This article is written for Alexander Technique teachers and advanced students. It is the translated and rewritten version of Hender på stolrygg (del 1).
We like to say the Alexander Technique isn't exercises. Technique is something you can apply to any activity. This means, on the other hand, that anything can be used as an exercise for practicing the Alexander Technique.
We Alexander teachers dislike the word exercise, however. We are in general skeptical of anything that can lead to mindless repetition of movements, so we prefer to call it ‘procedure’ instead.
In the Alexander Technique tradition, some rather peculiar activities, or exercises, or procedures, have played an important role both historically and in practice. Maybe the most peculiar of all is ‘Hands on the Back of the Chair’, that strange activity of holding on to the top of the back of a chair with your fingers.
In 1908 Frederick Matthias Alexander described his method in a small booklet entitled ‘Re-Education of the Kinæsthetic Systems.’ A supplement was published two years later in which an early version of hands on the back of the chair was one of the exercises presented. Both papers can be found in Articles and Lectures (Alexander 1995).
Alexander had worked for several years with Dr Spicer, a physician who had been one of the first to have lessons when Alexander arrived in London in 1904. By 1910, however, they had fallen out. Alexander accused Spicer for plagiarising his ideas.(1)
In Articles and Lectures, editor Jean Fischer writes in a comment to ‘Supplement to Re-Education of the Kinæsthetic Systems’:
These descriptions of two teaching procedures may well have been written (and copyrighted) in order to establish Alexander's prerogative in regard to his technique, and to counter Dr Spicer's attempts to usurp him. They appear to have been written with a certain urgency as, unlike Alexander's other writings, they do not contain the usual preliminary introductions or qualifying clauses.
… Like the original, the supplement is concerned with giving examples of procedures for obtaining a position of mechanical advantage to “bring into use the proper muscular coordinations.”
… The first procedure, “Chair Exercise” is the earliest description of what is more commonly known as “hands on the back of the chair,” i.e. The procedure of being in a position of mechanical advantage, whilst taking hold of the back of a chair (Alexander 1995, p.102).
Alexander did not invent the procedure completely by himself. It is based on a strengthening exercise that seems to have been popular at the time:
He got the idea at an early stage in his teaching when he was working with a group of students in Australia. One of the group had picked up the idea that a good way to expand the chest - the thorax - was to take hold of the back rail of a chair with the hands and then pull on the rail. Alexander observed this and I'm sure tried it out for himself. However, he came to the conclusion that the way most people did it had exactly the opposite effect to the one intended. People did not widen the thorax but rather narrowed it, raised the chest and hollowed the back. But he also recognized there was a possibility of carrying out the procedure in quite a different manner and one that would, indeed, be useful (Carrington / Carey p.91).
The procedure may have been inspired by a world famous bodybuilder:
The precise origins of hands over the back of a chair remain somewhat mysterious. The most likely explanation is that while living in Australia someone showed Alexander a 'strongman' exercise that aimed to incerase chest size, breathing capacity and upper body strength. That person might have been one of his students, a friend or even his brother AR, who one time developed a keen interest in the physical culture system propagated by the legendary Prussian-born bodybuilder Eugen Sandow.
… The basis of this particular strongman exercise involved taking hold of the top rail of a conventional, straight-backed chair with both hands with what is now known as a 'power grip', in which the palm, fingers and thumb are flexed, and then trying to pull the chair apart. … Apparently Alexander observed others performing the chair-pulling exercise and tried it for himself before concluding that although the size of someone's chest could be significantly increased because of the bulking up of the chest musculature, the overall effect was often to reduce their respiratory capacity because the increase in muscle mass of the torso (and arms) caused significant rigidity and interference in the movement of the rib cage (Carey 2017, pp.118-9).
Alexander observed that this strengthening exercise had a negative effect on the coordination of the respiratory system, but he also realized that a modified version could have positive potential. He made his own version and changed three factors.
First, he secured general coordination by having the pupil lean forward while giving directions, thereby creating a ‘position of mechanical advantage’ which stimulated a dynamic elastic tone throughout the body.(2)
Second, he changed the grip from a ‘power grip’ to a ‘precision grip’, taking hold of the rail with straight, vertical fingers. (The benefits of this I will write about in a separate article).
Third, he changed the exercise from one of strengthening to one of coordination by reducing the amount of force applied, replacing it with consicous directions. Instead of trying to pull the upper part of the back of the chair apart, the pupil was instructed to pull upwards “as if in an attempt to lift the chair,” and the elbows were directed out to the sides. The arm muscles were activated, but with length and thus increased sensitivity.
Alexanders writes in ‘Supplement to Re-Education of the Kinetic Aesthetic Systems’:
Chair Exercise (Standing) … Ask the pupil to stand at the back of the chair in such a position that he (the pupil) will be able to easily reach the top of the back of the chair with his hands. … The orders referred to being given, the teacher will cause the pupil's body to incline forward and upward in the direction of the chair and then cause the pupil to place his hands, some distance apart, upon the back of the chair. The hands are placed so that the four fingers are kept quite straight on one side of the back of the chair and the thumb on the other side of the back of the chair. Then the pupil should be told to order or desire relaxation of the muscles of the arm and to grip the back of the chair gently but firmly. Then the pupil must be asked to pull the top of the chair as if endeavoring to lift it and at the same time allowing the right elbow to point directly towards the right and the left elbow towards the left. This pulling movement is employed in supporting the body in such a way as to bring into use the proper muscular coordination and to prevent the defective use previously employed (Alexander 1995, p.103).
Alexander used this chair exercise himself:
Hands over the back of a chair is something that is gradually evolving. I know from talking to FM when he started teaching full time he found that by the evening he was unable to straighten his arms because of all the work and tension he had produced in himself. So he had to stop doing whatever it was that he was doing (Barlow 2011, p.121).
And he used it in the teaching of advanced students:
Now he did not teach it to pupils when they first started lessons, but he did when they got somewhere with the work (ibid).
Gradually, Alexander developed Hands on the back of the chair into an increasingly subtle exercise. In 1923 he published a new description. Again, the occasion seems to be a case of plagiarism.
Two years later, Lee wrote a new book. This time a self-help book entitled Invisible Exercises. Some of the content was clearly inspired by Alexander, but without Alexander being mentioned. Lee wrote as if he had figured everything out by himself. (See, for example, pages 49-50).
Alexander was furious. Frank Pierce Jones writes in Freedom to Change:
Incensed at this travesty of his technique, Alexander threatened the publishers (ironically they were the same as his) with legal action unless they withdrew Lee's book. Without waiting for this to happen, he decided that he must prove to the public there was something more to his technique than “invisible exercises.” Accordingly, he wrote out a long description of what he did with a pupil in a lesson. He chose the hand-behind-the-chair procedure (which he had been using, he said, since 1910) and went through it step by step, explaining fully what part the teacher played and what the pupil, what the “orders” meant and how they were related to the manipulation of the teacher. Where Lee had been content with half a page of description, Alexander used sixteen. Satisfied that the account was accurate and complete, he looked for a way to have it patented. Since this was not practicable, he incorporated it into his new book, where it was protected by copyright. (Jones 1996, pp. 38-39).
The book in question was Alexander's second, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual (Alexander . The fourth chapter of the second part of the book is entitled ‘Illustration.’ Here you will find Alexander's most detailed description of ‘hands on the back of the chair’. This chapter, in addition to the one preceding it, ‘Imperfect Sensory Appreciation,’ and together with the The Use of the Self (Alexander 1985), make up the clearest explanation of Alexander's practical technique (3).
Alexander opens the chapter by listing and describing the basic directions or ‘preventive orders.’ This is the only time he does so in such detail. Alexander was otherwise very restrictive in giving examples of specific instructions.
Then Alexander describes a situation where the teacher guides his pupil through the exercise. Unlike the 1910 version, the pupil is seated. Any use of muscular force is all but gone. Instead, great emphasis is placed on the pupil continuously and repeatedly giving the preventive orders. The teacher is the one responsible for making changes come into effect by the use of his hands.
Here is a shortened version where I have largely omitted Alexander's comments so that the remaining text shows the practical execution of the exercise. Capitalization is Alexander's own:
When he is seated, his body being supported by the back of the chair on which he is sitting, another chair is placed before him with its back towards him. THE PUPIL IS THEN ASKED TO GIVE THE FOLLOWING PREVENTIVE ORDERS. In the way of correct direction and guidance, HE IS ASKED TO ORDER THE NECK TO RELAX, TO ORDER THE HEAD FORWARD AND UP TO LENGTHEN THE SPINE. … In the present instance, it is explained to him that the order given is to be merely preventive -- a projected wish without any attempt on the pupil's part to carry it out successfully. THE TEACHER REPEATS THE ORDERS AND WITH HIS HANDS HE PROCEEDS TO BRING THE PUPIL'S BODY GENTLY FORWARD FROM THE HIPS.
THE PUPIL MUST NOW AGAIN ORDER THE NECK TO RELAX, THE HEAD FORWARD AND UP, WHILST THE TEACHER WITH HIS HANDS SECURES THAT POSITION OF THE TORSO IN WHICH THE BACK MAY BE SAID TO BE WIDENED. These orders should be repeated several times and be continued WHILST THE TEACHER TAKES THE PUPIL'S RIGHT ARM WITH HIS HANDS, AND MOVES IT FORWARD UNTIL THE PUPIL'S HAND IS ABOVE THE TOP RAIL OF THE BACK OF THE CHAIR. THE PUPIL SHOULD THEN BE REQUESTED TO REPEAT THE ORDERS SET DOWN AT THE BEGINNING OF THIS PARAGRAPH, AND THEN TO TAKE THE WEIGHT OF THE ARM ENTIRELY, AS THE TEACHER DISENGAGES HIS HANDS FROM THE SUPPORTED ARM. Great care must be taken to see that the pupil has not interfered with the mechanism of the torso in the effort to take the weight of the arm.
… If the pupil has not interfered with the mechanism of the torso in the effort to take the weight of the arm, HE SHOULD NEXT BE REQUESTED TO GRASP THE TOP RAIL OF THE BACK OF THE CHAIR GENTLY AND FIRMLY, KEEPING THE FINGERS AS straight AS POSSIBLE AND QUITE FLAT AGAINST THE WOOD OF THE FRONT PORTION OF THE TOP RAIL OF THE CHAIR, THE THUMB ALSO TO BE KEPT AS STRAIGHT AS POSSIBLE, BEING CALLED UPON TO DO DUTY ON THE BACK PORTION OF THE TOP RAIL OF THE CHAIR, WITH THE WRIST CURVED SLIGHTLY INWARDS TOWARDS THE LEFT. The teacher will, of course, as far as possible, assist the pupil with these hand movements.
… THE PUPIL MUST THEN BE ASKED AGAIN TO ORDER THE NECK TO RELAX, THE HEAD FORWARD AND UP, AND THE TEACHER WILL REPEAT HIS PREVIOUS EFFORT TO ESTABLISH THAT CONDITION OF THE TORSO AND BACK ESSENTIAL TO SATISFACTORY ARM WORK, WHILST HE REPEATS WITH THE PUPIL'S LEFT ARM THE EVOLUTION JUST PERFORMED WITH THE RIGHT, SO THAT THE PUPIL WILL BE GRASPING THE BACK OF THE CHAIR WITH THE LEFT HAND IN THE SAME WAY AS HE HAS BEEN HOLDING IT WITH THE RIGHT, …
… When the teacher is satisfied that his pupil has succeeded up to this point, he may go on to give him the additional guiding orders, and proceed to help him to put them into practical effect during the completion of the evolution. The following are the new directive orders. The pupil is asked: --
(1) TO CONTINUE TO HOLD THE TOP OF THE CHAIR BY KEEPING THE FINGERS QUITE STRAIGHT FROM THE FIRST JOINTS OF THE FINGERS TO THEIR TIPS, WITH THE THUMBS AND FINGERS KEPT FLAT AGAINST THE TOP RAIL OF THE CHAIR AS PREVIOUSLY INDICATED.
(2) TO ALLOW THE WRIST OF THE LEFT ARM TO BE CURVED INWARDS TOWARDS THE RIGHT, AND THE WRIST OF THE RIGHT ARM TO BE CURVED INWARDS TOWARDS THE LEFT.
(3) TO ALLOW THE ELBOW OF THE LEFT ARM TO BE CURVED OUTWARDS TOWARDS THE LEFT, AND THE ELBOW OF THE RIGHT ARM TO BE CURVED OUTWARDS TOWARDS THE RIGHT.
… The teacher's aim is now to give the pupil the experiences necessary to a gentle, forearm pull from the fingers, and to this end HE WILL TAKE HOLD OF THE PUPIL'S ELBOWS AND DIRECT THEM OUTWARDS AND SLIGHTLY DOWNWARDS, and, following this, will give the sensory experiences required in DIRECTING THE UPPER PARTS OF THE ARMS (ABOVE THE ELBOW) AWAY FROM ONE ANOTHER (THE RIGHT ARM TOWARDS THE RIGHT AND THE LEFT ARM TOWARDS THE LEFT), IN SUCH A WAY THAT THE PUPIL WILL BE SUPPORTING THE TORSO WITH HIS ARMS. THE PUPIL WILL NOW BE ASKED TO CONTINUE TO SUPPORT THE TORSO IN THIS WAY, CONTINUING TO REHEARSE HIS ORDERS, whilst the teacher so adjusts the torso that the large "lifting" muscles of the back will be employed co-ordinately with the other parts of the organism in bringing about such use of the respiratory mechanisms that they will function to the maximum at the particular stage of development reached from day to day. Success in this part of the evolution will bring about a change in the condition of the back which would be described by the ordinary observer as a "widening of the back." (Alexander 2004, p.114-120).
This is generally more or less how ‘Hands on the back of a chair’ is practiced to this day. Nowadays it seems to have become more usual to do it standing in a ‘monkey’ position rather than sitting down. In a teaching situation it will vary how much the teacher helps the pupil, and the use of words will vary. Today a teacher would hardly use the word “relax.” Alexander himself stopped using the word later on. There are a great many minor variations among Alexander teachers in the performance of this procedure. Some of these variations I will touch upon in another article.
What's so special about this procedure that Alexander repeatedly uses it as an example when documenting his technique? Initially, Alexander was probably interested in this type of exercise because of his preoccupation with breathing. Performing the procedure may stimulate coordination in such a way that the breathing process can function more freely.
Obviously, the procedure is also relevant for the coordinated and delicate use of the hands that is required of anyone claiming to be an Alexander Technique teacher. Alexander writes in Constructive Conscious Control that the procedure described is
… an illustration of the means whereby we may develop a reliable sense appreciation of the minimum of so-called "physical tension"; for in this sphere of sensory appreciation, the most difficult problem to be solved, in most cases, is concerned with the matter of developing a correct register of the due and proper amount of so-called "muscular tension" necessary at a given time (Alexander 2004, p 109).
He then continues:
It is not possible, of course, to tell the pupil in terms of relativity the degree of muscular tension which will be his or her required minimum at any particular moment. Furthermore, even if this were possible, what chance is there that the pupil will be able to register this minimum accurately, when the very factor upon which he will rely for guidance in this connexion (viz., his sensory appreciation) is unreliable, inaccurate, and often positively delusive? … If ever a plan of development by means of exercises to be performed according to written or spoken instructions - minus manipulative help - is to be evolved, this problem will have to be satisfactorily solved. I claim, however, that in its particular application to the evolution about to be described, this problem has been solved, and in a very practical way, and the unfolding of this part of the technique should prove of great interest to the student (ibid, pp 109-110).
According to Alexander, then, the procedure of putting hands on the back of a chair is something the readers of his books can do on their own, ‘minus manipulation,’ with potential beneficial effect.
If we take a closer look at this weird and wonderful procedure it turns out that it may be stimulating certain intrinsic, potentially dynamic, properties in our physiology. I will tell you more about this in the following parts of this article.
2) In Think More, Do Less Carey claims that the exercise described in ‘Supplement to Re-Education of the Kinetic Aesthetic Systems’ is performed in ‘monkey,’ ie with bent knees. This is a misinterpretation. There is nothing in the description to indicate this. The exercise is performed without bending the knees. But it is possible that the pupil may be supposed to be leaning the upper body forward from the hips.
Alexander, Frederick Matthias. 1985. The Use of the Self. Victor Gollancz.
Alexander, Frederick Matthias. 1995 Articles and Lectures Articles. Mouritz.
Alexander, Frederick Matthias. 1996. Man's Supreme Inheritance. Mouritz.
Alexander, Frederick Matthias. 2004. Consctructive Conscious Control of the Individual. Mouritz.
Barlow, Marjory. 2011. The Ground Rules: Marjory Barlow in Conversation with Sean Carey. Hite Books.
Carey, Sean. 2017. Think More, Do Less: Improving Your Teaching and Learning of the Alexander Technique with Marjory Barlow. HITE Books.
Carrington, W; Carey, S. 1992. Explaing the Alexander Technique: The Writings of F. Matthias Alexander. The Sheildrake Press.
Jones, Frank Pierce. 1996. Freedom to Change: The Development and Science of the Alexander Technique. Mouritz.