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
These Annual Lectures were instituted as a memorial to F.M. Alexander. A decade has passed since his death on 10 October 1955 so this is perhaps an appropriate moment to pass in review the knowledge which he left us, and to recall aspects of his teaching which may be in danger of being forgotten and ultimately lost, as the psychophysical benefits of his work become better known. An institution, said Emerson, is the lengthened shadow of one man – we, in this Society, are the rapidly lengthening shadow of Alexander. This lecture is a plea that as the shadow grows we may take care not to lose the substance.
It must be remembered that in order to discuss or analyze anything the nature of language forces us to speak in a separative way. The living human being is a whole, works well or badly as a whole, and living experiences are integrated and simultaneous in a way which cannot be expressed in words. Physical and mental aspects of any activity are in fact one, but have to be separated for purposes of discussion.
The idea that posture affects well-being is a very ancient one. We know the Greeks were concerned with it, that Victorian young ladies used backboards to encourage straight spines, and that posture training in the gymnasium is part of the accepted curriculum in schools. Many eastern religions and disciplines contained instructions about the carriage and comportment of the body.
We might almost speak of the noble lineage of this idea, since so many of the expressions enshrined in our language indicate a knowledge that bodily attitude betrays inner states of mind or dominant characteristics. We speak of a “spineless creature,” “having no backbone,” “losing our heads,” or “being level-headed,” – we all know what it is to be “beside ourselves.” The Bible abounds in references to a stiff-necked generation – “The stiff-necked and the unbelievers shall be punished,” and “they stiffened their necks that they might not hear the word of the Lord,” are two nice ones.
During the last 30 years, at least, the importance of body-mechanics has been widely recognized. Alexander found that the problem of posture was a much more fundamental one than had been suspected. He did not use the word posture, because it was too limited a concept for the nature of the discoveries he had made, which showed that bad “posture,” or as he preferred to call it, “misuse of the self,” was the end result of much deeper wrong processes, involving the whole person; in fact, of bad habits “woven in the weakness of the changing body,” as Eliot puts it.
One of the things he meant by the “use of the self” was the way in which the various parts of the body are related to one another in actually living, moving and having our being.
Posture implies fixed positions, and right and wrong ways of sitting, standing, etc., and posture training is based on the inadequate assumption that bad posture can be altered satisfactorily from the outside, by doing something different.
To start with the wrong end of the stick – because the wrong end is observable – Alexander found that we live in almost complete ignorance of the way we use the body – that most people are distorting the form, and impairing the working of the whole organism, by bad co-ordination, muscular over-tension and misuse of the parts of the body in their relationship to one another.
The body is an instrument – it is the instrument through which we live – it can be capable of very fine and subtle perceptions. Professor A.N. Whitehead wrote in his book The Romantic Reaction, “The unity of the perceptual field, therefore, must be a unity of bodily experience. Your perception takes place where you are AND IS ENTIRELY DEPENDENT ON HOW YOUR BODY IS FUNCTIONING.” This instrument is being damaged and distorted in ways largely unconsidered until Alexander began to teach. It is being rendered gross, heavy and incapable of sensitive behavior, by over-tension and the resultant internal noise to which it is subject. This lack of peace in the body makes almost impossible the condition known as “peace of mind.”
The form the misuse takes follows the same general pattern in everyone.
Invariably, the muscles of the neck are over-contracted, causing loss of the free poise of the head on top of the spine. This leads to over-contraction of some muscles of the trunk, and lack of proper tone in the other supporting muscles of the body. This results in exaggeration of the natural curves of the spine, and harmful pressure on the individual vertebrae of the spinal column and on the joints, coupled with overwork and wrong relationship of the limbs to the trunk.
In short we get a state of affairs where the work of supporting the body is being wrongly disturbed – the form of the body distorted – and important functions such as breathing, blood circulation and digestion are working inefficiently and under enormous strain.
Another way of putting it is that the wrong general principle on which the body is being used is that of contracting every part of it into the nearest joint, beginning with the contraction of the head towards the trunk.
It is as if each of us is trying to take up the least possible amount of room in the Universe.
This unconscious way of mismanagement of the self produces states of disease – dis-ability – dis-comfort and general ill-health which baffle the ordinary doctor, and for which there is no help other than a radical change in the manner in which the person is using himself.
Fortunately, during the past fifteen years in England, medical research and the publication of scientific papers in medical textbooks and journals have resulted in a great increase in the number of doctors and psychiatrists who turn to teachers of the Alexander Technique for help with patients who are suffering from the effects of bad use.
To understand the difference between usual methods of posture training – or postural correction – and Alexander’s teaching we must look again at his own story, re-examine our origins, and see how he arrived at the knowledge which has made possible a completely new approach to the problem of how to manage ourselves in the least harmful way.