(This is an article written for Alexander Technique teachers and in particular those who have an interest in Alexander's writing).
What kind of acts was Alexander referring to when he wrote about ‘the primary movement in each and every act’?
The phrase is to be found in Alexander's 1907 article ‘The Theory and Practice of a New Method of Respiratory Re-Education’. (For convenience shortened to ‘Theory and Practice’ in the following). The article was later incorporated into Man's Supreme Inheritance.
Some time ago, I posted a blog article in which I argued that ‘primary movement’ in Alexander's 1907 article refers to thoracic movements in breathing, and not lengthening, as many Alexander Technique teachers have believed. I also argued that ‘each and every act’ means each and every act of breathing. ‘Each and every respiratory act' is an expression Alexander uses in his article.
After posting a link to my blog article on a Facebook group, there was some discussion. One teacher accepted primary movement to mean thoracic movement in breathing, but took ‘each and every act’ to be the acts of life in general. I asked this teacher for references to passages in the text that supported his position, but he was not able to give any. When I said we have to study what Alexander wrote to find out what he meant, he replied: ‘I guess I don’t care what Alexander might have meant.’
What Alexander meant by ‘each and every act’ is not important. But when discussing any text, including Alexander’s, we can’t choose an interpretation just because it suits us. This is particularly relevant when we Alexander Technique teachers discuss and criticize Alexander’s books, which it is our responsibility to do, as they are, in some respect, our not so ‘supreme inheritance’.
When asking my experienced colleague for references I was genuinely interested. I wondered whether there was something I had missed when reading the text. When I got no help I decided to go back and study the text again.
I decided to investigate how Alexander used the word ‘act’ in all of his early articles. I found the noun ‘act’ or ‘acts’ used 36 times in 9 out of 13 articles from 1895 (‘Speech Culture and Natural Elocution’) to 1909 (‘Why We Breathe Incorrectly’). All quotes are to be found in the notes below.(1) The word act is used in association with breathing 24 times (2), in association with vocal use 5 times (3), and in association with general movement 5 times (4). The two remaining instances are ambiguous and the subject of this article. What we see from these quotes is that it was normal for Alexander to write about breathing as an ‘act’.(5)
This does not, however, tell us which acts should be included in ‘each and every act’. All but one of the articles containing the word ‘act’ are about breathing or the use of the voice. It is only natural, then, that we find the word act most often associated with breathing.
To know more about what kind of acts is meant by ‘the primary movement in each and every act’, we have to look at the context in which we find the phrase.
The phrase ‘the primary movement in each and every act’ is to be found in the opening of the second part of ‘Theory and Practice’. The heading is ‘Errors to be avoided and Facts to be Remembered in the Theory and Practice of Respiratory Re-Education’.
Alexander opens by warning about the ‘harmful results’ from exercises performed according to the wrong principle, and in particular “deep breathing”.
Anything that makes for good may be rendered harmful in its effect by injudicious application or improper use, and many authorities have referred to this fact in connection with breathing exercises. For the guidance of my readers I will detail some of the harmful results which accrue from the attempt to take what are known as “deep breaths” during the practice of breathing and physical exercises, in accordance with the instructions set down and the principle advocated in recognized breathing systems (Alexander 1995 p.56; Alexander 1996 p.200; Alexander 2022 p.94)
In the paragraph which follows, Alexander indicates what are the correct or ‘true’ principles to follow in ‘respiratory education or respiratory re-education’.
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. (Alexander 1995 p.57 ; Alexander 1996 p.200; Alexander 2022, p.95).
The very next sentence in the text ends with the phrase ‘the true primary movement in each and every act’.
Alexander explains that he himself has employed ‘this factor’ for over twelve years. (It is unclear whether ‘this factor’ relates to ‘the true primary movement’ or to ‘a proper mental attitude’). He then uses the rest of this part of the article to describe ...
... the serious defects ordinarily met with in the respiratory mechanism of civilized people, all of which are exaggerated in the practice of customary “breathing exercises” (Alexander 1995 p.57; Alexander 1996 p.201 ; Alexander 2022 p.95).
It is clear, then, that the context to ‘each and every act’ is the performance of breathing exercises.(6)
Each and every
Let's now have look at the relevant paragraph itself to see if we can find more clues to the true meaning of ‘each and every act’.
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 1995 p.57; Alexander 1996 p.200; Alexander 2022 p.95) [Alexander’s italics, my emphasises].
In this paragraph there are two ‘acts’. (The second act is in the singular form, but with ‘each and every’ it points to multiple acts). The question we have to ask is: are they the same acts?
Given that they occur within the same sentence the most plausible interpretation is that they are the same. Alexander was not a great writer, but he is unlikely to cause confusion in a paragraph he clearly saw as important, given the italicization, by letting the same word mean two different things in the same sentence.
The first acts refer to ‘the exercises embodied in it’, (i.e. in the process of ‘respiratory education or re-education’). What are these exercises? We don't know, but Alexander gives us a clue when he later in the article writes:
… by always converting the expired air into a controlled whispered vowel during the practice of the breathing exercises very great benefits accrue … (Alexander 1995 p.65; Alexander 1996 p.209; Alexander 2022 p.104)
The employment of these whispered tones means the proper use of the vocal organs in a form of vocalization little associated with ordinary bad habits, and that perfect co-ordination of the parts concerned which is inseparable from adequately controlled whisper vocalization. (Alexander 1995 p.66, Alexander 1996 p.209, Alexander 2022 p.104)
One possibility is that the exercises in question were breathing exercises, and that they consisted of whispered vocalization. They would also have had an element of ‘mechanical advantage’:
… Moreover, the mechanical advantages in the body-pose and chest-poise assumed in these exercises causes them to be performed with the minimum of effort, and leads to an even and controlled expansion of the whole thorax (Alexander 1995 p.60; Alexander 1996 p.204; Alexander 2022 p.98).
It seems that, as a rule, some element of mechanical advantage was included in the exercises. We don't know exactly what kind of ‘positions of mechanical advantage’ Alexander applied in his teaching at the time. Within two years of publishing Theory and Practice, he gave the example in ‘The Re-Education of the Kinæsthetic Systems’ of having the pupil lean back against the back of a chair, the shoulder blades supported by books. (Alexander 1995 p.82-83 , Alexander 2022 p.121).
It is also possible that Alexander's reference to ‘mechanical advantages’ points to mechanical advantages obtained in normal standing and sitting positions. We can anyway conclude that the exercises involved ‘body-pose and chest poise’ and were in that sense not exclusively breathing exercises.
There are, in my view, three possible interpretations of the word ‘act’ in Alexander's expression ‘true primary movement in each and every act’:
1) acts in general, as in ‘acts of life’.(7)
2) acts included in and related to breathing exercises
3) acts of breathing, the breathing itself
We can rule out the first option. There is nothing in Alexander's 1907 article to support the interpretation that the acts in question are acts in general. In my article on ‘The Primary Movement’, I argued in favour of the third option, that the acts referred to were acts of breathing. After having studied the text again, I'm more inclined to accept a somewhat broader definition. The acts seem to be directly related to breathing exercises which can consist of multiple movements. The second option seems very likely to be correct. The ‘true primary movement’ in this context is still the expansions and contractions of the thorax.
Related blog articles
1) Quotations containing the noun ‘act’ or ‘acts’. The quotes are in chronological order. I have highlighted the word act or the phrase that includes the word. Italics are Alexander's.
Speech Culture and Natural Elocution (20 July 1895)
... the act of speaking or reciting, which was once a strain becomes a work of ease and pleasure. (Alexander 1995, p.10).
The Human Voice Cultivated and Developed for Singing and Speaking (ca 1900)
When I mention proper breathing, I do not refer to inhalation ony, but to the combinded acts of inhalation and exhalation (Alexander 2022, p.24).
Chest-sinking durring the act of singing has another serious aspect ... (ibid p.24).
In dealing with the matter of exhalation from this point, I will call the act [of exhalation] (when speaking or singing) manipulation. (ibid p.24).
The Prevention and Cure of Consumption (12 December 1903)
The motive power for the respiratory act belongs solely to the thorax; … (Alexander 1995, p.20).
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 … (Alexander 1995, p.37)
… the mental attitude towards the respiratory act is incorrect, … (ibid p.37)
Introduction to a New Method of Respiratory Vocal Re-Education (1906)
To expose error where none is supposed to exist, to explain the exquisite mechanism controlling the simple act of breathing, is to provoke animosity on the one hand and incredulity on the other (Alexander 1995, p.40).
… the firm, but not “fixed,” position of the upper chest during the act of vocalisation. It is therefore obvious that the vocal act requires: … (ibid p.41)
The larynx is unduly depressed with each inspiration, and often still more so during the vocal act, … (ibid p.42)
The attention of teachers and other interested in the making of breahing systems for vocal use seems to have been wholly absorbed in devising movements for increasing and developing the inspiratory act, whereas the perfect control of the EXPIRATORY is all-important to the vocalist … Perfection in the expiratory act entails perfection in the inspiratory one also, a fact only to be realized by those who have a perfect knowledge of the true principles governing the respiratory act in singing (ibid, p.42-43).
… the correct use of the muscular system of the thorax in its fullest sense as the primary motive power in the respiratory act, ... (Alexander 1995, p.43).
The attitude of the mind towards the inspiratory act is incorrect (ibid, p.43).
On every hand there are seen in singers and speakers the sad results of ignorance regarding the respiratory act … (ibid, p.45).
In song and speech the inspiratory act must be very short, … (ibid, p.45).
If the natural respiratory act is not under conscious control, neither is the vocal, … (ibid, p.46)
The theory and Practice of a New Method of Respiratory Re-Education
Some muscles of the thoracic mechanism are used solely for regulating performance of breathing movements which were never intended by Nature to monopolize the particular act, but only to serve as a relief or change, ... (Alexander 1995, p.53) 1) [This paragraph was changed in the 1918 MSI version of the article, which added another instance of ‘act of breathing’:
Certain muscles of the thoracic mechanisms which should take the lead in the performance of the breathing movements remain entirely inert for the greater part of life, whilst others, which were never intended by nature to monopolize this particular act but only to serve as a relief or change, are used solely for the act of breathing (Alexander 1996, p.196).
The inculcation of a proper mental attitude towards the act of breathing in children, … (Alexander 1995 p.56; Alexander 1996 p.199).
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 1995 p.57, Alexander 1996 p.200).
During this harmful “sniffing” act it will be seen that … (Alexander 1995 p.58, Alexander 1996 p.202).
... the undue intra-thoracic pressure - during an attempt at expiration or some physical act - ... ( Alexander 1995 p.60, Alexander 1996 p.203).
… an incorrect mental attitude towards the respiratory act (Alexander 1995 p.62, Alexander 1996 p.206).
… a proper mental attitud towards respiration is at once inculcated, and 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. (Alexander 1995 p.63, Alexander 1996 p.206).
The experiments made by Dr. Marcet show that the duration of a man's power to sustain the muscle contraction necessary to raise a weight a given number of times depends on the endurance of the brain-centres causing the act of volition rather than upon the muscular power (Alexander 1995 p.63, Alexander 1996 p.207).
… the mechanical advantage so essential to the proper performance of the next inspiratory act (Alexander 1995 p.64, Alexander 1996 p.207).
Why “Deep Breathing” and Physical Culture Exerices do more Harm than Good (July 1908)
Instruction (d): “to expel the air by forcing in some part of the chest or abdominal wall” or, as it is usually put, “drive out the air in expiration” is another result of ignorance regarding the act of inspiration (Alexander 1995, p.76)
The head will at once be thrown back, the neck unduly stiffened, the tongue drawn back into the throat, whereas opening of the mouth is simply the act of dropping the jaw (ibid p.76-77).
Re-Education of the Kinæsthetic System (December 1908)
… (as when the arms and neck are stiffened in performing acts which properly call for the perfect co-ordination of the muscular mechanisms of the back) … (Alexander 1995 p.81)
It is, therefore, as necessary to order the inhibition of incorrect and unconsciously performed acts as to give orders which will secure the co-ordinated use of the mechanisms involved (ibid p.83).
Why We Breathe Incorrectly (November 1909)
… I regret his employement of the term “Back Breathing” … since I consider it dangerous as suggesting to the pupil that the act of breathing is of primary importance, and that he is to perform it with a particular part of his body. (Alexander 1995 p.92)
It will at once be seen, therefore, that the act of breathing is not a primary, or even a secondary, part of the process, … (ibid p.92)
2) Instances where ‘act’ is used in connection with breathing are: acts of inhalation and exhalation, the respiratory act, act of breathing, expiratory act, inspiratory act. 3) Instances where ‘act’ is used in connection with speaking or singing are: act of speaking or reciting, act of singing, act of vocalisation, vocal act. 4) Instances where ‘act’ is used in connection other physical acts are: some physical act, the act of volition, the act of dropping the jaw, acts which properly call for the perfect co-ordination, unconsciously performed acts). 5) In ‘Theory and Practice’, Alexander uses the word ‘breathing’ mainly in expressions as ‘breathing exercises’, ‘breathing movements’, ‘breathing mechanisms’, etc. He writes simply ‘breathing’ about the activity itself only four or five times. There are six instances of ‘respiratory act’, ‘act of breathing’ and similar phrases (not counting the ambiguous ‘primary movement in each and every act’). 6) This becomes even clearer if you read Ron Brown's Authorised Summaries of this part of the article:
Chapter 2: Errors to be avoided and facts to be remembered
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 expansion and contractions of the thorax is concerned.
The serious defects ordinariy met with in the respiratory mechanism of civilized people are exaggerated in the practice of customary “breathing exercises”. If a “deep breath” is taken through the nose there will be a loud “sniffing” sound and collapse of the alæ nasi (nostrils), and if through the mouth, a “gasping” sound. The pupil has not been told that if the thorax is expanded correctly the lungs will at once be filled with air by atmospheric pressure, exactly as a pair of bellows is filled when the handles are pullled apart. 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 filled without any harmful lowering of pressure in the nasal passages.
[Here follows a list of 9 faults accompanying harmful “sniffing”.]
Most people when practicing breathing exercises have one fixed idea, viz., that of causing a great expansion of the chest, whereas its proper and adequate contraction is equally important. These people always experience great difficulty in breath control in speech and song and this is not surprising, for if a mechanical advantage is essential to the proper expansion of the thorax for the intake of air, it is equally essential to the controlling power during expiration (Alexander, Brown ed. 1992, p.31).
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 misinterprets ‘each and every act’. 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).
Alexander, F.M.; Fischer (ed). (1995). Articles and Lectures. Mouritz.
Alexander, F.M.; Fischer (ed). (2022). Articles and Lectures (Second edition). Mouritz
Alexander, F.M. (1996). Man’s Supreme Inheritance. Mouritz.
Brown, Ron (ed). 1992. Authorised Summaries of F.M. Alexander's Four Books. STATBooks.
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.
Williamson, Malcolm. 2021. ‘How did the concept of 'primary control evolve during Alexander's lifetime?’ In Alexander Journal 28, spring 2021. STAT.