How can we as Alexander teachers integrate insights from other modalities without losing the essence of what we are and what we do? There’s no question that, as practiced by many, the AT is evolving at the moment through the integration of insights and practices from other, more overtly therapeutic traditions. This movement has been going on for a while (see for example Brigitta Mowat’s 2006 study) but I think it’s fair to say that, having been increasingly exposed to and benefiting from body-mind practices other than the Technique, more and more teachers are finding that they can no longer function authentically within the quite rigid limits the Alexander community originally set for itself.
In particular there has been a realisation, for many, that the laissez-faire ‘hope for the best’ approach that the Technique’s early practitioners tended to take towards emotional expression and development is no longer adequate either to meet current understandings of human psycho-physical functioning, nor the increasingly sophisticated expectations of ‘customers’ who have been exposed to other ways of working with the Self — and who take it for granted that such approaches will be able to fully encompass, hold, and deal with the full range of human experience, including emotions. In addition I know from my own experience and discussion with others that some teachers have found that, as their own system’s ability to process and ‘hold’ strong emotions has increased through exposure to other modalities, so AT hands-on work can much more quickly evoke very strong emotional and traumatic material in some pupils. For teachers in such a position it may no longer feel responsible to fail to come up with a considered approach to this new reality.
There are still many who object to widening what we do, and not without reason. Some of the objections that were once raised no longer hold the force they did. For example the view that hands-on contact is incompatible with therapeutic contact due to boundary problems and other issues feels increasingly less relevant as body-psychotherapeutic and body-focussed trauma-resolution techniques have become more mainstream. Increasing numbers have experienced safe and effective emotional work of one sort or another in which hands on contact is not only unproblematic but enormously helpful. In addition, many of the issues around hands-on contact specific to AT work have been addressed in recent years (e.g. Mowat, 2006, 2008).
Another objection, which we should take more seriously, is the worry that the Technique will degenerate into a flaccid form of ‘bodywork’ or ‘quasi-therapy’ in which its particular essence and unique offering is lost among a sea of other practices and viewpoints. This is a real danger and care is needed as we open up to include more possibilities in our work that we don’t let go of what makes the Alexander Technique ‘different’. However the contradictions, problems, and unreasonable limitations we place on what we can offer to pupils are now becoming so obvious to many that there is an increasingly urgent need to grapple with the implications.
In order to look at this more closely I’ll look at a couple of examples of how AT teachers have tended to deal with emotional issues in the past which are still reflected in how many continue to work today. For example Tim Soar (1999) writes that:
In addition to the generally calming quality of the Technique, some people experience quite powerful cathartic reactions to Alexander work. These may take any form from fits of the giggles or unexpected crying during or following a lesson, to excessive sleepiness or disturbed eating patterns. Occasionally these events may be accompanied by the “resurfacing” of forgotten events from the past, traumatic or otherwise. Most people say that this Alexander induced catharsis is accompanied by a profound sense of relief and comes at a time when they are “ready to deal with it”.
At the same time, Pedro de Alcantara (2009) suggests that
A teacher cannot be all things to all pupils; a good teacher avoids becoming a parent figure, confessor or therapist.
I hope I’m not unfairly conflating the approaches of these two teachers, but there’s a clear contradiction between these statements, both of which represent a ‘traditional’ AT viewpoint about working with feelings. On the one hand we are suggesting the possibility of releasing emotionally charged material from the past through AT work, whereas on the other hand the teacher is being forbidden, if they are to be a ‘good’ teacher, from moving to a therapeutic position within the teacher role. The contradiction lies in the fact that the depth with which we are able to effectively release and process material from the past depends to a great deal on the depth of willingness and ability on the part of the person who is witnessing to ‘go there’ with us and to see and hold what is being expressed. Emotional wounds happen in relationship, and they are healed in relationship. This kind of healing relationship is not possible without temporarily abandoning the teacher role for a more therapeutic and open one. As a result, in traditional Alexander work emotional patterns which could very easily and simply be resolved at a deep level in the moment may be left ‘half-resolved’ or remain unprocessed (Rebenfeld 1992) because the teacher does not have the appropriate training or experience to temporarily shelve their ‘teacher persona’ to be what the pupil actually needs from them in the moment.
Here’s a personal example to illustrate what I mean which comes from my (generally very lovely and much cherished) AT teacher training some twenty years ago:
A teacher was giving me a ‘table turn’, and as she worked I felt something let go in my abdomen, accompanied by a welling up of emotion, memory and tearfulness. What I wanted to do more than anything at that moment was to talk about and really let go into that feeling. However I knew by this point that there were real — though largely unspoken — limits on what was actually welcome in terms of emotional expression and sharing of personal history, so I let a little out and ‘bottled’ the rest. I have no doubt at all (and speaking to others from other trainings I sense that this is a wider reality) that it would not have been considered acceptable for me to really let go into that in the way that I needed to process it properly. I ended up working it through with a cranio-sacral therapist some years later, but the point is that I was actually, as Tim Soar puts it, “ready to deal with it” right there and then, but the too rigidly defined roles in the situation prevented that happening. Prescribed roles were maintained but at the expenses of what was in my interest at the time. I had similar experiences in private lessons as well as while training. Often with such processes the moment they arise is the best times to work with them, and there’s no guarantee at all that, in taking the oft-given advice to “go to a therapist” instead, we will meet the same material and be able to process it in different circumstances with a different person.
Because AT practice can leave powerful suppressed emotions in place while at the same time giving us access to an experience of psycho-physical mastery, it can enable us to bypass or put off inner work by allowing us to prematurely embody a somatic sense of ‘togetherness’ which may not reflect the reality of how we are functioning in a broader sense. Shortly after I qualified as an AT teacher I started teaching group classes, and I was delighted with the way my training enabled me to embody and project a sense of confidence and authority, rooted in the secure feeling in my back. I found that from being a previously rather diffident and insecure young man I could operate with some clout and presence and hold the attention and respect of the room. What an exciting discovery! However I realised fairly soon that what I was able to project was not an honest account of who I was, or of how I was functioning in my life at that time. In fact it took some years of inner work with other disciplines before the outer started to any extent to accurately reflect the inner reality. So I feel that what I was then offering to my groups and to my private pupils was not entirely honest. I was effectively saying “if you do this work you too can be like this”, but “this” was not what it seemed.
An additional problem that the traditional way of working with emotion raises is that it misses what is actually happening. Mowat (2008, part 2) points out that, whatever our intention may be, the hands on work we give to clients is often experienced therapeutically and frequently has an obvious therapeutic effect. For many, simply having a quiet and accepting space where someone takes an interest in us is in itself therapeutic. To deny this reality or to minimise it due to an over-preciousness about traditional ways we define what do can be harmful. If we are not willing to be conscious and honest about the actual role we are playing for pupils, we either fail to meet them in the way they need, or end up playing the role unconsciously in a sphere where, more than any other, consciousness is needed. What are the consequences of asking someone to open up physically, and hence emotionally, and then refusing to be there to fully welcome and allow what may be released by that process? At best we may push the material back under the surface where it might be more difficult to access next time, at worst such a rejection of this vulnerable part of the self may be re-traumatising.
So is it 'safe enough' to mix roles in an AT setting? Mowat’s study (2006) certainly suggests so, and indicates that pupils enjoy the difference. In real life, I think, most of us realise that it is completely normal and healthy to show some flexibility towards roles so long as it is done with care. Here’s another personal story. At school I had a piano teacher who, as well as doing an excellent job in her main role, was also one of the few people who I was able at that time to talk to about personal matters and feel ‘heard’. I don’t believe that she forgot her primary role, and I also feel that her willingness to flexibly enter into a subsidiary role when it was clearly needed was both appropriate and in fact beneficial, including to my development as a musician. A point could have been reached when she was no longer able to offer this additional support in a way which fitted with her teaching role, in which case I’m sure she would have acted appropriately. But her flexibility and clarity about what was needed in that particular situation was very much to my overall benefit, and reflects what all of us primarily need from a helping other, which is not a teacher or a therapist, but a human being with the wisdom and clarity to see what is appropriate at a given moment, and the courage to offer it.
In all of this I’m absolutely not arguing in favour of the abandonment of our primary orientation towards holding a teacher-pupil relationship, and feel that in many ways this can be a more empowering and effective model to offer people than a purely therapeutic one. It is important to keep a hold of the value of what we do. But if we are to let the pupil have the full benefits of what we can potentially offer, we also need let go of a rigidity which forbids a person from playing other subsidiary roles alongside their main role as appropriate. I don’t believe that worries about a widening of roles (while they need to be taken seriously) should stand in the way of the changes necessary to make the Technique more useful and widely applicable in the increasingly sophisticated psycho-physical company it finds itself in the early 21st century.
So much for the possibilities of adopting a more complex perspective towards the roles we embody in our work. While many of us feel that the AT is being beneficially extended by insights from more therapeutically orientated practices, I’m not advocating an uncritical acceptance and absorption of these, any more than I would wish them to be completely rejected. There is much to give us pause, particularly, in the contemporary psychotherapeutic ‘scene’. Some examples include: the increasing homogeneity of theory and practice (everyone’s integrative these days!); the over-academisation of a field in which human qualities are the most important factor; the commoditisation both of training and of therapy itself; the resulting defensiveness of practice; and the diluting of the more open, forward-looking, and accepting humanistic tradition by psychodynamic approaches which fit more comfortably with the trends towards academisation and commodification noted above.
Too uncritical an embracing of the therapeutic world view can end up with Alexander teachers’ relationships to pupils moving a long way from the sort of teacher-student dynamic which we might hope for, for example diagnosing or psychoanalysing rather than being with the person as we find them In this I feel that we may be far better served by looking primarily towards Carl Rogers than Freud.
There’s clearly a balance to be struck here. My current question to myself and to the community of teachers is to wonder how can we integrate the best of what these other approaches have to offer into what we do while avoiding the twin traps of, firstly, diluting it to a point where it is no longer distinct and where its very real ‘specialness’ is lost and, secondly, without taking on the potential downsides and problems of therapeutic practices along with their benefits. I will turn my attention to this question in my next article….
Alcantara, P. de (2009) The Alexander technique: a skill for life. Marlborough: Crowood.
Mowat, B. (2006) ‘The Impact of Psychotherapy and Counselling on the Alexander Technique’, The Alexander Journal, (issue 21, Spring).
Mowat, B. (2008) ‘The Use of Touch in an AT Context: A Developmental and Therapeutic Perspective.’, in. 8th International Alexander Congress, Lugano.
Rubenfeld, I. (1992) ‘The unacknowledged Partner in Mind/Body Integration’, Direction, (1) pp. 351-357.
Soar, T. (1999) Emotions, Alexander Technique London. Available at: https://the-alexander-technique.org.uk/pdfs/emotio...