Primary Control – a constant influence on our health

Most of us have an interest in looking after our health and all that contributes to good digestion, circulation, cardio-vascular functioning, breathing,…we know to eat a balanced diet, drink adequate amounts of water, get a good night’s sleep, to keep hygienically clean by showering and washing and get plenty of exercise.   However there is another part of us that is equally important if not more than some, but which we are unlikely to have come across unless we have had Alexander Technique lessons. I am referring to not one part of us such as our brain, heart or lungs, but the interrelationship of several parts, namely the head, neck and back.

The interrelationship of our head, neck and back, constituting what FM Alexander termed the ‘Primary Control’ is so very important because it has such a governing influence on our movements, poise, health and general functioning. It affects our overall co-ordination of muscles that determine how we move and support ourselves.

While relatively few people may have heard of the importance of the head, neck, back relationship with regards to our health and functioning, there is not a single person in the world who is not constantly influenced for good or bad by this relationship, every minute of the day and even during our sleep.  If the interrelationship of our head, neck and back is a poor one then the influence on our heath and well-being is detrimental and we suffer.  However if it is good, then the influence on our health and functioning is positive and we we can enhance our functioning and promote wellness.

This interrelationship of the head, neck and back is very subtle yet very profound in it’s influence on us and should not be underestimated. It deserves our respect.  There are number of different aspects that go together to constitute a good ‘head, neck, back relationship including the free balance of our skull on the top vertebrae of our spine (atlas), the relative alignment of our neck as it extends from our back, the muscle tone of the neck and back muscles to provide support for our neck and skull, and also whether we are tending to lengthen in stature or harmfully shorten.

Every healthy baby and toddler has by and large a good head, neck, back relationship, as they have not yet formed habits of movement and poise such as stooping, slouching or stiffening that upsets this delicate functioning.  At this age the maintaining of good Primary Control is automatic and subconscious.   As we get older habits become established for a variety of reasons and these habits upset our overall co-ordination and we lose our Primary Control. It’s easy to see how various life experiences such as sitting at desks the wrong height and poor postural examples given by our parents can upset and disturb the subtle co-ordination of a child. Excessive neck tension beyond the minimal level necessary will cause the head to be pulled backwards out of balance, a slouch or slump collapses the back; dropping the neck down (to view our smart phone messages) or jutting it forwards (to look at a PC screen) also upsets the balance of head and a myriad of other postural tendencies disturbs the delicate integration of our mechanisms that are so necessary for health and good functioning. These habits also affect our movements, dexterity, poise as well as our internal functioning. They undermine us as we endeavour to do well in activities, so no matter how hard we try to achieve success or refinement in our performance, a poor Primary Control will work against us.   As we age and repeat our habits on a daily and minute-by-minute basis we increase the tendencies which undermine our health and functioning further so problems become worse.

The reason why the Alexander Technique is so successful in resolving problems such as back pain is because actually addresses the root cause of the problem, namely the loss of natural co-ordination we enjoyed as young children. With Alexander Technique lessons we learn to take conscious control of our poise and co-ordination; we learn to consciously maintain good Primary Control, so our head, neck and back relationship has a positive influence on the use of ourselves, rather than undermining us. When the head, neck, back relationship is constantly maintained to a good level, then it creates the conditions necessary throughout the body for healthy functioning and healing.

Without a constantly good head, neck, back relationship or poor Primary Control as FM Alexander called it, any treatment to a specific problem area such as back pain, shoulder ache, neck tension and even sore knees or breathing problems is unlikely to be entirely successful if the underlying mal-coordination and poor Primary Control is not addressed.  If the relationship of our head, neck and back is all out of kilter, we severely undermine ourselves and any treatment is effectively ‘pushing water up a hill’.  While the symptoms may be temporarily relieved, they are likely to return in the future because the specific and localised pattern of use that is ‘causing pain’ is actually part of an overall pattern of use and the local problem area will revert back to habit unless the overall poise and use of ourselves is addressed.

In Alexander Technique lessons the hands-on guidance we receive from a qualified teacher, gives us the new and unfamiliar experience of an improved head, neck and back relationship.  At first it feels wrong as it is so different from our habitual manner of use, but gradually with repeated lessons our senses begin to relate to this new quality and it becomes established as the norm. As Prof John Dewey said, ‘Alexander Technique is thinking in action’; we move from the known (habits) to the unknown (good use free of habit). We learn to maintain good Primary Control and the improved co-ordination for ourselves by ‘inhibiting’ harmful habitual tensions and by giving ‘directions’ by thinking (not doing or pushing) that integrate our mechanisms in the manner in which they are designed (or evolved through nature).  The governing influence of an improved Primary Control means that further improvements throughout our body are greatly aided and healing is promoted rather than retarded.  If we are learning a new skill such as playing an instrument, then the ability can come surprisingly quickly as our good Primary Control promotes the most efficient use of our limbs.

If this is new to you, then take note.  It is an aspect of human functioning that had not been realised until FM Alexander discovered its existence in the late 19th century.

Maintaining healthy poise with good head, neck, back relationship is not the Alexander Technique; this delicate relationship of head/neck/back affects the life of every single person on earth,….for good or for bad.  But the Alexander Technique happens to be the only method that entirely focuses on inhibiting harmful habitual tensions while encouraging a good head, neck and back. relationship so we can make the most of ourselves and function at our best.