Explaining the AT 5
True Core Support
When the concept of core support was first popularized by Pilates teachers, many of us Alexander teachers (myself included) were very skeptical about it and tended to say things like: “Well, surely it’s obvious that the back supports the front rather than front musculature (in particular abdominal muscules) supporting the back. Look at four-legged animals; the front hangs from the back.” However, on both sides of the argument understanding has become more sophisticated.
If you have ever worked with anyone who has very recently had major abdominal surgery or any other type of trauma to the abdominal musculature, particularly the lower abdominal musculature, it is clear that this impairs their postural and movement coordination. So those lower abdominals, specifically the transverse abdominals, have a role to play in supporting the spine. However, on the Alexander side it is gratifying to read the important role now ascribed to the deep muscles all along the spine, particularly multifidus. Here are some brief extracts from the most recent (2010) edition of Human Movement by Everett and Kell (page 204):
“Muscles with attachments on the spine have several roles…
1. Provide dynamic stability or control of the segments of the spine.
2. Help to produce large movements of the trunk and body.
3. Help to maintain posture.
“Muscles consist of different proportions of Type I and Type II fibers. Some muscles play a predominant role in stabilizing the spine and maintaining postures, while other muscles play a predominant role in producing large movements and powerful movements. However, it is important to remember that most muscles work together in a coordinated fashion, for example, helping to maintain posture while producing movement.”
Remember in relation to the previous post about the need to stabilize the head and trunk while moving, that “to maintain posture while producing movement” is not simply some aesthetic choice to look good, but an essential aspect of efficiency in movement. Walter Carrington used to talk about the difference between being a sprung weight as opposed to being a dead weight to illustrate this point. If your torso is a dead weight being propelled around the world by your legs, you are going to find movement far more effortful than the person who is a sprung weight, with spine optimized to provide dynamic anti-gravity support as the legs perform their dual role of postural support and movement. Walter’s favorite example illustrating the difference between sprung weight and dead weight was that of carrying a baby or very young child in your arms. When the child is awake, alert and looking out at the world with interest it seems much lighter than when it starts to fall asleep in your arms.
More from Human Movement by Everett and Kell (page 204):
“Sitting still is a dynamic activity… Even when sitting the muscles provide support for the spine and are constantly adjusting. Muscles that provide stability to the spine are in the main placed close to the vertebrae, for example multifidus. Other muscles that have an effect on the stability of the spine are further away, for example transversus abdominis, but have an effect on the spine via its thoraco-lumbar fascia.”
This reference to the thoraco-lumbar fascia reminds me that Dilys Carrington used to say that by practicing monkey with hands on the back of the chair, we were spreading and toning the broad sheet of thoraco-lumbar fascia known as the thoraco-lumbar aponeurosis. Her thought was that directing the release from the lower back out through the thighs (particularly around the gluteal muscles and along the backs of the thighs) that is part of the “knees forward and away” direction, we would be exerting a pull on that fascia from its bottom end; and by directing the tops of the arms away from one another we would be exerting a similar pull on the upper part and sides of the fascia via the attachment of the latissimus muscles which then insert into the very top of the humerus, the inner aspect of the upper arm. However. It is often apparent when practicing monkey with hands on back of chair that there is also a noticeable toning in the lower abdominal area in association with the opening up of the lower back. This would fit very well with the above observations about the connection from transverse abdominal muscles to the thoraco-lumbar fascia. Since that fascia is now considered to play an important role in giving support and stability to the lumbar spine, it’s no wonder that our practice of monkey with hands on back of chair feels like it has such an enlivening effect on the back and neck, i.e. the whole spinal system. As the deep musculature is toned by the demand of FM’s antagonistic pulls, using gravity to encourage head, pelvis, and knees to be going away from each other while maintaining length on the spine, the larger, more superficial movement muscles are gently spread out through the back and front of the torso. This combination of even, elastic spread through the torso, and particularly through the back, together with firm, dynamic support along the spine, is a particular feature of the Alexander Technique. It allows us to be responsive and adaptive to the demands of movement and breathing, while optimizing the intrinsic springiness of our whole structure, especially the spine. Meanwhile the elastic spread of the larger, more superficial musculature, much of which connects the arms and legs into the back, prepares this musculature for vigorous movement whenever that is called for. I think this is probably what Patrick Macdonald was referring to when he wrote in his book The Alexander Technique: As I see It (page 82):
“With practice, directions become quite different from what the new pupil at first conceives them to be. One of the results is that the body, after it has been frequently consciously directed, takes on a particular texture or tone. This tone can be recognized by an experienced pair of hands. I call it feeling the flow of a pupil’s body, or feeling the life in a body, and it is to get our pupils to produce this actionless activity in themselves that much of our efforts, as teachers, are directed.”
Suggestions for further reading:
Human Movement: An Introductory Text, by Tony Everett and Clare Kell, Churchill Livingstone, 2010.
Therapeutic Exercise for Lumbopelvic Stabilization by Carolyn Richardson, Paul Hodges, and Julie Hides, Churchill Livingstone, 2004.