James Butler, Alexander Teacher

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After a short career in the Army, I spent 33 years of my working life as a Chartered Surveyor, before qualifying as a teacher of the Alexander Technique in 2011. I started taking Alexander lessons when I was in need of help for work related stress and its consequences and then decided to undertake training as an Alexander teacher to maintain and improve my own use – and also to pass on the many benefits of this extraordinary technique to others.

I teach people from a wide range of ages and backgrounds and my own experience of riding, singing, mountaineering and skiing is a useful background to my work.

I’m fully qualified and insured, and as a member of the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT) I abide by its professional standards and code of ethics. Like all STAT qualified teachers I am regularly CRB checked and as part of my continuing professional development I share work with other experienced teachers.

The Alexander Technique teaches us to study our thinking in relation to movement – in other words, it is how we think that affects the quality of our movement. This is surprising to most people whose movement is often dominated by habit, and many are largely unaware of how they sit, stand, walk and move generally.

Even those who have learned particular ways of moving – dancers for instance – nearly always develop levels of harmful excess tension in their efforts to perfect their style.
That applies to just about anything we do at work or play, whether it be playing a musical instrument, tennis, singing, working at a computer or ploughing a field.

Often it is appropriate to be treated by a doctor or therapist for injuries, aches and pains. Although that treatment can deal with a presenting problem, it will not usually address underlying misuse in the way in which the Alexander Technique can.

Working together, the Alexander teacher and the student develop the student’s potential for freedom of movement and balance, both in mind and body, resulting in better use of all of ourselves, less strain and less pain.

I usually give a free “taster” session at the outset, when we can discuss your wants and needs and whether a course of lessons in the Alexander Technique is appropriate for you just now. It also gives you the chance to meet me and see whether you feel comfortable with my teaching style. Learning about Alexander’s discovery is a personal process and it is important that you feel comfortable with me as your teacher.

Like learning to drive a car, the Alexander Technique is not something that is learned in a very short time. The learning process is unique to each pupil: we all learn at our own pace and in our own way.

A course of ten lessons will give you a reasonable grounding in the technique: I advise least once a week for five weeks, and then once a fortnight for a further five sessions. But that does depend very much on your individual requirements and how deeply you wish to explore the Alexander Technique.

Cost: £45 per individual 45 minute session, with discounts for “bundles” of lessons.

Sessions can be booked by contacting the Receptionist at Marlborough House
1 Middle Street, Taunton TA1 1H Tel: 01823 272227 Email: contact@mh-tc.com

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An Adventure in Group Teaching

In the early 1970’s  I was on my first solo flight in a glider. At about 600 feet and crossing the airfield before coming in to land,  I suddenly had a crisis – I simply couldn’t remember in which direction to do my final circuit, left or right handed.

Bloody hell! What to do?

Those watching on the ground saw me hovering like a kite and half expected me to fall out of the sky and crash onto the airfield as there seemed to be no movement where I was. As a glider pilot, you are always looking for rising air currents or lift that are more powerful than the gravity that is pulling you down. Eventually – it seemed like ages, but was probably 5 seconds or so – I decided to go left, got on with it and landed. I well remember the tremendous rocket I got from the chief instructor when I climbed out of the aircraft!

Last Saturday I held my first in a series of workshops in the function room of a local pub. The venue was great. But I have to say there were moments when I felt as I had done all those years ago. A distinct feeling of Why aren’t they reacting as I expect; and what on earth should I do next?

It wasn’t a failure, far from it, but I’m struggling to find aspects to celebrate.

What really surprised me, was my lack of confidence.

I have taught many groups before, so why was this one any different?

Well, teaching rock climbing, canoeing, mountain walking or riding come to that,  is really easy compared with this work. You demonstrate; you do and they follow (or get lost). I find that practical, energetic things are easier to put over to a group than the Alexander Technique.

And teaching a group is not the same as 1-2-1. Not at all.

I had a disparate group of 11 people, many of whom I had known quite well for a number of years.

Trap No 1.

They didn’t know me as a teacher of Alexander Technique and it took a while for them to get used to that idea. Some had long been dismissive of my work; the hobby I had taken on after “retirement”. They they came along out of curiosity, perhaps persuaded by their friends or other halves. Four were singers, and only one had any experience of the Alexander Technique – well it was an introductory workshop, so I shouldn’t have expected anything else.

They recognised my passion all right. There was no doubt about that, although perhaps they saw it as missionary zeal.

This was the first workshop where I was incorporating Jeremy and Peter’s teaching. I had clearly in my mind Peter’s advice to have a plan, so I had spent a long time in preparation. And I thought I had worked out what I would do – and yet I still felt ill prepared – or was I?

Looking back on it, yes I was. I was following a script, rather like singing a solo, and I think you cannot teach this work like that. Yes, have a plan, but do not be too slavish about it.

I could tell when I had lost the audience – a person staring at the ceiling and evidently bored is a huge stimulus in itself. How to get their attention? When I spoke to him in the break, I found him to be charming and interested, so it was my perception that was faulty.

And yet.

I had a plan of the “games” and followed that. But I completely failed to have the central strand of Alexander’s discovery running throughout the session like an iron rod. Yes I explained it at the outset, and my plan dictated much less chat and more action. But the action was not bound in with the central idea. I should have come back to that more often.

As I consulted my mind map on the table there were pauses whilst I decided how I was going to do the next thing. I was told later there was a palpable feeling in the group that I didn’t know what I was doing, and of course they were right, in those moments.

I would have liked to have more pauses for thought, actually. They can be useful and powerful. But in an atmosphere where the audience is expecting constant stimulation, pauses can be taken as a sign of weakness. I was the dog being wagged by the tail of the group. Bad dog!

The strong temptation to get drawn into particular issues that people had (and there were many) was a big stimulus for me. But dealing with those issues was the whole point of the exercise. I was pleased that questions came up, but found that when I tried to address them, other things were going on elsewhere in the room and I lost the rest of the group. Little huddles formed, talking about Bridge, or horses or the price of fish.

“Why were we walking round the room with our chins out?”  “Why did we pick up our chairs?”

Good questions. I thought I had explained all of that. Obviously not clearly enough. So I went through it again, but the rest weren’t listening!

I thought I was properly prepared, but clearly I wasn’t. The reality wasn’t what was in my imagination, so experience is key.

Lessons learned, in particular:

  • My own use is of paramount importance. When things weren’t going according to plan, my own use went AWOL.
  • As a result I found it very difficult to notice what was going on with individuals in the group.
  • I don’t need to be the dog that is being wagged by the tail. I found It impossible not to be stimulated by what was going on in the group and then to react accordingly (ie someone looking bored) as opposed to remaining in my back and sticking to my plan. More easily said than done. Back to my own use.
  • Back to Peter’s advice: Quiet the inner critics. Gosh isn’t that ever true!
  • Work with a niche. It’s probably far easier to teach a cohesive interested group (Avatar springs to mind) who really want to learn what I have to teach.
  • This means that I have to assemble like-minded people, and that can really only come from creating interest through blogging and creating interest through my website and my Facebook page
  • I need to be much clearer with my plan for the workshop and keep that uppermost in my mind, not to be distracted by side issues. Of course those issues will come up, but just maybe they will be less destructive if my plan is clear and the audience likewaise.
  • For the time being, work with 8 people maximum, so there is a chance I can deal with individual issues that come up. With increased experience, I can build the numbers.
  • Teaching a group is not a lot different to solo performance. In fact it IS performance, so I should behave accordingly.
  • I have found running the workshop a hugely important learning experience, albeit with scope for improvement ahem.

I shall be interested to discover what comes out of the feedback forms sent out yesterday.

Standing Back

A discussion on last evening’s Zoom with Viktoria brought to my mind the recent AT workshop I attended in Dorset.

We had a short session where we split into pairs and those who were AT teachers each worked with someone who was not. It was a crowded room, and we had about ten minutes, so very limited time. I chanced to work with a woman, perhaps in her 30’s or 40’s who, on the face of it, seemed to have good use. From the way she sat and walked, it seemed to me that she had done a lot of Yoga. I asked whether there were any issues we could work with, any pain or discomfort. I received no answer, just a stare into the distance. By way of opening up a conversation, I suggested that she might want to take off her shoes, which she did.

“Kick them under the chair” she said.

At least I had a reaction. I picked them up and put them under the chair.

“I said kick them!” she said.

I explained that I had chosen to put them there, and that this work has a lot to do with choice. She nodded, but still stared ahead as if I was not there, would not speak and started to flap her arms about and shake her head. It was apparent to me that she was mentally disturbed in some way, and in the absence of any meaningful communication, I stood back and observed what she was doing, which was all that I felt I could do.

After the session was over, we had a group discussion, and my pupil, rather than join in, went into a sort of trance, energetically pulling imaginary foreign bodies from her hair and flapping her arms and shaking her head.

Initially I felt very guilty that I had not been able to help the pupil, and had perhaps been the cause of her strange behaviour. But on reflection, I concluded that I had done the right thing.

I did not know for sure what was going on in or with her, and it was not my job to second guess what that might be. I still don’t know, which is not to say I didn’t care.

There’s a difference I think between being present in that moment, and unnecessary doing for the sake of doing. Unless I’m “in my back” I’m no good to anyone else.

Sleeping It Off

A while back, I remember Jeremy saying that he wasn’t a fan of semi-supine, because Marjorie had maintained that it encouraged people to go to sleep. Whilst I wouldn’t argue with that, I do think that it’s a good thing to embrace sleep, as and when my body tells me to. This morning, I found myself listening to someone on BBC Radio 4 talking about a book he had just published, on the subject of sleep, and its value to every one of us, and what he said resonated with me.

I am known to be narcoleptic, as was my father, so perhaps that’s something I inherited from him. A long time ago, a drill sergeant at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst said to me: “Mr Butler, I do believe you could sleep on a razor blade, Sir” as I woke up, yet again, having lost concentration in a lecture, or was it on a pre-dawn cordon and search or some such activity.

My father was the same. A successful military man, he was fast asleep during a tedious post prandial meeting in 1940’s Egypt. He was at the head of the table, and suddenly awoke to find everyone staring at him – well, behind him he realised. And there was a tiger, that had run away from a nearby circus. He stood up, grabbed it by the scruff of the neck and led it outside, then shut the door. He was good with animals, it must be said.

I still have incidents of narcolepsy, but less so than I did 40 years ago, when I often had those irresistible urges to sleep, sometimes in inappropriate places: a good play, a dinner party, and yes, driving a car. Nowadays I’m less afflicted, as know that what I eat (and drink) play a large part in how I feel. Obvious innit? Also, I recognise the signs and listen to what my body is telling me and when I can, I lie down with a book (or rucksack) behind my head and my knees up. And I find that 20 minutes of semi supine not only helps my back, but all of me, and it gives me more energy. And so what if I lose concentration. That is an essential part of my Alexandrian tool kit. And it’s what I teach all of my pupils, almost without exception.

Whatever Happened to Inhibition and Direction?

Ever since I joined ATSuccess, I have been mithering about inhibition and direction, and how I can resolve a conflict in my own thinking. Just recently, Jeremy posted two blogs, that, were I to subscribe to his view, would blew apart some of my fundamental belief in the Alexander Technique.

In reply to my query on Jeremy’s blog, as to “what happened to inhibition and direction” Jeremy replied on FaceBook:

Inhibition and direction are everywhere – they don’t belong to Alexander Technique. Do you believe that no-one really understands these concepts? I’m sure you don’t, and it’s worth asking the question. What these qualities are applied to is the relevancy of Alexander, and they are applied to noticing the relationship of head and spine in relation to what you are doing. That’s me saying what I said in the blog in another way – is this still asking you to throw the baby out (with the bathwater)? You can do this while getting in and out of a chair, or while lying on a table. And yet – there are just two of a potentially infinite number of actives you could be exploring with an individual. My blog was saying – think about the proclivities of the person you are teaching, and choose the activity to which you apply this universal process to observe head/spine relationship based on an empathetic understanding of what would be more effective for them. Bit convoluted, and I have been saying this in my own way since day one of ATSuccess.

That’s all very well, Jeremy. I go along with the concept that inhibition and direction do not belong to Alexander, but I do contend that they are at the very core of what I teach. And in all the books I have read about the Alexander Technique, the same message keeps being repeated.

Take Frank Pierce Jones for example:

“I was able to follow AR’s instruction and inhibit my immediate response to the stimulus to stand up and could maintain the inhibition long enough, either to let him initiate and guide the movement for me, or (with somewhat more difficulty) to initiate and carry it out myself. In either case, the movement induced the same kinaesthetic effect of lightness – not as sharp as the first time because the element of surprise was missing, but more enduring.

Once I had experienced the kinaesthetic effect, the reward was so great that I tried to recapture it directly and hang onto it when I had it. This proved self-defeating, however. It was the indirect effect of a psycho-physical process and could only be obtained by not trying for it. Its chief function in the learning process was to indicate by its presence that I was on the right track and to provide a background of feeling tone, against which maladaptive response patterns could be recognised for what they were. I had been aware of neck muscle tension before, but had not been aware that the tension increased in response to stimuli. Now the response pattern – the increment in tension – began to stand out against the newly-induced background of postural tone, so that there was a clear-cut figure ground relation between them. What the procedures I had learned from AR had done, was to remove a great deal of the “noise” from the tonic “ground” so that the tensional “figure” was easier to perceive. Once the figure was perceived for what it was – an increment of tension in response to a particular stimulus – it could be controlled: “inhibited” was the word AR used.”

FP Jones – Freedom to Change

I note particularly that FPJ acknowledges the subconscious nature of his reaction to a stimulus, and that without consciously inhibiting his response, he is unable to achieve the end he desires. FM said much the same in Use of the Self.

Jon Nicholls’ comments in his forward to Walter Carrington’s Thinking Aloud in the 1980’s:

Twenty one years after starting my training …I find myself more than ever convinced that the understanding of the technique conveyed in these pages is more fundamentally radical, modern and up to date in its implications than anything else currently available. The message repeated again and again is that we are responsible for how our energies are directed, whether we are conscious of it or not; that we can learn how to redirect those energies into more useful pathways; and that inhibition, direction and primary control give us both the means to do that and the criteria for reviewing whether we are actually succeeding in doing so.

Jon Nicholls

I often refer my own pupils to Walter Carrington’s thoughts, particularly an extract from the Chapter “Allowing Time to Say No” taken from a talk to his trainee teachers on 16th March 1983:

As a teacher, you’ve got to be careful what you ask, how much you ask, and what you insist on. You’ve got to accept the fact that you’ve asked them to say “no” and they haven’t said “no”. And you’ve asked them to give consent to the head going forward and up; and ahead of giving consent to the release, they’ve in fact gone and done it. You’ve got to put up with a lot of that, because until you can get them into a point of calmness, where saying “no” is a practical possibility, it just won’t work.

Nevertheless, it’s important that you as the teacher should be clear about what’s going on, what’s supposed to be going on, and what you’re trying to accomplish. You’re trying to get the pupil to say “no” in order to stop their instinctive response to the stimulus, and then to give consent to the new messages.

Without saying “no” the pupil’s habits come into play. It is more than that: it’s a mixture of their reflex responses, their conscious efforts and thoughts and feelings and ideas and beliefs and everything that motivates that sort of voluntary activity. It’s a mixture of the voluntary and the involuntary. It’s a thoroughly neurotic mixture because it’s a mixture in which they’re saying “I don’t want to do it at all” and some part is saying “come and do it” and the other is saying “I don’t want to” and the other’s then saying “you must!” and there’s all that tangle of confusion going on. As teachers, we’re trying to sort out the tangle.

The only way you can possibly sort out the tangle is by learning to stop, by learning to say “no”. When you’ve stopped the doing, then it’s possible to proceed by the process of giving consent to the new messages”

Walter Carrington – Thinking Aloud

 

In Man’s Supreme Inheritance, at P.124 in my copy, FM Alexander sets out the process of conscious guidance and control thus:

In performance of any muscular activity by conscious guidance and control there are four essential stages:

  1. The conception of the movement required;
  2. The inhibition of erroneous preconceived ideas which subconsciously suggest the manner in which the movement or series of movements should be performed;
  3. The new and conscious mental orders which will set in motion the muscular mechanism essential to the to the correct performance of the action; and
  4. The movements (contraction and expansion) of the muscles which carry out the mental orders.

 

FM Alexander – Man’s Supreme Inheritance

I suppose I am encouraged to think that what Jeremy is teaching is not the Alexander Technique as i know it; and that is what he says in his blog “How FM Changed Everything and Nothing”:

These days people around me know I have a distaste for using the term “Alexander Technique.” I think the term misleads people’s thinking. It is implicitly asserting that this process is at the heart of FM’s contribution to human evolution.

It isn’t.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say the reverse is true: FM’s original process has held back development!

At the core of the spread of FM’s work is the simple, self-evident insight that head movements govern vertebral co-ordination, which in turn influences limb co-ordination. Primary Control.

As we all know, Coghill came to a similar conclusion in observing the behaviour of Amblystoma.

The process FM evolved was not an original creation. It was a version of scientific process. It was what every inventor, innovator, entrepreneur, teacher or change agent – in their own unique way – will do in pursuit of implementing an insight.

FM is special because of what he purposed the process to implement: restoration and development of the natural co-ordinating principle of all vertebrates.

This is not splitting hairs, this is fundamental.

This is why I am personally determined to destroy the concept of the “Alexander Technique”. Instead, my wish is to replace it with a narrative that more accurately describes the extraordinary contribution FM made to the evolution of human behaviour.

I am interested in Jeremy’s views, but see no reason to throw out the baby with the bath water, or in other words to discard the concepts of the Alexander Technique as I have learned them. I would need to see a lot more evidence before I accept that. I do have a lot of time for Jeremy’s views on group teaching, which evidently works, and I see no reason why the principles as I have learned them cannot be applied to Jeremy’s teaching methods.

I accept that these are very different views and are probably mutually exclusive. This gives scope for useful further debate. Perhaps there is room for both: one we can call “the Alexander Technique” and the other “Alexander’s Discovery”. Let them be different,