On Getting in and out of a Chair. “Hats off!”

They will see it as getting in and out of a chair the right way. 1

The Chair! For so many teachers the sine qua non of the Alexander Technique. And, of course, we have all seen the little film of the Master taking Margaret Goldie – looking rather like a puppet – in and out of a chair.

It was 1985 or ’86 and I had only recently started having lessons with Margaret Goldie. “Chairwork” had taken on a completely different character. It was never about getting in or out of a chair this way or that way. I began to see that every action or non-action that happened in a lesson was about what was happening in my brain. What Alexander had been at pains to write about in his four books began to make sense in a way that, up until then, it had not.

More than once during this time of coronavirus, Albert Camus’ novel La Peste has come to mind. Set in the Algerian city of Oran in the 1940’s during an outbreak of the plague, the whole city is in quarantine. It is a fascinating, multi-levelled piece of writing. One of the main characters, Joseph Grand, aspires to write a prose-perfect novel but his search for perfection has become an impassable barrier. He explains to his friend Dr Rieux:

“What I really want, doctor, is this. On the day when the manuscript reaches the publisher, I want him to stand up – after he’s read it through, of course – and say to his staff: ‘Gentlemen, hats off!’

Rieux was dumbfounded, and, to add to his amazement, he saw, or seemed to see, the man beside him making as if to take off his hat with a sweeping gesture, bringing his hand to his head, then holding his arm out straight in front of him. That queer whistling overhead seemed to gather force.

“So you see,” Grand added, “it’s got to be flawless.” 2

Not a bad aspiration by any means, you might think, but Grand does seem to be getting lost in the details:

“I’d like you to understand, doctor. I grant you it’s easy enough to choose between a ‘but’ and an ‘and.’ It’s a bit more difficult to decide between ‘and’ and ‘then.’ But definitely the hardest thing may be to know whether one should put an ‘and’ or leave it out.” 2

Rieux persuades Grand to read him the all-important opening sentence of his manuscript:

Then, pitched low but clear. Grand’s voice came to his ears. “One fine morning in the month of May an elegant young horsewoman might have been seen riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Boulogne.”

Silence returned, and with it the vague murmur of the prostrate town. Grand had put down the sheet and was still staring at it. After a while he looked up.

“What do you think of it?” 2

Rieux politely responds that his curiosity is whetted and he wants to know what comes next but, in his search for perfection in the opening sentence, it seems that Grand has not succeeded in getting beyond it.

“That’s only a rough draft. Once I’ve succeeded in rendering perfectly the picture in my mind’s eye, once my words have the exact tempo of this ride – the horse is trotting, one-two-three, one-two-three, see what I mean? – the rest will come more easily and, what’s even more important, the illusion will be such that from the very first words it will be possible to say: ‘Hats off!’” 2

During that period back in the 1980’s I have a vivid recollection of a morning working in a teacher-training course. One of the teachers there confessed to the students that she could not immediately think how to respond when her pupil had asked her, “What happens when I can get in and out of a chair perfectly? What happens then?”

My lessons with Miss G flooded into my mind. “But it’s not about getting in and out of a chair” thought I.

This teacher however, after what must have been a very pregnant pause, had responded, so she informed us, thus:

“Why then, you make an art of it!”

Later that morning there was a coffee-time reading from one of Alexander’s books – I forget what exactly it was – but the contrast between the material in the reading and the practical work taking place was startling. After the reading everyone went back into their routine of trying to get each other in and out of chairs “perfectly”. The precise and detailed feedback they gave each other seemed to differ only in the medium from Grand’s obsession with finding le mot juste.

The procedure had become an end in itself: another example of the medium becoming the message.

The exposure we all get to the daily repetition of what happens – including what is said – in a training course conditions us to accept it as “right”, even to the extent of rejecting what happens in other such courses. As one of my colleagues once said to me, surprising even herself by always going back to the same place for refresher courses, “It get’s into your nervous system.” There are many kinds of addictions to which human beings are susceptible.

And the books? That’s a whole other matter.

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).

2. La Peste, Albert Camus (translation by Stuart Gilbert)

© John Hunter 2020

Cult of the hands

My friend and colleague Terry Fitzgerald, a fine teacher of both the Alexander Technique and Ballroom Dancing, told me while attending one of his classes many years ago that “a good dance teacher can make it work for you”. It’s true! When one begins to study and practice partner dancing it soon becomes apparent that there is a communication between leader and follower which is similar in many ways to that between teacher and pupil in an Alexander lesson. Intention, typically related to familiar outcomes – be they dance steps or, in our case, the rather more prosaic movement in or out of a chair – is transmitted through movement and touch. In both cases though, all parties need a basic familiarity with both the choreography involved and the language of the leader or teacher. In finer moments of Dance the delineation of roles becomes blurred; two people move as one, moved by and moving to the music. There is neither leader nor follower – reminiscent of that moment in an Alexander lesson when “It’s just happening”.

FM is reported to have come into the training course one day and announced to everybody that “Now I can give it to them whether they want it or not!”. Like Terry’s “good dance teacher” FM could “make it work” for his pupils.

It can be beautiful to watch gifted dancers moving together to music. Watching a couple of people performing their Alexandrian “pas de deux” can look rather bizarre, though for the trained eye there are nuances of significant change taking place.

Nevertheless, the process is largely one of becoming familiar with the nature of the messages and how to respond to them. Different lineages have different languages of touch and different choreographies, which can make it more difficult for teachers or students from one school to work with those of another than for most dancers to adapt to a new partner; it’s more like learning an entirely new dance.

Patrick Macdonald once commented that it did not matter which words one used to represent the directions, one could, for example, say to oneself “Coca Cola” instead of head forward and up – as long as the words corresponded to the experience. The teacher gives the experience and by a kind of association the words come to represent it. “Up to a point, Lord Copper,” for herein lies a trap. Unless and until pupils go through the process of rediscovering Inhibition and Direction for themselves, they will continue to seek out the sensory satisfaction that comes from the teacher’s hands. A good teacher can make it work for you, but also needs to know when not to, and when and how to help you find your own insights. Learning to respond to the teachers hands must, at some point, give way to learning to make your own decisions and respond to your own intentions.

Trying to teach without hands is fraught with difficulties as the Alexander brothers discovered in the early years. The attempt to explain everything in words can all get very complicated.

Hands-on work, the great gift of the Alexander Technique, has in some ways become its limitation. The medium has become the message. Although in its present form the Technique is indeed a boon for humanity, the evolutionary secret at the heart of it still has to be found in the depths of one’s own being, in places which cannot be touched by even the most gifted hands – but only by one’s own consciousness.

© 2018 John S Hunter

A Padlock on a Ruin?

The teaching and training of the Alexander Technique was institutionalised soon after the founder’s death by a particular group of his students (see The First Training Course in 1931: a different perspective), who went on to form STAT. Some of their students later began to teach and train teachers in other countries, leading to new national societies being formed and eventually to what we now know as the Affiliated Societies.

These Affiliated Societies have continued to follow (more or less) agreed common standards of training, based on STAT’s model, trying to maintain “the purity of the teaching” – as they saw it. Within these societies there has been a great deal of in-fighting about so-called “styles”.

Meanwhile over the last 60 years, whilst we have been stuck in our approach to mind-body work, with our outdated vocabulary and rigid training structures, the world has moved on. New disciplines have arisen and ancient teachings have been brought to the West. Now Feldenkrais, Pilates, various somatic practices and the myriad eastern teachings such as Yoga, Tai Chi, Qigong and Mindfulness – a repackaged version of Buddhist meditation – complete with their own philosophies – have successfully established themselves in the marketplace, primarily by being accessible.

Disciplines that don’t adapt and develop are at risk of fossilising. Look at what happened to psychoanalysis.

“…psychoanalytic institutions, by and large, have not been set up to adapt and change. On the contrary, they are largely closed systems, focused inwardly on maintaining standards, conveying established theories and practices, and thus duplicating themselves. In a period of expansion, they are able to become more exclusive. The hierarchy that ensures control has an easier time recruiting enthusiastic acolytes, maintaining conformity, and guaranteeing its own power.”[i]

As a consequence of the rigidity of the hierarchy, psychoanalysis has largely been replaced by psychotherapy which was more accessible to those who wished to train. Was this a good thing? I’m not qualified to judge. But it is a reality that should be an indicator to us of what can happen when you don’t adapt.

And how are we adapting to the realities of a rapidly changing world? In short, we aren’t! As more and more AT schools close and less people are training – just as significantly from a narrower demographic – the Affiliated Societies seem incapable of addressing critical issues related to the training and qualification of teachers. Have they become too rigid?

Then some details of what the discussion is about.

The case for more flexibility in training timetables is that it would attract a wider demographic of people who are currently unable or unwilling to train under our current rules. This in turn would help develop interest in Alexander’s ideas, as these people from the wider demographic begin to teach others from the same professions, background or special interest groups as themselves (as is currently the case, for example, with musicians).

The case against is that the need for regular and consistent work, with a minimum and maximum number of hours over at least four days a week, is essential, otherwise the student will not be able to assimilate the work, the teaching will not be embodied and the standard of teaching will consequently deteriorate.

Other models, such as the one adopted by the Feldenkrais Training Accreditation Boards [ii], have not been considered. Why not? Do we know for a fact that such approaches would not work? No we don’t because they have never been tried – not anyway within the Affiliated Societies.

I find both points of view have merit, though there is no real evidence for either. For sure it is incumbent on our generation, as the custodians of Alexander’s legacy, to do our best to ensure that we maintain a high standard of training; it is also our responsibility to not regulate ourselves out of existence through an inability to adapt to the socio-economic realities of the 21st century, particularly if that inability is based on prejudice and idées reçues about training which have never been put to the test.

Is it really the case that there is only one means-whereby we can achieve the end of satisfactorily training teachers? It has been argued that anything other than the known pattern of training might produce sub-standard teachers. What is meant by “sub-standard”?  We don’t actually have a standard. It would be more accurate to argue that a different pattern of training might result in someone developing in a different way than others who have completed a course with a more familiar pattern of attendance. Our aim anyway should be to encourage an ongoing willingness and capacity to go on learning rather to produce a “finished product”.

I would like to put forward an approach to assessment and qualification which, in my view, addresses many of the concerns of both camps. I am sure that other more imaginative and creative responses could also be found if we are willing to think outside the box.

The approach I am suggesting would need us, as members of the Affiliated Societies, to put more trust in our Heads of Training, our Moderators, our Training Course Committees and our Councils; basically, in ourselves – in the various roles which many of us undertake or have undertaken within the Societies as professional bodies with shared aims and aspirations.

So I propose consideration of the following (drawing on STAT’s regulations):

Remove altogether from the Rules:

“Each training week shall consist of no less than 12 hours of classes and no more than 20 hours of classes over at least four days with each day to consist of no less than three hours of classes and no more than four hours of classes.”

Instead, give Heads of Training, or prospective Heads of Training, the flexibility to propose any schedule that suits the circumstances of their proposed course. However, the applicant would need to convince the Training Course Committee that their proposed schedule was viable (and clearly what is viable in one set of circumstances may not be viable in another). All the variables cannot be seen in advance and there is no need for a complicated set of rules about days, hours or breaks in order to try and predict them. Let our appointed committees make decisions based on their experience, common sense and a willingness to not unreasonably withhold consent.

This would address the needs of the “pro-change” camp.

Then how to address the needs of the “we must protect our standards” camp?

If we are to ensure that a satisfactory training has been achieved then there is a need for some kind of reliable assessment.

It is worth mentioning here that the current system of moderation was introduced over twenty years ago in anticipation of EU regulations which never materialised. In order to persuade the Heads of Training (affectionately referred to by the then Council of STAT as the “Training Course Barons”) to sign up to the scheme, they were allowed to nominate their own moderators. In this way the first panel was appointed. Helpful though the scheme is, it cannot really be defined as “external assessment”, and subsequent Councils have failed to address the issue.

However, there is something about the notion of a test or exam which does not sit well with our ethos – so is there another way to assess a student which, at the same time as safeguarding our professional standards, helps the student to develop their understanding and skills?

I propose that the Affiliated Societies introduce “qualifying courses” to be undertaken at the end of training. Such courses can be run periodically – at a Summer School, for example – by directors of training, moderators, existing assessors (yes we do already assess students from non-STAT courses) and other senior teachers. The hours involved in the qualifying course should be sufficient to get a clear sense of the student’s level of understanding and competence and can be subtracted from the required 1600 hours of training.

I can see a number of advantages to such an approach. There would indeed be an assessment of the student’s level of understanding and skill, but rather than in some kind of “test” or “exam” such an assessment would take place over an extended period (unlike ATI’s sponsorship scheme which is too short). Moreover, the “STAT Qualifying Course” would provide a high level of expert tuition which would expose the student to quality teaching from the different streams of our work, something which must – especially if such a course were also available as CPD to qualified teachers – be in the long-term interests of our Society. It would soon become apparent if any of the schools were not providing a satisfactory level of training. Extra time on the “STAT Qualifying Course” and/or the originating training course may be required for some students, and in some cases advice and guidance may need to be given to a particular school about the structure of their course, curriculum and/or the quality of teaching.

Obviously the above is only one of a number of possible approaches, but the principle is one which would help to develop common standards in our schools and be a first step in addressing the long-delayed issue of qualitative rather than quantitative criteria for qualification and which could allow new schedules to be developed in order to make our work accessible to more people.

We need to act soon. The horse may already have bolted. Despite widely reported trials with positive outcomes that have taken place, people are not queing up for lessons or to train. We must widen the demographic and make training more accessible, otherwise the Affiliated Societies are in danger of becoming merely a padlock on a ruin.

[i] The quote is from “The Organizational Life of Psychoanalysis : Conflicts, Dilemmas, and the Future of the Profession” by Kenneth Eisold. I’m grateful to John Heath for alerting me aspects of the history of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy.

[ii] Accredited trainings meet for 8 weeks per year for four years.

© John Hunter 2018

Why don’t we have embodied awareness naturally?

Perhaps if we lived more natural lives, we would. Our ancestors were more dependent on their senses for survival and thus kept certain pathways active in a way which – in the era of comfortable furniture, soft beds, sedentary lifestyle and 24 hour IT – we do not. Human beings have, one might say, evolved in a lopsided way.

How does it differ from fitness or posture training?

You can get an enhanced sense of well-being – and even improve your health – through any form of exercise but this does not cultivate the subtle connections between mind and body. Similarly one can learn a set of postures, ranging from ridiculous so-called “power-poses” to “deportment training”, but such approaches are guided more by outward appearance than inner sensitivity.

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.


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Be In Your Body!

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.