Being with Erika: #01, London 1985 – Annual Memorial Lecture

In 1985 Erika Whittaker was invited to give the STAT Annual Memorial Lecture, a very popular event which took place in the Autumn each year, quite separate from the Annual Conference, in St. Wilfrid’s Hall at the Brompton Oratory. It seemed that the Alexander world was beginning to knock on Erika’s door. I believe it was Jean Clarke who sought her out in Melbourne and suggested she give the Annual Lecture. During Erika’s time in the UK she also visited several training-courses and met two generations of teachers to whom she was quite unknown.

I had been qualified for just over a year and, having recently started taking lessons with Margaret Goldie, was very curious to see another ‘grand old lady’ of the Ashley Place days.

John Nichols, the Chairman of the Council at that time, was already sitting on the stage to introduce her in a rather formal way. Then this relatively youthful looking woman came bounding onto the platform and began to speak.

I was initially rather confused. I wondered who this person was, why she was talking to us; and when the ‘grand old lady’ was going to come on stage. It took a good couple of minutes for me to actually realise that this was Erika.

One of the first things that registered was when she said that anyone who looked as though they were practising the Alexander Technique was not. I looked around the lecture hall and saw practically a room full of people who looked very much as though they were practising the Alexander Technique. Not only that, they were sitting in little enclaves, depending on where they had trained, and were practising the Alexander Technique in the ‘house style’.

My interest was piqued. I wanted to know more about this very unusual woman.

A few days later I was talking to a colleague about Erika and the lecture. “I had a lesson with her” she said. “It was very interesting.”

It had not occurred to me that she may be teaching while in London, but now I was hoping that I could get to see her before she returned to Australia. She was staying in another teacher’s flat in Earls Court. I contacted her and asked if I could have a lesson. “I’d be pleased to meet you” she said. A couple of days later I rang the doorbell and Erika answered. I knew straightaway that there was something different about her which, at that time, I could only express to myself as she allowed herself to ‘live her personality’. There was no ‘imposition of a technique’, no sense that she was ‘the teacher’, and one felt immediately at ease with her.

Because of a mix-up over times, the teaching-room was in use so she took me into another room and we sat down and began to talk. Well mostly she began to talk and I listened. After a while I began to realise that what she was talking about was actually very relevant to me. She had quickly got the measure of me and was giving me some insightful advice in a very indirect way.

After a little while the other room became free and we moved in there. In front of the chair she constantly kept my attention engaged so that I did not interfere. It never became ‘chair work’, but I soon found myself sitting down; and a few moments later I was standing up again – though I did not know ‘how’. She invited me to lie on the table and made minimal contact with her hands, but kept talking to me all the while.

Then she said she had another appointment and I had to leave. I asked her what I owed her. “Oh no!” she said. “You are a teacher aren’t you, so we are just ‘exchanging’. The next time will have to be in Australia.”

And so I left. I went and sat in a cafe to have a coffee, feeling somewhat similar – and yet very different – to when I had my first lessons some seven years earlier. Similar in that I was experiencing myself in a new way; but different – very different – because this had come about with hardly any ‘hands-on’ work. Something very important had happened. Erika had got inside my head. She had changed my thinking.

© 2013 John S Hunter

Other Posts on Being with Erika:

#02, Brighton 1988 – Key Note Address
#03, Melbourne 1991 – “Come for lunch!”
#04, Melbourne 1991 – Tea Ceremony
#05, Melbourne 1991 – Jean Jacques by the Sea
#06, Back in Melbourne, 1992
#07, “Where did you train?”, London, 1993
#08, “It’s all the same”, London, 1993
#09, “Making the Link”, London, 1993
#10,  A Lesson in Stopping, London, 1993
#11, Hands, London 1994
#12, “Yes, but you’re worrying!”, London, 1993
#13, “Nothing special”, London, 1994

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