This post was stimulated by questions about “the intent of directing upwards” from Cindi Kim in New York and Lira Fernández-Davila in Madrid. My thanks to both.
One relevant conversation I recall having with Walter around this kind of subject was on the question of whether the main directions are, as FM sometimes said, “primarily preventative”. Walter’s answer on that occasion was to say that there was one overall positive direction and that was the desire or intention to go up. Everything else could be seen as a series of inhibitions, the main things you would like NOT to be happening in answer to your wish to go up. I would express that as saying something like: “I’d like to respond to gravity taking my weight through to the ground by lightening up through my whole body, but with no hint of my neck shortening and gripping my head into the top of my spine, no hint of lifting the front of my chest and thereby narrowing my back, and no inappropriate bracing of my limbs.”
So whether you’re considering the forward and up of the head or the back and up of the body, it’s all a means to the overall end that we call “going up”. FM recognised that an essential aspect of bringing this about would be the orientation of the neck and head in relation to the rest of the spine, or as he put it, in relation to the back. Nearly everything we do in life involves interacting with what is in front of us, not behind us, and in so many modern life practical situations that will very often mean in front of us and below head height, below our eye line, so it becomes almost universal for the neck to drop forward from the top of the back (7th cervical/1st thoracic area) and the head to adjust correspondingly. Hence the constant need to re-adjust and consciously come up out of this forward head/neck posture, and its consequent effect on the thorax and lower body. However, at this point we come up against issues of “doing” and “non-doing” which can be a conundrum for students of the Alexander Technique.
We’re given instructions not to “do” the directions, only think them, and also told the directions are “primarily preventative” or “inhibitory”. But it often seemed to me being around the UK Alexander world of the early 1970s that there was a reluctance to acknowledge how often we find ourselves really collapsed during the course of a typical day. There was much talk of “pulling down” as the sin we frequently committed, and the active nature of pulling down lends itself easily to the belief that if I inhibit my pulling down, then natural “going up” will re-assert itself, and hence the directions would “do themselves”. But collapse is a more passive process and therefore something more active may be needed to change the situation. I think this was particularly recognised by two of the first generation of teachers: Patrick Macdonald, and especially Marj Barstow.
In the book the Alexander Technique As I See It, Patrick Macdonald makes a distinction between the necessary movement to come up from a collapsed attitude, something he calls “Muscular Movement”, and what he calls the “Actionless Activity” of direction. And he adds: “The latter largely determines the efficiency, or otherwise, of the former.” Marj Barstow did not use FM’s expression “going up” but instead use the phrase “moving up”. Both Patrick MacDonald’s muscular movement and Marj’s moving up are recognition of the fact that if you are at this moment somewhat “down” you need to release any muscular tension pulling and holding you down, but you may also need to make a movement to uncurl your spine to return to full uprightness. This movement of uncurling the spine back to its full height needs to be accompanied by a great deal of the inhibitory aspect of the directions. In other words, as you uncurl the whole spine upwards, moving the top of the spine away from the pelvic base, you make sure your muscles are not counterproductively pulling the head downwards into the top of the spine, neither the back of the head nor the front of the head, and you make sure your larger, more superficial back muscles are not gripping the back of your ribs, thereby narrowing your back and pushing your breathing into the front of your body. A teacher can aid you with this by putting their hands at the base of your occiput and under your chin to monitor that your head is being allowed to ride lightly upwards on the elevator of your spine, so there’s no downward pull on the head in the attempt to lift the spine up. In a group class an extra helper can also keep a hand on your back as a reminder not to grip the back of the ribs in that process of moving the spine (and therefore the head) upwards.
The non-doing aspect of directions, beyond the inhibitory element, includes an overall wish, aim, aspiration or intention that from a neurophysiological point of view probably influences the distribution of muscle tone throughout the muscular system* to help us support ourselves and move in a way that encourages more openness throughout the skeletal structure, which in turn allows greater freedom of breathing as well as movement. As Patrick Macdonald says in the above quote non-doing direction will determine the efficiency of the muscular movements. He also wrote in the same book that a body “after it has been frequently consciously directed takes on a particular texture or tone. This tone can be recognised by an experienced pair of hands. I call it feeling the flow of a pupil’s body, or feeling the life in a body.” I find myself exclaiming sometimes when helping another teacher put hands on a student “There, now you can feel her back coming alive” or similar phrases.
So during a typical day you will have moments when you realise you’ve collapsed very “forward and down” and need to “move up (and back); you will also have moments when you realise you’re more actively pulling yourself down with excessive muscular gripping, probably through stress, even if the stress is internal – stimulated by your own inner world of thoughts and feelings; you’ll have periods when when you notice these things and can change them using the tools of the Alexander Technique and cruise along for a while consciously refreshing FM’s “going up”; and periods when you seem to lack the energy to change the situation. All this is normal: life is always in flux and you’ll never achieve some unchanging state of perfect use. A lesson with a good teacher tunes you up to the maximum to show your nervous system what is possible and make the pathways to that more consciously accessible, but as in most things in life a skilled helper can enable more than you can attain by yourself, and that should not be a cause for pessimism and in no way devalues your own work. Similarly, certain Alexander practices such as monkey, semi supine etc., tune you up and are very helpful but you’re not going to be like that all the time. They refresh and re-energise your system and are the next best thing to a good teacher’s help: semi supine enables release of any accumulated tension, particularly through the neck, back, and ribs, that has become too much for in the moment inhibition and direction to fully release. Monkey can have a very toning effect on the body’s support musculature, especially along the spine, and can also therefore allow the ribs to move more freely as good spinal support means rib muscles don’t have to be recruited to help support the torso.
Underlying all these ups and downs of daily life is the bringing into consciousness as often as you can the overall aims of direction and inhibition, positive and negative sides of the same process: an overall wish to have an upward and outward tendency through the whole body, supported from the ground through the legs and back and neck so the head can ride lightly at the top and the ribs move freely to breathe; and a consequent attention to avoiding the contractions through the body which would take you the other way. Holding that in mind as an aspiration, as a background to other thoughts, feelings, and actions, even in those difficult times when you feel you barely have the energy to come out of collapse or compression, can slowly change the way your muscles respond, slowly changing your attitudes and your consciousness from the burden of inward self-conflict, expressed in the muscular patterns, to more transparency to the world. That is the ongoing practice.
*See Dr. Timothy Cacciatore’s papers and seminars.