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does the right thing do itself?

edited July 2009 in Alternative views
As an AT teacher in training, I've thought alot about the phrase "the right things does itself". It is part of the basic philosophy of the technique. The idea is that rather than changing your habits directly, things go better if you inhibit your bad habits and let "the right thing do itself".

The phrase implies:
1) that there is a "right thing" waiting to happen
2) that it is innate, so you don't really have to learn it.

The phrase is, in my opinion, intimately connected with the concept of a primary control.

However, from what I've read, reflex patterns are malleable at the deepest levels. This suggests that when you learn a habit, you learn it at the deepest level. Therefore unlearning a habit also requires learning something new at the deepest level.

I can see that in practice, it is helpful to tell people that "the right thing does itself" to basically calm them down. Most people tighten up when they think about changing a habit. If the goal is to reduce excess tension and increase efficiency, then tightening up is just the wrong response. So it is helpful for these people to think that there is a right thing just waiting for them as they let go of a pattern of postural tone basically to keep them calm.

But taking the phrase literally may fly in the face of physiology.

The alternative view is that we are nothing more than a collection adaptations to our environment. Some of these adaptations may not work so well in the long run and need to be reconsidered if we want to get the most out of life and/or reduce chronic pain. But the process of change will require taking a smart look about what patterns you want to change, as well as how and why you want to go about changing them.

So . . . what do people think - does the right thing REALLY do itself, or is it just a useful image? What does it really mean?
And . . . can you be a true Alexandrian without believing that the right thing does itself?


  • I've always thought the right thing does do itself; but I also think it's very difficult to recognise whether this is happening, which makes it even more difficult not to interfere with the process.

    I believe most of what we need to know to operate well we learned by the age of two or three. The movement patterns we acquired then are still serving us well as adults, but unfortunately, they've usually been adapted to other purposes, constrained by circumstances, or made more complex than they need to be.

    So, when we realise, through the Technique, we are doing something 'wrong', all that usually means is we have added one or more superfluous elements to what was once a fairly simple, economical movement pattern. These unnecessary additions are invariably a contributory factor to whatever our motivation is for becoming interested in Alexander work.

    Whether what we learned by age two or three was largely innate, based on reflex, or acquired through trial and error, seems immaterial. Nobody who has watched toddlers learning to use themselves can be in any doubt that they have got it 'right'. If we as adults can manage to stop doing something that is 'wrong', the 'right' thing that we learned as a toddler will become more evident without us having to do anything else; there is certainly no need for us relearn it.

    You suggest that "reflex patterns are malleable at the deepest levels ... that when you learn a habit, you learn it at the deepest level ... unlearning a habit also requires learning something new at the deepest level". If this is the case, maybe I need to rethink my beliefs. I've always assumed the 'deepest' level was dependant on the passage of time. We learn to stand, and perfect standing, during the formative years of our life; and from then on, we interfere with this, without knowing we are doing so, through our responses to the demands of time. Logically, we only have to stop 'interfering' for our original standing pattern to re-establish itself.

    Of course, this is easier said than done. Maybe we heard a car backfire aged 4 and a certain rigidity crept into us even then. There will have been innumerable instances since of acquired habit accretions affecting our ability to stand in a balanced way. I remain doubtful, though, that our original, learned ability to stand becomes affected, at the deepest level. I certainly hope this isn't the case, because our job as teachers would be immeasurably harder. As it is, we can hope to rely on nature to supply many of the answers to the question of what constitutes good use: imagine having to determine this for ourselves, with any degree of certitude.

    Even without this added uncertainty, the danger with the Alexander process of uncovering and stopping interference is already largely one of subjective recognition. We might stop the right thing, thinking it is wrong; we might stop only a part of what is wrong; we might stop the wrong thing and not allow ourselves to do the right thing, for fear it is also wrong; we might stop the wrong thing and do something new that is also wrong but that feels as if it is right.

    There are too many pitfalls to mention. That's probably why the Technique is so difficult to learn!
  • " . . . If this is the case, maybe I need to rethink my beliefs."

    That is my point. I already know the standard model, which you describe, and I am challenging it.

    You give the typical description of a kind of layering process. The "right" coordination is at the "bottom" and we layer stuff onto this. Peel off the layers and you get the "right" back. But what if *all* layers of coordination are adaptable? Then your model of the learning process falls apart.

    Look, I'm not saying that AT lessons don't *feel* like the right thing is doing itself. Patterns of coordination change making movement, balance, and breathing easier, and even heightening our response to the space around us. So when we move, it is so much easier that it *feels* like it is all doing itself. But feeling is not fact.
  • "But what if *all* layers of coordination are adaptable? Then your model of the learning process falls apart."

    I haven't done enough research to say unequivocally that that's unlikely; but it seems that way to me. I've seen far too many instances (within and away from the Alexander world) of people abandoning habit patterns and their use changing for the better far faster than any new learning on their part could explain.

    I agree, "feeling is not fact"; but seeing is; and what I've seen suggests the "layering process", as you describe it, is behind most 'Alexander change', and explains a lot of behavioural change in other fields, too.

    Whether you can be "a true Alexandrian without believing that the right thing does itself", I don't know. I suppose it depends on what you consider you're teaching - or what you consider you're learning, come to that.

    I wrote something on this subject a while back. Here's the link:
  • Nice piece. I can see now where your preferences are. You seem to be saying that there is a true self to be found, just not via the classical Alexandrian intensive hands on approach.

    Actually, I think that there are dangers to any approach. Stiffening results from trying to get it right, while mushy new agey stuff can result from "just letting it happen".

    In mind some of the blame for both pitfalls can be laid on Alexandrians' attitude that there is a "right thing" waiting underneath. Here's how it works. If there is a right thing underneath, students want to get "it". So they either stiffen in an attempt to find it, or they get all mushy and vague "just letting go" hoping that "it" will happen. Also, the "right thing underneath" concept muddies up the dialogue. Everyone seems to think they thier approach gives access to that thing, but that they don't have to be very specific about what it is it because it is inate.

    I would rather that we give up this "right thing underneath" attitude and just say we are experimenting with specific patterns of tone and thought, and different ways of teaching. There will be different attitudes about what is healthy and what is not. Noone could lay claim to the "right thing" without documenting what they mean specifically. This would free up the dialogue both within the Alexander world and in communicating with other disciplines.
  • I think the most we can ever be is our true self. How we set about finding it - or whether we even want to begin looking for it - depends on our personality. Fundamentally, though, a sense of being comfortable in our own skin, and of seeming that way to others, encapsulates my idea of wholeness, to which I imagine most people searching for an answer to this sort of question aspire.

    I'm not sure our tendency to try and 'do' the right thing would be any less if we weren't searching for it, either directly or as the result of stopping interference. Because we're learning a skill, our one desire will be to get better at it. As soon as we sense an aspect of improved use, no matter what we are told, we will behave as if its exact replication is required. This is particularly likely to happen in the presence of a teacher's hands, because their unspoken preference concerning improved use is as impossible to hide as the ease with which they will have helped convey it. Again, this will so reinforce our sense of what is better for us that we will be hard pressed not to treat it as a goal.

    Only a greater understanding of what is involved, gained over time, is likely to soften this very understandable attitude. Having said that, though, I'm all for talking a cross disciplinary common language; so, I'm in full agreement with you: we should look into dropping the jargon and setting about trying to explain what we do, in our own words.

    If we consider something as simple as moving from standing to sitting, trying to describe what happens is difficult. Beyond saying we bend at the knees, hips and ankles, and endeavour to remain in balance, there doesn't seem, on the surface, much that can be usefully documented, at least in a form that could be easily comprehended by others.

    However, because there are, as we know, innumerable subtle and not so subtle nuances involved that can be perceived kinaesthetically, by a student, and tactilely, by a teacher, I think it would be worthwhile detailing this. An in depth analysis, from am Alexandrian viewpoint, of an overtly simple procedure, but one that is sufficiently complex to be repeated endlessly in lessons, could make fascinating reading.

    I might have a go, one of these days. My main purpose in writing about the Technique is clarifying matters for myself, so I know how fruitful this sort of exercise can be. I recently wrote something about using a chair in lessons, for the same purpose (self-clarification) which seems germane enough to this discussion to provide a link:
  • I'm quite satisfied with your last post because you define "true self" in terms of a sense of being comforatble. I.e. it is a working definition that does not assume the layered model we were discussing above (whether or not the layered model is true).

    I think your interst in explaining sit to stand in detail is worth pursuing.

    I disagree with your piece that most students find sit to stand boring. Personally I am always stunned by a good hands on chair turn - that it is constantly revealing and interesting. A practice student of mine recently said to me "there is so much to learn there!" . . . But that is a topic for a future discussion.

    The topic of how much hands-on to use in teaching is also fascinating, and absolutely a core debate for the Alexander world. I hope people continue to take it up in earnest, explaining in detail the pros and cons of each approach without assuming the worst about the opposite opinion . . . perhaps another forum discussion.
  • doddod
    edited July 2009
    As a student I found chair work boring. I agreed with Nicholas Albery, author of How to save the Body, when he said:

    "...I got fed up paying for hour-long sessions, just to be shown over and over again the same exercises, how to lie down, sit up, stand up and sit down."

    Although I knew what we were doing was not supposed to be exercise, it still took me an age to fathom the point of it.

    Of course, everyone's different, and I shouldn't generalise; but most people don't have the luxury of an extended learning period.
  • You are bringing in several topics here, all interesting.

    1) what is the point of sit-to-stand?
    2) what is the most "efficient" way to learn AT - time wise and cost wise?
    3) How do the methods of "giving the student an experience" and "teaching the student to figure it out themselves" compare, contrast, compliment each other, and contradict each other?

    Perhaps they should be started as new discussions?

    I've experienced alot of different styles of teaching AT and have enjoyed them all frankly. I find the hands on interaction the most subtle and fascinating, which is why I am at the school I am at.

    If you found sit-to-stand boring, you may have missed out on something quite deep. (So as not to start an argument, let me admit that I may be missing out on all sorts of deep things by spending lots of time on sit-to-stand). It was clear to me from the start that the goal of sit to stand was not to learn a movement per se but to learn about ones own habits and to experience fundamentally different alternatives.

    It think it is easy to pidgeon hole any given style by assigning it an oversimplified description.

    I had an interesting comment from a practice student recently. I've been trying to offer options - we can work on an activity, discuss the student's own process, work with the chair, do a table turn, using more or less hands as the student wants. Having had a long hands-off discussion the previous session about process and thinking, the student came in to the following session and said "just give me an experience!"

    I think "giving the student an experience" and even manipulation are part of what happens in a lesson, even hands are used sparingly and/or very lightly. We should be careful, at this point in our understanding of the technique, not base our critisms of any given approach on an oversimplified picture of what the techique is or should be.
  • As you say, all your questions are interesting ones, each of which deserves its own discussion.

    I've written a lot about the Technique in the past, and I hope you don't mind if, instead of elaborating here, I answer by way of a link?

    This post of mine outlines some of my views. My understanding of the point of sit to stand was in the earlier link. As I said, I plan to write about chair work in more detail, later.
  • Is the right thing not determined by one's physiology then?

    I'm not a teacher nor even a student but only a poor pupil, and I'm pretty confused now.

    I had assumed how we moved was largely dependent on the sort of creature we are -- how we were "put together". Moreover, I'd thought that natural selection (to be topical in this anniversary year) has ensured that we are very finely tuned to our environment, so that everything tends to work well ... since if it all didn't work our ancestors would have gone without their dinner -- or become something else's!

    I mean I'd assumed that would be true unless that environment has changed substantially -- which it has.

    In this scenario, the only fly in the ointment (apart from rapid change in one's environment) would be self-consciousness with the complexity it brings and the opportunity it opens for interfering with oneself. An animal, I'd thought, just does what it does (that being dependent on its "structure") and, in the wild, only starts going wrong if it gets injured -- since without self-consciousness there's no possibility for directing rather than simply going by feeling.

    I downloaded a PDF the other day on bipedalism. It's an in-depth discussion of the Laetili footprints:, Erin - Mechanics of Bipedalism.pdf?sequence=1

    The footprints give a clue how the Australopithecine moved -- mostly like a man, it seems. An ape moves differently, because it's feet aren't "sprung" and the bones and musculature are different:

    "The human femur is longer than the chimpanzee femur. The bicondylar angle is an important measure in differentiating between the two species. ... The tibial epicondyles in apes are much narrower than in humans, and the shaft is narrower, giving the head a platform appearance. ... The human calcaneus is unique in that the muscle and tendon attachments to it create an arch that is longitudinal and transverse. ... In apes [not humans] there is a third muscle, the psoas minor, which is used to flex the trunk in the lumbar region. ..."

    ... and so on and so forth ...

    The writer (an anthropologist) seems to assume that the ape moves like an ape because of how it's "put together" and the man like a man because of how he's "put together" and the Australopithecine likewise.

    I'm sure one can screw up "normal movement" pretty badly. (I *know* I have, because I've had the "is that all it needs?" experience.) But lose excess muscle tensions (and recover tone where it's been lacking) and all the rest of it, and use minimal effort, and isn't what's left determined to a great extent by those bones and muscles and attachments?
  • "...only a poor pupil" I would trust your judgment as a pupil - Alexander teachers don't have a scientific explanation for what they are doing (yet).

    "the only fly in the ointment (apart from rapid change in one's environment) would be self-consciousness"
    Are you saying that we've been screwed up for as long as we have been "self conscious"? That is quite a while I would say. Furthermore, many animals are "self conscious" - certainly chimps can recognize themselves as an entity. Personally, I would go for the rapid change of environment as the difficulty. That is much more recent and occurred much faster than evolution could handle. Or perhaps the *diversity* of the demands of our current environment - we expect ourselves to be able to sit in front of a computer all they and then go home and chase around our two-year old son. It is possible, but it takes alot of understanding of what is being asked of our bodies.

    "isn't what's left determined to a great extent by those bones and muscles and attachments? "
    Yes I think you are right. Alexander teachers often emphasize underlying reflex pathways also, but one of my own points was that this emphasis is misguided.

    "lose excess muscle tensions (and recover tone where it's been lacking) and all the rest of it, and use minimal effort,"
    This phrase is loaded with information! How do you know what is excess and what tone needs to be recovered? How do you define minimal effort? I think most of this is determined by feeling and intuition.

    I think your last two sentences certainly describe the goal well. Try having a discussion about "primary control" with your teacher and see if you can get as clear an answer . . .
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