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Feeling Hands

da | 10 Set 2009 | AT Congress

8th International Congress of the F. M. Alexander Technique
Continuous Learning Faculty
Lugano, Switzerland
10-16 August 2008
The Congress Papers, Vol 1, p. 159-168
STAT Books, UK



What do you feel when you put your hands on a pupil? This simple question offers the opportunity to explore some aspects of the psychophysical relation between teacher and pupil. Touch is a double-sense form of communication about the reciprocal use of the self and the psychophysical-emotional state. In this two-mornings workshop, we’ll see how we can enhance our ability to feel what’s going on in the pupil and how we can best suggest inhibition and directions through our hands.

1. Introduction

The idea of this theme came to me from a phrase that I heard from John Nicholls, who was quoting Walter Carrington: The first thing you want to do when you put your hands on a pupil is to feel (Paolo Frigoli, 1992). What is the first thing you do when you put your hands on a pupil? You probably inhibit, direct and… feel? What do you feel with your hands? After quoting Walter, John Nicholls added that it took two years, after he qualified, before he could feel anything. This is a common experience amongst teachers, which suggests that we are looking for something quite sophisticated, something that implies work on one’s self and time to develop.

For the kind of feeling we are looking for, the condition of your whole system is most important, as unnecessary tensions may limit or alter what you perceive. Your overall condition is also at the base of your ability to communicate to the pupil a sense of elastic expansion that can come only from the quality of your muscle tone. Before we get to consider the general use of the self and how we can promote the best condition for the kind of feeling we wish to develop, I’d like to work on the conditions of our hands and see what we can begin to feel.

2. Touch and feeling

When you touch somebody, the sensory receptors in your skin, muscles and joints are triggered, and their impulses reach your brain via the sensory nerves. The signals are processed in your brain, and you build up a representation of what you are touching. You may say that you feel something in your pupil, but what you feel is your subjective experience. Something happens in your pupil, but what you feel is happening within you. ‘It is an illusion to think you are feeling the other person. You are feeling what touching the other person makes you feel in yourself’ (Missy Vineyard, 2007).

Therefore, what you want to feel is the movement of your hands, which is determined by the movement of what you are touching. What makes your feeling more accurate is your ability to allow your hands to make the same movements as the part of the body they are in contact with. What helps to get this sort of ‘synchronisation’ is your intention to merge your hands with the part of the body they are touching, becoming one with it. You can imagine continuity through the area of contact, as if the skin were not a separation any more. You can imagine moving the border toward your wrist and forearm. Gradually, you can reach a stage where your hands can be so connected to the body of the other person that you seem to get information directly from it, as you and your pupil were part of the same system. (John E. Upledger, 1996 [1983)], p. 41)

2.1. Practical exercises for developing hand contact sensitivity

A delicate but firm and open touch is recommended. Support your hands and free the wrists and joints of your hands and fingers. Your touch should not be invasive and should not stimulate a defensive reaction in the tissues your are touching. Imagine merging your hands with the body and allowing them to synchronise with it (make the same movement as the tissues underneath). A good way to start is by feeling some of the rhythmic movements that are part of our physiology.

2.1.1. Physiological rhythmic movements
  1. Heart rhythm. Put your middle fingers on your wrist in order to feel the pulsation of the radial artery. Allow the fingers to move in order to appreciate the wave of the pulsation and not just the frequency. Make sure you don’t interfere with your breathing.
  • Breathing rhythm. Place hands on the sides of a partner’s ribcage and feel the movements in any direction. Place one hand on the ribcage to feel the movements of the ribs and the other hand on a thigh to feel the variation of pressure associated with breathing. Take the first hand off and feel the subtle movement of breathing in the thigh.
  • Craniosacral rhythm. Place your hands around the sides of the head and feel the subtle movements of lateral expansion and contraction of the cranium, which happens between 6 and 12 times per minute. Place your hands around the ankles and feel the subtle movements of inward and outward rotation of the legs propagated by the cranium-sacral rhythm.
2.1.2 The fasciae

The fasciae are multiple sheets of connective tissue that connect all the structures of our body, including muscles and bones, and transmit forces from one part to another. The fascia can be more or less elastic, can move some millimetres, and it is capable of some contraction and release. Muscles and fasciae are often described together as myofascial chains. Both muscles and fasciae contribute to shortening and lengthening, narrowing and widening. You can feel the tension of the fasciae in any part of the body through simple contact. For deeper layers, you may want to add some hand pressure and, when supporting a limb, you may want to add a slight input along its axis. 

When you make contact with the fascia, you may feel that your hand is attracted to a restriction; by following the subtle movements with your hands you can facilitate the release of tissues and notice the change. In the same way, you can follow the spontaneous movements of a limb until it reaches a position that facilitates the release of excessive tension. (John E. Upledger, 1996 [1983], pp. 44-45, 75, 265, 393-398).

  1. Superficial fasciae. Pupil lying down. Place your hands on pupil’s thighs, merge your hands with the body, and feel any tendency for your hands to move up or down or twist. Take hands off. Put hands on, exert a slight pull toward the knees, feel any difference in the ‘elastic giving’ between the left and right thighs, and take hands off. Put hands on again and exert a slight pull toward the pelvis and feel any difference in the ‘elastic giving’ between the left and right thighs.
  • Limbs and joints. Pupil sitting or lying. Support the pupil’s arm and allow it to make any movement in any direction, until it reaches a pause that facilitates release and change in the tissues.
2.1.3. The muscles

Muscles are the mechanically active parts of our support system and movement, those who receive the motor commands from our brain. It is interesting to feel the muscles  response to the students’ mental intentions, particularly to Alexander directionsThis feeling overlaps with the [JF: students’?] students’ response to the quality of your touch and support, coming from the use of yourself . The organisation of the muscular system for supporting and moving our body is a fundamental part of our work, something you definitely want to feel in your pupil.

  1. Arms. Support the pupil’s arm. Ask the pupil the following three things, and feel what happens in response:
  2. take hold of the arm.
  3. relax the arm.
  4. direct lengthening through the arm, as well as widening between the shoulders and up through the head, neck and back.
  • Thighs. Pupil sitting. Place your hands on pupil’s thighs, wait, feel what happens to your hands as you ask the pupil:
  • relax the legs.
  • direct the knees away from the pelvis, the back to lengthen and widen.
  • relax the legs again.

3. Use of the self and feeling

What do we want to feel as Alexander teachers? Generally speaking, we want to feel where and how our pupils reduce their tendencies to lengthen and widen against gravity, where and how they reduce their tendencies to expand and breath freely, and the underlying process of inhibition and direction.

In order to achieve these abilities, the feeling we get through our hands must be supported by personal experience, and knowledge, of a directed use of the self. By applying inhibition and direction to ourselves, we learn to recognise the feeling of our hands in relation to the use and functioning of our pupil.

At the same time, we also want to use our hands to communicate a sense of integrated, expanding use of the self to the other person. This ability depends on the use we make of our selves, of which our hands are extensions. If we stiffen our necks, shorten our backs, pull in our legs, narrow our shoulders and so on, then it is unlikely that we can suggest any release of unnecessary tension and stimulate appropriate muscle tone in our pupils. We need to ‘undo’ in our legs, back, thorax, neck and arms, in order to transmit our inner elastic expansion to our pupils.

Hands on the back of the chair in monkey is the basic procedure for developing good use of our hands and therefore for feeling. ‘This practice is about integrating the action of the limbs with the support musculature of the trunk and neck… Monkey gives you the flexible working stance that optimises the tone and efficiency of the postural support musculature… Hands on the back of the chair gives you the ability to use your hands and arms as extensions of the trunk musculature, using that platform of firm, elastic support as a foundation for sensitive yet active use of the hands to communicate good use to another person’ (John Nicholls, 2005).

3.1. Hands on the back of the chair in monkey

Classical procedure. A group of three people. Go into monkey and put your hands on the back of a chair. Direct your neck to be free, head forward and up, back to lengthen and widen, knees away from the pelvis, heels down, widening between the shoulders, lengthening through the arms, hands and fingers, elbows away from shoulders and wrists, wrists together. Two assistants at the sides each place one hand under your armpit and the other hand on your middle or lower back. They don’t do anything: with their hands, they remind you to expand the back and to widen between the upper part of the arms. You improve your undoing through directing, while the assistants improve their ability to feel the effect of this mental process.

Variation i: While keeping your hands firmly on the back of the chair, gently  pull them away from each other, without tensing the shoulders, pulling yourself down, and stiffening the legs. Allow the back to expand freely.

Variation ii: While keeping your hands firmly on the back of the chair, gently pull the chair upward, just enough to lift the back legs a little from the ground. Allow your back to expand more and the weight of the chair to be transmitted freely through your legs toward the floor.

Variation iii: Put the palms of your hands on the back rail of the chair and exert some downward pressure. As a gentle push, it shouldn’t require that you lean forward. Allow the neck to come back and up, the back to expand more and the legs to release away from the pelvis.

Variation iv: Put hands on the sides of the back rail of the chair. Bring the hands toward each other without squeezing the shoulders and shortening the arms. The increase of pressure stimulates greater expansion in the back and freer movement in the ribs. 

The principal underlying the use of the self in the above variations applies to anything we do with our hands on another person. We want any activity of the hands to be transmitted throughout the whole of ourselves, allowing such lenghtening to obtain greater support from the floor, thereby stimulating greater anti-gravity response in ourselves, which in turn leads to greater expansion.  This way of using the hands on a pupil is often described by John Nicholls as ‘doing in a non-doing way’.

4. Feeling the pupil

What you can feel with your hands is not only the way your pupil reacts to the stimulus of gravity, of an action, or of your hands; it is a total pattern of use and functioning. Even more, it is the expression of emotions, traumas, dysfunctions, compensations, postural habits, long standing reactions to past stimuli, etc. When you allow your hands to stay with the tissues, whatever movement they make, it is like giving the pupil’s body a chance to speak and to reveal itself, and for the pupil to become more aware of himself. These things can happen because a pair of supported hands are ‘listening’ without judgement, ready to receive what happens. A physical change can be accompanied by an emotional release, a process that, if you like, can be encouraged and supported with various techniques. What is important, I think, is to acknowledge the complexity of our behaviour. (John E. Upledger, 1990, 1998). 

The process of undoing, unravelling and releasing into a good direction may happen in many ways, often different from what we expect. We are all happy to go with something that seems to be going in the direction of lengthening and widening, but this is not always the first thing that we feel with our hands. Often your hands and your pupil seem to be going in a different direction. What seems to move toward a restriction may (beyond representing the state of the pupil) be the necessary path toward achieving a release and resolution of that restriction, a process that may happen only with the support of your specialised touch. By following the tissues, you allow them to change. It also helps to feel your pupil’s response to your hands.

4.1. Practical procedures

In the next procedure, when you put your hands on another person, I suggest that you inhibit any attempt to do anything, that you come back to your directions, and that you merge your hands with the body of the other person and synchronise them with any movement that part of the body wants to make. The movement may be very subtle and may happen in any direction.  By applying this process, you also have a chance to recognise your habits in putting your hands on a pupil.

Hands on torso. A group of four people. Pupil sitting. Put your hands on the front and back of the pupil’s upper torso. Two assistants stand at your side. Each places one hand under your armpit and the other hand on your middle/lower back area. Inhibit, direct, wait and allow your hands to merge and synchronise with the pupil’s body. Come back to your directions, wait and see what happens. Bring your hands toward each other, increasing the contact without squeezing the shoulders; direct elbows away and all the rest of the body; and wait and see what happens. Takes hands off, swap around. Repeat the same procedure with hands on the pupil’s abdomen and lower back, while the pupil is standing.

5. Feeling, undoing and doing

When you feel something with your hands, you have several options. The first is to stay with the pupil and support the process of inner change with your directing hands, allowing it to happen in its own way. In accordance with the feedback from your hands, you may then decide to move your pupil, to give him some support or move your hands. You may also say something to your pupil, ask him to inhibit and direct, or invite him to describe his sensations or emotions. Listening is important. If you don’t feel anything, it is worth waiting, directing again, and then moving your hands or the pupil. In any case, you want your hands to be directed in such a way that they communicate a sense of expansion coming from your own self. (Paolo Frigoli, 1992).

John Nicholls once said, ‘When Walter Carrington puts one hand on the front part of the neck, is not to do something, but to come in contact with the way the pupil pulls himself down and to help him to become aware of it, and this helps to diminish the shortening and stimulates a better upward response, and the neck comes back and up’ (Paolo Frigoli, 2004).

5.1. Practical Procedures

Chair work. In pairs. Pupil standing. Go into monkey, put your hands on the pupil’s abdomen and lower back, then on the upper torso and then on the head and neck. In each place, direct through your whole body and hands. Allow your hands to make better contact, wait, observe your feeling of your hands , become aware of the feeling you get of your pupil, direct yourself again, and see what happens to your hands and to your pupil. Choose to move the pupil or your hands according to your feeling. Keep feeling as well as directing. Do everything in a non-doing way. Take the pupil in and out of the chair.

Table work. In pairs. Pupil in semi-supine. Put your hands around the pupil’s head and neck. Inhibit and direct. Merge and synchronise your hands with the pupil’s body. Have the intention to facilitate and support any spontaneous adjustments that may be induced by the process of inhibition and direction on your part or that of the pupil. Move your hands to any part of the body that you think is useful, and adopt the same approach. When lifting an arm or leg, allow any movement of that part in any direction until it reaches a position of release. Wait and then put the limb back. Allow the process of releasing and unwinding to happen in its own way; just support it with your own directions.

6. What are the advantages of feeling through the hands?

  1. The purpose of feeling gives you discipline, helps to inhibit any attempt to do something in the first place and brings you back repeatedly to your inhibition and direction.
  2. When you don’t feel anything, you may be tempted to do something with your hands, to make something happen, something that you can feel. The more you feel, the less you need to do.
  3. Being a new and unpredictable experience every time, feeling reduces the development of habits in the use of your hands.
  4. A ‘feeling touch’ helps the pupil to become more aware of herself.
  5. The more you feel, the more accurate your response to your pupil’s needs.
  6. The more you feel, the more accurate your feedback, which helps your pupil to inhibit and direct more appropriately.


  • Paolo Frigoli, Personal notes from Brighton Alexander Training Course, 1992.
  • Vineyard, M. (2007) ‘The teacher’s Hands’ AmSAT News 73; p. 29.
  • Upledger, J. E., Jon D. Vredevoogd, Terapia Craniosacrale (1996), red: Como, Italy.
  • Transaltion from: Craniosacral Therapy, Eastland Press, Seattle, 1983
  • John Nicholls: Development of Skill with the Hands in Teaching. Consulted May 2008.
  • Alexander, F. M. (1987, 1923) Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Gollancz: London.
  • Upledger, J. E. Il Trauma e la Mente (1998), Marrapese: Roma, Italy.
  • Translation from: SomatoEmotional Release and Beyond, UI Publishing, 1990.
  • Paolo Frigoli, Personal notes from the 7th International Congress of the Alexander Technique, Oxford 2004.
  • Nicholls, J., and Séan Carey, The Alexander Technique (1991), The Brighton Alexander Training Centre: Brighton, UK


Paolo Frigoli trained in Italy with Frances Robinson and Angelo Cinque, qualifying in 1992. He has been a member of STAT since then. Between 1992 and 1995, he undertook four terms of postgraduate training with John and Carolyn Nicholls in Brighton, UK. Since he qualified, he has taught the Technique privately and has run workshops and courses around Italy. Paolo has a background in physical therapy and has studied craniosacral therapy.

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