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Dr Wilfred Barlow: #2, Deep Tissue Work, London 1979

I began having lessons, three times a week, with one of the teachers at Dr and Mrs Barlow’s “Alexander Institute”, behind the Albert Hall, in April 1978.

Dr Barlow would try, at the first consultation, to match a new pupil to a teacher he thought would be suitable, and for me he chose Alan Rowlands (who sadly died last year).

Alan was a pianist and a professor of piano at the Royal College of Music, just across the road from the Institute. He had a deep interest in the teachings of Jiddu Krishnamurti and was involved in the education programme at Krishnamurti’s Centre in the UK at Brockwood Park.

Although Alan had been a pupil of the Technique for many years, he had only been teaching for about a year when I began having lessons. After several months, because he was having some difficulties with me, Alan asked Dr Barlow to come into my lesson one day and have a look at my shoulders.  Working on the table, he was able to very quickly bring about a release of muscular tension in my neck and shoulders, which in turn spread into my arms.

One really had the impression that he understood how the body fitted together and how particular muscle groups worked.

When I got home I could enjoy for many hours the new freedom in my shoulders, and then I got a very deep and intense pain in the lower right side of my abdomen. I knew straight away what it was, as the pain was very localised around the scar from the appendectomy I had some fifteen years earlier, but deep in the tissue. The pain lasted for quite some time, then I felt something let go.

Over the years Dr Barlow helped a lot of people with some very serious difficulties.  At one time he was the ‘go to’ person for many of the rich and famous who wanted to try the Alexander Technique, but he also helped many young teachers and trainees who were struggling with various physical problems and low incomes.

© 2013 John S Hunter

Dr Wilfred Barlow: #1, “You’ll have to come three times a week!”, London 1978

My contact with Dr Barlow was limited but significant. It was undoubtedly because of his book The Alexander Principle that I began to have lessons.

I’d come across several references to the Alexander Technique in various books and magazines I was reading in the 1970’s, but had no real sense of what it was. Being at that time unable to walk past a bookshop without browsing (yes, people did ‘browse’ before Internet Explorer or Firefox had been dreamt of), I wandered into one in Muswell Hill, North London, and came across Dr Barlow’s book. I was impressed with the detail about the head, neck, back relationship and believed there was something of real significance there.

However, reading voraciously as I did back then, my attention was soon taken with something else and I did not pursue my interest until, perhaps a year or two later, I saw Dr Barlow on a TV ‘magazine-style’ programme talking about the Technique.

“Oh! That’s that ‘thing’ I read about and am really interested in,” I said to myself. “Why aren’t I doing anything about it?”

Fortunately for me, my Guardian Angel – or some unknown force – impelled me to not put it off any longer and to go and phone Dr Barlow right there and then. I made an appointment to see him in Albert Court, just behind the Albert Hall in South West London.

Dr. Barlow, I later learned, was the first person to conduct any research into the practical benefits of the Alexander Technique – both during his time in the Army and later at the Royal College of Music.  The former was, perhaps not surprisingly, to lead nowhere, but the latter was almost certainly the precursor of the widespread interest today in Colleges of Music and Drama throughout the world.

When Alexander decided to sue the South African Government for libel, it was Dr. Wilfred Barlow who went to Johannesburg to give evidence.  This was, according to his own account in “More Talk of Alexander”, to cost him dearly:

“I myself had seen a medical career totally destroyed by the South African case, even though in every respect our evidence had been vindicated.

……it was clear that orthodox medicine wished to have nothing to do with me because of the part I had played in Alexander’s ‘victory’.”1

Towards the end of Alexander’s life Dr Barlow was instrumental in preparing the ground for a Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT).  Alexander himself, however, was not ready to hand over the reins to a democratic society, and STAT was not formally constituted until after the originator’s death.

Dr. Barlow’s book The Alexander Principle brought about a revival of interest in the work after a period of relative quiet.

But none of this I knew in April 1978 as I waited to see him in the large basement apartment in Kensington Gore; home to Dr and Mrs Barlow, to a busy practice with some dozen or so assistant teachers, and to the office and secretary of STAT.

His approach to new pupils, whom he rather treated as patients with the manner of a medical consultant, was to put them – stripped to the waist – in front of a mirrored grid of horizontal and vertical lines.  He would then proceed to point out all the various mal-alignments in the body and the places where there was collapse or excessive tension.

While attending a conference in Australia on proprioception, organised by the late Dr David Garlick, Dr Barlow confessed to my colleague Terry Fitzgerald, that his method was basically to ‘frighten’ the pupils into having lessons.

After I had been suitably ‘frightened’, Dr Barlow reassured me that ” … it will all come loose in time, but you’ll have to come three times a week you know”.

By then, I was ready to sign in blood.

1. More Talk of Alexander, Edited by Dr Wilfred Barlow. Research at the Royal College of Music, by Dr Wilfred Barlow, p191, Victor Gollancz Limited, London 1978.  (back to text).

© 2013 John S Hunter