Ergonomics and the Alexander Technique
Two Professions: Ergonomics and the Alexander Technique
This is the third of three installments of a conversation between Joyce Stenstrom and Marian Goldberg. Joyce Stenstrom was formerly the Ergonomist for the Mayo Clinic and now works as an independent consultant. She has been an Alexander Technique student of Carol and Brian McCullough and has been taking private lessons since 1996. Marian Goldberg is an Alexander Technique teacher and is the Director of the Alexander Technique Center of Washington, D.C. Teacher Training Program.
The conversation focuses on how
ergonomics relates to the Alexander Technique as a field of study and as a profession.
Marian: So marketing to a specific profession or professions is questionable.
Joyce: Yes. I think it has inherent difficulties.
Marian: I suppose you have to think about if other services have marketed themselves to the medical profession and how has that worked or didn't work? For instance, occupational and physical therapists—they generally work as adjuncts to doctors. Of course, they are therapists, not teachers. But I could classify both therapists and teachers as “services.” How did physical therapists and occupational therapists establish themselves with doctors? I believe PT and OT are fairly young professions.
Joyce: My guess is that it wasn't marketing efforts. My guess is that it was circumstantial. I believe that physical therapy and occupational therapy both developed during World War II. There was this critical and obvious need for services that physicians were not trained to provide. Over time, it just became mainstream.
Marian: Since they are therapists, that would make their work more of a natural complement to M.D.s. And they are looking at things from the same kind of perspective, looking at the organism primarily as “parts.” Although I understand OT takes a more integrated view, it's still a very different perspective.
Joyce: Yes, it's the paradigm of recent medicine. The Alexander Technique doesn't really fit the paradigm of medical therapies today. The constant focus on the entire body is what has impressed me most about the technique, as I've experienced it through my own lessons.
Even though the Alexander Technique is a different paradigm, I believe that good professionals in health care would be open to techniques that show results. Good professionals—in any profession—are aware of the limitations of their own professions. If there is something out there that provides relief to suffering, then the responsible professional is going to want to know more about it.
Marian: How would you present the “different” kind of education that the Alexander Technique is concerned with to health professionals and ergonomists?
Joyce: Well, that's a problem. Because the technique is about this other avenue of kinesthetic education. It's so unlike other ways of learning that we can't even imagine how it works.
Marian: Again, we're going back to the personal experience aspect.
Joyce: Yes. I think the Alexander Technique is just extremely difficult to communicate through the written word. I have enjoyed reading a number of books about the technique, but I didn't understand anything until I actually had lessons. It seems to me that even people who are truly gifted verbal communicators have written that even they can't explain the technique very well. People just have to experience it.
Marian: However, then there's a problem with people who think they can explain and teach the technique verbally. There's even a book out called “Teach Yourself the Alexander Technique.”
More than most “personal services,” the technique needs to be known about one on one. Going back to the idea of allaying people's fears: people who have directly experienced the technique can allay others’ fears about it and dispel misconceptions.
Joyce: Yes. And to talk about the technique is like discussing a painting without ever seeing the painting itself or discussing a symphony without having heard it.
You can imagine what a doctor would feel like if he/she had been treating a patient and seen that patient through different therapies and then sees the patient improve through Alexander lessons. Now that's a possible open door.
Marian: That's true. However, my experience has been that doctors often just express confusion when that happens. I've had so many students go to doctors after or while they were experiencing improvement. I had one student, a woman who was in her fifties and quite short, about 4'10 or so. When she went to her doctor for her annual physical, she measured an inch taller than she had in previous years. The doctor and nurse were very surprised. My student told the doctor and nurse that she had been doing this method called the Alexander Technique and she said to me, “They just looked at me like I was crazy.” And yet it was their own measurements that showed a real difference. Or, for instance, I have a young teenager with a rather severe scoliosis coming for lessons. She's in a real growth sprurt right now and I believe scoliosis is expected to worsen under these conditions. Well, according to her orthopedist, her scoliosis has improved a degree instead. Her mother told me that the orthopedist had said that he hadn't seen that kind of improvement before. But still, there's no real expression of interest or follow-up on why this may have happened.
Joyce: What I've noticed about physicians is that they tend to give more credibility to other physicians. So it anyone is going to reach physicians, it will most likely be through another physician!
Marian: Which brings us back to the question, how are they going to know about it? What is their knowledge going to be based on?
Joyce: The Alexander Technique is difficult to grasp. I can see why it would be very helpful to have these statements in the marketing package but I would not ever think that a marketing package would just work on its own. For instance, if I were an Alexander teacher and wanted to reach out to the medical community, I would probably go visit physicians and therapists one at a time to understand their personal perpectives.
An important thing to know when communicating with other professions is what terms are in favor and what terms are out of favor. For example, “RSI” [Repetitive Strain Injury] is losing favor with professionals both in medicine and ergonomics. This term suggests a singular cause and effect relationship that has not been proven. Repetitive Strain Injury also suggests something that is done to you. The Alexander Technique's terminology opens the door to the idea of personal choices. Of all the medical and professional literature I've read, I believe that F.M. Alexander developed the most helpful terminology. It's neutral; it doesn't prematurely bias or limit our thinking, and it doesn't intimate things that we don't really know. Your teminology opens the doors to clear thinking. I believe Alexander teachers should stick with this terminology and teach the rest of us.
In an attempt to communicate with other professionals, it's tempting to use the words you think they're using but you may not know which terms are becoming out of favor with the people who are most informed and closest to the issues.
Marian: I think that it can be difficult for teachers because we are are teaching something that is completely new to people; as you said, it's a whole different paradigm. Therefore, it's hard to explain and it seems easier to appeal to people by narrowing it down or by trying to make it fit into something that's easier to understand or that's popular at the moment. But of course that's when you lose it and that's when people can become disenchanted with it because their idea of the technique ends up not being that much different from other methods or techniques.
Joyce: There's something in Chinese literature that says that for a catalyst to cause a reaction and come out unscathed, the catalyst has to be pure. If the catalyst is impure, it will cause a reaction but will also be eaten up by the reaction.
Marian: Yes, that's it.
Joyce: In diluting it to become popular, doing things that make it easier in the short term, I think you get eaten up. It's time to understand and appreciate the importance of purity—the high ideals of the Alexander Technique. And there's no reason to be shy about how well the technique works.
Marian: Well, it's interesting, if you look at the NASTAT [AmSAT] News or Direction and see how people are trying to publicize the technique or even how as teachers we're discussing the technique and saying what the technique is. For instance, some people want to downplay the technique, saying Alexander was just doing this or that and now we can expand it or combine it or refine it and we can make it more appealing to more people. One person even said something about how the technique is in danger of “involuting into a quaint Edwardian mind-body method.” There seems to be a notion of expanding the technique or even supposedly superceding it when you're actually just imposing artificial limitations on it.
Joyce: To me, nature is the only guide. If you're going deeper and deeper into trying to understand what Alexander was doing, you can, in a certain sense, expand it. I believe that Joan Murray, for one, has done this. But that happens naturally and honestly and organically. It's not a business decision.
Of course, you don't want other people to define your profession. I've seen what that's like in ergonomics and it's very annoying. But on the other hand, being misunderstood a little bit by others is not as big a problem as not being true to one's self. That could come from growing too fast to meet popular demand that you're not ready for. All services are difficult to describe in marketing, and your service is particularly difficult to describe. There's another book called Inevitable Illusions. It's written by people in the field of cognitive psychology and it's about the way people think and make decisions. It explains how it's a mistake to assume that you can develop a plan based on what we would think would be the rational decision-making behavior of potential customers. For instance, when most of us think about how we got into the Alexander Technique, getting literature describing how great the technique is probably wasn't the key. I'm deluged with literature! I became interested in the technique through meeting a couple of people who I immediately respected for other things they were saying and suddenly they said, “You've got to know about this technique!” Then it's nice to have the information—the business aspect that made it possible for me to get names of people. But I'm not sure that I would have gone out of my way to seek an Alexander instructor if I had not heard personal testimonies.
I mentioned earlier that there are two marketing problems. The first, of course, is that the marketing plan just doesn't work. But the second problem is that the plan works very well but the service isn't ready to meet the demand. I'll recommend another book, The Fifth Discipline, by Peter Senge.(1) This book discusses system paradigms and it mentions a common problem of systems is sudden popularity and rapid growth at the expense of quality. There's also the soul searching that has to go on, “can we be popular and pure?” I would caution not to dilute your message at all because you've got a great message and we're entering an era where the stakes are too high not to be absolutely honest.
There's also the premise that you want to appeal to the mass audience. That should be challenged. It shouldn't be assumed that growth is automatically wonderful. We've really bought into that.
Marian: Fast growth particularly. That hasn't worked too well for a number of methods over the years. And of course, mass appeal often means appealing to the lowest common denominators. But we haven't seen much real debate on this and other issues in NASTAT [AmSAT].
Joyce: The July/August issue of the Harvard Business Review  is devoted entirely to the subject of fair processes and how organizations are grappling with making decisions through healthy debate. It's fascinating to look at how organizations coped in different ways. Some organizations really tried to stop debate, thinking that they wouldn't be able to make good decisions with controversy. Whereas organizations that engaged in active, open debate produced the highest quality decisions, according to the authors. One article that is particularly interesting is “How Management Teams Can Have a Good Fight.” It's excellent. The authors studied eight organizations that were really struggling with significant issues and the key players had significantly different opinions about how to address the issues. Four were able to debate the issues really well and four couldn't do it at all. The authors came up with six critical success factors for making decisions. The first one was, focus on the facts. Keep going back to them. Another was to entertain alternative hypotheses. Just imagine many different possibilities and scenarios. Even invent ones that are wacky just to open the playing field and get people to think. Another one was to balance the power structure so that one group does not dominate the process. But if people feel it was a fair process, they'll accept other things. Another critical element was the use of humor. This was present in organizations that thrived and absent in the ones that did not.
All organizations and companies go through these passages of conflict. And the way you do this will have a lot to do with how well you survive. I know that during the early years of the Mayo Clinic, lively debate was encouraged. The Harvard Business Review makes the point that the absence of debate is not harmony: It is apathy. You could have this feeling that everything is harmonious, but really it is just domination by some and apathy by others.
Marian: It can be a real problem when parties in the decision-making process do not allow those they disagree with to make information or their opinions known. What about parties in the decision-making process dealing with controversy through personalization, e.g., using psychotherapy or spiritual sounding type techniques and language to (mis)characterize those they disagree with?
Joyce: I think that's covered in the number one point in the Harvard Business Review article: Stick to the facts. A fair process won't degenerate into personalization of this sort.
Marian: It sounds like it could be beneficial for NASTAT and others to take a good long look at this article.
Joyce: I think these are things worth thinking about.
I think that the Peter Senge book, The Fifth Discipline, could be helpful to any organization. The book talks about “The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.” There are about nine “System Archetypes.” The system may be a natural system or an organizational structure. Each of these archetypes describe a particular system characteristic.The value of using system archetypes is that they make it possible to think through the implications of actions before you proceed. For example, rapid growth has some predictable side effects. It's fascinating to be able to map these things out before they really happen. The people who can see down the road a little a bit—who can envision what the natural outcome of systems would be—have a real advantage.
It's easy just to think, “oh wouldn't it be nice if we were well accepted in the medical profession and everybody would be prescribing our services and the insurance industry would be prescribing our services,” etc.
Marian: Well, if you don't have that knowledge, it's hard to know what the effects would be. If we just say, “oh, well let's grow”: That always sounds good.
What are some of the differences you see between the two professions/disciplines?
Joyce: What fascinates me about ergonomics is its breadth. What fascinates me about the Alexander Technique is its depth. The two professions also seem to have focused on different professions or disciplines. It seems to me that the Alexander Technique has focused more on the performing arts community and that Ergonomics has focused on just about everything but the performing arts. Come to think of it, that may be why our paths have not crossed before.
Marian: What do you think of the main focus being on appealing to or dealing with certain fields and not others, such as the with the technique and the performing arts or with ergonomics focusing more on other work settings?
Joyce: When a profession focuses on a narrow spectrum of work the profession may be unduly stereotyped. But when the profession is as broad as ergonomics, there is a tendency to have each person in the profession focus on smaller aspects. The profession becomes narrow individual by individual. In either case, segments of the population may not benefit by knowledge gained from the focus on other segments. The crossover of knowledge can be very helpful. For instance, things that Alexander teachers have learned through working with people in the performing arts could be very helpful to people working with computers.
Marian: Consistently focusing on appealing to particular groups of people or professions and not others: Can that affect how we define ourselves or how others define our disciplines (Ergonomics and the Alexander Technique)?
Joyce: Yes. For example, Ergonomics is now associated with medical disorders. But that's really not what the profession is about in its entirety. The profession is about fitting the environment to meet the needs of the worker. Injuries are just one aspect of it. But now many people think that that's all ergonomics is about.
Marian: Rather like the Alexander Technique supposedly being a posture improvement method.
Joyce: Right. Or the Alexander Technique is what people with physical problems turn to when everything else has failed. To me, the great things about ergonomics and the Alexander Technique are what they can contribute in the long run to general health. In the case of Ergonomics, a company can be made better through an understanding of the interface between the work force and their environment. That understanding is important for all sorts of reasons, not just injury reduction. For instance, patients would clearly be better served if the health care environment were designed with the capabilities and limitations of health care workers in mind. And there's just so much more to Alexander than using it as a last resort for people with chronic pain and injuries. I have personally benefitted so much from Alexander lessons, and I didn't go in with any aches and pains. I think that [John] Dewey's comments about extending inhibition to mental as well as physical functioning are fascinating. It brings you back to Alexander's belief that mental and physical functioning can't be separated.
In this country, we are beginning to define health as being much more than the absence of disease. I think that there is a momentum building for people asking more fundamental questions. So don't come in now with the Alexander Technique by playing to our old thought patterns of the last several decades. Maybe the Alexander Technique is what the country is getting ready for.
Marian: Acting as a catalyst rather than just trying to fit in and be popular.
Joyce: Yes. I suspect that some people in the medical field wouldn't mind trading places with you, for the opportunity to have more time with the people they are serving and not to be part of the current medical/insurance conundrum. This is not a fun time for many people in mainstream medicine; it's a very tough time.
Marian: What are some of the things you offer people for work related injuries?
Joyce: To begin to accomodate the staff at Mayo, I wanted to develop something that could quickly bring people through so that we didn't have to guess about what kind of accomodations would best suit them. Since a huge segment of the staff work with computers, I focus a lot of attention on the computer work environment. This has led to what is probably the most unique aspect of the program at Mayo: the Discovery Room. Basically it's a place where people can come and try things out for themselves relative to the computer environment. People have the opportunity to test out different chairs, test out different configurations: heights, depths, slants and angles. We go through a particular protocol to help people feel these changes for themselves. The room has a specially built desk which lets the employees immediately experience the effects of incrementally changing the height and angle of the monitor, the tilt of the chair, etc—rather like the incremental differences as the optometrist shows you comparative lenses during an eye exam. The Discovery Room lets people experience the effects of many changes one at a time and in combination.
What the room has done for me and the people who work with me is it allows us to see hundreds of people and get some feeling about what the different issues are, just a gut feeling of the essential problem. Sometimes posture is the overriding issue; other times it's keying technique; other times it's the heights of work station components, etc. We have various keyboards and input devices to try. But often we don't need to because so much can be improved by just making some basic changes to the heights and angles of the equipment.
Marian: So you're making the environment more mechanically advantageous?
Joyce: Right. Getting out of nature's way so that nature has the opportunity to do what it can. As we've observed more and more people I have a deeper appreciation for what people can't do on their own. If one doesn't have a reliable kinesthetic sense (and most of us have lost it somewhere along the way) then one can only go so far with equipment changes. The equipment changes can set the stage, so that the equipment won't get in the way of better things happening. But I can certainly see the need for something beyond these kinds of engineering changes.
Marian: Even though you put people in the most mechanically advantageous environment they're unable to take advantage of it.
Joyce: Some people seem to be able to take advantage of these engineering changes immediately and others are obviously in need of more help. They've gotten so contorted. What we do seems to help people with basic things such as being able not to do extremely awkward movements. For instance, in a bad work station, their feet may reach the floor, or they can type comfortably or they can gaze comfortably at the monitor but they generally can't do all of these things at once. Whereas in a good work station you can do all of these things without compromising any other desirable feature. This makes it possible to have good posture. And with some people, establishing a good work station seems to improve their posture immediately. But for others the possibility is still not enough. There are people who sit in the chair like a sack of potatoes; they have no inner support. No matter how you adjust the chair, you can't give them that support.
One of the nice things about the Discovery Room is that it has given me the opportunity to understand not only what equipment can do but what it can not do. I think I have a better idea of how equipment fits into the whole scheme of things.
A lot of people can feel better with a better chair, a better set-up—a situation that doesn't force them into really awkward postures. A big leap for me personally is adding what I've learned from the Alexander lessons to my understanding of equipment. I sit entirely differently than before I had Alexander lessons; I move entirely differently. The Alexander Technique has taken things to another level.
Marian: Has it affected what you see as ergonomically helpful or efficient? Or is your perception of what is ergonomic pretty much the same and you've added the Alexander Technique as another factor to consider?
Joyce: The technique has affected how I see things. For example, leaning one's weight on a back rest: This makes sense mechanically and may be fine once in a while but having had Alexander lessons, I am now more fully aware that the body's internal structure can provide the support one needs. I think the body can do very well upright.
Marian: Would you say that learning the paradigm of the technique and applying it to ergonomics has changed your perception of ergonomics?
Joyce: Yes, it definitely has. It has made me reconsider chair design. I was already having doubts about certain premises of chair design before having Alexander lessons but the lessons have made me question cushioning and backward leaning and other things that are mainstream thinking.
Right now is a critical time because there's so much attention being given to the office environment. Furniture companies are making decisions about designs that we may have to live with for a very long time. Once designs for office equipment are established, entire factories are built around these design concepts. Consumers accept the concepts and then it takes a long time, if ever, to undo fundamental design errors. If ever the ideas of the Alexander Technique could be introduced into furniture design, now is the time. This is a particular window of opportunity.
Marian: So it's the combination of timeliness and positive personal experiences with the Technique that is at the core of what will determine its long-term impact and probably also its popularity.
Joyce: Yes. You can strategize and market and plan and all those things, but when it comes right down to it, all you can really do is be ready for opportunities. And I think opportunities are coming. For instance, there are the changing demographics of the work force: The work force is aging. The Scandinavian countries have been looking at ergonomics for longer than we have in this country and they're thinking a lot about the aging work force. I would guess that that's going to be the main theme of ergonomics in the coming decades. It is probably going to be a much bigger topic than the so-called RSI hand disorders.
Marian: That's an interesting point. And you can't exactly call aging a “syndrome.” Unlike RSI, it's not a syndrome that's going to be reclassified.
Joyce: Right. For me, the aging work force is the most relevant issue for ergonomics. It's a more relevant issue than the current focus on musculo-skeletal disorders. It's “will the last twenty years of our lives be healthy and productive?” The way we work, and at a more basic level, the way we sit, stand, and walk while we work will have a profound effect on the way we age.
Marian: That's an interesting and more general focus that perhaps the Alexander Technique community hasn't considered as much as we could. Yet Alexander himself obviously focused on the wider impact and usefulness of the technique. Musculo-skeletal disorders are a possible part of the aging process but they're certainly not the whole picture. Aging is obviously a major life process, and it is the technique in its wholistic encompassing sense (which Alexander emphasized) that can enhance this major life process. It's not just the musculo-skeletal aspect.
Joyce: My personal feeling is that the Alexander Technique is going to add a quality of life to my own aging. I'm 44 so I'm not eminently worried about it but I think all of us in the baby boom generation have got to be concerned about it.
Marian: What do you think is the common ground for cooperation between Alexander Technique teachers and ergonomists?
Joyce: I think if you were to take popular ergonomics and some of the popular notions of Alexander, it would just be confusing. I don't think there would be any common ground there. But if we were to take the best of Alexander and the best of ergonomics, that could be a different story. Most things that have really surged in terms of our understanding some phenomenon have happened when a couple of professions intersect. One person or a few people become knowledgable of two professions. There's something about this that seems to be catalytic in and of itself. So I think that what ergonomics has that may be useful to Alexander is our 50 years of focusing on many professions and our systems thinking. Also, how to measure physiological and behavioral phenomenon and how to run experiments (which rightly or wrongly is the currency of knowledge today). What Alexander has that ergonomics could use is this unique educational technique which has worked for 100 years. People are increasingly realizing that traditional education methods for behavioral changes don't work. So you'd be catching us at a good time, when we would say yes, we would agree with you.
Of course, it could be really scary if the technique really caught on before there were the resources in place to meet the demand with quality. I think the technique could grow like wildfire but then burn out. I think that things that go really hot can also go really cold.
Marian: I think that's very true. That happened with another method. Back in the late 1800s, Alexander was teaching and studying the Delsarte System. It was a rather esoteric mind-body method. One of its practitioners, Steele MacKaye, apparently became such a good exponent of it that he acted as a catalyst for the method suddenly becoming extremely popular. Everything was “Delsarte;” there were even all sorts of “Delsarte” products being sold in mail order catalogs. Many people were claiming to teach it who had little or no training in it or understanding of it. (Which reminds me, a trainee on my course knows someone who has read a couple of books on the Alexander Technique and based on that is now “teaching” it. And there are people who've written books on the technique after having a few lessons.) I think the “Greek statue posing” that became very popular was a very bastardized version of Delsarte. So Delsarte was really the thing to do. Of course, a lot of it wasn't really Delsarte, just as a lot of popular ergonomics isn't actually ergonomics or a lot of popular Alexander isn't really Alexander. Delsarte was used a lot by the performing arts, but it was also recommended and used by all sorts of professions and disciplines. It was sort of a self-improvement, inner self realization through organic self-expression mind-body method, albeit all put in nineteenth century terms and language. We obviously have our own trendy terms today (I just used some of them in the preceding sentence) and most people today would probably consider Delsarte terminology and imagery rather quaint. Anyway, people capitalized on MacKaye's popularity and they basically co-opted and exploited the Delsarte System. After being extremely popular for a few years, the whole thing crashed: the method was completely discredited. And no one was interested in the real Delsarte system after that except for a few faithful practitioners. One of these practitioners, Genevieve Stebbins, was still practicing the system a number of years later. Two of the people who started modern dance in the U.S.(Ted Shawn and, I believe, Ruth St. Denis) studied with her. These people started practicing the system (or at least part of it) and it ended up forming much of the roots of American modern dance.
Joyce: You're kidding! What a wild story!
Marian: It is a wild story. I think very few people today have ever heard of the Delsarte System.
Joyce: Well, I guess you just can't beat out a flame though. If there is something real and good about a method, probably someone is going to carry the torch through difficult times.
Marian: I don't know if anyone does that with the Delsarte System today. If you read about it, it does sound “nineteenth century” and very esoteric and complex. Although if you really think about it, much of it really isn't different from some of the new age type of terminiology and imagery methods that are currently popular. It's also interesting that Alexander used this technique, but then must have decided that imagery/visualization and metaphors weren't helpful for what he had developed and was trying to convey because he didn't incorporate them into the technique. [See also F.M. Alexander, The Universal Constant in Living Chapter 8, "An Osteopath's Idea of a New Technique."]
Joyce: So Alexander worked with the Delsarte System too?
Marian: He did work with it or a version of it for a few years early on. There are some very interesting things in the system and it's possible that it helped to stimulate some of his ideas. I believe he was studying a number of different methods at that point. This is very early on, before he had really fully developed his technique. Apparently, he was looking at different methods that were around at that time.
Joyce: I didn't know that he had been looking at different methods and treatments.
Marian: I think he probably did as much as he was able to, given that he was in Australia in the late 1800s. Apparently he did a lot of reading. There were major voice textbooks available. And he also read William James, which apparently did have a very big impact on his thinking. And Delsarte, in its own way, took a holistic mind/body approach, which could have easily accounted for Alexander's particular interest in it. And some things about Delsarte apparently worked. Some people seemed to get a lot out of it.
Joyce: Carol and Brian McCullough just went to visit the Murrays. Carol says she was just blown away by Joan's teaching. It was almost as if Joan had gotten a lot better since the last time she had worked with Carol.
Marian: Well, I think Joan is constantly learning and having new insights and this comes through in her teaching. But I think that's why wonderful teachers are wonderful.
Joyce: I find it fascinating to think that one's skills and knowledge can constantly grow even after a person has practiced for many years. Did Alexander get quite a bit better over the years?
Marian: Yes. He was obviously grappling with certain problems, such as the problem of verbal instructions and directions. He wrote about this. In fact, he originally tried to teach the technique through verbal instructions alone. He obviously looked for better ways to teach it. I'm sure his own use must have continually improved, which would have directly impacted his hands-on work. And doing hands-on work probably helped him to improve his own use, as hands-on work provides the teacher with a constant source of feedback for what the teacher is doing with him or herself. According to people who worked with Alexander, his hands-on work did improve and change; apparently he was doing his best work in the last years of his life. His understanding of coordination and people's habits must have also continually improved through his work and observations.
Joyce: So it's rather like a fine art—getting better and better.
Marian: Well, that's actually how he described it early on, when he was having an argument with a doctor who had tried to lift some of his work. This doctor was justifying himself by saying that Alexander didn't have the training to be doing what he was doing. And Alexander's point was that doctors didn't have the training to be doing what Alexander was doing. Alexander said that teaching his technique required, among other things, “the eye of the artist.”
How did you first hear about the Alexander Technique?
Joyce: Two years ago I was attending the annual meeting of the Human Factors Society. I went to a particularly good seminar on survey design. At the luncheon that followed I went up to one of the presenters and complimented her on the presentation. She asked me what my background was in ergonomics and I said engineering. She winced and said, “Oh, you're one of those people who think that problems can be designed away.” I was rather taken aback by her remark, but I was curious to know what was behind her comment. I ended up having lunch with her. It turned out that she had earned her Ph.D. in piano pedagogy and was now studying ergonomics. She said that, in her opinion, ergonomists were too quick to jump to a design solution to problems because our profession was too lopsided with engineers. She said that we had neglected other strategies, namely technique. She asked me if I had ever heard of the Alexander Technique. I said that I hadn't, which obviously just reaffirmed her belief that I, along with others in my profession, were really missing out on something. We went on to discuss what the Alexander Technique was. As much as I could grasp what it was, I was very taken aback, almost in the same way as I was taken aback when I first heard of the Human Factors Profession. A light bulb went on. I thought, “Well, of course! Did we blow it by jumping immediately to design techniques and neglecting technique itself?” I felt there was some element of truth in what she had said that I couldn 't neglect. So I bought a number of books on the Alexander Technique and read them, but I didn't really “get it” from the books.
Several months later we had a house guest who is a very gifted scholar and also a musician. She casually mentioned that the Alexander Technique changed her life. At this point I had heard two very bright people who didn't seem the type to be given to exaggeration say remarkable things about the Alexander Technique. I felt that I would travel almost anywhere to test it out for myself. I didn't have any aches or pains but I felt a tremendous responsibility in my role as the ergonomist for 20,000 people at Mayo and that I couldn't hear rave reviews about something and just neglect it. So I looked in the back of one of the books I had put away and wrote for a list of teachers. I couldn't believe how lucky I was—that I wouldn't have to travel at all—but that a teacher [Carol Porter McCullough] was right here in Rochester.
Marian: What has your experience of lessons been like?
Joyce: I'll say what the first lesson was like. After standing up and sitting down in a chair and going into something called “monkey” and being asked just to give a thought of a movement but not actually move, all I could think about was, “How will I ever explain this to anybody?” Now, I've had lessons for almost a year. I've had the opportunity to have lessons from four different people [Carol Porter McCullough, Brian McCullough, Joan Murray, Rose Bronec]. I have a wonderful feeling when I walk. I feel like a giant when I drive home from a lesson in the car. I breathe better. I read voraciously on the subject. My husband takes lessons. And I recommend it to friends. So, I'm totally intrigued by the technique and I feel great even though I didn't feel bad going into it.
Marian: It sounds as though you've had a wonderful experience.
Joyce: I have. And I feel very fortunate to have found my wonderful teachers.
© 1997 Marian Goldberg, Joyce Stenstrom
“From a very early age, we are taught to break apart problems, to fragment the world. This apparently makes complex tasks and subjects more manageable, but we pay a hidden, enormous price. We can no longer see the consequences of our actions; we lose our intrinisic sense of connection to a larger whole.When we then try to ‘see the big picture,’ we try to reassemble the fragments in our minds, to list and organize all the pieces. But, as physicist David Bohm says, the task is futile—similar to trying to reassemble the fragments of a broken mirror to see a true reflection. Thus, after a while we give up trying to see the whole altogether.”
“The practice of systems thinking starts with understanding a simple concept called ‘feedback,’ that shows how actions can reinforce or counteract (balance) each other. It builds learning to recognize types of ‘structures’ that appear over and over again…eventually, systems thinking forms a rich language for describing a vast array of interrelationships and patterns of change. Ultimately, it simplifies life by helping us see the deeper patterns lying behind the events and the details.”
“Learning any new language is difficult at first. But as you start to master the basics, it gets easier. Research with young children has shown that many learn systems thinking remarkably quickly.”
The Fifth Discipline, The Art and Practice
of the Learning Organization Peter M. Senge. Currency Doubleday. New York,
New York. 1990