Ellen Writing about the Alexander Technique



BY Ellen


Just this summer I have  made a stunning breakthrough in how I feel, look and be.  thank you, Kristen Fryer, Alexander Teacher, (See LINK) and her discovery of Christine Kent (see LINK).  We all, especially we women, have thought our butts too big, and also thought that ‘good posture’ meant tucking your tailbone down and under, and flattening your belly with strong abs.  This is bone-deep conditioning.  Still in the grip of this at age 73 after some 12 years of Alexander work.  Until this.

Let your tail extend back.  that will bring y our full lumbar curve… a good thing, not lordosis.  Not only does this restore your pelvic organs to their wholesome positions (got prolapse? got urinary incontinence?), and your hip joint to its proper angle (got hip replacement?) but it gives your ribcage that powerful ‘floor’ on which to rest in errect placement.  Once the tail goes back, the lumbar curve restored, there is a feeling of real power that fills my body.  The ribcage just naturally rises, the shoulders then are free to hang on the back of the rib cage, the heart ‘opens’, the breathing is freed, and I feel like a million bucks!  Try this at home.  Standing.  But also sitting!  Haven’t you always found it a chore to sit up straight while sitting down?  I have.

ellen sits up


If you don’t get a revolution in how you feel and look, come in for a short series of Alexander Technique lessons, with me or Kristen or … see the directory:   LINK


Oh, and forget crunches!    ellen

THE BEGINNING... As I first started having lessons with Eric Bendix in 2001

Alexander Work   by Ellen Bierhorst    (started 10/7/02  Nine months into my lessons as a student of the Alexander Technique)


In the beginning it was a pain in the neck.  I’d tried massage, chiropractic and yoga to work it out.  Finally Erik’s wife Meredith said, “Oh Erik is wonderful with necks.”

I had heard about Alexander Work for twenty years, and knew about lying on the floor with your knees up and books under your head.   I knew furthermore that it purported to teach you better posture and movements.  Of course, Rolfing had made claims of posture adjustment or “structural integration” and although I had been “Rolfed”, my posture was still an unyielding target of my self-improvement resolutions.

First lesson, February 15, 2002:  I had no clue what to expect.  I showed him how I habitually hung my chin forward, chest collapsed, belly out.  He had me sit on a hard wooden chair; he held the back of my neck; he wiggled my knees; pulled gently on my arms, had me bend forward.  From time to time he would say things like, “Yes,” or “That’s it,” or “That’s nice,” often in response to some mysterious body change that I could not perceive, but sometimes he would say these things as a piece of tension I didn’t know I even had would release, giving me a sensation of relief and pleasure, sometimes small, and sometimes huge.  He suggested to me images to help with the process, things like, “Imagine that you are letting go with your hands and arms, but the clenched hands are not at the outer ends of your arms, but rather are strangling your neck with habitual tension.”  I would think about the image, and he would be studying me closely, then suddenly say, “That’s it!”

Erik himself seemed to have perfect posture.  He moved and talked with unusual deliberateness and thoughtfulness.  He was a great deal more quiet in himself than I was.  My M.O. in life was to apply to every situation novel or challenging a principle of “electrification”, as though by dazzling the person or situation with my energy I could win through.  Erik was doing something different.  There was a space, a separation, seemingly, between himself and the world, as for instance, the separation in someone who was taking wry amusement in the scene around him.  Yet clearly, amusement or judgment or cynicism was definitely not happening here.  Sometimes people who are extremely shy show this kind of separation.  Yet there was in Erik none of the self-covering seen in a shy person.  His eyes were always twinkling and open, unusually ready to engage.   We laughed a lot at our shared frustrations with body posture and ageing and foiled vanity.  We hit it off.

After the chair work he had me lie on the massage table; on my back, knees up, three paperback books under my head.  He pulled on my head and neck.  He pulled out my arms and twisted them gently.  It felt like he pulled my legs four inches longer from the hips.  I was feeling no pain.

When he swung me down from the table and I stood up I was astonished at the difference in my body.  Yes, I felt relaxed and comfortable all over; yes, the nagging cramp in the side of my neck that had vexed me constantly for six weeks was gone.  But the most striking thing of all was that although I felt relaxed and at east, my chest was all lifted and full, my head erect.  I looked great!

Erik assured me that although we couldn’t expect this hour’s transformation to remain, I could attain permanent day-to-day postural improvement after just two months of regular lessons.  I wanted it.




15 October 2002

A key concept in Alexander work is called “inhibition”.  This has nothing to do with being “inhibited”.  For the longest time I just didn’t get it.  I just wanted my muscular tension to release, like it did during a lesson with Erik.  Then I thought I was getting it, but I was wrong.  That was when I thought I was learning to “do” muscle release.  Erik said, “No, when you see or feel your muscles doing tense things or hurting or looking bad in the mirror, don’t do anything.  Just see how long you can stand it, just noticing that.”  Then I really didn’t get it.  Now, maybe….

Another thing that mystified me was when Erik said, “I’ve been working recently on inhibition of my thought patterns.”  Huh?  I really didn’t get that.

So here’s what I am dong now, in my eighth month of regular weekly lessons:

A.R. Alexander, the brother of the founder, F.M., and also a practitioner of Alexander Technique, had a bad fall off the end of a horse and crushed his tailbone.  They thought he’d never walk again.  He had to just lie in a darkened room for a month or more.  He said, “I had nothing to do so I practiced inhibition all day long.”  I think about this a lot.  What could that mean?

I lie in bed and think of the “directions” I have learned from Erik.  You have to say it just right.  “The neck to be free.”  “The head to move forward and up.”  “The back to widen and lengthen.”  “The knees to go forward and away.”  “Come up off the legs”.  Then there is, move the hands and the shoulders away from the elbows.  Move the hips and the ankles away from the knees.  It is important not to “do” anything, but just to think the directions.  I think them with the verb “allow”, as in, “Allow the neck to be free”.  I also think about the day he showed me a model of the spine and explained that the exaggerated and harmful curvature that is the pattern of most of us is the result n to of our falling in on ourselves, but rather of excessive m uscular tension pulling us down.  If we but release this exaggerated tension, the spine springs erect.  What a concept!  I had always thought I was supposed to pull myself erect, using muscular effort.  Alas, when I turned my attention away my posture immediately would revert to the same old worsening pattern, chin jutting forward, chest collapsed, belly flaccid.

So now I add to my direction litany the idea of releasing muscles that pull down f from my sacrum to my thoracic spine; that pull down from my waist to my upper chest.  I think about allowing such muscles to relax.  Of course I have no voluntary control on any such muscles, so I couldn’t “do” this even if I tried.  But I don’t try, because I have actually learned, slowly and painfully, that doing doesn’t work.

Recently on a ten hour driving trip I was h having discomfort in my lower back, over the sacrum.  I found that if I spent about a minute imagining that I was allowing muscles to relax that were trying to pull down on my spine from that spot that hurt, that the pain miraculously would disappear.  For about five minutes.  Then I had to do it again for about a full minute.  Fascinating.

The other morning as I was coming to wakefulness I spent about ten minutes practicing inhibition.  I did my ankles and knees, my hips and knees, the spine thing, the free neck, the head forward and up, the shoulders releasing and widening away from the sternum, the elbow thing.  Then I did the “LSD trip thing” where I notice what my psychological discomfort is.  That’s not as easy.  Like muscular posture, habitual psychological posture is elusive, invisible.  If I look towards it, however, asking myself, “What exactly is the idea behind this sense of malaise?” I can come to notice something like, “Oh yeah, it’s that feeling that I have a million things undone in my life and I am a shit because I am not getting them done.”  So then I say, “OK, let’s just inhibit that idea.”  So I can kind of let go of that, by direction my will to letting it go.  Just as though I were unclenching my fist.  It is so cool.  Immediately I get a feeling of inner relief, and I even feel muscles relax that I didn’t know I was tensing and have no voluntary control over.

Once many years ago I learned about dong something just like this when coming down from an LSD trip.  I could see my habitual psychological clenching and flinching, and I could then realize that I need not do them.  Then I felt so much better.  It left a calm, quiet place in the middle of my consciousness, where previously there had been cacophony.


What is more, there is a fascinating parallel with the practice of Step Three in the AA Twelve Step Program.  Step three says that the 12-Stepper turns her life and her will over to the care of her own idea of a good, all-powerful divine force.  There is an aspect of this that is repugnant to many people.  It feels too much like the “knuckling under” that we do to a socially dominant, bullying man.  Subservience.

That’s bad.  However, the twelve step adept experiences a marvelous release of tension and I am starting to think that this is precisely the result of Alexander inhibition, and actually is the same as the LSD insight thing.  Not only that, I am also seeing great parallels with the beneficial result of sitting in Zen meditation or Vipassanah.

All these liberation approaches seem to have the same beneficial result: the shackles of inner self-oppression seem to fall away.  Because I am not draining my resources with needless tension, I have more energy.  Because I am not bumming myself out I feel buoyant and there is actually a joyful and even a merry quality to my consciousness.  Whew!  I’ll take it.

So today, my practice is to Inhibit all day long.  And I must be careful lest I indulge in “end-gaining”.  I can get attached and desirous of that good feeling associated with the inhibition.  The joy, the merry feeling.  And of course, when I direct myself to “do” that remembered state of mind, it becomes impossible to attain


Instead, I want to focus on the “means whereby”.  Today, my understanding of this is to return frequently, and especially when distressed psychologically or physically, to the recitation of my directions:  ungrip the spine, open the front of the hip joints and straighten the knees, allow the shoulders to widen, notice bummer cognitions and inhibit them.

Come to think of it, I can see that my habit has been to revere these bummer ideas and make them a Higher Power.  These are things like, “Ellen, you are a defective fool and you have so many tasks that any reasonable person would have accomplished.  Just look at the condition of your butler’s pantry this very minute.  Clutter on the rampage!  You must be crazy of stupid that you can’t get stuff done and live in peace and order.  So go in there and start slaving away.  Maybe after a thousand years of drudgery  you’ll be at least decent.”

No wonder I wasn’t merry!  Worshiping at this altar has the one solitary benefit:  it alleviates fear.  Without this voice giving me direction, things are very quiet inside.  How do I know I am not heading for the drop-off?  I feel I am driving blind.  I’ve just got to get used to it.  I am driving an unfamiliar road in the dark with no lights and I seem to be traveling about 40 m.p.h.  Oh well!  There seems to be a good feeling of well-being here in the cab.

~~~ ~~~

Why I wanted to become an Alexander teacher, part 1

Ellen Bierhorst   2/24/06



I simply must go all out for the ease and grace and inner freedom that I can glimpse in a lesson.  I have studied with Erik Bendix since the beginning of 2002, for half of that time in lessons twice a week.  It is now crystal clear that the only way I have a chance of attaining what I see in the teachers I have met is to take the training course.  It has vexed me no end that this should be the case, and I have long resisted this conclusion.


I simply must have a body freed from the habits of clenching and flinching that I associate with my selfhood, but which in actuality, I am convinced, keep me in chains and are dragging me into a crippled old age.  For my self, I want this, but with equal intensity, for the people I seek to help as a healer.  Since I am planning another 35 years of professional life, the training should not be wasted.


Perhaps I might contribute to the efficiency with which an Alexander teacher can transmit the good stuff of proper use of one’s self.  Over thirty years as a psychotherapist should count for something.


I think I might feel more comfortable in the next thirty years or so in the profession of Alexander teachers than I have been in the company of clinical psychologists.  Although I love my work with  my clients, I find the culture of my professional peers intimidating and stultifying.  Also, I harbor a notion that advanced age is a plus in an Alexander teacher, certainly one with graceful movement and beautiful posture.  Advanced age is not a plus for a psychologist.


Since childhood I have yearned to lessen psychological suffering.  I spent three years in classical psychoanalysis, and got a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology.    I made a deep study of the intentional community “The Farm” in Tennessee during the 70’s.  I studied Aikido seriously for six years.  For three years I was enrolled in the Barbara Brennan School of Healing (Hands of Light author) learing hands-on spiritual healing.  For twelve years I have been immersed in the Twelve Step Program.  I was on the founding committee for the first holistic healing center in Cincinnati, the Franciscan Wholistic Center.  I have made a life long study of paths of healing and enlightenment including chiropractic, acupuncture, Feldenkreis Method, yoga, dharma study, meditation etc. etc. In my practice of psychotherapy I use EMDR and clinical hypnosis, among other more  main stream techniques.  (Unifinished essay…The next idea was to be that the Alexander Technique is the most promising one of all)


Why I wanted to become and Alexander Teacher, Part 2


Why Alexander Training

Ellen Bierhorst



Since the age of ten I have been passionately dedicated to the search for means to lessen human psychological suffering.  In my 65 years I have looked deeply into all the most promising leads I have heard about.  For example, I spent three years in my twenties on the couch in four-hour-a-week psychoanalysis (all but worthless); six years in my forties training in Aikido until an injury drove me away; three years as a matriculated student of the Barbara Brennan School of energy field healing; countless hours sitting on cushions in meditation; for a dozen years now a whole hearted member of the Twelve Step Program; …and then there is Judaism, threads of blue and gold through all the years – I love it, I betray it, wrestling, as do most Jews.


After four years of lessons with Erik Bendix it is clear to me that the Alexander Technique offers a rope ladder of escape from a great deal of the misery that binds me and all of us.  I have been infuriated that it is so slow and that once a week or twice a week lessons for over forty months have not been sufficient to get me over the wall into a place where I can continue to heal myself.  I have wanted to apply for teacher training in order to have enough exposure to lessons that  I would be able to “use” myself as well as the Alexander teachers I have met.  The enormous expenditure of time and money have held me back.


Last week, following my fourth lesson and group class with Vivian Mackie in her annual visits here, I had an experience of breakthrough on the ski slopes.  I am now convinced that whatever it takes, I must have the training.  As a clinical psychologist for over thirty years now I  have collected a small kit of good techniques and no mean skill in listening and communicating, and I am confident of doing much good for my clients.  But psychology is arid, and empty of the amazing wisdom of the Alexander Technique.  Suddenly I have forgiven it the slowness.  Too big and too revolutionary to be attained quickly, it’s only fault lies in the seeming promise that a mere course of lessons could do the trick.  And yet, what’s to be done, but make a beginning with people?  And just perhaps, perhaps with my background as a psychotherapist all these years I might make a contribution in communicating to pupils the different way of being that I glimpse through the technique.


Suddenly pieces of my life clicked into a new pattern last week.  I’d much rather spend the next thirty or forty or fifty years of my life practicing as an Alexander teacher than as a heretical psychologist, distorting my work to fit into the medical model with diagnoses and health insurance reimbursements.  What’s more, it seems a plus for an Alexander teacher to be an old person; old, and older, yet displaying that grace and youthful movement that they all do.  The same cannot be said of aged psychologists.


It was crazy to go skiing.  I’d been sick with the flu, still struggling to assume a normal work day, and my back and legs still ached in the aftermath. Did I want to break my stupid neck?  But it was beautiful and sunny, and I longed to go, and so I made myself a serious deal. I could go as long as I spent the 40 minutes driving to Lawrenceburg in constant inhibiting of my cringing, gripping habit, and directing myself in the four ways of Alexander work.  It was my bargain, and it brought me to more intense inhibiting and directing than I had ever been willing to do, despite my having faithfully spent 5 to 20 minutes or more in semi-supine practice each and every day for four years.  The fear of broken bones is what did it.  It was a little like the story Vivian Mackie tells of walking across London to the dentist doing “whispered ah” the whole way.  When I reached the snow it was  almost as though I had just had a  forty-minute lesson.  My consciousness was altered.  Despite my illness, I skied with more freedom than ever, and there was a priceless exhilaration


All at once I could imagine taking the training, and then moving to Denver where my eldest child lives with her partner and soon, we hope, her children.  Growing old.  Sunshine.  The Alexander Technique.  (Incidentally, now that I have completed my training as of June 9, 2009, at the age of 68 years 11 months, the plan to move to Denver has been tabled indefinitely.  Having too much fun right here in Cincinnati where people are flocking to get lessons.  Too much fun!) 

 ~~~ ~~~

Psychological Benefits of the Alexander Technique




By Ellen Bierhorst, Ph.D.


It’s time to start talking about the stunning psychological benefits of the Alexander Technique.  When F.M. Alexander published his first book in 1910 he titled it Man’s Supreme Inheritance not because it gives remarkable relief from low back pain, or helps with violin playing or golf scores or stuttering.  Yes, we can improve poor posture and movement patterns, but are not these benefits eclipsed entirely by the possibilities for radical stress reduction, mood enhancement, and increased intelligence?


The Alexander Technique (A.T.), a personal management system you learn from an Alexander “teacher”, usually in 45 minute hands-on lessons weekly for 6, 30 or more lessons, offers the means for changing consciousness.  So, for instance, does Buddhist meditation and other spiritual paths.  But the A.T. Is without metaphysics or dogma.  Entirely.


The A.T. Teaches me how to slip into a different mode of being that affects my perceptual acuity, my physical coordination and grace, my creative problem-solving and my intellectual power.  These are huge claims, of course, and yet they have been experienced by practitioners of the technique all over the world in increasing numbers these last 100 years.


Every stressful or traumatic experience leaves a residual in the whole person (Alexander calls the body-mind unity “the Self”) of left-over reflexive tension, cringing, armoring.  Because we no longer have the lifestyles of our primitive forebears, and because we have elaborate verbal consciousness that holds our stories, these residuals are not rinsed away in vigorous physical activity.


Alexander discovered a method for stepping outside this trap.  The experience is like this:

I have an unusually full schedule today, a mixture of A.T. Lessons and psychotherapy appointments, plus phone calls to return,  a need to transfer funds out of Fidelity to cover the purchase of my new car Saturday, and sundry little things like feeding myself, and replenishing the water in my fish pool yard fountain outside. , And supervising the new yard man come to take down the giant burdock and thistle in my back yard “jungle”.  It’s a lot.  I go to the kitchen, and it’s still in disarray from yesterday because I was exhausted after that over-full day  and left it messy.  To go up and crash into bed.    By the time I am dressed and in the kitchen for breakfast  I am mostly awake.  I fight off the wave of dismay at seeing the confusing mess on the table.  That won’t help things.  I change my mind about what to have for breakfast three times; I burn the sausage because I get absorbed in my reverse-osmosis water filter set up, and I loose the spatula.  My nervous system is in a state of irritation, generally.  I have to dial a number twice before getting it right.  I am distracted by the bill lying on the table, and because I am worried about it, I feel I must stop what I am doing and write the check out right now.

I reserve half an hour to do my Alexander practice before my first client arrives for a lesson, but with one thing and another it gets whittled down to only fifteen minutes.  So in a highly characteristic state of mildly frazzled nerves and background anxiety, I go into my Alexander teaching room.  As I have been trained, I first just stop myself, arresting all flow of intentionality.  I just stand there, maybe for a minute or two.  I breathe.  I take in the room.  I think about my teachers in the Alexander Teacher Training course, leading  us through exercises:  stand with feet wider apart, … Remember to breathe… Come fully into the present moment,  register where you are in space and time… Check the balance on the two feet, and  forward and aft… Am I constricting my breathing?  Allow my neck to be free… Stop pulling my head back and down… Think of lengthening and widening my trunk… Stand on fully extended legs, release the thighs in the hip sockets by thinking “knees forward and away”… Unclench the jaw, release the tongue.  Go to the chair and do a few sit-stands.  Cultivate the wish and the desire for the “up” feeling   we get in an A.T. Lesson.

I think I also spent about five minutes lying on my table in the “semi supine position”.  By this time I was feeling different.  Anxiety much less.  Feeling grounded.  My vision sharper.  I feel I am ready to give a lesson.  The client arrives for her second lesson.  Gently placing my hands on her shoulders, back, head, arms I remind myself that I will not achieve my end of giving  her a relaxing, relieving, refreshing Alexander experience except by continuing to think about my own direction of my Self, inhibiting the herkey-jerky patterns of normal intentional activity.


Sure enough, at the end of the lesson, she feels wonderful, and wants to come back.  As for me, having spend a quarter hour preparing, and 45 minutes giving the lesson, I am an entirely new woman.  Today I gave two lessons along with three psychotherapy sessions, attended a meeting across town and moved $15000 from cold storage into my checking account, as well as numerous other tasks and phone calls.  Normally by  7:00 p.m. on such a day I would be crashing towards my bedroom where I can read for a while and then go to sleep. Tonight, however, following my 6 pm client, I feel so much better than usual that I was impelled to sit down and write this essay.


My habitual state of being is fraught with self-reproach, and long chains of little errors –like making typos, or misreading a phone number, or forgetting where I put the spatula.  My entire nervous system is in a rusty screech, as a rule.  That is, except when I have been in the training classroom, having all that Alexander Technique support and instruction for 15 hours a week.  Until my graduation three weeks ago.  For three years I have for the most part lived in two worlds… My normal frazzled life, and the calm of the training classroom.  In brief interludes, especially in the last six months, I have actively practiced the technique at home, away from the course, and although I always realized rich benefits in stress reduction and insight, I have not “had the time” to spend doing the lie-down or practicing the “monkey” and other routines of the technique.  Now that I am a teacher, it is mandatory for me.  On pain of being a flop, a lousy teacher, and having my students fail to receive the rich benefits for which they are ostensibly paying me, I must work the technique.  And so I do.


Senior teachers have said in many ways that it is the student who “feeds” the teacher, and that in practicing the technique for the purpose of giving a lesson, they benefit as much as the student.  Indeed!


Yes, the cramp in my neck that had started to return after years of abeyance following my Alexander practice, has disappeared, and I am not as physically exhausted as I “should” be after my demanding day.  But what is more interesting to me is the mental clarity, the availability of the creative urge, and the feeling of being ok with myself.  Normally I am having to beat back the fires of self-criticism and dismay for all that needs to be done but must be deferred; a general miasma of blame and defeat born of a hundred little fumbling errors, and that lurching feeling of startle that comes from sudden awareness that something is burning on the stove, or Oh my God, I forgot to transfer funds to cover the check for the new car!


The benefits of the A.T. are huge.  It is tricky to learn, though.  The problem lies in the willingness to stop what you are doing, stop the train of intentions, and think the thoughts, the “directions” that bring on the changed state.  When you are paying for a lesson, you stop your inner chatter, and the hands of the teacher carry  you into this state.  When someone is paying you as a teacher, and you have had 1600 hours of intensive training, you stop, and enter the state.  But everyone notices that there is an overweening reluctance to take this delightful and rich medicine, even when we have experienced the benefits again and again.


Jill Bolte Taylor, the neuroanatomist experienced an alteration of consciousness as a blood vessel blew up in her left hemisphere, and she lived to tell about it and the glories of right hemisphere functioning in her book and presentations on My stroke of Insight .  The twelve-step programs of Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Gamblers’ Anonymous, Al-Anon, etc. achieve a shift out of ordinary tense consciousness through lavish group support, individual coaching, and the practice of surrendering to the hopelessness of the disease and the Higher Power who can give respite.  I am told that mystics and meditators can access a shift in consciousness at will after long years of devotions.  All these are good ways.


(Unfinished essay.  Notes for the rest:  

The A.T. Seems to me easier than these:  

-12 step





Kitchen journal 6/28/09)



Trauma, the 12 Step Programs, and the Alexander Technique


11/5/07 (half way through my three-year teacher training at Alexander Technique of Cincinnati )


Traumatic experiences induce a neuromuscular state of affairs we can call the startle pattern.  This has been studied by neurophysiologists (e.g. Frank Jones) and is highly standardized from individual to individual.  It includes stiffening of  many muscle groups, for instance a pulling down of the neck and a shortening of the back of the neck.


Startle pattern makes us stupid, function poorly both psychologically and physically.  Until a student experiences significant recovery through Alexander technique lessons, they cannot comprehend the degree to which their habitual startle pattern compromises their functioning at all levels.


A.T. Helps us recover from our habitual startle pattern.

The more we can function outside this habitual pattern, the more clearly we think, and the more gracefully we move.  The two, movement and psychological functioning are intertwined inextricably.  The result of this clarity and grace is felt as the whole of one’s life working much better; bewildering problems seem to become solvable; life is more enjoyable.


How in the world does an A.T. Lesson help us to recover from the habitual startle pattern?

The calm teacher puts calming hands on the student.  This gives the student an experience of non-habitual, calm existence.  The nervous system drinks in the ensuing experience of calm.  New neural pathways are formed which summate over time, eventually bringing the student to calmer living outside the lesson times.


In addition, the teacher instructs the student in ways to bring one’s self into this calmer way to function.  We say, “calmer, graceful and integrated use”.  The  student eventually learns to recall the method or “means whereby” this non-habitual, improved use can be brought about for him or herself.





1. We admit that our lives are beset by negative habitual patterns of psychophysical use and that “what feels right” is a false guide.


2. Came to believe that cultivating the four directions and inhibition of end-gaining can restore us to wholesome use.


3. Made a decision to maximize our exposure to the technique and seek out hands on lessons whenever possible.


4. With gentleness and compassion launched a life-long investigation of our habitual patterns of use.


5. Listened to our teachers.


6. Made an open ended listing of our patterns and without blame became ready to release them.


7. Patiently and cheerfully practice inhibiting these patterns.


8. Investigate the ways our narcissism and beliefs are bound  up with our negative patterns and with our end-gaining.


9. Humbly work to dismantle these attitudes and beliefs.


10. Continue to inventory our use and cultivate constructive conscious control.


11. Seek through study, teaching, lessons, lie-downs and monkey to improve mindfulness and use.


12. Having had a personal revolution through the Alexander Technique we try to advance the understanding of the technique and to practice these principles in all our affairs.


Confessions of a New Alexander Teacher

By Ellen Bierhorst, M.AmSAT




I admit it.  I feel I have only learned what the Technique is and how to access it since graduating and beginning to practice.

Maybe I am deluding myself.  But having taught about 50 lessons now, I suddenly realize that I am no longer anxious about my own use, my own implementation of the technique, my own adequacy as a student.  Sure, my use is often woeful, but I feel I can always walk through that swinging door into inhibition land.  And I feel my inhibition “muscles” are way stronger than they were just 2 months ago before graduation.


I just had my first private Alexander lesson since launching my practice in June.  Oh-oh!   Neil Schapera, a master teacher, put his hands on me and in 2 minutes I was overcome with a releasing of tension and a consciousness of weariness I had not experienced since my earliest days as a student back in 2002.  And this, after my pleasure in my accomplishment and growth as a practitioner!  It actually seemed as though Neil were taking me to “Inhibition Land, the wonderful place” via a different pathway than the one I was pursuing through my own self-study and lessons given to others.  Clearly I need both.  How curious!




My Paper, for the Training Course:



Lesson in the Alexander Technique

“A Striver-Driver Finds the Easy Box”


Or, “the Road to Tasmania: Transcending Left Brain Analytic Thinking”


In partial fulfillment of the requirements for

certification in the Alexander Technique


Alexander Technique of Cincinnati


By Ellen O. Bierhorst, Ph.D.

June 9, 2009








Table of Contents

Introduction    2

The Hands of the Teacher    3

On Will and Inhibition    4

Waiting and Allowing    6

On Inhibition    8

On Change    10

P.S.  Falling In Love    14

The Process of my “Paper”    18







I began my three-years training in the Alexander Technique at the training course offered by Neil and Vivien Schapera of “Alexander Technique of Cincinnati” (ATOC) in September, 2006.  I was excited.  I was also tense, having made a heavy wager that the technique was indeed the great thing that I had glimpsed it to be.  Most 66-year old psychologists would not have made the bet.

This paper arises out of my project of taping the talks given by Vivien as a part of her portion of the training.

My impulse to tape the talks had to do with my admiration for the clarity of thought and excellence of pedagogy of Neil and Vivien, and my desire to preserve these for my own edification and that of other trainees and teachers.  However, it was also a zealous and effort-loaded attempt to trap and capture the ideas presented so that I could grasp, may I say even  ‘clutch’ at them with my analytical mind.  As the trained reader will have already seen, no doubt with amusement, this approach of mine constitutes paradoxically my “pull-down” pattern.  Learning to identify and inhibit this pattern is at the heart of my Alexander training.

This, then is the story of my transformation in the process of collecting and preserving the talks and writing introductions to them.  In the very act of carrying out my end, namely of seizing and possessing the insights of the Alexander Technique, I manifest the non-conscious, destructive un-control of myself.  To complete this paper without violating all the principles at the heart of the technique, I must interrupt, I must inhibit my laudable and profitable end,  namely to produce a useful body of Alexander thought.  I am reminded of the Zen idea of enlightenment: the only way to get there is to be here already.  I have to write this paper, (an analytic task, left -brain dominated) and yet I must inhibit my habitual pattern of gripping and grunting with effort to analyze and cast into words.

At the beginning of that first semester, Neil announced in his class an assignment: each trainee was to choose a portion of the anatomy to study and present to the class.  I chose the hand.  We were to learn the physical anatomy, research common problems or diseases of that part, and present also the particular interests of an Alexander Technique teacher relating to that part.  For the later portion I was to interview Neil.

I was pleased with the assignment, as I was troubled by the manner of teaching with our hands.  “What exactly is it that the teacher is doing with their hands that produces the wonderful feeling in an Alexander lesson?”  Four years of private lessons with Erik Bendix had not solved this mystery.  Now that I was a trainee, I expected to have the riddle opened, but although Vivien’s talks during her part of the course were rich and illuminating, the puzzle remained.  I had hoped that in a one-on-one interview of Neil, complete with my lightening stenographic skills on laptop computer, I could pry out of him the secret.

The Hands of the Teacher


The Hands of the Teacher:

Neil Schapera Talks with the Beginning Alexander Technique Teacher Trainee


Interview with Neil  Schapera on 9/16/06

Ellen Bierhorst



(In the third week of my teacher training I took the assignment for our A.T. school to make a presentation on the hand, giving information about the anatomy, about common medical problems with the hand, and about the hand as seen specifically in the light of the Alexander Technique.  The source of my information about this third category was to interview Neil Schapera, our co-director.  The following is the record I made of that interview.  At the end, I invited Neil to comment on a further question that arose in me after editing the interview.  His response follows that.  Ellen Bierhorst)


Think of the hands as being the interface between one’s own psychophysical being and the student’s psychophysical being.   It is the place of contact.   And  remember that the condition of the hand is influenced by the condition of your whole system. As interface with the student, the hand can talk and it can also listen.  It is helpful to think of those being the key functions of the  hand in the Alexander technique.  We want to cultivate those two functions; to understand how one interferes with listening and talking with hands and what means-whereby exist for improving that.


(What do you mean by “talk with the hands”?)

 In a lesson one is using one’s whole system; the interface is one’s hands.  When you are giving the student a  new message or idea or instruction  which is out of habit for them, this is “talking” through the hands.

There are actually two ways to talk through the hands: inhibiting and directing.  “Do less of this,” and, “Allow for more of that.”


 (Can you say more about how you communicate inhibiting and directing through your hands?)

Consider the analogy of a pipeline through which water flows; we want the fullest volume at the end, and that means that valves should not be closing inadvertently anywhere down the pipe.  There are valves throughout the system.  The hand is a vital valve.

There are also, in a lesson, times when there is a more fine motor action that the hands are doing.  You can call it “manipulative” although we certainly do not use manipulation in the sense that a chiropractor does that.  What I mean is that if the pupil is pulling their head backwards,  for example, in addition to one’s whole system sending the “forward and up” message, the hand can be used in a “manipulative” way to literally give a little guiding direction/suggestion.  That kind of move would be included in “talking” with the hands.  Another way to talk about it is to say that the hand is very involved in leading the person away from the destructive or inappropriate path they are on… hand as leader.   Your hands are suggesting to the pupil, “Come with me in this direction, don’t go your way.”


It is important for the Alexander teacher to consider also whether the hands are going up or down,  and whether they are heavy or light.  Are they free and mobile or are they fixed, stiff, or rigid?  Since they are the interface between us as teacher and the student,  it is important in addition to being clear on our concepts and intentions, to be sure that the hands don’t inaccurately transmit our intentions.   It is not good enough merely to have a clear intention.  You need a skillful use of the hands so the intention doesn’t get muddied by an inaccurate hand messenger.


One mistake that is easy to fall into:

A teacher might put so much attention on freeing or relaxing the hand that there is a cutting off of the appropriate connection of the hand to one’s arm, back, etc.  As a result that hand becomes a soft but disembodied thing.  We want the hand to be connected to rest of us and not to lose its energy.  So we often speak of soft hands, but make sure we do not take that to mean limp or without vitality.


Know that there is a  resonance between the hands and the feet.  Misuse in the feet will influence the hands.  In taking care of hands, therefore, remember to be taking care of the feet as well.


(What are some helpful directions and inhibitions relative to the hands?)

One very important one is not to be using them in an end-gaining way.  The hands are the prime instruments for effecting our intentions in the world,  and of course this physical  incarnation is all about “doing”,  all about implementing our intentions in the physical realm.  Consequently there is a huge tendency to involve and  include the hands when we end-gain.   In a lesson we do not want to act in an end-gaining manner.

(I would like to understand this better.  We use our hands in this life to do things, to  make things happen.  And our earthly life is, one could say, heavily laced with making things happen.  Hands are involved in this  more than any other part of our bodies.  So, perhaps you are saying that this results in a broad connection of habit between, “I want  such and such to happen,” and tension in the hands preparatory to making something happen.  Perhaps this generalizes, so that  not only do we have anticipatory gripping in our hands when we prepare to seize the steering wheel of the car, but also when we are desiring to bring about most any kind of effect in the world.  I am assuming that  this anticipatory tension as we focus upon some desired result or another is what is meant by “end-gaining”.  Is this correct?)


So there are two components to our directing with respect to the hands.  First, there is pausing and considering means-whereby and not end-gaining.  This will help the hands not to be “clutchy” and “narrowed” and going along with the two way street.  (The two-way street?) The hands affect the body, and also the body affects the hands.  If we put attention to using the hands in a non end-gaining way, that will  send a message to the rest of the body as well.  (Oh, you mean like the ladder in Jacob’s dream, where angels are going from earth to  heaven and also from heaven to earth…reciprocal influence. )  Yes.


Many important uses of the hands does involve contraction.  So if we can return to considering helpful directions for our hands in teaching,  whenever we are doing something with our hands, think: despite performing an action involving contraction, look for width and opening as one contracts.  (Width and opening in the hand itself?)  Yes.  Across the palm and also the back,  each finger widening and lengthening.  And that is an important thing:  be aware of the hand having individual fingers, not just being an undifferentiated lump at the end of the wrist, and be mindful of what each individual finger is doing.

For example,  at the table,  when  I go into monkey and put hands around the back of the head and neck, I will try to notice each finger and be sure no finger does anything unintentional,  to make sure there is no finger “rebel”.


(So you tell each finger to lengthen, widen,  and be connected?) Yes, as the ideal.

And because of the hand-foot resonance, it would also be  helpful to put the same attention to one’s toes.


(Speaking of toes, do Alexander teachers usually wear shoes during their lessons?)

Generally they do teach without shoes.


Here is a nice thought we can end with: in taking care of the use of the hands one is getting a therapy for the rest of one’s system.  What a wonderful opportunity — give attention to the hands, and the whole self will be positively affected.


(As I read over the notes of the interview it struck me that I had neglected to address the area of my greatest curiosity regarding the Alexander Technique and the hands.  The  hands are used to gently guide the student’s body into more advantageous positions, and als, perhaps more importantly, they are used to “talk” and to “listen” to the psychophysicial system of the student.  I have had the experience of being influenced in a lesson by the simple contact with the hands of the teacher.  I have noticed that this influence is much stronger with highly experienced and expert teachers.   Also I have had the experience of feeling a very deep and subtle change in my system, one that would not be visible to another person, and the teacher saying right at that moment, “That’s it!”  So I firmly believe that the teacher’s psychophysical system can communicate with mine without words and through the interface of the hands.  However, I am mystified as to the mechanism of this communication. 

            I have asked about it, but have never understood the answers.  Apparently it is not through the  mechanism of energy flow or energy field, such as the aura healer utilizes.  Nor is it through any sixth sense or extra-sensory perception.  Thomas Lewis, in his A General Theory of Love speaks of “limbic resonance” common to all  mammals and mediated through touch and eye contact.  It is a communication directly f rom one central nervous system to another.  Could this be our mechanism?) 

— —

This is a paragraph that I wrote following our interview and interpolated among the paragraphs.  It shows my struggle.

    (I would like to understand this better.  We use our hands in this life to do things, to make things happen.  And our earthly life is, one could say, heavily laced with making things happen.  Hands are involved in this more than any other part of our bodies.  So, perhaps you are saying that this results in a broad connection of habit between, “I want such and such to happen,” and tension in the hands preparatory to making something happen.  Perhaps this generalizes, so that not only do we have anticipatory gripping in our hands when we prepare to seize the steering wheel of the car, but also when we are desiring to bring about most any kind of effect in the world.  I am assuming that this anticipatory tension as we focus upon some desired result or another is what is meant by “end-gaining”.  Is this correct?)


Not surprising,  I didn’t get a response from Neil.


On Will and Inhibition


I continued to struggle for the next six weeks.  I felt that I should be able to squeeze the technique into the paradigms of my educated, scientific mind, and it was an agony to be told repeatedly that there was no way that this could be possible, since the technique represents a new paradigm altogether.  Meanwhile, the talks Vivien gave were wonderfully exciting.  I longed to have them preserved so that I could go back and re-read them, just as we savor the interviews with Walter Carrington.  Shyly I asked Vivien if she would tolerate a small cassette recorder, and to my surprise she assented.  One of the first talks so recorded was this one on Will and Inhibition.

It was electrifying!  One vivid moment was Vivien’s telling of her fearfulness as a young woman about swimming in a mountain pool.  She related sitting on the bank, afraid to join the other young people in the water, talking to herself, saying, This is nonsense, You’ve just finished your Alexander Training, so sit down and figure this out.  I was struck that it seemed natural to her to bring her Alexander skills to bear on such a problem.  I imagined that this would have been the last thing to occur to me, and I thought, “Wow, what a powerful and universally applicable tool this must be if she thought it relevant here!”  Today, two-thirds of the way through my fifth semester in the training course, it seems the most natural thing in the world.

After the talk that November day I drove home elated, imagining that whenever I found myself stuck and unable to proceed effectively in my life, all I needed to do would be to remember to inhibit and wait for the doors to swing open.  I had the magic key!  So has this been the case?  How fascinating that the answer to this is, “No, I have not held the magic key to all impasse in self motivation.”  Why is this?

It is clear that inhibition and allowing do provide the key to all locked doors in personal motivation, but I am not always willing to use the key.  More often I proceed ox-like in using the “strive and drive” approach that has worked for me 70% of the time.  “Yes, yes, I know Vivien told us about inhibition, but I don’t have time for that; I have to keep moving and get my lists done.”  This process of studying the transcripts of these talks is inviting me to inhibit my vexation over this failure to apply what I am learning, and to do something new.  “Oh, I see.  My pattern of striving and driving is very, very strong.  I think I’ll just notice that, rather than rail against it, battling myself to change.  Wishing for a change, and easing up on myself, I’ll wait and notice.”

Another way to express what was amiss in my understanding is to say that my sense of the word “inhibition” was that it is something we “do”.  A tool, like a power drill, that we pick up and turn on.  The very “hand” of employing the tool was the “hand” of end-gaining.  “I can’t force and drive myself through my reluctance to gain my end (e.g. My monthly billing), so I will seize this tool and use it to force open the door.”  Inhibition is not a tool in the ardent hand of my will.    If anything, it is an “end run” outside the territory of my will.

As I read this talk again today, I realize that Vivien might have been thinking particularly of me, among the trainees that day.  She starts by saying she understands the natural desire to use intentionality to help “get” the technique and accelerate the process of the training.  (Now I see that this has my name all over it.)  I can only say now, how compassionate of her to devote an entire day’s lecture to a problem that was most particularly mine.


Waiting and Allowing


Inhibition is at the heart of my learning the A.T. both as student and as trainee.

I am having the devil of a time learning how to be willing to put inhibition into play in my daily life hour to hour.  Occasionally in these talks Vivien will say something that shoots a streamer of light into my understanding about inhibition.

What I am learning through this “paper” project:

Fear and Necessity:  these were what brought me into the training program.  The necessity of practicing my skiing in February of 2006, prior to a trip to Colorado, despite having too recently spent a week in bed with an aching back conspired to bring me to directing for 45 minutes straight prior to getting on the slopes.  The resulting miraculous improvement in my skiing showed me that I MUST have this mysterious technique.

Now, the necessity of producing a senior project for my training program despite my fear of not having enough time to manage my regular life plus write the paper is bringing me again to a willingness to implement the principles more thoroughly than I have before.  There is simply no way that my usually scattered, harried functioning could accomplish this in a season when I am selling my house, preparing to move after 51 years in one spot, preparing the terrain in another state for my alighting there, and at the same time carry on with my livelihood ad my training program.  So I am actually willing, now, under the lash of fear, to stop, when starting to get nervous and tight.  I do a couple of monkeys.  I take a ten-minute lie down.  Then when I am calmer, looser, more up-directed I return to my tasks.

It seems odd that being harried and driven should function as a self-indulgence I am addicted to.  It is hardly enjoyable!  However, my habit, my psychophysical system resorts to this driven state compulsively, as though it brought me relief from my strain.  Certainly it does not.

I am accustomed to dragging myself through my life in a state of strain and fatigue.  The A.T. is teaching me, of course, that this is not necessary.  All these hundreds of hours spent in the magical “A.-zone” show me resoundingly that inhibition and direction are the antidotes to my weariness.  And yet I have not been able to put those into play during the long days between training program sessions: Tuesday afternoons, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Friday mornings and afternoons!   Now, however, it is crystal clear:  I will never be able to produce a written work this season unless and until I am able to start living my life like a model Alexander Teacher: calmly inhibiting my startle responses, taking care of myself before addressing my task, cultivating the light touch and the twinkle of humor in all that I do.


The challenge for me is to bring inhibition into my life in every sort of circumstance.  I have learned how to inhibit in the A.T. training classroom.  We practice every evening class with Neil speaking aloud the inhibitions and directions as we sit and stand and place hands on the table and on one another.  However, I need to work out what exactly it looks like to employ inhibition in my client meetings, as I work at the computer, as I drive my car, sit in group meetings.  Perhaps it would be a contribution to my own evolution as well as others’.




On Inhibition


Studying the transcript of this talk has helped me with a chronic problem.  Since my earliest days as an Alexander student in 2002 I have been frustrated with my inability to retain for longer than a moment the muscular release, particularly of the back of my neck, that I was able to have by simply directing my neck to be free.  I will wake up in the morning, my neck all tight; I direct, “Allow the neck to be free,” and immediately my shoulders and neck release.  Ahh!  But thirty seconds later, there it is again, as tight as before.  Studying over this talk again has pointed out to me that I have been “fighting with myself”, as Vivien puts it.  Not only fighting, but judging, even condemning myself for not being able to remain released.  This morning, it happened again, but I was able to simply have the wish that my neck remain free, and to adopt the “waiting and allowing” attitude towards its eventual realization.


I notice when I am inhibiting, for instance when I am in class or having a private lesson, that I feel, and the world seems, so very different.  My vision is sharper, colors brighter.  It is exactly as though there had been an unnoticed mist filling the room, and now that mist has been cleared as by magic…and I feel more connected into my own back.  I also notice that as I permit inhibition to permeate ever more deeply into my life, I am more often in touch with my sense of humor, I have a broader perspective, and I even notice that little helpful ideas just come to me that make my life less frustrating.  “Ellen, you meant to bring the bucket into the yard; you can go back and get it.”


Vivien says, “We are in a constant state of over-doing things physically and under-doing things mentally.”  My “muscle” for inhibition is so very weak, and I am only just learning, oh-so-slowly that it even exists.  I am only at the stage where I now clearly and with certainty do believe that to live in the non-dualistic state of inhibition rather than of the dualistic state of dissociation and physical tension will bring me tremendous relief, and a comfortable, ease-filled and graceful way to live.  It surely is going to take much hard effort to develop this mental “muscle” of inhibition, but it is so worth it, and I know that it is possible.   (P.S. No, wrong idea.  Not “hard effort”.  Look in the ‘Easy box’.)

As I work on this manuscript, beavering away at the task, reading the part where the class does a five-minute inhibition exercise, I am inspired to stop right now and do some radical inhibiting.  Not standing up, not doing Monkey, no whispered Ah, but right where I am, to start inhibiting.  The first thing I notice is that there is a pain in my upper back.  I hate that all-too-familiar pain.  But rather than do battle with it, I inhibit the impetus to “work on it” with direction or with Monkeys.    Next, I notice the time.  Oh, it’s time for lunch, and I had completely forgotten the time, so immersed have I been in the task.  My impulse is to stop immediately and have lunch.  But no, I inhibit that, too.  Next, the thought, “But I have to move along with lunch and keep up with my scheduled activities so that I can be effective!”  I dare to inhibit that also.  “But I could use this moment of clearing and this beginning of ease to get some little things done, like remove my shoes, straighten the room from the party last night.”  I inhibit.  And from only five minutes of “extreme” inhibition I see, as my vision clears more and more, that I desperately need this kind of vacation from my usual over-riding patterns.  My back feels better!



On Change



Notes on Vivien’s talk on Change, #5


So my decision to train as an Alexander teacher was a conversion, a metamorphosis.  But since being on the course, I have changed.  My understanding of what the technique is has changed.  My use has changed, including my patterns of thought and my approach to problems.  I have learned how to give an Alexander lesson.  I have a different understanding of my own evolution as a human being.  I am not bothered by the spooky issue.  I am not, for the most part, any longer holding up the technique and asking, “Is it REALLY the great thing that I glimpsed on the ski slope that day?”

The questions I now ask myself are, Can I REALLY be a teacher and commence the learning process that practicing teachers are on?  Can I find Alexander collegiality that will be harmonious and nurturing for me?  Of course, one of my long-standing questions, going back to my first days on the course is whether I will be able to find a means of imparting the technique that will be affordable and intensive enough to be rapid for students who are in need and desire for the technique.

So then what model of change applies to my own shifting?

Certainly I can rule out mere quantitative change.  It’s not that I have gradually come to use inhibition more and more in my life.  It’s true that I do use it increasingly, but my shift is much more a qualitative one than this would indicate.

I feel as though all my life I have been pedaling a bicycle along the road of days, always looking for ways to lighten the load in the basket or enable me to pedal faster and harder so as to get farther along.  When I first began the training course I wanted to use the strategies of keen ambition and diligent effort to develop as a trainee, and the Schaperas kept telling me, “No, no that’s not the way.  Stop driving and drilling, Ellen!”  But that was all I knew as a means whereby to accomplish my intention.

Then came that amazing day in November of my first year when Vivien spoke about will and intention, and I first started hearing the message that the technique is able to carry us beyond the ignorance barrier.  That it can move us towards knowing a thing that we have never even guessed existed.  At first, of course, I just took up the tools as I heard them in that talk and used them in my same old “pedal harder” way, never realizing that it was precisely the bicycle itself that I need to inhibit.

There have been a series of moments, like little explosions, when I suddenly understood about inhibiting the manner of my striving.  Most of the time, it has been simply inhibiting some of my incessant stream of questions whenever Vivien or Neil said something I didn’t understand, or alluded to an understanding that teachers have that I lacked.  I remember being so frightened that they didn’t really grok how benighted I was!  I felt I never would learn if they thought I was on second base when I felt I never had left home plate.

I remember inhibiting the expressions of my nervousness, because they were clearly irritating to my instructors.  I was mostly biting my tongue.  Vivien would say that my inhibition skills were the one thing lagging behind in my progress, and I felt like saying, “Oh if you only knew how MUCH I am inhibiting every single class!”  One could say that I was behaving “as if” I understood inhibition, when I was holding back questions I was burning to ask.

It’s different today, in the fall of my final year.  One clear difference is that I am not so frightened as I was lest the technique be unveiled as an elaborate chicanery.  My respect and confidence for it is not merely standing on the benefits of four years of private lessons and personal glimpses into enthusiasm for the technique.  The sheer volume of evidence has become too ponderous for my incredulity to bear.  Seeing my senior trainees, whom I have come to know and love pass through the gateway, trailing glory in their skill and understanding and affirmation of the technique has been a major factor.  Witnessing the transformation in a fellow trainee from a single morning’s class, or even just a single chair turn.  Hearing tale after tale of healing change at all levels, physical, psychological, and spiritual.

Because my fright is so much less today, I can be more patient.  I no longer have the agenda underlying every hour of every class, of testing the technique and verifying its validity.  If something is said or something occurs that I do not understand, I can wait, sometimes, and allow the comprehension to catch up to me.  It is as though I have become comfortable with not knowing.  I have “not knowing” about little things like the proper height of books under the head, and I have “not knowing” about large things like comprehension of the pupil’s trajectory of learning the technique, their prognosis, the time it might take.  I even have “not knowing” at times and confusion about really huge things like the difference between direction and inhibition, or What is inhibition anyway?  To inhibit fright over something like this is to be significantly changed from how I had been even six months ago.

When I contemplate the mystery of this process of change I am seized with gratitude to my teachers for helping me come this far in a land I could never have found by myself, and feel myself dumbfounded at the discovery made by F.M. Alexander who had no guide at all save his desperate need to overcome his vocal impairment.

So now I feel myself invited to get off my “striving and driving” bicycle and step gently into a magic boat, the Alexander Technique.  Where the “bicycle” was full of fatigue and strain and effort, the magic boat feels like gliding along effortlessly.  As Vivien keeps saying, “It’s in the easy box.”  Or, switching metaphors, it is as though day after day of class, week after week, slender cords have been tossed to the other paradigm of the Alexander technique, until one day, I found myself able to just “be” in the worldview of the technique, rather than in the more linear one I left behind.  Mostly left behind.  I fall back into it a lot.  In some ways, my path resembles the conversion model that Vivien describes in the talk below.  There are ways, though, where it resembles the spiral of change.  For instance, I still will have moments of blurting out an impatient question in class, rather than allowing the understanding to form up in my mind, and yet although these moments resemble the behavior of my first semesters, there is a big qualitative difference: now when it happens, there is a softness, and a sense of gentle good humor as I take note of myself, rather than a tight-necked fearfulness and alarm that characterized my being in the beginning.

Finally, probably the very most powerful and fertile thing Vivien has said in these years of talks has been that Alexander’s achievement was in discovering a way to get to somewhere you never knew existed.  A story is told of Christopher Columbus being scoffed at by a dinner companion who said, “You didn’t do anything so great, it was just a long sea voyage.”  Whereupon Columbus picked up a raw egg from the table and invited the man to find a way to stand the egg on end.  When finally the man surrendered, unable to make it stand, Columbus sized the egg and smashed one end onto the table cloth, and said, “It’s easy once you know how.”





P.S.  Falling In Love


Here I am about to enter the last three months of my training.  I am, by turns, excited, apprehensive, thrilled, and dreading.  Vivien wants me to cap off my paper by showing, not telling how I have changed through the teacher training course.  I have been waiting for the moment.  Formerly, I would have whipped myself to go ahead and write something, not waiting for ripeness.  I wonder where this new patience has come from.  On Monday night in class with Neil I found myself impelled to share this with my classmates:  as though my inner vision is clearing, I am becoming aware that previous to the training course my life was filled with grinding irritation, like sand in the mechanism of my hours.  Now, oddly, I seem to have a new set-point for frustration – lower, and a new set-point of expectation and confidence – higher.  There is the sense that this change is just dawning, and that much, much more will unfold.

Today I have a bad cold.  I woke up feeling bummed out.  Seven days of sick!  The world was painted in dissatisfaction drab.  No, I didn’t do “hands on the back of the chair” before leaving my bedroom.  No Whispered Ah.  However, I did practice Stopping.  Twice.  Walking from the bathroom to the dresser I just chose to arrest the flow.  I stopped moving.  I looked around the room.  I looked inside to see what I was “doing”:  I was “getting dressed and coiling for the spring into the day, with a bit of dread over low vitality”.  I inhibited doing that.  I checked my balance and verticality as I stood there.  It took maybe 20 seconds.  That’s all.  Then later, sitting at my kitchen table, making lists for the cleaning helper, for myself, I stopped again.  A random moment of inhibition.  Just interrupted my doing, both mental and physical.  Another 20 seconds.

Now I am working at my computer two hours later, and am noticing the rich benefits of these two tiny exercises:  my cold is still here, with sneezing and nose blowing, but I feel peaceful about my day, even happy.  Clearly, this shift has occurred as a direct result of the inhibition practice.  Amazing!

On Tuesday, Vivien suggested that we look at our process of “falling in love with the Alexander Technique.”  For every trainee there is the sense of, “Ah, so this is what I have been searching for all my life.”  It is good to reflect on this and set down just what that “this” is for each one of us.

When I was a senior at Vassar College, bewildered and disoriented about my life which was improbably about to begin, I read Island, a utopian novel by Aldous Huxley and it gave me hope.  These people had found a better way to live.  They were sane, centered, at ease on the earth.  The newcomer from North America was shown, gently, how to release himself from habitual tension patterns, and stand properly.  He was grateful, though embarrassed.  I badly wanted what these people had, and just the figment that such a thing – a wisdom, might someday be invented gave hope and purpose to my life.  Now I know that Huxley had been deeply influenced by Alexander.  How I wish that I had know, then, in 1962 that the Alexander Technique had already been discovered and was even then available!

After Vivien’s prompt to look for what it is about the Technique that drew me, I wrote down six things, sloppy categories that overlap.

ONE:  All my life I have been vexed by poor posture that ruins my appearance.  No matter how assiduously I practiced “standing up!”, the moment I direct my attention elsewhere, back would return the slump, the jutting chin, the ever worsening lordosis.  In my very first lesson I could see in the mirror a transformed Ellen, and it had happened without any conscious doing.  I was hooked.

TWO:  Since the age of eight I have searched ardently for a path of wisdom.  I thought of it as spiritual enlightenment.  Many wonderful things have I encountered on the search: psychedelic experience, Reform Judaism and Jewish mysticism, psychodynamic analysis, Yaqui Indian Sorcery, Zen Buddhism, Aikido, and the Twelve Step Program of Alcoholics Anonymous.  But as Carlos Castaneda said, a path is just a path, winding through the brush, going essentially nowhere.  What you need is the path that has, for you, heart.  For me, the Alexander Technique is essentially different from any wisdom path.  All those other paths just take up a dusty eraser, smudging off the previous notation on my blackboard, and adding another layer.  But the Alexander Technique is like a wet sponge that erases, allowing new, fresh, unsuspected words to appear by themselves on the clean, black surface.

THREE:  My mother was trapped in a depressing, dysfunctional marriage.  From early childhood I vowed to grow up and find the means for releasing her, and all the unhappy children, and all the people with psychological suffering.  Is why I became a psychologist.  And I know that I help people, and that I am good at my work, and that I love my work with my psychotherapy clients.  Yet there is some quality of “smoke and mirrors” about it all.  A trick.  In the end we are left still trying to lift ourselves by our own bootstraps.  Penguins longing for flight.  Hans Eysenck did a huge study in the 1960’s and discovered that any psychotherapy was about as good as any other and little better than nothing at all.  But the Alexander Technique is a can opener that really works.  It puts into my hands at last a solid, tangible way to really help people, whether or not they like you, whether or not they believe in you or in themselves.  It gives me something real to offer my clients, more than Willy Loman’s “smile and a shoeshine”.  What a relief!

FOUR:  For decades I knocked on the door of Zen meditation.  I read.  I attended trainings.  I have sat on cushions for countless hours.  At moments there have been feelings of a curtain lifting, yet nothing that would last.  Now I can say the best meditations I have ever had have been through using Alexandrian inhibition to continually stop the doing of my mind.  Again and again.

FIVE:  When I was in the 11th grade in high school I did a major paper on George Bernard Shaw.  In “Back to Methuselah” Shaw, another of my literary heroes who turns out to have had lessons with Alexander, asserts that the trouble with humanity is that we tend to die just when we reach mental adulthood, thus wasting all the 60 or 70  years of childhood preparation, repeated endlessly generation after generation.  He had me.  He thought that one reason we die prematurely is that we simply do not expect to live beyond our allotted three score and ten, or four score years.  So right then and there I set out to program myself to fully expect a lifespan of 120 healthy years.  I assert to everyone that I will live to 2060.  So I have a big interest in geriatric preservation, and the Alexander Technique is absolutely the best help in that regard.  I love watching movies of elderly Alexander teachers with their exceedingly spry movement, fresh complexions and sparkling eyes. (Marjorie Barstow in her 80’s, galloping on horseback over the plains.)  If I am to live to 120, I’ll need some useful occupation, and like old brandy, an aging Alexander teacher just continues to get better and better, ever more prized by an appreciative world.  The same cannot be said of a psychotherapist.

SIX:  Vivien often claims that the Alexander Technique is the only thing that can lead one from what you think you know out into new understanding that you did not know existed.  How else can one seek what one does not suppose exists?  At moments, I have a rock solid belief that this is true, and at all moments it is more than enough to buoy me along in the adventure.  Vivien also says that the Technique continually unfolds ever more wonderful vistas, and that there comes a point after a dozen or more years, when you realize with wonder that it is far, far more than you had even ever realized.

And now, before I launch into my next activity, instead of chaining right along into the next thing, like a swimmer continuing his stroke, I will stop.  Just that: stop.  I can trust that I won’t sink, and that another intentional activity will, lo and behold, begin again in a moment.  But perhaps I will have caught up with myself in the pause, and can continue on, renewed.



The Process of my “Paper”

Ellen Bierhorst  5/24/09


In my first semester I was thrilled by the quality of Vivien’s short talks, called “Lesson of the day” that were  given twice a week  on the training course.  I wanted them verbatim to read afterwards so I could soak it all up.  Timidly, I asked if I might record them.  To my delight and surprise she agreed.

The first two recordings, I laboriously transcribed because I thought they were so valuable I wanted to share them with other trainees and teachers and I wanted to convince Vivien that they should be compiled into a book.  She had nowhere near the appreciation for them that I had.  However, these two transcriptions were obviously valuable, and so in time, Vivien paid to have Kay Ryan transcribe talks I felt were particularly excellent.  (I went on carefully recording every Lesson of the Day using cassette tapes.  You just never knew when the diamonds might start falling from the ceiling.)

Meanwhile, I was observing the struggle of third year trainees to research and write their written projects, “The Paper”.  It seemed that everyone’s worst habitual patterns emerged in this process, frequently causing great anxiety and frustration.  I began to collect ideas for what my paper could be about during the second semester of my first year.  I thought it would be easier for me if I got started well in advance of my final year, and did it little by little.  It looked to me as though the third year trainees had an impressive mastery of F.M. Alexander’s four major works as well as many other A.T. classics by other teachers.  I knew that would be very hard for me, as I read very slowly, and cannot read more than about 20 minutes at a time.  (I now know that this is due to a binocular incoordination for which I am now receiving vision therapy with an optometrist.)

During my fourth semester (out of six) in the training course I told Vivien I wanted to meet with her and select a topic since I needed to compete my paper by the end of the fifth semester.  I expected to be preparing to leave town immediately following graduation.  To my surprise, Vivien said she thought I already had my topic– that it was this recordings project.  She said I should look through all the transcriptions, sort them, and we’d take a look.

I spent many hours with these rough transcriptions.  They were impossible for me to digest in the rough form, so I laboriously formatted them, made paragraphs, took out many of the misunderstandings and typos, and made topic headings so that I could begin to understand what was in them.  My aspiration was to have a book of these 23 talks, with perhaps a brief introduction by me.  I was convinced that all the world of the Alexander Technique wanted and needed to read these talks.  But I became overwhelmed by the enormity of the work.

Also, I was too intimidated to do much real revising of Vivien’s text, and it became apparent that it would be impossibly labor-intensive for her to transform them into publishable writing.

So then I had a meeting with Vivien, feeling discouraged and lost.  The first of several like that.  Each time she would slice through the difficulty and drastically reduce the scope of the project, making it suddenly feel doable and easy.  Like an Alexander lesson!  The first of these saw her selecting out of the 23 talks I had listed, a mere five.  My assignment was then to study these five and write introductory remarks on them.  In the fall of my third year Vivien set us up a schedule of weekly meetings to go over my progress.  Let it be noted that this was significantly more ‘Vivien time’ than is usually allocated to these projects.  I believe she meets only about four times with the average trainee about their papers.

These meetings brought up all my issues.  I was sure that my grasp of the core principles of the technique was inadequate, and I was frightened that Vivien would ‘drum me out of the corps’.  I would become so scared in these meetings that I would go all stupid, and cause irritation to my mentor.  However, the subject matter of my project rescued me.  Out of sheer necessity I escalated the level of my inhibition of my habitual patterns.  I took time.  I said, “No” to panic.  I noted my transference but didn’t wallow in it.  I used the technique.

~~~ ~~~