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Everything you wanted to know about the Alexander Technique but were afraid to ask:

an evening with Peter Ribeaux:  Friends Meeting House, London, 15th June 2010

 

By Poppy Walshaw

 

This June event was without a defined theme: rather, we were asked to ‘come armed with questions about the Technique’. The resulting discussions were very interesting and informative, focusing on both some specific details of Peter Ribeaux’s teaching, as well as more philosophically about the ‘timeless core’ of the Technique, and how we impart and even develop this. As the talk was by its nature dictated by the specific questions raised, I would like to examine some of these points in some detail.

 

The starting point was this concept of there being a ‘timeless core’ of the Alexander Technique. What do we perceive this to be, and how can we impart this to pupils? Peter feels that whilst he works in the same fundamental way with all pupils, one is nevertheless dealing with what the pupil most wants to work on. It doesn’t really matter whether one works more physically or psychologically, as we are ultimately a psycho-physical unity; "the way in, of working, is our preference". How pupil-led can the teaching be, given the inherent necessity of means-whereby and sticking to principle in the teacher’s work? Peter does initially work at the source of a pupil’s pain: for example, to start work with the arms and shoulders for stringed-instrument players. Over the decades of experience, he feels that one can ‘see’ the cause of problems faster, recognising the inevitably common patterns of misuse. One must of course be wary of the temptation of an endgaining quick-fix; however, Marjory Barlow was quoted as saying: "You get cunning in your old age".

 

How can we define what a  ‘timeless core’ of this Technique is? The question was raised whether a pupil must use the four books that Alexander wrote. Peter mentioned some of the parts of the writings that he finds most essential: the books are certainly one of the clues that we have as to how Alexander worked. How can we know this through other sources? Obviously, the work has been handed down through a lineage of teachers to trainees, but Peter questioned whether Alexander would actually recognise how many AT teachers nowadays work with their hands. The Alexander Technique is a living thing, and it doesn’t matter exactly what you are doing, rather how you do it, your own ‘directions’, and using yourself as well as you can. Peter described how as a teacher, one can in fact do "anything you like, within reason", especially with more experienced pupils-provided that one never pulls oneself or the pupil ‘down’. By sticking to principle, and especially to the head-neck-back relationship, one stays with the means-whereby, without knowing exactly what the result will be, which is why the work always remains exciting.

 

This leads me onto a description of some of the more specific, ‘mechanical’, questions that arose about the AT and Peter’s own work.

 

  • A question was raised by a pupil about his confusion between our use of the terms ‘head’ versus ‘mind’. In referring to the head leading, he seemed to see an ambiguity as the mind, or thought, also ‘leads’. Here I quote Peter’s description of the head physically leading:

The first preliminary to movement, the first things that needs to be engaged, is that the neck is free and the head coming off the end of the spine in the direction we call forward and up. The up is a sort of illusion.

What he believes Alexander means by a free neck is just the freedom between the occiput and the axis (i.e. at the top of our spine). The head always leads forwards in our directions: if we walk backwards, the head still leads off the end of the spine forwards whilst the body is allowed to move backwards.

  • How do we free the neck? He works in fact to keep ‘stability’ in the body, for example by directing the feet into the ground which ‘reflexly bounces back’ so that the head leads away from the ground. By considering the total organism, we can help to let the neck be free: we create good conditions for that to be allowed.

  • Did Alexander refer to ‘primary control’ or ‘the primary control’? Is it the mechanism, or the manner of operating the mechanism: the entity or activity?  In fact Alexander seems to say ‘the manner of use of the Primary Control’. Peter suggested that the differences in how teachers define the primary control is one of the main factors that differentiates ‘styles’ of the AT. Peter’s own descriptions dealt with "a connection through, which gives you an entity (the primary control), which runs from the deepest level of musculature from head to feet." The feet in turn fire stretch reflexes up into the deep muscles of the organism, for example between the vertebrae, and the eyes play an important role. So we are rather like a tent with its guy ropes, in the way that overlapping layers of muscles, in the correct tonus, give us support.

  • Following on from the above point, a definition of ‘misuse’:

Misuse is the way in which the movement musculature takes the role of the support musculature. We shouldn’t let one ‘contaminate’ the other. By undoing the contamination of the superficial muscles, the teacher allows the deeper muscles to learn to work: those that should be doing the supporting. Good use is about moving coordinated as one piece or system, and this condition of good support is, he feels, a prerequisite for being able to let the head lead, and so on.

  • What is the difference between ‘opposition’ and ‘staying in the back’? Both of these terms are post-Alexander expressions, particularly from Patrick Macdonald’s teaching. Peter described his teacher’s work: that it did instant inhibition and direction, all in one go, and that he could get things no other teacher can, in terms of actually working the organism as a whole. ‘Staying in the back’ he described as ‘using some consciousness in the back so we are not lurching forwards’: if we stay in our back, our experience is of having a better sense of what is going on in the world (i.e. the periphery). ‘Opposition’ he defined as one bit of the body moving in opposition to another, slightly different to the term ‘separation’. For example, there is separation between the legs and the back, but opposition between the back back and the legs (or knees) directing forwards. There can be the opposition of our feet to our hands: the arms ‘should work in the same way as the legs’, for example in a crawl, and also the opposition of our feet to the ground.

  • What is ‘non-doing’? It is not doing nothing, though that may be a preliminary step. The decades of experience have given Peter a more complex sense of many such Alexander concepts than the first appearance of the sense of the words.

  • Stress Management: Peter works extensively with stress management, and described how the Alexander principles are inherent in this work, even when not specifically explained. His coaching includes how to stop, and what to do when we stop, so that we gain control over ourselves and our circumstances in tiny ways. He teaches techniques to think our way through the day, such as allowing the phone to ring once longer than normal, counting whilst breathing, or regularly remembering to take a small action such as to lie down once a day. This allows some moments to evaluate one’s situation and reactions.

 

The evening certainly dealt in an interesting amount of depth with many central issues and questions. As a trainee teacher myself,  having not experienced Peter’s work before, I would have welcomed more activity or hands-on work to enhance this, as words can perhaps only approximate to learning through experience.

 

As Peter said: "There are genuine puzzles in the Alexander Technique"… 

   

 

 © Poppy Walshaw 2010

 

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