Tips4Teachers – Head Forward and Up

The relationship between the head, neck and back is, quite rightly, considered to be one of the central tenets of Alexander’s work.  Nothing else can, when working well, give such a sense of lightness, ease and integration; and nothing else is the source of so many difficulties and misunderstandings.

Why is it central?  Poor co-ordination in this area was, as we know, at the root of Alexander’s own problem with his voice.  It is reported (by Marjory Barlow I believe) that FM said in later years that he was lucky his difficulty was in that area as otherwise he would never have discovered the Primary Control.

Head Forward and Up

Alexander does not go into great detail about the meaning of “Head Forward and Up”. In Conscious Constructive Control of the Individual he writes:

This is one of the most inadequate and often confusing phrases used as a means of conveying our ideas in words, and it is a dangerous instruction to give to any pupil, unless the teacher first demonstrates his meaning by giving to the pupil, by means of manipulation, the exact experiences involved.1

So it’s clear! As teachers, we have to be exact! No pressure then…!

Some of his early followers tried to be more explicit.  Lulie Westfeldt gives a detailed description of her understanding of the processes involved.  In particular:

Alexander in using the words meant head forward in relation to the neck. It took a long time and hard work to find this out. One realized in time that his hands, which he used in demonstrating and teaching, were always tending to take the neck back and the head forward in relation to it. Once one had discovered this, one could ask him a direct question and get his confirmation that ‘head forward’ meant ‘head forward in relation to the neck’. The head’s tending to go forward in relation to the neck causes the alignment of the head and neck to improve, in that the head is balanced on top of the neck instead of being retracted back upon it. Once this retraction or locking is done away with, the head will tend to go up whether any other thought is given or not, just as the plant will come up out of the ground if it is not prevented or interfered with. If in addition the head is thought up, however, it will go up more strongly.2

Frank Pierce Jones also addresses this issue:

“Forward and up” clearly is not a single, oblique movement but two movements, the first of which facilitates the second. Depending on where the head happens to be at the start, “forward” will bring the centre of gravity up or down. In any case, the increase in this distance increases the torque exerted by the head on extensor muscles and facilitates extension of the spine. The head feels lighter because more of its weight is carried by discs and ligaments and because muscles that move it (for example, the sternomastoids and the upper trapezii) have lengthened.3

Marjorie Barlow credits Patrick MacDonald with the realisation that “head forward and up”, in physiological terms, involves a release of the atlanto-occipital joint.

We were all very confused, until Pat (Patrick Macdonald) realized that what F.M. meant (although he wasn’t saying it in a word) was that the head goes forward and up from the occipital joint, not from the “hump”. This was such an eye opener to all of us because as soon as we realized that, we could get the freedom there and the rest did itself almost. 4

In his book The Alexander Technique As I See It, Patrick MacDonald goes into some detail about the meaning of “forward” and “up”:

…the direction …..forward in Forward and Up is an unlocking device and … the direction Up should produce a tiny elongation of the spinal column….


… release the neck at the atlanto-occipital joint… bring about an expansion along the spine. 5

MacDonald credits Dr Andrew Murdoch, a pupil of FM, with making the connection between Alexander’s “Primary Control” and the sub-occipital muscles.6

The direction “head forward and up” stimulates and activates the anti-gravity muscles of the body’s support system referred to in Tips4Teachers – Keeping the Back Back.

As well as the physical aspect described above, “Head forward and up” also has a more subtle “psycho-energetic aspect” which I will discuss in another post.


1. Conscious Constructive Control of the Individual, F Matthias Alexander, Part II, Chapter IV, “Illustration”, Published by Mouritz (UK). ISBN 0954352262/978-0954352264 (back to text).

2. F. Matthias Alexander: the Man and his Work, Lulie Westfeldt, p 135. Published by Centerline Press, California. (back to text).

3. Freedom to Change, Frank Pierce Jones, p148, ISBN 978-0-9525574-7-0, publisher: Mouritz 1997, (First published 1976 as Body Awareness in Action by Schocken Books). (back to text).

4. An Examined Life, Marjory Barlow, p. 81-82, 2002), Publisher: Mornum Time Press; First American Edition edition (October 2002), ISBN-10: 0964435241, ISBN-13: 978-0964435247.  (back to text).

5. The Alexander Technique As I See It, Patrick MacDonald. Chapter 4: Teaching the Technique. Published by Rahula Books, 1989.  (back to text).

6. Ibid. p46. See also The Function of the Sub-Occipital Muscles: The Key to Posture, Use, and Functioning by A. Murdoch M.B., C.M, paper read at the Hastings Division of the British Medical Association, May 5, 1936 (excerpts from which appear in The Universal Constant in Living by F Matthias Alexander, Published by Mouritz (UK). ISBN 0952557444/978-0952557449). (back to text).

© 2013 John S Hunter

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6 responses to “Tips4Teachers – Head Forward and Up”

  1. Fran Engel says :

    I had the benefits of lessons with Patrick MacDonald, so perhaps I can offer examples to clarify?

    Let’s use simple ones. “Head forward” means the first part of the the sort of movement that happens if someone is tipping their hat, as in nodding “yes.” “Head back” is that part of the same nod that happens when someone looks up, and the back of their head tips downward. Both motions involve changing the relationship of the head to the top of the spine, which can be pointed to by putting your fingers in your ears.

    “Head forward and back in space” means changing the orientation whether the head hangs out on front of the body or moves to end up more in line with the body. Here’s an example of a dance tutorial that illustrates it:
    The first half this video shows, “head forward in space” (in this dance move, the shoulders then move to catch up with the head) and then as the dancer reverses, “head back in space.” (The last half of the video become more complex and doesn’t apply.)

    English is tricky when it comes to describing movements, isn’t it?

    • UpwardThought says :

      Hello Fran, thanks for your input.

      It can be helpful to clarify for a pupil where the top of the spine is and what movements are possible – both at the atlanto-occipital joint (nodding the head) and at the axis (turning the head left or right), and to distinguish between these very efficient “nature-compliant” movements and the (also legitimate but different) bending or twisting movements of the neck per se.

      However, learning to free the neck and direct the head forward and up is another matter, and it is important in this context to distinguish between what Mr MacDonald calls a “muscular movement” (i.e. move your hand or, to use your example, nod your head) and direction as a “flow of force to alter the condition of a part or parts”. Appropriate tone in the sub-occipital muscles cannot be brought about by simply moving the head at the atlanto-occipital joint.

      The point made in Murdoch’s paper, referred to by MacDonald, is that the large muscles of the neck – whose role is to move the head – have usurped the more subtle balancing role of the sub-occipitals. Learning to direct, rather than trying to move the head forward and up “unlocks” the head from the atlas, thereby taking pressure off the cervical spine which then begins to recover it’s natural length.

      I think it is important to make clear to pupils that head forward and up is not an ordinary muscular movement, and to early on discourage any kind of head wiggling or the all too common tucking in of the chin.

      • Fran Engel says :

        Yes – good point about there being a big difference between “ordinary muscular head wiggling” and Directing.

        Did you read about the brain fact that preparation for action happens long before the choice to act is experienced? Here’s a link describing this:
        I believe that the practice of Directing re-programs this preparation to act that is pre-choice.
        Fittingly enough, this article states that inhibition exists, and it’s the only influence available. Evidently, as F.M. Alexander observed, humans don’t have “Free Will.” Instead we have “Free Won’t.” 😉

        I’ve experimented quite a bit with “telling what to do” before putting hands-on. I’ve found that when many students look up, their head will move back in space more over their body. Then when they tip their heads forward (saying “yes,”) if they’re paying attention to the moment their balance changes from front to back, it’s possible for most of them to sense their whole body’s “listing slightly” to prepare to move forward with what they started to do with their head tipping forward without realizing they were in reality starting to move. If they can’t sense a change in balance, they will be able to feel the change if they stand with their sleeve brushing against a wall, etc. Anyway, if they use this sensing of a “slight listing” preparation to start moving, it gives them an idea of the timing and qualities of when to undo their habitual preparation to move that they can continue on their own.

        I’d be interested in more of your thoughts about both these ongoing ideas and experiments.

        • UpwardThought says :

          I’m guessing, though I haven’t tried to verify it, that the research refers to “normal” brain activity. The question then is whether or not “something” can be cultivated that makes a different response possible. I agree that directing, or being in a directed state, changes the way a stimulus is received.

          “I was very stuck by something I heard Sir George Trevelyan say some years ago. He said that he had thought for a long time that, in order to be able to direct, one had to inhibit. But that in later years he had come to think that it may be the other way round. That in order to be able to inhibit, one had to direct.”

          (see Discovering the Moment of Choice)

      • jon says :

        Hi John,

        Can you elaborate on what you mean by “nature-compliant” movement? That phrase really caught my attention as it seems to get at a distinction in the “muscular movement” realm of the AT that I’ve had trouble understanding.

        I should also say thank you for the wonderful writing posted here. It has spurred me on to do a lot of constructive thinking!

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