A lot of teachers wanted to come and meet Erika, so I organised several half-day workshops over a period of two weeks in my apartment in West London. The participants spanned a period of thirty-odd years experience and came from diverse training backgrounds. The interaction between them and Erika was of great interest to me.
Here was a woman whose contact with the Alexander Technique (her first lessons from her aunt Ethel Webb were in 1919) predated anyone else still alive. For all of the teachers who came, their link with Alexander was through their head of training or that person’s head of training – in all cases leading back to the same eight people: Patrick Macdonald, Peter Scott, Walter and Dilys Carrington, Dr and Marjory Barlow, and Dick and Elisabeth Walker.
Erika, however, had distanced herself from what had been going on in the Alexander world after World War 2. For some time she had felt uncomfortable with certain attitudes in Ashley Place 1 and when the training course reopened in September 1945, Erika found the atmosphere very different from the pre-war era. With FM playing a smaller part in the running of the course, the three ‘crown princes’ (Patrick Macdonald, Walter Carrington and Bill Barlow), as she called them, were already vying for who was going to ‘pick up the mantle’. Consequently she saw the contemporary Alexander world from the perspective of what it had been to her in those early experiences with Ethel Webb, Irene Tasker and the Alexander brothers. She was like a time-traveller who had jumped forward fifty years and could see how, over just two generations, ideas and practices had developed in unexpected and sometimes, to her, unusual ways.
Like many of my contemporaries who trained in London in the 1980’s, I was trying to understand the difference between the various ‘styles’ or ‘approaches’ to training. As the different teachers, from those very backgrounds, came and interacted with Erika, bringing with them (just like me) their mixture of ‘idées reçues’, misconceptions, insights, discoveries, frustrations and ‘strongly held beliefs’, it became clear that she had a somewhat different way of seeing things.
Some people came with very definite ideas about what they wanted to ask, but she stepped deftly aside in the face of ‘specific questions’. What she was interested in was people, and what made them tick. Who was asking this or that question, and what way of thinking was behind it? She tried to get through a person’s outer shell and connect with the individual with whom she was in discourse. Some found this frustrating; they were waiting for when they could start getting in and out of chairs. Some felt the rug pulled out from under their feet; they were looking for a rational explanation of this or that idea or to justify this or that point of view. Others found it like a breath of fresh air.
When she ‘worked’ with someone, she never allowed it to become the seeking out of certain sensory experiences. She brought the person into the moment, into their own presence in the here and now. One could see the scales fall from their eyes as the questions or concerns which had been dogging them, and were preventing them from entering into a direct experience, disappeared.
Speaking for myself, still the old questions fought to reestablish themselves in my mind. I asked her to talk about the differences between the major lineages of the Alexander Technique.
“But they are all the same” she said. “Can’t you see that?”
“No I can’t” I replied. “What do you mean?”
“They are all about ‘teaching‘.”
I still didn’t understand. But my curiosity was piqued now, and I wanted to find out what she meant. This took quite some ‘unpacking’ and involved an exploration of events which took place in London long before I was born.
1. “…there seemed to be a tendency at Ashley Place to have the attitude that we were the clever ones and the people out there don’t know anything……..I wanted to find out what else was going on in the world”. Erika Whittaker, Annual Memorial Lecture, STAT 1985. (… back to text).
© 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
#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
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