How does it differ from fitness or posture training?
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.
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.
Each of the first-generation teachers gave to the Alexander work a particular emphasis, based perhaps on a particular need – or a strong interest – in themselves which was related to just such an aspect or aspects.
Many of the second generation teachers tended to particularly focus on those aspects mastered by their own teachers and then, by a kind of psycho-physical synecdoche, took that for the whole.
It is a consequence of our discipline’s somewhat tribal history and development that many teachers today find it difficult to exchange on more than a superficial level with someone from another lineage.
I will in another post (Systems, Schools and So-called Styles) attempt to explore some of the reasons why these difficulties exist, but here I want to look at some of the problems which I have observed which, though different in many ways, have a common source; an over-emphasis of the sensory side of Alexander work.
The huge amount of hands-on work which takes place in training courses can, of course, be transforming. There is, however, a flip-side to this, which is that a student’s nervous system becomes accustomed to certain sensory experiences, and sensory experiences are, like many other repeated activities of a pleasant – or even unpleasant – nature, addictive.
Alexander warned us about this in a little known passage in MSI (See Equilibrium: Mind, Body and the Thing about Feelings).
Here are some of the more common traps that one might fall into:
- The “up-junkie”; i.e. someone who is end-gaining for direction, always seeking the experience of “going up” for its own sake – with a corresponding over-stimulation of the nervous system
- The “release-junkie”; endlessly looking for excuses to lie down and do nothing in the hope that some muscular tension may be released
- The Alexandroid Mark 1: who attempts to inhibit by blocking the flow of vitality in the body and suppressing natural impulses (see Spontaneity). This is usually brought about by trying to feel oneself being very still.
- The Alexandroid Mark 2: who attempts to hold onto “good use” by feeling oneself in a certain posture or tonal state.
Most of the above can be recognised by a certain glazed look which appears in the eyes, together with one or another kind of fixity of body (see £10,000 chest).
Of course in time many people are able to let go of these imposed controlling mechanisms, but to what extent they might be avoided in the first place is certainly a question worthy of consideration.
“Control should be in process, not superimposed.”1 F M Alexander
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).
© 2015 John S Hunter
FM Alexander seemed at certain times to favour the word “orders” to describe processes involved in his technique of re-education and at other times “directions”; he also used both words as, for example, here:
“…if we are going to do, not a mechanical exercise, but something real that matters, you have to think out beforehand the means whereby you have to do it, and give the directions or orders for these means whereby, in the form of a wish, as it were, and keep that wish going all through the activity.” [i]
He sometimes also used the term “directive orders”.
Walter Carrington often referred to “wishing” and “willing”; Margaret Goldie spoke of “brain-thought-messages”; Patrick Macdonald preferred “think up”; Marj Barstow, somewhat controversially, talked about “moving up”; and Erika Whittaker said it was really about “decisions”.
In this article I would like to consider particular emphases which are brought out by the words “orders” and “directions” in the English language in order to explore how the nuances of meaning might inform our ways of using these words in our work on ourselves and in our teaching.
The following list is doubtless not exhaustive, but gives some sense of the breadth of meaning that can be found in these words. Some of the elements listed hereunder will be very familiar to most people interested in Alexander’s work and have perhaps already been written and talked about sufficiently. Others are certainly worthy of further exploration and I will dedicate future posts to that endeavour.
- Order as the opposite of chaos
The above meaning of the word “order” – found, for example, in the expression “order your thoughts” – is not so apparent in “direction”. Its clearest application is in trying to calm a disordered mind. Dr Wilfred Barlow, in his thoughtful letter to Father Geoffrey Curtis, writes:
“… it is useful to tell pupils that for a short period at the start of the lesson they should, as you [Fr Curtis] put it, ’give their orders and not do anything to implement them’. I would call this ‘first stage ordering’. This period of directing at once begins to calm the mind, and such initial calming is not very different from the calming effect which might be achieved by meditation or prayer or some other repetitive mental discipline.” [ii]
All that is required is to say the words to oneself, like a mantra, without trying to link the words to parts of the body or to any kind of sensory experience. A mind that is saying the orders can less easily be thinking about to-do lists or various worries that may be circulating the mental landscape.
One of FM’s aphorisms also refers to this “first step”:
“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.” [iii]
- Order as sequence, e.g. “in a certain order”.
The sequence is important. For example, in order to carry out an activity (or not carry out an activity) most likely involving arms and/or legs, we want the movement to be supported by a lengthening and widening back; the back cannot lengthen and widen to its optimum if the head is pulling back and down onto it; therefore we want the head to go forward and up and take pressure off the cervical spine; the head can’t go forward and up if the neck is stiff; therefore we want the neck to be free. Hence the sequence, “Let the neck be free in order to allow the head to go forward and up in order to let the spine lengthen and the back widen in order to … (carry out whatever activity one has chosen). Each stage can liberate the possibility for both subsequent and preceding ones to progress. Therefore as they connect and integrate, they become one.
“The phrase ‘All together, one after the other” expresses the idea of combined activity I wish to convey.” [iv]
- Order as command
Both “orders” and “directions” carry the meaning of “commands”.
Many teachers use the example of a ship’s captain or a Duchess ruling her estate to make clear the distinction between giving a command and trying to carry it out. A ship’s captain who, having ordered “full steam ahead”, then runs down to the engine room and starts shovelling coal into the boiler, would be considered mad. Similarly a Duchess, having commanded that something or other be done in her household, has the expectation that her orders will be carried out. In the psychophysical realm too, trying to carry out an order when that work belongs to another function, or constantly checking out whether something is happening or not, is as counterproductive in the human organism as on the ship or country estate.
- Order: a request to make, supply, or deliver food or goods
This is an interesting one; to “place an order” – as, for example, in a restaurant – has a very different emphasis from “order” as “command”. There is still the distinction between the one who gives the order and the one who carries it out, and the same expectation that the request will be met. However, there is more the sense of a contract rather than of a duty. It’s worth experimenting with this nuance to see how it changes your experience.
- Order: a situation in which everything is arranged in its correct place
The expression “the natural order of things” comes to mind. We are not trying to impose a different system of organisation on ourselves but rather we are trying to stop interfering and uncover “the natural order”. I like this quote by Donald Curtis.
“Relaxation means releasing all concern and tension and letting the natural order of life flow through one’s being.” [v]
- Direction as aim or purpose
For example, “she had no direction in life”.
In this regard the word “direction” has a different sense than “order”. One can have order in one’s life (timetables, structure, etc.) but have no sense of a life-purpose. Similarly one can have a sense of one’s life leading in a certain direction, in terms of career or personal development, and yet in many aspects be very disorderly.
- Direction as orientation
“Modern man, when in activity, has very little awareness of such simple directions in space as backwards and forwards, and up and down, in relation to his own body…” [vi]
This meaning is not found in “ordering” but it is a vital aspect of sending directions. To lend meaning to the words ‘forward’, ‘up’, ‘back’, etc. it is important to relate these words to a direction in space. Muscle, as Hellstromists [vii] know, is very sensitive to directional thinking.
Patrick MacDonald comments in The Alexander Technique As I See It that:
“The science of physiology has not yet got round to recognizing this factor of orientation, even though it is the fundamental on which everything else depends.” [viii]
Once a state of mental calm has been achieved, or at least approached, it is time to let the ordering or directing relate more intentionally to the physical body; Dr Barlow’s “stage two ordering”, whereby:
“…the teacher…teaches the pupil the bodily meaning of the orders and how to put them together in relationship to his body.” [ix]
In my experience an essential element of this is to relate directions to orientation in space; to be aware of where “up” is (the virtual continuation of the spine); to be aware of where “forward” and “back” are.
- Directions as a description of expansion
The directions are specific to our human musculo-skeletal system. For a hypothetical spherical entity, for example, the directions would be something like “let every point on the surface move away from the centre”. A description of what happens when the human musculo-skeletal frame expands is that the head tends to go forward and up, the spine lengthens, the back widens and the knees go forward and away.
- Direction as relationship between parts
Although it is an essential aspect, it is often forgotten that the directions are about the relationship between parts of the body: for example, head forward and up in relation to the neck; head away from hips, knees away from hips. The relationship is one of opposition (Alexander used the term “antagonistic pulls”).
The late Sir George Trevelyan put it thus:
“I think ‘head forward and up – but my head can’t go forward and up because my back is going back – but my back can’t go back because my head is going forward and up – but my head can’t go forward and up because my back is going back ….etc. etc.'” [x]
- Direction as instructions (how to do)
We are all used to reading instruction on packaging, and the directions can also be thought of as instructions how to do something; means-whereby. For example, in order to type these words I am going to let my neck be free in order to allow my head to go forward and up in order to allow my back to lengthen and widen in order let my shoulder widen and my arm lengthen in order to move my fingers towards the keyboard etc. etc.
- Direction as movement
Marj Barstow’s use of the word “move” (as, for example, in her use of the words:
“… you move your head delicately upwards”
– rather than “direct”, “order” or “think” caused a great deal of controversy. I must say though that the experience under her hands was by no means one of an ordinary muscular movement, but rather one of allowing the head to be carried upwards by a kind of inner buoyancy, so the difference for me was only semantic.
- Direction as a flow of energy
“It is not enough to just give the orders. You must also conduct the energy there” [xii]
In many cultures and in many epochs of history there has existed a “science of vital energy”: qi, prana, vitalism, animal magnetism, odic force and orgone – to name but a few. Did Alexander find something similar though his work with projected messages?
Patrick MacDonald refers to:
“…sending a flow of force to alter the condition of a part or parts.” [xiii]
This is an important and subtle aspect of Direction and one which I will write more about in a separate article.
- Ordering or directing as wishing or willing
I find it helps pupils a great deal to remind them that they should:
“… give the directions or orders for these means whereby, in the form of a wish …” [xiv]
“Wishing” and “willing” are, of course, very different inner processes and are both worthy of further exploration.
- Direction as “brain-thought-messages”
This was the expression favoured by Margaret Goldie. She did not speak of either “inhibition” or “direction”, but of “stopping” and “thinking” – and the thoughts were not speculative or reflective but were “brain-thought-messages” which connected with the physical body.
- Direction as “decision”.
Alexander, as recorded by Ethel Webb, told a pupil:
“You only do what you decide to do” [xv]
Both Erika Whittaker and Margaret Goldie stressed the importance of really making decisions. This aspect of Direction connects with Intention.
- A Directive State
Dr Barlow’s “third stage of ordering” is, he says, akin to:
“… a state of ‘grace’, in which the ‘words’ and the ‘flesh’ are one and the whole organism is in a ‘directive state’.” [xvii]
To conclude, I have added to the footnotes a list of synonyms for Order and Direction – which may provide further food for thought. [xviii]
[i] An Unrecognised Principle in Human Behaviour: Address given to the Child Study Association, F M Alexander, 1925. Articles and Lectures, Mouritz (1995)
[ii] More Talk of Alexander, Chapter 18, Ed. Dr W. Barlow. Victor Gollancz Ltd 1978.
[iii] 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).
[iv] Use of the Self, F M Alexander, Chaterson 1946
[v] Donald Curtis (1915-1997) was an American writer and speaker on New Thought (see http://cornerstone.wwwhubs.com/Donald_Curtis.html). I know nothing about him or his writings, but I stumbled across the quote and find it very apt.
[vi] The Alexander Technique As I See It, Patrick MacDonald. Chapter 3: Why We Learn the Technique. Published by Rahula Books, 1989.
[vii] “Hellstromism” or “Muscle Reading” is a technique used by mentalists to create the illusion of mind-reading by detecting involuntary movements or changes in muscle tone in response to stimuli (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muscle_reading).
[viii] The Alexander Technique As I See It, Patrick MacDonald. Chapter 3: Why We Learn the Technique. Published by Rahula Books, 1989.
[ix] More Talk of Alexander, Chapter 18, Ed. Dr W. Barlow. Victor Gollancz Ltd 1978.
[x] In his Memorial Lecture to STAT in 1992, Sir George shared with us his way of using directions with the sense of what might be described as an “oppositional, non-doing relationship” between parts of the body.
[xi] Marj Barstow used this way of explaining direction. She would pose the question: “What moves first, in what direction and what is the quality of the movement?”
[xii] This very interesting remark by FM was told to me by the late Tony Spawforth.
[xiii] The Alexander Technique As I See It, Patrick MacDonald. Chapter 4: Teaching the Technique. Published by Rahula Books, 1989.
[xiv] An Unrecognised Principle in Human Behaviour: Address given to the Child Study Association, F M Alexander, 1925. Articles and Lectures, Mouritz (1995)
[xv] 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).
[xvii] More Talk of Alexander, Chapter 18, Ed. Dr W. Barlow. Victor Gollancz Ltd 1978.
[xviii] Lists of synonyms:
|Synonyms for order:||Synonyms for direction:|
© John Hunter 2014
“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
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.)
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