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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

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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychodrama: 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.

Training

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

Tips4Teachers – Lying-down Work, #2 – Connecting the Legs and Back

Related to using lying-down work as a ‘horizontal monkey position‘, there is a simple procedure  through which the pupil can be taught to connect the action of the legs with the powerful anti-gravity muscles of the back.

The pupil being in semi-supine, the teacher takes one of his or her legs and firstly ensures that the hip and knee joints are free. Keeping the pupil’s leg bent at the hip and knee, the teacher then applies a gentle pressure to the pupil’s heel whilst the teacher stays ‘back and up’ in opposition to the applied force. In this way one can elicit a reflex response which will cause the pupil’s leg to straighten.

This response, however, is often overlaid with patterns of learnt movement and persistent, unnecessary tensions. Consequently it is necessary to patiently ‘look for’ and ‘cultivate’ this response. It is interesting to note that the overuse of certain muscles and some uncoordinated movement patterns are usually related to the inadequate use of the postural muscles.

In order to ‘wake up’ the reflex response, the pupil may be asked to push against the teacher’s hand in the direction which could be described as the ‘virtual continuation of the lower leg’, and ‘through the heel’.

Usually repeating this a few times is sufficient to be then able to elicit the reflex response to a rightly applied (i.e. applied as a consequence of the teacher him or herself ‘going up’) pressure against the heel. It should at this point be explained to the pupil that he or she is to try to catch the moment at which the leg seems to want to straighten of its own accord, and that he or she should not attempt to inhibit this activity in the leg. Indeed at the beginning he or she should be encouraged to ‘go with’ the leg movement even if they are not sure whether or not it is a reflex response or something they are doing. Once the response begins to be more active, it is practically invariably very easy for the pupil to recognise the difference between the two.

Needless to say, reminders should be given frequently, with words and hands, to the pupil’s head and neck.

The benefits of this procedure are:

  • It engages the right muscles in an effortless leg-straightening movement.
  • It connects this movement with a simultaneous, coordinated ‘spreading out’ (lengthening and widening) of the back muscles against the surface of the table.
  • The engagement of the postural muscles of the back and legs allows for a freedom in the hips and lower back which is otherwise difficult to bring about.
  • The postural muscles having been activated in this coordinated way makes them more ‘vital’ even at rest. Energy begins to flow.
  • It introduces to the pupil the action of the anti-gravity muscles in a secure position (i.e. lying down), thereby helping him or her to be able at an appropriate time to keep the back back in chair-work, walking etc. and – most importantly – to understand the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of it.

© 2013 John S Hunter

Tips4Teachers – ‘Monkey’

The primary purpose of ‘monkey’ is to teach a pupil about the postural pulls which provide support for the body: head against hips against knees (‘against’ in the sense of ‘away from’ or ‘in opposition to’).

As many pupils will have various mis-uses which are interfering with these antagonistic pulls, it is advisable to take time to establish as far as possible each stage of the procedure.

Firstly, while indicating a ‘forward and up’ direction to the head, ensure that the pupil sends the knees ‘forward and away’. At this stage the torso is still vertical. If necessary, use a wall to help the pupil maintain an upright posture.

The second stage is to come forward from the hips without either the head pulling back or the knees pulling in. A helpful ‘trick’ is to ask the pupil to bend the knees ‘just another inch’ and as soon as he or she begins to do so, bring about a hinging at the hips with one hand on the head and one below the hip bone at the ‘crease’ between the pelvis and the thigh.

It is very advantageous to then reinforce the kinaesthetic experience of being in ‘monkey position’ by again having one hand just under the back of the skull and one at the hip whilst, being oneself in monkey, imparting a two-way (antagonistic) direction through one’s own expansive tendency. This should then be modified with one hand either behind the knee or just below the knee cap and one at the hip to indicate the opposition between hip and knee.

As the directions are imparted, the ‘orders’ or ‘directions’ should be clearly stated: head against hips, knees against hips.

© 2013 John S Hunter

Tips4Teachers – Lying-down Work, #1 – Horizontal ‘Monkey’

Lying-down work, or ‘semi-supine’ has, of course, many aspects. What I want to address in this post is one of the physical aspects, namely its usefulness in helping the pupil to understand kinaesthetically the body’s primary antagonistic or postural ‘pulls’.

WIth the head supported and the knees bent, pressure is taken off both ends of the spine – allowing for a natural lengthening to take place as tensions release; it is also thought that intervertebral discs can reabsorb fluid during such a period of rest.

These are what might be termed ‘mechanical therapeutic effects’ which come about largely just by lying in this position.

From the perspective of ‘education’, it can be helpful to think of lying-down work as a ‘horizontal monkey position’.

Using touch to sequentially inform the pupil of the antagonistic pulls between head and hips, and hips and knees, the teacher can demonstrate how and where these ‘pulls’ function; pulls which, it should be noted, ‘do themselves’.

To the extent that the pupil is able to respond – which requires an expanding attention – a general expansion of the musculo-skeletal frame ensues.

When giving ‘lying-down turns’, it is advisable to include this aspect, as it makes the whole procedure more than a (nevertheless valuable) therapeutic experience of ‘letting go’.

Lying-down work becomes a powerful tool for developing kinaesthetic information about the antagonistic pulls of the Primary Control.

It also prepares the ground for a more subtle work with energy which may follow in due course.

© 2013 John S Hunter

Tips4Teachers – Head Forward and Up

The relationship between the head, neck and back is, quite rightly, considered to be one of the central tenets of Alexander’s work.  Nothing else can, when working well, give such a sense of lightness, ease and integration; and nothing else is the source of so many difficulties and misunderstandings.

Why is it central?  Poor co-ordination in this area was, as we know, at the root of Alexander’s own problem with his voice.  It is reported (by Marjory Barlow I believe) that FM said in later years that he was lucky his difficulty was in that area as otherwise he would never have discovered the Primary Control.

Head Forward and Up

Alexander does not go into great detail about the meaning of “Head Forward and Up”. In Conscious Constructive Control of the Individual he writes:

This is one of the most inadequate and often confusing phrases used as a means of conveying our ideas in words, and it is a dangerous instruction to give to any pupil, unless the teacher first demonstrates his meaning by giving to the pupil, by means of manipulation, the exact experiences involved.1

So it’s clear! As teachers, we have to be exact! No pressure then…!

Some of his early followers tried to be more explicit.  Lulie Westfeldt gives a detailed description of her understanding of the processes involved.  In particular:

Alexander in using the words meant head forward in relation to the neck. It took a long time and hard work to find this out. One realized in time that his hands, which he used in demonstrating and teaching, were always tending to take the neck back and the head forward in relation to it. Once one had discovered this, one could ask him a direct question and get his confirmation that ‘head forward’ meant ‘head forward in relation to the neck’. The head’s tending to go forward in relation to the neck causes the alignment of the head and neck to improve, in that the head is balanced on top of the neck instead of being retracted back upon it. Once this retraction or locking is done away with, the head will tend to go up whether any other thought is given or not, just as the plant will come up out of the ground if it is not prevented or interfered with. If in addition the head is thought up, however, it will go up more strongly.2

Frank Pierce Jones also addresses this issue:

“Forward and up” clearly is not a single, oblique movement but two movements, the first of which facilitates the second. Depending on where the head happens to be at the start, “forward” will bring the centre of gravity up or down. In any case, the increase in this distance increases the torque exerted by the head on extensor muscles and facilitates extension of the spine. The head feels lighter because more of its weight is carried by discs and ligaments and because muscles that move it (for example, the sternomastoids and the upper trapezii) have lengthened.3

Marjorie Barlow credits Patrick MacDonald with the realisation that “head forward and up”, in physiological terms, involves a release of the atlanto-occipital joint.

We were all very confused, until Pat (Patrick Macdonald) realized that what F.M. meant (although he wasn’t saying it in a word) was that the head goes forward and up from the occipital joint, not from the “hump”. This was such an eye opener to all of us because as soon as we realized that, we could get the freedom there and the rest did itself almost. 4

In his book The Alexander Technique As I See It, Patrick MacDonald goes into some detail about the meaning of “forward” and “up”:

…the direction …..forward in Forward and Up is an unlocking device and … the direction Up should produce a tiny elongation of the spinal column….

and

… release the neck at the atlanto-occipital joint… bring about an expansion along the spine. 5

MacDonald credits Dr Andrew Murdoch, a pupil of FM, with making the connection between Alexander’s “Primary Control” and the sub-occipital muscles.6

The direction “head forward and up” stimulates and activates the anti-gravity muscles of the body’s support system referred to in Tips4Teachers – Keeping the Back Back.

As well as the physical aspect described above, “Head forward and up” also has a more subtle “psycho-energetic aspect” which I will discuss in another post.

________________________________

1. Conscious Constructive Control of the Individual, F Matthias Alexander, Part II, Chapter IV, “Illustration”, Published by Mouritz (UK). ISBN 0954352262/978-0954352264 (back to text).

2. F. Matthias Alexander: the Man and his Work, Lulie Westfeldt, p 135. Published by Centerline Press, California. (back to text).

3. Freedom to Change, Frank Pierce Jones, p148, ISBN 978-0-9525574-7-0, publisher: Mouritz 1997, (First published 1976 as Body Awareness in Action by Schocken Books). (back to text).

4. An Examined Life, Marjory Barlow, p. 81-82, 2002), Publisher: Mornum Time Press; First American Edition edition (October 2002), ISBN-10: 0964435241, ISBN-13: 978-0964435247.  (back to text).

5. The Alexander Technique As I See It, Patrick MacDonald. Chapter 4: Teaching the Technique. Published by Rahula Books, 1989.  (back to text).

6. Ibid. p46. See also The Function of the Sub-Occipital Muscles: The Key to Posture, Use, and Functioning by A. Murdoch M.B., C.M, paper read at the Hastings Division of the British Medical Association, May 5, 1936 (excerpts from which appear in The Universal Constant in Living by F Matthias Alexander, Published by Mouritz (UK). ISBN 0952557444/978-0952557449). (back to text).

© 2013 John S Hunter