Core support and breathing
How we breathe plays a crucial role in all this. I recall Walter Carrington telling us we should always remember this work began with a man with a breathing problem, and although we no longer refer to our work as respiratory re-education (FM’s early term for it) Walter would say: “If in giving someone lessons you do not in the process improve their breathing, you’re not doing your job properly.” Indeed, most accounts of having lessons with FM mention his frequent instruction to “allow the ribs to move” or “allow the ribs to expand and contract.” See for example Goddard Binkley’s diary pages 43 and 53; The Philosopher’s Stone pages 37, 42, 48, 53, 55, 58, 79, 90, 97, and 107.
If the ribs have become immobilized, as is often the case when the head and trunk are being supported/stabilized by superficial muscles clamping the torso and head, then our options for more than minimal breathing are very limited: we can either heave the whole rib cage up and down; or we can inhale with an excessive downward movement of the diaphragm, which in turn pushes the abdomen out and usually down. Indeed in Part III of MSI, the section titled The Practice of Respiratory Re-Education, FM refers to the problems caused by an “unusually lowered diaphragm” associated with pulling in of the lower back and a disturbance of intra-abdominal and intra-thoracic pressure.
If our manner of breathing is one in which every inbreath pushes the lower abdomen out and down, and every outbreath collapses the head, neck, and thorax down into the abdominal region, there will not be much tone in the support musculature of the spine and no tone in the abdominal musculature (unless the tone is being artificially produced by deliberate attempts to hold there), particularly in the transverse abdominis, which, as we have seen earlier, is now considered to help support the lumbar spine by its action of helping to tone the thoraco-lumbar fascia.
In relation to use, how we breathe is an essential aspect of widening. FM’s definition of widening in the chapter called Illustration in CCCI describes it as a “re-arrangement of the bony structures of the thorax.” He adds that this will produce an increase in thorax capacity and a “striking increase in thorax mobility and flexibility.” Judging from the verbal and written reports of first generation teachers and people who took lessons with him, what FM meant by thoracic mobility and flexibility was the lateral movement of the ribs for breathing. It is interesting to note in this context, Goddard Binkley’s observation after he was invited during a lesson to feel the movement of FM’s lower ribs: “I was surprised by the amplitude of the movement, confined mostly to the back and sides.” (The Expanding Self, page 43.)
So the AT has a lot going for it in the context of these more sophisticated ideas of core support. Indeed, experienced teachers often notice that over a series of lessons it feels as if, under your hands, the student’s superficial musculature is spreading out under the skin, as if the “muscular suit” which had previously been shrunk and constricted in some places and slack in others, has been ironed out, spreading the tone more evenly throughout the suit. At the same time there is a dynamic of firm support up through the spine, stimulated from the base of support of the feet on the ground or the sit bones on a chair. For this to happen there must be an accompanying shift in breathing so that there is lateral rib movement with every breath, the body no longer heaving up to inhale and collapsing down to exhale, and consequent natural accompanying movement of the abdominal muscles with every breath.
All of this sounds very compatible with the idea that automatic postural adjustments would be best organized in such a way as to maximize the stabilizing and postural support roles of the deeper spinal musculature. Our process of conscious inhibition keeps in check the force of habit which so often results in a slow deterioration of efficient general coordination. By consciously inhibiting, we pre-empt our central set and open our body schema (the internal representation of the body in the brain) to a reality check. Is my habitual way still the best way? And by consciously directing we keep affirming that we want the organization of our automatic postural adjustments to be in harmony with our physical structure by giving us an optimum compromise between stability for anti-gravity support and openness for breathing and movement. We are asking the freedom of the neck, poise of the head, lengthening of the spine and widening of the back to be priorities in the way our nervous system organizes our automatic postural support in all our activities. The power and simplicity of Alexander’s discoveries lie in this combination of inhibition and direction and its unifying focus on head, neck, and back rather than trying to isolate and exercise specific muscles.
A final factor that plays well for us is a new understanding of the proprioceptive role of muscles. Of course all skeletal muscles include their own proprioceptive system of muscle spindles which, often in collaboration with input from Golgi tendon organs, supply the sensory information that enables our nervous system to constantly regulate muscular responses. Some muscles are much richer in spindles relative to muscle size than others, and Alexander literature has often mentioned that the small sub-occipital muscles are exceptionally richly endowed with spindles. An internet search on this will show up articles speculating that these muscles probably function more as proprioceptors than as motor units since their small size and placement doesn’t give them the strength or leverage to play much role in moving the head on top of the spine. More recently, however, it has been reported that all the short, deepest lying muscles of the spine are similarly rich in spindles. To quote again from Human Movement (page 205): “Other deep muscles close to the spine are rotators, interspinalis, and intertransversarii. These probably have a proprioceptive role as they contain a higher percentage of muscle spindles than other spinal muscles.” This does not detract from the significance of the sensory function of the sub-occipitals from an Alexander point of view, but extends that significance throughout the length of the spine.
I suspect that when we take someone’s head on the table and apply that kind of gentle lengthening pull that seems to pass along the whole spine right to the sacrum, we may be stimulating the deep spinal muscles both with an increase in tone in response to gentle stretch, and also with an enlivening of proprioceptive information as the spindles respond to gentle stretch. The whole spinal support system would thus be tuned to provide more efficient and responsive support in upright activity. We can further encourage this in chair work so that the student can learn to continue this with his/her own inhibition and direction.
Dr. Timothy Cacciatore’s research ties in well with this. His Twistor experiment described in the latest issue of STATNews (Spring 2011) suggests Alexander training enhances postural stability without creating rigidity in the process. Dr. Paul Little of Southampton University in the UK, who designed and led the large scale study on the benefits of the AT for back pain, has announced a follow up study. In this his team will be measuring the balance and functioning of the lumbar multifidus musculature in low back pain subjects before and after a series of Alexander lessons with STAT certified teachers. It will be several years before we see results from a study on this scale, but it is encouraging to see how well we fit with the current thinking in this field. As a friend with qualifications in both physical therapy and the AT said to me: “They have all these sophisticated analyses of the problem, but we have the really sophisticated solution!”
Increased dynamic regulation of postural tone through Alexander Technique training by T.W.Cacciatore, V.S. Gurfinkel, F.B. Horak, P.J. Cordo, and K.E. Ames, 2010 study published in Human Movement Science.
Spinal Stabilization: The New Science of Back Pain by Rick Jemmett, Libris Hubris 2011.
The Expanding Self by Goddard Binkley, STAT Books, 1993.
The Philosopher’s Stone edited by Jean M.O. Fischer, Mouritz 1998.
Coming up next: What is the importance of the neck and head?