(This article was first published in ExChange: Journal of Alexander Technique International, August 2013, Volume 21 No. 2)
Human nature being what it is – ever subject to the same laws – it is not to be wondered at that the followers of F M Alexander are facing the same difficulties as have countless followers of countless innovators in every sphere of activity throughout human history. Did we really expect to avoid the fate that beset Sunnis and Shiites, Papists and Lutherans, the rightful heirs or the usurping pretenders, the guardians of tradition or the great reformers?
To give a context to a discussion about tradition and innovation we should, I think, also consider two other pairs of contrasting terms: form and content, orthodoxy and heresy.
Beginning with the last, we might say that orthodoxy represents an acceptance of Alexander’s primary tenets; use affect function, the necessity of saying ‘no’ to a stimulus, the capacity to direct, the unity of the organism, recognition of the force of habit, non-doing, the Primary Control, the means-whereby principle rather than end-gaining. Heresy would be to deny or ignore these principles in applying and/or teaching the Technique which bears Alexander’s name.
Form I see as the ‘procedures’; semi-supine, chair-work, monkey, lunge, hands on the back of a chair, going onto the toes, whispered ‘ah’, squatting – largely accepted by STAT and the Affiliated Societies as the bedrock of learning and teaching the Technique.
Content is, for me, experiencing a free attention and the consequent physical liberation in an actual moment of inhibition and direction in oneself, be that in a lesson or – more significantly – in Life.
Tradition for me refers to that which is handed down from generation to generation. It is what we learned from our teachers and can be traced back to Alexander. It is connected with a line or lines of transmission (though some have been so dominant that others are almost disregarded).
Innovation is the introduction of something new or making changes to something already established; a change nevertheless consistent with the essential principles, hence not a heresy.
It can be helpful to look at any differences between teachers, teaching styles or even organisations in the light of the above criteria. Does the innovator enrich our understanding because he or she sheds light from another angle on the timeless truth of the formless content, or is it the indulgence of a strong personality, down-playing one or more of the principles in order to avoid some personal difficulty, or to appeal to those who want an easier, more marketable, version?
Is a ‘traditionalist’ rediscovering moment by moment – in the best tradition of the early teachers – the ‘inner work’ that can be accessed through a conscious use of the procedures, or merely hiding behind the safety of ‘form’, churned out day after day in some well-rehearsed routines devoid of any spark?
Then how to avoid having fixed ideas about being free?
Professor Bryan Niblett shared a story about F M Alexander and Professor John Dewey at a talk he gave a few years ago to the Friends of the Alexander Technique. Alexander sent the text of Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual to Dewey, asking him to write an Introduction. Dewey complained about the length of the title, asking FM to drop “of the Individual”. FM’s response was that that would be to leave out the most important word. So it is a path of individuation. I tried to express this in a lecture I gave some years ago:
It is good to admire and respect our teachers; to be in a line of transmission. But then we have to find something for ourselves. What does all of this mean to me? How can I make something of these ideas? Alexander said to his students: “Don’t do what I do.” In other words, don’t be an imitator.
I have always been struck by the fact that the first generation of teachers, to whom we all owe so much, are so different from each other – and yet true to a principle. These people all found something for themselves. Coming afterwards, as we do, there has been a tendency, perhaps inevitable, to fix the form in the way that we each received it. To an extent that is understandable, but a lot of the life, the sense of discovery, can be lost. We must be careful in setting up this huge infrastructure – necessary though it may be – of lessons and teachers and pupils and training courses and students and “bodies” – that we are not just creating an artificial, rather precious environment in which certain experiences can be repeated as ends in themselves: a kind of “Alexander virtual reality”. We need to take this new knowledge about use and put it to the test in our own lives. This is the link that needs to be made. To inhibit the desire to get in or out of a chair is one thing. But then we have to take that into the real world and find out for ourselves what is really going on.
Then, as Miss Goldie would put it “You’ll be making discoveries, and …you’ll be surprised at what you find”.*
* Making the Link: The F M. Alexander Memorial Lecture, delivered to the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique, July 2002. (First published in The Alexander Journal No 19)
© John Hunter 2013
To begin this essay I will say something about “feelings”.
In English the word can refer to either emotional states (I feel happy, angry, jealous, joyful, sad, etc., a discussion of which will not form part of this essay) or sensations (I feel cold, pain, ease; this feels rough, smooth, sharp, blunt, etc.). Mostly when referring to “feelings” Alexander means “sensations”, for example:
What you feel is doing is “undoing”.
You are not making decisions: you are doing kinaesthetically what you feel to be right.
If your neck feels stiff, that is not to say that your neck “is” stiff. 1
A sensory system is a part of the nervous system responsible for processing sensory information. A sensory system consists of sensory receptors, neural pathways, and parts of the brain involved in sensory perception. Commonly recognized sensory systems are those for vision, auditory (hearing), somatic sensation (touch), gustatory (taste), olfaction (smell) and vestibular (balance/movement). In short, senses are transducers from the physical world to the realm of the mind where we interpret the information, creating our perception of the world around us.2
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.3
Trying to sense what is going on means attending to incoming messages. The brain of course processes these messages (perceptions) and the more accurate the information is, the better the processing. But this is not direction. Direction is the mental activity, with or without words, which can – indirectly – activate certain outgoing pathways. If and when the message gets through to muscle, muscle will respond and some sensory feedback may be registered, but the mental processes themselves have no sensation – or at least not what is normally meant by sensation.4
The nature of these outgoing messages needs some consideration. In my experience they involve many degrees of subtlety. The quality of these messages are palpably different in someone who has a great deal of experience of Alexander work (or certain other mind/body or spiritual disciplines) from someone who has none. And even amongst all of the above there are great variations according to either the innate sensitivity or the unresolved blockages, or a mixture of both, of each individual. It is doubtful that neuroscientists yet have either the equipment to measure or the conceptual basis to understand the subtle energies which gradually reveal themselves to the patient practitioner.
Sensation should not be ignored. It is not unimportant. How could it be! It exists for a purpose. It informs us. We do not, however, need to seek out sensation as an end in itself.
Patrick Macdonald give us an example:
Teacher, tapping pupil on shoulder: “Did you feel that?”
Teacher: “Did you try to feel it?”
Teacher: “In the same way, when I coordinate you with my hands, you need not try to feel what I do. If you try, you will only interfere with what you ought to be registering.”5
When the time comes that you can trust your feeling, you won’t want to use it.6
In a key passage from Man’s Supreme Inheritance, FM warns us about the danger of indulging sensations:
Bad habits mean, in ninety-nine per cent of cases, that the person concerned has, often through ignorance, pandered to and wilfully indulged certain sensations, probably with little or no thought as to what evil results may accrue from his concessions to the dominance of small pleasures. This careless relaxation of reason, in the first instance, makes it doubly difficult to assert command when the indulgence has become a habit. Sensation has usurped the throne so feebly defended by reason, and sense, once it has obtained power, is the most pitiless of autocrats. If we are to maintain the succession that is our supreme inheritance, we must first break the power of the usurper, and then re-establish our sovereign, no longer dull and indifferent to the welfare of his kingdom, but active, vigilant, and open-eyed to the evils which result from his old policy of laissez-faire.7
Trying to work with only sensory awareness leads to a constant attempt to ‘feel’ oneself in a certain posture or tonal state: another path to the classic “Alexandroid syndrome”.8
Cutting off from sensory awareness in the belief that one should work only with thought, in an intellectual and formulaic way, leads to something equally undesirable; a kind of desensitisation or disconnection from the body, and often one which is vigorously defended by argument.
Making the distinction between thought and sensation is not always apparent to pupils. Constantly asking them to ‘think about’ body parts can even encourage them to seek out sensations. Bringing to their notice some change of tone or release of tension has a place, but not at the expense of ‘dynamic brain-work’.9
What we seek is the capacity to make reasoned choices, in response to stimuli, which generate appropriate, coordinated responses modulated by more accurate sensory awareness which can inform us about the wrong.
In recent years in the contemporary Alexander world, the cultivation of sensory awareness has tended to dominate – to the extent that it is now practically the norm – with the consequence that Alexander work is largely thought of as one of many somatic disciplines, from which perspective it arguably has less to offer and is less successful than some others.
The current interest in Mindfulness gives us perhaps an opportunity to reclaim that “supreme inheritance” to which FM was referring in the above passage from MSI, but only if we re-examine what he meant by that and do not try to pass off sensory awareness in its place.
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). (back to text).
2. John Krantz. Experiencing Sensation and Perception. “Chapter 1: What is Sensation and Perception?” pp. 1.6 (back to text).
3. 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). (back to text).
4. Experienced practitioners report being able to sense a quality of energy in and around the head which they associate with a certain psycho-physical state. At a certain point it can become difficult to separate the mental and the sensory; it is as if both are subject to the same “willing”. (back to text).
5. The Alexander Technique As I See It, Patrick MacDonald.. Notebook Jottings. Published by Rahula Books, 1989. (back to text).
6. 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). (back to text).
7. Man’s Supreme Inheritance, FM Alexander, Chapter VII Notes and Instances (response to question III). Published by Mouritz, London 1986. (back to text).
8. Although there exist, in certain spiritual traditions, exercises which involve working directly with ‘sensation’, such exercises have another purpose. They should not be confused with “giving directions”, “sensory awareness” or any other aspect of Alexander work, and neither are teachers trained in the Alexander Technique qualified to guide people through the experiences for which such spiritual practices were developed. (back to text).
9. One of Margaret Goldie’s favourite expressions whilst she was teaching was “The brain-work more dynamic than ever!”. I thought she might have been quoting FM but I never heard another first generation teacher say it. (back to text).
© 2014 John S Hunter
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.
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
Miss Goldie and John Skinner, an Australian teacher trained by FM and then later his secretary, shared premises in Soho Square, next to the French Protestant Church. The waiting room (shared with Skinner, who had his own teaching room in another part of the building) and her teaching space had been one large room and was divided with stud-walls. A climbing plant of some sort had been trained all around the picture rail. Although there were lots of chairs, I think I only once or twice encountered another person – waiting for a lesson with John Skinner. The stud walls, as mentioned in an earlier post, provided hardly any sound-proofing.
In her teaching room, the smaller half of the divided space, the furniture all seemed tiny; a writing bureau, some chairs, a small couch in one corner for the extremely rare lying-down turns, a portrait-style photograph of FM on one wall, a small ‘attic-type’ window looking out at the adjacent London buildings; sometime later there arrived on the floor beside her bureau a rather large doll of Mrs Tiggy Winkle – the hedgehog washerwoman from Tales of Beatrix Potter – who stared at you surrealistically while you were trying to ‘not react’.
On the third or fourth floor of the building was a men’s washroom which was usually locked. On one occasion I fortunately found it open and went in. There was a ‘seriously suited’ elderly gentleman in there, looking very much like one of Charles Dickens’s less loveable characters; one thought of Mr Murdstone. He glared at me suspiciously. “I suppose you have a key?” he challenged me. “Well no I don’t, actually” I replied. “Hmm! Then whom are you here to see?” he growled. “Miss Goldie” I answered.
His manner then changed entirely; Mr Murdstone disappeared and there before my very eyes stood none other than Mr Pickwick. “Oh, Miss Goldie!” he said. “Well that’s all right then. Take your time and I’ll send someone to lock up. Do have a good lesson…. but I am sure you will. Good day!”
I believe the gentleman owned the business which leased the building and that he gave Miss G and John Skinner their rooms at a very favourable rate. Some years later, however, the lease expired and Miss G and John Skinner had to go. They moved to the Bloomsbury Alexander Centre in Southampton Row near the British Museum. Several of Miss Goldie’s pupils helped her to relocate, and it was pleasant to see her in another context than ‘the lesson’. I drove into Soho Square to take some things in my car to Southampton Row. My then girlfriend Elena, who was also having lessons with Miss G, came too. There was a touching moment as we parted from Miss G when Elena, being Spanish, moved towards Miss G to embrace her. Then, just as Miss G moved forward in response, Elena hesitated – thinking that she oughtn’t to – Miss G hesitated … and the moment had gone.
Rumour had it that MIss G had brought her vacuum cleaner in with her on the underground to make sure she left the old place clean. I don’t know if it is true, but it would not surprise me.
© 2013 John S Hunter
After Christmas and New Year with her family in Edinburgh, Erika had a few more days in London before her flight back to Australia. The book she gave me as a Christmas present reflected many of our conversations about Taoism and Zen over the past weeks. She was particularly fond of the story about the Taoist master who – when asked, “What is the Tao?” – replied, “It’s nothing special”.
It’s time to drive her to the airport and we are, for some reason, behind schedule. Before I know it she is off downstairs with her heavy suitcase.
“Erika!” I exclaim, “Let me carry that for you!”
“It’s all right” she replies. “I’m not carrying it. It’s just hanging from my arm.”
Then we are in the car and up onto the flyover of the motorway.
I’m anxiously checking the time and calculating how long it will take to get to the airport, find a parking space and walk to the terminal. Erika is watching the planes flying parallel to us on their approach to Heathrow.
“Erika, don’t you get nervous when you are late for a plane?” I ask her.
“What’s to be nervous about? I am just sitting in a car watching the traffic or the planes … and that’s all!”
A couple of weeks later I was very surprised to receive a phone call from her in Melbourne. She was a wonderful correspondent and I am one of several people with a great collection of letters from her (will they ever be published?) but, calls being still very expensive at that time, she practically never phoned.
“That book I gave you…” she said, “…it’s on page 29. That’s what Alexander was trying to teach us. You can’t separate things.”
I found the quote and read it over to myself, recalling several conversations we had had about making the link between Alexander work and daily life. They are words I often come back to:
“All practices are carried out at once: there is no before or after, and no in between.” 1
1. Zen Dawn: Early Zen Texts from Tun Huang, translated by J. C. Cleary, Shambala Publications Inc, London and Boston, 1986, p29
© 2013 John S Hunter
Other Posts on Being with Erika:
#01, London 1985 – Annual Memorial Lecture
#02, Brighton 1988 – Key Note Address
#03, Melbourne 1991 – “Come for lunch!”
#04, Melbourne 1991 – Tea Ceremony
#05, Melbourne 1991 – Jean Jacques by the Sea
#06, Back in Melbourne, 1992
#07, “Where did you train?”, London, 1993
#08, “It’s all the same”, London, 1993
#09, “Making the Link”, London, 1993
#10, A Lesson in Stopping, London, 1993
#11, Hands, London 1994
#12, “Yes, but you’re worrying!”, London, 1993
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