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Equilibrium: Tradition and Innovation

(This article was first published in ExChange: Journal of Alexander Technique International, August 2013, Volume 21 No. 2)

Human nature being what it is – ever subject to the same laws – it is not to be wondered at that the followers of F M Alexander are facing the same difficulties as have countless followers of countless innovators in every sphere of activity throughout human history. Did we really expect to avoid the fate that beset Sunnis and Shiites, Papists and Lutherans, the rightful heirs or the usurping pretenders, the guardians of tradition or the great reformers?

To give a context to a discussion about tradition and innovation we should, I think, also consider two other pairs of contrasting terms: form and content, orthodoxy and heresy.

Beginning with the last, we might say that orthodoxy represents an acceptance of Alexander’s primary tenets; use affect function, the necessity of saying ‘no’ to a stimulus, the capacity to direct, the unity of the organism, recognition of the force of habit, non-doing, the Primary Control, the means-whereby principle rather than end-gaining. Heresy would be to deny or ignore these principles in applying and/or teaching the Technique which bears Alexander’s name.

Form I see as the ‘procedures’; semi-supine, chair-work, monkey, lunge, hands on the back of a chair, going onto the toes, whispered ‘ah’, squatting – largely accepted by STAT and the Affiliated Societies as the bedrock of learning and teaching the Technique.

Content is, for me, experiencing a free attention and the consequent physical liberation in an actual moment of inhibition and direction in oneself, be that in a lesson or – more significantly – in Life.

Tradition for me refers to that which is handed down from generation to generation. It is what we learned from our teachers and can be traced back to Alexander. It is connected with a line or lines of transmission (though some have been so dominant that others are almost disregarded).

Innovation is the introduction of something new or making changes to something already established; a change nevertheless consistent with the essential principles, hence not a heresy.

It can be helpful to look at any differences between teachers, teaching styles or even organisations in the light of the above criteria. Does the innovator enrich our understanding because he or she sheds light from another angle on the timeless truth of the formless content, or is it the indulgence of a strong personality, down-playing one or more of the principles in order to avoid some personal difficulty, or to appeal to those who want an easier, more marketable, version?

Is a ‘traditionalist’ rediscovering moment by moment – in the best tradition of the early teachers – the ‘inner work’ that can be accessed through a conscious use of the procedures, or merely hiding behind the safety of ‘form’, churned out day after day in some well-rehearsed routines devoid of any spark?

Then how to avoid having fixed ideas about being free?

Professor Bryan Niblett shared a story about F M Alexander and Professor John Dewey at a talk he gave a few years ago to the Friends of the Alexander Technique. Alexander sent the text of Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual to Dewey, asking him to write an Introduction. Dewey complained about the length of the title, asking FM to drop “of the Individual”. FM’s response was that that would be to leave out the most important word. So it is a path of individuation. I tried to express this in a lecture I gave some years ago:

It is good to admire and respect our teachers; to be in a line of transmission. But then we have to find something for ourselves. What does all of this mean to me? How can I make something of these ideas? Alexander said to his students: “Don’t do what I do.” In other words, don’t be an imitator.

I have always been struck by the fact that the first generation of teachers, to whom we all owe so much, are so different from each other – and yet true to a principle. These people all found something for themselves. Coming afterwards, as we do, there has been a tendency, perhaps inevitable, to fix the form in the way that we each received it. To an extent that is understandable, but a lot of the life, the sense of discovery, can be lost. We must be careful in setting up this huge infrastructure – necessary though it may be – of lessons and teachers and pupils and training courses and students and “bodies” – that we are not just creating an artificial, rather precious environment in which certain experiences can be repeated as ends in themselves: a kind of “Alexander virtual reality”. We need to take this new knowledge about use and put it to the test in our own lives. This is the link that needs to be made. To inhibit the desire to get in or out of a chair is one thing. But then we have to take that into the real world and find out for ourselves what is really going on.

Then, as Miss Goldie would put it “You’ll be making discoveries, and …you’ll be surprised at what you find”.*

* Making the Link: The F M. Alexander Memorial Lecture, delivered to the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique, July 2002. (First published in The Alexander Journal No 19)

© John Hunter 2013

Equilibrium: Rights and Responsibilities

“They will see it as getting in and out of a chair the right way. It is nothing of the kind. It is that a pupil decides what he will or will not consent to do” 1

FM Alexander

In contemporary times, particularly in the West, many people have a sense of entitlement; the words ‘human rights’ are heard all too often. But what about ‘human responsibilities’?  Not on a global, national, regional or even local level, but on a deeply personal level.  Am I or could I be responsible for myself?

Take some situation in your life about which you find yourself inwardly complaining. (Best to start with something small.)


Coordinate yourself!

Consider your options! Doing nothing at all, carrying on in the same way or what I call “The Monty Python Option”, i.e. doing something completely different.

You may think you have no options, but try and find some- even ones that you would in no circumstances do such as, perhaps, letting people down or being reckless (if you need some help with this you could always read The Diceman).

Then make a choice!

You may find that you choose to do the thing you are already doing, but now you are doing it because you chose to do it and, hopefully, in a more coordinated way. No one else to blame. Your choice, your responsibility!

This experiment can be a step towards taking responsibility.

It’s so interesting that in English we have this expression “take responsibility”. In all Romance Languages it is “assume responsibility”.  The language reminds us that it calls for something active.

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).

© 2014 John S Hunter

Equilibrium: Mind, Body and the Thing about Feelings

To begin this essay I will say something about “feelings”.

In English the word can refer to either emotional states (I feel happy, angry, jealous, joyful, sad, etc., a discussion of which will not form part of this essay) or sensations (I feel cold, pain, ease; this feels rough, smooth, sharp, blunt, etc.). Mostly when referring to “feelings” Alexander means “sensations”, for example:

What you feel is doing is “undoing”.
You are not making decisions: you are doing kinaesthetically what you feel to be right.
If your neck feels stiff, that is not to say that your neck “is” stiff. 1

Sensations are incoming messages from one or more of the sensory systems:

A sensory system is a part of the nervous system responsible for processing sensory information. A sensory system consists of sensory receptors, neural pathways, and parts of the brain involved in sensory perception. Commonly recognized sensory systems are those for vision, auditory (hearing), somatic sensation (touch), gustatory (taste), olfaction (smell) and vestibular (balance/movement). In short, senses are transducers from the physical world to the realm of the mind where we interpret the information, creating our perception of the world around us.2

Directions, orders or, as Margaret Goldie called them, “brain-thought-messages” begin as mental activity which may become outgoing messages;

When you get to the point of giving an order and hoping to God that it won’t be carried out, you are making the first step forward.3

It is important to note here that Alexander is referring to an early stage in understanding  direction: “the first step forward”.

Trying to sense what is going on means attending to incoming messages. The brain of course processes these messages (perceptions) and the more accurate the information is, the better the processing. But this is not direction. Direction is the mental activity, with or without words, which can – indirectly – activate certain outgoing pathways. If and when the message gets through to muscle, muscle will respond and some sensory feedback may be registered, but the mental processes themselves have no sensation – or at least not what is normally meant by sensation.4

“Feeling out” encourages attending to incoming messages with barely any attention available for activating the mental processes which can stimulate outgoing ones.

The nature of these outgoing messages needs some consideration. In my experience they involve many degrees of subtlety. The quality of these messages are palpably different in someone who has a great deal of experience of Alexander work (or certain other mind/body or spiritual disciplines) from someone who has none. And even amongst all of the above there are great variations according to either the innate sensitivity or the unresolved blockages, or a mixture of both, of each individual. It is doubtful that neuroscientists yet have either the equipment to measure or the conceptual basis to understand the subtle energies which gradually reveal themselves to the patient practitioner.

Sensation should not be ignored. It is not unimportant. How could it be! It exists for a purpose. It informs us. We do not, however, need to seek out sensation as an end in itself.

Patrick Macdonald give us an example:

Teacher, tapping pupil on shoulder: “Did you feel that?”
Pupil: “Yes.”
Teacher: “Did you try to feel it?”
Pupil: “No.”
Teacher: “In the same way, when I coordinate you with my hands, you need not try to feel what I do. If you try, you will only interfere with what you ought to be registering.”5

And from FM:

When the time comes that you can trust your feeling, you won’t want to use it.6

A sharpened sensory awareness – the consequence of an awakened psychophysical state – is quite different from “feeling out” what is going on.

In a key passage from Man’s Supreme Inheritance, FM warns us about the danger of indulging sensations:

Bad habits mean, in ninety-nine per cent of cases, that the person concerned has, often through ignorance, pandered to and wilfully indulged certain sensations, probably with little or no thought as to what evil results may accrue from his concessions to the dominance of small pleasures. This careless relaxation of reason, in the first instance, makes it doubly difficult to assert command when the indulgence has become a habit. Sensation has usurped the throne so feebly defended by reason, and sense, once it has obtained power, is the most pitiless of autocrats. If we are to maintain the succession that is our supreme inheritance, we must first break the power of the usurper, and then re-establish our sovereign, no longer dull and indifferent to the welfare of his kingdom, but active, vigilant, and open-eyed to the evils which result from his old policy of laissez-faire.7

It might be added that the above applies equally to a taste for certain sensations experienced during the course of learning or teaching the Alexander Technique.

Trying to work with only sensory awareness leads to a constant attempt to ‘feel’ oneself in a certain posture or tonal state: another path to the classic “Alexandroid syndrome”.8

Cutting off from sensory awareness in the belief that one should work only with thought, in an intellectual and formulaic way, leads to something equally undesirable; a kind of desensitisation or disconnection from the body, and often one which is vigorously defended by argument.

Making the distinction between thought and sensation is not always apparent to pupils. Constantly asking them to ‘think about’ body parts can even encourage them to seek out sensations. Bringing to their notice some change of tone or release of tension has a place, but not at the expense of ‘dynamic brain-work’.9

What we seek is the capacity to make reasoned choices, in response to stimuli, which generate appropriate, coordinated responses modulated by more accurate sensory awareness which can inform us about the wrong.

In recent years in the contemporary Alexander world, the cultivation of sensory awareness has tended to dominate – to the extent that it is now practically the norm – with the consequence that Alexander work is largely thought of as one of many somatic disciplines, from which perspective it arguably has less to offer and is less successful than some others.

The current interest in Mindfulness gives us perhaps an opportunity to reclaim that “supreme inheritance” to which FM was referring in the above passage from MSI, but only if we re-examine what he meant by that and do not try to pass off sensory awareness in its place.

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). (back to text).

2. John Krantz. Experiencing Sensation and Perception. “Chapter 1: What is Sensation and Perception?” pp. 1.6 (back to text).

3. 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). (back to text).

4. Experienced practitioners report being able to sense a quality of energy in and around the head which they associate with a certain psycho-physical state. At a certain point it can become difficult to separate the mental and the sensory; it is as if both are subject to the same “willing”. (back to text).

5. The Alexander Technique As I See It, Patrick MacDonald.. Notebook Jottings. Published by Rahula Books, 1989. (back to text).

6. 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). (back to text).

7. Man’s Supreme Inheritance, FM Alexander, Chapter VII Notes and Instances (response to question III). Published by Mouritz, London 1986. (back to text).

8. Although there exist, in certain spiritual traditions, exercises which involve working directly with ‘sensation’, such exercises have another purpose. They should not be confused with “giving directions”, “sensory awareness” or any other aspect of Alexander work, and neither are teachers trained in the Alexander Technique qualified to guide people through the experiences for which such spiritual practices were developed. (back to text).

9. One of Margaret Goldie’s favourite expressions whilst she was teaching was “The brain-work more dynamic than ever!”. I thought she might have been quoting FM but I never heard another first generation teacher say it. (back to text).

© 2014 John S Hunter

Equilibrium: Freedom and Limitation

One hears a great deal of talk about ‘freedom’, but it should be remembered that in all spheres of life – and that includes Alexander Technique, personal development, spiritual growth and education – limitation, or boundaries, are just as important.

The balance, or lack of it, between freedom and limitation manifests itself in many ways in a human being, some of which I will try and address in separate posts.

In, for example, improvised music the satisfaction comes from finding freedom of expression within a given scale. Although this may be modulated, it is nevertheless the relationship with that scale which gives form, and creates the satisfaction of tension and resolution.

In dance (for example Argentinian Tango), in order to experience the wonderful freedom of moving with another – sometimes in dynamic opposition, sometimes ‘as one’ –  both partners must first accept the limitations of the dance form.

We tend, in contemporary times, to demand a great deal of ‘freedom’ in how we behave. However, it is not only for the sake of the ‘social contract’ that boundaries need to be both understood and respected, but also for the development of certain – what could be termed – ‘inner qualities’.

Limitation must not go too far. As the I Ching states:

“… in limitation we must observe due measure. If a man should seek to impose galling limitations upon his nature, it would be injurious.” 1

The Book of Changes also warns, however, that without appropriate boundaries development cannot progress:

“Unlimited possibilities are not suited to man; if they existed, his life would only dissolve in the boundless. To become strong, a man’s life needs the limitations ordained by duty and voluntarily accepted. The individual attains significance as a free spirit only by surrounding himself with these limitations and by determining for himself what his duty is.” 1

What, for me, are the unnecessary ‘boundaries’ that restrict me, and what are the ‘limitless possibilities’ which lead to dissolution? In my own ‘use’ the challenge is to find a dynamic balance between freedom and limitation, and to be perceptive enough to recognise both.

 1. I Ching, The Richard Wilhelm translation, rendered into English by Cary F Baynes, Hexagram 60. Chieh / Limitation, published by Penguin Arkana, London 1989.

© 2013 John S Hunter

Equilibrium: Aimless and Purposeful

“Whatsoever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, where you go.”

Ecclesiastes 9, 10

What are the values of contemporary society? On the one hand there are the so called “high-achievers”, bent on material gain, political power or sporting glories; on the other hand there is a culture of being ‘laid-back’, ‘hanging loose’ or ‘chilling out’. Where does one find valued for their own sake being purposeful, alert and engaged.

In AT circles, has the rejection of a “driven” attitude to life caused a drift away from the purposeful towards aimlessness? Do muscular release and saying “No” become new habits which generate a kind of lassitude?

What did Alexander have to say on this subject?

“We must cultivate, in brief, the deliberate habit of taking up every occupation with the whole mind, with a living desire to carry each action through to a successful accomplishment, a desire which necessitates bringing into play every faculty of the attention.” 1

Primary Control gives a direction – internally – but this new inner organisation needs a purposeful application; an engagement with life. This can help us develop other faculties and possibilities.

Not end-gaining does not mean giving up ends. Without an end, how can there be a means-whereby one can achieve it? “Non-doing” should not become “nothing-doing”.

1. Man’s Supreme Inheritance, FM Alexander, Chapter VI Habits of Thought and of Body. Published by Mouritz, London 1986.

© 2013 John S Hunter