The Rejuvenation of the Spine
When I started Alexander Technique lessons with Walter Carrington in 1986 this gentle, smiling, white haired man invited me into the high ceilinged room in a Georgian house in Holland Park and took a fishing rod from the corner of the room. “This is like your spine” he said. He placed it upright on the wooden floor and used considerable force to compress it into two opposing curves. “These curves represent the curves of your lumbar and thoracic spine”, he continued, “and, of course, there is a third curve at your neck? Notice how the fishing rod becomes stronger the more curves are added. It can almost support my full weight?” With a surprising agility for his age Walter seemed to hang from the fibre glass rod whilst checking enthusiastically to make sure I understood the implications of what he was saying. “And notice how the fishing rod lengthens when I relax the downward force?”
He smiled as if he was revealing a ancient secret. And he was! “This is how your spine works”, he said. “I will show you. Some people grow an inch or two in height after a course of lessons”. This charming man oozed tantalising mystery and offered hope for a young man in his early twenties who had been burdened with chronic fatigue for over a decade and could now barely breathe. So Walter had my undivided attention. He wasn’t particularly interested in my symptoms. “Never mind all that”, he said smiling. “Let’s begin”.
Walter Carrington was one of Alexander’s early students. I was in experienced hands. Frederick Matthias Alexander was a Tasmanian born in 1869. He was a theatrical orator who lost his voice and found no medical help. One day he set up a chair in a room and surrounded it with mirrors. He observed that when he tried to project his voice or arise from the chair he would pull his head backwards and downwards into his body compressing his neck and larynx. Thus the loss of his voice. And when he tried to correct this the mirrors revealed his postural bad habits remained unchanged. He called this phenomenon ‘debauched kinesthetic sense’ and it is likely that most of us begin to suffer from this unconscious kinesthetic confusion by the age of four. The consequences are an insidious musculoskeletal stiffening and loss of animal poise and graceful movement.
That we essentially still have the musculoskeletal apparatus of a four legged animal (the hips ligaments for instance are in resting position at 30 degrees of hip flexion) and yet we learned to walk upright relatively recently in evolutionary terms (3 million years ago) has created a challenge to the postural reflexes housed at the top of our necks. Extensive research by F. P. Jones et al (1959, 1963, 1965, 1970) have explored what Alexander called the ‘Primary Postural Mechanism’. It is this challenge that the Alexander Technique tries to address.
As a Cranial Osteopath who produced an undergraduate dissertation about this mysterious mechanism at the top of the neck, and having worked intensively with Walter for seven years, I have come to realise the importance of the motion of the bones of the skull, face and jaw in enabling these upper neck postural reflexes to work. I can still remember how when leaving one of Walter’s lessons I could feel my lower collapsing molars lifting as I left the house, the right side of my maxilla beginning to drop back down to a level horizontal plain, and the back of my skull untwisting allowing my neck and whole spine to lengthen and straighten. Strange but true!