Updated: Jul 31, 2018

We begin today by looking at this whole issue of directions. Obviously, the whole topic

cannot be discussed in such a short space, but I have noticed that one question in

particular has been coming up lately with great frequency. In fact, we spent most of the

last teacher’s workshop in Zurich dealing with it, and that question is this: how come we

don’t teach the “giving of directions” in the ITM? Well, the short answer is that we do teach the giving of directions. What we don’t do is teach a particular approach to giving them.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the concept of “giving directions” perhaps a little history would help make this concept more clear. In the conventional approach to teaching Alexander’s work, students are instructed to repeat certain words in a certain sequence, often in a manner in which various new phrases are added to the repetition of phrases that have come before. The classical approach to this process is first to repeat the words “let the neck be free” and then add in “in order to let the head go forward and up”. Then to repeat this string of words and to add in the phrase “in order to let the back lengthen and widen”. As Patrick Macdonald put it, “The whole pattern is arranged like the House That Jack Built, starting with “Let the neck be free”.

Other teachers have used other words or other directions. People trained in Nebraska

would tend to use words like “I want to move my whole head delicately up and away from my body in such a way that my whole body follows”. Again, it can be seen that the nature of this process is to arrange mental “commands” of some form in a sequential manner so that, as Wilfred Barlow puts it, the student produces “in himself a sequence of thought which matches closely the occurrences which his teacher is inducing in his musculature” through gentle, manual adjustment in a lesson. Some teachers have added in specific directions for the movement of the knees and the eyes. No matter what the innovation, the relationship between thinking these words in these sequences and the expected success of the process remains the same. In other words, “giving orders” verbally--out loud or to oneself--is held to be a necessary part of training in the Alexander Technique. So, the usual absence of this practice in the ITM approach to learning the work is seen by others as suspect.

Clearly, there is a large amount of evidence to support this kind of approach to Alexander’s work. It is clear from what he writes that he did make this approach. But what the “Preservationists” rarely seem to consider is that Alexander taught many ways over many decades always searching for a better way to teach. Therefore, there are other points of view to consider, other pieces of truth, opinion, and advice to take into account before the student of Alexander’s work can decide for him- or herself which tradition to follow. For instance, Frank Pierce Jones writes that in some forms of teaching “pupils are asked to say over the directive orders to themselves while the instructor by manipulation gives them the “correct” experience that goes with the orders. Once the experience and the order have been linked, they are substituted for the old stimulus-response pattern. This procedure, whether it succeeds or not, is not the Alexander Technique, but a form of classical conditioning.” Perhaps more provocatively, Frank reports A. R. Alexander as saying that the orders “whether verbalized or not, were an aid to thinking, but not a substitute for it.” (This is such an important concept to understand! A. R.’s claim here is that “thinking” in the way that he and his brother meant for their students to think was not the same thing as giving orders. Giving orders could help with the process but, because it was not the same thing as thinking, giving orders could not be used as a substitute.)

Well, because I do not see any advantage in exchanging old habitual responses for new

conditioned ones, and because I am interested in “thinking” itself, I started to experiment with new approaches to this concept of learning how to direct oneself differently in activity. And then I realized, I was working too hard because we had already solved the problem. In practically every lesson I teach, students stop themselves from repeating their habitual responses and perform their activities in a new and improved manner. If, as I believe, it is not possible to move without directing yourself to do so, the fact that the student has moved in a new and different manner demonstrates that the student has directed him - or herself in a new and different manner. Although I can rarely find anyone who can articulate what it is that they are actually “thinking” as they do this, almost all of them can reproduce it. If people can already alter their manner of direction reproducibly in a simple and natural manner as a result of changing the way they direct themselves in activity, then there is no need for them to learn an artificial discipline as a precursor to making the change in their thinking they have already made.

But, perhaps the most important reason why we don’t teach the giving of orders in the ITM is that Alexander himself told us not to. Walter Carrington reports that in 1946, Alexander deliberately decided to alter this procedure of giving verbal orders: “At tea FM said that he had, at last, decided that we must cut out in future teaching all instructions to order the neck to relax or to be free because such orders only lead to other forms of doing. If a person is stiffening the neck, the remedy is to get them to stop projecting the messages that are bringing about this condition and not to project messages to counter-act the effects of the other messages.” In the ITM, working with students to stop projecting the messages that are bringing about their misdirection and “cutting out...all instructions to

order” is precisely what we do and why we don’t teach students to “give directions”.

By Don Weed, founder of the ITM