Equilibrium: Freedom and Limitation

One hears a great deal of talk about ‘freedom’, but it should be remembered that in all spheres of life – and that includes Alexander Technique, personal development, spiritual growth and education – limitation, or boundaries, are just as important.

The balance, or lack of it, between freedom and limitation manifests itself in many ways in a human being, some of which I will try and address in separate posts.

In, for example, improvised music the satisfaction comes from finding freedom of expression within a given scale. Although this may be modulated, it is nevertheless the relationship with that scale which gives form, and creates the satisfaction of tension and resolution.

In dance (for example Argentinian Tango), in order to experience the wonderful freedom of moving with another – sometimes in dynamic opposition, sometimes ‘as one’ –  both partners must first accept the limitations of the dance form.

We tend, in contemporary times, to demand a great deal of ‘freedom’ in how we behave. However, it is not only for the sake of the ‘social contract’ that boundaries need to be both understood and respected, but also for the development of certain – what could be termed – ‘inner qualities’.

Limitation must not go too far. As the I Ching states:

“… in limitation we must observe due measure. If a man should seek to impose galling limitations upon his nature, it would be injurious.” 1

The Book of Changes also warns, however, that without appropriate boundaries development cannot progress:

“Unlimited possibilities are not suited to man; if they existed, his life would only dissolve in the boundless. To become strong, a man’s life needs the limitations ordained by duty and voluntarily accepted. The individual attains significance as a free spirit only by surrounding himself with these limitations and by determining for himself what his duty is.” 1

What, for me, are the unnecessary ‘boundaries’ that restrict me, and what are the ‘limitless possibilities’ which lead to dissolution? In my own ‘use’ the challenge is to find a dynamic balance between freedom and limitation, and to be perceptive enough to recognise both.

 1. I Ching, The Richard Wilhelm translation, rendered into English by Cary F Baynes, Hexagram 60. Chieh / Limitation, published by Penguin Arkana, London 1989.

© 2013 John S Hunter

Tips4Teachers – Lying-down Work, #2 – Connecting the Legs and Back

Related to using lying-down work as a ‘horizontal monkey position‘, there is a simple procedure  through which the pupil can be taught to connect the action of the legs with the powerful anti-gravity muscles of the back.

The pupil being in semi-supine, the teacher takes one of his or her legs and firstly ensures that the hip and knee joints are free. Keeping the pupil’s leg bent at the hip and knee, the teacher then applies a gentle pressure to the pupil’s heel whilst the teacher stays ‘back and up’ in opposition to the applied force. In this way one can elicit a reflex response which will cause the pupil’s leg to straighten.

This response, however, is often overlaid with patterns of learnt movement and persistent, unnecessary tensions. Consequently it is necessary to patiently ‘look for’ and ‘cultivate’ this response. It is interesting to note that the overuse of certain muscles and some uncoordinated movement patterns are usually related to the inadequate use of the postural muscles.

In order to ‘wake up’ the reflex response, the pupil may be asked to push against the teacher’s hand in the direction which could be described as the ‘virtual continuation of the lower leg’, and ‘through the heel’.

Usually repeating this a few times is sufficient to be then able to elicit the reflex response to a rightly applied (i.e. applied as a consequence of the teacher him or herself ‘going up’) pressure against the heel. It should at this point be explained to the pupil that he or she is to try to catch the moment at which the leg seems to want to straighten of its own accord, and that he or she should not attempt to inhibit this activity in the leg. Indeed at the beginning he or she should be encouraged to ‘go with’ the leg movement even if they are not sure whether or not it is a reflex response or something they are doing. Once the response begins to be more active, it is practically invariably very easy for the pupil to recognise the difference between the two.

Needless to say, reminders should be given frequently, with words and hands, to the pupil’s head and neck.

The benefits of this procedure are:

  • It engages the right muscles in an effortless leg-straightening movement.
  • It connects this movement with a simultaneous, coordinated ‘spreading out’ (lengthening and widening) of the back muscles against the surface of the table.
  • The engagement of the postural muscles of the back and legs allows for a freedom in the hips and lower back which is otherwise difficult to bring about.
  • The postural muscles having been activated in this coordinated way makes them more ‘vital’ even at rest. Energy begins to flow.
  • It introduces to the pupil the action of the anti-gravity muscles in a secure position (i.e. lying down), thereby helping him or her to be able at an appropriate time to keep the back back in chair-work, walking etc. and – most importantly – to understand the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of it.

© 2013 John S Hunter

Tips4Teachers – ‘Monkey’

The primary purpose of ‘monkey’ is to teach a pupil about the postural pulls which provide support for the body: head against hips against knees (‘against’ in the sense of ‘away from’ or ‘in opposition to’).

As many pupils will have various mis-uses which are interfering with these antagonistic pulls, it is advisable to take time to establish as far as possible each stage of the procedure.

Firstly, while indicating a ‘forward and up’ direction to the head, ensure that the pupil sends the knees ‘forward and away’. At this stage the torso is still vertical. If necessary, use a wall to help the pupil maintain an upright posture.

The second stage is to come forward from the hips without either the head pulling back or the knees pulling in. A helpful ‘trick’ is to ask the pupil to bend the knees ‘just another inch’ and as soon as he or she begins to do so, bring about a hinging at the hips with one hand on the head and one below the hip bone at the ‘crease’ between the pelvis and the thigh.

It is very advantageous to then reinforce the kinaesthetic experience of being in ‘monkey position’ by again having one hand just under the back of the skull and one at the hip whilst, being oneself in monkey, imparting a two-way (antagonistic) direction through one’s own expansive tendency. This should then be modified with one hand either behind the knee or just below the knee cap and one at the hip to indicate the opposition between hip and knee.

As the directions are imparted, the ‘orders’ or ‘directions’ should be clearly stated: head against hips, knees against hips.

© 2013 John S Hunter

Tips4Teachers – Lying-down Work, #1 – Horizontal ‘Monkey’

Lying-down work, or ‘semi-supine’ has, of course, many aspects. What I want to address in this post is one of the physical aspects, namely its usefulness in helping the pupil to understand kinaesthetically the body’s primary antagonistic or postural ‘pulls’.

WIth the head supported and the knees bent, pressure is taken off both ends of the spine – allowing for a natural lengthening to take place as tensions release; it is also thought that intervertebral discs can reabsorb fluid during such a period of rest.

These are what might be termed ‘mechanical therapeutic effects’ which come about largely just by lying in this position.

From the perspective of ‘education’, it can be helpful to think of lying-down work as a ‘horizontal monkey position’.

Using touch to sequentially inform the pupil of the antagonistic pulls between head and hips, and hips and knees, the teacher can demonstrate how and where these ‘pulls’ function; pulls which, it should be noted, ‘do themselves’.

To the extent that the pupil is able to respond – which requires an expanding attention – a general expansion of the musculo-skeletal frame ensues.

When giving ‘lying-down turns’, it is advisable to include this aspect, as it makes the whole procedure more than a (nevertheless valuable) therapeutic experience of ‘letting go’.

Lying-down work becomes a powerful tool for developing kinaesthetic information about the antagonistic pulls of the Primary Control.

It also prepares the ground for a more subtle work with energy which may follow in due course.

© 2013 John S Hunter

Tips4Pupils – Spontaneity

…the thing we are trying to kill in you is what you think is your ‘individuality’ 1

FM Alexander

Whilst visiting a training course some years ago I was asked a question by one of the students. She said that she was walking home through a park, feeling lively and energised after a morning in class,  and saw a group of children playing with a ball. She felt a strong impulse to go and join them and just throw a ball around for a few minutes with some of the neighbourhood kids. But then – remembering that she was training to be an Alexander teacher – she decided that she really ought to inhibit this “inappropriate response” and, instead, attend to her Primary Control. What, she asked me, is the relationship between inhibition and spontaneity? 2 Does the former necessarily block the latter?

I found this question, and the example she gave, intensely interesting.

The way I see it is like this.

We need to differentiate between what might be termed “real spontaneity” and what is actually nothing more than self-indulgence in certain superficial and not always wholesome personality traits. The latter are habits, just as much as pulling the head back while sitting down. They are what Alexander was referring to in the above quote.

Real spontaneity comes from a deeper, more real impulse – which it would be unhelpful and unhealthy to suppress. There is a danger that this suppression can masquerade as inhibition.

However, there is a way in which inhibition and spontaneity can connect.  When an impulse to act is felt, then there can – in some people – be a tendency to block it which is habitual. It is not the impulse which should be inhibited, but the thing that blocks both it and the flow of energy which becomes available to carry it out.

If we try to notice where our impulses come from, we can distinguish between what is reactive “old stuff” endlessly repeating, and what is a fresh, appropriate and “spontaneous” response to a situation.

And sometimes we will be surprised at what we find!

1. Teaching Aphorisms: The Alexander Journal No 7, 1972, published by the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique. Also published in Articles and Lectures by Mouritz (1995).
2. From Late Latin spontaneus “willing, of one’s free will,” from Latin (sua) sponte “of one’s own accord, willingly;” (see Online Etymology Dictionary).

© 2013 John S Hunter