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Let’s not be afraid of being wrong!

“Trying to be right” takes many forms and some of them are extremely subtle. One such is the fear of being wrong, either in one’s own eyes or the eyes of others.

Knowing when we are right is not within our power. How, in fact, can I know anything at all?1

FM Alexander’s response to this question was, according to the Teaching Aphorisms:

“To know when we are wrong is all that we shall ever know in this world.”2

Being wrong can become our ally. Until we know in what way we are wrong we can’t change it:

“Like a good fellow, stop the things that are wrong first!”2

We need to learn to make friends with not so much “being wrong” in itself, but the recognition of it. Hence FM’s plea:

“Don’t come to me unless, when I tell you you are wrong, you make up your mind to smile and be pleased.”2

Maybe some things, like the leopard and his spots, can’t be changed; acceptance is needed. Acceptance, though, can be both a powerful spiritual process or a way of justifying either certain traits that one is not ready to take a long hard look at or, in other cases, a general laissez-fair attitude (which FM also cautions us against3).

Reinhold Niebuhr expressed it well:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.”4

1. BBC Radio 4’s “A History of Ideas” recently broadcast a series of talks with this title, particularly referencing Bishop Berkley, Karl Popper, David Hume and Ludwig Wittgenstein. (See: BBC Radio 4 iPlayer [UK only].)
2. 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).
3. “…active, vigilant, and open-eyed to the evils which result from his old policy of laissez-faire.” Man’s Supreme Inheritance, FM Alexander, Chapter VII Notes and Instances (response to question III). Published by Mouritz, London 1986.
4.The Serenity Prayer is the common name for a prayer authored by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serenity_Prayer).

© 2015 John S Hunter

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

Traps, Pitfalls and Culs-de-sac #2: Sensation Junkies

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

Patrick Macdonald: #5, “It’s Just Happening”, Lewes, 1990

Patrick Macdonald did not, in those later years, speak very much when teaching, but he knew the moment when a few words could help to either induce helpful self-questioning or make something clear.

I recall two such incidents which took place during my last period of study with him.

I was working on one of my colleagues. Mr Macdonald was watching and reminding me with a gesture of his thumb to “take her up!”. Then something shifted; that recognisable change in state occurred in which everything begins to flow. Mr Macdonald leant over towards me, looked me in the eyes and said, very simply and very directly in a quiet but firm voice– as if confiding something both important and personal:

“That’s right! Never mind about her! You look after yourself!”

Then the moment was over. He changed, stood back again and in his usual voice said,

“Go on then, take her up! Your job is to take her up.”

But I wasn’t fooled. Something that I had already at certain moments tasted was now understood; that experience will always stay with me.

In my last lesson with him I remember asking him, when I felt myself moving freely in and out of the chair,

“Who is doing this, Mr Macdonald? You or me?”

“Who do you think is doing it?” he replied.

“I don’t know”, I said.

A minute or so later, when something had really got out of the way and a finer energy was flowing, he asked:

“Who is doing it now?”

“Nobody is doing it,” I replied. “It’s just happening.”

“That’s right,” he said. “It’s just happening.”

And again, at that moment – something was understood.

© John Hunter 2015

Tips4Teachers – Thought, energy and the atlanto-occipital joint

The physical aspect of “head forward and up” I have written about in another post (see Tips4Teachers – Head Forward and Up).

Here I want to discuss the way in which the freedom of the atlanto-occipital joint and the tone of the sub-occipital muscles are intricately connected with mental and emotional states.

The point at which the base of the skull sits on the atlas can be thought of as not only the physical connection between head and spine, but also the place where mind and body interface; a two-way flow of information and feedback.

Sensitive hands can detect subtle energies flowing through this area. These energies relate to and are influenced by mental and emotional processes.

In order to allow energies to flow freely, one has to, as Patrick Macdonald put it:

“….learn to get out of ITS way.” 1

The “it” cannot be exactly defined, but we can discover what needs to let go in order to get out of the way.

At this level of work it is not about releasing muscle tension; it is about the “something” that generates the tension. We could call it a mental or emotional state, an attitude or even a belief. At the core however, it is a sense of ‘self’ sustained by a collection of personality traits and their associated sensory habits; “It feels like this to be me!”

The teacher is advised to explore the process of ‘getting out of the way’ outside of the teaching room in his or her daily life, otherwise even this most subtle aspect of hands-on work can become seeking out states or experiences for their own sake.

Nevertheless, when a moment of “getting out of the way” is facilitated through a multi-level interaction with the pupil, it is transformative:

“The old accumulations of subconscious thought are dispersed, and room is made for new conceptions and realizations.” 2

This, provided it is not confined to the rarefied atmosphere of the teaching room but is ventured in the reality of Life. is the most difficult, most challenging but ultimately most rewarding aspect of Alexander’s teaching, It can be scary, exhilarating, liberating; it is the unknown.

To paraphrase Lennon and McCartney:

“What do you see when you get out of ITS way?
I can’t tell you, but I know it’s mine.”

1.  The Alexander Technique As I See It, Patrick MacDonald; Notebook Jottings. Published by Rahula Books, 1989 (back to text).
2. Man’s Supreme Inheritance, FM Alexander; Notes and Instances (back to text).

© John Hunter 2014

Tips4Teachers: Some Thoughts about “Orders” and “Directions”

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.

  1. 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]

  1. 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]

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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]

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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]

  1. 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.

  1. 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” [xi] )

 – 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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. [xvi]

  1. 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]

Notes

[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] See Marj Barstow: #3, A Little Bit of Nothing, London 1988

[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).

[xvi] See Lessons With Miss G: #2, Decisions and Tips4Teachers – “…not to do…”

[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:
adjustment administration
aligning charge
arrangement command
array control
assortment government
cast guidance
categorization leadership
classification management
codification order
composition oversight
computation superintendence
disposal supervision
disposition
distribution
establishment
form
grouping
harmony
layout
line
lineup
management
method
neatness
ordering
orderliness
organization
pattern
placement
plan
procedure
procession
progression
propriety
regularity
regulation
rule
scale
scheme
sequence
series
setup
standardization
structure
succession
symmetry
system
tidiness
uniformity

© John Hunter 2014

Traps, Pitfalls and Culs-de-sac #1: the £10,000 chest

The concept of muscle armouring as a way of suppressing emotion, or the sensations of emotion, was developed by Wilhelm Reich between 1925 and 1933 leading to the publication of his book Character Analysis.1

Reich advocated body-work as well as psychotherapy to free-up both the musculature, and the emotional trauma and energy trapped therein, in order to recover normal functioning of the body and expression of emotion.

It is natural for the physical body to respond to the subtle waves of contraction and expansion which flow through it, emanating from other physical functions (respiratory, circulatory and lymphatic systems, for example) as well as mental and emotional activity.

To attempt to suppress any of this by, for example, trying to maintain a certain posture can lead to a more subtle and pernicious form of muscle armouring; subtle, because it is not perceived as such by the person doing it; pernicious, because it is intentionally cultivated and even considered a virtue: an end to be sought after for its own sake. This can lead to a certain woodenness; an artificially imposed immobility which is quite different from the outer manifestation of inner calm.

A classic example of this is what I call the £10,000 chest (£10,000 being more or less the cost of a three-year Alexander Technique teacher training course at the time I became aware of the phenomenon), which is the consequence of trying to “go up” at the front. Such so-called frontal length is brought about by a subtle – or not so subtle – “doing” similar to the ballet dancer’s “pull-up”, along with a broadening across the pectoral muscles. It gives to even the untrained observer a sense that the owner of the chest is somehow not at ease, perhaps holding him or herself in a posture (picture Martin Clunes as Doc Martin, for example).

For certain dyed-in-the-wool adherents of the phenomenon (fortunately not so common today) one has the sense that, having spent £10,000 (or its equivalent) developing such a fine chest and learning how to maintain it in the face of many and varied stimuli, they were going to hold onto it come what may.

I was fascinated to learn when in Australia in 1991 that, on her first teaching visit there, Marj Barstow spent most of the first day of practical work going around the room giving each of the participants a hearty slap on the chest accompanied by a firm “Quit it!”.2

Some consequences of the raised chest are:

  • it causes interference with the free movement of the ribs especially during exhalation, thereby preventing the diaphragm from fully rising which, according to Carl Stough3, leads to excessive “dead air” in the lungs
  • it encourages the back to arch
  • though giving to a degree a sense of confidence, it is an artificial one brought about by what Reich referred to as “armouring”; this in turn has a deadening effect on one’s affective life

Beware the trap of the £10.000 chest!3

1. First published in German as Charakteranalyse: Technik und Grundlagen für studierende und praktizierende Analytiker in 1933 and in a revised form in English as Character Analysis in 1946. (back to text).

2. A curious development, most likely the consequence of a limited exposure to Marj’s prompting to release a held chest, was that some people began to cultivate the opposite – a collapsed chest. Although this doubtless gave initially a great sense of relief (and many tears), it began to be sought for as an end in itself. For some, the loss of the support of “frontal length” without the required support from the spine, led at best to some misconceptions and at worst to emotional breakdown. (back to text).

3. Carl Stough (1926-2000) developed an effective method of respiratory re-education, firstly as a choir master and later in the treatment of emphysema patients. His methods were used to help train US athletes to perform at high altitude in preparation for the 1968 Mexico Olympics. His approach, which he called “Breathing Coordination”, focussed on the controlled exhalation (rather like Alexander’s “whispered ah”), and the need to let the ribcage fully release in order to maximise the height of the diaphragm and thereby optimise the subsequent inhalation. For further information see: www.jessicawolfartofbreathing.com/breathing-coordination/ and www.breathingcoordination.com/
(back to text).

© 2014 John S Hunter