What is ‘the primary movement’?
If you are an Alexander Technique teacher you probably know, or at least think you do. It is quite possible you have got it wrong.
Alexander first writes about the primary movement in his 1907 article ‘The Theory and Practice of a New Method of Respiratory Re-Education.’(1)The article was later incorporated with only minor changes in the 1918 edition of Man's Supreme Inheritance and forms the third and last section of that book.
In a note to the text Sean Fischer writes:
“True primary movement” is the movement which precedes other movements and which therefore provides the controlling factor in influencing subsequent movements. It can be regarded as the precursor of the term “primary control” (Fischer ed. 1995, p.281).(2)
Like many Alexander Technique students I was taught during my teacher training that ‘the primary movement’ was the beginnings of the concept of primary control. I remember believing at the time this movement to be the ‘forward and up’ of the head. In the latest issue of the Alexander Journal, Alexander Technique teacher Malcolm Williamson writes:
Most Alexander practitioners understand the true primary movement as ‘going up’ (lengthening of the spine) … (Williamson, 2021b, p.81).(3)
Williamson also writes:
We shall probably never know for sure exactly to what Alexander was referring when he wrote: [He then gives the quotation from Alexander that ends with] a proper knowledge and practical employment of the true primary movement in each and every act (ibid).
I think we can find out what Alexander meant, if we study his writings.
The Theory And Practice Of A New Method Of Respiratory Re-Education
To understand Alexander's ‘true primary movement’ in his article from 1907, we have to include the sentence preceding the phrase:
At the outset let me point out that respiratory education or respiratory re-education will not prove successful unless the mind of the pupil is thoroughly imbued with the true principles which apply to atmospheric pressure, the equilibrium of the body, the centre of gravity, and to positions of mechanical advantage where the alternate expansions and contractions of the thorax are concerned. In other words, it is essential to have a proper mental attitude towards respiratory education or re-education, and the specific acts which constitute the exercises embodied in it, together with a proper knowledge and practical employment of the true primary movement in each and every act (Alexander 1996, p.200. Fischer ed. 1995, p.57).
‘In other words’ points back at the preceding sentence. This means that the last part of the first sentence corresponds with the last part of the second sentence. The ‘true primary movement in each and every act’ has to do with ‘the alternate expansions and contractions of the thorax.’(4)
This is the most obvious and simplest interpretation. That it is the correct one becomes evident if we study the rest of the article. Alexander uses the expression primary movement not once, but three times in the same article(5), and twice directly related to breathing!:
Most people, if asked to take a "deep breath," will proceed to—I use the words spoken by thousands of people I have experimented upon—" suck air into the lungs to expand the chest," whereas of course the proper expansion of the chest, as a primary movement, causes the alae nasi to be dilated and the lungs to be instantly filled with air by atmospheric pressure, without any harmful lowering of the pressure (Alexander 1996, p.200-201; Fischer ed. 1995, p.58).
Then follows due increase in the movements of expansion and contraction of the thorax until such movements are adequate and perfectly controlled. Further, these expansions are primary movements in securing that increase in the capacity of the chest necessary to afford the normal oscillations of atmospheric pressure, without unduly lowering that pressure … (Alexander 1996, p.208; Fischer ed. 1995, p.64).
The above quotations should be sufficient for anyone to conclude that what Alexander was referring to when writing about the ‘true primary movement’ was not the head going forward and up, or lengthening, but the expansions and contractions of the thorax.(6)
Each and every act
Teachers claiming the primary movement to be a precursor for the primary control argues that ‘each and every act’ must mean ‘each and every act in life,’ not ‘each and every act of breathing.’ Which is it? Let's have a look at what Alexander actually says in the text.
Alexander uses the word ‘act’ multiple times in the 1907 article. The word are most times used related to breathing. More specifically he uses the expressions ‘act of breathing’ (Fischer ed. 1995 p.56; Alexander 1996, p.196, p.199) and ‘the inspiratory act’ (Fischer ed. 1995, p.64. Alexander 1996, p.207). But most importantly he uses the phrase ‘each and every respiratory act’:
… a proper mental attitude towards respiration is at once inculcated, so that each and every respiratory act in the practice of the exercises is the direct result of volition, the primary, secondary, and other movements necessary to the proper performance of such act having first been definitely indicated to the pupil (Fischer ed. 1995, p.63; Alexander 1996, p.206).
When Alexander writes ‘the true primary movement in each and every act’ he means the true primary movement in each and every act of breathing, in other words, the movement of the thorax in every breath.(7)
Authorised Summaries Of F.M. Alexander’s Four Books
The above arguments are based on the original article published in Articles and Lectures (Fischer ed. 1995) and Man's Supreme Inheritance (Alexander 1996). But there is a third version of ‘The Theory And Practice Of A New Method Of Respiratory Re-Education,’ the abridged version in Authorised Summaries Of F.M. Alexander’s Four Books by Ron Brown (Brown ed. 1992).
The journalist Ron Brown wrote the summaries in the late 1940s.(8) Alexander read and approved the draft himself, signing each page.(Brown ed. 1992, p.9) Considering the importance Alexander put on the primary control at this stage in his career, (Alexander used the term ‘primary control’ more than one hundred times in The Universal Constant in Living), it is interesting to see what the abridged version of the article says about the primary movement(s).
Brown kept this sentence almost unchanged from the original:
At the outset let me point out that respiratory education or re-education, will not prove successful unless the mind of the pupil is imbued with the true principles which apply to atmospheric pressure, the equilibrium of the body, the centre of gravity and to positions of mechanical advantage where the alternate expansions and contractions of the thorax is concerned (Brown ed.) 1992, p.31).
But the next sentence, containing ‘the true primary movement in each and every act’ is cut! If ‘the true primary movement’ indeed was the ‘precursor’ and first sign of what was to become ‘the primary control,’ it is very unlikely it would have been omitted.
One of the other passages, saying the primary movement is the proper expansion of the chest, was kept:
Most people, if asked to take a "deep breath," will "suck air into the lungs to expand the chest," whereas, of course, the proper expansion of the chest as a primary movement causes the nostrils to be dilated and the lungs to be instantly filled without any harmful lowering of the pressure in the nasal passages (ibid, p.32). [‘in the nasal passages’ added to the MSI text].
Preceding primary movement
Alexander first uses the expression ‘primary movement’ in writing in 1907. It does not come out of the blue, however. He uses closely related descriptions in earlier writings. (The emphasis in the quotations below are mine).
Introduction To A New Method Of Respiratory Vocal Re-Education (1906)
In a future work I hope to deal more fully with the scientific aspect of practical respiratory re-education. At present I simply state the great principle to be antagonistic action, perfect employment of which is the forerunner of that control which ensures the correct use of the muscular system of the thorax in its fullest sense as the primary motive power in the respiratory act, also adequate muscular development, non-interference with the larynx and nasal dilation (Fischer ed. 1995, p.43).
… the student who is taught from the very beginning of his respiratory re-education to convert the air exhaled into whispered tones (consciously employing the true motive power) and the proper vowel or vowels will have learnt what should always be one of the simplest forms of vocal effort … (ibid, p.47).
Mr F. Matthias Alexander's New Method Of Respiratory And Vocal Re-Education (January 1906)
… in re-education there must first be conscious employment of the mechanism governing the respiratory act and the control of the motive power in vocalization; … (Fischer ed. 1995, p.37).
“Disciplinary Singing And Heart Disease” (12 January 1906)
… voice production from the earliest age with proper control of the respiratory mechanism is one of the best possible things, and any one trained to use correctly the true motive power in voice production could not injure the heart and would be in the same position reared in the colonies, where, from early age, they live mostly in the open air and shout and sing from morn till night (Fischer, ed. 1995, p.37).
A Respiratory Method (c. 1905)
The employment of Mr Alexander's method, under medical supervision, has shown that it restores the control over the true thoracic mechanism; … secures the maximum of thoracic mobility ...prevents thoracic rigidity in physical effort … and renders a rigid thorax adequately mobile, … (Fischer, ed. 1995, p.27-28).
Such erroneous ideas [about nasal breathing] are cherished by those who conceive them, simply because there is a sad lack of practical knowledge concerning the all-important subject of nasal breathing and the true motive power in respiration. …
Mr Alexander's method secures that absolute control over the thoracic mechanism which enables the student to secure an adequate air supply through the nostrils in physical effort, in singing, speaking, and during sleep, and also in ordinary conversation, and the founder of the method has proved these facts to the satisfaction of many members of the medical profession of London (Fischer, ed. 1995, p.29).
The Prevention And Cure Of Consumption (12 December 1903)
Many theories have been advanced in explanation of the cause of causes of the prevalence of the lung disease known as consumption, but there can be no doubt whatever that it is due chiefly to the decay in the breathing power of mankind, … . The decay referred to may be described as an almost complete failure of the thoracic mechanism, which causes the motive power in breath-taking to be thrown almost entirely upon the throat muscles; … (Fischer, ed. 1995, p.20).
Such defects [bad habits associated with poor breathing] could not exist if the thoracic mechanism performed the functions ordained by Nature. The motive power for the respiratory act belongs solely to the thorax; and the existence of this natural action ensures that the throat and neck muscles, the larynx and the shoulders remain passive; the breath will pass noiselessly into the lungs, while those passages will be dilated instead of being contracted (Fischer, ed. 1995, p.20).
We see in these quotations from Alexander's early writings the ‘primary motive power’ having a similar function as ‘primary movement,’ He even uses the expression ‘true motive power’ as in ‘true primary movement in each and every act;’(9) and he says explicitly that ‘The motive power for the respiratory act belongs solely to the thorax’.
To a modern Alexander Technique teacher it is striking how great importance Alexander put on the free movement of the thorax. In the early part of his career it was the thorax, or ‘thoracic mechanism’ that was the focal point of his work, not the head-neck-back relationship. It is no wonder he defined thoracic movement as being ‘primary’.(10)
The Lady of the Deep C
Having now identified the true meaning of Alexander's ‘primary movement,’ and looked at the use of a similar concept in Alexander's early writings, there exists yet another reference that can throw light on the matter. It is a newspaper article published in the Daily Express, October 1904, only months after Alexander arrived in London:
The primary movement of breathing must be thoracic, that is, the thorax or chest-box must be expanded naturally without drawing in any breath by suction. The thorax must be made as mobile as possible. (Daily Express 1904). (See also Staring, 2018, p.109).(11)
It turns out the ‘primary movement’ was part of Alexander's vocabulary years before the 1907 article and the meaning is explicitly clear: it is the movement of the thorax in breathing.
The true precursor(s)
The ‘true primary movement’ is not the precursor to ‘the primary control’. What are the true precursors can be detected in Alexander's early articles.
In his 1906 article he reveals ‘… the great principle to be antagonistic action, perfect employment of which is the forerunner of that control which ensures the correct use of the muscular system of the thorax in its fullest sense …’ (Fischer ed. 1995, p.43). In his 1907 article he mentions ‘positions of mechanical advantage where the alternate expansions and contractions of the thorax are concerned.’
These concepts are about the relationships of parts, just as the primary control ‘becomes a something in the sphere of relativity’ (Vineyard/Fischer eds. 2020, p.404; Murray 2015 p.124). It is antagonistic action and positions of mechanical advantage that are the organising principles in Alexander's early work.(12)
Even if we give ‘the true primary movement’ the benefit of doubt, (which should be non-existent at this point), and defines it as ‘lengthening,’ it is still not the precursor to the concept of the primary control.
How did we get here
Many Alexander Technique teachers have contributed to spreading the misinterpretation of the primary movement as the forerunner to the primary control. I'm afraid I will have to include myself on that list. This interpretation has become widely accepted in the Alexander Technique community. How could this happen?
I believe there are several reasons. The Alexander technique is a skill handed down from person to person. We come to rely on tradition, and the teachings of senior teachers. We are not in the habit of questioning these teachings.
Alexander himself is regarded with reverence, in some quarters almost as infallible. Most people today would think of the diaphragm, not the thorax as having the ‘motive power’ in breathing. That Alexander had another view is not even considered.
Senior teachers have admonished us to ‘read the books!’ I have the impression that most teachers don't, and if we do we have great difficulties avoiding reading the text through the lens of a modern understanding of the Alexander Technique. This goes especially for Alexander's early writings.
Last but not the least there has generally been a lack of scientific and critical thinking in the Alexander Technique community. We like to say that the Alexander Technique is scientifically sound, but our thinking and our professional discussions are not.
Should we stop defining primary movement as lengthening or going up? No, not necessarily. In a modern version of the Alexander technique I think there are reasons for such use of the term.
What we should do is stop claiming that Alexander's ‘true primary movement’ in 1907 was ‘lengthening’ or ‘going up’ or ‘head forward and up.’ It was thoracic movement in breathing. In later texts Alexander uses ‘primary movement’ in relation to movements generally, but this I will get back to in another article.
We should also stop saying the primary movement is a precursor to the primary control. It is not.
Related blog articles
1) The Theory and Practice of a New Method of Respiratory Re-Education was republished in Articles and Lectures (Fischer ed. 1995, p.51).
2) This interpretation probably originated with Walter Carrington. In Explaining the Alexander Technique he has this exchange with Sean Carey:
WC: ... People are inclined to suggest that FM got the whole idea of the primary control from Magnus. But in fact, he was well aware of the importance of the relationship between the head, neck and body for many years. ... After all, in MSI, as we've discussed previously, FM talks of the 'primary movement'.
SC: So the term 'primary control' is simply a later version of the 'primary movement'?
WC: Yes, absolutely. … (Carrington/Carey 1992, p. 109).
3) A few examples of Alexander teachers who have defined primary movement as ‘lengthening’ or ‘going up,’ or as ‘primary control’ are: Walter Carrington (Carrington) 1994, p.32; John Nicholls (Nicholls/Carey 1991, p. 67, p.69; Marjean McKenna (McKenna 2017, p.85); Cris Raff (Raff 2001, p.13); Bob Lada (Lada 2019, p.149).
Edward Maisel, the Author of Essential Writings (originally titled The Resurrection of the Body) defined primary movement as ‘vertebral lengthening in activity’ (Maisel, 1990, p.xxvii). Maisel misquoted Alexander by writing ‘true and primary movement,’ a misquote picked up and continued by Alexander Farkas (Farkas 2019, p.48, p.82.) (See also Staring 2005 p.377 and Staring 2018 p.113).
4) Williamson writes in the Alexander Journal 28 that: ‘Despite a degree of ambiguity, however, the words ‘together with’ most likely indicate that the‘specific acts’ in breathing are to be combined with the ‘true primary movement’’ (Williamson, 2021b. p.81). Williamson disregards the preceding sentence.
He is right that there is a degree of ambiguity. Alexander connects ‘a proper knowledge and practical employment of the true primary movement in each and every act,’ not only to the alternate expansions and contractions of the thorax, but also to the ‘positions of mechanical advantage’ which facilitates the movements. Another potential source for ambiguity is Alexander use of primary movement in singular. Possible interpretation is that the contraction and expansions of the thorax can be seen as elements of a single cyclic movement. Alexander uses both primary movement and movements in the article. Another possibility is that only one of these, the expansion, is the ‘true primary movement’.
5) Actually four times, if we count the listing of ‘the primary, secondary, and other movements necessary to the proper performance of such act …’ (Fischer 1995, p.63 Alexander 1996, p.206).
6) Based on the quotes from the article it could be argued that Alexander means only one of these to be the true primary movement: the expansion of the thorax.
7) Williamson writes in the Alexander Journal 28 that: ‘Alexander’s meaning at the end of this passage might be considered ambiguous. Does he mean ‘the true primary movement in each and every act [in breathing]’ or the true primary movement in each and every act in general? Wider reading of his books brings us to the conclusion that he most probably means the latter’ (Williamson 2021a, p.12). Williamson gives no references to back his claim.
Jeroen Staring has also misinterpreted ‘each and every act’. In his grand biography on Alexander there is this misleading heading: ‘Breathing: the true primary movement in each and every act’ (Staring 2005, p.90). Breathing is the primary movement in breathing? That does not make sense. In an article from 2018 that directly addresses the issue of interpreting ‘the primary movement,’ he has this poetic, but still erroneous paragraph: ‘People breathe in and breathe out during each and every activity, they inhale and exhale since birth and keep on breathing in and out till their final breath. They inhale and exhale while sitting, while sleeping, while walking, while driving a car, while singing, etc., and yes: people even breathe while being in an inverted position or when scuba diving, in other words, they breathe “in each and every act” of life’ (Staring, 2018, p.108).
8) The summaries were meant to be included in a book titled Alexander and the Doctors, detailing the South African libel case that Alexander recently had won. The book was never published. I wonder whether the book was planned in the euphoria after the verdict, but dropped when it was realised it was not entirely positive. The judgment contains for instance this passage: ‘The conclusion to which I come is that the defendants have shown that Mr Alexander is a quack in the sense that he makes ignorant pretence to medical skill; they have shown that many of the physiological reasons put forward are wrong; they have shown that in its claims to cure the system constitutes dangerous quackery; but in these matters they misrepresented the views of Mr Alexander and in showing how foolish were these views, which he did not put forward, they have in the article called him much more of a quack than they were entitled to do.’ Supreme Court of South Africa (Witwatersrand Local Division). Frederick Matthias Alexander versus Ernst Jokl, Eustace H. Cluve, Bernard M. Clarke. 19th February 1948, p.31-32.
9) Fischer in his comment in Articles and Lectures claims that ‘… “true primary movement” is different from “primary movement”: the former denotes the primary control, the movement which precedes other movements irrespective of our attempts to move other parts first; the latter denotes what we “do” first …’ (Fischer (ed) 1995, p.282). I can't find any arguments in favour of this claim in the text. Alexander's use of the word ‘true’ does not seem to imply a change of meaning of the term it precedes. We have for instance no reason to believe that ‘true motive power’ is different from ‘motive power.’
10) In the article ‘Theory and Practice of a New Method’ there is this sentence which the head of my teacher training, John Nicholls; often cited: ‘There is such immediate improvement in the pose of the body and poise of the …’ Here John would stop and ask the students for the next word. Invariably the answer would be ‘head,’ while the correct answer is of course ‘chest.’
11) The quote seems to contradict one of Staring's main points about Alexander's early work presented in his biography on Alexander (Staring 2005).
12) It is important to note that these principles seem primarily to relate to the functioning of the thorax and the act of breathing. There are indications that the rest of the body was indirectly involved. How and to what degree is an interesting question. Frank Pierce Jones regarded the term ‘position of mechanical advantage’ as the precursor to primary control:
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)
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Daily Express. (1904. October 19). The Lady of the Deep C, p.5.
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Lada, Bob. 2019. ‘Teaching Alexander from 'Yes'.’ In The Congress Papers: Advancing Global Perspectives. 11th International Congress 2018, Chicago. Marsh, Paul (ed). STAT Books.
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McKenna, Marjean. 2017. Your Natural Up. Selfpublished.
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Staring, Jeroen. 2018. ‘Frederick Matthias Alexander, Born 150 Years Ago, on January 20, 1869. A Fierce Comment Regarding Interpretations of Alexander’s Texts by Alexander Technique Teachers.’ Case Studies Journal. ISSN (2305-509X) – Volume 7, Issue 12–Dec-2018.
Supreme Court of South Africa (Witwatersrand Local Division). Frederick Matthias Alexander versus Ernst Jokl, Eustace H. Cluve, Bernard M. Clarke. 19th February, 1948.
Vineyard, M (ed). & Fischer (ed), S. 2020. F. M. Alexander: Letters, Volume II, 1943-1955. Mouritz.
Williamson, Malcolm. 2021a. ‘How did the concept of 'primary control evolve during Alexander's lifetime?’ In Alexander Journal 28, spring 2021. STAT.
Williamson, Malcolm. 2021b. ‘Lengthening and widening and Alexander's 'secret'.’ In Alexander Journal 28, spring 2021. STAT.