I would like to dedicate this lecture to Walter Carrington who died just a few weeks ago. He was my first teacher and I can still feel his hand on my back from my last lesson with him a short time before he died. When I gave a similar lecture at the International Conference in Oxford last year, I dedicated it to Chris Stevens who had died in December 2003. He too had been my teacher, but also my partner, my husband and for seventeen years my close spiritual friend. Both Chris and Walter gave me a great deal of direction in my psychophysical development.
My generation of teachers (I qualified in 1987) have the responsibility to communicate through thought, word and deed the meaning and creativity of Alexander’s discovery in our own personal way, which serves its principles and deepens our psychophysical ability to embody those principles in our everyday life, our relationships and in our work.
I would like to talk to you this evening about a discovery and its practical application that I am totally convinced serves Alexander’s principles in every way. It is called The Support System. Let’s say Chris was the brain behind this discovery and I was the nervous system. Chris was a scientist and I an artist. Chris did all the hard academic work and I did a lot of sensing, watching, associating, perceiving and vocalizing. Chris challenged some hard line habitual thinking in Alexander circles and I have been working to integrate these enormously helpful procedures into a comprehensive Alexander training.
What is The Support System?
Let us return to F. M. Alexander as our starting point.
Alexander was a practical and caring man. He taught his pupils how to take care of their postural mechanisms. Goddard Binkley, a pupil of Alexander whose diaries have been read by many Alexander teachers, recalls Alexander telling him in a lesson: “You are doing with your neck what your legs and feet should do.”
To understand what Alexander meant we should ask the simple question: “What should our feet and legs do?”
Both Walter and Chris answered this question equally simply: The feet and legs do not hang down from the torso, they support us with a stable and flexible strength if we do not interfere with their mechanisms.
To fulfill Alexander’s quest to take care of the postural mechanisms during activity we have to remove our self-induced interferences in our support system - nature’s way of holding us up. The essence of the support work as we teach it is that you will not be able to free your neck, and maybe should not free your neck, if you are insufficiently supported by the planet. The physical support you require comes from the conscious and sensual contact of your feet with the earth beneath them. If you have habitual stiffening in the feet and legs you will encounter difficulties in maintaining a dynamically functioning primary control when you start getting active, moving, speaking, singing, dancing, running, walking, or whatever the natural, creative human being loves to do. This is at the centre of Chris’ approach and to explain the physiology behind it all was the aim of his scientific research.
Chris was a man who spent his all too short life searching for the truth. He wanted to de-mystify the Alexander work. He did not like it when Alexander teachers evoked in their pupils the impression of magical powers. The human body is the only really natural thing left in our industrialized lives. it lives and thrives according to natural laws. Our posture and our movement is an expression of the genius of nature made available to the dynamics of the human soul. And Chris wanted to understand and explain the physiological processes behind one vital aspect of nature: how we stand up on our two (back!) legs and do not fall over when we start to move.
Chris first encountered scientific research into the Technique through reading Frank Pearce Jones. He then decided to start experimenting himself. He did so with enthusiastic professors of physiology in London and Copenhagen. The study, which surprised him most and contributed to his discovery of the significant role of the legs and feet in the functioning of the postural mechanisms, was the Postural Sway Study.
When we stand quietly the human body always sways a little, around the vertical. The freer the postural mechanisms are functioning the smaller the sway. Chris and his colleagues did hundreds of studies and splinted people’s necks to see how a stiff neck effects sway. The big surprise was that it made no difference; the people with “stiffened” necks did not sway more than those without the splints. Chris recognized the possibility that not the neck but the state of the feet, ankles, legs and hips were determining the postural sway. This would mean that our feet and legs are crucial in controlling posture. It “questioned the primacy of the neck under all conditions” and, as Chris then added, “I had to face up to the results of my research.”
At this point Chris returned to the literature for sources. He searched for scientific evidence of postural reflexes in the feet and legs. He reread “Use of the Self”, talked extensively with Walter Carrington and reread Walter’s books. he discovered useful material written by Magnus, Radamacher and, most of all, Sherrington’s chapter on the support reflexes. Chris visited the neurophysiologist T. D. M. Roberts and showed us a film during our training in Denmark of Roberts demonstrating the support reflexes in dogs. I recall seeing how the dog’s leg stiffened to support him the moment his paw contacted a firm surface. Chris began to talk about positive stiffness, the kind of stiffness we need to be held up, not the fixed stiffness which interferes with free movement.
Chris removed a lot of fear and fairytales from the Alexander process.
At the same time I started to look more carefully at any material I could find about peoples who have always lived in natural environments, how they used themselves, how they danced and how they used their legs and feet. One quality was ubiquitously clear: their naked feet were powerfully connected to the ground on which they lived and when they moved you could see a tremendous force rising up from their feet into their moving bodies. It was as though they had to do nothing because the earth was doing it all. It was clear that these people allowed the earth to support them in all aspects of their lives and that this psycho-physical process had an essential physiological effect on their balance and posture.
Chris had his first Alexander lessons with Paul Collins who was a professional runner. I remember Chris and Paul later working together and Paul frequently demonstrating and talking about how good use of the feet and legs was essential not only for running but for general good use in activity.
Both Chris and I were very active people. My dance training and career had stiffened my legs terribly and Chris, with his interest in running, also became aware of misuse of his legs and feet. I often encountered great difficulties while training to be an Alexander Teacher to allow my neck to be free. Or my neck became temporarily free while I was working with an experienced teacher but soon afterwards stiffened again. I could not understand what I was doing wrong and where I should begin to undo the wrongdoing. I knew I was a nervous person but what and where was the misuse behind this chronic interference of my neck? We began to realize tat the misuse of our feet and legs was causing interference with the primary control and we were interfering with our support system - that part of our postural reflexes called the support reflexes.
Chris was convinced by now that the support reflexes were fundamental in organizing posture and that they were initiated in the legs and feet. Because we are, still, in several ways four legged creatures these reflexes can also be found in the hands and arms. If our postural mechanisms are so connected to our limbs, how does all this relate to Alexander’s great discovery of the Primary Control and to the undoubted fact that we need our neck to be free?
There is a sentence in “The Use of the Self” which helped Chris understand the connection between the support reflexes and the primary control. Alexander described how only when he was able to “inhibit the most harmful influence of my feet and legs on my general use” was he able to maintain the freedom of the primary control in the practice of speaking.
Reading this Chris was encouraged to continue his scientific research. The supporting reflexes are reflex organization in the hands, arms, feet and legs. These are spinal reflexes and not simply a response to gravity. Sherrington describes how the support reflexes are the reflexes most easily interfered with and that they fatigue easily. This became a clear indication of the importance of our conscious use of our limbs.
Why does the neck stiffen? Of course there are all sorts of reasons but one very powerful reason is to stop the head falling and hitting the ground. If the body is not being supported adequately the neck will hold on to the head. As we all know, the balance of the head is a delicate matter and it does not take much to endanger this dynamic balance. The body will rather stiffen than endanger the head because this could be fatal. In other words: rather a stiff neck than endangering your life. And that is the state that many people have got themselves into. They are saving their lives with their neck muscles. T. D. M. Roberts has a very nice way of describing the postural mechanisms: these are mechanisms which “prevent painful collisions of the head with the planet.”
Human beings are emotional creatures. we feel joy and despair, hope and fear. When we consciously allow the planet to support us, a huge psychological change can happen. We start trusting. This means we have to inhibit our resistance to the pull of gravity or, in other words, release our fear of falling by allowing the feet to rest on the ground and whole heartedly rely on its support. Support generates trust.
The word for posture in German is “Haltung.” Many people I have worked with do not like this term. Translated it means “holding.” It reminds people of muscular effort to stand up straight. But I have thought about this word and I now understand what it can mean. It does not refer to a person’s manner of holding themselves but to the way he or she is being held up, how they practically answer the question, “what is holding me up?” When we understand that the planet is holding u s up we are halfway there. Gravity pulls our bodies toward the center of the earth which means we are moving “down” continually. The firm surface of the ground resists this movement at the points of contact and a powerful force pushes back up in the opposing direction. This is contact force or support force. When we stand it begins under the feet and moves up through the skeleton giving an internal supporting force for the head. This is what we call “up thrust.” It is a vital part of the physical force behind what we call “going up.”
Chris said we should not end gain on the means whereby. If we are in any way doing “neck free, head forward and up” we prevent the natural integration of the head with the spine and seriously interfere with the support of the head. It became obvious among our pupils and students that when they allowed their head to be supported, the neck spontaneously released. This required a conscious use of the legs and feet to remove interferences in the support system. Many body awareness systems talk about the importance of the contact to the ground via the bones but Chris opened our eyes in a radical way: it s the up thrust through the bones which is crucial.
The Support System is quite straightforward. First of all you must give yourself time to sense the surface of the ground under your feet. The more you allow yourself to feel it, the better. This kind of feeling is essential for conscious awareness. This is not the type of feeling which Alexander recognised as unreliable. It is simply being in contact with the surface of support. Then you can allow the ground to support you. This is a matter of being aware and deciding. When the body receives support from the ground or a chair (or whatever the body is in contact with) we call this outer support. When this support force enters the body and moves up through the bones we call this inner support. Here it is necessary to consciously allow the feet to support the lower legs, the lower legs to support the upper legs, the upper legs to support the pelvis, the pelvis to support the sacrum, the sacrum to support the lumbar spine, the lumbar spine the thoracic spine, the thoracic spine to support the cervical spine and the whole spine to support the head.
On all fours you can activate the support very well in the hands and arms by using them like feet. the ground supports the hands, the hands th lower arms, the lower arms the upper arms, the upper arms the shoulders and the upper body is then supported by and suspended from the arms and shoulders.
I recall Walter Carrington saying that when we teach and we have our hands on our pupil we use our hands like feet; we become four legged. Using our hands and feet in this way enables the whole skeleton to support the head and then the neck muscles do not have to hold onto it. The neck can release and those muscles (which were previously engaged in holding up the head) become free for fine adjustment and movement.
A good contact between the surface of support and the feet and hands causes a stretching of the soft tissue between the bones. Nerve endings in these areas are stimulated and messages are sent to the brain to activate the mechanisms required for stabilizing the upright body, including the deep postural muscles, before and during movement. Movement is made possible by the many different movement muscles of the body. If the body is not receiving adequate support, if the deep postural muscles are not activated by the natural reflex response to gravity, then the movement muscles jump in and hold the body to prevent it falling, In a moment of danger this can be very useful, but as a continuing habit it is the cause of many problems and is detrimental to our health. If our so called movement muscles are highly active stopping us falling over and contracting and stiffening we are not going to be able to rest on the surface of the earth and receive support let alone move freely. The downward spiral can only increase in such a case.
Chris’ background in physics and my interest in the arts and anthropology enabled us to perceive vital connections between objective processes and subjective experience. We developed procedures to encourage the inhibition of the interferences we were beginning to understand. This process requires clear, exact and ongoing thinking, “Waiting for a turn” is no longer a reality on my training course. The students learn to work on their own. This has proved to be enormously useful. The students learn to practice outer and inner support, giving these new inhibitory directions in semi-supine, full-supine, laying on the belly, crawling, standing, sitting, walking, running, monkey, hand on and, of course, in all sorts of creative activities as acting, singing and dancing.
Chris and I were very spontaneous people. True spontaneity is part of freedom of choice but we had to understand it better in relation to inhibition. He explained that inhibition is not standing still like statues but allowing mental time before responding. The work of Ben Libet was of great importance to us both to understand the physiology behind inhibition. It is “the prevention of what should not happen” (Walter Carrington). Inhibition and not direction is the beginning of the means whereby and inhibition must include the inhibition of the interferences of the support reflexes if we are “going to do the job properly” as Chris would put it, and he frequently referred to Alexander’s “inhibitory directions.”
Chris understood the primary control in a way which helped us all to become less end gaining and more conscious of the means whereby. He explained control as in a control lamp in a car. It blinks when something is wrong. If the dynamic relationship between the head, neck and back is lost we know something, somewhere is going wrong - we are interfering with some part of the support system, somewhere between the feet and the head. He explained primary not as a description of time but of importance. But it might not be the very first thing we attend to, remembering the body must receive support in order for the neck to release.
Whether we are an artist, scientist or Alexander Teacher it is necessary to be spiritually and mentally aware of life’s direction and the forces which create the “up”. The psychophysical quality we must move toward is one of receptiveness. This allows us to be in contact with the planet and with the life force which regulates, organizes and inspires our lives. Through the work with The Support System many of us feel we are coming closer to what F. M. was communicating and with all this physiological understanding we can, if necessary, explain the mechanisms more precisely.
I can no longer imagine giving an Alexander lesson without first inhibiting the interferences in the support system.