Seven Good Reasons to Work Hands-On

It seems that hands-on work is getting a bit of a 'bad rap' in certain AT circles at the moment, and particularly in the online Alexander community. Contemporary hands-on oriented teachers could almost be excused (with tongue firmly in cheek) for wondering if they are hopeless stick-in-the muds — old has-beens doomed to get left behind in the brave new world of group classes, teach-yourself resources and ‘virtual’ online lessons.


So why this negativity about the hands? There are a few arguments put forward against their use in teaching, but probably the strongest one is that hands-on work can encourage dependency by giving the pupil experiences that they don’t understand, and which they are unable to reproduce without the teacher. As Catherine Kettrick puts it:

“In my observation, I find that when teachers make all the "adjustments," and "give" pupils new sensory experiences, the pupils by and large have no idea what is happening. They experience a new way of moving, they feel very different but may have little or no idea of how they "got there." Thus, when they leave a lesson, and quite reasonably want to feel that way again, the only thing they know to do is to try and "find the feeling." Of course this doesn't work. They become confused, muddled and frustrated trying to "do" the Alexander Technique. They come back to their next lesson asking you to "put their head in that place again," or complaining that they "can't find that place where their head should be.”

I’m not without some sympathy for this viewpoint. Most of us have probably had the (actually rather extraordinary) experience of a skilled teacher putting their hands on us and immediately, without any intention or understanding on our part, releasing like crazy, the back widening like a concertina and the head bobbing gaily off into the stratosphere like a helium balloon. This can be rather compelling. However the seemingly ‘magical’ aspect of the experience can (like anything which human beings find magical) imbue it with a sense of importance and profoundness which it may not actually deserve. For my part I started to realise that these experiences actually tended to leave me ungrounded and, curiously dis-integrated — though this was masked to begin with by the pleasant feeling of floatiness and release. And, as Catherine points out above, though it gave an experience of release such experiences didn’t in fact give many clues about how to get there for myself outside of the lesson. In the end it came to feel almost like a party trick, and even a little bit competitive — who has the ‘best hands’ — accompanied later by a feeling of failure if pupils didn’t have the magic experience one wished for them.

For these reasons, and others, I have long since given up the idea of seeking to get this kind of response in my pupils, and in fact now actively say ‘no’ to any lingering temptation to do so. But I’m still, by choice, a very hands-on orientated teacher. There are numerous ways of being in contact with our pupils that avoid the potential pitfalls, so perhaps recent debates around the subject offer a timely opportunity to look at some of the advantages, and to remind ourselves why so many of us die-hard stick-in-the-muds continue to find such value in this way of working. 

Seven Reasons to Work Hands on

1) Hands on work respects the way the human system is designed to learn, and acts as a species-appropriate ‘bridge’ between old and new ways of moving and being.

A fundamental aspect of how human poise and coordination develops in young children is that we move to self-regulation via co-regulation. In fact even as adults all of us need a degree of ongoing co-regulation from others to function at our best. Human babies can’t get up and run in half an hour like a new-born horse. They don’t learn to coordinate themselves well and to find inner support on their own. Rather these things are learned through physical interaction with their parent — through pushing, pulling, yielding, resting on and playing with a (hopefully) responsive and sensitive other.  For humans the basic mechanisms are innate but learning to use them is not ‘given’, it is discovered and honed through contact with other people. As a result human skill is not nearly so hardwired as it is in other animals and it remains flexible and changeable throughout life. The downside of this arrangement is that, as we know, it can also degenerate, or it may not have developed very well in the first place.

It seems to me that skilled hands-on work is a way of making use of our basic human propensity to use co-regulation as a stepping stone to independent self-regulation. So long as we take pains to ensure that the pupil doesn’t get stuck at the co-regulation phase (which as we have seen can happen) it makes sense to make use of so fundamental an aspect of how we are designed to learn at a kinaesthetic level, and this is one way in which AT work can be particularly effective.

2) Hand’s on work is a very straightforward and practical way to bring unhelpful habits and holding patterns into awareness.

Example: I’m working with a new pupil who is lying in semi-supine on the floor. He is a busy executive and father, and clearly lives with a high degree of tension and stress. He tells me he has been 'sent' by his wife. I’m sitting beside him with my hand on his knee.

Me: Can you let go so I can wiggle your leg a little?

Pupil: Like that?

Marcus: No — you moved it, not me! And I noticed you held your breath and narrowed your awareness right down in response to the thought of 'trying to let go'. I’m thinking that’s maybe what you often do when you have the idea of wanting to get something right…?

We go on gently playing the game for a little while (leaving a lot of space) exploring what happens when we try to be right, and what it might mean to not get caught up in it. This is made easier because my own nervous system is quite quiet and collected. The calming, co-regulatory, effect of this is magnified by the hands on contact, and at this early stage it helps him to see clearly enough to get to the nub of what is going on [see also my article on poly-vagal theory  here]. Sure enough after a while a quietness descends on the room. There is  a change of state, and he’s able to let his leg go a little. We note the fact.

Me: So can you let it go even more?

Pupil: MORE? it’s already completely relaxed.

Me: What if you let it rest against my torso?

I give it a gentle waggle and gradually he rests his leg against me

Pupil: Oh … wow! I see what you mean … I had no idea I was still holding on!

Me: And did you notice how it wasn’t just you letting go of your leg, there’s a change in your overall state? You’re really here now! Hi!

I wave: he waves back.

Pupil: My wife has been telling me I’m stressed for years and I had no idea …

I chuckle to myself but say nothing…

3) Hands-on work can be used to very effectively and clearly show pupils new ways of ‘directing’ themselves in activity.

A central aspect of the Alexander Technique is, of course, learning to ‘leave ourselves alone’ so that the 'low-level' self-regulating capacities of the organism are free to function as they should to provide balance, integration and postural support. But there is also a complementary aspect to this, which is learning to direct ourselves intelligently in activity — to make good decisions, so that our actions are not contradicting this innate tendency for regulation. We discover (through an ongoing process of exploration which can be either implicit, or explicit) that certain ways of organising our activity take us out of the window in which such self-organisation can operate, and that other ways of organising our activity keep us within it. However because these new ways of directing ourselves are often unfamiliar and non-obvious it can be difficult for pupils to access them spontaneously (because they can seem ‘wrong’, unbalanced, or counter-intuitive). 

Of course there are procedures which can be used to help people explore these things on their own and, of course, we should teach these. Working hands-off can in fact be very helpful for this. But often as an adjunct to working this way we’re doing the pupil a favour if we’re also willing to simply guide with our hands when appropriate. It’s a short cut that can open up possibilities of subtlety and delicacy which it would be much more long-winded for them to access without such help. We’re not showing a ‘right way’, but we’re showing them possibilities — “things can go this way too”. Once the possibility is seen (both kinaesthetically and intellectually) it is easier to give permission to it in future.

4) Hands-on work is, when skilfully done, a very effective way to encourage people to integrate so-called* ‘left brain’, linear thinking and ‘right brain’, integrative ways of perceiving and acting.

FM was developing his ideas in an early-modern milieu when rationality, reason and order tended to be seen as innately superior to other ways of knowing and being, so it’s not surprising that he valorised ‘reason’ to the extent that he did. And of course reason is important! However there is now an increasing understanding that more gestalt, non-linear, and integrative modes of thinking are an equally important aspect of living and making sense of ourselves and the world.   

To use hands-on touch (which in its very nature is non-verbal and implicit) in conjunction with words can be a wonderfully effective and practical way to help integrate these two modes, so that they work in concert, informing each rather than (as is often the case) being set in opposition. This means that ‘right brain’, out-of-time ways of knowing are able to flourish, and spontaneity and insight can coexist with and complement rational and linear reasoning and error-checking.

Using words or the visual sense to communicate — as we must do when working without hands — is a fairly ‘high level’ cognitive task compared to communicating with touch, which is neurologically more basic, and can therefore bypass unnecessary cognitive complexity and get immediately to the essence of what is happening in a way that often doesn’t even need words. We can think and talk about it later if we want but in the moment there is tacit understanding (which is also a kind of thinking) which is valuable in itself. It doesn’t need to be articulated rationally. Try explaining how you ride a bicycle! Even if you can put it into words you absolutely don’t need to. 

I’m sure many of us have had the experience of that peculiar kind of delicate, refined hands-on work in which words become elliptical, metaphorical and allusive. Relationships between things start to be perceived at a non-verbal level — often in way which simply can’t be adequately put into linear language. Instead a strange ‘of the moment’ language develops which only has meaning in the context of ‘now’, but that helps to clarify and deepen awareness of what is happening. Though we may never be able to pin down those experiences rationally, they remain available to us as a resource at the kinaesthetic level.

5) Hands-on work can encourage integration by drawing simultaneous awareness to more than one thing. 

Because speech is linear, it can generally only address one thing at a time (an exception is metaphorical or poetic language, which is beyond the scope of this article!). Working with physical contact in addition to words, we can bring direct awareness to more than one aspect of experience at the same moment, encouraging a more gestalt appreciation of the Self in activity. 

6) Hands on work can nudge people past resistances. 

Organisms tend to be inherently resistant to change. Once we have found something that works for us in some way we tend to get quite attached to it, even if it is profoundly ‘not working’ in other ways. There are good reasons for this: it would be very impractical and exhausting to be continually changing for the sake of it, and very often the devil we know is, in fact, better than the one we don’t. But because of this innate tendency towards stasis, we can be very sneaky about resisting change even when it might well be in our best interests. 

Though it may be nice to imagine ourselves as completely independent, self-empowered, self-determining individuals, in reality we are designed as social beings, and often we do need an input of energy and ‘pattern’ from another in order for really radical change to occur. Experience suggests that Alexander hands-on work is a particularly effective (and hopefully gentle) way to encourage peoples’ systems to snap out of their habitual state and into another less familiar one.

7) Touch is of value in itself.

Regardless of whether or not we believe that touch is in integral part of teaching the Technique, for many pupils the sort of touch that is the hallmark of good Alexander work is deeply beneficial. People in our culture are often touch-deprived. Touch is a basic human need, and for people who either have not had enough of it, or have had too much of the wrong sort, to experience warm, gentle, non-invasive contact can be very healing. Besides being of value in itself, touch may, for some, facilitate a depth of release and letting go that is not possible without it, particularly when certain types of trauma are present. In this context, whether or not hands-on work is an intrinsic part of the principles FM wrote about in his books is irrelevant. It is something we can offer that is needed — not just by individuals but by an increasingly dis-integrated and disconnected culture which is ever more in retreat from real-world, physical, human connection. Such skills may be an accidental by-product of FM’s discoveries or they may not, but they have real and tangible value which should be celebrated, preserved and passed on.

Final thoughts

I don’t wish to imply in this article that I’m dead set against hands-off Alexander work. There is room in what we do for numerous approaches — and when there is dialogue between these they tend to enrich each other more often than not. In the excitement of exploring new frontiers I hope we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Hands-on work is a tremendously rich and powerful resource, and the fact that sometimes it has been used in a way which has certain drawbacks does not in any way negate its wonderful possibilities.

It’s sometimes suggested by those who advocate a hands-off way of working that, since FM learned the Technique without hands-on work, we should be able to do so as well. My final thought is that he also learned (if we believe the story) without any kind of teacher, dialogue, books, colleagues, online lessons, internet discussion forums and a great many other things that are available to us today. These things have all come since, not just hands on work. We have reason to be grateful that we don’t need to proceed as FM did, and that we have such depth of skill and experience to draw on from so many.

* N.B. There is some controversy as to what extent it is literally true that different thinking styles are resident in opposing sides of the brain. Here I am using the concept as a convenient shorthand, not necessarily literally, with ‘left brain’ thinking being the capacity we have for linear, rational, time-based thought, and ‘right brain’ thinking being our capacity for non-rational, intuitive, ‘out-of-time’ perception and understanding.