Interview with Peggy Williams

pwiIn An interview with Peggy Williams (compiled by Glen Park) one catches a detailed glimpse of what training with F.M. Alexander was like. In addition to the fact that Alexander was likely in the prime of his teaching ability when Peggy trained, Patrick Macdonald and Walter Carrington (arguably the two most influential teacher trainers in the years following Alexander’s death) were assisting.

Ms. Williams relates how her experience in training released many emotional and physical demons from her difficult child & adulthood, listing daily breakdowns into tears, backaches, and fatigue. This went on for an astounding eighteen months before she “let herself be still.” A great example of how we can slow change by trying to hold ourselves together, rather than letting go of control. This “letting go” on her part was intimately tied to her idea of giving direction. “It was only when I stopped giving the orders to myself verbally that I really began to understand what it was all about,” she said.

Peggy tells a story of someone getting offended by her reactions to working with him and refusing to work with her which was a “guilty relief.” Ms.Williams asserts that tight wrists and hands were the cause of her experience, which was a major part of what I experienced in not-so-great turns from trainees. As I became more and more sensitive to the subtleties of direction and already achy from physical changes taking place, being pushed and pulled on- especially in a forward and down direction was very agitating. The possibility for interpersonal difficulties in training is a constant dynamic. Projection, giving/receiving feedback, and being practiced on by people with less refined skills was often uncomfortable.

One trainee in particular preferred to experiment without feedback, putting me in the position of either quietly taking what felt like abuse, or refusing to work in that way. After these experiences I empathized with my trainers more as they get quite a bit of inexperienced hands while the trainees figure things out. All the being said, what I experienced as a horrible Alexander experience would most likely be perceived as decent by the average person because relative to where they are. Patrick Macdonald is quoted as saying that for 30 years he took people down but relative to where they were it was up.

Ms. Williams gave this advice from working with Alexander, “Occasionally he’d stand one of us behind a pupil and put our hands on their shoulders and tell us that we must expect that the more our fingers felt like cotton-wool and useless the better it was.” She also warns against making non-doing an end in itself adding, “I just know what’s needed and I’m allowing for what is needed to happen.” She speaks to the different styles of teaching; stating, “I’ve heard praise for all sorts of people, though I personally wouldn’t want their hands near me. But different people have different things to offer.”

Peggy shares many anecdotal stories of Alexander’s input in relation to an AT concept, “Occasionally FM would come into class and look at us all sitting round and he’d say, “Just look at you all sitting round trying to be right” adding, “You still do see students and teachers doing this sort of thine, sitting up like rigid dummies … It gives then technique a bad name.” More and more I’m realizing how easy a trap this is to fall into. All teachers know that we are not supposed to “do” the directions, but what is it we are doing when our eye glaze over and we start to stiffen?

As for the question of the development of the technique she had this to say, “I’d like to see people if they are teaching the technique definitely teaching the technique and not mixing it with other things, that is for sure. I don’t like experimenting, except if you’re experimenting with your own skills and your own use in the framework of what Alexander taught.” adding, “There are many therapies that are valid in themselves. If you can use this technique to make you better at doing something else, that is absolutely fine, but I don’t like the idea of using part [Alexander] technique and part massage or something different.” This type of sentiment is abundant among the first generations of teachers but is somewhat fading with Alexander yoga, pilates, etc. I am in agreement with Peggy as surely the technique can (and should) be applied to specific activities but trying to learn bits and pieces of several moralities can muddy the water.

Perhaps more than anything else you get a sense of the tremendous difficulties you go through while training and learning the technique from this interview. Ms. Williams even comes right out and says that learning and changing is painful, however she offers the valuable advice that one ought to “Enjoy the hard work and thought.”

Body Learning

LB-body-learningBody Learning by Michael J. Gelb was one of the first texts I read on the Alexander Technique, as it was required reading in the very first group introduction to the AT class I took. Upon re-reading it I see now why my teacher and so many others recommend the book to people with little or no experience with the AT. The book contains all of the core concepts of the Alexander Technique with minimal pontificating on possibilities of the future of mankind and other dense topics that plague many AT books, including ones written to be introductions. Also somewhat important in an introduction to the Alexander technique, which can sometimes be seen as a strange and esoteric practice, is the fact that Michael Gelb carriers some weight as an author from his other books which lends itself to the AT; not to mention the many endorsements by well-known individuals in related fields and a foreword by Walter Carrington.

I don’t remember being very taken by the book when I read it in college except for a few points here and there which were revolutionary for me at the time, mostly to do with observing without judgement and the effects of trying to be ‘right’ vs letting the right thing do itself. Being such a stereotypical Westerner, anything resembling Zen was far outside my experience except for the times I’d stumbled into it while practicing the viola. The author quotes F.M. Alexander, “Everyone wants to be right, but no one stops to consider if their right is right.”

As I read the book more recently, I was interested in the book as a potential teaching tool for my students. Right off the bat, I have to say I love the title and cover photo. As with his other books, he shows off his cleverness with double-entendre (ex. Thinking for a Change). I was more than satisfied with the descriptions of Alexander, the detailed timeline of his life and the development of his work, as well as his organizing the principals into ‘operational ideas’ which comprise the first two sections of the book. Mr. Gelb repeatedly makes it known that it is essential to work with a qualified Alexander teacher as the book does leave one wanting something to practice. At one point he describes the “ultimate Alexander exercise” as picking up your phone and making a lesson appointment. In all fairness, there are questions designed to broaden ones awareness at the end of each chapter but the book is hardly a do-it-yourself guide- the primary focus seems to be on building awareness which is the first and arguably largest step.

In fact, I get the sense that Mr. Gelb may be intentionally leaving certain explanations vague as to let a teacher fill in the blanks with hand-on experience (the best way to learn the work). He moves very quickly through many concepts and one is left with a general idea of the technique without a lot of specifics about the inner workings, which again may be best for the beginner as it is somewhat well-known amongst Alexander teachers that a lot of theoretical knowledge of the technique can actually slow learning in the practical sense, the two must be cultivated together, organically.

The author sums up what is commonly known as the mind-body problem quite concisely by stating, “[so long as we keep in mind that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.] Most personality problems are the result of conflict between these parts. Our bodies tell us one thing, our thoughts another and our emotions yet another (for example, I want to eat some cake; no, I shouldn’t, I’ll get fat; I feel guilty about eating, and so on.)” Another favorite quote of mine from the author illustrating that habits are always there but we can choose not to indulge, “I use to be characterized by a raised chest, tight stomach, set jaw, and hunched shoulders- the classic male defensive-aggressive posture. Now I am free to save this for special occasions!”

Mr. Gelb moves from the principals of the AT into a section “Learning how to Learn” which contains relevant ideas to the AT such as, how children so easily learn, fear, cultivating attention, experimentation, and non-interference vs effort. He then uses a number of illustrations of himself applying the principals of the technique to learning skills including: singing, juggling, teaching, riding a unicycle, speed reading, writing, running, swimming, public speaking, and Aikido. This is the best part of the book in my opinion as it shows the AT in action vs concepts out of context. While his explanations of the concepts earlier in the book are sometimes only adequate, the personal stories of his application of the technique are very useful and entertaining. The only exception to this being the section on Alexander work and organization change as he never bridges the gap between philosophical ideas and practical applications; although it is a cute look at the subject of organizational change through Alexander jargon, showing how organizations behave like organisms.

In Body Learning, Michael Gelb also manages to bring together most of the gems from many of the authoritative Alexander Technique texts; you would normally have to wade through many pages and chapters of dense writing to find these otherwise, and that’s asking a lot of someone who isn’t terribly invested in learning the technique. You could argue that this is the best aspect of the book, as many of the source materials are out of print and there is no shortage of explanations of the principles and applications of the work available nowadays, perhaps this was different when the book was written in 1981.

Overall, Body Learning is a worthwhile read to anyone interested in the Alexander Technique, even those with a lot of experience as the wonderful quotes, application descriptions, and pictures alone make it worth reading; it also makes a great gift to friends who are curious about the technique. The organization of the book also lends itself well to the group class setting as you can have a class per section in the book, giving the next section as homework to speed-up the understanding, and reduce the amount of time in class spent on explaining the concepts so you can get to the most important part- the hands-on work.