Tips4Teachers – Keeping the Back Back

There was a time when “keeping the back back ” was the sine qua non of teaching and learning the Alexander Technique. It could be said to be the physical equivalent of inhibition (but that is for another post).

There are some lovely diary entries written by Eva Webb which suggest that “keeping the back back” was quite the norm at Ashley Place. Somewhere along the line it has fallen into disuse.

In 1947 Eva had her first session with FM, then lessons with Irene Stewart, Margaret Goldie, Patrick MacDonald, Max Alexander, Dick Walker and Walter Carrington; thirty three lessons in total over a period of two months.

“They teach leaning back against their hands to prevent entirely the old lurch forwards.”

“It is still difficult to remember to lean back a little when support is given”

“For goodness’ sake remember the slight lean back.”

Instead of coming back I was pressing back.” 1

Although Patrick MacDonald was the “first generation” teacher most often associated with the injunction to “keep the back back”, the point was made most dramatically to me by Peggy Williams, who once quoted FM Alexander as saying to the students while she was on the training course:

 “Never in a thousand years will you make a teacher of my technique unless you can keep your back back.” 2

Frank Pierce Jones describes this process:

“The subject, sitting in the experimental posture, is asked not to alter the balance of his head while the experimenter rests a hand lightly against his back. As the experimenter gradually increases the pressure of his hand in a horizontal direction, the subject equalizes the pressure by coming back instead of going forward as he would ordinarily do in response to such a stimulus. When the pressure reaches a certain level (varying with the distribution of tonus in the subject’s back and his ability to inhibit a change in the head-neck relation), the subject will be brought easily and smoothly to his feet.” 3

I think it is a great pity that many teachers have let this aspect of Alexander work almost be forgotten and that many were never even taught it, so in this post I would like to talk about some of the reasons why I think it is important and how I use it in teaching.

When we are upright, simply standing, clearly work is being done by our musculo-skeletal system in order to oppose the force of gravity. We recognise, instinctively one could say, that the work which is being done is of a different nature or quality to when we are doing other kinds of work with muscles – to move ourselves in space or lift objects, for example; work which is more obviously volitional.

Certainly there are postural reflexes at work, nevertheless, when standing, one could decide to “switch off” the muscles involved and thereby cause the body to drop to the floor (Delsarte referred to this intentional withdrawal of energy from muscles as “decomposition”). So there is still an element of volition involved, but again of a different nature to when I am “doing”. We experience it as a kind of “background volition”: I simply decide to be upright.

When I put my hand on a pupil’s back I allow my whole frame to expand, and the expansion along my arm is away from my back, which is staying back. Because of my training I activate this expansion in such a way that it stimulates the same expansive response in the pupil, but only if he or she opposes my hand.

There are, however, different ways of opposing me. The pupil could:

  • simply lean back
  • “do” something (ie.voluntary muscular work, and it doesn’t matter which muscles) in order to push against me
  • stiffen to prevent movement

None of the above is what is wanted.

However, if the teacher is sufficiently integrated, free and expanding, the contact with the pupil gives a strong stimulus to the anti-gravity response of the whole musculo-skeletal frame. The teacher is then providing both an enhanced gravitational downward force whilst at the same time stimulating the appropriate upward response of the body’s support system. With a little patience, and a clear explanation of what is required from the pupil, it is rare for this not to work. A pupil in time realises that he or she can use gravity to” go up”, but they are not “doing” it. He or she can be taken into movement in the way Jones describes above.

Keeping the back back, without stiffening or pushing, is a subtle, but rewardingly effective way to activate the primary control, without too much focus on “release” as an end in itself.

From here one can explore how the support system is also activated by the correct relationship between the head, neck and spine. Also how it can be, and often is, interfered with in response to many and varied stimuli.

1. F.Matthias Alexander and The Creative Advance of the Individual, by George Bowden (ISBN: 0852430027, Publisher: L. N. Fowler & Co. Ltd) (back to text).

2. In conversation with the author (back to text).

3. Freedom to Change, by Frank Pearce Jones (Chapter on “Experimental Studies: Reflex Responses”:ISBN-10: 0952557479, ISBN-13: 978-0952557470, publisher: Mouritz 1997. First published as Body Awareness in Action. (back to text).

© 2013 John S Hunter

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12 responses to “Tips4Teachers – Keeping the Back Back”

  1. Jennifer Roig-Francoli says :

    Thank you very much for this clear and very informative article! I’ve worked with a number of teachers who clearly teach in this way, and find this work highly effective. I also remember a teacher being very dismissive of the whole idea of having “the back back”. I very much appreciate your clear explanation of what is meant. My question is: could you please put into words how “simply leaning back” is different from opposing the teacher’s hand in the way that is desired? How do you verbalize the difference to a student?

    • UpwardThought says :

      Thanks for your comment Jennifer. Your question raises a good point. Actually “simply leaning back” can be a way-in to learning to keep the back back and is often a good way to start to explore the subject. How I verbalise the difference between staying back and leaning back is to ask the pupil to try and “listen” kinaesthetically for “something” which wants to resist the pressure – without him or her “doing” anything – and to then cooperate with this “something”. The “something” is of course the support system and can be recognised by the pupil as acting independently of ordinary voluntary muscular activity. I also let them put a hand on my back and demonstrate the different ways of responding to pressure. Hope this helps!

  2. Annie Turner says :

    John, thank you for the reminder, the clear descriptions, and your reply to Jennifer. Yes, I can still ‘feel the (amazing) feeling’ of being taken up from the chair thus (and up on to the toes from standing) from training way back in the early 80’s (and the times it ‘worked’ on a co-student) , but haven’t re-experienced it in years. I also admit here to not bringing it into lessons as much as I could – a little, but not enough – thank you; I will work with it more from now on. Yes, it’s a very important part of what makes this work different from the many others.

  3. Cecile Raynor says :

    Hi John and Jennifer,

    It seems to me that neither leaning back nor any of the different ways to oppose the teacher’s hand given in the article above include expansion in all direction including breathing expansion. The something you are talking about seems to be what I call Living Body-Wisdom, which is at work when the postural mechanism is not interfered with. Is that what you were referring to by that “something”

    • UpwardThought says :

      Thanks for your comment Cecile. I would say a lot has to do with what FP Jones describes as “the distribution of tonus in the subject’s back and his ability to inhibit a change in the head-neck relation”. It is a learning process. As the pupils “tonus” and ability to inhibit interference improve, much less support is needed from the teacher. When the pupil begins to connect more with his or her own capacity to expand, the nature of the work shifts away from the psycho-physical towards what might be termed the “psycho-energetic (if that doesn’t sound too “Hitchcockian”!). A different quality of energy begins to flow, particularly along the spine.

    • Jennifer Roig-Francoli says :

      Hi Cecile,
      To me, what is at work when the postural mechanism is not interfered with is that “something” which is at times called Primary Control. To me, PC and the idea of a “dynamic relationship” between head/neck/torso, is definitely Living Body-Wisdom…something which goes by many names, and none. Definitely energetic.

      • UpwardThought says :

        “….many names, and none”

        Patrick MacDonald began his 1963 Annual Memorial Lecture with a quote from the Tao Te Ching for just that reason:

        “The way that can be told is not the real way
        The name that can be spoken is not the real name”

  4. Annie Turner says :

    Thank you for PM’s quote fro the Tao te Ching – it means a lot to me right now.

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