It seems like “hands on the back of the chair” is a misunderstood or controversial subject in the Alexander world – all the McDonald elbows vs. Carrington vs. whatever stuff – not fun! I remember, though, Becky coming back from a conference one time saying, “Everyone said how they hate hands on the back of the chair,” and we all gasped with responses like, “Oh, I love hands on the back of the chair” or “What?” What I love about it is the integration that I feel between arms and the torso or arms and hips and how nicely it seems to get my tone/direction going when Joan takes me through it. Because of that and because Joan uses two versions, I thought I would go through them.
Actually the one we use often lately is different from Alexander’s. Joan calls it the “McConnel” because of the Murrays’ work with a man named Colonel McConnel (will talk more about him in another post). Basically, McConnel used the pattern that you see in monkeys as they run on branches – not the swinging motion when they hang, but when they run across horizontal-ish branches. They aim with their thumb (which he said had many nerves/muscles/motor cortex space associated with it?) and the rest wraps around.
Joan had a violist trainee who suffered from carpal tunnel and couldn’t do Alexander’s pronated hands on the back of the chair, so she tried out an adapted version based on McConnel’s procedure. Now we use it all the time to tilt the chair forward and back (see Dart Procedures, Part 2), which relates to the baby pulling along the floor and pushing back to his/her haunches. Here’s the aiming with the thumbs…
…and letting the rest wrap around:
Of course, wrapping around on the chair becomes lengthening the fingers downward on it in the same way that Carrington talks about the extensor grip.
When we do Alexander’s “Hands on the Back of the Chair,” the teacher places our fingers flat against the chair first:
Then we “lengthen the thumb down to oppose the middle finger.”
Joan talks about (and I think Alexander did too?) the wrists direct toward each other and elbows start going apart. Then Joan puts a hand under our wrist and one under the arm (spiraling it outward at the insertion of the latissimus in the same direction as this post but with the teacher’s hand in a different position underneath) and asks us to think of the elbow going out and down as you widen at the upper part of the arm to pull yourself forward and up over the chair. I always find that even that small thought widens my shoulders and directs me up.
The pronation makes beautiful, spiralled wrists that become strong in the rotation. And as people pull themselves up and over the chair, Joan often has them do a whispered ahh because there is such nice tone and direction forward. For me somehow it makes it feel like my exhale is an inevitable consequence of the tone and direction.
One time I read an article relating music technique to the Alexander Technique, and they encouraged people not to use the word pull. To me, that is when the Alexander Technique becomes a cliche and doesn’t have the power to give you both support and engagement but also freedom and release. Hands on the back of the chair seems like a perfect example of an instance where without the pull, you are probably interfering with your full length and direction forward and up.