They will see it as getting in and out of a chair the right way. 1
The Chair! For so many teachers the sine qua non of the Alexander Technique. And, of course, we have all seen the little film of the Master taking Margaret Goldie – looking rather like a puppet – in and out of a chair.
It was 1985 or ’86 and I had only recently started having lessons with Margaret Goldie. “Chairwork” had taken on a completely different character. It was never about getting in or out of a chair this way or that way. I began to see that every action or non-action that happened in a lesson was about what was happening in my brain. What Alexander had been at pains to write about in his four books began to make sense in a way that, up until then, it had not.
More than once during this time of coronavirus, Albert Camus’ novel La Peste has come to mind. Set in the Algerian city of Oran in the 1940’s during an outbreak of the plague, the whole city is in quarantine. It is a fascinating, multi-levelled piece of writing. One of the main characters, Joseph Grand, aspires to write a prose-perfect novel but his search for perfection has become an impassable barrier. He explains to his friend Dr Rieux:
“What I really want, doctor, is this. On the day when the manuscript reaches the publisher, I want him to stand up – after he’s read it through, of course – and say to his staff: ‘Gentlemen, hats off!’
Rieux was dumbfounded, and, to add to his amazement, he saw, or seemed to see, the man beside him making as if to take off his hat with a sweeping gesture, bringing his hand to his head, then holding his arm out straight in front of him. That queer whistling overhead seemed to gather force.
“So you see,” Grand added, “it’s got to be flawless.” 2
Not a bad aspiration by any means, you might think, but Grand does seem to be getting lost in the details:
“I’d like you to understand, doctor. I grant you it’s easy enough to choose between a ‘but’ and an ‘and.’ It’s a bit more difficult to decide between ‘and’ and ‘then.’ But definitely the hardest thing may be to know whether one should put an ‘and’ or leave it out.” 2
Rieux persuades Grand to read him the all-important opening sentence of his manuscript:
Then, pitched low but clear. Grand’s voice came to his ears. “One fine morning in the month of May an elegant young horsewoman might have been seen riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Boulogne.”
Silence returned, and with it the vague murmur of the prostrate town. Grand had put down the sheet and was still staring at it. After a while he looked up.
“What do you think of it?” 2
Rieux politely responds that his curiosity is whetted and he wants to know what comes next but, in his search for perfection in the opening sentence, it seems that Grand has not succeeded in getting beyond it.
“That’s only a rough draft. Once I’ve succeeded in rendering perfectly the picture in my mind’s eye, once my words have the exact tempo of this ride – the horse is trotting, one-two-three, one-two-three, see what I mean? – the rest will come more easily and, what’s even more important, the illusion will be such that from the very first words it will be possible to say: ‘Hats off!’” 2
During that period back in the 1980’s I have a vivid recollection of a morning working in a teacher-training course. One of the teachers there confessed to the students that she could not immediately think how to respond when her pupil had asked her, “What happens when I can get in and out of a chair perfectly? What happens then?”
My lessons with Miss G flooded into my mind. “But it’s not about getting in and out of a chair” thought I.
This teacher however, after what must have been a very pregnant pause, had responded, so she informed us, thus:
“Why then, you make an art of it!”
Later that morning there was a coffee-time reading from one of Alexander’s books – I forget what exactly it was – but the contrast between the material in the reading and the practical work taking place was startling. After the reading everyone went back into their routine of trying to get each other in and out of chairs “perfectly”. The precise and detailed feedback they gave each other seemed to differ only in the medium from Grand’s obsession with finding le mot juste.
The procedure had become an end in itself: another example of the medium becoming the message.
The exposure we all get to the daily repetition of what happens – including what is said – in a training course conditions us to accept it as “right”, even to the extent of rejecting what happens in other such courses. As one of my colleagues once said to me, surprising even herself by always going back to the same place for refresher courses, “It get’s into your nervous system.” There are many kinds of addictions to which human beings are susceptible.
And the books? That’s a whole other matter.
© John Hunter 2020
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
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
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
I see ‘stopping’ as an umbrella term, which includes several different inner processes, one of which is
“… inhibiting a particular reaction to a given stimulus.”1
If I am in an agitated state, rushing, trying to do several things at once, end-gaining, unaware of my physical body – I can stop. Stopping means ceasing unnecessary activity, be it physical (muscular), emotional, nervous or mental. Miss Goldie called this ‘coming to quiet’: “Quiet throughout, with particular attention to head, neck and back“.
Stopping can be tried at any time one becomes aware of unnecessary “doing”. Sometimes, depending on the degree of agitation, we may not be able to ‘stop’ unless we withdraw for a time – even lie down. At other times it needs only a few seconds, just to remember to organise oneself. It is a psycho-physical calming down. Erika described it as “Clearing the clutter out of your mind so that you can make a decision”
As ever with Erika, “a means to an end and not an end in itself”.
Inhibition is on another level and is much more difficult – practically impossible without some experience of a quieter, more integrated (directed) state. It demands presence, awareness and a free attention at the point in time and space the stimulus is received. It is the key not to inaction but to new experiences – even true spontaneity.
Inhibition can only take place at one very specific moment; the one in which a stimulus is received. Yes, we are all receiving stimuli all the time, but I am referring to “inhibiting a particular reaction to a given stimulus.” This process takes place at “brain-thought level”, as Miss Goldie would express it, and not in the body. If the messages get into the nervous system, it is too late to ‘inhibit’. You can, of course, send countermanding messages, but that creates conflict; having energised nerve pathways, you are then trying to prevent muscles from responding. That is not inhibition, it is freezing – and is one of the causes of what is sometimes referred to as ‘the Alexandroid syndrome’. If you are too late to inhibit, then you can, of course, try and stop, i.e. come to quiet, clear away the clutter from your mind and make a fresh decision.
Neuroscientists inform us that when a stimulus is received, many reactions take place before we have become aware at a conscious level of the stimulus. That may be so; consciousness need not concern itself with everything. Nevertheless, there are certain key patterns of neural activation which take place by dint of being the paths of least resistance, and there is a micro-window of opportunity to ‘stay mentally fluid’ as stimuli begin to impact, and allow options to appear. This happens very quickly – almost in a different time-scale. It is a high-energy state in which the wonderful possibility of ‘the new’ appears, with all its freshness and at times, in the face of the unknown, a degree of trepidation.
One pupil expressed the dilemma very well:
“It is as though I step out of a prison. look around me and see that I am free. I could do anything I want. Then I turn around and step back into my prison.”
How much safer is the known!
Alexander did though see his work as evolutionary in scale. It takes time to get used to living in a new medium, as the first land creatures must also have experienced.
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). “Boiled down, it all comes to inhibiting a particular reaction to a given stimulus.”
© 2013 John S Hunter
“When you are asked not to do something, instead of making the decision not to do it, you try to prevent yourself from doing it. But this only means that you decide to do it, and then use muscle tension to prevent yourself from doing it.”1
How fortunate that Ethel Webb, whose ear was attuned to when FM Alexander said something worth taking note of, recognised the significance of these words spoken by him to a pupil during a lesson and wrote them down so that they could be preserved as one of the “teaching aphorisms”.
FM’s pupil, although he or she might have been saying inwardly the words “don’t do it, don’t do it!”, nevertheless had the intention to do it, and the body responds to intention not words.
One way I explain it to pupils is as follows:
The physical body is analogous to a well-trained animal, always listening to it’s master’s voice, waiting to be told what to do, wanting to obey and carry out what is asked of it. However, the language that we use for our inner and outer talking is not one either the animal or the physical body understands very well. In the case of the latter, every time we feel an impulse to act in some way we begin to stimulate neural activity, and muscles get ready to do work. The trouble is that we are so often very unclear about what we want, or don’t want, to do. The poor body gets contradictory messages and, like the animal in our analogy, begins to get stressed.
By making a decision and having a clear intention, the body begins to respond in a quite different way; sometimes mind and body can, like horse and rider, be as one. We are moving in the direction of greater integration.
This is not easy. Many people avoid making decisions, little realising the psycho-physical consequences thereof. Making decisions means taking more responsibility: it also means confronting the very deep-rooted patterns of so-called individuality to which we are very attached.
Fortunately there is another “individual” waiting to be discovered, but more on that another time.
Erika Whittaker told me once, much to my surprise at the time, that what Alexander really wanted from his pupils was that they would learn to make their own decisions. Over the years, this has come to mean more and more to me.
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).
© 2013 John S Hunter