In my last post I talked about Inhibition, the pause that allows us to see the choices available to us for action. Sometimes, as in the driving and slamming on the brakes example, the choices available to me are clear – I can respond with road rage, I can let it go, I can play with my driving after the incident to reduce the effort I’m using. But sometimes, the choices are not so clear. For example, I just spent a wonderful and amazing long weekend at the Myrtle Beach Alexander Technique and Energy Work event, hosted by AT teacher Renée Jackson. Even after the long drive home, I’ve been feeling physically and mentally stress-free.
When the choices are not so clear, the default decision in the AT world is to go back to Alexander’s Directions. In FM Alexander’s words, the Primary Directions are as follows:
· Let the neck be free
· To let the head go forward and up
· To let the back lengthen and widen
· To let the knees go forward and away
Ted Dimon points out that the use of the word “to” makes it clear that these four directions are linked together, given “one after the other and all together” as Alexander said. (If you are interested in seeing maps of muscles that are released in following the directions, I highly recommend Ted’s website and the explanations there.)
Hilary King explains on her website that the term Directions has two meanings, which overlap:
1) Directions are mental instructions we learn to give ourselves before and during an action, in order to bring about changes in the way we use ourselves whilst performing the action.
2) The instructions that are given also indicate the “direction” in which we wish to release and lengthen muscles – for instance, allowing our knees and thighs to release out and away from our hip joints.
I agree with Hilary that this distinction is important – describing both “things to do” and an actual “direction” in which releases and length should travel.
Adrian Farrell says on his website that Alexander’s directions are “giving consent” to the body to release its habitual behavior. That’s a nice image. Without instruction from a teacher, however, these directions can be difficult both to understand and to implement. Let me try to explain what I did yesterday to follow them.
Let your neck be free: I sat back in my comfortable chair and took a breath. I thought about releasing tension in my neck muscles, and noticed that my jaw was also tight, so I let that go on the exhale. Ah, better.
To let the head go forward and up: This one is harder to explain. What Alexander is asking us to do is to allow our head to rest gently on top of our spines, like one of those bobble-head dolls. If my neck is free, my head can gently return to neutral, and that lovely feeling of freedom allows my head to move easily in all directions on top of the atlas, the highest vertebrae of the spine. Having had lots of hands-on work with AT teachers over the years, I know what that feels like, and I can ask myself to go there after I free my neck. Ah. So much better.
To let the back lengthen and widen: On my next breath, I can allow two things to happen – on the inhale, I can sense my back widening against the chair. As my lungs expand, so do my ribs. My shoulder blades gently take a ride toward the sides of my body. I allow this sensation of width to remain with me. As I exhale, I notice my spine lengthening from sacrum to the crown of my head. Such a lovely feeling.
To let the knees go forward and away: This one is a little harder to experience sitting down. I imagine that my hip joints are expanding as my legs release away from my torso. I have space. My legs feel free. If I were standing, I could actually feel a change in my knees as they soften.
These basic directions are my go-to when I need some refreshing ease back in my life. Last night, a quick check-in with the primary directions allowed me to really sense my physicality. I felt the support of the ground coming up through the four legs of the chair. I turned to Dave and asked him questions, rather than responding with anger.
In recent years, people have made some adaptations of these directions to be easier to understand and more accessible without a teacher. Next week, I’ll talk about the evolution of directions in the twenty-first century.