Alexander’s 4 concepts of good use
1: Allow your neck to release so that your head can balance forward and up
2: Allow your torso to release into length and width
3: Allow your legs to release away from your pelvis
4: Allow your shoulders to release out to the sides
What exactly do we mean by release?
Try this exercise while you are reading this.
Pick up a cup as though you are going to drink from it.
Hold the cup close to your mouth and release as much tension from your neck, shoulder and raised arm as possible without moving the cup.
Can you feel the tension releasing?
If so, and the cup is still there then it can be seen that any extra tension you had before “the act of release” was in fact totally unnecessary.
You were still doing enough work for the cup to remain in position. The muscles were not “relaxed” because this implies that they are doing no work at all and this obviously cannot be the case as the cup stayed in situ.
Similarly you can apply these techniques when you are sitting at your desk working.
Sit at your desk and write something undemanding.
As you write think of releasing the tension in your neck and shoulders. Feel how your shoulders drop as you release. Feel how the tiredness evaporates with the tension. Notice how you are holding your pen, can you grip it and write with less tension in the fingers, you will find that you can.
While you are still writing notice any extra tension in your legs and feet. Consciously release this tension with your feet on the floor, with ankles crossed.
At first, as soon as you think about something other than releasing the tension notice how the tension actually returns. Do not let yourself be discouraged as your body will quickly learn to stay in a state of reduced tension as it will innately “feel” that it is a more attractive state for it to be in.
Some people like to think of tension as “noise” and releasing as “quieting” that noise.
The first two concepts of good use are interdependent
An effect of the combination of these 2 concepts is that they encourage you to maintain length in your spine.
Alexander proposes that the spine, being a curved and flexible structure, can either be posturally compressed which is harmful, or lengthened, which is beneficial.
Concept 1: Allow your neck to release so your head can balance forward and up
The well being of the spine depends ultimately upon correct head balance.
When your neck muscles are held tight your head presses down on your neck and compresses the entire spine. Therefore it can be seen that you have to first eliminate the incorrect use of your head before you can practice Concept 2, the lengthening of the spine.
Head forward and up; you allow this to happen by freeing and releasing your neck muscles enabling your head to balance and poise easily on the top of your neck.
In accomplishing Concept 1 we need to understand and feel the difference between 2 bipolar positions namely;
head “back and down”
head “forward and up”
Place a hand gently on the back of the neck with your little finger under your head. Now tighten the musculature under your hand. Note how the curve in your neck changes and the back of your head comes closer to the bottom of your neck. This position is “back and down”.
Now release the tension in your neck muscles so the head actually rotates forward.
Your face will lower slightly, but the overall effect is that your head will ease up off your neck; your neck will simultaneously lengthen as it is no longer compressed. This position is “forward and up”
Concept 2: Allow your torso to release into length and width
When you sit in a slumped posture the actual distance between the top of your head and the bottom of the pelvis is decreased. The spine is actually being compressed.
Similarly if you sit up straight as you might be ordered to at school with your lower back very arched. The torso is again compressed.
If you sit in such a way that normal curves in your spine are maintained with your torso muscles working only so much as to keep you upright, your torso will achieve its proper functional length.
Torso widening is a similar concept to torso lengthening.
To prevent “back arching” think of your lower back widening as your release muscle tension. Similarly with the shoulders, to avoid shoulder rounding think of widening across the front of your torso.
Pulling the 2 concepts together:
Sitting without Back Support
A good training exercise combining the first two concepts is to practice sitting correctly without back support.
This will be uncomfortable at first. Like anything worth doing in life the Alexander Technique takes time and patience to master and time for your body to build the endurance it needs to remain lengthened after years of incorrect use, muscular atrophy and a degree of ligamental shortening.
Sit on a firm chair close to the edge
Place both feet on the floor about 12 inches apart. You may initially be tempted to slump, but do not give in.
Think of your head leading up and your torso lengthening and widening as you “think” your back muscles into adopting their true spinal length.
To determine when you are sitting correctly, the sitting bones, “ischial tuberosities”, 2 bony prominences at the very base of the pelvis will be pointing directly downwards into the seat of your chair.
If you are slumping they will move forward, if you are overarching they will lift off the chair.
As I discussed in Part 1, Alexander proposes that we are largely victims of the society we have created for ourselves.
As humans we have evolved a beautiful upright posture over millions of years.
But, as in many walks of modern life we have grasped defeat from the jaws of victory by designing furniture that encourages us to simply collapse into it, and also by granting ourselves the luxury of thinking it is fashionable to adopt chronic incorrect posture as the habitual norm.
The skeletal muscles work in opposing partnership with each other. Take for example sitting with your torso fully lengthened and widened. All the pairs of muscles surrounding the torso do their job in a balanced efficient way. The muscles are working in equilibrium.
In the same fashion when you slump in a “comfy” sofa, the posture that the furniture is imposing on your spine requires that the back muscles are overstretched, while those in the front are over shortened. I.e. they are both strained in different directions to maintain the position the furniture has imposed.
Neither are working efficiently to give good support.
In part 4 of the series I will be discussing Concepts 3 and 4 in detail and also “Inhibition”, an essential adjunct to Alexander’s four concepts.