Alexander Technique Directions – What Are They?
If you’ve ever heard anything about the Alexander Technique, it’s likely you’ve come across the term “directing,” or “giving yourself directions.” This might be a little baffling to those not familiar with the Technique.
Simply, “giving yourself directions” means consciously sending yourself specific messages from your brain to the rest of your body in order to bring about positive changes in the way you are coordinating yourself in any given moment. In other words you are engaging your thinking to initiate transformation, and used in conjunction with pausing (inhibition) this is really powerful. It is how we can change our habits.
The “classic” directions for encouraging the natural poise of our upright posture as formulated by F.M. Alexander, the developer of the Alexander Technique, are:
Let the neck be free so that the head can go forward and up so that the back can lengthen and widen.
These directions can be quite wonderful, once we learn what they mean with the hands-on help of an Alexander teacher, but can be quite mysterious when we hear them for the first time. They can also be easily misinterpreted without the intervention of an AT teacher when we’re first using them on our own.
The vast majority of people, myself included, when first introduced to these, or any, “Alexander-style” directions, fall prey to two main pitfalls:
- The misunderstanding of what the “forward and up” direction of the head means. The idea of this direction is to prevent the head pulling back and down – a very common and harmful habit causing compression and tension in the neck and throughout the body. So, the direction “forward and up” actually means that the chin may go down a little as the back of the head goes up.
- Even once we have understood this concept, the overriding pitfall of giving yourself any direction (whether “classic” or any other devised by you or your teacher) is that we try and “do” the direction by using muscular effort. In actuality less muscular effort is needed, and this is why directions are generally thoughts rather than actions. This can feel quite unusual at first, as we are so used to achieving everything through effort. But if we are to let go of the excess muscular tension that is getting in the way of natural poise, we need to do less not more!
There are many subsidiary directions to these, depending on our given activity. And over the past 100 years or so teachers and students of the Alexander Technique have adapted, supplemented and found their own creative ways to convey the many and various directions – these mental instructions – we can give ourselves (more on this coming soon).
Next time I’ll be exploring the trickiness of words and meaning and how this relates to the directing process. In the meantime, I’d love to hear how you first reacted to these “classic” directions – whether your first exposure was from reading this blog or many years ago! Please leave your comments in the space below.
you blog is very good. BUT,
‘Let the neck be free so that the head can go forward and up so that the back can lengthen and widen’;
i think the above is not alexander classiscal direction.
the right classical direction is ::::::::::
‘Let the neck be free TO LET the head can go forward and up TO LET the back can lengthen and widen’.
‘Let the neck be free IN ORDER TO LET the head can go forward and up IN ORDER TO LET the back can lengthen and widen’.
there is a lot of difference between ‘ so that’ and ‘TO LET’.
‘to let’ indicates some action doing or nondoing.
‘so that’ word may leads to lazyness.
but ‘TO LET’ ,’IN ORDER TO ‘ not leads to doing with stimuls in daily activities.
am i right or wrong?
LET THE NECK BE FREE, TO LET THE HEAD GO FORWARD AND UP, TO LET THE BACK LENGTHEN AND WIDEN.
These are the ones used by Patrick MacDonald in his wonderful article “On giving Directions, Doing and Non-Doing”
That’s great, Judith. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks for your comments, Jagadish, and apologies for taking so long to reply. I think you may have a point – I have heard it said in all these different ways as the traditional or “classic” way of directing. For myself, I haven’t determined a noticeable difference with these subtly different distinctions in wording. But as you’ll see in my next blog, words can be very tricky, for we all interpret them slightly differently (and in some cases much more than just “slightly”). In fact, I believe FM Alexander moved away from using the word “relax” in relation to the neck to the now widely used “free” because of problems with the way his students were interpreting it.
Thanks for this post. Very clear explanation of something we teachers can choose to make complicated and mysterious.
Thanks so much for commenting – yes it can become quite unnecessarily complicated and mysterious if we let it…
Thanks for another insightful post Imogen. I can’t remember when I first was introduced to Alexander’s directions. I suppose it would have been in my early lessons but I have no specific memory of the encounter, just the wonderful feeling of relief and release that occurred at the hands of my teacher. I do recall a long period of frustration during my AT training. I would direct and direct and not much would change! But after awhile I found that giving my directions and then moving would result in release and improved freedom of movement. Over time, as I became more skillful at releasing tension, I could give my directions and feel release begin to happen without the extra step of going into movement, especially as my breathing became freer. The idea of directions as preventative orders helped clarify their role for me, as did learning about postural sets, and the differing role of muscles for postural support and muscles for moving the skeleton about. Now directions are a huge help to me and I do my best to explain them in a way that they can be useful to my students without such a long learning curve!
Thanks for sharing this, Jo Ann. I think you’re quite right about thinking of directions as preventative – again that really helps us get out of the trap of trying to do something new. Rather we are using them to prevent unwanted habits from creeping in. Your students are very lucky to have you 🙂
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i agree with your explanation.
the traditional original directions of fm are ,
let the neck be free
to let the head go forward and up
to let the back lengthen and widen.
And the classical directions are,
let the neck be free
so that the head can go forward and up
so that the back can lengthen and widen.
Thanks for the clarification. And I think the word “let” is very important indeed.
Actually, I think that originally, the words “in order to” were inserted inbetween the directions, were they not?
Imogen, I love this post. Very clear. Thank you!
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The really interesting question about the directions is: who is being addressed?
Excellent question, Dave! Whatever the answer is, I think it has something to do with why I usually prefer another form of the directions: “The neck is free. The head aims forward and up. The torso lenthens and widens. The knees go forward and away.” — and variations on those, but always impersonal and expressing a fact in present tense, rather than employing a verb, which is always tempting to “do” — even if it’s the seemingly non-doing word, “let”.
Thank you both for your comments. I realize I often use the present tense, expressing it as a fact, or a “done deal” version of many directions, but hadn’t clearly thought about why this works better for me (and my students). It’s also more like using a negative direction – “I am not tightening my neck” – which is also present tense (although it is personal). Really appreciate this, Jennifer – so helpful.
thanks for reminding my comments myself once again.
They are true now.
I want to explain you something about SOLDIER.
Think of a soldier learned the war techniques , how to protect him self during a training period of 3 Years.
The soldier done a great work!!
Is not it?
But, in the real war which he was facing for the first time , if he not protects him self he will die.
I think, the alexander technique is a war of lifetime.
We have to protect our self either before going to SLUMP SLUMP or after the slump.
SLUMP is just like war!!
We have to face it during slumping or conscious about slumping, by thinking FM directions and ideas.
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