My friend and colleague Terry Fitzgerald, a fine teacher of both the Alexander Technique and Ballroom Dancing, told me while attending one of his classes many years ago that “a good dance teacher can make it work for you”. It’s true! When one begins to study and practice partner dancing it soon becomes apparent that there is a communication between leader and follower which is similar in many ways to that between teacher and pupil in an Alexander lesson. Intention, typically related to familiar outcomes – be they dance steps or, in our case, the rather more prosaic movement in or out of a chair – is transmitted through movement and touch. In both cases though, all parties need a basic familiarity with both the choreography involved and the language of the leader or teacher. In finer moments of Dance the delineation of roles becomes blurred; two people move as one, moved by and moving to the music. There is neither leader nor follower – reminiscent of that moment in an Alexander lesson when “It’s just happening”.)
FM is reported to have come into the training course one day and announced to everybody that “Now I can give it to them whether they want it or not!”. Like Terry’s “good dance teacher” FM could “make it work” for his pupils.
It can be beautiful to watch gifted dancers moving together to music. Watching a couple of people performing their Alexandrian “pas de deux” can look rather bizarre, though for the trained eye there are nuances of significant change taking place.
Nevertheless, the process is largely one of becoming familiar with the nature of the messages and how to respond to them. Different lineages have different languages of touch and different choreographies, which can make it more difficult for teachers or students from one school to work with those of another than for most dancers to adapt to a new partner; it’s more like learning an entirely new dance.
Patrick Macdonald once commented that it did not matter which words one used to represent the directions, one could, for example, say to oneself “Coca Cola” instead of head forward and up – as long as the words corresponded to the experience. The teacher gives the experience and by a kind of association the words come to represent it. “Up to a point, Lord Copper,” for herein lies a trap. Unless and until pupils go through the process of rediscovering Inhibition and Direction for themselves, they will continue to seek out the sensory satisfaction that comes from the teacher’s hands. A good teacher can make it work for you, but also needs to know when not to, and when and how to help you find your own insights. Learning to respond to the teachers hands must, at some point, give way to learning to make your own decisions and respond to your own intentions.
Trying to teach without hands is fraught with difficulties as the Alexander brothers discovered in the early years. The attempt to explain everything in words can all get very complicated.
Hands-on work, the great gift of the Alexander Technique, has in some ways become its limitation. The medium has become the message. Although in its present form the Technique is indeed a boon for humanity, the evolutionary secret at the heart of it still has to be found in the depths of one’s own being, in places which cannot be touched by even the most gifted hands – but only by one’s own consciousness.
© 2018 John S Hunter
How does it differ from fitness or posture training?
Is it like Mindfulness?
There are similarities and differences. Mindfulness was developed by Buddhist monks as part of their spiritual practice; centuries later certain elements of this practice were adapted by psychologists for therapeutic or developmental purposes. For many Westerners – and increasingly Easterners too – a meditation practice is not sufficient to connect them with themselves in an organic way; there are too many abnormalities in a nervous system which is partly over-stimulated (by lifestyle choices such as caffeine, alcohol, Facebook and other stimulants) and partly almost dormant (lacking sensory self-awareness).
The gentle “hands-on” element of Alexander work can cut through these patterns of thought, nerve activity and muscle tension to give one a direct experience of another way of being.
I can still recall the intensity of my first experience of the Alexander Technique in March 1978.
Although nothing dramatic seemed to happen during the lesson – and from the outside the untrained eye might think that nothing was happening – the changes in my nervous system were profound.
After the session, which lasted no more than 25 minutes, I went and sat in a nearby café to drink a cup of coffee and try to process the new sensations, which I can best describe as an awareness of myself as a living organism rather than a continually changing procession of thoughts.
Patrick Macdonald did not, in those later years, speak very much when teaching, but he knew the moment when a few words could help to either induce helpful self-questioning or make something clear.
I recall two such incidents which took place during my last period of study with him.
I was working on one of my colleagues. Mr Macdonald was watching and reminding me with a gesture of his thumb to “take her up!”. Then something shifted; that recognisable change in state occurred in which everything begins to flow. Mr Macdonald leant over towards me, looked me in the eyes and said, very simply and very directly in a quiet but firm voice– as if confiding something both important and personal:
“That’s right! Never mind about her! You look after yourself!”
Then the moment was over. He changed, stood back again and in his usual voice said,
“Go on then, take her up! Your job is to take her up.”
But I wasn’t fooled. Something that I had already at certain moments tasted was now understood; that experience will always stay with me.
In my last lesson with him I remember asking him, when I felt myself moving freely in and out of the chair,
“Who is doing this, Mr Macdonald? You or me?”
“Who do you think is doing it?” he replied.
“I don’t know”, I said.
A minute or so later, when something had really got out of the way and a finer energy was flowing, he asked:
“Who is doing it now?”
“Nobody is doing it,” I replied. “It’s just happening.”
“That’s right,” he said. “It’s just happening.”
And again, at that moment – something was understood.
© John Hunter 2015
Erika Whittaker and Margaret Goldie were really like chalk and cheese. In the early days, as young women, they did not get on too well. Goldie had, said Erika, somehow got into what she called the “inner circle” at Ashley place (by which she meant the Alexander family, plus Irene Tasker and Ethel Webb) and she did not mix very much with the other students.
According to Erika the children at the Little School were a little bit frightened of Goldie; one day when they were all being served with soup, none of them dared to start eating in case they had not “inhibited” enough. Then F.M. came in, sat down and said, “Eat, eat. It will get cold!”
“She had this way” Erika said, “of looking you up and down as if to say ‘what are you doing here?’, and one felt an icy chill. The other students were all a bit frightened of her.”
When, more than half a century later, they re-established contact, they formed a touching friendship. Erika, having found some strange things going on in the Alexander world after an absence of several decades, was very grateful to be able to talk to Goldie and be re-assured that she was not alone in her critique. While Erika was staying with me on one of her London visits she was invited to Goldie’s for lunch. She came back delighted.
“We had smoked salmon, Stilton cheese and champagne; my favourites.”
Goldie also valued the contact with Erika. When I told her on a later occasion that Erika was coming again to London, she became quite emotional.
“Oh Erika!” she said. “When we were at Ashley Place she was always so light, so joyful and so free. Mr Alexander was always sending us off to go for a walk, saying we were too serious.
‘Why can’t you be more like Erika,’ he would say. ‘She understands.’
But we couldn’t. We didn’t know how.”
I only went to Miss Goldie’s house in Richmond once, and that was to take Erika to visit her. I dropped her off and went a few hours later to pick her up. I went in and spent half an hour or so together with these two old ladies who had influenced my understanding of Alexander’s work so much over the last twelve years. It was the only time I was to see them together and it was the last time I saw Goldie before she died.
Goldie was sitting at her little desk under her bookshelves, full of fascinating titles. You really got the sense that she was a thinker: someone who reflected on subjects which had concerned mankind throughout the ages. She looked very fragile and had bruises on her face after a recent fall, but with Erika’s clever and considerate questions and prompts, the conversation was lively and Goldie reminisced happily.
She told us the story of her first lessons, when she was having each day one from FM and one from AR. She said she loved her lessons with FM, but hated the ones with AR. In desperation she wrote to her father who was paying for the lessons, and said that she thought it was not right that he should be spending all this money when she was only benefiting from half of the lessons. His response was that he was paying all this money so that she could learn to face and deal with any problem that life put in her path, and this was one of them. Later, she said, she became great friends with AR.
Erika asked her, for my benefit really, how was it that FM could see and work with so many people in a day without seeming to get tired.
Goldie laughed. “It was because he wasn’t doing anything” she replied.
“A lot of young teachers nowadays” continued Erika (and by “young teachers” she meant more or less anyone under the age of seventy), “are very concerned about getting more pupils and trying to make FM’s work more popular. What’s your view about that?”
Goldie smiled and said. “It was never meant for everyone. It is meant for the few who wish to evolve.”
© John Hunter 2015
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
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
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” [xi] )
– 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. [xvi]
- 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.
[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