Tag Archive | inhibition

Cult of the hands

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

Traps, Pitfalls and Culs-de-sac #2: Sensation Junkies

Each of the first-generation teachers gave to the Alexander work a particular emphasis, based perhaps on a particular need – or a strong interest – in themselves which was related to just such an aspect or aspects.

Many of the second generation teachers tended to particularly focus on those aspects mastered by their own teachers and then, by a kind of psycho-physical synecdoche, took that for the whole.

It is a consequence of our discipline’s somewhat tribal history and development that many teachers today find it difficult to exchange on more than a superficial level with someone from another lineage.

I will in another post (Systems, Schools and So-called Styles) attempt to explore some of the reasons why these difficulties exist, but here I want to look at some of the problems which I have observed which, though different in many ways, have a common source; an over-emphasis of the sensory side of Alexander work.

The huge amount of hands-on work which takes place in training courses can, of course, be transforming. There is, however, a flip-side to this, which is that a student’s nervous system becomes accustomed to certain sensory experiences, and sensory experiences are, like many other repeated activities of a pleasant – or even unpleasant – nature, addictive.

Alexander warned us about this in a little known passage in MSI (See Equilibrium: Mind, Body and the Thing about Feelings).

Here are some of the more common traps that one might fall into:

  • The “up-junkie”; i.e. someone who is end-gaining for direction, always seeking the experience of “going up” for its own sake – with a corresponding over-stimulation of the nervous system
  • The “release-junkie”; endlessly looking for excuses to lie down and do nothing in the hope that some muscular tension may be released
  • The Alexandroid Mark 1: who attempts to inhibit by blocking the flow of vitality in the body and suppressing natural impulses (see Spontaneity). This is usually brought about by trying to feel oneself being very still.
  • The Alexandroid Mark 2: who attempts to hold onto “good use” by feeling oneself in a certain posture or tonal state.

Most of the above can be recognised by a certain glazed look which appears in the eyes, together with one or another kind of fixity of body (see £10,000 chest).

Of course in time many people are able to let go of these imposed controlling mechanisms, but to what extent they might be avoided in the first place is certainly a question worthy of consideration.

“Control should be in process, not superimposed.”1  F M Alexander

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).

© 2015 John S Hunter

Equilibrium: Rights and Responsibilities

“They will see it as getting in and out of a chair the right way. It is nothing of the kind. It is that a pupil decides what he will or will not consent to do” 1

FM Alexander

In contemporary times, particularly in the West, many people have a sense of entitlement; the words ‘human rights’ are heard all too often. But what about ‘human responsibilities’?  Not on a global, national, regional or even local level, but on a deeply personal level.  Am I or could I be responsible for myself?

Take some situation in your life about which you find yourself inwardly complaining. (Best to start with something small.)

Stop!

Coordinate yourself!

Consider your options! Doing nothing at all, carrying on in the same way or what I call “The Monty Python Option”, i.e. doing something completely different.

You may think you have no options, but try and find some- even ones that you would in no circumstances do such as, perhaps, letting people down or being reckless (if you need some help with this you could always read The Diceman).

Then make a choice!

You may find that you choose to do the thing you are already doing, but now you are doing it because you chose to do it and, hopefully, in a more coordinated way. No one else to blame. Your choice, your responsibility!

This experiment can be a step towards taking responsibility.

It’s so interesting that in English we have this expression “take responsibility”. In all Romance Languages it is “assume responsibility”.  The language reminds us that it calls for something active.

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).

© 2014 John S Hunter

Tips4Pupils – Stopping and Inhibition; similar but different

I see ‘stopping’ as an umbrella term, which includes several different inner processes, one of which is

“… inhibiting a particular reaction to a given stimulus.”1

If I am in an agitated state, rushing, trying to do several things at once, end-gaining, unaware of my physical body – I can stop. Stopping means ceasing unnecessary activity, be it physical (muscular), emotional, nervous or mental. Miss Goldie called this ‘coming to quiet’: “Quiet throughout, with particular attention to head, neck and back“.

Stopping can be tried at any time one becomes aware of unnecessary “doing”. Sometimes, depending on the degree of agitation, we may not be able to ‘stop’ unless we withdraw for a time – even lie down. At other times it needs only a few seconds, just to remember to organise oneself. It is a psycho-physical calming down. Erika described it as “Clearing the clutter out of your mind so that you can make a decision”

As ever with Erika, “a means to an end and not an end in itself”.

Inhibition is on another level and is much more difficult – practically impossible without some experience of a quieter, more integrated (directed) state. It demands presence, awareness and a free attention at the point in time and space the stimulus is received. It is the key not to inaction but to new experiences – even true spontaneity.

Inhibition can only take place at one very specific moment; the one in which a stimulus is received. Yes, we are all receiving stimuli all the time, but I am referring to “inhibiting a particular reaction to a given stimulus.” This process takes place at “brain-thought level”, as Miss Goldie would express it, and not in the body. If the messages get into the nervous system, it is too late to ‘inhibit’. You can, of course, send countermanding messages, but that creates conflict; having energised nerve pathways, you are then trying to prevent muscles from responding. That is not inhibition, it is freezing – and is one of the causes of what is sometimes referred to as ‘the Alexandroid syndrome’. If you are too late to inhibit, then you can, of course, try and stop, i.e. come to quiet, clear away the clutter from your mind and make a fresh decision.

Neuroscientists inform us that when a stimulus is received, many reactions take place before we have become aware at a conscious level of the stimulus. That may be so; consciousness need not concern itself with everything. Nevertheless, there are certain key patterns of neural activation which take place by dint of being the paths of least resistance, and there is a micro-window of opportunity to ‘stay mentally fluid’ as stimuli begin to impact, and allow options to appear. This happens very quickly – almost in a different time-scale. It is a high-energy state in which the wonderful possibility of ‘the new’ appears, with all its freshness and at times, in the face of the unknown, a degree of trepidation.

One pupil expressed the dilemma very well:

“It is as though I step out of a prison. look around me and see that I am free. I could do anything I want. Then I turn around and step back into my prison.”

How much safer is the known!

Alexander did though see his work as evolutionary in scale. It takes time to get used to living in a new medium, as the first land creatures must also have experienced.

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). “Boiled down, it all comes to inhibiting a particular reaction to a given stimulus.”

© 2013 John S Hunter

Tips4Pupils – Pausing is not Stopping

A pause is not a stop; they are quite different. A pause implies that one is going to do the thing, but not yet. A stop has no such implication. We are free to do something else.

If you press the pause button on an old-fashioned cassette player, the motor is still engaged but with, so to speak, the brakes on; as soon as you release the button the machine can only continue in the same direction it was going. If you press the stop button, other options become available; you can rewind, fast-forward, record or even remove the tape.

Real stopping means giving oneself real choices.

But take care! With choice comes responsibility.

© 2013 John S Hunter

Lessons with Miss G: #7, Stopping

To come into Miss Goldie’s teaching room was to enter a space of quiet presence – another world, in a way; one in which there could be some insight into the hidden laws which control human reactivity – and the possibility, if just for a moment, of becoming more free from them.

The form of the lesson did not seem so different from any classic ‘Alexander turn’; you stood in front of a chair; you might sit down and stand up; you could be taken into “monkey” or work through “hands on the back of a chair”. But there was no mistaking the fact that the medium (of the procedures) was not the message; the work was about what was happening in one’s brain (a place where, it is worth remembering, there is no sensation); moreover parts of the brain which seemed to be stubbornly resistant to being accessed and activated.

In the early lessons there was little outer movement – perhaps a centimetre backwards or forwards in the chair – but there was movement; the movement of thoughts, of nerve-impulses, of energies normally well below the radar. It was a revelation to see just how much of the unnecessary was taking place.

She showed us young teachers that sensations, be they ones of muscular release or of directed energy (depending on the school where one had trained), did not on their own address the great problem which – to Alexander – was at the heart of his work; human reactivity. It became clear that FM’s concept of ‘Man’s Supreme Inheritance’ did not only mean going through life with a more upright posture, a lengthened spine, a feeling of gravity in the pelvis or of contact with the ground, or any other kind of sensation – however subtle; it was the developed capacity to make choices and decisions; “the transcendent inheritance of a conscious mind” 1

And the key? Stopping!

“Stop doing your thing”, she would say again and again. “Quiet throughout, with particular attention to head, neck and back! Not you, doing your thing!”

She held out the promise of a kind of ideal: one in which ‘stopping’ meant the absence of interference with the workings of the organism at a very deep and fundamental level; not just muscular tensions but habits of thought, uncontrolled emotionality, attitudes, the functioning of the internal organs – everything.

She said once, rather enigmatically, “If we could stop – really stop, all our difficulties would simply disappear!”

1. Man’s Supreme Inheritance, FM Alexander. Chapter III, The Processes of Conscious Guidance and Control. Published by Mouritz, London 1986.

© 2013 John S Hunter

Marj Barstow: #1, “I Have to Move”, Brighton 1988

I first heard talk of Marj (Marjorie Barstow) when I was attending the STAT ‘think-tank’ in 1986, a sub-committee set up to look into the workings of the Society and suggest policy to STAT Council.  One of the teachers present commented that having attended a Marj workshop she was impressed that everyone there was given the experience of their head going forward and up as they went into movement.  At the time I found this comment somewhat strange, as I would have expected nothing less from an Alexander teacher, especially one trained by Alexander.

Many senior teachers in London were very negative and critical about her.  Some referred to the work she did with large groups of people as the ‘Alexander Technique by remote control’, meaning that she did not use her hands much but tried to guide people by speaking to them as they were moving around the room.

At the time all this seemed rather distant and unrelated to what I was learning and beginning to teach.

However, in 1988 I had the opportunity to see for myself. I had decided to attend the 2nd International Congress in Brighton and Marj was going to be there giving some master classes.

She was small, slight and stooped, obviously suffering already from the loss of bone density which was soon to worsen, but with bright, mischievous eyes and an eagle-like attention.

She started her master-class in a very unusual but captivating way.  Instead of standing on the stage she came down into the auditorium and stood in an obvious slump.

“What am I doing?” she asked in the long, drawn out vowels typical of her Nebraska accent, eliciting comments about her slumping or pulling down.  People were already interested and enlivened; her presentation was obviously going to be interactive.

“I am waiting for a friend and she is late and I am fed up.  I am really fed up”  drawled Marj. She mimicked looking at the time and being seriously fed up in tone of voice and posture.

“Now how am I going to get out of this mess I am in?” she challenged.

“Go home and leave her there!”

“Inhibit and direct!”

“Think up!”

“Release the tension!”

None of the suggestions offered were quite what she was looking for.

“If I want to get out of this mess then I am going to have to move” she said.  “It is only a question of what leads the movement, in what direction and what is the quality of the movement.  Watch me!”

She then simply put her head forward and up and moved off across the auditorium, her body releasing into length as she did so.

“If you are in a mess, you don’t have to stay there.  You can move.”

For those who had eyes to see, the whole of the Alexander Technique was there in that simple, practical demonstration. Inhibition, choice, decision, intention, direction, movement, means-whereby.  It was all there.

For the rest of the morning she worked with a group of volunteers on the stage and responded to various questions.  But for me, that first ten minutes had said it all. I decided to sign up for a five-day workshop with her in London later that Summer.

© 2013 John S Hunter