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The AT directions: not just a mantra

When you are learning the AT, or you’re practicing it, you give the directions (think them): neck free, head forward and up, back lengthen and widen, etc. But because we, the teachers, place a great emphasis on no reacting (stopping your immediate reaction so that a new pattern can be established, in our jargon “non-doing”, stopping, “inhibition”), the directions become a mantra, a repetition of words that are disconnected from your neck, head and back. You think the direction and nothing happens. Not only nothing moves but probably everything is tightening up a bit to help you to be fixed into a position. This is impeding you to go further and you can get stuck. If this is our situation we need to sort it out. I think this is normally a phase of the learning process, but it could happen later on, in more advance stages of learning. We are all able to fall into this trap of saying the words without the thinking behind it.

So, what are the directions? Why should we bother?

The directions are describing a situation. The situation in which FM Alexander found out that his voice worked better in reciting, and later on realised that affected to our whole body, for short is what we called “going up”. The head is not thrown backwards, the neck is not over tensing pulling the head down and shortening the back, and the legs and feet are not grasping to floor or tensing up inadequately. And many other individual variations along these lines which end up shortening the stature.

The directions are trying to promote the tendency of lengthen in stature, not by direct muscular effort, but by releasing. We release the neck so that the head can balance and go forwards and the back can lengthen and widen so that the ribs can move freely. So as you can see, we don’t have a model of a position that we want to embody. It’s different to what a ballet dancer is trying to achieve when she puts things in the right place (partly aesthetics, partly functional). We don’t get the information that we need by imitating but through the guidance of the expert hands of a teacher which will help you to identify when is release, when is vigorous effort, what means the head going forward, and all the rest of it. When we are learning the directions we have already obtained the experience of what the directions represent. They are a label of what your teacher is demonstrating to you. This is why we say that the directions are provided by your teacher first and then you can do them, following the process, by yourself. The words are linked to that experience.

We can get the result of the directions just through “inhibition” (the process of preventing the shortening) and knowing what you want and what you don’t want. Some teachers don’t use words because has become second nature to “go up”. So, yes you can direct yourself without words, absolutely, specially when you are immerse in an activity. We are also cultivating new habits that become automatic, yes. But regardless, words help you to organise your thinking. It creates a more conscious process where you can re-learn new things and advance your understanding, no matter how many years you’ve been practicing this.

So words are useful when they are not just words without the thinking process behind it. Walter Carrington talks about this in very clear terms. This is a transcription from one of his talks recorded in 2000:

“Saying the words is not the same as thinking the thoughts. The words help you to think the thoughts. And what direction really means is not just repeating the words.
Effective direction is a matter of thinking the thoughts and nobody else can think them for you, you have to think them for yourself.
It would be helpful if you remember them, think them, in words that are suitable and familiar to you. Because you’ve got through your thinking, through the experience, you are enable to arrive at greater understanding. The more you really understand, the better you’ll be able to cope.”

The directions provoke and maintain changes that affect the whole body. It’s different to a local relaxation of some part. That’s why they are not just words, and they are not just things to do directly. They are connected to your experience, they need to be projected constantly, and they help you to get a better understanding.

I hope next time you and I give the directions we don’t forget to think the thoughts and not just repeat them as a mantra.

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