Chair work was Alexander’s favourite device for teaching his technique, and is used by many teachers of the Alexander Technique.
It allows the teacher, in a confined space, to put hands on a pupil and monitor the pupil during an activity. It traditionally includes the pupil sitting down and standing up, bending forwards and backwards from the hips while sitting, and leaning backwards onto a support such as the back of the chair (sometimes using book for the shoulders), all under the guidance of a teacher.
It is not known when Alexander started using the chair as a teaching aid. Marjory Barlow says it was during his development of the Technique with mirrors so possibly in the 1890s.
The first reference by Alexander to the use of a chair in his teaching is in ‘Re-Education of the Kinæsthetic Systems’ (1908):
I append a simple example of what is meant by mechanical advantage. Let the pupil sit as far back in a chair as possible. The teacher, having decided upon the orders necessary for securing the elongation of the spine, the freedom of the neck (i.e. requisite natural laxness) and other conditions desirable to the particular case in hand, will then ask the pupil to rehearse them mentally, at the same time that he himself renders assistance by the skilful use of his hands. Then, holding with one hand one or two books, as the case may be, against the inner back of the chair, he will rely upon the pupil inwardly rehearsing the orders necessary to maintain and improve the conditions present, while he, with the other hand placed upon the pupil’s shoulder, causes the body gradually to incline backwards until its weight is taken by the back of the chair.
(The above description is repeated almost verbatim in MSI.)
Alexander on chair work
In a 1925 lecture Alexander describes the purpose of chair work:
I want to pass on to another illustration, and that is one which will interest you all very much, I am sure, because it is simply a matter of sitting in a chair. If a person comes to me with some difficulty, I am much against teaching him exercises or giving him any special instruction that he may carry out when he gets home. I want to give him something that he can apply in practical life from the moment that he goes out of my room. Consequently, as we must all of us sit down a number of times, it occurred to me long ago that it would be a very good idea if we could apply some technique to the act of standing and sitting during the day. . . . To get back to our illustration. I ask my pupil to sit down on a chair again, and I am faced as a result with the fact that most people, when they sit down, put their heads back more or less, and I am going to take that to begin with, because it is the act of most people, and because it is something you can realize. We ask this person to sit down and we find in sitting down, [that] the head is pulled back more or less, an indication more or less of interference with the general use of the mechanism.
Alexander continues to describe chair work in this lecture.
Alexander uses the example of ‘the acts of sitting and of rising from a sitting position’ to explain the process of employing his technique in MSI:
Firstly, then, rid the mind of the idea of sitting down, and consider the exercise and each order independently of the ﬁnal consequence they entail. In other words, study the ‘means,’ not the ‘end.’ Secondly, stand in the position already described as the correct standing position, with the back of the legs almost touching the seat of the chair. Thirdly, order the neck to relax, and at the same time order the head forward and up. (Note that to ‘order’ the muscles of the neck to relax does not mean ‘allow the head to fall forward on the chest.’ The order suggested is merely a mental preventive to the erroneous preconceived idea.) Fourthly, keep clearly in the mind the general idea of the lengthening of the body which is a direct consequence of the third series of orders. And fifthly, order simultaneously the hips to move backwards and the knees to bend, the knees and hip-joints acting as hinges. . . .
In CCC, in the chapter ‘Illustration’, the pupil is seated for performing the procedure ‘hands on the back of a chair’.
In UCL, Alexander describes the reason for using a chair for teaching:
In the employment of my technique this added difficulty is taken into account from the start of the lessons, and hence, in any attempt to help a pupil to change habitual reaction, I begin with procedures that involve only simple activities on the pupil’s part, such as sitting and rising from a chair, in order to give him in the easiest way the opportunity to inhibit his habitual response when any stimulus to activity comes to him.
(There are more references to the use of a chair in UCL.)
Lesson descriptions and pictures of Alexander teaching from about 1918 onwards are almost exclusive chair work, see for example the Binkley diaries, and The Philosopher’s Stone (a selection of diaries of lessons with Alexander).
Writings on chair work
The Alexander Technique in Conversation by John Nicholls and Seán Carey contains a section on chair work.
A description of Marjory Barlow’s chair work is published in Think More, Do Less. Many introductory books to the Technique contain a section on sitting and standing.
‘Chair Work: What is It? Why Do It?’ by Tom Vasiliades is an article on the many benefits of chair work.
Chair and table work has been criticised as not relating to people’s daily life, notably as the result of Marjorie Barstow’s ‘application approach’. Arguments for chair work have been put forward by John Nicholls, Walton White, and Tom Vasiliades.
The article ‘Primary control, what, why, how’ by John Nicholls also contains arguments as to the benefits of chair work.