Relational Depth in Alexander Teaching

In this article I look at practical ways in which Alexander teachers might expand the scope of what they do to include more consciously considered and helpful approaches to dealing with emotional and somatic material from the past that can be aroused by Alexander work, while avoiding compromising the principles, qualities and values on which AT work is based. In particular I contrast psychodynamic and person-centred approaches to therapeutic/healing relationships, and conclude that contemporary person-centred therapeutic practices based on the concept of ‘relational depth’ offer a congruent and relatively straightforward approach to enriching and deepening how we work with emotions as AT teachers.

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Towards an Emotionally Engaged Alexander Technique

I’ve previously argued (Sly: 2018) that the Alexander Technique lesson is never an entirely straightforward teaching situation, and that we better serve our pupils when we make the relational and therapeutic (in the broad sense of the word) aspects of what we do more conscious and considered. The difference between teaching Alexander Technique and (say) cooking, is that with AT you are dealing with a practice which often can’t be fully and healthily integrated into people’s lives without addressing emotional/energetic blockages, patterns of thinking and ways of relating. I suggested that such changes will not necessarily result simply as a result of an individual applying AT principles for themselves and that the traditional ‘laissez-faire’ attitude AT teachers have tended to take towards emotional matters is not always adequate to the task of helping deep rooted psychophysical and emotional patterns which stand in the way of integrated good use to resolve. In addition I argued that the practice of discouraging emotional expression, or discussion of personal maters in the lesson can in fact sometimes be harmful. Mowat (2006) points out that for AT teachers to claim to be working from a ‘whole person’ perspective while sending the pupil elsewhere to deal with the emotional side of themselves does not make a great deal of sense, and I find it hard not to agree with her.

Given the above, I suggested that there’s something to be said for enriching and complexifying what we do. Several teachers have noted (e.g. Mowat: 2006, 2008, Pepper: 2015) that psychotherapeutic insights in particular may have a place in this process. This is certainly the case, though it’s important to bear in mind that ‘psychotherapy’ is not one thing. It has diverse forms underpinned by very different views of what it is to be human, of what it means to be healthy, and of how best to help people to heal and/or grow. Some of these forms are well suited to complementing Alexander work: others are very much at odds in spirit and practice to what we do.

I therefore feel it’s important, as we proceed in the direction of greater emotional awareness as AT teachers, that we become as clear as possible about exactly what we are aiming to achieve, and that we are equally clear about what approaches will suit these aims without obviously or subtly undermining the core principles and qualities that are the basis of our work.

An Expanded Model

With the above in mind, I suggest that we usefully expand the range of what we do when we:

  1. Find ways to create conditions that are conducive to allowing suppressed feelings, somatic memories and trauma to come up to be processed and integrated where this is helpful in allowing the pupil to let go into greater psychophysical ease and support.

  2. Find ways of proactively helping people to make sense of and integrate such somatic material, feelings and trauma, where this is appropriate and desired by the pupil.

  3. Help those pupils who are interested to make connections between the emotional changes that come about in the lessons and their life outside so that these changes carry through in a beneficial way, and to support them in addressing a wider range of issues (in particular emotional issues) that are troubling them, through working directly with the patterns of reaction and response involved.

  4. Draw on the wider body of understanding that psychotherapeutic perspectives give us about what it means to become human, and of the context in which ‘use’ develops, to further inform and deepen what and how we are teaching.

In this article I will be focussing on exploring the implications around only the first two of these suggestions, and looking at which psychotherapeutic approaches may be helpful and appropriate to these aims when transferred to the mode in which we operate as AT teachers. The last two suggestions in the list will be explored in later articles.

Principles, Practice and Frame

Historically Alexander teachers as a group have tended to be very wary about pushing their practice too far beyond how the Technique was originally conceived, and many teachers feel strongly about the question of teaching AT alongside other modalities. This tendency towards conservatism has both positive and negative aspects. It has ensured that our—in a sense quite delicate and vulnerable—practice has survived in a clearly recognisable form for many decades. On the other hand it has also caused the AT to become something of a walled garden, and has stymied the potential for growth and adaptation which acknowledging and addressing the flaws and limitations in a practice brings. The need to strike a balance between conservatism and appropriate change and growth is of course a universal factor in human affairs, and both poles need to be taken seriously. Clearly many feel attached to the practice as it is and has been, and it’s reasonable to take this seriously and to ask what worthwhile things we do as Alexander Teachers which could be threatened by an incautious integration of other perspectives.

In order to answer this we need to come to some clarity about how broadly we define the Technique. Is it simply the principles written in FM’s books? Or is it a living tradition and community? I’m taking a broad view here and considering AT as phenomenon which includes not just the principles but also the practices and cultural aspects that have grown up around these. I’m asking not just what principles we aim to impart to our pupils (though these are important) but also what are the essential aspects of our practice as teachers and learners of this work and what do we value about the wider ‘frame’ in which the principles and practice are situated and passed on? Inevitably the following suggestions are based on my own experience and preferences to a certain extent. I’m sure there is room for disagreement but I’m hoping that, by and large, a majority of teachers would recognise a good proportion of the following to be true to their experience and understanding of the work.


I suggest that the Technique is based around the following broad principles:

  • It has a focus on moving towards overall good functioning rather than on ‘fixing’ discrete areas of dysfunction. It addresses the part though the whole more than the whole through the part.

  • It is particularly concerned with attention to the ‘means whereby’ we achieve our desired ends.

  • It recognises that meaningful change requires being open to new and unfamiliar experiences.

  • It is concerned most fundamentally with ‘not doing’ unhelpful things rather than doing ‘correct’ ones.

  • It recognises the importance of choice, clarity and intelligence of intention.

  • It prizes overall mental, emotional and physical expansion, flexibility and freedom over contraction, ‘holding’ and rigidness.

  • It assumes a level of trust that the underlying ordering potential of the organism will organise intelligently around more global intentions

  • It acknowledges that a well-functioning ‘self’ needs some sense of ordering and hierarchy within an integrated whole. This may or may not be conceptualised in terms of ‘primary control’ but certainly will acknowledge that healthy postural support—together whatever emotional, cognitive and physical correlates go with it—is a prerequisite for skilled activity.

Practice (Teaching and Learning)

I suggest that the practice of AT as taught and learned tends to exhibit the following traits:

  • Practice is integrated with principle. The applied principles underpin the approach to teaching and learning.

  • It is experiential. We learn through observation and experimentation based in the present moment. It is orientated towards a pragmatic, phenomenological approach rather than a theoretical or analytical one, and this, in so far as it avoids mystification by the teacher, is experienced as empowering.

  • Long term, system-wide change (including the emotional aspects discussed in this article) is approached with a process-orientation. Systemic change and adaptation is allowed to manifest spontaneously rather than being ‘chased’ of forced.

  • The work is transformative, and demands deep rather than superficial change.

  • It is facilitated by gentle, warm, and non-imposing physical contact between teacher and pupil, used in various ways.

The Containing Frame

In addition to the above I suggest that more meta-level qualities around the general approach, social context and ‘frame’ containing what we do are as necessary as the principles and practice which are passed on within that frame. Not every aspect of the traditional Alexander frame are positive, of course, but I have (subjectively) observed that, for many practitioners, such apparently ‘fringe’ qualities are often described with equal enthusiasm as their engagement with the AT principles and practice themselves. I’ve noticed, for example, that (while acknowledging that some have had very much less positive experiences than this) many training course graduates particularly value:

  • The warmth, friendliness and acceptance they experienced.

  • A sense of safety and support.

  • A sense of openness, exploration and respect

  • Being guided without being imposed upon; the feeling of being ‘allowed to be’ and not being aggressively pushed towards something for which they were not ready.

  • The chance to grow and learn organically rather than through a rigid structure.

  • The quality of gentle, non-invasive physical touch, which was often experienced as healing as well as educational.

I suggest that these three aspects of people’s experience of the Alexander Technique—principle, practice and frame—tend to depend on and reinforce each other, and can to an extent be seen as different aspects of the same thing. None of them can really exist in the form we know and value without the others. I’m therefore proposing the following list of ‘essential qualities’—condensed from the principles, practice and frame explored above—which are the fundamental basis of our work. I suggest it is these qualities which we need to champion if we wish to maintain the spirit of what we do in any movement towards change.

Essential Qualities in Alexander Work:

  • Health focus, not pathology focus

  • Means before ends

  • Whole before parts

  • ‘Not doing’ before doing

  • Choice

  • Clarity of intention

  • Openness to the new

  • Freedom, expansion, flexibility and flow

  • Experiential, phenomenological, pragmatic approach

  • Empowerment, not mystification

  • Deep change versus surface change

  • Trust in process

  • Gentle, non-coercive guidance (of self and other)

  • Warm, non-invasive contact

I suggest that any practice or insight we adopt which respects (or at least doesn’t contradict) these general principles will leave the core of the work intact. On the other hand anything we introduce which contradicts or undermines them will tend to dilute the essence of what we do. This gives us some kind of guide to use as we look for approaches to help us work more effectively more positively with emotion in an AT context.

Towards an Expanded way of Working

I’ve previously argued (Sly: 2018) that contemporary body-focussed trauma therapies, which combine a scientific understanding of developmental and later trauma with bodywork (for example Rothschild: 2000, Levine: 1997) are a good fit with Alexander work. Approaches such as Levine’s ‘Somatic Experiencing’ may be particularly helpful in so far as they are experiential, process based, and work with emotional material that comes up spontaneously in the present in response to body awareness, rather than requiring a therapist to ‘dig’ for material, or to unearth trauma or dysfunction on the basis of diagnosis, analysis, or psychotherapeutic intervention. In this way traumatic material, if it arises, can be dealt with fairly straightforwardly and effectively in the course of a lesson, without the teacher having to probe for it in an end-gaining or invasive way that cuts across or contradicts their primary role as teacher.

In such a scenario, emotional material arises and the teacher acts ‘therapeutically’ only in so far as is necessary to help the pupil to integrate it in the moment, but they do not need to adopt the role of a diagnosing ‘doctor’ or ‘analyst’ in relation to the pupil’s unconscious material, since this is not required in these techniques. The pupil reports what is going on for them, and as teacher we don’t need to extend our curiosity beyond what their system has spontaneously brought into the room. To move from one role (teacher) to the other (teacher acting therapeutically) and back again is fairly straightforward in these circumstances

An Emotionally Enabling 'Frame'

However in addition to meeting such material when it happens to arise, I’m also asking what we might as do as AT teachers to more fully enable such somatic-emotional processing to come up in the first place. I’ve argued elsewhere (Sly: 2018) that the traditional frame in which AT lessons take place often explicitly or implicitly discourages emotions from coming up, even when the pupil may be willing and ready to release and integrate them, and that this does not serve our pupils well. So rather than adopting a hope-for-the-best attitude around this, how can we create a space which is actively conducive to enabling suppressed emotional material to arise while at the same time enabling us to stay true to our primary teaching orientation and the essential qualities of our work?

I’ve suggested that one of the AT’s essential qualities is ‘trust in process’. In fact this orientation towards trusting process underlies AT’s existing laissez faire approach to managing suppressed emotional material, and the approach is in fact very sound in so far as it goes. As the organism starts to move towards a more integrated and secure state then, if the conditions are right, emotional and somatic material from the past will naturally come into awareness for processing as needed. The key phrase here, however is ‘if the conditions are right’. It is here where traditional AT approaches may fall short. In order for emotional material to spontaneously surface there are certain conditions which may need to be met, and if they are not then this will likely act as a full or partial block to the process. I suggest (drawing particularly on person-centred therapeutic theory) that the following conditions are usually necessary to facilitate the release and integration of held emotional-somatic material:

  1. There needs to be an empathic and receptive person (in this case the teacher) to receive and reflect feelings and somatic memories as they come into awareness. Very often it is the possibility of literally or figuratively ‘telling our story’ and having it heard (which is a basic human need) that acts as the catalyst for encouraging unconscious feelings into awareness.

  2. The feelings and memories need to be actively welcomed by the other person. Specifically the pupil needs to know that the teacher is not scared, uncomfortable or rejecting of their feelings, that space will be given to them, and that the pupil will not end up feeling humiliated, rejected or shut down by the teacher if they allow their feelings into the room.

  3. The pupil needs to feel that, by and large, the teacher is a dependable and reliable person who is worthy of their confidence.

  4. If the feelings are particularly deep and powerful then the pupil needs to sense that the teacher is emotionally robust enough to not be overwhelmed by them.

  5. The pupil needs to feel that they and their responses will be accepted and not judged. In other words they need to know that there is no need for them to be defensive.

Drawing all this together we now have a pretty good idea of what is needed to create a space where pupils’ feelings can be safely and effectively processed as they arise, and of how we can create a space in which this spontaneous process of release and awareness is more likely to occur. To summarise:

  • We need to possess the necessary skills, attitudes, robustness and sensitivity to appropriately meet, and help to resolve, any emotional release that occurs (this requirement can be met with training and personal development).

  • From there we need to make it clear to the pupil, both explicitly and implicitly, that their feelings are welcome in the room along with the other parts of the self.

  • Finally we need to be—and to be perceived as—safe, reliable and non-judgmental, and therefore to behave in a trustworthy way.

On the face of it this is quite simple, but it would be irresponsible to suggest that we should simply encourage pupils to freely emote and cathart without further thought about what sort of frame and relational factors would be needed to keep the work on track, and help to ensure that unhelpful emotional dynamics are not triggered. Mowat (2006), speaking from a psychotherapeutic perspective, suggests that Alexander teachers would benefit from thinking in terms of having a “therapeutic relationship” with their pupils. However I’m a little cautious about this and think that, for several reasons, considerable care is needed here—or at least that we should very specifically define what we would mean by this. For a start, different schools of therapy have different ideas about what a therapeutic relationship should look like, and not all of these are compatible with the ‘essential qualities’ of AT work.

The Psychodynamic Frame

One way we might conceive of a ‘therapeutic relationship’ is in the way the concept is defined in analytical or psychodynamic therapy, which is perhaps the image most likely to come to mind when the term is used. In such approaches the therapist (to generalise greatly about a complex field) sets and maintains a rigidly defined set of ‘boundaries’, and relates to the client in a highly uni-directional way. They keep their own personal world, feelings and responses largely concealed while the client, for their part, shares the deepest and most vulnerable parts of their inner world.

The ‘professional distance’ which the therapist maintains between themselves and the client may be rationalised as (among other reasons) a way to protect the client from inappropriate intrusiveness by the therapist, but in reality it is just as much about protecting the therapist from the perceived pathology of the client (House: 2003, pp. 49–93). As such it communicates to the client something about how they, and the therapy, are being conceptualised—namely that both are potentially dangerous and need to be kept at arms length. While this may in fact be justified in some (extreme) situations where a psychotherapist is working with someone who is seriously mentally ill, such an attitude is certainly not generally appropriate for an AT teacher working with everyday pupils. In these circumstances, this kind of approach is quite likely to increase any tendency the pupil has towards defensiveness as they may feel covertly patronised. This highly one-directional mode of relating may also trigger regressive and dependant states (House: 2003, p. 90) and work against more spontaneous, unforced and process-orientated ways of working with feelings that are more in accord with the essential qualities of Alexander work.

When a client exposes the depths of their being while the therapist is concealed behind a professional ‘front’, they are at a considerable power disadvantage. This is not a relationship of equal adults, and that is exacerbated when the therapist is making interpretations about the causes of the client’s distress based on (real or imagined) unconscious factors that—by definition—the client doesn’t have direct experiential access to. There are significant dangers when a therapist sets out to work with material which the client doesn’t experience as being phenomenologically present and real. Handley (1995, p.52) points out the considerable potential for abuse and illusion in a scenario where one person feels competent to interpret the inner world of another in this way, and notes that attempting to do so places the therapist “beyond the reality-testing of patients, colleagues or himself”. In any event this approach contradicts the essential qualities of our own work, in so far as we aim to work pragmatically in the present, avoid mystification, and to empower our pupils from the beginning to be working things out for themselves based on what they can see and experience in the moment.

The picture I have painted here is, of necessity, a little bit of a caricature. Psychodynamic therapy is a more diverse field than can be fully addressed in this article, but the broad thrust of the observations hold true to a significant extent. Such approaches require long, rigorous, and specialised training, and it is unrealistic to expect this to happen as an adjunct to traditional AT training. Furthermore, such training is based on modes of thinking and acting which are very different (and in many ways opposed to) the more equitable, empowering and experiential ways in which AT teachers need to interact with pupils. Taken together the factors discussed above cut clean across many of the ‘essential qualities’ of Alexander work that I suggested above, and adopting a frame that is designed to meet the requirements of such an approach as a way of relating to Alexander pupils is, to my mind, deeply problematic.

Person-Centred Approaches

I suggest that a much more congruent approach to thinking about these issues as AT teachers can be found in the humanistic, person-centred approaches which grew out of the work of Carl Rogers. These tend to focus on human potential rather than dysfunction, suggesting that human beings have an innate tendency towards growth, actualisation and wholeness which—though it can be blocked and thwarted—is ever present. They take a positive and holistic view of human existence, and see particular value in creativity, autonomy, and the exercise of free will. They are process-orientated, focussing on creating appropriate conditions for change rather than trying to force it. They aim to locate power and insight with the client rather than the therapist. All of this complements our ‘essential AT qualities’ very well.

Originally the person-centred approach was noted for being highly non-directive, and was concerned with client empowerment to the extent that it eschewed any kind of guidance whatsoever from the therapist. This is a potential contradiction with AT work which does depend on the active involvement of the teacher in the pupil’s learning process to a greater or lesser extent. However in some more contemporary person-centred approaches, the original, rigidly non-directive approach is replaced with a much more flexible, open and two-way mode of relating focussing on relational depth (Mearns: 2018). The relational depth approach gives us a profound and well thought through approach to creating the sort of frame in which pupils' feelings will be welcome and which will provide a sense of safety and containment while also allowing for the kind of active, two-way engagement that is required in Alexander teaching. As an added bonus it does this in a way that is very much in accord with what we already do and the skill set AT teachers already have.

What is Relational Depth?

Naturalness is about not doing something: not putting on a mask.
(Mearns & Cooper: 2018, p.47, my emphasis)

A relational depth approach attempts to create a healing relationship in which a person feels safe enough to process, and to allow unconscious feelings and motivations to come into awareness, while at the same time allowing for more flexible and two-way modes of interacting than is found in traditional person-centred therapy:

… there’s a particular emphasis on meeting clients in a two-way, interpersonal dialogue, as opposed to primarily providing for clients a more one-way, reflective space. Similarly, rather than wholly focusing the work around a non-directive, ‘empathic understanding response process’ (Freire, 2007), therapists might engage with their clients in a variety of different ways. For example, they might ask questions, probe, suggest exercises, and maybe even offer advice, whatever is seen as having the potential to deepen the level of relational engagement. So, for instance, therapists might be more likely to draw on their own experiences and perceptions, becoming a distinctive ‘other’ to their clients. In addition, because of its focus on genuine human interaction and affirmation, a relational depth-informed therapy might move beyond a ‘non-judgemental “acceptance” of the client to a more active, intentional prizing of their being-in-the-world: not just a “however they experience the world is fine”, but a deliberate affirmation of their being in all its uniqueness’ (Cooper, 2013, p.142). (Mearns & Cooper: 2018, p. xix).

Working from this perspective we approach our client or pupil simply as a present, contactable human being. “A meeting at relational depth requires [us] to be the unique, genuine human being that [we] are: a solid and grounded ‘otherness’ with which [they] can interact” (ibid, p.48).

[We] are not play-acting the role of counsellor or psychotherapist, but are simply being [ourselves] … at this level of relating, therapists have done away with ‘lace curtains’ and ‘safety screens’: defences that they may have developed to give the appearance of intimacy while at the same time protecting themselves from the reality of a genuine human encounter. (ibid, p. 46)

In meeting someone in this way we reveal ourselves as a real person, with our own subjective inner world that we are willing to reveal to the other person just as she reveals her own. It’s important to be clear however that in the context of teaching or therapy this does not suggest an indiscriminate sharing of personal feelings and information:

… a willingness to reveal oneself is not the same as doing it all the time. Relational depth requires therapists to be non-defensive, but it also requires them to be receptive to their clients’ lives and experiences…. Too much therapist self disclosure, as the research suggests, may get in the way of that (ibid, p. 48).

In a relational depth approach, the safety required for emotional processing is built primarily through working at a level in which the therapist or teacher can be seen as a real, known person, so that judgments as to trustworthiness can be made on that basis.

Such an empathy with the whole of the client means that, at these moments of relational depth, the therapist is as attuned to the client’s physicality and emotions as they are with the client’s thoughts. Here, we might think of the analogy of the tuning fork, the therapist’s body and feelings resonating with the client’s own physicality. (ibid, p. 50)

This has interesting parallels with our experience of working with pupils as Alexander teachers! So also does the fact that:

… you can’t make relational depth happen … partly because it requires two people … partly because you can’t relate deeply to someone if you’re trying to do something to them; and partly because clients are likely to ‘push back’ if they feel pressurised or manipulated. (ibid, p. xix)

The advantage for us as AT teachers in adopting this approach is that the skills and attitudes we already possess cross over very well. Relational depth comes about fundamentally through not doing something. It cannot be forced, but can only be allowed to manifest through creating conducive conditions. This is not only compatible with the way we work as Alexander teachers, it is at the heart of how we work, and transferring those skills and mindsets to the relational realm is a much more straightforward and realistic proposition than adopting psychodynamically derived mindsets which are alien in intention and practice to what we do. In addition to this, as AT teachers we are already adept at making contact with others at the physical level in a non-invasive but very ‘real’ way. Once again, these skills transfer to new realms fairly straightforwardly. I think it’s clear that if we wish to work with our pupils in a way which facilitates the spontaneous expression, release and integration of feelings where appropriate and necessary, the relational depth approach is a very good fit for us.

Concerns — Safety, Boundaries and Transference.

In recommending that we adopt the approaches suggested above it’s important to acknowledge that some, particularly those who are familiar with psychotherapeutic work, might wish to raise additional questions around pupil safety, particularly in relation to questions of boundaries and transference.

Regarding boundaries, it’s certainly important to make sure that there is enough clarity around roles for the client to feel clear what the space is for, that their needs are being respected, and to help create a sense of trustworthiness and predicability in the frame in which the work is being held. I think we can take it as given that therapists (or Alexander Teachers) shouldn’t have sex with those who come to them for help, nor seek to form friendships with them in lieu of doing what they have been paid to do, nor interfere in their lives, nor use any power imbalance in the relationship to gain an influence for personal and financial gain. We can agree that the practitioner should avoid using the client to fulfil their own needs at the client’s expense, that they should be reliable and dependable, and that, conversely, it is not serving the client to allow them to take advantage of us regarding matters of time-keeping, cancellations, payment etc.

These kinds of factors are fairly universally agreed by all types of therapists, though with different level of flexibility offered. Person-centred approaches in particular, which depend on a real, grounded, human relationship, need a more flexible conception of boundaries in order for the approach to work. In real life, most of us are willing to cut each other a certain amount of slack, to negotiate, and to be receptive to each other’s needs and preferences. Excess rigidity (in any aspect of the teaching relationship) is not helpful to us if we are committed to a Technique that encourages release and letting go! Beyond the basic ground rules mentioned above, it is therefore more helpful for us to take a functional rather than structural view of boundaries:

The danger for person-centred practitioners is that ‘boundaries’ come to be defined ‘structurally’ rather than ‘functionally’. A functional analysis would require the therapist to consider, delineate and justify her actions and in that way to be accountable. On the other hand, a structural analysis would simply demand behaviours such as: not meeting the client outside the therapy room; not offering any support other than therapy to the client; not permitting the client power in determining the therapy contract; not modifying the terms of the therapy contract and not engaging with any other persons close to the life of the client. (Mearns & Cooper: 2018, p.48)

In particular, the traditional prohibition against a practitioner disclosing personal information about themselves and sharing their authentic responses with clients is problematic if we are working with relational depth:

“From a classical psychodynamic perspective, it is critical that the humanity of the therapist is hidden from the client and from the person-centred orientation it is crucial that her humanity is seen” (ibid p.47–48).

As we have seen, in relational depth focussed practices, it is the solidity, realness and authentic presence of the practitioner, together with appropriate but not rigid boundaries, which helps to create safety, rather than artificial codes of behaviour or masks. This is particularly true in relationship to the phenomenon of ‘transference’, the dangers of which are perhaps the most commonly cited justification given for rigid structural (as opposed to functional) boundary-mindedness in healing relationships, and it is to transference that I will now turn my attention.


Mowat (2006) suggests that an understanding of the concept of transference would be useful for Alexander teachers who wish to allow the pupil’s emotions into the teaching space. Transference is considered central to the practice of some forms of therapy, and worries about the development of powerful transference reactions are one reason that such approaches advocate such a rigid ‘holding’ frame.

According to the theory, it is believed that in therapeutic (and other) relationships we tend in certain circumstances to act as if a person we are relating to is a figure—usually a parent—from our early life. In certain schools of therapy the therapist will attempt to evoke and analyse transference and counter-transference between the client and themselves in order to gain insight into the client’s early development, and hence to explain and work with the client’s current difficulties in these terms. However the theory of transference (at least in this classical form) is not universally subscribed to by therapists, and it has been problematised in existential (White: 2008), person-centred (Shlien: 1984) and post-modern (House, 2003) approaches to therapy.

Transference, White (2008) states “is a concept that … has its roots in a mechanistic and individualistic view of the person which is no longer sufficient, useful or necessary to the psychotherapeutic task as it is conceived in a dynamic, relational and phenomenological perspective”. Since emotions exist in relationship, those that arise in the client cannot be considered as something separate from the distortions, compulsions and agendas which the therapist also inevitably brings into the room. In other words, what used to be understood as transference by the (more or less) ‘damaged’ client towards a (more or less) ‘healthy’ therapist may be more usefully understood as a phenomenon co-created by the two people and the frame in which they are working which is unique to that interaction (White, 2008).

Coming at the problem from a more person-centred perspective, Shlien (1984) notes that emotional affects which therapists may wish to ascribe to transference can very often be explained more straightforwardly by looking at what is happening between the two people in the present. “When one tastes a lemon at age 30, does it taste sour because it tasted that way at age three? It always tastes sour, the first time at any age, whether or not ever tasted before, and all following times for the same but original reason each time”. In general, Shlien suggests, the therapist will be “loved for what makes him lovable, hated for what makes him hateful, and all shades in between” and that “this should be the first hypothesis [my italics].” Often seemingly exaggerated emotional responses in therapy may in fact be a normal expression of here-and-now distress aroused in the context of the power imbalance which the traditional therapeutic frame produces, and the vulnerability for the client that accompanies this.

Such considerations also apply to the almost clichéd situation of a client ‘falling in love’ with a therapist or teacher—the thought of which often arouses anxiety in practitioners, and perhaps particularly in teachers who are thinking about working in a more emotionally aware way. If such a situation arises, a practitioner may be inclined to reach immediately for the transference explanation, which at least gives a feeling of control (and possibly superiority) in a potentially awkward situation. While it is true that sometimes a very young or wounded part of a person may be triggered in such situations,

… one does not need to look into therapy for arcane and mysterious sources of erotic feelings. They are commonplace, everywhere, carried about from place to place. Psychotherapy will encounter sexual attraction as surely as it encounters nature. The simple combination of urge and situation is a formula for instant, if casual romantic fantasy. (Shlien: 1984)

To this, Shlien notes, we can add that the therapy or teaching room may be a place where a person feels ‘heard’ and ‘seen’ in a way that seldom happens elsewhere in their life. Feeling understood and ‘got’ by someone is one of the basic pre-requisites for falling in love—and this is true for anyone at any time. In addition, in therapy the therapist may be concealing the reality of who they are. The human brain abhors a vacuum and will tend to project qualities onto a person in lieu of real knowledge. If the person is sexually attractive to us, and is listening to us, then most likely those projections will tend to exaggerate the person’s positive qualities rather than the other way round! As Alexander teachers we can add to this mix the factor of the pupil being touched in a gentle and receptive way, and there is often no need to resort to theoretical formulations to understand what might be going on. People do fall in love, it’s a basic part of human nature and it’s not, in itself, a symptom of something being ‘wrong’ or unresolved in a person—whether it happens in a therapeutic situation or outside.

According to House (2003, pp. 98–126) The sorts of affective phenomena called transference are in fact encouraged by the traditional therapeutic frame itself. This was in fact one reason that the frame evolved in the way it did—in order to generate material to work on in the therapy. For our purposes as AT teachers such phenomena are best addressed by aiming to embody a level of congruence and genuine presence in which ones human reality is not concealed, so that we are not available as a ‘blank screen’ for the pupil to project onto:

One of the interesting consequences of this degree of mutuality in the therapeutic relationship is that there are no transference phenomena at this level of continuing connection. This applies to relational depth both in terms of moments of intense contact and also to the continuing deep relationship. Transference phenomena tend to belong to a more surface-level form of relating where people are still being symbols for each other. (Mearns and Cooper: 2018, p. 72)

Our best guide is that if something looking like transference is happening in the teaching relationship then rather than immediately focusing our attention on what we imagine might be wrong with the pupil, and on what in their childhood might be represented by their behaviour, it makes more sense to look at ourselves and wonder what in our own behaviour may be encouraging such a response. As Carl Rogers puts it:

In this strangely unique experience of security in a relationship with another who understands and respects, what, specifically, happens to the transference attitude? … In this relationship, where [he] has no need of defending this interpretation … [he] becomes aware of the fact that he is the perceiver and evaluator of experience, a fact which seems to be very close to the heart of therapy. … When these experiences are organized into a meaningful relation to the self, the “transference attitudes” disappear. They are not displaced, they are not sublimated. They are not “reeducated.” They simply disappear because experience has been repercieved in a way which makes them meaningless.

A Final Word of Caution

I hope that the analysis presented here will be interesting and perhaps helpful to those AT teachers who would like to be working more consciously with the emotional material which pupils may sometimes bring in with them. However I’d like to finish on a word of caution. To work responsibly in this way demands that one has among things: practical skills; the experience of having done a good deal of this sort of work in the ‘client’ position; a level of self-awareness that none of us can take for granted at any time; and external support.

In reality there is no one ‘right way’ to gain the skills, attitudes and awareness necessary, and neither ourselves, nor any system or organisation, can claim with validity that we, or anyone else, are ‘safe’ or competent in this field. My hope is that, in future the AT community will collectively decide to live up to its billing as a ‘whole person’ technique and integrate emotional matters into its training in a way which does not contradict the essential qualities of the work. What is clear in the meantime, however, is that to work this way responsibly requires an ongoing commitment to gaining the skills needed, to working on oneself and, perhaps most importantly, to making use of experienced, trusted and responsible ‘others’ for ongoing reality checking regarding what one is doing and what ones true intentions and motivations are—whether this takes the form of supervision, mentorship, or some other similar arrangement.


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