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The Alexander Technique Workbook

Richard Brennan, Collins & Brown, 6 January 2011, pbk, 160pp, ISBN 978-184340-594-8, 218x180x12mm. Available from Amazon.  (First published in STATNews, May 2011)

Review by Anthony Kingsley

WorkbookAfter 20 years, Richard Brennan has updated and expanded his original Alexander Technique Workbook. And it is without doubt a beautifully designed publication. The colour-coded sections are easy on the eye, and the photographs and diagrams are clear and communicative. The workbook has a relaxed, friendly style.

As befits an introductory book, Brennan takes us through a detailed description of the Alexander Technique and its evolution. We are then offered a number of sections on the classical Alexander principles including primary control, the force of habit, faulty sensory appreciation, inhibition, and directions. There are some informative sections on muscle function, the different muscle fibres, and the nervous system. I particularly enjoyed the pages describing the different reflexes, namely the superficial, deep and visceral, as well as the discussions on the stretch and fear reflexes.

Brennan has clearly set out to educate his reader in the theory and principles of the Alexander Technique. But crucially, this is a workbook. And so we are also presented with numerous exercises intended to give the reader some practical experience of these same principles.

This aspect of the book does raise some interesting questions, especially for Alexander teachers. We are acutely aware of the dangers of trying to learn the Technique from the written word alone. And of course, as teachers, we would have an interest in refuting any potential for learning without direct experience, although Alexander did develop his capacities for inhibition and direction without the benefit of a personal guide.

Some of the exercises are simply ways of describing ideas like the kinaesthetic sense, becoming aware of our habitual postural functioning, and how to experience evidence of our faulty sensory register. This type of self-learning can be valid. Other exercises, like the chapter on improving our breathing, are less so. Here Brennan asks us to become aware of our breathing habits and then to do the whispered "Ah" procedure.

But Brennan includes exercises on ‘giving directions’ which involve a request to ‘think about’ the various parts of the body. This is also problematic. Alexander did caution us against the use of visualisation as a tool for directing. He explained that the visual sense is closely allied to the sensory register. And to the extent that we are subject to faulty sensory appreciation, our attempts at visualisation would be equally inaccurate. Similarly, Brennan introduces the reader to an understanding of inhibition with an exercise to pause for a few seconds after, for instance, a telephone ring.

And so the question that beckons is: How do we indeed learn to inhibit and direct?

The first answer has to be that we experience inhibition and direction from the quality of use of the teacher, primarily via the hands. The words and explanations accompany this new experience, and not the other way round. Pausing after the receipt of a stimulus is not the same as the stillness and alertness we can experience under the influence of an experienced teacher.

Some of the diagrams pose a similar problem where, for example, the reader is shown the correct postures for standing, sitting, and squatting. Whilst these are ergonomically accurate guides, I believe they have little in common with the essence of the Alexander Technique. They do, however, relate to what Alexander termed ‘mechanical advantage’.

To his credit, Brennan does make a strong case for taking individual Alexander lessons, and his book is likely to arouse curiosity and interest in the reader. In the final chapter, he describes in detail the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual benefits that can accrue from one-to-one lessons. But herein lie the limitations of this kind of workbook. We are shown or asked to do something better. However, this is not simply a problem inherent in writings and images of the Alexander Technique. As Alexander teachers and trainers, we too have to grapple with how to teach an Alexander Technique which encourages a real change in thinking and not simply a change in posture.

Despite my reservations about offering an Alexander Workbook, Brennan has once again given the general public a valuable introductory guide to the Alexander Technique, which will undoubtedly educate and contribute to raising its profile.

 

© Anthony Kingsley 2011

 

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