Marjorie Barstow, who everybody called Marj, was the first person to graduate from F. Matthias Alexander’s first training course. She worked for a while with FM’s brother Albert Redden Alexander in Boston and New York and then on the eve of World War II she returned to her home in Lincoln, Nebraska where she lived and taught – in the same house – for the next 55 years.
Marj once told me that from the day she read Alexander’s book Constructive Conscious Control in the early 1920’s, not a day passed that she didn’t think about, and experiment with, his ideas. She read. and re-read, his books over and over again, particularly Use of the Self.
Starting in her 70s, when she was “discovered” by the Alexander world, she maintained a teaching schedule that kept her away from her home for over half of each year – flying to Australia, Europe, Canada and all over the States until she was in her early 90s. She never tired of teaching and was was still giving lessons until a year or so of her death at 96.
I first met her when she was 80 and I was half-way through a teacher training course in London. I immediately knew she was going to be my primary teacher and made sure to work with her as much as I could. When she tired of traveling I moved to Lincoln to run workshops for her there.
I came to think of her as someone FM dispatched – no doubt unconsciously – far, far away from England. And far from the petty infighting that he may have suspected would develop among his followers as his work became better known – the kind I saw on display when I was in London in the late 70s and early 80s.
Marj Barstow’s home – built by her father in 1899. Marj lived there for 94 years.
Lincoln, Nebraska was about as far from the London Alexander scene as it is possible to imagine. I believe that isolation from other teachers provided her the stimulus and the opportunity to develop her unique approach to teaching in ways that might not have been possible in England – for example, working primarily with groups and engaging students’ thinking in ways I had never seen before
Luckily for today’s teachers and students of the Technique, her work lives on – with the many students and teachers who were lucky enough to study with her and with the extensive collection of videos of her teaching now available on YouTube.
Here, for example, is an in the moment, very short and to the point, definition of the Alexander Technique she gave in 1982 – one of the best in my view:
And here’s the longer video from which it was taken – perfect in my experience for introducing new students to the Technique:
And here’s an audio conversation Michael Frederick and I had a couple of years ago about Marj:
Finally, her website, MarjorieBarstow.com has links to a great many other videos, personal accounts of her teaching and photos.
I’d love to hear about your experiences with this remarkable woman – truly an American Master.
What’s the first feeling you get when you hear or see the word gravity?
For a great many people it conveys something negative, or heavy – something we need to fight against to keep our body from sagging as we get older. Or perhaps a grave situation – or even a graveyard or a grave stone.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Gravity lately and so I set up an interview with him – and yes, Gravity insisted he was definitely a he. Gravity agreed to let me talk with an avatar he had created as a kind of public relations spokesperson. As Gravity said, his job requires him to be on the job 24/7.
Gravity’s avatar is named Gravity and here is a partial transcript of the conversation I had with him:
Me: Welcome Gravity. It’s good to get to talk with you – you’ve been a strong influence on me since I was born.
Gravity: It’s a pleasure to speak to you as well. I’m very happy to have this chance to set the record straight on a number of points. If you don’t mind, I’d like to start with your last statement because, in fact, I was influencing you from about 9 months before you were born.
Me: Of course – it’s just so difficult for me to remember. But seriously, you’ve got to admit that you don’t get very good press these days. Just mentioning your name can be a real downer, so to speak. How does that make you feel?
Gravity: Not good. Not good at all. Here I am working – I believe as you humans might say “my butt off” – and all I get is the kind of disdain you mentioned. Do I ever get thanked for keeping you tethered to the earth? For keeping your atmosphere from drifting off into outer space? Indeed for keeping your earth in it’s orbit around the sun? No – hardly a word of praise.
And that’s not even talking about the blame I get for the sorry state of your posture and coordination.
Me: I feel for you Gravity, I really do. It’s that last point I like to get into a little more deeply. Can you explain why we shouldn’t be fighting against you to stand and sit upright?
Gravity: Well to start with, it’s the force I apply to your heads, balancing on top of your spines, to nicely counteract the backwards pull of your neck muscles. You humans evolved to take advantage of this and now you seem to have forgotten it. As God said to Moses, you are a stiff-necked people.
Gravity: I know – and believe me I’m grateful for it – but it’s not a widely-held understanding. And another thing – it’s not just the work I do on your heads – I apply my force to all the other parts of your body and indeed to your whole body. And for the most part you fail to realize that that’s at least as important as my “head work”.
Me: Well I plead guilty to having been entirely ignorant of the significance of that for many years, even long after I started teaching the Alexander Technique. It took a low back injury to get me thinking about your effect on all of me and start to utilize my own center of gravity.
Gravity: Yes and I’ve heard about your new project, Up With GravitySM. I have to say I like the name and I wish you best of luck in getting the information out there. I applaud you for showing how people can actually harness my force for good.
Me: Thanks so much for that Gravity – it’s wonderful to get that kind of praise from the source, so to speak. Is there anything else you’d like to say to the human race?
Gravity: Just that my name only started being used 300 years ago – and has absolutely no etymological connection with graves.
Me: Maybe you should have been named Uppity?
Gravity: Well, just about anything would be better than the name I have. Still, I must go on keeping the whole earthly system going. Never a moment to rest.
Me: Well please let me express my gratitude for all you’ve done. I hope you gain the respect you so richly deserve.
This question is asked more and more as the pace of technological change has accelerated. Greater speed, power, inter-connectedness etc. can produce all sorts of obvious benefits. We visit distant places quickly and cheaply thanks to jet airplanes. We have access to cheap, reliable power in our homes and in our cars. With the computer revolution, we can create, manage, transfer and store vast amounts of data in ways that would have been unimaginable to earlier generations.
But with those benefits have come come very serious drawbacks. The jet that can whisk you to Hawaii or Paris can also be used to kill thousands of people and inflict billions of dollars of damage. Cheap power is often generated by unsafe, polluting plants. Computer technology and the internet can be used to invade our privacy and spread false information around the world at the click of a mouse.
“What is the best use of technology?” is certainly an important question, one that probably deserves a good deal more attention than it has received.
But there is another, related, question that is rarely asked – one that I believe is ultimately far more important:
“How do we make the best use of ourselves as we live our lives in a world of rapidly changing technologies?”
Take a moment to consider our interaction with computers. I first saw computers being routinely used in the mid-1960s by ticket agents in airports. Now they are everywhere.
By the early 1980’s people were just starting to discuss Video Display Terminal (VDT) problems with eyes, neck pain etc. Terms like Repetitive Stress Injury (RSI) and carpal tunnel syndrome entered our everyday language. Today it’s commonplace to see people wearing special braces for their lower arms and wrists. Surgery is increasingly common.
Why did this happen? Was it faulty computer and furniture design?
That’s what ergonomists have generally argued. And now a whole industry has sprung up to re-design the work environment to make injuries less likely. Countless magazine and newspaper articles give ergonomically-inspired advice on proper sitting, screen and keyboard placement etc.
Yet the RSI epidemic continues unabated nonetheless.
I believe the principal reason is that we rarely turn our attention on ourselves, and how we function as we go through life. We don’t usually ask ourselves “What am I doing to myself as I drive, as I walk, as I clean the dishes? As I use my computer?”
The best ergonomic design will do nothing to prevent RSI if we are inadvertently creating the tension that causes RSI. Ergonomic principles are not without value, but they are only a small part of the solution.
So how can you learn to use yourself more efficiently? Is there a method you can learn?
The work of F. Matthias Alexander, today commonly referred to as the Alexander Technique, is just such a method. It has a long history of helping people with stress-related issues. And the whole question of how we use ourselves – and how we can learn to use ourselves better – was precisely the focus of Alexander’s work. Indeed his third book was titled The Use of the Self.
F. Matthias Alexander giving John Dewey a lesson in the Alexander Technique
The introductions to this and two other books by Alexander were written by Professor John Dewey. Dewey was America’s most famous philosopher and a leading proponent of the school of philosophy known as Pragmatism. He was also very influential in the development of American education in the first part of the last century. He is sometimes called “The father of American education.”
Dewey knew from firsthand experience that Alexander’s ideas and teaching method was of the utmost importance to us all as we faced the challenges of rapid technological change.
In his 1932 introduction to The Use of the Self he wrote about the changes that were going on at the time and which ultimately were used during a war so terrible that nobody could have imagined it at the time, although when you read Dewey’s words below, you can’t help seeing some serious concern about the future.
Here’s what he wrote:
In the present state of the world, it is evident that the control we have gained of physical energies, heat, light, electricity, etc., without having first secured control of our use of ourselves is a perilous affair. Without the control of our use of ourselves, our use of other things is blind; it may lead to anything.
If there can be developed a technique which will enable individuals really to secure the right use of themselves, then the factor upon which depends the final use of all other forms of energy will be brought under control. Mr. Alexander has evolved this technique.
This wasn’t just an abstract notion with Dewey. In his book Freedom to Change, the late Frank Pierce Jones of Tufts University wrote of a conversation he had with Dewey a few years before he died:
“(Dewey) said that he had been taken by (the Alexander Technique) first because it provided a demonstration of the unity of mind and body. He thought that the demonstration had struck him more forcibly than it might have struck someone who got the sensory experience easily and quickly, because he was such a slow learner. He had always been physically awkward, he said, and performed all actions too quickly and impulsively and without thought. ‘Thought’ in his case was saved for ‘mental’ activity, which had always been easy for him. It was a revelation to discover that thought could be applied with equal advantage to everyday movements.
“The greatest benefit he got from lessons, Dewey said, was the ability to stop and think before acting.”
Stop and think. That’s what we must be able to do if technology is going to be a good servant to the human race.
Without that ability, it’s certain to become a terrible master.
This topic is a bit far removed from the usual concerns of Alexander Technique teachers and students – we’re more at home talking about coordination, balance, changing harmful habits of movement etc. But if you have any thoughts you’d like to share, please do so.
I got this title from a blog by PJ Balde , a student of the Alexander Technique. PJ also kindly allowed me to use the image at the left.
PJ wrote about his teacher Michael Gillespie: In one of (his acting) classes he gave us these three words. Commit to Comfort. As a master in Alexander Technique, he gave us tips on controlling ourselves mentally and thus physically, while at the same time keeping ourselves loose, limber, and receptive. Like all of his lessons, this applied directly to our acting, and extended to our everyday lives.
It means exactly what it says. To commit to comfort. To know that life is far too short and people lay down far too many regulations to bog yourself down, limit yourself, and remain in discomfort. It means to do what you need to do to achieve the level of happiness you deserve, so long as you don’t disrupt someone else’s.
Anyone who is at all serious about learning the Alexander Technique is, in effect, committing to comfort.
The fact is that most of us are nowhere near as comfortable in our bodies as we could be; we complain of aches, pains, fatigue, movement limitations…the list goes on and all. Of course lessons in the Alexander Technique are no guarantee that you will loose all your discomforts, but for well over a century many students of the Technique have experienced major changes in that direction.
So…is it just that simple? Take some Alexander lessons and you’re likely to feel better?
Quoting PJ again: On the flipside, it also means to accepting discomfort. I mean, after all, we all need to be uncomfortable to know what comfort and relief is. It means that “a good kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.” Walt Disney said that. It means that sometimes you need to sit in insecurity, anger, melancholy, or negativity, and acknowledge its existence.
Alexander Technique lessons are not an automatic free ride to comfort. But if you’re really serious about living a more comfortable life, and are willing to experiment with what you learn in Alexander lessons – to change how you think, stand, sit and move – the rewards can be extraordinary.
As Nikolaas Tinbergen said in his acceptance speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1973:
…we (his family members) already notice, with growing amazement, very striking improvements in such diverse things as high blood pressure, breathing, depth of sleep, overall cheerfulness and mental alertness, resilience against outside pressures, and also in such a refined skill as playing a stringed instrument.
So from personal experience we can already confirm some of the seemingly fantastic claims made by Alexander and his followers, namely that many types of under-performance and even ailments, both mental and physical, can be alleviated, sometimes to a surprising extent, by teaching the body musculature to function differently.
I’d love to hear your experiences of committing to comfort with the Technique. Did it take you awhile to take Alexander ideas seriously? What were some of the obstacles you encountered? What advice do you have for new students of the Technique? How about for people who are thinking about taking lessons?
Not Dewey of the TV show “Malcolm in the Middle”. Not Melvil Dewey, the originator of the Dewey Decimal Classification System. Not even Thomas E. Dewey, who ran unsuccessfully against Harry Truman in the close presidential election of 1948, and who is now best remembered for the photograph of Truman gleefully holding up a newspaper with the premature headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
No, I’m talking about Professor John Dewey, hardly a household name for most people – but a continual presence in my life.
When I was growing up John Dewey was a common topic of conversation in my home.
Dewey was an influential educator who had an enormous influence on public school curricula during the first part of the 20th century. My parents were very concerned about the state of American education – in part because of what they saw of the public schools I was attending in Washington, D.C. “Deweyism” was a shorthand phrase they used to cover all the perceived evils of “progressive education” of the sort they blamed on Dewey.
This is him!
The Soviet Union was the feared enemy and my parents were very concerned that American children were not being educated in a way that would enable us to win the technology war with Russia. For them, “Deweyism” included a general lowering of academic standards, lax discipline and too much time devoted to non-academic subjects like hygiene, crafts, “life skills” and the like.
They felt that European countries were doing a much better job of educating their children and they particularly admired the high academic standards found in countries like Switzerland, France and Germany.
When I arrived at university, I signed up for an introductory philosophy course and was surprised to encounter John Dewey again – this time not as a misguided educator who helped wreck the public school system, but as America’s most famous philosopher and a prominent member of the school of philosophy known as Pragmatism.
Twenty years later, John Dewey entered my life once again, this time as as an articulate supporter of F. Matthias Alexander, the developer of the Alexander Technique, a method of learning how to move with ease. I had been drawn to the Technique somewhat by chance and was so impressed by the way it helped me improve my posture, coordination and balance that I decided to abandon my career as a research economist and move to England to train to become a teacher of the Technique.
He’s even got his own stamp!
It turned out that the same Dewey I’d been “living with” for most of my life had authored the introductions to three of Alexander’s books. The two men met during World War I in New York City where Dewey, who was then in his late 50’s, had a series of lessons with Alexander. Those lessons so transformed him – physically and mentally – that he continued taking lessons from Alexander, and later Alexander’s brother A.R. Alexander, for the rest of his life.
In his book Freedom to Change, Professor Frank Pierce Jones of Tufts University writes of an interview he had with Dewey towards the end of his life:
“The greatest benefit he got from lessons” Dewey said, “was the ability to stop and think before acting. Physically, he noted an improvement first in his vision and then in breathing. Before he had lessons, his ribs had been very rigid. Now they had a marked elasticity which doctors still commented on, though he was close to eighty-eight.
“Intellectually.., he found it much easier, after had had studied the technique, to hold a philosophical position calmly once he had taken it or to change it if new evidence came up warranting a change. He contrasted his own attitude with the rigidity of other academic thinkers who adopt a position early in their careers and then use their intellects to defend it indefinitely.”
Apart from my parents’ dislike of what they believed Dewey stood for, I can’t say I have any real knowledge of what he did or did not do in the field of education. And the significance of Pragmatism – which apparently is today undergoing a revival of sorts – has always eluded me.
Here’s our man having an Alexander Technique lesson with Alexander himself.
But I do know something about F. Matthias Alexander and the Alexander Technique, and while Dewey’s writings are not always easygoing for the modern reader, over time I’ve come to realize that he had a profound understanding of the significance of Alexander’s work. And he was very articulate in expressing that understanding.
I’d like to close with one of Dewey’s many quotes about Alexander:
It is one thing to teach the need of a return to the individual man as the ultimate agency in whatever mankind and society collectively can accomplish. It is another thing to discover the concrete procedure by which this greatest of all tasks can be executed. And this indispensable thing is exactly what Mr. Alexander has accomplished.
When I was in Sunday School, many, many years ago, we were given a little pamphlet about – not surprisingly! – God. More precisely, our belief in Him (always a male, back then) and it was recommended for those who were not sure He existed that they take a “leap of faith” in order to get with the program.
I remember being very puzzled by this. First it had never before occurred to me that He might not exist and the pamphlet had the immediate effect of sowing seeds of doubt in me.
Second, I couldn’t imagine what a leap of faith would entail. Images of jumping across a deep pit entered my mind and I decided that wasn’t something I was prepared to do just then.
Also, I would have to wait until I died to find out if my leap, even if I could pull it off, was justified and that just seemed way too far into the future.
It’s a bit ironic that as a teacher of the Alexander Technique I am always suggesting that my students take leaps of faith. I suggest they experiment with using an Alexander thinking process (sometimes called “directions”) with as little as possible in-the-moment concern if the process will be effective or not.
A leap of faith on their part certainly, but one quite different than the one I rejected years ago in two important ways:
First, the stakes are a lot lower. I ask them to experiment with a new thought about themselves as they move. These results might be good, or they might not. Either way there’s very little risked on their part.
Second, the waiting time is not dozens and dozens of years, but perhaps 10 seconds or maybe half a minute. It’s a very, very short leap indeed.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about that you could try right now:
Take a short walk around the room you’re in. Then, as you continue walking, add this thought: “I am not compressing myself” very lightly a few seconds. Then let go of that thought and switch back to ordinary walking, then back to the “I am not compressing myself” version.
Did you notice any differences in your walking when you switched back and forth?
One key part of this experiment is the lightness of your “not compressing” intent – and the sure knowledge that you’re almost certain to forget it, and than when you notice that’s happened, you can just gently bring the intent back. If you catch yourself concentrating on this intent, trying to hold onto it, let go of that holding and return to a very, very light – and forgiving of forgetting it – intent.
A second key part – and this is where the “leap of faith” really comes into play: be as little interested in the results as possible – during the experiment. The time to make a judgement about the effectiveness of this kind of experiment is after it’s over.
Suppose a man starts out to reach a certain destination and comes to a place where the road branches into two. Not knowing the way, he takes the wrong road of the two and gets lost. He asks the way of someone he meets and is told to go straight back to the crossroads and take the other road, which will lead him directly to the place he wants to reach. What should we say if we heard that the man had gone back to the crossroads as directed, but had there concluded that he knew better after all than his adviser, had taken again his old road, and again got lost, and had done this thing not once or twice, but over and over again? Still more, what should we say if we heard that he was worrying dreadfully because he kept getting lost, and seemed no nearer to getting to his destination?
One could easily imagine a minister including this little story in a sermon about why smart people make foolish decisions. It almost sounds like one of Jesus’ parables.
But in fact it was written in 1923 by F. Matthias Alexander, the developer of the Alexander Technique in a chapter titled “Incorrect Conception” in his second book, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual
Alexander was certainly not a man of the cloth, but by the time he wrote this, he had a lot of experience with students of his who behaved exactly like the man at the crossroads. As he writes a few sentences later, the crossroads story “…is more or less what happens in the case of every pupil, even…those who are accounted the most intelligent, the most highly educated, the most scientifically trained…”
And it’s precisely what Alexander Technique teachers come up against over and over again today.
Why is this?
Alexander’s view of the matter is that almost everybody carries around incorrect conceptions of the usefulness of his or her way of doing things – that, in Alexander’s words, …what he thinks of as a “difficulty” is not a difficulty in itself, but simply the result of “his way” of going to work.
Or, to put it another way – again in Alexander’s words – a student typically …subconsciously believes he knows more than his teacher about the things he can or cannot do.
Even, I might add, when intellectually he or she is in full agreement with the teacher.
Needless to say, this is one of the greatest challenges that Alexander Technique teachers face in helping their students change the way they do things, even simple things like standing, sitting a walking.
As Alexander famously remarked, Everyone wants to be right but no one stops to consider if their idea of right is right.
Have you had experiences with others’ incorrect perceptions and how their lives were affected?
Have you ever realized you had incorrect perceptions of your own? What was it that brought you to that realization – and what advice can you give based on your own experiences?
I would love to hear from you about your experiences with preconceived notions about what is right, and what is not.
Off topic, but I can’t resist including this quote from Yogi Berra: When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It!
As she points out at the start of the short video below, “There isn’t anybody who won’t say to you in conversation: “My goodness, my neck is killing me.” or “My back is so sore.” or ” I find it hard to catch my breath.” or “At the end of the day I’m exhausted and I don’t know why.”
As it happens Judith works a lot with people suffering from back pain and there is now solid medical evidence that the Alexander Technique is extremely effective in alleviating this particular condition.
Here’s a short video that summarizes much of that evidence:
Actors, musicians and dancers have known about the usefulness of the Alexander Technique for many years. America’s most famous philosopher felt it should be the cornerstone of education. People from just about every field imaginable have extolled it’s virtues.
As the Indian Alexander Technique teacher Padmini Menon says in her blog The alphabet of use:
“…it’s useful to think about (the Alexander Technique) as a kind of alphabet that you learn.
An alphabet of use, that you can then employ in as simple, or as complex a way as you like.
I could go on and on. The point is that if you have an opportunity to take a class, or have a few lessons, it’s an opportunity you really don’t want to pass up.
It is no exaggeration to say that the benefits of even a little exposure to this work can last a lifetime.
I would love to hear about your personal experience with the Alexander Technique.
For many years, swimming has been my favorite sport and I usually manage to get to the pool 4 or 5 times a week.
As an Alexander Technique teacher I particularly love to explore being in a different medium, and in a different relationship with gravity. There’s something about swimming that, for me at least, encourages a smooth flowing movement that I can carry over into the rest of my day.
Years ago I shared a pool with a water aerobics class held in the portion of the pool not set aside for lap swimming. There were 2 women who led the class on different days and as I emerged from the changing room headed towards the pool area, I could tell right away which one was teaching.
One woman had a very calm demeanor and even when she got the class participants moving quite vigorously, never raised her voice to do so. When she introduced a new movement, she was careful to describe and demonstrate it a few times. She alternated between standing on the edge of the pool and being in the water with everyone else.
The other woman always stood on the edge of the pool and shouted out her directions. As she did this, she demonstrated the exercise moves using with a rapid, jerky motion, typically tensing her body by pulling her head back onto her neck and arching her lower back.
The most interesting difference is how the class members reacted to these very different teaching styles.
During the first instructor’s classes, participants moved pretty gracefully and seemed to be enjoying themselves. When the class is over, many stayed to gossip a bit before leaving the pool.
With the second instructor, it was quite a different story. Every time she tensed herself, you could see a little ripple of tension spreading across the class. Participants retracted their heads down onto their spines, unconsciously mimicking what they see the instructor doing.
Their exercise movements were generally less fluid and they often seemed to be struggling to keep up. Some left early. When the class was over, everybody remaining left the pool right away, with very little conversation.
I doubt of most of the class members were consciously aware of these differences. Certainly I never heard anybody make a comment.
Still, the differences were quite striking and I think it illustrates an important point for teachers, speakers and performers: the quality of how you organize you own body – which is what the Alexander Technique is all about – has an immediate and direct effect on your class or audience.
It may be a subtle effect, people may not be consciously aware of it, but it is almost certainly affecting their ability to take in what you have to offer.
F. M. Alexander, developer of the Alexander Technique, fashionably attired for a tension-free dip in the ocean.
We’ve all been to talks or performances where we’ve felt a bit uncomfortable. Chances are that discomfort was due at least in part to the state of the person on stage.
We’ve also been to events were we’ve immediately felt at ease – again probably reflecting to some extent the ease we see and hear demonstrated by the presenter.
And of course this kind of transfer of one persons’ state of being to those around him or her is at work all the time in all our personal interactions.
Like Alexander, and teachers of his method today, God had a great interest in the condition of people’s necks. You might even say that, like us, He was obsessed with their neck tension – although it’s also fair so say He took this obsession to a different level altogether. Consider what He said to Moses after the golden calf incident:
I see this is a stiffnecked people. Now let Me be, that my anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them… (Exodus, 32: 9, 10)
Here’s the back story:
Moses had been up on the mountain top for awhile receiving God’s commandments. The people had lost faith in his return – and in God. They built a golden calf to worship and began sacrificing animals to it.
The Golden Calf, and the stiff-necked people having a wild time
God had just led them out of Egypt, saved them from Pharoh’s army and provided for all their needs. Yet just a little delay in Moses’ return, and they reverted back to their old idol-worshiping ways.
It’s not surprising that God was angry when He saw what they had done. But why did He use the phrase “stiffnecked people”? And why is that same phrase (the Hebrew word is kashe-oref – kashe: hard; oref: scruff of the neck) repeated again in Deuteronomy 9: 13 and 14 and several other places in the Bible? After all, God didn’t rail against their stiff shoulders, stiff arms or stiff legs.
What’s so important about that particular part of our anatomy that God should make specific mention of it in His anger?
Take a moment to think about where your neck is located and what function it plays in your life.
Your neck is the vital connecting corridor between the most important parts of your body, your head and your torso. These are two parts of you that are absolutely necessary for you to survive as a living human being.
A surgeon will tell you that there are as many distinct structures in your neck as in all the rest of your body. Air, food, nerve pathways and life-sustaining fluids such as blood and lymph have to pass through this narrow region of your body. And because the structures of your neck are packed so closely together, they require an absolute minimum of excess tension to function at their best.
Clearly its important for your general well being that your neck freely allows what might be called efficient “biological connections” between your head and torso. But it’s condition also has a huge impact on the “mechanics” of your functioning: your posture, coordination and your ability to move efficiently.
Your head weighs between 10-12 pounds and it is poised at the very top of your neck. I often hand my new Alexander Technique students a sack filled with 12 pounds of sugar and ask them to hold it in their arms for a few moments to get an idea of what this feels like. Most are amazed that they’re carrying so much weight on top of the necks.
If your head is lightly balanced on top of your neck, very little muscular effort is needed to keep it there. But if that balance is compromised, you’re going to have to hold it up with a lot of muscular effort. In other words, you’ll have to stiffen your neck to keep it from falling forward, or to one side.
And if your neck is stiffened, that tightness will cause compensatory tightening throughout the rest of your body, harming your ability to move freely and efficiently – not to mention restricting your breathing, putting pressure on your internal organs, etc.
Think for a moment of people you know who have stiff necks. Watch how they sit, stand and move and you’ll see what I mean. Chances are they move comparatively stiffly and awkwardly.
And then think of how they adjust to changing circumstances in general and how flexible they are in their thinking. Very likely you’ll notice a certain mental rigidity that mirrors their physical stiffness. (It is for good reason that the word “stiffnecked” is often translated in the Bible as “stubborn”.)
If we are indeed made in God’s image, then it stands to reason that He would be displeased when we would take poor care of ourselves. Stiffening our necks is one of the quickest and surest ways to do just that.
And learning how to release undue tension in our necks – a major focus of Alexander Technique teaching – is one of the best things we can do to improve our overall functioning.
So, back to the original question – was God the first Alexander Technique teacher?
Sure, He recognized the importance of the state of humans’ necks, just as Alexander Technique teachers do today.
And He did make an explicit connection between neck tension upright posture: In Micah 2, verse 3 He declares: I am planning such a misfortune against this clan that you will not be able to free your necks from it. You will not be able to walk erect.
But I would argue that on balance He wasn’t such a great Alexander teacher.
Threatening to destroy someone, or prevent them from walking upright, because they are tensing their necks is hardly going to encourage them to release that tension. You certainly don’t see Alexander Technique teachers today using this particular teaching procedure!
We are more likely to suggest that our students gently direct themselves out of their harmful tension patterns, perhaps by using a phrase like “I am not stiffening my neck”.
I think the best we can say about God’s teaching – if that’s in fact what he was trying to do – is that it was very much a work in progress.
F. Matthias Alexander: Certainly the first human Alexander Technique teacher
It was left to Alexander, and those who have followed him, to figure out how to teach people to effectively release the kind of tension that God was upset about.
Here’s a podcast interview I did with Amy Ward Brimmer on this general topic
What do you think about God, stiff necks and the Alexander Technique? Do you know of similar references in the texts of other religions? I’d love to hear from you.