Tag Archive | Margaret Goldie

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.

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

Reflections on History & Development, #1: Trees & Fruit, Alexander’s early influences

F. Matthias Alexander was one of those rare human beings: an innovator in the field of human potential. His research was always practical and experiential. At a time when psychology was moving more and more into the realm of the unconscious, Alexander was exploring consciousness, in particular at the level of the interrelationship between the physical and the mental aspects of human functioning.

What he discovered is that as humanity evolved we developed our intellectual capacities more quickly than our physical and sensory capacities, and this resulted in a parting of the ways, a dualism. In a properly integrated human being there is a constant two-way flow between mind and body; intention flowing into activity modulated by feedback.

Certainly Alexander was not, as perhaps some may have thought, a “blank sheet of paper” (but then if one thought about it how could he – or anybody – have been). Recent research is bringing to light a great deal of material about the period in which Alexander was developing his ideas and practice. What is clear from this research is that many of the principles and ideas used by Alexander can be found elsewhere (and some of them I will explore in these writings). To me that is not at all surprising. There have always been human beings who are interested in philosophy, health, self-improvement, posture, energy, mind and body, respiratory and vocal techniques, etc., etc. One has only to look at some of the most ancient texts – or other forms of transmission – to see that these questions constitute fundamental issues for human beings. When one starts along this path, one is not the first or the last to do so. It is a path of discovery shared by those human beings who have that particular interest, which might be termed “evolutionary”, in the exploration of the self. What one then finds along that path cannot in essence be very different from what others have found. We are not different in our functioning or our possibilities from our ancestors. If Alexander ‘borrowed’ or ‘stole’ from others, from what sources did these others in their turn draw, and similarly those before them and so on? What is important is that a human being has the potential to develop; some do and some don’t. The ideas are around us and can be found. The point then is to make something practical and useful for oneself in order to embody the ideas; very few achieve that. Alexander was such a person, and that it why so many of us are interested in him rather than the various ‘others’ who may have shared parts of his journey. That he found something of a different order is apparent to any sensitive person who has worked with or even been in the presence of those who were his pupils. A tree is judged by its fruit.

Although others may help to open the door into the ‘inner world’, once you are there you are on your own. Nobody can do the work of integrating your organism for you; and in just this lies the mystery (though this does not appeal to the scientific mind). ‘Non-doing’ or a “directed (integrated) state” are not things that anybody discovered or invented, they are states which can be entered into.

Certain ‘researchers’ into early influences are now trying to make a case that Alexander was at best a synthesiser and at worst a plagiarist of other peoples work.

I have to say that I find their arguments very weak, because there is no evidence that any of the people who might have influenced him, directly or indirectly, ever reached such a level of realisation as he did, otherwise there would be many more traces of their work. Where is the fruit of those trees?

I can’t help thinking that if some of those ‘researchers’ (not all) had ever spent half an hour in Margaret Goldie’s teaching room or had felt Patrick Macdonald’s hands on them for even ten minutes, they might understand that they are barking up the wrong tree altogether. But there again, perhaps they would not.

© John Hunter 2015

Tips4Teachers: Some Thoughts about “Orders” and “Directions”

FM Alexander seemed at certain times to favour the word “orders” to describe processes involved in his technique of re-education and at other times “directions”; he also used both words as, for example, here:

“…if we are going to do, not a mechanical exercise, but something real that matters, you have to think out beforehand the means whereby you have to do it, and give the directions or orders for these means whereby, in the form of a wish, as it were, and keep that wish going all through the activity.” [i]

He sometimes also used the term “directive orders”.

Walter Carrington often referred to “wishing” and “willing”; Margaret Goldie spoke of “brain-thought-messages”; Patrick Macdonald preferred “think up”; Marj Barstow, somewhat controversially, talked about “moving up”; and Erika Whittaker said it was really about “decisions”.

In this article I would like to consider particular emphases which are brought out by the words “orders” and “directions” in the English language in order to explore how the nuances of meaning might inform our ways of using these words in our work on ourselves and in our teaching.

The following list is doubtless not exhaustive, but gives some sense of the breadth of meaning that can be found in these words. Some of the elements listed hereunder will be very familiar to most people interested in Alexander’s work and have perhaps already been written and talked about sufficiently. Others are certainly worthy of further exploration and I will dedicate future posts to that endeavour.

  1. Order as the opposite of chaos

The above meaning of the word “order” – found, for example, in the expression “order your thoughts” – is not so apparent in “direction”. Its clearest application is in trying to calm a disordered mind. Dr Wilfred Barlow, in his thoughtful letter to Father Geoffrey Curtis, writes:

“… it is useful to tell pupils that for a short period at the start of the lesson they should, as you [Fr Curtis] put it, ’give their orders and not do anything to implement them’. I would call this ‘first stage ordering’. This period of directing at once begins to calm the mind, and such initial calming is not very different from the calming effect which might be achieved by meditation or prayer or some other repetitive mental discipline.” [ii]

All that is required is to say the words to oneself, like a mantra, without trying to link the words to parts of the body or to any kind of sensory experience. A mind that is saying the orders can less easily be thinking about to-do lists or various worries that may be circulating the mental landscape.

One of FM’s aphorisms also refers to this “first step”:

“When you get to the point of giving an order and hoping to God that it won’t be carried out, you are making the first step forward.” [iii]

  1. Order as sequence, e.g. “in a certain order”.

The sequence is important. For example, in order to carry out an activity (or not carry out an activity) most likely involving arms and/or legs, we want the movement to be supported by a lengthening and widening back; the back cannot lengthen and widen to its optimum if the head is pulling back and down onto it; therefore we want the head to go forward and up and take pressure off the cervical spine; the head can’t go forward and up if the neck is stiff; therefore we want the neck to be free. Hence the sequence, “Let the neck be free in order to allow the head to go forward and up in order to let the spine lengthen and the back widen in order to … (carry out whatever activity one has chosen).  Each stage can liberate the possibility for both subsequent and preceding ones to progress. Therefore as they connect and integrate, they become one.

“The phrase ‘All together, one after the other” expresses the idea of combined activity I wish to convey.” [iv]

  1. Order as command

Both “orders” and “directions” carry the meaning of “commands”.

Many teachers use the example of a ship’s captain or a Duchess ruling her estate to make clear the distinction between giving a command and trying to carry it out. A ship’s captain who, having ordered “full steam ahead”, then runs down to the engine room and starts shovelling coal into the boiler, would be considered mad. Similarly a Duchess, having commanded that something or other be done in her household, has the expectation that her orders will be carried out. In the psychophysical realm too, trying to carry out an order when that work belongs to another function, or constantly checking out whether something is happening or not, is as counterproductive in the human organism as on the ship or country estate.

  1. Order: a request to make, supply, or deliver food or goods

This is an interesting one; to “place an order” – as, for example, in a restaurant – has a very different emphasis from “order” as “command”. There is still the distinction between the one who gives the order and the one who carries it out, and the same expectation that the request will be met. However, there is more the sense of a contract rather than of a duty. It’s worth experimenting with this nuance to see how it changes your experience.

  1. Order: a situation in which everything is arranged in its correct place

The expression “the natural order of things” comes to mind. We are not trying to impose a different system of organisation on ourselves but rather we are trying to stop interfering and uncover “the natural order”. I like this quote by Donald Curtis.

“Relaxation means releasing all concern and tension and letting the natural order of life flow through one’s being.” [v]

  1. Direction as aim or purpose

For example, “she had no direction in life”.

In this regard the word “direction” has a different sense than “order”. One can have order in one’s life (timetables, structure, etc.) but have no sense of a life-purpose.  Similarly one can have a sense of one’s life leading in a certain direction, in terms of career or personal development, and yet in many aspects be very disorderly.

  1. Direction as orientation

“Modern man, when in activity, has very little awareness of such simple directions in space as backwards and forwards, and up and down, in relation to his own body…” [vi]

This meaning is not found in “ordering” but it is a vital aspect of sending directions. To lend meaning to the words ‘forward’, ‘up’, ‘back’, etc. it is important to relate these words to a direction in space. Muscle, as Hellstromists [vii] know, is very sensitive to directional thinking.

Patrick MacDonald comments in The Alexander Technique As I See It that:

“The science of physiology has not yet got round to recognizing this factor of orientation, even though it is the fundamental on which everything else depends.” [viii]

Once a state of mental calm has been achieved, or at least approached, it is time to let the ordering or directing relate more intentionally to the physical body; Dr Barlow’s “stage two ordering”, whereby:

“…the teacher…teaches the pupil the bodily meaning of the orders and how to put them together in relationship to his body.” [ix]

In my experience an essential element of this is to relate directions to orientation in space; to be aware of where “up” is (the virtual continuation of the spine); to be aware of where “forward” and “back” are.

  1. Directions as a description of expansion

The directions are specific to our human musculo-skeletal system. For a hypothetical spherical entity, for example, the directions would be something like “let every point on the surface move away from the centre”.  A description of what happens when the human musculo-skeletal frame expands is that the head tends to go forward and up, the spine lengthens, the back widens and the knees go forward and away.

  1. Direction as relationship between parts

Although it is an essential aspect, it is often forgotten that the directions are about the relationship between parts of the body: for example, head forward and up in relation to the neck; head away from hips, knees away from hips. The relationship is one of opposition (Alexander used the term “antagonistic pulls”).

The late Sir George Trevelyan put it thus:

“I think ‘head forward and up – but my head can’t go forward and up because my back is going back – but my back can’t go back because my head is going forward and up – but my head can’t go forward and up because my back is going back ….etc. etc.'” [x]

  1. Direction as instructions (how to do)

We are all used to reading instruction on packaging, and the directions can also be thought of as instructions how to do something; means-whereby. For example, in order to type these words I am going to let my neck be free in order to allow my head to go forward and up in order to allow my back to lengthen and widen in order let my shoulder widen and my arm lengthen in order to move my fingers towards the keyboard etc. etc.

  1. Direction as movement

Marj Barstow’s use of the word “move” (as, for example, in her use of the words:

“… you move your head delicately upwards”

 – rather than “direct”, “order” or “think” caused a great deal of controversy. I must say though that the experience under her hands was by no means one of an ordinary muscular movement, but rather one of allowing the head to be carried upwards by a kind of inner buoyancy, so the difference for me was only semantic.

  1. Direction as a flow of energy

“It is not enough to just give the orders. You must also conduct the energy there” [xii]

In many cultures and in many epochs of history there has existed a “science of vital energy”: qi, prana, vitalism, animal magnetism, odic force and orgone – to name but a few. Did Alexander find something similar though his work with projected messages?

Patrick MacDonald refers to:

“…sending a flow of force to alter the condition of a part or parts.” [xiii]

This is an important and subtle aspect of Direction and one which I will write more about in a separate article.

  1. Ordering or directing as wishing or willing

I find it helps pupils a great deal to remind them that they should:

“… give the directions or orders for these means whereby, in the form of a wish …” [xiv]

“Wishing” and “willing” are, of course, very different inner processes and are both worthy of further exploration.

  1. Direction as “brain-thought-messages”

This was the expression favoured by Margaret Goldie. She did not speak of either “inhibition” or “direction”, but of “stopping” and “thinking” – and the thoughts were not speculative or reflective but were “brain-thought-messages” which connected with the physical body.

  1. Direction as “decision”.

Alexander, as recorded by Ethel Webb, told a pupil:

“You only do what you decide to do” [xv]

Both Erika Whittaker and Margaret Goldie stressed the importance of really making decisions. This aspect of Direction connects with Intention.

  1. A Directive State

Dr Barlow’s “third stage of ordering” is, he says, akin to:

“… a state of ‘grace’, in which the ‘words’ and the ‘flesh’ are one and the whole organism is in a ‘directive state’.” [xvii]

To conclude, I have added to the footnotes a list of synonyms for Order and Direction – which may provide further food for thought. [xviii]

Notes

[i] An Unrecognised Principle in Human Behaviour: Address given to the Child Study Association, F M Alexander, 1925. Articles and Lectures, Mouritz (1995)

[ii] More Talk of Alexander, Chapter 18, Ed. Dr W. Barlow. Victor Gollancz Ltd 1978.

[iii] 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).

[iv] Use of the Self, F M Alexander, Chaterson 1946

[v] Donald Curtis (1915-1997) was an American writer and speaker on New Thought (see http://cornerstone.wwwhubs.com/Donald_Curtis.html). I know nothing about him or his writings, but I stumbled across the quote and find it very apt.

[vi] The Alexander Technique As I See It, Patrick MacDonald. Chapter 3: Why We Learn the Technique. Published by Rahula Books, 1989.

[vii] “Hellstromism” or “Muscle Reading” is a technique used by mentalists to create the illusion of mind-reading by detecting involuntary movements or changes in muscle tone in response to stimuli (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muscle_reading).

[viii] The Alexander Technique As I See It, Patrick MacDonald. Chapter 3: Why We Learn the Technique. Published by Rahula Books, 1989.

[ix] More Talk of Alexander, Chapter 18, Ed. Dr W. Barlow. Victor Gollancz Ltd 1978.

[x] In his Memorial Lecture to STAT in 1992, Sir George shared with us his way of using directions with the sense of what might be described as an “oppositional, non-doing relationship” between parts of the body.

[xi] Marj Barstow used this way of explaining direction. She would pose the question: “What moves first, in what direction and what is the quality of the movement?”

[xii] This very interesting remark by FM was told to me by the late Tony Spawforth.

[xiii] The Alexander Technique As I See It, Patrick MacDonald. Chapter 4: Teaching the Technique. Published by Rahula Books, 1989.

[xiv] An Unrecognised Principle in Human Behaviour: Address given to the Child Study Association, F M Alexander, 1925. Articles and Lectures, Mouritz (1995)

[xv] 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).

[xvi] See Tips4Teachers – “…not to do…”

[xvii] More Talk of Alexander, Chapter 18, Ed. Dr W. Barlow. Victor Gollancz Ltd 1978.

[xviii]  Lists of synonyms:

Synonyms for order: Synonyms for direction:
adjustment administration
aligning charge
arrangement command
array control
assortment government
cast guidance
categorization leadership
classification management
codification order
composition oversight
computation superintendence
disposal supervision
disposition
distribution
establishment
form
grouping
harmony
layout
line
lineup
management
method
neatness
ordering
orderliness
organization
pattern
placement
plan
procedure
procession
progression
propriety
regularity
regulation
rule
scale
scheme
sequence
series
setup
standardization
structure
succession
symmetry
system
tidiness
uniformity

© John Hunter 2014

Equilibrium: Tradition and Innovation

(This article was first published in ExChange: Journal of Alexander Technique International, August 2013, Volume 21 No. 2)

Human nature being what it is – ever subject to the same laws – it is not to be wondered at that the followers of F M Alexander are facing the same difficulties as have countless followers of countless innovators in every sphere of activity throughout human history. Did we really expect to avoid the fate that beset Sunnis and Shiites, Papists and Lutherans, the rightful heirs or the usurping pretenders, the guardians of tradition or the great reformers?

To give a context to a discussion about tradition and innovation we should, I think, also consider two other pairs of contrasting terms: form and content, orthodoxy and heresy.

Beginning with the last, we might say that orthodoxy represents an acceptance of Alexander’s primary tenets; use affect function, the necessity of saying ‘no’ to a stimulus, the capacity to direct, the unity of the organism, recognition of the force of habit, non-doing, the Primary Control, the means-whereby principle rather than end-gaining. Heresy would be to deny or ignore these principles in applying and/or teaching the Technique which bears Alexander’s name.

Form I see as the ‘procedures’; semi-supine, chair-work, monkey, lunge, hands on the back of a chair, going onto the toes, whispered ‘ah’, squatting – largely accepted by STAT and the Affiliated Societies as the bedrock of learning and teaching the Technique.

Content is, for me, experiencing a free attention and the consequent physical liberation in an actual moment of inhibition and direction in oneself, be that in a lesson or – more significantly – in Life.

Tradition for me refers to that which is handed down from generation to generation. It is what we learned from our teachers and can be traced back to Alexander. It is connected with a line or lines of transmission (though some have been so dominant that others are almost disregarded).

Innovation is the introduction of something new or making changes to something already established; a change nevertheless consistent with the essential principles, hence not a heresy.

It can be helpful to look at any differences between teachers, teaching styles or even organisations in the light of the above criteria. Does the innovator enrich our understanding because he or she sheds light from another angle on the timeless truth of the formless content, or is it the indulgence of a strong personality, down-playing one or more of the principles in order to avoid some personal difficulty, or to appeal to those who want an easier, more marketable, version?

Is a ‘traditionalist’ rediscovering moment by moment – in the best tradition of the early teachers – the ‘inner work’ that can be accessed through a conscious use of the procedures, or merely hiding behind the safety of ‘form’, churned out day after day in some well-rehearsed routines devoid of any spark?

Then how to avoid having fixed ideas about being free?

Professor Bryan Niblett shared a story about F M Alexander and Professor John Dewey at a talk he gave a few years ago to the Friends of the Alexander Technique. Alexander sent the text of Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual to Dewey, asking him to write an Introduction. Dewey complained about the length of the title, asking FM to drop “of the Individual”. FM’s response was that that would be to leave out the most important word. So it is a path of individuation. I tried to express this in a lecture I gave some years ago:

It is good to admire and respect our teachers; to be in a line of transmission. But then we have to find something for ourselves. What does all of this mean to me? How can I make something of these ideas? Alexander said to his students: “Don’t do what I do.” In other words, don’t be an imitator.

I have always been struck by the fact that the first generation of teachers, to whom we all owe so much, are so different from each other – and yet true to a principle. These people all found something for themselves. Coming afterwards, as we do, there has been a tendency, perhaps inevitable, to fix the form in the way that we each received it. To an extent that is understandable, but a lot of the life, the sense of discovery, can be lost. We must be careful in setting up this huge infrastructure – necessary though it may be – of lessons and teachers and pupils and training courses and students and “bodies” – that we are not just creating an artificial, rather precious environment in which certain experiences can be repeated as ends in themselves: a kind of “Alexander virtual reality”. We need to take this new knowledge about use and put it to the test in our own lives. This is the link that needs to be made. To inhibit the desire to get in or out of a chair is one thing. But then we have to take that into the real world and find out for ourselves what is really going on.

Then, as Miss Goldie would put it “You’ll be making discoveries, and …you’ll be surprised at what you find”.*

* Making the Link: The F M. Alexander Memorial Lecture, delivered to the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique, July 2002. (First published in The Alexander Journal No 19)

© John Hunter 2013

Equilibrium: Mind, Body and the Thing about Feelings

To begin this essay I will say something about “feelings”.

In English the word can refer to either emotional states (I feel happy, angry, jealous, joyful, sad, etc., a discussion of which will not form part of this essay) or sensations (I feel cold, pain, ease; this feels rough, smooth, sharp, blunt, etc.). Mostly when referring to “feelings” Alexander means “sensations”, for example:

What you feel is doing is “undoing”.
You are not making decisions: you are doing kinaesthetically what you feel to be right.
If your neck feels stiff, that is not to say that your neck “is” stiff. 1

Sensations are incoming messages from one or more of the sensory systems:

A sensory system is a part of the nervous system responsible for processing sensory information. A sensory system consists of sensory receptors, neural pathways, and parts of the brain involved in sensory perception. Commonly recognized sensory systems are those for vision, auditory (hearing), somatic sensation (touch), gustatory (taste), olfaction (smell) and vestibular (balance/movement). In short, senses are transducers from the physical world to the realm of the mind where we interpret the information, creating our perception of the world around us.2

Directions, orders or, as Margaret Goldie called them, “brain-thought-messages” begin as mental activity which may become outgoing messages;

When you get to the point of giving an order and hoping to God that it won’t be carried out, you are making the first step forward.3

It is important to note here that Alexander is referring to an early stage in understanding  direction: “the first step forward”.

Trying to sense what is going on means attending to incoming messages. The brain of course processes these messages (perceptions) and the more accurate the information is, the better the processing. But this is not direction. Direction is the mental activity, with or without words, which can – indirectly – activate certain outgoing pathways. If and when the message gets through to muscle, muscle will respond and some sensory feedback may be registered, but the mental processes themselves have no sensation – or at least not what is normally meant by sensation.4

“Feeling out” encourages attending to incoming messages with barely any attention available for activating the mental processes which can stimulate outgoing ones.

The nature of these outgoing messages needs some consideration. In my experience they involve many degrees of subtlety. The quality of these messages are palpably different in someone who has a great deal of experience of Alexander work (or certain other mind/body or spiritual disciplines) from someone who has none. And even amongst all of the above there are great variations according to either the innate sensitivity or the unresolved blockages, or a mixture of both, of each individual. It is doubtful that neuroscientists yet have either the equipment to measure or the conceptual basis to understand the subtle energies which gradually reveal themselves to the patient practitioner.

Sensation should not be ignored. It is not unimportant. How could it be! It exists for a purpose. It informs us. We do not, however, need to seek out sensation as an end in itself.

Patrick Macdonald give us an example:

Teacher, tapping pupil on shoulder: “Did you feel that?”
Pupil: “Yes.”
Teacher: “Did you try to feel it?”
Pupil: “No.”
Teacher: “In the same way, when I coordinate you with my hands, you need not try to feel what I do. If you try, you will only interfere with what you ought to be registering.”5

And from FM:

When the time comes that you can trust your feeling, you won’t want to use it.6

A sharpened sensory awareness – the consequence of an awakened psychophysical state – is quite different from “feeling out” what is going on.

In a key passage from Man’s Supreme Inheritance, FM warns us about the danger of indulging sensations:

Bad habits mean, in ninety-nine per cent of cases, that the person concerned has, often through ignorance, pandered to and wilfully indulged certain sensations, probably with little or no thought as to what evil results may accrue from his concessions to the dominance of small pleasures. This careless relaxation of reason, in the first instance, makes it doubly difficult to assert command when the indulgence has become a habit. Sensation has usurped the throne so feebly defended by reason, and sense, once it has obtained power, is the most pitiless of autocrats. If we are to maintain the succession that is our supreme inheritance, we must first break the power of the usurper, and then re-establish our sovereign, no longer dull and indifferent to the welfare of his kingdom, but active, vigilant, and open-eyed to the evils which result from his old policy of laissez-faire.7

It might be added that the above applies equally to a taste for certain sensations experienced during the course of learning or teaching the Alexander Technique.

Trying to work with only sensory awareness leads to a constant attempt to ‘feel’ oneself in a certain posture or tonal state: another path to the classic “Alexandroid syndrome”.8

Cutting off from sensory awareness in the belief that one should work only with thought, in an intellectual and formulaic way, leads to something equally undesirable; a kind of desensitisation or disconnection from the body, and often one which is vigorously defended by argument.

Making the distinction between thought and sensation is not always apparent to pupils. Constantly asking them to ‘think about’ body parts can even encourage them to seek out sensations. Bringing to their notice some change of tone or release of tension has a place, but not at the expense of ‘dynamic brain-work’.9

What we seek is the capacity to make reasoned choices, in response to stimuli, which generate appropriate, coordinated responses modulated by more accurate sensory awareness which can inform us about the wrong.

In recent years in the contemporary Alexander world, the cultivation of sensory awareness has tended to dominate – to the extent that it is now practically the norm – with the consequence that Alexander work is largely thought of as one of many somatic disciplines, from which perspective it arguably has less to offer and is less successful than some others.

The current interest in Mindfulness gives us perhaps an opportunity to reclaim that “supreme inheritance” to which FM was referring in the above passage from MSI, but only if we re-examine what he meant by that and do not try to pass off sensory awareness in its place.

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). (back to text).

2. John Krantz. Experiencing Sensation and Perception. “Chapter 1: What is Sensation and Perception?” pp. 1.6 (back to text).

3. 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). (back to text).

4. Experienced practitioners report being able to sense a quality of energy in and around the head which they associate with a certain psycho-physical state. At a certain point it can become difficult to separate the mental and the sensory; it is as if both are subject to the same “willing”. (back to text).

5. The Alexander Technique As I See It, Patrick MacDonald.. Notebook Jottings. Published by Rahula Books, 1989. (back to text).

6. 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). (back to text).

7. Man’s Supreme Inheritance, FM Alexander, Chapter VII Notes and Instances (response to question III). Published by Mouritz, London 1986. (back to text).

8. Although there exist, in certain spiritual traditions, exercises which involve working directly with ‘sensation’, such exercises have another purpose. They should not be confused with “giving directions”, “sensory awareness” or any other aspect of Alexander work, and neither are teachers trained in the Alexander Technique qualified to guide people through the experiences for which such spiritual practices were developed. (back to text).

9. One of Margaret Goldie’s favourite expressions whilst she was teaching was “The brain-work more dynamic than ever!”. I thought she might have been quoting FM but I never heard another first generation teacher say it. (back to text).

© 2014 John S Hunter