(Answering a question from a teacher as to whether the “order of the order” forward and up is essential, i.e. forward before up.)
I remember Walter Carrington one day in a talk to his training course (probably in the late 1970s or early 80s) firmly asserting that the order of the “forward and up” direction to the head was essential. He emphasised that if any excessive tension in the neck muscles locking the head into the top of the spine was not released first, you could not get the natural, springy upward tendency of the spine to work. First you must release the catch on the lid of the Jack-in-the-box before Jack will spring up was an image he liked to use.
Since I was teaching every day on the Carrington’s course at that time I was able to listen to these talks every day. So I was intrigued some time later to hear him return to the subject but with a different emphasis. This time he was firmly asserting that before anything else, a clear upward direction had to be established. As he put it, gravity is always there so anything you release will drop down unless you’ve already established that your aim is to release to go up. So an overall up intention had to be established before your could release the head forward, otherwise you would simply be going forward and down.
At the time this struck me as a very good example of why Walter used to say, in answer to anyone asking if they could record his talks, “Yes of course, provided you don’t expect me to be consistent!” His response might sound like a light-hearted joke, but I think it also hinted at the understanding that all aspects of the Alexander Technique are so subtly interwoven and reciprocally connected that you can sometimes end up saying things that appear to be contradictory yet are not. After all isn’t FM quoted as saying we should give the directions “Altogether and one after the other,” or “One after the other and all at the same time”?
The same applies when considering directing oneself back and up.
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” (primarily inhibitory)the . 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 the experience of 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 restricting my breathing, 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 level headed 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 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, but 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 is 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 (MM)”, and what he calls the “Actionless Activity (AA)” of direction. And he adds: “The latter largely determines the efficiency, or otherwise, of the former.” And Marj Barstow in the US was frequently urging people to “move up”, though cautioning that it must be with ease and delicacy. See a further discussion of this in the blog post titled The intention of upward direction.