Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Knowing No

Rosa Luisa Rossi is flying out of Australia as I write this, no doubt saying no to something while receiving information about the results of continuing with her wish towards a new, unknown behaviour—this is the simple teaching, with profound results, that she shared for BodyChance ProCourse Education during these last few sunny April days within Sydney's glorious harbour side environment. It was lunch by the water, and reflections on deep but simply generated changes, wrought from Rosa Luisa's discoveries over 12 months of intensive Alexander related research.

Rosa Luisa, with 28 years experience of learning and teaching the work, worked together with Dr. Joanna Maria Otto—a German neuroscientist and recently graduated AT Educator—by relating together known facts about how our brain functions, with the procedural flavours of Rosa Luisa's teaching technology.

How does the brain govern habit?
How does the brain change habit?

[Note - these were my posing of Rosa Luisa's questions, not her actual questions. Here's Brendan's re-formulation:

"How does the embodied nervous system participate in maintaining and reproducing certain sensori-motor correlations despite variations in context?"


"At what points in the circularity of sensori-motor correlations known as habits, do opportunities emerge for conscious redirection of sensori-motor patterns along new lines of correlation?"]

What is the "primary control" in neuroscientific terms?
What is direction and inhibition?
Why do we use our hands? How does that work?

The emerging answers to these questions was experienced by the newest Members of BodyChance's ProCourse Education (Alexander teacher training) at SimplyActive Health Fitness Centre in the heart of Sydney's CBD.

What impressed me most, was the way she deftly re-introduced the concept of no without causing the stiffening "stop" that I had abandoned as a teaching technology a long while back. The reason for my shift away from this approach implied within Alexander's writing, is that I noticed that this two-stepped approach—"Say no to the old stimulus, then give your directions for the new behaviour"—introduced a bizarre response, almost exclusive to Alexander learners. Pupils and teachers alike often exhibited a kind of held, waiting, spaced out look (at its worst) that didn't much look like it was connected to any joie de vive. Closer to the stiff-necked pride of the defeated. I am exaggerating of course, but polemic is one method to stimulate people to think. It also pushes people more rigidly into their corner, so how could I critique myself in a constructive way that would get the point across?

I had been saying "no" to using "no" in teaching and with myself—what Rosa Luisa introduced is the need to know "no", to understand how it functions as a positive in my nervous system to bring about a change in my behaviour. Her simple insight is that no and yes occur simultaneously, not as two steps.

I had come to the same conclusion, but with an entirely different teaching technology to implement this idea. Marjorie Barstow provided the model for my approach, when she asked the simple question: "If your head is moving forward and up, haven't you already inhibited it going back and down?" So the processes of direction and inhibition (noticed I reversed the traditional order that they are usually written?) are not two separate processes, they are two sides of one behaviour.

Of course, when you read Alexander's "Evolution of a Technique" in Use of the Self, it doesn't come across this way. He worked quite hard at separating his wish (to speak) from his means (the directions) because he noticed that any strong wish to speak repeatedly caused a habitual response towards his old patterns of behaviour. So he writes:

"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. I would give the new directions in front of the mirror for long periods together, for successive days and weeks and sometimes even months, without attempting to "do" them, and the experience I gained in giving these directions proved of great value when the time came for me to consider how to put them into practice."

I also once asked Marj about that period Alexander spent "in front of the mirror". (Marj was training with Alexander during the time he was writing this chapter—apparently he would bring it in sometimes and read it out to those at the school then.) Marj was emphatic about one point: "Yes, but Alexander was moving all the time." I wondered at that comment, what does she mean "Moving all the time?" when Alexander writes how he was just standing there giving directions.

I mean, there's Alexander, busily giving directions, but not going ahead with what he wanted to do. And this message seems to have imprinted itself on the consciousness of Alexander Technique teachers—first you have to stop the old thing, then direct the new thing, then do your activity. So in certain cases—it becomes three steps!

No wonder Feldenkrais commented that Alexander Technique teachers look like they have a broom stuck up their b#m. From my own experience of training in London in the 1970's, I spent countless hours standing there giving my directions. We even had the expressing "I am setting myself up to…" Little did I understand then that I was, truly, "setting" myself, becoming what these days I call an Alexandroid.

And it all emerges from a profound misunderstanding of the discovery that Alexander wrote about in "Evolution of a Technique". Watching Alexander himself, as he appears in his "teaching" film towards the very end of his life, there is someone who is truly NOT setting himself up for anything. He is process, moment to moment: alive, receiving information, interested and curious about all around him.

And so it was with Rosa Luisa, as we experimented with her ideas over the last three days: saying no to whatever we recognized as being inappropriate to our wish, while simultaneously saying yes to that wish, and continuing in the activity of that wish, and receiving new information concerning how that wish/activity was proceeding. There were no steps, it was one continuous, unified activity.

This way is opposed to the often times practice: "Oh, I am misusing myself (judgment). I'd better stop that (inhibition). Now I will improve my use (by giving directions-often in the form of releases to parts we know get tight) and carry on with my wish (the activity)."

Such a complicated schedule.

Instead of that, give yourself a "no-yes", all in a unified moment richly filled with new experiences, moving moment to moment towards my wish with all my information available, leaving me Freedom to Choose (FPJ's book title)... We enjoyed exploring the work this way, and Rosa Luisa got herself a ticket to come back to Sydney and work for BodyChance's ProCourse Education again in 2011!


  1. Hi Jeremy,
    I've been enjoying your blogs. You're pretty up front in sharing personal stuff and professional perspectives. I appreciate it.

    On the neuroscience front, I'm gonna saddle up my old hobby horse in relation to the first two questions posed:

    "How does the brain govern habit?
    How does the brain change habit?"

    The word "cybernetics" comes from the same Greek word as "govern" or "governate :)". In Norbert Wiener's formulation of cybernetics, governing meant that there was a mode of self-regulation occuring in a circuit, not that one element was controlling the rest of the circuit.

    Cognitivism (the outdated though still dominant mode of biological epistemology, in terms of which these questions seem to be posed) assumes that the brain "governs" in a "top-down" controlling sense. For me, the perspectives of Maturana and Varela and at the current leading edge, Evan Thompson, provide a richer understanding and one that may bear more fruit for Alexander research.

    To the extent that I understand their perspectives, I may rephrase such questions to ask,

    "How does the embodied nervous system participate in maintaining and reproducing certain sensori-motor correlations despite variations in context?"

    "At what points in the circularity of sensori-motor correlations known as habits, do opportunities emerge for conscious redirection of sensori-motor patterns along new lines of correlation?"

    These questions are a lot longer because they need to emphasise that habits are circular, not linear-causal phenomena, and that the brain is part of a nervous system that flexibly correlates sensory and motor cells and systems, rather than controlling them. It is always embodied and always in a context that provides part of the circuitry for the fractal (simultaneously present on multiple scales) loop of perceiving-thinking-moving.

    It is not that we learn nothing by researching the central nervous system, it's just that the phenomenon of habit is always embodied by a whole person in an environment. Cutting a brain out of this context in the framing of research questions may sever some of the very connections (with body and world) that will most usefully elucidate how the brain participates in this nexus.

    I hope these reformulations may provide opportunites for some thinking about habits, behaviour, and change that goes beyond brain/body dualisms.

    Brendan Bond djdojo@gmail.com

  2. Thanks Brendan - no arguments from me.

    Indeed it was a clumsy formulation, and made clearer by your comments. There's a quote from Einstein about the importance of formulating questions that I will attempt to reproduce from memory:

    "If I had 60 minutes to solve a problem, and my life depended on finding a solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes posing questions, because once I found the correct question, I could solve the problem in less than 5 minutes."


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