The Alexander approach to human functioning. Three perspectives and complexity.

Adaptive variability versus static stability.

A behaviour that is useful in one context may not translate as a useful behaviour in another.   In this blog, I look at ideas from American neuroscientist, Stefanie Faye, Complex Systems author Donella Meadows  and how new thinking is shedding light on the Alexander Approach to human functioning.

Think of a soldier on a battlefield. Hyper-vigilance is an appropriate and useful behaviour within that context. It maintains a certain high level fight/flight response that can be called upon at any moment by the soldier. Hyper-vigilance keeps the sympathetic nervous system active releasing cortisol and adrenaline to allow for instant response to danger. It informs the human system that it is in a situation of immanent threat. It has turned off digestion, immune response and the calming influence of the para-sympathetic nervous system, as the context of the battle field requires life or death decision making.

But now, that same soldier is home from the war but is still using hyper-vigilance as their triggered response within mundane contexts. He or she cannot sleep, cannot engage with others, is permanently on-guard, maintains a permanent rigidity of muscles, is prone to infections and inflammations and has problems with digestion. The fixed-pattern no longer serves that individual-in fact it constrains them. In our society stability is generally thought of as a positive trait but stability is not always the constructive outcome that we imagine. Variability is an indicator of a complex system’s ability to adapt to changing circumstances and context. Throughout our life our success is measured by our ability to adapt, learn and evolve to change.  Static stability is the state of staying constant, no matter what. Staying constant, no matter what, can have very poor outcomes.

The Alexander approach

The Alexander approach to teaching provides students with the opportunity for choice within their movement and postural responses. By addressing fixed patterns and helping people to re-introduce adaptive flexibility, complex psycho-physical change is possible. This can lead to many positive outcomes that, when seen through a mechanical version of human functioning, can appear far-fetched.

But Alexander Technique does not work with a mechanical model of human functioning. Instead, it suggests a human functional model that is complex and holistic.

Reductionism, Holism and Emergence

When we think about human functioning and wellbeing there are three popular perspectives that we could consider. The first perspective “reductionism” says that to know the system you must understand each component in minute detail. The idea is that, by knowing each component part of a system intricately, you come to know the whole system. This approach has led to some spectacular success and discovery in the field of medicine, science and philosophy.  Surely, one of the defining characteristics of this age is the massive improvement in lifestyle that modern science and medicine has afforded the world. However, when this conventional approach has been without adaptive flexibility, it has often made people feel disenfranchised from their own health and wellbeing. As anyone who has had a surgical procedure may know, you often feel as if you are no longer yourself-you have become the gall bladder, the cancer, the faulty knee.

A colleague was giving an Alexander workshop for a group of physiotherapists. They had asked him to work with one of their clients so that they could see “the Alexander approach”. One of the physios came in late and was heard to ask a colleague, “Is this the shoulder?” To which my Alexander colleague correctly replied, “No, this is Ken!” Reductionism has its place. Modern medicine has shown that. The problem is when we believe it is the only perspective of a system-especially a human system.

The Alexander approach is holistic

The second perspective on human functioning is called “holism”. This perspective suggests that the only way that you can truly understand a system is to look at the working of all the components together. This creates an issue. How can we observe such complexity, which involves millions of involved components, in dozens of processes, and gather enough information to allow us to address the myriad health issues that afflict humans? In the 1890’s, FM Alexander observed, what he described as, an integration of thought, emotion and movement-a “psycho-physical” unity, when people carried out activity.

Alexander was a gifted and astute observer. He developed and carried out long running experiments to validate his observations and he was able to describe a holistic model of human functioning  based on psycho-physical unity, that is still as compelling today as it was 130 years ago.

He recognised that human activity is, neither an isolated, nor a random activity. He noticed that movement was not one event but a series of events, involving all the component parts of a human being. In Alexander’s observation, the whole body and the mind is involved in coordination to allow for effective human functioning. He called that whole body and mind activity “use”. In modern language we could describe “use” as the “program” that the body and mind employs to coordinate all the body components within any human activity. The Alexander approach,  within this description, teaches people to intervene and change their coordinating program.

The third perspective I would like to discuss, in understanding human functioning and the Alexander Technique, is called “emergence”.

Alexander is reputed to have said, “The phrase ‘All together, one after the other” expresses the idea of combined activity I wish to convey.”[1]

Emergence describes when a whole system is more than the sum of all the component parts. This indicates that the component parts have an identity, that is different within a system, to the identity they have in isolation. So, if I  lift a person’s arm or leg for them and then, I get the person to move their arm or their leg; that limb is going to perform differently. When I lift their leg, their muscles aren’t used so much, the leg works like a mechanical lever. However, when they move their leg, for themselves, it takes on the personality of the individual, their pattern of tension, their fixed set. When the leg moves together with the other leg, it moves differently again. In fact, the leg identifies itself differently, moves and coordinates differently depending on the context. It adapts to its environment, as do all the component parts of the body. Arms, legs and all our component parts do not work in isolation. Their “identity” is different in the system depending on activity and context.

Think about your identity as you read this document. Now imagine that you are in your party clothes with a cocktail in hand and operating within an ebullient group of friends, and now in a business meeting, and now in a bush camp and you are being called upon to work with a group to put up a large tent. What about you stays constant, what changes? Does our human identity reside in our habit or is it another process entirely? What changes in a person when they release tension from their responses? Think about how someone’s posture identifies them. What happens to that person when their posture alters, through using the Alexander approach to functioning?

Each component part of the human system of functioning has a structural identity, an action, an interaction, and a feedback message. Our component parts may also have variability, that allows them to adapt to their environment and the unique make-up of the current situation. Taking all this into account, we can see why the total adds up to more than the sum of the parts.

This make-up describes a highly unpredictable and individual set of outcomes. When we consider the Alexander approach to human functioning, teachers are not mechanics; we work with individuals, taking into account their unique expression. This requires a high degree of understanding, observation, and care by the teacher. The complexity of this emergent system of teaching means that the lesson is thwarted by standardisation. The teacher must be immediate and present for each student and their individual needs. An onlooker observing someone having an Alexander lesson, could easily write it off as a unusual type of physical therapy. In fact, for most students the heightened stream of information and awareness from their body, the unusual lightness of movement, the powerful experience of focused attention becomes an experience that is far more than the sum of its parts. Rather, the experience quite often serves as a landmark for extraordinary self understanding, awareness and clarity, integrated within movement.


Inspired by podcasts from Stefanie Faye “Mindset NeuroScience”

and this book , “Thinking in Systems” by Donella H Meadows

Links to further reading on Alexander Technique