In my previous blog, Mr. Alexander in his Own Write: On Reading his Four Books, I wrote about the valuable legacy of Alexander’s writings. Although deeply flawed in many ways, they are filled with useful information, and insights into the ideas that underlie what today is today called the Alexander Technique.
One thing is obvious right at the start: Alexander has some very, very big ideas that he wants to put forth. Almost the first thing he writes at the start of Man’s Supreme Inheritence (MSI), his first book, gives us some idea of the importance he attaches to his work:
…whatever name we give to the Great Origin of the Universe, in the words of a friend of mine “we can all of us agree . . . that we mean the same thing, namely, that high power within the soul of man which enables him to will or to act or to speak, not loosely or wildly, but in subjection to an all-wise and invisible Authority.” The name that we give to that Authority will in no way affect the principles which I am about to state. In subscribing to them the mechanist may still retain his belief in a theory of chemical reactions no less than the Christian his faith in a Great Redeemer.*
Clearly he has a lot more on his mind than just helping people improve their posture, coordination and performance skills – although they are certainly a part of the much bigger project he has in mind.
Alexander’s dream was to help all of us to live in harmony with the word in which we find ourselves. He wants to show us how to use all the features of our world to make the most of our lives.
These include, of course, our physical structure. He has a lot to say about our head-neck-torso relationship and how it can help or harm us, depending on how we manage it. These ideas are often seen to be at the core of today’s Alexander Technique teaching.
But I believe he also had in mind the fact that we are surrounded by a nourishing atmosphere that exerts a constant gentle pressure on us and that we live on the surface of a planet whose mass is inconceivably greater than ours and which exerts a steady force on us – in effect providing us with a free source of energy – that can be our best friend or, if we misuse it, our worst enemy.
And of course there are other people, animals, plants and so on which can help us or harm us, again depending on how we react to them.
This is Very Big Stuff indeed and one has to ask just how Alexander was going to take on such a huge task.
His approach seems to have been to put his ideas out there as best he could, to train a few others to teach what he had learned and eventually – at age 62! – to start a formal training course to increase the supply of teachers a bit more.
The evidence doesn’t suggest that he had an idea of how to implement his vision beyond those steps, although towards the end of his life he did reluctantly agree to endorse some sort of organization to continue his work. It seems as though he hoped that the legacy of his writings and the teachers he had trained would eventually lead to the fulfillment of his project.
Let’s fast forward from the first edition of MSI in 1910 to Alexander’s death in 1955.
It’s not looking good.
Yes, there are a number of teachers of his method, mostly in the UK, there has been some good press about his work and, perhaps most important, some powerful endorsements from well-known intellectuals like Aldous Huxley and John Dewey. Dewey, in particular, seems to have understood the broader scope of Alexander’s work:
It (the technique of Mr. Alexander) bears the same relation to education that education itself bears to all other human activities he wrote in his introduction to Alexander’s third book, Use of the Self
But there were also nasty and serious splits among key teachers, not to mention a lawsuit about the very ownership of the term “Alexander Technique”!
So perhaps on balance it was a good thing that an organization – the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT) – was established to both safeguard and promote the Technique. And that in subsequent years other organizations emerged with the same goals in mind.
This basic system remained in place for most of the next half-century. And while I think we owe a great deal to it, there were drawbacks as well. During the past few years, particularly with the rise of the internet, these drawbacks have become more apparent, and more serious.
There are still a great many extremely important things Alexander Technique organizations can do, but I believe we need to take a fresh look at what their role in “safeguarding” of Alexander’s discoveries should now be.
I’ll consider this question in my next blog, Freeing Alexander’s Dream from the Cage of his Technique.
*A special thanks to Jennifer Roig-Francolli, who reminded me of these opening words of Alexander.
Clearly I am treading on some very sensitive ground here. Please feel free to share your own perspectives.