What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say. – Ralph Waldo Emerson, American essayist and poet
We humans do a lot of things while upright. This video provides a unique and clear view of a a number of people walking and then a larger group simultaneously standing for for several minutes. It’s not often that we have that kind of opportunity, especially the standing part.
I’ve found it compelling viewing from an Alexander Technique point of view. The Technique is all about learning how we manage ourselves as we move, sit or stand, and how we can bring greater ease into our life.
I’ve been watching the video with the sound muted so I could better focus on the visual. If I see something that looks interesting, I watch that part at one quarter speed so I can catch every detail.
Many viewers have commented on Trump’s movements in this video as he attempts to stabilize himself in an upright position with nothing to hold on to. That’s certainly interesting, but for me it’s equally fascinating to watch the very different strategies used by the other participants to stand as still as possible. You can see multiple military and civilian stances, and when watching in slow motion, you can see just how much, or how little, each participant sways back and forth.
A lot of people have used this and other videos of Trump to express their opinions about the man and his policies. And those opinions may well be valid. But for me the fascination lies in seeing the variety of ways we humans move and stand – how, in other words, we function when we’re on our feet, given the external forces like gravity and support that are always operating on us.
And then there are the fascinating, and telling, little moments of adjusting and re-adjusting as when, at about 4:00, Trump places his hands in front, removes them in an odd way, and then places them back in front.
But everybody – in this video and in ordinary life – has posture and movement patterns that speak loudly about themselves. If we fail to notice those patterns in ourselves, we run the risk of “speaking” in a way that impedes our progress through life.
We also run the risk of of creating dis-functional tension patterns that can cause movement limitations and pain. Learning how to really see what others do can be a useful first step in identifying our own habits.
And that, in turn, can encourage us to learn how to stop doing the habits that are harmful, so that what we “say” to others, and what do to ourselves, makes our lives easier.
The surgery – a laminectomy and spinal fusion – was necessitated by exteme, partially congenital, stenosis in my upper neck that was severely constricting my spinal cord. As I wrote in the earlier post:
“I knew from talking with another teacher who had a similar operation years ago that there might be some negative judgement from other teachers, and perhaps even from my students. What good is the Technique – or me! – if this can happen to someone who has been teaching for almost 40 years?”
As it turned out, I need not have worried about my teaching ability, or negative judgements.
Because of the Covid19 pandemic, in person teaching was no longer possible and, like many other teachers now, my students are all on Zoom. I was fortunate in that I’ve been using Zoom (and before that Skype) for a decade or so and was very comfortable working in that environment.
Indeed, I was teaching most of my students online even before my operation. They all know I’d had the surgery because I’d had to cancel their early March appointments. But I was worried about how new students would react to my brace, which as you can see in the photo below, was hard to miss!
My strategy was to warn them ahead of time. To my amazement, not one asked about it. And when, a few weeks ago, I stopped wearing it while teaching, not one commented on it’s absence!
The only teaching problem I had when I initially returned to teaching, was that my overall energy level was still low and I needed to be careful not to schedule too many lessens a day. At the same time, demand for distance lessons increased dramatically and so I had to create a waiting list.
As I write this in early June, I no longer need to use a neck brace at all, and my left arm has regained much of it’s previous range of movement, although it is still weaker than my right arm. My most pressing concern at this point is: “When will I be able to get a haircut?” We’re still in lock down mode and so my appearance is taking a backseat to my safety.
And as for possible negative judgements from others, the response to my first blog was overwhelmingly positive and supportive.
I am, of course, still adjusting to the new reality that my vertebrae from C3 to T2 are fused and that does limit head movement, particularly sideways rotation. So I’m working on strategies to include my whole torso when appropriate.
I’ve been using my Alexander Technique knowledge from the start. And now that the brace is gone, I feel the usefulness of the Technique will become even more important. I plan to write a follow up blog describing that process.
In the meantime, I’m grateful the operation was a success, and that a major part of my recovery is over.
You may remember The King’s Speech, a 2010 movie about King George VI who, after his brother abdicated the throne in 1936, needed to be able to speak effectively in public despite the stammer he had since childhood. He enlisted the help of Lionel Logue, an Australian speech and language therapist who was a great help to the King. The two men became friends and later, when Britain declared War on Germany in 1939, he relied on Logue to help him make his first wartime radio broadcast.
Vice President Joe Biden, the presumed Democratic nominee for President, also overcame stuttering to a large extent, in his case by working on his own. In 2020 he talked about King George’s experiences, and his own, at a town hall event during the New Hampshire primary, which you can see in the clip above.
When I saw the movie it occurred to me that when the King reached out for help, a different advisor with different contacts might well have suggested F. Matthias Alexander. Alexander, who was also from Australia, was living and teaching in London and was known for helping people with breathing and speaking issues, and had quite a few clients among the “right people”.
Like a lot of people, I didn’t know that Biden had a stuttering issue and I owe it to Monika Gross, an Alexander Technique teacher in North Carolina, for bringing it to my attention with her posts on the Alexander Technique Forum.
Here’s a little about what she said:
Interesting – and extremely moving – testimonial by VP Joe Biden about his personal experience as a stutterer, at a February 2020 New Hampshire Democratic Primary Town Hall. FM had a whole chapter in The Use of the Self about a case study of a client who was a stutterer. Wonderful to think that around 1955, at the same time FM was at the end of his life in London, in Wilmington, Delaware, young Joey Biden was using a mirror and self-observation to develop constructive conscious control of his manner of use.
The chapter is titled “The Stutterer” and while it contains some valuable insights,** I’m not sure I’d give it to someone not already a bit familiar with the Alexander Technique. For me, Alexander comes across as being the expert that the reader (presumably someone who stutters) should submit him or herself to.
On the other hand, I’m pretty sure Biden could get some very useful help from an Alexander teacher – who I think could make his “anti-stuttering” strategies more fluid, and less likely to seem like cognitive issues.
**For example that stuttering involves “many other parts of (the) body besides…tongue and lips” and that the most effective process of stopping it requires making changes in how the whole body functions.
It was a Monday evening in mid-February of 2020. Our four year old grandson had just spent a couple of days with us, and my wife Anne was relaxing after the excitement and extra activity.
A couple of days earlier, I had noticed some unusual neck pain and a bit of weakness in my left arm, but I didn’t pay a lot of attention to it. That evening, the weakness had become more pronounced to the point where I could barely lift it. I did a little research online and soon realized this could be serious. I told Anne we needed to go to the Emergency Room.
The ER doctor quickly determined that there were two quite different probable causes – a stroke or a pinched nerve. He had ruled out a heart attack with an EKG, and a major stroke with a CT scan, but I would need several MRIs to determine if there had been a minor stoke and to see what was going on in my neck and rotator cuff. I also needed an ultrasound to make sure it wasn’t a less likely heart condition. He scheduled these for the next morning and I was admitted to the hospital late that night.
Things moved quickly on Tuesday. I had the tests and that afternoon met with a neurosurgeon who strongly recommended laminectomy and spinal fusion. There was severe, partially congenital, stenosis in my upper neck that was severely constricting my spinal cord. It already presented a serious risk and would almost certainly get worse over time. He didn’t sugar coat the situation, saying it was major surgery, would last about 3 hours, and that I should expect a good deal of pain and discomfort for some time. Full recovery would take a year and I’d need to use a neck brace for a couple of months.
Ms Maisie and me, wearing our collars
I was resistant at first, but Anne and I did some research and soon realized he was absolutely correct in his assessment, given the extreme degree of spinal cord restriction. Two weeks later I had the operation, followed by three days recovery in the hospital. As I write this it has been 6 weeks since the surgery.
On the plus side, my recovery has gone very smoothly and I’m now quite active, taking 3 or 4 long walks each day and doing a great many activities around the house. My left arm seems to be slowing returning to normal. The pain turned out to be far less than I expected, and after a week or so at home I no longer needed any medications. I did use ice packs a lot for a couple of weeks, but that, too, has become unnecessary.
Not surprisingly, there is some reduction in my ability to move my head in relation to my torso. Because I’m still wearing a neck brace, it’s too early for me to fully assess just how much that reduction is. But already I am pleasantly surprised at how little my overall functioning seems to have changed.
I attribute a lot of the speedy and easy recovery to the skill of my surgeon, Dr Andrew Livingston, who is generally regarded as one of the best in the area, as well as his team, and my friend and neighbor, Dr. Ken Gross, an excellent anesthesiologist who volunteered to assist in the operation.
And that takes me to the downside of the experience. The neck, and how it is managed, holds a very special place in Alexander Technique thinking. For structural reasons, the fusion needed to encompass C3 to T2 which meant that 5 of the 7 vertebrae in my neck are no longer mobile.
Having a “free neck” means something quite different from what it did before! I even wondered for a while if I could still be an effective Alexander teacher.
I knew from talking with another teacher who had a similar operation years ago that there might be some negative judgement from other teachers, and perhaps even from my students. What good is the Technique – or me! – if this can happen to someone who has been teaching for almost 40 years?
These are the sorts of questions I’ll be writing about in future blogs, along with my ongoing recovery and teaching experiences. I’m doing this partly for my own benefit, but also in the hope that my story may be helpful to other Alexander Technique teachers and to AT students.
In the meantime, your comments, suggestions and questions are most welcome. Please post them below and/or on Facebook.
Eight years ago I managed to arrange an interview with Gravity, Gravity’s Sad Story, during which he expressed a great deal of unhappiness about his negative image in the popular imagination, and the blame he so unfairly receives.
But two sentences in the blog jumped out at me: “When I’m just thinking about standing, it is a source of pride. We are able to resist the force of gravity, we can overcome space, it is our strength.”
I just knew I needed to share that with Gravity.
He agreed to another short interview, again using an avitar to convey his words, and here’s a portion of our talk:
Me: Gravity is good to talk to you again after all these years. Before we talk about the quote, I wonder how you felt about the attention you got when the movie Gravity came out, not long after we spoke before?
Gravity: Yes I enjoyed that movie a lot! It got a lot of things right and for that I was gratified.
Me: So… Gravity, what do you think of the quote?
Gravity: (Audible sigh) Well it illustrates what I been complaining about – the idea that humans think they need to resist my force, not cooperate with it. That it’s a question of strength, not intelligence.
This is a little harsh and overstated – and I’m saying it to make a point: If just being upright for extended periods was something to be proud of, than a garden gnome would get first prize!
Me: But Gravity, we are living, dynamic creatures so surely the comparison is not fair.
Gravity: Of course, of course. My point is that objects don’t resist me and they do just fine. And humans can do just fine too if they let go of any idea of overcoming me. It’s my job to be helpful, not a challenge.
Me: I assume you’re referring to your gentle downward pull on our heads’ center of gravity – the “forward” of “forward and up” so to speak?
Gravity: Yes that certainly. But more generally that there is any reason at all to resist, or counter, my force. My job is provide a constant pull down towards the center of the earth. My friend the “strong force” has the job of keeping you on the earth’s surface. It provides an upward force (by the way, the “up” of “forward and up” in your Alexander Technique jargon) thus making it totally unnecessary for you to do any resisting in order to get my beneficial effects.
Like the other primary and secondary forces, I’m here to help, not hinder. My job is to keep you tethered to your earth, and I act on your structure in a way that allows you to be easily upright and balanced. Not to mention keeping your atmosphere from floating away and lots, lots more.
Me: So really then you just wish we had a little more respect? And understanding?
Gravity: Yes, exactly.
Me: Well you’ve certainly my respect. Thank you for taking this time to chat.
I’m thinking about how, sometimes, when we look at our history, we have a visceral response of shame. It’s no wonder we don’t want to look at it. Shame begins in the body. Shame’s first language is the body, and then we put language around it. And then we put protections around it, and then curricula and policy and elections around shame. But it begins in the individual language of the body. And it’s understandable that it is so seizing of us. It is like being arrested by something — it does stop you. – Pádraig Ó Tuama, poet, theologian, and conflict mediator.
As a teacher of the Alexander Technique, my ears always perk up whenever I hear an interesting reference to the human body.
But this particular quote bounced around in my mind for quite a awhile before I realized that it helped explain a paradox we Alexander teachers encounter from time to time: A student comes for a lesson or two, and experiences a significant change for the better in his or her physical functioning. Friends and family members also notice the changes.
In that interview I did mention situations where the changes brought about by Alexander Technique lessons might be difficult to integrate into a student’s life and circumstances.
But this quote from Pádraig Ó Tuama made me realize in a far more profound way just how difficult that integration could be, particularly in the face of deep rooted shame, or any other kind of trauma. Shame can cause a pulling in on one’s self, creating a protective shell that allows one to take up as little space and attention as possible. I believe this is especially true when the shame originates in early childhood.
This physical tension will certainly have adverse effects on the ways they sit, stand and go through life.
We Alexander Technique teachers are skilled in helping people release harmful tension. We a long history of helping our students alleviate physical ailments such as back and neck pain. We have helped performers of all sorts practice their craft more effectively, with less strain and less likelihood of injury.
And so we may well be able to give a student who suffers from shame an experience of greater ease fairly quickly. And we may even be able to show them the beginnings of how they can achieve that for themselves.
But those changes may turn out to be incompatible with their “shame shell.” And faced with a choice between greater ease and protecting that shell, the shell might win.
This is the point in an Alexander Technique blog where some sort of tying together, or even a solution, is offered.
But other than recognizing the problem, and our own limitations – we are, after all, teachers, not therapists – I have no idea how to provide that.
I would be grateful for any constructive suggestions from Alexander Technique teachers and students whose experience might shed some more light on this issue, and have any helpful thoughts to share based on their own experiences.
Please post your comments below and/or on Facebook.
*Pádraig Ó Tuama has a lot more to say about physicality, vulnerability and prayer later in the podcast – it’s well worth listing to in it’s entirety. Here’s a little of what he said:
I have a T-shirt that says “Whiskey and yoga” on it. I’m very faithful with one of those.
I did gymnastics ever since I was a child. I have a very flexible back. And when I do go to yoga, which isn’t often enough, despite the fact that I can do a backbend really easily, I have to take a breath before I do some of these postures, because I know that I might just start to cry. When you open up the body, open up the heart, some of those heart-opening poses, they are vulnerable. And it’s not because of an incapacity for the physical body to do that. It’s because the body goes deeper into its own knowing. I think, yoga or any (other) embodiments… cause us to pay attention to the way in which there’s something deeper than the narration that we’re giving to what’s going on. There’s a deeper literature of the body that is telling us back to ourselves, if we’ll listen. And it’s painful to do so, sometimes, and I think that is a really wise thing to do.
Those two projects, not necessarily in that order, could provide a 5 second description of what a student of the Alexander Technique learns.
They could be the basis a short answer to the question, “What is the Alexander Technique”, when you want to make your interaction with the questioner as short as possible – going through customs, for example.
They might also be a good answer to that question if you want to provide an opening to further discussion. If that happens, you’re likely to come up against another question like this: “Well, how is that fundamentally any different from ____?
Here are just a few of the hundreds of methods, disciplines, processes etc that could end up in that blank: psychotherapy, life coaching, religion, mindfulness, physical therapy, meditation, tai chi, laughter therapy, prayer, yoga – the list could go on and on.
So is the Alexander Technique fundamentally different, perhaps even superior, or more effective, than these other processes?
My personal answer is that the Alexander Technique may be unique in focusing on how our minds and bodies interact and how we can use our conscious thinking capacity to improve our physical functioning.
But that helpful use of our thinking has to take into account the way our brain and the rest of our body is structured, and the complex nature of interactions within ourselves. To do that, we need to become students of ourselves.
For our founder, F. Matthias Alexander, mind and body are really just 2 aspects of the same thing and that every aspect of ourselves is connected to, influences, and is influenced by every other aspect. That basic understanding lies at the heart of his thinking, and of the Technique he developed.
I don’t know of another process that views the human condition in quite that way. And because the Technique focuses a lot on the quality of our postures and movements – which can be observed by ourselves and by others – it’s relatively easy to test it’s effectiveness when we’re applying it to ourselves.
The Technique certainly has a lot going for it, but it’s not for everybody. We’re all unique beings and some of us have temperaments better suited to other approaches to self-improvement.
But if you are looking to find a way to improve your life, and find the basic ideas of the Technique intriguing – or perhaps know somebody who has benefited from it – taking a few lessons or group classes could be one of the best decisions you ever made.
As I said, this is my own take on the Alexander Technique and is certainly not how all Alexander teachers and students view it. I’d love to hear your own answer to the question “What is so special about the Alexander Technique?”, below and/or on Facebook.
The use of imagery to teach or learn the Alexander Technique is, to put it mildly, a controversial topic.
The diverse views were on full display in recent exchanges on the Alexander Technique Forum Facebook Page(1) include everything from general disapproval of using images to endorsement in some or many teaching situations.
Some members have also pointed out that a teacher’s verbal instructions can generate mental images in a student’s mind, so the distinction between using words while teaching – which has a long history in Alexander Technique teaching – and using images isn’t always clear.
Personally, I’ve had mixed results with using mental images.
While I was training in England, I had a great many lessons from a remarkable teacher (not connected to my training course) who used the “string pulling your head up” image during lessons.
On the plus side, that image did get me “out of my hips” in a way I’d never before experienced, and the teachers on my training course, who knew nothing about my unauthorized lessons, commented on it with surprise and approval.
However, when I used that image while walking, as part of a class with late Marjorie Barstow, she stopped me in my tracks and asked what I was thinking. When I told her, she said: “That’s exactly what it looks like! You’re stiffening yourself to try to be up.” When I dropped it, I found my walk was indeed more fluid and I haven’t used it since.
My take from this is that the image was useful for me as an intermediate step, but not as a continuing process. It did get me out a deeply rooted harmful habit of sinking into my hips. But once that was achieved, it became limiting – ultimately because the ideal “location” of the string would have to change so often, and so quickly, to accommodate the many tiny changes in my head orientation that I would never be able to keep up.
My string image had become a little like a broken clock. Accurate, but only twice a day!
I do use some simple images in my teaching to help students locate key places in their body.
For example, when working with students to help them make the best use of gravity, I use simple line images to help them find their centers of gravity, which has proved to be very useful and effective. Those centers are infinitesimally tiny, and tricky to mentally locate without using some form of imagery.
I’ve also found that simple line imagery can be very helpful for students in learning just where their head rests on top of their spine, and then how to tilt and rotate their heads freely.
When examining a question like the usefulness of imagery, it’s always interesting to see if F. Matthias Alexander, the founder of the Technique, had anything to say about it. As it turns out, he never used the word “imagery” in any of his four books, which is not surprising since using it they way I’m using it here really only became popular after his death in 1955.(2)
However, variants of word “image” do appear occasionally, but only once in a way that relates a bit to the kind of imagery we’re talking about here. In his first book, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, in a section titled “Race Culture and the Training of the Children” he writes about teaching children how to draw:
Now the act of drawing is in the last analysis a mechanical process that concerns the management of the fingers, and the co-ordination of the muscles of the hand and forearm in response to certain visual images conceived in the brain and imaginatively projected on to the paper (emphasis mine). And the standard of functioning of the human fingers and hand in this connection depends entirely on the degree of kinaesthetic development of the arm, torso, and joints; in fact on the standard of co- ordination of the whole organism. It is not surprising, there- fore, that hardly one of these more or less defectively co-ordinated children should have any idea of how to hold a pencil in such a way as will command the freedom, power, and control that will enable him to do himself justice as a draughtsman.
Any attentive and thoughtful observer who will watch the movement and position of these children’s fingers, hand, wrist, arm, neck, and body generally, during the varying attempts to draw straight or crooked lines, cannot fail to note the lack of co-ordination between these parts. The fingers are probably attempting to perform the duties of the arm, the shoulders are humped, the head twisted on one side. In short, energies are being projected to parts of the bodily mechanism which have little or no influence on the performance of the desired act of drawing, and the mere waste projection of such energies alone is almost sufficient to nullify the purpose in view.
But I have already said enough to prove that no free expression can come by this means. The right impulse may be in the child’s mind, but he has not the physical ability to express it. Not one modern child in ten thousand is born with the gift to draw as we say ” by the light of Nature,” and that one exceptional child will have his task made easier if he is wisely guided in his first attempts.
Speaking for myself, I’m convinced that imagery, and its cousin imagination, is an incredibly powerful tool – and that’s precisely why, if and when you use it, you need to do so wisely.
I would love to see your thoughts on this topic – either here or on Facebook.
2. Strictly speaking, imagery has been around for a very long time:
Believe it or not, guided imagery, or simply imagery, has been used for centuries as a medical therapy. Evidence shows Tibetan monks began using meditation as early as the 13th century, imagining Buddha curing disease. Others believe that this imagery technique has been used for even longer, going back possibly to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Today, guided imagery is an accepted form of complementary and alternative medicine and used in conjunction with traditional treatments by clinics, hospitals and health care providers around the world. – History of Guided Imagery
Here’s a great Country Music song – and surprisingly artsy for a Country video! – to listen to while you contemplate imagery and imagination:
I’ve been somewhat obsessed with my walking patterns over the past couple of months, ever since I realized that for for most of my life, I’d been pushing my torso a forward a bit when I walked.
As I wrote in my previous blog, A Simple Hack That Brings A New Ease Into Your Walking, this habit of creating unnecessary work in my torso was deeply rooted – so deeply rooted that even after decades of being an Alexander Technique teacher, I hadn’t noticed it. It was a habit that led directly to harmful neck tension and to a walk that was heavier than it needed to be.
Once I noticed this, I was able to walk with greater ease by being quietly clear in my thinking that the work of walking was coming from my lower body. My torso was of course certainly moving – all sorts of twisting and spiraling – but those movements were in response to the activities going on below. My job was to get out of the way of those responses and not distort them by any efforting on my part.
Of course my old pattern would sneak back in and sometimes it would take awhile for me to notice, but it was getting easier and easier for me to re-direct my thinking and return to the lighter way of walking I now knew how to bring about.
But… a couple of days ago, I was walking to a class and something strange happened.
All seemed well at first but I soon noticed that I was reverting back to my old habit a lot more frequently.
“Why?”, I asked myself.
After a bit of introspection, I realized that the situation was a little different than it had been for most of my previous walks. First, it was an unusually cold day and I had not dressed quite as warmly as I normally would and was eager to get to my warm indoor destination. And second, I felt a little extra pressure to get to my destination soon because it was my job that day to set up the tables and put snacks out.
The obvious question was: Did walking with greater ease also mean walking more slowly? Did I really have to sacrifice speed for efficiency?
As it happened, the streets in my neighborhood are laid out in a nice uniform grid system. I had 2 blocks of equal length ahead of me, flat Nebraska terrain, and a watch with a second hand – everything I needed to conduct a little experiment!
For the first block I was, for the most part, clear in my thinking that all the work of walking was coming from my lower body. My footfalls were lighter, but I felt like I was moving more slowly.
For the second block, I allowed my old pattern to kick in. My walk was heaver, but it felt faster.
The results? No measurable difference in speed! I had been conflating speed with effort. I was like a car driver who tenses his or her body when trying to get somewhere more quickly.
Former scientist that I was, I conducted the same experiment on the way home with the same results.
In some ways, this illustrates a classic Alexander Technique idea that our feelings cannot always be trusted to provide accurate information about what is really going on.
It would be nice if now, after conducting these experiments, my “effort to rush” problem was solved. But of course it doesn’t work quite that way. I found myself slipping into it again a few hours later! But this time it was a lot easier for me to remind myself that I really, really, didn’t need to push my chest forward in order to move more quickly. All I had to do was to simply move my legs a little faster while continuing to leave my torso alone.*
I encourage you to conduct a similar experiment or two and see what happens. You might also find it interesting to observe others as they walk and see what you notice. As I wrote in my earlier blog, and illustrated with videos, you wouldn’t see Fred Astaire, or F. M. Alexander pushing their torso’s forward when they walked!
And you won’t see it in any of the many YouTube videos showing women carrying heavy loads on their heads, as in this 10 second clip:
I’d love to hear what you discover below and/or on Facebook.
She also had figured out a very simple and effective way to use her hands to give the student some actual experience of allowing that that to happen: As they were walking, she’d give the leg that was swinging a very soft push forward.
A lot of students, myself included, found this helpful in allowing their walk to proceed without the customary, and often largely unnoticed, overworking of their legs. The thought, “My legs are just tagging along” will still immediately lighten my walk.
But lately I’ve begun to thinking about walking in a new way – one that I’ve found even more useful in bringing ease and lightness into my walk. It doesn’t require you to have had any Alexander Technique experience. But if you have, it also creates a very nice framework for exploring Alexander Technique directions(1) of the sort: “I am free” or “My neck is free” or “My breathing is free”.
A few months ago, I started asking myself this very simple – in some ways too simple – question: “What is actually moving me forward when I walk?” and it’s close cousin: “What part of me is doing the work that moves me forward?
And then, perhaps even more importantly, “What parts of me don’t have to do anything to walk?” And then: “Are any of those parts, in fact, doing something to try to move me forward?”
I soon discovered that the moment I got the idea to walk forward, there was a subtle push forward in my torso, perhaps the result of a faulty idea of where my torso was located in space. More on this below.
Once I noted that subtle push, I quickly became aware of a little neck tightening taking place at the same time.(2)
It turns out that a lot of people do this to a greater or lesser degree. Once you notice it in yourself, just take a look at other walkers and you’ll see it everywhere.
This does not mean there shouldn’t be movements in your torso when you walk. Your torso has a huge role to play in efficient walking – but it’s not a doing role. It’s an allowing, or letting role, of adapting to the movements of your legs and pelvis.
Nor does it mean that the ultimate decider of when and how you walk is actually located in your lower body. That’s your brain – inside you head, which itself is designed to perch delicately and flexibly at the very top of your spine.
Ideally our brain sends the appropriate messages to your lower body about where you want to go, and how you want that lower part to organize itself to get you there. It also sends messages to your torso about how to freely respond to the work going on below.
But habits of posture and movement built up over a lifetime of stress can interfere with that process.
How can you learn to stop that harmful interfering?
Well noticing if there is any effort in your torso when you’re walking – especially when you start to walk – is a great start. You might then want to play with exaggerating it a little to really sense what’s going on.
This little video shows how you can determine if you have a tendency to think you’re further forward in space than you are – a habit that itself can easily cause you to try to get your torso to the location you think it should be even before your lower body actually does move you there:
A simple exercise you can experiment with on your own is to have one hand resting lightly on your upper torso as you walk to gently remind you of where your front actually is.
Finally, Alexander Technique directions, such as the ones mentioned above, can help weaken habits like pushing your torso forward.
However I’ve found for myself and my students it’s a great help to have an underlying understanding(3) of the efficient distribution of effort in your body so that you can be using the right tool for the right job, so to speak. A kind of “pre-direction” that facilitates the more traditional Alexander self-directions, and which itself can go a long way towards bring greater ease into your walk
Perhaps a driver/car analogy will make this clear. A car that is misaligned can be made to perform as well as possible by a skilled driver but it will never perform at peak efficiency, with a minimum of harmful wear and tear, until the driver takes it to a shop to be properly aligned. And if we have a deep-rooted, unconscious, habit that distorts our “alignment”, self-directing of the usual sort may, for all practical purposes, leave that faulty alignment largely in place.
Put another way, traditional Alexander Technique directing could take many lifetimes to clear some things up.
I’d love to hear what you’ve found by experimenting with this “hack”. Please leave your comments below and/or on Facebook.
1. I’ll be exploring this new framework in later blogs. You can learn more about Alexander Technique self-directions here
2. If you’re not an Alexander Technique teacher or serious student of the work, it’s hard to explain just how embarrassing that was for someone like me with decades of Alexander Technique teaching and learning experience Perhaps a little like a guru forgetting his mantra.
3. Alexander Technique teacher Imogen Ragone came up with this useful phrase while we were exploring the topic of this blog in the course of making this short video.
If you’d like to see what a well-coordinated walk looks like, Fred Astaire provides many examples. Here’s a nice one:
And let’s not forget F. Matthias Alexander, developer of the Alexander Technique. Here he is, in his mid-60s, walking, clowning around and chatting with some of his students, and generally having a good time. You definitely won’t see him pushing his torso forward!