Lessons with Miss G: #6, “My Way”
“Quiet throughout, with particular attention to head, neck and back” came the familiar mantra from Miss G, as she gently tapped the back of my head with one finger.
After a minute or so (one’s sense of time was very different in her teaching room) she asked me, somewhat incongruously – and almost in a tone of curiosity, as if we were chatting over a cup of coffee, “Have you heard of an American singer called Francis Sinatra?”
“Yes Miss Goldie,” I replied, wondering where she was going with this.
“Then are you familiar with a song he recorded entitled ‘I Did It My Way’?”
“Yes Miss Goldie”, my attention dancing now between the anticipation of what might be coming next and the call back to the quiet energy that flowed, under her touch, between my head and spine.
“Well …” she said, stepping back so I no longer had that external reminder to ‘not interfere with head, neck and back’, her voice rising now in a crescendo “… he got it quite wrong you know! It’s not about doing it your way. It’s doing it your way that’s got you into the mess you’re in today.”
I’m saying to myself, “Don’t react! Stay quiet! Head, neck and back……”
“You want to stop doing it your way. Not your way”, her voice quietening now, her hand coming back to my head/neck area. “Not your way, but Nature’s way.”
I began to see that inhibition and direction are two aspects of a way of being; they are inextricably linked.
© 2013 John S Hunter
Tips4Teachers – Thought, energy and the atlanto-occipital joint
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
The “it” cannot be exactly defined, but we can discover what needs to let go in order to get out of the way.
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
Marj Barstow: #2, Moving Up, London 1988
The ‘Marj’ workshops took place in Rudolph Steiner House next to Regents Park in London. There were many things which were not so good about the organisation of the event, but in this series I want only to speak about my experiences of watching and working with Marjorie Barstow.
I learnt a great deal from observing the way she worked and interacted with people. Although she had a somewhat autocratic manner (Erika said that even at Ashley Place in the early 1930s, Marj had a touch of the ‘school ma’am’ about her), it was tempered by a good deal of humour – often at the expense of the pupil if he or she asked a stupid question, tried to ‘do’ it or let their attention wander. Her assistants were very evidently aware of her presence and of when they were in her field of attention; they visibly went ‘on the alert’ when she came into the room. It was amusing to watch one of them quickly uncrossing his legs and rearranging himself like a naughty schoolboy when Marj fixed her eye upon him.
Then what was her ‘method’? Bearing in mind that I can only speak of what I observed that week, here are some impressions.
She encouraged people to observe, with as much accuracy as they could muster, exactly what they were doing. This was always related to an activity. The group she was working with would usually be asked what they wanted to do. This in itself put the onus on the pupil of engaging; of making a decision; of having the courage to ‘speak up’ and say what they wanted. For some, this was already a ‘bridge too far’.
Someone might then say that he or she wished, for example, to recite a poem. Marj would then invite the person to do so and she would watch. Afterwards, the person was invited to say what they were able to observe about themselves during the process. Other members of the group might be asked to say what they had observed. Marj would then use her hands to coordinate the person’s head, neck and back; then he or she was asked to repeat the poem. There was, of course, a noticeable difference between before and after. The moral was that in order to carry out any activity you need to put your head forward and up. That in itself was not new as an approach (for example Ethel Webb and Irene Tasker’s ‘application work’ in the Little School and Teacher Training Course). Marj used the ‘group dynamic’ to – as it were – reinforce the experience. This method of teaching can be a very powerful tool. It encourages observation, attention to process, decision making and what Marj called ‘constructive thinking’.
I wanted to experience more directly the ‘energetic aspect’ of her work; the ‘inner content’, so to speak. Hoping that she would take my hands, I asked her to help me work on someone. This ruse, however, did not work. I had expected that she would take my hands or my back and work with me on the pupil, but she just stepped back, fixed me with her eagle eyes and told me to get on with. I had not quite realised what I was letting myself in for.
Nevertheless, the experience gave me a helpful insight into what it was she was looking for. The pupil on whom I was working said that it ‘felt great’. Marj, however, was not interested in what the pupil did or didn’t feel. She was watching me. She said “I didn’t see you moving up as you put your hands on her”.
Afterwards one of the assistants came and gave me a reassuring ‘well done, brave try’ pat on the back, as though I had been through some kind of trial by fire. In a way I had, because, like trying to work on a pupil in front of Patrick MacDonald, you could feel her attention on you. She was ‘all there’. Nothing but the real counted, and you knew it.
Later in the week, however, I got my reward. While we were all working together Marj came over to me, placed one hand on my back and with her other hand placed my hand on a pupil’s neck. There it was! Crystal clear! My back softly expanded, energy flowed along my arm and through my hand, the pupil’s neck softened, his head went forward and up, his back lengthened and widened and he went gliding across the room. Then I could make the link. The actual experience of direction in the teacher, conveyed through the hands to the pupil, was essentially in no way at variance with what I had been learning for the past several years. Marj’s particular emphases – going into activity or movement, observation and ‘constructive thinking’ – were differences of form rather than content.
© 2013 John S Hunter
Tips4Teachers – Head Forward and Up
The relationship between the head, neck and back is, quite rightly, considered to be one of the central tenets of Alexander’s work. Nothing else can, when working well, give such a sense of lightness, ease and integration; and nothing else is the source of so many difficulties and misunderstandings.
Why is it central? Poor co-ordination in this area was, as we know, at the root of Alexander’s own problem with his voice. It is reported (by Marjory Barlow I believe) that FM said in later years that he was lucky his difficulty was in that area as otherwise he would never have discovered the Primary Control.
Head Forward and Up
Alexander does not go into great detail about the meaning of “Head Forward and Up”. In Conscious Constructive Control of the Individual he writes:
This is one of the most inadequate and often confusing phrases used as a means of conveying our ideas in words, and it is a dangerous instruction to give to any pupil, unless the teacher first demonstrates his meaning by giving to the pupil, by means of manipulation, the exact experiences involved.1
So it’s clear! As teachers, we have to be exact! No pressure then…!
Some of his early followers tried to be more explicit. Lulie Westfeldt gives a detailed description of her understanding of the processes involved. In particular:
Alexander in using the words meant head forward in relation to the neck. It took a long time and hard work to find this out. One realized in time that his hands, which he used in demonstrating and teaching, were always tending to take the neck back and the head forward in relation to it. Once one had discovered this, one could ask him a direct question and get his confirmation that ‘head forward’ meant ‘head forward in relation to the neck’. The head’s tending to go forward in relation to the neck causes the alignment of the head and neck to improve, in that the head is balanced on top of the neck instead of being retracted back upon it. Once this retraction or locking is done away with, the head will tend to go up whether any other thought is given or not, just as the plant will come up out of the ground if it is not prevented or interfered with. If in addition the head is thought up, however, it will go up more strongly.2
Frank Pierce Jones also addresses this issue:
“Forward and up” clearly is not a single, oblique movement but two movements, the first of which facilitates the second. Depending on where the head happens to be at the start, “forward” will bring the centre of gravity up or down. In any case, the increase in this distance increases the torque exerted by the head on extensor muscles and facilitates extension of the spine. The head feels lighter because more of its weight is carried by discs and ligaments and because muscles that move it (for example, the sternomastoids and the upper trapezii) have lengthened.3
Marjorie Barlow credits Patrick MacDonald with the realisation that “head forward and up”, in physiological terms, involves a release of the atlanto-occipital joint.
We were all very confused, until Pat (Patrick Macdonald) realized that what F.M. meant (although he wasn’t saying it in a word) was that the head goes forward and up from the occipital joint, not from the “hump”. This was such an eye opener to all of us because as soon as we realized that, we could get the freedom there and the rest did itself almost. 4
In his book The Alexander Technique As I See It, Patrick MacDonald goes into some detail about the meaning of “forward” and “up”:
…the direction …..forward in Forward and Up is an unlocking device and … the direction Up should produce a tiny elongation of the spinal column….
… release the neck at the atlanto-occipital joint… bring about an expansion along the spine. 5
MacDonald credits Dr Andrew Murdoch, a pupil of FM, with making the connection between Alexander’s “Primary Control” and the sub-occipital muscles.6
The direction “head forward and up” stimulates and activates the anti-gravity muscles of the body’s support system referred to in Tips4Teachers – Keeping the Back Back.
As well as the physical aspect described above, “Head forward and up” also has a more subtle “psycho-energetic aspect” which I will discuss in another post.
1. Conscious Constructive Control of the Individual, F Matthias Alexander, Part II, Chapter IV, “Illustration”, Published by Mouritz (UK). ISBN 0954352262/978-0954352264 (back to text).
2. F. Matthias Alexander: the Man and his Work, Lulie Westfeldt, p 135. Published by Centerline Press, California. (back to text).
3. Freedom to Change, Frank Pierce Jones, p148, ISBN 978-0-9525574-7-0, publisher: Mouritz 1997, (First published 1976 as Body Awareness in Action by Schocken Books). (back to text).
4. An Examined Life, Marjory Barlow, p. 81-82, 2002), Publisher: Mornum Time Press; First American Edition edition (October 2002), ISBN-10: 0964435241, ISBN-13: 978-0964435247. (back to text).
5. The Alexander Technique As I See It, Patrick MacDonald. Chapter 4: Teaching the Technique. Published by Rahula Books, 1989. (back to text).
6. Ibid. p46. See also The Function of the Sub-Occipital Muscles: The Key to Posture, Use, and Functioning by A. Murdoch M.B., C.M, paper read at the Hastings Division of the British Medical Association, May 5, 1936 (excerpts from which appear in The Universal Constant in Living by F Matthias Alexander, Published by Mouritz (UK). ISBN 0952557444/978-0952557449). (back to text).
© 2013 John S Hunter