Tag Archive | Marj Barstow

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” [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.

  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. [xvi]

  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] See Marj Barstow: #3, A Little Bit of Nothing, London 1988

[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 Lessons With Miss G: #2, Decisions and 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

Traps, Pitfalls and Culs-de-sac #1: the £10,000 chest

The concept of muscle armouring as a way of suppressing emotion, or the sensations of emotion, was developed by Wilhelm Reich between 1925 and 1933 leading to the publication of his book Character Analysis.1

Reich advocated body-work as well as psychotherapy to free-up both the musculature, and the emotional trauma and energy trapped therein, in order to recover normal functioning of the body and expression of emotion.

It is natural for the physical body to respond to the subtle waves of contraction and expansion which flow through it, emanating from other physical functions (respiratory, circulatory and lymphatic systems, for example) as well as mental and emotional activity.

To attempt to suppress any of this by, for example, trying to maintain a certain posture can lead to a more subtle and pernicious form of muscle armouring; subtle, because it is not perceived as such by the person doing it; pernicious, because it is intentionally cultivated and even considered a virtue: an end to be sought after for its own sake. This can lead to a certain woodenness; an artificially imposed immobility which is quite different from the outer manifestation of inner calm.

A classic example of this is what I call the £10,000 chest (£10,000 being more or less the cost of a three-year Alexander Technique teacher training course at the time I became aware of the phenomenon), which is the consequence of trying to “go up” at the front. Such so-called frontal length is brought about by a subtle – or not so subtle – “doing” similar to the ballet dancer’s “pull-up”, along with a broadening across the pectoral muscles. It gives to even the untrained observer a sense that the owner of the chest is somehow not at ease, perhaps holding him or herself in a posture (picture Martin Clunes as Doc Martin, for example).

For certain dyed-in-the-wool adherents of the phenomenon (fortunately not so common today) one has the sense that, having spent £10,000 (or its equivalent) developing such a fine chest and learning how to maintain it in the face of many and varied stimuli, they were going to hold onto it come what may.

I was fascinated to learn when in Australia in 1991 that, on her first teaching visit there, Marj Barstow spent most of the first day of practical work going around the room giving each of the participants a hearty slap on the chest accompanied by a firm “Quit it!”.2

Some consequences of the raised chest are:

  • it causes interference with the free movement of the ribs especially during exhalation, thereby preventing the diaphragm from fully rising which, according to Carl Stough3, leads to excessive “dead air” in the lungs
  • it encourages the back to arch
  • though giving to a degree a sense of confidence, it is an artificial one brought about by what Reich referred to as “armouring”; this in turn has a deadening effect on one’s affective life

Beware the trap of the £10.000 chest!3

1. First published in German as Charakteranalyse: Technik und Grundlagen für studierende und praktizierende Analytiker in 1933 and in a revised form in English as Character Analysis in 1946. (back to text).

2. A curious development, most likely the consequence of a limited exposure to Marj’s prompting to release a held chest, was that some people began to cultivate the opposite – a collapsed chest. Although this doubtless gave initially a great sense of relief (and many tears), it began to be sought for as an end in itself. For some, the loss of the support of “frontal length” without the required support from the spine, led at best to some misconceptions and at worst to emotional breakdown. (back to text).

3. Carl Stough (1926-2000) developed an effective method of respiratory re-education, firstly as a choir master and later in the treatment of emphysema patients. His methods were used to help train US athletes to perform at high altitude in preparation for the 1968 Mexico Olympics. His approach, which he called “Breathing Coordination”, focussed on the controlled exhalation (rather like Alexander’s “whispered ah”), and the need to let the ribcage fully release in order to maximise the height of the diaphragm and thereby optimise the subsequent inhalation. For further information see: www.jessicawolfartofbreathing.com/breathing-coordination/ and www.breathingcoordination.com/
(back to text).

© 2014 John S Hunter

Marj Barstow: #3, A Little Bit of Nothing, London 1988

I had mixed impressions of the week in Steiner House; some very good things and some not so good.  Marj’s philosophy of the Technique was simple; you move your head delicately forward and up in such a way that the whole body lengthens and widens.  I have emphasised certain words because they are of key importance in Marj’s way of describing the process. The directions to head and back are seen as precursors of movement.  In order to make a movement one should be clear as to what leads the movement; it is the head.  In what direction do you move the head?  You move it forward and up.  What is the quality of the movement?  It is delicate or subtle.  With regard to “the whole body lengthens and widens”, she insisted that one could say ‘body’ or ‘torso’ but nothing else; that is to say, not ‘spine’ or ‘back’. When one of the volunteers in Brighton used the expression “lengthen the spine”, Marj responded- somewhat surprised by the word – “Spine! What about the rest of you?”

The workshop was really too big.  To have some sixty people, all teachers or teacher-trainees and all keen to work with Marj, was just too much.  Her assistants, some of whom had been with her for many years and some of whom had not, also took groups, but people had come there to work with a first generation teacher rather than her assistants.

It takes a lifetime to really incarnate Alexander’s ideas; the assistant teachers were saying the right things but did not have the embodied knowledge to give the corresponding experiences. This is not a criticism of them or of Marj’s approach. The same could be said of any other teacher from any other background; time is a factor in embodying knowledge and there is no substitute for sixty years of work. At times though I felt the assistants were somehow in the role of apologists for Marj.

There was a certain sense of frustration amongst the participants that they were not getting what they had come for. In London, we were used to having a more direct contact with our teachers. There was, in Rudolph Steiner House, something of an “us and them” attitude. Many of us had just as much, if not more, experience as Marj’s assistants, and I felt an opportunity for more of an exchange or sharing was lost. The problem was primarily in the way the event was structured. There was more than a hint of a “master-plan” to introduce Marj’s approach to the rest of the Alexander world. I felt that Marj herself was not implicated in this. Some years later one of Marj’s oldest and closest colleagues told me how furious he was that Marj was being put on planes, taken all over the world and put in front of large groups of people whom she didn’t know – hardly even knowing what country she was in. Perhaps the Marj bandwagon was seen as a chance for someone to make a name for himself.

In London that year I wanted to take the opportunity to have an exchange “on a level playing field”, so to speak, and having made a friendly connection with one of the assistants over coffee one day, I invited her to meet to exchange work.  I told her something about my lessons with Margaret Goldie,  in particular the experience of a different quality of energy.  “That sounds very like what Marj is trying to teach us”, she replied.  Our exchange of work was very brief, but enough to give me some insight into the similarities and differences between our approaches.

I asked her if she knew Erika Whittaker, whom I had recently met for the second time at the Brighton Congress, and told her what an important experience my meeting with her had been  “Oh, yes” she said. “We got to know each other when we were all assisting Marj at her Australian workshops; I thought of her as a friend, though, not as a teacher.”  Some years later, when I had got to know Erika better, I was able to hear her recollection of the same encounter, which gave me a lot of insight into her approach to “teaching without teaching”. And the importance of a ‘well-timed gin and tonic’.

© 2014 John S Hunter

The First Training Course in 1931: a different perspective

I was very curious to try and understand what Erika meant when she said there was essentially no difference between the ‘styles’ of Macdonald, Carrington and Barlow because “they are all about teaching“.

Some years later I reread what had been written about the first teacher training course by Lulie Westfeldt in particular (F Matthias Alexander: The Man and His Work1 ), Walter Carrington and Marjory Barlow and went back to what Erika had said about FM and the first training course in her Annual Memorial Lecture and other writings. What follows is my personal perspective based on the published material referenced in the footnotes and the conversations I had with Erika over a period of several years.

During the first training course, which began in 1931, some of the students became frustrated that they were not, as they saw it, being ‘taught how to teach’. Although they maintained their respect for FM’s knowledge and abilities, they did not think he was giving them the necessary help to learn how to do what he was doing. This group consisted of Patrick Macdonald, Lulie Westfeldt, Kitty Merrick and Marjory Barlow (née Mechin). They began to observe what Alexander was doing and tried to recreate it themselves by working on each other.

“One of my colleagues (Patrick Macdonald) came out and expressed our problems in words, clearly and forcefully. He said in effect, ‘We have missed the boat. We really do not know what the Primary Control is. We cannot get it at will with our hands. We have got to realize this as we work, and somehow or other pull ourselves up by our own boot straps until we have some solid ground under our feet.’ We had known it in a way, but not with sufficient clarity to be able to express it. WIthout his clear sensing of the problem and his creative thought in helping us solve it, we would have failed as teachers, fourth year or no fourth year.

This colleague, by clearing up a basic point, had resolved our confusion and doubt. This made the greatest difference to us and our work together became increasingly rewarding. We worked as in a laboratory, using each other as guinea pigs, the group mind gradually bringing to light the problems involved in getting the HN & B (head, neck and back) pattern to function. Simultaneously our minds and our hands advanced in knowledge. As I look back upon this time it seems to me that the colleague who expressed our problem was the leading mind in getting us out of the swamp.”2

Marjory Barlow also spoke of this group:

“We were a group: Pat Macdonald, Kitty Merrick, Lulie Westfeldt and me  – it was those four out of the twelve. We always worked together…”3

When Walter Carrington joined the course he was largely influenced by key members of this group.

“I thought that Pat Macdonald was an extremely good teacher and was finding out about things; Marjory Barlow also. I didn’t much admire what some of the other teachers were doing, but I thought that things would eventually work out for them.”4

“I think I am right in saying that it was Pat Macdonald who gave me an introduction to ‘hands-on’. He used to sit in a chair while I put my hands on his head, then he told me what I was doing wrong. So the instructions about the hands did not come from FM initially, but from the junior teachers.”5

“Patrick and Walter and I (Marjory Barlow) worked together such a lot in the early days … when he (Walter Carrington) first came onto the training course. We sort of took him under our wing a bit.”6

Then what of the other group? If they did not agree with Macdonald’s assessment of the situation and his way of dealing with it, what did they think they were there to learn and how did they go about it?

This group consisted of George Trevelyan, Erika Whittaker, Gurney and Jean MacInnes, and Irene Stewart. Neither Marj Barstow nor Margaret Goldie were part of either of the student groups: according to Erika, Marj “was in the middle somewhere”7 and Margaret Goldie was ‘part of the inner circle’8 (i.e the Alexander brothers, Irene Tasker and Ethel Webb).

Erika’s attitude to Alexander work was very much conditioned by two factors: one was the influence of her father Hans Schumann9a German musician who, having lived and worked in China, was steeped in Taoist philosophy – correspondences with which Erika intuited in Alexander; the other was her first exposure to Alexander’s ideas as an 8 year old child, encouraged by her Aunt Ethel Webb to attend to her use whilst doing the things she anyway wanted to do. Years before the first training course Ethel Webb was asked by FM to take his place giving a presentation about his work at a girl’s school. As she was leaving he said to her, “You can do anything you like, but don’t do what I do”. This was the spirit of the work which FM inculcated in his apprentices, Ethel Webb and Irene Tasker, and the one which Erika was ready to explore when the first teacher training course began,

Erika valued highly the application work her group did with Irene Tasker during the training course. This seemed to her a continuation of what she had first learned from her Aunt in 1919 and had tried to put into practice in 1929 and 1930 at Ashley Place, both helping her aunt with administrative work and helping Irene Tasker in the Little School:

“I had learnt that from her in those early days and took that knowledge with me into the training course when it began in 1931”.

“She (Irene Tasker) used to ask us to dinner in her tiny flat and one person would peel potatoes, another do the sprouts, another do something else, but it was all to do with keeping your length in a useful activity, some people sitting on the floor and some on the sofa. And why not sit on the sofa? Be comfortable! Sit right back with the support behind your back and make yourself comfortable. It was all very alive and with the idea that you carry the Alexander work into the things you are doing. You are observing and not just standing around ‘doing Alexander work’.

“On the whole I think I learnt more from my work with Irene Tasker in the school with the children (….) The Alexander work was always connected with the school work that they were doing, and that could be painting, for instance.”10

Years later Marj Barstow was to acknowledge the importance of the work with Irene Tasker:

“I think Irene Tasker was of more value than we could realise at the time we were in training. Now I appreciate what she did for me more and more.”11

So Erika and the others in Trevelyan’s group were not dissatisfied with the training course.

“We knew FM did not believe in telling people what to do, it was up to us to make our own discoveries. We each, in our own way, gradually became aware of the changes in ourselves, our ‘use’, our attitudes and ‘posture’ (as others saw it). The training-to-be-a-teacher was not mentioned until some time later when several of the students felt FM was not teaching us to teach. I do not think FM ever intended teaching us to teach in the usual way that training for a profession is considered correct.”12

In focussing more and more on hands-on teaching, Erika felt that Macdonald’s group were missing the point:

“I began to see more clearly why FM had resisted all attempts to categorise our progress and had such problems answering questions that seemed to him irrelevant and strange, since he put his working principles plainly before us. It was a case of the Chinese saying: ‘There are answers to questions that are never asked’.13

For Erika the training course was primarily a study of one’s own reactivity and use in daily life: a means to an end, not an end in itself. She was of the opinion that the group which began to focus on ‘how to take people up’ were making that the end, thereby leading Alexander’s work in a wholly different direction. If Alexander’s oft repeated injunction “Don’t copy me!” had been heeded, then each person who began to explore and give life to these ideas might, instead of trying to conform to some kind of ideal, discover their own individuality; other forms of teaching could then emerge – rooted in practical self-knowledge developed from the application of the principles to the activities of life, in all its rich variety.14

Visiting training courses after a gap of half a century, Erika saw the consequences of those events in the 1930’s. Many students were struggling to make the link between the kinaesthetic experiences of the hands-on work and daily life.

What to Erika had been a fluid and experimental investigation of the inner content of Alexander’s discoveries had now taken on a definite form – with procedures, checklists and regulations. Now we are all copying Alexander.

Erika’s comment that it was “all about teaching” began to make sense. She always refused to ‘play the role of the teacher’, gently shifting the character of each encounter to sharing moments in time and space; you were simply being with Erika.

All this is not meant to criticise or denigrate all the wonderful teachers who do teach by releasing muscle tension, by ‘taking people up’. On the contrary; thank goodness for them and the pioneering work of the first generation teachers and their dedicated students. But perhaps a whole other discipline, glimpsed by that ‘other group’ all those years ago – less about ‘teaching’ and more about ‘living’ – has yet to evolve.

1. F. Matthias Alexander: the Man and his Work, Lulie Westfeldt, p 135. Published by Centerline Press, California (back to text).

2. Ibid. p 41 (back to text).

3. An Examined Life, Marjory Barlow, p.81, 2002), Publisher: Mornum Time Press; First American Edition edition (October 2002)  (back to text).

4. Walter Carrington on the Alexander Technique in discussion with Sean Carey, Sheldrake Press 1986, p13  (back to text).

5. Walter Carrington on the Alexander Technique in discussion with Sean Carey, Sheldrake Press 1986, p13  (back to text).

6. An Examined Life, Marjory Barlow, p.80, 2002), Publisher: Mornum Time Press; First American Edition edition (October 2002) (back to text).

7. Ibid, p.197, 2002), Publisher: Mornum Time Press; First American Edition edition (October 2002) (back to text).

8. In conversation with the author (back to text).

9. Hans Schümann was granted a post at the German Consulate in Shanghai by Kaiser Wilhelm II. He published in 1924 an esoteric text about correspondences between mathematics, music and universal laws;  Monozentrik. Eine neue Musiktheorie, Stgt., Grüninger Nachf. Klett 1924. Monozentrik  (back to text).

10. Alexander’s Way, Erika Whittaker, STAT Journal No 13, Autumn 1993, Editor; Adam Nott (back to text).

11. Memorial Lecture, Erika Whittaker, 1985, STAT (back to text).

12. Alexander’s Way, Erika Whittaker, STAT Journal No 13, Autumn 1993, Editor; Adam Nott (back to text).

13. Memorial Lecture, Erika Whittaker, 1985, STAT (back to text).

14. In Japan, for example there are strong ties between Buddhism and Hitsuzendo (Calligraphy), Ikebana (Flower Arranging) and some martial disciplines. The outer activity is also a medium for inner, spiritual work. Erika sometimes mused about possible links between craftwork Alexander work. (back to text).

© 2013 John S Hunter

Marj Barstow: #2, Moving Up, London 1988

The ‘Marj’ workshops took place in Rudolph Steiner House next to Regents Park in London. There were many things which were not so good about the organisation of the event, but in this series I want only to speak about my experiences of watching and working with Marjorie Barstow.

I learnt a great deal from observing the way she worked and interacted with people. Although she had a somewhat autocratic manner (Erika said that even at Ashley Place in the early 1930s, Marj had a touch of the ‘school ma’am’ about her), it was tempered by a good deal of humour – often at the expense of the pupil if he or she asked a stupid question, tried to ‘do’ it or let their attention wander. Her assistants were very evidently aware of her presence and of when they were in her field of attention; they visibly went ‘on the alert’ when she came into the room. It was amusing to watch one of them quickly uncrossing his legs and rearranging himself like a naughty schoolboy when Marj fixed her eye upon him.

Then what was her ‘method’? Bearing in mind that I can only speak of what I observed that week, here are some impressions.

She encouraged people to observe, with as much accuracy as they could muster, exactly what they were doing. This was always related to an activity. The group she was working with would usually be asked what they wanted to do. This in itself put the onus on the pupil of engaging; of making a decision; of having the courage to ‘speak up’ and say what they wanted. For some, this was already a ‘bridge too far’.

Someone might then say that he or she wished, for example, to recite a poem.  Marj would then invite the person to do so and she would watch. Afterwards, the person was invited to say what they were able to observe about themselves during the process. Other members of the group might be asked to say what they had observed. Marj would then use her hands to coordinate the person’s head, neck and back; then he or she was asked to repeat the poem.  There was, of course, a noticeable difference between before and after.  The moral was that in order to carry out any activity you need to put your head forward and up. That in itself was not new as an approach (for example Ethel Webb and Irene Tasker’s ‘application work’ in the Little School and Teacher Training Course). Marj used the ‘group dynamic’ to – as it were – reinforce the experience. This method of teaching can be a very powerful tool.  It encourages observation, attention to process, decision making and what Marj called ‘constructive thinking’.

I wanted to experience more directly the ‘energetic aspect’ of her work; the ‘inner content’, so to speak. Hoping that she would take my hands, I asked her to help me work on someone.  This ruse, however, did not work. I had expected that she would take my hands or my back and work with me on the pupil, but she just stepped back, fixed me with her eagle eyes and told me to get on with. I had not quite realised what I was letting myself in for.

Nevertheless, the experience gave me a helpful insight into what it was she was looking for. The pupil on whom I was working said that it ‘felt great’. Marj, however, was not interested in what the pupil did or didn’t feel. She was watching me. She said “I didn’t see you moving up as you put your hands on her”.

Afterwards one of the assistants came and gave me a reassuring ‘well done, brave try’ pat on the back, as though I had been through some kind of trial by fire. In a way I had, because, like trying to work on a pupil in front of Patrick MacDonald, you could feel her attention on you. She was ‘all there’. Nothing but the real counted, and you knew it.

Later in the week, however, I got my reward. While we were all working together Marj came over to me, placed one hand on my back and with her other hand placed my hand on a pupil’s neck. There it was! Crystal clear!  My back softly expanded, energy flowed along my arm and through my hand, the pupil’s neck softened, his head went forward and up, his back lengthened and widened and he went gliding across the room.  Then I could make the link. The actual experience of direction in the teacher, conveyed through the hands to the pupil, was essentially in no way at variance with what I had been learning for the past several years. Marj’s particular emphases – going into activity or movement, observation and ‘constructive thinking’ – were differences of form rather than content.

© 2013 John S Hunter

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

Being with Erika: #02, Brighton 1988 – Key Note Address

From the left: Sam Wilson, Erika Whittaker, Sir George Trevelyan, Marj Barstow, John Hunter.

The next time I met Erika was not in Australia, as a new phenomenon appeared in the Alexander world – the International Congresses – which took Erika to New York in 1986 and to Brighton in 1988.

After her exposure to the ‘state of the Alexander nation” at Stony Brook, Erika felt she had something to say. Marj Barstow encouraged Michael Frederick to give her a platform to say it, so she was invited to give the Keynote Address at the opening ceremony.

In that talk she issued a dire warning:

“….I see a great danger of his work suffering the same fate as that of many other great original innovators in the history of the world. It is a pretty familiar pattern. Successors to the master tend to launch into interpretations, which in time cause arguments, dissensions, disagreements, splits into schools or sects, fragmentation leading to dogma, to tradition, and to fixation”.1

I did not get much chance to make contact with her in Brighton. She was, as I learned from her years later, not well at that time and had decided to keep a very low profile.

1. Erika’s Keynote Address

© 2013 John S Hunter

Other Posts on Being with Erika:

#01, London 1985 – Annual Memorial Lecture
#03, Melbourne 1991 – “Come for lunch!”
#04, Melbourne 1991 – Tea Ceremony
#05, Melbourne 1991 – Jean Jacques by the Sea
#06, Back in Melbourne, 1992
#07, “Where did you train?”, London, 1993
#08, “It’s all the same”, London, 1993
#09, “Making the Link”, London, 1993
#10,  A Lesson in Stopping, London, 1993
#11, Hands, London 1994
#12, “Yes, but you’re worrying!”, London, 1993
#13, “Nothing special”, London, 1994