Tradition and Authority in the Yoga Traditions and the Alexander Technique

April 7, 2014

Alexander came into adulthood prior to the First World War, in an age when optimism about humankind's evolution towards higher and more rational states of being was paramount. Educated people such as Alexander, were free of the oppressive shackles that religion had cast over the European mind for almost 2,000 years, and the power of rationality and consciousness as the driving force behind people's lives seemed to offer a way forward. Despite the times he lived through Alexander was never to lose that optimism.

 

The unbelievable horrors of the First World War, when the citizens of the so called civilised world massacred each other in battles of unprecedented ferocity, was followed by the rise of Nazism, Communism and Fascism and then by the Second World War and the descent of Germany into the barbarism of the holocaust. From the start of the First World War to the death of Stalin in the Soviet Union saw the death by war, massacre of deliberate policies of starvation of something like 50,000,000 people. In World War Two Britain let 4,000,000 of its subjects starve to death in the Bengal famine. And Alexander lived to see the development of the atomic bomb and its use on civilian populations in Japan.

 

Alexander was horrified by the developments he saw in Europe during his lifetime, especially the descent of Germany into barbarism. Like many other thinkers of his time he saw the problem as the phenomenon of irrational herd or mass behaviour and reaction, which demagogues such as Hitler and Mussolini were able to manipulate. The fact that millions of people could be taken in by these skilful manipulators was to him a result of them living in a completely subconscious manner, completely at the mercy of their unconscious prejudices and reactions. The answer for him lay in the individual being of human beings. In his writings he is constantly coming back to the fundamental importance of the individuals coming into conscious awareness of their own conditioning and working with themselves to reach a stage which he described as constructive conscious control. At this stage they would overcome their faulty sensory perception, and be able to respond to things as they actually are. It is said that friends advised him to shorten the title of his book, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, by leaving out the last three words, but he refused, due to the importance he placed on the individual in contradistinction to the mass man.

 

"...from any real history of human endeavour we must eliminate the record of man's activities in wars and other spheres in which he is swayed chiefly by herd instinct, where the example, good of bad, or the command of one person, is immediately followed by the rest as an unthinking, unintelligent, automatic mass. I am quite prepared to admit that the history of human being in wars and other spheres of massed activity is of great interest to a great many people, but it is of infinitesimal interest of value, particularly when man's future is concerned, as compared with that of the individual effort of the human creature struggling daily to find a solution to the flesh and blood difficulties which directly concern his wellbeing." CCCI p.152

 

The whole process which Alexander had been through to restore the functioning of his voice was only possible because Alexander possessed the personality to be able to question the most basic and apparently common sense assumptions. This work on himself and his subsequent experiences of working with thousands of pupils in the work of restoring coordination and reliable sensory appreciation, convinced him that the "commonsense" assumptions upon which medicine, education, physical exercises, psychology, sport and virtually every area of human endeavour, were based on "end gaining" principles, and were quite simply erroneous. ...a dangerous stage of perversion and delusion has already been reached, when the attempts at a solution to all the problems of life seem to call for complexity rather than simplicity in procedure (1)

 

Alexander's genius was to be able to ask the right questions, to dispense with received wisdom and to perceive the obvious. Alexander's recommendation of the state of mind which we need to develop if which we wish to develop towards conscious awareness is that a person should stop and reconsider every particle of supposed knowledge, particularly "psychological" knowledge, derived from his general education, from his religious, political, moral, ethical, social, legal, and economic training, and ask himself the plain straightforward question, "Why do I believe these things?" "By what process of reasoning did I arrive at these conclusions? (2)

 

The role of the teacher in the Alexander Technique

We have however with the Alexander work the fact that for a time it is essential to place ourselves in the hands of a teacher who is able to guide us until we develop the sensory awareness to be able to work on ourselves. Implicit in this relationship is the understanding that the pupil does not know what she is doing with herself, and that the teacher is in a position of authority. To the extent that the pupil comes to the teacher full of her own ideas and preconceptions and not being prepared to let go of them, it is not possible to make any progress. I remember doing a lesson with a body worker with a very good understanding of all the muscles of the body. His insistence on analysing every moveI guided him through, in terms of what muscles were being activated, made it totally impossible for him to learn anything from me.

 

So in what state of mind should we approach learning the Alexander technique? The kind of pupil I find easiest to teach is not one who takes my every pronouncement as revealed truth, but rather one who is prepared to question and begin to understand what is going on. It is the kind of person who is comfortable to be in a state of not knowing, of not being sure, of being able to suspend habits of thought and opinion, and being prepared to experience feeling wrong with an open mind. As Alexander often says in his writings the work is a process of moving from the known to the unknown. Intelligence as it normally understood, has very little to do with a person's ability to be prepared to follow the teacher. The person who is attached to being right is impossible to teach. As Alexander said: People who haven't any fish to fry, they see it all right. (3) As soon as people come to you with the idea of unlearning instead of learning, you have the in the frame of mind you want. (4)

 

Authority and the role of the teacher in Yogic traditions

In the yogic traditions we find a very different approach to authority and the role of the teacher. In both Yoga and the Alexander technique it is certainly very difficult to make progress without a teacher. But in the yogic traditions the role of the teacher is greatly emphasised. In the words of a classic hatha-yoga text: 

 

There is no doubt that the guru is father: the guru is mother: the guru is God. Therefore he should be served by all in deed speech and thought (5)

 

This is a very different conception of a teacher to that held in the West. There is no room here for doubt or questioning. What the guru says is true because he says it. What the guru asks of you is justified because he is God. Therefore how the guru acts must always be right no matter how wrong it may appear. The problems of this approach to relating to the guru or teacher have come very much into prominence in the recent past by the behaviour of many of these gurus who have come to the West. Gross abuses of power and sex are as probably more commonplace within groups centred around such deified teachers as they have been shown to be amongst the "celibate' clergy of the Catholic church.

(See The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power and Prophetic Charisma by Len Oakes, Syracuse University Press 1997 for in depth examination of the dynamics which take place when this type of relationship is set up.) 

 

Of course most people who go to yoga classes, do not relate to their yoga teachers on this level. There is however a tendency within the hatha yoga traditions to take the received wisdom unquestioningly. This is the right way to practice this particular asana. Any other way is incorrect. This asana is good for this particular ailment. In certain schools of yoga students are encouraged to do postures against their better judgement, and injuries are often the result of this. I have had students come to me for lessons with neck problems who have been put into a head-stand at their very first yoga class! One prominent Indian teacher well known for his authoritarian style of teaching is well known for hitting and even kicking students in his classes! A friend who works in child protection was horrified on observing one of his classes to see the bruise left on the chest of one of the participants. Of course there are many teachers and traditions that are much more respectful of the individual.

 

This type of authoritarianism is certainly not unknown in the West - the most obvious authoritarian institution is the army where men are trained to respond automatically to orders from superiors. The inculcation of this readiness for automatic obedience in inculcated by a process of bodily training. In his book UCL, Alexander has reproduced a photograph from a newspaper entitled "How The Sergeant-Major stands.

 

Alexander writes: It would seem incredible to me ...that anyone should find it in him a wish to distort the body of a human being in this way, and still more incredible that anyone could be found who would submit to the indignity and folly of procedure that can bring it about. (6)

 

The distortion of the human body is a common technique of all totalitarian regimes and organisations. The goose-stepping of the Communist and Nazi military is an even more extreme example of distortion than displayed by the British Sergeant-Major. Of course if you can train people in such body use, it is easy to get them to override any reactions of fear, pity, conscience or empathy. The aim of both yoga and the Alexander technique is of course opposite to these technologies of oppression. There is no right way of standing, sitting or walking. Our bodies are unique just as we are unique. I often tell my students that if they look like they are doing the Alexander technique, they are not applying the principles, but rather imposing something on themselves. The application of the principles should provide us with more comfort and flexibility, not stiffness and rigidity.

 

When I was at school, teachers would often attempt to regain control of a class by telling the pupils to "sit up straight." In fact one of the things which schools teach young children coming in to them is to sit still. Some educationalists are questioning this approach, and there seems to be some evidence that some students with a 'kinaesthetic' learning style need movement in order to memorise and process information.

 

 

How can I judge if I have found a good teacher?

We all deal with this sort of question when we are seeking out an expert of professional in any field. How do I know that the dentist, doctor, lawyer, my child's school is good. The answer is that, unless we have some expertise in the particular field ourselves we can't for sure. We can of course judge if a teacher is personable, and respectful, but good interpersonal skills don't necessarily indicate the level of competence in their particular field. You will of course want to work with a teacher who you can communicate with.

Alexander Teachers

You should of course question your teacher as to his or her training and qualifications. In the Alexander technique you will need to find a teacher who has completed a three year training course affiliated with STAT or a national society. (AUSTAT, CANSTAT, SVLAT, AmSTAT) These courses have a minimum of 1600 hours instruction with a maximum teacher to student ration of 5:1 and directors of such courses must have been teaching for many years themselves prior to training teachers. Of course as in any profession there are more and less skilled practitioners, and just because the training courses all agree to minimum quantitative standards doesn't mean that all courses are equally good. There are also a smaller number of teachers affiliated to ATI, under whose umbrella a number of training courses are run. Their courses often allow for more variation in training. My very limited experience of the courses which they have approved range from excellent to very bad. I suspect that with the exception of New Zealand, ATI trained teachers are as likely to be competent as STAT trained. 

 

Once you have had a number of lessons with a teacher, it is always good to have some lessons elsewhere. You will find that different teachers teach differently. This is because the technique is more about the application of certain principles to our use rather than particular procedures. Most teachers will work with you in the constructive rest position on a table, and in getting in and out of a chair and walking. Many teachers, myself included will work with you in other activities, especially activities that you do frequently or have problems doing with ease and comfort. What is important is that you begin to learn how to coordinate your movement more effectively and improve your sensory awareness.

 

 

Yoga Teachers

In the area of yoga training there is a huge variety of trainings available. There are weekend, week or month courses which offer to give you training as a yoga teacher as well as trainings that take place over many years. Find out what sort of training your teacher has had. There are also a wide variety of different yoga organisations. As with the Alexander technique a good teacher at a minimum has practiced intensively for a number of years. As with the Alexander work skill is developed over years and decades of teaching. Like the Alexander technique yoga practice is related to the individual. Traditionally it was taught as the Alexander technique is predominately taught by one teacher to one pupil. Though for economic and time considerations yoga is mostly taught in class situations the yoga teacher should still be able to assess individuals different needs within a class situation. 

 

(1) CCCI p.7

(2) CCCI p.50

(3) Teaching Aphorisms from Articles and Lectures p.205

(4) Ibid p.198

(5) Shiva-Samhita (III.13) p.21

(6) UCL p.69

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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