FM’s descriptions of teaching 3
Moving on a little in CCCI to the next chapter titled Illustration, we read on page 115 that the orders to the neck to relax to order the head forward and up to lengthen the spine are preventive orders. Again on page 116 paragraph 2 we are told the primary orders are preventive (all italics in this and subsequent quotes are FM’s italics), but this is immediately followed by “if he gives these preventive orders (inhibition of the old misdirected activities) and then proceeds to give the new ones, his spine will be kept at its maximum possible length (not shortened)… ” What are these “new ones”? While in the final paragraph on page 116 there is mention of the relative value of orders as “primary, secondary, and following factors”, along with “the correct sensory experiences, made possible by the teacher’s help in the way of readjustment and re-education.”
More than 20 years later it seems FM had doubts himself about the consistency of his way of expressing orders or directions. In the diary Walter Carrington kept in 1946 we find FM on page 59 of A Time to Remember (Sheildrake Press) saying “we must cut out in future teaching all instructions to order the neck to relax or to be free because such orders only lead to other forms of doing. If a person is stiffening the neck the remedy is to get them to stop projecting the messages that are bringing about this condition and not to project messages to counteract the effects of the other messages.” Certainly this would seem logically consistent with saying primary directions are preventive, but there are a couple of problems with this.
First we might ask what about directions to the back? If a person is shortening and narrowing the back shouldn’t we also be now instructing them to cease sending the messages which are producing that shortening and narrowing rather than asking them to direct lengthening and widening? FM doesn’t appear to have mentioned this nor does anyone seem to have asked him about it. Secondly, try figuring out a clear and concise form of words to convey these inhibitory orders even just to the neck. “I want you to cease sending messages to your neck muscles to stiffen and shorten” isn’t very snappy and might not have much meaning to someone who has no idea they are subconsciously sending such messages. Furthermore educational psychologists say people generally respond better to positive instructions.
Anyway the new approach doesn’t seem to have gained traction. By the time of the Goddard Binkley diary of lessons and training from 1951 to 1956 we are back to talk of freeing the neck etc. (The Expanding Self, STATBooks, pages 53 and 79 for example), and all the first generation teachers I knew in London in the 1970s and 1980s would use phrases like: “Let your neck be free to let your head go forward and up” or simply “Free your neck. to direct your head forward and up”.
On several occasions in conversation about this with Walter Carrington, he told me that although the basic directions to neck head and back could be considered preventive or inhibitory, in his opinion there is one essentially positive direction, and that is the wish to go up in response to gravity. You could say something like “I want to be going up to my full stature, but in the process I’m not going to stiffen my neck and pull my head back and down, I’m not going to tighten my back muscles in a way that shortens and narrows my back by pulling it forward and down, and I’m not going to stiffen my arms or legs or fix my ribs. But I am going to go up.” Personally I find this a very helpful perspective. As Dilys Carrington said to me one day while giving me a turn “You know, you’ve actually got to want to go up!” (I think I was somewhat depressed at the time. 🙁 )
Is it true that if you stop doing the wrong thing the right thing does itself? Is it true that, as FM says to Goddard Binkley, “You see, the entire natural movement of the spine is upwards, of the head, is upwards. But as soon as we pull our heads backwards we frustrate that natural activity of movement upwards.” (The Expanding Self page 86.) It’s such a compellingly attractive idea isn’t it? But sadly it’s probably not entirely true. Here I think two factors come into play confusing the situation.
- The reflex model of postural coordination. Widely accepted by AT teachers in the 1960s and 70s and still promoted by some teachers, this model suggested that we have inborn reflexes to organise postural coordination for us and if we simply stop interfering with them the right thing will indeed do itself. This goes with belief in what I would call the perfect child myth, the myth that every child comes into the world endowed with seeming perfect use and then falls into the original sin of developing bad habits. We subsequently have to pay the penance of hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars/pounds etc. for AT lessons to atone for this sin. And because most of us never feel we quite regain original perfection we carry this secret residual guilt that we haven’t quite made it. Not very psychologically healthy. :)Science has moved on and the reflex theory has been found to be too simplistic and inadequate to account for the flexibility of human postural responses. After all, if everything is built in from the beginning, we wouldn’t be as highly adaptable as we are, but for more information on modern scientific developments in this field you should definitely read everything on the website alexandertechniquescience.com, and preferably also sign up for the webinar series on these subjects.
- The confusion between statement categories: subjective, objective, and pedagogical . The other day I was out walking by the bay and it truly did feel as though the entire natural movement of my spine was upwards, and I could feel that any flicker of gripping in my neck muscles could frustrate this upwardness. But there are many times when I’m not going that well. Right now sitting in front of my computer in the evening, I catch myself easily collapsing down and it certainly feels that more positive direction is required to maintain some up. These are subjective feelings, they are not objective scientific fact, nor do they necessarily correspond to the most helpful pedagogical instructions to give to a pupil. But it’s easy to imagine how on those good days when the up through the spine feels as though it’s just naturally asserting itself a teacher can say to a student the spine naturally goes up if you stop interfering with it, and state it as if that’s an established scientific fact. It might be a very helpful pedagogical statement to make to a very tight, overdoing type of student to help them release into length and width, but try saying that to a very collapsed new student and you might not progress very well!
If this distinction between statement categories isn’t clear, try imagining the following scenario:
Three AT teachers are chatting together during a break at an Alexander conference, and they get on to considering head and neck direction.
Teacher A: I always feel as though I just ask my head to lighten up and that takes my whole spine up with it.
Teacher B: No that’s not possible because anatomically the head can’t lift the spine; it’s the spine lengthening up that takes the head up.
Teacher C: Well what I find works best with my students is when I tell them to think of the head as a bowling ball on the top of the spine and just release the neck to let the ball roll forward a fraction.
Can you see that these three teachers could easily argue with each other, thinking that they are in disagreement, whereas they are simply speaking from different perspectives or making statements that belong to different categories.
Teacher A: subjective
Teacher B: objective
Teacher C: pedagogical
I find it very helpful to keep this distinction in mind when listening to, or reading, any Alexander discussion. When someone makes a definite statement about some aspect of the Alexander process, ask yourself which type or category of statement this is, and then consider its validity within that category first, before perhaps wondering how it might, or might not, affect what you might say from any of the other perspectives.
[Pleas note this is just a bit of imaginative fun to illustrate these distinctions. I’m not myself endorsing any of the above imagined descriptions of head and neck direction.]