Tag Archive | Walter Carrington

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

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

Being with Erika: #08, “It’s all the same”, London, 1993

A lot of teachers wanted to come and meet Erika, so I organised several half-day workshops over a period of two weeks in my apartment in West London. The participants spanned a period of thirty-odd years experience and came from diverse training backgrounds. The interaction between them and Erika was of great interest to me.

Here was a woman whose contact with the Alexander Technique (her first lessons from her aunt Ethel Webb were in 1919) predated anyone else still alive. For all of the teachers who came, their link with Alexander was through their head of training or that person’s head of training – in all cases leading back to the same eight people: Patrick Macdonald, Peter Scott, Walter and Dilys Carrington, Dr and Marjory Barlow, and Dick and Elisabeth Walker.

Erika, however, had distanced herself from what had been going on in the Alexander world after World War 2. For some time she had felt uncomfortable with certain attitudes in Ashley Place 1 and when the training course reopened in September 1945, Erika found the atmosphere very different from the pre-war era. With FM playing a smaller part in the running of the course, the three ‘crown princes’ (Patrick Macdonald, Walter Carrington and Bill Barlow), as she called them, were already vying for who was going to ‘pick up the mantle’. Consequently she saw the contemporary Alexander world from the perspective of what it had been to her in those early experiences with Ethel Webb, Irene Tasker and the Alexander brothers. She was like a time-traveller who had jumped forward fifty years and could see how, over just two generations, ideas and practices had developed in unexpected and sometimes, to her, unusual ways.

Like many of my contemporaries who trained in London in the 1980’s, I was trying to understand the difference between the various ‘styles’ or ‘approaches’ to training. As the different teachers, from those very backgrounds, came and interacted with Erika, bringing with them (just like me) their mixture of ‘idées reçues’, misconceptions, insights, discoveries, frustrations and ‘strongly held beliefs’, it became clear that she had a somewhat different way of seeing things.

Some people came with very definite ideas about what they wanted to ask, but she stepped deftly aside in the face of ‘specific questions’. What she was interested in was people, and what made them tick. Who was asking this or that question, and what way of thinking was behind it?  She tried to get through a person’s outer shell and connect with the individual with whom she was in discourse. Some found this frustrating; they were waiting for when they could start getting in and out of chairs. Some felt the rug pulled out from under their feet; they were looking for a rational explanation of this or that idea or to justify this or that point of view. Others found it like a breath of fresh air.

When she ‘worked’ with someone, she never allowed it to become the seeking out of certain sensory experiences. She brought the person into the moment, into their own presence in the here and now. One could see the scales fall from their eyes as the questions or concerns which had been dogging them, and were preventing them from entering into a direct experience, disappeared.

Speaking for myself, still the old questions fought to reestablish themselves in my mind. I asked her to talk about the differences between the major lineages of the Alexander Technique.

“But they are all the same” she said. “Can’t you see that?”

“No I can’t” I replied. “What do you mean?”

“They are all about ‘teaching‘.”

I still didn’t understand. But my curiosity was piqued now, and I wanted to find out what she meant. This took quite some ‘unpacking’ and involved an exploration of events which took place in London long before I was born.

1. “…there seemed to be a tendency at Ashley Place to have the attitude that we were the clever ones and the people out there don’t know anything……..I wanted to find out what else was going on in the world”. Erika Whittaker, Annual Memorial Lecture, STAT 1985. (… back to text).

© 2013 John S Hunter

Other Posts on Being with Erika:

#01, London 1985 – Annual Memorial Lecture
#02, Brighton 1988 – Key Note Address
#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
#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

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