The late Alexander Technique teacher Marjorie Barstow would sometimes say to a student who was about to walk: “Your legs are just tagging along.”
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!