“Now you are doing it again!” she said, with more than a little exasperation in her voice. She stepped back so that she could look at me and pronounce her verdict. “John, you are such an unbeliever!”
Well, that was not what I was expecting to hear. All sorts of reasons had been flooding through my head as to why it just wasn’t working: it was because I was doing or not doing this or that, or that she was doing or not doing this or that, but the idea that it could have anything at all to do with my beliefs – or lack of them – had never occurred to me …
And yet, she was absolutely right. Because I didn’t feel what I expected – had even been ‘trained’ – to feel when getting out of the chair, I didn’t believe it was possible. I was used to “keeping my back back”, but this was brought about with the help of a strong stimulus from the teacher who provided the opposition, thereby stimulating the “anti-gravity response”. But Goldie didn’t do that; she was not going to make it work for you, and if the usual signals and sensations were not there, then I didn’t believe something could happen.
So Alexander was right: “Belief is a matter of customary muscle tension”.1 I didn’t see this all at once: it was a gradual realisation, but one that was set in motion by that remark of Goldie’s.
Of all the “master teachers” I worked with, it was only with Goldie that I did not always feel wonderful during or after the lessons. Far from it! Sometimes it all felt very static and pointless. On more than one occasion I could not wait for the lesson to end, swearing to myself that this would definitely be the last time I would put myself through such an excruciating experience. She was, of course, picking up this “resistance” and would sometimes comment that I should not concern myself with whether or not I felt it was working, or give way to an inner criticism that she was “not up to scratch today”, but I should “just go on with the brain-work”. Then, perhaps several hours later the same day – and quite unexpectedly – some new discovery would emerge; a clarity of thought, a more vivid perception, or an unknown part of my spine would suddenly wake up. I was coming to understand that what she called “brain-work” was bringing about changes from the inside rather than through muscles or nerves. Another of Alexander’s aphorisms began to make sense:
“When the time comes that you can trust your feeling, you won’t want to use it.” 2
1 Some references to belief and muscle tension.
- “Do you know what we have found that belief is? A certain standard of muscle tension. That is all”. (The Bedford Lecture, in Articles and Lectures, p.174, Mouritz (1995))
- I remember one morning his coming briskly into our classroom, looking very pleased with himself, and saying, ‘Belief is a matter of customary muscle tension.’
‘F.M.,’ I said, ‘don’t you mean that belief about what you can do with the body is a matter of customary muscle tension?’ The discussion was on. He kept talking while he worked. Finally at the end of the morning’s work F.M. said, ‘Yes, belief about what you can do with the body is a matter of customary muscle tension.’ Lulie Westfeldt, F. Matthias Alexander, The Man and his Work, Mouritz 1998, p.68
- Was FM’ s aphorism that belief is a matter of muscle tension simply designed to shock people, or was there a more serious element behind it? He was perfectly serious about it, because he equated belief with fixation. In his experience a rigidity of mind corresponded to a rigidity of body. (Walter Carrington on the Alexander Technique in discussion with Sean Carey, 1986, p.45f)
2 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).
© John Hunter 2015
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
One of my closest friends was the first person I heard coin the name ‘the surgeon’ for Peggy Williams.
“She puts her hands on me and they feel enormous, like I imagine Alexander’s did. She just opens me up. I call her ‘the surgeon’. She can put me right in two minutes”.
With PR like that, how could I resist…!
I had been teaching for a couple of years and still did not know very much. I was already having lessons with Margaret Goldie and with Patrick Macdonald, but my friend assured me that Peggy’s work was something different again.
Peggy lived in High Point, an upmarket 1930’s modernist apartment block (designed by Berthold Lubetkin) in Highgate, London. She was always very welcoming, but definitely didn’t like anybody arriving late.
Standing in front of ‘the chair’ on a thick rug in my stocking feet, I felt her ‘enormous’ (yes they felt like that) hands arrive on my shoulders and start to press them down. The more they released, the more I went up!. It seemed as though my whole frame was going up from the inside and that there was no end to it. With a prod at my hips, my knees went forward and then I was in the chair. I went on going up.
Getting out of the chair was easy if you kept the back back; something Alexander insisted on, she said – adding that many young teachers coming to her would ‘lurch forward’ as soon as they felt the slightest pressure on their backs.
Then she would put me on the table, still chatting throughout; her ‘surgeon’s hands’ would go to work, opening up my whole body. Under those hands everything just let go, and I knew then what my friend had been talking about.
The lessons mostly followed that pattern, and at some point she would always ask “Well, any news?” She loved to hear what was going on in the Alexander world and always had some good gossip to exchange.
There was a lovely flow of direction as she worked, and she kindly commented once that it was a pleasure “to work with someone who knows how to direct”, adding that giving me a lesson was like receiving a lesson, because I had so much direction. She would often make supportive remarks like that, which was very encouraging for a young teacher. When I was grumbling once about some persistent difficulty, her response was “Don’t worry! It must come right in the end, because the direction is there”.
Mostly she would stimulate the upward response of the anti-gravity mechanisms with her hands on my (troublesome) shoulders, or with one hand on my head and the other on my back. Once though, coming off the table, she took my head forward and up with such clarity that I can almost feel it as I write now, some 25 years later.
I continued to see Peggy every couple of months for about three years between 1986 and 1989.
I was very glad to have had that experience, particularly from a senior teacher not only trained by Alexander but also strongly associated with the Constructive Teaching Centre, where she taught for 17 years.
An Interview with Peggy Williams, by Glen Park, is very helpful reading for all teacher-trainees.
© 2013 John S Hunter
There was a time when “keeping the back back ” was the sine qua non of teaching and learning the Alexander Technique. It could be said to be the physical equivalent of inhibition (but that is for another post).
There are some lovely diary entries written by Eva Webb which suggest that “keeping the back back” was quite the norm at Ashley Place. Somewhere along the line it has fallen into disuse.
In 1947 Eva had her first session with FM, then lessons with Irene Stewart, Margaret Goldie, Patrick MacDonald, Max Alexander, Dick Walker and Walter Carrington; thirty three lessons in total over a period of two months.
“They teach leaning back against their hands to prevent entirely the old lurch forwards.”
“It is still difficult to remember to lean back a little when support is given”
“For goodness’ sake remember the slight lean back.”
“Instead of coming back I was pressing back.” 1
Although Patrick MacDonald was the “first generation” teacher most often associated with the injunction to “keep the back back”, the point was made most dramatically to me by Peggy Williams, who once quoted FM Alexander as saying to the students while she was on the training course:
“Never in a thousand years will you make a teacher of my technique unless you can keep your back back.” 2
Frank Pierce Jones describes this process:
“The subject, sitting in the experimental posture, is asked not to alter the balance of his head while the experimenter rests a hand lightly against his back. As the experimenter gradually increases the pressure of his hand in a horizontal direction, the subject equalizes the pressure by coming back instead of going forward as he would ordinarily do in response to such a stimulus. When the pressure reaches a certain level (varying with the distribution of tonus in the subject’s back and his ability to inhibit a change in the head-neck relation), the subject will be brought easily and smoothly to his feet.” 3
I think it is a great pity that many teachers have let this aspect of Alexander work almost be forgotten and that many were never even taught it, so in this post I would like to talk about some of the reasons why I think it is important and how I use it in teaching.
When we are upright, simply standing, clearly work is being done by our musculo-skeletal system in order to oppose the force of gravity. We recognise, instinctively one could say, that the work which is being done is of a different nature or quality to when we are doing other kinds of work with muscles – to move ourselves in space or lift objects, for example; work which is more obviously volitional.
Certainly there are postural reflexes at work, nevertheless, when standing, one could decide to “switch off” the muscles involved and thereby cause the body to drop to the floor (Delsarte referred to this intentional withdrawal of energy from muscles as “decomposition”). So there is still an element of volition involved, but again of a different nature to when I am “doing”. We experience it as a kind of “background volition”: I simply decide to be upright.
When I put my hand on a pupil’s back I allow my whole frame to expand, and the expansion along my arm is away from my back, which is staying back. Because of my training I activate this expansion in such a way that it stimulates the same expansive response in the pupil, but only if he or she opposes my hand.
There are, however, different ways of opposing me. The pupil could:
- simply lean back
- “do” something (ie.voluntary muscular work, and it doesn’t matter which muscles) in order to push against me
- stiffen to prevent movement
None of the above is what is wanted.
However, if the teacher is sufficiently integrated, free and expanding, the contact with the pupil gives a strong stimulus to the anti-gravity response of the whole musculo-skeletal frame. The teacher is then providing both an enhanced gravitational downward force whilst at the same time stimulating the appropriate upward response of the body’s support system. With a little patience, and a clear explanation of what is required from the pupil, it is rare for this not to work. A pupil in time realises that he or she can use gravity to” go up”, but they are not “doing” it. He or she can be taken into movement in the way Jones describes above.
Keeping the back back, without stiffening or pushing, is a subtle, but rewardingly effective way to activate the primary control, without too much focus on “release” as an end in itself.
From here one can explore how the support system is also activated by the correct relationship between the head, neck and spine. Also how it can be, and often is, interfered with in response to many and varied stimuli.
1. F.Matthias Alexander and The Creative Advance of the Individual, by George Bowden (ISBN: 0852430027, Publisher: L. N. Fowler & Co. Ltd) (back to text).
2. In conversation with the author (back to text).
3. Freedom to Change, by Frank Pearce Jones (Chapter on “Experimental Studies: Reflex Responses”:ISBN-10: 0952557479, ISBN-13: 978-0952557470, publisher: Mouritz 1997. First published as Body Awareness in Action. (back to text).
© 2013 John S Hunter