In using Alexander Technique, one core principle is considered primary. The process of coordinating the head-spine relationship is essential to all other motion. The effective use of Alexander Technique pivots around how skilfully one can engage this coordination.
The central coordination is fundamental
When FM Alexander tried to make a change to his vocal performance, he discovered a fundamental of human coordination. Other scientists have recognised the same phenomenon exists in all vertebrates. FM called it ‘Primary Control’ and it is one of the distinctive principles of Alexander Technique.
Improving the central coordination is fundamental to positive change in the peripheral coordination.
To be a little more specific, the organisation of the head and spine determines the coordination of the rest of the body.
If there is a scrunched up head-spine relationship, this limits the potential for easeful movement elsewhere. When the head-spine relationship is positively engaged, the scope for comfort and efficiency is improved.
We’ve all come to Alexander Technique with some intention to change something. Usually it is to relive pain, improve posture or heighten performance. Any time we have an interest in change, we must start with the primary.
If one attempts to change piano technique, for example, and alter wrist and arm movements, this is going to require some adjustment in the head and spine. Limb movement can only happen in relationship to the central coordination since all the support for arms and legs are in the torso. Anything that moves relative to the torso affects the spine’s alignment, and the head’s balance.
When we want to address a pain, change a technique, refine a skill or do anything with grace, we need to attend primarily to the central coordination. All the other specifies which may be considered are secondary.
Engaging the central coordination
FM Alexander wrote specific instructions for positively activating the central coordination (1). He also wrote that words themselves were too readily misunderstood (2). Alexander’s later books omitted the instructions altogether, consistent with his insistence that the most effective way to teach coordination was with a teacher’s manual guidance.
That being said, some discussion on how to practice with this principle is useful. It is intended to aid understanding of what a student may have experienced in a lesson, and provide a process which may help in developing independent practice.
Availability in the neck
Recognising the influence of head-spine relationship on the whole, essentially we begin with the neck - the interface of head and spine.
The quality of neck we are intending for is one of availability.
The word ‘release’ is commonly used, in which case, we can ask for a release in order to be available for movement, ease or whatever.
In particular, we are interested in the availably for change. This implies availability for movement in any direction, and for tone to increase or decrease according to need.
The direction to ‘relax’ is dubious as it is liable to become collapse. We only want to relax excessive tension, not all tension. There is a minimum tone requirement to sustain balance and availability for motion.
We only want an availability in the neck which gives rise to buoyancy. If the head is becoming heavy or dropping, then we don’t have the quality of availability we are asking for. If the neck is rigid or locked, and the head immobilised, this is also not the quality of availability we are asking for.
The first condition on availability in the neck is that it brings the head into buoyancy. The second is that there must also be a response through the spine.
If the spine is unable to adapt in response to the change in the neck, then again, we may not have engaged the right quality of availability. The buoyancy of the head leads the spine into expansion. When effectively engaged, the head is not a liability on the spine, but a leader of an upward orientation.
Note that we are working with qualities and relationships of parts here. These qualities may be sustained regardless of position in space. They do not require anything necessarily to move in space (e.g moving ‘up’). A movement through space however, may be the result of the process.
The whole body flows
With the engagement of the spine, we then have access to a connection with the whole body. An un-scrunching at the head and spine relationship animates the spine and the whole body becomes available for coordinated action or repose.
When the whole body flows, one part leads the next in a organised sequence of movement. It is not a rag doll kind of floppiness, or motion that looks like you are in a washing machine. It is the coordinated grace we see in celebrated dancers, martial artists, sports people and the like. Children may exhibit this beautifully in coordinated spontaneous whole body engagement in whatever their current fascination is.
When we ask for coordination, we must also know what it is we are coordinating for. Coordinating oneself in order to sit comfortably listening to a concert is going to have different characteristics to the coordination required to ski a piste.
Fortunately, we may not have to concern ourselves with the specifics of this. If one has taken care of the first steps, it may be enough to simply append your activity to the request for coordination. This gives the system the stimulus to engage the specifics required for the task at hand and spring into action.
In the case that the task requires conscious specific direction (such as the specifics of piano technique in our example), this continues secondary and concurrently to the attention to head-spine poise.
Availability in the neck,
so that the head comes into buoyancy,
so that the spine can be responsive
the whole body follows, so that I can [insert activity here]
(1) “In the way of correct direction and guidance, [the pupil] is asked to order the neck to relax, to order the head forward and up to lengthen the spine.” ( (FM Alexander, Conscious Constructive Control of the Individual, 1923 Integral Press, 1987 edition, page 111)
(2) “Head Forward and Up. 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.” (op cit, page 109)
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