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The Edinburgh Alexander and Therapy Centre has been offering Alexander lessons and workshops since 1994.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Chopping the Onion

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I thought I knew how to chop an onion, and so I do; it is even a professional way to do it, as I was taught how by a friendly chef. On Saturday, I learned a much easier and better way to do it, when I went to Nick Nairn’s cook school for the day. Chopping the onion, the new way, is something I want to become a habit. So, in the near future, I will need to remember, when I pick an onion up, to stop chopping it the old way and start chopping it the new way, until the new way is habitual. The stopping of one habit and replacing it with another is a powerful way of exercising control and enacting change in all areas of life. In essence, this stopping of one habit and replacing it with another is the basis of the Alexander Technique – which is one of the reasons the technique works so well. Indeed, it matches the formal definition Alexander gave of his technique as involving inhibition, that is the stopping of the old habit followed by direction, which involves enacting the replacement habit. Of course the habits that Alexander was concerned with, were the habits involving use, and use of the self at that. It is too easy to misunderstand Alexander’s work and think of it in terms of use of the body, when it is the self that counts, which is all of us integrated, focussed on the task in hand. Which, in this case, is chopping the onion.

Now, in chopping the onion, I had to handle the onion and make a different set of slices to those I am used to, while implementing some new knife skills. All of these depended on my use of myself – it is the forgotten factor in much, if not all, of learning and it is there even in the simplest of activities, like chopping an onion. When Tristan, our tutor, explained about the importance of the right grip on the knife, I thought not just about my actual hand but the use of my neck, head and back to make sure everything was lengthening first. While continuing with this, I then made sure the power grip I was using was light and firm and not interfering with my breathing, which is what most people do, as soon as they take hold of anything. In doing all this, I exercised conscious control both with regard to my habits of use and my habit of chopping the onion, where it is all too easy to tighten in the neck, as the knife slices through the onion, rather than keeping free and getting an easier, cleaner cut, in the new way.

Chopping the onion and keeping the neck free and everything released and breathing might not seem much, until a chef tells you how many kilos of onion he had to chop by hand when out of college or until you fully appreciate that in most things we do, we come into contact with the world using our hands. Our habits for using our hands have a profound effect on how we function. Just ask anyone with RSI, or a rider, fencer, artist, golfer, musician, in fact anyone who has a skill with their hands like a chef or a cook chopping the onion. There is always a skill, and where there is a skill, there is a habit that operates for good or ill in terms of both the task in hand and our functioning, as in chopping the onion.

Richard Casebow

Back in the mid-1980s, I started to suffer from severe sciatica that often made walking and working difficult. At the time, I was training in London to become a Chartered Accountant and I left, as I was spending increasing amounts of time off waiting for the pain to subside. Around this time, I also became depressed, as my prospects seemed to darken with little hope of a normal life. In seeking help I found my way both to a psychotherapist and then to an Alexander Technique teacher, both of which helped enormously. The therapy with forming a life plan and understanding myself, encouraged me to dream of the life I have now. The Alexander Technique gave me the practical tool to help realise it and to allow me to rehabilitate myself to lead a full normal life.


The link between Alexander Technique, Psychotherapy and the art of living intelligently became something that has fascinated me ever since and is something I have continued to explore myself and with pupils and clients since. This blog is my attempt to elucidate the links, as well as to talk about Alexander Technique pure and simple and the benefits of therapy.


I founded the Edinburgh Alexander and Therapy Centre in 1994, Counselling Conversations came later after I became a practising therapist in 2003. Professionally I act as the Treasurer of the Personal Construct Psychology Association and sit on the board of the UKCP’s house magazine The Psychotherapist. When I am not to be found working, there is nothing better I like to be doing than spending time on a Scottish hillside, exploring the arts or just spending time with friends and family, including the family cat.