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The Act of Living: Review by John Naylor.

AT Focus: 
Alexander Technique
Article, essay
Article, citation and copright
Article Text: 
As well as the 29 edited talks, (recorded from Walter Carrington’s extempore thoughts on a passage from a book of Alexander’s he was currently reading to trainee teachers) The Act of Living contains a substantial Foreword by Dr Tristan Roberts, a neurophysiologist and Alexander enthusiast and author of Neurophysiology of Postural Mechanisms and Understanding Balance. There is also a short Author’s preface, an Editor’s note, an Introduction by Glynn Macdonald, and short biographies of the contributors.

In his Foreword, Roberts points out that “there is, in fact, a huge gap between the world of personal experience and the world of scientific explanation.” He considers (for example) that in Alexander’s writings the word ‘inhibition’ was being used incorrectly and, (giving scientific reasons), he felt that “in the Alexander context, the expression ‘refraining from action’ might be more appropriate”.

In the context of “gravity” I felt that Roberts’ complicated scientific ruminations on Newton’s use of the Latin word gravitas were perhaps somewhat prolix in the overall context of the essay. (Some paragraphs lasted well over a page.) Although I didn’t find the scientific detail easy to grasp, it’s worth trying to get a grip on it. Having discussed the nature of “muscle” Roberts makes points worth bearing in mind: “There is a good deal of complicated machinery involved between the decision to make a particular voluntary movement and the actual development of the necessary forces to pull appropriately on the bones of the skeleton”, and that “None of the stages in the linking machinery is accessible to conscious experience.” In the context of habits and the “trigger for habitual behaviour” I was intrigued by the statement that some “triggers” might contain “an element of chemical addiction”!

This hard-back book is attractively produced: there is generous line-spacing, wide margins and a largish (though attractive) type face. Of its 188 pages some 16 are blank – so it’s somewhat in the nature of an “art” book, with high quality production.

In a recent e-mail to colleagues the editor Jerry Sontag says that the publishers have “reached out to theatre, music and dance departments in an attempt to get the book included as part of the supplemental reading for certain performance classes.” Fine. It seems to me that this book should have the widest possible circulation. For the sake of an even wider readership I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better to have produced a smaller format paperback at a price that the larger UK bookshops might have been prepared to stock? A text such as this would have been a useful counter-balance to the current “This-is-not-a-how-to-do-it” (but with pictures of how to do it!) Alexander Technique books currently in the shops. A cheaper format might also have made it more possible for students on various performing arts courses to buy a copy.

It would be hard to overestimate the value of Walter Carrington’s lucid explanations and succinct turns of phrase in these talks. For me, reading the transcriptions has been both a delight and a timely reminder of things one tends not to insist on clearly and firmly enough in the face of pupils’ understandable desire to “try harder” and make progress.

In a talk entitled “Saying and Meaning No” Walter is addressing the problem of the fact that pupils are “subconsciously or otherwise entertaining the idea of sitting down” and how difficult it is for them to “finally abandon trying to follow the old pathway. This isn’t a short journey . . . they may reach that point after one hundred and fifty lessons.” This underlines the scale of our problem – seen as we are nowadays by the general public largely as part of the “alternative/complementary therapy” scene. In this climate of “treatment” we have to work very hard to get people to understand the nature of the commitment necessary for them to get real and continuing benefit from Alexander work. Walter Carrington realises this at every twist and turn of the way, and these talks are an invaluable encouragement to persevere in spite of the odds.

© John Naylor. Reproduced with permission.

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