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Archive for February, 2017

Snake Oil

While learning and practicing Alexander Technique, meaning comes all at once from multiple avenues:

  • paying attention to the “how” of what you’re intending,
  •  the thought processes you follow in preparation & during the launch,
  • …and the physical responses that you are actually doing to express these preparations and intentions.
  • Something happens. Maybe it’s something new? New feels a bit odd, but easier.
  • Then reflecting on what happened, why it happened and where and when it can be influenced to happen how you guess is possible.

Alexander Technique came from applying the empirical scientific method to one’s own strategies, ways and intentions. Because its development also answered a need, (it was: better performance) a physical demonstration had to follow so these ephemeral intentions had ways of practicing successes. Plainly, pure intentions of thought are usually too tricky to witness, (in person, without an MRI.) The hypocritical nature of habit that operates in cognitive bias also makes intentions and motives tricky to discern as they fly by.

Those of us who are designing ways to teach A.T. needed to orchestrate a situation so we can perceive how our students’ intention plays out. (Otherwise the teacher can’t help the student not hoodwink themselves.) For this purpose, most of us Alexander teachers use this feedback ideal of physical effortlessness. Our ideal of effortlessness is an experience embedded within the structural mannerism of how people can move – many cultures share it. To the extent any person uses this “mechanical advantage” idea of physical effortlessness as a signal something new happened, their discovery, success and mastery is more likely. They’re also bettering the improvisational skill of tapping the unknown.

When Alexander Technique teachers declare that what they teach isn’t posture control or movement re-education or physical therapy…or musicianship, equestrian connection or better golf swings, this is what they mean.

Form, (which can be any action) isn’t the content. It’s the process behind the curtain that we’re after. Alexander Technique is an extension of thinking skills translated into movement responses. It’s Jungian individuation in action. It’s how you might connect your body-mind to be able to better “walk your talk.” But it’s also how to practice effectively, how to get learning done faster and how to attain transcendent goals of getting better at doing a beloved passion – without being limited by a glass ceiling. 

Neuroscience and cognitive bias exist now. They didn’t when A.T began. That means now, teachers of A.T. are able to steer its original presentation from its former respectable science roots toward the fuzzier marriage of intention and action and still preserve the spirit and respect of its origin.

But – the introduction of the value of A.T. is still tricky. I believe the trickiness is in the sequence of presentation. As sales presenters, if we start with the world of intention, confidence and belief, how are we not much different from being advice columnists? How do you sell something when people don’t know if they want it or not because they don’t know what it is? How can a newbie appreciate how A.T. works before they learn it?

The problem appears to be as if A.T. teachers are selling a kind of snake oil – because what we are selling can be applied so widely!

Without our physical discipline of educating living anatomy, the philosophy of A.T. gets lost in being yet another “thought affects everything” motivational morass. The very real effects that come from practicing A.T. accumulate over time  – but on the front end, these wildly differing beneficial effects are pretty much unbelievable.

So – what differentiates A.T. from being a “snake oil” swindle?

Well, it’s history comes out of the empirical scientific model. To learn to teach it requires years of education (1600 hours.) So there must be some reason people devote their lives to learning something that takes so long to qualify for. It has been around for more than a hundred years. Essentially, others respect it.

But why not accuse that A.T. is merely a pseudo-science? OK, let’s list its offerings…

First, A.T. teaches observation. A.T. teachers are professional observers, noticing factors of movement responses and evident intentions that others miss. This extraordinary skill to spot what is ‘missing’ is part of what makes A.T. teachers remarkable – and also what makes people misunderstand why learning A.T. is valuable. (It also makes people a bit scared of what Alexander teachers can see about them that they miss.) From my knowledge, there are not many ways to learn observing, let alone self observation. (Especially without any religious and/or cultural proscriptions attached.)

Second, A.T. has to offer is it teaches impulse control – without prescribing what is supposed to be done instead beyond physical efficiency. We term it: “inhibition.” The word was selected (before Freud) from biology: how an animal inhibits its natural hungry urges to strategically plan the hunting attack. Other terms that might describe the same A.T. use of the word “inhibition” that have been used in other disciplines are

  • “pausing in order to deliberately choose another response,” (“Going to the balcony” in negotiation skills)
  • “suspension” (David Bohm dialogue)
  • or merely “Considering All Factors,” (Edward de Bono thinking skills.)

Third, Alexander Technique offers that is rare is how to reverse engineer an ingrained habitual physical routine that has become a nuisance. Every other advice about this involves, “do something else.” Imagine there’s another way to side-step what has become a deceptively self-imposed limitation, without giving up a beloved art, hobby, skill or job!

Fourth, A.T. teaches the ability to abstract. The classic method of Alexander’s work was taught very repetitively using a mundane action, (sitting and standing.) Intentions were revealed in the slightest changes of balance anyway, right? Certainly a student couldn’t figure that a “better” way to be sitting and standing was the whole point. Students were left to turning their experience into something useful in other situations. To do this, abstraction of context had to happen.

Just those four points – do you think they read like snake oil?

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