'No' is Not a Negative

In around 1948, when I was nineteen years old, I happened on one of F.M. Alexander’s books in Chelsea Public Library - what an extraordinary chance, I often think now, not only that I idly pulled out that particular book, but that that particular book was there at all. I stood reading little passages here and there, thinking, ‘Well, this makes sense”. It seemed like a little light was being thrown on what was becoming a rather dark horizon in my life. Some months earlier, I had stepped up to get on a train on my way to Art School, and not only stepped up, but seized up with excruciating pain in my lower back. Friends already in the carriage somehow hauled me in. This moment passed, and was quite quickly forgotten. 

 

Then it happened again. And again. And memory and fear crept in. I began to have some vague idea of what ‘positions’ or ‘postures’ to take to avoid these painful episodes. A dull lower backache began to take up residence. Eventually, doctors, X-rays and physios took over. Exercises involving walking along a balance form (in retrospect, why?) gave me wicked cramps. Nothing that was tried, including electrical treatment in a footbath ‘worked’. 

 

This was 1949 and few alternatives to the orthodox were widely known or available. Around this time I had met Adam eventually my husband to be and his mother, both of whom had had lessons with FM. not long before he died. Adam's mother said she had heard that Alexander’s niece, Marjory, and her doctor husband were starting up a practice near the Royal Albert Hall in London, and that they might be able to help my, by now miserable, back. 

 

‘Why not go and see them?’ she said. So I made an appointment - little knowing that that phone call would change the whole direction of my life. In fact, halfway down the entrance stairs, I nearly turned tail -whatever was I thinking of, putting my very troubled body into the hands of such unknown unorthodoxy! But entering further, the pictures on the walls reassured me large Gauguin prints, Monet, Van Gogh. And the reading matter in the waiting room was of immediate appeal.


Alexander Technique Lessons

The start of my first lesson was something I will never forget. A very slight, gentle-looking lady asked me to stand in front of a large wooden chair. This, I learnt later, had been Alexander’s own teaching chair - and she was saying something about sitting down. Sitting down! Did she have any idea what pain that could start off without my doing a well-learned twist of my body, and a hand behind to steady me? At the same time, I somehow intuitively knew that such an option was not likely to be allowed. I don’t remember much more except that she said very quietly, ‘Just look a little up, out of that window,’ and somehow, I have no idea how, I found myself sitting on the chair, feeling very calm, very easy, no pain anywhere and smiling with the sheer pleasure of it all. 

 

From then on I wanted more and more and more. How did it work, and Why? Would it help my feet which had often been painful since childhood? Migraines? So many questions. After a certain number of lessons, I pursued again the question of ‘Would this help my feet as well as my back?’ ‘I don’t see why not,’ she said. No further elucidation, no further discussion about my feet she didn’t even look at them; just a persistent bringing me back to the present moment and F.M.’s verbal reminders to the neck, the head and the back. My teacher knew well that, only when she had gradually brought the primary arrangement of my neck and my head and my back more in order, would the feet cease to be a problem. So I began to forget about the feet and they Were rarely mentioned again. 

 

At a certain point I knew that she was going to start a small training course for teachers, and I kept thinking -I would really like to do this more than anything, not only for the ongoing help it had brought to my physical problems, but because it offered whole new horizons to be discovered about the relationship of the mind to the body, and so much else. Interests which I could foresee engaging me for the rest of my life. So one day, lying on her couch while she was working with me, I finally found the courage to ask if she would consider taking me on her next training course. To my great surprise she said, ‘I’ve been hoping you would ask me that!’, and from then on it all really began, in the autumn of 1955.


Alexander Technique Training

During the training, as a result of intensive Alexander work, deeply ingrained habits in the way one has used the body for many years are being touched and brought back to a better way of using the body. While at times this brings a great feeling of lightness and relief, at other moments the experience is one of profound exhaustion. Pupils have frequently remarked on a certain tiredness they have experienced later in the day after a lesson, and said, ‘I can’t believe it was the lesson, you hardly touched me!’ Marjory said over and over again to us, ‘Do less,’ and I still think of that when working with a pupil. Whether it is to make a piece of pottery, engage with the supermarket, or whatever activity life presents at any given moment, by ‘doing’ less, so often the ‘more’ which we aspire to is actually realised. 

 

During our first year of training it was all work on oneself. Learning to understand what Alexander meant by ‘inhibition’, or as Marjory put it to ‘say no’ to the immediate response or reaction to a stimulus, following with the messages without trying to do them, then to let the action take place and then to move on. 

 

It was such a relief to be without judgement on what was already over, no ‘Was that better?’ or ‘Now have I got it right?’ Then there was work with the mirror - deciding on a specific movement, and then managing to ‘inhibit’ the very strong desire to change what didn’t ‘look’ too good, and then to accept exactly what one saw, while continuing to work. Then the ‘monkey’ position. Alexander referred to this as ‘the position of mechanical advantage’ for the body. This led to ‘hands over the back of a chair’, added to the monkey position. ‘Going up on the toes,’ and so much more. 

 

Marjory had some very descriptive images. One was when working with the arms. ‘Imagine,’ she would say, ‘you have egg shells in your armpits. Too much pressure and the shells will break, too little, and the shells will fall out!’ Another one she often used was to liken the head to a ping-pong ball playing on top of a fountain. 

 

All this time my own use of my body and the whole shape of my body was changing. 

 

One very clear example - in my teens, I longed for a strapless party dress, but my shoulder blades stuck out at the back in a way that no strapless dress could possibly accommodate and I had come to accept that this was the way I was made. Once, during my time on the training course, I was in a dress shop, trying on some dresses. At that time there were no cubicles, just a big room with mirrors all around. Idly looking at all the young women in various states of undress - as well as various misuses of bodies to my now-rather-interested Alexander eye, I noticed one girl and thought, ‘Now she really has a good back, Why couldn’t mine have been like that?’ On turning round to inspect her more closely, I discovered after some confusion that it was myself! When I went into the class the next morning I said to Marjory, ‘What have you done with my sticking-our shoulder blades?’ She smiled and said quietly, ‘I wondered when you would notice!’


She never pushed, always waiting, watching for you to discover the next step for yourself. Toward the end of the first year we were introduced to placing the hands on the leg of a colleague lying on the couch. We also worked with a pot as a preparation for bringing the hands on to a pupil’s head. All this was practice for the need to maintain the use of one’s self, While receiving the very strong stimulus of working on another person’s body. Eventually we were putting our hands on each other and learning to talk through the procedures before any action took place. 

 

Another big step, during the third year of training, was to be asked, usually without warning, to go into the room to assist Dr Barlow by taking the head of a pupil who was on the couch while he worked on the rest of the pupil’s body. For some years after training, I worked for a time as an assistant, which was a wonderful opportunity to consolidate what I had learned. I also had a teaching slot in the practice, which offered a great diversity of pupils and their problems. 

 

A well-known Jungian therapist, a delightful lady, came in to her second lesson full of joy, saying ‘I see! Alexander’s “No” is not a negative - it’s a positive!’ She had many lessons until the end of her life and I felt privileged to be teaching her. 

 

A young, sturdy, athletic chap who had badly damaged his back playing rugby and been through hospitalisation and much medical treatment was sent to Dr Barlow, who passed him on to me for lessons. He was in a great deal of pain with even small movements, and wore a corset most of the time. His real passion in life was to get back to playing rugby, and if the Alexander Technique seemed it might help, then he would work at it. And he did. After about a year, he was out of the corset, at home and at work, but still wore it when travelling on the underground - not a good place for back sufferers! Gradually the time between his lessons lengthened and then I didn’t hear from him. After about a year a postcard came ‘I played my first game of rugby last week. All well. Thanks.’ 

 

Another gentleman was unknowingly the means of illustrating a principle I learnt from Marjory Barlow. He was slight in body but very stiff. He appeared very willing, came regularly, always punctual, but after a great many lessons, we seemed to be making no headway at all. I told my teacher I just didn’t feel I could go on taking his money with such little visible change taking place. She said, ‘If he keeps on coming, he is coming for something, but he may not know what it is. Don’t turn him away.’ 

 

In a rather similar encounter I gave many lessons to a very pleasant woman who had problems which were helped, but never to the extent I would have wished for. Something was just not happening. One day she was on the table and I had been working quietly on her for a while when the words popped out of my mouth, ‘When did you last have a good cry?’ ‘Cry!’ she said, ‘I never cry!’ I said something like ‘OK. That’s alright.’ When I took her up off the table, she burst into floods and floods of tears.


Starting an Alexander Technique School

So I think one can never know, or assume to know anything about the person who has presented themselves to you. It is borne out by this final story of an elderly woman who had had a number of lessons, but would frequently phone and ask if I could see her that day, or at 

least as soon as possible. At the end of one of these ‘emergency’ lessons she looked at me as if expecting something more and then said, ‘But you haven’t done what you usually do?’ I thought, ‘What is it that 1 have not done?’ -no two lessons ever being quite alike. When I asked her, she indicated a vague sort of widening of her rib cage, and explained that the reason why she came for a lesson was that when her gall bladder flared up, "This is the only thing that helps!’ 

 

In 1971, having sold our house well, we had sufficient savings so that when Adam lost his job it seemed a good moment for him to join a training course, something the head of training had long hoped he would be able to do. 

 

By the early 1980s we felt the time had come for us to at last move out of London. Our daughter was at university and we had already been doing some teaching in West Sussex, and felt it could be a viable situation. We decided that to start a training course would be our next venture. Certainly to train a pupil to teach would be a further step in our own understanding of What Alexander taught. 

 

We had many applications, partly because there were not nearly so many training courses at that time. We settled for ten pupils but how to choose, and who could tell what changes might take place in someone with all that intensive work over a period of three years? Ideally, we were looking for people who had a real interest in Alexander’s technique, who had read his books, had had a full course of lessons and wanted to take the adventure a step further. 

 

One person we were very happy to be able to train, on our third training course, was our daughter, who, much to our surprise, asked us if we would consider taking her. We never pushed the Technique at her, but one way and another she had quite a lot of work from us. During her teenage years she began to have problems with a hip joint and then would often ask for lessons, but it never occurred to us that she might one day think of training. She now teaches at a well-known girls’ school and also at a private college in London. 

 

We brought our training course to an end in 1999. It had, for all of us I think. been a good experience, and many of our trainees are Still in touch with us. Strong bonds are formed amidst all the inevitable ups and downs on such courses with the constant need to see and accept each others’ difficulties over such a long period of time. A strong sense of humour can help. 


Beyond Teaching

Dr Barlow warned me that to spend one’s life as an Alexander teacher ‘will never make you rich - it is not an entrepreneurial profession - but it’s a good life’, and he hoped I would enjoy it as much as they had done. I think that this was exactly right and I am so grateful that life presented me with this opportunity, and that I have been able to commit myself to it for most of my life. I still enjoy teaching no two people are alike, so the work never fails to be interesting. 

 

In 1986, I was in my fifties and teaching the Alexander Technique both privately as well as training new teachers. I was also teaching part-time at a well-known music school. At that time little was known about osteoporosis - only that it was something which you really did not want to encounter, and not much talked about. And there was no internet available for research! 

 

One day our local surgery was offering free tests and, wanting to know more, I took the test and was startled to be told I had full osteoporosis ( not even just osteopenia). I didn’t believe the result, and had a private test done elsewhere - exactly the same result. 

 

For a time I took the prescribed, large, chalky, calcium tablets, but I was very busy and happy in my life, and quickly forgot about this diagnosis. However, fast forwarding over the next thirty years, I now see in retrospect that this disease was steadily developing. I had about nine instances of cracked ribs. The doctor told me, "There is no treatment - we don’t strap people up any more yes, you can drive it will be painful for about three weeks. Take pain killers."

 

Then there was an ankle fracture, and one leg in plaster for two months. Osteoporosis was never mentioned again, until two years ago, with an almost exact replica of the painful step onto the train at the very beginning of my story. Mounting a steep step in the street, pain such as I have never experienced ever, shot through my whole body. A scan showed fractures at lumbar vertebra 4, and thoracic vertebrae 9, 10 and 11, and a whole change in body shape, traumatic in itself? 

 

Thinking back, I can only say how truly grateful I am now for all those many years when I was under such intensive Alexander Technique work, both on myself and with Others. I am sure that kept me out of major trouble for such a long time, in the circumstances. 

 

It was also very clear to me at the time that each of the minor rib fractures were the result of the inappropriate use of my body. One example -when sitting in a chair, I twisted sideways in order to lean over the arm of the chair, in order to pick a knitting needle up from the floor, INSTEAD of standing up and turning round in order to kneel down. This is a good example of what Alexander calls ‘end-gaining’: not attending to the means as to how you achieve your end. 

 

And now, in my old age, I think very, very often of what Alexander is reported to have said in his later years when asked if he still practised the Technique which he had discovered. He replied that he ‘wouldn’t dare not to!’ Perhaps that’s one final lesson from F.M. to all of us!