Category Archives: Explorations
It is not uncommon for new students to have three or four lessons with me and then to stop coming, perhaps to return some time later, often not. There can be many reasons for this decision, but one common motivation involves, I believe, a combination of an increase in consciousness with raised but unfulfilled expectations. The first few lessons often bring an exhilarating sense of release and freedom. The student can enjoy being a beginner, with no expectations, and without the consciousness that easily becomes concerned with success and with trying. One of the basic attitudes of the Alexander Technique is to not mind being wrong, to not be concerned with performing well. Beware these negatives! What is the positive which warms the beginner’s heart? First, I think there is a place for letting go into full-blooded activity without a thought for getting something right, if the activity is not going to be dangerous. The other positive replacement for trying to be skilled is – the stopping, the not reacting, that is the core skill of the Alexander Technique itself. This stopping is not freezing: you live into the planned movement, into the environment in which the movement would take place. But you don’t move. Confidence is about feeling trust, about feeling bound together with something outside one’s point of awareness. Once you allow connection, you can also step back from it and enjoy the pause, enjoy the quality of the connection. That quality of enjoyment, I think, is the key to getting through this period when consciousness brings disappointment, and I know that I as the teacher have a big responsibility to keep the atmosphere light and open to laughter and fun. If the student’s consciousness is directed towards interesting problems which the teacher is presenting, then, actually, a new sense of personal trustworthiness, of confidence in oneself, can emerge out of this trying time in which one can get caught up in not being able to get it ‘right’. You observe yourself and you place your own specific movements in a wider context of you as a whole, in the wider context of where you are. You get interested in yourself in a sufficiently detached way to give yourself some room to move. Self-conscious frustration will always return but it becomes less concerning, less interesting.
Recently I was watching a boy of about eighteen months whom I know quite well and who is now established on his feet. He was playing with an older child, still about his size, an unusual situation for him, and I think her confident and competent movement led him to be more adventurous. As he moved there was a wonderful slightly gyrating interaction between his head, pelvis and feet. You could describe what was happening as the boy protecting himself from falling. That is accurate but, I think, does not touch the more basic need or orientation of the child to be vertical, or to remain in relationship to the vertical. In an obvious, slow-motion way he was using what Tristan Roberts, an expert on balance, calls ‘anticipatory pre-emptive action’. He is learning to match his movement intentions with changes in the environment, all the time with reference to what Roberts calls ‘the behavioural vertical’, which boils down to being the direction in which I must push against what is supporting me in order to cope with what is happening, and in order to try to fulfil my intentions, without falling over. So ‘the behavioural vertical’ is a living, intelligent direction, although not usually our conscious concern. So the static vertical direction we recognise in relation to the ground and gravity is only the basic reference for our experience of uprightness and of the vertical spine. In his experience of space, the child is intent on moving things in space, picking them up, placing them, handing and receiving things from his playmate. He is finding himself in earthly space. But his coming upright, and the interaction with his companion is already taking him into a different realm of behaviour in which you could say that the two young people are starting to live as forms which are not side by side, but creating a shared space in which they each thrive as an individual. As the two children play they are finding themselves both in this space of life and also in the other space which has more to do with substance and static distance. The ‘behavioural vertical’ expresses the interplay between inner and outer realities. This explains, I believe, why, even when the human being, the human spine, is not actually vertical (when we bend, or even lie down), we are able to keep a connection with, an awareness of, this inner uprightness, which is what our certainty of the continuity of the self, as we move through space and time, depends on. At root the Alexander Technique is about remembering to embody that inner spine of self-awareness. It begins with play, and perhaps ends with play too.
Life goes on, and our mental life goes on, and on. Where and how are we most usefully able to stop the flow? Rather than bringing life to a grinding halt, I want to ask you to explore the skill of pausing. A pause is a break or rest in a course of action. If you think of speech or drama or music the value of the pause is revealed. In these forms of expression which are laden with meaning and impact, then pauses become essential to allow for expressive communication. What has gone before, and what comes after, emerge clearly thanks to the pause. A pause allows transition even if it is not deliberate, even if it expresses doubt or hesitation. In relation to the practice of the Alexander Technique the pause is not only a basic discipline but also that element which confirms that what we develop with the Alexander Technique is not outward physical grace or prowess. We use and love our physical selves but the work is not about physical skill. It is of the body but not for the body. Pausing has a strong connection to thinking in that thinking is a reflective activity, living in the looking back and looking forward that belong to the pause. I want now to describe five qualities of pausing which form, for me, a loose sequence or series of transitions which give shape to my Alexander Technique practice.
There is the pause we bring about by actually stopping what we are doing, and then standing still, sitting, lying down. This has in it a primary response to stress and hurry. This physical stillness (though you are still breathing, still alive), as an achieved act is more interesting, and difficult to do than you might imagine.
There is the pause of not starting again, of not reacting to the stimulation that I become aware of.
The third quality of pause may happen on its own or may develop out of the conscious non-reacting. It is the pause of openness, of taking in what is new or unfamiliar, of being alert to what is original in yourself or your experience.
These three kinds of pause belong to that phase of the Alexander Technique process which is called ‘inhibiting’. The fourth quality of pause I wish to identify belongs more to the activity called ‘directing’. The mood shifts from openness, recognition, to welcoming, accepting, enjoying what has come into your experience, thanks to the power of the pause.
The fifth stage, or quality, relates, for me, to the deep need I have to find the world reliable and to experience common positive values and feelings in others. Out of pausing comes a deepened sense of responsibility for oneself (this is still an experience grounded in the physical) and this presence with oneself allows the outwardly directed faith in other people and the world to shine. Trust becomes an act of the self. The pause is not a self-sufficient state. It helps the movement from some kind of inner or outer excitement to some kind of inner or outer action. Thought becomes pause and pause becomes response.
Ribs are a familiar yet unknown feature of our structure. The same root-word is found in many languages; the image of the rib has been employed in describing the structure of everything from roofs to leaves to boats. We know we have lots of them which is perhaps why one could be spared for creating Eve – though it is also true that many people have an extra pair, ready for transformation. The ribs protect the heart and lungs but the term rib-cage is so unfortunate, so fixed and rigid, when the essence of the rib is liveliness. A snake uses its ribs to help with movement, enhancing the basic rhythms of contraction and release which allows the soft earthworm or simpler leech to move laboriously over the ground. Our limbs have opened out from the middle of the body and left the chest with the rhythm of breathing. A rib is sculpted in movement. Each rib is twisted along its long axis and also has an angle which means that you cannot lay a rib flat on a table. In life its middle portion, at your side, will be lower than both ends, though the front end is also lower than the back. It lives under twisting torsional tension, ready to spring out, to move apart. The higher ribs, lifting and rotating as you breathe in, move more at the front: the longer lower ribs as they are lifted move more out and up at the sides. I want to direct you to your sides, a place we lose underneath our arms and the tension in our shoulders. The human chest is wide rather than deep from front to back, but it’s still the case that you have wide, elastic sides, with a criss-cross of muscles from your head to your pelvis allowing flexible support through this forgotten region. If you find your sides then you can more easily connect front and back and find the space inside. Wislawa Szymborska writes a poem, ‘A large number’ about how crowded the world feels, how insignificant the individual, and yet she still feels alive and large and singular:
Why there’s all this space inside me
I don’t know
The mystery is in the imagination – and the ribs.
A diaphragm is a partition; we often associate it with a membrane of some kind dividing one part, say, of a pump or filter from another part. Sometimes the pelvic floor is called the pelvic diaphragm but the diaphragm in the human body is the division going across the whole ‘tube’ of the body below the heart and lungs, and above the soft bag of the abdomen. This diaphragm has the oesophagus passing through it, taking food to the stomach, as well as major nerves and blood vessels. This diaphragm moves; it is a muscle, but a very strange muscle. It is attached to the inside of the lower ribs and the lower part of the breast-bone and to the sides of the front of the lower vertebrae. The fibres of the muscles all radiate in towards a tendon which is the centre, like the bull’s eye, of the circular partition which the diaphragm is. Imagine a dome, probably much nearer the top of your body than you might imagine. It is most domed before you breathe in, an important connection in your thinking, because the diaphragm is the muscle of breathing, not the only one but the main mover. So, I repeat, this domed partition, going across the body in a sense horizontally, is a muscle. It will be flattest after you have breathed in, the radiating muscle, as it contracts, drawing the domed central tendon area down. As this happens, the ribs also expand to the sides especially, and to the front somewhat. The thoracic cavity, in which the lungs and heart are found, becomes larger as the diaphragm contracts. The soft spongy lungs, which are attached to the inside of the thorax, are expanded by this movement of the walls caused by, principally, the diaphragm – and the air, through its inherent pressure, flows into the space within the lungs that has been created. In this basic picture there is no need for sucking in air, taking breaths, using the muscles around the shoulders. All these extra elements can be used, but need not be. The diaphragm together with the ribs and their associated muscles work together, in breathing in and breathing out, to maintain a rhythm which is using elastic stored energy in both phases. Volumes have been written on the part various elements play in this process, particularly the muscles of the abdominal wall (the muscles which you can use to pull your ‘tummy’ in) but I suggest you try to live simply with this rhythmical dome. An experienced conductor of choirs said to me recently that the best tonic for a long rehearsal is to get the whole choir to laugh. Laughter is infectious and it moves from one person’s diaphragm to the next. The diaphragm, uniquely in close contact with the heart in the human being, is the organ of empathetic responsiveness – which is just another way of describing breathing.
Acknowledge your diaphragm – then, go back to the head and the lengthening of your back, to the responsive support which your diaphragm can work from. Then let it get on with enabling you to laugh and to sing, to breathe and feel. With breathing, the first thing we need to learn is not to interfere.
I live in Scotland, the home of golf, and a country where golf is a sport for all and part of the national culture. It is therefore not surprising that I count several players among my students. But there is more to it than that. In F M Alexander’s third book, The Use of the Self, he devotes a chapter to “The Golfer who cannot keep his eyes on the ball”, one main concern of which is to explore how end-gaining, the determined desire to get the ball where you want it, and our inability to stay aware and in control of how we are approaching the act of hitting the ball (what F M Alexander calls misuse of the self) – how these two reinforce each other in a vicious circle in which neither can be prevented before the other one is. If things don’t go well, we tend then to become more and more drawn in to trying harder and harder to get rid of an even more focused-upon ‘defect’.
With the Alexander Technique we break into this tightening spiral by, first, preventing our reacting. A round of golf – seventy or so moments of precise and often powerful co-ordinated movement in which you hope for a fluent expression of technique and in which there are libraries-full of possibilities for minute errors to be identified and cured: this is a great opportunity, and possible quicksand, for the Alexander Technique with its discipline of staying whole, and staying with the next step. This is the basic psychology, if you like, but it comes back to the body and here I want you to work with your golf balls – the rounded heads of the thigh bones, the femurs, which fit into the deep sockets of the pelvis. It is of course only about 3/5 of a sphere, as it becomes the angled neck of the femur which then becomes the long shaft which eventually expands into the rounded condyles which help form the knee joint. This joint at the top of the femur is the place where you are designed to lift your leg, as in walking, or lean forward, as in beginning to get up from sitting down, or to lean forward and let your legs fold, as in bending to pick something up. It is a joint which combines stability with freedom and range of movement, through its physical ball and socket structure, and all the ligaments and muscles and cartilage which surround and connect the actual bones. In the Alexander Technique we work a lot with the head and also with the feet – our relationships up, and down, with the ground. In between are these big significant joints which, if we live with them, will help to keep us alert and responsive. But so many people don’t know about this golf ball and its pivotal role in movement, usually because the thousand other golf balls, the tasks we try so hard to do well, absorb out attention. Useful self-monitoring is helped by a clear understanding of the anatomy of movement. You ‘see’ the golf balls within and the golf ball without. You gain some clarity, connecting self to task.
A favourite poem of mine is an early short meditation by Rilke, ‘Evening’, in which he suggests we live in two worlds, “not at home in either one”, sometimes feeling our weight, our boundedness, the life of a ‘stone’ – sometimes rising to heaven and eternity, the life of a ‘star’. Out of this polarity comes our life ‘with its immensity and fear’. I want here to explore how something such as the Alexander Technique helps us cope with this immensity – of our thoughts, plans, ideals, imagination – and the fear, at root the fear of harm or death. To get at the subject I want to contrast two kinds of pleasure in music which you could discuss in terms of ‘technique’. If we think of a technique as an internalised skill, a quality which gives the impression at least that the effort has been taken out of the creating of an effect, you could see this virtue in the ‘complaisance’ of Baroque music, the performer pleased with herself and pleased with the playing or singing, the audience allowed to share in the effortless pleasure.
‘Complacence’ now often has a note of vanity or lifeless self-satisfaction, but for now stick with the feeling of flowing ease. By contrast, I was just listening to a concert in honour of A L Lloyd, one of the leading figures in the preservation and recreation of traditional song and music in the twentieth century. Here technique is about a lack of artifice; it’s to do with an authentic roughness and naturalness of delivery which is making the song something more than pretty. These two ideals can meet as grace meets commitment, but they approach the listener from different sides of the stage: polish and awkwardness. I was listening recently to an early morning interview with an economist about the current world crisis. The interviewer was pressing the drama, with lots of anger and compulsion, “has to… forced to… must”. Each time, before replying, the economist paused, just a few seconds, a pause to compose herself, to think, but it was so powerful, so unusual, so disconcerting. It gave her a very distinct individual voice, but its conscious composure almost cut her off, left her beyond dialogue – a clear voice but her meaning difficult to take in. We stumble and add ‘er’ and ‘um’ in what is called dysfluency in speech. This economist had none of that. This dysfluency serves many purposes: it can keep the interlocutor quiet, it can suggest your search for meaning, it can alert the other that something unexpected is coming. All through the day, in speech and action, we use lack of fluency, lack of competence, sometimes consciously, often not, as a way of connecting with others, of establishing ease and openness. It takes us into the space between us and others and reminds us of the limitations of our knowledge and control. If technique means the wish for faultless performance, or competence in solitude, then for me it’s missing out on enjoying this everyday space of chaos and confusion. It is a forum where we can try to ‘unravel’, as Rilke describes it, the “immensity and fear”.
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.
There is something very special about the way we experience our own physical being and its movements: we have the experience of being, or being carried on, a stream of willing, of active intentional being. Our consciousness can never grasp this kind of life fully, and most of the time we don’t try to grasp it. When we plan or practice something new we may become conscious about our movements, and when we prepare ourselves to catch a ball falling from the sky, or hit a difficult putt we may become present with our attention, in and through the body, applying a technique we have practised. In both these situations, as with normal activity, we do have the possibility to review or evaluate the move we have executed, after it has happened. So, our activity offers us the opportunity to pass to and fro between consciousness – planning, reflection, awareness of all kinds – and movement, physical action. For me the Alexander Technique gives me the means to become more fluent in the crossing of this border, in both directions.
In the building in which I trained as a teacher of the Alexander Technique hangs a painting by Linda Mallett, with two separate panels, much higher than they are wide, echoing the graceful shape and structure of the tall Victorian windows in the one-time schoolroom in which the panels hang. One panel incorporates a quotation from Michael Gelb, an articulate Alexander Technique teacher, from his book Body Learning: “The body is our instrument for fulfilling our purpose on earth”. The body is instrument, tool, but is also us, ourselves, the agent or tool-user. It was Michael Gelb, in the same chapter this quotation comes from, who describes the most fundamental form of misuse, of not integrating our agency and our instrument, as “the failure to make choices”. This act of choosing, thinking, directing, separates us from our instrument, so that we can then fully connect with it. When things go wrong I end up having a body – “I have a bad back”, which becomes part of me when things go well and I send the Frisbee freely spinning through the air. The more mental aspect of fully realising that we have the power to make choices is that we become able to enter into the unfamiliar: these two ideas really mean the same thing. The other panel of Linda Mallett’s painting includes a quotation from F M Alexander himself – “The things that don’t exist are the most difficult to get rid of”. Our body and its movements give us a physical foundation for our thoughts and feelings, helping us transform our fears and prejudices into revitalised action. Body and mind disappear together into the wish to change.
If sitting down is about enjoying the unknown, standing up is about not seeing every task as a mountain to climb. For various reasons, including the design of the chairs we sit on or in, and the things we tend to do when we are sitting, many people actually make sitting more demanding, effortful and tiring than standing. Because we associate sitting with comfort and relaxation this discomfort belonging to sitting is often hard for people to notice. Sitting tends to bring on the battle with gravity, or the sense of giving in, collapsing. This in turn leads to the idea that what is needed is the (painful) effort of sitting-up straight, and the battle continues. So, for the Alexander Technique, standing-up really begins with truly sitting – and that means giving up the determination to stand. The chair is there below you. Is it supporting you? Is it able to support you? Are you allowing it to support you? In asking these questions I could be imagining you sprawled on some giant sofa, leaning back in a supposedly relaxing recliner, or sitting on a simple stool. Something is supporting you, unless you have just fallen through the floor, and it’s good to know whether it’s you with the chair, or you hovering above the chair, holding yourself up, or you collapsing into the chair. So, the hope is, with the Alexander Technique, that you are moving, as you stand up, from a position of ease and freedom, so that your head (again) can lead you, taking the spine with it. Your head actually moves forward and down in a typical action of beginning to stand up, but the strong emphasis in your thinking, in your sense of where you are heading – up! – means that initial movement need not be one of collapse. Collapse would mean that you have even more of a mountain to climb than you had to begin with. There’s always something there to support you! Here it shifts from, mainly, the chair under your pelvis, your sit-bones, to, once you’re on the way to standing, to the floor under your two feet. So easily we rush that transfer, pulling ourselves up, pressing down with our hands on our thighs, not waiting for the weight to be there, over our feet. We forget we have legs which are ready to straighten through the big joints of ankle, knee and the head of the femur. If my head truly leads me – in more senses than one – I will stay whole, I will stay supported. I will be the mountain rising rather than the straining climber.
I want to ask you to explore the act of sitting down, something you no doubt do a good number of times each day. It might be interesting to estimate how many times on an average day. I am asking you to bring to consciousness an action which probably, normally, hardly exists for you. When you do it your mind is probably elsewhere, or nowhere in particular, or focused on what is in front of you on a desk, or screen, or plate. The Alexander Technique asks you to bring an action to consciousness, or more strictly, your preparation and anticipation of the action, so that you can then fully let go of that consciousness into the movement itself. For the Alexander Technique student the act of sitting down comes alive because it is the transition between two other active states – standing and sitting. Normally standing and sitting, in themselves, are contentless, a mindless position or condition in which you do things – talk, eat, relax, work. Now, sitting down is a movement into the unknown, or rather the unseen, the space behind you, the space which is not the busy demanding space in front of us, where things happen. The Alexander Technique is directing our awareness into this space behind, so that it becomes part of what gives us shape, definition, support. Often, as we sit, we actually start falling and then have to stop ourselves falling, both because our attention to the world in front is so dominant and also because we associate going lower, which happens in sitting down, with collapse, abandonment of control. In the practice of the Alexander Technique we give our attention to maintaining the experience of ‘up’ even as we go back and down. Picture the trajectory of your head as you sit down in a normal dining chair. It goes in a curve, if you imagine it from the side, with its final position being below and behind its original position. The thought which guides this movement, for a student of the Alexander Technique, is that the head leads this movement. The head leads, taking the spine with it and allowing the big joints of the legs to freely fold, and the quality of support from the ground to be experienced, until the contact with the chair is felt. So sitting down is no longer falling into the unknown, hoping the chair will be there, tightening in fear in case it isn’t. No, the thinking ahead allows the action of sitting down to be part of a free-flowing sequence in which you stay connected to your environment. It is not an interruption at the end of which you emerge with no idea how you got where you are now.
At the beginning of Act II of ‘The Magic Flute’ Tamino and Papageno are brought into the Temple to face their trials. Sarastro, who leads the priests, has already set the tone by replying to one of his fellow priests that Tamino is not to be seen worthy because he is a prince – ‘more than that, he is a man’. Tamino answers bravely to the challenge to risk his life for high ideals. The priests then turn to the common man, to Papageno, to see if he is prepared to face the trials – “Hey – fighting, well, fighting is not really my thing, you know. And as for wisdom and truth, well… take it or leave it”. We respond to his honesty, his lack of pretence or pretension. The Alexander Technique is a way of overcoming our fear of the unknown on the level of our habits, of the restrictions we have allowed and needed in the way we go into the everyday trials of life.
In this exploration I am looking at the way simple, abstract movements can help you to cope with the unknown. There are teachers of the Alexander Technique who like to work only with the complex reality of actual life – of the flautist playing Mozart or the golfer on the first tee – but I find the simplicity of abstract movements both interesting and helpful. You could work with any simple movement such as bending to pick something up, or opening a door. The first thing about approaching such a movement or gesture as an abstract movement is that you emphasise its separation from specific circumstances. You draw back, which is what ‘abstract’ means. An element of thinking enters as part of this draining of narrative from the action. It also allows you to experience your wholeness because there is no distraction. The simplicity encourages the sense of wholeness; the action takes in your whole body. At this stage you are exploring the basic Alexander Technique discipline of getting out of the way, of getting out of your own way. The movement becomes somewhat depersonalised. If you are working with a teacher who is able to guide and observe and maintain the very important interest in repeating the movement, you are likely to find something surprising. Your drawing back, your simplification, your abstracting, leads you to let go of personal habits and, probably, to feel a disorientating sense of incapacity at not grasping what is going on when you move in the new way your teacher is leading you into. You pare the movement down to something simple and fundamental which can then become a multitude of specific, practical actions in the future. In the repetition of the simple version you are giving emphasis to the value thinking can have in establishing a generally applicable skill which leads you from your intention through to the action and your own experience of the action. You let go of personality on the level of it being tightly bound to the way you do things and then rediscover it as a higher or more centred experience of control and co-ordination.
I would like to begin with some words from F M Alexander, near the end of his second book published in 1923. “Unfortunately, we have been taught that all the ordinary acts of life should be automatic and unconscious. For this reason they have become indifferent. Such a psycho-physical condition induces stagnation in the organism. As it is a condition which becomes more and more pronounced with advancing age, we gradually lose the capacity to take conscious interest in and derive pleasure from those normal and useful activities of doing, hearing, seeing etc. Small wonder, then, that sooner or later we seek satisfaction in less normal and less useful activities and create an undue demand for specific excitements and stimulations” (Part 4 of CCC1). Eighty five years later with the unimaginable proliferation of leisure, sports, fitness equipment and regimes, I love and need the discarding of all this stuff to mediate my contact with the world. The simplification cultivated by the Alexander Technique is, for me, a light which allows the clear experience of outer events, and which stimulates compassionate and practical acts. Just before the passage I quoted above, F M Alexander had been writing about sitting down and standing up, topics I will return to. Because of our lack of presence in the everyday, F M Alexander describes how it can become so that, for someone, “as soon as he touches the chair, (he) proceeds to ‘sit down’ – that is, he slumps – and as far as his awareness is concerned the act of sitting is then completed… Likewise with ‘standing up’. Once he has stood up, the process is completed, again as far as his awareness is concerned. In both instances he ends a psycho-physical process which, in reality, should never be finished”. This last thought is, despite the measured prose, a revelatory insight. The impulse of growth and learning, of preventing monotony and stagnation, can be cultivated in simple ongoing acts like standing and sitting, processes which “should never be finished”. Henry David Thoreau writes (in Walden) “to be awake is to be alive” and “To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts”. Give your willing attention to the everyday.
When I first began teaching I would usually get my teaching room ready both very early and very hurriedly, and then get on with the serious business of preparing myself for teaching via all kinds of special measures. I now try to make the main part of my preparing myself to be the preparation of the room and the normal flow of everyday deeds that precede teaching. And our engagement with and enjoyment of the ordinary will mean we are alive and awake enough to cope with the unfamiliar.
On my way home today I met my neighbour bringing five of his Highland cows, heavily in calf, trotting down the road. The hard road and their trotting gait revealed how light of foot these stocky, earthy animals are. The feel of ‘up’ was there, in the way belonging to a cow; but is an ‘up’ in which the spine is horizontal (other than the neck). Seeing cows moving in this unusual way revealed, above the dancing hooves, the clear function of the spine to have the body hanging from it, and, secondly, the work needed to support the head at the end of the necessarily mobile neck which must be able to reach the ground in order to graze. My trip had been to the supermarket, to which, of course, I had taken my own shopping bag. The shopping bag is an interesting gateway into human movement and the human spine. A bag is a basic sign of intelligence and society, of planning and creativity. I hear a man on the radio this week who, in Kent, lives entirely on what he forages in the wild. He had just harvested 100 kg of sweet chestnuts. He needed bags, badly. If we want to collect, to choose, to move things from A to B, to store them then we will make bags. Physically we need to be upright, truly upright, in order for the effort of carrying to be sustainable, to be able to hold things close enough so that we are not pulled over, unbalanced. But the gesture of being upright has in it, too, the basic facing the world, the seeing of the world from a position of balanced detachment, which would allow you to plan, to have using a bag as part of your life. The beautiful shaggy Highland cows have only their rough-tongued mouths to hold and carry with. From them to the gorilla: the typical walking posture of the gorilla is on all fours. His legs are short, his arms are long and the typical contact with the ground with the arms is with the knuckles, with the second little bone of each finger. If you look, from the side, at the shape of the walking gorilla (the skeleton is most helpful) you will see a single long curve to the spine, together with other connected features – the head is in front of the spine, like the cows, the ribs are under the spine, the shoulder blades are horizontal, the knees are bent. I would ask you now to try to explore the difference between you and this image of the gorilla. Gorillas, as indeed is the tendency in primates generally, are capable of upright standing, but not with the minimal effort that is possible for human beings because of the pure verticality of the arrangement of our joints, and the fully straight legs we have as we stand normally. Once we come out of the vertical, once our legs bend and our head is no longer poised on top of the spine, then we start to need to do more work to keep ourselves in that less vertical and no longer torque-free condition. One basic way of describing the Alexander Technique is that it is helping us not to lose our uprightness, with its possibilities of observation, imitation, creativity (its possibilities of bags being carried), as we bend, in order to gather, to pick things up, to work, to play. We can keep the basic characteristics of our upright spine and poised head when we bend. We do not have to become like an ape.
In Beethoven’s opera ‘Fidelio’, Leonore, in order to gain access to the gaol where she suspects her husband is imprisoned, disguises herself as a man. I remember a performance in which the singer playing Leonore was so determined to act out her efforts, in the part, to sustain her male disguise, that her singing became restricted and forced, only being set free when her consciously uncomfortable persona was able to be abandoned when she was reunited with her husband. This is a rather complicated example pointing to the way the Alexander Technique might help in coping with a dramatic role which involved some painful, disabling or exaggerated physical or emotional trait. An actor can establish a level of open, integrated presence out of which the peculiarities of the part can be shaped without deforming the whole person of the actor or constricting the singing. In my experience this allows free commitment and power of expression. Leonore needs to keep her singing voice uncontaminated by the restrictions the role asks of her. In our lives in the real world then I think we can imagine this flow between levels of the self working in a complementary way. We all have exaggerations and distortions in the way we use ourselves; they are the evidence of the lives we have led, the wonderful imperfections of the living. The practice of the Alexander Technique does not aim to directly do away with those twists and turn us into smoothly humming machines. It offers us the possibility of rising above, detaching ourselves from our manner of being so as to create a space for change. Detaching ourselves from our habits has the potential to arouse a lot of uncomfortable self-consciousness and/or loss of spontaneous interaction with what is going on around us. A way to keep this kind of activity healthy is practising at performing some simple act, like tying your shoelaces, in a changed way. Another valuable way to rise above the familiar is to use movements which are not normally part of our everyday activities – walking backwards, walking sideways, using the non-dominant hand to perform an action, resting the hand in an unfamiliar way on a table or a cushion. We gain a clearer fuller connection between the different levels of our being, finding our way right into our physical being, through non-habitual movement and contact. This awakens in us a much clearer picture, and more than a picture, of ourselves. As we explore the unfamiliar we gain a certain detachment but, I hope, without a sense of becoming foreign to ourselves. The ability to act differently, to begin to transform something in ourselves, keep the whole business personal. In fact, I find it intensifies the sense of the personal, of being in touch with what I want to be and do. The unfamiliar movements are often ones that aren’t about reaching a goal as quickly as possible. Such movements, to do with getting things done, are not amenable to our wish for transformation. They compress the levels of our being so detachment is impossible. Becoming fixed on getting to our goal will tend to impoverish our connection to what we do.
This exploration is concerned with a feature of our behaviour which is very significant but often goes unnoticed. It begins with our reaction to sudden, unexpected occurrences. Consider your reaction in a relatively mild incident of this kind. Typically, we tense our muscles, perhaps blink, turn the head, or head and body, to seek out the source of the shock and possible danger, and then make a conscious decision about how to respond. Something similar can happen with, at one extreme, a sudden stab of pain, and at the other, a sudden recollection of something you have forgotten, or a piece of news which turns your view of the world, or a person, upside down. The origin of the word startle has the contrasting elements in it which we see in our bodies – there is the sense of standing stiffly and of a movement of overturning, pouring out, emptying. These are somehow brought together in the act of a sudden, involuntary movement. We lose our balance, our orientation and try to get hold of ourselves, to stop ourselves from falling, from being poured out. That is one crucial element in the startle response, the fear of falling, but to understand what is going on I want to go back to the early stages of embryonic development and to the fascinating but demanding study of the primitive, developmental reflexes which emerge in the womb and which protect the newborn infant in the first few weeks of life and which become transformed into the voluntary skills of the growing child and adult. The mature startle response when the firework goes off behind us is the end point of a process which began after a few weeks of life. To oversimplify, the most basic involuntary reaction of a living creature to the unexpected is withdrawal, shrinking, slowing down, paralysis. In the human foetus this reaction develops so that the withdrawal element, moving the arms away from the body, intake of breath, is followed by drawing in, clasping, strong breathing out and a loud cry (some of these features can only be enacted after birth). The physiological mood is of arousal, summoning help, not of shutting down as is the case with withdrawal. Adrenaline is released, heart and breathing rates increase. This primitive reflex is there to help the baby survive the first months of life and the normal processes of movement and sensory development mean it is transformed into the mature startle response in which conscious decision-making almost immediately is possible.
Progression to freely balanced standing and walking cannot happen if the peri-natal startle reaction persists – and walking and standing help bring about its transformation. But if fear of falling remains, and becomes a more diffuse blanket fear and worry, in the child or adult, then the bodily expression of the infant reflex will become established in the individual – the tightening of the front, the contraction, the quality of being stuck on the out breath, the unvoiced alarm call. It all begins with the disturbance of the head’s relationship to the rest of the body and shows in the persistent gesture of the head being pulled down with the very top of the neck being pulled back so that the eyes can keep contact with the world even as the body is contracted and frozen in fear. With the Alexander Technique, the wish is to give us the conscious awareness to control our response to the unexpected and to be able to let go of self-induced tension. And to prevent ourselves reacting in ways which are both rigid and hasty.
This exploration is inspired by an interchange on a women’s correspondence page in today’s paper in which someone asks, “I am a woman but I hate wearing high heels. Is there any hope for me?” This succinct enquiry receives a long reply in which the columnist supports the idea of abandoning high heels but uses humour to recognise the valid claims of sexual attraction and fashion: “The legs are meant to be longer naturally, not attenuated by you standing on your tiptoes, see?” The appeal of the reply is to women choosing to mature, to free themselves from painful delusions. This is a fascinating area and one very relevant to the Alexander Technique on a more interesting level than simply the damage done by wearing high heels. In fact research seem to reveal the amazing ability for women to compensate for the unsettling demands of strange body techniques such as walking in high heels.
I believe the term ‘body techniques’ goes back to the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss who used the term to understand how we use things – with our hands and feet and mouths principally – and how our use changes the things and what they mean for us. If we make a distinction between technology, as things and structures, and technique, as our skills, I can see a fascinating process of influence. New inventions don’t just happen. Technologies can be seen to emerge out of wide and deep cultural ideas, spiritual and intellectual movements, and then the way we use technological structures, on an individual as well as a social scale, expresses our creativity, our ability to learn, to improvise. Mauss was interested in the way we learn to use our bodies and extensions to our bodies, and how the social and psychological elements in our learning play into the purely biological. The Alexander Technique does seem to be committed to a conservatism of the body, to body techniques which have been prized free of anything external, even a pair of shoes or a chair. But we can never be free of cultural norms. The Alexander Technique evolved in a time when anxieties about physical degeneration in the age of industrialisation were a strong influence. It has lived through the age of relaxation to today, which might be termed the age of fitness and flexibility (in life style and body movements). Chairs, shoes, mobile phones, are closely connected to our bodies, become part of our selves, shape us in many senses. Flip-flops have as great an influence on the way we walk, and the way we are, as do high heels, and are just as open to the creative and exploratory use we bring to them. We don’t need to fuse with objects. One of the creative aspects of our body technique may be to accept and cope with pain or discomfort which we decide to bring upon ourselves in the name of social acceptance, sporting success, self-expression. For me, the Alexander Technique is not a way of trying to reclaim some pure, natural functioning. It does, though, help me not to get absorbed by technology, allowing me to have more awareness and thus control over how I use my body, and the things I take to me: how I use myself. Adaptability rather than naïve naturalism: this is what I mean by technique.
I really enjoy the immediacy and informality of the few transcripts or notes of lectures given by F M Alexander which have survived. One, in 1934, when he was in his sixties, was given to women training to become teachers of physical education and gymnastics. A brief note in the College records implies a certain incomprehension: Alexander’s talk is compared with another speaker who had “presented the subject of posture in a more ready-to-use manner in an interesting lecture later in the week”. The Alexander Technique is not “ready-to -use” as a set of exercises and it is not concerned with ‘posture’ as something external. It is bringing together practice in thinking with the physical experience of ourselves. In the talk to the physical education students, during which Alexander demonstrated by working with individual students, there are very revealing insights about consent – consent to make a movement, perform an action. Alexander is interested in what he calls the “mental hiatus” which leads to an exercise, or an everyday action, becoming “a mechanical exercise, (not) something real that matters”. At the end of the talk he answers questions and one reply that was taken down returns to the questions of giving “consent” when one gets out of a chair. Alexander tries to emphasise that, for him, this act of giving or withholding consent is very important – “it matters a great deal” – it is a thought which disappears into the deed. “We are trying to superimpose a ‘doing’, when all we need is to give consent”. This letting go is made possible by the teacher who gives the student the chance of a new experience of movement which she can then gradually think her way into so that it becomes her own. ‘Consent’ is just the right word to capture the feel of the Alexander Technique. It means “feeling together” and the heart of the meaning is much more to do with harmony, consensus; agreement, which then moves into enacting that common purpose. In the lecture Alexander uses the picture of that time of the day when most are least conscious – getting out of bed – to illustrate the point that “we do not have to try to do anything, we just get up”. The conscious control has gone into the movement, disappeared into it, illuminated it, overcome the “mental hiatus”, and has kept the deed “something real that matters” even it is only sitting down. We are to practice creating the oneness; then go. Often in an Alexander Technique lesson, the teacher asks the student to allow him to move her arm or leg as the student is lying or sitting or standing (not, usually, a leg while standing!). The aim here is not massage or manipulation, but, strange to say, giving the student an opportunity to explore consent.
Unfamiliarity breeds content – after a while. Today I was introducing a new student to the Alexander Technique for the first time and she arrived at the quite common experience in this situation, as we were working with the movements of sitting down and standing up, that she had “forgotten how to sit down”. I had led her, with her consent as far as she could consent to the unknown, to stop sitting down in the usual way she sat down. There is a two-fold influence here. The more we are rushing into an action without clarity and freedom the more strongly are we likely to become tied to this way of doing it.
My new student, who left me with a glow of pleasure on my face (and hers), as we worked more with this everyday movement, experienced that she could face the change from moving with fear to, now, moving with confidence. This is a classic Alexander Technique realisation. Lack of confidence, fear of hurt or failure, tend to narrow us down, decrease our options, force our actions. The Alexander Technique seeks to break this tightening spiral by an act of stopping, of prevention, and to use thinking to build a confidence of control which includes not rushing into action. The very insecurity we feel, because we lack presence in our actions, leads us to rush and to forfeit even more of our freedom. So, the experience my new student had today of having forgotten how to sit down came about both because I was leading her towards what F M Alexander calls “a plunge in the dark”, a new way of entering into the act of sitting down, and also because she had freed herself from her habitual way which was wedded to the performing of the movement with thoughtless rush and effort.
Perhaps most significant for us today with our longing for relaxation is that, with the Alexander Technique, when working with a sense, say of unwanted tension in the neck, the approach is not to try to achieve relaxation of the neck. The reason for this is to avoid getting caught up in a self-conscious preoccupation about the state of tension or relaxation in a small part of ourselves. We speak about the method of the Alexander Technique being ‘indirect’.
For me the heart of this description is that we are breaking the tight sequence of cause and effect which emphasises the shortest, quickest journey from A to B. When we work, indirectly, with prevention, that impulse of prevention is about engaging the muscles to bring about what we do want which, in itself, will involve the releasing or relaxing of what we may sense as symptomatic tension. So the essence of the indirect quality is that we are not focusing on correcting faults, but rather on a new and possibly, confusing, experience. The student finds herself somewhere not obviously intended, without an obvious connection to where she just was, mentally and physically. Such surprise is the benign sister of fear and the beginning of confidence. So, stop, and explore what you want.
F M Alexander was always adamant that, as he puts it in one of his books, that “I do not give instructions and exercises for the pupil to do at home, by themselves (CCCI, Part II, Ch 1, his italics). So, no Do-it-Yourself Alexander Technique? In one sense, yes, but in a deeper sense the Alexander Technique is, I believe, all Do-it-Yourself, all about the student (pupil in those days) developing an autonomy grounded in an integrated, comprehensive sense of the self. The role of the teacher is to help the student over the stile of our habits; habits, not just of outward behaviour which will hover on the borders of consciousness, but habits writ deep in our basic bodily mood or style. Habits, at this level, are us, are connected to our ways of thinking, our attitudes and whole approach to life. The physical element of this total pattern easily becomes something we lose touch with, both as part of how we are, who we are, and as something we can influence and change. Habits involving the sense of what we are doing with our bodies, if we feel them at all, feel right. Or, more importantly, when we try something new it will feel strange, uncomfortable perhaps, even wrong. The Alexander Technique teacher is acting for the student, as the guide and encourager through this awakening to strangeness. This might appear to be giving up one’s autonomy, to accept judgements of the teacher as she leads the student into strange ways of moving and encourages him to live with them for a while. My perspective on this conundrum is to try to help create a relationship with my student so that the temporary giving up of responsibility into my hands is itself a free act, part of the process of enhancing autonomy by being able to consciously, at times, give up the need to be in control. This giving up of tight control is in itself, for the practice of the Alexander Technique, going to help bring you into a wider self-awareness. F M Alexander, in his books, often introduces remarks of his pupils or friends to cast an individual light on ideas he is presenting. Regarding this need for help towards autonomy, he quotes from a doctor friend, “I am getting more and more convinced that people can learn only what they know”. Insight, once experienced, can then guide a disciplined learning. Again, a young girl commented, when coping with the challenge of whether what she was doing felt “wrong” or “right”. “Oh, I see! If I feel at all, I must feel wrong. If I don’t feel wrong, I mustn’t feel”. Confusing but not confused, I think this young woman has realised the mind is likely to damp down the excitement of new experiences by making self-critical judgements and that trusting the teacher will allow her to trust herself.
I had the daunting and exciting experience recently of someone coming for an Alexander Technique session who had had lessons with the elderly Irene Tasker, one of the very earliest of those F M Alexander himself enabled to teach the Technique, and whose contact with him goes back to 1913! Irene Tasker had studied with the well-known Italian educationalist, Maria Montessori, who wrote to Irene Tasker, on hearing about her lessons with F M Alexander, “I am glad that you are learning to know what you are doing”. This is a beautifully simple insight into what the Alexander Technique is about – self-knowledge and control which lead to free movement. I was speaking to a doctor recently who works with people with skin cancers and who was lamenting that many men take more interest in blemishes on the paintwork of their cars than in moles or blemishes which persist on the skin. For whatever reasons our ignorance of what we are doing is often most blind to our bodies and to the way we use our bodies. We create the split between the life of the mind and the life of the body.
Now turn your attention to your spine, your vertebral column which is a central part of your structure but also, protects and contains the spinal cord, the continuation of the brain from which segment by segment, nerves arise, to connect with the muscles and other organs and tissues of the body. We all know how significant injury to the spinal cord can be, particularly paralysis, loss of movement. So it is in a way obvious that the functional interaction between the head (our brain and major sense organs), the spine and the raying out from the spine into our extremities, our limbs, is the essence of our active self. In this total system or pattern the area where head meets spine becomes crucial as the place where the inner selfhood of the head is turning into the outward directed selfhood of the limbs, of movement. Muscle becomes particularly important because our thinking is active in the way our muscles behave – both in conscious, voluntary movements, but also in the pattern of tone, of liveliness and sensitivity maintained subconsciously in our structure – head, neck, spine and limbs.
So we can start with the structure but the structure is nothing without the quality of life, or tone in the muscles which will give us a background sense of our integrated wholeness permeated by our life, our will, our habits of tension. It is this pattern, this form of liveliness, which we will use to make movements. This living form depends on us, our awareness, to be what it is. It can be whole and mobile; it can be restricted and rigid. It can be really ours, really us, or it can be ignored, belong to a foreign body. The relationship between head and neck and spine will be the nexus of this flow of control. Freedom of movement and clarity of co-ordination here will mean that control will become something we are, not something we do: learning to know what we are doing, as Maria Montessori realised.
I want to encourage you to be interested in your movements, not your muscles, and in the way you can act as an integrated person, not with bits of structure in isolation. So, when I focus on a particular region of the body, or a particular joint or muscle, my intention is to give you some reference points for your experience, physical details which give some body to your explorations of your behaviour. Here I want to focus on the region at the top of your spine. You could stand in front of a mirror and place your two index fingers, one each side, on the small rounded lump of bone behind each earlobe. There are called the mastoid processes. If you hold your fingers out horizontally then the line between your fingers (roughly) passes through the joint between the top of the uppermost vertebrae and the underside of your skull, the atlanto-occipital joint. This joint is probably higher than you thought it was: your neck continues up higher, almost to the level of your cheek bones.
If you look from the side at someone else indicating the level of this joint, you will notice that there is more of their head in front of this axis of rotation than there is behind. Because of this, the tendency of the head , simply thought of as a weight, will be to roll forward. The muscles at the back of the neck which support the head become of particular interest. If you run your hand round the side and back of your neck you will be feeling big, powerful muscles which run between the head and the shoulders and chest. Underneath these are deeper, shorter muscles which connect the head to the top two vertebrae of the spine. These deeper ones are strong and incredibly sensitive muscles – sensitive to stretch – and they are involved in all the precise subconscious and conscious movements of the head, coordinating with our eye movements and with what we are doing with our feet. We keep ourselves balanced and responsive thanks to the freedom of these joints and the sensitivity of these muscles. Picture the beautifully sensitive bearings in which a telescope is mounted, allowing it to be tilted in any direction and to track accurately. These deep muscles of the back, connecting the head to the top of the spine, themselves connect to the whole multilayered web of muscles and ligaments which go right down the back, along the spine, the structure which allows us to be flexibly upright. Now, I don’t think it’s possible or desirable to try to ‘feel’, in any sense, or isolate the action of these muscles at the top of the spine.
What I would suggest you do is just try very small ‘yes’ and ‘no’ gestures of the head nodding, and experiment with making the movement as free and simple and as high up as possible. You can then explore following something such as a line in a pattern on a carpet or curtain, or a bird or aeroplane high in the sky and so not moving quickly across your visual field, or a beetle on the ground. Explore the combination of freedom and precision in the movement of the head while the rest of you stays still.
In this exploration I want to bring your attention to your shoulders. I choose this part of you because it is a part of us so loaded with meaning: the shoulder is where we bear burdens, where we push to exert our strength, where we connect with others to express resistance, standing shoulder to shoulder. There is a lovely old expression, being “narrow in the shoulders”, meaning someone can’t bear ridicule. It is the place of active, usually subconscious, physical self-assurance.
I want to focus on the muscle which forms the most obvious mass of the fleshy substance of the chest, the larger of the pectoral muscles. This is a large fan-shaped muscle which is connected to the collar bone, the breast bone and the front of the upper ribs. The muscle converges to a tendon which is connected to our upper arm bone, the humerus, in a groove on the front of this bone at the top. You can feel the converging muscle heading for its insertion at the front of your armpit. The way it converges from a wide origin makes it a very powerful muscle. It is involved in various movements of the arm and shoulder, most obviously bringing your arm down and forward and across your body. An important element in the actions to which this muscle contributes is that it tends to pull the upper arm round towards the front of us, narrowing us across the front of the shoulder. Subconsciously the shoulder is being drawn more into our attention, is becoming more defined and isolated as a place we use, overuse, by this pulling of the arm round in front of us, losing the width at the top of the arms. In my part of the country we have this lovely old word for the armpit, the oxter. The Alexander Technique encourages for me an interest in the oxter – and it’s hard to be interested in something called the arm-pit! You find the pectoral muscle at the front of the oxter. At the back, as a tendon defining it, you find the equally large muscle of your back which began as a big fan converging from your spine and, lower down, from your pelvis. This muscle comes sweeping through the back of the oxter and ends up connecting with the arm bone right next to the pectoral muscle. Although this muscle draws the arm back behind you and seems to be the balance or opposite to the pectoral muscle, it too turns the arm in and round to the front.
More and more we start doing a lot in our shoulders, losing their connection to our back. These big muscles, allow all sorts of forceful, energetic actions with our arms. But they are not the whole story and to keep free and integrated we need other movements, other qualities of movement, which keep the shoulders open and allow our hands their full range of exploration. So, try not to rely on your shoulders alone; follow them into your back.
One of the guiding thoughts which we use with the Alexander Technique is that ‘the head leads’. Even in a movement such as sitting down in which the sitter’s head is taken on a journey back and downwards, the Alexander Technique asks that we see what happens if we work with the thought, as we move, that the head is leading. Leading is not the same as doing the movement. Or, again, as you raise that delicious slice of pizza towards your mouth, what difference does it make if you think and act with your head leading the rest of you towards the heavenly experience of biting into the dripping crispness, rather than the sudden lunge of your eager jaws towards the approaching pleasure. That lunge is not the head leading but the head separating. And we are not talking good manners here, but freedom and wholeness.
Let me give you an illustration from the room in which I am sitting, with my head being drawn towards the paper I am writing on in the excitement of shaping ideas. Our large ginger cat approached the door out of the room (which was almost shut) and endeavoured unsuccessfully to lever the door open with his nose and snout – the gap was not big enough and the friction too strong. For an animal on four feet, the head leads forward in an obvious way and the neck and head have an obvious role as a kind of limb, a mobile part of the body useful for moving and holding things. The four-footed creature’s head flows on from the horizontal orientation of the spine, whereas for us the direction is vertical. The “head” in “the head leads” is really our attention, the light of our attention. It is the free control of our attention which we are preserving and nurturing with the Alexander Technique, I believe, and that free control needs our integrated presence in the freely connected parts of our structure. We cultivate a knowledge of our physical structure so that we keep the interest and attention belonging to our head connected to the rest of us. The head belongs ‘up’, on top of the spine even if we are going forward or are working in the space below our head. So the head leads the rest of us; it leads but does not get disconnected. If it does, we are liable to suffer, both in the quality of our attention and in the way we look after ourselves. We will have cut our own heads off. And the head leads us out into the world, into what interests us. There are two significant features of this process. First, we move from the quiet attention concerned with something known, our structure, into something unpredictable, exciting – the world out there! Secondly, the Alexander Technique is about discipline and patience and slow change, but it depends on an energetic conviction about what we want for ourselves, how we want to be, where we want to be connected to. That’s the essence of “the head leads”. That’s what allows the leading to happen. From peaceful presence to free expression.
We human beings have, in comparison to anthropoid apes, long necks, and long necks which can appear in their full length because our shoulders are dropped. We carry this top part of the spine vertically: this means that the shoulders do not have to become more massive to carry a head which is tilted forward. All these features combine to allow the mobility of the head, and of our sight. We can turn and tilt our head, right at the top of the spine (and for greater movement also involve the spine) with unique facility among comparable mammals. We do not use the neck as a limb, which allows a creature on four feet to reach out for food on the ground or hanging from above.
Our head, poised on the top of the spine, is our awareness, our presence. We have a tendency to think of the neck as solely or principally the back of the neck. This attitude goes together with the false belief that our head connects to the spine at the back of the skull. If, in a more accurate picture of ourselves, we see the head as balanced, almost centrally, on a vertical, flexible spine, then we can start to live with the whole three-dimensional column of the neck. In the past there were such close associations, because of beasts of burden, of ‘neck’ with ‘yoke’, with carrying a burden, being weighed down – also with submission, bowing the head. In this context, stiffening the neck becomes an act of obstinacy or defiance. These are all images to do with the individual losing freedom and independence. I want to emphasise the idea of the head as our awareness, presence, and the neck as that which allows us to be free with our attention. Our head is free to move and be directed where we decide. In this picture of ourselves, we recognise the neck as needing to be both stable and mobile, but also a potential bottleneck. It’s a place of intense vulnerability because so much is passing through there and because it is the place where the head, our attention, meets all the rest of our life-and-movement-body which fulfils the plans we hatch in our heads, which expresses who we are.
So, in the practice of the Alexander Technique, whether the neck is free or stiff is a crucial indicator of what is happening throughout the whole person. From the neck we move up and out into the awareness of the person concerned and down into the instrument of the body. The freedom and ease and mobility of each are affected by the other, via this place of meeting, the neck. The neck is not solid. It includes the throat, through which we breathe and eat and drink and sing and speak. These activities allow us to keep in touch with the freedom of the neck in an intimate and human way which prevents us getting narrowly focused on the neck itself. The neck is a channel, a conduit belonging to our unique human upright presence. Keep all the different kinds of traffic flowing.
Up to now these small explorations have been an overture, working in different ways with the basic theme of the Alexander Technique of the power of saying no, choosing not to react, prevention, not-doing or doing less, stopping. It is using a ‘no’ to reveal or allow a deeper, stronger ‘yes’. In a lesson with an Alexander Technique teacher, or as a student working on yourself, by yourself, you will come back to this, ever and again, as the foundation of your Alexander Technique practice. In establishing these foundations with a student I will use firm surfaces – simple flat wooden chairs, surfaces to be on which are not so soft that you lose the experience of clear contact between you and the floor or table. Your attention is then given to the simple and almost indescribable experience of contact with the intention of turning that contact into the richer, more human, emotional experience of support. ‘Support’ is a very rich concept encompassing stopping something from falling or sinking, through the basics needed to maintain life, through all the kinds of sustenance and comfort we can give or receive which ‘back us up’, keep us going, carry us.
As you stand, or sit, if you are standing or sitting on a surface which allows you to experience the contact between you and the thing underneath you, then you can start to explore support. What is significant and interesting about this experience is that it is not static, fixed, dead. Often the first thing you will notice, or which a teacher who is working with you will help you to notice, is that you are not allowing the contact to be as supportive as it can be. You are endeavouring to support yourself by your own muscular activity, pulling yourself together. Allowing the chair to support you means you will be letting go of something, you will be releasing. You are in this scheme of using ‘no’ to reveal a ‘yes’. And the ‘yes’ is not to become just a relaxed, heavy thing sitting on a chair, or lying on the floor. Allowing contact to become support alerts us to the multiple qualities of what supports us, of how we take in and make real what is there to support us in our immediate environment or in the wider context of our lives. We let go of internalised support – muscular, emotional – and discover support that breathes between us and our world, near and far.
I can’t resist here quoting from the end of the last of the essays of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, which captures his spirit of lively trusting curiosity. So, from “On Experience”: “We seek other conditions because we don’t understand the use of our own, and go out of ourselves because we don’t know what it is like within. Yet it is no use for us to mount on stilts, for on stilts we must still walk with our own legs. And upon the loftiest throne in the world we are still sitting on our own ass”. Through discovering support we can explore the full scope of our nature – within and without, the elevated and the lowly.
In a very intimate and intense way the Alexander Technique is concerned with how we use subconscious information which comes to us through conscious experience. I find that the Alexander Technique tells me that I will never get to understand this process in the sense of fitting thoughts to facts. My understanding lives in, consists of, how I am active. All the schemes and models I use to understand how I sit down on a chair matter only to the extent they help me enliven the act with beauty and meaning – even just sitting down on a chair!
So, I don’t believe I can nail down what is happening, but I can use insights and pictures. In the Introductory Notes to his last book, F M Alexander speaks about wholeness as “an act – not a belief or a conjecture or a theory”. So far we have focused on the wholeness of the human being more as a structure in stillness or movement. Thinking of wholeness as an act leads me to try to live into the wholeness of ourselves in time, or through time: the wholeness not of mind and body, but mind and movement. Think of a time-body, experience yourself more vividly as an integrated whole through how you live with time. We often have this experience with music, with dancing and rhythm; with the Alexander Technique it usually begins with something more conscious and clear. It often begins with a moment (or longer) of clear self-awareness, of me, connecting with something sensed physically, in myself or in the immediate environment. We use this immediate sense of self awareness, of the physical, to place ourselves in a stream of time, past and future, memory and desire, meeting and mixing around our present-space self.
I think, in the Alexander Technique, we reach out into the past and the future, extending this present we inhabit, giving us the possibility to be more aware and in control of the goals and wishes drawing us into the future and the memories, in the widest sense, influencing us from the past. The present grows wider and richer and gives us the time in which we can act. This picture helps me to see that in the performance of an action, even a simple one, I can both be where I am going before I set off, and be able to give my attention to the immediate next step in fulfilling my purpose. I can feel as comfortable in time as I do in the familiar space of my own room, able to ‘move’ between now, and the imagined future, and the experienced past. Our lives are not just defined by the places and distances I move through but by the quality of the time I live in; its deadlines and rush and timetables, its rhythm and pauses. If I feel myself not at home in my experience then that will be likely to find expression in myself, in not feeling at home in my physical self. That first act of coming home to myself now is the beginning of that more subconscious sense of belonging in time. This brings a peacefulness into our purposeful motion through space.
We make our own time.
Yesterday I was pruning an old, tall hedge of sharp-spined hawthorn and prickly holly with a cordless electric hedge-trimmer, a heavy and awkward tool which I was using while up a ladder, reaching out over the wide top and twisting to trim the sides, the safety mechanism of the trimmer meaning I had to grip with both hands to maintain electric contact. A demanding job. I am the one using the tool and how I use it will affect how well the job is done and also how well the tool continues to be in good working order, without bent teeth which will no longer slide over each other, for example. My attention can so easily get caught up in the movements of the trimmer and in the progress of the job, and the wish to be finished, that I forget what I’m doing to myself, with how I am moving and using myself. This was one of F M Alexander’s fundamental discoveries: that it is worthwhile to be interested in what we are doing to and with ourselves as we go about our lives. But more than that, he discovered how our thinking and awareness work into, change, both the way we go about activity and our very structure. We are alive. I cannot think and thereby change the way the hedge trimmer works or looks but my conscious life can and does affect how I am and move. If my conscious life isn’t active in this way, then my unconscious life will take over in ways I won’t be able to influence.
A key phrase in the description of the Alexander Technique is “thinking in activity”. This is not a nod in the direction of multi-tasking, of cultivating a skill of doing lots of things, mental and physical, at the same time. It is a way of doing things which puts the emphasis, from the beginning, on how we are approaching a task. The hedge trimmer relies on its heavy battery, which will run out of charge in an hour or so. The conviction of the Alexander Technique is that where we give our attention, there too we will look for the energy and motivation to sustain the activity. Our thinking about how we do something (not about getting the job done in a quick or outwardly correct way), is how we make the deed really ours, and is the most likely way to ensure that it stays free, even carefree. Our self-consciousness will be there but if it can be directed towards simple, unaffected concern with beauty or grace or ease and comfort, it will be a help. What we do with the preparatory thinking of the Alexander Technique is, first, to think without actually moving or doing. This thinking is to do with our basic structure of head and back and limbs, but it is not static: it is thinking which uncovers or discovers movement in us, even as we stand or sit in relative stillness. We also build up thought upon thought, or thought within thought (about our structure and the movement in it) which also contributes to the sense of motion, life.
This is demanding and is enlivening and is preventing me getting lost in the job. It’s so easy not to notice the ladder digging into my thighs or the pain in my fingers, or the rainbow over the hill! The consciousness is directed to what and how you are doing something and can then flow into the action. As you become interested in how you are doing something, sometimes right down to details of arms and fingers, how they are moving and where they are going, the Alexander Technique keeps you focused in the here and now, in the thinking in activity, not going outside of yourself to instructions you are trying to follow or a goal you are desperate to score.
In the practice of the Alexander Technique we speak about, and try to use, a particular quality of thinking and awareness which is called ‘directing’. It is one of the small number of key Alexander Technique special words, or special uses of ordinary words. ‘Direct’ and ‘directing’ are simple, rich ideas: at their heart is a sense of straight, honest, plain immediacy – nothing getting in the way. It is interesting that a ‘direction’ can encompass the act of setting something (perhaps yourself) on its way, the path you are going to follow, and the place you hope to reach. It includes the whole flight of the arrow from the aim, the bend of the bow, the flight and the bull’s eye. In the spirit of the Alexander Technique we try to take all the narrow, forceful ‘demanding’ out of the activity of ‘directing’. Even as a thought, we order by guiding, we guide by pointing, we point by preparing. We are animating our body by thinking but not letting that thinking dissipate in movement. We come back to the idea of preparing.
I find it interesting that the words ‘dress’ and ‘address’ have a connection, in their origin, with ‘direct’ and ‘directing’. They are all to do with straightness, order. We ‘dress’ timber, making it straight and regular, we ‘dress’ crab to prepare it for the table, we ‘dress wounds’ to protect and heal. This is the quality we are bringing into our thinking with what we call ‘directing’ – a lively preparatory activity which brings us into our bodies, and works through the structure of the body as it allows us to move. In the performing arts the director is the one in immediate touch with and guiding the people who are on and around the stage. I know from my experience at stage directing how easily I become drawn into what everyone is doing, trying to demonstrate this gesture, and move that person over there. The director I most clearly remember working with, over thirty five years ago, was a highly regarded professional who hardly ever moved from his chair at the side of the stage. He stayed quite still, giving minimal but significant indications, controlling and guiding by quiet but total involvement. So, similarly, the guiding thinking we call ‘directing’ expresses the reliance of the Alexander Technique on avoiding unhelpful effort – not getting in the way, not rushing, not trying too hard.
So the way the thinking enters into the body is to help it not to be something which restricts, gets in the way. So the impulse is to let go of something, to open up, in our physical structure. This same quality then appears in the way the preparation flows into a movement, the movement felt as something which is allowed to happen. The whole sequence of the movement from preparation to completion is animated by the unhurried energy of the directing. Like my picture of the quiet, guiding theatre director, our directing works with the fundamentals which keep us open and ready to perform particular movements in particular situations, just as the members of the cast were helped to be responsive by the director’s wide focus. I have not gone into the content of the directing, into what these fundamentals are, which our thinking can help live in us. Think of it for now as that quality in our bodily structure which would allow an unbroken thread from preparation to destination – nothing getting in the way.