Doing and Non-doing

This term refers to the common but unhelpful tendency to physically make changes with our muscles in order to do the Alexander directions. This often results in a person stiffening, tensing and even pushing with their muscles, rather than thinking their directions in order to bring about changes in the way they use themselves.

When we inhibit and give ourselves directions, we then allow the muscles to act. Indeed, the very directions given, incorporate this concept of non-doing e.g. ’ I will allow my head to go forward and up’….

As Alexander found when he tried to alter the way he was using his voice:-

When ‘I tried… to do the new thing which my conscious direction should bring about (such as putting the head forward and up) and speak at the same time, I found I immediately reverted to all my old wrong habits….. After many disappointing experiences of this kind I decided to give up any attempt for the present to “do” anything to gain my end and I came to see at last that if I was ever to be able to change my habitual use…. it would be necessary for me to make the experience of receiving the stimulus to speak and of refusing to do anything in response.….. I therefore decided to confine my work to giving myself the directions for the new “means-whereby“, instead of actually trying to “do” them or to relate them to the “end” of speaking.’

F M Alexander ~ The Use of the Self p.27


The term ‘Directions’ is used in the Alexander Technique with two different but frequently overlapping meanings.

1 ‘Directions’ are the mental instructions we learn to give ourselves before and during an action, in order to bring about changes in the way we use ourselves whilst performing the action.

2 The instructions that are given also indicate the ‘direction’ in which we wish to release and lengthen muscles – for instance, allowing our knees and thighs to ease out and away from our hip joints.


It is important to notice the word ‘Allow’ in these directions. When we stop interfering with how the body wants to work, we allow it to function as it was designed to.

  • Allow my neck to be free
  • Allow my head to go forward and up
  • Allow my back to lengthen and widen
  • Allow my knees to ease out and away


After experimentation, Alexander discovered he could change his habits of mis-use, in which he pulled his head back and down when speaking, that resulted in his having vocal problems.  First he had to inhibit, stop his habit, then give himself a set of new directions.

Once this misdirection was inhibited, my next step would be to discover what direction would be necessary to ensure a new and improved use of the head and neck, and, indirectly, of the larynx and breathing and other mechanisms… and in its place employ my reasoning processes…. to select… the means-whereby a more satisfactory use could be brought about’ and then ‘to project consciously the directions required for putting these means into effect.’

During lessons, Alexander teachers aim to give pupils the experience that Alexander describes, of inhibiting their old habits of mis-use and then ‘of projecting the directions for the new and more satisfactory use in their proper sequence, primary, secondary, etc “all together, one after the other”… whilst the teacher at the same time with his hands makes him familiar with the new sensory experience’.

F M Alexander ~ The Use of the Self pp. 25/ 64

Primary Control

F M Alexander used the term ‘Primary Control’ to refer to the way in which our Head Neck Back relationship is a primary influence and dynamic organiser, for the co-ordination of our body mechanism and our movements. Elisabeth Walker, who trained with Alexander, says that he saw the primary control as being ‘a master reflex in co-ordinating the whole psychophysical organism’. This subtle control is only possible when we do not interfere by tightening our neck muscles, but allow the head to balance freely and easily on the atlanto-occipital joint at the top of the spine. ~ Forward and Away ~ Elisabeth Walker 2008.

Alexander discovered that his vocal mechanisms and whole organism functioned best when he stopped tightening his neck muscles when he spoke and moved around. This tension pulled his head back and down, restricted his voice, shortened his stature, interfered with his balance, his co-ordination and the way his body worked. This happened both at rest and in movement.

Inhibition and Direction

Alexander found that to change, he first needed to inhibit this habit of tightening his neck muscles, which interfered with the way his body worked naturally. Then he needed to give himself directions to act in a way that allowed him to freely and easily lengthen into movement. Importantly, Alexander discovered that to lengthen I must put my head forward and up. As is shewn…. this proved to be the primary control of my use in all my activities’.

F M Alexander ~ The Use of the Self p.14

In Alexander Technique lessons we learn to be aware of how we interfere with this primary control relationship through our habitual patterns of tension, contraction and mis-use. We then ‘inhibit’ and unlearn those habits. We learn to give ourselves instructions and direct before and during activity. This allows the Head-Neck-Back relationship to re-establish itself and function as it is designed to do.

Constructive Conscious Control

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Throughout his books, Alexander emphasizes how necessary it is for us to learn to have a positive conscious control of our use and psychophysical mechanisms. This concept is explored in great depth his book The Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual. The quote below illustrates how Alexander brought this into his teaching:

Take, for instance, the oft-repeated act of ‘sitting down’. In this act, the subconsciously controlled person, as soon as he touches the chair, instead of allowing it to support him, proceeds, as he would say, to ‘sit down’… This means that he has performed the act of ‘sitting down’ in accordance with his subconscious conception of it. In other words, he has ‘slumped’…. and remains oblivious to the misuse of the mechanisms involved and to the irritation and pressure associated with the harmful posture… which, unfortunately for him, feels natural and comfortable.

On the other hand, when a person sits down or stands up in accordance with… constructive conscious control, the process involves an adequate and continuous state of increasing awareness in regard to the use of the mechanisms, so that immediately there is a wrong use of these mechanisms, the person…. becomes aware of it, and at once substitutes a satisfactory use for the unsatisfactory use.’

The Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual (1932, p189) Mouritz; Gollancz

In other words, when we become aware of our habits of mis-use which cause problems by interfering with the way we wish to be in the world and the way the body needs to function, we can consciously choose to inhibit them, before consciously directing ourselves to act and move with a new, satisfactory use.

It is important to remember that this process of conscious control should be in process, not superimposed’ (F M Alexander ~ Aphorisms) and that we are aiming to make conscious a way of being that most of us took for granted when small. Most children are naturally poised and free in the way they express themselves and move, running, sitting and playing with great ease. Unfortunately, the majority of us tend to lose this wonderful use of our bodies as we get older, because of our habitual, somewhat unconscious responses, to many different situations.

For instance, these are some factors that result in even small children developing patterns of mis-use:

  • imitating the manner of use or mis-use that we observe in the people who are important to us and are around us
  • being put in pushchairs, or using chairs and tables that are the wrong shape or height for us
  • numbing ourselves for long periods of time in front of television and computers
  • tensing and contracting down into ourselves as a response to the upsets and stresses that we inevitably experience
  • accidents and illness
  • developing attitudes towards the way we should act in the world, such as feeling the need to be driven, or perceiving oneself to be helpless

Gradually, these reactions and patterns of behaviour tend to become somewhat fixed and often result in the usual range of problems such as headaches, back pain, feeling down and so on, that we are all familiar with but think we have little or no control over.

A curious little poem by the psychotherapist R D Laing illustrates some of the knots we can unconsciously tie ourselves up into, as a result of how we feel and react to something – in this case, another person:

JACK You are a pain in the neck
To stop you giving me a pain in the neck
I protect my neck by tightening my neck muscles,
which gives me the pain in the neck
you are.

JILL My head aches through trying to stop you
giving me a headache.

R.D. Laing ~ Knots ~ Penguin 1969

What a relief it is when we can learn to let go of some of these habitual ways of reacting to each other and the world!

In Alexander lessons, we learn to re-discover much of the freedom of use that most of us once had, through developing a new awareness and conscious control over the way we use our bodies and many of our thought processes. This work is not the same as that done in psychotherapy and some deeply entrenched habits and attitudes may need to be addressed through that medium as well, in order to bring about changes in our emotions and behaviour.

By using the technique of inhibition, we can choose not to react in our habitual manner to stressful events, which usually entails some negative thinking plus an immediate tensing-up in ways such as are described above. We can choose not to ‘wind ourselves up’, ‘becoming up-tight’ or feeling ‘down in the dumps’. We can also learn to direct our activities so that we consciously use our bodies more freely, positively and expansively, gradually coming back to, or discovering, a more comfortable way of acting and being in our bodies.

Alexander was aware that at a later date, people may wish to research the Technique that he had developed and he stated:

When an investigation comes to be made, it will be found that every single thing we are doing in the Work is exactly what is being done in nature where the conditions are right, the difference being that we are learning to do it consciously’

F M Alexander ~ Aphorisms.

So far as I am aware, no research has been done that conflicts with this but instead, tends to support Alexander’s theory.


Alexander Technique Directions are a Thinking Tool

Some common mis-conceptions about the Alexander Technique are: – lessons are all about improving our posture – they are not;  that we learn to sit with a straight back – no, but we do we avoid distorting our poise;  that we learn exercises – we don’t. Another misconception is that the AT is a form of relaxation training but FM Alexander used to call it ‘The Work’.

Elisabeth Walker, who trained with Alexander, describes the Alexander Technique as being ‘A thinking tool to help us in all our activities’ ~ Forward and Away ~ Elisabeth Walker 2008

Many people do become more poised when taking Alexander lessons but these changes are the result of thinking differently about the way we approach activities. Not just forcing an upright posture. Alexander realised that the most important thing was how we do things, because this influences the functioning of our whole body.

‘There is no such thing as a right position, but there is such a thing as a right direction.‘ 

F M Alexander ~ Aphorisms ~ Mouritz 2000

In lessons, we spend time becoming aware of how our thoughts influence our reactions and movements. We learn to think about how we move when we sit, stand and perform our tasks.  As we let go of habits of over-use and mis-use we allow our bodies to move more freely and easily. Then we can begin to transfer this learning to more complicated activities.

Alexander said It’s not getting in and out of chairs even under the best of conditions that is of any value: that is simply physical culture. It is what you have been doing in preparation that counts when it comes to making movements.’ Aphorisms – Mouritz 2000

Mind Over Matter

In order to bring about changes in the way you use yourself, you need to use your thinking! You need to gain awareness of your mental attitudes with their associated patterns of physical use, over-use and mis-use .  In lessons, you learn to associate your teacher’s words with the ensuing changes in your body use and the proprioceptive sensations you experience. In face to face lessons, this process includes hands-on work, with the teacher giving you a direct experience of physical changes. During online lessons the teachers observations and your thinking become paramount in bringing about changes in yourself.  In this way you learn to distinguish between unhelpful habits that cause problems and the new, improved use of yourself.

Using this awareness and learning, we then use our thinking to give ourselves instructions, or ‘Directions’. We do this in order to direct our movements in such a way that we reproduce the changes and improvements in our use that take place in our lessons.

Thought Can Change the Structure of our Brain

Neuroscientists have been researching the capacity of adult brains to change and to create more connections during learning and mental practice. Baroness Susan Greenfield describes research into the brains of London black cab drivers who learn ‘the knowledge’ (the names and whereabouts of all streets in central London). The research shows a process of plasticity, with taxi drivers developing larger hippocampi in their brains than do other people.

Greenfield also sites research into the malleability of brains whilst adults played the piano. Brain scans of a group who were learning to play the piano showed ‘a significant increase in functional brain territory related to the movement of their digits’. The finding that’s most interesting re giving ourselves ‘AT Directions’, is that the second group who were only thinking through piano exercises ( without playing) showed almost identical patterns of change in their brains to the group that had played the piano! The control group that merely observed piano playing, showed no changes in the structure of their brains. Greenfield sites this as ‘an example of a thought or mental event having virtually the same effect – modification of neuronal circuitry – as a physical one’.  The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century – pp 27-29 – Susan Greenfield 2008.

Choose Your Path

It follows, therefore, that the process of psychophysical re-education that takes place in Alexander lessons,  is also likely to lead to the formation of new neural connections in the brain.  Connections created as we learn to think about and change the way we move, through the process of directed thought. So changes do not just take place in the way we move but also in our brains. It is important, therefore, to be aware of what we are thinking and how we choose to use ourselves. Better to increase helpful neuronal pathways in the brain, rather than ones associated with mis-use!

An interesting piece of research for the future, could be to study the impact of AT lessons and of giving ourselves ‘Directions’. This could examine how much the plasticity of the brain shows changes taking place with learning and practising the Alexander Technique.

Overcoming Mis-use

Much of the time we tend to mis-use ourselves, so that we create problems such as neck pain or chronic back pain. An example of mis-use can be seen in the endearing sculpture by Martin Jennings of Sir John Betjeman (St Pancras Station). Sir John stands with his back excessively arched and his head pulled right back, looking up at the wonderful roof of the station. This position must concertina his neck and will thrust the heavy weight of his head and upper torso down into the lumbar area of his back, compressing his vertebrae and discs. If this sort of contracted position is held for any length of time, or is repeated frequently, it will almost certainly result in neck and low back pain.

Sir John Betjeman – Did he get neck and back pain?

Avoiding mis-use that creates damage to ourselves – whilst still being able to look upwards – is one of the things an Alexander pupil can learn.

In Alexander Technique lessons, you learn to think in activity, so that you are able to change the way you act and move around. Importantly you learn to pause, to inhibit any of your habits of mis-use, before you act. You also learn to give yourself a set of orders, or directions, both before and during any movement, so that you think and act with awareness of the primary control. With this process you refuse to just react to stimuli by, for instance, tensely contracting down into yourself. So you can then choose how to move, sit or rest freely and expansively, all the time maintaining your length and poise.

As Alexander put it when teaching – Go on with the orders right through the whole piece, once, twice, thrice. You have inhibited the wrong movements at the beginning, and given the new orders as you make the movement, how can you be wrong?’ Aphorisms – Mouritz 2000

Keep Your Directions in Mind

When we give ourselves directions, we do two things:

  • We give ourselves some instructions or directions, as to how to be, both in movement and in stillness.
  • With these instructions, we also tell ourselves the direction in which to let our bodies lengthen and then move.

Learn the words shown below, so that it becomes second nature to give yourself these directions during everyday life. In this way you will be able to bring about the changes in your use, which you have experienced in lessons, whilst going about your daily activities. You will find that over time, you will begin to use these directions semi-automatically, so that you approach everything you do with your directions in mind. When you try a new or difficult task,  you will be wise to consciously use inhibition and give yourself directions, so that you approach the task with awareness of your use and so help yourself avoid potential problems and injuries.

Forward and Away

The sense of ‘up’ referred to is used to indicate a flow of energy up through the body, not a fixed place to put ourselves into. Elisabeth Walker uses the words ‘Forward and Away’ and this highlights the sense of expansiveness and fluidity through the body that we are aiming at ~ Forward and Away ~ Elisabeth Walker 2008.

Inhibit the urge to rush into performing an action, avoid unhelpful habits then give yourself directions. Note they are all about allowing your body the natural freedom of movement it is designed to have

  • Allow my neck be free
  • Allow my head to go forward and up
  • Allow my back to lengthen and widen
  • Allow my knees go out and away

Stop and Inhibit ~ Think and Direct ~ then Move


Inhibition is an important concept that is one of the corner-stones of the Alexander Technique and its learnt, conscious application, helps to differentiate the Technique from other forms of body work. However it is necessary to clarify the actual meaning of the word as Alexander understood it, not least because the term ‘inhibition’ is also used by psychotherapists but rather differently. This is illustrated by Reber (Penguin Dictionary of Psychology) who suggests that ‘although some analysts will use the term interchangeably with suppression (and even occasionally with repression), such practises are not recommended. In the classical theory inhibition is used as equivalent to prevention’. It is as prevention, as the conscious act of choosing to stop a movement, which is the way Alexander used the term inhibition.

How do we use inhibition, within the Alexander Technique?

One example is the use of inhibition to stop the habit that many people have, of crossing their legs whilst sitting. First, let me explain why we might want to stop this habit. This position, with one knee hooked over the other, tends to twist contract and curve the spine and when done repeatedly can distort muscles and damage our intervertebral discs. This process can develop a curvature of the spine and contribute to problems such as sciatica. Even if someone can remain poised with both sitting bones supporting them – as Alexander himself does in one photo – the pressure behind the knees will still interfere with the circulation of our blood.

It often takes a while to stop even such an obvious habit. Most people begin by noticing they have crossed their legs after doing so, then they uncross them – and repeat this process over and over again. More effective is to be pro-active, to be aware of this habit and to recognise when we are about to cross our legs – then we can inhibit, before making that action. In this way we stop the urge to cross our legs and reduce the risk of causing problems to our spines. In Alexander lessons, we learn to inhibit such habits of mis-use and also learn to direct ourselves to move differently, freely lengthening to avoid compressing the spine, whatever we are doing. In this way, many people learn to gain some control over problems such as sciatica and backache, reducing or even eliminating the pain.

A more subtle and very common habit that is addressed in Alexander lessons, is that of contracting our neck muscles, which interferes with our poise and general functioning. Most of us have this habit but are not aware of it unless, for instance, we react to stress with tension that results in headaches and back pain. Many people with such problems come to Alexander lessons, because they sense their habits and poor posture are contributing to, or even causing, their discomfort. However, although they realise some ways they mis-use their bodies, they usually find their habits are either too strong, or not in their conscious awareness, for them to make the necessary changes on their own. This is where the Alexander Teacher can help.

The learning process

Before we can bring about changes in the way we use ourselves, we need to be aware of thoughts and habits of mis-use which interfere with the way our body naturally functions. With the help of the teacher’s instructions, plus her gently guiding hands, our awareness is drawn, for instance, to the fact that we tend to contract our neck muscles in reaction to a stimulus – even such a simple one as making the decision to stand up. Most of us stand in an unconscious manner, end-gaining and focusing on the goal of standing, without any awareness as to the way we move, or to the fact that we contract our neck muscles and concertina our spines in the process.

However, with the Alexander teacher’s help, we can learn to recognise where, when and why we repeat that pattern. Although many of our habit patterns are similar to those of other people, we each have our own unique version to learn about. As Alexander put it we ‘translate everything, whether physical or mental or spiritual, into muscular tension’ Aphorisms

Once we recognise our habits, we learn to be pro-active, to inhibit our mis-use just before making an action, thereby creating a brief pause in which we are ‘in neutral’. Once learnt, the process of inhibition can take place very quickly, allowing us the possibility of choosing whether or not to make an action and if we do, thinking through how to do it.

This process finds some support from Benjamin Libet’s research into conscious awareness, in the 1970s. Libet found that it takes about 500 milliseconds for our muscles to respond to a signal from the brain ordering it to move but that it was possible, in the last 100 milliseconds, for our conscious awareness to veto or inhibit the intended movement, if we choose.

Inhibition can liberate us from our old habits, so that we can choose how to act:

  • We can do nothing
  • We can do our usual thing, ruled by our patterns of use (or mis-use) that we’ve developed throughout our life
  • We can give ourselves specific learnt directions, to move and act in a new way, freely lengthening and expanding.

Alexander put the concept of inhibition very simply, when he said to a pupil:
Like a good fellow, stop the things that are wrong first.

FM Alexander ~ Aphorisms ~ Mouritz 2000

In ‘The Use of the Self’ Alexander outlines the principles of the Technique he developed over a number of years, as a result of researching his own vocal problems . He describes how he patiently observed himself whilst reciting and he learnt to recognise his own faulty use that had threatened his acting career. Alexander describes the process he went through, as he unravelled his patterns of mis-use and began to learn how he could inhibit them, which freed him up so that he could then change the way in which he used his voice:

It occurred to me that if, when the stimulus came to me to use my voice, I could inhibit the mis-direction associated with the wrong habitual use of my head and neck, I should be stopping off at it’s source my unsatisfactory reaction to the idea of reciting, which expressed itself in pulling back the head, depressing the larynx, and sucking in breath’. (p 24)

Eventually, after much trial and error, Alexander learnt to let go of his old habits.

After I had worked on this plan for a considerable time, I became free from my tendency to revert to my wrong habitual use in reciting, and the marked effect of this upon my functioning convinced me that I was at last on the right track, for once free of this tendency, I also became free from the throat and vocal trouble and from the respiratory and nasal difficulties with which I had been beset from birth.’ (p 36)

Alexander also describes his work with teaching a golfer the Alexander Technique. He describes how the pupil, once he had learnt to inhibit, could begin to give himself directions in order to bring about a new way of using himself when making a movement.

By the inhibition of the misdirected habitual use, the way would be left clear… to build up… that new direction of the use of his mechanisms… which would constitute the means whereby he would in time be able to… make a good stroke.’ (p 58)

F M Alexander ~ The Use of the Self ~ 1932 ~ Centerline / Gollancz / Orion Press

Inhibition can also be applied to our thinking and mental states.

The author and philosopher Aldous Huxley, in his book Ends and Means, explores the ‘Nature of Ideals’ and postulates that ‘the ideal man is the non-attached man’. We might question his bold statement that ‘it is pretty clear that non-attachment is very hardly realisable by anyone whose body is seriously mal-adjusted’ because ‘what happens in the body happens in the mind’ (p 220). It is true that our minds and bodies interact and function as one psychophysical unit, so that our bodies express our thoughts and feelings and for many of us, this statement could apply. However, this surely would not be the case for people with organic problems which are not expressions of the way they are in themselves and over which they have little or no control.

In order to attain this state of non-attachment, Huxley states that awareness and inhibition are required and that ‘the technique of inhibition needs to be learnt on all the planes of our being’. He suggests that if we can learn to apply inhibition to the way we use our body, this will influence our thoughts and emotions because ‘our mind and body are organically one’. Huxley, who had lessons with F M Alexander, goes on to say that the Alexander Technique can lead to a ‘general heightening of consciousness on all levels’ and that it offers us ‘a technique of inhibition, working on the physical level to prevent the body slipping back, under the influence of greedy ‘end-gaining’, into its old habits of mal-co-ordination, and working … to inhibit undesirable impulses…. on the emotional and intellectual levels.’

As Huxley put it ‘We cannot ask any more from a system of physical education: nor, if we seriously desire to alter human beings in a desirable direction, can we ask any less.’ (p 224)

Aldous Huxley ~ Ends and Means ~ 1937