From the category archives:

Directions

In November 1965, Marjory Alexander Barlow, first generation teacher and niece to F.M., delivered the Annual Memorial Lecture for STAT*.  This 6 part series is the transcript of that address.

*“In 1958, the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT) was founded in the UK by teachers who were trained personally by FM Alexander. STAT’s first aim is to ensure the highest standards of teacher training and professional practice.” (STAT website)

 

The Teaching of F. Matthias Alexander

By Marjory Alexander Barlow

(part I, part II, part III)

continue

IV.

Let us now examine in detail the series of new orders or messages he was employing.  The first and most important break in the old patterns came, as we have seen, when he said “NO” to the habitual reaction.  He then ordered the muscles of his neck to release.  The neck muscles are the only part of the body which can exert direct traction on the head, and it will be pulled back or down or sideways according to which group or groups of these muscles are being over-tensed.

No change in the poise of the head can happen while it is held in the grip of neck misuse.  Moreover, the small sub-occipital muscles between the base of the skull and the top vertebrae of the spine, the axis and the atlas, cannot perform their function of delicately balancing the head.  The next order was for the head to be directed forward and up – not put but directed.

The next order was to the back to lengthen and widen.

Alexander explained to us that this was the nearest he could get in words to the actuality he wished to bring about.  These simple verbal formulations are designed to bring about the reconciliation of two opposing tendencies in each case, and to ensure the balance of forces in the antagonistic muscle pulls in the body.  A harmony results, where everything is doing its own work of maintaining stability, and there is a stillness without fixity, or if you like, a lack of disturbance, in the working of the parts of the body in their relationship to each other.

Too much forward of the head and you lose the upward tendency – too much up and the head goes back – “leave it alone, in fact.”

Too much effort to lengthen the back and it narrows – too much widening and you lose length and slump down.

The whole process is self-checking.  I hope this makes clear why one cannot do the orders.  Their first function is preventative.  The wrong inner patterns are the doing which has to be stopped.

I’m afraid I have rather labored this story – so familiar to many of the audience.  The full account of it is in Alexander’s book, The Use of the Self, but I warned you that I was going to re-examine our origins.  It was necessary to do this if what follows is to make any sense, especially to our guests who may not know Alexander’s teaching.

After he had worked out the technique by putting it into practice to restore his own normal coordination, he was very surprised to find that the misuses he had overcome in himself were present, in varying degrees, in everyone else.

It is a curious fact that until the scales fall from our eyes in this matter of misuse, we do not notice the misuse of others.  It is as if the words about the beam in our eyes and the mote in other people’s went into reverse.

Alexander then had to find a way of teaching others what he knew.  This was a considerable task, involving not only explanation, but learning the special and subtle skill in the use of his hands needed for working on other people.

Later still he took on a further burden in the shape of students wanting to learn how to teach the work.  This is a different task again, group work instead of work with one individual.

It is important to remember that we are all in the same situation as Alexander.  He has found the way and the technique for following the way.  We have the enormous advantage of the skilled help of a trained teacher.  But the real importance and value of the technique is that we learn to work on ourselves.

Alexander used to say, “Everyone must do the real work for themselves.  The teacher can show the way, but cannot get inside the pupil’s brain and control his reactions for him.  Each person must apply it for himself.”

Learning this work is like learning anything else.  We must make use of the same faculties and need the same patience and perseverance as in any form of learning.

continue part V

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In November 1965, Marjory Alexander Barlow, first generation teacher and niece to F.M., delivered the Annual Memorial Lecture for STAT*.  This 6 part series is the transcript of that address.

*“In 1958, the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT) was founded in the UK by teachers who were trained personally by FM Alexander. STAT’s first aim is to ensure the highest standards of teacher training and professional practice.” (STAT website)

 

The Teaching of F. Matthias Alexander

By Marjory Alexander Barlow

(part I, part II)

continued

III.

But to return to Alexander in front of his mirrors; he had now reached a deadlock.  He knew what was wrong; he knew he couldn’t DO anything to put it right.  He had exhausted all ways of trying to alter what was going on FROM THE OUTSIDE.

The next step was to begin the journey inwards to the central place in himself where the trouble really lay.  Along the route came the recognition that he could not trust his sense of feeling – that is, the kinesthetic sense of how much muscular tension he was using.  He found that what he could see happening in the mirror did not correspond at all with what he felt was happening.  Up to this time no one had questioned the reliability of this faulty guide which we all use in judging what is going on in the body – how much tension we are making – and also where any part of the body is in relation to other parts, and to the whole.  The kinesthetic sense works partly through the muscle-spindles in the muscles, as well as from receptors in the joints.  Muscle-spindles are tiny mechanisms whose function is to convey information from muscles to the higher centers of the brain about the state of muscles and to receive information back from the brain as to what the muscles should do about it.  However, if too much tension is being made in the muscle, there comes a certain point when this “feed-back” between brain and muscle is put out of action, and we can no longer feel what we are doing.  This is the scientific explanation of what Alexander called “faulty sensory appreciation” and this is the real “sticking point” and key difficulty of our ignorance of what we are doing with ourselves when we are wrong.  It makes clear why ordinary methods of putting things right without taking wrong feeling into account are likely to fail.

Alexander could not change anything by doing.  He could not trust his feeling.  He then saw that he had underestimated the strength of habit.  What he observed in the mirror was the end-result of disordered inner patterns lying deep in the nervous system.  And that these inner patterns of impulses, conveyed through the nervous system to the muscles acting on the bony structure and joints of the body, were operative perpetually, whether he was moving, speaking or sitting still.

In fact these inner patterns were him – insofar as his body was the outer manifestation of them.

The next step in the journey was taken when Alexander realized that the only place where he could begin to control the wrong habitual patterns was at the moment when the idea came to him to speak or move; the moment when, whatever state of misuse he was in, it would be made worse as he went into action.

He had reached the only place, and the only moment in time, where change could begin, or where he could have any control over the habitual patterns of misuse, which were dominating everything he attempted to do.

This place, or this moment in time, was the instant that a stimulus to activity reached his consciousness.  In the ordinary way, when a stimulus comes, we react to it in the only manner possible.  The response is made without thought – without any knowledge on our part of what we are putting into motion.  The reaction is the immediate response of the whole self, according to the habitual patterns of movement which we have developed from our earliest years.  We have no choice in this; we can behave in no other way.  We are bound in slavery to these unrecognized patterns just as surely as if we were automatons.

When Alexander reached understanding of this part of the problem he had found the key to all change.  He understood at last in what way he must work.

We have now followed him in his journey from the outermost manifestation of misuse, that is, the interference with the normal working of his whole body, resulting in the vocal failure, to the innermost point where he could stop this interference.

Let us now reverse the process and follow him on his way out again.

He had to make possible a pause or space between the stimulus and the response.

He decided to do this by saying “NO” to, or inhibiting, the immediate response.  This proved to be the cornerstone on which all his later discoveries were made, and through which later changes were made possible.  The word “inhibition” in this sense means the opposite of volition: withholding consent to automatic reaction.  It does not mean suppressing something in the sense in which it is used in psychoanalysis.

Having effectively prevented the old unconscious patterns from repeating themselves, and having made a break in the “perpetual motion” machine that he had become, Alexander then brought his brain into action by sending conscious, verbal instructions to the parts of the body which he had been unable to control before.

The first result of this way of working was to prevent the misuse of the head, neck and trunk.  He had to be content for a time to give himself a stimulus, refuse to respond to it, and give the conscious messages or directions without actually carrying out a movement.  This is the preparatory stage of what one might call “road building” or the “laying down of railway lines along which the train will eventually travel.”

In time he as able to continue the new messages during movement.

Eventually the old wrong inner patterns were replaced by the new ones resulting in the coordinated, trouble-free working of his body.

In this way he put to a new use a faculty we all have and use in ordinary life.  This faculty is intelligence, or the power of the brain to determine and direct what we wish to do.  This power he now turned to the management and control of the use of his body, so that the whole of it became “informed with thought.”

continue part IV, part V

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Sending Presents

December 22, 2011

By Stella Weigel

Having eaten cake which caused her to grow to a tremendous height, Alice exclaims:

‘I shall be a great deal too far off to trouble myself about you: you must manage the best way you can; —but I must be kind to them,’ thought Alice, ‘or perhaps they won’t walk the way I want to go!  Let me see: I’ll give them a new pair of boots every Christmas.’  And she went on planning to herself how she would manage it.  ‘They must go by the carrier,’ she thought; ‘and how funny it’ll seem, sending presents to one’s own feet!  And how odd the directions will look!

(Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll)

I recently learned at an anatomy lecture that during embryological development the skin which sits underneath the first vertebrae (atlas) redistributes to form the skin of the soles of the feet.  This helps to explain why the receptors in the soles of the feet, provide such a good feedback to orient us in space and alert us to when we are going off balance.  Raymond Dart, anatomist and anthropologist, wrote, “In the human squatting or standing (or orthograde) positions, the dominant segmental skin information concerned in human head balance is probably that coming from the sacral or hind most body segments to supplying the soles of the feet, especially the pads of the toes and heels” (An Anatomist’s Tribute to F. Matthias Alexander, 20 March 1970, reprinted in Skill and Poise).  Alexander lessons encourage us to think of our feet being in touch with the planet, the pads behind the toes and the heels going back and down.

Due to a fear of falling, our common immediate response when we feel off balance is to stiffen; if this stiffening becomes habitual, then our fear response will become more or less a constant.  The possibility of any movement will lead to a perception that we are going off balance, and the fear response is therefore heightened.  This is a vicious circle.

No small wonder then that having developed a habitual fear reflex, I also developed a fear of heights; due to habitual stiffening, my feet were, quite literally, never on the ground.  I also sat in chairs that were too big for me, which caused me to stiffen as much I could.  As an undergraduate I avoided the paternoster lift at all costs, preferring to walk up twelve flights of stairs in order to reach the teaching rooms.

Dart continues, “Man is the creature of fear!  In other words, he is the most fearful (in every sense of that word) just as he can and has become the most fearless of all animals.  This is because he has become the most nearly tip-toed of all the two-footed, or bipedal creatures.  His walking is a constant precarious process of saving himself from falling.  So the primary fear to overcome is his fear of falling.”

The Alexander Technique teaches us to release and soften rather than to stiffen when being taken off balance, to experiment rather than to control, and to be aware that we do indeed possess a choice, either to topple over in a stiffening response
to gravity or to stand in dynamic equilibrium and stability, with gravity as our friend.

Alice sent presents to her feet.  But F.M. Alexander sent presents to us all.  He handed down the directions that help us experience standing on our feet as a pleasure, moving with them as a joy. Take a moment to think of your feet softening, spreading and enjoy being on the ground.  It is a kindness to yourself.

Merry Christmas!

Guest Blogger Stella Weigel lives in London and is an Alexander Technique teacher trainee at The Constructive Teaching Centre, the world’s oldest and largest Alexander Technique training school.

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Giraffe Birth on YouTube

It takes less than five minutes for this animal to adjust reflexively in gravity.  Notice the HEAD LEADS, then the partial or secondary patterns follow (first with the forelegs then hind legs) becoming reflexively coordinated.  The reflex travels down from the head end to the tail and co-ordinates the entire animal.  There are some Alexander Technique “teachers” who actually dispute that the primary control even exists.  This is because they are badly trained.  There is no nice way to put it.  But here is the principle of it for everyone to see for themselves.

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Width

October 21, 2010

by Stella Weigel

What do you think of your shoulders?  I only ever thought of mine as being ugly and rounded.  I loathed seeing them in a mirror or in photographs, and tried to conceal them from display, not wishing to draw attention to them.

I was asked to push my shoulders back and I tried to do this with the best will in the world. This didn’t help.  In fact it just increased the amount of tension I already had there.  On top of all that, I generally carried around a heavy shoulder bag full of books.  I was aware that my shoulders were not as they should have been, yet until I took Alexander Technique lessons, I did not know that I could help myself by thinking of them widening away from one another.

I now know that the shoulder girdle is only attached to the spine indirectly, at the sternum.  It is a very basic aspect of our anatomical design, but for me during the third term of training, it was a revelation. I was holding onto my shoulders, thereby causing an inordinate amount of tension, when in fact I could just as easily think about releasing them and letting go.  The shoulder pain, which I had had for quite some time, disappeared when I thought my directions.

I continually need to think about asking for more width across my shoulders, to think of my shoulder blades hanging, and of all the weight flowing down through my hips, knees and ankles, those major joints.  Last week I experienced this as I was practicing putting hands-on.  My teacher encouraged me to think of a “Y” shape at the front of my body and an inverted “Y” at the back, and I was struck by just how free and released I felt.

Instead of hunching, narrowing, and generally, pulling down, see if you are able to think of that all-important width, as well as height.

Guest Blogger, Stella Weigel, is a fifth term Alexander Technique student at The Constructive Teaching Centre, London, the world’s oldest and largest Alexander Technique training school.  She had Alexander Technique lessons from 2006-2009 before embarking on her training in April 2009.  She lives in the city of London.

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