Alexander’s Principles and the Martial Arts

By Ari Gil

            One evening, I was watching Tai-Chi Master Ma Yueh-liang doing push-hands, the Tai-Chi form of sparring with an opponent, on You-Tube. Master Ma was ninety-three years old then. Within a minute of circling with his opponent, Master Ma gently gestured with his hand, and the opponent was thrown five or six feet away. It was all done with no effort on his part; throughout the whole practice, Master Ma did not even move his feet. At ninety-three, Master Ma was a living example of the Tai-Chi principle of combining “Yi” (direction/intention) with “Chi” (breath) to create the most formidable energy.

            A few days later, I read Ted Dimon’s article, “Alexander Technique and the Fundamentals of Self Knowledge” (issue #74, summer 2007). According to Dimon, the problem of awareness in action was not solved by a spiritual teacher or as part of a religious tradition, but by F. M. Alexander. Thinking about Dimon’s thesis and Ma Yueh-liang’s martial arts skill, I was prompted to write this article.

           I think it is important for us Alexander Technique teachers to recognize that other civilizations, centuries ago, discovered similar principles to those of Alexander, and that they developed extensive techniques based on those principles.[1] The martial arts are not mere forms of exercise, but methods of conscious control and awareness in movement. They share with the Alexander Technique such ideas and principles as use and function, means whereby, doing and non-doing, and giving directions, to name but a few.

           Three aspects are present in all martial arts. The first is an inner aspect – how to maintain and improve health. The second is an outer aspect – how to consciously function in the outside world (the self-defense aspect). The third is a spiritual aspect – how to combine the opposing energies, and to merge non-doing and doing. I will elaborate briefly on the three aspects:

  1. The health aspect: The Chinese medical model places martial arts second only to meditation, and above acupuncture and massage. It knows (just as we Alexander Technique teachers know) that education is superior to treatment. Martial arts teach the practitioner how to consciously keep his body open and his energy flowing. The external forms of martial arts (Kung-fu, Karate) concentrate on physical power and speed.  It is in the internal forms (Chi-gung, Tai Chi, Aikido) that the practitioner learns subtle directions that lead him to build inner strength.
  2. The self-defense aspect: Good use is essential for effective self defense. While most Alexander students are satisfied with good use that enables them to cope with daily pressures (sitting for hours at a desk, working at a computer, driving a car, walking, or jogging), the goal of martial arts goes beyond that. Martial arts teach the practitioner how to stay relaxed and composed when meeting an opponent in mortal combat, and how to stay calm even while facing death. To achieve such an ultimate goal, the martial arts are more than just mind-body techniques. They emanate from a spiritual dimension.
  3. The spiritual principles: Judo, Aikido, Tae-kwon-do, and Karate-do all have one thing in common, indicated by the Japanese word “Do,” or in Chinese, “Tao,” “The Way.” They all attest to being different manifestations of The Way, different rivers all leading to the endless ocean of the Tao. While they differ in techniques, they all share the same principles.

            Alexander’s statement, “It will be found that every single thing we are doing in the work is exactly what is being done in Nature,” is fully expressed in Taoism. In Taoism, Nature is the ultimate teacher. Taoism is referred to as “the way of the clouds” or “the water way.” Water, since it never loses sight of its direction and destination, can afford to take long detours. It offers no resistance, yet overcomes all opposition.  In water, doing and non-doing manifest as one.

           The creation of Judo is an illuminating example of this idea. On a snowy day, Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo watched the branches of a tree swaying, weighted down by the snow falling on them. The branches swayed lower and lower, until with one swift move, they bounced up, dropping all the snow that had accumulated on them. This vision, of overcoming the opponent without resistance, led to the creation of Judo, the “soft way.” The techniques of Judo are designed to lead one back to this level of non-doing, to flow effortlessly with the universe. And, as the founder of Aikido, Sensei Ueshiba, states “When I realized that I was one with the universe, I became invincible, since rising against me is rising against the whole universe.”

            Nowhere are these principles better illustrated than in Tai-Chi, the “supreme ultimate.” In Tai-Chi, the practitioner learns to combine the opposing directions and forces (up and down, forwards and backwards, left and right, and full and empty) to return to the Tao.

            We find in Tai-Chi similar principles to those of Alexander, from recognition of habit to primary control. Even Alexander’s orders for Head-Neck-Back are stated in quite similar words: Relax the neck and suspend the head, sink the chest and raise the back. However, this short article is not the place to expound on them. Instead, I will only mention some of the aphorisms that allude to these principals. The following aphorisms are taken from the Tai-Chi Classics, essays written by various Tai Chi masters between the 12th and 19th centuries. It is worth mentioning that these aphorisms were introduced in the studying process when the teacher deemed the student ready to explore the next level.

                      Use the mind, do not use force.

                      Overcome hardness with softness.

                      When one side is full, the other side is empty.

                      Doing too much is as bad as doing too little.

                      Make every move count.

                      Chose a target and hit it.

                      Find stillness in movement, and movement in stillness.

            To reach such goals as facing death and merging with the Tao, the martial arts developed extensive techniques and instituted rigorous training. When these are combined with poor teaching, which is often the case, the results can be disastrous. In my many years of teaching the Alexander Technique, I have worked with more than one martial arts practitioner, whose diligent practice resulted in severe injuries. And yet, whoever has watched Master Ma or Sensei Ueshiba in action cannot but marvel at the abilities they demonstrate, abilities they attained through these principles.

            This brings me back to my main point. This article is but a brief sketch of some of the similarities between the Alexander Technique and the martial arts. A deeper analysis of these ideas, principles, and techniques can lead us to a better understanding of our own strengths, weaknesses, advantages, and disadvantages, vis-à-vis other methods, which also exercise awareness in action and constructive conscious control.

           I will conclude with the words of Lao-Tzu, from the TaoTeChing[2], which will resonate with all Alexander Technique practitioners:

                      In the process of learning this,

                      Every day we give up

                      Something that we know.

                      Less and less is done,

                      Until nothing is done.

                      When nothing is done,

                      Nothing is left undone.

[1] This article will not expound on the different Yogas, not because they do not deserve the same recognition as the martial arts, but because they are not within my field of expertise.

[2] Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Number 48. There are many translations of the Tao Te Ching, Lao-Tzu’s classic verses on Taoism dating from the sixth century B.C. Though I have remembered this quote for many years, I do not recall which translation I memorized, and I could not find it for this footnote.

©2008 Ari Gil. All rights reserved.