I’m re-reading one of Alexander’s later books at the moment: The Use of the Self.
He notes in the introduction that many people write to him complaining that they can’t ‘do it themselves’ by reading his books. Let me give you a sense of his not great writing style by providing an excerpt — I’ll even add line breaks to make it more readable.
The need for a new printing of this book affords me an opportunity to try to clear up certain difficulties mentioned in letters from some of my readers, difficulties which arise in trying to teach themselves to apply my technique. What troubles most of them is ‘How to do it’.
Some of these correspondents have rated me quite severely because, as they put it, they are not able to teach themselves from what I have written down in my books.
They they must be well aware that, in spite of all the textbooks on the subjects, many people are unable to teach themselves to drive a car, play golf, ski or even to master such comparatively simple subjects as geography, history and arithmetic, without the aid of a teacher. – F. M. Alexander, in 1941.
This shows that the desire for self-directed learning of the Alexander Technique has been in the minds of students for almost 100 years. It also shows that Alexander himself didn’t seem too keen on the idea.
Reading closely, that’s not because he thinks it isn’t possible, but because there are reasons why it could fail. He lists four factors that must be borne in mind:
- Written or spoken words cannot themselves convey a sensory experience.
- The experience will feel unfamiliar at first. This is necessary.
- Feelings are an unreliable guide. We need to welcome the unknown.
- As a result of 2 and 3, if you ‘try try get it right’, you’ll end up doing what feels right and miss the point.
You can see there are lots of ‘traps’ here for self-directed learning. The student might not have the intended experience, or the student may too easily default to what feels right, but not realise it.
I can see where he was coming from, but it’s worth bearing in mind that
- he wrote this in 1941, and
- he was not a good writer, as he himself recognised.
We’ve come a long way in terms of teaching methods, technology (audio, video) and access to wider sources of knowledge since 1941. The fact that Alexander couldn’t write abut his technique in 1941 in a way that could convey it doesn’t mean that others can’t do it some other way now.
After thirty Zoom calls, hundreds of interactions on Twitter and many of my course students reporting benefits, I’ve discovered that sensory experiences can be conveyed through words, as long as you understand that it’s still the student who needs to bring about that sensory experience. My role as teacher is not to ‘give’ an experience, but to show you how to bring about an experience. My role as teacher is also to know the traps that you might fall into, show you that they’re there and how to get out of them.
I even suspect that online teaching has the potential to be superior to in person teaching in some dimensions (to audible gasps and boos from the stalls.). Alexander wrote:
To anyone who accepts these points and sees the reason for keeping them in view whilst working to principle in employing the technique, I would say ‘Go ahead, but remember that time is of the essence of the contract’. It looks me years to reach a point that can be reached in a few weeks with the aid of an experienced teacher.
Again, I agree — if you’re starting from a standing start and need to rediscover the principles from scratch.
But I wonder: by the time Alexander reached ‘that point’, what was his understanding of it like? He had figured everything out for himself, he knew where he was going and he could get himself back there, because he’d worked through it systematically and patiently from first principles.
I have been exposed to a broad mix of experienced teachers, both as part of my training and some that I sought out myself. The best understood that their job is to teach me skills I can develop for myself. The others (not the ones who joined our training!) seemed to care more about ‘giving me an experience’, but left me confused as to what it meant and what to do with it.
When I experience the latter, it may feel intriguing, but it’s not something I can learn from. Sam Harris compares psychedelics and meditation like this:
If LSD is like being strapped to a rocket, learning to meditate is like gently raising a sail.
The rocket may be fun and useful to show you that there’s a there there, but ultimately you'll probably want to learn to sail for yourself.
Extending the metaphor a little, Alexander taught himself to sail with very little knowledge of boats, water or wind. If you learn to sail by following that kind of journey, you will ultimately know every little detail of sailing required to master your level of proficiency. Yes, someone else may be able to show you how to sail and get you out on the water much faster, but I suspect you won’t understand it quite as deeply — at least not without training that recognises this.
Back to my hopefully inflammatory comment: I suspect that online teaching has the potential to be superior to in person teaching in some ways. That’s because I, as a teacher, cannot give you an experience directly. I have no hands-on experience giving to fall back on.
The only way I can teach you Alexander Technique remotely and asynchronously is if I can communicate something that will cause you to bring about new experiences for yourself. I can’t just give you a sail boat and show you the ropes. I have to demonstrate to you the truth and functioning of boats, water and wind and then teach you how to sail.
This forces me to step up my own game and think through exactly what is going on here. A true first-principles approach.
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