The Vault

Balancing Body and Psyche

Duncan Woodcock


I find it interesting reading the titles of some of the books published on the Alexander Technique. Titles such as Body Awareness in Action, Resurrection of the Body, Body Learning,, Body Know-How, or books with sub-titles such as: 'How to use your body', 'Revolutionise your body use and alleviate stress' and 'Joy in the life of your body'.

When I read these titles I wonder why all this emphasis on the body? What happened to psycho-physical unity?

I don't want to spend too much time discussing this particular point, but I wonder whether it's simply easier to express the Technique as body work rather than to attempt the more difficult task of expressing our psycho-physical unity.

Of course many people may come to the Technique because they experience something being 'wrong' with their body, and as teachers of the Alexander Technique, we are aware that the answer is not simply a matter of addressing the body, but requires consideration of the person as a whole. Consideration of the relationship between body, thoughts and emotions.

Now it could be said that the nature of the work and its approach is through the body. However, the big questions are: Where does the body begin and end?; Where does the mind begin and end?; Where do emotions begin and end?; and Where does intuition begin and end? It is arguable that they don't begin and end, but are a group of notions in a constant state of interdependence.

Alexander and Psycho-Physical Unity

Alexander referred to the 'self' as a way of expressing this wholeness. Alexander's desire was to change some difficulty that he was experiencing. He initially concluded that the difficulty was located in his bodily functioning. That he had developed a particular habitual way of using himself. He realised that to change the habit of his bodily functioning he was going to have to address the stimuli that he gave himself. It was his own habitual thoughts that produced the habitual bodily response. He also realised that he was dealing with a complex inter-play between his sensory perception of himself and his observed physical behaviour. It was this realisation of the relationship between his thoughts, his physical behaviour, and his perception, that led to the development of 'inhibition' and 'direction' as processes that could overcome the habitual thought patterns and their concomitant physical manifestations. His distrust of his perception led to the notion of 'faulty sensory appreciation'. The experience that arose from his desire to perform and the ensuing struggle led to the awareness of 'end-gaining' and 'means whereby'. The collective realisation of his experiences led him to conclude that mind and body are indivisible, that we are a 'psycho-physical unity', and that any attempt to deal with the body without considering the mind was, in effect, an end-gaining act.

Muscular Tensions and Emotions

The dilemma is that there has been a certain amount of study done on the physical aspects of the Alexander Technique but very little on the psychological aspects. The social and scientific division of mind and body has led to the creation of the fields of psychology and physiology but with not much link between them. So we have a developed field of study of the balance of the body as expressed through neuromuscular and musculo-skeletal physiology, and a field of study of the mind and emotions expressed through psychology. It is of course much easier to talk about the body in balance as it manifests in physical reality but much harder to talk about a balanced mind or emotional balance, because thoughts and feelings have no definable physical reality, except, and this is the important point, as they manifest in the body. In effect we carry our mental attitudes and emotional beliefs in our physical behaviour. As teachers of the Alexander Technique we are trained to bring change to the habitual behaviour of the physical body by a process of engaging the mind through consciousness. But in this process we do not give much attention to any emotional outcome; we tend to hope that it will look after itself. Yet the cause of much of our unnecessary tension and inappropriate response derives from our emotional experiences.

I do not want to digress here and discuss the numerous aspects of ourselves, society and social interactions that may play a part in the development of psycho-physical stress. We could probably narrow it down to the need for self preservation and the fear that we may not survive. However, what interests me is the innate balancing nature of our selves, and this is the main thrust of what I want to say.

Balancing Opposing Forces

There is a law in physics that states: for each action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This is, in a way, a description of balance. Two opposite forces or energies oscillating around a central point, and the organisation of ourselves functions in this way. It is present in our musculature, where we have the obvious, though complex arrangement of agonistic and antagonistic muscles, working in relation to each other in order to maintain an upright state. Much has been written about this in Alexander journals, etc. As teachers we are able to observe, both in ourselves and others, the delicate balancing relationship between each part of the body, how excessive tension at any point can create distortion, and how the body will reorganise itself around the new situation of tension. It is this natural tendency for the body to balance itself and adapt to changing circumstances that is both the way in and the way out of any difficulty. In this respect, it could be said that the work of the Alexander Technique is to create an awareness of the delicacy of balance and to bring about an appropriate relationship between the necessary opposing forces of our musculature.

But what about emotional or mental balance? How do we address these features? At this point I would like to draw on the work of C.G. Jung as an example of a similar expression of our innate balancing function:

Jung holds that emotional dysfunction most often stems from psychological one-sidedness, usually initiated by an over valuation of the conscious ego. The unconscious, as natural compensation to such a onesided viewpoint, automatically forms an equally strong counter-position. The most likely result is inner tension, conflict, and discord." (J. Smallwood, 1978)

We have here a description of inner conflict not dissimilar to FM's description of John Doe in Man's Supreme Inheritance whose body FM describes as having:

...two existences, excluding the natural condition of sleep, one fiercely active, muscular, dynamic, the other sedentary, nervous, static... These two existences are not correlated, they are antagonistic; they do not mutually support each other, they conflict. John Doe's body becomes the scene of a civil war...(F.M. Alexander, 1918).

In both Jung's and Alexander's descriptions we see that the person is in fact functioning in a balanced way, but the balancing elements are becoming further and further apart. So that the swings of balance are continuously increasing.

Jung's 'Transcendent Function'

Jung described a process that he called the 'transcendent function'. The aim of the transcendent function is to realise the original potential wholeness of the psyche. Jung described it as:

...a natural process, a manifestation of the energy that springs from the tension of opposites, and it consists in a series of fantasy-occurrences which appear spontaneously in dreams and visions. (C.G.Jung, 1966)

The transcendent function furthers the process of individuation by creating a transition from one attitude to another, or one stage of development to another,.. The transcendent function is able to unite the opposing trends of several systems, and in doing so works toward the achievement of potential wholeness. (H.G.Machtiger, 1982)

Jung saw that imbalance arose when there was insufficient consideration given to the unconscious. That when we are attached to the conscious ego, the part of the mind that reacts to reality, and give insufficient attention to the unconscious, we begin to function in an imbalanced way. He saw that we need to bring to consciousness the material stored in the unconscious in order to redress this imbalance.

Again it is this natural tendency for the psyche to balance itself and adapt to changing circumstances that is both the way in and the way out of any difficulty.

We Embody our Mental and Emotional States

Now I would like to suggest that in general we are attached to our conscious ego, and this attachment manifests itself in the patterns of our behaviour. That is, we bring to the body musculature a pattern of behaviour that relates to our perception of reality; we embody our mental and emotional states. The attitudes of our mind and emotions are expressed in the attitude of our body. During an Alexander lesson we are being asked to let go of these attitudes, to let go of the habitual pattern, to let go of our perception of reality. The Alexander teacher may not directly ask this, or directly give any attention to the emotional or mental patterns of the pupil. But it is inevitable, given the indivisibility of our mind, body and emotions, that we will affect the psychological and mental patterns. And, if we are the pupil, we may, as our attitude is challenged, experience an ego reaction to the Alexander lesson. We may as Alexander would say "feel wrong", or we may feel strange. Hopefully the lesson is conducted in a manner that allows this reaction to manifest in a manageable way.

Changes Due to Training

I can remember, during my period of training as a teacher of the Technique, experiencing reactions to changes that were occurring in me. As I became stronger in myself it seemed threatening. My perception of myself was as a relatively weak and inconsequential person, and this new experience of strength challenged this habitual perception. How could I live up to this new state? As I, literally, learned to stand on my own two feet I was going to have to do something with my life. This opened up new challenges that I feared I would be unable to face or meet. How could I marry the experience of greater physical strength with the conscious ego image of myself? These kinds of inner conflicts resolved themselves in time. Partly through the employment of inhibition, choosing not to respond to the ego image, and allowing myself to stay with the direction of an increasing sense of support.

This description of my experience on the training course describes the tension of opposites. My conscious perception of myself opposed by a growing sense of support and strength. Reading Lulie Westfeldt's book recently I discovered a similar description. Lulie says:

...when a basic change came one would have to pay for it. This happens in other things, such as psychological changes, so I saw no reason why it shouldn't happen in this work... [She goes on to say]: When the [new Head, Neck and Back] pattern is operative, it appears to right the body in a steady, cumulative way, ...this righting process mounts up, and then a basic change takes place. At such times I might have an uncomfortable manifestation as well as severe fatigue, but always after such a change I would be markedly improved in one form or another and have a considerable increase in strength and energy. (L. Westfeldt, 1986)

Also, in John Nicholl's book he quotes Amanda Dunningham :

Over time, what does seem to happen, is a 'building up' of my own natural forces, which I can contribute to, by remembering to inhibit my habitual responses. Then, when the time is right, something falls into place, and some part of my habitual response seems to disappear. ... When this moment of realisation arrives, I feel so 'right' and completely at peace with myself. This feeling is always highlighted, because as the 'build-up' occurs, I experience ever increasing conflict between my habits and new experiences. I dread this battle, but it seems to be necessary and important to work through, in order for me to accept and integrate the new experience. (J. Nicholls, 1991)

These descriptions also express opposing tensions and show that at an unconscious level processes are working in conjunction with our conscious intent.

The 'negative therapeutic reaction'

Naomi Wolf in her book Fire with Fire states that:

Psychologists have identified a syndrome: 'negative therapeutic reaction'. This means, according to psychologist Jean Baker Miller that people 'make a major gain and then seem to get worse after it'. Negative therapeutic reactions are understood as depressions that 'occur when a person has made a major step toward taking on responsibility and direction in her/his own life. The person has seen that she/he can move out of a position of inability and can exert effective action in her/his own behalf, but then becomes frightened by the implications of the new vision...She/he then pulls back and refuses to follow through on the new course.' (N. Wolf, 1993)

This is a description of ego reaction. I feel that an awareness of these changes in our psyche can be extremely valuable in assisting the journey of moving towards appropriate poise. If we ignore or react to our feeling states, we are missing a valuable contribution to our self awareness. I think it is timely for us to be enquiring into the relationship between our habitual psychological response and its manifestation in our bodies.


Alexander, Frederick M, Man's Supreme Inheritance, Methuen& Co Ltd: London (1918)

Jung, Carl G., "Two Essays on Analytical Psychology", Collected Works,Volume 7, Bollingen Foundation: Princeton University Press (1966)

Machtiger, Harriet G., "Countertransference/Transference", in Jungian Analysis, editor Murray Stein, Shambala: Boulder and London (1982)

Miller, Jean Baker, Toward a new Psychology of Women, Penguin Books: Harmondsworth (1988)

Nicholls, John & Carey, Sean, The Alexander Technique—In Conversation with John Nicholls and Sean Carey, private publication: London (1991)

Smallwood, Joan, "Dance Therapy and the Transcendent Function", American Journal of Dance Therapy, USA (Spring/Summer, 1978)

Westfeldt, Lulie. F. Matthias, Alexander: the Man and his Work, Centreline Press: USA (1986)

Wolf, Naomi, Fire with Fire London, Chatto & Windus (1993)


Duncan Woodcock qualified as an Alexander Teacher in 1979 from the School of Alexander Studies (London). He has taught at a number of training schools including Alexander Teaching Associates (London) and the Sydney Alexander Teacher Training Programme. He was the Assistant Director (1987-1990) to John Nicholls before becoming the Director of the Melbourne Alexander Teacher Training School in 1991. Duncan has taught in training schools since 1984, and was a professional actor before becoming involved with the Technique.

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