Book Review: Postural Homeostasis—Papers and Letters on the Alexander Technique by Wilfred Barlow

Editors Note: Postural Homeostasis is a collection of Dr Wilfred Barlow’s writings on the Alexander Technique from 1944 to 1982. Barlow attempted some of the first studies of the Alexander Technique, and many of his papers were published in journals such as The British Medical Journal and The Lancet. Barlow is a figure of interest in the history of the science of the Alexander Technique, and here Dr. Rajal Cohen assesses Barlow’s work, addressing both ideas that are outdated and insights that have proved prescient. This review was originally published in the AmSAT Journal in 2015.

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 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 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.” (page 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 (p 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 (page 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. 

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