The primary directions, or preventative orders as Alexander sometimes called them, are deceptively simple and can be painfully misleading at times. For years I would think to myself something like, “Allow the neck to be free to let the head go forward and up to allow the back to lengthen and widen to let the knees go forward and away” without any idea what those words meant. My AT teachers told me to “think” the directions, so I repeated those words to myself with little effect to the point where I wondered if there was any value in thinking the directions. Eventually I started to actively investigate for myself what those words meant and what I was actually doing when I was “thinking the directions.”
What does it mean to direct?
Simply put, directing in the Alexander sense is having an intention for something to happen while simultaneously withholding consent (inhibiting) the immediate (habitual) response that comes up with the idea of the activity. When going well this essentially forces us to learn a new way of doing whatever task we are intending to do as we are saying no to traveling down the old neural pathway and forging a new one.
Directing is more of a mental activity than a practice of manipulating specific parts of the body. Just as a conductor doesn’t leave the podium, pick up a specific instrument and play when he wants a part of the orchestra to follow his direction; consciousness doesn’t need to leave our heads to give a cue to the part of the body we want to direct. An example illustrating the difference could be intending/imagining the tips of the fingers moving away from the wrists and letting what happens happen vs consciously controlling the path of the fingertip and actively doing something. The later is consciously doing your habit, as any movement we can conjure up on the fly is one that has been learned and ingrained. The former is experimenting with something new. Bring an awareness of this distinction as you read on.
Allow the neck to be free
Freeing the neck is an undoing of holding, pushing, and pulling on the neck by the various neck muscles. You can’t do an undoing, so to allow the neck to be free you are gently asking the muscles of the neck, especially those under the back of the skull, to release into length.
Notice any pulling of the crown of your head into your upper back. Notice if you are pulling on the skull with the muscles of the sides of the neck or holding the jaw still. If you can perceive either of these or anything else that seems to be pulling the head off it’s balancing point (located roughly between your ears and behind your eyes), gently ask whatever it is to do less.
To put [allow, wish, etc.] the head forward and up
This is perhaps the most confusing of the preventive orders as the word “put” seems to imply that “head forward and up” is a position of the head. Adding: in relation to the neck brings some clarity but still can be misleading because of the temptation to hold the head in a place one has deemed forward and up in relation to the neck.
Defining the forward as an unlocking of the head from the top of the spine is helpful. This often has the side effect of the neck moving back in space and the nose dropping just a bit in relation to the ground. Notice I said, “side effect” not “drop your nose and move your neck back.”
“What’s up?” you might ask. The deep muscles that run along the spine provide a natural upward flow that opposes gravity. These deep muscles are made up of special fibers that are much more resilient in the face of the constant force of gravity than our superficial musculature. The skull was designed to be poised atop the upward flow of the spine. Balancing the head on top of the spine is similar to balancing a ball on top of a column of air. The major difference being that the head can’t completely fall off because we’ve got muscles and ligaments keeping it attached.
When the head leaves the upward flow of the spine two things can happen. The more superficial muscles that are not designed to do the work of the deep spinal muscles kick in to catch and hold the falling skull and/or the weight of the skull pulls on our ligaments and muscles in unnatural ways; either option can seriously bend us out of shape and cause lasting side effects.
Because the natural tendency for the body to organize in opposition to gravity and for the head to move forward and up in relation to the spine, the thing to “do” is to stop pulling the head in directions that take it away from the top of the spine (most often back and down in relation to the spine).
To allow the back to lengthen and widen
What are we talking about when we say back? Is it our superficial back (skin, back of the ribs, spinous processes) or is it deeper and fuller? Clearly defining what we are looking at is very helpful in understanding this direction.
Lengthening comes from allowing the force of gravity to move through the bodies of the vertebra (front of the spine) so the deep spinal muscles, which are not under conscious control, can react in kind. When we interfere by holding ourselves upright (most people’s conception of sitting or standing up straight) we are shifting the workload from muscles that were designed to support the skeleton for long periods in gravity to muscles that were designed to lift heavy objects or strike a death blow to an animal (activities that require short bursts of great power).
The two most common postural patterns that interfere with the natural up flow of the spine are the slumped and overextended patterns (or some combination of the two). Slumped being (not exclusively) a downward and inward pull on the chest in the front of the torso. Overextended (again not exclusively) being a pushing forward and up through the mid-back. Both habits disrupt the central axis of the body causing alarm signals to be sent throughout the nervous system that bracing is needed to keep one from falling.
The direction [allow the back to lengthen and widen] is meant to undo bracing the ribs and contorting of the spine. Finding gravity can help stop the bracing in the torso. Place a hand firmly on the top of your head, applying gentle downward pressure. Without collapsing in the neck or torso, let that pressure move through the bodies of the vertebra of your spine all of the way through your spine down to your tail. This tells your spine which way is up. Now, without removing your hand, let your ribs move freely with the breath. You are lengthening and widening.
To let the knees go forward and away
Any effective use of the direction [let the knees go forward and away] doesn’t come from pushing the knees forward in space by conscious muscular effort. It’s very helpful to ask, “knees away from what?” The quick answer being: away from the pelvis which is the base of the spine and torso.
It is important to understand that our limbs come out of our backs. It’s easier to see in our similar the gorilla (right), but we still have the same basic set-up. Thinking of our gluteus maximus (glutes as they are commonly known) originating from the sides of the sacrum (roughly under the buttocks) and then out from the sacrum and lengthening down the backs and sides of the legs is essential to sending the knees forward and away from the pelvis. Another way of saying knees forward and away is: knees not pulled backward and up into the hip joints.
Opposition & Secondary Directions
The knees are also moving forward and away from the heels. Notice that there is always a two way street with the directions. Head forward/back back, knees forward and away/heels back and down. Without thinking oppositionally there is a tendency for one part to drag another along with a movement.
When you think knees forward and away from heels directed back and down away from your lengthening and widening torso that is directed back and up in relation to the head that’s directed forward and up; you’ve got the whole thing and could go round starting anywhere. Because of the limitations of language, we can’t say or verbally think all of that at once, but we can think the kinesthetic meaning of those words all at once when we have some idea of what they mean. Alexander would say, “All together and one at a time” to that affect.
Surprisingly absent in the primary directions is anything about the arms. Thinking of the arms coming off the back, elbows going away from the back and away from the wrists similarly to the knees away direction for the legs is a good first step. Alexander gave us the directions: fingers lengthening, wrists in, elbows apart to add on to the primary directions when using the hands. It can be helpful to think: shoulders widening and elbows dropping in addition to these.
You can always get more and more subtle, creative, and clear with your directions. You can direct your little toes to lengthen away from the ankle, or your eyelids to soften for example. You can widen the lenses and become more global by thinking: I’ve got time, Do less, I’m going up and letting down. Once you’ve sent a direction let it go. If nothing happens, send another. You wouldn’t hold onto a letter and expect it to get to it’s addressee. Lastly, have fun! The more imaginative, lighthearted, and curious you are in the attitude you bring to the game, the more effective the results will be.
Allow the neck to be free; for the head to go forward and up; for the torso to lengthen and widen; for the knees to go forward and away
4 thoughts on “Understanding the Primary Directions: Which way is up?”
Pingback: Two sides to the movement coin | The Tai Chi Notebook
Pingback: Breathing exercises | Connecting up the Dots
This is by far the most helpful of the Alexander Technique articles. Thank you!
Yes, this is a really clear description of both the thinking process of the Alexander technique and what is actually happening within the body. I am an Alexander Technique teacher and I plan on sharing this article with my students. Thank you for taking the time to provide such clear writing and visual guides.