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On Belief Systems and Learning
A journey from the Alexander Technique to a new work
by David Gorman
From an article first posted to the Alextech on-line forum,
(small editing changes made subsequently)
Copyright © 1998 David Gorman, all rights reserved world-wide
NOTE: This piece sparked an intense and fascinating debate in the Alextech e-mail
discussion group (an Alexander Technique online discussion group) which raged for several weeks.
For those interested, there are two on-line versions of this debate.
1. A record of the original Alextech
list debate hosted on the
Direction Journal web site.
2. The original debate as above PLUS extra new
from further correspondence directed to the author (this
version is hosted on this LearningMethods web site.
On Belief Systems and Learning
David Langstroth wrote on June 22nd in an Alexander Technique e-mail discussion group:
"The important point for this forum is that the Alexander Technique, like most practical bodies of
knowledge, is BASED ON the assumption of the existence of objective reality. It is only WITHIN this
assumption that you can speak meaningfully about the technique." [capitals are his]
This is certainly true. As he says, if we didn't assume there actually was some sort
of reality outside of our interpretations, there wouldn't be much point in talking of anything.
It is not so much this fundamental assumption but rather our assumptions of the particular
premises and 'objective reality' of the Alexander Technique that my experiences over the years of being
a teacher and trainer eventually brought me to question. Though in the end, these new experiences and
my changed understanding of them brought me to a very different sense of what that outside reality might
I'll tell the story as much as possible from the chronology of my own realizations,
because that is the way it happened; For someone else to come to the same place, often the best way
is to follow the same pathway.
Let me start with a very brief outline of the general assumptions and premises of
the Alexander Technique. Note that I am not trying to be exact here but just to give a general flavour
of the nature of the Technique to make sense out of what follows. Of course, the Alexander Technique
has many strands, but near as I can tell, having got around in these different strands quite a bit over
the last 25 years, the common basic ideas behind the Technique go something like this (substitute your
own details to suit yourself):
People go around living their daily lives and doing all their activities within their
usual habits or 'manner of use'. They go to do an activity like stand up from a chair (or recite Shakespeare)
and, in doing so, they habitually pull their heads back and shorten their backs (or some other such
habit). They don't know that they are doing this because it is an 'unconscious habit' that has come
to feel 'instinctively right', but Alexander teachers can show them with their hands or with a mirror
that they are, in fact, doing these things. These kinds of unconscious habits are called 'misuses' (misuses
of the self) and these misuses 'affect functioning', sometimes quite soon (e.g. cause neck tension,
effort), sometimes after a period of consistent 'misuse' (e.g. hoarse voice, lower back or disk problems,
etc.). They also bring about a general tendency to poor health in indirect ways.
Part of the job of Alexander teachers is to help the pupil become aware of these
'misuses' (these unconscious habits) so that they can inhibit them and direct (or re-direct if you like)
to allow the neck to be free, to allow the head to go forward and up and the back to lengthen and widen
(or some similarly expansive directions).
It was particularly around the part about having these unconscious habits where we
are doing things like pulling our heads back and shortening but do not know that we are doing them that
I first began to question.
I was working one day (many years ago) with a young man and going about things more
or less in the way described above. He had just stood up from the chair and (from my 'trained' point
of view) had pulled his head way back like so many do. I said to him, "Were you aware that you pulled
your head back when you stood up?"
He looked at me and said very definitely, "No, I didn't!"
"Let's stand up again and I can show you in the mirror that you did," I replied confidently.
"Oh, I'm sure that it happened," he said, equally definitely, "But, I didn't
It suddenly struck me that what he had said was completely true. It was obvious that
his head came back (something he wasn't disputing in this case), but, of course, he did not do it
in the sense of saying to himself, "Hmm, now I'm going to pull my head back to stand up."
Equally obvious to me was that normally I would get busy showing him the 'fact' of
his head coming back as he stood and then further convincing him that he was actually doing it, but
as an unconscious habit or misuse which was why he didn't know that he was doing it. Then we'd get further
involved in helping him to inhibit this 'unconscious habit' in order to prevent it and so on... And
of course we'd do this because I already knew through my training and teaching experience that
this is what was happening.
All well and good so far. But what also suddenly struck me in that same moment was
that, if he, the person, was not pulling his head back, what was he actually up to in
those moments when his head was going back?
At the same time, I realized that because we'd normally both get busy with
making conscious the 'unconscious habit' and then inhibiting and directing (with me guiding his movements
and 'giving' him new experiences, etc.), neither of us would normally ever find out what he was
doing. In fact, because I already knew what was happening, I normally wouldn't even think to
ask the question...
However, the question had now occurred to me and I was determined to find
out just what were people up to when these events we call 'misuses' where occurring? That is, what they
were up to in their 'world' (how they saw things from their point of view) while I (in my 'trained'
world) was seeing their 'misuses' and 'unconscious habits'.
It was a quite exciting prospect — a "whole new field of endeavour" I thought. I
also thought it might take me a while to tease out what was happening to/for people, but it turned out
to be a lot easier and faster than I thought.
I decided to take the most direct route I could think of which was to simply stop
people in the middle of any activity when those 'misuses' (heads pulling back, backs shortening, etc.)
were most noticeably happening, and then immediately ask them where they were in their attention, what
were they thinking, feeling, intending, etc.
I also realized quickly that I would need to carry out this experiment only with
quite new pupils if I was going to find out what they were up to in their 'normal' or 'natural' habits,
because once they'd had a few lessons, what they were up to (at least in the lesson situation) was what
their teacher(s) had taught them to be up to.
Initially, I was using those common Alexander activities of standing and sitting
from chairs and bending, but later on things got even more interesting when I explored with people what
they were up to in activities where they themselves noticed they had problems — playing their violin,
caught in an argument with their partners, and so on. But it will make more sense to stay with the order
in which it came to me.
As we began to explore, it took a while for each person to understand what I was
asking of them in those moments when I stopped them. They were so used to just doing what they were
doing, and thinking and feeling what they were thinking and feeling, that they just took it for granted
and had never thought to articulate it. However, they soon got the hang of it and within the first few
weeks of exploring, certain patterns were starting to emerge.
The first I noticed was in standing when I'd stop people at that point just when
they were about to 'lift off' the chair and their 'thigh-tightening', 'head-pulling-back' and 'back-arching/shortening'
was usually at its most prominent. The most common thing people reported when asked where they were
and what they were up to, was that they were way out ahead of themselves with their awareness on where
they were trying to get to.
The same sort of thing happened when they sat down. Almost as soon as they started
to sit, they'd be already on the chair in their attention — where they were 'present'. It also happened
when they were standing and went to pick up a pen from the floor. When I saw them, from my point of
view, 'pull their heads way back', 'stiffen their legs' and 'bend in their lower backs', they were reporting
that 'they' were way out with the pen and their hand and their intention "to reach for it."
Ah, I thought. Of course! This was familiar. They were out ahead of themselves. They
were end-gaining. I sort-of already knew that (as some of you may now be saying, "of course, that's
obvious"). They were way out ahead, closer to their intended future goal than where they were in space
at the moment. In my teaching, I'd just never seen it that way, from their point of view, even though
I, myself, had had the same habits and experiences as a student not so many years before.
So far this was all, for me, still quite within the context of the Alexander premises.
I was just seeing (I thought at the time) more clearly how the pupil's conception and end-gaining brought
about the misuses of his or her self (the head pulling back, etc.).
But then I realized why people with these habits were not aware of their heads pulling
back and such like. They weren't at all aware of what was happening in their 'body' because they weren't
there! They were way out ahead paying attention to something else — namely, where they were trying to
No wonder all these 'misuses' went unnoticed... What the actual conscious, feeling,
thinking human being was doing was "reaching out to get up", or "going down to the chair." Their own
words said it all. It just so happened that when the human went about things that way, the result was
all these physical reactions which they were not specifically aware of (though, of course, they did
feel them in a general way as the effort and strain of standing).
Now I really understood what my pupil had meant when he said that he wasn't
pulling his head back. He was absolutely right. What he was doing, though, was rushing out ahead
of himself to get up — something he'd always figured he had to do in order to get up, and something
he always experienced the same way thereby reinforcing his sense that he had to do it.
This got me thinking. Which was 'primary': the 'unconscious habits' of misuse that
I was seeing from the outside, or the beliefs and the particular intentions and acts of the human being
on the inside who was doing the standing? By primary, I mean, was one more the cause and the other more
the secondary effect? Or maybe they were simultaneous? Which did it make most sense to work with? Obviously
the more primary one, whichever that was. Certainly, how I was trained and how I had been working up
to that point was to ignore what the human beings were actually up to and instead get them to
inhibit something that they, the conscious human beings, were not actually up to.
So, with this question in mind I carried on and decided to see how closely the onset
of these 'misuses' (which were 'objectively' seen by me) correlated with people's inner experience and
way of going about things. Specifically, I wondered what the person was up to at the very start of the
'misuse' pattern as detected by me — in other words which was first and therefore primary.
So, for a while, we spent time tracking backward the events until it was clear that
the very moment that pupils took their attention out ahead and began to stand or sit was the exact moment
I could see (or feel with my hands) the slightest beginning of the 'misuses'. The moment before they
started to stand, their 'use' was relatively fine. But the moment they 'decided' to go to standing and
rushed out ahead of themselves, all these characteristic 'misuses' manifested, seemingly at the same
I wasn't much closer to seeing directly what caused what, until I realized (again)
that it was clear at the moment of the beginning of the pattern, that the human beings were deciding
to stand and reach out as they thought they had to. The human beings were not deciding to pull
their heads back.
Suddenly, the possibility of a whole new range of experiments appeared. The people
I was working with were now becoming much more conscious of their rushing out ahead and aware of exactly
the moment when they started to do it. Thus it occurred to me that rather than have them inhibit the
'pulling back of their heads' which 'they' weren't 'doing' anyway, I'd get them to inhibit the 'getting
ahead of themselves', which they actually were doing.
It took a little while to accomplish that, because they were so deeply convinced
that they couldn't get up without doing what they normally did, but after a few attempts most people
were more or less able to just 'stay with themselves' the whole way. That is, to come to standing being
where they were at each moment, feeling whatever they felt, thinking what they thought and allowing
themselves to remain aware of their goal but not to rush out beyond their own experience of the moment
in any way, nor in any way to try to change anything.
When they more or less managed this they all reported that the movement was so much
easier than normal. There was no particular strain or effort and they were so much more aware and 'present'
all the way. Many said it was like they weren't really 'doing' anything, even though they did achieve
I was amazed, because from my point of view, those 'habitual unconscious misuses'
had more or less disappeared all by themselves! I had not done any guiding with my hands or verbal 'directions'.
The pupil had not released or directed or made any change at all in their 'use'. All I had done was
to keep coaching them to stay in the moment with where they were as they allowed themselves to stand
and that was the only change they had made from their normal rushing.
When we played with the same process in bending to pick something up, the same thing
happened. Just by getting them to refrain from their normal tendency to get out ahead of themselves
and narrow to the pen, they went instead into a flowing movement with the most enviable 'monkey' and
obviously supported balance. Again they reported much less sense of effort and so much more presentness
and wholeness. And no one had been taking care of any of those details at all!
What was happening in front of me in their physical co-ordination and functioning
— what I had been used to calling their 'use of the self' — was just happening all by itself when the
pupil stopped doing what they had actually been doing.
As a process, it was very easy to help them catch what they were actually doing because
they were actually doing it. When they could choose not to do that (which meant making a choice
against their reinforced belief system), their whole system functioned differently without anyone having
to direct it. And I do mean their whole system. Not just a free neck or a sense of more free hips or
better breathing, but a whole person was present.
In fact, most people didn't even report changes in specific parts at all, just that
'they' were more there, feeling more easy and more whole. They didn't become more aware of their
body and their pullings down, they didn't even have a body. They were just themselves all the
way out into the room around them. This was one of the most distinct differences that people reported,
especially those who were used to the experiences from inhibiting pulling their heads back and directing
while the teacher guided them in action.
I was beginning to get my answer as to what was more primary...
At this point I'm tempted to go on with another example of what an important difference
it makes when we find out what the person is actually up to compared to when we assume that they are
unconsciously pulling down. And I will. Later.
But that example shows a quite different aspect of how we work and in any case, came
quite a few years after these first discoveries. Therefore, first I'd like to look at the conclusions
I drew from these initial experiments and what seemed to be happening in them, because the light it
throws on our Alexander belief system, suggests some very different interpretations from the ones Alexander
drew. If you are impatient, you can jump ahead to the section titled, "The Violinist" for the other
example and come back here later.
When I'd repeated these experiments enough times over a number of months, and when
other teachers and trainees around me had also made similar experiments and we'd all seen the same sort
of thing happening again and again, it was clear enough what the events were that occurred to hazard
a theory of what was going on.
On the face of it, what seemed to be happening was that when people — the actual
thinking, feeling, intending, human beings — got out ahead of themselves (for whatever reasons) there
took place a set of consistent physical reactions (heads pulling back, legs tightening, etc.) that
simply did not take place if they were not getting ahead of themselves.
When they were not getting ahead of themselves they were operating in a way that
I was coming to think of as just being present in the moment (because that's how people often
described it). Being present in each moment of whatever activity, neither out ahead, nor in any way
looking into the physical feelings or parts observing or correcting or inhibiting anything in the body;
just accepting whatever state they are in, whether they liked that state or not, simply because that
IS where they are at the moment.
Since they were not doing anything at all at these moments except allowing themselves
to go into activity as they are and since, when they did that, everything seemed to work quite well,
co-ordinated and whole with a definite good use, I found it hard to avoid drawing the conclusion that
when someone was just being themselves in the present moment, some inherent integrating
function was taking care of everything in a quite satisfactory way. The human beings sure weren't doing
it — they weren't doing anything at all except being themselves! This was as literally non-doing
as you can get, seems to me.
Furthermore, since the only thing they had changed was to register what they had
actually been up to and then choose not to do it, it was also an obvious conclusion that those habitual
'doings' constituted an interference to this integrating function (or primary control or whatever
we choose to call it). Sounds kind of Alexander doesn't it? Except here we're not talking about 'unconscious
habits' of misuse of the body (necks, backs and legs) interfering with the functioning, but rather people's
experienced actions based on their reality construct.
From this new point of view, then, the learning possible and available for any individual,
is not that they have unconscious habits of pulling their heads back, etc. which they need to inhibit
and preventatively direct, but that they have had a whole belief system, reinforced by their
tangible sensory experience (which is why it seems like a 'reality' to the person — they 'feel' it).
The precise form that this construct has taken for any particular individual will, of course, depend
on their experiences and history.
The further learning for that person is that their 'old reality' was an unreliable
or false appreciation of what was happening because when they refrain from rushing out ahead and doing
anything to help themselves up, they actually get up more easily. How can they escape for long the conclusion
that what they thought was helping them get up, was actually making it harder to get up? That is, that
they had been suffering (literally) under a delusion as to the way that the world (gravity, muscles,
everything) works and now they were coming to a more true (or accurate or reliable) construct
or interpretation about reality.
I was coming to see more and more clearly the distinction between what the person
was up to and the physical/physiological effects of that doing. And that when someone changed what they
were doing, the physical/physiological effects immediately also changed. That is, I was beginning to
see that what was happening physically or functionally (heads pulling back, legs tightening, etc.) was
simply the organization or coordination of that particular kind of doing that the person was up to.
There was a piece of the puzzle missing to me when I had got this far. Why those
particular kinds of coordination (or mal-coordination if you like) when the person, for instance got
out ahead of themselves, and why the change to a much better functioning when they came back to just
being as they were in the moment?
I had to play around with these experiments myself so that I was, as much as I could,
experiencing that same change before I understood this one. It is easiest to understand what I found
by looking at what is happening in sitting down. When I just go 'in the moment' (not getting ahead of
myself) I find myself balanced and all parts moving together. I could change direction and walk or stand
up again at any time. There is no particular sense of effort and nothing standing out in any one part
of me more than any other. It was nice — 'nothing' to it.
When I switched to 'end-gaining' or taking my attention out ahead to the chair I
was now trying to get to, I had an immediate experience of going off balance backwards and my arms and
chest reached out to regain balance — the effect of which was that, relatively speaking, my head came
back. This reaching certainly helped with my balance, but I still came with a bump onto the chair. This
definitely felt familiar from years ago.
Try it yourself by standing in front of a hard chair and going to sitting by sticking
your bum backwards and going for the chair. You'll see (and feel) the immediate reaction as your legs
grab and your arms reach a bit forward.
I realized that the same thing was happening when I stood up my 'old' way. I was
rushing out ahead to get up off the chair at a moment when I still wasn't over my feet. The pull of
my upper body and the grab of my legs was again part of a balance reaction. The same thing also
happened when I went to bend by narrowing my attention out to what I wanted to pick up and reaching
out with an arm, my upper torso following forward. My legs had to grab to save me from slamming into
the floor. As my legs grabbed, they were unable to go into their inherent monkey-like bending and I
had to pull and strain my arm and torso even more to 'reach' the pen.
Looking at things this way was suddenly turning everything up side down. The pulling
back of the head and tightening of the legs in sitting had been, in 'Alexander' terms, a 'misuse' —
a so-called 'unconstructive and unconscious habit'. Now it could be seen to be not only a perfectly
normal balance reaction, but, in fact, a very good and essential protective reaction. Without
that response, you'd be in deep trouble as you went off balance and smashed into the chair or the floor.
That is your millions-of-years-evolved system saying, "You're the boss. If you want to go out ahead
like that, I'll just do my best to cope with it and try to save you." And it's a totally coordinated,
whole pattern to boot, perfectly appropriate to the situation and automatically coming into play.
In other words, Alexander's phraseology was more right-on than he probably realized.
The use of the self was exactly that — what the 'I' was up to, not what my body was up to. What
happened in your body was the consequent completely coordinated pattern of functioning of that
particular use of the self. Coordinated, that is, in the sense of an entire pattern from top
to bottom even though that pattern may be full of contractions and stress points because of what is
needed to cope with what you are up to. And for sure, use affects functioning. Not some time
later, but immediately and always. Indeed the 'body pattern' is nothing more or less than the automatic
and highly-coordinated functioning of the use of ourselves.
From this construct, it can be seen that there is absolutely nothing 'wrong' with
these 'functionings'. They are simply the inevitable and appropriate coordination of what the person
is up to. This is obvious when we invite someone to stop doing what they were actually doing (their
use) and the next moment the entire system is in a different coordination — one that is much
better, much more whole and much easier. The misuse is in what the self is doing, not
in the coordinated body functioning that arises. And misuse is really an inaccurate term for it. You,
the self, are doing what you are doing because, in your reality construct, that is what makes sense
to do. That is, it is mistaken appreciation or inaccurate conception of how the universe works. This
can only change by exposing the misconceptions so learning can take place.
This also explains why we don't normally feel our heads pulling back, etc. We're
not meant to. All that coordinated functioning is already taken care of 'naturally' by millions of years
of evolution so that we don't have to pay attention to it. Indeed, we have no business in there, which
is why we're not set up to feel what goes on inside — all we'll end up doing if we try is to interfere.
Just because we can see a head pull back we assume we know how it all works and we further assume it's
up to us to do something about it.
Well, I can tell you, my assumptions were certainly being blown all apart!
(this section has been extracted into an article in its own right - see
The Violinist (aussi
Fast forward quite a number of years to a small group class of about 5 people in
London just after I had ended my training school.
A violinist had come for the first time. She wanted help with a painful tension in
the forearm of her bowing arm. If I remember correctly (it was well over a year ago), she had been forced
to give up playing for a time and had recently gone back to playing some professional concerts of chamber
music with 4 or 5 other musicians. She'd begun to have the problem again and was worried that it would
get worse and disrupt her chances of playing. She had previously had some Alexander lessons with a teacher
near where she lived and that work had made her feel better at the moment and for a while after, but
the problem kept coming back. She had come to me because she had heard that I had a different way of
working and that maybe I could help her get rid of the problem.
I invited her to notice that she already had a belief system in which she identified
the problem with the symptom. The 'it' she wanted to get rid of was the tension and pain. I explained
that in my approach we were not going to do anything to change her arm or relieve the tension or learn
any procedures that would enable her to get rid of the tension if it returned, but rather we were going
to find out what was causing the problem so that she could change the cause and not have the tension
at all any more.
And how we were going to find the cause was to look carefully at the situation to
gather information to become clear about what was happening — the actual events, her thoughts, feelings,
etc. and the sequence of these. If we could see clearly what was happening then maybe we'd see what
the actual problem was. Part of the larger situation was that she was here to see what she might be
able to do to change. So the first place to look is always to see what she herself may be doing or be
up to, the effect of which is (probably among other things) to make her right arm tense and sore. Only
afterwards, if this does not change everything, does it make sense to look at what she might need to
learn about how to go about changing her arm or her 'posture' (as she put it) or learning better bowing
So I began to ask questions to get more information about what was happening. First
I asked her when she noticed the tension and pain? She said that it happened on and off, but that it
was almost always when she was playing the violin.
I asked her what happened when she felt these symptoms — how did she respond to this
event? She thought a moment and replied that she was usually busy playing, but that she tried to relax
her arm because she could feel that she was gripping the bow too tightly and that lately she'd been
trying to release her neck too, but that it usually didn't help much.
I pointed out again that it seemed that she felt that what was wrong was the symptom
and because of that reality construct (or belief system) it seemed to make perfect sense for her to
do something to change her state of tension in order to get rid of the 'problem'.
Then I asked if she knew why she had this symptom when she played the violin?
She said that she didn't know exactly, but it must be something she was doing wrong in her bowing or
her posture or maybe because she was just too tense.
I asked if she knew what the 'something' was that she thought she was doing wrong.
After a moment she had to admit that she really didn't know at all, but had been to quite a few teachers
(music and otherwise) to see if they knew.
Notice, I told her, that you don't actually know what may be happening to cause the
tension, yet you are assuming you can change it by somehow altering the body state to get rid of it.
Notice also that this doesn't seem to be working. At the very least you can sometimes (or your teachers
can) manage to change the tension state, but then there it is back again the very next time you do...???
What?? Well, the bare fact of the matter is that you don't know what you're doing each time...
The most important thing in learning is for anyone to know what they don't
know, then they'll know what they need to learn. If they don't really realize that they don't yet know
what is causing these symptoms, of course they have no option but to try to cope with them. If they
are led to think that the symptoms are the problem, they will not even think to look for the
cause, but only the 'solution'.
Since she now knew that she didn't know what the cause is, we turned our attention
to how we can find out. So how can she do this? Notice that she always has a 'natural' place to start,
which is at the moment of her symptom, the tension. This was the moment in which her wonderful system
sent a loud message to her with red lights and sirens saying, "oh oh, wake up, something is wrong! Something
is happening that you need to change."
At this point in the learning process, she only had the 'wake-up call' but not the
information as to what it was that might need changing. So I asked her if she ALWAYS had the tension
and/or pain when she played the violin. And she answered that no, only some of the time. For instance,
last week her group was playing a small promotional gig that they were not even being paid for and there
was no problem. In fact she played well and it was quite fun to play. But then two days later they played
in a bigger hall and there were three critics present so she was hoping it would be the same, but she
had the symptoms quite strongly.
The next question was obvious: so if you have the symptoms some of the time while
playing and not other times, what is different between the times when you have it and when you don't?
She thought a bit again and then said, well, when I don't really care I don't get
it, but as soon as I start to care how well I play, there it is. (I'll bet this sounds familiar to any
musicians out there on the alextech forum, eh?)
I pointed out to her that she had had available to her a lot of information: she
had recognized the symptoms, she knew when she had the symptoms and when she didn't, she even knew the
kind of situations where one happened versus the kind of situation where the other happened. What she
hadn't thought to do was to compare them for the difference. One simple question from me and there it
It is important to help people recognize when they have information from their own
experience that was already there and available to them. It is also important to affirm for them
that their wonderful information gathering systems are working very well. It is the construct placed
on that information that hides its meaning for them. They have been having the experience, but missing
the meaning. That is, they can 'have the experience' until the cows come home and not be able to
help themselves one little bit if they fail to understand what it is an experience of.
So there we were with this clue that after she started to 'care', she started to
experience the tension. What's important at this stage is to distinguish very clearly between the things
that are happening 'to me' and the things that 'I am doing'. Remember our young man above — the head
pulling back was happening to him; he was not doing it. But he was doing the rushing out to get up.
When he stopped doing that, the head pulling back did not happen.
For our violinist, the tension was happening to her. She didn't say to herself, "now
I'll tense my arm and make it hurt." It just happened — she didn't even want it. It was important for
her to realize that the 'starting to care' was also happening to her. She didn't say, "hmm, now I'll
start to care here. Yes, there it is, now I've got it. I'm starting to care." She just found herself
caring more at some times than at others. This is clear if we look at it the other way around. If she
mistook her caring for the problem and tried to change it, just how would she do that? Can you decide
not to care? If you try it, does it really work?
Thus, we were still one step away. We had not quite found what she was doing, but
we were very close. I asked her if she did anything differently in those situations where she started
to care? She replied that, for instance when the critics were in the audience, she wanted to play wonderfully.
And she got quite nervous before the performance that she wouldn't be able to play as well as she wanted.
So she tried to play really well. Whereas, when she didn't care, she didn't do anything 'special'.
There we had it: 'she tried to play really well'. In her belief system, of course
(and many other peoples' as well) it made perfect sense for her to try to 'improve' her playing when
it was important. And because it made perfect sense she went ahead and did it, every time...
I asked her whether, in those situations when she cared and tried to play better,
she actually did manage to play better? She said, "No, not at all! Worse. I play better when I don't
care." Even though she had just said the words, she obviously was not taking in the significance of
her experiences or she would have seen that these direct experiences over and over were not at all matching
her belief system. But in the beginning stages of being liberated from delusion (if I may put it that
way), the ideas of the belief system are far more 'real' than the actual real life experiences. And
someone will hang onto those ideas or ideals even in the face of constantly contradictory experiences.
As long as they are hanging on, their constructing nature simply 'construes' these experiences in another
way that fits the belief or filters them out. More on this later.
At any rate, having found something that, as near as she could tell, she was 'doing'
— trying to play better — we were now in the position to make an experiment. What if she could meet
that moment and not do what she usually did? Fortunately, I had made sure that she brought her violin
and we had a group there who could be her audience of critics. We set up the experiment so that she
could play one of the pieces she wanted to play well. It was realistic enough for her because she was
already nervous about playing well and what the others would think.
I told her that she could not fail at this experiment, because the goal here was
not to play well, but to see if it was possible to meet that situation in which she would normally react
to her caring by trying to play better and instead to not do anything at all to play better. To just
play however she plays and no better. In other words, to go about it the same way she does when she
doesn't care, even though she may be feeling very different. The worst that can happen is that it won't
come out the way she wants.
She started to play and I let her go on for about a minute or two, long enough for
the experiment. The first question is always, "how well did you manage the experiment?" There is, after
all, no point in looking at the results of an experiment that we haven't even succeeded in making.
She said she had not managed it very well. She'd been doing OK for a while, then
when it didn't sound the way she wanted, she started to try to play better and she could feel the tension
already in her arm. That's good, I told her, that you see that as soon as you start trying, you get
the symptom. That symptom is what it feels like to try to be better than you are. What an idea, eh?
To try to be better than you are! Just think of it.
It's also good that you could notice exactly when you started trying. Right there
in the moment, I asked her, precisely what sort of trying you were doing?
She reflected back for a moment and then said that she had focused on those notes
to get them right. A few more questions revealed that she started to narrow her focus to the notes
after some notes had been 'wrong' and that by 'focusing' on the notes she meant taking her attention
specially to the area where the bow touched the strings — where she thought 'the notes' came from.
We now had more precise information about the exact nature of what she was doing.
And, more importantly, her doing had now been a tangible experience for her. Of course, it was before
too, after all, SHE had been doing it. She just had never quite 'realized' that was what she started
to do, even though she had been there experiencing it. Perhaps, more to the point, she had not had a
construct where this was potentially important information about what she might want to stop doing.
She had a construct where this was precisely what she had to do to play better.
So, we went into the experiment again, choosing to not do anything to play better
no matter how she felt or how it sounded and this time with the extra clarity that if any notes 'went
wrong', that was not a stimulus to focus to make them right. Rather, any notes 'going wrong'
could be a reminder to just register that they were not the notes she wanted and carry on without doing
anything to 'correct' them.
She played again and after a while I asked how well she had managed the experiment
and she said she'd managed much better, but there were still some times when she had focused on trying
to play well. I reminded her that this was only the second experiment and already she was improving
in her ability to carry it out. Again she had noticed when she had reacted by trying the tension was
there. We were still not looking at any results, since she was still learning how to make the experiment.
After another reminder of what the experiment was, we went into it a third time.
This time she said that she had more or less managed to just let happen what happened without reacting
with her focused trying. These three experiments had taken about 15 minutes to explain and carry out.
Now, since she had more or less managed the experiment, was the time to look at the
results. I asked her what had happened? It was easy, she said.
I asked her if she knew why it was easy? She looked puzzled for a moment then said
with a smile, it was because she hadn't done anything. Just like the times you don't care, I added.
Then she added that she'd played really well. Just like the times you didn't care,
I added. But it was important that she really take in that she didn't 'do' the 'playing really well'.
It just happened. She did the choosing not to try to do what she usually did to help out. That's why
it 'just' happened.
Interestingly, by the last experiment, she didn't care any more. But that also, just
happened. It was easy.
Notice I said to her, that so far she had spoken mostly of the 'musical' results.
How did she feel in that last experiment? What about this tension thing?
The tension had completely disappeared! It was there when she first played and a
little when she played the second time, but now it was gone. So gone, she hadn't even noticed its absence
until I asked her. I asked her to play in her old way again, focusing on the notes to get them right.
After a minute or so, the tension was right back there again. When she gave up trying to control the
notes at all and 'just played', it was gone again.
She was very surprised. She said she had expected me to work with her arm to help
her release the tension and with her body like others had. I replied that, what we just did, what she
just experienced, was that when she stopped reacting in her old way by trying to control her playing,
the tension went. How could we see the tension as anything other than the functional organization of
her trying? That is, the tension is part of the entire 'coordination' that her system organizes to carry
out her trying to control her playing. Remember. she's the boss.
Or to put it slightly differently, what she was doing was the 'trying to control'.
The tension was the experience of that kind of trying to control. No more, no less. It has nothing
to do with her arm, except that her arm is where she happens to feel that part of the entire coordination.
It does have to do with her belief system and how she was 'forced' down a certain pathway of
action because in that belief system 'controlling' is the only thing that makes sense to do.
Now, however, she is in a very different place. Now she has quite consciously seen
how she normally reacts to certain events (the critics hence the wrong notes) which she interprets in
certain ways (they won't like her unless she is even better than she is) and therefore is forced to
react by doing something ('trying to control' — as if that made sense to do and as if a human being
could actually do it).
She has also actually made the experiment of quite consciously meeting those moments
and choosing not to react that way. It took her a few times to learn to do that, but only 3 times over
And, from that experiment, she has quite consciously registered that some very surprising
things happened (and didn't happen) when she did choose differently. Her surprise shows that she was
not at all expecting those results. In fact she was convinced, as are most people, that if they don't
do their controlling 'techniques' it will be really, really bad.
With all these conscious experiences and an understanding of what they are
experiences of, how could her belief system stay intact?
She just perceived how the 'controlling' was not actually making her play
better. When she stopped it, she played better. This contradicts her belief system.
And she saw that the 'playing better' happened by itself. She didn't have
to do it. This contradicts her belief system.
And if she didn't do anything to play better, how can we interpret it but
that this is how well she actually plays, since it is what is happening when she is not doing
anything. She certainly didn't know that she plays this well. And how could she when she had
constant experiences of playing poorly because she was trying to play better?
Her attempts to control 'to play better' can now been seen for what they are — interferences
that bring down her playing. This is also different than her belief system.
And the tension was simply the feeling of her trying to control; of narrowing her
attention in order to try to take over her already existing coordination. She didn't know this
before but she knows it now because every time she stops the trying it goes away and every time she
starts trying again, it's back. After all, what is tension, but the feeling of us working against ourselves?
She also experienced in the most powerful way that the process she just used was
so different from what she normally does and felt so absolutely against her habit that
she would probably never ever have thought to use it. This also gives a very good measure of the familiarity
and strength of her normal construct — roughly equal to the amount of 'force' she has to meet and the
amount of courage she needs to make that choice.
But 'just' the experiences that 'go against' her construct are not enough. She must
understand them for what they are. So I went to great trouble to re-iterate for her what she was registering
and to put these experiences of hers in conjunction with the belief system as she has revealed it, so
that the contradictions sit there like a large elephant in the teaching room and can't be kept separate.
I pointed out that she must not accept these obvious interpretation as fact at this
point. one time proves nothing. But, if she goes home and keeps making the same experiment each
time in the next few weeks that she notices her symptom wake-up call, she will see if a similar
thing happens. If so, then maybe she can believe it. In these first experiences, we can only make a
tentative hypothesis, subject to further proof. Or at least it is tentative for the pupil for
whom this is the first time and brand new. I have seen it hundreds of times with as many pupils in the
last several years so 'working principle' is a better term for where I am. Or perhaps 'new construct'
would do as well.
Notice that all this happens without any need to assume 'unconscious habits' of pulling
back the head' or 'stiffening her arm'. Nor any need for consequent 'directing' of necks to be free,
or releasing arms either. In fact, no need for any teacher's hands on at all, since we are simply working
with the pupil's own existing awareness and perception and their existing ability to choose once
their actions are perceived.
There is not only no need for the teacher to 'give' the pupil a new experience, it
would be positively counter-productive since, from this point of view, the pupil is already having lots
of their own experiences all the time. They are simply misinterpreting these experiences. They just
didn't know that to go about things the way they are going about them inevitably brings about the particular
symptoms they were experiencing. Through that lack of knowledge they doomed to repeat those experiences.
They had a faulty construct or 'reality appreciation' as I put it, and therefore, quite 'naturally'
were acting in the way that made sense to them from the point of view of that construct or belief system.
A word about our constructs might go well here (or maybe a few hundred words).
As human beings we are construct-creating creatures. Perhaps other creatures have
this also, but we certainly do in a big way. It is our nature to always take in the raw flux of experience
and interpret it. This is not under your conscious control. This 'constructing' takes place deep in
your system long before 'you', the conscious human being, are presented with the fully-constructed results
as 'reality'. In fact, 'you' the conscious human being are part of this construct, since the construct
is your consciousness. Your existing belief systems provide the filters for the raw data so that
only some sensations fit within your construct and so are deemed important and hence are 'experienced'.
These 'experiencings' in turn reinforce the construct until, for most people, the construct becomes
ever more deeply fixed and 'certain'.
But an example that most of us have experienced will make aspects of this construct-creation
clear. Have you ever been in a train waiting in a station with another train waiting on the track right
outside your window? Then your train moves off until a few seconds later, you realize that it wasn't
you moving, it was the train beside you?
Notice the sudden start when you 'realize' you're not moving. Your wonderful millions-of-years-evolved
construct-creating system took in the visual motion outside the window and sent you a 'reality' that
you were moving. It wasn't an idea, it was a lived experience of really moving. That's why there's
the sudden surprise, the almost physical jolt when your 'reality' changes. We are visually-dominant
creatures, remember, which is why this construct can be so dominant even when there are none of the
usual kinaesthetic sensations supporting movement. The physical 'jolt' is the returning to the kinaesthetic
experience of 'yourself' which had been filtered out as not matching the moving construct.
You can understand why this is the first 'reality' you are presented with if you
remember that this construct system evolved way back when we lived mostly 'in nature' not in our own
self-created environments. In nature, when the visual background is moving, it is because you are moving
relative to it. It is not often in nature that you are standing still and the whole world is moving!.
Quite possibly your anticipation of the train starting to move plays a part in determining the construct
Another aspect of this 'illusion' that is worth noting is that the you-are-moving
construct carries on until some sensory data so blatantly contradicts it that your system is forced
to re-interpret. Usually it is something like the other train pulls past you and you see that you are
left standing still in the station. Or you notice the unmoving station through the windows of the other
Your construct-creating system is not there to trick you, of course, but to give
you the best interpretation it can come up with. When the data can't be made to fit, your system goes,
"Oops, sorry about that interpretation, here, try this one." you don't have to figure out what
is happening and come up with a better interpretation, you just get the new improved reality
dumped unceremoniously into your 'experience'.
The same process is at work in these lessons. As we bring out the belief system in
people's words and actions and show them how their construct channels them into taking certain actions,
then make the experiments of not going down that pathway, of course, such different experiences come
up that blatantly contradict the old 'reality'. They don't have to intellectually 'understand' what
is happening, though it helps. They just have to 'be present' for the contradiction. This 'violation'
of the 'reality' of the construct shows it for what it is — merely a construct, and a faulty one at
that. No self-respecting reality can stand up to that demotion and sooner of later will collapse under
its own weight.
Fortunately for us, just like in the train, we don't need to come up with a new and
more accurate construct. Your system has millions of years of experience at that and will happily manufacture
another one in short order. And it will be intrinsically more accurate than the last because
it has to take all these new facts and contradictions into account.
Most people, of course, with a lifetime of existing under one major reality, will
seize upon a new one as if this time it really is reality and attempt to fix it into certainty. It takes
several times through the cycle and several changes of reality to see that we will be trading in our
old, less accurate and less workable realities for new, more accurate and more workable ones as long
as they are relatively inaccurate to the ultimate 'objective' reality, whatever that is. Another word
for this is learning.
I could go on and on, as I guess you gathered, but that will have to wait for the
Speaking of books, when I was thinking about this a while back I suddenly thought,
what if Alexander had just made one more connection when he was making his 'evolution of the technique'
experiments? He was so close yet so far.
When he realized that he was pulling his head back, lifting his chest and depressing
his larynx, what if he hadn't been so quick to assume that he was doing it?
When he saw that it wasn't just his head, neck and back, but an entire pattern of
his whole system, what if he had asked, "pattern of what?"
When he noticed that the same pattern was happening in his normal speaking in daily
life but much less exaggerated, what if he had gone on to ask, "what am I doing differently in performing
than in daily life?"
Who knows what he might have found, but like many performers I've worked with, he
might have found that he had a construct that says performing took some extra preparation on his part,
like the gripping of the stage with his feet that he had already noticed. Perhaps in those days of large
unamplified halls, he may have found that his respiratory problems instilled in him the sense that he
needed to try a little more to project his voice out to the whole theatre.
This is pure speculation, of course, and it doesn't matter what he might have found,
but if he had found something like this, what if he had then made the experiment of not doing the extra
bit he thought he had to do?
What if he then found that his whole coordination changed and the head pulling back,
chest raising, etc. was no longer happening?
And what if a colleague out in the hall said that not only was his voice filling
the hall nicely, but that the quality was much, much better, mate?
This is exactly the sort of thing which happens to the performers I work with all
Everything would have been very different if Alexander had made that connection.
But he didn't and the Alexander work has become largely defined by its hands-on work whereby teachers
facilitate changed psycho-physical experiences for the pupil, and by the principle of inhibiting unconscious
physical/functional habits and preventatively directing in order to allow the optimal 'pyscho-physical
Of course, I don't expect all these words to necessarily convince anyone. Words cannot
do that. You'd need to come and see for yourself again and again what happens. Or better still, open
your eyes from this new point of view in your work and see what happens when you find out what the person
is actually up to...
I would like to end with a thought about 'standing on the shoulders of giants' as
Newton said. I can't see that I would have been in a position to make the discoveries I have if I had
not had the benefit of the discoveries Alexander did make and the teachers who taught me.
Anyone who has experienced the benefits they gained from study of the Technique knows
that they are better off after than before. They also know some of the knots and difficulties they (and
their pupils if they are teachers) can get into trying to make sense of the work. Maybe these are not
just their difficulties. Maybe there are some conceptions in the work that could benefit from
another point of view.
However, I wish to repeat, that the question for me is not what is wrong with
the Technique. The real question is how much further can we go when we can see things even more clearly?
Postscript: Where this has taken me...
Needless to say, my discoveries and experiences have moved me to very different understanding
and consequently to a very different practice. Initially, of course, when I was running the training
course to train Alexander teachers in London, I was seeing these insights as deepening my Alexander
understanding. Then, as they began to move into new territory, I saw it as new developments of the Alexander
work, stretching it to new possibilities. This was something that to me had always seemed to what the
work was about — learning, growth and development.
The reactions of some of my colleagues showed me that many people did not the want
the work to change beyond its recognizable (to them) 'traditions'.
So, after much consideration of whether it made sense, in spite of them, to keep
trying to shoehorn this new work into a stretched definition of the Alexander work, or posit a 'new'
Alexander work that is evolving, it is becoming more and more apparent that this really is a radically
different work. At the very least, people familiar with the Alexander Technique would be surprised by
this new work (and often are), and anyone knowing this new work, would not be expecting what they would
likely get from an Alexander teacher. This is an important factor.
Thus, I tend not call myself an Alexander teacher any longer and do not teach the Alexander
Technique any more as I learned it. It makes no sense for me to do so knowing what I now know.
I have named this new work, LearningMethods (which is sort of self-explanatory) and there are
others now teaching the work with me. They are, or were, all Alexander
teachers. Most of them either trained with, or worked with me in the Centre for Training, my Alexander
teacher training course in London, England. All of them carried on with me as the new work evolved
and developed, and
all of them have been consistently part of that learning and development.
There are a growing number of other Alexander teachers who are coming to workshops
and studying when they can, then going back to their practices and trying out these new ideas. It's
a big change to make for someone trained in another way.
There are also a number of other people who are in the process of learning to be come teachers with me. Three
of these were part way through their Alexander training with Ann Penistan and myself when the training
ended and have elected to carry in this new work. They are very nearly ready to go off on their own
as new teachers of the work. Others have just begun and this work will be their experience of learning
to help others learn [see note below with update from 2013, 15 years later than this article was first written].
There is no formal or full-time training. Instead they are learning in what amounts
to an on-going apprenticeship situation. That is, they attend most of the workshops I give and, along
with their own on-going learning for themselves, begin to practice working with others as they see how
people learn. It is not a formal training in the sense that there is no structure of separate classes
for those training. The people learning to become teachers are learning in the 'real life' situation
of the workshops where 'real life' people (if I may call them that) bring their real-life problems and
go through their realizations and changes.
There is no time frame to their 'training' (that is, it is not a '3-year training').
People who are interested just keep coming and keep learning, extending their learning more and more
toward helping others until they have learned enough to manage that competently. This might take longer
for some than for others depending on how often they can attend and where they are in their own understanding
and practice when they start.. Certainly makes it hard for anyone to end-gain for the certificate. And
it automatically selects those who really are dedicated enough to keep coming on their own steam.
We'll see how it all works out...
[UPDATE from 2013: In the 15 years since this article was first written
there are now, of course, many more LearningMethods Teachers out there
teaching and helping develop the work. Some of them have written articles on
Others are currently apprentice-teachers in training, and now a large part of the
training takes place in weekly online live video conferences. This allows people
to meet regularly from as far afield as Romania in Eastern Europe to the west coast of Canada and
Some of teachers and apprentices are or were Alexander Technique teachers but others
have no Alexander background and come from backgrounds as diverse as the head of a university
theatre department, a lawyer, a director of a community leadership program, actors, dancers, a
There is a small biography of personal details about the
About the Author
David Gorman has been studying human
structure and function since 1970. He is the author of an illustrated 600-page
text on our human musculoskeletal system, called
The Body Moveable (now in
its 6th edition and in colour), and numerous articles and essays, including
the book, Looking at Ourselves (2nd
edition in colour).
David has been working with performers (singers,
musicians, actors, dancers and circus artists) for over forty years. He is a
trainer of teachers of LearningMethods and of the
Alexander Technique and has taught all
over the world in universities, conservatories, performance companies, and orchestras;
for doctors in hospitals and rehabilitation clinics; and in training courses
for Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, physiotherapy, osteopathy, massage & yoga.
Over the years, his changing understanding about the
root causes of people's problems led him to gradually extend his Alexander Technique
teaching into the development of a new work, LearningMethods (and an
offshoot, Anatomy of Wholeness about our marvelous human design), which
is being integrated into the curricula of performance schools in Europe, Canada
and the United States by a growing number of LearningMethods
Teachers and Apprentice-teachers.
For the last 6 years, David has been running online
post-graduate groups for Alexander Technique teachers and groups for those who
want to learn to use LearningMethods in their own lives and work, as well as
a group for those who want to go on to train as LearningMethods teachers.
Telephone: +1 416-519-5470
78 Tilden Crescent, Etobicoke, Ontario M9P 1V7 Canada (map)