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Can Alexander Technique Help
Students Master Tai Chi Chuan Practice?

by Bill Walsh and Holly Sweeney


Tai Chi Chuan study is popular among Alexander Technique practitioners. Some Alexander Technique training schools, like the F.M. Alexander Foundation in Philadelphia, include Tai Chi Chuan in their program design.

We would like to explore the relationship between Tai Chi Chuan and Alexander Technique and whether the study of Alexander Technique is complementary to the study of Tai Chi Chuan.

In Talks on the Practice of Taijiquan, recorded by Zhang Hongkui,note1 Yang Chengfu enumerates ten essentials in the study of Tai Chi. First on the list is "Straightening the Head". When Yang Zhenduo, (Yang Chengfu's son and 4th generation Master of the Yang family), taught this year in New York and Texas, he began his seminars with an explanation of this first essential. He told students to begin with the head: centered, not leaning; empty; and lifted without tension. The neck should also be empty, he said. Bill asked Yang Zhenduo to explain what he meant by emptying the head and the neck. This was his answer:

The head is lifted as if supporting something. The neck is upright and lightly pressing up. The body in between pulls open and you are open and extended. This should not be done in a way that is stiff. When this is done correctly then your spirit can come up. Then your eyes are bright and shiny.note2

This description is strikingly similar to what is called the primary movement or primary control in the Alexander Technique. F.M. Alexander, the originator of the Technique, described his primary movement this way:
1. Let the neck be free (which means merely to see that you do not increase the muscle tension of the neck in any act).
2. Let the head go forward and up (which means merely to see that you do not tense the neck muscles by pulling the head back or down in any act.).
3. Let the torso lengthen and widen out (which means merely to see that you do not shorten and narrow the back by arching the spine).note3

Both of these descriptions appear to be talking about the same thing--a very specific movement of the head and neck, and an accompanying elongation of the spine. One subtle difference between Tai Chi Chuan andAlexander Technique is that Tai Chi Chuan describes the What and AlexanderTechnique focuses on the How. In fact, the skills learned in Alexander Technique are based on learning how to apply the primary head/neck movement to all activities: from going up and down stairs, to getting in and out of chairs, to practicing Tai Chi Chuan, to delivering a speech. It is an accepted fact of Alexander Technique study that it takes a long time to master this seemingly simple skill of natural head/neck/spine movement... and a lifetime to let it transform every move you make.

As a first step in the study of the Technique, Alexander students learn a process that lets them free their necks of tension. This process is taught through verbal instructions, demonstrations, and precise, delicate, hands-on guidance from Alexander teachers. Having studied this process, Alexander students then set out to practice balancing the head without tension during all of their daily activities. Whether working at the computer, brushing their teeth or dashing down the stairs, Alexander students strive to apply what they have learned about the primary movement, (or, in the language of Tai Chi Chuan, "the first essential"). Can you imagine the possibilities for improvement if you were to practice your Tai Chi Chuan every day, all day long?

This leads us to a second issue of importance, which is how we practice. Is it possible to believe we are practicing correctly and find out we are not? Absolutely! This is a common, though frustrating, part of the learning process when studying sophisticated movements such as Tai Chi Chuan. We have all seen students in Tai Chi Chuan classes being corrected by instructors and then seeming to continue practicing in the same incorrect way. Does this mean the student rejected the correction, or ignored it? Probably neither is the case. What is usually happening is that the student does not have a reliable enough sensory standard to guide him in making the change the teacher requested. Quite possibly the student thinks he is doing exactly what the teacher asked. Observers can see his mistake but the student cannot.

The problem described above is a central one in the Alexander Technique. Alexander gave this common phenomenon a name, unreliable sensory appreciation, and searched for teaching methods that would correct it. He realized that unreliable sensory appreciation was connected with our ideas and sense of what is "right" and what is "wrong".note4 Alexander realized that what we think is "right" is based on our sensory feeling of correctness, and that this is based on our familiar habits of movement. These familiar habits become the standard by which we evaluate all of our movement experiences. If our standard is faulty, we have no way of knowing it, and we will not change our habits or standard until a new experience gives us a basis for comparison and evaluation. A practical example: observe the amount of muscle tension or effort needed to stand up from a seated position. We do this many times in a day, probably without noticing ourselves while we are doing it. If we consciously observe ourselves, however, we discover how much effort we are using. If we can perform the same task with less effort, then we obviously were using more effort than we needed to, on a regular basis--and that familiar standard, even though it felt "right," was not the most efficient way. Alexander based his teaching techniques on the realization that, until someone has an experience which allows him to observe himself in a new way, he will not be able to change his patterns of movement. Therefore, one of the first skills that an Alexander Technique student learns is how to observe himself more accurately while he is in the process of moving.note5

Frank Pierce Jones, who conducted extensive research on the Alexander Technique at the Institute for Applied Experimental Psychology at Tufts University, wrote a book on the Technique which he titled, Body Awareness in Action. He explained the benefits of the Technique in this way:

The Alexander Technique doesn't teach you something new to do. It teaches you how to bring more practical intelligence into what you are already doing; how to eliminate stereotyped responses; how to deal with habit and change.note6

Jones goes on to explain that Alexander Technique trains students to take in certain key relationships within their structure in such a way that their sensations have a meaning which informs their whole coordination. Jones described this skill as the ability to expand awareness into an extended, more inclusive, form of consciousness. Yang Chenfu's 8th essential, Harmony Between Internal and External Parts, seems to imply a similar goal in the study of Tai Chi:

In practicing taijiquan, the focus is on the mind and consciousness. Hence the saying: the mind is the commander, and the body is subservient to it...Perfection is achieved when one unifies the two and harmonizes the internal and external parts into a complete whole.note7

Another way of stating this 8th essential of practice might be: 'Perfection is achieved when we're able to do what we think we're doing.'

This could be applied in Tai Chi Chuan by not letting the knee go past the toes in the front leg of a seventy thirty stance. It is very hard to change the habit of letting your knee go too far if you are not paying attention to certain specific feedback from your body. Yang Zhenduo has transformed this movement for many students by asking them to use their toes to grasp the floor while transitioning the weight from their back leg to their front leg. If you are "grasping with the toes" while transitioning onto your front leg, it becomes very clear when you've moved too far forward. In pushing, when we move too far forward , we compensate for technique by using more external strength. If your front knee goes past the "knuckle" (metatarsal/phalangejoint) of the big toe, you can clearly sense that you have lost power and efficiency. For many, Yang Zhenduo's suggestion allows them to experience a constructive knee/foot relationship for the first time.

This article compares some of the important principles apparently shared by Tai Chi Chuan and Alexander Technique. The first principle "lift the head"has always made us curious. We've never heard much of an explanation for it so I tend to superimpose what we learned from the Alexander Technique. We were excited that the explanation we heard this summer was confirming and consistent with the Alexander Technique. Or were we just hearing what we wanted to hear?

Sometimes it takes a long time to find a question that is important and potentially pulls together different ideas and disciplines. If you have studied both these disciplines, please let us know what you think!

 


About The Writers

Bill Walsh is an Alexander Teacher, a Tai Chi Chuan Teacher and a Management Consultant. As a Management Consultant, he has taught in Fortune 500 companies in Influence Skills ( Selling, Negotiating, and a general influence workshop). As a Tai Chi Chuan teacher, Bill is one of four appointed teachers in the U.S. who direct Yang Chengfu Centers under the tutelege of Yang Zhenduo, fourth generation Master of the Yang Family. In his private practice in New York City, Bill enjoys combining the Alexander Technique, Tai Chi Chuan and Influence Skills.

Bill Walsh  e-mail: Bill Walsh
Tel: +1 212-226-0627, fax: 212-343-9662
66 Crosby St. #2F, New York, NY, 10012, USA

Holly A. Sweeney is an ergonomist and certified Alexander Technique teacher with offices in Montclair, New Jersey and in New York City. She has a M.A. in Ergonomics and Orthopedic Biomechanics and she is a Researcher and Independent Evaluator at the Occupational and Industrial Orthopedic Center for the Hospital for Joint Diseases in New York City.

Holly Sweeney  e-mail:Holly A. Sweeney
Tel: +1 201-655-1048
24 Tuers Place, Upper Mont Clair, NJ, 07043, USA


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Endnotes

Note1 -- Yang Zhenduo, Yang Style Taijiquan (1991). 2nd ed. Beijing, China. Morning Glory Publishers.
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Note2 -- Yang Zhenduo, translated by Jeremy Blodgett. August, 1997. San Antonio, Texas. Recorded by Bill Walsh.
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Note3 -- page xxiii, Maisel, Edward, ed., The Alexander Technique (1989). New York, New York. Carol Communications.
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Note4 -- pages 17-25, Maisel, Edward, ed., The Alexander Technique (1989). New York, New York. Carol Communications.
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Note5 -- pages 54-59, Gelb, Michael, Body Learning (1987). New York, New York. Henry Holt and company
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Note6 -- pages 1-2, Jones, Frank Pierce, Body Awareness in Action (1979). New York, New York. Schocken Books.
Now published as Freedom to Change. Mouritz, London, 1997
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Note7 -- page 15, Yang Zhenduo, Yang Style Taijiquan (1991). 2nd ed. Beijing, China. Morning Glory Publishers.
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2006 Alexander Technique International (except where noted)