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Wilfred Barlow
Postural Homeostasis
Papers and Letters on the Alexander Technique
Paperback. 2014. 284 pages.
Published by Mouritz (UK). 234 x 154 mm.
ISBN 978-0956849823.
Status: In print. Publisher website
First published 25 November 2014
Postural Homeostasis is a collection of his papers, articles and letters published on the Technique from 1944 to 1982, 40 in total.
Mouritz description
Postural Homeostasis is a collection of Dr Barlow's papers, articles and letters published on the Technique from 1944 to 1982, 40 in total. Many of these were published in medical journals, e.g. as The British Medical Journal and The Lancet. The collection includes research papers which shows the significant and important improvements to posture, health and performance. His factual and clinical research involved hundreds of people, covering issues such as faulty kinaesthesia, improvements in performers after lessons in the Alexander Technique, and comparing the Alexander Technique method with other methods. In addition he wrote substantial articles on the effects of stress and anxiety on the muscular system, on posture and poise. His writings also include introductory articles to the Alexander Technique.

Compiler's preface by Jean M. O. Fischer

1. Conscious Self-Control
Letter in The New Statesman and Nation 23 May 1942
2. Just Suggestion?
Letter in the British Medical Journal, 11 March 1944
3. Psychology of the 'Presser'
Letter in the British Medical Journal, 18 November 1944
4. Knowing How to Stop
Article in The Medical Press and Circular, 18 July 1945
5. Stress Fractures
Letter in The Lancet, 10 November 1945
6. An Investigation into Kinaesthesia
Article in The Medical Press and Circular, 23 January 1946
7. Some Objections Answered
Essay in Knowing How to Stop (1946)
8. Anxiety and Muscle Tension
Article in The British Journal of Physical Medicine, May-June 1947
9. The Mind-Body Relationship
Article in The British Journal of Physical Medicine, May-June 1948
10. Libel Action by Mr Matthias Alexander
Letter in the British Medical Journal, 4 February 1950
11. Pain in the Chest
Letter in the British Medical Journal, 8 April 1950
12. The Alexander Libel Action
Article in The Lancet, 1 July 1950
13. The Future of Rationalism
Essay in The Literary Guide and Rationalist Review, July 1950
14. Posture
Article in The Lancet, 30 September 1950
15. Postural Homeostasis
Paper in Annals of Physical Medicine, July 1952
16. Osteopathy
Letter in The Lancet, 11 April 1953
17. Posture and the Resting State
Article in the Annals of Physical Medicine, October 1954
18. Anxiety and Muscle Tension
Chapter 17 in Modern Trends in Psychosomatic Medicine vol 1, 1955
19. Isobel Cripps Centre - 1
Letter in The Lancet, 15 January 1955
20. Isobel Cripps Centre - 2
Letter in The Lancet, 29 January 1955
21. Psychosomatic Problems in Postural Re-Education
Article in The Lancet, 24 September 1955
22. Mr F M Alexander - The Use of the Self
Letter in The Times, 21 October 1955
23. Postural Deformity
Article in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, 1956
24. Anxiety and Muscle-Tension Pain
Article in The British Journal of Clinical Practice, May 1959
25. Posture and Rest
Article in Health Education Journal, December 1961
26. Pros and Cons of Manipulation
Letter in The Lancet, 28 March 1964
27. Rest and Pain
Paper in the Proceedings of the Fourth Internaltional Congress of Physical Medicine, 6-11 September 1964
28. Medical Aspects of the Alexander Technique
Lecture first given at the Alexander Institute in 1965. Revised edition is from More Talk of Alexander (1978)
29. Cervical Spondylosis
Letter in the British Medical Journal, 5 July 1969
30. Do You Know How to Breathe?
Article in The Times Educational Supplement, 11 July 1969
31. The Alexander Principle
Article in Vogue (UK), 1 April 1973
32. Alexander Technique - 1
Letter in New Scientist, 28 November 1974
33. Alexander Technique - 2
Letter in New Scientist, 12 December 1974
34. Alexander Technique - 3
Letter in New Scientist, 16 January 1975
35. The Meaning of Misuse
First published as 'Some Varieties of Mis-use' in 1963. Revised edition is from More Talk of Alexander (1978)
36. The Total Pattern of Behaviour
Article in More Talk of Alexander, 1978
37. Alexander's Ideas and Visual Art
Article in More Talk of Alexander, 1978
38. Research at The Royal College of Music
Article in More Talk of Alexander, 1978
39. What Sort of Alexander Teacher?
Article in More Talk of Alexander, 1978
40. The Alexander Technique and Postural Pain
Article in the British Dental Journal, 6 July 1982

Review by Jean M. O. Fischer

This collection of 40 research papers, letters and other writings essentially comprises Dr Wilfred Barlow's collected papers on the Alexander Technique. Eight of the papers will be familiar to readers of More Talk of Alexander: four of them were edited and published in MTA and four articles which were written exclusively for MTA are also included here. Barlow relied on much of his previous research and writings for The Alexander Principle so readers of AP will also experience some déja vu. Assuming you are familiar with MTA and AP, what is new?

The most substantial part of the book consists of the research papers. Barlow was a pioneer of scientific research on the Technique. His methods often consisted of before- and after-lessons photographs of nude pupils, from the back, side and front. (The pictures are b/w and faded. Picture quality is not great since the original pictures were not available to the publisher.) Postural faults, identified in the photographs, were then assessed and graded. Faults involving the position of the head, including poking forwards, retracted, tilted, or pulled down could be recorded. Likewise, the raising, dropping, rotating or pulling together of the shoulders. The totals were then added up to give an index of postural defects. Subsequent lessons in the Technique showed consistent improvement. Naturally Barlow's published papers could include only a few illustrations; it would be fascinating to see the hundreds of photographs which form the foundation of this research. Such research methods are not fashionable any more, but his descriptions and convincing arguments for the Technique are still valid. He read widely, quotes from the contemporary research of his day, and provides a long list of references.

He also wrote with great insight on the connection between anxiety, muscle tension and pain.

Then there are some letters of minor historical interest: writings in medical journals designed to draw attention to the Alexander Technique; some skirmishing with Charles Neil (who had separated from Alexander and set up his Re-Educational Centre with the assistance of Sir Stafford Cripps and Dame Isobel Cripps), and some skirmishing with Edward Maisel (in New Scientist, following an article critical of Tinbergen's Nobel Acceptance Speech: "Did Nobelist go too far in Advocating Alexander Technique?").

There are a couple of articles explaining the AT to the general public, principally through making the reader observe herself and her own posture and use. These articles corroborate an impression I got from the video Paul and Linda McCartney did of Dr Barlow teaching: the emphasis on what is right and what is wrong, and how to correct what is wrong, as if the purpose of the Technique is to put you right. I suppose this style of teaching stands out for me because it is so different from my own style of teaching. Vive la difference.

Also prominent is Dr Barlow's staunch defence of the role of the Technique within orthodox medicine ( 'Medical Aspects of the Alexander Technique' from 1965). He writes:

. . . the medical implications of the Alexander Principle [i.e. Technique] have been ridiculously underplayed by the majority of Alexander teachers . . . . before I embark on pointing out why the medical implications of the Alexander Principle are so important, let me have a crack at the 'educationalists'. (p. 219).

This article should be contrasted with Walter Carrington's 'On Categorizing the Alexander Technique' (1989) (free to download from They represent two conflicting views (which, by the way, were also present in Alexander's writings).

Perhaps this sentence explains Dr Barlow's vexation with the educational approach:

. . .what are we to say of an educational approach in which 'non-doing' so easily becomes 'nothing-doing', and in which inhibition becomes unresponsiveness. (p. 220).

And he finds the concept of the primary control 'most mystifying':

[Alexander's] concept of the 'primary control' seemed not only to be saying that the muscular balance of our heads and necks had to be accurate if the rest of the body was to be well-used, but also that our conscious regulation of this primary head-neck balance in some way was to become the single most important control in our lives - that in some way full self-realisation could depend on this factor, which would supremely regulate all of our functions and not simply be one balancing factor amongst many other balancing factors. He himself did not make it clear why the full expression of our nature should be so dependent upon our having such a single control which would apparently have such profound effects on our psychological functioning. ('The Meaning of Misuse', p. 259).

This reassessment of the primary control is probably connected with research which Tinbergen had summarised in his 1951 book and which stated that Coghill's findings cannot be generalised from the Amblystoma to other species. This cuts to the core of a general assumption about the Technique: a physiological basis for the primary control in the organisation of the organism around a total pattern. Barlow writes:

In recent years, it has seemed more and more likely that a large part of Alexander-learning is by the addition of separately learned components, rather than simply by differentiation out of a generalised total pattern. ('The Total Pattern of Behaviour', p. 265.)

Whatever your view, some of the issues he raises in these articles and the article "What Sort of Alexander Teacher?" are almost impossible to avoid as a teacher of the Technique, and they need consideration.

The book is a record of Dr Barlow's long life with and developing understanding of the Alexander Technique. To me it stands the test of time because he wrote so well, with a common sense approach that is difficult to argue with. Over and beyond all this, the book is an opportunity for an overdue reappraisal of Barlow's contribution to the Technique.

2014 © Jean M. O. Fischer. Reproduced with permission.

This edition © Mouritz 2014. All rights reserved.

Review by Rajal G. Cohen

First published in AmSAT Journal, Spring 2015, Issue No. 7, pp. 48-49.

Wilfred Barlow, M.D. (1915 - 1991) was trained as a teacher of the Alexander Technique by F.M. Alexander, qualifying in 1945. He was a founder of the original Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique, and he assisted his wife (Marjory Barlow) in running a training course for 32 years. He was also one of the first people with medical or scientific training to attempt to reconcile the Alexander Technique with scientific principles and to do original research on the topic (along with Frank Pierce Jones, with whom he collaborated on at least one project).

This book presents 40 journal articles, chapters, letters, and papers that Dr. Barlow wrote between 1942 and 1982. Although some of Barlow's ideas are outlined in his popular 1973 book, The Alexander Technique, this collection includes many interesting tidbits, such as his 1950 letters to the British Medical Journal summarizing the results of F.M. Alexander's successful libel suit against the South African government and his 1974 letters to New Scientist defending Nikolaas Tinbergen's Nobel Prize acceptance speech about the Alexander Technique. It also includes a fair amount of repetition, both in the text and in the images of postural alignment before and after lessons.

The chronological arrangement of the material follows the evolution of the author's thoughts about the Alexander Technique from age 27 to age 67. As one might expect, the young Dr. Barlow is full of idealism and big claims for the Technique, like this one from 1945: 'During the past 50 years he [Alexander] has probably come nearer than any other living man to evolving the practical road which we must follow if we are to survive at a higher level than that of the jungle.' (page 5) In later years, Dr. Barlow is still clearly dedicated to the Alexander Technique, but he is also aware of the dangers of overstatement. For example, in a letter to The Lancet in 1955, he writes: 'I should be the last to deny that the Alexander Technique...needs to be utilized by the medical profession; but I would sooner see this end achieved by research and by training with adequate safeguards than by advertisement campaigns.' (145)

Barlow's understanding of the science of the work evolves over time. For instance, in his early writings, he accepts Coghill's suggestion that Alexander's 'primary control' exemplifies the reflexive movement patterns that Magnus and Coghill both explored, but later he agrees with Tinbergen that such accounts are only suited for simple life forms. (236) Similarly, in his early writings (during psychology's behaviorist period), he describes a lesson as a sort of conditioning in which the pupil learns to associate a particular pattern of muscle activations (and the accompanying sensations) with a series of verbal orders (neck free, back lengthening and widening, etc.), so that eventually, just thinking the orders produces the desired pattern of muscle activation. Later (during the 'cognitive revolution') he abandons talk of conditioning and instead emphasizes the need for teachers to convey the principles in terms that the pupil can understand.

I would not recommend this book to those looking for an up-to-date account of the neurophysiology of the Alexander Technique, because without recent annotation it is impossible to know which of the scientific ideas presented are supported by current research, which are outdated, and which are still untested. For instance, a passage about proprioception (101) says, 'When a muscle is shortened, spindle activity ceases.' This is true for the fast-adapting muscle spindles that fire in response to muscle lengthening, but not for the slow-adapting muscles spindles that fire in response to position. However, other concepts, such as his definitions of kinesthesia, set, and body schema (called 'postural model' and 'construct' in early writings) do stand the test of time, and his concept of 'postural homeostasis' is in line with modern conceptions of postural control.

Sadly, Dr. Barlow's critiques of popular 'postural education' programs remain valid many decades later, including his observation that most of these programs are doomed to fail because they teach the wrong things, such as pulling the shoulder blades together (152), and they are mechanistic and do not address the body schema. (147)

One of my favorite chapters is 'Medical Aspects of the Alexander Technique,' which discusses some historical reasons for the problematic relationship between the Alexander Technique and medical science. Dr. Barlow urges teachers to welcome research into the mechanisms underlying our work, arguing that, 'It is precisely the quality of our theoretical explanatory framework which will make our technique an educational rather than a curative technique.' In this spirit, the book does point in some directions where research would be particularly fruitful. For instance, this quote from Sherrington is still accurate: 'The tonus of skeletal muscle is an obscure problem. Its mode of production, its distribution in the musculature, its purposive significance, are all debatable.' (101) Recent research by Tim Cacciatore uses insight from Alexander to shed light on this difficult problem. (See Tim Cacciatore's research report on page 23 in this issue.)

Barlow defines posture as 'a person's willingness and ability to maintain that relationship of the different parts of his body which ensures their most efficient behavioral function and physiological functioning both now and in the future.' (171) This is a lovely definition, weaving together the neuro-physiological concept of postural control with the ergonomic ideal of postural alignment and the psychological concept of willingness. However, the integral relationship of these different aspects of posture is not yet accepted in mainstream science. This is another area where research on the Alexander Technique can help advance the scientific understanding of posture and movement.

This book will be of interest mainly to people interested in the history of the Alexander Technique and in its future. It is not suitable for beginners, very little of it is specifically directed towards Alexander teachers, and there is not very much in it that meets current standards of scientific evidence. However, for those struggling with understanding (and shaping) the course of the Alexander Technique, it provides a useful and important perspective.

2015 © Rajal G. Cohen ( Reproduced with permission.

This edition © Mouritz 2015. All rights reserved.

Earliest publication date: 25 November 2014