The Art of Swimming-Orientation and the Alexander Technique

The dynamic relationship between the head, neck and back plays a crucial role in the way we orient ourselves. The main element of use that determines our ease of movement is the poise of our head in relation to the rest of the body. With the head as the leading element of a forward-and-upward orientation, there is a freeing of the spinal column and a consequent lengthening and widening of the torso which facilitates good breathing and generally balanced movement. In the Alexander Technique (AT) the head-neck-back relationship is seen as the main element in good use, which is why F.M. Alexander termed it the primary control. The operation of the primary control can be clearly observed in the easy poise shown by infants.

As we grow older, the, delicate balance which characterizes the natural relationship between head, neck and back deteriorates. We acquire the habit of contracting our neck muscles as a defensive response to unpleasant stimuli. This stiffening of the neck causes the head to be forced back and down, which works against the natural extension of our spinal column. Our vertebrae become compressed like a line of railway carriages being shunted together when the brakes are applied. This is the first in a chain of reactions which combine to create tension throughout the body and interfere with our ease of movement. Ultimately the spine is connected by nerves and muscles to every part of the body. When the spine loses its upward orientation and contracts, the back loses its function as our basic support structure. This creates undue strain on other parts of the body, and we seek to compensate for it by holding ourselves up. Consequently, our whole musculoskeletal structure is affected. The ribcage becomes compressed, constricting the breathing mechanism. The shoulders are narrowed, hampering the freedom of the arms. The pelvic region is put under pressure, affecting the ability of the legs to move with ease.

The first step to reversing all these effects is to stop the unnecessary contraction of the muscles of the neck so that the head-neck-back relationship can begin to improve. By freeing up the point at which the head is connected to the rest of the body, the muscles of the torso are reorganized to interact in a more efficient and balanced manner. Tension is redistributed, reversing the contraction of the musculoskeletal system that narrows and compresses the body. Because the system of muscles and bones involved is not normally under our direct conscious control, establishing the primary control is less about doing something to change than allowing internal musculoskeletal structures to release. This is not a purely physical process: it also involves changing the way we think about ourselves. This connection is clear when we consider how emotions such as fear are regularly reflected in posture. A habitual attitude of worry or anxiety causes people to adopt a hunched, defensive stoop, while a positive, confident attitude has corresponding effects on use. We all know from experience how physical strain or discomfort affects our general outlook. Equally, emotions such as anxiety or anger produce muscular responses which increase tension throughout the body.

The AT respects the fact that mind and body form a psychophysical whole. Change in one is reflected by change in the other. True flexibility in our physical aspect helps us to be more flexible on every level. This is not to be mistaken for the limited kind of flexibility which arises from training muscles to ignore pain when the body is distorted into extreme positions, as in certain kinds of Yoga and stretch-and-tone routines. Learning to change one’s use is itself a dynamic process. It’s not merely a question of readjusting one’s posture so sis to hold oneself in a different position. The quest for a better posture can all too easily lead to increased rigidity, and the adoption of a fixed stance cannot be achieved without muscular tension. For this reason F. M. Alexander cautioned against talking about ‘posture’, and words such as ‘position’ and ‘stance’ are also generally avoided in the AT. The classic ‘upright posture’ of the regimental sergeant-major – head and shoulders back, chest out, tummy in- was justly dismissed by Alexander as ‘an abomination’. It cannot be sustained without causing lasting injury to the spine. Constantly varying demands are made on our minds and bodies by the changing environments in which we find ourselves. In this context, no fixed posture can be appropriate. What is required is an orientation that allows for a truly flexible response.

Establishing the primary control is not a one-off action. Good orientation involves a living awareness of use that is renewed from moment to moment. Unless we’re aware of our use, the inevitable tendency is to slip back into familiar patterns of thought and action. Most of us make far too much effort in our daily lives. Think of the range of our repeated daily activities: standing up and sitting down, walking, bending, dressing ourselves, brushing our teeth, lifting things up and putting them down. These actions can usually be performed with an appropriate minimum of muscular effort. But how often we find that they’re done with an unnecessary level of accompanying strain and muscular tension. In focusing on a desired result, we all too often ignore the actual process which produces what we seek to achieve. The single-minded pursuit of goals elicits in us an automatic response to overexert ourselves. We rarely stop to ask how much effort is really needed, or how it might best be directed.

Because the intermediate steps to our goal – the process of action ~ is where effort is unnecessarily expended; one way of ensuring that we save our energy and only exert ourselves appropriately is to be constantly aware of our use during the action. The only way we can do this effectively is to be aware of our use even before we act. In this way, good orientation is the essential preparation for the efficient performance of any action. The specific method proposed by the AT to help us prepare ourselves so that we avoid slipping into unhelpful habits is to address instructions to ourselves which guide us towards better use. F M. Alexander devised a series of messages or ‘orders’ to be given in a continuous sequence, both as a prelude to and in the course of performing an action. The sequence of orders runs: ‘Let the neck be free, to let the head go forward and up, to let the back lengthen and widen.’ This is not an instruction for performing a finite course of tasks, but acts as a running prompt for achieving all the elements of good orientation simultaneously. It is phrased in a way (‘let’ rather than ‘make’) which emphasizes that this is not about trying to perform specific actions. Rather, it’s a way of stimulating us to stop interfering with the processes which allow us to be free. The projection of these messages ‘one after the other and all together’ (in Alexander’s words) makes us conscious of our use, and offers us a means whereby we can direct attention to improving our orientation.

Thus ‘good orientation’ should convey the idea of a continually flexible for-ward-and-upward alignment of the head, neck and back, as a foundation for all further action. Patrick MacDonald, a graduate of Alexander’s first teacher training course, illustrated the concept of orientation with the following image: ‘Even though a piece of steel does not move in space towards the magnet, every particle of the steel will be oriented towards it. While keeping the orientation of the particles towards the magnet it is possible to move both the magnet and the steel in any direction, including the opposite direction to which the particles are orientated.’ For instance, when we squat down to pick something up from the ground, we can continue to direct our body forward and up even while bending at the hips and knees brings us nearer to the ground. Even as we descend, we continue to extend. This is how we can apply what we have previously called ‘thinking in activity.’

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