Transformers: What Changes when Our Words Change?

"Bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head..." Original decoration by Ernest H Shepard from A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh.

"Bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head..." Original decoration by Ernest H Shepard from A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh.

My sister has been having a series of refresher Alexander lessons with me and after the holidays, she told me this story. For Christmas, her four year-old son, Griffin, was given a Transformer. I grew up with Transformers, but if you don’t know, they’re a line of toys that change from a robot to, say, an airplane and back again. I didn’t realize that they made Transformers for four year-olds, but apparently they do. Even so, the first time Griffin tried to transform his Transformer, he got stuck, tried to force a part, and then broke it. This was quite traumatic and after my sister consoled him (and his dad fixed it), she said to him, “Okay, next time, when you feel yourself trying to force it, just pause, and we can help you work it out.” As soon as she said this, she later told me, a light bulb went on in her head and she thought, “Wait a second, that’s what we’ve been working on in my Alexander lessons!”

It is often the case that the stories that help clarify the Alexander Technique are either about four year-olds or for four year-olds. This is probably because four year-olds are wrestling with impulse control for the first time and when we’re trying to change our habits in an Alexander Technique lesson, we, too, need to wield some control over our impulses. Our habits of mind and movement usually just have their way with us and it’s only by pausing and taking some time that we have any hope of experiencing positive change.

I’ve been dwelling recently about the language we use to explain the Alexander Technique. Stories about children and children’s stories are very helpful in teaching, but I also feel a contrary impulse, which is to communicate the significance of the work. To that end, a more technical language might have more impact, at least to a certain audience. “Stopping and thinking to change our habits” doesn’t sound nearly as rigorous as “Practicing executive attention to facilitate change in automatic postural coordination.”

I think this desire to communicate the importance of the Alexander Technique has been there since the beginning.

Stories about children and children’s stories are very helpful in teaching, but I also feel a contrary impulse, which is to communicate the significance of the work. And to that end, a more technical language might have more impact, at least to a certain audience. ‘Stopping and thinking to change our habits’ doesn’t sound nearly as rigorous as ‘Practicing executive attention to facilitate change in automatic postural coordination.’

For example, when my sister counseled Griffin to “pause,” she was asking him to practice what Alexander teachers call “inhibition.” F.M. Alexander first began using the term shortly after he had moved to London from his native Australia in 1904. Before then Alexander had been primarily known as an actor and a teacher of elocution and the Delsarte Method of dramatic expression. His work gradually came to the attention of a series of medical doctors, first in Sydney, then in London, who would send their patients for lessons with Alexander. It was after meeting Dr Robert H Scanes Spicer in London that Alexander began using a more technical language to describe his work, such as “antagonistic action,” “mechanical advantage,” “kinaesthesia,” and “inhibition.”

Alexander’s use of the term inhibition has something in common with the great American psychologist, William James (see the chapter on Will in his Principles of Psychology). Yet it's Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic conception of inhibition that has gained ascendency in our culture. Even though Freud has been out of fashion for the last several decades, many people still associate the idea of inhibition with lack of spontaneity, repressed emotion, and sexual dysfunction, none of which are in any way goals of studying the Alexander Technique.

Alexander may have been uniquely unlucky with the term inhibition. It is both one of the most important concepts in the Alexander Technique and perhaps the most easily misunderstood—and not just in the Freudian sense.

When I was first starting out as a teacher over a decade ago, I loved using the more technical terms. Since I didn’t really know what I was doing, I hoped that my erudite language would impress my students. I had one student who became particularly enamored with the idea of inhibition, which he misconstrued to be a general state of disassociation. And while I was trying to work with him on staying aware and light in his body, he would just check out, growing more and more disconnected, and heavier and heavier in his body.

It’s likely, of course, that if I had had more practical skill as a teacher I could have avoided the problem. But I sometimes wonder how much my language encouraged the misunderstanding. It’s easy to think that to inhibit means to repress or disassociate. It’s harder to misunderstand more colloquial phrases, like “take time,” “leave yourself alone,” or simply, “pause.”

This doesn’t mean that I think we should ignore more technical language. I recently spent time working through a new study about the Alexander Technique and Parkinson’s Disease. One of the things I appreciate about scientific writing is the attempt to speak very precisely. Since I’m a teacher and not a trained scientist, a lot of the writing can be above my head, but when I am successful in making sense of it, I find it clarifies my thinking. And it helps me connect the act of teaching with the research enterprise of understanding how we think and move.

It may very well be that as the sciences progress, we will develop a shared language that is both precise and accessible. Until then, I will continue to collect children’s stories, since they can be so helpful in keeping my students from wandering down the wrong path. Like this, the very beginning of Winnie the Pooh:

Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.

 

This post was revised and expanded on Sunday, Feb 22. To learn more about Alexander's early history, refer to Alexander's Articles & Lectures, edited by Jean Fischer, and Michael Bloch's biography, F.M.: The Life of Frederick Matthias Alexander, Founder of the Alexander Technique. I also gained insight into Alexander's development from the manuscript of a forthcoming book by Alexander Murray. Many thanks and credit to the Alexander Technique teacher—I wish I could remember her name—who first mentioned the Alexander Technique connection to Winnie the Pooh.