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
When I need to undertake a task of some sort there is an inner activity and an outer activity. The sequence, according to Alexander’s ideas, of “inner events” is something like this:
- say “no”!
- consider my options
- make a decision
- organise myself (head, neck & back etc.)
- work out my “means-whereby” (the best way to do it)
- reconsider (I can still change my decision)
- let my head go forward and up and get on with it
Is it not the case, though, that there is often an assumption that as long as my neck is free (etc.) I am “using” myself well?
Think of any task involving a number of necessary actions. For example, decorating a room: I might need to move all the furniture into the centre of the room or even out of the room all together.
Where am I going to put everything? Which items should I move first? Should I empty drawers or bookshelves before trying to move heavy furniture? Where might I store the contents ? Etc, etc……That’s before I even start preparing the surfaces to be painted.
Unless I work out my means-whereby before I start, I am likely to have to do a lot more work than necessary.
If I start moving a sideboard around with no idea where to put it because I filled the only large enough space with piles of books, BUT….. I keep a free neck – does that mean I have “good use”?
Compare this with the practical man or woman – amateur or professional decorator – who, before starting, thinks things through and works out the optimum sequence of events, BUT….. stiffens or collapses somewhat while doing the practical work.
Whose “use” is better?
Taking a moment or two to consider the means-whereby we are going to carry out an activity (the best way to do it) can bring a new dimension to our understanding of the use of the self.
© 2013 John S Hunter
According to Erika Whittaker, when one of his students or pupils would complain to FM Alexander about something or other that was going on in their lives, his response was often to say:
“But it’s you! It’s you who’s doing it.”
So Alexander’s concept of “use” was total. It is not just about what you do or don’t do; or whether you do it with a free neck. It is about who you are: not “use of the body” but “use of the self”.
© 2013 John S Hunter