In spring 2007, I went surfing. The weather was wild, the water was cold, and although it was exhilarating being thrown about in the waves, it was also chastening to feel so helpless pitting my relatively puny body against the churning tide.
At a certain point, turning one way but being propelled in the opposite direction by the sea, I felt a stab of pain in my left hip. I thought little of it then, though the next day I noticed a dragging sensation whenever I took a step. I shrugged this off as a minor injury, expecting it to settle down over time.
By early summer, I belatedly realised that what I had dismissed as an irritation, necessitating me nursing a hip that would heal in due course, was developing into a fully fledged limp that if I was not careful I would grow so used to I would cease to notice.
I considered it was largely because of the awareness I had developed through Alexander work that I could so easily recognise myself masking an incidence of pain by limiting my mobility; but I was at a loss to understand why that same acuity was unable to alert me to why I still had a problem.
I was convinced I had injured myself in a way that required time, rather than any change of behaviour, to heal: but when several months had gone by, and my condition had got worse rather than better, I began to suspect it might be due to something I was doing. But what? Was I moving any differently now (apart from limiting my stride to avoid pain) than before the accident? I hardly thought so: but if I wasn’t, did that mean I had been using myself badly since well before going surfing, and the pain I was experiencing, and possibly the injury itself, were the result of less than optimal conditions, then?
I reconsidered how I walked, and could find nothing wrong. I did what I thought I should to approach matters from as pure an Alexander angle as possible. I inhibited and directed conscientiously, with greater motivation than usual. However, if anything, the condition got worse; and the limp became more pronounced the more I tried to mask this. If I stopped myself limping, I gasped as I walked, so acute was the pain.
At this point, I thought perhaps I had acquired an inherent weakness in my hip that needed strengthening. I started doing various stretches and exercises. These appeared at first to be helping, giving me a day or two’s grace, before a seemingly inevitable relapse occurred.
I found the entire episode puzzling. I was convinced I was walking correctly, as I understood the term, and I could see no reason for the pain to continue beyond a reasonable period of recuperation. My Alexander conception of walking may have been fairly simple, but it was, I thought, unimpeachable.
During training, we would practice in front of mirrors, slowly lifting a foot off the ground, and noticing the tell tale signs of collapsing into the weight bearing hip. We learned to curtail this tendency, so we could maintain the stability of our trunks while standing on first one leg, then the other. It was impressed upon us how important it was not to lose height at any stage.
Put into practice when walking, this made for what appeared a light, effortless, free flowing progression, with the overall emphasis on ‘coming up’ out of the hips at all times. This struck me at the time as sound logic.
It now ‘felt’ that way, too, having become for me a well oiled habit; although these days it no longer seemed so fluid. I strove to detect where I might be going wrong, but could register nothing untoward.
On the assumption I was doing something amiss, this struck me as an excellent example of the main shortcoming of the Technique, at least as a means of self help: the impossibility of being able to stop doing a wrong thing without first needing to become aware of it, in detail; and the lack of any well defined method for doing that.
I could inhibit my initial response to the impulse to walk, and I could then give my directions, but as soon as I took a step, I became reliant on habit again – which, in my case, I was beginning to suspect was a bad habit.
How was it possible to advance from a state of unknowing wrong doing, without comprehending what was wrong, first? The obvious answer – to visit a teacher (though that, in fact, would have been unlikely to help me) – belies the expectation in Alexander circles that poor habits can be inhibited without our having to have them pointed out to us, or for us to need to know about, still less experience, them, directly.
Given that the linchpin of the Technique is inhibition, I think we grossly misunderstand its way of working. It is overly simplistic to believe that by stopping what we are doing, or refusing to initiate anything new, in order to â€˜give directionsâ€™, we are somehow able to then go into motion without engaging our usual subconscious habit patterns.
The sanguine attitude encapsulated by dependence on ‘blanket inhibition’ is, unfortunately, far from uncommon in the Alexander world. To believe we have a means of controlling our reactions by the simple expedient of delaying their onset, seems to me to foster complacency and stagnation, both personally and professionally.
The truth is, the only way we can inhibit – that is, not do – any pattern of interference, is by first recognising it for what it is, kinaesthetically and intellectually, and then consciously deciding not to repeat it. Otherwise, we might as well be inhibiting any number of imaginary habits as one that does exist but that we don’t know of.
In the context of walking, I was brought up short by my own assumptions. I had no notion of what I did – what habit I persisted in – that could be done without. I felt I had pared the process to the bone. That, perhaps, was my problem. Maybe it was not so much that I was doing anything superfluous, but that I was preventing what needed to happen from taking place.
It was at this point that I remembered an exercise I had come across a couple of years earlier in Thomas Hanna’s book, Somatics, which specifically covered walking. I had done the exercise a few times, and had found it intriguing. Unfortunately, I had let the insights elude me over the passage of time and could recall few of the details.
It shocks me that although I was in pain, knew I had a copy of the exercise sitting on my shelf, and suspected it might be helpful, I had to remind myself repeatedly over a period of many weeks, before I finally took action. This was partly because I was most aware of the pain when away from home, and tended to forget about it at other times; but I suspect an alternative motive might have been an unwillingness to concede my use was at fault.
Eventually, I set a reminder on my mobile phone to alert me at a time which I knew would find me sitting at my desk, within easy reach of the photocopied pages. I remember taking them from my shelf and leaving them in an obvious place, where they again sat untouched for another few weeks.
Finally, one day, the pain was so excruciating, I hobbled home, picked up the sheaf of papers, and thought to myself I would give it a try. Ten or fifteen minutes later, I was parading around the garden, asking my wife if I looked silly ‘walking this way’, and wondering how it could possibly be that the pain in my hip was so noticeably absent.
For anyone interested in knowing what the full exercise is, I suggest reading Thomas Hanna’s book. Somatics, along with Feldenkries, from which it evolved, and the Technique itself, are the only approaches I know that truly address the way we use ourselves in everyday life. Somatics and Feldenkries may emphasis exercises for increasing awareness and mobility, whereas Alexander relies on changes in thinking to produce the same effects; but the common ground is unmistakable.
Having had the advantage of putting Hanna’s insight (readily conveyed through the exercise) into practice over a reasonable period of time, I am satisfied I now know where I was going wrong. By dint of unthinking habit, initially, and by later paying undue attention to ‘length’, I believe I had lost a large part of the mobility in my hips; and that this loss of mobility led to fixation of my pelvis, with concomitant effects elsewhere.
Walking is such a fundamental part of our functioning, it is hard to evaluate where or when we begin to go wrong. Presumably, when I first took an interest in the subject, I had inherited from my past much the same acquired stiffness, or set of habits, as anyone else of my age and cultural background, about which I knew little more than how I had learned to walk in the first place.
An interest that began when I first started having Alexander lessons continued when I went on to become a teacher. During this period, I learned to recognise certain ways I, and others, appeared to interfere with what I came to think of as good use while walking. Over time, I cultivated, and passed on, a new, and I thought better, way of approaching the subject.
I remained somewhat uneasy about dissecting the activity of walking, from an Alexander standpoint, because I didn’t want the process of giving undue attention to the individual components of such a wonderfully coordinated activity to interfere with its operation, causing it to become stilted. This applied as much to myself as any student I may have been teaching.
I tended to fall back on the need to maintain a free neck, a poised head and a lengthening and widening back, and for the knees to go forward from the hips and away from each other; but what did that mean, in actuality, when walking?
Time and again, I had seen Alexander teachers – and copied them myself, as soon as I became one – putting their hands on their students’ necks, and leading them forwards into walking, as if head direction alone would influence and condition everything beneath it. Of course, it does, to some extent; but although we talk about being free in the hips, knees and ankles, we don’t like to consider this directly, but tend instead to assume our ‘freedom of neck’ will ensure it for us.
Hanna’s exercise forced me to conclude this assumption was far from the case. At its core, lies the suggestion that the hips need to be addressed much more directly than we might like. He has various lying down procedures to amply demonstrate this. They seemed uncontroversial until I stood up and tried putting them into practice. Only then was I able to realise that what I had been doing was not at all what I had thought I was doing.
We will all be aware of following behind someone whose buttocks veer freely from side to side as they walk. Occasionally, this seems, and probably is, exaggerated for effect. Essentially, though, it is what Hanna suggests we emulate.
The best way to experience this, without taking the trouble to run through the full exercise (although, clearly, this is to be recommended) is to begin by standing with feet hip width apart. Then, allow the weight to be gradually taken by one leg – say, the left. Do this normally, and simply notice what happens. Then, try it on the other side, taking ample time. Now, go from one side to the other, standing on each foot alternately.
Having established what is habitual, try this, instead. Gradually take the weight on the left foot, by allowing the left hip to slide out to the side, and to rise somewhat, while the right hip drops, causing the left buttock to move backwards and sideways. Don’t force this; simply allow it to happen.
There is a natural limit to the possibility of movement here which, when it is reached, will allow no further adjustment without a degree of force. Then, the right foot may be lifted from the ground easily.
Try this on the other side, with the right hip sliding sideways, the right side of the pelvis moving upwards in space and the left side downwards; and the right buttock going backwards and sideways, as the full weight is taken on the right leg. Then try moving from one side to the other, while allowing the sliding movement to happen alternately; and finally try walking on the spot.
Essentially, the feeling should be one of the buttocks swaying easily from side to side, as the hips glide first one way, then the other.
Now, try walking forwards, integrating this pelvic roll into the movement. What should be noteworthy is the effect this has on the lower spine, not dissimilar to that of the moving crown of a tree influencing the upper part of the trunk. Remember to emphasise, without in any way forcing, the buttock movement. It is normal for this to feel unnaturally exaggerated, at first.
Now, go back to the old way of doing things. First, stand still; and then shift weight to the left side, as if a step was about to be taken, and notice what happens. It is important not to pretend, here, how different one way was from the other, by allowing the ‘new’ experience to cloud the ‘old’.
Do the same on the right side. See if the exact moment can be pinpointed when weight is about to be taken on one leg and yet the hip and buttock are not allowed to slide out to the side.
The question is, what prevents the pelvis from shifting; what interference is being introduced into the hips to stop them sliding sideways?
In my case, the answer was a tightening of the muscles surrounding the pelvis, in order to hold it in a fixed position, prior to and throughout the act of walking. Without realising it, I was expending considerable effort in maintaining the apparent integrity of my trunk – effectively binding my pelvic and thoracic regions into one – by refusing to allow my pelvis to ‘oscillate’, or my hips to ‘rotate’, as my legs swung. In other words, I was turning a versatile ball and socket joint into little more than a utilitarian flat hinge.
In Hanna’s view, this is a prime (and very common) example of poor use. My suspicion is that Alexander enthusiasts, far from being immune to such interference, are more susceptible to it than most.
I believe we have become obsessed with remaining ‘up’, at all costs. When someone exhibits patterns of general collapse, our emphasis is on helping them regain their height and poise. Working with them getting in and out of a chair, or in virtually any other setting where both feet remain on the ground, it is possible to encourage a degree of longitudinal (by which I mean forward and backward) freedom in the hips that need involve no more – and conceivably much less – latitudinal (or sideways) freedom than they already enjoy.
This is partly because both legs are equal weight bearers, and any latitudinal freedom of movement – or lack of it – is going to appear far more subtle, and far less important, than longitudinal freedom; but it is also because latitudinal freedom is likely to masquerade under the guise of ‘shortening’, and therefore, if recognised, be actively discouraged.
When it comes to walking, we naturally want to transfer the ease we – or our students – have cultivated when sitting, or standing, to this activity, too. The major emphasis, as always, is on not ‘pulling down’. So, when transferring weight from both legs to a single leg, it seems axiomatic that height should not be lost, and the best way of achieving this is by the injunction to the brain and body to not slide sideways into the hips, or allow either side of the pelvis to lift. In Hanna’s view, such sliding and lifting is precisely what we need to encourage.
Interestingly, playing with this concept in activities other than walking provides an experience of freedom in the hip that is markedly different to what is usually the case when merely ‘thinking up’.
One way of testing this is to investigate what happens when going from standing to sitting. In my experience, there is a major, if subtle, difference between allowing the hips to slide sideways in tandem (which barely registers as a movement) and preventing them from doing this (which is our likely default mode) when letting the knees bend.
In the first case, the consequent bend at the hips, following the initial knee bend, happens in accordance with the requirements of balance, almost as a reflex, without any need for conscious decision making; and this in turn appears to organise similarly automatic changes in the lower back.
In the second case, neither of these occurs, at least not spontaneously. The knees bend, and then the hips are separately instructed to ‘release’. These instructions can seem, without being, inextricably linked to the knee bend; and the release is, in fact, only partial, containing orders for the hips to remain latitudinally locked.
Nor do the lower back changes happen in the same way. When standing, we have a visible inward curve in our lumber region. As we bend our knees, pass through various stages of monkey, and sit, this curve flattens out. It appears to me that the flattening occurs as the gradual but inevitable consequence of allowing – and continuing to allow – a full range of movement in the hips, far more readily than by partially locking there. When we prevent latitudinal freedom of movement in the hips, the curve in the lower back seems to have to adjust itself in arrears, as a conscious, or semi conscious, afterthought.
Curiously, when we allow the hips a full range of movement prior to letting the knees bend, not only is there an immediate flexing of the joint, and a follow on adjustment in the lower back, but the knees can be experienced moving ‘forwards from the hips and away from each other’ in a most distinctive way. This is quite a different sensation to that felt when the hips remain partially locked.
I hardly dare speculate on the number of times I have intoned my ‘knee directions’ while rigidly maintaining conditions in my hips that ensured those directions could not be carried out.
It is clear to me – though the perceptible difference is more subtle still – that when simply standing, or sitting, or, in fact, when doing anything involving no major muscular movement, the resting state of the hips can either be one of remaining open to the full range of potential movement, or of imposing a limit on that range.
I have no hesitation in saying I now prefer the former state; but that my default mode is probably still the latter.
My impression is that a person who habitually interferes with the free operation of his or her hips when walking probably interferes with them most of the rest of the time, too. In other words, even when they are at rest, the muscular lock that prevents their hips from sliding out to either side will be engaged.
I imagine a majority of adults have this lock switched on most of their waking lives, utilising, as Hanna puts it, “unconsciously contracted muscles”, to lessen their freedom of movement. This would include a majority of Alexander students, who are likely to be contracting these same muscles, though for different reasons – not wanting to ‘collapse’ into the hips – even more assiduously than before they encountered the Technique.
This is because, no matter how much upward thinking takes place, it will not, of its own accord, cause any latitudinal ‘unlocking’ to take place. On the contrary, it is likely, particularly in cases where the initial locking, from the normal process of habituation, is not so severe, to actively encourage it, in the name of upward â€˜direction’.
From an external point of view, what does latitudinal hip freedom look like? Is visible height lost, or bodily integrity compromised? Is it a risible spectacle?
When walking, I used to think the ideal was maintaining an almost perfectly level and (with due allowance for the mechanics of respiration) static upper body – from the hips to the head – while my legs pedalled me forwards, rather like the pistons of a steam train. Looked at in a waist high mirror, I would appear to be moving on air. The top of my head would barely deviate from an imaginary line of height drawn on that mirror.
Now, I’m finding this an increasingly disconcerting concept. I’m sure a rolling gait is not to be encouraged, where the entire body lurches from side to side, but a freely moving pelvis does make sense. In Hanna’s words:
‘The pelvis and hips move freely as the weight shifts from one side to another, but the head and upper trunk remain quietly stable and in balance.’
It disconcerts me even more to realise I needed the stimulus of pain to teach me something so obvious.
In motion, this can look different, but so it should; though principally when walking. Looking in a mirror with the imaginary line across it, I would expect to see my head dipping and rising somewhat as I move, and my hips swaying in time. In most other cases, freedom of the hips is unlikely to be objectively discernible.
Although actual height may be momentarily lost, during rhythmic movement, Alexandrian ‘height’ need not be compromised, so long as this is not confused with maintaining an absolute distance between the top of the skull and the tailbone, at all times. My conception of ‘length’ is no longer dependant on keeping my pelvis strictly aligned to my upper trunk, so much as allowing it the fluidity to move in accordance with the demands of the rest of my body, not least my legs.
Hanna makes the interesting observation that as our hips tighten and we move less and less freely, we begin to walk ‘like old people’; but that this isn’t a necessary consequence of age at all, but only the consequence of habit.
This struck a chord with me. I have an acquaintance, around my own age, who my children deride for ‘walking like an old man’. I hadn’t noticed this, and I wondered to what extent my conception of how people ought to walk had been adversely coloured by my Alexander conditioning. This made me question in turn whether the common criticism of Alexander enthusiasts looking stiff, as a result of what they have learned, may have as much to do with partially locked hips as over enthusiastically ‘freed’ necks.
I suspect we all start walking from an early age as freely as Hanna suggests and that from various causes we begin to restrict the freedom of our hips. Presumably, we do this at much the same time and speed and for much he same reasons as we tighten our necks and limit our breathing.
If we don’t want to acquire the restricted movement patterns typical of old age – which are clearly evident on most continents – many might think their best recourse would be to visit an Alexander teacher. It would be a shame, in such cases, if the tightening hips associated with limited freedom while walking, were passed over in favour of an excessive emphasis on not losing ‘height’.