The Alexander Technique: Education or Therapy?

Article added October 2, 2012

By Anthony Kingsley

How can an Alexander Teacher define the Technique? Is the Alexander Technique an Education or a Therapy? Should Alexander Teachers sit on a register of complementary therapists such as the CNHC as we are currently entitled? At this moment in time, this issue is creating a huge amount of heat within the membership body STAT and will come to a head at the upcoming AGM in a week or so. Let’s look at these questions in more detail. I posted the following text on the STAT website:

Alexander as Education: First, Alexander’s preferred description was psychophysical re-education. In other words, he was suggesting that the task of the teacher was not to teach some new knowledge or impart information, but rather to facilitate or enable the pupil to reacquaint him or herself with a fundamental truth or an organic and natural state that has been interfered with, or is lying dormant. Here, there is an implicit acceptance that the pupil somehow knows the condition of improved use. Of course, the teacher may offer the pupil an experience that “feels” new and strange, but on a deeper level, the pupil may indeed recognise the experience as “home”, i.e. “This is the way I am designed to function.” <!–more–>Similarly, the human faculty of inhibition is not some new knowledge or skill, but rather a capacity that already exists within human nature, albeit maybe rather immature and underdeveloped. Inhibition under certain conditions can grow. Equally the sensory register is frequently in need of refinement and reliability.

This paradigm of re-education belongs to the etymology of the word education, which derives from the Latin ‘edu-care’, to draw out that which is already present. However, I think it is fair to say that much of what goes under the title “education” or “teaching” today has more to do with learning new facts and data, a pedagogy, or at worst, imposing dogma and propaganda. And so Alexander as “Education” may have connotations that do not exactly fit the bill. Furthermore, the terms teacher and pupil can conjure up a hierarchical structure of the all-knowing and powerful authority and the subservient and obedient receptacle.

What about the term therapy? Well, certainly therapy can conjure up in our minds a treatment package where the practitioner delivers a modality to a passive recipient in order to relieve some symptom or to heal the patient. The therapist in this version is offering the active ingredient or cure.

But this description is not so simple. Let’s take nutritional therapy. The practitioner is required to teach the art and science of healthy nutrition. The patient is not simply force-fed through a tube. In order to succeed, the patient is required to actively participate in his or her own health and recovery. They have to learn some truths about their own dietary habits and addictive impulses, and set about negotiating a new way of relating to food.

And how about physiotherapy? Whilst a physiotherapist may offer treatments ranging from manipulation, massage, ultrasound and heat, the patient can also be instructed in exercise, exercises and rehabilitation. What is offered here is a real mix of education and treatment.

And psychotherapy? Is the therapist here attempting to impose some externalised cure on a passive recipient? At worst, maybe. At best, the process of psychotherapy is a dialogue between two selves, a guide and a guided who interact and explore together the obstacles and wounds that are interfering with natural growth and development. This can be a real work of transformation. The patient is encouraged to discover and unravel their unconscious motivations and patterns of behavior. The patient is supported in facing and containing painful emotional experiences so that the split-off parts of the personality can be again integrated into the self. Deeper aspects of the self which may be described as spiritual can also rise into consciousness, and enrich the individual, and provide a journey of self-healing and growth. Is this treatment or education?

And so to the Alexander Technique. How do we wish to define ourselves? How do we wish to name the process of two psychophysical selves engaged in mutual influence and purposeful communication in aid of holistic transformation? In short is our work education, therapy, or perhaps educational therapeutics? Alexander’s use of terminology included, “manipulation,” “psycho-physical re-education,” “knowing oneself,” “evolutions,” and “therapeutics.” Alexander did not limit himself to one semantic paradigm.

The ATEAM study indicated clinical and significant evidence of the efficacy of the Alexander Technique for back pain. We should all welcome this. It simply confirms what we already understand; that use affects function. In other words, if we remove some of the psychophysical obstacles that contribute to ill health, we can move towards improved health. And so, if a General Practitioner, an Osteopath, a Physiotherapist or anyone else in a position to refer someone to us for these sorts of benefits, recommends the Alexander Technique, we should embrace this faith in our work. Personally, I am not too concerned if they refer to us as a treatment package for muscular-skeletal problems, as reeducation of the postural mechanisms, an exploration and inhibition of the human habits of reaction, a method for becoming more present, a way of ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’ or the development of conscious control of the use of the self. Each definition may offer a refraction of truth, and may appeal to different people depending on their individual needs, tastes, preferences and prejudices.

It is perhaps relevant that at the same time that members have the opportunity to join the CNHC register if they wish, STAT have also negotiated with the College of Teachers so that any STAT training course may offer it’s students participation in this academic stream, concurrent with their training, and obtain certification and membership of this professional body at the same time as the regular MSTAT certification. This apparent anomaly testifies to our rather unique position vis-a-vis the wider world.

Essentially, we can easily become too wedded to a terminology that is culturally determined, time-based and ultimately self-limiting. We do not need to define ourselves as either education or therapy. Alexander himself described his work both as education and therapeutics. We span the divide, as surely we must if we are to remain true to the psychophysical and holistic nature of our work. We share with teachers many elements of practice, and we share with psychotherapists much that has to do with dialogue and the interpersonal. And yes, of course we also have a unique contribution to the field of self-work.

We can sit on a register with Teachers, Psychotherapists or Complementary Therapists We need not fear contamination. Is there a present preferred alternative to the CNHC register? Apparently, not at the moment. If later on we discover a more appropriate home for voluntary regulation, let’s check it out.

We don’t need to tear each other to pieces or divide our society as a result of our self-definitions. After so many years, we are still a rather misunderstood Technique. And maybe this is inevitable, due to the difficulties I have outlined above. Ultimately, the ways that we describe ourselves to the world outside, may have to be adapted to the audience and their capacity to comprehend our work within their own frame of reference. We need not be apologetic or shy about this. It is simply pragmatic. Pragmatism and purism need not be at war. STAT as our umbrella, and we as members, should be able to embrace these polarities and implicit paradoxes.

Your work is your own. No one will take it away from you. No body, institution or register has the power to alter your unique representation of the Alexander Technique. Your hands can only communicate from your personal self. It can’t be otherwise. It’s an essential component of your ongoing integration and development. Have faith in it. It’s your life!

Written for discussion within STAT in 2011

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