Inhibition into Everyday: What Does it Mean to Stop?
Notes by Sarah Barfoot
A workshop led by John S Hunter at Soho House exploring this concept of what it means to stop and a discussion of his experiences with Miss Goldie and Erika Whittaker.
“None of us knows what ‘stopping really is,’ but we can explore the possibility of it.”1
John began by giving us a brief introduction to the two ladies’ characters, describing them to be as different as chalk and cheese. Though they were not close in their younger years these two grand dames of Ashley Place developed a warmth towards one another in later life, perhaps bonded by their shared experiences of their time with F.M. and their feeling towards what was happening in the Alexander Technique world. He then went on to tell us about each woman in more detail, beginning with Miss Goldie.
Margaret Goldie was born in 1905 in Bridge of Weir.2 She came to study in London in 1924 at the Froebel Institute where she was noticed by Esther Lawrence, who was concerned by her frailty and sent her off to have lessons with FM. Given her combined early interests of studying the work of Frederick Froebel and later work with F.M on The Alexander Technique Training Course it seemed apt that she should later help Irene Tasker with running the Little School, first at Ashley Place and then at Penhill.
I remember reading that she had a reputation as a rather fierce, but petite, prim looking, woman, who wore her hair in a bun and had sparkling blue eyes and a penchant for the odd cigar.
She had a love of the finer things in life, the Arts and authenticity. She had played Portia in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and Ophelia in ‘The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’ at the Old Vic alongside F.M and the other on the training course at Ashley Place
John recalled the time when he first entered her room in Soho Square. Having heard about her from pupils at Patrick Macdonald’s school he was prompted to book this first lesson following a surreal dream he had in which he was taking a lesson with her. He rang her up and noted that she was very polite on the phone.
Her teaching room was a tiny space at the top of an office block in Soho Square. His description of stepping into this room made me think of Lucy stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia,3 an unknown and magical place where anything might happen. John described a sense of quiet that filled this room and also a sense of quiet inside that you sensed when you looked into Miss Goldie’s eyes.
John recounted that she often wore a hat with a feather poking out if it and that her rooms had a feeling of quality and were filled sparsely with well made, old fashioned furniture, most notably a bureau and an antique cigar box. The latter she often used to place behind a pupil’s back to ensure the back stayed back, during chair turns. John informed us this same feeling of quality was later reinforced on visiting her home in Richmond.
His visits to her began in 1985 shortly after he had qualified as a teacher. She made him realise that he had much more responsibility in his use that he had previously realised.
He recalled that she might stand him in front of a chair and just tap him on the head whilst speaking and it was as if the words literally dropped right into his brain. Then she’d put him into the chair somehow and he wouldn’t know how he’d got there.
Another thing she would do is sit him in a chair and tilt him back so that he was quite uncomfortable, then tap him.
John recounted how everything he was used to would go in that moment. He had to become aware of how he was dealing in his mind with not having a familiar support. Then when he was quiet she’d whisk him out of the chair and all familiar sensory experience was gone.
Sometimes she would get him up other times he would remain seated. He said that she had a trick of finding something to do at the other side of the room often looking in her bureau whilst she left him in monkey or in the chair but she would be quietly observing in mirrors and if he moved would simply enquire about ‘what he thought he was doing, ruining her good work.’
He said that these experiences were not always comfortable and that he was always under scrutiny in her room and that things were on her terms. He recalled she had reprimanded him on his first visit for not stopping before seeing it through as he went to sit in a chair and again for having his feet too far apart. After the first lesson and discussing payment he recalled that she had said to him that he must go away and think about how much it meant to him, adding that people with a lot of money don’t value anything unless they pay through the nose for it, so what did he think it was worth to him? Following this they came to an arrangement.
He said prior to his lessons with her he had felt he was a competent teacher and knew how to give a good turn but she had made him question to what extent the technique was
choreography where we learn to respond to each other’s hands. She was interested in the brain, how one brain spoke to another. Her focus in these lessons was often on the thinking and staying in the moment with the experience and this change in the brain would somehow work its way into the body. The hands were almost incidental in this process but an hour or two later he might be doing something and would suddenly feel a change in the spine, a new freedom.
John recalled her coming in one day and asking if he had heard of Frances Sinatra who sang the song ‘I did it My Way’. “He’s wrong’. She had said “Because it’s doing it your way that got you into trouble. You want to do it nature’s way.”
John said he had known the day something had changed for him. She had tapped him on the back and he had observed he was ‘there’. You’re a lot better she had told him but straight away had followed that with ‘You don’t want to get complacent.’
He felt lessons with her made a pupil take into daily life an acute awareness of how they reacted to stimuli at all times. Taking away the thoughts of keeping the back back, and putting them in front of who they really were. That in her lessons the mind was in a place of unknown, not in a frightened or vulnerable sense but rather in one of curiosity. In this unfamiliar place it was possible to see the world anew and felt as though anything could happen.
Erika Whittaker (nee Schumann) was born Metz in 1911 and spent her early years in Germany.4 Her mother wished for her to have an English education and in 1919 sent her to the Wendover, experimental farmhouse school. She came to Ashley Place around 1929. It was here that she met her husband, a young doctor, called Duncan Whittaker.
John said that Erika was a very different personality to Miss Goldie, a real people-lover with a very open nature. She loved talking and possessed a wicked sense of humour. Her aunt, Ethel Webb, was already an Alexander Technique teacher and had first introduced her to the technique at eight years old. As a young lady Erika had suffered from a scoliosis of the spine and described herself as a ‘lumpy’ child.
In her first introductions to the technique her aunt had advised her to keep her length in all that she did and to make sure she looked after herself in all her activities. Maybe these early interventions had an influence on the open personality she held onto into adulthood.
Erika had an interest in Zen Buddhism and Daoism. Her father had been a musician in the German army and the Kaiser had been so impressed with a musical piece that he had directed that he had bestowed upon him one wish. Erika’s father was granted a post in Shanghai and it was on a slow boat to China that her parent’s had met and fallen in love. As a result Daoist Philosophy was prevalent growing up in their household and Erika immediately recognised a connection between these ideas and those of F.M Alexander’s work.
John told us that it was in 1985 at the STAT memorial lecture that he first laid eyes on Erika Whittaker. He had been qualified for more than a year and had been taking lessons with Miss Goldie. He recalled being confused when Erika bounded onto the stage as he was looking out for a ‘grand old lady’ and she looked a good twenty years younger than her age.
One of the things he remembered from that address was her saying that anyone who looked as if they were practising the Alexander Technique wasn’t. He recalled looking about the room and seeing many people who looked as though they were and also that they also sat in enclaves and seemed to practise a particular ‘house style’ dependent upon where they’d trained.
Erika piqued his interest and he decided to find out more about this unusual woman.
John arranged a lesson with her in Earls Court, whilst she was staying in England with a friend and fellow teacher, because at that time she was based in Australia. He recalled that as she opened the door he had felt straight away that there was something different about her. He said at the time he could only express it by saying she allowed herself to ‘live’ her personality and that this came through in her energy and approach to life.
There was no imposition of a technique or sense that she was the teacher. She put him totally at ease. Due to a mix up of times and the teaching room being booked she took him into another room to talk. He said that she had spoken whilst he listened and he had realised almost straight away that what she had said was very relevant to him and his life. In that short space of time she had given him some very insightful knowledge in an indirect way.
She had then taken him into the other room to do some chair and table work but had made minimal contact with her hands, but kept his attention constantly engaged so that he didn’t interfere. When he had to leave, because she had an appointment, he enquired about payment and she had said that as he was a teacher he mustn’t worry about payment but rather see it as an exchange of work, however the next time would be in Australia.
He said on leaving he went to sit in a café, feeling somewhat similar, but also very different to when he had his first lessons some seven years before. Similar in that he was experiencing himself in a new way; but different because it had come about with very little hands on work. Something huge had happened, she had got inside his head and changed his thinking.
He then recounted spending time with both women and how in their later years they had reconciled any differences they may have had in their former years and time spent at Ashley Place. He told us that the last time he had seen Miss Goldie she had been delighted as she had been to tea with Erika and they’d shared all her favourite things, including smoked salmon, stilton cheese and champagne.
He also recounted that Miss Goldie remarked that in the early days of the training course F.M had often told pupils to observe Erika, as she was so light and free in her ways inciting them that they needed to be more like her.
Photo by Sarah Barfoot
We then had some practical time in the second part of the workshop where John asked people to volunteer to stand individually as the rest of us sat in a circle. He then asked them to walk across the room. Once stationary we observed them as he used his hands and voice to guide them into a new sense of awareness and freedom.
Photo by Sarah Barfoot
He then asked them to repeat the exercise. The difference was astonishing in how they moved and the sense of presence they emanated. This was an exploration into inhibition and stopping. He said that we should think of inhibition as ‘keeping our options open’ and a place from which true spontaneity can be born.
We then discussed what it means to stop? How to stop is different than to inhibit. Do any of us really understand what it means to stop? How this stopping is also different from a pause and then how we respond to stimulus changes, both in attitude and activity, from these places.5
Photo by Sarah Barfoot
He also talked about how sensations are messages coming into the brain and directions are outgoing messages – which have no sensation per se. It made me think how incredible it is that a 1.4- kilogram tangle of nerve cells allows us to sense, understand and change the world. How ceaselessly fascinating this ‘brainwork’ is and how little we know of this place that supports thought, memory and consciousness. Often I have mistakenly thought of the technique as being something that happens in the body and feeds into the brain, or the other way round, when in fact nothing can be separated.
At the end of the workshop John said something that was of great interest to me, that I have often felt. He said that many young people these days are looking for something. They are curious about consciousness and the mind and body connection. They look to the East for inspiration and are searching for something that is, in fact, all there in the Alexander Technique.
Photo by Sarah Barfoot
He felt that maybe our use of language, our vocabulary, is a bit out- dated and that what they maybe don’t realise is that in the interaction that takes place in a lesson this language is often quite different to what is written in books. Sometimes language is helpful, but sometimes it gets in the way. I think most of us in our training will have experienced that level of authenticity in the work when the medium becomes almost irrelevant but the message on some level is inherently understood, communicated and shared, as an extension of ourselves.
It made me think of the phrase The Medium is the Message, coined by Marshall McLuhan6 In Understanding Media, who believed that the message of electronic media foretold the end of humanity, as it was known. Written twenty years before the PC revolution and thirty years before the Internet, in 1964, this looked like the babblings of a mad man. Yet McLuhan’s insights into our engagement with a wide variety of media led to a rethinking of our entire society and in today’s world the mad man looks quite sane.
I wonder if redemption in the Twenty First Century will come from insurgency towards the ‘mind-body’ discipline. That the revolution will come and the Alexander Technique and its integrative approach will achieve the ubiquity it deserves. Perhaps it will need to undergo a re-branding of sorts. Maybe this would help it to appeal to the masses.
I think it’s apt to finish with a quote that John related to us from Miss Goldie,
“But it was never meant to be for everyone. It was meant for the few who wanted to evolve.”
If you wish to learn more about John Hunter and The Alexander Technique you can follow his blog at https://upwardthought.wordpress.com/upward-thought/.
John has been involved with The Alexander Technique since 1978 and is Head of Training at the Westminster Alexander Centre.
1 Not To ‘Do’ An Account of Lessons in the Alexander Technique with Margaret Goldie, July 1995 to November 1996. Fiona Robb, Camon Press, 1999.
2 A more detailed biography can be found on Upward Thought, John S Hunter’s online Blog, 2015, under Margaret Goldie.https://upwardthought.wordpress.com/upward-thought/margaret-goldie/
3 C.S Lewis The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Geoffrey Bless, 19504 A more detailed biography can be read on John S Hunter’s Blog, Upward Thought under Erika Whittaker. https://upwardthought.wordpress.com/upward-thought/erika-whittaker/
5 More information can be found on John Hunters Blog, Upward Thought, Tips for Pupils, following this link: https://upwardthought.wordpress.com/?s=tips+for+pupils
6 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media. The extensions of Man, Routledge and Keegan, 1964, p7