A big part of my Alexander Technique (AT) teacher training was learning our own anatomy and locating those joints in ourselves and knowing how they move optimally in our teacher training course at the Bodyminded Alexander Technique School. In this article, I asked teachers and colleagues at the Bodyminded school where I trained, to share which anatomy discoveries helped them to coordinate their daily lives for the better, and their favourite learning moments they’d like to share. The following four reflections are written by Director Greg Holdaway, co-director Anne, and AT teachers Jane Buhler and Dave Carr.
1. Harmful habits of coordination are invisible, until they change - by Greg Holdaway
I would like to share two specific anatomy discoveries that have had a big impact on me. These all occurred in the context of awareness of the moveable connectedness of the whole self, particularly the head, spine and pelvis. (or as Alexander said it “the head, neck and back).
The first was the extraordinary discovery that my shoulder girdle moves as part of my whole arm movement… wow. I spent many years with tight neck and shoulders as a consequence of dance training that forbid the ‘raising of the shoulders’ when using the arms. I remember a time in my Alexander training when two teachers were discussing my movement, “Greg doesn’t move at all here” one said, pointing at my upper chest. I could hear the words OK, but had no sense what-so-ever what they were talking about. This was crazy, as soon as I realised my shoulders moved with my arms, I stopped trying to hold them in the ‘right place’ and arm movement became gloriously elastic, free and enjoyable.
After studying anatomy in movement for many years, I remember having an extraordinary moment of insight when I realised that my idea of jaw movement was wrong. The model skeleton makes the jaw look like it moves on ‘hinges’, like a door. I have had years of jaw tightness, and used to wear a ‘jaw splint’ when I was a teenager to stop my teeth grinding and jaw mal-alignment. My realisation was that the jaw actually drops down and forward slightly as it opens, kind of like a mini-version of a snake's jaw. The moment I moved like this I had an intense flash-back to childhood, reliving the experience of not being able to speak in a difficult family context. Wow, freedom to speak was related to freedom of jaw movement! Kind of makes sense when you think about it.
My work with the Alexander technique has enabled a continuous learning which is inherently rewarding and enjoyable, its such a surprise to discover more and more connection and freedom as my experience has deepened.
2. A Moment in time and its impact - By Anne Finlay
We- myself and Alexander Technique Teacher Training class fellow students-were lying on the floor exploring how we moved with an emphasis on how one part moves relative to another, something we did regularly in class time. I rolled onto my front and lifted my head to speak with the woman beside me, our teacher came up behind me bent over and placed his hands on my head saying “your head moves easily at the atlanto-occipital joint” (this is the where our heads meet the top two joints of our spine)
This moment with its accompanying experience continues to inform my whole self as I go about my work and daily life. It was the coming together of my body as a whole, rather than parts, as I responded to my fellow student, a different way of being. He moved away saying “no big deal, this is how we work optimally”.
Studying the anatomy of our human form has helped me understand the how and why of my experience, as he said no big deal this is our human design we learn to cooperate with it. Some of my reflections around this AT work from my personal experiences and understandings are- I wait rather than rush into what I want to do, remind myself of the importance of all of me doing what I am doing with the relationship my head has with my torso being a useful first thought followed by the rest of me. Support from the ground as well as my own internal support- bones muscles and other soft tissue, and get on with what I want to be doing. I am a different person from engaging in this work, I am often surprised by myself!
What a gift.
3. A Good Friend - By Jane Buhler
All of our teachers emphasized the primacy of the awareness of the head at the top of the spine, and its moveability. I found myself over time having more awareness as I moved through life of the relationships between my head/ spine, shoulder/ arms, and pelvis/ legs.
While attempting and failing to reach something on a high shelf, I noticed that engaging my coordination via the head/ spine relationship enabled me to succeed, as if I had gained several inches in height. The same strategy makes jars and bottles with tight lids magically easier to open.
As a learner of foreign languages, I was astonished to notice that my comprehension of spoken language improved markedly by engaging coordination via the head/ spine. I repeated this experiment several times, and found the effect to be reliable. I wondered how this could possibly be, given that, in the moment it takes to coordinate, my grasp of grammar and vocabulary clearly does not improve significantly! I speculate that the process of coordinating enables all aspects of our functioning, including auditory processing, to work optimally.
Learning about the structure and function of the Psoas muscle was particularly helpful for me. The idea I had about how I walked was highly inaccurate, and this lack of clarity was certainly reflected in my manner of walking. I thought of walking operating via the superficial large muscles of the legs; I was unaware of the deep structure of the Psoas and its crucial role in hip flexion. Clarifying this understanding resulted in a transformation of my walking, in the direction of much greater ease and sense of lightness, and a significant easing of pressure on my knees, accompanied by much pain relief.
Coordinating via the head/ spine, and noticing the connectedness of this with my pelvis/ legs and shoulder/ arms has become a daily companion that moves with me through my life. This process has become deeply integrated into activities of particular significance, such as communication and meditation, as well as all aspects of daily living. It is readily accessible in moments of crisis and difficulty, and I have found it to be extremely helpful at such times. It is always available to be renewed, and I am always grateful to my teachers and others for reminders to do so. This process is a marvellous meta-technique which can be applied to and can enhance any activity. As we are constantly engaged in renewing our coordination, in that sense we are always beginners, and this process is always fresh.
4. Reflection by Dave Carr
Meditation has been ever-present in my family since before I was born, and I have been using a mantra-based meditation since I was around seven or eight years old. At first this involved walking in a circle and repeating my mantra out loud for a short time. When I was a little older I was given an updated practice, which involved sitting and just ‘think’ the mantra, simply allowing it to come and go. The effortlessness of the practice is perhaps the most important factor.
When I first met Greg I had been studying the Alexander Technique for four and a half years. I felt cautious about working with a new teacher, and was at first baffled when he talked about things that seemed to have nothing to do with the Alexander Technique. He didn’t use any of the phrases I was used to hearing. He guided me through actions I wasn’t used to exploring. ‘What does this have to do with the Alexander Technique?’
In my previous Alexander experience, the first step of the process was to release my neck. But Greg suggested that I try something different - to simply think of where my skull was in relation to the rest of myself. And he pointed out that my skull was higher up than I had been thinking. If I had pointed to where it felt my head was, I would have actually been pointing to my neck. He explained that the muscles in our necks have a huge number of nerve endings, and that our scalps have relatively few. As a result, the sensations in our necks tend to overwhelm the other sensations. In short, I couldn’t rely on feeling where my head was.
Greg explained proprioception; the sense of where our parts are in relation to each other. We don’t need to attempt to feel where they are - simply remembering that they are there is enough. Everything he said seemed logical, but very different to anything I’d heard before.
I followed his advice, and what followed was a mix of surprise and pleasure - a new sensation I hadn’t felt before. My head was suddenly ready to move in any direction. It was such a foreign sensation.
Prior to this, if someone had told me that I hadn’t been releasing my neck when I asked it to release, I wouldn’t have believed them. In fact, I probably would have rolled my eyes, shaken my head, and dismissed them as ‘full of it’. I believed that if I decided to release my neck, it would simply release. And if someone had said that I didn’t know where my head was I would have thought they were nuts.
And so my new experience was simultaneously baffling and delightful to me. For days after my lesson with Greg I would look around whatever space I was in, marvelling the whole time at this novel phenomenon.
Let’s travel a few months into the future from that first lesson with Greg. I was at home, meditating, running through the familiar experience of waiting for the mantra to come, and observing it as it repeated.
Something struck me that I had only been vaguely aware of previously. Every time I repeated my mantra, I experienced a slight tightening in my brain. In fact, as I observed it I realised that I had been using the slight tightening as a cue to think the mantra. I would wait for the swell of tension and that told me it was time to think the mantra.
Tightening my brain in order to meditate? It sounded kind of contradictory, and certainly contrary to the approach I had been taught. So I started to experiment.
If I sat there without tightening, the mantra would not enter my mind. If I allowed the tightening, the mantra came easily, in its familiar way. How curious...
Then it struck me - there are no muscles in my brain! So how was it possible that I was tightening in my brain?!
I remembered Greg’s advice about remembering the location of my skull in relation to the rest of myself, and began doing this. As I did so, I faced another disconcerting shift. The feeling of where my brain was completely changed. It felt like my mind, brain and neck spread apart and settled into a completely unfamiliar configuration. My idea of where my brain was had shifted to where I knew my skull was, and the sensation of tensing had shifted to my throat. With a laugh I realised I had been subvocalising - I had been subtly moving my larynx as if saying the mantra out loud. Perhaps this was a result of having been first trained to say the mantra out loud before learning the silent method.
With some experimentation over time, I found that if I imagined that the mantra was being spoken by someone else, I could bypass the subvocalisation. By removing this extra work, my meditation experience has deepened. This is just one of many ways in which my life has been improved through clarifying my physiological and psychological understanding.
This article was written in partnership with Bodyminded Sydney Alexander school, with the support of the City of Sydney Cultural Resilience Grant – support for artist and arts workers 2020-2021. Illustration/video by Liz Cheung.