Please scroll down for information on the Alexander Directions, Body Mapping, Ideokinesis, Feet and Back Pain.
The Alexander Directions
“Merely thinking creates activity in the brain without adding to physical tension. We can actually change our posture and the entire way we use ourselves with our thoughts. (Richard Brennan, Alexander Technique Teacher and Author)
Alexander termed the dynamic, relational balance of the head, neck and back (torso) the Primary Control. Primary aptly indicates a hierarchy that exists – that this balance sets up or furnishes the queue for balance throughout the rest of the body. Our priority is therefore to consciously attend to the process of freeing our necks, so that good Primary Control can be established and sustained.
In order to establish and sustain this Primary Control, Alexander evolved a set of Directions or mental orders that we project. Throughout your lessons with Fiona, you will be reminded to project these directions before and during any activity or exploration.
Come into standing mentally (or even verbally to begin with) projecting the following sequence of the Alexander Directions:
Allow the neck to be free so that
the head can go forward and up so that
the back (whole torso) can lengthen and widen
Repeat this a few times, and observe any changes (they may be subtle) that you notice is your whole self. It is important to trust that this process will elicit a subtle change and that you must resist temptation to try to ‘do’ these directions in a physical way.
Alexander developed this process of projecting the directions for the Primary Control in order to offset and even prevent the habits of dis-coordination he found that he brought to virtually all activity. The premise of this process, of engaging a mental process in order to direct the physical, is founded in Alexander’s insistence that we are whole, or a psychophysical unity as he described it.
“When giving mental orders or the Directions, you are directly influencing the entire way you use yourself (operate), including your posture, whether you ‘feel’ anything happening or not. (Richard Brennan)
Fiona recommends that you read Chapter One: Evolution of a technique in F.M Alexander’s Use of the Self, London, Orion Books, 2001. Here Alexander describes the evolution of the technique including these directions.
Semi Supine or Constructive Rest
“It is easier to let go of tension when lying down because gravity is working on your body in a different way and there are fewer balance issues and distractions to contend with. (Richard Brennan)
One procedure used in the Alexander Technique to support you to become more aware of your self, in particular tension, is laying in Semi Supine.
If you have back pain or any pain that you know is made worse when you lay on your back you will need to ask your trainer for help. The trainer will probably be able to help you by slightly altering your body alignment, by the use of props or by finding you an alternative position. You may find you are able to perform this procedure on your side or in prone and you will be advised accordingly.
This procedure is a highly constructive way of beginning to reduce tension you are holding by way of consciously directing and projecting your thoughts in a supported resting position. If done regularly (10- 20min each day is highly advisable) it can help to align and elongate the spine and improve overall posture.
Benefits of the Semi Supine Procedure
- Improves overall organization/alignment
- Gives the intervertebral discs a chance to rehydrate which will result in increased height/length through spine
- Elongates any curves of the spine that have been exaggerated through compression (you are not aiming to straighten/flatten out the natural curves of the spine)
- Releases muscular tension and holding throughout the body
- Improves breathing (capacity and coordination)
- Improves circulation (blood flows better when there is less tension in the musculature)
- Lessens pressure on nerves, especially if there is an impingement condition present
- Allows the internal organs to move, reorganize and function more effectively
- Assists overall energy levels through the resting of the musculature and nervous system
- Can offer reduction in emotional disturbances such as stress, anxiety through combined physical and mental rebalancing
(Adapted from Brennan, Richard. Change Your Posture, Change Your Life: How the power of the Alexander Technique can combat back pain, tension and stress, London, Watkins Publishing, 2012, p. 156.)
Step-by-Step Semi Supine Guide
Take some books (approx. 2-3 novels) for under your head and find a place to lay on your back on the floor. In your first sessions Fiona will advise you on the exact height of books which you require.
Make sure you are warm and if needed use a yoga mat.
Once on your back, bend your knees up and have the feet flat on the floor.
Rest your hands on your torso or by your sides.
To check the height of your books you will need to become aware of how your neck feels. If you feel squashed through the throat area you may have too many books. If it feels like the back of your neck is tense or the head is dropping back you may not have enough books. Once you have this organized, direct your thoughts to releasing the weight of the head to rest on the books.
The soles of your feet are flat on the floor and with even weight distribution.
The knees are pointed to the ceiling.
If the legs are tending to fall inwards, you can try having your feet closer together. If they are falling outward, you can try having the feet further apart.
The back is resting into the floor but you are not pushing it or trying to flatten out the natural curves.
The arms are relaxed and there is a sense of breadth through the shoulders and chest area (again without pushing).
The pelvis is resting and echoes this sense of breadth and expansion.
Breathing is normal, preferable with the lips lightly closed, thus through the nose.
As you lay here, you want to stay awake (keep the eyes open) and active with your thinking. To begin with you may like to experiment with different approaches to how you direct your thinking during this time. Initially you will do well to keep coming back to the things that have just been described, in combination with noticing and letting go of any tension through the body. You may find that initially it is challenging to stay present with this process and that you are easily distracted with unrelated thoughts.
When you are ready to get up, you want to be very attentive to this process. In particular, you need to avoid lifting your head and tensing the neck and abdominal muscles. Rather, you want to roll your head and knees to the side to bring you to rest on your side. From here you can use your hand to push you to sit up, rather than tensing your neck muscles. To stand, you can come through a lunge or a squat, again paying special attention to any tensing of the neck muscles.
It is important to understand that the benefits and your understanding of these benefits from laying in Semi Supine, will only arise when done on a regularly basis, ideally every day. While you will feel some immediate affects (at the time and straight afterwards), over a longer period of time you will really notice some profound changes.
Body Mapping & Ideokinesis
What is Body Mapping?
Body Map is the term given to the representational map of our bodies we have each developed in our brains. It may also be called body model, body scheme or internal representation. In the first three years of our lives the development of our body map enables us to begin to walk, run, jump and speak. As we continue to grow and develop, so too does our body map. This process of development is predominantly informed by our experiences living in the world.
Unfortunately, over time our body maps tend to develop faults and entirely ‘blank’, unmapped areas. For example, when asked to point to their hip joints, many adults will point to a variety of areas within the pelvis and upper leg region. In general, the hip joint tends to be mapped higher and wider than its actual location. (The boney prominence of the iliac crest is easy to palpate and often mistaken as the hip joint).
Why is correcting and refining my Body Map important?
If there is a disparity in the mental representation (body map) and the anatomical reality, the mental always wins in movement! In other words, the problem with a faulty or incomplete body map is that it directly and in this case negatively, informs the way we move. Our faulty or incomplete body map may cause us to move in ways that are awkward, injurious and painful because we are simply not moving according to our design.
In the cited example of mis-mapped hip joints, the likely consequence will be that when this person bends i.e. to pick something up, they bend from where they have mapped their hip joint rather than at the actual joint. This will mean that they will bend by flexing the lumbar spine, placing sudden stress and load through an area that is not designed to repeatedly perform such action. Over time this can lead to pain and injury.
What is the Alexander Technique and how does it relate to Body Mapping?
The Alexander technique is based upon the discovery by Frederick Matthias Alexander, a professional actor, who in spite of his best endeavors was unable to change faulty patterns of movement which were responsible for him losing his voice. His key finding was that even after identifying what it was he was doing with himself and what it was that he should and wanted to be doing instead, his kinesthetic* judgment of that which he was doing was faulty. His sense of feeling was quite entirely unreliable. Alexander ruminated,
“If ever anyone was at an impasse it was I. For here I was, faced with the fact that my feeling, the only guide I had to depend on for the direction of my use, was untrustworthy.” But he didn’t give up at this point. “Surely’ I agued if it is possible for feeling to become untrustworthy as a means of direction, it should also be possible to make it trustworthy again.”
And indeed he succeeded. A course of Alexander Technique lessons are aimed at re-educating our kinesthetic and proprioceptive1 senses so that we can indeed do with our minds and bodies what we intend to do.
Body mapping is not a replacement for Alexander technique lessons, but an important complement. When errors in body mapping (false ideas about where parts of our bodies are located, what sort of movements they can perform and how we should effectively engage them) are added to faulty kinestheic and proprioceptive awareness, any attempt to make useful changes to posture and movement will be ineffective and will not last.
(*Kinethesia- A sense mediated by receptors located in muscles, tendons, and joints and stimulated by bodily movements and tensions; also : sensory experience derived from this sense)
How does Body Mapping support and enhance my learning of the Alexander Technique?
A detailed and accurate body map will enhance the study of all somatic based education methods including Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, Yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi and Chi Gong. By engaging in the process of continually correcting and refining your body map you will find you are more effectively able to utilize the information received in the process of learning Alexander Technique.
Want to learn more?
Fiona teaches Body Mapping at workshops and intensives as well as the full 10 Session Accredited Unit ATTMAP607A Use body mapping to improve movement and posture at the School for F.M. Alexander Studies, Melbourne. For details on the next training intensive see here
What is Ideokinesis?
Ideokinesis is an approach that engages visual and tactile-kinesthetic imagery to support the improvement of human posture and body movement. Ideokinesis works from the premise that visualizing movement only with the mind’s eye (either as movement within the body or in space), without any perceivable sensation of muscular effort, primes neural pathways and reprograms unnecessary and unwanted muscular tensions. Fiona was first introduced to Ideokinesis during her tertiary dance training and classes with lecturer Wendy Smith.
Sports psychology research has shown that visualizing a clear goal of an action readily coordinates the neuromuscular details of the movement (the muscular recruitment, sequencing, and timing and force requirements). Physical practice combined with mental practice can lead to more improvement in motor performance and strength than either physical or mental practice alone. Further brain imaging technology reveals that mentally practicing a motor image utilizes the same brain regions as actual physical execution. Visualization, then, is a powerful tool in linking mind and body in programming or re-programming a “right” (intended) action without excessive wear-and-tear on the body from physical practice. In dance this is often referred to as, intelligent practice and can be effectively adopted in sports and music also.
Ideokinesis has been known by many names in its nearly 100-year history and is currently practiced primarily by individuals in the field of dance and somatics. The term Ideokinesis was applied to the discipline in the early 1970s and has become its most universally recognized title. You can learn more here.
Working with Feet
Since 2013, with the Director of Training, David Moore, Fiona has developed and run the very popular Working With Feet full day workshops at the School for F.M. Alexander Studies, Melbourne. Working with Feet is a practical workshop examining alternative methods for alleviating foot dysfunctions including flat arches and bunions. Participants are introduced to the principles of the Alexander technique in order to better understand the direct influence whole body balance and coordination has upon the feet. The workshop also covers yoga postures, exercises for re-activating the feet and Body Mapping.
You can book your place in the next Working with Feet workshop here
The reality is that mostly we wear shoes. In this way, it is important to develop an awareness of how you are moving in your chosen footwear and explore if this is the most efficient, easeful use of your whole self in response to the circumstances present? Mostly, we neglect to adapt to our ever-changing circumstances. Take for example a woman who alternates between wearing flat shoes and high heels. If she neglects to consciously consider and adopt a new balance of herself required when she wears her heels (the body moves 20 degrees forward off balance in a 5cm heel), she will most likely tighten some part/s of her body in order to stop herself falling forward. She will do well to spend some time in her heels consciously mapping her joints and their movement range in this modified scenario. For example, the ankle joint is constantly in plantar flexion, so it’s reasonable to expect the knee and hip joints will have to move more to make up for the limited ankle joint movement.
It is also important to become conscious of the kinds of shoes you are wearing or choosing to purchase. When purchasing shoes, consider the following:
1. Flexibility of the shoe, in particular the sole. Does it bend and where does it bend?
2. Height of the heel. Does it have a heel? If it is flat, does it have enough cushioning?
3. Internal space. Is there space for your foot inside the shoe? In particular, can the toes spread in the toe box area?
4. Weight of the shoe. How heavy is it and how does this feel not only in your hand but also on your foot? Will the weight of the shoe fatigue your legs if you are walking for a long time?
The 2008 Alexander Technique Exercise and Massage Trial (ATEAM trial) published in the British Medical Journal provides very positive evidence of the effectiveness of Alexander Technique for treating chronic back pain. This study is of clinical significance in that the Alexander Technique was shown to outperform spinal manipulation, massage, exercise and general practitioner management in the reduction of disability and pain associated with chronic lower back pain. It is furthermore a significant study due to the large sample size of almost 600 people from various general practitioner practices across Western England. In this study
“Learning and applying the Alexander Technique led to an 86% reduction in days in pain per month and a 42% reduction in disability scores. The people who undertook Alexander Technique lessons went from 21 out of 28 days in pain to a mere three out of 28 days in pain.