded and this time with the extra clarity that if
any notes 'went wrong', that was not a stimulus to focus
to make them right. Rather, any notes 'going wrong' could be
a reminder to just register that they were not the notes she
wanted and carry on without doing anything to 'correct' them.
She played again and after a while I asked
how well she had managed the experiment and she said she'd managed
much better, but there were still some times when she had focused
on trying to play well. I reminded her that this was only the
second experiment and already she was improving in her ability
to carry it out. Again she had noticed when she had reacted
by trying the tension was there. We were still not looking at
any results, since she was still learning how to make the experiment.
After another reminder of what the experiment
was, we went into it a third time. This time she said that she
had more or less managed to just let happen what happened without
reacting with her focused trying. These three experiments had
taken about 15 minutes to explain and carry out.
Now, since she had more or less managed the
experiment, was the time to look at the results. I asked her
what had happened? It was easy, she said.
I asked her if she knew why it was easy?
She looked puzzled for a moment then said with a smile, it was
because she hadn't done anything. Just like the times you don't
care, I added.
Then she added that she'd played really well.
Just like the times you didn't care, I added. But it was important
that she really take in that she didn't 'do' the 'playing really
well'. It just happened. She did the choosing not to try to
do what she usually did to help out. That's why it 'just' happened.
Interestingly, by the last experiment, she
didn't care any more. But that also, just happened. It was easy.
Notice I said to her, that so far she had
spoken mostly of the 'musical' results. How did she feel in
that last experiment? What about this tension thing?
The tension had completely disappeared! It
was there when she first played and a little when she played
the second time, but now it was gone. So gone, she hadn't even
noticed its absence until I asked her. I asked her to play in
her old way again, focusing on the notes to get them right.
After a minute or so, the tension was right back there again.
When she gave up trying to control the notes at all and 'just
played', it was gone again.
She was very surprised. She said she had
expected me to work with her arm to help her release the tension
and with her body like others had. I replied that, what we just
did, what she just experienced, was that when she stopped reacting
in her old way by trying to control her playing, the tension
went. How could we see the tension as anything other than the
functional organization of her trying? That is, the tension
is part of the entire 'coordination' that her system organizes
to carry out her trying to control her playing. Remember. she's
Or to put it slightly differently, what she
was doing was the 'trying to control'. The tension was the experience
of that kind of trying to control. No more, no less. It has
nothing to do with her arm, except that her arm is where
she happens to feel that part of the entire coordination. It
does have to do with her belief system and how she was
'forced' down a certain pathway of action because in that belief
system 'controlling' is the only thing that makes sense to do.
Now, however, she is in a very different
place. Now she has quite consciously seen how she normally reacts
to certain events (the critics hence the wrong notes) which
she interprets in certain ways (they won't like her unless she
is even better than she is) and therefore is forced to react
by doing something ('trying to control' — as if that made sense
to do and as if a human being could actually do it).
She has also actually made the experiment
of quite consciously meeting those moments and choosing not
to react that way. It took her a few times to learn to do that,
but only 3 times over 15 minutes.
And, from that experiment, she has quite
consciously registered that some very surprising things happened
(and didn't happen) when she did choose differently. Her surprise
shows that she was not at all expecting those results. In fact
she was convinced, as are most people, that if they don't do
their controlling 'techniques' it will be really, really bad.
With all these conscious experiences and
an understanding of what they are experiences of,
how could her belief system stay intact?
She just perceived how the 'controlling'
was not actually making her play better. When she stopped
it, she played better. This contradicts her belief system.
And she saw that the 'playing better' happened
by itself. She didn't have to do it. This contradicts
her belief system.
And if she didn't do anything to play
better, how can we interpret it but that this is how well she
actually plays, since it is what is happening when she
is not doing anything. She certainly didn't know that
she plays this well. And how could she when she had constant
experiences of playing poorly because she was trying to play
Her attempts to control 'to play better'
can now been seen for what they are — interferences that bring
down her playing. This is also different than her belief system.
And the tension was simply the feeling of
her trying to control; of narrowing her attention in order to
try to take over her already existing coordination. She
didn't know this before but she knows it now because every time
she stops the trying it goes away and every time she starts
trying again, it's back. After all, what is tension, but the
feeling of us working against ourselves?
She also experienced in the most powerful
way that the process she just used was so different from
what she normally does and felt so absolutely against her
habit that she would probably never ever have thought to
use it. This also gives a very good measure of the familiarity
and strength of her normal construct — roughly equal to the
amount of 'force' she has to meet and the amount of courage
she needs to make that choice.
But 'just' the experiences that 'go against'
her construct are not enough. She must understand them for what
they are. So I went to great trouble to re-iterate for her what
she was registering and to put these experiences of hers in
conjunction with the belief system as she has revealed it, so
that the contradictions sit there like a large elephant in the
teaching room and can't be kept separate.
I pointed out that she must not accept these
obvious interpretation as fact at this point. One time proves
nothing. But, if she goes home and keeps making the same
experiment each time in the next few weeks that she notices
her symptom wake-up call, she will see if a similar thing
happens. If so, then maybe she can believe it. In these first
experiences, we can only make a tentative hypothesis, subject
to further proof. Or at least it is tentative for the pupil
for whom this is the first time and brand new. I have seen it
hundreds of times with as many pupils in the last several years
so 'working principle' is a better term for where I am. Or perhaps
'new construct' would do as well.
Notice that all this happens without any
need to assume 'unconscious habits' of pulling back the head'
or 'stiffening her arm'. Nor any need for consequent 'directing'
of necks to be free, or releasing arms either. In fact, no need
for any teacher's hands on at all, since we are simply working
with the pupil's own existing awareness and perception and
their existing ability to choose once their actions are perceived.
There is not only no need for the teacher
to 'give' the pupil a new experience, it would be positively
counter-productive since, from this point of view, the pupil
is already having lots of their own experiences all the time.
They are simply misinterpreting these experiences. They just
didn't know that to go about things the way they are going about
them inevitably brings about the particular symptoms they were
experiencing. Through that lack of knowledge they doomed to
repeat those experiences. They had a faulty construct or 'reality
appreciation' as I put it, and therefore, quite 'naturally'
were acting in the way that made sense to them from the point
of view of that construct or belief system.
As human beings we are construct-creating
creatures. Perhaps other creatures have this also, but we certainly
do in a big way. It is our nature to always take in the raw
flux of experience and interpret it. This is not under your
conscious control. This 'constructing' takes place deep in your
system long before 'you', the conscious human being, are presented
with the fully-constructed results as 'reality'. In fact, 'you'
the conscious human being are part of this construct, since
the construct is your consciousness. Your existing belief
systems provide the filters for the raw data so that only some
sensations fit within your construct and so are deemed important
and hence are 'experienced'. These 'experiencings' in turn reinforce
the construct until, for most people, the construct becomes
ever more deeply fixed and 'certain'.
But an example that most of us have experienced
will make aspects of this construct-creation clear. Have you
ever been in a train waiting in a station with another train
waiting on the track right outside your window? Then your train
moves off until a few seconds later, you realize that it wasn't
you moving, it was the train beside you?
Notice the sudden start when you 'realize'
you're not moving. Your wonderful millions-of-years-evolved
construct-creating system took in the visual motion outside
the window and sent you a 'reality' that you were moving. It
wasn't an idea, it was a lived experience of really moving.
That's why there's the sudden surprise, the almost physical
jolt when your 'reality' changes. We are visually-dominant creatures,
remember, which is why this construct can be so dominant even
when there are none of the usual kinaesthetic sensations supporting
movement. The physical 'jolt' is the returning to the kinaesthetic
experience of 'yourself' which had been filtered out as not
matching the moving construct.
You can understand why this is the first
'reality' you are presented with if you remember that this construct
system evolved way back when we lived mostly 'in nature' not
in our own self-created environments. In nature, when the visual
background is moving, it is because you are moving relative
to it. It is not often in nature that you are standing still
and the whole world is moving!. Quite possibly your anticipation
of the train starting to move plays a part in determining the
Another aspect of this 'illusion' that is
worth noting is that the you-are-moving construct carries on
until some sensory data so blatantly contradicts it that your
system is forced to re-interpret. Usually it is something like
the other train pulls past you and you see that you are left
standing still in the station. Or you notice the unmoving station
through the windows of the other train.
Your construct-creating system is not there
to trick you, of course, but to give you the best interpretation
it can come up with. When the data can't be made to fit, your
system goes, "Oops, sorry about that interpretation, here, try
this one." you don't have to figure out what is happening
and come up with a better interpretation, you just get the
new improved reality dumped unceremoniously into your
The same process is at work in these lessons.
As we bring out the belief system in people's words and actions
and show them how their construct channels them into taking
certain actions, then make the experiments of not going down
that pathway, of course, such different experiences come up
that blatantly contradict the old 'reality'. They don't have
to intellectually 'understand' what is happening, though it
helps. They just have to 'be present' for the contradiction.
This 'violation' of the 'reality' of the construct shows it
for what it is — merely a construct, and a faulty one at that.
No self-respecting reality can stand up to that demotion and
sooner of later will collapse under its own weight.
Fortunately for us, just like in the train,
we don't need to come up with a new and more accurate construct.
Your system has millions of years of experience at that and
will happily manufacture another one in short order. And it
will be intrinsically more accurate than the last because
it has to take all these new facts and contradictions into account.
Most people, of course, with a lifetime of
existing under one major reality, will seize upon a new one
as if this time it really is reality and attempt to fix it into
certainty. It takes several times through the cycle and several
changes of reality to see that we will be trading in our old,
less accurate and less workable realities for new, more accurate
and more workable ones as long as they are relatively inaccurate
to the ultimate 'objective' reality, whatever that is. Another
word for this is learning.
I could go on and on, as I guess you gathered,
but that will have to wait for the book.
Speaking of books, when I was thinking about
this a while back I suddenly thought, what if Alexander had
just made one more connection when he was making his 'evolution
of the technique' experiments? He was so close yet so far.
When he realized that he was pulling his
head back, lifting his chest and depressing his larynx, what
if he hadn't been so quick to assume that he was doing
When he saw that it wasn't just his head,
neck and back, but an entire pattern of his whole system, what
if he had asked, "pattern of what?"
When he noticed that the same pattern was
happening in his normal speaking in daily life but much less
exaggerated, what if he had gone on to ask, "what am I doing
differently in performing than in daily life?"
Who knows what he might have found, but like
many performers I've worked with, he might have found that he
had a construct that says performing took some extra preparation
on his part, like the gripping of the stage with his feet that
he had already noticed. Perhaps in those days of large unamplified
halls, he may have found that his respiratory problems instilled
in him the sense that he needed to try a little more to project
his voice out to the whole theatre.
This is pure speculation, of course, and
it doesn't matter what he might have found, but if he had found
something like this, what if he had then made the experiment
of not doing the extra bit he thought he had to do?
What if he then found that his whole coordination
changed and the head pulling back, chest raising, etc. was no
And what if a colleague out in the hall said
that not only was his voice filling the hall nicely, but that
the quality was much, much better, mate?
This is exactly the sort of thing which happens
to the performers I work with all the time.
Everything would have been very different
if Alexander had made that connection. But he didn't and the
Alexander work has become largely defined by its hands-on work
whereby teachers facilitate changed psycho-physical experiences
for the pupil, and by the principle of inhibiting unconscious
physical/functional habits and preventatively directing in order
to allow the optimal 'pyscho-physical functioning'.
Of course, I don't expect all these words
to necessarily convince anyone. Words cannot do that. You'd
need to come and see for yourself again and again what happens.
Or better still, open your eyes from this new point of view
in your work and see what happens when you find out what the
person is actually up to...
I would like to end with a thought about
'standing on the shoulders of giants' as Newton said. I can't
see that I would have been in a position to make the discoveries
I have if I had not had the benefit of the discoveries Alexander
did make and the teachers who taught me.
Anyone who has experienced the benefits they
gained from study of the Technique knows that they are better
off after than before. They also know some of the knots and
difficulties they (and their pupils if they are teachers) can
get into trying to make sense of the work. Maybe these are not
just their difficulties. Maybe there are some conceptions
in the work that could benefit from another point of view.
However, I wish to repeat, that the question
for me is not what is wrong with the Technique. The real
question is how much further can we go when we can see things
even more clearly?
Postscript: Where this has taken me...
Needless to say, my discoveries and experiences
have moved me to very different understanding and consequently
to a very different practice. Initially, of course, when I was
running the training course to train Alexander teachers in London,
I was seeing these insights as deepening my Alexander understanding.
Then, as they began to move into new territory, I saw it as
new developments of the Alexander work, stretching it to new
possibilities. This was something that to me had always seemed
to what the work was about — learning, growth and development.
The reactions of some of my colleagues showed
me that many people did not the want the work to change beyond
its recognizable (to them) 'traditions'.
So, after much consideration of whether it
made sense, in spite of them, to keep trying to shoehorn this
new work into a stretched definition of the Alexander work,
or posit a 'new' Alexander work that is evolving, it is becoming
more and more apparent that this really is a radically different
work. At the very least, people familiar with the Alexander
Technique would be surprised by this new work (and often are),
and anyone knowing this new work, would not be expecting what
they would likely get from an Alexander teacher. This is an
Thus, I tend not call myself an Alexander
teacher any longer and do not teach the Alexander Technique
any more as I learned it. It makes no sense for me to do so
knowing what I now know.
I have named this new work, LearningMethods
(which is sort of self-explanatory) and there are others now
teaching the work with me. They are, or were, all Alexander
teachers. Most of them either trained with, or worked with me
in the Centre for Training, my Alexander teacher training course
in London, England. All of them carried on with me as the new
work evolved and developed, and all of them have been consistently
part of that learning and development.
There are a growing number of other Alexander
teachers who are coming to workshops and studying when they
can, then going back to their practices and trying out these
new ideas. It's a big change to make for someone trained in
There are also a number of other people who
are in the process of learning to be come teachers with me.
Three of these were part way through their Alexander training
with Ann Penistan and myself when the training ended and have
elected to carry in this new work. They are very nearly ready
to go off on their own as new teachers of the work. Others have
just begun and this work will be their experience of learning
to help others learn [see note below with update from 2013,
15 years later than this article was first written].
There is no formal or full-time training.
Instead they are learning in what amounts to an on-going apprenticeship
situation. That is, they attend most of the workshops I give
and, along with their own on-going learning for themselves,
begin to practice working with others as they see how people
learn. It is not a formal training in the sense that there is
no structure of separate classes for those training. The people
learning to become teachers are learning in the 'real life'
situation of the workshops where 'real life' people (if I may
call them that) bring their real-life problems and go through
their realizations and changes.
There is no time frame to their 'training'
(that is, it is not a '3-year training'). People who are interested
just keep coming and keep learning, extending their learning
more and more toward helping others until they have learned
enough to manage that competently. This might take longer for
some than for others depending on how often they can attend
and where they are in their own understanding and practice when
they start.. Certainly makes it hard for anyone to end-gain
for the certificate. And it automatically selects those who
really are dedicated enough to keep coming on their own steam.
We'll see how it all works out...
[UPDATE from 2013: In the 15 years since
this article was first written there are now, of course, many
more LearningMethods Teachers out
there teaching and helping develop the work. Some of them have
written articles on this website.
Others are currently apprentice-teachers in training, and now
a large part of the training takes place in weekly online live
video conferences. This allows people to meet regularly from
as far afield as Romania in Eastern Europe to the west coast
of Canada and the USA.
Some of teachers and apprentices are or were Alexander Technique
teachers but others have no Alexander background and come from
backgrounds as diverse as the head of a university theatre department,
a lawyer, a dentist, a director of a community leadership program,
as well as musicians, singers, actors, and dancers...
There is a small biography
of personal details about the author below.
About the Author
David Gorman has been studying human
structure and function since 1970. He is the author of an illustrated 600-page
text on our human musculoskeletal system, called
The Body Moveable (now in
its 6th edition and in colour), and numerous articles and essays, including
the book, Looking at Ourselves (2nd
edition in colour).
David has been working with performers (singers,
musicians, actors, dancers and circus artists) for over forty years. He is a
trainer of teachers of LearningMethods and of the
Alexander Technique and has taught all
over the world in universities, conservatories, performance companies, and orchestras;
for doctors in hospitals and rehabilitation clinics; and in training courses
for Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, physiotherapy, osteopathy, massage & yoga.
Over the years, his changing understanding about the
root causes of people's problems led him to gradually extend his Alexander Technique
teaching into the development of a new work, LearningMethods (and an
offshoot, Anatomy of Wholeness about our marvelous human design), which
is being integrated into the curricula of performance schools in Europe, Canada
and the United States by a growing number of LearningMethods
Teachers and Apprentice-teachers.
For the last 6 years, David has been running online
post-graduate groups for Alexander Technique teachers and groups for those who
want to learn to use LearningMethods in their own lives and work, as well as
a group for those who want to go on to train as LearningMethods teachers.
Telephone: +1 416-519-5470
78 Tilden Crescent, Etobicoke, Ontario M9P 1V7 Canada (map)