When will you finally get it?

ID-10056403Picture this Alexander Technique workshop scene:

About 30 people of widely varying ages and experience with the Technique are seated in a circle in a basement classroom of a university music department.

Standing in the center of the group is the teacher, a small frail looking woman in her 80s.

The workshop lasts for 14 days, 6 hours a day, and it’s about halfway finished.  It’s now the start of a new day.

One of the participants is a very tall and athletic young man, probably a student at the university, who has come to the workshop for a the past couple of days.

The woman running the workshop starts by asking if there any questions.

The young man stands up: “This is my third day here!  Why haven’t I mastered this Technique you’re teaching? Why haven’t I got it yet?

The rest of the group perks up – very curious to hear how the teacher will respond.  Many have been coming to her workshops for years and have a finely-tuned sense of when something really interesting is about to happen.

There is a long, long pause. Maybe 30 seconds or more. You can almost see wheels turning in the teacher’s head as she considers her response.

Finally, she looks up at him, directly into his eyes, and very slowly says: “I don’t think your body could take it.”

The whole class, including the questioner, erupts into laughter.

The teacher was Marjorie Barstow and this is a wonderful example of her teaching brilliance.  When she was asked a question in class, she was always aware that the whole class was listening.  Her answer had to be helpful to the person asking it, and to everyone else.

It’s also a reminder that although the Alexander Technique is simple (“too simple” as Marj used to say), it’s not always easy to learn at first.  And when you do start to really understand it, and get good at applying it, it takes awhile for your body to adjust – even if you’re young and any harmful habits you’ve developed haven’t been around for a long time.

It’s true, as F. Matthias Alexander the developer of the Technique said: “We can throw away the habit of a lifetime in just a few minutes if we use or brains.”  But he didn’t say they wouldn’t sneak up on us again – and again!

Nor that changing our habits would fully work it’s way through to the way we function on a physical level “in just a few minutes.”

As Marj said, our bodies just couldn’t take that.

If you’ve been an Alexander student, does this resonate with you?  Were you ever impatient to “get it?”  What advice would you give to new Alexander Technique students, based on your experiences with the work?


Here’s a short video clip of Marjorie answering a related question – also about impatience – this one from an experienced Alexander Technique student:

And here’s an interview I did with Michael Frederick, another Alexander Technique teacher who studied extensively with Marj, about her teaching:

Image courtesy of digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net




When will you finally get it? — 18 Comments

  1. ‘Don’t do the thing, you don’t want to do’..enjoyed the video & interview/discussion Robert. Useful research for my next class tomorrow.., ‘learning to create a delicate movement, not recreate a feeling. Thanks, Mark.

    • “Don’t do that thing you don’t want to do,” that’s so laughable.
      But it’s a negotiation skill directive as well: “Don’t tell your opponent to do to you what you don’t want them to do. ”
      Another way of saying the same thing is…
      If you check in and make a judgment before you’ve made a move in a new direction, you’ll spot your habits. If you use your ability to find out what happened after you’ve experimented, you might find something new that made things easier for you. Make sense?

  2. It was fabulous to hear you and Michael talk about Marj! I often heard “Marj stories” from my teachers, Bruce and Martha Fertman, when I was training to be a teacher at their school in Philadelphia. I have now taught “the work” for 10 years, and I can totally agree that at its deepest, most profound level, this work is spiritual in nature and Marj was certainly one of its “masters.” If we truly accept the unity of the Self, then the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual are all intertwined in one whole. To access one of the these dimensions in a conscious way is to touch all of them, to a greater or lesser degree. For me, practicing the Technique is my “spiritual practice.” People who have never delved very deeply into the work look askance at this when I am bold enough to admit it, but it is true. Yet my college students often describe their AT class as “like meditation” when they tell their friends about it. I think the ones who do this experience this deeper aspect of the work, even though I don’t go into that aspect except to mention it in my beginning classes.

    Thanks for this posting!
    Sally Ahner

    • I feel the same way about A.T. being my spiritual practice. It gives me a practical way to make come true my abstract values and hopes in a way that opens outcomes rather than narrows them. It’s as if my own unfamiliar potential is my friend instead of a self-preservation, resistant threat. Strangely enough, that’s really laughable.
      This is what happened for me one time when I “got it” fast:
      Marj was doing her last lesson for my teacher training class for that visit. It wasn’t my day to be in class, but I got my business obligations done and walked into class late anyway. I said to myself, “Who can know, I may never get to see this Marj again…we could die.” As an activity, I sang a song, ~”This Moment…is different…than any…before it…This moment is different…because it is now.” ~ Marj said to me, “You have time to take a breath, but you won’t use that time!” I walked out of the room and realized that her observation was a thread permeating my whole life. It completely “blew my mind,” like a psychedelic trip. I cried. I walked back into the class, dropping a lifelong habit of letting all my air out before I started to say anything. I had this insight that I had put that habit in place when I was a child to seem non-threatening because I was so much taller than all my friends…a habit I didn’t even know that I had until that one little comment of hers.
      Marj used to give us a “merry send-off” in the last lesson. Meaning, she’d nudge you farther than you had gone before. What she would instill in us was like a time-bomb that would go off about two or three days later… The results: psychological insights on par with psychedelics, gestalt therapy or a life-changing brush with death from a Zen Master.
      Marj definitely deserved her reputation!

  3. Pingback: Mind your Manners | Body Learning Blog

  4. Great post Robert!
    When it comes to the Alexander Technique, I believe I’ll never get it. I also think that F.M. Alexander himself never got it. For me, that is one of the beautiful things about the Technique.

  5. I first knew Marjorie and her teachings in the mid-70’s. To see this clip from the 90’s is both humbling and empowering. Marjorie is here kaiphosed (upper spine hinging forward), as a result of osteoporosis, a condition of aging. But her understanding of FM’s insights is direct and unchanging; from where ever you are, ‘ease up’ is the right condition, melded with the right Direction. The premises of the Alexander Technique teaches one to make the best of whatever you’ve got.

    • Excellent point Stuyvie! Even more amazing was her work in the early 1990s after the workshop from which most of these clips are taken.


    • Yes, good point. We who have been trained to spot subtle changes in movement quality see things in the videos that are not apparent to untrained eyes.

      It doesn’t matter how you’re shaped to start with – improvement of ease can be experienced from any starting point. Most people in Marj’s situation would find that their balance is compromised, but Marj managed to cope with it…and convey clarity of intention in offering “direction” to others in addition!

      Didn’t A.R. Alexander teach from a wheelchair after a horse accident?

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