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Understanding The Technique

Dr Theodore Dimon 

28 & 29 September 2013, London (organised by HITE)

Reviewer: Tanya Shoop, AT teacher, Brixton, London (www.artofposture.co.uk)

This review was first published in STATNews in January 2014

  

The rationale behind Dr Theodore (Ted) Dimonís talk is that the Alexander Technique is not understood enough both in general and in the fields which it relates to, which include neuroscience, medicine, physiology and psychology. To be taken seriously, we need to articulate the underlying theory and basis of the Technique, otherwise it will never be fully accepted. Furthermore, other disciplines with similarities can say they incorporate the AT and our work gets confused with other methods. The talk was arranged into 3 main sections:

1. The Primary Control and how it works;
2. Muscle length and problems of misuse -Direction and Re-education;
3. Proprioception, awareness and conscious control
 
Primary Control & Tensegrity System

The primary control is the central organising principle in human movement. It is a natural system that ensures effortless action without any meddling or interference from us. Whole groups of muscles act synergistically to support the body, even in the production of simple movement.
 
Our body parts are organised in a dynamic way. We have an elastic stretch/support that can be described as a tensegrity system. An architecturural example of a tensegrity structure is a suspension bridge. The wires (muscles) keep the poles (bones) from falling over but, at the same time, the poles exert a stretch on the wires.
 
Rather than seeing a muscle as a purely contracting motor unit acting on bones to produce movement -the traditional physiological understanding -we can see that muscles act within the context of a structure that lengthens them. And what keeps them lengthening is the design of the skeleton itself. Our musculo-skeletal tensegrity structure maintains the upright stability of the trunk efficiently and over time.
 
Our difficulty as humans as opposed to four-footed animals is due to our upright, two-footed posture. Our spines have to lengthen and point upward whilst gravity pulls us downward. Natureís ingenious evolution has been to have the head poised unevenly on top of the spine.
 
One of the primary functions of the muscles on the back of the neck is to keep this offset head from falling too far forward. If there is too much forward pull, then the neck muscles will contract to support the head. Provided there is no interference, this constant toning keeps the neck muscles in a lengthened state .
 
The curves of the spine donít buckle but lengthen in response to gravity with the counterbalance of the offset head and the dropping of the tail.
 
If the spine lengthens, the front of the body, instead of pulling down, tends to lengthen. And when the spine lengthens, the oblique muscles of the back and ribs release and the shoulder girdle tends to widen apart, enabling the back to maintain width as well as length. Finally, the legs act as struts that maintain length in the lower limbs. So instead of tightening, the long muscles of the legs are elastically maintained by the scaffolding of the skeleton.
 
If only it would always work like this. Slumping when sitting leads to a collapse in the whole system. Muscles needing to provide support become slack and, because we still have to support ourselves against gravity, other muscles begin to work far too much. This puts a strain on bones and ligaments.
 
Primary Control & Stretch Reflexes

Muscles have dual roles: supporting the skeleton and actively contracting to produce movement. When moving one part, say lifting an arm, our support system is also constantly adjusting itself in relation to the activity. This overall support, known as posture, is the work of stretch reflexes.
 
The stretch reflex is the nerve loop for responding to stretch. For muscles to contract, they need a signal from the spinal cord via the motor nerves. The muscle itself doesnít know when and how much to contract. That information comes from sensors (muscle spindles) in the muscle registering strength. The spinal cord receives an impulse from the spindle telling it when contraction is required and it then sends the motor signal to the muscle.
 
The stretch reflexes sense changes in length and keep all our joints from buckling, helping maintain our stability. Even our freely hanging arms and hands have background tone maintained by stretch reflexes.
 
Coupled with the elastic energy storing the potential of the muscle tissue, the stretch reflex system converts the musculo-skeletal system into a spring-like framework capable of automatically supporting the body against gravity and stabilising all parts of the body in movement.
 
However, if our tensegrity system is interfered with (eg tightening the neck and shortening the back muscles) the muscles cannot lengthen and so these stretch sensors donít register stretch. To restore length we need to place the skeleton in supportive positions and remind the musculature how to maintain the length. Semi-supine is one such supportive position. As well as restoring the stretch reflex system, this helps the muscle to be better able to sensitively register changes in length, reawakening the musculature to function properly.
 
No amount of strengthening, exercising, relaxing or balancing muscles can restore this condition when the system is so maladjusted and sensory input so distorted.  The system needs to be readjusted in relation to gravity as an interrelated whole. It is our head neck reflexes that exert a central control over the muscular system, orgainising the stretch reflex system to support the body against gravity.
 
A number of factors comprise to form the primary control:
 
a. Muscle contracts in the context of the stretches being exerted on it.
b. Stretch reflexes convert the musculo-skeletal system into a spring-like framework;
c. The relation of the head to the trunk organises the movement of the body as a whole in space;
d. When all the parts are working, the conditions are established that allow the neck reflexes to work and these play a central role in organising muscle tone throughout the body.
 
Muscle Length, misuse, Direction and Re-education

We started by looking in technical detail about what cells and fibres make up a muscle and how they contract -the Sliding Filament Theory. If we take one "belly" of the gastrocnemius and break it down into its consituent parts, there are 2.4 trillion strands of actin and myosin molecules and all of these are organised to produce movement!
 
With chronic contraction, the only way to change is to let muscles go into length so they can function properly. A healthy muscle:

a. releases into the contractile part of the muscle;
b. lengthens antagonistically;
c. lengthens to stimulate the attached stretch reflexes;
d. innervates the bodyís tonic response because of the stretch reflexes.

We lengthen muscles by being kinaesthetically aware and by sending messages via motor units in the context of length.  This is directing.  It is an intentional use of consciousness to let the muscles go into antagonistic action.

 

The different parts of the body must be supported in order for the system to go into length and coordination as a whole, which elicits the reflex response of the primary control.

 

The most technical part of the talk was about the Gamma System.  In simple terms, we are "bossed" by the old part of the brain in the brain stem and need to reprogramme this through stopping and thinking.  This can be very hard to do for some actions which are deeply hard-wired, not only for our pupils but for us as well.

 

Proprioception, Awareness and Conscious Control

Ted initially discussed ideomotor action where voluntary action is part of a pathway of activity that begins with an idea and ends up in a motor act.  He argued that this unified psychophysical pathway must be addressed in order to restore the proper working of the primary control.  In other words, getting inhibition and direction to ensure that motors action are considered with thought rather than happening habitually.

 

One of the problems we face is that the subconscious kicks in at a very early stage.  Brain activity can happen one second before conscious decisions are made (Libet et al 1983).  And thus anticipatory behaviour is very hard to inhibit.  This is one of our great challenges which the Alexander Technique can offer a practical approach.

 

Inhibition is more than stopping or pausing.  It is about putting aside the end and has to occur throughout the whole process.  This is pretty hard as we can convince ourselves that we are inhibiting, such as when going to sit, but in reality we are still thinking about going to sit.

 

What we need to do is to keep to the means whereby.  Ted classifies the means whereby as:

a. inhibition;
b. directing the primary control;
c. having a clear conception of the movement (eg knowing that the hip is a hingeing joint rather than the trunk which should move as one piece for bending or sitting);
d. performing the movement/series of movements.

 

When we quieten we can begin to see the subconscious processes.  If we can see where our habits begin, we can try to get action to come from a different place.  Primary control, inhibition and direction are all working in a loop.

 

Dr Ted Dimon is very passionate about our work.  Indeed, he feels that the aim and purpose of the Alexander Technique is a new stage of evolution.  Descriptive neuroscience looks at normal psychology.  We have something to contribute to this field and we donít need to look for legitimacy from others.

 

Suffice it to say that it is a seminar that is worth repeated attendance in order to understand what we are working with at deeper and deeper levels.  There was an excellent turnout of teachers, many of whom had travelled from overseas, and getting together to hear these insights and to debate them widens our knowledge-base and ideas and will hopefully lead to future collaborations.

 

The day and a half course was packed full of information.  Reflecting back, I wonder if it would be worth lengthening the course.  One option would be to have a couple of hours extra on the Sunday afternoon for a full question and answer session and open discussion.  Alternatively, a 3 day course (or longer) would be a possibility as this is an immense topic that Ted has, amazingly, managed to condense for us.  

© Tanya Shoop 2014  

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