Let’s consider another way of describing primary control. If the problem is that of improving general coordination, i.e. the integration of postural support, movement, and breathing, then we could say that F.M. Alexander discovered that the key to this lies in the way the neck muscles are organized to support the weight of the head, and the way the back muscles are organized to support the trunk. When the head and trunk have optimum support from the neck and back muscles we have easy upright carriage, neither collapsed nor stiff, which in turn makes all movement easier as we are a sprung weight not a dead weight; and with the upright support coming through the spine the trunk musculature remains elastic enough to allow full natural mobility of diaphragm, ribs, abdominal and back musculature for breathing.
How does all this work? When I was training as an Alexander teacher in the mid-1970s, a popular idea among teachers was that since the weight of the head is not evenly balanced on top of the spine but instead had a forward bias, release of the muscles at the back of the neck would cause the head to rock forward and this in turn would stretch the neck muscles which would reflexly tone and support the weight of the head. In some way never clearly explained this was assumed to set off a chain of stretch reflexes all the way down the spine to support the trunk. These days I see a number of problems with this explanation:
1. Although we like to say to our students that there isn’t a correct head position, this explanation does seem at first glance to contradict that. (Note: we will see later a different explanation of why in some situations head angle or position makes more of a difference than in others.)
2. There are situations where releasing the neck and directing the head and back have a considerable impact on general coordination, but where gravity is not taking the head forward and thereby stretching the upper cervical muscles. Swimming front crawl, for example, where the weight of the head is supported by the water as the neck is released. Or lying on one’s side with the head on a pillow, where gravity is going to take the head into the pillow rather than forward of the spine.
3. The whole endeavor of explaining human upright posture as a series of reflexes has been largely abandoned by scientists as inadequate to explain the variability and adaptability of human postural responses. The reflex model is associated with the pioneering work of the British pioneer of neurophysiology Sir Charles Sherrington (1857-1952), a near contemporary of Alexander. Wonderful work in its time, but like all scientific work others build on it, extend it, and find flaws in it. If you simply Google “Limitations of the Sherrington reflex model of posture” you’ll find material to read on this subject. Or a good summary is a paper called Why and How are Posture and Movement Coordinated by Jean Massion et al, published in 2004.
In his final book The Universal Constant in Living (UCL) FM writes “I had found a way by which we can judge whether the influence of our manner of use is affecting our general functioning adversely or otherwise.” In line with this quote I would prefer to view the freedom and poise of the head on top of the spine as being at least as much a criterion as a cause of good use, or improved general coordination. Modern theorists and experimental scientists studying issues of posture sometimes talk about it in terms of organizing degrees of freedom. Put very simply this means that since we have many flexible joints not only in our limbs and their attachments to the trunk, but also along the axial column of the spine, maintaining upright posture requires strategies for limiting movement at these joints so that we don’t continually buckle and collapse. However we don’t want to do this in such a way that we rigidify ourselves and make movement and breathing difficult. A phrase often used by Walter Carrington in my time around him comes to mind: we need ‘elastic bracing”, but not “rigid bracing”.
How could we judge whether we, or someone else, are achieving something close to elastic bracing? Well, the criteria are obvious. If you can come easily up to your full natural height with the full natural resilience of your spine, and if you can achieve that without locking your head on the top of your spine and without restricting the movements of your diaphragm and your ribs (especially at the back) for breathing, you are well supported without compromising good movement and breathing; in fact you are demonstrating good general coordination. In this way the freedom of the neck, poise of the head, and openness of the back are both a means of working towards optimum synergy of postural support, movement and breathing, and a criterion of assessing how successful we are in that process