The Evolution of Low Back Pain by John Gorman

The Evolution of Low Back Pain by John Gorman.

I first became aware of John Gorman when he wrote an article for The Alexander Review. He was an engineer who had had a number of Alexander lessons and wanted to share his insights on how the spine worked. Afterwards, I recognised his name in connection with chairs and back supports he was marketing.

Much later, a pupil of mine said she had visited a chiropractor whose main piece of advice was that she should slump more. This confused her since I appeared to have always maintained the opposite. The chiropractor’s name was John Gorman. Then I saw an advertisement for “The Evolution of Lower Back Pain” in STATNEWS and learned that his engineer’s interest in the spine had caused him to train in McTimoney Chiropractic.

Initially, I found his ideas hard to grasp but put that down to a general disinterest in mechanics. Then I realised it wasn’t that I was being obtuse; my difficultly was in accepting a theory diametrically opposed to what I believed.

By the time I finished the book I was in much less doubt about the validity of his arguments. Now, months later, although an element of scepticism remains, I think his ideas should at least be considered by anyone interested in how the spine works and what might, or might not, be done to enable it to function better.

I came to the Alexander Technique with a bad back and have been trying to find out more about it ever since. Books, even Alexander books nowadays, give the sort of generalised advice for good use everyone is familiar with. The benefits of maintaining an upright posture, especially when sitting, are so widely recognised that the human tendency to fall short of this ideal is assumed to lie behind most back problems.

John Gorman agrees that our way of sitting is the main culprit, but he thinks the more we attempt to put it right by “sitting well”, the less good we will do ourselves. As he says, “It is when we are sitting relatively upright that the mechanical situation is worst”.

He explains how the two lowest discs of the spine are naturally wedge-shaped (the thick end of the wedge faces forwards) and how they should not be forced beyond parallel sidedness, otherwise two things may result. The first is a warning pain. The second is a tendency for muscles in other areas of the back to go into spasm, causing “clamped joints”. Undoing clamped joints forms the basis of his work.

He recommends trying to maintain the wedge shape of these discs at all times, since, as he says, “Even when the pain level is very low, (only a slight ‘feeling’), the warning pain can still turn on clamped joints”. Little mention is made of any activity other than sitting that can cause this, but the implication is we become progressively less tolerant of general misuse the more our two lowest discs are subjected to sustained, undue flexion. Much of his book is spent explaining why it is virtually impossible to sit in an ordinary way without this occurring.

The problem is due to the tendency of the pelvis, when relaxed, to tilt backwards. His engineer’s answer is to use specially designed chairs which ensure the alignment of the lower vertebrae by providing pelvic support. Similar props are also available for use in a car. Where such devices are impractical, such as at a meal table or desk, he suggests dispensing with a backrest altogether and adopting the muscular balance of what he calls “Alexander Sitting”.

The alternative solution is for us to slump. As John Gorman puts it, “When we do sit slumped all the joints of the spine will be flexed and all muscles and ligaments will tend to be stretched to a natural length.” Somewhat surprisingly, he also says, “For most people slumped sitting will actually have to be learned. We are so used to trying to ‘sit up straight’ that most people cannot easily sit slumped”.

He relates this to sitting on a conference room or dining chair. “If the pelvis is placed sufficiently far forwards to produce a complete slouch it is a satisfactory sitting position and much better than sitting up against the backrest of such a chair as we are normally told to do.”

Clearly, most forms of sitting involve positioning ourselves reasonably far back in a seat and then leaning against the available support. But unless we are prepared to stiffen muscularly in order to prevent it, our pelvis will usually tilt backwards, putting pressure on the front of our lowest vertebra and causing a levelling of the two wedge-shaped discs.

John Gorman estimates that during such sitting, with the pelvis tilted back by about 40 degrees, there will be approximately 20 degrees of flexion in the two lowest joints of the spine and little anywhere else. He compares this with slouching on a settee, where the pelvic tilt will be greater at 60 degrees, and the back will appear much more bent, but because the flexion is spread evenly over all eighteen joints, individually it will be only about 3 degrees. In this way, the wedge shape of the two lowest discs can be maintained.

Needless to say, slumping is recommended only as a natural part of sitting and not of any other activity such as standing or walking. John Gorman’s use of the word “natural” is interesting here, since he poses the question, “Why don’t more naturally living people have the same problems?” His answer is simple: uncivilised people don’t sit, they slump.

It’s difficult to know where to look for evidence of this. Slumping and slouching are hard to define, anyway; but the diagrams in his book do show an alignment of the spine similar to that of a deep squat. Squatting is incontestably natural, and a position of repose for half the human race. Perhaps we should be looking at slumping as an inferior, but easier to achieve, version of this.

Understanding a mechanical theory is one thing; accepting it as an idea is another; but translating that into practice, in order to verify it, is virtually impossible when you can neither see, nor feel with any precision, what is going on.

Certainly, my pelvis tilts backwards whenever I sit and lean against the support of anything but a very straight backed chair; this is especially so in a car; but I can’t begin to say what happens to my wedge-shaped lower discs. I do get “feelings” in my lower back from time to time, but I don’t know it these are warnings of an impending clamped joint. So whether it is better for my spine, and for me, to spend lengthy periods fully flexed in a slump, or flexed at one end only while sitting upright, is unclear. Perhaps my sensory appreciation requires more intensive re-education, or more of a suspension of traditional Alexandrian belief than I am ready for.

Directing and Ordering by Joe Armstrong

DIRECTING AND ORDERING: A Discussion of working on Yourself by Joe Armstrong.

Joe Armstrong deserves the thanks of the Alexander community for his willingness to consider the almost taboo question of how teachers work on themselves.

This knowledge is important. However much anyone might change as a result of lessons, if the Technique is to live up to its promise, they ought to know how to maintain whatever benefits they receive, and hopefully extend them in the future, through readily understandable means.

Unfortunately, Joe’s story is likely to be typical of many teachers, who despite having had the equivalent of several hundred lessons, find they are unable to progress on their own, or even stay their ground, and so resort to another teacher’s hands for further guidance. Anybody who has read the available Alexander literature could be forgiven for finding such dependence risible.

Directing non-verbally during everyday life was Joe’s initial understanding of what working on himself meant. In his booklet, he calls this Procedure 2, and in conjunction with inhibition, recommends it as the raison d’etre of the Technique. However, he admits to eventually finding, several years after training, that no amount of such thinking produced the type of changes he had got used to from lessons, or prevented the return of habits he thought he had long overcome.

Even though his early teachers had warned him against it, Joe decided to experiment with what he calls verbal ordering. As a result of this he experienced changes he believes could only otherwise have been obtained through skilled hands. His suggestion is that if we want to become independent of other teachers, and yet still maintain and improve our use, we should regularly spend twenty minutes, in a position or condition of relative inactivity, slowly and silently repeating Alexander’s original word-phrases. He calls this Procedure 1.

Most of us will be familiar with a variant of Procedure 2; many may think it is all there is to know. Procedure 1 is more problematic. Giving orders in this way seems on the surface to be a form of meditation, where the unhurried repetition of a string of words could be expected to blank out both thought and its physiological counterpart, producing the benefits of a calm and integrated mind and body. At the same time, it should elicit a conditioned response; though whether this would necessarily be based on the cumulative effect of ordering during past lessons rather than during subsequent periods of disequilibrium, is a moot point.

One question that springs to mind is the importance, or otherwise, of the words. Alexander is supposed to have said any nonsense would serve his purpose. Meditators have differing views on this subject. Certainly, with straightforward conditioning, when something from the past becomes recaptured by the use of key words in the present, the actual meaning of those words is irrelevant.

However, Joe suggests that by ordering we could be tapping into the wisdom of our unconscious on a far deeper level than straightforward conditioning can reach, and in a much more specific way than during meditation. The implication is that Alexander’s phrases, both because of their inherent meaning and the added significance they gain as a result of lessons, act on the primary control directly.

Joe emphasises that the effectiveness of this depends on the dissociation of the orders from whatever we might think they represent or hope they will achieve, and from our consciousness of the parts of us to which they refer. If this is the case, it may go some way to explaining why Procedure 2, despite years of application, should have failed to produce satisfactory results for him, since the intention behind non-verbal directing is largely conditional on an awareness of, and therefore close association with, the same sensory mechanism it is attempting to change.

This is as it should be. Unity, or full association, is what Procedure 2 represents. It is Alexander’s "plane to be reached"; whereas Procedure 1 appears to be Joe’s "method of reaching it". However, the process he describes hardly seems an adequate substitute for lessons, since it fails to address, other than incidentally, the question of inhibition.

A more appropriate way of filling the same twenty minutes might be to follow the instructions set out in The Use of the Self. Learning to work on ourselves in the way Alexander did, at the juncture between stimulus and response, rather than with what is, for all its undoubted benefits, hardly more than a series of affirmations, must be a worthwhile goal for anyone desiring a measure of autonomy. Whether ordering or directing would best help facilitate this, remains debatable.

Having re-discovered what he believes it means to work on himself, Joe freely acknowledges it is neither what he originally thought, nor what he was taught. It is so refreshing to read something by a teacher of the Technique querying what goes on during lessons and training courses that disagreeing with anything Joe says seems almost querulous. Hopefully, those who don’t feel this way will be sufficiently enthused after reading his booklet to explain why. If more people were prepared to describe the way they, as individuals, approach this issue, it would be to everyone’s benefit.

Body Know-how by Jonathan Drake

BODY KNOW-HOW by Jonathan Drake.

Jonathan Drake has written Body Know-How for use as an adjunct to Alexander lessons; or, in the absence of a teacher, as a partial substitute for them. It is presented as the practical self-help manual he believes he would have benefited from during his own re-education, when appropriate guidance, in written form, might have shown him, in a way that his teachers apparently did not, how to apply the principles of the Technique to everyday life.

For those who want it, the author provides all the necessary information: the formal work areas – the chair, the wall, the floor; and the standard applications – semi-supine, monkey, the lunge, the squat, the whispered ah, hands on the back of a chair, etc. The logical way of applying these procedures to the various activities of ordinary life is shown; and the need to inhibit and direct, at each and every juncture, in order to inform the subsequent movement with appropriate thought, is emphasised throughout.

Whether a thorough reading of this book, or even a course of lessons, is enough to enable a person, in any real sense, to "work on themselves" in the way Jonathan Drake suggests, is debatable. Certainly, I was well into my training course as a teacher before I had any notion of what such work implied. Had I had the chance to look through Body Know-How earlier than that, I might have grasped sooner than I otherwise did the importance of certain concepts; but I doubt if this knowledge would have increased my awareness of what I was doing that was wrong, or enabled me to do it any less often.

Despite all advice to the contrary, as a pupil there appeared to me a right way of doing things, and that that was what must be learnt. The more variety my teachers introduced, the more that seemed to be the case. The average reader will hardly respond any differently, however dedicated he or she may be to putting the ideas of inhibition and direction into practice. Any subsequent lack of progress would not be the fault of the written instructions in Body Know-How, which are admirably clear, but of the near impossibility of executing them without adequate objective feedback.

However, the accompanying illustrations are a different matter. The model cannot be blamed, since she has been given the unenviable task of trying to convey quality of movement in what look like – and I suspect, at the time of exposure, were – still poses. If she had been photographed carrying out ordinary daily tasks, with the best and worst of these being employed to highlight the two extremes of good and bad use, there might have been more of a chance of portraying the hoped for "directed activity"; rather than what look like a series of "Alexander positions".

To contrast these illustrations with those in Michael Gelb’s book Body Learning, which also attempt to convey the essence of the primary control working without undue interference, but in this case in people who are not knowingly applying the principles of the Technique, is almost to wonder what those principles are.

The unfortunate implication from the photographs in Body Know-How is that we should seek to avoid bending the back or twisting it or moving the neck about or in fact doing anything that would appear to compromise a "NHB" relationship which, however well defined it may be in the text, is difficult to perceive visually other than as a general immobility. The clear danger to readers is that instead of allowing the spine to lengthen, in itself, during a given activity, they will try to hold it, throughout that activity, in whatever position they have learned to associate with a lengthened state; leading inexorably to the stiffened appearance that can be the bane of our work.

The key to successfully applying the Technique to ordinary life must be not to look as though you are. This should lead, in time, to not looking as though you need to. There is a photograph of F.M.Alexander, sitting reading a newspaper, with his legs crossed, of which it has been said, "He doesn’t look, as you might say, sitting doing the Alexander work. He’s just reading a newspaper". It can hardly be the case that by uncrossing his legs, as many teachers recommend, including Jonathan Drake, and by getting down on the floor and using a supportive reading device, as suggested in Body Know-How, F.M.Alexander would have become more able to apply the principles of his Technique than if he had remained seated as he was.

There is a clear distinction here between good use, resulting from a particular mental attitude, and sound body mechanics, which is the attempted emulation of that use, but without regard to the attitude that brought it about. Although it is easy to confuse the two, the challenge for teachers must surely be to avoid giving pupils the impression that it is what they do that matters most, so much as the way they habitually do it. Jonathan Drake does, in fact, touch on this in his text. Unfortunately, his book has an overwhelmingly visual impact; and since most of the nearly two hundred photographs are of the way things ought to be rather than of the way they actually are, the average reader is likely to end up trying to imitate good use, instead of discovering and avoiding the habits that prevent it from occurring naturally.

The Undivided Self by Ted Dimon


The structure of this book, its thesis, its grammar and phrasing, its uncompromising nature and, it has to be said, its repetitiveness, all reminded me of the written work of FM Alexander. Such intense conviction, buried in such dense material, without much in the way of either illustration or diagram, are not what we have grown used to in recent years; but the unremitting weight of text does reflect the author’s conviction that the truth behind the Technique is not easily conveyed.

Unfortunately, since Ted Dimon’s approach is academic rather than populist, those most in need of this truth are least likely to find it through reading The Undivided Self. This book is not intended as a primer, and there is little possibility of it being widely read outside the immediate Alexander community. Even within that community, it seems more likely to gather dust on bookshelves than be mined for its veins of wisdom.

Ted Dimon begins his story with the homely account of his own introduction to the Technique. Having a back problem, he found the physical changes brought about by lessons immediately gratifying. At first, these changes happened unconsciously; then, in tandem with an awakening kinesthetic sensitivity, he gained a modicum of control over his reactions.

A problem arose, however, in connection with particularly stressful tasks, when he felt powerless, despite his best endeavours, to influence his use for the better. It was while observing the tenacious hold on his body still enjoyed by subconscious habit patterns, indissolubly linked to the mere idea of fulfilling an action, that Ted Dimon began to appreciate the true significance of consciousness in the way the Alexander Technique worked, and how profound the ramifications of changing the way he thought about doing something, rather than trying to do it differently, could be.

Dimon believes humans and most animals function largely subconsciously (by which he means habitually); but that consciousness is an attribute unique to our species, through which we can bring about change, both in our environment and within ourselves. He concedes that our subconscious processes are more likely than the average animal’s to become distorted, as a result of the peculiar stresses of civilised life; but holds that Alexander’s genius was in recognising we have the ability to rectify this, by raising those distortions to consciousness.

The bulk of The Undivided Self is taken up with exhortations to elevate in this way as much as possible that is currently subconscious. Here, Dimon makes a clear distinction between consciousness of our underlying intentions and awareness of their results. Repeatedly, he stresses that kinesthetic awareness, however accurate, and whatever the degree of control we gain over our muscular condition, is not enough to effect deep change; there must be an acknowledgement of what he calls ‘the total pattern of activity’.

Understanding what Dimon means by this is crucial, since it is the central tenet of his book. He believes that whatever stage we may have reached in recognising and ‘letting go’ of interference on a bodily level, it will be of no lasting avail if we have not developed our consciousness to the point where it is able to encompass our normally subconscious mental conceptions. He claims it is only when we enter a unified ‘state of mind and body’, where we are equally cognisant of both idea and action, that we become able to chose between following an habitual pattern of behaviour or acting non- habitually, however stressful the stimulus.

The problem for most people is likely to be one of recognition. Generally, acknowledgement of a physical reality, such as muscular imbalance, is more readily available to consciousness than recognition of what is causing it. It is relatively easy, as most Alexander students know, to learn to perceive, kinesthetically, the habit of pulling the head backwards and down; over time, it becomes the matter of a moment to stop doing this. It is far more problematic to recognise with equal facility the pattern of thought lying behind such a habit and discover how it might be restructured in order for similarly beneficial – and, Dimon claims, longer lasting – change to take place.

However much we as Alexander students may say we know our mental reaction to stimuli impacts on our muscular state, it is insidiously tempting to address that state directly – albeit through an indirect process – than to search for the intention behind the reaction.

It is precisely this search that Ted Dimon is insistent we must carry out, on a continuing basis. How we might do so remains a matter for ourselves. There are, frustratingly, no obvious guidelines. Asked to direct our attention to our bodies, we all have some notion of where in space they are; and knowing a location allows us to survey it better. Asked to direct attention to the internal processes with which we not only do this surveying but also formulate and carry out our underlying intentions – one result of which is the imperfect use being surveyed – it is hardly surprising we flounder.

It is because what is suggested in this book is so difficult to pin down that so few of us like emphasising it. The notion that we are truly indivisible, that our musculature is an exact reflection of our mental state, but that that mental state is to our physical state what Alexander believed the head was to the rest of the body – in other words, primary – is widely accepted within our profession. This isn’t an insight new to Ted Dimon; we all spend a lot of time talking about it. The problems arise when we try to put the idea into practice.

It would be regrettable if we were to think we had only ourselves, or our teachers, to blame for the deficient way we approach the Technique. One of our troubles is, what we do in teaching is so undeniably physical, with our use of the hands and our reliance on tables, that we rarely pay much attention to the finer points of our mental state. We espouse conscious control and think, naturally enough, that control over the retracting head is synonymous with reining in its less easily recognised cause; but fail to see how many of us have become contented body workers; which is not the discipline Alexander developed.

An alternative reason for our falling short may be that that discipline is incompatible with modern life. It is not hard to agree with Ted Dimon that humans have evolved a complex subconscious mechanism for dealing with the majority of tasks while leaving a more superficial part of ourselves free to get on and do other things. This is what enables us to think, in the abstract way animals can’t; and what allows us to build and maintain increasingly complex societies.

Unfortunately, Dimon’s solution to the resulting ills of use – that of raising as much as possible that is subconscious to a conscious level – raises the question of what we can reasonably expect to bring our attention to bear on at any one time. Of particular importance is whether such a procedure will jeopardise our ability to think about what we are not doing – in other words, to reflect – since it is on this unique skill that all human progress depends.

The trouble is, consciousness is not the same thing as the conscious mind. In many ways, the two are polar opposites. Ted Dimon may believe animals and children are little different from adult humans, in that they function largely subconsciously; but in the absence of our self-conscious veneer, beneath which any such repository of habits must lie, it seems more correct to say that all sentient beings are born in a state of full consciousness, from where adult humans, and growing children, are at various stages of alienation.

Such alienation is an essential feature of the human condition. Its result is the conscious mind, which is what marks us apart from other creatures; but our ability to reason, analyse or work out, is not part of the original consciousness common to us all. Paradoxically, the process of inhibition and direction, through which we hope to attain greater access to this state, depends – as civilisation does – on the same reasoning ability that took us from it in the first place.

The key question is, how much of Dimon’s ‘total pattern of activity’, which he accepts became largely subconscious in humans in order that we could be free to think, abstractly and reflexively, as we made our way in the world, can be allowed back to consciousness without it impacting on that freedom.

The answer may well explain why the Alexander Technique has become primarily a body oriented discipline. It is simply too hard for us to keep a grip on our place in the world without relying increasingly, rather than decreasingly, on our subconscious ability to handle the bulk of the work. The maintenance of society and civilisation depends on our being able to think for extended periods of time exclusively about subjects removed from the present. The less we continue delegating to our subconscious, the less we will be able to do this. Doing less abstract thinking would, of course, have useful repercussions, besides increasing consciousness and improving use; but it runs directly counter to much that we hold dear.

Reading The Undivided Self brings home how easy it is to believe we are conscious when we are not, and how difficult it is to become conscious without leaving behind the ego that feels it should simultaneously be bolstered by the process. It also reaffirms the possibility that animals, who often appear to act without reflection, if not mindlessly, may be already basking in the state we so feebly aspire to. Far from being in the vanguard, it is perhaps more appropriate to view ourselves as having fallen from their heights. What is particularly mortifying, knowing it is only conscious thought that prevents our enjoyment of full consciousness, is the realisation that without it would be unable to call ourselves human.

Selflessly, Ted Dimon has taken it upon himself to update, extend and amplify Alexander’s core beliefs and put them into the most modern context imaginable – the control of stress – without one iota of dilution. Sadly, the end result only serves to emphasise the fundamental impossibility of those core beliefs being realistically taken up by the modern world. That doesn’t make the Technique defunct; although it may not be the next evolutionary step, it is uniquely useful, remedially.

Man’s Supreme Inheritence edited by Jean Fischer

Man’s Supreme Inheritance: by F. Matthias Alexander; edited by Jean Fischer.

Of the available literature on the Technique, the four books by Alexander stand alone. Everything written since has been essentially derivative. Without Alexander’s actual words, we would have little to fall back on but other people’s memories, making his Technique more difficult than it already is to evaluate.

This new volume of Man’s Supreme Inheritance is presented as the definitive version of what was Alexander’s first, seminal publication. Edited by Jean Fischer, it is exemplarily produced, containing most of what made up all previous editions, from 1910 onwards; and, with explanatory notes on its printing history and a contemporary foreword by Walter Carrington, could be considered complete.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. Although Jean Fischer must be thanked for making readily available, in a quality format, a book that is an essential, undeniable part of every teacher’s heritage, he has, as editor, mistakenly seen fit to remove from the text what he terms "part of a sentence which contains a misleading and inappropriate analogy".

The missing passage comes from a chapter entitled Evolutionary Standards and their Influence, which was added to Man’s Supreme Inheritance in 1918, and consisted largely of a diatribe against the nation and people of Germany. To discount any suggestion he later changed his mind about what he had said, Alexander wrote a validating postscript in 1946.

Although it would be understandable for a man of his day to have found little admirable in the behaviour of ‘civilised’ Germany from either period, whether he was justified in similarly deriding savages – as Alexander called ‘uncivilised’ people – for their allegedly far greater lack of adaptability and control, going so far as to suggest that "when confronted with the unusual these people quaked like cowards, and fled panic stricken from the unaccustomed", is debatable.

Alexander’s chosen example of such a reaction was "the case of the Negroes in the southern states of America when the men of the Ku-Klux-Klan pursued them on horseback dressed in white". However offensive or ill chosen these words may appear, it is hard to imagine why Jean Fischer left them out of what is otherwise an original document. After all, there is much in Man’s Supreme Inheritance that could be similarly excised, if it was simply a matter of retrospective censorship.

To tinker with Alexander’s text, other than in a search for brevity, sets a dubious precedent. As teachers, we must learn to accept what he said, whether we think it good or bad, and not try and imagine we know how he would have expressed himself had he been alive today. There is, undeniably, much that is unpleasant, as well as much that is misguided, in Man’s Supreme Inheritance. In recent years, largely because of the difficulty of getting hold of a copy, it has probably been the least widely read of Alexander’s books. Many teachers will never have studied it; some, knowing what to expect, may feel a distaste for doing so now. Brushing Man’s Supreme Inheritance under the carpet is an individual option; but as a society, teachers have to stand, in general terms, for everything Alexander said, however unpalatable or untenable it may seem; unless they decide – again, as a society – to disassociate themselves from certain aspects of his beliefs.

Alexander had a unique insight into the human condition, which he elaborated, somewhat unnecessarily, into a generalised view of mankind ascending an evolutionary gradient. At the lower end sat the primitive races, hardly differentiated from animals, functioning instinctively; with civilised nations, at various stages of progress, further along the way – those of the West, for the most part, in the vanguard; and somewhere in the far distance, an idealised society governed, as he saw it, by ‘conscious control’.

The trouble was, Alexander didn’t devise his Technique to help bring such a society about so much as discover it in curing an irritating voice problem. It was only when he found other people’s disabilities could be resolved in the same way as his own that he formulated his concept of ‘use’, eventually claiming his method of improving this was as much evolutionary as remedial. Through conscious guidance and control, he believed mankind could continue to enjoy the benefits of civilisation without suffering from the ‘debauched kinaesthesia’ which he saw bedevilling its progress. He proudly forecast "a race of men and women who will outstrip their ancestors in every known sphere…"

It is salutary to remember that what Alexander hoped we would achieve, from an increased emphasis on the ‘means-whereby’, was essentially the same physical standard of use ‘savages’ already enjoyed through their dependence on instinct. He may have believed we had a potentially greater degree of mental control over our behaviour than them; but in point of fact, we are unlikely to become, through his Technique, any more conscious – in ‘psycho-physical terms – than those Alexander so freely disparaged.

They apprehended their world differently, hardly disassociating themselves from it. Lacking the propensity for abstract thinking that renders so much of our own behaviour automatic – allowing us to live, for the most part, inside our heads – it is inconceivable they were not more attuned, for more of the time, to themselves and their environment, than their civilised counterparts; or that they were not more aware of the operation of a ‘primary control’, which – assuming it exists – only our insatiable predilection for detachment and abstraction could ever have so completely inured us to.

For Alexander, this capacity for rational thinking, by setting us apart from the animal, and to a great extent, the primitive, world, may have been the unwitting cause of a polarisation of mind and body that made modern man only fractionally attentive; but it had given us what he believed was freedom of choice; and he felt it was our task to make the most of this, rather than eulogising its non-emergence, or lesser development, in others. He certainly saw little virtue in abandoning the reflective, analytic capabilities that had taken humanity so far, however much they may also have lain at the root of its problems.

While admiring Alexander’s insight and vision, his desire to bring within the remit of reason much that would otherwise have remained instinctive was only laudable from the point of view of a troubled society. Imagining his Technique was universally applicable, he ignored the fact that those whose sensory appreciation was reliable, amongst whom would have been the indigines of his homeland, hardly needed a helping hand.

Civilisation, meanwhile, develops apace, largely due to our continuing to do the exact opposite of what Alexander recommended. Leaving our bodies to function unconsciously while we get on with the mental side of things is the sine qua non of progress. Modern society depends on it. For those who suffer as the result of this split, the Technique is a logical way back to health; but since psycho-physical disunity is the price we pay for cultural progress, it was probably over-ambitious of Alexander to think we could lessen our dependence on one without detriment to the other. Man’s Supreme Inheritance offers us the unlikely scenario of recovering consciousness of our use while retaining all the advantages of a civilisation that, by prospering, had deadened us to it in the first place.

Alexander’s solution, that we widen our field of attention to enable us to take in both means and ends, is clearly incompatible with the demands of modern society. His Technique may enable us change the way we react, largely by acquiring better habits, and in doing so, help us get back in touch with ourselves; but in an everyday context, unless we are peculiarly adept, we are unlikely to get much done, particularly cerebrally, while paying simultaneous attention to the way we are doing it. In all likelihood, such a skill, if globally pursued, would have very different consequences to those Alexander imagined when he foresaw future generations entering "new spheres as yet undreamt of by the great majority of the civilised peoples of our time".

Two essays by Joroen Staring

TWO ESSAYS by Joroen Staring.

Who is Joroen Staring? Judging by his use of the phrase "…other Alexandrians like Tinbergan, Dart, Perls and Staring…", he considers himself one of a those select few who write about the Technique, innovatively and intelligently, from the perspective of another discipline; but what his is, he doesn’t say.

The second of these essays, "DEWY AND ALEXANDER", is well researched, but essentially repeats a story told elsewhere. Anyone interested will already know how Dewy took to Alexander’s work and stuck with it for the rest of his life; how followers of Dewy, including his biographer, minimised its importance to him; how Alexander, for reasons of his own, failed to capitalise on Dewy’s attempts to fund a scientific investigation of discoveries; and how our legacy of three introductions to Alexander’s books is indicative of the influence Dewy must have hoped the Technique would enjoy.

Reading this essay does serve to remind us of the seriousness with which Alexander expected his work to be taken; and the fact that someone of Dewy’s standing, in the face of considerable opposition from his peers, saw in its practical application so much of his own philosophy, reflects badly on the general conception today that the Technique is a form of remedial bodywork, unworthy of deep or scholastic consideration.

As if to counterbalance this, Joroen Staring’s other essay, "THE HOMO CLAUSUS IN STATU NASCENDI", is erudite to the point of obscuration. The gist of it seems to be that there are contemporary thinkers, working in similar fields to Dewy’s, who subscribe, wholly or partially, to a theory concerning the influence of civilisation on humanity that isn’t dissimilar to Alexander’s; and that if they could be persuaded to study his work, they might realise it provides a means of redressing a universal problem.

This theory is presented as the "homo clausus self-experiences of present-day people in the West". It was developed by Norbert Elias, a German Jew living and working in London before World War II. "Homo clausus" is defined as "closed personality"; and the "self-experience" in question as the increasing tendency for humans to see themselves as individual beings, "cut off" from each other and "closed" to their environment.

Elias believed this process of alienation began around the time of the Renaissance, due to the overpowering need for individual restraint in society. With the consequent development of stronger and stronger "self images", differentiation between people intensified. From his vantage point several centuries later, he considered this to have been a major "civilisation shift".

The problem, as Staring sees it, is that Elias’s was a sociological, and therefore detached, understanding of the human condition, whereas what is needed is an anthropological, or more involved, view, which he believes Alexander supplied. He speculates that Alexander’s description of the head being pulled backwards and down in response to a stimulus was actually the physical manifestation of a homo clausus self-experience; and he suspects anyone who accepts Elias’s theory would, if they were exposed to Alexander work, recognise this in themselves, and realise there is a practical means of addressing it.

Staring devotes much of his essay to the issues of childbearing and birth, pointing out that those about to enter the world do not necessarily do so in a pristine state. Due in part to the size of infant heads as a result of evolution, but much more, he believes, to the degeneration in muscular tone and the over developed individuality of mothers as a consequence of homo clausus self-experiences, birth itself has become increasingly problematic, and gestation, once a time for harmonious intercommunication between mother and unborn child, a disenchanting period of relative isolation for them both.

Unfortunately, as Staring explains, although some of the problems surrounding pregnancy have been recognised, the remedial approaches tend to concentrate on strengthening of the self, often through "rather stupid gymnastic or yoga feats". The result is that women, by inadvertently distancing themselves from the new life within, feel even more cut off than normal; while their baby, wanting to communicate with a mother whose attempts to undo the harm of civilisation make this decreasingly possible, becomes enveloped in a "hard ball" of growing tension. Staring describes the impact of these formative months as "unborn children making contact with closed human beings".

Once deciphered, his is a compelling argument; and the way Staring links the opinions of a wide range of present day European thinkers with Alexander’s philosophy is an indication of what he considers its proper sphere of influence. Rather than being allied with a polyglot of approaches to health that, as he suggests, only increase an individual’s propensity for homo clausus self-experiences, he clearly believes Alexander’s work would fare better if it found common cause with those who study the wider issues of humanity.

The key question for teachers of the Technique, however, isn’t so much why civilisation may have brought about a fundamental change in human consciousness, nor the extent to which any such change will have been accompanied by a redistribution of muscle tension; but whether we should expect Alexander work, with its emphasis on the individual, to be effective in mitigating, rather than perpetuating, or even accentuating, the phenomena of "homo clausus in status nascendi".