The Alexander Technique Christmas Quiz

Today is the last class before Christmas. Time to review the year and to start planning new courses for January. Meanwhile, some lightheartedness for my students and colleagues – the Ashby Alexander Technique Christmas Quiz, as requested by my advanced group students for their last class of the year.  Best done while scoffing vast amounts of mince pie and brandy butter.

I wish you all a peaceful, healthy and happy 2018.

1. What is end-gaining?

a. Winning at all costs
b. Setting your satnav before you leave
c. Going directly for your ends without paying attention to how you achieve them

2. What is FM’s alternative to end-gaining?

a. Getting your partner to read the map
b. Means-whereby
c. Means-therein

3. What is most memorable about FM’s grandfather?

a. He was a champion sheep-breeder
b. He was governor general of Melbourne
c. He was deported to Tasmania for criminal offences

4. When did FM first come to England?

a. 1904
b. 1908
c. 1914

5. Who was the first teacher to receive a teaching certificate from FM, and who later worked extensively with AR Alexander, became Don Weed’s trainer and so became the heritage of the ITM way of teaching?

a. Marjorie Barstow
b. Marjory Barlow
c. Thelma Barlow

6. What, according to Don Weed, is the poise of the head in relation to the body in movement the key to?

a. A sore neck
b. A better posture
c. Freedom and ease of motion

7. What is the next step after (1) analyze the conditions present and (2) select the appropriate means you have reasoned out whereby you can gain your end?

a. Project consciously the directions required
b. Project consciously the directions required to gain your end
c. Project consciously the directions required for putting these means into effect

8. What is proprioception?

a. Awareness of where the different parts of your body are
b. An early method of contraception
c. End-gaining using psychic abilities

9. Why doesn’t the ITM teach ‘head forward and up’?

a. No-one can agree exactly what it means
b. It tends to lead a student to ‘do’ something to achieve it
c. Good students keep on going further and further up, even when they pass the normal resting position of the spine and head

10. How many moving vertebrae in the human spine?

a. 14
b. 18
c. 24

11. What did FM insist his students do before he would agree to teach them?

a. Read one of his books
b. Pay him a retainer
c. Recruit another student

12. What is ‘Man’s Supreme Inheritance’?

a. The ability to move like Neanderthal Man
b. Complete control of our own potentialities
c. Freedom from pain

13. How, in his fourth book, does FM define the ‘Universal Constant in Living’?

a. The influence of the manner of use upon the general functioning of the organism in every reaction and during every moment of life
b. Death and taxes
c. In the mind of man lies the secret of his ability to resist, to conquer and finally to govern the circumstance of his life

14. Some Alexander schools link the occipital muscles with the Primary Control. Where are these muscles?

a. In your bottom
b. At the back of the head, where the skull joins the spine
c. At the base of the neck

15. How does Don Weed quantify the real power of the ‘poise of the head’ concept in this work?

a. The successful employment of one’s organism is accomplished through the acquisition of poise and a reasoned control of one’s own physical being
b. If you can learn how to discipline your thinking so that you can take advantage of this simple physiologic fact – easily, consistently, and at will – you will have learned a mental discipline that you can apply to every part of your life including the designing of your life and the reaching of your dreams
c. By following a process of genuine trust in the reasoning process you are employing, you may go into activity in pursuit of the goals you have chosen, knowing you have done everything possible to ensure success

16. What is the point of the Monkey Trap story?

a. Monkeys love nuts
b. Using indirect procedures
c. The need to consider conditions present

17. When did FM die?

a. 1945
b. 1955
c. 1965

18. What completes Dr Don’s Well-Madeness Chart? “Which is more likely true: that we are poorly-made and have to do something to perform well, or…”

a. “that we are well-made and have to do something to perform poorly?”
b. “that we need Alexander Technique lessons in order to perform well?”
c. “that we are poorly-made and we may as well give up now?”

19. Fill in the gap: “The aim is to bring about at all times and for all purposes not a series of correct …, but a co-ordinated use of the mechanisms in general”

a. attitudes and opinions
b. prescribed exercises
c. positions or postures

20. Same or different?

a. Same
b. Different
c. Don’t know

Graphic created by Starline –

1c   2b   3c   4a   5a   6c   7c   8a   9 all of them   10c
11a   12b   13a   14b   15b   16b   17b   18a   19c   20 all of them

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Stairs, Fatigue and The Monster

Going up and down stairs is difficult for a lot of people.  I see it in Alexander Technique lessons.  I also see people make it even harder for themselves.

A recent lesson turned up a beautiful example. This student has an illness which makes fatigue a huge issue in her life, on levels most people couldn’t comprehend (having said this, it applies equally well to any number of different medical conditions). She chose stairs for her lesson activity, and I asked her to try them out, so we could see what was going on.

Let’s be clear, there is a certain amount of exertion needed to walk up a flight of stairs, quite a lot more than walking on flat ground. No use pretending you can float up without any effort whatsoever. And if you have one of these medical problems, stairs might always be difficult.



Before this student had even got out of the chair, she had hunched her neck, scrunched her shoulders and bunched her legs. By the time she reached the bottom of the stairs she looked like she was carrying the weight of the world. All that hunching, scrunching and bunching can only be achieved by one thing – muscles working hard. Which means that she had added in loads of extra, unnecessary effort to her movements. She made herself more tired before she even set foot on the first step.

Did she intend to do all this? No.
Did she realize she was doing it? No, at least not before the lesson.

But in her mind stairs had become a bigger and bigger problem, which resulted in her creating more and more extraneous muscle tension, which in turn made it harder and harder to walk up the stairs, which made her dread the stairs even more. She had created a monster.

So we spent a while investigating what was real, and what was something extra she was creating. By the end of the lesson, we’d shrunk the monster to something more like this:-

And when we tried stairs again a few lessons later, she was unrecognisable. No more monster.

Graphic by OpenClipart-Vectors via Pixabay

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Posted in activity, change, effort, physical limits

Alexander Technique Myths #4: If I don’t know what I’m doing, I can’t stop it.

It’s time for another Alexander Technique myth (I have a collection*). A hotly debated myth, it goes like this:-

“I can’t stop it if I don’t know what I’m doing.”

It also appears as “I have to know what I’m tensing in order to let it go”; while the wording varies, the intent is the same.

To pull apart this particular myth, I would like to recount one of my group classes:-

Student 1 is working on bringing her arms behind her back. We chat about it, I do some hands on.
STUDENT 1: “I’m holding on with this shoulder, aren’t I?”
At this point she stops holding on, without any help from me.  Her arm moves much further and more easily.

Then comes the next student.
STUDENT 2: “I want to look at stooping, I find myself stooping all the time. I know I’m doing it
and I can’t stop.”
Hmmm. If it were true that once you knew what you are doing you could stop it, then Student 2 would not have come with his story.

Student 3, does walking. We work a while, I do some hands-on and she walks some more.
KAREN: “Same or different, class?”
SOMEONE IN THE CLASS: “Her arms are moving less” (murmurs of general agreement from the
STUDENT 3: “I didn’t know I was moving my arms!”
She didn’t know she was doing it. She didn’t know she had stopped doing it. But to everyone else in the group that was a clear outcome of the process of Alexander thinking. What does that do to the assumption that you can’t stop it if you don’t know what it is?

I’m not saying there is no correlation between knowing and stopping. As student 1 proved, knowing can be a powerful tool in the process, but as student 3 proved, it certainly is not essential. Don’t let yourself be limited in this way. ‘Knowing’ is a variable creature, so approach with caution.

(*) Myths #1
Myths #2
Myths #3

Image courtesy of Becker1999 via

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How to Learn the Alexander Technique? Contrast and Hone.

My blog today has a culinary theme, or at least a culinary metaphor. It should be pretty clear from my other blogs that the Alexander Technique is all about learning. But people tend to have very rigid ideas about what learning means. Usually, it’s being told a fact and memorising it. Or maybe being shown the right way to do something, and then doing it that way.

Both are good learning techniques, but very limited. I don’t want to be restricted that much, and I don’t want my students to be restricted either.

So, where to look for other models of learning? Well, how about the world of brewers, vintners and olive oil producers? (that was what you were thinking, wasn’t it??) It seems that(*):

“Brewers and vintners learn by exposure, gradually honing their focus and deepening their awareness. By sniffing and contrasting batches and ingredients, they learn to speak a language of flavour…

Proficiency builds with exposure and practice. (Though not quickly; the average training period for a sensory panellist is sixty hours)…

The people who work with olives and olive oil, most of whom performed supernaturally well on the ranking… tests, were occasionally stumped by some of the most common and, to me, obvious aromas… Those aren’t important flavours in the day-to-day of the olive world, so there’s no reason for her to know them.”

Key ingredients of this recipe (sorry, taking a metaphor a bit too far there):-

• Gradually honing and deepening
• Focus
• Contrasting
• Learning to speak a new language of expertise
• Making something new and unusual increasingly important in your day-to-day world.

Have a guess where else you might find these same ingredients. Ok, not sniffing, and regretfully no alcohol. But the other elements are all there in the Alexander Technique. Focusing on movement, actions and activities. Contrasting the different decisions you make, and the results of those decisions. Honing your thinking by repeating tiny steps many times. Making this process increasingly important in your day-to-day world.

(*) All quotes are from “Gulp, Adventures on the Alimentary Canal” by Mary Roach, pages 17 and 24. It’s a fascinating book if you’re not squeamish.
Photo by Supermariolxpt via

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Posted in Alexander thinking, everyday life, improvement, learning

What Sort of Alexander Technique Student Are You?

I want to tell you a story about The Sheepish Student and The Industrious Student.

Once upon a time there were two students. The first student came to her lesson every week, and when the teacher asked her how she was getting on, she would give a sheepish smile and say, “I’m sorry, I’ve been that busy I’ve not had a chance to think about it.”  She did this week after week after week.  She and the teacher enjoyed the lessons enormously.

The second student would go home after her lesson and work industriously at what she had learnt. She thought about the ideas, she talked about them with her friends, she read the homework, she tried out the ideas in the things she did every day.  She did this week after week after week.  She and the teacher enjoyed the lessons enormously.

How quickly did our two students learn the Alexander Technique?

The first one: Really Slowly.

The second one: Really Fast.

Old-fashioned morality tales aside, what was the difference?   My colleague Nicola Dobiecka sums up very nicely(*) three major components for learning this work:-

  • We are prepared to change.
  • We’re prepared to learn how to stop doing things the way we’ve done them in the past.
  • We are prepared to take the time needed to do this.

Take another look at no. 3: We are prepared to take the time needed to do this.

It’s not an easy thing to ask. You’re working long hours, you have loads of commitments, your home life is busy. However, if you want this to work it means more than just turning up once a week to lesson.  Like my industrious student, you need to find the time to think, to experiment, to ponder.   Each think, each experiment, each ponder doesn’t take long, no more than a few moments.

But it does require you to step back from your usual whirl of busyness.


Image courtesy of ulleo via


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Even More Alexander Technique Freebies

Last time I talked about the voucher system of Alexander freebies, and collecting odd moments to practice.  Today, some more freebies.

Our starting question is ‘What do you learn from?’  Not “what do people in general learn from?” but “What do you learn from?”

It’s a very relevant question if you are taking Alexander Technique lessons.  If you are going to be successful, you have to learn.  No getting away from it.  Obviously, you learn from your Alexander Technique teacher, but that costs money.  So where are these other free sources?

There are loads of them. Heaps.  Once you start looking a little more widely, you’ll be tripping over them.  The next best after your teacher, is the other students in your Alexander group,  if you have group classes.  Then there are blogs, podcasts and video tutorials by the hundred.  All of them specifically geared to learning, in varying degrees of formality.

But what about all the learning that sneaks up in disguise? The lady you sit next to in the waiting room who is tatting, and more than happy to talk about it.   Standing in the queue listening to the couple behind you talk about the 10-mile walk they did in the Peak District.  A novel set in Gorbachev-era Moscow.

One small example, just one. The other day I was trying to find out how to make sauerkraut, and I came across this video(*) by Sandor Katz.  Great video, clear, well explained, informative.  But just watch what he does with his upper body every time he wants to emphasize a word.  You don’t need many Alexander lessons to realise this is a recipe for a lots of extra work, and probably sore muscles, as well as good sauerkraut.  Was I expecting a culinary Alexander lesson, an impromtu reminder of what is and is not necessary for verbal emphasis?  No.  But I got one, a good one, for nothing.

Photo by wendybkoon via

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Alexander Technique Freebies

Let’s face it, Alexander Technique lessons are a high quality product, and they don’t come cheap. So wouldn’t it be nice if there were a few freebies thrown in as well?  Students often bring this up, indirectly. “How many lessons does it take to learn this?” they say, which is usually a very polite way of asking “How much is it going to cost me?”

Usually I talk about the need to practice what you have covered in lessons. To think through the ideas, to experiment with doing things differently, to challenge your old assumptions.  As often as possible.  The more you do this, the fewer lessons it takes.  However, it’s hard to make lots of time for this sort of practice.  You’re a busy person.

So why not collect freebies? You don’t need a whole afternoon sat on an isolated mountain top.  Your life is full of spare moments to step back and do some Alexander thinking.  Brief, but valuable.

While you are cleaning your teeth.
While you are waiting for the kettle to boil.
While you are sitting at traffic lights.
While the adverts are on tv.
While you are waiting for someone to answer their phone.
While you are walking to the bathroom.
While you are sitting on the bus or the tube.
While you are in the supermarket checkout queue.

Clearly, these are freebies you find for yourself. No teacher has yet managed to project a ghostly voice into your kitchen, or ghostly hands into the supermarket (I’m not sure you would want them to).  Think of it more as a kind of voucher system, where you have to present and claim the vouchers for yourself on the spot.

“Is your kettle slow to boil?” “Present your Alexander Voucher now!”
“Long walk to the bathroom?” “Present your Alexander Voucher now!”
“No-one answering the phone?” “Present your Alexander Voucher now!”

If you counted up all these moments you would find you had a considerable chunk of extra Alexander in your week. How much more does it cost?  Nothing.

Photo by

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The Alexander Technique and DIY

This is a wall.









And these are shelves.








No, this hasn’t mysteriously changed into a DIY blog. Just bear with me a little while, and imagine that you need to put up some of those shelves on that wall.

In your recent past, your nearest and dearest have given you two very thoughtful gifts,





namely, a power drill and a power screwdriver. Wonderful contraptions!  They make drilling holes and putting screws into those holes really quick easy.

Now imagine that you can’t put off the shelves any longer. So you get up one bright Saturday morning, determined to get the job done.  You get out the shelves, measuring tape, pencil etc.  Four shelves, two brackets each, three screws per bracket.  24 holes to make, 24 screws to put in.  A morning’s work.

So next you get out your power drill and power screwdriver, right?

Well, no. Actually, what you get out are these:-

An old-fashioned manual screwdriver, and an ancient, rusty hand-turned drill.   And these are what you use.  Twenty-four times over.  It takes you days and days, with much swearing and sore muscles.  You get there, but quick and easy it is not.

So what happened to the lovely new power tools?   Well, they are here:-

Somewhere. Tucked away on a shelf at the back of the garage, buried under a pile of other stuff.  Which is where they stay.  And all the speed and ease of working stays there with them.  Well, by now you’ve probably worked out that there is a point to all these photos.

The story applies equally to the Alexander Technique.  You come to lessons, and you get given the mental equivalent of a power drill. You learn to use it really well.  But if you stick it on the mental equivalent of an overcrowded shelf at the back of the garage and leave it there, it is of no help whatsoever.

The Alexander Technique will only work if you use it.


Photo credits
wall Created by Freepik
shelves Creative Commons CC0, via Pixabay
hand screwdriver Creative Commons CC0, via Pixabay
power screwdriver Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee via
power drill Creative Commons CC0, via pixabay
hand drill Drewparen via Wikimedia Commons
garage Creative Commons CC0, via Pixabay

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Posted in effort, everyday life, learning, tips

How Not To Overload The Alexander Technique

Last time I talked about the concept of overloading; Alexander ideas are resilient, but sometimes the student is not. Taking on a challenging new idea and immediately trying to use it with a large, difficult and stubborn problem is likely to end in failure.

What’s missing is a period of building up and acclimatising. And the best way to go about that is to try it out on EASY things. SMALL, EASY things. Once you are confident you can manage the SMALL, EASY things, then and only then do you move on, to something slightly less SMALL and EASY. And you get better at that before you move on. You keep trying out the new strategy, but in a gradual, structured way.

So here is my recipe for putting some structure to that building up process. Take a piece of paper and a pen, and write down five versions of your chosen activity. Start with the easiest version that you can think of. Break off a small chunk, slow it down, take it out of context, whatever helps. Then gradually increase the level of difficulty, until your fifth step is really quite hard. Not super-mean, just quite hard.

Now apply this challenging new idea to No.1 on your list. If that works, go on to No.2. If that works, go on to No.3. Keep going until you reach the step that you can’t manage with this new Alexander idea in place. Got it? Good. That’s the level you need to work at for the next while.

Yes, it is almost certainly artificial. Yes, it feels a long way from helping the problem you are burning to solve. Yes, it is frustrating.

But bear in mind your priorities. Longer term, sure, you want to apply Alexander to that stubborn problem. Right at that at that moment, however, demolishing the stubborn problem is not your task. Your task is to build up your Alexander skills. Give yourself permission to go slowly, and improve gradually. Make it easier for yourself.

Photo © Lnmstuff | Dreamstime Stock Photos

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How to Overload the Alexander Technique

Do you know that feeling when you have a really important idea that you can not capture in anything shorter than a complete essay. Then you read, quite by accident, something by someone else that sums it up beautifully?

My idea has been to do with overloading.

The essay version is this:
A student comes to an Alexander lesson (let’s say they’ve had a few lessons, they understand the basics). They have a particular problem they want to work on, a large and complex problem they have struggled with for ages. The teacher breaks off a small chunk of the problem, and together they use this small chunk to untangle some big ideas that are the root cause of this problem. She does some hands-on work and the student comes up with a strategy for tackling this small chunk. The strategy is difficult, but it works. Hooray! Light at the end of the tunnel!!

What does the student do next? What do they do with this very new, challenging process? They IMMEDIATELY try it out on the large, complex, ingrained problem.

It does not go well.

You and I, reading from a safe distance, may not find this surprising. But the student is always surprised and dismayed. At this point, they decide either:-
a) They are no good
b) The Alexander Technique is no good
c) The teacher is no good
and abandon a strategy that could prove very useful to them.

Now for the beautiful summing up(*), modified to fit the occasion:-

The best way to sink any Alexander idea is to overload it right at the beginning. The Alexander Technique is pretty resilient, but at this stage you aren’t. So build up the idea gradually.

Isn’t that just wonderfully put?


(*) The original version is from Mark Forster, time management expert, in the instructions for his Final Version management system from 2012:-
“The best way to sink any time management system is to overload it right at the beginning. FV is pretty resilient, but at this stage you aren’t. So build up the list gradually.”

Photo from 11mela via

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