The Alexander Technique and Mindfulness with Cherry Collins
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My Alexander Journey
A Mindfulness Trail
Through The Forest
continued part 2
One of the chief symptoms I experienced was a weakness in the neck area; it was as if all the strength had gone out my neck and back. My head was so heavy. I needed chairs that included a neck rest otherwise I fatigued very easily. I would prop my head up in ways I can now see probably exacerbated the problem. It was my experience that "When there is weakness where the head and spine meet there is weakness everywhere". This directly links into the heart of what the Alexander Technique teaches.
Our bodies are inherently unstable. We spend our lives responding to gravity and that instability and flexibility are crucial to our wellbeing. The Alexander Technique teaches us to be aware of our whole body and mind and how they work together. It trains us to use thought and direction of energy to influence how we approach any and every daily task. It uses the concept of inhibition to learn how to stop interfering in the way our bodies' efficient mechanisms work. It teaches "direction" to enable us to choose positive patterns of thought so we interfere less with the smooth working of that mechanism.
I have developed a greater subtlety of flexibility through my practice of the Alexander Technique as my body‐mind system is gradually learning to work together more effectively. I am able to choose to develop more beneficial habits, literally lengthening in stature, widening in the torso and improving my breathing in the process.
The classic Alexander directions involve allowing the neck to free in order to send the head forward and up; letting the back and torso lengthen and widen, and releasing the knees forward over the toes and away from each other. If one is able to inhibit unhelpful tightening, retracting of the head and shortening in the body one then develops flexibility and freedom throughout the whole muscular‐skeletal system. We gradually come to allow ourselves to operate in dynamic instability and freedom of movement.
At the heart of this system is something which FM Alexander called "the primary control of the working of all the mechanisms of the human organism" (2) usually shortened to "primary control" in Alexander terminology. Alexander was discovering for himself in relation to his own body what eminent scientists of his day were exploring in relation to animals and the evolutionary development of humanity. Each of us can carry on that exploration in our own lives. The way that the head, neck and back work together is crucial to the functioning of the whole body system. We can observe in animals we see every day such as dogs, cats, birds, and horses that the head leads and the body follows. This applies to every animal that has a spine. We stand upright on two feet so it is easy to lose the connection ‐ but it is still there!
These days I am intrigued by the concept of primary control and use my everyday life as a laboratory in which to explore how it works, although when I first came across the technique I found the term confusing and off‐putting. Thinking it through more deeply, and gradually developing my own awareness of myself and the primary control operating within me, has led me to appreciate more fully its significance. This is especially clear when working with fellow students on the training course doing "hands‐on" work with them.
Walking the Scottish hills this summer I decided to experiment. Is the key area for the body's coordination really the neck, head, back relationship? As a Buddhist practitioner I have spent much time gradually developing an awareness of my feet. It is something we learn to do as we deepen awareness of our bodies and the space we make in the world. I have noticed with myself and looking around and observing others ‐ especially in walking meditation ‐ that awareness of the feet can sometimes lead one to draw oneself down in front, to "pull down" in Alexander terminology. An understanding of how primary control operates can greatly enhance mindfulness practice.
Walking on steep hills this summer, I noticed that my feet can lead, and they do so fine. If I forget my head, however, there is a heaviness in my step, and it's all a bit more hard work. My mind is watching, watching my feet. So I choose to 'let my feet go", moving automatically, and bring my main awareness to my neck and head, particularly where they meet at the base of the skull. Wishing for tension to undo. Allowing the anxiety of tripping on steep, rough ground to ease away. Asking ‐ sending ‐ my head up and away from that releasing neck, allowing my shoulder blades, my breastbone and collar bone to ease out as my muscles of the torso expand with the freeing breath.