Tag Archive | posture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Teaching Aphorisms: The Alexander Journal No 7, 1972, published by the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique. Also published in Articles and Lectures by Mouritz (1995).

© 2015 John S Hunter

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

Dr Wilfred Barlow: #1, “You’ll have to come three times a week!”, London 1978

My contact with Dr Barlow was limited but significant. It was undoubtedly because of his book The Alexander Principle that I began to have lessons.

I’d come across several references to the Alexander Technique in various books and magazines I was reading in the 1970’s, but had no real sense of what it was. Being at that time unable to walk past a bookshop without browsing (yes, people did ‘browse’ before Internet Explorer or Firefox had been dreamt of), I wandered into one in Muswell Hill, North London, and came across Dr Barlow’s book. I was impressed with the detail about the head, neck, back relationship and believed there was something of real significance there.

However, reading voraciously as I did back then, my attention was soon taken with something else and I did not pursue my interest until, perhaps a year or two later, I saw Dr Barlow on a TV ‘magazine-style’ programme talking about the Technique.

“Oh! That’s that ‘thing’ I read about and am really interested in,” I said to myself. “Why aren’t I doing anything about it?”

Fortunately for me, my Guardian Angel – or some unknown force – impelled me to not put it off any longer and to go and phone Dr Barlow right there and then. I made an appointment to see him in Albert Court, just behind the Albert Hall in South West London.

Dr. Barlow, I later learned, was the first person to conduct any research into the practical benefits of the Alexander Technique – both during his time in the Army and later at the Royal College of Music.  The former was, perhaps not surprisingly, to lead nowhere, but the latter was almost certainly the precursor of the widespread interest today in Colleges of Music and Drama throughout the world.

When Alexander decided to sue the South African Government for libel, it was Dr. Wilfred Barlow who went to Johannesburg to give evidence.  This was, according to his own account in “More Talk of Alexander”, to cost him dearly:

“I myself had seen a medical career totally destroyed by the South African case, even though in every respect our evidence had been vindicated.

……it was clear that orthodox medicine wished to have nothing to do with me because of the part I had played in Alexander’s ‘victory’.”1

Towards the end of Alexander’s life Dr Barlow was instrumental in preparing the ground for a Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT).  Alexander himself, however, was not ready to hand over the reins to a democratic society, and STAT was not formally constituted until after the originator’s death.

Dr. Barlow’s book The Alexander Principle brought about a revival of interest in the work after a period of relative quiet.

But none of this I knew in April 1978 as I waited to see him in the large basement apartment in Kensington Gore; home to Dr and Mrs Barlow, to a busy practice with some dozen or so assistant teachers, and to the office and secretary of STAT.

His approach to new pupils, whom he rather treated as patients with the manner of a medical consultant, was to put them – stripped to the waist – in front of a mirrored grid of horizontal and vertical lines.  He would then proceed to point out all the various mal-alignments in the body and the places where there was collapse or excessive tension.

While attending a conference in Australia on proprioception, organised by the late Dr David Garlick, Dr Barlow confessed to my colleague Terry Fitzgerald, that his method was basically to ‘frighten’ the pupils into having lessons.

After I had been suitably ‘frightened’, Dr Barlow reassured me that ” … it will all come loose in time, but you’ll have to come three times a week you know”.

By then, I was ready to sign in blood.

1. More Talk of Alexander, Edited by Dr Wilfred Barlow. Research at the Royal College of Music, by Dr Wilfred Barlow, p191, Victor Gollancz Limited, London 1978.  (back to text).

© 2013 John S Hunter

Tips4Teachers – “…not to do…”

“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

FM Alexander

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

Tips4Teachers – Keeping the Back Back

There was a time when “keeping the back back ” was the sine qua non of teaching and learning the Alexander Technique. It could be said to be the physical equivalent of inhibition (but that is for another post).

There are some lovely diary entries written by Eva Webb which suggest that “keeping the back back” was quite the norm at Ashley Place. Somewhere along the line it has fallen into disuse.

In 1947 Eva had her first session with FM, then lessons with Irene Stewart, Margaret Goldie, Patrick MacDonald, Max Alexander, Dick Walker and Walter Carrington; thirty three lessons in total over a period of two months.

“They teach leaning back against their hands to prevent entirely the old lurch forwards.”

“It is still difficult to remember to lean back a little when support is given”

“For goodness’ sake remember the slight lean back.”

Instead of coming back I was pressing back.” 1

Although Patrick MacDonald was the “first generation” teacher most often associated with the injunction to “keep the back back”, the point was made most dramatically to me by Peggy Williams, who once quoted FM Alexander as saying to the students while she was on the training course:

 “Never in a thousand years will you make a teacher of my technique unless you can keep your back back.” 2

Frank Pierce Jones describes this process:

“The subject, sitting in the experimental posture, is asked not to alter the balance of his head while the experimenter rests a hand lightly against his back. As the experimenter gradually increases the pressure of his hand in a horizontal direction, the subject equalizes the pressure by coming back instead of going forward as he would ordinarily do in response to such a stimulus. When the pressure reaches a certain level (varying with the distribution of tonus in the subject’s back and his ability to inhibit a change in the head-neck relation), the subject will be brought easily and smoothly to his feet.” 3

I think it is a great pity that many teachers have let this aspect of Alexander work almost be forgotten and that many were never even taught it, so in this post I would like to talk about some of the reasons why I think it is important and how I use it in teaching.

When we are upright, simply standing, clearly work is being done by our musculo-skeletal system in order to oppose the force of gravity. We recognise, instinctively one could say, that the work which is being done is of a different nature or quality to when we are doing other kinds of work with muscles – to move ourselves in space or lift objects, for example; work which is more obviously volitional.

Certainly there are postural reflexes at work, nevertheless, when standing, one could decide to “switch off” the muscles involved and thereby cause the body to drop to the floor (Delsarte referred to this intentional withdrawal of energy from muscles as “decomposition”). So there is still an element of volition involved, but again of a different nature to when I am “doing”. We experience it as a kind of “background volition”: I simply decide to be upright.

When I put my hand on a pupil’s back I allow my whole frame to expand, and the expansion along my arm is away from my back, which is staying back. Because of my training I activate this expansion in such a way that it stimulates the same expansive response in the pupil, but only if he or she opposes my hand.

There are, however, different ways of opposing me. The pupil could:

  • simply lean back
  • “do” something (ie.voluntary muscular work, and it doesn’t matter which muscles) in order to push against me
  • stiffen to prevent movement

None of the above is what is wanted.

However, if the teacher is sufficiently integrated, free and expanding, the contact with the pupil gives a strong stimulus to the anti-gravity response of the whole musculo-skeletal frame. The teacher is then providing both an enhanced gravitational downward force whilst at the same time stimulating the appropriate upward response of the body’s support system. With a little patience, and a clear explanation of what is required from the pupil, it is rare for this not to work. A pupil in time realises that he or she can use gravity to” go up”, but they are not “doing” it. He or she can be taken into movement in the way Jones describes above.

Keeping the back back, without stiffening or pushing, is a subtle, but rewardingly effective way to activate the primary control, without too much focus on “release” as an end in itself.

From here one can explore how the support system is also activated by the correct relationship between the head, neck and spine. Also how it can be, and often is, interfered with in response to many and varied stimuli.

1. F.Matthias Alexander and The Creative Advance of the Individual, by George Bowden (ISBN: 0852430027, Publisher: L. N. Fowler & Co. Ltd) (back to text).

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

3. Freedom to Change, by Frank Pearce Jones (Chapter on “Experimental Studies: Reflex Responses”:ISBN-10: 0952557479, ISBN-13: 978-0952557470, publisher: Mouritz 1997. First published as Body Awareness in Action. (back to text).

© 2013 John S Hunter

Tips4Teachers – “These bods were made for walking…”

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
  • http://www.alexandertechnique-running.com/george-coghill-serge-gracovetsky-and-the-spinal-engine-theory/

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