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
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
“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
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
…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
There was a time when “keeping the back back ” was the sine qua non of teaching and learning the Alexander Technique. It could be said to be the physical equivalent of inhibition (but that is for another post).
There are some lovely diary entries written by Eva Webb which suggest that “keeping the back back” was quite the norm at Ashley Place. Somewhere along the line it has fallen into disuse.
In 1947 Eva had her first session with FM, then lessons with Irene Stewart, Margaret Goldie, Patrick MacDonald, Max Alexander, Dick Walker and Walter Carrington; thirty three lessons in total over a period of two months.
“They teach leaning back against their hands to prevent entirely the old lurch forwards.”
“It is still difficult to remember to lean back a little when support is given”
“For goodness’ sake remember the slight lean back.”
“Instead of coming back I was pressing back.” 1
Although Patrick MacDonald was the “first generation” teacher most often associated with the injunction to “keep the back back”, the point was made most dramatically to me by Peggy Will, who once quoted FM Alexander as saying to the students while she was on the training course:
“Never in a thousand years will you make a teacher of my technique unless you can keep your back back.” 2
Frank Pierce Jones describes this process:
“The subject, sitting in the experimental posture, is asked not to alter the balance of his head while the experimenter rests a hand lightly against his back. As the experimenter gradually increases the pressure of his hand in a horizontal direction, the subject equalizes the pressure by coming back instead of going forward as he would ordinarily do in response to such a stimulus. When the pressure reaches a certain level (varying with the distribution of tonus in the subject’s back and his ability to inhibit a change in the head-neck relation), the subject will be brought easily and smoothly to his feet.” 3
I think it is a great pity that many teachers have let this aspect of Alexander work almost be forgotten and that many were never even taught it, so in this post I would like to talk about some of the reasons why I think it is important and how I use it in teaching.
When we are upright, simply standing, clearly work is being done by our musculo-skeletal system in order to oppose the force of gravity. We recognise, instinctively one could say, that the work which is being done is of a different nature or quality to when we are doing other kinds of work with muscles – to move ourselves in space or lift objects, for example; work which is more obviously volitional.
Certainly there are postural reflexes at work, nevertheless, when standing, one could decide to “switch off” the muscles involved and thereby cause the body to drop to the floor (Delsarte referred to this intentional withdrawal of energy from muscles as “decomposition”). So there is still an element of volition involved, but again of a different nature to when I am “doing”. We experience it as a kind of “background volition”: I simply decide to be upright.
When I put my hand on a pupil’s back I allow my whole frame to expand, and the expansion along my arm is away from my back, which is staying back. Because of my training I activate this expansion in such a way that it stimulates the same expansive response in the pupil, but only if he or she opposes my hand.
There are, however, different ways of opposing me. The pupil could:
- simply lean back
- “do” something (ie.voluntary muscular work, and it doesn’t matter which muscles) in order to push against me
- stiffen to prevent movement
None of the above is what is wanted.
However, if the teacher is sufficiently integrated, free and expanding, the contact with the pupil gives a strong stimulus to the anti-gravity response of the whole musculo-skeletal frame. The teacher is then providing both an enhanced gravitational downward force whilst at the same time stimulating the appropriate upward response of the body’s support system. With a little patience, and a clear explanation of what is required from the pupil, it is rare for this not to work. A pupil in time realises that he or she can use gravity to” go up”, but they are not “doing” it. He or she can be taken into movement in the way Jones describes above.
Keeping the back back, without stiffening or pushing, is a subtle, but rewardingly effective way to activate the primary control, without too much focus on “release” as an end in itself.
From here one can explore how the support system is also activated by the correct relationship between the head, neck and spine. Also how it can be, and often is, interfered with in response to many and varied stimuli.
1. F.Matthias Alexander and The Creative Advance of the Individual, by George Bowden (ISBN: 0852430027, Publisher: L. N. Fowler & Co. Ltd) (back to text).
2. In conversation with the author (back to text).
3. Freedom to Change, by Frank Pearce Jones (Chapter on “Experimental Studies: Reflex Responses”:ISBN-10: 0952557479, ISBN-13: 978-0952557470, publisher: Mouritz 1997. First published as Body Awareness in Action. (back to text).
© 2013 John S Hunter
I am often asked why I work so much with ‘walking’ when I am teaching, and there are a number of reasons:
- human beings evolved as creatures that walk, more than as creatures that get in and out of chairs
- although many of our habits and misuses are in our support system, many are in our patterns of movement; and our primary movement is walking
- using ‘hands-on’ to direct a pupil’s head forward and up and into movement is an excellent way to demonstrate that a small change of ‘orientation” has a big impact on ‘carriage’
- the ‘angle-poise lamp’ model of the musculo-skeletal system (the antagonistic pulls of head against hips against knees) is very helpful for understanding bending movements, but for walking we need to understand kinaesthetically the natural trunk rotations involved in weight transfer; see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11240051 and
As with many habits, an injury may have set up a pattern which subsequently becomes the norm.
- I have often observed that people trying to put into practice “inhibition” and “direction” are able to find a certain ‘tone’, particularly in the back, because of the antagonistic pulls of the support system, but then inadvertently block the capacity of the pelvis and thorax to counter-rotate freely. Whilst lengthening can help to free up the counter rotations, the corollary is also true; finding freedom in the rotary movements can facilitate lengthening.
For a trained Alexander teacher it is not so difficult to adapt what you have been applying to ‘chair-work’ to ‘walking’; just use your powers of observation and your refined kinaesthesia and get your pupils walking…….
© 2013 John S Hunter