Making the Link; The F.M. Alexander Memorial Lecture, 2002
A Slow-Learner’s Attempt to Make Sense of the First Twenty Five Years
Delivered to the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique, July 13 2002
(First published in The Alexander Journal No 19)
Everybody’s journey through the “Alexander phenomenon” is unique. Alexander was an innovator – and nobody can repeat exactly his experience. All of us here have our own story, and I will recount to you something of mine and what I make of it all.
I describe myself in the title as a “slow-learner” – but I think learning the Alexander Technique is a slow process – certainly a long one. Patrick MacDonald used to say “The first sixty years are the hardest!” Margaret Goldie, in her late eighties, told me a story about a young, newly qualified teacher who came for a lesson. As was her wont, she spoke to him throughout about the need to stop and be quiet and to pay particular attention to the head, neck and back. The young teacher, not knowing Miss Goldie’s ways, and probably thinking that she was holding out on him, could only take so much of this before interrupting her and saying: “Miss Goldie! You do realise that I have just completed three years of full- time teacher training, so I think I know the basics.”
“Oh!” said Miss Goldie. “Three years! I see. Well I have completed sixty-three years of training, and I still have to remind myself. So where does that put you and your three years?”
I was certainly slow to get started. I’d read an article in Time Out magazine in the mid- 1970s that said very positive things about the Alexander Technique, and advised that around six lessons were needed. It seemed like quite a good investment to me: change your life for about £18.
It was not until I’d read Dr. Barlow’s book and later seen him on television that I finally decided to do something about it. After a consultation with Dr Barlow I began to have lessons with Alan Rowlands, who was a professor of piano at the Royal College of Music. Those early lessons gave me such strong new sensations and experiences of myself. I would just go and sit in a café afterwards and enjoy “being there”. I would say that it was my first experience – since childhood perhaps – of presence in the physical body, though my attempts to put the Technique into practice did not go so well.
I think Alan found me a difficult pupil. He brought Dr Barlow in to have a look at me one afternoon. Dr Barlow worked on me on the table for about ten minutes, and that evening I felt an intense pain and then release of muscle tension in my lower abdomen around the area where I had a scar from an appendectomy in my early teens.
Some time after that Marjorie Barlow came in. She took my head with a very light touch and I experienced change happening in my whole body. What surprised me was that I knew she wasn’t doing anything. It was then that I realised there is a little bit of magic in the Alexander Technique.
Alan probably knew before I did that I wanted to train, and he directed me towards a new course that had just started in North London run by Misha Magidov. I had some lessons with Misha and visited the course. I was aware that the students were “tuning in” to something that I wasn’t. I said to Misha, “I think I am a slow learner.” Misha stroked his chin and said reassuringly “But deep. I think so”.
The revelations of training
Soon after beginning the course, I realised that I had no concept of what the teacher did in a lesson. The notion of “giving directions” with one’s hands seemed very exciting. I started to become aware of the human organism as a field of energies. Much of the work on the training course seemed to centre round the search for this elusive “energy” we call “direction” which, when it flows, takes us and our pupils “up”. I was having real experiences and they were raising real questions, connected with what I had hitherto only read about in Eastern literature, to do with Man’s place being in between Heaven and Earth, the Up and the Down. What is this energy we call “direction”? What is this experience of “going up”? How did Alexander discover it?
One cannot consider energy without looking at those masters of human energetics, the Taoists. Taoist literature – much of it only recently available in translation – abounds with detailed explanations about different qualities of energy, sometimes translated as Vitality, Energy and Spirit. Consider some of these instructions from the classics of Chi Gong:
“Empty the neck, let energy reach the crown”
“Suspend the head”
“Use intent, not force”
Perhaps it is no surprise that Patrick MacDonald began his 1963 Memorial Lecture with a quote from that great Taoist classic, the Tao Te Ching: “The Way that can be told is not the true way”. In key sections of his book he again refers to Eastern energetics. Our work with energy is slightly different from the Taoists. Recently I had a consultation with a Chinese physician and teacher of Qi Gong. He could tell me certain things about my internal organs, but I could have told him some things about his use. One elderly Alexander Teacher I know puzzled her Chinese acupuncturists because they could not understand where her energy came from; it did not fit into their way of looking at things – and yet it evidently existed.
Alexander would have had little or no access to this knowledge. Looking back to the early days of Alexander’s search, we know from the excellent research of Roslyn McLeod that he experimented with various vocal and respiratory techniques. In fact he was, at one time, advertising himself as a teacher of the Delsarte System of Dramatic Expression, which is, in many ways, what we might nowadays call a Mind/Body discipline.
I would like to consider some aspects of Delsarte’s work, because I think it is very interesting that Alexander was not, as perhaps may have previously been thought, a “blank sheet of paper” (but then if one thought about it how could he – or anybody – have been).
By a remarkable coincidence the motive force for Delsarte’s studies was also his early vocal problems (he kept losing his voice) and if that fact was known to Alexander it would certainly have drawn him to discover more. Given his pertinacity, it is likely that he would have attempted to go into it in some depth, but as Delsarte did not publish his work, it is not known to what extent the “Delsarte System” has been accurately transmitted.
Much of it could be deemed “beastly exercises” but it is exercise requiring a certain precision and, indeed, kinaesthetic awareness. Here are some quotes from an early book: The Delsarte System of Expression.
“Lift your arm, vital force in upper arm, forearm and hand decomposed. Then unbend elbow, vital force flowing into forearm. Then expand hand, vital force flowing into fingers, – all this being a gradual unrolling or evolution of vital force through the various articulations”.
“I simply withdrew my vital force into the reservoir at the base of the brain.”
“The first great thing to be acquired is flexibility of the joints. These exercises free the channels of expression, and the current of nervous force can thus rush through them as a stream of water rushes through a channel, unclogged by obstacles.”
There are some very interesting ideas here when we think about “direction” as a flow of force.
Working with Misha and Patrick MacDonald, with their emphasis on a flow of energy in the spine, gave me a taste of the human organism as a medium for more subtle qualities of energy. To allow this energy to pass though the hands and connect with something there but sometimes latent in another person is a rare and rich human experience.
This was not something that either of them talked about much, though MacDonald is reported to have said on the subject: “Just let me get my hand on the back of their necks and let them discover all that for themselves”. It seems to me that something has been discovered about energy by different people at different epochs of human history which Science does not understand, or even know about.
Some years ago I visited a British University with another Alexander teacher, Dr. Marilyn Monk, to see research being carried out by the Sports Medicine Department there. Compared to, say, Performing Arts Medicine, Sports Medicine is quite advanced, but when they took an hour fixing sensors to a chap in a bathing suit in order to measure what could be more easily seen with the eye, but which could not measure the thing that mattered, I really thought they were, to use Jonathan Swift’s expression: “Extracting sunlight from cucumbers”.
About a year after qualifying I began studying with Margaret Goldie. I had heard a lot about this lady, who had her first lessons with the Alexander brothers in around 1927. During that early period, she once told me, she loved her lessons with F.M. but hated those with AR. In desperation she wrote to her father, who was paying for the lessons, and said that she thought it was not right that he should spend all this money when she was only benefiting from half of the lessons. His response was that he was paying all this money so that she could learn to face and deal with any problem that life put in her path, and this was one of them. Later she became great friends with AR.
Her speciality, as anyone who worked with her knows, was stopping. She had a way of “dropping words into your ear” as my colleague Renate Hoffman put it, “in such a way that they really got into your brain”. She certainly employed some of AR’s psychological methods during a lesson. She could somehow take away all the little tricks that we learn and use when we are trying to employ the Technique. After taking you backwards and forwards in the chair, a millimetre at a time, she would announce – in a deceptively gentle voice, with a hint of the impending inner drama about to unfold, “While you remain quiet I’ll just whisk you out of the chair”. During the next few seconds, so carefully prepared for during the preceding part of the lesson, a whole world of inner processes was revealed to one’s consciousness. From bitter experience one knew that the usual ploys, like a subtle stiffening of the back in order to stay back, or a lurch forward, as if loose hips meant “non-doing”, would stand out like a sore thumb in this rarefied atmosphere. What was demanded was a psychological “quantum leap”, rather than a jump out of the chair.
Often the demand was too great. One felt oneself slip back from the battle-front of the unknown into the safer trenches of a muscular activity. She knew your limits, though, and would not admonish you for what you could not understand – but “woe betide” you if you were not working at the borders of your possibility.
William James, writing about Volition and Inhibition, said “The whole drama is a mental drama.” In a lesson with Margaret Goldie one lived this drama second by second for thirty long minutes. But I will say more about that later.
In the late 1980’s I had the opportunity to spend some time in Madrid. Nica Gimeno had just qualified and was teaching in Barcelona but there was nobody else teaching in Spain then, though teachers may have visited a particular theatre or school from time to time. That was a very exciting period. My girlfriend had been very involved in Dance and Movement in Madrid, and largely through her contacts in that sphere we were able to generate an initial interest.
We were able to fill two workshops: one was free, for invited professionals from the Madrid Dance/Movement scene and the other was open to the fee-paying public. The one I gave as a freebie was awful: they would not give any attention; they thought they already knew; they fidgeted and looked at their watches; they gossiped to each other about this and that. The one I gave to the general public was electric. They really wanted to know what this was about. At that time in Spain – still fairly recently out of the Franco decades – there had been a big influx of new-age ideas and there were seminars and work-shops on everything under the sun – but very little of any quality. No-one from the group of professionals followed up, but for the next 24 hours the phone did not stop ringing. Each of the people at the public workshop had told several of their friends who had told others, and I was completely booked up for the rest of the week.
One of those early pupils was an Argentinean Tai Chi teacher who was so genuinely impressed by Alexander’s idea of inhibition, which she thought was something of vital importance that she could not help herself from telling everybody she knew about it – and she knew a lot of people. For the next few years she arranged my teaching in Madrid and I was always fully booked.
There were some extraordinary people who turned up for lessons, perhaps none more so than a Jesuit priest who had been a missionary in India for forty years. In his youth he had practised the spiritual exercises of Ignatius Loyola, and while in India had studied Vipasana meditation; now he was looking for a more gentle way to connect with the body. In Spain he was very famous and had published a dozen or so books on popular religious themes. Although he was not difficult to work with I don’t think he had any sensory awareness of what was happening.
Australia and work with Erica Whittaker
In 1991 and ’92 I went to Australia to work with a group of teachers. I found Australia fascinating. It was so interesting to see how the Alexander work had developed there. It also gave me the opportunity to spend time with Erika Whittaker in Melbourne. Erika, as many of you will know, is now the only surviving member of the first group of students to begin the training course with F.M. in 1931. Unfortunately, following a stroke last year, she is not now in good health.
Erika was born in 1911, and when she was still quite young her parents were told she had a scoliosis. She was sent for remedial treatment. Fortunately for her, however, her aunt was Ether Webb, one of F.M.’s early pupils in England. In 1919 Miss Webb began to give Erika lying-down turns. In 1928 Erika started having lessons with F.M. and it was rather taken for granted that when the training course started three years later, she would be one of the students.
For Erika, Alexander’s work has never been primarily about teaching; it is about living.
I first saw her in 1985 when she gave the Memorial lecture. Although well into her seventies, she bounded onto the platform and proceeded to tell us some very interesting and sometimes challenging things: for instance, that anyone who looked as though they were practising the Alexander Technique wasn’t. I looked around the lecture hall and saw a room full of people who looked as though they were practising the Alexander Technique. Not only that, they were sitting in little enclaves, depending on where they had trained, and practising the Alexander Technique in “the house style”.
I thought she was a very interesting woman and some days later I contacted her and asked if I could have a lesson. Well, a lesson with Erika is not like lessons we are used to. They often start with a cup of tea and seemingly casual conversation but you find there is something else going on. Being such a good reader of people she gently gives you insights into yourself. “The best teaching” she says “happens when the pupil doesn’t know he is being taught.”
I left an hour or so later, after only a little hands-on work, but something very important had happened. She had changed my thinking. “The next time will have to be in Australia”, she said as I left. And sure enough, six years later, it was.
In Melbourne we had more time to get to know each other and work together. I was interested to hear her views on the history and development of the Alexander Technique. I would say that the central pillar of her approach is that the Alexander Technique is a means to an end, and not an end in itself. It is a tool for living. This was something that she exemplified; in her way of moving, relating to people, dealing with situations and most of all in the quality of her attention. Four of us went out for lunch one day, to Jean Jacques by the sea. The conversation was alternately light and serious and everyone was having a good old time. We were sitting at a window table and outside was a patio area with other tables. There seemed to be quite a lot going on at the table just the other side of the window, where a family was sitting, and at one point I made a comment about something I had noticed. Erika then told me everything about that family. She had taken it all in without, so it seemed, hardly looking at them. Her attention danced, while at the same time she kept her poise. If ever one wanted a lesson in how to apply the Alexander Technique in life, the solution was to spend a few hours in Erika’s company.
Adam Nott wrote a very stimulating editorial for the Alexander Journal some years ago in which he raised the question of whether the Alexander Technique is a profession or a vocation. I thought this was a very interesting question and suggested to STAT Council that we arrange a discussion on that topic. We invited some speakers and had a very stimulating evening – I wish we would have more. At one point we were discussing just this question of applying the Alexander Technique to one’s life, and one teacher said that he could not see the sense in this, because at the end of the day when he went home he did not try to give directions to his kettle. Now something is not understood here. The Alexander Technique is not about giving directions to other people, or to inanimate objects. It is about our own use in any situation; our capacity to inhibit reaction and to co-ordinate ourselves.
What Miss Goldie emphasised about inhibition was that it must take place at the level of brain activity. If an impulse gets into the body, it is too late.
We have different ways of dealing with stimuli. Alexander’s idea of saying “no” to a stimulus, it can sound rather simple on first hearing. However, the processes involved are very subtle. It is a very common misconception to try to inhibit by preventing a reaction in the body. What do I mean by this? A stimulus is received; some neural pathways are excited and an impulse travels into the muscles. An effort is then made to, as it were, check or prevent this activity in the muscles. But of course, it is too late. Inhibition means to prevent the brain from initiating the neural activity. Once the neurons have set off on their course, nothing can stop them. All that can be done is send another, countermanding message. Alexander puts it very well:
“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.”
There is a variation of this, in which some people try and prevent themselves in advance from doing anything by putting themselves in a semi-permanent straight-jacket of rigid or deadened musculature. This produces what is sometimes referred to as the “Alexandroid syndrome”. Another way of controlling reaction is to try and find a state of deep inner tranquillity in which one is not so susceptible to stimuli; this is a meditative approach and, arguably, very effective.
Alexander’s way, as I understand it, is quite different. It is more a state of readiness in which one tries to be aware of the stimulus – not deny it or blank it out – and to prevent the brain from triggering neural activity as a reaction.
William James, whose work may have influenced Alexander, wrote:
“Writing is higher than walking, thinking is higher than writing, deciding higher than thinking, deciding “no” higher than deciding “yes” – at least the man who passes from one of these activities to another will usually say that each later one involves a greater element of inner work than the earlier ones, even though the total heat given out or the foot-pounds expended by the organism may be less.”
So inhibition is a relatively “high” function. It demands, therefore, more awareness; a greater power of attention. I often call to mind that Alexander referred to inhibition as a “force”. I find this helpful. It is not something dead or inert, but very alive and active.
Some years ago, a gentleman who had been a pupil of Dr. D. T. Suzuki in Japan soon after World War Two told me that Suzuki, who played a large part in introducing Zen Buddhism to the West, had been very interested in Alexander’s work and wished to meet him. But it was one of those great meetings of minds that never happened. What this gentleman told me was that Suzuki tried to teach him to keep his mind in a state of “flux”; to never let it fix on one thing. He wondered whether or not this related to Alexander’s ideas. I rather like the term “flux”, as I think it describes very well the state necessary in order to prevent the mind from firing off neurons at every stimulus. This state of “flux” needs a very fine, one might even say free, attention.
What Erika would emphasise about inhibition is that a stop is not a pause; they are quite different. A pause implies that one is going to do the thing, but not yet. A stop has no such implication. We are free to do something else. If you press the pause button on a cassette player, the motor is still engaged; as soon as you release the button the machine can only continue in the same direction it was going. If you press the stop button, other options become available.
That moment of really becoming aware of options, which I call discovering the moment of choice, is one that Alexander went to quite some length to try and explain in The Use of the Self: so pivotal was this discovery to everything that followed that it really repays close study. It seems to me that in our practise of inhibition we often miss out this all-important element. We tend to follow the sequence:
Stimulus: e.g. stand up
But Alexander is saying something else:
Stimulus: e.g. stand up
Consider the options
Make a decision – mostly to do something else
“…while still continuing to project the directions for the new use I would stop and consciously reconsider my first decision, and ask myself, “Shall I after all go on to gain the end I have decided upon and speak the sentence? Or shall I not? Or shall I go on to gain some other end altogether?”
This moment of choice is extremely interesting. Not as a concept, but as a state. It is a “high energy” state. It is “the unknown”, and if one can stay with this very fluid state many interesting possibilities open up. It allows for much more input through the senses, including the kinaesthetic sense, without the need to react or even comment. It also allows for a more objective evaluation of the situation. Perhaps it only lasts a second before the electrical impulse “arcs” over into a well-worn pathway, and then we “do our thing”. But that moment, however short, is a moment of freedom.
This brings us to decision. If we have choice, then we have to make a decision. It is here that many of us get stuck. In my first or second lesson with Margaret Goldie she said, “Now I am going to ask you to make a decision, and it will be the first decision you’ve ever made.” At the time I found this a very strange thing for her to say. Had I not been making decisions all my life? Had I not decided that very day to get out of bed and come and have a lesson with her? This is a very interesting question. We assume that because we end up taking one course of action rather than another that we have made a decision. But is that the case? My suspicion is that we have merely acquiesced to impulses following the path of least resistance. What Alexander wrote about Habit in Man’s Supreme Inheritance is very relevant here.
Several years later I was invited to go to Brazil to work with the teachers there and run some workshops. This was my first experience of running workshops for large numbers of people. In Rio there were about twenty people in the work-shop and five or six teachers to assist, which meant that we could give plenty of hands-on work, but in Sao Paolo it was a very different story.
I had been invited to give a one day seminar on the Alexander Technique at a Choir Festival; Isabel Sampaio, who had set it all up, was to assist me. Neither of us knew quite what to expect. Such moments are full of possibilities: how to respond to the unknown? I decided, for once, to take a leaf out of Erika’s book; to wait and see what presented itself and to try and respond to it.
In the morning session I gave a lecture/demonstration in which I tried to outline Alexander’s life, the main principles of his discoveries and their relevance to performing artists. The talk was fairly well received and excited a certain amount of interest and curiosity; so far, so good.
The first session after lunch was with the conductors. It soon became apparent that what had most captured their interest was the idea of a stop between stimulus and response. I am surprised but pleased about this, because usually people are too quickly captivated by the “physical” aspects of the work. They somehow intuit that this is something of great significance and are eager to explore how this idea can be applied to their work with the choirs. We discuss various possibilities and try out some ideas; a very stimulating and engaging hour.
Then the main event: the workshop with the festival participants – a group of around sixty people aged, I would estimate, between seventeen and seventy. What on earth are we going to do with all these people? Of course, I have some ideas, options and possibilities in mind, but actually I haven’t decided yet. This approach can be somewhat nerve-racking to say the least, but it really brings the whole thing to life. We have to stay alert, observant and try to see what is possible.
The chairs were still arranged in rows from the morning lecture, so we quickly got people to move them to form a large circle. The first group of people we worked with were selected from each of the six or seven choirs in the festival, as I felt it was important that those observing knew at least one of the participants, partly because it would bring a more personal interest to the proceedings but also because they would be more likely to register any changes which might take place.
What followed in the next two hours or so was really a wonderfully new and enlivening experience for Isabel and me and for many of the singers. I don’t take any personal credit for this. It was a fortunate convergence of possibilities. Perhaps because they were amateur musicians and less inhibited by the worry of protecting their self-image in front of their peers, perhaps for other reasons, I do not know, but what is certain is that they were very willing to take risks and “have a go”. We witnessed some extraordinary, albeit temporary, changes in people that afternoon. The ambience was relaxed and supportive; people were encouraged by their fellow choir members to try something and great appreciation was shown for those who did.
We started by taking groups of people and working with them in a simple activity: walking. From there we looked at sitting, and then moved on to singing. What particularly stood out was one young man who had no real voice to speak of, but having “let go” of something, he really sang to people, from his heart, and we were all touched. He was so surprised himself by the experience that he was almost overcome. At the end we worked with one choir and its conductor. First we heard them “doing their own thing”. Then we worked on each one for a while, encouraging them to divide their attention between their own backs and the conductor. When they next tried to sing, something was a bit more focused, but a kind of “trying” had crept in. We then got them moving around, with head leading, and at a certain signal they resumed their positions in the choir and begin their song. Something then came alive; a wonderful fluidity and effortless performance – all working together as a co-ordinated unit.
In a way I feel that I should not separate Isabel and myself from the participants, because I believe that we also were participants in what occurred that afternoon. We played a small part in facilitating something – perhaps providing a focus – but what happened was the result of a coming together of many different factors and I certainly feel privileged to have been part of it.
What is the benefit of such an event? My view is that it can open possibilities for people. I don’t think that by only working in such a way people would have enough exposure to the nitty-gritty of undoing habits – but, from time to time, to explore the principles in a dynamic group context can, as Marj Barstow demonstrated over many years, open up new perspectives.
What is it?
The questions which arose in me after that experience, and still do, are: “What is it that gets in the way? When we really let go, what is it that we let go of? Is it muscular tension or a block of energy, or an attitude – or is it something else?” Certainly habit is a big factor. We are lazy. It is easier to go along in the usual well-worn tracks. And that other big force: end-gaining, is always lurking. John Dewey wrote:
“The end is the last act to be thought of; the means are the acts to be performed prior to it in time. To reach an end we must take our mind off from it and attend to the act which is next to be performed.”
To attend to what is most immediate, within a field of perception which includes oneself, necessarily brings us into the present – into presence. Something in us resists that. End-gaining is to a degree a non-acceptance of the “where” and the “when” of my own reality. We would rather be somewhere else, some “when” else. So what is it that sometimes lets go?
Margaret Goldie told me that one of her pupils said when his neck was free he felt as if he was not there at all. In other words his sense of self was associated with certain tensions in his neck. I feel that there is a clue here to the question of what let’s go. It is as though we have a kind of template of what it feels like to be me. It gives me a certain security, but at the same time it is my prison. As one pupil expressed it “Even though the door of this prison is open and I could step out, I always turn around and step back in.”
In my last lesson with Mr. MacDonald I remember asking him, when I felt myself moving fairly freely in and out of the chair, “Who is doing this; you or me?”
“Who do you think is doing it?” he replied. “I don’t know”, I said.
A minute or so later, when something had really let go in me and I was moving like the proverbial “blown thistledown”, he said, “Who is doing it now?”
“Nobody is doing it,” I replied. “It is just happening.”
“That’s right.” he said. “It is just happening.”
Individuality in teachers
I would like to say something about individuality. It is good to admire and respect our teachers; to be in a line of transmission. But then we have to find something for ourselves. What does all of this mean to me? How can I make something of these ideas? Alexander said to his students: “Don’t do what I do.” In other words, don’t be an imitator.
I have always been struck by the fact that the first generation of teachers, to whom we all owe so much, are so different from each other – and yet true to a principle. These people all found something for themselves. Coming afterwards, as we do, there has been a tendency, perhaps inevitable, to fix the form in the way that we each received it. To an extent that is understandable, but a lot of the life, the sense of discovery, can be lost.
We must be careful in setting up this huge infrastructure – necessary though it may be – of lessons and teachers and pupils and training courses and students and “bodies” that we are not just creating an artificial, rather precious environment in which certain experiences can be repeated as ends in themselves: a kind of “Alexander virtual reality”. We need to take this new knowledge about use and put it to the test in our own lives. This is the link that needs to be made. To inhibit the desire to get in or out of a chair is one thing. But then we have to take that into the real world and find out for ourselves what is really going on. Then, as Miss Goldie would put it “You’ll be making discoveries, and …you’ll be surprised at what you find”.
 Roslyn McLeod: Up from Down Under.
 Genevieve Stebbins: The Delsarte System of Expression
 William James: Psychology: The Briefer Course University of Notre Dame Press Edition (1985) p319
 William James: The Energies of Man
 F. M. Alexander: Man’s Supreme Inheritance ( Chapter IV; Habits of Thought and of Body)
 John Dewey: The Barrier of Habit (extract from Human Nature & Conduct), reproduced in Alexander Journal No 2, 1963
© 2002 John S Hunter