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
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
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
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