Principle 3: Primary Control
If you’ve been coming to me for Alexander technique lessons long enough you are sure to have heard me bang on about “letting the neck be free”, or “not fixing the head on top of the spine”, or “letting the head float off the top of the spine”. You might even (if I was being a bit
technical) heard me talk about “the point where the occipital condyles are poised on top of the top vertebra, the atlas”. I may have taken the skull off the skeleton and shown you the occipital condyles. The occipital condyles are like 2 tiny little rockers that sit in the little 2 tiny receiving cups of the top vertebra – in other words the really quite small area where the head meets the spine.
In Alexander speak, this is all about the primary control. FM Alexander, the founder of this revolutionary technique, made a very important discovery. He discovered that by leaving the neck muscles alone to allow the head to balance completely freely on the top of the spine allows the spine to lengthen, the back to lengthen and widen and all sorts of other good things to happen in the muscular skeletal system. Conversely, if we tighten the muscles of the neck – any muscle of the neck, and there are quite a lot – then we immediately pull the entire weight of the head (all 4-5kg or 10-12lobs of it) onto the spine causing shortening of the spine, shortening and tightening of the back and generally bad things to happen in the muscular skeletal system.
Look at a small child who can stand unaided and have a look at the way they leave their head alone on top of the spine. And for little children it is arguably more difficult as the head is proportionately much bigger. This muscular freedom of little necks allows them to remain in balance, to let the spine be at the correct length, to let the legs out – just watch how they squat to pick something off the floor!! No back bending for them!
There is a famous Alexander quote – and for the life of me I cant find it right now – that goes something like, "if a fellow comes to me for a lesson and they are tight in the neck muscles, you can almost certainly guarantee there will be having muscle problems somewhere else lower down". This makes complete sense to me. We’re a set of very finely balanced building blocks and if we knock one of those building blocks out of balance by tightening and shortening, or by allowing our muscles to be too lax, then the top building block (the head) will no longer be allowed to perch unaided on the top, and therefore the neck muscles will have to work bloody hard to keep it on there. Which leads to more problems lower down and the cycle continues.
So the primary control – in other words learning to leave the neck alone so that the head can have a completely free relationship with the spine – is the key to unlocking a lot of other things, both when still and in movement. Beware - it’s not everything – we still have to learn how to come into balance everywhere else. It’s a really good place to start though.
Allowing the neck to be free so that we are not pulling the weight of the head onto the spine is not always easy to do – necks tend to be full of muscular habit that we are not aware of. Every Alexander teacher will include freeing up the neck as part of the lesson.
Semi-supine, or constructive rest, or lying down with a couple of paperback books under your head, your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor is a really great way to start to release the muscles of the neck and free up the primary control. There’s a clear set of instructions and a video showing you how to do it here on the STAT website. So go have a lie down – it’s really good for you!