Lying-down work is also called ‘semi-supine’, ‘table work’, ‘active rest’ or ‘constructive rest’; an earlier name, ‘inhibition work’, is rarely used today. It consists of a lying down and working on yourself, or having a teacher working with you while lying down. It is used by many teachers and frequently featured in books and articles as a practice people can carry out themselves without a teacher. The most frequent position is lying on the back, with the head supported by enough books to avoid it from being pulled backwards, the knees bent with feet on the floor, and the hands resting on the lower ribs or abdomen or on the floor.
The origin of lying-down work is not known. It is reported that F. M. Alexander may have developed it already while in Australia. Alexander taught lying-down work to his apprentices and later on his teacher training course. Lying-down work was originally carried out on a couch or the floor. Walter Carrington in an interview recalls:
I don’t know when FM first started with the idea of getting his pupil to lie down, but I think it was way back in Australia, long before he came to England. And, I think, in those days, that, for instance, when his sister Amy was helping him, the pupils were lying down on the couch. . . . At Ashley Place – in the back room – we had such a couch. It wasn’t in a very good condition. It needed reupholstering. But it was sometimes used for lying pupils down. For instance, my mother went to Ashley Place and had lessons before I did, and she was lying down on the floor. And I think everybody was put on the floor in those days. I do remember occasionally one or two of FM’s pupils being given work on the couch but I think that, as a rule, pupils were lying on the floor.
Erika Whittaker, writing about the first teacher training course (1931–34):
We did not do much lying-down work in those days . . . All we did was to put a rug on the floor on top of the existing rug/carpet (the rest of the floor was parquet), and whoever worked with you had to crawl round on the floor. However, when F. M. did give us guidance on this work he would have one person at the head whilst he moved the pupil’s leg up or down with deft movements in order to obtain a movement free of tension from the back. At that time he did not approve of lying-down turns; I am told he considered them too therapeutic and just a nice rest. But he did often ask Ethel Webb to ‘put down’ a pupil after a lesson with him. Unfortunately I did not enquire at that time how he explained this apparent contradiction.
Whittaker also wrote: ‘No tables in those days, only a rather shaky trestle table in a back room which we students later used.’
It was only in 1939 that a purpose-built table was introduced. A table was more practical for both teacher and pupil, and today a table is used by most teachers who use lying-down work.
It would appear that all of Alexander’s trained teachers used lying-down work, at least in the early days of their teaching. All main training courses following Alexander’s (i.e. those run by the Barlows, the Carringtons, and Macdonald) taught lying-down work, and it is standard in all Alexander Technique teaching with the exception of the application approach.
The term ‘semi-supine’ was coined by Raymond Dart, a professor of anatomy, who was introduced to the Alexander Technique by Irene Tasker. It is first mentioned in his 1970 lecture ‘An Anatomist’s Tribute to F. Matthias Alexander’:
. . . lie down on a carpeted floor with a big book under your head and pull your heels up as near as possible to your buttocks and study yourself first while resting in a semi-supine flexed position.
Purpose of lying-down
Marjory Barlow, when asked ‘What is the purpose of lying down work?’, replied:
To think. F. M. used to say ‘It’s a very good opportunity just to give orders – to inhibit and give orders and not do anything, and you haven’t got the problem of your equilibrium.’
And Marjory Barlow, in a workshop in 1999, also explained some of the reasons for lying-down work:
He thought lying-down work was very important, because he said that if you have got a pupil lying down they haven’t got to worry about their equilibrium or losing their balance which is a usual thing as you change the poise of the head and as you change the work the back is doing. The pupil can get very wobbly. But when they are lying down, all they have to do is think. He said it was a wonderful opportunity for people when lying down to pay attention to their orders. It is a very good opportunity to think. And none of us like thinking, we like ‘to do.’
Walter Carrington on the purpose:
I explain it very much as FM used to explain it: that people in the course of their daily activities get pulled down, shortened and out of shape but that lying down creates expansion and puts them into a better shape. The main aspect of lying down is to leave yourself alone – not to make muscular effort in other words – while, as usual, making sure that the neck is not stiffening, the head is going forward and up, so that the back can lengthen and widen and the knees can go up to the ceiling. You’ve got these four main areas to think about.
There is no description of lying-down work in F. M. Alexander’s writings. There is a description of what Alexander taught to his students concerning lying down work by Marjory Barlow in The Ground Rules. Walter Carrington describes his usage of lying-down in Personally Speaking.
Wilfred Barlow’s The Alexander Principle (1973) probably contains the first published description of how a person can do the lying-down work themselves.
There is a long and detailed description of lying-down work, including how to take oneself down into lying-down work and how to get up again in Towards Perfect Posture by Brian Door.
A short article on the history and benefits of semi-supine is given in ‘Lying semi-supine’ by Francesca Greenoak. Further comments by teachers were published in the following issue of The Alexander Journal.
‘Bringing semi-supine to life’ by Pamela Blanc is on teaching semi-supine (aka ‘active rest’) to a large group.
‘Lying semi-supine’ by Francesca Greenoak looks at the history and benefits of semi-supine work.
‘Principles! Procedures! Activities!’ by Pamela Blanc, Sydney Laurel Harris, Babette Markus, Frances Marsden describes various teaching procedures used at the Alexander Training Insitute of Los Angeles, and in some detail the étude ‘”Watching and wondering” in active rest’.
‘Sleep constellations and the eight intentions of constructive rest’ by David Nesmith lists and explains the eight instructions offered in relation to the eight intentions of lying-down work.
‘Lying down “on the books”: Is it relaxation?’ by Ian Lyons quotes different Alexander teachers’ view on lying down and considers to what extent it can be considered relaxation.
Three videos show Marjory Barlow teaching lying-down work: Marjory Barlow at the STAT Conference at Regent’s College 1998, Marjory Barlow Freiburg at the 6th International Congress in Germany, 1999, and Marjory Barlow at the 1st International Congress in the US, in 1986.
The 1986 video of Walter Carrington demonstrating teaching the Alexander Technique contains some sections on lying-down work.
Since 1990 more than twenty audio lying-down work talk-throughs have been produced on cassette tapes, CDs and downloadable MP3 files.
The term ‘constructive rest’ has more recently been used (e.g. in The Alexander Technique by Pedro de Alcantara.) The term was coined by Mabel Ellsworth Todd in 1929., an originator of ideokinesis. Sweigard, Mabel Todd’s student, defines lying down with the knees up, a small pillow under the head, and – unlike the Alexander Technique – the arms resting across the front of the chest. The article ‘To use or not to use the term “constructive rest”’ by Carol Boggs argues for using ‘active rest’ instead.