Who would have thought? I mean, who would have thought that when I was 25 years old and utterly convinced that Marjorie Barstow’s approach to teaching Alexander’s work was superior in every way to the stiff, postural, ritualistic procedures that had come to be known as the Alexander Technique, who would have thought, that forty years later, I would not feel that way?
I mean, wasn’t it completely obvious that working in groups was the best way to develop your eye, that it was the best way to get your students working on their own, of weaning them from dependence on your hands? Didn’t everyone know that group teaching was the way to get the work into the larger system of education, where learning happened in groups, like in universities and elementary schools, in dance classes and yoga classes, and in physical therapy colleges? Wasn’t it as clear as day that working in activities was the quickest way to demonstrate to people that the work was eminently practical? And wasn’t is a no brainer that adhering to a 1600 hour, 3 year residential training model as the only possible model for training was absurd? I mean how could one not recognize this training structure as elitist, as out of touch with the needs of everyday working people? Hadn’t they noticed the emergence of night schools, of adult education, of retreat centers, of all the ways society was enabling hard working people, people with families, to study and train and grow?
Those were my beliefs as a twenty something, arrogant, brazen Alexander teacher. Slowly, very slowly, I got off my white horse, I took off my shining armor, I stopped fighting, and I started questioning everything, most importantly, Marj’s work, and my own opinions.
Really, was my use all that great? Was I not physically uncomfortable some of the time? Wasn’t my body still inflexible in certain ways? Wasn’t I still driven, obsessed? Was I really free to respond to situations the way I wanted? Was I able to control my impulsivity, my anger, my defensiveness? No, I wasn’t. So why did I feel like I knew what was best for the entire Alexander world?
It came down to wanting to be right, special, the best. So of course I had to have a teacher who was the best, better than anyone else. How, without having directly experienced all the approaches to the Alexander Technique I was capable of arriving at the irrefutable conclusion that Marj’s work, and therefore my work was the best work out there, I have no idea. But there you have it, the human mind at work in all of its glory.
I see now that Marj, like everyone, had her strengths and her weaknesses. She had a great eye, but she had her blind spots too. I needed to get some distance from Marj, I needed to see her and her work more honestly if I was going see myself honestly, if I was going to see what I knew, and what I didn’t know, which the older I get I see is just shy of infinity.
For example, Marj changed Alexander’s directions from “neck free, head forward and up, back to lengthen and widen” to, “what would happen if ever so delicately your whole head moved slightly away from your body and your whole body immediately followed?” I clearly understand why Marj chose the language she did, but now I also know what she lost by excluding reference to the neck and the back, and to directional language such as forward and up, or lengthening and widening. I can get both ways of directing to work for me, but honestly, I love Alexander’s directions. At this point they work better for me. I’ve also developed other ways of directing and allowing the primary movement to surge through me, but the point is I know now that there isn’t one way that’s right for everyone, forever, all across the board.
You see that’s the thing. When we are getting something new, we don’t see what we’re losing. And when we are holding on to what we don’t want to lose, we don’t see what we could be getting.
My friend Lena Frederick died in her early 50’s. I would have loved to see who she would have become if she had lived into a ripe old age. Lena trained with Walter Carrington, and then went on to study with Marj for many years. I remember her telling me that Alexander’s procedures were too hard for most everyone. She said that it would have been much easier for her if she had first studied with Marj for about ten years, and then went on to study with Walter.
I didn’t understand what Lena meant by that, but I knew Lena was a wise woman, so I decided to take that in, and clearly I did, because 25 years later here I am realizing it’s true. Now I’m ready to work through Alexander’s procedures. And I’m going to find a way to do that.
It’s like Keith Jarrett, for his entire career an improvisational jazz musician, deciding to play classical music, which he did. Or Steve Paxton, originator of Contact Improvisation, as an old man, deciding to choreograph ever so precisely to Johann Sebastian Bach, which he did. I’ve spent my life teaching improvisationally to Alexander’s principles outside of his classical procedures. I know how to do that.
But if I want to keep growing, if we want to keep growing, we sometimes have to leave what we are good at, we’ve got to go forward toward a place unknown, into a place we resist, into a place we feel is wrong, just what Alexander suggested we do.
It’s in that place where we didn’t want to go, that’s where the gift may lie, just what we need, just what we always wanted.