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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

Reflections on History & Development, #2: Lulie and Erika on The First Training Course

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

Reflections on History & Development, #1: Trees & Fruit, Alexander’s early influences

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

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