24. Fingers and Precision

I want to explore the architecture of the hand, but, as I do so, I would ask you to allow a distance between you (your head and eyes and attention) and your hand which you may be observing. By distance I also mean connection: it is so common for us to be drawn towards what we are doing with our fingers so that the whole flowing structure connecting head to hand gets forgotten. And what gets forgotten in our structure of movement tends to seize up, to become fixed. My experience as a teacher of the Alexander Technique has shown me how helpful it can be for people to realise the tension they carry in their hands and that release of that tension works back towards the centre, towards the shoulder and neck, to meet the releasing thoughtfulness the student may be engaging at her centre. One way to widen the focus on the fingers is to explore the movements of pronation and supination, which happen as you turn a key or the page of a book. The two bones of the forearm roll or cross over each other, turning the whole hand through 180o, potentially. This movement allows the connection of the hand to the elbow to be felt, before we get involved with the wondrous complexity of the movement of the wrist and through the fingers. It also can alert you to the distinction between the many muscles which, coming from the forearm, move the wrist and the fingers, and the muscles which belong to the hand itself, to the specialised movements of the little finger and, more dominantly, the thumb. These muscles, together with the way the bones of the hand are shaped and fit together, gives the palm of the hand a cup shape. The thumb faces the other fingers at a right angle, which allows the unique human movement of precisely gripping something between the pads at the tips of the thumb and one or more fingers. That precision-grip can be strong as well as delicate and can combine with the hold that the palm of the hand allows on a hammer or a jar lid. All these uses of the hand and fingers are basically flexing movements: what a shock it is often for people to go on all fours and feel the splayed hand, extended wrist and fingers of the hands as they support the body. For the apes, the hand supports, helps with walking, and climbing – and the reconciling of these tasks leads to an inflexibility of the wrist, with bent fingers good for hooking onto branches, and walking on the knuckles. Our hands are short and broad and light and able to combine, at the same time, elements of flexion and extension, bending and rotation. We spend a lot of time gripping in various ways throughout the day, but we are also able to let go of the grip. That very letting go helps to bring us back to the flow of the hand out to the elbow and from there to the back and to our attentive consciousness. For many animals the mouth is a hand: for us too at times. Our hands are uniquely free and versatile, but that freedom needs looking after.

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