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The Primary Control

October 2, 2010

During my early years of study and teaching the Alexander Technique, I must admit to being quite confused about F. M. Alexander’s expression “Primary Control”. Through no fault of my teachers, I became convinced that a primary control was a proper relationship of my head neck and back, and if I could find what that was I would unravel the mysteries of the Technique.  I had heard stories of teachers being so good at attaining this perfection that simply by placing their hands on a student’s neck, previously locked legs or arms or such places would miraculously begin to move with freedom and ease. Since I had rarely fulfilled this fantasy, I naturally assumed I was doing something wrong.

As time, teaching and studying experience marched on, I became suspicious of my fantasy creation not only of the “Primary Control”, but of the other Alexander directions (neck free, head forward and up, etc.) which I used frequently and perhaps a bit aimlessly. I began to wonder how it was that such a seemingly vague notion as Alexander’s principles could be based on and have as its’ primary thoughts, instructions that were so precise. Alexander’s directions as I imagined them, seemed too particular, too fixed and too much at risk of becoming ends in themselves. In order to accomplish using myself well in my definition, I had to do quite a bit which seemed to be contrary to the suggestion of “non doing”. If I went about trying to prove to myself that I had a free neck in the way I was used to figuring things out, I found that I was getting lost. I could never seem to know from one moment to the next whether my neck was in fact free.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that I would have traveled this path, as I now believe that my wish at the time was to precisely define the principles of this work as I had the principles of virtually everything I had ever studied. I’ve come to realize what a limiting way of thinking this is, and one thing I can clearly define, the Alexander Technique is not limiting. Directing a training course is one of the many fortunate opportunities I’ve encountered throughout my teaching career. Each day I am surrounded by thoughtful students and teachers who are dedicated to studying and teaching the Alexander Technique. We are purists, and understand that we must be considerate of Alexander’s words, ideas and concepts. One of the great joys we experience on our course is exploring Alexander’s books and Walter Carrington’s talks, not rushing through, and acknowledging the thoughtful ideas and questions that regularly arise for each of us. We can and frequently do spend a day’s worth of conversation on as little as one paragraph, and each person’s input is encouraged and appreciated.

One of our many recent vivid recollections came as we began to study Alexander’s final book The Universal Constant in Living. In the Introductory, Alexander talks about his early observations and his conceptions of “mind” and “body” as “separate parts of the same organism”.* At the time, this was the accepted theory and generally understood to be correct.  By becoming willing to reconsider this theory, Alexander recognized that the defects primarily having to do with his voice were not caused by the misuse of the vocal function itself and therefore could not be repaired by working on the voice to the disregard of everything else. Rather these defects were a result of general misuse and could only be indirectly considered by an improvement of the standard of use of his entire organism. Alexander observed the close connection between our thoughtful ability to affect our use of ourselves and the relationship of our use to our functioning. He gained evidence that rather than mind and body being separate there was in fact an inseparable integration. Alexander states “when in working to this principle I discovered the existence of a control of this integrated working, which, according as it was employed, influenced for good or ill my general functioning, I realized that I had not only come upon the primary control of the integrated working of the psycho – physical mechanism in the use of the self that I needed to bring about a change in my own reaction, but that, by the objective proof emerging from my observations and the procedures I employed, the concept of the organism – as – a – whole had been placed upon a foundation that could be scientifically established.”** My reaction upon reading this in class was predictable – once again it seemed I had reached the promised land. Surely nothing could be more vital to human activity given the close relationship of use and functioning than to be able to control our use.  I was elated as it seemed my long sought after precise definition of the primary control was close at hand.

It didn’t take long to realize that my euphoric reaction was not much different from the last time I thought I had a clear picture of the primary control (neck free, head forward and up, back to lengthen and widen, etc.).  It got me to thinking that perhaps primary control doesn’t warrant a definition in the strict way I hoped for. I pondered the possibility of there being lots of primary controls. In Constructive Conscious Control, Alexander offers the possibility of “Lengthening the Spine” before any other directions such as “Relaxing the Neck” or “Forward and Up”. (Actually, even before lengthening the spine, he mentions and demonstrates shortening the spine). *** Would we not be justified then in making a case for the wish to go up to be called a primary control? Returning to The Universal Constant in Living, Alexander states, “I found that in practice this use of the parts, beginning with the use of the head in relation to the neck, constituted a primary control of the mechanisms as a whole involving control in process right through the organism, and that when I interfered with the employment of the primary control of my manner of use, this was always associated with a lowering of the standard of my general functioning.” He goes on to say, ”This brought me to realize that I had found a way by which we can judge whether the influence of our manner of use is affecting our general functioning adversely or otherwise, the criterion being whether or not this manner of use is interfering with the correct employment of the primary control.”****

It seems that by example, Alexander is informing us that we can have various primary controls that all have in common not the end which will tell us exactly what he meant by using this term, but the means of encouraging awareness of a concept that is already hard at work . We could say that he indirectly is not suggesting the search for the universal one answer to what he meant by the term primary control, but rather to apply this somewhat vague notion in a more general way to our means of living. By agreeing to not narrow our search, we can understand that primary control and all Alexander’s directions are physiological states of being which we have the opportunity to make conscious use of – for good or for ill.

Recently David Levitt, a student in our training course, brought to my attention a paragraph from Joe Armstrong’s interview with Kitty Wielopolska. Joe, who worked frequently with Frank Pierce Jones, mentions that early in his practice Jones sent to F.M. a short description of the Work to elicit any suggestions to improve it. Armstrong says, “F.M. wrote back suggesting several changes, and he also made a special point of saying that the “Primary Control isn’t a “something”. He said, “we often describe it and explain it in terms of the head, neck, and back relationship and that it’s often useful for illustration, for instance, to speak of a rider in the saddle who doesn’t know how to handle the reins properly and interferes with the horse’s head-neck relationship so that the entire coordination of the horse is thrown off. But he also said, even at that, the Primary Control isn’t a “something”.*****

As I was writing this piece I was reminded of an experience that occurred while I was a visiting teacher at the Constructive Teaching Centre in London in 2001. During one of the classes Walter Carrington was, as usual, introducing the game of the day immediately after our return from lunch. He invited a woman whose name I unfortunately don’t remember, to join him by a chair in the front of the room. He began to speak quietly and gently both to the woman and the class and said, “Now here’s ……, leaving herself alone and not trying to do too much”. The words exploded in my consciousness. “Leaving Herself Alone.” The concept and perhaps the words were not new; but apparently something had evolved in my thinking which encouraged me to make an honest connection to what it all meant. I was quit fortunate as those words have supported me and my teaching ever since.

In our search perhaps we can go about trying to find the true meaning of “Primary Control”, by recalling and practicing these principles – leaving ourselves alone, and not trying to do too much. By not trying to make them something they don’t seem to want to be, perhaps we are giving justice to what Alexander meant by primary control and all his directions. I believe Alexander said it well again in the Illustration chapter of Constructive Conscious Control. In preparing to introduce his directions he said, “In the technical evolution about to be set down it is necessary to use certain phrases employed in the teaching technique, phrases which I consider call for comment seeing that they do not always adequately express my meaning and that, furthermore, they cannot be defended as being demonstrably accurate.” He then  goes on to state, “Readers of Man’s Supreme Inheritance will remember that when I used the phrase ‘position of mechanical advantage’, I pointed out that I did so because a better one was not forthcoming…………… As I have already stated, I think them (the phrases to follow) inadequate, but with a teacher present to demonstrate in person what he means by them, they serve their purpose”.******

(This essay is based on a series of conversations which took place at the Northern California Center for the Alexander Technique during September and October, 2010. Along with the author, and participating and contributing to these discussions were: Jeanne Benioff, Peter Estabrook, Daina Block, David Levitt, Gail Gurman, Jared Mundell, Kathleen Lucatorto, Lee Anne Welch, Greer Ellison, Sally Greenawalt and Jonathan Salzedo.)

* The Universal Constant in Living, Mouritz Edition, Introductory p xxxiii

** The Universal Constant in Living, Mouritz Edieion, Introductory p xxxiv

*** Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Mouritz Edition Chapter iv, Illustration, p 112

**** The Universal Constant in Living, Mouritz edition, p8

***** Never Ask Why, The Life-Adventure of Kitty Wielopolska, Joe Armstrong, 57-58

****** Constructive Conscious Control of the Individula, Mouritz Edition Chapter iv, Illustration, p 112


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