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Bone, Breath and Gesture: Review by John Naylor.

AT Focus: 
Alexander Technique
2005-2014
Format: 
Article, essay
Language: 
English
Article, citation and copright
Article Text: 
Subtitled Practices of Embodiment, this book is a survey of the development from the turn of the century of what the Germans loosely called "gymnastic" and the Californians "bodywork". A useful alternative description given is “schools of embodiment” which is also broadly inclusive of the mental aspects of “being”.

In his introduction Don Hanlon Johnson makes the point that the practices described in this book exist in an “identifiable web of interconnections” very often linked by an actual “hands on” tradition that goes back to the late 1800s. His purpose in putting together this compendium is to make us aware of the rich tradition of work representing “lifetimes of study, observation, trial, error and reflection” that has existed in the past (though very largely outside the confines of academia) for the cultivation, refining and developing of the proprioceptive sense with the aim of improving psychophysical functioning.

In the survey of seventeen teachers, practitioners, innovators and educators, the book is usefully organised into five sessions: “Coming to our senses”; “Structural Wisdom”; “Moving Intelligence”; “Piecing Together”; and “Resources”. The latter contains a bibliography, a list of empirical studies and useful addresses of various institutes and foundations – all (with one exception) in the US.

Elsa Gindler’s description of her work (which begins the first section of the book) and which, partly in reaction to Nazi demands, she refused to name shows a deep understanding of the conditions necessary for improved functioning. Her work on breathing and her understanding of how crucial is our relationship to gravity are instantly recognizeable to those acquainted with Alexander’s work – though Alexander’s means of bringing about improved functioning were different and he methodically addressed the vital question of habitual reaction.

The Alexander Technique is the first in the “Structural Wisdom” section – amongst which, as one would expect, there is material on Feldenkrais and Ida Rolf – both of whom had some contact with the Alexander Technique. Alexander’s work is represented by a conversation between Marjory Barlow and Joan Schirle which was taped at the first International Alexander Teachers’ Congress in New York in 1986. Alexander’s actual writings are represented by the chapter on “The Stutterer” from The Use of the Self. Marjory Barlow’s approach and Alexander’s works will of course be familiar to most readers of this review, notably her concern “to keep the Alexander Technique pure” – though (without being specific) she does look forward “to it developing in many, many different ways”. Though the scientific underpinning to Alexander’s discoveries has been and is continuing to be usefully researched, it seems to this reviewer that the actual practical work has stayed pretty much the same – perhaps with the exception of the way Marjorie Barstow’s way of working developed in the US.

In the section “Moving Intelligence” I turned first to the section on Gerda Alexander. Some years ago a Dutch lady came to me for lessons saying that she had had Alexander lessons in the past but could not remember with whom. It was only towards the end of our first session and in our mutual confusion that it transpired she had had lessons in Gerda Alexander’s “Eutony” work! In his brief introduction to Gerda Alexander, the editor describes Eutony as “one of the main modern schools of somatic work” and states that “Eutony is part of the course of study in music, theatre, and physical education departments of nearly every major university in Western Europe”. I was certainly unaware of this, and it is not true for this off-shore island!

From a very early age, Gerda Alexander was educated in the ideas of Jacques Dalcroze who, like his contemporary Rudolf Laban, makes more than one appearance in the pages of this book (see for example the interview with Irmgard Bartenieff). Both men exerted considerable influence in the areas of music, movement and dance. In Gerda Alexander’s interview with David Bersin (first published in Somatics 1983-4), one is as with Elsa Gindler, struck by some of her observations on the importance of “antigravity forces and postural reflexes for free flexible posture” and how Eutony students look at ideal posture “as being given by reflexes from the feet up to the head through the bone structure, needing neither contraction from the great outer muscles of the back, nor an isolated regulation of the position of the head”. As with many other practitioners represented in this book, the breadth of context of her working experience is striking, and it is interesting how she successfully carried her ideas into what could be described as “remedial education” at the German State Centre for “developing and educating mentally handicapped and anti-social children and adults as well as criminals”.

Many other practitioners in this book were accepted into work-collaboration with various medical establishments in a way which seems surprising given the difficulties that are still experienced in this country today. Marion Rosen, for example, another student of Gindler, was influenced by the psychoanalytic movement. She had to leave Germany with the rise of the Nazis and eventually found her way to New York where she worked with Dr Gustave Heyer (a former student and colleague of Jung) and his wife Lucy in a setting where the different disciplines were synthesised in the treatment of patients. Marion interrupted her studies to go for six months to the Tavistock clinic in London where she obtained work and began successfully to put into practice many of the techniques she had studied with the Heyers.

Finally, in the section “Piecing Together”, I found the essay by Elizabeth Benke entitled “Matching” particularly interesting, and I think it points to possible developments in the language we use in talking about the “phenomena” of Alexander Technique experience. Benke is described as a “phenomenologist”. Phenomenology is a well-established branch of philosophy deriving principally from the work of Edmund Husserl and aiming at a way of describing experience with the greatest possible freedom from pre-suppositions. (Husserl’s slogan “Back to the things themselves!” encapsulates his principles.) This is both a practical and theoretical essay and the copious footnotes (50!) suggest a wealth of literature to be explored, a process likely to be fruitful in making connections between the Alexander Technique and other disciplines. This particular essay was first printed in Somatics – a bi-annual publication (initiated by the late Thomas Hanna – another contributor to this volume) which has obviously been a major source of information, elucidation and self-understanding amongst the many and varied “somatic” practitioners the other side of the Atlantic.

The editor is to be congratulated on bringing together and making more widely available this wealth of material. Of necessity, a review of a book of this size can only comment on a small number of the ways in which the general movement, with its particular aims of educating the whole person, diversified. A few brief biographical details (perhaps as footnotes) of some of the lesser-known personalities mentioned might have been welcome (who was Mary Wigman?), and perhaps an index of names might have been useful for cross-referencing.

In his Introduction the editor mentions the “efforts to bring to awareness the unity of vision existing among these many schools of work, with the aim of initiating more careful philosophical and empirical reflection, improving our educational standards and taking a public stance in favour of the needs of the body increasingly at risk”. These are laudable aims with which I imagine few readers of this journal would disagree. As in some other respects, it sounds as if our American counterparts are a move ahead in their capacity to co-ordinate these efforts!

© John Naylor. Reproduced with permission.

This edition © Mouritz 2005-2014. All rights reserved.