18. Understanding Balance

The wish to write this work was strengthened some years ago when I read the Foreword to a collection of short talks about the Alexander Technique given by Walter Carrington.  Walter Carrington, who died in 2005, well into his nineties, was one of the most renowned and respected Alexander Technique teachers, having trained with F M Alexander before the Second World War and having taken responsibility for the training of teachers after Alexander’s death in 1955.  He would regularly extemporise to students and teachers as part of the training course, and the book in question – The Act of Living – is one collection of such informal spoken essays.  The talk which gives the book its title can give a measure of the nature of these talks: Walter Carrington speaks about how difficult it is for people not to try hard, but if we can rediscover the idea that living is an act we may, paradoxically, discover how to engage in that act with less effort and interfering complications.  How do we give encouragement to ourselves, or to others, to let go of the effort to get things right, without encouraging yet more effort, or else fear and anxiety?  We explore the act with a certain detachment, discovering the joy of doing less.  This short talk, perhaps ten minutes long, embraces both philosophical reflection on egotism, and comments on the mechanics and psychology of movement – “And in the act of living, whether it is walking down the street or learning to play the piano, you must keep in mind that the primary energy cost is the support of the body weight.  If the body weight is not being supported efficiently, then there is a tremendous energy leak, and the whole process of living will not be efficient”.  This is quite dispassionate comment, yet what interferes with efficiency may well be that “people have the egotism to believe that things are of their doing”.

Here we are in the territory of “use”, of the fundamental Alexander Technique perspective which links education, emotion, thought, choice, physical functioning and anatomical structure in exploring how we go about things, how we act.  So, Walter Carrington’s training course talks are the main body of this book, but it also has a Foreword by Tris Roberts.  Tris Roberts was Reader in Physiology at the University of Glasgow where he worked for many years on the neurophysiology of balance, posture and locomotion in human beings and other animals.  The author of a textbook on riding, Equestrian Technique (not his major professional field), his best known work is Understanding Balance, a detailed undergraduate and graduate level work on the mechanics of posture and locomotion.

What does such a man, a scientist with specialist knowledge of a field of direct relevance, make of the Alexander Technique?  I found his Foreword fascinating.  He begins by telling of his long association with the Alexander Technique, interested, but bemused and somewhat irritated by its jargon.  His thirteen page Foreword is mainly quite a compressed analysis of the meaning and use of words such as gravity, weight, stress, strain, and of our understanding of the co-ordination of muscular activity: physics and physiology.  He recognises the value of people being attentive to inappropriate postural habits, and the skill needed to help people effect beneficial change in their habits.  I sense his deep respect for Walter Carrington, and for the Alexander Technique, but I sense he is less than happy with some of the terminology employed and with the validity of the view of human and animal functioning which the terminology implies.  Having met and received “a demonstration” from Walter Carrington, many years before, Tris Roberts recalls “I started to wonder just what it is that the teacher is doing to his client”.  I felt deeply challenged by this man’s response to the Alexander Technique and to Walter Carrington.  His favourable response was more to the quality of relationship between teacher and student, I felt, than to the understanding of the principles of movement and posture which underlie and emanate from practice in the Alexander Technique.

In one of the talks, ‘Theory and Practice’, Walter Carrington refers to Tris Roberts, speaking about postural mechanisms; “So Roberts was saying that you must not pull down, and if you do pull down, harm will come”.  Whether this reference is the cause I do not know, but Tris Roberts mentions more than once in his Foreword that he cannot come to a satisfactory understanding of what Alexander Technique teachers mean by “Pulling down”.  I won’t directly try to answer that query, but I would like to note that in another of the talks, ‘Forward and Up’ Walter Carrington turns this problem on its head – describing the mechanism and motivation which lead to us shortening, pulling down, pulling back etc. but also emphasising “the up, the forward and up if you like, the lengthening in stature, that I’m afraid inevitably has to remain a bit of a mystery… People do go up.  People go up more at some times and in some circumstances than others.  There’s a very big variation and clearly it is desirable that you should go up as much as possible all the time.  Because the more the upward energy flows, the lighter and freer you’ll be and the more all the functioning of the body – respiration, circulation, digestion – is able to operate… Putting it the other way round, the less you go up, the more you pull down, the heavier you become and the more the respiration, circulation, digestion are handicapped and suffer for it”.

This is the Alexander Technique in a nutshell.  Tris Roberts is concerned about the use of the term ‘pulling down’ because he is not able to recognise the activity in relation to which it happens – the active ‘going up’.

What is this ‘upward energy’ as Walter Carrington calls it in the passage just quoted?  That is the crucial question which was crystallising in my mind as I read Tris Robert’s Foreword.  I felt such respect for the man and his work and I was intrigued by the mixture of appreciation and scepticism in his response to the Alexander Technique.  I felt that I needed to step beyond the limits of modern natural science in order to understand what this ‘upward energy’ was, but I wanted to be able to speak of it clearly.

For now I want to turn to Tris Roberts’ book Understanding Balance of which he says in his Preface “This book is the outcome of a lifetime’s research”.  I respect the commitment which that statement records.  I have spent many hours studying this book.  There are many things in it which I have not understood or which I have to work to regain understanding every time I return to them.  I would like to share with you some of his explanations and interpretations which I have found particularly helpful in my Alexander Technique teaching.

Tris Roberts is keen from the outset to help us distinguish the force we call gravity, from those forces which belong both to the cohesion of solid objects and to their interaction – the world of colliding billiard balls.  What is odd about a billiard ball is that it seems so perfect and inert that it may prevent us from realising the effects of deformation.  Roberts uses the example of squeezing a rubber.  “If a block of solid material is loaded by applying impressed forces on opposite faces, as when we squeeze a rubber eraser between finger and thumb, some of the molecules are displaced from their rest positions.  The deformation is resisted by the inter-molecular forces so that the compressed rubber pushes back against our fingers.  All solid objects behave in this way, although some materials are more easily deformed than others.”  (U.B. p 6)   The deformation is the strain and the material is under stress, measured as the force with which the strain is resisted.  The rubber can be compressed between two fingers, it can be stretched and come under stress in tension – and the two will usually go together.  As you stretch a piece of rubber it gets thinner – tension in one direction, compression at right angles.

This rather dry concept comes alive when Tris Roberts makes us aware of what actually happens when we start being active, when we push against a heavy object: “When we push against a massive object to set it in motion, we set up stress forces that act in both directions.  We push against the object to accelerate it, and it pushes back against us with a reaction force… The reaction force that leads to the sensation that our push is being resisted is a stress force acting on our body: it does not act on the object that is being accelerated.” (U.B. p 9)  From this very active image of trying to get an old banger started, we can move to the apparent neutrality of standing still, where, though, we are faced with the problem of how it is that we manage to stand.  “All the active forces developed by the muscles of the body are tensions.  In contrast, the forces needed to support the body in an upright posture, with the feet below the centre of gravity, are compressive thrusts against the ground.  We need, therefore, to consider the relationship between tensions and thrusts.” (U.B. p 15)

I am hoping to give you a few choice quotations to illustrate Roberts’ way of thinking and presentation.  We begin with a clear presentation of the active mechanics of human posture and locomotion.  We push against the ground using a structure of struts (our bones) and ties (muscles and tendons), with the essential requisite for movement and flexibility being the low-friction joints between the struts.  One way of looking at the Alexander Technique is to see it as a way of preserving the low friction quality of our joints.  I find it a little disconcerting when this quality is referred to as “space” in the joints, or between the bones, as some Alexander Technique students do.  I want free contact, fluid movement: ‘space’ sounds a bit scary.  As a further aside, again significant for the Alexander Technique, Roberts is clear in distinguishing the role of the long muscles which cross two joints from those which cross one.  You could think of the hamstrings at the back of the thigh, or the big muscle, gastrocnemius which connects the lower end of the thigh bone, via the Achilles tendon, to the heel.  What is significant about these muscles, which span two joints, is that, on their own, they do not resist collapse of the leg under the weight of the body.  These long muscles of the legs are very much engaged in movement and in stabilising the upper body but need the shorter muscles which only cross one joint to enable our legs to be able to support the weight of the body.  I don’t want to get lost in anatomical details but just to give enough precise description to realise, in this case, the subtle needs of our limbs not to be too rigid and yet to be able to resist folding and collapse: to be able to provide the necessary stiffness and moveability.

Roberts is keen to analyse in order to help understanding, but recognises, right from the beginning, that an animal or a human being is not simply concerned to maintain itself in an ideal upright position.  The animal, the human being behaves.  It is not governed by automatic reflexes, as he recognises with a lovely dry humorous obviousness: “Animals characteristically move their heads about a good deal, turning from side to side and looking up and down at their surroundings.” (U.B. p 3)

An interesting experiment which I often use in my teaching and which Roberts analyses in his book is to try to balance on the palm, or extended finger, an upside-down broom.  I use a shorter-handled deck scrubber as being an instrument neat and manageable.  As it begins to topple, you quickly try to move your finger to stop the tilt.  You are working with three different movements: the broom falling vertically towards the ground, the broom moving horizontally across the room, the broom tilting over.  It is possible to play with the way you apply the supporting thrust so as to cancel out the various movements.  You actively balance the broom, leaving, as Roberts again puts with humorous reserve “only such desired horizontal movement as you decide upon”.  This experiment gives us insight into what we are doing as we walk and stand.  We don’t slide our feet about [which would be the direct equivalent of the hand movement to actively balance the broom]: we use our two legs, repositioning one leg while supporting with another.  We are a completely different, more complex, (and living) structure, but the work with the broom helps Roberts to explain that the complexity of co-ordination of muscular activity (dependent, especially in the human being, on learning), cannot rely on the involuntary responses we call reflexes.  In the Preface, and in the main body of the book, Roberts squarely faces the problem of ‘recognition’ – how do we distinguish the conditions when it is appropriate for us to move in a certain way (even an apparently involuntary movement like hopping to avoid falling over) from conditions that do not call for or lead to that response.  Roberts recognises that, real though the reflexes are as part of our neurophysiology, we employ behaviour patterns, habits, skills.  The balancing activity of the animal or human being is part of the animal’s behaviour, based upon its physiology and anatomy.  Thinking back to the broom, the animal is actively maintaining itself in relation to the world: “The animal does not necessarily wish to remain in the same place; he moves about by manipulating the thrusts exerted against the supports.  He must, however, at all times have regard to the need to avoid falling over and hitting his head against the ground.  This requirement involves a decision as to the best direction in which to push against the support.  This direction can be referred to as the ‘behavioural vertical’.  Uprightness is maintained by reference to the behavioural vertical, rather than to the gravitational vertical.” (U.B. p 94)

This is an important distinction.  It makes our posture alive and intentional; it lets it become poise.  This perspective links the activity of standing with the organisation and production of more visible movement: we are always engaged with being upright; and as the quotation above has suggested, Tris Roberts is acutely aware of the perils of uprightness.  We may fall and hurt our precious heads.  Through the book the clear relationship between the ground, support, and the activity of the legs, on the one hand, and the safe freedom of the head on the other, is emphasised.  “Even in quiet standing, there is always some movement.  In consequence there are continual changes in the position of the vertical projection of the centre of gravity of the body… the expression ‘vertical’ has to be taken to mean the direction judged by the animal to be currently the best one in which to aim the limb thrusts against the ground in order to avoid falling over and hitting the head on the ground” (U.B. p175).  This perspective is in accord with the basic concern of the Alexander Technique to help us be aware of the mutual interaction between our feet on the ground, and the head in the air.  Looking at the interaction of the thrust against the ground with the way we support ourselves with our muscles, as upright creatures, allows Tris Roberts to explain that we can look at the form of the human body in two ways.  We can see it built up “triangle by triangle, from the foundations provided by firm contact with the ground.  This is the way buildings and other engineering structures are constructed.” (U.B. p 95).  But, the living activity of the human being, even more so than for other animals, also allows us to think of the structure as coming into being from above to below, from the task of supporting the free head so that it can take in the environment and initiate and lead the responses we make to the environment.  The support we achieve for ourselves works from above towards the ground.

You will all be familiar with the ‘knee–jerk’ reaction which occurs when the quadriceps muscle receives a sudden stretch from a physician’s hammer or other sharp tap.  Such gross jerks are not part of normal behaviour.  There is, however, as we move, a continuous activation of less dramatic stretch reflexes which allows what Tris Roberts calls the activity of “converting the loosely jointed assembly of bones of the skeleton into a springy framework capable of supporting the weight of the body” (U.B. p113).  Stretches activate the contraction of the muscles which develop the tension to maintain the uprightness of the human being.  By looking at the co-ordinated and continuous process of maintaining the “springy framework” Roberts arrives at three significant insights which all feed into a fuller appreciation of what is the ‘up’ which Alexander Technique students speak of.  The first insight is that, especially for the human being, examining movement and balance in terms of habits and skills is going to prove more fruitful than trying to explain it through automatic reflexes, important though they are.  “Learning is consolidated by repeated rehearsal, and conditions involving a liability to overbalancing recur very frequently, particularly in the course of locomotion.  The well-rehearsed responses thus soon come to have the status of habits, in that their successful performance is no longer dependent on active conscious supervision.  An example of a pattern of motor behaviour which, once learned, continues to be performed successfully without conscious supervision is the relaxed riding of a bicycle.  When close attention is called for, as in the avoidance of obstacles, the act of bicycle riding is not strictly habitual, but is more properly classified as a skill” (U.B. p 160).  These are clear and important distinctions, I believe.
The second insight is that when we respond, move, we can describe many different, localised types of movement or activity in, say, an arm or even a finger, but the activity will lead to muscular and positional adjustments throughout the whole body.  Roberts is very clear in describing how it comes about that “even a small free movement of a finger will involve adjustments in the control of most of the skeletal muscles in the body” (U.B. p 116).  Movement belongs to the whole body.

The third insight his exploration of balance yields is the significance of what he calls “anticipatory pre-emptive action” (U.B. p 159).  If, for example, we find ourselves in danger of falling over, we learn (somehow) to recognise the situation as it develops (over, perhaps, a very short space of time).  It is possible to identify a number of features of what is happening to us which will lead us to react in a way which rescues us from danger.  This reaction can in certain circumstances be involuntary, totally reflex – or it can be voluntary.  When voluntary the typical human response is one that is anticipatory (we sense what is about to happen) and pre-emptive in that we react before the situation has developed to the state in which we would be unable not to act.  Such anticipatory pre-emptive action is linked to our ability and need to learn, and to be able to recognise a pattern or what Roberts calls a ‘gestalt’ by which he means a pattern which we recognise and respond to even when it is not complete.  We can use a limited number of changing features to lead us to respond voluntarily, when a complete set of features would be needed for an involuntary, reflex action.  The human being’s ability to learn and to anticipate and act voluntarily are great gifts and skills, but bring with them those problems of attention which, paradoxically, can lead us to lose touch with the present.  Anticipation can become the preoccupation with gaining the projected goal, end-gaining as F M Alexander called it.  A healthier state is when anticipation is still part of present attention.

Elsewhere I talk about the startle response (exploration 16).  In the womb and in the first few months of life the human infant uses a reflex known as the Moro reflex, an involuntary reaction to threat.  I won’t here describe it in detail.  It is normally inhibited by about four months of age and is transformed, in the adult, through normal development, into the startle response, which is usually a matter of responding to a sudden stimulus by a shrugging movement followed by a turn of the head to discover the source of the disturbance and, following this, a response is chosen.  In extreme circumstances of a danger in adult life, the Moro reflex may be triggered, and the Moro reflex, in some people, is retained as an habitual reaction if the normal processes of development are unfulfilled.  My point here is that attention we give to the future, which takes us out of the immediate responsiveness to the present, can lead to the reflex level of behaviour becoming fixed and damaging, rather than becoming absorbed into personal, adaptable habits and skills.  We are in danger of damaging ourselves both by striving with too much effort to gain a future end and by losing touch with the flow of automatic reflex movements.  It is very common, in my experience, for people to be carrying, permanently, manifestations of the movements ( useful in response to a sudden stimulus, and designed to pass away quickly), which belong to reflexes such as the Moro and its adult transformation, the Startle Response.

So, these three insights lead us to the conundrum with which Roberts begins and ends his book, and which is implicit in the idea of “anticipatory pre-emptive action” – how do we recognise that a corrective movement is needed?  How do we cope with all the subtleties of the continuous and widespread readjustment of the supporting forces made possible by “the brief time-course of the mechanical responses of skeletal muscle cells to activation through the motor nerves”?  Roberts ends with a limited expression of faith in the working of computers as offering us a model of how neuronal connections facilitate the signal-processing involved in balance and locomotion.  I do not think this model is helpful.  I will try to explain why in the next essay but let me end as I began with expressing my respect and appreciation for the work of Tris Roberts.


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