-bringing ideas to life

 

 

 

 

 

The Alexander Technique, science and new ideas 
Michael Protzel continues the discussion of the scientific context surrounding Alexander’s discoveries, with reference to his own theories of "weight commitment"
(First published in STATNews, January 2013) 
 
I thank Statnews Editor, Jamie McDowell, for inviting members to contribute to the ongoing discussion of Science and the Alexander Technique. I’d like to add my thoughts to those of Gerald Foley and Tim Kjeldsen.

Tim simply and eloquently sets forth Alexander’s basic theory: "that misuse arises fundamentally because people rely on more or less non-conscious means (at the fundamental level of the use of themselves they employ in activity) for the pursuit of more or less conscious ends." [1] This raises an important question:

How is it that infants and toddlers can ‘ride the wave’ of millions of years of evolution to become, in a very short time on this planet, shining examples of neck free-head forward and up-back lengthening and widening— only to very soon thereafter become children (and later, adults), manifesting the symptoms of mis-use that are so common in our culture?

The Alexander Technique is eminently practical work. Its purpose is to give an individual the tools to gain awareness of the mis-use that non-conscious direction creates — and to prevent it. But Gerald Foley notes a problem:

"The differences in approach [to the practical work of the Alexander Technique] depending on teacher lineages, training schools, and individual teachers are huge and not always amiable. Using Alexander’s language we cannot even explain ourselves comprehensibly to each other, let alone the outside world — think, for example, of what we mean by ‘the primary control.’ This lack of a clear means of communication is a major obstacle not just to how we project ourselves as a profession, but to the development of our individual skills. I think we would be more effective...if we were able to use the much less ambiguous language that science offers." [2]

Tim states that "primary control is not a mechanism...[but] a psycho-physical concept...[It] has to exploit mechanisms, but, strictly speaking, it is not critically important exactly what they are...[W]e already know [that primary control and the head-neck-back relationship] are linked, although we might not know exactly how and what else might be involved...We don’t require a physiological explanation in order to treat the ‘primary control’ as a valid theoretical concept; although its physiological nature and status needs to be open to confirmation or refutation by disciplines external to our own...So even if we are in hock to the physical sciences over the primary control, we can learn to adapt our work to whatever it is they eventually deliver to us as an explanation for postural integration." [3]

If the work we do is first and foremost practical, then how could it be "not critically important," as Tim claims, what the "mechanisms" are that underlie primary control? If we seek to prevent interference with a particular innate mechanism, wouldn’t it help to know how this mechanism works? How else can we know what interferes with it? Tensing the neck and shortening/narrowing the torso are not the causes of interference. They are symptoms.[4] As self-use professionals, it should be up to us to come up with a coherent explanation.

By the time The Use of the Self was published in 1932, Alexander had already recognized that he had founded a new field of inquiry.5 Yet, according to Marjory Barlow, Alexander also recognized that he had "only scratched the surface of the egg," and that it was up to his successors to "scratch deeper."[6] This plainly indicates that Alexander was aware that his knowledge of self-use was limited, that there was much he did not know. As profound and inspiring as his body of work is, he was only one person. Scientific progress requires the work of many people.

I came to the Alexander Technique in 1980 at age 30, genuinely afraid for my future health and well-being. I had a major case of debauched kinesthesia and a lifetime of injuries to show for it. Although my problems were dramatically different than Alexander’s — starting at my feet and moving up the body joint-by-joint — my process for addressing them was formed solely through following F.M. Alexander’s map of ‘self-use territory,’ with the aid of my teachers and colleagues.
In 1992, my self-study took a sudden and unexpected turn when I witnessed myself ‘mis-committing my body weight.’ In a flash, I ‘knew’ that I was witnessing the source of all my injuries. I have spent the last 20 years exploring this in depth. Through my explorations, I’ve developed an understanding of the "mechanisms" of primary control. By attempting to articulate this understanding, I mean no disrespect to Alexander. He is my inspiration. Without his work, I would have nothing at all to say. But I do have something to say — something I believe adds to our field. Any developing field of inquiry needs to be able to hear and incorporate non-conforming, new ideas when valid. If we want our work to be better recognized in the world, we ourselves need to recognize some clear and simple truths that have been obscured by habit and faulty sensory appreciation, and that, seemingly, have not been observed or understood by anyone else.
 
Basic uprighting/weight commitment theory

1. From the moment we’re born, gravity compels our body mass down to earth. The substantial energy thus generated (I call it the ‘force of our falling’) has determinative impact, for better or for worse, on how we upright.

Uprighting — the act of lifting ourselves into verticality — is a species-defining activity. Innate uprighting, having evolved over millions of years, is the act of doing this with optimal efficiency. We all inherit this innate uprighting ability and manifest it as infants/toddlers. Although infants/toddlers may appear clumsy because they lack coordination skills for complex activities that take time and advanced muscularity to develop, they are not at all clumsy when it comes to the basic skill of uprighting. In this, they are free and easy.

Innate uprighting works in a very specific way. Most importantly, it requires that we use the full force of our gravity-compelled falling as fuel to power our self-lifting. Moreover, if the force of our falling is not used constructively, this very force works against us; it is never neutral. By better understanding how innate uprighting works, we can better understand how we interfere. It is through interfering with this fundamental human ability — the basis of all sitting, standing and locomotive activities — that we disable ‘neck free, head forward and up, back lengthening and widening.’
2. Each of us, individually, is responsible for directing the force of his/her own falling. Gravity only sends us down. It is our individual consciousness that directs, moment-by-moment, the specific downward trajectory. It is this trajectory that determines whether the force of our gravity-compelled body mass is working for or against us.

Committing body weight is not optional. We don’t get to choose whether or not to do it. Our body mass is constantly falling down to earth. And it is we, individually, who constantly provide the direction — whether or not we are aware of doing so.

When well-directed (through the sit-bones in simple sitting, the tali in simple standing, for example), the force of our falling provides the energy source — clean and renewable — that fuels our deepest extensor musculature. Infants/toddlers inherit and employ our innate uprighting capabilities as they learn to sit, stand and move with ease, grace and power.

When mis-directed (away from the sit bones or tali), the abundant energy of our body mass ceases to fuel optimal uprighting. Instead, the force of our falling drives us off-balance, creating a topple that requires: (1) an immediate muscular bracing, to stop the topple and establish the stability required to lever ourselves up into verticality (a bracing that needs to be held as long as our mis-direction persists); and (2) a contorting of our skeleton, so that we maintain a relatively level head in the midst of our topple.

The greater the mis-direction, the more skeletal contortion and the more strenuous the act of uprighting.

3. At a very early age, all of us in Western civilization begin interfering with innate uprighting, without recognizing it. We fall backwards in sitting, lean one-way-or-another in standing. We lose all recognition of the vital link between the trajectory of our downward movement and the quality of our uprighting, something we experienced as infants/toddlers. We continue to be able to gain our ‘ends’ — to be able to sit, stand, walk and run. But we use concocted, inferior means. The innate uprighting system lies dormant. Functioning declines. We are trapped in habit.

From the day we are born, we see big people sitting back in chairs, sofas, cars, trains....everywhere. Of course, this does not cause immediate or even near-term problems because engaging the innate uprighting system is the only way we, as infants/toddlers, can gain the ends we so passionately desire (to sit and stand). Mis-committing weight is not an option — we have not yet developed the musculature to support bad use. But observing our elders leaves an indelible impression, with a message that is all too clear: committing weight backwards is a perfectly appropriate thing for people to be doing. It isn’t! Yet, by age 5, the act of sitting back has become utterly routine — and by this time we have developed the muscle strength to support mis-use.

Committing weight backwards aborts innate uprighting. Every time we do it, we tense the neck and shorten/ narrow the torso. As children, we do it constantly, everywhere — including all day long in school — without giving it a second thought. We remain successful in achieving our ends: sitting, standing, etc. But this success comes at great cost. We lose the basic skill of innate uprighting that we inherited. We lose awareness of the vital connection between how we fall and how we lift. And we lose it so early in life that we don’t even know we have lost anything. And neither do any of the adults watching us, because they are even more lost. We have set ourselves up for a lifetime of habitual mis-use and degraded functioning.

4. To free ourselves of this habit, and regain the use of our powerful innate uprighting system, we need to begin a process of witnessing how we tend to commit our weight in our daily activities — so that we can register its impact and learn to direct the downward movement of our body mass more consciously and constructively.

All of this can easily be tested. It hasn’t been, I believe, because ‘gravity’ is understood only abstractly — by scientists as well as laymen — as a force operating outside of ourselves, compelling all objects straight down to earth, period. For purposes of human motor coordination, this is simply wrong. The trajectory of the gravity-compelled falling of our body mass is very much within our control. And as long as we are unaware of how we exercise this control, we are in trouble.

Uprighting/Weight Commitment work identifies a central aspect of our habitual manner of use — an unrecognized source of the interference we seek to prevent. It enables us to kinesthetically access key sensations attendant to the act of uprighting (sensations to which we have become numb), as well as to intellectually understand its ABCs. To "scratch deeper" and move the science of self-use forwards, we in the Alexander Technique community need to be open to revising our map of self-use territory when appropriate.
 
Notes
1. Kjeldsen, T. 2012, The Alexander Technique and Science, Statnews, May, 2012, p. 21.
2. Foley, G. 2012, The Alexander Technique and science: a reply. Statnews, September, 2012, p. 25.
3. Kjeldsen, Ibid., p. 21.
4. Alexander, F.M., 1923, reprint 1985. Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual. Centerline Press, p. 65.
5. Alexander, F.M., 1932; reprint 1984. The Use of the Self. Centerline Press, p. 4.
6. Barlow, M. & Davies, T.A. 2002. An Examined Life. Mornum Time Press, Preface.
 
Michael Protzel has been a STAT member since 1986. Uprighting/Weight Commitment work is explained in detail, with animated illustrations at www.uprighting.com.
 
  The Charity for the F Matthias Alexander Technique: Company limited by guarantee and registered in England and Wales No. 3153329, Registered Charity, No.1053863