Saturday, October 8, 2011

Alexander principles over Hanoi dinner

Do you convey all key elements of Alexander Technique at your first meeting? Well, I tried – and it was over dinner!

How did this come about

In our Hanoi hotel, my partner Sandra and I met a lovely German couple who were keen to find out more about Alexander Technique. One of them Gerta occasionally has neck pain. As she later said, perhaps we were destined to meet here. They knew about Feldenkrais, but not Alexander Technique.
As I explained a little of the Technique over breakfast, both presumed that they were slumping, and each straightened up, and over-tightened their back muscles as a result. This response is very common when attention is drawn to posture. Gerta went on to explain her worries about lifting up her young grand-children. She also teaches for 8 hours a day, frequently having to quickly react to a barrage of questions.
There was only one short opportunity for me to directly work with Gerta. There was much laughter given our language difficulties. She did understand clearly the importance of 'going up', and she used a metaphor of a balloon tied to her head to describe this. To my surprise, she also uses semi-supine regularly, and said that she learned it in Pilates. I demonstrated how the monkey position can be used to lengthen and widen the back.

Alexander over dinner

We talked a lot more about Alexander Technique when the four of us were dining that night. I had earlier been reading about the distinguishing features of the Technique according to Patrick MacDonald, an early Alexander teacher (MacDonald 1988, 1989). We had a lot of fun as I explained his points, and illustrated them as best I could at our table.
  • Recognition of the force of habit
  • Inhibition and non-doing
  • Recognition of faulty sensory awareness
  • Sending directions
  • The primary control


Over our drinks, we discussed how habits become ingrained from early childhood, and that they are unique to each of us. I demonstrated how most of us unnecessarily raise our head to drink or eat, instead of simply lowering the jaw. Of course, raising the head can be associated with a tightening of the neck.


Now soup came. We discussed less stressful ways of taking and answering questions. I suggested that Gerta could remind herself of the balloon keeping her tall, and also be aware of the whole room including behind, above and to the sides – and even to talk to them as well as direct to the audience. This would all encourage being present, and allowing time to pause for milliseconds when out front. This would be worth practicing in everyday situations, rather than trying to remember it when teaching.

Faulty sensory awareness

Initially our new friends looked at me blankly when I used this term. It became clearer when I described how we each see ourselves differently to how others view us. It is unusual for us to have an accurate map of our bodies and how it is positioned in space. I gave the example of how so many people stand or walk with their hips thrust forward of the plumbline through the ear (close to the all-important atlanto-occipital joint), shoulder, hip joint and ankles.

Sending directions

We had already discussed the important relationship between head and neck so it wasn't difficult to explain how the head leads and body follows. By this time we were through our main course, and becoming a little confused about how many of the Alexander principles we'd covered.

Primary control

I used Alexander's words : "Allow your neck to be free, in such a way that the head can move forward and up, and in such a way that the back can lengthen and widen". This captures the appropriate relationship between head and spine, but adds a mental dimension – "allowing" as opposed to "doing". Teacher extraordinaire David Gorman says primary control means many things to many people – I'll explore primary control more closely in a later blog.

Was I mad to try this?

Did I give too much information over the course of the meal –the equivalent of one lesson? It was a lot to absorb, so I later sent Gerta an email with websites for Alexander teachers in Germany, and a list of MacDonald's five points. And I also sent her this blog as a courtesy and to reinforce what we'd discussed.
Did it confuse you, or introduce too many new terms? Well, I hope to make Alexander Technique clearer in these blogs over the next few months, or you can jump ahead through searching other sites (start with or However, reading about it isn't a substitute for the full experience of Alexander Technique. I can only encourage you to try lessons with me or another


MacDonald, P.J. 1988 'On giving directions, doing and non-doing' The Alexander Journal No. 9 Summer 1988, pp.4-11.
Macdonald, P. 1989 The Alexander Technique as I see it. Rahula Press (The Alpha Press), United Kingdom.

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