Conversations with Erika Whittaker

Impressed by Erika Whittaker’s deep personal and philosophical understanding of the work, at both the 1st and 3rd International Congresses, I chose to begin a dialogue, via letters and tapes, with Erika.  We invited Erika to Philadelphia in the autumn of 1995 to teach at the Alexander Alliance. The experience was unforgettable.  Later, Erika and I co-taught classes for Alexander teachers in Sydney, Australia.  It gives me pleasure to share with you some of Erika’s perceptions of Alexander’s work.


Conversations with Erika Whittaker


Conversation I: Spreading Like Strawberry Jam

I am talking to you from Melbourne, and we will try and see what we can do with our tape. It would be fun to see if we can use the tape as a way of exchanging ideas and of communicating,  I want to welcome all your friends who are sitting with you and who are listening to this more as a way of communicating, of sharing an idea, or process.  The old concept of a teacher is one who knows, imparting knowledge to one who does not know, a rather one sided business with strong overtones of right and wrong.  And of course the pupil always wants to do well, thinks in terms of pleasing, pleasing your parents, pleasing your teacher, pleasing yourself not least and that all; that all comes into it when we have got a strong teacher pupil relationship.

I am becoming more and more aware of changes in communicating in my lifetime. We used to walk and talk a lot more.  We sat together longer over meals.  When I was eight, my Aunt Ethel gave me my first Alexander lessons.  I had lying down turns on the floor with the simplest of directions, suited to a child.  One of them was think of your back spreading like strawberry jam on the floor. And when she gave me lessons in a chair, she made up funny songs.

My Alexander lessons were an amusing mixture of fun and responsibility for my use.  Aunt Ethel really kept me on my toes, but it was always fun.  We both made up jokes and called each other funny names.  She hated her name Ethel.  She said I could call her anything I liked, but please don’t call me Ethel, Aunt Ethel, so I called her Pip, because she looked like Pip of the Pip Pip Squeak and Wilfred comics of that time.  So Pip she remained for the rest of her life, by me and my brothers, and by many students of our first training course.  So as you can see my attitude to Alexander work is conditioned by a very happy start.  That early simplicity has remained with me all my life.

Conversation II: Stay in Touch With Each Other

To graduates, I give three suggestions:  A Zen master lived up in the mountains in China somewhere – very hard to get at, far away from anywhere. He was known to have three secrets in his teaching.  A certain monk managed to get there one day, with much trouble, and the monk asked the maser if he would give him his three secrets.  The master said: “Yes, all right, you’ve taken a lot of trouble to get here. I will tell you.  Now the first secret is: pay attention.  The second secret is: pay attention.  The third secret is: pay attention.

Those who have worked with Marj Barstow will know that that was the strong point of her teaching.  She made you pay attention, not for a long time, but when you were doing some activity, you were to pay attention to what you were doing relative to the activity.  Paying attention is not an endgaining.  It’s simply paying attention, and that’s a very important point to understand.

F.M. could always tell with his hands whether you were paying attention, but he didn’t stop you.  When he was working with you his hands kept moving about in such a way that you did pay attention. But not in an endgaining way.  You didn’t try to do something.  You allowed it to happen because you were getting the right sort of help.  You allowed it to happen, and then you had an experience of a  kind of use which was totally unexpected, wonderfully strong, and very supportive.

After I graduated in London, with Alexander, I first of all went away.  I had so much Alexander in my life for so many years that I decided I needed some fresh air.  So I went.  My father was living in Philadelphia.  I went to see him there.  Then I stayed with Lulie Westfield in Richmond, Virginia, where she was teaching at a Kindergarten school.  And after that I had several months holiday in the United States, where I met lot of people.  It was wonderful.

Then I went back to London, and was immediately drawn back into Ashley Place.  I taught, as a pair, with Irene Stewart.  We gave our lessons together.  One person had the head and one took the back, and then whatever movements you make the person with the head is in the lead and the back fits in with that.  We worked that out very efficiently all the time we were working at Ashley Place.  I think that one of the important things for students, those that you particularly get on well with, is that you stay in touch with each other.

Conversation III: Doing The Things You’re Interested In

Don’t be in a hurry to expect students.  If you need the money, earn the money in some other way.  But don’t endgain over earning money on Alexander lessons, because the Alexander work will suffer – yours, as well as your pupils. I think the ideal way of attracting students is to work in a totally different surroundings, work say, in a bank, or in a library.   Whatever place your work in, you attend to your own work and to “the work.”

But you might have somebody who works with you, who keeps on saying, “ooh my shoulder’s giving me a lot of problem.”  All the time you’re working, of course, you must have a look round and see.  Watch other people’s use, see how they go about things; see how they’re endgaining; and you begin to sort of read people after a while.  Not in a critical way- not that that’s bad and that’s good – but simply for interest.  There is no good and bad in this kind of observation.  But you can see what is happening. And somebody might say to you: “ooh, my shoulder is giving me a lot of trouble,” and of course, you’ve been seeing these people, this person.  You know that person’s use.  Well, then you can hop in there and you can say, “Right, I think I might be able to help you.”  And there’s a pupil.
Get experience working at somebody’s school, an Alexander School, where there are a lot of pupils coming and going.  The main thing I would say is don’t have any expectations at all.  Go on doing the things that you are interested in.

There are infinite ways of expressing your help.  The person we had in our time, in Alexander’s time, was Irenie Tasker.  She was what you might call a born teacher.  She was wonderful.  If you had any problem with the work or with yourself, or working with others, or with teaching, or when you were working with children, you’d ask her and she would say, “All right, you don’t understand that. Come over here and I’ll show you.”  And she did.

And my Aunt Ethel Webb, she always had the simplest answers.  We’d be having a great problem with something and she’d come along and simply say, “Oh, look, you can’t do that with that pupil.  Look, they’re coming down.  So you take them up.”

Never work away at somebody.  You have to use your teaching ingenuity.  It must never get so that it gets into a situation with no solution.  If you can turn it into a joke, so much the better.  Don’t take your teaching seriously, and don’t think about teaching.

Conversation IV: “Between Us”

At the Alexander Congress in Sydney when I said “I am not a teacher,” it so startled everybody.  I meant just that.  I am not the figure of a teacher, the person who knows, as against the pupil who doesn’t know.  I don’t want to see it that way.  If I am working through the Alexander work, I want to share it with you.  I want to show you how maybe you could improve whatever it is you are complaining about.  But I must not endgain, and you must not endgain and, between us, we’ll work out something.

When you are teaching a pupil, you want that pupil to be happy, and of course the pupil is paying you. So, we work out some routine that becomes sort of a charm, something that you will turn on with everyone.  But you can’t do that with Alexander’s work; it is entirely unique; every moment is different.  Turn it into fun, into something amusing to do.  Your pupils will be very grateful, and they’ll learn.  And you will learn.

The conversations with F.M. in his lessons were about anything that happened to be going on in the world. I remember Mussolini at that time was making a lot of noise in Italy.  I think there was a plan for the Italians to invade Abyssinia, in Africa, and F.M. was raving about “Musso.”  He couldn’t stand “Musso.”   “Musso was up to this, and Musso was up to something else.”   And, if you wanted to have a bit of variation in your lessons you would ask him, you know, “What’s the latest about Mussolini?” and off he would go.

It was very good fun, and some of the best lessons we had from him were when he was talking about something very interesting that was going on.  But that all goes to show that it is never, never, a very dull business of routines, or what they now call procedures.  I think it is rather a pity these procedures have got locked into boxes, because that is not what it’s about.

When it came to our being given our certificates, by F.M. in London, we had actually studied for four years.  The original plan was three years, but then, F.M. wanted to give us a bit more time so that we didn’t rush out and start teaching.  He wanted to slow that up.  He wanted us to understand more and more about what his work was really like, because he knew with his own career, how sensitive this teaching work is.

Conversation V:  “I never use the words Alexander Technique!”

Irene Tasker was a very, very experienced teacher, and quite a few of us did work with her later on.  She was always very willing to help us, and to do work with us, any time we wanted to.  But we had to make our own way.  I was working at Ashley place, to get lots of experience, which I did.  Then the war came and that broke the whole thing up.

By that time, I was married.  I was living in the country, I had my own daughter, and as she was growing up we had animals.  We had geese, goats, and later, we had horses. I became a very good driver of a horse trailer.  My daughter went show jumping, and I had to drive her all over the place. I stayed in touch with my Alexander friends, but I didn’t want to be an Alexander teacher out in the country where I was.  I was too busy.

I came back into teaching later, after I went to Australia.  Somebody came one day and said, “Why aren’t you teaching Alexander?”  And I thought, “I’ve got time now, haven’t I?”  I did have time.  My own interest in Alexander had become very much more acute. I had done a lot of reading. I had gone to university and studied another language.  I went to university when I was sixty. I enjoyed that enormously.  All the time, Alexander was in the background.

I never conceived of it as a subject in isolation, not like a university subject.  It is something for living. And it widens all the time.  Alexander had the way of finding out what you yourself are about in a total pattern.  Not just as how you are psychologically or practically, but how you function altogether as one.

I came across, in the writings of some old masters, things that fit in exactly with Alexander’s work.  It must be a living pattern of our lives.  And it is infinite in its variety.  Alexander work is never just chair work and the kind of things that you do in a lesson.  Those things that Alexander was doing with people, he was simply helping them to become aware of their use in everyday life.

I never use the word “Alexander Technique.”  I think it indicates something that you can learn and then do, and even be judged on.  It is not that.  It has infinite variety, and it is always growing.

Conversation VI:  Great Fun

You ask about our first training course, how our days were divided.  We had two hours with F.M., from 10:00 till 12:00, and in the afternoons we met to find some way to continue our mornings work on our own, but how?  F.M. gave us no instructions.  No guidance.

As students we must study. We must show interest and initiative, and you must, you know, be very much on the ball all the time.  That is proverbial for students, who want to show their teachers that they are really enthusiastic about what they are doing.  But there was the other carrot that was dangled before us as well: at the end of the three years, we would be teachers and we had the added incentive of being the nearest successors to F.M., who was growing old then, and one day would no longer be with us.  But his work must go on. So we experimented through observation.  F.M. was forever telling us to observe what was going on around us, not just how people used themselves and how they moved, but also everything else that was happening around us.  We observed each other with writing.  That occupied us for quite a while.  It was very, very informal and great fun.  F.M. never asked or wanted to know what we were up to.  We got used to that, as we had learned by experience that he never told anybody what to do.

F.M.’s lessons were so remarkable for his pupils because of the way he used his hands.  And these hands, as I see it now, were so remarkable in that they reflected what F.M. observed with his eyes and his own use experience.

If somebody came into the room, he would take one look at them, and he would know exactly where that person’s use needed help.  Of course, he wouldn’t tell them, because the moment you tell somebody that, they say, “Oh, that’s something I’m doing wrong, so I must put it right.” And they’ll concentrate on that.  So, that is why he criticized very, very little in lessons.

And so, because he didn’t give you that criticism, you relaxed, and  you were treated by the way his hands seemed to be reshaping you, which felt so good, and you seemed to be expanding, feeling strong, simply because you had let go of all your tensions which were now replaced with an all over, entirely new coordination.

Conversation VII: The Decision IS You.

When you say “no,” you have given yourself space and time in order to make your decision.  You do it, or you decide not to do it, or you do something altogether different.  The choice, the decision, is yours. The decision is you… No is not a postponement.  It means truly stopping in a final sense.  Then you have all the time in the world to choose what you will do, while you remind yourself of your orders, or your directions, or your constructive thinking, or whatever you call them, so then you are master of your own decisions.

Then our activities become nothing special. Time is of little consequence, and results are no longer of much concern.  What a relief, and how pleasant!

Conversation VIII: A Very Real Person

“Hello Erika?  This is Bruce.  How are you?” Erika answers promptly.  “I’ve had quite a good day.  I was sitting for quite a while in a train station, watching people. Suddenly I began to see people, the whole of them.  It was quite remarkable.  I could see exactly where, if I were to lightly place one finger in a particular spot, with a particular decision, in a particular direction that, that particular person, would and could only free directly up, from head to heal; truly seeing person after person! I’m eighty-five years old, and today I am finally beginning to see.”

Late Autumn. Erika had just finished teaching for the Alexander Alliance in Philadelphia for seven days, six hours a day.  We drove to the park to be outside by the river. Our senses were open.   Emerald green headed ducks were swimming below huge golden-leafed maple and oak trees.  I could see that Erika felt happy, satisfied.  Just then a strong, soft wind blew through Erika’s thick hair.  All at once, in slow motion, the translucent leaves seemed to let go of their branches, in great numbers.  A haiku by Issa flashed through my mind:

Simply trust:
Do not the petals flutter down,
Just like that?

I was just about to share my poetic thought with Erika.  Then I realized that I had just tried to hold on to that moment, and in doing so had lost it.  Erika had not. So I stopped, letting my lips lightly close, and said nothing. Instantly, I re-entered the real poem, standing next to a very real person, and a very real teacher who teaches without teaching.

Erika, thank you.

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