Saturday, June 25, 2011

About Inhibitory (Negative) Directions

In my last post (Three Simple Steps), the third step is framed in the negative ("I am not stiffening the neck"). I have often been asked, "Why not use a positive construction, such as 'I am letting the neck be free', instead of the negative?"  I'd like to attempt to answer this question here.

Apparently, towards the end of his life, F.M. Alexander told others that he believed we should only be giving inhibitory directions (instructions to 'not-do').  It seems that too many of his students were trying to do his direction, "Let the neck be free," and thereby actually stiffening as a result of their habitual mental-muscular doing/trying/effort.  I have also found this to be true with myself and my own students, so I have been experimenting with alternatives.  Missy Vineyard, who continues to be a great source of inspiration to me, speaks about this in her book, How You Stand, How You Move, How You Live, which I highly recommend to anyone wanting to further explore this topic and the Alexander Technique.

I have long been taught from various sources that the brain apparently does not understand the command "do not".  I also understand from my own life experience that positive thinking is essential in order to get positive results.  For this reason, I don't often give myself or a student the direct command, "Don't stiffen the neck" (unless I determine through observation that he/she can internally translate this for him/herself by understanding the hidden positive meaning behind these words).

Instead, I simply encourage the thought, "I am not stiffening the neck, or "not stiffening the neck".  To my mind, and to those of my students (because we arrive at a common understanding of the words we use while we work together), these are actually positive directions, especially the direction that begins with the words "I am".  This construction indicates a positive state of being, not a doing, even if it is then followed by the word "not".  What is being "done" is a stopping, an "un-doing", which is a very positive, active process.  There is nothing passive about un-doing or non-doing.

I also use clearly positive directions, such as "Let the neck be free," or "I am allowing open, loving Flow," or "aiming forward and up," etc., because I do think that we need to learn to respond constructively to both positive and negative instructions.  However, I am currently working with using the negative construction before adding the positives (if I do use them), and I am very careful with these, since I know that people tend to try to "do" the letting, or the allowing, and thereby get an opposite result.  I am also liberal (yet again very careful to note the student's reaction) with encouraging/praising words such as "Yes," or "That's right," or "Good," or "Yes! That's beautiful! Perfect!", as well as liberal-careful with preventive words such as, "No," or "No, not that way," or, "Stop."

I want to really emphasize that expressing, "I am..." or using another present-tense verb such as "Letting," or "Aiming..." or "Allowing..." tends to lend a better (more direct) result than expressing a command, such as "Let..." or "Aim," etc., because, besides implying something to do, the second option too easily implies privation in the present, rather than a positive state in the present.  Expressing the positive in the present requires a high level of trust, too.

When using inhibitory (negative) directions, it is also very important that a positive goal or motivator be uppermost in mind to begin with.  I often begin a lesson by having a student remember and/or explore his/her own positive goals (such as health and well-being, freedom, mobility, openness, life, flow, energy, happiness, etc.), so that everything we then do in the lesson is framed within an overall positive atmosphere.  I do my best to create and maintain an atmosphere of light-heartedness, smiles, curiosity, and laughter to that end, whenever possible.  I have a great pin that I picked up at an AT conference that says, "It is too serious to be serious about it.  F.M. Alexander Technique"!

So, in a nutshell, this is about using and including everything, both the negative and the positive, uniting opposites to bring everything back to wholeness, which, to me, is overwhelmingly positive!


  1. Jennifer - This is so perfectly put. Thank you for thinking this through and writing it up so succinctly. Wonderful!

  2. Thank you, Amira! It's hard to put something so complex into few words...there's so much more I could say! But one of my aims with this blog is to keep things short-ish and practical, as much as possible.

  3. Great post Jennifer! I too have been using "negative directions" for several years now with great effect.

    One way I look at it is that asking someone to say to themselves "I am not tightening my neck" for example makes only one assumption - that they know how to tighten their neck. And I've never met a student who couldn't do that.

    Telling them to say "I am freeing my neck" or even "I am letting my neck be free" makes an assumption about what they are able to do that in most cases is false.

    I usually lay this all out in the first or second lesson and I've found that most students get it pretty quickly.

  4. Thank you for these great insights, Robert!


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