On Giving Directions, Doing and Non-Doing

Article added May 17, 2011

By Patrick Macdonald

“The way that can be told is not the real way,
The name that can be spoken – is not the real name.”

That was written thousands of years ago and is still true. One cannot convey the essence of an art, and particularly an art of living, by the written or spoken word, So what am I, who have always rather despised words, doing here tonight stringing a lot of them together? As a matter of fact I don’t despise words as much as I used to do. For some time now I have been teaching a deaf lady, and before that, in Israel, I was sometimes left with a non-English speaking pupil for a time, and believe me, I felt the need of words. They are certainly useful, even if sometimes dangerous.

In a lesson, of course, one can define the meaning of words with some accuracy, the greater the number of lessons the greater the accuracy, but a lecture is not a lesson. However, so long as my audience realizes that “the way that can be told – is not the real way” then some beneficial understanding should result.

A large part of this audience will have already been through the experiences which I am proposing to touch upon, but there will be others to whom giving directions is little more than a verbal concept and it is possible that this lecture may clarify their ideas and lead them to a more practical application of them. lf there are any here who have not been through a course of lessons in the Alexander Technique, I would tell them that “Giving directions” has a particular significance to an Alexandrian, a significance which, I hope, will be clearer to them at the end of this lecture. I would also like to say that I speak for myself. Different people interpret Alexander differently and I lay no claim to speak the only truth.

I do not think that F.M. specifically stated that the knowledge of how to give directions – in our special sense – must change and grow, in the same way as our use of ourselves must change and grow. I think, however, that it was implicit in his teaching.

Giving directions, then, is not and cannot be the same for a new pupil as it ig for one of a few weeks, months or years experience of the Technique. For the new pupil, directions start merely as words. These should be learnt by heart, in the proper order and they should gain in content with time, experience and the frequent application of a teacher’s hands. They must progress from being merely words to a release of force, which acts in certain ways and along certain paths. The words, therefore, turn into acts, but acts of a very delicate and subtle kind and these are not to be confused with the ordinary kind of activity which is commonly called “a physical act”.

In the early days of my studentship I was much confused over this matter when, talking to A.R. Alexander, F.M.’s brother, he remarked to me, “Of course, Directions are doings, but they are very small. They are usually below the sense register.” This made the matter very much clearer for me, and I offer you A.R-‘s comment in the hope that it may do the same for you.

Now, as most of you know, the directions for the new use of the Primary control are as follows: (I say “new use” advisedly because many pupils talk as if the primarary Control is something which only appears when they learn the Alexander Technique. This is not so. The Primary Control is a meehanism we are all born with, and is with us all our lives whether we are instructed in its use or not. Our Primary Controls are always with us, good, bad or indifferent. What we need is to learn to use them better. For the benefit of any of you here who have not read Alexander or had any experience of the Alexander Technique I should say that the Primary Control is the name given to the neck-head-back relationship which Alexander discovered acted as a kind of master reflex for the whole body) – The words then are:


Let us examine these words to try and arrive at their meaning.


You will notice that the phrase starts with “let”. This is important. It means that the pupil should avoid stiffening the neck – not that he should do something to free it. I frequently find pupils going through all sorts of contortions in the belief that they are “freeing the neck”. They are usually, in fact, producing an extra stiffening by so doing.


Notice the word “to”. It joins the first phrase to the second and it is irnportant that the two ideas should not be considered as separate but as continuous, the second acting in response to the first. The word “let” is employed again, for the reason I have mentioned; that is to prevent pupils trying to do the thing, to put their heads forward and up in a muscular manner. To do so, not only does not lead to the required activity but causes greater interference. It can be injurious.

In point of fact, nearly every pupil will try to put his head forward and up in the early stages, but the sooner they can be weaned from this practice the better. Some pupils find great difficulty in inhibiting this reaction and it may take weeks to get them to do so. But inhibition, the keystone of the Alexander Technique, is another matter and I propose to leave it for examination later.

Now the phrase “forward and up” has led to more confusion than any of the other ones used in teaching the Alexander Technique, and its explanation affords considerable difficulty. In the first place it must be remembered that Alexander coined the phrase in response to what he saw himself and others doing wrong. He noticed that he was pulling his head back and down, and he came to the conclusion that this was an interference with proper vse. “Forward and up”, therefore, is primarily a preventive direction and indicates that the usual tensions that pull the head back must be inhibited. The point I want to make here is that it was these habitual tensions that Alexander was getting at, and not the position of the head in space. Those with experience of the Alexander Technique know that it is possible, though often difficult, to bring the head back in space and yet produce the phenomenon which we call “Forward and Up”.

It is useful to consider the “forward” as an unlocking of the head at the atlanto- occipital joint by refraining from tightening and pulling it backwards in the accustomed way, and the “up” as a tiny extension of the spine, which is achieved following this unlocking. The movement, if any, is, in an experienced pupil, so small as to be hardly a movement at all. It is a directed flow of force or a kind of pulsation, no larger than a heart beat.

Of course in a new and badly slumped pupil, the lengthening of the spine and the resultant upward movement of the head, while under a teacher’s manipulation, can be quite extensive, sometimes even adding inches to the pupil’s habitual height. This extension is of the normal ‘physical’ in inverted commas kind. It is different from the tiny activity of direction giving, and should subservient to it. Physical movements of this kind need not be wrong. Indeed in the various activities of living they are required, but always in conjunction with directions. They are however, quite different from the kind of ‘thinking upwards’ with which we are now concerned.


Again the words “to” and “let” are used, the first to join the phrases, the second to denote the impropriety of ordinary muscular action in this connection.

Lengthening of the back may be described as “allowing the spine to extend itself to its full length”, and widening the back as “refraining from hollowing the back in such a way that it is not slumped”. Again I would stress that directions are not a number of separate ideas, but a whole – in Alexander’s well known phrase, “All together, one after the other”. I amalgamate the two directions to lengthen and widen, as these two impulses – to lengthen and widen – are so closely associated that it is improper to consider one without the other.

In a man or woman with a good “use of himself”, the directions for the use of the Primarv Control shauld be enough to prevent his ‘use’ from going wrong, but in civilized man it has been found neeessary to add further directions to other parts of the body, as these often have specific misuses which interfere with the proper working of the Primary Control. You will rememoer from reading “The Use of the Self”, that Alexander had to pay special attention (in other words, give special directions) to the way he used his feet, because he had built up a set of misuses by doing what he thought was “taking hold of the floor with his feet”, when reciting. These further directions, and there will be any number of them, must be given in conjunction with those for the use of the Primary Control and must be subservient to them in such a way that the whole pattern is arranged like the House that Jack built, starting with “Let the neck be free”.

Let me give you an example, taking the business, well known to Alexandrians, of placing the hands on the back of a chair in front of you while you stand or sit, I will give you these directions fairly fully and if any of you find them too repetitive, it means that you have not done your homework, as Alexander did his.

This set of directions then is:

Let the neck be free.
Let the neck be free to let the head go forward and up.
Let the neck be free to let the head go forward and up to let the back lengthen and widen.
Let the neck be free to let the head go forward and up to let the back lengthen and widen to let one shoulder spread out sideways.
Let the neck be free to let the head go forward and up to let the back lengthen and widen to let one shoulder spread out sideways to continue the extension to the elbow.
Let the neck be free to let the head go forward and up to let the back lengthen and widen to let one shoulder spread out sideways to continue the extension to the elbow and on into the wrist.
Let the neck be free to let the head go forward and up to let the back lengthen and widen to let one shoulder spread out sideways to continue the extension to the elbow and on into the wrist and down to the tips of the fingers.

And the whole lot again to take hold of the chair. You will note that the last of these directions is of the ordinary “physical” type denoting the gaining of a familiar end, but in an unfamiliar way. The normal wrong unconscious directions would be to stiffen the neck, pull the head back and down, slump the back (or hollow it as the case might be), contract the shoulder and arm and tighten the wrist and fingers.

You see, quite a lot of mental hard work is involved. That is what Alexander did, and he spent hours, weeks, months and years doing it. We are not Alexanders and, luckily for us, we are not called upon to go through all the drudgery that F.M. did. A skilled teacher will, with his hands and in a few minutes produce these impulses and keep them going, while bringing more and more into play, thus building up a whole series of integrated patterns, without the pupil having to undertake more than a tithe of the mental discipline which Alexander had to use.

With practice in giving directions they become quite different from what the new pupil at first conceives them to be, and one of the results is that the body, after it has been frequently consciously directed takes on a particular texture or tone. This tone can be recognised by an experienced pair of hands. I call it feeling the flow of a pupil’s body or feeling the life in the body, and it is to get our pupils to produce this actionless activity in themselves that much of our efforts, as teachers, are directed. For this purpose it is important that the teacher should be able to produce this rhythmical flow of directions in his own body, then that he should be able to produce this condition with his hands in his pupil, as a prerequisite to getting the pupil to produce it himself.

The question of doing and non-doing, again in our special sense, is one that is intimately bound up with that of giving directions, and is one that has caused a deal of confusion. The long and short of it is that we, as teachers, require that certain activities should, as we say, “Do themselves”. This we call non-doing. On the other hand, any activity that interferes with this “doing itself”, we call “doing” and it is the aim of the teacher to get his pupils to inhibit it. Alongside of this actionless activity, which is set in motion by directions, either from the teacher’s hands or from the pupil’s brain, or from both, there is also, in every day living, the need to use the ordinary physical kind of doing with which everyone is familiar. In learning the Alexander Technique – I speak now of the actual lessons and not of every day living when much must be left to luck and to the unconscious influence of the lessons – these ordinary doings must be inhibited until they can be done without interference with the behaviour of the neck-head-back relationship, or what; Alexander calls The Primary Control.

When a pupil is capable of so acting without interference with the Primary Control, or perhaps I should say with only slight interference, the actionless activity that is going on in the body modifies the physical activity and brings it into harmony with itself, so that the physical activity grows out of the non-doing of the Primary Control. To a trained eye, it is a great pleasure to watch anyone whose physical actions are determined in this way.

Some little time ago I was invited by one of my pupils to go and see the negro boxer, Cassius Clay, box against our Champion Henry Cooper. Clay’s coordination was very good indeed. He drifted about the ring like a piece of blown thistle-down, always in balance and always ready to move or strike. It was indeed a most rewarding sight.

As most of you will have found out, it is by no means easy to inhibit action, when under stimulus. The desire to do is very strong. Pupils, at least most of them, are very reluctant to give up control of themselves. Like a woman upon whose leg I was working when she was lying on a table. She was holding it very lightly and I was trying to persuade her to let it go. “Let it go”, I implored her. “Let it drop”. “But”, said she, “if I let it go it would drop”. She immediately realised just what she had said however, and after that she was more able to leave it alone. Another lady was, for some months, unable to leave her arm alone when I went to raise it for her. Most people find this difficult, but I don t expect my pupils to be stuck with it for months. Most of them get over that particular difficulty quite soon, some even in a minute or two.

Another example. A man suffering terribly with Arthritis came for an interview. I was unable to make much change in him as he sat in the chair, so I put him on the table. I told him I was going to lift his head and that he was not to do it for me. I had by that time weighed up my man, so instead of taking hold of his head I placed my hands some inches away from it on each side. He immediately raised his head and held it with extreme tension and some difficulty in the air. All the time I had not touched it. I then pointed out that he was doing exactly what I had asked him not to do, to which he eventually agreed and lowered his head onto the box. “Right”, I said, “Now this time you understand that you are not to lift your head and that I am to do it for you.” He agreed, but I knew my man, I did exactly as before, laying my hands down some inches away from his head. It surprised me not at all when he whipped his head up and held it with great tension as before. I had a small bet with myself that he’d do it a third time, but he didn’t – not until I actually touched him. This demonstrates the terrible urge to do, that overcomes all reason, and nullifies sensory awareness, but this latter is another question into which I will not enter now.

One of the difficulties is to get the pupil to approach these new procedures in the right frame of mind. They all come to their lessons, and rightly so, with the desire to make changes in their behaviour, and the teacher has got to maintain this desire while radically altering its expression. To do this he will probably tell his pupil, to act as if he, the pupil, had no desire for change at all. To be consciously disinterested in what is going to happen, and to behave, not as if he were being taught something, but as if we were watching someone else being taught. In this way, he usually finds it easier to stop the desire to participate and, paradoxically, when he does so, he finds that he is indeed truly participating instead of getting in the way and that he has a greatly heightened awareness of what he is doing.

One of the habit patterns that we teachers have to combat is what is known as “relaxation”. This is very far removed from the non-doing that I have described and is in fact a very objectionable kind of doing. As Alexander told us, a better name for it would be collapse. It is a condition that usually takes a long time to eradicate. It takes much longer and is more difficult to deal with than hypertension, and it is a great pity that it is so widely taught. A propos of relaxation, a pupil of one of my colleagues was once told in a lesson not to close her eyes. She said, “If I don’t close my eyes, I can’t concentrate”. My colleague said, “I don’t want to try to concentrate”. “But”, she said, “if I don’t concentrate I can’t feel what is happening”. “I don’t want you” he said “to try and feel what is happening”. “But”, she replied, “If I don’t feel, how can I relax?” “I don’t want you” he said “to try and relax”. That was a wonderfu1. conglomeration of wrong ideas, and one, I am sure my colleagues here will appreciate.

In this talk I have tried to give an idea of the difference of the Alexander Technique from other techniques. I am often asked “What is the difference between the Alexander Technique and Yoga?” From my small knowledge of Yoga, and my larger one of the Alexander Technique, I can only say that whereas Yoga attempts, often very successfully, to create a direct control of bodily behaviour by the cortex, the Alexander Technique only attempts an indirect control by the cortex through the neck-head- back relationship, or what Alexander called “The Primary Control”. Direct interference in the workings of other muscle groups is quite contrary to our way of thinking, and F.M. was always opposed to it.

However, some years ago I did come upon a book by a German Professor, Eugen Herrigel, which seemed to contain a great deal of Alexander’s thinking. The book is called “Zen in the Art of Archery” and is an account of his many years studies in the practice of Zen Buddhism, in Japan, under a Zen Master of Archery. It would appear that Zen Buddhism is studied through application to a certain skill – in this case to Archery – though it is understood that the skill itself is of small importance compared with the Philosophy and way of life out of which it must grow. I found this book fascinating. Many passages in it might have been written by F.M. himself. All the way through it, the insistence of the Master is on “getting out of the way”, “not getting emotionally involved with the act”, “letting IT do it”.

The frustration and fury that this poor man underwent, reminds me of many of my own experiences and those of my students, when learning to put our hands on someone acting the part of pupil. They have to learn to put them on, yet not put them on in much the same way as Herrigel had to learn to draw the bow yet not draw it, to let the arrow pluck itself out of his hands and fly towards the target of its own accord. On no account was he allowed to aim at the target. In this book I came upon a concept that I think has validity and I recommend it, anyway, as an exercise in humility.

When after many years, Mr. Herrigel did at last succeed in loosing the shot which gained his Master’s approval he was forbidden to feel any elation over it. He was instructed instead, to bow to the target as a recognition that it was not he who had made the good shot, but IT that had done it. In the same way when we do anything right it does not mean that we have done anything clever – only that we have ceased getting in the way. I most heartily recommend this book to all those interested in our Technique.

In trying to sum up what I have said this evening, I would like to say that I consider “Non-Doing” and “Direction Sending” the life blood of the Alexander Technique, though they are not – of course the whole of IT. I think it might be useful, before I stop, to list the items that, taken together I believe make the Alexander Technique into one unlike any other. They are:

Recognition of the Force of Habit.
Inhibition and Non-Doing.
Recognition of faulty sensory awareness.
Sending Directions.
The Primary Control.

If one meets a technique that has some similarity to the Alexander Technique, run these five simple rules over it and see what is missing.

Lecture to the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique at the Medical Society of London on November 12th, l963. Patrick Macdonald was in Alexander’s first Teacher Training Course. He taught the technique for over 60 years, and trained many Alexander Teachers himself. He was aknowledged as one of Alexander’s most gifted Teachers.

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