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
“Now you are doing it again!” she said, with more than a little exasperation in her voice. She stepped back so that she could look at me and pronounce her verdict. “John, you are such an unbeliever!”
Well, that was not what I was expecting to hear. All sorts of reasons had been flooding through my head as to why it just wasn’t working: it was because I was doing or not doing this or that, or that she was doing or not doing this or that, but the idea that it could have anything at all to do with my beliefs – or lack of them – had never occurred to me …
And yet, she was absolutely right. Because I didn’t feel what I expected – had even been ‘trained’ – to feel when getting out of the chair, I didn’t believe it was possible. I was used to “keeping my back back”, but this was brought about with the help of a strong stimulus from the teacher who provided the opposition, thereby stimulating the “anti-gravity response”. But Goldie didn’t do that; she was not going to make it work for you, and if the usual signals and sensations were not there, then I didn’t believe something could happen.
So Alexander was right: “Belief is a matter of customary muscle tension”.1 I didn’t see this all at once: it was a gradual realisation, but one that was set in motion by that remark of Goldie’s.
Of all the “master teachers” I worked with, it was only with Goldie that I did not always feel wonderful during or after the lessons. Far from it! Sometimes it all felt very static and pointless. On more than one occasion I could not wait for the lesson to end, swearing to myself that this would definitely be the last time I would put myself through such an excruciating experience. She was, of course, picking up this “resistance” and would sometimes comment that I should not concern myself with whether or not I felt it was working, or give way to an inner criticism that she was “not up to scratch today”, but I should “just go on with the brain-work”. Then, perhaps several hours later the same day – and quite unexpectedly – some new discovery would emerge; a clarity of thought, a more vivid perception, or an unknown part of my spine would suddenly wake up. I was coming to understand that what she called “brain-work” was bringing about changes from the inside rather than through muscles or nerves. Another of Alexander’s aphorisms began to make sense:
“When the time comes that you can trust your feeling, you won’t want to use it.” 2
1 Some references to belief and muscle tension.
- “Do you know what we have found that belief is? A certain standard of muscle tension. That is all”. (The Bedford Lecture, in Articles and Lectures, p.174, Mouritz (1995))
- I remember one morning his coming briskly into our classroom, looking very pleased with himself, and saying, ‘Belief is a matter of customary muscle tension.’
‘F.M.,’ I said, ‘don’t you mean that belief about what you can do with the body is a matter of customary muscle tension?’ The discussion was on. He kept talking while he worked. Finally at the end of the morning’s work F.M. said, ‘Yes, belief about what you can do with the body is a matter of customary muscle tension.’ Lulie Westfeldt, F. Matthias Alexander, The Man and his Work, Mouritz 1998, p.68
- Was FM’ s aphorism that belief is a matter of muscle tension simply designed to shock people, or was there a more serious element behind it? He was perfectly serious about it, because he equated belief with fixation. In his experience a rigidity of mind corresponded to a rigidity of body. (Walter Carrington on the Alexander Technique in discussion with Sean Carey, 1986, p.45f)
2 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).
© John Hunter 2015
Erika Whittaker and Margaret Goldie were really like chalk and cheese. In the early days, as young women, they did not get on too well. Goldie had, said Erika, somehow got into what she called the “inner circle” at Ashley place (by which she meant the Alexander family, plus Irene Tasker and Ethel Webb) and she did not mix very much with the other students.
According to Erika the children at the Little School were a little bit frightened of Goldie; one day when they were all being served with soup, none of them dared to start eating in case they had not “inhibited” enough. Then F.M. came in, sat down and said, “Eat, eat. It will get cold!”
“She had this way” Erika said, “of looking you up and down as if to say ‘what are you doing here?’, and one felt an icy chill. The other students were all a bit frightened of her.”
When, more than half a century later, they re-established contact, they formed a touching friendship. Erika, having found some strange things going on in the Alexander world after an absence of several decades, was very grateful to be able to talk to Goldie and be re-assured that she was not alone in her critique. While Erika was staying with me on one of her London visits she was invited to Goldie’s for lunch. She came back delighted.
“We had smoked salmon, Stilton cheese and champagne; my favourites.”
Goldie also valued the contact with Erika. When I told her on a later occasion that Erika was coming again to London, she became quite emotional.
“Oh Erika!” she said. “When we were at Ashley Place she was always so light, so joyful and so free. Mr Alexander was always sending us off to go for a walk, saying we were too serious.
‘Why can’t you be more like Erika,’ he would say. ‘She understands.’
But we couldn’t. We didn’t know how.”
I only went to Miss Goldie’s house in Richmond once, and that was to take Erika to visit her. I dropped her off and went a few hours later to pick her up. I went in and spent half an hour or so together with these two old ladies who had influenced my understanding of Alexander’s work so much over the last twelve years. It was the only time I was to see them together and it was the last time I saw Goldie before she died.
Goldie was sitting at her little desk under her bookshelves, full of fascinating titles. You really got the sense that she was a thinker: someone who reflected on subjects which had concerned mankind throughout the ages. She looked very fragile and had bruises on her face after a recent fall, but with Erika’s clever and considerate questions and prompts, the conversation was lively and Goldie reminisced happily.
She told us the story of her first lessons, when she was having each day one from FM and one from AR. She said she loved her lessons with FM, but hated the ones with AR. In desperation she wrote to her father who was paying for the lessons, and said that she thought it was not right that he should be spending all this money when she was only benefiting from half of the lessons. His response was that he was paying all this money so that she could learn to face and deal with any problem that life put in her path, and this was one of them. Later, she said, she became great friends with AR.
Erika asked her, for my benefit really, how was it that FM could see and work with so many people in a day without seeming to get tired.
Goldie laughed. “It was because he wasn’t doing anything” she replied.
“A lot of young teachers nowadays” continued Erika (and by “young teachers” she meant more or less anyone under the age of seventy), “are very concerned about getting more pupils and trying to make FM’s work more popular. What’s your view about that?”
Goldie smiled and said. “It was never meant for everyone. It is meant for the few who wish to evolve.”
© John Hunter 2015
Stories about Miss G abound. They are interesting, often humorous and give some insight into her individuality. Sometimes they demonstrate her capacity to lay bare something in the person with whom she was interacting. Here are a few that I heard, first or second hand, over the years.
A newly qualified young teacher from Israel came to have a lesson with Miss G. As was her wont, she spoke throughout about the need to “stop and be quiet; pay particular attention to the head, neck and back”.
The young teacher, not knowing Miss Goldie’s ways and probably thinking that she was holding out on him, could only take so much of this before interrupting her and saying:
“Miss Goldie! You do realize that I have just completed three years of full-time teacher training, so I think I know the basics.”
“Oh!” said Miss Goldie. “Three years! I see. Well I have completed sixty-three years of training, and I still have to remind myself. So where does that put you and your three years?”
* * *
I heard one story from Marjory Barlow.
A pupil of Marjory’s said to her one day that, having benefited so much from his lessons, he felt a deep appreciation for Alexander and his work and he wanted to know where he was buried so that he could take some flowers to the grave as a token of his gratitude.
Marjory told him that Alexander had in fact been cremated and that she did not know what had happened to the ashes but, thinking that Margaret Goldie would certainly know, she would try and find out.
Another of Marjory’s pupils, an Alexander teacher, was also having lessons with Miss G, so Marjory asked this person if she would, next time she saw Goldie, ask her if she could shed any light on the fate of Alexander’s ashes – adding that it was best not to mention Marjory’s name.
Sure enough, the next time this person was having her lesson with Miss G, she said that “a friend” had been curious about Alexander’s ashes and wanted to know what had happened to them.
“Well!” replied Miss G in a minimalist and dismissive manner, “There are lots of people who want to know all sorts of things!”
Several years later another of Miss G’s pupils was able to supply the missing end to this story. It seems that she had her lesson directly after the pupil who had asked about the ashes, and Miss G had made some comments to her about the incident. She, Miss Goldie, with one other person – most probably Irene Stewart – had scattered the ashes in a place which she said she would never reveal.
* * *
A friend of mine from Mexico would visit London regularly to have lessons with Miss G – sometimes seeing her twice a day. One year she was staying with me while Erika was visiting, and told us a lovely story when she got back from her lesson. By that time Miss Goldie had stopped teaching at the Bloomsbury Alexander Centre and was seeing just a few pupils at her home in Richmond.
I wanted to take her something nice as a treat and went into a delicatessen that was just round the corner from Goldie’s house. It seemed like such an intimate local area that I felt certain that the staff would know who Goldie was and what she liked, so I went in and asked a man who was serving what he could recommend for Miss Goldie.
“Miss Goldie?” he said. “You know Miss Goldie? Wait a minute!”
The shopkeeper then went to the door, put up the ‘closed’ sign, locked the door, pulled the blinds down and invited me into the back room for tea and biscuits. I was a bit worried but he seemed harmless so I agreed. He then interrogated me for half an hour about Miss Goldie, this mysterious woman who had been coming into his shop for years and about whom he knew nothing at all. I told him what I knew and then went off for my lesson. Of course, I told Miss Goldie all about the incident, and she roared with laughter.
When my friend got back to my apartment she could not wait to tell Erika and me this wonderful story.
“It was all so surrealistic!” she said. “I felt like I was back home in Mexico. I can’t believe that such a thing could happen in England.”
* * *
Miss G usually did not have a fixed fee and asked new pupils to consider how much they valued what they were learning before deciding what they wished to pay for their lessons. She had apparently been known to tell some people that they needed to pay more, whilst from others she would refuse to take any payment at all. The issue really was one of valuation rather than money. One story I heard examples a never-to-be-forgotten lesson given to a young man.
Young Mr X was asked, after his first lesson to give some thought to what he wanted to pay. He made the mistake of “trying it on”, however, and said he wanted to pay her her five pounds.
At his next lesson he was told, as soon as he arrived, to remove his shoes and lie on the table.
Miss Goldie arranged his head on some books and then left the room to go and have a cup of tea.
After half an hour she came back and told him to get up and go because the lesson was over.
“But you haven’t done anything” protested the young man.
“Well” she replied, “you wanted to pay five pounds, so you have had five pounds worth. Good day!”
* * *
© 2014 John S Hunter
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.
- 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]
- 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]
- 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.
- 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.
- 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]
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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]
- 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.
- 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” [xi] )
– 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. [xvi]
- 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]
[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.
[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).
[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:|
© John Hunter 2014
(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
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
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
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
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
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?”
Teacher: “Did you try to feel it?”
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
When the time comes that you can trust your feeling, you won’t want to use it.6
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
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