Tag Archive | chair work

On Getting in and out of a Chair. “Hats off!”

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.

For readers of my blog who might be interested I am starting a limited size online study group on Zoom. This will begin with F M Alexander’s book The Universal Constant in Living. Email me if you would  like to participate: john@the-alexander-technique.eu

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).

2. La Peste, Albert Camus (translation by Stuart Gilbert)


© John Hunter 2020

Being with Erika: #01, London 1985 – Annual Memorial Lecture

In 1985 Erika Whittaker was invited to give the STAT Annual Memorial Lecture, a very popular event which took place in the Autumn each year, quite separate from the Annual Conference, in St. Wilfrid’s Hall at the Brompton Oratory. It seemed that the Alexander world was beginning to knock on Erika’s door. I believe it was Jean Clarke who sought her out in Melbourne and suggested she give the Annual Lecture. During Erika’s time in the UK she also visited several training-courses and met two generations of teachers to whom she was quite unknown.

I had been qualified for just over a year and, having recently started taking lessons with Margaret Goldie, was very curious to see another ‘grand old lady’ of the Ashley Place days.

John Nichols, the Chairman of the Council at that time, was already sitting on the stage to introduce her in a rather formal way. Then this relatively youthful looking woman came bounding onto the platform and began to speak.

I was initially rather confused. I wondered who this person was, why she was talking to us; and when the ‘grand old lady’ was going to come on stage. It took a good couple of minutes for me to actually realise that this was Erika.

One of the first things that registered was when she said that anyone who looked as though they were practising the Alexander Technique was not. I looked around the lecture hall and saw practically a room full of people who looked very much as though they were practising the Alexander Technique. Not only that, they were sitting in little enclaves, depending on where they had trained, and were practising the Alexander Technique in the ‘house style’.

My interest was piqued. I wanted to know more about this very unusual woman.

A few days later I was talking to a colleague about Erika and the lecture. “I had a lesson with her” she said. “It was very interesting.”

It had not occurred to me that she may be teaching while in London, but now I was hoping that I could get to see her before she returned to Australia. She was staying in another teacher’s flat in Earls Court. I contacted her and asked if I could have a lesson. “I’d be pleased to meet you” she said. A couple of days later I rang the doorbell and Erika answered. I knew straightaway that there was something different about her which, at that time, I could only express to myself as she allowed herself to ‘live her personality’. There was no ‘imposition of a technique’, no sense that she was ‘the teacher’, and one felt immediately at ease with her.

Because of a mix-up over times, the teaching-room was in use so she took me into another room and we sat down and began to talk. Well mostly she began to talk and I listened. After a while I began to realise that what she was talking about was actually very relevant to me. She had quickly got the measure of me and was giving me some insightful advice in a very indirect way.

After a little while the other room became free and we moved in there. In front of the chair she constantly kept my attention engaged so that I did not interfere. It never became ‘chair work’, but I soon found myself sitting down; and a few moments later I was standing up again – though I did not know ‘how’. She invited me to lie on the table and made minimal contact with her hands, but kept talking to me all the while.

Then she said she had another appointment and I had to leave. I asked her what I owed her. “Oh no!” she said. “You are a teacher aren’t you, so we are just ‘exchanging’. The next time will have to be in Australia.”

And so I left. I went and sat in a cafe to have a coffee, feeling somewhat similar – and yet very different – to when I had my first lessons some seven years earlier. Similar in that I was experiencing myself in a new way; but different – very different – because this had come about with hardly any ‘hands-on’ work. Something very important had happened. Erika had got inside my head. She had changed my thinking.

© 2013 John S Hunter

Other Posts on Being with Erika:

#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
#13, “Nothing special”, London, 1994