The Vault

Loss of Innocence

By Douglas Price-Williams


The second International Congress was marked by a widening of enterprises into the scientific and educational realms. This has given rise to what I might call "The Loss of Innocence" (a phrase that Carl Sagan once used when the first pictures came back from Jupiter and Saturn from the first Voyager space-craft). However, the phrase reminds us of the legendary Garden of Eden, and suggests that something was lost when we blundered into the outside world from a safe and enclosed place. The safe and enclosed space was also pretty small, almost like a family group, and the metaphor suggests that when we move into the larger world, encountering other perspectives and ideas, we shift from the safe family world to an alien and often hostile one.

It is at this point that problems become more salient and articulated. The problems are of two kinds: external and internal. The external ones are familiar, and are addressed to concerns of communicating the nature of the work to outsiders. The internal problems are those connected with the maintenance of standards—more bluntly, what exactly constitutes the nature of the Technique and how it should properly be taught.

In hearing these problems well articulated throughout this Congress in various forms, I was struck by the persistence of some of them. They were certainly discussed and expressed during my training course period—1945-8—and I have learned from others that they had been expressed even before that. This has led me to think that particular problems have always been there, are indeed built into the nature of the Technique, are indigenous to it. Therefore identification and clarification of these problems may help to deal with them and at the same time dispel personality and idiosyncratic attitudes which are sometimes attributed to them.

The first built-in problem I see is to do with language. (After my talk I read the annual F. M. Alexander Memorial Lecture for 1965 by Marjory Barlow and I notice that she too had pointed out the separative way of language which forces us to divide in talking about the Technique.) I approach this from the point which Sir George Trevelyan made in his talk "Act. Don't React" at this Congress, namely, that the roots of the Alexander Technique are holistic. So called right-brain, holistic concepts are difficult to talk about. Language is basically a left-brain operation. (Linguists say that there is some language mediated through the other hemisphere, but it is rather primitive. Perhaps it says things like "Forward and Up," but that's about it.)

Language proper proceeds by division and analysis, chopping things up and giving discrete labels and neat classifications. Scientific language in particular gains its strength through precision and minute distinctions. Forced to express our unitary sense of wholeness and relatedness into the left brain world of language, we have to cope with neologisms, like 'psycho-physical' and so on. We have no linguistic expression, in Indo European language at any rate, of communicating the fundamental awareness of mind/body identity. It is much the same with the idea of 'non-doing' which gets us into a whole lot of problems. In the Western world it immediately suggests passivity, which is not what is meant. There is an old Chinese term 'wu-wei,' used by Lao-Tzu, which actually captures this elusive concept—and it may have meant in its time what we now intend to mean in Alexander circles by 'non-doing,' but when we communicate to others outside our circle, difficulties arise. It is in fact just here, in trying to communicate the nature of the Technique to others, that this problem of language becomes crucial. Even when the communication appears successful, there is always the uncomfortable feeling that something has been left out. There is the recognition that what we say about the Technique is always an approximation, a partial attempt to convey the whole which must inevitably escape us. The totality can be experienced, perhaps even communicated to others, through the non-verbal method of the instructive use of the hands, but never completely communicated through words.

I think that much of the problem of communicating the essence of the Alexander work to 'outsiders' can be attributed to this inherent problem of language. (Also, to a lesser though still significant extent, of the problem of communication between 'insiders,' even between the teachers.) It has been seen that even deceptively simple terms like 'inhibition,' which Alexander students have 'grown up on,' are open to varying interpretations. In the world of literature there are the special languages of poetry and of myth that are ways of communicating totality—and in the world of science there is the special language of mathematics which is capable of expressing relationships and constancies amid change. We, however, cannot have recourse to these special languages, and are stuck with the imperfect language of everyday life. We cannot do much about it, but at least let us recognize the built-in difficulty.

Another big problem is somewhat related to the language problem, namely that the Alexander Technique is based on a dynamic and not a static conception of the organism. There is the realisation that within the organism there is a constant activity and change—understanding, like the Buddha of two millennia ago that everything is in a state of flux, of impermanence. This has a direct relevance to discussion of what the work is all about. Terms like 'sitting' and 'standing' are everyday expressions which are especially reinforced when still photographs are used as illustrative examples. In reality, as the Alexander work well recognizes, there are no fixed positions. These are really abstractions which we 'frame' onto continuous movement. Again our Indo-European language lets us down here. The linguist Benjamin Lee Wharf reported that in the Apache language a dripping spring is expressed thus: "As water or springs, whiteness moves downwards'. [In my talk I attributed this phrase to the Hopi describing a waterfall—so much for professorial recall!] The point is that while our Indo-European languages tend to 'fix' constant movement by an object term, native Americans keep nearer to the immediate perception of what is actually going on. Sometimes I think that the study of Apache or Hopi or Wintu or some other Amerindian language should be prescribed courses for Alexander students, but I suppose they have enough trouble without adding to the burden.

There are further implications of this dynamic viewpoint which require consideration. Our world, the so called 'real' world, is 'real' only because our culture has made it so. And our culture delights in imposing boundaries and frames and hierarchies and classifications on a Nature which often does not support these impositions. Racial stereotyping is a classic example. Now the Alexander work delights in crossing boundaries like an unruly river. It confuses the accepted categories and up-ends our usual hierarchies. We can see the difficulty when we have to distinguish the work from other approaches: "It is not osteopathy, it is not an exercise, it is not Yoga, we don't teach posture," and so on. Placing things into neat pigeon-holes is a universal tendency and there is always resistance and perplexity when it is not followed. You may remember the abominations of Leviticus in the Bible. The abominations of Leviticus were, among other types, animals that were unclean because they did not conform fully to their class—like four-footed creatures which fly. (See the anthropologist, Mary Douglas's book Purity and Danger for a discussion of the social meaning of the Abominations of Leviticus.) The point is that the Alexander work often goes against the grain and is not easy to fit into our cultural categories. Indeed, static definitions are often a subtle product of 'end-gaining' and require attention as to how they come about, that is focussing on the 'means-whereby.'

The third problem is more difficult to discuss. Basically it is a matter of resolving the relationship between the universal and the particular. This is true of any discipline of course, but there is a special twist to it with the Alexander work. I have always been struck in FM's writings by the sense of the grand scale in which he saw his own work. FM did not see his technique as a band-aid for back problems. He saw it in the perspective of the evolution of the species. The very tide of his first and last books—Man's Supreme Inheritance and The Universal Constant in Living betrays this perpetual awareness of the biological factors operating. FM's stage was a vast anthropological panorama, into which—paraphrasing Hume—our little individual selves make their bow, say their lines, and exit all too quickly. Further, FM had the perspective that misuse of our bodies had disturbed the natural path of instinctive acts, and that by becoming aware of the misuse, by what he called 'directions', we could restore the natural order. Now I do not know whether FM was correct or not in this evolutionary sense of things, or even whether the theory could be tested, but it does make his work very different from the ordinary medical approach, from physical exercises or indeed from any approach, that does not address bad use in terms of the evolution of the species. All these points are familiar enough to those acquainted with his work, yet they need to be re-iterated because it is easy to lose sight of this perspective. The very demand of the ordinary pupil who is concerned only with his or her neck stiffness or low back pain, and who cares not a whit whether he or she is fulfilling an evolutionary potential or not, makes the relationship of universal to particular all the harder. It is indeed difficult to 'market' the Technique only in terms of this thesis, but without its salt, the work becomes just one more palliative in a world already over-endowed with techniques.

These, I submit, are three problems that come with the Work. They are not a result of anyones mistakes or anyones intentions. We have to live with them and accommodate to their constraints. They make, of course, for uncertainty, but this is precisely what Dewey in his Quest for Certainty was pointing out almost sixty years ago. All we can do is to constantly continue to observe and experiment, to check and reality-test, to persist in dialogue with one another and communicate. If looking to the future means keeping our eyes open, then the loss of innocence may not be so bad.


Douglass Price-Williams was in FM Alexander's training course at Ashley Place, London, from 1945 to 1948. Apart from FM, he was taught by Patrick Macdonald, Walter Carrington, Dr and Mrs Barlow, Dick Walker and Irene Stewart. After he was trained he practised the Technique in Copenhagen, Denmark, for about three years. Returning to England in 1951, he studied psychology at the London School of Economics, specializing in psychological anthropology. In the United States, Dr Price-Williams taught at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and then for over twenty years at the University of California, Los Angeles. In the United States he also became a practising clinical psychologist. He retired from academic life in 1992.

  Bookmark and Share