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This article was originally published in Positive Health issue 60 – January 2001
In Body Awareness, F Pierce Jones remarks that “…use determines functioning” might be considered “Alexander’s law”. The problem with the law thus stated is that it is incomplete insofar as it leaves out an essential part of the equation. The missing link is ‘shape’ or ‘form’. As I see it, the law should be phrased as follows: ‘Use conditions form; form conditions functioning’. This is because while it is true that the way we use ourselves exerts a powerful influence upon our functioning, it only does so indirectly through the medium of shape. As Harvey, discoverer of the circulation of the blood would say: “shape is a clue to functioning”; it is also the link between use and functioning.
FM Alexander didn’t overlook the importance of shape as a key element playing a crucial role in both use and functioning. If you examine his four books, you will see that both ‘form’ and ‘shape’ are frequently mentioned as faithful companions of ‘use’ and ‘functioning’. As a keen reader and interpreter of the human form, Alexander was constantly making use of morphology (the study of form). At a glance he could detect various morphological signs, such as “a marked lumbar curve of the spine, fallen arches of the feet, a pouter-pigeon style chest, an undue depression of the larynx, an undue rigidity of the thorax, hips held too far forward, knee joints pressed too far back, an upper chest unduly raised…”. He knew that all these outer signs reflected inner defects and that they are all the result of misuse.
But Alexander did not just use his eyes; he did not stop at observing his pupils like a horse dealer: he also used his hands to reshape their misshapen bodies. Morphological analysis was followed by morphological correction. “I am able to re-adjust and to teach others to re-adjust the human machine with the hands; to mould the body, as it were, into its proper shape…”, he says in Man’s Supreme Inheritance. The moulding of the body was an important part of his work. This is why a grateful pupil rightly called him “a sculptor of humanity”.
Yet shape does not, apparently, always interest his followers. As far as I know, not a single Alexander Technique (AT) training school includes morphology in its curriculum. AT students are not taught how to differentiate between normal and abnormal shape. To cap it all, some teachers practise what is ironically known as the ‘remote-control’ approach: teaching AT with hardly any use of the hands! That’s a definite regression to the very beginning of Alexander’s career when he tried to pass his knowledge on by only using the spoken word. However, he soon came to the conclusion that it was vital to use his hands in order to teach effectively. AT deals with use, shape and functioning; remove shape from the equation and you get an unsound and shaky method.
I am convinced that the introduction of morphology into the curriculum of AT training courses would lead to a better training of teachers, and, consequently, to more efficient practice. It could also, to some extent, stop the internecine quarrels between the training schools.
Since one aspect of teaching AT consists of ‘sculpting’ the living form – and then, of course, teaching our living ‘sculptures’ how to inhibit the habits of use which have altered their natural shape in the first place – training schools urgently need to develop their students into the Rodins or even the Praxiteles (a famous Greek sculptor) of the human living form. AT teachers would do well to heed the following advice given by F Mézières, another sculptor of humanity: “We must have eyes only for perfect morphology and we must let ourselves be guided uniquely by the elegance of forms.”
Failing that, teachers and pupils alike will not be able to benefit from the full potential of AT. Paying scant attention to physical imperfections, teachers inevitably reduce the efficacy of this indispensable technique. Mistaking non-doing (an important feature of AT) with doing nothing, and being morphologically illiterate, they will not attempt, or only in a timorous fashion, to reshape their pupils, thus depriving them of an important part of the possible benefits of the Alexander technique.
I am reminded of two pupils of mine whose cases illustrate this problem well. One of them is very tall and was badly misshapen.
He’d had many lessons in AT before consulting me – these had been mainly in the form of table-work, where nothing much was done to change his shape. From his first lesson with me, I was able to show him the scope of improvement in shape, and consequently in use, he could expect. He was quite impressed by what had been achieved in so short a space of time and wondered why his former teacher did not attempt to “mould his body into its proper shape” to quote Alexander. The second case concerns an AT teacher who had to give up teaching due to serious physical disability. He came to me to try the Mézières’ method. A morphological analysis revealed that his spine was severely shortened and compressed with a deep lordosis (incurve) in the thoraco-lumbar region, deep enough to explain his disability. Yet, during the three years of his training course he had never been told of this marked lordosis and nothing was ever done to correct it.
There is more to AT than just inhibiting the tilting back of the head or remembering to bend at the knees and hips. AT is an art as well as a science; like artists, its teachers must study form. As Alexander would say: “…the eye of an artist is needed to apprehend the faults in a painting or in a work of sculpture, and, above all, the defects in a human body.”