When our children were in middle school, my wife and I would attend “Classroom Visit Night” at the start of each term. This involved going to all their classes in the same order they did during the school day, and for about 10 minutes each teacher would talk about the class and answer questions.
One evening, we were in a General Science class with a middle-aged teacher who appeared to be compressing his head down onto his neck with an extraordinary amount of pressure. (OK – a dirty little secret about Alexander Technique teachers: We do take notice of that kind of thing, especially when it’s extreme, even when we’re not “on the job.” And as much as we try not to make judgements – well, sometimes we do.)
At one point in his talk, he talked about students who weren’t doing well in class but, who in his opinion, “had a good head on their shoulders”, and who he would try to help do better. Just as he said that, his neck became even a little more compressed!
That phrase was new to me at the time and I remember thinking about it a lot afterwords. I’ve since learned it’s a fairly common idiom used to describe someone who is intelligent, sensible and has common sense. But it seemed to me that using phrase had an adverse effect of the teacher, certainly in the moment, but quite likely over time as well.
As you can easily see by looking at anybody (or yourself in a mirror, or the image above) there is a significant distance between the support point of your head and the top of shoulders.
As Barbara Conable, an Alexander Technique teacher and one of the developers of Body Mapping points out, there is a kind of “law of human behavior” that states that when there is a difference between the actual physical situation in your body and your perception of that situation, it’s the perception that always wins out.
This does not mean your faulty perception will change the underlying physical reality, but it does mean you will attempt to stand, sit and move in accordance with that false perception. And that will typically involve creating harmful excess tension.
I like a woman with a head on her shoulders. I hate necks. – Steve Martin
Would you like to test this for yourself?
First, locate the 2 little groves on your skull that are located just underneath your ear lobes, putting a finger tip lightly on each one. Midway between your two finger tips is the top of your spine. That’s where your head is actually supported.
Spend a few seconds with your fingers there so you can start getting a good sense of it’s location – which for most people is quite surprising.
Next, put your hands on top of your shoulders and spend a few seconds there as well.
Now, imagine your head is resting on the top of your spine and then shift to imagining it’s resting on top of your shoulders. Switch back and forth a few times.
What did you notice? Does one conception seem to make you heaver and more compressed than the other?
You might also try taking the “my head is on top of my spine” conception with you as you take a little walk around the room. Then, while continuing to walk, shift over to “my head is on top of my shoulders” and notice what happens to your walk. Again, switch back and forth a few times.
(This experiment will work best if you walk on a hard surface, wearing shoes. A creaky wooden floor is ideal as it will give you auditory feedback about how lightly, or heavily, your feet arrive at the floor as you switch back and forth.)
What did you notice? And what does that tell you about the usefulness of having a correct perception of your structural reality? And, what does it tell you about the implications of using a phrase that goes against that reality?
Man is the head of the family, woman the neck that turns the head. – Chinese Proverb
I’d love to hear about your experience. Please post them below and/or on Facebook.
Another, somewhat related, example of an unfortunate use of words that can produce harmful consequences can be found in the common American phrase “Ready, set, go” to start a race as opposed to the much better British version “Ready, steady, go.” And then there is Toronto’s “Sick Kid’s Hospital” – which I believe was based on the name of a London hospital. And, of course, Head & Shoulders shampoo, a popular American brand. Perhaps these will be the subject of another blog…
Image copyright: pixologic / 123RF Stock Photo