Beginning of Term 5
I’ve forgotten what happened in my first Alexander lesson, except I knew it would help and wanted to continue. At the time that seemed enough. Now, as a trainee teacher, I wish I could remember more, though in a way it doesn’t really matter. Even so, I was happy to find Lulie Westfeldt’s account of her first lesson, clearly memorable, at the hands of FM Alexander himself.
She came from New Orleans, and contracted polio at the age of seven. Many medical interventions followed, which made things worse and left her, as she described it, “with added physical handicaps and disastrous psychological scars”. After lessons with Alexander in 1929, she joined his first training course for teachers in London in 1931. Back in the States she worked as a teacher for many years until her death in 1965.
Lessons and training brought huge benefits, though her memoirs paint a personal, not always flattering picture of Alexander the man. She’s frank about the difficulties she and her fellow students had on that first training course. But she’s unequivocal about the experience of her initial contact with Alexander:
“In my first lesson I understood very little, if anything, of what Alexander was doing or what he wanted me to do. He used his hands on me a great deal, and in the most subtle, delicate way, making what seemed to be minute, infinitesimal changes in my body in the region of my head, neck and back.
After a short interval, however, these tiny adjustments would add up to a substantial change which would often feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar. And so he went on. He worked on me while I was sitting in a chair and while I was standing up, and he also, with his hands on my head, took me in and out of a chair.
At the end of the lesson he walked me around the room with his hands on my head, and I felt as light as air. But even this was not a pleasant feeling, as I felt shaky and uncontrolled. My old equilibrium was gone and my legs seemed to dangle. Alexander’s hands were amazing; sometimes they almost seemed to be doing nothing at all or something that was so imperceptible that it passed for nothing.
Yet in reality they were always building up and strengthening a new HN&B [head, neck and back] pattern, thus producing fundamental changes in my body. It was as if my body was put on a different control. His hands impressed me so much that I thought over the qualities they possessed. They were dry, cool, light and impersonal, but above all they had a quality that gave me complete confidence and made me want to go with them… I enjoyed a clarity of thought and a tranquillity of emotions never before experienced.”
Not everyone has such vivid memories of a lesson, or notices profound effects. But it makes me remember the experience of hands conveying lightness, subtlety, strength, confidence and ‘doing nothing’. As the new term starts, it’s good to be reminded of what I’m working towards.
Lulie Westfeldt’s memoirs are published as “F Matthias Alexander The Man and His Work: Memoirs of Training in the Alexander Technique 1931-34”