RECONSIDERING “FORWARD AND UP”
(Revised August, 2014)
As far as I know, I’m the only person to have had Alexander lessons before going through Basic Training in the U.S. Army (1966).* And I think my experiences in applying the principles of the Technique in that situation have caused me to consider some facets of the use of myself quite differently from what many others seem to, particularly when it comes to directing my head “forward and up.”
The Army’s challenges to inhibiting and directing ranged from the intense actions we had to do each day as part of our “physical training” (PT) through a whole spectrum of reactions and responses—including extreme humiliation and fright—brought out by submitting to our superiors’ commands and chastisements. But the most difficult challenge of all was the “low-crawl,” which we usually had to do for at least fifty to a hundred yards several times a day during the eight-week training period.
Low-crawl is basically a way of advancing along the ground at the lowest possible level—often while carrying a rifle in front of you across your arms—not only so that you won’t be seen by the enemy but also so that you can maneuver under low-hanging barbed wire while machine-guns fire close above you. We had to be able to do low-crawl at great speed as part of passing the weekly and final PT tests before being transferred to our long-term assignments. Failing to pass the final test automatically resulted in being “recycled” for another eight weeks. And along with the daily “training” aspect of it, low-crawl was also used on the spur of the moment as one of the main forms of discipline if you, your platoon, or your company needed reprimanding—which was usually often.
Low-crawl was incredibly difficult to do because it was actually supposed to substitute for running and because it required you to stay horizontal with your chest in constant contact with the ground so that you’d stay as inconspicuous as possible in the enemy’s line of view. It seemed to take a strength in the arms and upper torso that only the very athletic trainees possessed. But, each time we had to do it, even the most fit among us looked as exhausted by it as the rest of us felt. One side-effect was scratching and tearing the skin on the insides of your knees and the undersides of your forearms and elbows—since these places, along with the inner edges of your boot soles and heels, were your main points of contact with the ground that you were propelling yourself forward from. After your arms and knees became raw or bleeding, that, of course made low-crawling all the more difficult and painful—especially if you had to do it over a gravel road or rocky terrain. But the main effect of low-crawl was that it very quickly winded everyone—particularly because we were always goaded into doing it so fast.
Since I’d never been very good in the kinds of sports that require strength and endurance, I didn’t see how I would ever be able to do low-crawl well enough or fast enough to pass the final PT test. But one day while our platoon was taking a break on a grassy field, I decided to see if I could figure out a better way of low-crawling by using what I’d learned from my two recent summers of daily Alexander lessons with the magnificent Joan Murray. I’d already had success in improving my swimming through keeping my Alexander directions going—suddenly being able to swim ten times longer than ever before. So I figured there might be a chance of something like that happening with the low-crawl too if I could just take the same slow, careful time exploring each component of it as I had done with swimming that led up to my big breakthrough there.
Since it was really the speed at which we were made to low-crawl that made it almost impossible for me—along with the sergeants roaring at us—to maintain a good manner of use, I decided to slow it way down, moving only one elbow and one knee at a time with lots of waiting and recovering in between motions for redirecting my neck-head-torso relationship. The first thing I discovered, of course, (like Alexander observed when he recited in front of mirrors) was that I had actually been tightening my neck and pulling my head back all the time that I was propelling myself along the ground. Then I realized this was partly because I felt I needed to keep looking ahead toward our goal, but it was also partly because I was “trying so hard” with every ounce of energy I could muster. The tightening of my neck and pulling back of my head, as you’d expect, caused me to shorten and narrow in my torso as well, which, in turn, accounted for my getting so quickly out of breath. All those "interferences" ruined any chance at all of my crawling in any really well-coordinated way without getting completely worn out after a short distance.
Naturally, when I could stop tightening my neck, stop pulling my head back, and maintain what I understood to be the “forward and up” direction of my head, it allowed me to lengthen and widen more in my torso so that my breathing stayed freely flowing and so that my arms and legs could tap more into my whole back’s power for propelling me ahead—instead of my local arm and leg efforts merely hauling my head and torso “along for the ride.” In place of trying to look ahead to my destination, I also found I could still get enough of a view to keep me on course by relying more on my peripheral vision and only turning my head to look to the opposite side of each advancing “stride” of arm and leg. And once my “head going forward and up” was leading my “lengthening and widening in my torso” strongly enough, I could then raise my head from time to time without stiffening my neck and “pulling” my head back if I needed to look straight ahead.
After doing a little more of this broken-up and slowed-down low-crawling, I found I could begin to crawl for a good distance at a slow speed without getting winded or tired and without damaging my knees and elbows. As our platoon went on doing it over the next few weeks, I eventually achieved more proficiency speed by not trying to race so fast all the time as everyone else seemed to feel they had to. The crowning moment came a week or so before the next PT test. Our platoon was doing target practice on the rifle range and had just finished its round when our sergeant— instead of letting us take a break like the other platoons had—said that since we hadn’t done well on barracks inspection that week we should get down and low-crawl out to the distant road (about 50 yards) and back. So we all got down and low-crawled out to the road. But when we got there, he called out to us, “That’s good enough. Anyone who wants to can get up and walk on back.”
Since I thought I could use more practice to pass the PT test that was coming up soon, I decided to go ahead and crawl back to the starting point where we'd been resting on the grass. But, as I was crawling, I was concentrating so much on my head leading my “lengthening in stature” along the ground that I didn’t notice I was the only one who crawled all the way back. And as soon as the sergeant called us into formation he asked who it was who’d crawled all the way back. I didn’t speak up and identify myself because the last thing you wanted was to be singled out for something—bad or good—since it usually meant you got chosen first for other duties or penalties. Finally, someone pointed to me, and the sergeant said, “Step out here, son.”—motioning for me to come and stand next to him facing the platoon. I was sure he was going to humiliate or harass me for trying to look virtuous or heroic or something, but instead he said very seriously and proudly said, “Now I want all of you to look up here, because here’s a real man.” Then, to top it off, he turned to me and said, “You can fall out and have a smoke, son.” If he only knew how easily I’d done it—and I don't even smoke!
That story may seem a roundabout way of coming to the subject of re-examining “forward and up,” but I think it illustrates my point better than any theoretical exposition ever could. The main thing I want to bring out, of course, is that in the action of low-crawling (as well as swimming and the myriad of other activities that we don’t do with our heads and torsos in the upright—or in the “gravitational vertical,” as the leading authority on the physiology of the postural mechanisms, Professor T. D. Roberts, calls it in UNDERSTANDING BALANCE (pp. 94-95)—my head could not have been “balancing on top of my spine.” But this condition is often described by Alexander teachers as a prerequisite for intiating the direction of our head so that it leads the lengthening and widening of our torso and limbs, as if uprightness is the only basis we have for understanding, describing, and experiencing how “forward and up” can influence our torso (or its extensor musculature) and foster the lengthening in stature that leads to an integrated working of our postural mechanisms in whatever we do.
I don’t deny the possibility that the weight of our head if not retroflexed by a stiffening of our neck and other shortenings in stature can have an effect on the extensors of our neck, back, and other areas when what Professor Roberts calls the “behavioral vertical” (Op. Cit., pp. 94-95) of our head and torso coincide with the “gravitational vertical”—that is, when we are standing or sitting upright. The laws of physics and gravity would seem to assure that this is so.
But the moment our behavioral vertical and the gravitational vertical no longer coincide—which happens quite often for most of us, anywhere from merely inclining our heads and torsos slightly forward from our hip joints all the way to the fullest extreme of lying down to rest or sleep—we really can no longer consider our heads to be “balancing on top of” our spines. So quite a different understanding of directing our head is required to maintain the integration of our postural mechanisms from the interpretaion that comes from conceiving “forward and up” merely in terms of our head “falling” or “dropping” or “nodding” forward off the “top” of our spine—wordings I’ve often seen and heard in writings and talks on the Alexander Technique.
This limited conception of “forward and up” which ascribes it primarily, or only, to an upright relationship to the ground (or to a seat) could also be a reason why many people see the Technique as advocating a “right position” or “alignment” that you try to maintain in whatever you do—the visible result of which is so often scoffed at by those who find many Alexander students, trainees, and teachers seeming merely to be holding themselves “straight” all the time.
While our uprightness is obviously a remarkable asset, it’s hardly our only option for movement and behavior (as anatomy professor Raymond Dart so eloquently pointed out in his numerous Alexander-related writings). And unless we have some way of defining, describing and directing “forward and up” that’s not based solely on being in the gravitational vertical for its conceptual and proprioceptive operation, I fear that we are severely limiting ourselves—and the scope of the Technique.
One way around this “blind spot” created by viewing human balance and functioning only from the upright perspective could be for us to start using a more exact anatomical wording by replacing “forward and up” with “anterior and superior.” “Anterior and superior” can be, of course, applicable to whatever position we’re in and within whatever degree of gravitational force we’re operating—considering that some of us may actually travel to outer space. This more accurate wording also lets us consider the usefulness of directing our Primary Control by those of us who can’t stand or sit in the upright—even by those who can’t move at all—and therefore may never be in a "position" in which they can let their head “fall forward from the top of their spine.”
I suggest, then, that this more realistic and practical view of “forward and up” requires a subtler understanding of the nature of directing and of its influence upon our head (and therefore upon the whole of us) than those views fostered by the way this direction has often been explained.** Meanwhile, as I go on keeping my low-crawl in shape to demonstrate my Army anecdote to my Alexander students some thirty years later, I’m glad to report that I seem to become more and more effective at it by continuing to avoid the idea of directing my head “forward and up” exclusively in terms of my being upright. And, after all, how do I know that low-crawl won’t still come in handy in case I again find myself having to pass underneath rapid machine-gun fire or the like?
*This may have been the case in 1966, but it's not hard to imagine that more people going into the armed services in more recent years—particularly those joining musical units such as the one I served in—have had some experience of the Alexander Technique because it has been taught so much more widely (2014).