Comments on 'Posturality of the Person' [David Gibbens]



It is a bold move by Ron Dennis to produce his 'Conceptual Foundations' in the format of 22 numbered statements or theses. It is an appropriate format for foundational statements but it is one that encourages intense scrutiny by the reader (or this reader, at least) of the exact formulations used and thereby invites a certain amount of pedantry. However, it has seemed more useful to focus on the meat of the concepts involved, which admittedly does involve challenging some of the wording used: other pedantic quibbles seem relatively unimportant by comparison.

Scope of the Foundations

The first challenge presented by the Conceptual Foundations is to identify as clearly as possible their intended scope. Ron does give us a number of pointers, particularly in the introductory text, but the different formulations sometimes seem to tantalise us with a greater as opposed to a lesser remit.  For example, in quoting his letter to AmSAT Journal Ron says the Foundations ‘delineate the necessary concepts and conditions for any full and valid approach to postural education’. One would imagine that this should include all the major concepts underpinning the Alexander Technique.  But later he refers to the Foundations as a theory of the ‘postural dimensions implicit in the concept of “use”’ and goes on to exclude the ‘moral’ dimension of use. It is not clear to me what the term ‘moral’ refers to here: is it a shorthand for operational aspects of the self-regulatory discipline involved in conscious control (inhibition, direction) or is it a reference to more general aspects such as ‘ability to control reaction generally’ or ‘ability to change habits’?

Similarly, in his ‘Introduction’ to The Posturality of the Person, where the significance of the Conceptual Foundations is highlighted, Ron starts by saying that they aim at ‘presenting in the most logical and economical matter the physiological and developmental issues relevant to the approach to posturality being advocated’. So far so good; but the further claim is made that the 22 propositions form a ‘comprehensive if condensed theory of posture and postural education …’. [1]

The issue, as I see it, is that once the ‘Foundations’ move beyond ‘posture’ to ‘postural education’, they need a more complete set of concepts than they currently offer. Once we enter the essentially psychological domain of ‘sensory appreciation’ (§14-§18), then we might expect to see the ‘Foundations’ addressing such fundamental aspects of the AT as inhibition and direction; equally vital from an educational point of view would be the ‘means whereby’ principle and ‘the conception of the act’, neither being skills which strike me as being derived automatically from accurate proprioception.    

As things stand, the educational model of the ‘Foundations’ seems to downplay the centrality of the student’s active, conscious engagement in the work: it sketches a scenario where the teacher operates students like puppets in order to re-condition their use and thereby retune their sensory appreciation. On this model, the teacher does not offer the possibility of experiences, but simply provides them. This skates over practical obstacles such as the student’s lack of understanding of what is being required of them, or their resistance to it, or their over-eagerness and failure to inhibit, before the desired experiences are likely to emerge and become the norm. If this challenging terrain is intended to be covered by the brief claim made in §22 that the competent teacher, solely – it should be noted – through an understanding of the principle of ‘lengthening’, is able to employ ‘manual and verbal cues …to provide experiences of a normal posturality leading to accurate proprioceptive perception’ then I think this greatly underplays the conceptual richness of Alexander theory. It is of fundamental importance in this objection that the missing elements, such as direction and inhibition – and perhaps even more importantly the ‘conception of the act’ and the ‘means whereby’ – cannot be deduced from the psychological elements that Ron does make explicit, such as habit and sensory appreciation.

‘Posture’ and ‘Posturality’

A fundamental concern I have about the Conceptual Foundations is the unorthodox definition of posture contained in §1, which then dictates the terminology of the entire set of statements:

§1. Posture comprises the flow through space and time of all activity of bodily support and movement in the course of living.

Boiled down to essentials, Ron’s definition might just as well say ‘Posture comprises all musculo-skeletal activity’. This definition obscures any generally accepted sense of ‘posture’ by including within it not just ‘bodily support’ but also ‘all activity of …. movement in the course of living’ [emphasis added]. Slippery though the concept of ‘posture’ may be, it certainly involves a notion of something relatively static that is, if anything, likely to be contrasted with movement. In practice ‘posture’ may include some dynamic element (e.g. ‘postural sway’): we can concur with Coghill’s statement that ‘[i]n posture, the individual is as truly active as in movement’.[2] It is also true that postural mechanisms are always in play within movement.  But this is all a long distance from saying that all movement can be subsumed under the term ‘posture’ (and Coghill’s statement does after all distinguish the two). It is of some interest here that the term ‘posture’ is often not defined, even in books that contain the word ‘posture’ (or derivatives) in the title:[3] it seems that the common-sense view of posture as a relatively static relationship of body parts (or ideas, or political positions) is too widely recognised to warrant discussion of its meaning. Should we seek a definition, Sherrington’s attempt to describe ‘active posture’ would suffice to point us in the generally accepted direction:

‘those reactions in which the configuration of the body and of its parts is, in spite of forces tending to disturb them, preserved by the activity of contractile tissues, these tissues then functioning statically.’[4]

Taking a classic Alexander manoeuvre such as sit-to-stand, it is possible to distinguish a significant postural component in the relative stability of the relationship of the head neck and back[5]; but the action as a whole involves distinct movement components, likely to include repositioning of a foot closer to the chair and pivoting the torso forwards from the hips, and certain to include extension of the legs. This entire sequence of these movements cannot in my view usefully be accommodated under the term “posture”.

True, one can find examples of attempts to expand the scope of ‘posture’ to include movement. Typically these terminological manoeuvres involve the invocation of a hybrid construction such as ‘dynamic posture’. Raymond Dart made some comments on what seems to have been the leading and possibly first such attempt, made by a Becket Howorth in 1946. Howorth claims, in a Journal of the American Medical Association article entitled ‘Dynamic Posture’, that  ‘… posture should really be considered as the sum total of the positions and movements of the body throughout the day and throughout life.’  Dart, it seems, was not convinced by this usage, referring to it as ‘paradoxical’ and ‘heterodox’.[6] Howorth’s position does not seem to have elicited much support. A search of JAMA’s archives reveals 3 occurrences of ‘dynamic posture’ as against 821 for the term ‘posture’. The most recent of the three references to ‘dynamic posture’ occurs in a single-paragraph review from 1950 of a book entitled Kinesiology. Intrigued, I referred to my personal library of about 20 books – many of them textbooks – on the subjects of kinesiology, posture and motor control and could find no support for such an expanded definition of the word ‘posture’. An excerpt from Muscolino’s Kinesiology might be considered typical:

‘In addition to assessing a client’s static postures, it is also important to consider the balance and efficiency of the human body in movement. In contrast to the term posture, which describes the static position of the body, the term acture is sometimes used to describe the balance and efficiency of the body during movement.’[7]

Elsewhere, in the current literature or online, lazier references to ‘dynamic posture’ can be found amongst movement analysts – claiming, for example, that a still photograph of someone engaged in movement illustrates their ‘dynamic posture’.[8] In the medical and physiological research literature, ‘dynamic posture’ seems to refer to maintaining, under unusually challenging situations, a universally-recognised posture such as ‘standing’, for example standing on a foam surface or on one leg or when the supporting platform is being moved.[9] Some indication of the rather haphazard use of the term ‘dynamic posture’ can be found in an article where it occurs in the Results section and is listed as a keyword – but does not actually appear in the main body of the article at all![10]

Ron’s own rationale for his expanded conception of posture can be found  in Chapter 6 of The Posturality of the Person (‘Dynamic Posturality …’)[11]. His reference point is a section from Tristan Roberts’ Neurophysiology of the Postural Mechanisms.[12] But that section does no more than echo the oft-quoted (and often wrongly attributed) remark that ‘posture follows movement like a shadow’.[13] None of the above examples provide a positive reference point or a strong support for an attempt to subsume all of movement under ‘posture’.

After conducting my own tedious researches into possible precedents for Ron’s usage, I was lucky enough stumble across ‘A essay on posture and movement’ by J. Purdon Martin, which directly addresses the question of the relationship between the two concepts.[14] I would strongly recommend this for a more thorough discussion of the issues, with the sole caveat that Purdon Martin seems to grant more widespread acceptance of the conflation of ‘posture’ with ‘movement’ than seems possible to find today: perhaps things were different back in 1977 when the article was written (and perhaps Purdon Martin’s critique had its desire effect).

A key aspect of Ron’s position is that he is able to claim that ‘where Alexander speaks of “use”—satisfactory or otherwise—'posturality'—normal or otherwise—may be substituted without loss of meaning and indeed with greater clarity.’  But this is only true because Ron has radically redefined the scope of the word ‘posture’: it is highly debatable whether such a contested usage confers greater clarity. Alexander himself hardly ever used the word posture in connection with his work[15] and it is inconceivable that his decision to employ the term ‘use’ did not at the same time involve a deliberate choice not use the term ‘posture’.

Having said all this, I don’t want to suggest that the whole concept of ‘posture’ is to be thrown out and ignored.

From a marketing point of view there is certainly a case to be made (though I am not going to make it) for presenting ourselves as ‘postural educators’ and making posture a central, whilst not sole, focus of our attention. A great deal of what teachers do when they are encouraging a good head-neck-back relationship can reasonably be thought of as attending to posture, including the maintenance of good posture throughout a movement.[16]

If Ron had sought to distinguish posture from movement and build a concept of postural education around that, I would consider it a very useful contribution and would welcome the term ‘posturality’ into our discourse.

But as things stand, by draining the term ‘posture’ of its specificity, I think that Ron’s Foundations become more open to criticism than they needed to be, including from a ‘scientific’ perspective. And as for ‘posturality’, it is a neologism that surely has its place: but is it so valuable that it warrants casting aside accepted usage in order to get it up there in lights?

‘Posture’ and ‘postures’

Whilst Ron seems to have dramatically expanded the meaning of ‘posture’ in some ways, he has paid less attention to some other aspects that I would like briefly to explore.  My comments here are really a request for a refinement in the terminology rather than a criticism. In one usage we may talk about ‘a posture’. In this case we are likely to be thinking kinematically[17], i.e. in descriptive terms, to indicate the relationships of parts of the body. This descriptive usage can be distinguished from that where ‘posture’ is being considered as a process and where discussion might focus on physiological aspects internal to the body such as, for example, ‘postural reflexes’. What I would like to see brought out more clearly is that the observable individual postures we can describe are not determined solely by internal, physiological processes but by an interaction with a given environment – for example, against a particular supporting surface, in a gravitational field of a specific strength and orientation, under particular conditions of acceleration or deceleration, and so on. And even a description of the internal milieu ought to distinguish the anatomical aspect of the skeleton, as a series of levers and more particularly of supports, from the activity of physiological processes of nerve and muscle. In short, any given posture, one that we can describe kinematically, reflects the interaction of physics, anatomy and physiology. Ron’s definition, by emphasising ‘activity’, steers us towards the purely physiological aspect. In the context of Alexander training, a fuller appreciation of the physics of posture and movement would in my view be beneficial if good use is supposed to depend in part on reasoning out the ‘means whereby’ of an act.

‘Person’ versus ‘self’

The alliterative attraction of using ‘person’ rather than ‘self’ to accompany ‘posturality’ are understandable, but the two terms are not synonymous. In law I am a person, but to myself I am a self. ‘Person’ suggests the third-person perspective of a teacher, ‘self’ the first-person perspective of the student – the person who must inhibit, direct, achieve accurate proprioception and so on. Both are valid, but ‘self’ is more engaging and suggests ownership,  responsibility, and consciousness: I prefer it.

Posture, gravity and the universal constant

Dipping briefly into a more pedantic critique, I found §2 unclear. It reads

The effect of posture as response to gravitational stress on bodily functioning is constant

I am not sure if this is supposed to indicate that one particular aspect of posture is that it is always a response to gravitational stress, or that posture itself can be thought of as primarily a response to gravitational stress. It can be read either way. And is it meant to imply that this effect is constant but that there are other effects of posture that are not constant?  Similarly, when it comes to what is being associated with ‘bodily functioning’, do we read this as ‘effect of posture … on bodily functioning’, or as ‘…. gravitational stress on bodily functioning’ – the word order makes it hard to know.

A ‘constant’ effect is assigned to posture, but even on a narrower and more traditional definition of posture than that adopted by Ron, posture could entail a wide variety of physical manifestations. It looks as though we are in the same territory as Alexander’s ‘universal constant in living’. But in Alexander’s terminology it was the manner of use that was the constant not use itself, with the strong hint that we bring into play habitual manners of use (particularly habitual ways of employing the ‘primary control’) across different activities and their concomitant postures.[18] That nuance is lost in §2. If one were to adopt Ron’s terminology, might it be preferable to say that it is the effect of ‘posturality’ that is constant?

One unified process?

Paras §3 and §4 introduce other aspects of posture, concluding that it is ‘…one unified process. Posture must be viewed inclusively as support-movement, body-mind, or psycho-physical activity’.  

The validity of this expanded conception of posture, depends in my view on what is under consideration. The researches by Magnus and others on ‘decerebrate preparations’ serve to remind us that the unconscious element in postural activity is considerable and that consciousness, and presumably therefore ‘mind’ or ‘psyche’, are not in principle essential[19].

And whilst the AT world tends to enjoy a warm glow when we hear about ‘one unified process’, as though we are constantly back in the 17th century arguing with Descartes about his soul-substance, from most perspectives it is more useful to identify the multiplicity of processes that quite clearly do exist in posture (however defined) – to plot the relationships between them and how they may or may not be integrated – than it is to speak about a notional unified process which I fear is so abstract as to be virtually meaningless. If we do want to talk about a unified process then we need to sketch out a little bit more clearly how we conceptualise this ‘unified process’. Is it ‘the act of living’? Is it the maintenance of ‘balance’? Is it simply the fact that the various components co-exist and are integrated within a single organism? Is it the ‘primary control’?

This may seem unduly critical, but it is the perhaps most fundamental claim of Alexander that he aims to introduce constructive conscious control to posture and movement and chides so-called civilised society for leaving the ‘use of the mechanisms’ to sub-conscious guidance and control[20]. Far from being a happy unity, Alexander would tend to regard it as a field of conflict where a ‘unified process’ is a desirable outcome rather than being intrinsic to posture.


Having provide preliminary considerations about the general nature of posture and the factors entering into improvements of posturality, Ron arrives at a kinematic conception of good posture, the criterion for which is. “the skeleton in general and the spine in particular at optimal structural dimension”. This leaves open what is ‘optimal’ – as, too, does Alexander’s phrase ‘a certain use of the head in relation to the neck, and of the head and the neck in relation to the torso and the other parts of the organism’[21]. Vague though they are, both these strike me as examples of wording appropriate to the articulation of concepts that have universal applications.  But Ron goes further to specify that what is desirable is a ‘practical process called “lengthening”', which he refers back to Alexander. Alexander certainly does identify lengthening of the spine as an essential element – it would be fair to say the primary element – in most f his procedures but he does also refer to other components of good use such as ‘widening the back’.[22] The implication in such discussions is normally that, for example, the ‘chest poise’ has to be treated as an independent variable.[23]

The fact that Alexander doesn’t emphasise lengthening to the extent that Ron does cannot be taken to mean that Ron’s usage is wrong – it is after all derived from many years’ teaching practice. But if we are dealing with really fundamental concepts, ‘lengthening’ seems too specific.  What about the cases where the spine is already chronically over-extended – either the lumbar spine has lost some of its curve or the neck is unduly straight (more commonly in women, I have found)? And what about the many activities where it is not necessarily appropriate for the adopted posture to involve a maximally-extended spine: for example, if someone is going into a deep monkey and wants to keep the line-of-sight horizontal (the tiger won’t be jumping out of the carpet) or a sprinter getting set to start. In these cases, ‘lengthening’ really means ‘not unduly shortened in the context of the current activity’.  Well that of course could be paraphrased as ‘relative lengthening’, but it could also be paraphrased as ‘lengthening – but not really’. The risk, based on my own experience during training as much as anything else, is that over-emphasis on any individual concept such as ‘lengthening’, or ‘forward and up’, if it can be translated into some form of physical activity, brings with it a significant temptation to ‘do’ what is being suggested.

The foregoing is is an admittedly dull criticism, but as a guideline for teaching I would prefer to encourage a pupil to think in terms of ‘giving yourself more space’ than ‘lengthening’: as Ron indicates, what that would mean in any given activity would always remain to be elaborated.


Ron’s Conceptual Foundations are thought-provoking, and valuable on those grounds alone. Moreover, they capture key aspects of the re-education of the use of the self, in my understanding of that process. But for my taste, the drive towards clarity has gone too far: it has arrived at a small set of totalising conceptions such as ‘posture’, ‘lengthening’, ‘accurate proprioception’ that don’t do justice to the range of Alexander Technique concepts needed if adequate foundations for ‘postural’ education are to be laid.


[1] Ron Dennis, The Posturality of the Person (Atlanta, GA: Posturality Press, 2013), pp.3–4.

[2] George E.  Coghill, 'Appreciation', in The Universal Constant in Living, p.xx.

[3] Roberts’ Neurophysiology of the Postural Mechanisms’ is a case in point, but there are several other books in my library that discuss it without defining it.

[4] Charles S. Sherrington, 'Postural Activity of Muscle and Nerve', Brain, 38/3 (1915), pp.217–218. Sherrington contrasts active posture with the ‘posture’ of a dead body, which gives an indication of just how static posture can be.

[5] Sherrington’s definition would nicely cover the consideration that if the torso pivots forward from the hips, there would need to be changes in muscle tone to maintain the form.

[6] See Raymond Dart, 'The Attainment of Poise', in Skill and Poise (London: STAT Books, 1996), pp.112–114. His comments refer to Becket Howorth, 'Dynamic Posture', Journal of the American Medical Association, 131/17 (1946), pp.1398–1404. Writing in 1947, Dart comments that Howorth ‘has attempted to give the static word posture dynamic significance by introducing the rather hybrid or paradoxical term dynamic posture… ‘

[7] Joseph E. Muscolino, Kinesiology: The Skeletal System and Muscle Function (St Louis, MO: Mosby Elsevier, 2006), p.598. The word ‘acture’ is normally attributed to Moshe Feldenkrais. Following Ron’s template, it would be more appropriate to speak of ‘acturality’ when discussing the quality of ‘acture’.

[8] See for example [accessed 29th May, 2016] which claims ‘Dynamic posture is simply the position the body is in at any moment during a movement pattern.  It’s essentially a snap shot of the body during a movement whereas with static posture the snapshot is always the same (because the person isn’t moving).’

[9] See for example occurrences of ‘dynamic posture’ in Melissa Kilby et al., ‘Models of Postural Control: Shared Variance in Joint and COM Motions’, PLoS One, 10/5: e0126379 (2015), <> accessed 29 May 2016.

[10] J. Boote et al., ‘Physiotherapy for Patients with Sciatica Awaiting Lumbar Micro-discectomy Surgery: A Nested, Qualitative Study of Patients' Views and Experiences’ in Physiotherapy Research International (23 February 2016) [online version of record] <> accessed 29 May 2016. Lack of time prevented me exploring more thoroughly the usage of the term ‘dynamic posture’ but the 51 papers that include the term, as indicated  by my search of PubMed (<> accessed 29 May 2016) do not suggest a very significant foothold for it in the context of the 79,692 papers that reference ‘posture’ (<> accessed 30 May 2016). 

[11] Dennis, The Posturality of the Person, pp.35–36.

[12] Tristan D. M. Roberts, Neurophysiology of the Postural Mechanisms (2nd edition, London: Butterworths, 1978), p.9. The key part of this section in question reads:

There is no difficulty in regarding the background activity as ‘postural’. Accordingly, because this background activity is essential to the successful performance of the voluntary movement itself and has to be co-ordinated with it, there are advantages in treating the whole process as a unity.

Given that the ‘background activity’ is carefully distinguished as such and identified as ‘postural’ then it is fair to say that within the ‘unified process’, voluntary movement and ‘postural activity’ constitute separate elements.  Whatever name we would want to give to the ‘whole process as a unity’ (‘the act of living’? ‘musculo-skeletal activity’?) it would not be ‘posture’. Roberts’ whole book, from its title onwards, is an eloquent testimony to the appropriateness of distinguishing ‘posture’ as a discrete phenomenon.

[13] This is quoted by Bruce Kodish in his ‘Foreword’ to Dennis’s Posturality…  The statement is quoted frequently and, as with Kodish, is normally attributed to Charles Sherrington (it is occasionally also attributed to Magnus). Most attributions in academic papers cite works in which the sentence does not appear, such as The Integrative Action of the Nervous System (1906) or a 1910 paper. So much for scholarship: the indications are that one academic author simply copies the reference in another academic paper without bothering to check it. In fact the original quote seems to belong to J. Ramsay Hunt (‘The Dual Nature of the Efferent Nervous System’, Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry, 10/1 (1923), pp.37-82). Hunt says:

Movement always starts from posture and terminates in posture. Indeed posture follows movement like a shadow, adding strength, stability and accuracy to movement itself.

Sherrington then quotes Hunt in a 1931 paper but replaces (without saying so) ‘follows’ with ‘accompanies’: ‘posture accompanies movement like a shadow’ (‘Quantitative Management of Contraction for “Lowest-level” Co-ordination’, British Medical Journal, Feb 7 1931, p.210).

[14] J. Purdon Martin, 'A short essay on posture and movement', Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, 40 (1977), pp.25–29, <> accessed 02 Jun 2016.

[15] See The Universal Constant in Living pp. 75-79 for some rare examples where Alexander refers to ‘posture’; even here the associations with ‘fixity’ cast a shadow over the term.

[16] On the other hand, and equally from the marketing perspective, ‘posture’ is a term with Victorian connotations that seems to have had its day. See for example David Yosifon and Peter N. Stearns, 'The Rise and Fall of American Posture', American Historical Review, 103/4 (1998), pp.1057–1095.

[17] ‘Kinematics: Descriptive analysis of mechanical components of a motion without consideration of … forces causing motion. Kinetics: Causal analysis of motion with consideration of interacting forces that cause motion’: from J. V. Krause and Jerry N. Barham, The Mechanical Foundations of Human Motion (St. Louis, MO: Mosby, 1975), p.21.

[18] See the titles of Chapters I, II and V of The Universal Constant in Living [Note 2 above] which all start: ‘The Constant Influence of Manner of Use …’.

[19] See for example Charles S. Sherrington, 'Foreword to 1947 Edition', in The Integrative Action of the Nervous System (2nd edition, Cambridge: CUP, 1947), pp.xiv–xv.

[20] As a representative example, take Alexander’s statement ‘… in my opinion, the substitution of conscious for instinctive direction in the changing of use is of primary importance …’ [emphasis in the original] in F. Matthias Alexander, The Use of the Self (London: Victor Gollancz, 1985[1932], p.51. To be fair to both Ron and Alexander, Alexander’s more detailed analyses of the problem of bad use do often recognise ‘conscious control’ as a component, hence his insistence on the inclusion of the word ‘constructive’ in the title of Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual (London: Mouritz, 2004[1924]): Alexander needed to distinguish his approach from the ‘conscious but non-constructive’ remedies being touted by contemporaries in competing schools of ‘physical culture’. His psychological analyses also identify cases where sub-normal posturality has been consciously adopted (see for example the cases presented in Man’s Supreme Inheritance pp.162-167). Nevertheless, the overall message, borne out by teaching practice, is that the task is most often to encourage conscious attention to aspects of movement and posture that were previously ignored.

[21] F. Matthias Alexander, The Universal Constant in Living, edited by Jean Fischer (London: Mouritz, 2000 [1941]), p.8.

[22] See for example F. Matthias Alexander, Man's Supreme Inheritance, edited by Jean Fischer (London: Mouritz, 1996 [1910/1918]), p.170.

[23] See for example Alexander, The Use of the Self, pp.30–31.