This blog post is a translated and slightly revised version of En fordelaktig posisjon written with Alexander Technique teachers and advanced students in mind.
The Alexander Technique can be applied to any activity, and any activity can be used as a means for learning the basics of the technique. In traditional Alexander Technique teaching the favoured activity is sitting down and standing up. Another activity used by Alexander and some first generation teachers like Patrick Macdonald, but not so much by teachers today, is to take the pupil backwards in the sitting position until the pupil's back rests against the back of the chair. Alexander called this "a position of mechanical advantage."
In his first book, Man's Supreme Inheritance, Alexander writes:
The position of mechanical advantage, which may or may not be a normal position, is the position which gives the teacher the opportunity to bring about quickly with his own hands a co-ordinated condition in the subject.» (Alexander 1996, s. 118)
In a footnote, he then gives this description:
A simple, practical example of what is meant by obtaining the position of mechanical advantage may be given. Let the subject sit as far back in a chair as possible. The teacher, having decided upon the orders necessary for the elongation of the spine, the freedom of the neck (i.e. requisite natural laxness), and other conditions desirable for the particular case in hand, will then ask the pupil to rehearse those orders mentally, at the same time that he himself renders assistance by the skilful use of his hands. Then, holding with one hand one or two books against the inner back of the chair, he will rely upon the pupil mentally rehearsing the orders necessary to maintain and improve the conditions present, while he, with the other hand placed upon the pupil's shoulder, causes the body gradually to incline backwards until its weight is taken by the back of the chair. The shoulder-blades will, of course, be resting against the books. The position thus secured is one of a number which I employ and which for want of a better name I refer to as a position of "mechanical advantage." (Ibid, p. 118).
Alexander gives the same description in the article Re-Education of the Kinaesthetic Systems from 1908 (Alexander, 1995, p. 82-83). In a comment to the article Jean Fischer writes: "The use of the phrase ‘mechanical advantage’ here indicates any position which, when combined with directions, will facilitate the proper expansion and co-ordination of the whole organism" (ibid p. 78 ).
Alexander explains that the "position of mechanical advantage" is a means to activate muscles which should be active, and relax muscles that should not be active:
For relaxation really means a due tension of the parts of the muscular system intended by nature to be constantly more or less tensed, together with a relaxation of those parts intended by nature to be more or less relaxed, a condition which is readily secured in practice by adopting what I have called in my other writings the position of mechanical advantage. (Alexander 1996, p 17).
Through the use of such positions the pupil will learn how to achieve good coordination:
The placing of the pupil in what would ordinarily be considered an abnormal position (of mechanical advantage) affords the teacher an opportunity to establish the mental and physical guiding principles which enable the pupil after a short time to repeat the co-ordination with the same perfection in a normal position (ibid, p. 119).
Performed in the correct manner, taking the pupil back in the chair will create the conditions necessary for gaining mobility of the rib cage:
Further, when this position of mechanical advantage has been attained through the employment of the first principles of conscious guidance and control, a rigid thorax may regain mobility, no matter what the age of the subject, and full thoracic expansion and contraction may be acquired and, with the minimum of effort, maintained (ibid).
Frank Pierce Jones writes in Freedom to Change:
In such a position breathing would be facilitated and stiffening of the neck and arms and other postural faults would be reduced. Alexander claimed that with a pupil who employed his powers of inhibition adequately and rehearsed the orders correctly a skilful teacher could bring about truly remarkable changes. (Jones 1997, p. 21).
The effect described by Jones and Alexander could be caused by several physiological factors. The slightly reclined position with support against the shoulder blades can provide relief for muscles in this area which are too active in keeping the body upright, especially if the head is habitually held in a forward position. Tension in this area prevents rib mobility. The freeing of the ribs will encourage what Alexander called "widening of the back" (Alexander 2004, p. 117). The position could also slightly reduce the work necessary by the muscles that balance the weight of the head, the head's centre of gravity lying in front of the atlanto-occipital joint. Reduced neck tension in this position may allow more length in the upper part of the spine while at the same time the head still has the possibility for forward rotation by its own weight. Explained in Alexander Technique terminology, the back is encouraged to lengthen and widen and the head to go forward and up.
The term "mechanical advantage" comes from physics. But the meaning of the concept as used by Alexander comes from the Delsarte method. François Delsarte was a French singer who developed a system of artistic expressiveness through conscious use of postures and movements. Delsartes brother, Camille, lived and taught for many years in Hobart in Tasmania. He died while FM Alexander was still young. The Delsarte method became popular in Australia, and we do not know when or how Alexander became acquainted with Delsarte's ideas, presumably it was sometime during the 1890s. (See for instance Staring 2005, p. 40). While living in Sydney 1900-1904 Alexander promoted himself as being a teacher of "The Famous Delsarte System" (Alexander 1995, p. 13)
Jeando Masoero, a French Alexander Technique teacher, has studied Delsarte's ideas in detail and tracked paralells with the Alexander Technique. He says among other things:
Delsarte introduces the idea of balance as 1) "opposition" of the masses of the segments resulting from the law of gravitational attraction (law of oppositions) and 2) as the recourse to the extension of body and limbs to maintain elastic stability (law of extension). These concepts are mirrored in Alexander's writings, under the name of *mechanical advantage* … (Jeando Masoero, personal communication).
Later on, the concept of "primary control" can in some ways be seen as substituting for the "positions of mechanical advantage". Frank Pierce Jones writes:
The term disappears from Alexander's writings after 1923. Though he continued to put pupils into such positions I never heard him use the terms “position” or “posture” in writing about the technique. In The Use of the Self, the term “position of mechanical advantage” is replaced by “primary control,” a different concept altogether (Jones 1997, p. 46)
Alexander made use of taking the pupil back in the chair in his teaching, but leaning back was also something he did when working on himself. Alexander is known to have used a cigar box covered with velvet as an aid. Walter Carrington says in A Time to Remember:
He wanted something to place behind his back in the chair in order to feel that part of his back. At first he tried an ordinary book. that was too heavy and tended to fall out of place. Then he tried tying it to the back of the chair with tape. That was not satisfactory because it was inclined to stimulate him to pull down and shorten his back. Next he tried an empty cigar box, but that slipped too easily. Finally he hit on the idea of a velvet-covered cigar box. This would stay in position tending to cling to his clothes, but at the same time it would slide easily on the polished back of the chair and so enable him to lengthen up from it without difficulty. The purpose of the cigar box was (a) to stimulate the somewhat insensitive region of the anti-gravity muscles and (b) to stimulate the shoulder-blades to slip into place. He said that he does not often use the ‘book’ himself now, because he an get what he wants with other means by his hands, but he advises us to do so in working with pupils and on ourselves (Carrington, 1996, p 11 -12).
Marjory Barlow had a slightly different explanation for the cigar box:
In Man's Supreme Inheritance FM says that you need to place one or to two books against the inner back of the chair before inclining the pupil backwards. But that instruction was provided because FM's teaching chair had a hollow in it. And FM would take you a long way back – not from the very front, but certainly when you were seated in the middle of the chair (Barlow & Carey, 2011, p. 119).
Cigar boxes have gone out of fashion, nor is it normal procedure having the Alexander Technique pupil lean against books. But an Alexander teacher might still occasionally take you slightly back in the chair. Why and when, and how to go about experimenting with it on your own, is the subject of another article.
Related blog posts (Sorry, Norwegian only):
Five minutes into this video you can see one of Patrick Macdonald's students take another student back in the chair:
Four minutes into this clip you can see Macdonald perform an "extreme version." He takes the pupil far back in the chair and straight up to standing. Looks strange to the uninitiated, but requires a very high level of "inhibition and direction" from both teacher and pupil.
Jeando Masoero is trying to recreate what he thinks is Alexanders original way of working, through self-observation and without hands-on guidance, based on Delsarte's philosophy and Alexander Technique principles. Here is his blog and facebook page:
These are interviews Robert Rickover made with Jeando Masoero about Delsarte and Alexander:
Alexander, Frederick Matthias. 1995. Articles and Lectures. Mouritz.
Alexander, Frederick Matthias. (1910/1918) 1996. Man's Supreme Inheritance. Mouritz.
Alexander, Frederick Matthias. (1923) 2004. Consctructive Conscious Control of the Individual. Mouritz.
Barlow, Marjory & Carey, Sean. 2011. The Ground Rules. Hite Books.
Carrington, Walter. 1996. A Time to Remember. The Sheildrake Press
Jones, Frank P. 1997 (1976). Freedom to Change. Mouritz.
Staring, Jeroen. 2005. Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869-1955) The Origins and History of the Alexander Technique. Integral,