This appeared in English Language Teaching News 47 (June 2002)

The Teacher´s Body as a Teaching Tool
The Alexander Technique and Performance Skills for Teachers

By Harriet Anderson
All the World´s a Stage (William Shakespeare)
All the World´s a Stage, and most of us are unrehearsed (Sean O´Casey)

Whether we like it or not, we are all performers. Everyday life is full of small stage entrances and exits. And whether we like it or not, every time we enter the classroom, we are putting on a performance. Which does not mean that we are entertainers or in any way play-acting. But it does suggest that it might be worthwhile considering how we could become better performers.

The Three V´s
Any spoken performance consists of three ingredients, the three v´s, namely the verbal, the visual and the vocal. Research suggests that an audience can give as little as 7 percent of its attention to the verbal and as much as 93 percent to the non-verbal elements. Yet in most teacher training courses that non-verbal factor is left largely out of account and certainly for many people it appears to be frustratingly outside their conscious control. We need to start paying more attention to the teacher´s body as a teaching tool and resource. And here, I believe, the Alexander Technique can be of help to us.

However, let me make clear first what I do not mean. I´m not talking about body language a la Desmond Morris. And I´m not talking about using gesture, posture, voice as a means of manipulation. Nor am I talking about a right or wrong way to do anything. I´m talking more about achieving that state of emotionally neutral but alive relaxation which is the precondition for all good performances and the ideal mental state for both teaching and learning. I´m talking more about achieving congruence between vocal and physical expressiveness and verbal communication.

The Alexander Technique in a Nutshell
So let me tell you a little about the Alexander Technique (AT) and how it might fit in here. The AT deals with how we use our mind and body (and that of course includes our voice) in everyday life. The muscles of the human body form a kind of elastic suit which we inhabit. If the muscles are habitually contracted (as they are in many people) then the suit is a few sizes too small and we don´t have enough room for ourselves. We are constantly being squeezed, squashed and twisted, and movement, breathing and voice are impaired. Under the hands-on guidance of a teacher of the AT, we can learn to release those contracted muscles to readjust the size of the suit so that it is a good fit and gives us enough room and also support in our daily activities. This also means that we can begin to use the gravitational field in which we all live as a friend rather than an enemy. Everything we do – how we stand, sit, walk, talk, eat, breathe – is determined by our relationship to gravity. And that relationship is a very personal one for each of us. But unfortunately for most of us, it is not as good as it might be, indeed most of us are unaware that we have such a relationship at all – until we fall over! By learning to release muscles we can trigger off natural reflexes in the body which use gravity to send us up rather than letting it pull us down. On a sensory level, this leads to a lightness and ease of performance in every way.

Yet although the Technique is based on hands-on work, it is more of a mental activity than a primarily physical one. It is based on the premise that how we move, speak – that is, use our self – is intimately linked to our habits or patterns of thinking. And it is this repertoire of mental and physical habits which needs to be expanded, so that habits can stop being habits and become choices instead.

But more concretely: how does the AT work? Basically, through a combination of gentle, non-manipulative manual guidance and verbal instruction on the part of the AT teacher the pupil is given both new kinaesthetic experiences and thoughts which complement each other and which with frequent repetition and regularity lead to new ways of using one´s self. The AT is taught and learnt with a teacher and a pupil; it is not a form of treatment with a healer and a patient. A standard lesson might consist of working in standing and sitting and maybe other daily movements and also with the teacher working on the pupil lying down. But all this NOT in order to learn the right way to sit and stand etc. We use these daily movements as our lowest common denominator in order to learn and practise the three main principles of the Technique, namely: self-awareness, inhibition and direction (to use the words of F.M.Alexander, the founder of the Technique). I´ll explain them in what follows.

Know Thyself
Obviously we need first to be aware of what our habits are in order to change them, and here it is very helpful if a trained pair of eyes and hands can give us feedback. With time we become more sensitized to ourselves (and, usually, others) and to the finer/finest levels of muscular activity – and believe me, that process of sensitization can be intensely exciting. Everyday activities become a source of fascination; we recapture our curiosity and explore the ways we think and move. With guidance from the teacher we can become aware of how our internal body map (and every one has one however unconscious) influences the way we move and use our self, and we can if necessary begin to redraw it so that it corresponds more with the anatomical lie of the land. We can thus begin to use our self more appropriately.

Just say no …
However, we cannot change just by superimposing something new over what is old, like re-painting the wall bright white without filling in the cracks and maybe cleaning off the old paint first. And that´s where inhibition comes in. Which in Alexandrian terms (as opposed to Freudian terms) means withholding consent (as Alexander put it) to your old habits – or simply just saying no. Inhibition is about creating an open space for choice to occur, rather than remaining enclosed in the narrow furrow of habit. And that in physical terms often means learning to stop, to use less muscular effort rather than more (most of us use far more than we really need to perform the act of daily living). It means learning to allow more to happen rather than trying to make it happen, to focus more on process as well as outcome. Or, in the context of a lesson in the Alexander Technique, it means considering how we, for example, get out of a chair. And that may sound trivial but is surprisingly difficult for most people, for we do live in an activist, goal-orientated, speed-orientated culture and the AT goes against many of the conventional premises of good and right living of our environment.

Which does not however mean that the AT is about letting it all hang and complete passivity. Not at all. It is about achieving a balance between means and ends, doing and non-doing. On the physiological level this balance means a gradual redistribution of muscle tone. In most people tone is unequally distributed with parcels of too much conflicting with parcels of too little. With a more equal redistribution we can use the appropriate effort for the task in hand which leads to a sense of ease which leads to a sense of pleasure in everyday living which leads to an emotional and mental balance. Not bad, is it?

Thinking Aloud
But we say no in order to be able to say a wholehearted yes to something else. After all, a real yes depends on there being a real choice, otherwise it´s just pre-programming, and that´s not what the AT is about. But what are we to say yes to? Simply put, to new ways of thinking, or directions as Alexander put it. Which might sound a bit mind over matter-ish, but actually it has an undisputed basis in neurophysiology as every top sportsperson and trainer will tell you. A large part of a sportspersons training is taken up with mental training of various kinds. In the AT there are a few fundamental verbal directions which are used as a basis for the individual pupil´s development of their own directions and which can be tailor-fitted to each pupil´s requirements. And the most basic direction deals with the relationship betwen the neck, the head and the back – what Alexander called the primary control – which it is essential to have released and integrated if the rest of the body and the voice are to work well.

The Alexander Technique and Performance Skills
The AT is a standard part of the curriculum in leading performing arts colleges (drama and music academies) in the UK, being used for movement and voice training, and also for controlling stage fright and audition nerves. But I see it as a potential part of the teacher training curriculum too. We are also performers; we also go on stage. Having the AT at our disposal can help us to be more grounded and centred (to get those butterflies flying in formation) and to use appropriate effort in the act of teaching. It can free the voice and help increase its range, resonance and expressiveness, and also heighten our physical presence in the classroom. In short, it is a highly useful technique which can put us into a state of mind, body and voice from where we can give an engaging performance. And all that quite apart from the personal benefit to be gained from easier movement, and increased self-awareness and general well-being.

A slightly longer version of this article first appeared in
English Language Teaching News, volume 50, Spring 2004

by Harriet Anderson
Enjoy your body. Use it every way you can. … It’s the greatest instrument you’ll ever own. (Attributed to Kurt Vonnegut Jr.)

Setting the Scene
Learning a foreign language … speaking a foreign language … the human body … and play, the topic of this issue. How do they connect?

Let’s start with two propositions.

The first is that play is essentially about discovery through pleasurable experimentation. And that discovery, experimentation and pleasure have the absence of an end to be attained in a certain manner as a common denominator.

The second is that play in this sense is not only a mental and emotional but also a physical state. Play lives in the human body, its bones, muscles, ligaments… . Mental and emotional states have a measurable influence on muscle functioning and vice versa. Descartes is dead. We are all body-mind now.

I think we can see these two aspects of play in young children. When at play in the sandpit for example, they are earnestly but pleasurably engrossed in discovering themselves and their environment; they are mentally and physically fully present, but without any fixed goal in mind.

Now, I write not only as a teacher of English but also as a teacher of the Alexander Technique, a body-mind method originated by one Frederick Matthias Alexander about 100 years ago. And I note that these two aspects of play are, interestingly enough, also central tenets of the Alexander Technique (AT).

In the Technique we pay attention to the means whereby we attempt to reach our goals rather than focusing on the goals themselves. In Alexander-speak this is called non-end gaining. And the Technique also posits a self, my self, which is not made up of the components of mind and body, but is an indivisible unity. In what follows now I shall, however, at times talk of the body and the mind as separate entities, largely out of obedience to linguistic and cultural convention. I hope that what I have to say will as a result be easier to understand.

So does the AT promote playfulness in the sense I’m using the word? Play is usually permitted in young children (although then still within culturally defined boundaries), but what about the rest of us? I believe that AT does indeed promote playfulness. And I also believe that it could be used in the (language) classroom.

The Alexander Technique Revisited
I wrote about the Technique in volume 47 (The Teacher’s Body); I’ll say more about it here in connection with language learning and play. The AT is all about changing disadvantageous habits in how we use our selves so that we can live with more ease, grace, pleasure, success or whatever else it is you desire for your self. How I use my self affects every aspect of my life. And that obviously also extends to how I learn language – or anything else for that matter. So how does the Technique seek to change habits, so that habits become more like choices? Through awareness, inhibition and direction.

Obviously I need to be aware of what my habits are in order to escape their exclusive hold over how I use my self. I become curious about myself. What is my habitual way of sitting down? And what are my habits of learning? And might there even be a connection between my sitting down habits and my learning habits? In this spirit of non-judgemental curiosity everything becomes interesting and we can begin to approach the child’s spirit of playful self-discovery.

Inhibition might be explained as the ability to say no to my disadvantageous habits of reacting to a stimulus, so that I give myself the chance not to react habitually. I can get out of my own way. And this, together with aware curiosity, is the precondition of experimentation. Only if I can stop myself reacting in a habitual manner to a stimulus can I be truly experimental, creative and spontaneous.

But of course, trying not to do something is often the best invitation to do it. It’s usually more helpful to think of what you do want rather than what you don’t. This is where direction comes in as the other side of the coin to inhibition. Direction might mean saying yes to new habits I wish to learn, in the spirit of saying yes and let’s just see what happens (if anything). We’re not after specific goals in the first instance, we’re experimenting with the means whereby.

So we’re after constructive conscious control of the self as the path to playfulness. It’s the adult’s path to the young child’s state. (The young child usually doesn’t need conscious control as it usually hasn’t developed habits yet.)
Yet control has come in for a bad press in some circles. It’s often confused with restriction and lack of freedom. But it all depends on who’s controlling what and how. Don’t let’s throw the baby out with the bath water. Without constructive conscious control habit rules; the result is stereotyped productions and the absence of playful discovery.

Let’s Get More Concrete – The Alexander Technique and Learning in general
It’s now, I think, become a commonplace in teaching circles to talk about whole brain learning, although as I understand it research in this area is in its infancy. Put simply but also tentatively, in most of us our wiring is such that the left brain hemisphere is more concerned with language, logic, and analysis and the right with non-verbal intuition, spatial awareness, contemplation, creativity and play. And in most of us the left hemisphere is busybody bossy-boots and the right hemisphere shy, retiring wallflower.

And it is also by now common knowledge in teaching circles that we need to activate both busybody left hemisphere and shy right hemisphere in order to learn most easily and effectively. Hence, in recent decades, the emergence of whole brain learning techniques, such as Superlearning or Suggestopedia, kinesiology, Brain Gym and the use of elements of NLP. The affirmations, visualisations, music, relaxation, breathing techniques, and kinaesthetic experience which these techniques offer help to anchor information in the widest possible combination of neural networks and thus increase the chances of retention. And, as far as teaching older children and adults is concerned, these developments have been particularly marked in foreign language teaching.

It was F.M.Alexander’s discovery, in contrast to the techniques mentioned above, that by learning not to do something, we can use our selves in ways and with results which cannot be reached by a decision or a command to do something. By not doing something we allow something else to happen without insisting on it. Now, as most of us know, the command to “be spontaneous, be creative” is the biggest turn-off to spontaneity and creativity there is. And, as most of us know, the great creative discoveries of the world have usually happened at times when the logical left brain is quiet, at times of reverie, for example. Just think of Isaac Newton under the apple tree. In other words, we need to get busybody bossy-boots to shut up for a bit and coax shy wallflower out of hiding.

Interestingly, this mental process of inhibition correlates to what happens on the muscular level during an AT lesson. Most of us tend to overuse the big surface sheet muscles, which are intended for short strong activities and tire easily. As a result, we under-use the deeper, smaller, postural muscles intended to keep us upright and which do not tire so easily. We need to invite the smaller, shyer, under-worked muscles to work more and the bossy, overworked sheet muscles to do less so that both can work more efficiently and in better balance with each other. It’s busybody bossy-boots and shy wallflower again. Yet with manual and verbal guidance on the part of an AT teacher, who is trained to see and feel the most subtle muscular change, we can learn to restore this balance.

Following Alexander’s premise, which by now is largely undisputed, that we are one unity of mind and muscle (although I am painfully aware that this discussion itself is creating a linguistic and conceptual separation), it makes sense to assume that change on the muscular level will also imply change on the mental level and vice versa. That mental rehearsal improves physical performance is a fact which every sportsperson and performer knows. But it seems to me that the other way round – that muscular rehearsal improves mental performance – hasn’t been so widely regarded. And I don’t mean here just standing up, going for a walk and doing a few stretches, valuable though these things undoubtedly are for mental performance.

This is where the AT comes in. As I’ve just explained, learning the AT helps to stop the bossy-boots sheet muscles from interfering so that the shyer postural muscles have a better chance and all can work well together. This is achieved through inhibition and direction which are mental processes. It stands to reason then that learning to apply the AT to the neuromuscularskeletal system for movement purposes can, with time, also be extended to other purposes – say, for example, learning a foreign language. In other words, learning to use your muscles differently through inhibition and direction, i.e. through mental processes and not through unthinking muscular doing, can help you to learn other things for which those same mental processes of inhibition and direction are useful skills.

In terms of whole brain learning this means learning to use the AT to put us in a physical and mental state that helps stop busybody bossy-boots left brain from being overbearing so that shy wallflower right brain has more of a say and both can work better together. The over-active sheet muscles correlate with the over-active left brain, the under-active postural muscles correlate with the under-active right brain. If a better balance can be achieved on the muscular level, a better balance is more likely on the mental level; mind and muscle working together in harmony. And this mental and muscular alert relaxation is the ideal state for both learning and teaching.

The Alexander Technique and Foreign Language Learning in particular – a few questions for discussion
In the AT the pupil learns through cognition and kinaesthetic experience; it is unavoidably whole brain learning, otherwise it just doesn’t work. Could it be that balanced whole brain learning should be part and parcel of adult (i.e. not very young learners) foreign language teaching even more than when teaching adults other subjects, exactly because language is so firmly rooted in the left brain, and yet learning it with ease involves the right as well?

And could there be an explanation here for why so many adults find learning a foreign language so difficult and why so many are just so bad at it? (It seems to me we have to look for explanations beyond bad teaching, innate stupidity and emotional factors.) I would guess that language and speech habits are among the most entrenched habits we can have after we have left early childhood. In terms of both the chronology in our development and importance for our lives they are equivalent to the habits of moving and posture which are usually the main focus of the Alexander Technique. This fact, coupled with a culturally-imposed left brain dominance from school days on, makes foreign language learning a truly daunting task for many adults.

And it’s probably not only entrenched language and speech habits which are involved but also habits of changing altogether. The adage “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is of only very limited validity if that old dog has been learning new tricks all its life and has learnt how to learn. Which is exactly the theme of the AT.

Can we say that learning a new language after early childhood helps shake up patterns of thought? Just as the AT necessarily implies a sometimes fundamental restructuring of thought patterns? And that this raises issues of identity? Who we feel ourselves to be is closely connected to our familiar ways of speaking, moving and thinking. Depending on the learner’s attitude, leaving the familiar, either linguistically or muscularly, can be either threatening or thrilling, either a hindrance or a help to learning, both in language learning and in the AT.

Is there a connection between the brain state of inhibition and direction (alert but relaxed) and that used in, e.g. Superlearning with the aid of music? Apparently music is the only external stimulus which automatically synchronises the two brain hemispheres. Might inhibition and direction do the same, but with the great advantage that there is no external stimulus and they are completely portable? You can practice the AT anywhere. And you do not have to carry that music cassette and cassette player around with you. You can do it for yourself.

Is there a connection here between adult foreign language learning as linguistic and mental re-patterning and the AT pupil’s experience in an AT lesson of muscular and mental re-patterning? In the one case we are re-learning to talk, and in the other re-learning to walk. And in both cases we don’t obliterate the already-learnt language or self-use but simply acquire a greater repertoire.
The physical act of speaking is the aspect of foreign language learning where the application of the AT is most compelling. Speaking is after all about the most complex muscular act most of us perform in our daily lives. Habits in use of the facial muscles and vocal apparatus tend to be even more deeply engrained than use of e.g. the biceps, perhaps because voice use is so intimate (the identity issue again). And perhaps also because vocal muscle use might be even more marked by culture than other types of muscle use.
So how might the AT help? I would suggest in two ways: by teaching inhibition and direction and by fine-tuning kinaesthetic appreciation. The former helps the pupil to withold consent to speaking habits pre-programmed by maybe years of speaking a language which requires a subtly different muscle use from the target language. Through applying the skills of inhibition and direction we can learn to release habitual tensions in the tongue, jaw, larynx etc. thus clearing the ground for new muscle use. Whereas trying to superimpose new use over inappropriate old use rarely leads to the desired results. A spin-off of this is a finer kinaesthetic awareness. This is of great benefit for those learners who find it hard to hear differences in sound, because they can begin to listen kinaesthetically as well as aurally. They can begin to orientate themselves according to how a sound feels as well as to how it sounds (something good voice users do well anyway).

Could therefore the AT become part of the ELT toolbox?
Well, not if what you want is a spanner for a quick fix. The AT does not offer 10 easy things to do with your class, let alone photocopiable pages. The AT differs from other techniques which involve the body such as Brain Gym and kinesiology in that it is not based on doing exercises but on learning not to do what it is disadvantageous for us to do.

But yes, it could be part of the toolbox if what you want is a method of learning to learn: through thinking in activity; through caring less about arriving at a preconceived goal and more about what we discover on the way there; or just through giving ourselves more time not to react habitually, when asked a question, when given a task to do, when in an awkward situation etc.
The AT is a tool for changing, not a spanner for fixing.