The Vault

A Matter of Balance

By Douglass Price-Williams


A closing address, as I understand it, has something of the nature of a summing-up. Issues raised in the conference need to be implicated, if not directly addressed; the emotional atmosphere of the proceedings needs to be kept in mind, not only the intellectual content; and always a directional nod to the future should be included in its framework. When I was asked to give this closing address over a year ago, I was also then requested to provide a title there and then. Scrounging around for a title that would not commit me to anything too definitive (as obviously I had no idea what to say, if only because I rely on the content of the conference itself to provide the subject matter) I answered with this title, “A Matter of Balance.” It seemed then an arbitrary decision, but on later reflection as I began to ponder on the subject matter, and as so often happens with apparently capricious choices, it proved not to be so arbitrary. For I realized that the title could be traced to a chapter, in an obscure book on folk medicine, written by the late Barbara Myerhoff1. I knew Barbara Myerhoff slightly, and had last seen her a few months before her untimely death from cancer at a talk in Ojai given by her old mentor, a Huichol Indian shaman, who subsequently lived to over a hundred years of age. So there were some emotional associations here which might explain why her chapter resonated a chord with me. In this chapter Dr. Myerhoff had drawn attention to the extraordinary feats of physical balance that the shaman practiced; but more importantly, she stressed the psychological and social roles that the shaman undertook. As she put it:

As a connecting figure, he is at once the restorer of balance and the symbol of the possibility of balance. In his cosmic undertakings, his personal destiny mirrors his profession, and the microcosm and the macrocosm are reunited by his activities

Nowadays of course the shaman is an archaic figure, revived perhaps only by the inquiries of the anthropologist and advocates of the so-called New Age philosophy. His or her (for there are women shamans) functions are now, as Dr. Myerhoff went on to identify, “distributed among specialists: priests, poets, artists, psychotherapists, teachers and metaphysicians.”

Let me now proceed to how the shaman connects with the Alexander Technique. All of us need a model to clarify for ourselves and to others the experiential. There were three different models used in the opening addresses. There was the Learning model, the Physiological model, and the Stage model. Parenthetically it is fascinating to witness the persistence of the Stage model as an explanation for various aspects of human behavior. Among others, you can find it in Shakespeare, Hume, Coleridge, down to the social scientist Goffman of recent years. Perhaps it is because of the fact that the stage model is non-reductionistic; everything is out there in front, and even if there is something lurking in the wings, it becomes known quickly to the audience. That I now use the shaman as a model for the Alexander Teacher is perhaps due to my profession of a psychological anthropologist, but I would not want to overdo it. I am well aware that there are profound differences between shamanism and the art of psycho-physical re-education; nor do I wish to romanticize the shaman, who very often is an eccentric and border-line figure. We need to strip the shaman of his or her exotic culture context to discern the universal humanistic role which this figure plays. When we do this we can more easily see how the Alexander Technique embodies key qualities which are similar to the role of the shaman. The equilibrium quality is obvious, as it entails an exquisite use of the body which necessitates constant awareness. There is also the difficult facility of imparting to others what has been personally experienced, bringing back knowledge from the nether world of unawareness and obscurity to definition and consciousness. Like the shaman, the Alexander Teacher has of necessity to have re-educated her or himself. In this respect the Alexander teacher is a ‘wounded healer,’ a label often attributed to the shaman.

Then there is the ability to work at different levels of being at the same time. I once heard a wonderful talk given by my friend, Gerardo ReichelDolmatoff, a well-known writer on shamanism. It concerned the use of the loom as a teaching advice by Colombian shamans. The shaman would bring this loom in to instruct his students in its physical aspects. The students would learn all about weaving, would understand the warp and woof, would grasp the practical details of interlacing yarns. Then, after several months to the extent of having thoroughly grasped the idea, the shaman would tell them to put that out of their minds and dramatically announce that the loom was really a woman’s reproductive parts. And he would go on to identify the same parts of the loom in this new perspective. After some time when this new idea had been understood, the shaman jolted his listeners again by identifying the parts of the loom as representing the Milky Way, a heavenly feature which in so many parts of the world is given serious mythological meaning. The idea of course is to inculcate the psychological ability of holding quite different modes of thought in the mind at the same time. In our own culture this used to be the case. Dante urged his readers to regard his writings on four levels at once: the literal, at the level of analogy and of morals, and what he called “anagogic,” a kind of intuitive interpretation. In our own time we appear to have lost this ability. We prioritize a reductionist literal understanding that banishes other modes of thought to fantasy and rhetoric. The absurd argument, which still persists, between scientists and religionists alike about the fine archaic imagery of Genesis is a good example of the failure of communication between different modes of thought in ourselves.

Now, the facility of giving directions which is practised in the Alexander Technique, is not ‘thinking’ in any discursive sense, but it is a mode of consciousness which allows the usually inaccessible kinesthetic and proprioceptive information to rise to the level of our usual thoughts. In this sense the Alexander Technique allows the processing of more than one level of thought at once. To phrase this more concretely: when we have the conscious intention of standing from a sitting position and we also say to ourselves ‘head forward and up,’ two modes of thought are being permitted to function at the same time. Clearly there are differences between the Colombian shaman example, the Dante example and what is the case in the Alexander Technique. However I would argue there is a common element of holism. The intent is towards connection between different aspects of the organism.

The striving for wholeness and connection can be furthered into contact with the external world around us via the senses. The literature on shamans is abundant on their abilities of vision, hearing and sometimes smell. It was interesting to note during this conference that some workshops focussed precisely on this connection with the environment.

There are other possible similarities between the situation of the shaman and the situation of the practitioner of the Alexander Technique (or indeed any practice that continuously takes note of the actions of the body) that are more speculative in the sense that we do not have any data about them. We know little, for example, about certain characteristics that lie in the area of feelings and emotions The predominant meaning of the symbol of the shaman lies in its wholeness. The power of the shaman ideally is derived from—to quote Myerhoff once more—standing “at the juncture of opposing forces…his dialectical task is continually to move between these opposites.” But with dissolution of the role of the shaman has come the fracturing of the power of the whole. It is not only that we have a fundamental mind-body schism or that the body itself is split up into its many constituents. That is bad enough. But then we find that specialists, while exhibiting brilliance in their specific field, are lamentable in other qualities.

Dr. Barlow, in the first conference, showed a slide of a group of English clergy. Their body use was sufficient for Dr. Barlow, with tongue in cheek, to formulate ‘Barlow’s Law,’ which stated something to the effect that when a man’s chin was lower than his shoulders, you really couldn’t accept very much what he said. Barlow’s Law could be generalized. There is strong support to state that the more you are advanced in one psychological function, the more you are regressed in another, usually opposite, function. This is what Carl Jung has called the inferior function. So, being a brilliant metaphysician, for example, may blind one to the more practical things of life. People who are pillars of society are found to have a dark zone in their private life. Sometimes this may work in an opposite manner. A professor from the University of California has lately made the case that the Marquis de Sade was a kindly family man.2

There is also, in like spirit, the case of the fracturing of parts of one’s life. The psychotherapist who is the most sensitive soul in the office is obnoxious at home; the teacher who has the utmost patience with his or her students is short-tempered with friends. There is also the possibility that again Jung once envisaged of qualities which are successful exorcized in an individual may crop up in that same individual’s significant other. Jung had made some statement to the effect that when he heard of a person being ‘spiritual,’ he wanted to meet that person’s spouse. We are all familiar with the errant son of the clergyman or the deviant relatives of the politician. The series could be continued; the point is clear enough: the opposite is always there, and one way or another, it likely will out.

Now we know from some of the more psychological analyses of the shaman that the shadow side of this person is a part of the total self. Very often the shaman is considered a trickster figure, and in many cases he or she is greatly feared, probably not without reason. The point is that he/she does not deny it, and internally incorporates it in the total personality. We know little of a similar outcome with the person who practices the Alexander Technique over a number of years. The progression from a simple use of the mind-body in everyday activities to the state in which more complex states of emotions and feelings are influenced by use probably does not occur with pupils who have only a short exposure to the Technique. But it has to arise in people that persistently apply the Technique to all of their activities—in situations where feelings and emotions are salient, where we move from the intrapersonal to the interpersonal.

F.M. Alexander himself, in his writings, did not restrict the value of his own Technique to getting in and out of a chair, to walking, to using the hands, in short to locomotor activities only. He saw it in the context of influencing human reaction as a whole. In his last book, especially in the last four chapters, Alexander focussed heavily on the collective implications of his teachings, particularly stressing the responsibility that each person must shoulder.3 And elsewhere, Alexander often referred to the use of his Technique in relation to what he called ‘emotional gusts.’

The close connection between the musculature of expression of the emotions and the experience of emotions has been remarked on by physiologists and psychologists alike for years. However, we have little to no data on this aspect of the Alexander Technique, as far as I am aware, to the extent that we have it on physical functioning. It is not an unimportant issue to be concerned with as it may affect behavior of Alexander Technique practitioners in their relationships between themselves. It is an issue evidently not entirely neglected by the Alexander community, as it surfaced during this third conference.

One further feature of the shaman is that he or she acts as a cultural broker between different elements of society. The role not only necessitates connection between different parts of his/her own personality, but between other people. The striving for unity is again not only intrapersonal but interpersonal. This aspect of the shaman’s role should be carefully considered by the Alexander community, as it is clearly vulnerable to the problems of internal schism; particularly at this stage of its growth when it is emerging from a small club of dedicated practitioners to a larger community seeking societal acceptance. Both external encroachments from other already institutionalized occupations and internal dissension as to the correct practice of the Technique, could in combination, erode the spread of the Technique.

A shamanic model for the Alexander Technique may appear to be anachronistic. On closer inspection, however, there are some lessons to be learned from its application. The key to cohesion and survival may lie in a the maintenance of a dynamic and precarious balance. 


This article is based on the talk given before the conference on August 18, 1991. The nature of an oral presentation, especially a closing address, is often very different from a written article, so I have omitted some statements given in the talk, and added and amplified others for this published inclusion. The theme, however, is much the same.


1. Barbara G Myerhoff. “Shamanic Equilibrium: Balance and Mediation in Known and Unknown Worlds.” In Wayland D. Hand (Ed), American Folk Medicine: A Symposium. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1976. pp.99-108.

2. Los Angeles Times, Monday July 15 1991, pp.A3 and A.24. “Professor offers a dissenting view of Marquis de Sade.” Written by Kristina Lindgren. The professor is Alice Laborde, a professor of french literature at the University of California, Irvine.

3. F.M. Alexander. The Universal Constant in Living. London: Chaterson Ltd., 3rd ed., 1946. Chapters X, X1, X11, X111.


Douglass Price-Williams was in the F .M. Alexander training course of 1945–48. He taught the Technique for a time in Copenhagen and London. At present he is an Emeritus Professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Anthropology at the Unversity of California, Los Angeles. He is a registered clinical psychologist in the State of California.

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