When we have lessons in the Alexander Technique we learn about FM Alexander’s unique method of eliminating harmful postural habits and how to revive the natural poise we enjoyed as young children. We discover it is a method of thinking, not doing to change our muscular co-ordination, the foundation of all our movements. We learn to ‘inhibit’ our habitual reactions and impulsive actions by ‘stopping’ and saying “No”, so we have the time and opportunity to choose whether to proceed with the movement or not, and if so to choose how we proceed. We effectively change our muscular co-ordination by conscious control. We learn the step-by-step thinking process that taps into our innate instinct for healthy poise and co-ordination that we have from birth. As FM Alexander said, “The right thing does itself”.
We learn to give Alexander Directions (thoughts) in order to send electrical impulses through our nervous system to bring about a new muscular co-ordination. These directions are “Neck to be free, head to go forward and up, back to lengthen, back to widen and knees forward and away.” These directions are thought (not done as a physical adjustment) and are given with a clear intent and meaning. They are given one after the other and they combine together to bring about an overall quality of freedom and expansion, so enabling the body to function according to it’s design…or how we’ve evolved over millions of years.
If there is one part of the sequence of Directions that causes misunderstanding and uncertainty it is the phrase “head to go forward and up”. I want to look at this in a little more detail.
When illustrated, the direction “Head to go forward and up” is often indicated by a diagonal arrow pointing a few degrees forward of the vertical, almost in line with the slightly sloping nape of the neck. But this is actually a shorthand for a sequence of smaller, combined thoughts or directions. There are great benefits in thinking this through in more detail.
Firstly we wish the “Neck to be free”. Neck tension is mostly in the large muscles behind the skull which pull the head backwards and downwards. These unwanted tensions pull the head off balance, compress the spine and upset our whole co-ordination. We function at our best when we are lengthening in stature, not shortening. These tensions upset what Alexander called the Primary Control. Freeing the neck involves thinking it free, not doing something. However it can be helped by allowing the head to naturally pivot forwards on the top vertebrae of our spine (the Atlas) which is located roughly between our ears. It is important to remember that the neck is a continuation of our back and we should not drop the neck downwards from the 7th vertebrae (widow’s hump) but think of the spine being roughly vertical in overall alignment (allowing for natural gentle curves). By ‘dropping our nose’ we allow the head to pivot on the Atlas at the top by telling the big muscles to release at the back of the skull. This takes some of the head weight off the spine so it can lengthen.
Now to the main point….
“Head to go forward and up”, means that the skull should be instructed (by thought) to go forward from the top of the skull then upwards. So if we consider the earlier instruction that is similar to an arrow going diagonally upward at an angle, think of that as the hypotenuse of a right-angle triangle and this fuller two-part instruction being the horizontal side followed by the vertical side of the triangle.
Incidentally the jaw should be allowed to hang freely from the TMJ with the mouth closed and the tongue should be relaxed at the floor of the mouth. Think of the jaw to go forwards within the face to release it further.
Directing your head forward needs more explanation. After the pivot forward on the Atlas to release the neck a little, intend by your thoughts for your head to travel horizontally across the Atlas vertebrae. Anatomists may say this is not possible, but remember we are dealing with thoughtful directions, not physical adjustments.
The head should be ‘sent’ forward across tipping point of the top of the spine (ensuring that we do not jut our neck forward in the process). Think the head to shift forward across its balancing point on the Atlas so more of its weight is in front of the balancing point. If allowed the head’s own weight will bring about this shift as it is not centrally balanced anyway, 60% in front and 40% behind. It is worth giving considerable time to this part of the directions…. more than a few seconds or several minutes. But we must be careful not to ‘come down’ in front and lose stature, so we must now add the second phase of this direction “upwards” completing the combined sequence of ‘Forward and Up’. The skilled hands of a qualified Alexander Technique teacher will be able to bring about this change in a pupil to give them the experience.
By separating the direction “head to go forward and up” into two phases, we can gain far greater enhancement to our Primary Control, bringing about better overall co-ordination, release of lower back tension, changes in walking and making us more dynamic and agile. We complete the series of directions in sequence, including “Back to lengthen, back to widen, knees forward and away’.
There are wonderful benefits in giving this a great, great deal of thought…..