“When you are asked not to do something, instead of making the decision not to do it, you try to prevent yourself from doing it. But this only means that you decide to do it, and then use muscle tension to prevent yourself from doing it.”1
How fortunate that Ethel Webb, whose ear was attuned to when FM Alexander said something worth taking note of, recognised the significance of these words spoken by him to a pupil during a lesson and wrote them down so that they could be preserved as one of the “teaching aphorisms”.
FM’s pupil, although he or she might have been saying inwardly the words “don’t do it, don’t do it!”, nevertheless had the intention to do it, and the body responds to intention not words.
One way I explain it to pupils is as follows:
The physical body is analogous to a well-trained animal, always listening to it’s master’s voice, waiting to be told what to do, wanting to obey and carry out what is asked of it. However, the language that we use for our inner and outer talking is not one either the animal or the physical body understands very well. In the case of the latter, every time we feel an impulse to act in some way we begin to stimulate neural activity, and muscles get ready to do work. The trouble is that we are so often very unclear about what we want, or don’t want, to do. The poor body gets contradictory messages and, like the animal in our analogy, begins to get stressed.
By making a decision and having a clear intention, the body begins to respond in a quite different way; sometimes mind and body can, like horse and rider, be as one. We are moving in the direction of greater integration.
This is not easy. Many people avoid making decisions, little realising the psycho-physical consequences thereof. Making decisions means taking more responsibility: it also means confronting the very deep-rooted patterns of so-called individuality to which we are very attached.
Fortunately there is another “individual” waiting to be discovered, but more on that another time.
Erika Whittaker told me once, much to my surprise at the time, that what Alexander really wanted from his pupils was that they would learn to make their own decisions. Over the years, this has come to mean more and more to me.
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).
© 2013 John S Hunter
When I need to undertake a task of some sort there is an inner activity and an outer activity. The sequence, according to Alexander’s ideas, of “inner events” is something like this:
- say “no”!
- consider my options
- make a decision
- organise myself (head, neck & back etc.)
- work out my “means-whereby” (the best way to do it)
- reconsider (I can still change my decision)
- let my head go forward and up and get on with it
Is it not the case, though, that there is often an assumption that as long as my neck is free (etc.) I am “using” myself well?
Think of any task involving a number of necessary actions. For example, decorating a room: I might need to move all the furniture into the centre of the room or even out of the room all together.
Where am I going to put everything? Which items should I move first? Should I empty drawers or bookshelves before trying to move heavy furniture? Where might I store the contents ? Etc, etc……That’s before I even start preparing the surfaces to be painted.
Unless I work out my means-whereby before I start, I am likely to have to do a lot more work than necessary.
If I start moving a sideboard around with no idea where to put it because I filled the only large enough space with piles of books, BUT….. I keep a free neck – does that mean I have “good use”?
Compare this with the practical man or woman – amateur or professional decorator – who, before starting, thinks things through and works out the optimum sequence of events, BUT….. stiffens or collapses somewhat while doing the practical work.
Whose “use” is better?
Taking a moment or two to consider the means-whereby we are going to carry out an activity (the best way to do it) can bring a new dimension to our understanding of the use of the self.
© 2013 John S Hunter
I am often asked why I work so much with ‘walking’ when I am teaching, and there are a number of reasons:
- human beings evolved as creatures that walk, more than as creatures that get in and out of chairs
- although many of our habits and misuses are in our support system, many are in our patterns of movement; and our primary movement is walking
- using ‘hands-on’ to direct a pupil’s head forward and up and into movement is an excellent way to demonstrate that a small change of ‘orientation” has a big impact on ‘carriage’
- the ‘angle-poise lamp’ model of the musculo-skeletal system (the antagonistic pulls of head against hips against knees) is very helpful for understanding bending movements, but for walking we need to understand kinaesthetically the natural trunk rotations involved in weight transfer; see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11240051 and
As with many habits, an injury may have set up a pattern which subsequently becomes the norm.
- I have often observed that people trying to put into practice “inhibition” and “direction” are able to find a certain ‘tone’, particularly in the back, because of the antagonistic pulls of the support system, but then inadvertently block the capacity of the pelvis and thorax to counter-rotate freely. Whilst lengthening can help to free up the counter rotations, the corollary is also true; finding freedom in the rotary movements can facilitate lengthening.
For a trained Alexander teacher it is not so difficult to adapt what you have been applying to ‘chair-work’ to ‘walking’; just use your powers of observation and your refined kinaesthesia and get your pupils walking…….
© 2013 John S Hunter