Memorial Day Poem from Al Huang

The Murrays have been friends for years with Al Huang, a renowned Tai Chi teacher who lives in Urbana.  There are always stories about Alex playing to his movement at Esalen or performances they did together in a show they titled the Tao of Bach.  We don’t get to meet Al at the course, but we hear about him visiting them for lessons on weekends.  In light of Memorial Day, he brought them the following poem that Alex sent out to all of us tonight.  I don’t have anything special to say about it except that it is very Alex, in his ponderous way, to send out something like this.  Maybe it will give you a glimpse into his leanings and likings:

My Dead


Joan, the Observer

As anyone who’s worked with Joan notices, she teaches through giving students the experience length and width day in and day out.  What I love about her approach is that it is all through observation of what works or doesn’t with each particular student instead of through abstract theories.

After being on the course for awhile, I have started to think that the approach of the course is part of what I learn from as well.  Joan is constantly finding subtle things that she finds beautiful (a spiral of the limbs, relationship/direction of people, etc), but she never makes a big deal out of anything, so that you get the experience of length without trying to hold onto it.  She is always working the long game in that way – never trying to hurry the process of people finding their habits but always giving them an experience different from their typical shortening and waiting until they notice what it is for themselves.

One thing that she occasionally says is to not “over-straighten the elbows.”  This is something that I never heard in my modern dance training and often it’s the opposite – those Cunningham-esque straight arms that are supposedly more neutral than ballet arms.  I now feel, though, that over-straightening the elbows does disconnect my arms from my back and puts them into constant pushing mode which is, of course, not always useful.

One way that Joan works with people on the use of their arms is by having them lift them up in front of them.

Then she will have the person pronate the thumbs/wrists.  She doesn’t do this because of some concrete theory about the arms that told her it was good to pronate the wrists but because she notices that when people pronated the wrists, they soften (or don’t over-straighten, which I am doing with my left arm especially in this picture) the elbows.

Then she gives them direction in the upper part of the arm that opposes pronation, spirals the shoulder/arm outwards, and widens the upper part of the arm (here’s video of Sally giving me that direction).

It always leaves people at their widest in front and is a good example, I think, of Joan finding things through observation and individual work above holding onto theories.

Erika Whittaker and 1912 Conscious Control

I’m actually not ‘on the course’ right now because I’m out of town until the last two days of the course – June 16/17 – before the break for summer.  But because I have some time, I’ll write about some topics that came up before I left.

On the course, we read F.M.’s writings or ideas related to his work, and right now Alex has been going through the 1912 book/pamphlet “Conscious Control” (see below).


Alex’s interest in it came from a video of Erika Whitaker (Alexander Technique teacher who trained with F.M. himself) being interviewed in 1992 about how she began work in the Technique and started on Alexander’s first training course (Whitaker moved to London at age 17 in 1928 to work with her aunt and Alexander).  Her start in the Technique was at 8 years old with her aunt, Ethel “Pipp” Webb (eventually Alexander’s secretary), who worked with her because of her diagnosis of scoliosis.

The video itself is great to watch because it is so obvious that the three years that Alexander assigned to the course were so arbitrary and that it’s not the concrete facts that you learn that are important but the experience of length and width, inhibition and direction.  Alex also mentioned that Alexander was reluctant to start the course and didn’t see its prime activity as teaching them to “learn to teach.”

Whittaker also talks about her aunt’s phrase “Keep your length, dear,” which does seem like a simple way to describe what essentially the Technique is about.  Alex also sent her 2004 obituary out and a transcript of a STAT (Society for Teachers of the Alexander Technique in the UK) talk that she gave and mentions in the video.  Links to both here: Obit E.W. (obit, obviously); Key (her STAT talk)

OK, back to the 1912 book.  So in the video, Erika Whittaker talks about her Aunt’s experience in the Alexander Technique and how, after meeting him around 1911, she traveled to a Montessori meeting in Rome in 1913 and gave Irene Tasker and Margaret Naumburg this 1912 book/pamphlet, Conscious Control.  A lot of dates.  This book comes between the 1910 and 1918 version of Man Supreme Inheritance.  Those women became hugely important to the Technique and were the people who introduced Alexander to Dewey.  Irene Tasker also introduced Raymond Dart, a figure so important to the Murrays, to the Alexander Technique.

With the position of women back in the early twentieth century as primarily mothers/housewives, you can see how bold these women were and struck by Alexander’s ideas enough to pursue his work over the typical female role of mother/wife.  This made Alex want to read the book to see what information inspired them to work with Alexander.

As Alex looked into Erika Whittaker and read her obituary again, he looked up its author, John Hunter.  He has a teacher training course in Covent Garden, and Alex enjoyed the writing in his blog, which talks about the different views of the training course – Lulie Westfeldt’s and Erika Whittaker’s.

Here is something Alex wrote me in an email about Erika Whittaker/John Hunter: “He is someone who obviously understood Erika’s good fortune in meeting FM not so much as a teacher but as a friend. Of course, I think you understand that being a teacher is using friendship to indicate a useful way, which as a ‘student’ you follow or not, depending on how far you can see it can lead you. Teaching teaching is a contradiction in terms. There is only learning, which is the responsibility of each one of us.”

Dart for Visitors Starting With Fetal

As I’ve mentioned before, there are almost always visitors on the course – from all over America and beyond.  In the spring we had two visitors, Camillo and Rosa, who have visited several times before, and they asked Joan if she would show some of the Dart Procedures. In a couple of posts, I will go through each part and what I got from them in class.  Again, it was too much for just one post!  If you want to see all of them now, Luc and Becky made a wonderful video for people who want to see the Dart Procedures in their entirety:

I should also mention that in my 3.5 years at the Murrays’ course, this is the first time where everyday for a week we’ve gone through the Dart Procedures.  And I can only remember less than a handful of times that we’ve done parts of the Dart work in place of chair work.  All to say that Joan never makes a big deal out of developmental movement or anything else but integrates it into her understanding and thus into her work with students at the chair and table.

Joan and Alex talk about this being the part that Dart didn’t write about (in The Postural Aspects of Malocclusion), but what he said when they met him and showed him how they had worked out the procedures was the most important part.   What I will show here is the original version on the floor of what we do in the chair in the daily procedures when we look down, let the hips go back and let the head roll forward.  Joan talks about it being where we get length.

An interesting aspect for me as a dancer is that the feet automatically want to sickle when babies (and adults sometimes, as I do in the video!) are in fetal, which in dance so often people narrowly think of as something you should not do.  That’s what I love about the developmental movement – it shows you that there is a place for every type of movement we have the capacity to do – looking up, allowing the hips to go forward, curving the spine forward, etc.  The only problem is when people get stuck using only one pattern (i.e. sickling their feet when they’re trying to walk, etc.).  The best part is that you can feel that it feels “right,” as if you’ve done it before.

It always seems to me (and I probably learned this from Luc Vanier!) that fetal is the position where everything is allowed to bend.  In harp, it is when my fingers fall and bend into the palm after plucking the string, and in dance when I plié, for example.  Again, the issue becomes when we don’t allow for things to change in relation to what we’re doing – when someone pliés or goes into fetal, but doesn’t allow the back to fully go back or when someone plucks the string and keeps the engagement needed for the pluck even after it’s over.

Here are some beautiful pictures of fetal, in a baby and from a yoga anatomy book:

It is interesting to note that newborns often have their hands near their face, which seems to be something people often do when they want comfort in rest.  Joan uses this in the daily procedures (which I hope to post about soon) sometimes, and it gives tactile feedback.  Here are a few photos of my nephew and niece as newborns with his hands near their faces:


I also had a fellow trainee take some video of me going into fetal.  The curve goes all the way from the head to the tail, which is why when going into fetal in the chair, Joan says to “think of the hips going back.”  As you can see, it’s probably the most protective place we can be where we’re the smallest ball we can be, ankles and arms crossed.  Also, in this position, it always seems to be that the thighs automatically spiral out and the knees go “forward and away” when the feet sickle and the legs make room for the head/shoulders.  I hesitate to make/post videos because I don’t want people to think that there’s some ideal way, but showing is so much clearer than explaining in words.  Everyone moves through developmental movement slightly differently; they are there to explore fundamental coordinated movement and give length/width rather than to “get right.” Yada, yada, yada… If you’ve never encountered the Procedures, they might seem odd.  That, in addition to the older age of some students, is why Joan takes people into them in the chair.  And yes, my hair is super long right now. 🙂

There are also videos advertised as magic ways to calm a baby crying that are basically putting a baby into fetal:

Joan has a story about a violist who was stuck in a permanent slump, and instead of trying to pull him up out of it, she took him further into fetal, and then when he looked up, he came out of the permanent primary a little bit more because she had allowed him to go into the fetal curve in a coordinated way, from head to tail.  Different from the “fixing it” approach by trying to pull someone up, as sometimes happens!

That’s it for fetal!

More from the Institutes

Here’s another sheet from the “Institutes” that shows different stages of development with a couple of notes from Alex:Institutes sheet-p1

He was interested recently in something that Luria (a student of Nicolai Bernstein) wrote about inhibition starting to be present in children around 3.8 years of age.  A student on the course, Yvonne (who helped me tell the following story), brought her Alexander-Technique-teacher sister, Juanita, to the Murrays’ for a week, and Juanita told a story about her niece and inhibition:

Juanita was on a business phone call when her granddaughter, Jada (3 years old), came in very excited and wanted to tell her something.  Juanita told Jada that she was on the phone and asked her if she could wait for a few minutes until she was done with her call.  Jada is really a well-behaved little girl, and she nodded, yes, she would wait, with her big, bright eyes just bursting to tell her the news.  She sat there quietly for just a matter of seconds.  As soon as Juanita turned back towards the phone, Jada would start to tell her story again.  This was repeated several times, and Juanita realized that she didn’t have the ability to inhibit for more than a few seconds.  A good example of how inhibition is developed over time in humans!

On old Olympus towering tops, A Finn and German viewed all hops!

In my post about Joan’s look at the latissimus in relation to length and width, I mentioned Dart’s spirals and nerve/reflex patterns.  I kind of made up the term nerve/reflex pattern to describe a view of anatomy that Alex is a proponent of and that, I think, he got interested in from Dart.  What I mean with those words is the collection of cranial and spinal nerves and what they innervate the muscles to do.  By adding the nervous system to learning about the muscles, it becomes obvious that everything works as a whole in relationship and that it’s useless to work on coordination by engaging isolated muscles.

In writing this post, I looked back from my email and found so much information from Alex on it, I can’t decide which to post.  I’ll start with the facts about the nerves and some diagrams of them.  First, The title of this post is a poem Alex uses to remember the cranial nerves. 🙂

A diagram of cranial and spinal nerves (most of these are also available on Anna’s site (

Scan 24Scan 27

Here is another diagram of the cranial nerves:


Alex even went so far one time to make a t-shirt with a map of the dermatomes 🙂

T Shirt - Dermatomes

I’ll write more soon about how Alex relates the cranial and spinal nerves to what he knows about a child’s development.

The Vitality of Alex

I started to write a post yesterday to explain what I meant in the latissimus by nerve/reflex patterns (and I will eventually post it!).  In writing it, though, I started to veer towards the territory of Alex enthusiasms, and I couldn’t figure out how to fit everything, even though it was one topic, into a post.  It felt like a good example of Alex’s energy – boundless when it comes to the Alexander Technique and topics in which he’s interested.

Anyone who has met the Murrays is always impressed by their living example of how fulfilled people can be when working on something that is fascinating and their life’s work (and how “joint-surgery-free” people can be even in their late 80s when they give attention to their use for much of their life).  Much of the inspiration for this blog comes from Alex’s constant veering into various trajectories related to the Technique, and you will see that as I post some of his past and recent interests in the next couple of days/weeks.

Occasionally he and Joan talk about how they first encountered Dart and his ideas.  It was Alex’s questioning of Frank Pierce Jones’s (whose writings and ideas he adores) idea of a specific balance point in the head and how that could be possible if the jaw moves, that led Walter Carrington to ask him if he was reading Dart.  He went on then to read some of Dart’s writings related to the Technique, and he and Joan then met him in London when Dart was passing through and Walter Carrington was out of town.  They tell the story with a little bit of humor about how Dart was disappointed that he was seeing them instead of Walter.  Then they met him again and showed him what they had taken from his writing on developmental movement, and the rest is history!

So much to tell!  Now I’ve veered off too.  I’ll leave you with two videos of Alex that I hadn’t watched in a long time until drafting my original post last night. They are of Alex and me at a conference where he spoke about Dart’s work and how Joan has developed it at the chair.  It perfectly displays his darting mind, love of keeping things light and humorous, and enthusiasm for what he does.  Hope you enjoy!  (And by the way, I was perfectly comfortable in fetal/primary in the chair, although it looks like a long time!)

Primary/Secondary; Length/Width

Joan occasionally talks about the primary curve giving length and the secondary curve giving the width (will write soon explaining these curves for those that haven’t heard of them).  Becky Nettl-Fiol and Luc Vanier also talk about it in their book, Dance and the Alexander Technique.  It is one of those concepts/ideas that I have heard many times but never truly saw/experienced consciously until recently.  That is the difficult part of learning any skill or working in the Alexander Technique: you can know things intellectually but it takes awhile to see and understand certain things.  And most new understanding in the Alexander Technique comes through experience not traditional classroom learning.

Anyway, I can’t remember what got Joan talking about this recently, but in relation to the length of the back and width of the shoulders, she described the latissimus and a realization she had when seeing the muscle in an anatomy book put out by the British Air Force.  I’ve posted it below.  I think she saw the large muscle traverse the back – with its origin at the sacrum, lumbar spine, and maybe most importantly, at the lower ribs where the diaphragm originates, and then where it inserts at Alexander’s “upper part of the arm” with its spiral and antagonistic action with the pectoral muscles – and she could see how length and width work together.  To me, it sometimes feels like there is direction to the upper part of my arm that is spiraling outward when I’m upright or on the table, and when I look up it widens the shoulders in this outward direction.


On the other hand, the Murrays are not very much body-mapping people, and I think it’s because we all know physiologists, gym teachers, dancers (or anyone who talks about the body for that matter) speak eloquently about anatomy but still have bad use.  As someone who has been in the modern dance, somatic-influenced world since I was about 15 years old, I relate to this suspicion that intellectual anatomy knowledge won’t automatically lead to better coordination.  It is helpful when seen in relation to direction, the whole self, and patterns – as in Dart’s spirals or nerve/reflex patterns – but knowledge of individual muscles probably won’t make someone a better mover or musician.

Wisdom of an Assistant

Three times per year the Murrays take a break, and on some of these breaks we all decide to get together informally with Sally Mcmahan, the Murrays’ right hand woman.  Sally is a total devotee of the work of Alexander and the Murrays and has such great skill/use, which always seems to me like the truth serum of the Alexander Technique.  When we met over a break this year, she started to talk about how it seems like Alexander’s directions were formed out of his own habits.  I’ll explain:

Alexander found that he pulled his head back and down when he thought of speaking, so he found that thinking “forward and up” helped him inhibit and direct.  He also found that taking his head off balance made him narrow his back and lock his knees; thus he thought “back back” and “knees forward and away.”  On the Murrays’ course we tend not to obsess about saying these directions over and over because the thought is that then they just become a mantra that might not be connected to the experience of going up and, if taken as something concrete to think, they can lead to stiffening and trying really hard to be right.  Instead Joan and Alex value giving us the experience of being directed and going up so that it is always based in skill not words.

I think Sally’s observation about the directions makes so clear the connection between inhibition and direction and gives an insight into what Alexander was responding to as he formed his Technique.  In her typical way, she made something that can seem elusive very clear.