How does it differ from fitness or posture training?
Is it like Mindfulness?
There are similarities and differences. Mindfulness was developed by Buddhist monks as part of their spiritual practice; centuries later certain elements of this practice were adapted by psychologists for therapeutic or developmental purposes. For many Westerners – and increasingly Easterners too – a meditation practice is not sufficient to connect them with themselves in an organic way; there are too many abnormalities in a nervous system which is partly over-stimulated (by lifestyle choices such as caffeine, alcohol, Facebook and other stimulants) and partly almost dormant (lacking sensory self-awareness).
The gentle “hands-on” element of Alexander work can cut through these patterns of thought, nerve activity and muscle tension to give one a direct experience of another way of being.
I can still recall the intensity of my first experience of the Alexander Technique in March 1978.
Although nothing dramatic seemed to happen during the lesson – and from the outside the untrained eye might think that nothing was happening – the changes in my nervous system were profound.
After the session, which lasted no more than 25 minutes, I went and sat in a nearby café to drink a cup of coffee and try to process the new sensations, which I can best describe as an awareness of myself as a living organism rather than a continually changing procession of thoughts.
“Trying to be right” takes many forms and some of them are extremely subtle. One such is the fear of being wrong, either in one’s own eyes or the eyes of others.
Knowing when we are right is not within our power. How, in fact, can I know anything at all?1
FM Alexander’s response to this question was, according to the Teaching Aphorisms:
“To know when we are wrong is all that we shall ever know in this world.”2
Being wrong can become our ally. Until we know in what way we are wrong we can’t change it:
“Like a good fellow, stop the things that are wrong first!”2
We need to learn to make friends with not so much “being wrong” in itself, but the recognition of it. Hence FM’s plea:
“Don’t come to me unless, when I tell you you are wrong, you make up your mind to smile and be pleased.”2
Maybe some things, like the leopard and his spots, can’t be changed; acceptance is needed. Acceptance, though, can be both a powerful spiritual process or a way of justifying either certain traits that one is not ready to take a long hard look at or, in other cases, a general laissez-fair attitude (which FM also cautions us against3).
Reinhold Niebuhr expressed it well:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.”4
1. BBC Radio 4’s “A History of Ideas” recently broadcast a series of talks with this title, particularly referencing Bishop Berkley, Karl Popper, David Hume and Ludwig Wittgenstein. (See: BBC Radio 4 iPlayer [UK only].)
2. Teaching Aphorisms: The Alexander Journal No 7, 1972, published by the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique. Also published in Articles and Lectures by Mouritz (1995).
3. “…active, vigilant, and open-eyed to the evils which result from his old policy of laissez-faire.” Man’s Supreme Inheritance, FM Alexander, Chapter VII Notes and Instances (response to question III). Published by Mouritz, London 1986.
4.The Serenity Prayer is the common name for a prayer authored by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serenity_Prayer).
© 2015 John S Hunter
I’ve already written about the first Alexander training course in The First Training Course in 1931: a different perspective, but in this post I wish to look in more detail at some of the points made by Lulie Westfeldt in her book F.Matthias Alexander: The Man and His Work1 ) For those who are unfamiliar with this book, I consider it essential reading for anyone with a serious interest in the history and development of the Alexander Technique.
It is fascinating to read how Lulie’s attitude towards FM changed during the four years of the training course. What that says about Lulie and what that says about Alexander, the reader must decide for him or herself.
It was not until many years after I had first read that book, and many years after I first heard Erika Whitaker’s Annual Memorial Lecture (delivered to the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique in 1985) that I realised that, to quite a large extent, Erika was responding to much of what Lulie had written in her book.
Erika and Lulie were in different groups or factions at Ashley Place, but remained friends throughout and spent time together teaching at a girls school in the United States after their training course had finished.
The Macdonald/Westfeldt faction was certainly dominant and has seemingly won the battle for history; their version of what happened in the early 1930’s is now the conventional wisdom of how the Technique developed.
Then hereunder are some passages from both writers juxtaposed for comparison. The references to Lulie’s book are from the 1986 Centreline Press Edition. Erika’s lecture is sadly not currently in print.
It is interesting that Erika mostly defends Alexander here, although she certainly had her own critique of him, but one quite different from Lulie’s.
Lulie: p42 “One other thing that took place in this first series of lessons was an emotional scene…..Since I simply didn’t know what F.M. meant me to do, I wavered, hesitated and tried one possible alternative after the other. We had reached a total impasse. I got more and more frantic and he got more and more furious. Finally he burst out ‘You make me feel like a fool’. It surprised me that this should be his main concern and the cause of his anger.”
Erika: “…then one day there would be a slight stir in this quiet series of lessons, and if you were in the room next door you would suddenly hear FM say “You will do it, you will do it”, and this would mean that the pupil had suddenly got himself into a bit of end‑gaining trouble. And if the pupil then protested and said they didn’t intend to do it they were really in trouble and FM would say “Of course you intended to do it, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it”. So as I see it now FM chose the right moment to make a pupil aware of his reactions; probably he had changed the pupil’s condition subtly to a point where it was safe to make the pupil aware of his reactions.”
Lulie: p50: “…..we were like the élite of all the earth. We admired F.M. uncritically and wholeheartedly, and he basked in our admiration……. We began to have grave doubts about the other human beings outside our orbit.”
Erika: “I began to feel that there seemed to be a tendency at Ashley Place to have the attitude that we were the clever ones and the people out there don’t know anything. And I began to want to be with friends who knew nothing about the Alexander work, who did interesting things and I wanted to find out what else was going on in the world.”
Lulie: p50-51: “Anthony Ludovici2 … was going to write a book about the work: Miss Lawrence3 , the former head of the Froebel Institute, was planning to buy a house and start an Alexander school for small children…
…another opportunity that seemed most promising was the interest of an American foundation…
…F.M. had a way of killing an opportunity, although in the beginning he apparently accepted it and rejoiced in it.”
Erika: “ When (his well-wishers) decided to help him and wanted to set up schools or institutions, any sort of organisation to keep his work going, he was flattered by the periodic attention from these well-wishers and enjoyed it for a while, but then he realised that he was being pushed in the opposite direction to what he believed in, and he refused to be fenced in, and withdrew. Naturally, those many good friends were often puzzled and sometimes offended.”
Lulie: p56: “There were frequent periods in the training course when F.M. was extremely bored….It was a shock to discover that F.M. could get bored teaching – especially teaching us, the future custodians of his work.”
Lulie: p56: “You simply did not get what you needed when you asked him. The answer didn’t meet the question and often mystified you further. If questions were pressed, he would get irritated and behave as though he felt himself persecuted.”
Lulie: P57: “…he was not interested in training. He did not believe anyone could get it.”
Lulie: P59: “I began to see that the fault lay with FM rather than with myself.”
Erika: “Some students complained that FM didn’t explain enough, or that he kept things back, or worse, that FM seemed sometimes a bit bored with his students. Now when we come to explaining, I remember Eliza Doolittle’s plea in ‘My Fair Lady’: “Don’t expline, show me!” Well, FM showed us, day in day out, with his hands, gave us new experiences; as we changed. So it seems now that FM would say he was showing us. That he was bored, I can now understand much better! We couldn’t see the wood for the trees, because we were end‑gaining like all students.”
Erika: “And I began to see more clearly why FM had resisted all attempts to categorise our progress and had such problems answering questions that seemed to him irrelevant and strange, since he put his working principles plainly before us. It was a case of the Chinese saying: ‘There are answers to questions that are never asked'”.
1. F. Matthias Alexander: the Man and his Work, Lulie Westfeldt, p 135. Published in 1986 by Centerline Press, California. First published in 1964. Currently in print published by Mouritz; (back to text).
2. Anthony M. Ludovici (1882 – 1971) (see Wikipedia) went ahead and wrote his book about the Alexander Technique entitled “Health and Education through Self-Mastery”: Published by Watts & Co (UK): 1933; (back to text).
3. Esther Ella Lawrence (1862–1944) was a well-known figure in Education having been involved for many years in establishing in London the work of the German Educationalist and founder of the Kindergarten system Friedrich Froebel (see Wikipedia). According to Lulie Miss Lawrence went as far as buying a property for her planned Alexander school, but FM withdrew from the project at some point and the house was later sold. Earlier (in 1926) Miss Lawrence had sent Margaret Goldie, then one of her young teacher-trainees at Froebel College, to have lessons with Alexander; (back to text).
© 2015 John S Hunter
Each of the first-generation teachers gave to the Alexander work a particular emphasis, based perhaps on a particular need – or a strong interest – in themselves which was related to just such an aspect or aspects.
Many of the second generation teachers tended to particularly focus on those aspects mastered by their own teachers and then, by a kind of psycho-physical synecdoche, took that for the whole.
It is a consequence of our discipline’s somewhat tribal history and development that many teachers today find it difficult to exchange on more than a superficial level with someone from another lineage.
I will in another post (Systems, Schools and So-called Styles) attempt to explore some of the reasons why these difficulties exist, but here I want to look at some of the problems which I have observed which, though different in many ways, have a common source; an over-emphasis of the sensory side of Alexander work.
The huge amount of hands-on work which takes place in training courses can, of course, be transforming. There is, however, a flip-side to this, which is that a student’s nervous system becomes accustomed to certain sensory experiences, and sensory experiences are, like many other repeated activities of a pleasant – or even unpleasant – nature, addictive.
Alexander warned us about this in a little known passage in MSI (See Equilibrium: Mind, Body and the Thing about Feelings).
Here are some of the more common traps that one might fall into:
- The “up-junkie”; i.e. someone who is end-gaining for direction, always seeking the experience of “going up” for its own sake – with a corresponding over-stimulation of the nervous system
- The “release-junkie”; endlessly looking for excuses to lie down and do nothing in the hope that some muscular tension may be released
- The Alexandroid Mark 1: who attempts to inhibit by blocking the flow of vitality in the body and suppressing natural impulses (see Spontaneity). This is usually brought about by trying to feel oneself being very still.
- The Alexandroid Mark 2: who attempts to hold onto “good use” by feeling oneself in a certain posture or tonal state.
Most of the above can be recognised by a certain glazed look which appears in the eyes, together with one or another kind of fixity of body (see £10,000 chest).
Of course in time many people are able to let go of these imposed controlling mechanisms, but to what extent they might be avoided in the first place is certainly a question worthy of consideration.
“Control should be in process, not superimposed.”1 F M Alexander
1. Teaching Aphorisms: The Alexander Journal No 7, 1972, published by the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique. Also published in Articles and Lectures by Mouritz (1995).
© 2015 John S Hunter
Patrick Macdonald did not, in those later years, speak very much when teaching, but he knew the moment when a few words could help to either induce helpful self-questioning or make something clear.
I recall two such incidents which took place during my last period of study with him.
I was working on one of my colleagues. Mr Macdonald was watching and reminding me with a gesture of his thumb to “take her up!”. Then something shifted; that recognisable change in state occurred in which everything begins to flow. Mr Macdonald leant over towards me, looked me in the eyes and said, very simply and very directly in a quiet but firm voice– as if confiding something both important and personal:
“That’s right! Never mind about her! You look after yourself!”
Then the moment was over. He changed, stood back again and in his usual voice said,
“Go on then, take her up! Your job is to take her up.”
But I wasn’t fooled. Something that I had already at certain moments tasted was now understood; that experience will always stay with me.
In my last lesson with him I remember asking him, when I felt myself moving freely in and out of the chair,
“Who is doing this, Mr Macdonald? You or me?”
“Who do you think is doing it?” he replied.
“I don’t know”, I said.
A minute or so later, when something had really got out of the way and a finer energy was flowing, he asked:
“Who is doing it now?”
“Nobody is doing it,” I replied. “It’s just happening.”
“That’s right,” he said. “It’s just happening.”
And again, at that moment – something was understood.
© John Hunter 2015
F. Matthias Alexander was one of those rare human beings: an innovator in the field of human potential. His research was always practical and experiential. At a time when psychology was moving more and more into the realm of the unconscious, Alexander was exploring consciousness, in particular at the level of the interrelationship between the physical and the mental aspects of human functioning.
What he discovered is that as humanity evolved we developed our intellectual capacities more quickly than our physical and sensory capacities, and this resulted in a parting of the ways, a dualism. In a properly integrated human being there is a constant two-way flow between mind and body; intention flowing into activity modulated by feedback.
Certainly Alexander was not, as perhaps some may have thought, a “blank sheet of paper” (but then if one thought about it how could he – or anybody – have been). Recent research is bringing to light a great deal of material about the period in which Alexander was developing his ideas and practice. What is clear from this research is that many of the principles and ideas used by Alexander can be found elsewhere (and some of them I will explore in these writings). To me that is not at all surprising. There have always been human beings who are interested in philosophy, health, self-improvement, posture, energy, mind and body, respiratory and vocal techniques, etc., etc. One has only to look at some of the most ancient texts – or other forms of transmission – to see that these questions constitute fundamental issues for human beings. When one starts along this path, one is not the first or the last to do so. It is a path of discovery shared by those human beings who have that particular interest, which might be termed “evolutionary”, in the exploration of the self. What one then finds along that path cannot in essence be very different from what others have found. We are not different in our functioning or our possibilities from our ancestors. If Alexander ‘borrowed’ or ‘stole’ from others, from what sources did these others in their turn draw, and similarly those before them and so on? What is important is that a human being has the potential to develop; some do and some don’t. The ideas are around us and can be found. The point then is to make something practical and useful for oneself in order to embody the ideas; very few achieve that. Alexander was such a person, and that it why so many of us are interested in him rather than the various ‘others’ who may have shared parts of his journey. That he found something of a different order is apparent to any sensitive person who has worked with or even been in the presence of those who were his pupils. A tree is judged by its fruit.
Although others may help to open the door into the ‘inner world’, once you are there you are on your own. Nobody can do the work of integrating your organism for you; and in just this lies the mystery (though this does not appeal to the scientific mind). ‘Non-doing’ or a “directed (integrated) state” are not things that anybody discovered or invented, they are states which can be entered into.
Certain ‘researchers’ into early influences are now trying to make a case that Alexander was at best a synthesiser and at worst a plagiarist of other peoples work.
I have to say that I find their arguments very weak, because there is no evidence that any of the people who might have influenced him, directly or indirectly, ever reached such a level of realisation as he did, otherwise there would be many more traces of their work. Where is the fruit of those trees?
I can’t help thinking that if some of those ‘researchers’ (not all) had ever spent half an hour in Margaret Goldie’s teaching room or had felt Patrick Macdonald’s hands on them for even ten minutes, they might understand that they are barking up the wrong tree altogether. But there again, perhaps they would not.
© John Hunter 2015