freedom for life

The Edinburgh Alexander and Therapy Centre has been offering Alexander lessons and workshops since 1994.

Friday, 29 January 2016 18:39

Would it Help?

Teaching this year, I have found myself telling pupils about the scene from Bridge of Spies, where Mark Rylance’s character when asked if he is worried, answers ‘would it help?’ It is a good line and delivered deadpan it is a good gag used again in the film. I find myself repeating the story in part, because when Rylance became the first artistic director of The Globe, he made sure that the Alexander Technique was there at the start in the heart of their work as a theatre. It also gives me a chance to express my admiration for Rylance’s work as an actor in both Bridge of Spies and Wolf Hall. In both he was given the space and the time to show a stillness in which a spontaneous emotion might appear or be stifled, to allow for something else to emerge appropriate to the situation. It’s terrific acting, with terrific presence. And in the process, as in the question would it help?’, something is revealed about our choices in being human, and if we become sufficiently aware, to know ourselves in relationship to others. 

When considering Alexander’s work it is important to remember that he started in the theatre as an actor and that he saw his technique as a means for developing conscious control of behaviour as much as anything. Which in turn means we have choices with regard to the attitudes and approaches that we adopt towards people and situations. Here there is a bridge to my work as a therapist where I am working with roles people have adopted, almost without fail for good reason in early life, which are no longer working for them now and need to be revised in ways that are comfortable for them. 


The idea in both practices is to invite people to experiment with putting to one side, the familiar, the habitual, in favour of an emergent change congenial to their overall aim. In Alexander work, there is the constraint that goes always with integrating responses so that we put our breathing, poise and balance first. In doing this, as in therapy we often have to learn how to be with ourselves when anxious, worried, panicked etc. At the beginning this often involves gentling ourselves, understanding ourselves without being critical, before beginning to question whether our worry or anxiety helps us or not. Over time we can learn both how not to be habitually worried or anxious, as well as to deal with the vicissitudes of life, when they come crashing in, disturbing even the ‘best-laid schemes’ which throw us off balance and off course. 


When this happens, the pause that gives us space, to stop and consider our response, where our breathing slows, where we settle ourselves to know ourselves, is the right way forward wherever we learn it, whether in therapy or Alexander. There are differences to the area of each learning: in therapy it is in the quality of intimate relationships that emerge; in Alexander it is the freedom and poise of movement that arises. Put them together and then you have something.

Published in Lessons from the Chair

‘Imagine you’re clever’ might be an insult to some, but for others it might be the instruction that liberates them into a whole new world of learning. As an instruction it has a lot to teach us about learning and the power of expectations, others and our own.

It was used in a lovely bit of research by Robert Hardy to investigate how young people’s attitudes to learning affected their performance. He invited them to carry out some tasks by acting ‘as if they were clever’. Young people with poor and error prone learning styles, became efficient and fluent learners when acting ‘as if’. One girl was so discomforted by the gap between how she normally experienced herself and her new performance, that she claimed not to have done the experiment - that someone else must have done it!

Two inter-linked truths about learning are apparent here. The first is that expectations are important, the second that self-consistency is important, the experience of difference for some, is something to be disavowed. Others though welcome it and are able to make sense of it, and use it to launch themselves into whole new worlds of discovery.

This importance of self-consistency and our need to be predictable to ourselves is sometimes poorly understood. Not just by ourselves but also by other people including teachers and therapists, who are there to help us learn. Without it, we or others, at our extremes, can seem unpredictable, chaotic and even terrifyingly mad, yet deep down there is always a logic, which makes sense in the light of day, in the context of past experience and choice.

Discovering that logic, which is primarily is an emotional and narrative logic, is a task we all have to face. The ease and fluency with which we accomplish this, is primarily determined by the type of self-consistency we seek. If we seek consistency as fixed characters, then eventually no matter how talented, being wrong, as I will elaborate further next time, becomes something to avoid. If we seek consistency as beings capable of learning, of developing and growing, then through time, patience and hard work, we can change and master our chosen skills. If we act ‘as if’ we can learn, we will; if we act ‘as if’ we were clever while we do so, then the learning will be easier and more fluent.

There is no blog next week, as I am in London for a board meeting. The following week, I will turn to the importance of ‘mindsets’ and start to look at some of their implications for learning the Alexander Technique and therapy.

Published in Lessons from the Chair