Base Thoughts

In my experience as a teacher of the Alexander Technique, learning how to sit well is one of the greatest challenges for new students.

And one of the most important.  Most of the people who come to me for lessons sit many more hours a day than they stand, or do other activities.  Much of their sitting time involves focusing on things outside themselves – computer screens, the TV etc – and often they are not paying any attention to themselves, or to the surface that’s supporting them.

Making the situation even worse is that those supporting surfaces sometimes provide a very diffuse quality of support.  Heavily cushioned chairs and sofas, for example, tend to spread the support they offer over a wide part of your bottom and as I’ll discuss below, this makes it quite challenging to sit easily upright.

“Sitting is the new smoking” so the new popular expression goes, and for good reason.

In some ways, it’s a little ironic that this should be the case.  Take a look at the picture above. The two bones supporting the upper body in the center of the picture are the sit bones.*  They are quite solid and are perfectly designed to bear your weight and to rock easily back and forth, move sideways shifting your weight from side to side etc. Such a simple base ought to allow more efficient and easy support than standing, where your weight is distributed across two feet that have far more complex structures.

The triangular bone at the right bottom above (in the center of the photo below) is your sacrum and is much more delicate and ill-equipped to bear any significant amount of weight.  And yet, many people sit in a way that places a great deal of weight on their sacrum, thereby creating unnecessary strain and discomfort.

(The 2 pictures in this blog were taken by me of my teaching skeleton.  I tried to find a nice professional illustration showing the weight being borne by the sit bones but was unable to find one I could use. Most showed weight being borne by the sacrum, or by the legs!)

If you’d like to sit with greater ease, locating your sit bones is an excellent first step.

Here’s how to do it:  Find a chair or stool with a flat wooden surface and sit on it.  Then, put your hands underneath your bottom and see if you can feel your sit bones – two bony bits near the center – and ask yourself if your weight is actually on them or, as is often the case, further back.

If your weight is not directly on your sit bones, rotate your pelvis a bit back and forth until you can feel with your hands that your weight is coming through your sit bones. Then take your hands out and see if you can sense those bones directly.  It may be easier to do this if you sit on the front part of the chair.

You may need to experiment a bit, but once you develop the ability to sense your sit bones, and what happens when you move forward and backward, then experiment with moving from side to side so that your weight comes down more on the one bone than the other.  Notice that having your weight transferred to the chair through your sit bones makes it much easier for you to move your torso around.

I like to experiment with doing figure eights around my sit bones as way of encouraging my mind to notice what happens at my support points.

None of this is likely to be possible if you’re sitting on a soft surface with a lot of give.  Because the support you receive is so diffuse, it’s difficult to sense just where it’s applied, and your sit bones are likely taking only a small part of it.

Exploring your sitting base in these kinds of ways can go a long way towards making your time in a chair easier and healthier.

I’d love to hear your experiences with this bit of self-discovery on Facebook or below.

*Technically, your ischial tuberosities.

Images © Robert Rickover, 2018. May be used with explicit permission.

Off topic, yet weirdly related, is this short funny video.  Enjoy!

Strange Bedfellows: A Monk and F. Matthias Alexander

David Steindl-Rast — Anatomy of Gratitude

I just finished listening to a podcast interview with Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk,  teacher and author beloved around the world. His TED Talk about cultivating gratitude as a way to bring joy into our lives has been viewed over a million times and his practice is increasingly acknowledged by scientists and physicians as a key to human well-being.

It’s well worth listening to and I believe teachers and students of the Alexander Technique will be especially drawn to his ideas. A basic process he talks about – his technique, as it were – closely parallels that of F. Matthias Alexander

For example, he says:

(I’ve emphasized a few key phrases.)
Well, for me, this idea of listening and really looking and beholding — that comes in when people ask, “Well, how shall we practice this gratefulness?” And there is a very simple kind of methodology to it: Stop, look, go. Most of us — caught up in schedules and deadlines and rushing around, and so the first thing is that we have to stop, because otherwise we are not really coming into this present moment at all, and we can’t even appreciate the opportunity that is given to us, because we rush by, and it rushes by. So stopping is the first thing.

But that doesn’t have to be long. When you are in practice, a split second is enough — “stop.” And then you look: What is, now, the opportunity of this given moment, only this moment, and the unique opportunity this moment gives? And that is where this beholding comes in. And if we really see what the opportunity is, we must, of course, not stop there, but we must do something with it: Go. Avail yourself of that opportunity. And if you do that, if you try practicing that at this moment, tonight, we will already be happier people, because it has an immediate feedback of joy.

Stop, look, go.

Seems an awful lot like Alexandrian inhibition, analyzing the conditions present, and then self-directing in a constructive way. Constructive Conscious Control, as Alexander would have said.

That’s particularly interesting to me, because with the advent of Alexander Freedom Directions*, more and more Alexander students have found them useful of “off label” projects such as dealing with troublesome workmates, emotional distress, and the like.

There are several other ways in which Brother Steindal-Ross’ thinking process parallels that of Alexander.  And like Alexander he has arrived at a fundamental understanding of the human condition which most people haven’t considered.

His method for achieving joy through gratitude comes out of his own experiences, just as Alexander’s process of improving the functioning of his physical mechanism did.  I’m tempted to say they both came up with a fundamental path that likely underlies all sorts of effective methods and techniques for self-development.

I’d love to hear about other examples of this basic 3-step process – please post your thoughts below and/or on Facebook

And I strongly suggest listening to (or reading) his entire interview with Krista Tippett, the host of On Being.

Thanks to my wife Anne Rickover for the title of this blog.  Her initial suggestion, which I wish I could have used, was: “From a Monk to the Monkey”

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* You can learn about Freedom Directions, and Alexander Technique directions in general here.

Does Sitting Have To Be A Grave Mistake?

We’ve all heard the phrase “Sitting is the new smoking”.  The dangers of our sedentary life style have been well established at this point, and pretty much everybody now knows that sitting for long periods of time can pose serious dangers for our health.

Just now, for example, we’re hearing about a new study that has found that the more people sit, the greater the likelihood they will show signs of an injury to their heart muscles.

Dr. James de Lemos, a cardiologist and professor at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, oversaw the study and says: “Sedentary behavior is associated with obesity, insulin resistance and fat deposition in the heart, all of which can lead to injury to the heart.”

But there are lots and lots of ways to sit and lumping them all under the one (now deemed deadly) category of “sitting” may well mask a more fundamental question: “Are there ways of sitting that are healthier than others and, if so, what are they?”

As a teacher of the Alexander Technique I help students improve their sitting habits all the time.  Indeed “chair work”  is a jargon phrase for a procedure used in teaching the Technique.

An Alexander Technique teacher and retired Professor of Architecture, Galen Cranz, wrote a book titled The Chair: Rethinking Culture Body and Design which includes some useful information on ways to sit that put less strain on your body.

The truth is that a bit of education can help most people sit in ways that are far less harmful to their heath – learning where their sit bones are, for example, and sitting on a stool that allows their knees to be below their hip joints.

Even more useful for people who have to sit for long periods of time is learning how to use simple Alexander Technique self-directions that will help them sit with greater ease.

So, yes, prolonged sitting carries potential health risks.  But you can go a long way towards minimizing those risks with a bit of simple bio-mechanical education and mindful self-direction.

You absolutely don’t have to passively sit your way into a grave!

***

You can read about Dr. de Lentos’ study here.

You can learn about your sit bones and their importance in this nice blog by Alexander Technique teacher Imogen Ragone

You can read Galen Cranz’s article: Alexander Technique in the world of design: posture and the common chair – Part I – The Chair as a health hazard

Image Copyright: nyul / 123RF Stock Photo

 

 

 

 

Auto-Correct

I’m fortunate that I don’t have to do a lot of driving, and most of my trips are only 15-20 minutes or so.  But they do provide nice opportunities to put my Alexander Technique training into practice and I’ve come to use them as mini-lessons in self-awareness and self-direction.

A few examples:

When I’m driving I am also of course sitting. With all the challenges that can entail.

So when I remember to think about it, I ask myself questions like: Where are my sit bones?*  What’s supporting them – and me? Am I making the best use of that support?

Just doing that, just lightly asking those kinds of questions, has an immediate beneficial effect on my posture.  The effect will be different from one day to the next, but for me it’s always helpful.

If I want to get a little more pro-active I’ll experiment with an Alexander Technique direction, such as “I am free” or “My neck is free” and that too will always produce a little extra ease – provided, of course, I don’t try to actually do anything to try to help things along!**

Lately I’ve become a bit preoccupied with the way my hands hold the steering wheel.  I’ve noticed that my right hand tends to push into the wheel a bit, and I’ve been experimenting with taking it off the wheel and then mindfully bringing it back and noticing the difference that makes in the grip, my left arm and shoulder and even my neck.

Sometimes I find it useful to remind myself that the car has power steering, and the steering wheel requires only the lightest contact, and very little force, to change direction.  The dog in the photo above seems to understand that completely.

As a former economist, I’m always looking for efficiency – in what I do, and especially in the way I function.  Using Alexander Technique awareness and self-direction is one of the best ways to do that, even in the most mundane activities of life – like driving to the store to pick up some organic pasta and a bottle of wine!

I’d love to hear how you use ordinary activities – brushing your teeth, mowing the lawn, chopping vegetables, perhaps – as platforms for self-discovery and self-improvement.

***

*Sitz bones, or sit bones, is the common name for the ischial tuberosity, and it’s the lowest of the three major bones that make up  the pelvis (in Greek ischion means “hip”). It’s part of our pelvis designed to take our weight when we sit.  Here’s a short video by Imogen Ragone showing how to locate your sit bones:

** The importance of not doing anything when self-directing is the subject of an earlier blog of mine: Not Even a Teeney Weaney Bit.

Image copyright: damedeeso / 123RF Stock Photo

Kami and Marj

Kami and Marj on Marj’s front porch.

Marjorie Barstow (Marj) did some of her very best Alexander Technique teaching during the last 25 years of her life.  Starting at around 70 years of age, she became quite well known in Alexander circles and for over 20 years she taught workshops in Lincoln, Nebraska and around the world.  At times, the size of groups she taught exceeded 100 students!

As she  got into her mid 90s, her teaching changed dramatically.  She no longer had the physical or mental stamina to work with groups, or to clearly articulate her thoughts and observations.  Instead, she worked almost exclusively a student or two at a time, spending long periods using her hands with almost no speaking. I consider myself very fortunate to have been living a couple of blocks from Marj’s house and to regularly have 2 or 3 lessons of that kind every week for more than a year, lessons that often lasted well over 2 hours.

I’m not sure, but I may have had the last Alexander Technique lesson Marj taught.

It was kinesthetic re-education of a very profound kind – somewhat reminiscent of cranio-sacral work, but primarily in a chair, not lying down.

Kami standing behind Marj to keep her from falling.

By that time Marj was suffering from severe osteoporosis and her balance began to suffer.  There was a very real danger that she would fall over backwards when she was standing.  Because of that, her home health aides, who now were in her house around the clock, stood behind her whenever she was on her feet.

Some of those aides, mostly young women in their late teens and early 20s, became very fond of Marj.  One in particular, Kami, often spent 16 hours a day in Marj’s home. Kami was devoted to Marj. She would take Marj out for a rides in the country, sometimes stopping for a visit at Marj’s favorite steakhouse, Parker’s, in Denton.

When Marj was sitting down while she was teaching , Kami would always be in the room watching over her, quietly taking in the proceedings.

One day, after Marj had taught for a couple of hours, Kami told me she always felt lighter and easier just by being the the room with Marj.  “It seems like I’m getting help too” she said.

This was before the discovery of mirror neurons, a special class of brain cells that fire not only when an individual performs an action, but also when the individual observes someone else making an action. But I remember at the time that Kami’s observation made sense to me.  Just being around Marj was a kind of Alexander lesson

Kami keeping a close watch on Marj.

Today, mirror neurons have radically altered the way we think about our brains and ourselves, particularly our social selves:

Before the discovery of mirror neurons, scientists generally believed that our brains use logical thought processes to interpret and predict other people’s actions. Now, however, many have come to believe that we understand others not by thinking, but by feeling. For mirror neurons appear to let us “simulate” not just other people’s actions, but the intentions and emotions behind those actions. When you see someone smile, for example, your mirror neurons for smiling fire up, too, creating a sensation in your own mind of the feeling associated with smiling. You don’t have to think about what the other person intends by smiling. You experience the meaning immediately and effortlessly. – The Society for Neuroscience

You can learn more about mirror neurons here: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-mirror-neuron-revolut/

I don’t know where Kami is today, but I’m pretty sure Marj’s work still has a profound on her, as it has for all of us lucky enough to have spent time with this remarkable teacher.

If you’ve had experiences like Kami’s, I’d love to hear about them – please post below and/or on Facebook.

 

 

Not Even a Teeny Weeny Bit

Marjory Barlow was F. Matthias Alexander’s niece, and a well-known teacher of the Alexander Technique for many years. In her book, An Examined Life she quotes Alexander on the topic of giving directions: “This is an exercise and finding out what thinking is.”

She then goes on to write: If that doesn’t put it in a nutshell, I don’t know!  Because it’s so hard for us to think.  By that word we mean to send a direction, not to try and implement it, not to try to carry it out, not even a teeny weeny bit.  We’re always inclined to to think, “Oh well, just a little bit, just give it a little nudge.” and a lot of that’s not very conscious, actually, the degree to which we are helping it along, or trying to help it along, otherwise, you see, we’d stop!  But it’s a blind alley. – page 130

Marjorie Barstow (different Marj!) was the first person to graduate from Alexander’s first teacher training course in the early 1930s and she too emphasized thinking in her work.  For example, she would often ask students, “Are you really doing your constructive thinking right now?”

Marjorie knew that while constructive thinking is incredibly simple (“It’s too simple – you people just won’t believe how simple it is”, she’d sometimes say) it’s not always easy.  Here she talks about the challenge of effective self-directing in a winter 1990/91 workshop in Lincoln, Nebraska:

Alexander himself was well aware of the problem.  He is quoted by George Trevalyan, one of the students on his first teacher training course, as saying: “…the trouble is none of my pupils will believe that all they need to do is to think and that the wish for the neck to be free will do the trick…We are so brutalized by our belief in doing and muscular tension”

Alexander thinking is a tricky business for reasons Alexander, Marjory, and Marjorie understood.

It’s also a challenge in ways they were probably not aware of.

For example, neuroscience research shows that our conscious brain is capable of attending to only a very limited number (somewhere in the range of 7, plus or minus 2) of ideas at one time which, I believe, explains one of the problems Alexander students have had over the years with the directions used by Alexander.* Newer, shorter and simpler, directions are far easier for most students to use.

Another example: Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow has emerged as one of the most intriguing voices on the complexity, and the outright contradictions, of human thought and behavior. He won the Nobel Prize in economics for his part in creating the field of behavioral economics. His work acknowledges, as classic western economics did not, that we are not always logical and rational in our economic lives.

Or other aspects of our lives – applying Alexander’s discoveries, for example. His work presents a novel way of looking at the language and meaning situation we humans find ourselves in. It also explains the seemingly irrational things Alexander students (and teachers!) think and say at times.

You can read or listen to a fascinating interview with Kahneman here: https://onbeing.org/programs/daniel-kahneman-why-we-contradict-ourselves-and-confound-each-other-oct2017/

As you may have guessed, I’m very interested in the thinking process in general, and in particular how we can best use our thinking abilities to take advantage of Alexander’s discoveries.  I’ve recently produced a series of six short video (and audio) lessons that are an experiment in helping Alexander teachers, students, and anyone interested in learning about the Alexander Technique, cultivate the ability to self-direct effectively.  You can see or listen to them here: https://movementcoaching.com/video-lessons/

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic – please comment below and/or on Facebook.

*Even later directions like “Let the neck be free” are problematic as they make a faulty assumption, namely that we know how to “let” and consequently they often create a bit of tension.  Newer directions such as Negative Directions and Freedom Directions make no such assumption and are far more effective.  You can learn more about Alexander Technique directions here: https://www.bodylearningcast.com/teachers/directions/

***

It goes without saying that Country Music has its own unique take on flawed thinking:

Epiphany at 30,000 Feet

I was flying from Chicago to Lincoln, the second leg of a trip back from a teaching trip to Toronto.  Still a bit tired from getting up at 3 AM to catch my first flight, I dozed off for awhile.  When I woke up, I peered down at the cornfields and little towns of Iowa and then reached for a book to read.

At that moment I noticed a little twinge of pain in my right shoulder area.  Without thinking about it, I wriggled around a bit.

But the pain persisted.

And that’s when I had my epiphany:

I’ve been teaching the Alexander Technique for over 35 years, and thinking and writing a good deal over the past few years about gravity and how we can use it to improve our posture and movement patterns.  But now, at the moment of noticing pain, I reverted back to my old, and ineffective, response of just moving randomly and hoping it will go away.

Once I became aware of what I had done (and not done) I mentally connected with my seated center of gravity (in the middle of my chest, pretty much at the level of the bottom of my sternum) and then lightly thought to myself, “I am free to lift my seated center of gravity.”

The pain disappeared at once and so I shifted over to the Alexander Technique direction “I am free.”  No need to continue lifting, after all, and the “I am free” direction prevented me from dropping back down again.

Still no pain.

Because I’ve been practicing directions for so long, I don’t usually bother the kind of test/experiment of using them, tossing them away, and then bringing them back and noticing what happened during the transitions. That’s a great way to start off, but over time usually becomes unnecessary. However this time the effect of directing was so obvious and so immediate that I decided to just play with it for a couple of minutes.

Each time, I used the direction sequence, it created a pain free state. And each time I threw it away the pain returned. By the time I landed the pain had faded away.*

And that’s the beauty of Alexander Technique directions.  They allow you to choose freedom and ease, whenever and wherever you you want it.

Even in the friendly skies, on a sunny Sunday morning, high over the American heartland.

* In retrospect, I think the pain was probably caused by a nerve that had become compressed by a bit of a slump I had fallen into on the flight.

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You can learn more about Alexander Technique directions, and how to use them yourself, by clicking here

And you can learn more about the way gravity and the other fundamental forces of nature operate on us by clicking here

Copyright: macrovector / 123RF Stock Photo

 

 

Looking for Ease in all the Wrong Places

A few weeks ago, an Alexander Technique student emailed me the day after his first lesson.  Here’s part of what he wrote:

On my way home from yesterday’s lesson, I continued to experiment with the Alexander Technique direction you showed me – “I’m free”.  I used it walking to my car, driving, and walking into my house.

It had been a long day and decided to chill on the sofa and watch a little TV before having dinner. I sat down and was just about to reach for the remote, when I felt my whole body tighten!  At first, I couldn’t figure out what was going on, but then it hit me that I was actually tightening myself.  Almost like I was compressing myself downward into myself.

So then I thought maybe using the direction would help me stop that tightening.  I did and immediately noticed a big change in my breathing and a weird kind of message that I should stand up and move to a nearby chair that wasn’t as squishy as the sofa.  Now I felt much easier and watched TV for a half hour and then had dinner with my wife and 6 year old son.  My son glanced over at me and said I looked taller.

After dinner, out of curiosity, I sat in the sofa again and immediately felt some tightening and moved back to the chair which felt much easier to be in.

The sofa, I later learned, was very soft, provided poor support, and encouraged the kind of internal collapse the student felt.  That had always been the case, but this time my student had a new awareness of it’s effect on his body – and it didn’t feel good.  After a few more lessons, he told me he hardly ever used the sofa anymore.  “When I want to be comfortable”, he said, “I just use one of the directions you showed me. I can do that standing, sitting, walking, whatever.”

He realized that when he wants ease, the best way to find it is to use his own thinking, very lightly directed.   But if instead he made a choice like “relaxing” on the sofa, he was really collapsing into himself – compressing himself, and actually removing ease from his life.

Where do you look for ease?

If it’s by doing something, like exercise, or taking in something like food, drink, pills?  Or, like my student,  inadvertently collapsing your body into soft furniture? How helpful has that been?

If you method involves the use your mind – meditation, prayer, or Alexander self-directing, to name just a few examples – how has that worked?

I’d love to hear about your experiences below and/or on Facebook.

(I received this in an email from Sam Garner who lives in London, England and I thought it was important enough to include in the blog itself.)

You may be pleased to know, I have implemented my first piece of Alexander technique practice by buying a new sofa!

I noticed, like the guy who wrote the letter in the blog post with the upside down, very relaxed dog.., that when I sat to watch TV taking up my usual spot on the sofa. Taking the time to assess my mood, thinking about my breathing, and how my body felt I was clearly uncomfortable, unsupported and began getting stressed and agitated. So I moved to sit in my wife’s chair, I was instantly far more relaxed and happier.

So that weekend I bought a new sofa (I couldn’t stay in the boss’ chair, lol) – an electric recliner, far more substance over style than we would have normally gone for, but it’s definitely going to be for the best! Thank you!

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I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention an Alexander Technique procedure called Constructive Rest which is a great way to let go of harmful tension and bring ease into your body. It can be extremely helpful for anybody, not just Alexander Technique students. Find out more about it here: AlexanderTechnique.com/ConstructiveRest

You can learn more about Alexander Technique directions here: BodyLearningCast.com/teachers/directions  If you’d like to learn a direction specifically formulated for freedom and ease, listen here’s a recent podcast I did with Imogen Ragone, an Alexander Technique teacher in Wilmington, Delaware:

***

OK, I hate to post a blog without including a relevant Country Music song if that’s possible. There is, as you may know, a Country song titled “Looking for Love in all the wrong Places” which inspired the title of this blog.  But it’s not a song I like. But I’ve always loved this funny/sad song – and it definitely has a strong “ease” component!

Image copyright: chalabala / 123RF Stock Photo

The F. Matthias Alexander Story – It Ain’t Necessarily So: Part 2

F. Matthias Alexander and Student

In my last blog, The F. Mathias Alexander Story – It Ain’t Necessarily So, I wrote that I consider F. Matthias Alexander to have been a genius – but  a very different kind of genius that we have been led to believe.

He was certainly not the lone genius, who after working on his own for 10 years, came up with the powerful method of self improvement we today call the Alexander Technique.

It’s now abundantly clear that most, and perhaps even all, of his teaching procedures were borrowed from others. Far more importantly, even some of the Technique’s basic principles came from the work of Francois Delsarte. (Information about the Alexander/Delsarte connection)

Near the end of that blog I wrote:

In my opinion, Alexander’s true genius lay to some extent in solving his problem using the version of the Delsarte Method he has access to.  But even more in packaging, popularizing and teaching it, and later adding some new components – notably what are now called Alexander Technique Directions, and the use of his hands to both guide his students and reinforce the ideas he wanted to get across to them.

I’ve had a good response to that blog, including some very incisive comments via email from teachers and students. Some of those comments have caused me to rethink what I consider the true nature of Alexander’s genius.

As I see it now, Alexander did something else that in it’s own way may be even more important than packaging, popularizing, teaching, and adding.

That “something more” is his roughly 60 years of taking his and others’ discoveries on the road, so to speak.

That’s a very long time for one person to stay fully committed to a single project. And it’s also worth noting that several of Alexander’s early trainees – his brother Alfred Redden Alexander, his niece Marjory Barlow, Walter Carrington, Margaret Goldie and Patrick MacDonald, among several others, spent most of their lives teaching and further developing the Technique.  Marjorie Barstow, the first person to graduate from Alexander’s first teacher training course, devoted herself to the work for over 60 years.

Clearly Alexander was a very special kind of inspirational genius and this, coupled with his own and his disciples’ dedication, over the years, led to a huge expansion in the Alexander Technique community of teachers and students. Furthermore there is now a significant amount of scientific and medical research, many excellent books, videos, websites, articles etc.

And of course it’s become much easier to find an Alexander Technique teacher today.  In the mid 1970s, when I discovered the Technique, there were 2 teachers in all of Canada, and a several dozen in the rest of the world.  Today, there are dozens of teachers in Canada, and thousands elsewhere.

But Alexander wanted more than just increased size and scope. In the Introduction to Alexander’s fourth and final book, The Universal Constant in Living, Alexander wrote:

After working for a lifetime in this new field I am conscious that the knowledge gained is but a beginning…my experience may one day be recognized as a signpost directing the explorer to a country hitherto ‘undiscovered,’ and one which offers unlimited opportunity for fruitful research to the patient and observant pioneer.

And indeed since Alexander’s death in 1955, there have been several developments that have built on Alexander’s “beginning” – just as he hoped.  Among these I would include ways of working with groups, developed by Marjorie Barstow, that went beyond Alexander’s own group teaching process, Body Mapping, incorporating a clearer understanding of the external forces that operate on our bodies, and perhaps most important of all, huge improvements in Alexander Technique Directions.

And anyone who has been following today’s interactive exchanges on the web among Alexander teachers and students from around the world can clearly see, these kinds of positive developments are continuing at a steady pace.

Finally, let’s not forget that relatively early in his teaching career, Alexander had another – and somewhat different – goal which he articulated in his first book, Man’s Supreme Inheritance:

I wish to do away with such teachers as I am myself. My place in the present economy is due to a misunderstanding of the causes of our present physical disability, and when this disability is finally eliminated the specialised practitioner will have no place, no uses. This may be a dream of the future, but in its beginnings it is now capable of realisation. (This quote appears at the end of his Preface to MSI)

While this goal has certainly not been accomplished as yet, I believe it’s no longer just a “dream of the future” but in fact is already starting to happen.

One of the most striking aspects of the recent revolution in Alexander Technique Directions is that not  only are they more effective and easier to use – they are also easily transferable from students to their friends and family.  They are, to use a bit of current jargon, “open source” directions.*

Furthermore, they are also being adapted by students and teachers for all sorts of “off label” purposes such as dealing with troublesome family members or co-workers, changing dis-functional patterns of thought about one’s self etc.

All these new developments originated within the platform for self observation and self discovery that Alexander created and that he, and many of his early followers, dedicated their lives to expanding and improving.

I believe it’s our primary mission today to continue that process of expansion and improvement.

*A fascinating podcast about the power of open source projects can be found here: Open Source World

 

The F. Matthias Alexander Story – It Ain’t Necessarily So

F. Matthias Alexander

Who was Alexander? Well the simple and obvious answer is that Alexander was the founder of the Technique that bears his name.  It’s hard to imagine today’s Alexander Technique without Alexander.

But what do we really know about the man and what he did?

We do have his four books, numerous short essays, pamphlets, photos, letters to the editor, transcripts of a lecture he gave, and a partial autobiography.  We also have a couple of short videos of him.

And of course a huge amount of material by Alexander Technique teachers and students – books, videos, blogs, websites etc.

For the most part this material supports the following highly abbreviated and simplified story of the man:

Alexander had a voice problem which threatened his career as an actor and reciter.  No one could help him. So he decided to study himself using mirrors.  He fairly quickly saw that his problem stemmed from harmful patterns of movement, but it took him almost ten years of self-study and self-experimentation to figure out how to prevent those habits from manifesting. He started to teach others what he had learned, moved from Australia to London, became well-known, had prominent students, started a teacher training course, died –  and then others carried his work forward.

It’s pretty much the story I was exposed to for years and that I used to share with my students, and in my writings.  I even likened Alexander to a sort of Phoenix rising from the ashes of a Tasmanian wasteland – an unpleasant penal colony, and site of a particularly swift and nasty genocide of the Tasmanian Aboriginies.

But about 30 years ago, I noticed some disturbing passages in his books, particularly regarding his views on certain groups of people – “primitive people”, Germans, and Blacks in the American South.

Of course these didn’t directly challenge the basic story, but they got me thinking there was more to Alexander than we had been told. It was on a Summer Workshop with Marjorie Barstow in the late 1980s that I was chatting about this with an Alexander student who also happened to be an English professor.  She said: “Well I guess it’s time we stopped accepting all the Alexander hagiographies at face value.”

Hagiographies?  What are those?  I’d never hear that word before but she explained it meant a biography that idealized it’s subject.  Kind of like the stories of saints.

And kind of like most of the historical information about Alexander then available.  Knowing the word “hagiography” actually made me more alert to challenges to the Alexander narratives.

And indeed two very serious challenges to those hagiographies have emerged since then. I’ll very briefly summarize them below, but for the record I want to state that I do consider F. Matthias Alexander to have been a genius – but like most geniuses, flawed.  And a very different kind of genius that we have been led to believe.

The first challenge came from Jeroen Staring, a Dutch academic and student of the Technique, who shows pretty convincingly, I believe, that all of Alexander’s teaching procedures came from others.

You can learn more about Staring’s discoveries in these two blog posts by Luke Ford, an Alexander Technique teacher in Los Angeles:

Jeroen Staring – Historian Of The Alexander Technique

When Your Leader Is A Plagiarist

The second challenge is more recent, and ultimately far more profound, since it’s no so much about Alexander Technique procedures, but about where some of it’s basic principles actually came from.

Jeando Masoero a French Alexander Technique teacher and self-described “archaeologist” of the Technique, has discovered a heretofore unknown link between Alexander and Francois Delsarte, a Frenchman whose Method Alexander taught in Australia before moving to England.

We’ve known for some time that Alexander originally promoted himself as a teacher of the Delsarte Method, but its always been hard to imagine how Alexander could have learned much about it because there were no writings by Delsarte or his students that he could have read.  But Jeando discovered that Delsarte’s younger brother Camille, also a teacher of the Delsarte Method, moved to – of all places! – Tasmania in 1851 and lived in Hobart, the capital for about 20 years. He had a huge influence on musicians and actors locally and on the mainland of Australia.

Alexander was no doubt influenced by Delsarte’s work. His initial decision to use mirrors to learn the truth about what he was doing to cause his vocal difficulties, for example, comes right out of Delsarte’s emphasis on using mirrors for self-discovery and self-improvement.  A great deal more about the Alexander – Delsarte connection at Jeando’s website or here: Francois Delsaarte’s influence of F. Mattias Alexander and the Alexander Technique

(According to Jeando, the time between Alexander deciding he’d figure out how to solve his problem on his own, and the start of his teaching career was no more than 18 months, not 10 years! And, lest we forget, Alexander’s niece, Marjory Barlow, said that Alexander taught his brother, A. R. Alexander, the Technique in six lessons – without using his hands.  And that was enough for him to start teaching along side Alexander!)

In my opinion, Alexander’s true genius lay to some extent in solving his problem using the version of the Delsarte Method he has access to.  But even more in packaging, popularizing and teaching it, and later adding some new components – notably what are now called Alexander Technique Directions, and the use of his hands to both guide his students and reinforce the ideas he wanted to get across to them.

For me this makes Alexander far less intimidating, and the Alexander Technique far more approachable, for perspective students. And far more likely to become better known and appreciated.

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The title for this blog was inspired by It Ain’t Necessarily So from Porgy and Bess: