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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”

 – 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.

  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]


[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 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

[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).

[xvi] See 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

© 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: and
(back to text).

© 2014 John S Hunter

Tips4Teachers – Group Work and Individual Work

I think group work is great! I think one-to-one lessons are great too. What is most important is the quality of work, not the medium. Then assuming that we are speaking of good quality work, what are the pros and cons of each?

Group work pros:

  • Group work involves interaction with other people and in that regard it is more like real life.
  • Many of our habits and tensions are intricately linked with personality traits which only manifest in certain situations, often related to other people.
  • Like Alexander and his voice problem, many tensions become exaggerated with the stress of performance – often related to a feeling of being judged or even just observed. This can include being under scrutiny in very ordinary ways. Group work provides a medium in which to learn about and deal with this.
  • Many pupils never have the chance to exchange with their peers. The only other person they know who has any interest in Alexander work is their teacher, and one cannot have a peer relationship with one’s teacher. Trainees have the chance to interact and, thinking back to one’s own training, teachers can see how important that was.
  • Group work gives scope for role-play, a dynamic tool for bringing to life real situations in which people have difficulties – and showing the efficacy of applying inhibition and direction.  This is not for the inexperienced teacher or nervous pupil. It ought not to drift into psychodrama as this is something for which we have no formal training. It needs to be maintained at the non-clinical level (see Psychological applications.), where nevertheless significant insights into misuse can be brought into the light.

Group work cons:

  • Without regular and focused hands-on work the Alexander Technique does not penetrate sufficiently deeply into the organism; i.e. there is no embodiment of the teaching.
  • Many people are self-conscious about their difficulties and would never consider bringing them into a public forum – at least at the beginning
  • The mental aspect of Alexander’s work can become dominant, giving too much scope for interpretation based on idiosyncratic personality traits. The body, however, does not lie.

Individual work pros:

  • The most important experiences are deep and inner; the quiet atmosphere of the private lesson is more conducive to such moments.
  • Some psychophysical problems need a great deal of untangling; group work, with its limited scope for hands-on work, can be – as Peggy Williams once put it to me – “….about as effective as giving an aspirin to an elephant”.
  • People are very different types. Getting to know the psyche, nervous system and habit patterns of a pupil is a very personalised process. The ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach of group work does not and cannot this fact take sufficiently into account. Only one-to-one teaching gives scope to tailor the lesson to the needs of each individual.

Individual work cons:

  • One-to-one lessons can be expensive. Even though many teachers have a sliding scale of fees, some people feel that it would be just too self-indulgent to have private lessons in anything, so they wont try it.
  • The hands of the teacher and the refined atmosphere of the teaching room can facilitate experiences which are almost impossible for the pupil to reproduce – often for a very long time. A false expectation is built up and the pupil, schooled in a kind of “Alexander virtual reality”, does not learn how to deal with the stimuli and reactions of their everyday lives – let alone more the demanding situations in which we all at times find ourselves.

I am of course generalising and many examples can doubtless be found of pupils who have progressed satisfactorily following both approaches.


During a student’s training it is important to provide sufficient focus on hands-on skills as this is the critical time when the embodiment of the teaching takes place. If this understanding of what might be called the “core work” of Alexander’s method is not absorbed into one’s being during this time, it is possible that it never will be. The skills involved in group work are not so different from those in other disciplines; acting, tai chi, movement or many other activities. The teacher needs to observe carefully what the pupils are doing and communicate clearly. Such skills can be developed according to the interests and capacities of each individual (utilising prior or parallel teaching experience in other fields, for example, or undertaking additional educational training such as is now anyway required by many local authorities before employing teachers to run adult education courses).

The “core work”, however, is unique to our discipline and cannot be learned elsewhere.

Best of both worlds

My personal preference is to include both, offering to the pupil the learning experiences which are most appropriate at different stages of their journey. The two approaches help the pupil to see in context what they are learning and what they need to deepen, and help the observant teacher to see gaps in the pupil’s (and their own) understanding.

© 2014 John S Hunter

Tips4Pupils – Stopping and Inhibition; similar but different

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