The training of teachers of the F.M. Alexander Technique in a group setting has been going on since the founder began his course in 1931. It is a fundamental aspect of teaching the Technique that at some point in giving lessons to people it is necessary for the teacher to make direct physical contact with the pupil. Thus, learning how to do this becomes an important part of the training of teachers.
I gather from my teacher Walter Carrington, that Alexander himself made it very clear that no-one training with him should be allowed to put hands on another student until the trainees use of themselves was reasonably conscious – i.e. that the trainee could maintain good use of themselves relatively continuously with clear understanding of conscious self-inhibition and of giving conscious self-directions. In practice this meant that trainees found they needed to work on themselves rather thoroughly for at least a year of training prior to being allowed to put hands on.
The fundamental principle
The principle is simple. If your use is at the early stages of conscious development then putting hands on another at this time will mean that the other will receive a poor stimulus. What ‘poor’ means is likely to be either too weak (empty of meaning) or too ‘doing’ (i.e. performed with an excess of tension), or just heavy (i.e. not enough ‘up’ in the person putting the hands on). This is not good for the recipient of such a stimulus. Additionally, since the trainee will not be very clear about anything to do with how to put on hands at this stage, they will need a great many checks and corrections in the matter from the directors of training. This is not good for the trainee as it can undermine confidence. The other opposite danger is that the trainee may get excited about ‘doing’ something to the recipient.
When I trained with Walter Carrington the delay principle was upheld. We were allowed to put hands on another student only after about one year of training. The principle made perfect sense to me because as the year progressed, I became more and more aware of just how unaware I was of general misuses I had been and was still exhibiting. Putting hands on was only conducted under careful guidance from Walter who ensured we made contact only in very safe procedures and for a very short time.
It never occurred to me to try and ‘practice hands on someone at home’ with any friends, in order to ‘get it right’. I trusted Walter knew better than I did what hands-on progress entailed for me and I also agreed with the delay principle to allow me time to improve my use.
The training of Alexander teachers
I have now been training teachers since 1982. Trainees vary greatly in terms of their eagerness to learn about putting hands on. Some are quite content to wait and follow the principle of gaining improved use first and take a great interest in self responsibility and self-development. Others, on the other hand, can sometimes be so eager to work on people that it feels very frustrating for them not to be allowed to ‘get on with it’ and learn to put hands on as early as possible. These trainees equate learning to put hands on with learning how to teach the Technique. It is sometimes very difficult to get these trainees to learn to take time, to learn to work on themselves, and to learn to respect the principle of the primary need for good use in themselves prior to putting hands on.
The problems with putting hands on early
The over-eager trainees are mostly the ones who want to know all the ‘tricks’. They want to know exactly where to put hands and how to get ‘effects’ in the people they work on. As directors of training we usually find that it is necessary to try to delay the eager ones from putting on hands as long as we can – even more than one year delay. However, this sometimes means that we later find they have been secretly working on friends or relations at home without our permission. In our view these trainees always delay their own progress and usually become superficial in their teaching. They often worry too much about ‘techniques’ and ‘things to do in lessons’. In a fundamental way they have missed the point and are teaching, in the words of a valued colleague ‘the weak version’ of the Alexander Technique. They usually find later on that the pupils they attract love the experience of a table turn but are reluctant to actually take much responsibility for their own improvement in use. In fact, their pupils tend to regard all the ‘tricks’ and maneuvers of the teacher as a kind of special therapy. The teacher in effect is not teaching but giving a treatment.
The missing point
But what is the point these trainees have missed? It is that when we give lessons by putting hands on, our directions are given to ourselves. We are not doing things to other people. We make contact in a clear but ‘un-grasping’ way and perpetually give ourselves conscious messages of inhibition and direction. The nervous system of the pupil begins to respond to these messages depending upon their conditions and the accuracy of our messages we give ourselves. We do not try to do something to the pupil or manipulate them into a ‘better’ shape or try to ‘cure’ them of their afflictions directly. Our self-attention is a special feature of our work. This is the opposite of doing something to the pupil.
When I give a demonstration of our work to physiotherapists or other health professionals, I make a point of getting them to watch me giving a table turn. I say to them that when I take hold of the pupil’s head, I am not doing something to the person’s head. Instead I am connecting to the whole person at the head and that my interest is almost entirely in what I am doing with my own use and not what I might be ‘doing’ to the pupil. When I take a shoulder, I am not merely doing some technique at the persons shoulder, I have a contact with the entire person at the shoulder, and again it is my own use that is mostly under my scrutiny. I repeat again, I am not trying to do something to the pupil. Such considerations are largely lost when teachers attempt to try out some ‘technique’ or ‘trick’ at some specific part of the pupil. They are not teaching they are, as I said above, giving a treatment.
What is distinctive about our way of working?
Teaching by giving ourselves the maximum attention tends to encourage a release stimulus in general in the pupil. This assists them in altering their sensory understanding and use patterns and is a distinctive characteristic of our work. It is an indirect process in action as distinct from a direct attempt to produce some ‘effect’. In our experience as training directors when trainees delay their hands-on training until they have mastered a decently continuous level of conscious use of themselves, their understanding of this indirect way of working is clear. They employ hand contact which is less “doing” and manipulative. Also, their hand contact is not feeble and flimsy. It is steady and informative, both “listening” to the use of the pupil and transmitting a clear signal of general release with direction coming from their integrated own use and lively back.
On the other hand when trainees put hands on too early they tend to either have an empty contact with no transmission of direction (because they have never established their own directions of whole-self use and especially the back as the power of transmission), or their contact is grasping and ‘doing’ in a manipulative manner (because they have never resolved the doing and end-gaining habits in themselves prior to putting hands on), or their contact is just heavy as previously mentioned. Do we want Alexander teachers who switch and alternate dramatically between two inappropriate modes, empty and then violent?
Can putting hands on early improve the trainees use?
I have heard some teacher-trainers claim that getting trainees to put hands on early can assist the trainee to understand how to use themselves better. This might possibly be true if the trainee has already spent a year or two working on their use patterns beforehand. If the idea is to get the trainee to put hands on early in their training in order to gain a better self-use at that early stage in their training I can only say that this contradicts the principle set by Alexander of establishing good use in the teacher as an essential prerequisite before letting the trainee put hands on another. To my mind this principle invalidates such an approach.
Some trainees worry about being asked to put hands on early
On several occasions we have been approached by trainees trained at other teacher-training centres who have told us that they themselves are disturbed by being asked to put hands on others early. ‘I do not feel I am ready for this yet’ they say. They feel insecure in their own use as this is undergoing immense change. Such change will be inevitable when anyone begins training. Having several hours each day being worked on or working on oneself, as in training, is a totally different matter to merely receiving private individual lessons as, I hope, we all can agree. These trainees also feel, rightly in my view, somewhat heavily responsible to give the person they are contacting the best experience and not less than that. When asked to put hands on early they feel not in a state to give anything but a very tentative experience and this is undermining of their confidence.
How is confidence to put hands on developed in a trainee?
When it comes to confidence of the trainee, this is often an argument put forward by those interested to get trainees to put hands on early. If putting hands on is delayed, the argument goes, then the whole hands on process becomes a big fearful problem. This is overcome by making it happen early in the training so it does not present a ‘problem’ that would occur if it were introduced later. This argument begs two questions. One, it contradicts Alexander’s prior improvement of use principle. Two, the delay actually gives the trainee time to get a much better confidence in their use of themselves so that when the time comes to put hands on this is actually coming from the genuine self-confidence based upon the work they have done on themselves. In our experience these trainees will not have such extra confidence problems.
Quality comes by practicing inhibition while training
In the last analysis it is our view as teacher-trainers that those trainees who permit the delay in putting hands on in the end give a clearer stimulus to their pupils about inhibition and direction. These trainees have actually practiced inhibition in their training and have had more time to exercise conscious self-direction compared to the more ‘end-gaining’ early hands on group. We strongly recommend anyone seeking to train in the Alexander Technique to spend the first year of their training in working on themselves. They will have plenty of time to learn about putting hands on later and they will not feel the urgency to learn ‘tricks’ or ‘things to do’ in lessons or worry where to put their hands on. ‘Put them where they are needed’ counseled AR – how are you going to develop such intuitive sensitivity if you have not sufficiently worked on yourself? The Alexander Technique is not like other methods where you learn what to do correctly. In our training we learn how to work on ourselves. The better we can master this the better our teaching will be. Trainees following this line will be teaching a ‘strong’ version of the Alexander Technique which brings about self-reliance and self-responsibility in their pupils and not the ‘please give me a nice experience and fix everything for me’ attitude as will be the case of pupils of the ‘weak’ version lessons.