The Vault

Reflections on the Psychological Dimension

Of The Alexander Technique

Linda Murrow

 

My particular interest in being a part of this panel is related to my background as a Dance Therapist. Dance Therapy is defined by the American Dance Therapy Association as the "psychotherapeutic use of movement to further the physical and emotional integration of the individual". Historically, Dance Therapy has been used primarily in the treatment of people with psychiatric disorders, physical and intellectual disabilities, children with special needs, and institutionalised groups such as the frail elderly and prison inmates. Dance Therapy is particularly effective as a method of bypassing intellectualisation, or the need to figure things out, allowing for a more organic unfolding of meaning making that arises from the body.

Dance Therapy and the Alexander Technique

I have been very interested in the way in which Dance Therapy and the Alexander Technique are similar and different, and see the practice of both as my personal vocation. Most of my career as a Dance Therapist has taken place within institutional settings with people suffering from a range of physical and psychological problems. In recent years, however, I have been focussing my work on a particular discipline known as "Authentic Movement", or "Movement-In-Depth", which is a form of Dance Therapy based on the principles of Jungian psychology. In brief, it uses dance/movement as a method of 'active imagination', or dialogue between the conscious and unconscious aspects of the self. The primary objective of any form of Dance Therapy is to facilitate psychological change, though this change is seen to be occurring as part of a psychophysical process, and inevitably engages the whole person. And, there is a belief or assumption that the body/psyche has within it an inherent capacity to heal itself.

As a student and teacher of the Alexander Technique, I have been fascinated with the psychological dimension of the work. This began with my own personal experiences, starting in 1983, when I discovered through weekly Alexander lessons that the changes taking place in me seemed to be quite profound and all-encompassing in nature, engaging my deepest self. They included physical change, yet seemed to extend beyond it as well to another level, a sensation I found very hard to understand or describe. They had what I experienced as a spiritual quality, and seemed to penetrate to the core of my being. I drove for an hour to and from my lessons at that time, and would inevitably cry most of the way home. Not a deep sob or cathartic release, but a gentle thaw from deep inside with no specific content. I was able to discuss these experiences with my Alexander teacher who was very sympathetic, and I also made the choice to enter Jungian analysis.

For seven years I had weekly Alexander lessons, and weekly therapy sessions, for a time on the same day. I felt the combination of an in-depth exploration of my habits through my body combined with an in-depth exploration of my psyche was an invaluable opportunity. Luckily for me, my therapist had Alexander lessons, and my Alexander teacher was in therapy. This enabled me to link my experiences of the Alexander Technique and therapy in a concrete and integrating way that was mutually reinforcing.

Release of Physical and Emotional Tensions

To be more specific, I noticed that as I became aware of and able to release physical tensions in my body, they seemed to be associated with a particular 'set' which included movement, postural, and emotional patterns. I noticed outside of my lessons the correlation between particular situations, relationships, or activities and a particular psychophysical response from me. I discovered that some of the deepest patterns of misuse derived from my relationships with people in my family, and with familial patterns I had inherited. I observed myself sitting at the table for Christmas dinner with my family in a hopeless state of dysfunctional use that I felt unable to control. And I found the processes of direction, inhibition, and the developing of improved coordination brought with them a kind of awakening of self. My senses were more acute, my self-awareness heightened. The habit patterns were becoming painfully clear as I observed my tendency to create the same problems for myself over and over again.

I also noticed during my lessons that as the holding patterns released, I began to contact deep feelings of loss and grief that seemed buried within my body. My scoliosis, which was the presenting reason for my initial Alexander lessons, began to reveal its symbolic significance. I could feel the holding patterns in my spine were directly related to emotional holding patterns, both functioning to compensate for a perceived absence of support in my life at the time the curvature began to develop. The distortions in my musculo-skeletal system reflected my need to be held and supported, literally and metaphorically. I found that having the opportunity in therapy to explore the deeper significance of my habits, to get to the root cause of my misuse, created a more expanded consciousness within which I believe I was better able to utilise the Alexander Technique in coping with my self and my life.

Body and Psyche

I want to point out that in the same way physical release and expansion can be seen to bring about psychological release, it is also possible for psychological insight to translate in the body. On numerous occasions in therapy I would have the experience of connecting with a deep truth about myself, and I would simultaneously feel an openness in my body. Sometimes I would feel specific releases, or areas of my body responding to the material at hand. This process seems to work in both directions simultaneously.

There are two theoretical points I wish to discuss briefly using a Jungian psychological framework which I find shares much common ground with the Alexander Technique. Firstly, in relation to consciousness and the unconscious. My interest here is to do with Alexander's methodology in relation to the influence of the unconscious on human behaviour. My reading and experiencing of his work suggest to me an emphasis on 'reason' as the supreme faculty in the process of developing conscious awareness. We use our 'thinking' to direct and inhibit, and we are taught that our 'feelings' are unreliable. This tendency for reason and intellect to dominate over feelings and instincts is not unique to Alexander, and can be seen to be an historical and cultural phenomenon.

Thinking and Feeling

My experience and understanding, however, tell me that it is necessary to have a balanced relationship between intellect and emotion, and that both are essential parts of our humaness. Both are subject to misuse, both can be unreliable, and both are necessary parts of the process of balanced functioning I understand the Alexander Technique to be about. Any attempt to overvalue either reason or emotion as dominant is, I feel, an imbalanced approach. I like to think of this relationship as a two-way stream, with information flowing in both directions. It is possible to allow ourselves to go to extremes, on the one hand becoming overly emotional, and on the other hand bound by a controlling intellect. In either case, there is a one-sidedness that does not allow for all of the parts to work together in harmony.

Jung and Psychic Tension

Jung held the view that in order to bring about psychic growth and transformation, we must learn to hold the tension of the opposites within the psyche, learning to live with opposing viewpoints and polarities such as masculine/feminine, rational/irrational, order/chaos, reason/instinct, up/down, subjective/objective, process/product, holding on/letting go, light/shadow, life/death. This psychic balancing process is quite similar to the way muscles are organised in the body, creating pulls in opposite directions which together generate a necessary tension that aids us in standing upright. Psychological one-sidedness creates the same distortions as muscular imbalance, often existing together as part of an overall psychophysical pattern of misuse.

Jung and Complexes

Secondly, I wish to address the whole notion of 'habit'. Jung has a term for habit patterns in the psyche which he calls 'complexes'. A complex is defined as an emotionally charged group of ideas or images based in the unconscious which behave independently of conscious control and stem from unresolved conflict or repressed psychic energy. Complexes may manifest as somatic symptoms, such as pain or excessive tension, or psychic symptoms such as anxiety or depression, or combinations of the two. Jung's approach to working with complexes in analysis involves bringing them into consciousness through techniques such as 'active Imagination' and 'dream interpretation'. The body itself can be likened to a dream, holding within it important information that wants to be brought into consciousness.

Working with complexes, however, is a very delicate process because the complex wants to be understood on its own terms. It wants to be honoured, respected, and heard. Complexes tell us that there is a psychic rebalancing that wants to take place. This rebalancing, however, can only be completed when the complex is understood emotionally. Moreover, how we relate to the habit or complex has everything to do with its willingness to change.

Comparison of Jung's Complexes and Alexander's Habit Patterns

Like Alexander's habit patterns, complexes form as a result of misuse and remain unconscious until symptoms, either physical or psychological, require us to seek help. The primary difference between Jung and Alexander as I see it, lies in the approach to the habit or complex, and the 'means whereby that is employed. Whereas Alexander emphasises the importance of direction and inhibition in dealing with habit patterns, I wonder whether he acknowledges the hold these habit patterns have on us beyond our conscious control. Jung once said, "We don't have complexes, complexes have us!" (J. Chodorow, Personal communication, 1989) I wonder what Alexander's thoughts would be on the notion of transforming habit patterns. This is where Jung's emphasis lies. He saw that once a complex is made conscious, it has a better chance of being understood and assimilated. That in remaining unconscious, complexes can function as obstacles to wholeness. And that a complex which has been resolved and assimilated emotionally results in a new distribution of psychic energy. For Jung the process of change requires our participation but is largely beyond our control, determining its own timing and willingness.

Alexander Lessons and Emotions

Now, when I give people Alexander lessons, I feel informed by my own experiences, and by my training in Dance Therapy, in the way that I approach people. This is primarily to do with an understanding of the reality of the life of the psyche in the life of the body; that a person's psychological makeup is present in their physical makeup; not according to a formula, but as a complex, multi-dimensional interrelationship. I know from my own experience that the touch of an Alexander teacher has the capacity to create a space within which emotions held down by patterns of tension can surface and enter consciousness, often quite unexpectedly. I also know that in order for a release to be complete, the emotion must be fully experienced. This can happen in any number of ways according to the individual, during or outside of the lesson. Ultimately, it is possible to see our symptoms or habits as our teachers, appreciating their presence as a reminder of what we must pay attention to in our lives. Our bodies don't lie, and have great clarity in expressing our imbalances. For this we can be thankful. It is also my experience that unless we accept our selves as we are, habits and all, we encounter great resistance to change as the purpose of the habit pattern is somehow not being honoured.

A Case Study

In November of 1993, I was approached for Alexander lessons by the mother of an 11-year old girl who was suffering from weak/collapsed ankles. I will call her Sarah. Sarah came for weekly lessons accompanied by her mother and little brother who would sometimes join us in the teaching room, and sometimes not, according to Sarah's wishes. It was challenging working with a child in this way. We experimented and found a language that seemed to work. She responded very well to the hands-on work, and after a time we would spend much of the lesson in silence.

After the initial phase of building trust and learning to understand one another, I began to ask Sarah about her sense of being "collapsed", and her sense of her weak ankles. She described feeling very tired all the time, and if she let herself, she would collapse in a heap on the floor. We explored this feeling and Sarah began to tell me that her parents had separated and that she was moving to Queensland with her mother, leaving her father in Melbourne. Although she did not express overt emotional release, I sensed with my hands a strong connection being made in her consciousness between the events of her family life and the symptoms of her body. I reflected this back to her, and she seemed very pleased that I had made the connection. On her next visit she reported that her ankles felt much stronger, and she was able to run in the playground with her friends during recess. This had been one of her goals.

During our last lesson before Sarah moved to Queensland, Sarah's mother and brother joined us in the lesson and I had them become involved by helping to provide Sarah with support. This seemed important in terms of Sarah feeling not only that she can support herself, but that other people support her, too. When she left, she informed me and her mother that she would like to come back for lessons when she visits her father during school holidays. My hope is that the lessons we had helped Sarah to become aware of her capacity to manage her situation, both physically and psychologically.

I found my training in Dance Therapy very helpful in dealing with this case. However, I believe these processes can be part of any Alexander lesson where the teacher is aware of the psychological dimension of the presenting problems. My point here is that working with the psychological dimension in a conscious way does not necessarily require psychological training per se, nor does it entail in-depth probing of psychological material. It simply means being present for what is, and not interfering with whatever needs to happen for the student. Certainly there are instances where Alexander teachers should and do refer people to psychologists and other professionals trained to handle psychological problems, but quite often there is a lot an Alexander teacher can do.

REFERENCES

Alexander, F.M., Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, E. P. Dutton & Company (1923)

Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, E. P. Dutton & Company (1932)

Chodorow, Joan, Dance Therapy & Depth Psychology: The Moving Imagination, Routledge (1991)

Jung, C.G., Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Vintage Books (1961)

McNeely, Deldon Anne, Touching: Body Therapy & Depth Psychology, Inner City Books (1987)

Shwarts-Salant, Nathan and Stein, Murray, Eds., Chiron: The Body in Analysis, Chiron Publications: Wilmette, Illinois (1986)

Stein, Murray, Ed, Jungian Analysis, Shambhala Publications (1984)

BIOGRAPHY

Originally from Cambridge, Massachusetts, Linda is a registered Dance/Movement therapist with the American Dance Therapy Association and a certified teacher of the Alexander Technique, practising in Melbourne. Currently has also completed post-graduate studies in Family Therapy.

 

  Bookmark and Share