The Alexander Technique and Somatic Education: Bobby Rosenberg

Alexander Technique and Somatic Education
By Bobby Rosenberg, Certified Teacher of the Alexander Technique
“Surely, I argued, if it is possible for feeling to become untrustworthy as a means of direction, it should also be possible to make it trustworthy again” (F. M. Alexander, 1984/1932, p. 1).
After having observed the poor state of his own functioning, including prob- lems involving the voice, breathing, posture, balance, and body expression, F. M. Alexander (1869-1955) investi- gated and observed that he himself was causing these problems through mus- cular interference—misusing himself. These undue tensions, being habitual, were not immediately evident sensori- ally, in spite of their constant damaging effect. Eventually, his research led him to discover a guidance and control system that organizes the body for op- timum functioning and coordinates the distribution of psychophysical processes by starting with the head and spinal column—the primary control. In nature this mechanism is automati- cally activated in response to a stimu- lus, preparing the organism for action or reaction.
The human being, like other verte- brate animals, relies instinctively and unconsciously upon kinesthesia to co- ordinate the guidance and control sys- tems, affecting such vital aspects as bal-
ance, locomotion, partial movements, voice, breathing, and other physiologi- cal functions like blood circulation and digestion. When the natural conditions are neither defective nor impeded, kinesthesia is the mind-body commu- nication link that helps to assure the most natural and efficient conditions of use and functioning. However, as inefficiency becomes the standard, kinesthesia becomes an unreliable co- ordinator, reporting to the brain that the new (incorrect) conditions are the correct ones, leading to a vicious cycle of misuse and malfunction.
With the development of civiliza- tion, humans have created an un- natural environment and adapted themselves to a sedentary lifestyle with highly developed mental processes, both disintegrators of the natural psy- chophysical unity, which have brought with them a gradual lowering of the standards of use and functioning. Alex- ander presented a hypothesis that in- volves self-direction and guided sensory education, objectives of which are the establishment of a reliable sense regis- ter and the conscious activation of the primary control mechanism as the ba- sis for organically structured use of the self. As he understood the conditions
leading to his own generalized misuse, he reasoned that improvement of his use and functioning was dependent upon the recovery of reliable kinesthet- ic guidance and control. Additionally, he found that this was an impossible task without the recuperation of the primary control mechanism, which he was able to achieve through a long, conscious, and rational process.
The Alexander Technique involves a teacher activating the student’s primary control mechanism so that she does not have to rely upon her unreliable kinesthesia to guide her, the result of which is a recovery of natural and ef- ficient use and functioning. (I have made the arbitrary decision to always refer to the teacher in the mascu-
line and the student in the feminine throughout this paper.) By directing herself consciously and becoming sen- sorially aware of the new conditions, the student rescues what was originally unconscious—sensory guidance. She gradually becomes able to activate
her own primary control, focusing on and analyzing the resultant sensory information, in effect creating a sense register that will guide and assure that the effort needed for any activity is just and efficient.
34 Somatics 2008
The Field of Somatics
“F. Matthias Alexander, father of the Alexander Technique, was the first per- son to take somatic education out of the realm of shamanistic mystery and establish it as a verifiable, pragmatic technique” (Thomas Hanna, 1990-91, p. 4).
Since the times of F. M. Alexander, at the end of the nineteenth century, we have seen a steady growth of prac- tices that invite the individual to par- ticipate in the processes involved in the improvement of her body conditions in the integrated, psychophysical sense. Some of these practices developed into therapeutic methods and others into reeducation systems; still others, like Taiji Quan, yoga, and Zen, were imported from Asia and tailored to the contextual interests and needs of the late 1960s, when the term somatics took on a special significance.
In the traditional sense, “The term somatic refers to the body, as distinct from some other entity, such as the mind. The word comes from the Greek word Σωματικóς (Somatikòs), meaning ‘of the body.’ It has different meanings in various disciplines” (Wikipedia).
To place the term in its contemporary context, I have cited the definitions of somatics and somatic education from the published works of Thomas Hanna: “Somatics is the field which stud-
ies the soma: namely, the body as perceived from within by first-person perception. When a human being is observed from the outside—i.e., from a third-person viewpoint—the phenom- enon of the human body is perceived. But, when this same human being is observed from the first-person view- point of his own proprioceptive senses, a categorically different phenomenon is perceived: the human soma.
“The two distinct viewpoints for ob- serving a human being are built into the very nature of human observation, which is equally capable of being in- ternally self-aware as well as externally aware. The soma, being internally per- ceived, is categorically distinct from a body, not because the subject is differ- ent, but because the mode of viewpoint is different: it is immediate propriocep- tion—a sensory mode that provides unique data.
“Reciprocity between sensing and moving is at the heart of the somatic process. . . . The human is not merely a self-aware soma, passively observing itself (as well as observing its scientific observer), but it is doing something
else simultaneously: it is acting upon it- self: i.e., it is always engaged in the pro- cess of self-regulation” (Hanna, 1986).
“Somatic education is the use of sensory-motor learning to gain greater voluntary control of one’s physiological process. It is ‘somatic’ in the sense that the learning occurs within the individu- al as an internalized process.
“In its purity, somatic education is self-initiated and self-controlled. How- ever, somatic education has emerged during the twentieth century as a pro- cedure whereby this internalized learn- ing process is initiated by a teacher who stimulates and guides the learner through a sensory-motor process of physiological change” (Hanna, 1990- 91, p. 4).
As far as I can tell, Alexander never used the word “somatics,” but his fre- quent references to “kinesthesia,” “sen- sory awareness,” and “feeling” place him squarely in the center of the field of somatics. In this article, my particu- lar interest is in Alexander’s insistence upon the teacher guiding the student in the recovery of a reliable kinesthetic sense, whereby she can begin to rescue the natural and efficient use of herself.
Hanna Somatic Education
Considered by many to be the “father of the somatics movement,” Thomas Hanna created the Somatic Education system based on the observation that “as many as fifty percent of the cases of chronic pain suffered by human beings are caused by sensory-motor amnesia (SMA)—a condition in which the sen- sory-motor neurons of the voluntary cortex have lost some portion of their ability to control all or some of the muscles of the body” (Hanna, 1990-91, p. 7). He suggests that instead of thera- peutic treatment, a reeducation of the voluntary sensory-motor cortex is the most viable means for overcoming this loss.
As movement and postural habits are developed, the body-mind becomes conditioned to repeat the muscular patterns involved until they become unconscious. The habitual feeling, if indeed it is felt at all, fades into the background and is registered as “nor- mal”; one gradually becomes unable to intervene in the means whereby the movement is achieved, and the unconscious use is repeated. If, as most somatic educators agree, these patterns of use are defective, all activity becomes harmful; hence, the need for sensory-
motor education. Hanna’s goal is to overcome SMA
by becoming sensorially aware of the functions that have been lost via sen- sory-motor education. He gives credit to many of his forerunners, particularly to Alexander and Feldenkrais. To the first, he attributes “means whereby,” or teacher guidance to help the student become sensorially aware of uncon- scious involuntary movement patterns while demonstrating the desired mus- cular response. However, even though Hanna, like Feldenkrais, accepts the need for a special focus on the use of the head, neither seems to have placed much importance on what I consider to be the outstanding contribution
of Alexander—the primary control mechanism.
Somatic education is clearly intend- ed as an antidote to the harmful effects of the inefficient use of the human being in modern times. In the 1960s Thomas Hanna, together with many others who had experienced and were exploring the implications of their “body epiphany” (Maupin, 1998), be- gan to use the term “somatics” to refer to the first-person experience of the body, as distinct from the third-person perspective used in medicine and ther- apy. The Alexander Technique, having been developed prior to the concept of somatics, nonetheless is founded upon the realization that the modern-day hu- man being’s sense register has become unreliable, leading to misuse and mal- functioning of the self. One of Alexan- der’s principal concerns is the recovery of this sense register—obviously just an earlier way of expressing what the post- Alexander somatics practitioners call somatic education.
The Role of Sensory Education in the Alexander Technique “The mind has not been taught to reg- ister correctly the tension or, in other words, to gauge accurately the amount of muscular effort required to per- form certain acts, the expenditure of effort always being in excess of what is required”(F. M. Alexander, 1910,
p. 83).
A study of Alexander’s major pub- lications reveals a gradual evolution of what he considers to be his technique. I have focused on his definition of what comprises a lesson, together with a brief theoretical framework—with em- phasis on his particular methodology for guiding the student in her acquisi- tion of a new sensory experience.
VolumeXV Number4 35
His first book, Man’s Supreme In- heritance (1910), includes the previ- ously printed pamphlets, Reeducation of the Kinesthetic Systems Concerned with the Development of Robust Physi- cal Well-being (c. 1908) and Conscious Control (Man’s Supreme Inheritance) in Relation to Human Evolution in Civilization (c. 1908). This compilation of almost 20 years of experience in the development and refinement of his work contains multiple references to “debauched kinesthesia” and presents a clear procedure as to the teaching and learning of his technique, to which he referred at this point as “conscious control.”
What appears here as the “doctrines of antagonistic action and mechani- cal advantage” (Alexander, 1910, p. 186) later evolved into the much more comprehensive and concise concept
of primary control. The inference of a coordinating factor in the human psychophysical organism is paramount to his theoretical structure, and the deterioration of use and functioning in modern human beings leads logically to the need for reeducation:
“By this process of reeducation an effective installation is made of the re- flex muscular systems involved through the creation of an intelligent directive power on the part of the individual, thus removing a crude and useless kinesthesis, which must be regarded as either debauched or deformed, and establishing one of valid and unfailing function” (p. 187).
As for the causes of the deteriora- tion previously mentioned, it is clearly due to the processes that have evolved in our civilization, including the con- stant effect of sedentarism on school children.
“The Kinesthetic Systems concerned
with correct and healthy bodily move- ments and postures have become de- moralized by the habits engendered in the schoolroom through the restraint enforced at a time when natural activity should have been encouraged and sci- entifically directed, and in the crouch- ing positions necessitated by useless and irrational deskwork” (p. 198).
Then, he presents a precise defini- tion of his technique, which I have paraphrased and presented as five dis- tinct but interacting aspects.
1. Active participation: The student must have a clear understanding of her own misuse, as demonstrated by the teacher, and willingness to participate in the process of recovering her good use.
2. Inhibition: The teacher must teach the student to understand the er- roneous ideas that result in her misuse, be they conscious or unconscious. He must teach the student to eradicate these preconceived ideas and inhibit her habitual way of directing her ac- tions.
3. Self-direction: The student must learn to consciously send the correct mental orders and distinguish between giving an order and carrying it out in her habitual way.
4. Attention to the process: The teacher must teach the student that, in order to overcome her habitual man- ner of doing things, it is important to consider the means more than the ends.
5. Guided sensory education: When the student has practiced her mental orders, the teacher must guide the change, bringing about the use of mus- cles in a coordinated and non-habitual way (Alexander, c. 1908, pp. 16-19).
Alexander considered his second major work, Constructive Conscious
Bobby Rosenberg
Control of the Individual (1923/1985), to be a much clearer representation of his work than MSI. He dedicates a great deal of this book to the develop- ment of his theory regarding sensory appreciation. For an in-depth look at Alexander’s thinking, see “Consider- ation of Three Stages of Man’s Devel- opment in relation to Deterioration of Sensory Appreciation” (1923/1985, pp. 39-53). This pseudo-anthropological discourse gives us an interesting insight to Alexander’s view of the far-reaching influence of his work, and it presents a believable explanation for the state of man’s misuse and malfunctioning in modern times.
Having stated his case that unreli- able sensory appreciation is a universal problem in our age, he introduces his recently discovered method of “expert manipulation”—what would later be called “hands-on” by Alexander teach- ers and other somatics practitioners. At this point, his technique “involves correct manipulation on the part of the teacher in the matter of giving the pupil correct experiences in sensory appreciation, in the spheres of reedu- cation, readjustment and coordina- tion” (1923/1985, p. 122). Describing his teaching technique in updated terminology, he is explicit in the role of the teacher’s hands:
“He (the teacher) tells the pupil that, on receiving the directions or guiding orders, he must not attempt to carry them out; that, on the contrary, he must inhibit the desire to do so in the case of each and every order which is given to him. He must instead proj- ect the guiding orders as given to him whilst his teacher at the same time,
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36 Somatics 2008
by means of manipulation, will make the required readjustments and bring about the necessary coordinations, in this way performing for the pupil the particular movement or movements required, and giving him the new reli- able sensory appreciation and the very best opportunity possible to connect the different guiding orders before attempting to put them into practice” (1923/1985, pp. 152-153).
Lawrence Gold (2006) has com- pared the methodology of Hanna Somatic Education with that of the Alexander Technique, which involves a heightening of kinesthetic awareness and exemplifies the somatic principle that “somas perceive by means of con- trast” (p. 4). Repeated guided dem- onstration by the teacher (including the activation of the primary control mechanism) is the key to learning the new patterns and directing them vol- untarily. Unlike Alexander, where the teacher substitutes a more efficient pat- tern for the student’s inhibited pattern, the sensory magnification in Hanna Somatic Education is brought about by the learner’s contrasting her own ha- bitual level of muscle contraction with controlled contraction and controlled release.
The Use of the Self (1932), which is usually considered to be Alexander’s most lucid and well-written book, contains a detailed description of the evolution of his technique. Presented in a style in which the influence of John Dewey is evident, the first chapter concludes with what has remained the procedure for applying the Alexander Technique to the use of oneself. It contains all of the elements mentioned in Man’s Supreme Inheritance, clearly emphasizing direction, inhibition, and attention to the process. What was ear- lier referred to as “position of mechani- cal advantage” now appears as “primary control.” And, although there is no new reference to the kinesthetic prob- lem, he states quite clearly that “I was indeed suffering from a delusion that is practically universal, the delusion that because we are able to do what we ‘will to do’ in acts that are habitual and involve familiar sensory experiences, we shall be equally successful in doing what we ‘will to do’ in acts which are contrary to our habit and therefore involve sensory experiences that are unfamiliar” (1932/1984, p. 16).
Although no significant changes in his procedure are presented in his last book, The Universal Constant in
Living (1947), there are innumerable references establishing the importance of the primary control. In an “appre- ciation,” American anatomist G. E. Coghill succinctly summarizes the pro- cedure from his scientific perspective:
“The practice of Mr. F. Matthias Al- exander in treating the human body is founded, as I understand it, on three well-established biological principles: (1) that of the integration of the whole organism in the performance of par- ticular functions; (2) that of proprio- ceptive sensitivity as a factor in deter- mining posture; (3) that of the primary importance of posture in determining muscular action. These principles I have established through forty years in anatomical and physiological study of Amblystoma in embryonic and larval stages, and they appear to hold for other vertebrates as well” (cited in Al- exander, 1947, p. xx).
According to my research, a lesson in the Alexander Technique must include active participation on the part of the student, inhibition and direction, at- tention to the process (or what Alexan- der eventually called “means-whereby
versus end-gaining”), and guided sensory education. Practitioners of somatic education, as exemplified in Feldenkrais and Hanna, have always recognized Alexander’s contribution of these “means whereby” as essential to their own work, and thus to poster- ity. What differentiates this technique from other somatic techniques is the causal relationship between faulty sen- sory perception and the deterioration of the primary control mechanism. In the Alexander Technique, the estab- lishment of a reliable sense register
is dependent upon the ability to con- sciously inhibit habitual impulses while directing the activation of the primary control. I consider the following points to be fundamental to guided sensory education in the Alexander Technique: • The activation of the primary con-
trol is basic to all functions of the human being in activity: posture, movement, voice, and breathing (among others).
• The kinesthetic system, which is dependent upon the proper and efficient functioning of the prima- ry control, is the basis for register- ing the amount of tension used to carry out any activity.
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VolumeXV Number4 37
• In modern times, the unnatural qualities of the human being’s activity cause deterioration in the natural efficiency of use and func- tioning, and the mere desire to improve is rarely successful, due to the corresponding deterioration of the sense register that guides all self-controlled processes.
• Education for the conscious activa- tion of the primary control, which brings about an improvement of coordinated use of the psycho- physical self, is a prerequisite for improvement in the use of the parts involved in any activity.
• Sensory education in the Alexan- der Technique should be somatic in nature (a first-person experi- ence) and guided by a person who has consciously learned to reacti- vate the primary control as a basis for efficient and coordinated use of the self in any activity.
Looking at the situation very simply, most people have some somatic sense. People are capable of feeling what they are doing, although it is usually applied to activities in a general movement sense (I can feel that I’m walking, sing- ing, playing a piano, etc.) rather than in the very particular method that Alex- ander and other somatic educators sug- gest (a muscle contracting or lengthen- ing). In the Alexander Technique the teacher guides the student through the activation of the primary control while
performing carefully selected activi- ties with a constant reference to key muscular reactions that are compared and contrasted on a consciously con- structed sense register. These are then used by the student to analyze their effects on her use and functioning. As she recovers her natural and efficient use, she also rescues the reliability of her sensory appreciation.
Somatics, as we know it, began at the end of the nineteenth century in the work of F. M. Alexander, even though most other somatic education systems do not contemplate what I consider
to be the most fundamental aspect of the Alexander Technique—the activa- tion of the primary control and all it implies. In spite of the fact that many Alexander Teachers are reluctant to classify the Alexander Technique as somatic education, its uniqueness is not diminished by recognizing the un- deniable fact that its basic educational process is somatic in nature.
Alexander, F. Matthias. (c. 1908). Conscious control (man’s supreme inheritance) in relation to human evolution in civilization. London: Methuen & Co.
Alexander, F. M. (1985). Constructive conscious control of the individual. Downey, CA: Centerline Press.


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