The use of the chair

I’ve just passed a couple of weeks in the presence of several adults and two young children. The adults spent most of their time lounging in various designs of chair, while pursuing a variety of ‘activities’ – reading, computing, talking, eating, drinking; occasionally, they would stand still, doing other activities – cooking, washing up, pontificating; sometimes, they walked about; occasionally, they ‘did’ an intense bout of something more active, like swimming or lawn mowing.

The children spent very little time either sitting or standing still. They did a fair amount of walking and running around; but by far their greatest period of time was spent in some variant of a squat. Either they were in a full squat, playing with something on the floor, or they were in a half squat, reaching down for something. Very often, they would stop, midway, and change their minds. I watched in astonishment as they folded and unfolded with consummate ease, repeatedly. It was clear they did this without the remotest sense of effort, and with a mind that was engaged elsewhere, but without having become disengaged from their bodies.

We may laugh at a typical Alexander chair lesson as seeming somewhat two dimensional; but the truth is, children fold in very much this way. The difference is that they fold at the hips, knees and ankles because that is all they know; that is how they have evolved. They look at ease because they are at ease. We have evolved further, and find this folding, at least initially, an imposition, the simplicity of which can seem, and often looks, constraining, compared to what we usually do.

It’s always seemed to me that the key to the Alexander Technique is not to look as though you’re applying it. Little children are exemplars of good use without giving it a thought. For children, squatting is not so much a habit or a choice as an imperative; for us, it is one, increasingly disregarded choice amongst many other habits. I know, from having children of my own, that gradually they will learn more ways of moving,  and will squat less and less, or less and less efficiently, as other possibilities, not least bending forward from the waist, and tightening elsewhere to accommodate that, become more convenient.

I’m not suggesting the habits we acquire as growing children and adults are wrong and that we need to learn to squat as much as toddlers; but I am sure that the squatting process involves a formative unveiling of our potential for movement whose ease, in us, as both children and adults, becomes reflected in everything else we do.

So, when we use chairwork in our Alexander lessons, it’s useful to note why. For me, the answer in this. If we can regain something of the ease of movement and effortlessness of young children in going from standing to squatting, and to return to standing, while being able to stop at all intermediate points, including the chair, and to talk, think and breath normally while doing this, we will find our entire movement repertoire becomes affected as a result. We will find we move more freely and easily, no matter what we do.

I’m not convinced this works in reverse. No matter how much attention we may give to an ‘activity’ – and, truthfully, for most of us, our most consuming daily activity is almost certainly sitting recumbent in a chair – it will teach us no more than we need to know, in that context. There’s nothing wrong with learning a new way of going about a specific activity; but I think it is speculative to suppose it – any activity – represents as formative a learning process as squatting – or, as we call it, chairwork.

I’ve been at the receiving end of innumerable types of chairwork in my time; and I’m unenthusiastic about most of them. I don’t like the standard Alexander ‘grip’ – one hand at the back of my neck, the other under my chin; I don’t like being ‘taken up’; I don’t like being moulded into position. I don’t like being moved out of balance; I don’t like the sense of ‘all or nothing’ as I leave the chair or begin to descend towards it. My ideal chairwork would involve an absolute minimum of hands on, eliciting from a student as easy a passage as they were capable of, at the time of the lesson; but I do appreciate there are likely to be, if not as many and varied approaches to chair work as there are teachers, at least a number of different ways of approaching what seems on the surface to be a pretty simple procedure.

Unfortunately, to properly appreciate the subtleties of chairwork, I sometimes think it is necessary to have had more lessons devoted to it than seems reasonable. Most  students find it boring and repetitive because it appears to be teaching them only one thing: how to sit and stand, and how to go from sitting to standing, and from standing to sitting, correctly. Advising students that this isn’t the case, and that they are recalibrating an important function from an earlier period of their lives, which should rub off on everything they have learned since, including whatever issue brought them for lessons in the first place, doesn’t seem to wash.

This is the big problem with chairwork, and the reason it often encourages the development of stiffness rather than ease. When we’re faced with the prospect of relearning something so simple, what is more rational than trying harder and harder to get it right, to iron out any imperfections, through sheer willpower if necessary, in order to ‘get on’  to more complicated procedures; especially if our teacher implies, whatever they may say, that we still have a long way to go, every time they draw the chair up!

I wish I knew how to make chairwork more interesting. The issue seems to boil down to one of encouraging students to stay ‘within themselves looking out’ rather than ‘outside themselves looking in’; but it’s undeniably hard for them to stay motivated  when the stimuli they’re being asked to work with are so basic.

Of course, ideally, chairwork would dispense with the chair altogether. After all, children only gravitate to chairs at our insistence; and it is chairs as much as anything that cut out their need for squatting at a relatively early age.

I’m sure a more than adequate series of Alexander lessons could be devised that would dispense with all reference to chairs, or squatting; or, indeed, any use of the hands. The amount we use our hands, during chairwork or any other activity, seems to be largely a question of whether we want our students to become primarily engaged in addressing the body while involving the mind, or addressing the mind while involving the body. Although my preference is for the latter, I mostly teach the former; and I’ve written this to explain why.

2 thoughts on “The use of the chair

  1. Dear Nicholas,
    I have found your blog most helpful indeed! I have had quite a struggle with the chairwork (as a teacher). At times, it felt more like an exercise for myself: practicing getting people in and out of a chair – a lot of end gaining involved there! – so for a while I abandoned it (or rather the chair, but that brought its own problems). Since reading your articles, I have managed to bring back chair work, feel happier with it, and am at least able to put it in a wider context for my pupils. I am encouraging my pupils to play with their hinges, without loosing the feet (keeping a good sense of the floor supporting them and the floor taking the weight). The play element seems to help avoid the alexandroid stiffness.

    By the way, I qualified as an Alexander Technique teacher in July 08 and have been teaching for just one and a half years. At times, I ask myself how one can teach this thing at all…. I have also been quite preoccupied with the mind/body separation – the linguistic problem of the separation – the absence of a language that does not separate them – the whole notion of psycophysical unity. Whilst pondering this issue, I came across a review by you of Theodore Dimon’s book “The Undivided Self”. The review prompted me to get the book (you are right – not easy reading, but then he is treating a most difficult concept) – and via that route found your web site. I read your articles and essays with great interest – have found your writing very direct, honest, challenging, astute – you manage to write with clarity about issues that are rather complex, and you are careful not to become wishywashy (sorry – I cannot think of another term) when things get difficult. So: many thanks for your writings!
    Magdalena
    P.S. and best wishes for 2010!

  2. Hello Magdalena,

    Thanks for your kind words. It’s gratifying to know you’ve benefited from some of the things I’ve written.

    Virtually every time I write about the Technique it’s done primarily to help explain it to myself. What I mean is, I start out not really knowing what I believe about an issue, or having only a rough notion of what I think, and I usually end up with a clear (or clearer) understanding. I find it very helpful, and I’m glad when others do, too.

    I’m still searching for greater clarity, because what the Technique is can seem vague, and this is often encouraged by the use of ‘key’ words, that are assumed to mean the same thing to everyone, but usually don’t.

    Nicholas

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