Thursday, 7 November 2013

What does wearing a hot-water-bottle cover as a hat have to do with the Alexander Technique?

On Sunday I posted this to colleagues on a facebook page: “Just wanted to state my appreciation to FM; the long drive home tonight, wrapped in and fixed rigid by a ton of scarves against the very cold, windy and wet from my broken driver's side car window, had me appreciate the humble free neck; I didn't have one for all the journey (despite the attempt), and it had me realise I mostly do. And how much more comfortable it is! Good to be reminded of this fact!”

So, who is FM? And why am I so grateful to him?

FM - Frederick Matthias - Alexander discovered certain ways as to how the body best functions; the basic situation being that the human being is a much happier bunny (!) when the joint between the skull and the top vertebra (atlanto-occipital joint) is free to move. The four tiny pairs of muscles that run over this joint are massively instrumental in us functioning successfully and happily. Of course there’s a lot more that goes on around here, but I am very fond of these little guys and often refer to them in my teaching. 

When we are under stress in life - whether it is of the chronic type or the acute ‘made me jump’ type - muscles around the shoulders and neck shorten, bunching up our neck, pulling our head down into our collar and pulling the shoulders up to meet it. The classic ‘Brrrrr! It’s freeeezing!” look, or the ‘apres-balloon-burst’ look. Inside all this tension are our little guys - our four pairs of sub-occipital muscles who are needing to be lengthening rather than shortening in order to successfully send their information to the brain. This information is to do with our orientation, our sense of where we are - our kinaesthetic sense - and without this we can feel disorientated, somewhat lower in confidence, and a bit brain-fuddled. Other tensions then creep in around the body to compensate for the lost information from the little guys.

Ok, are you ready for a bit of an imagination game about this? It’s really important, but it’s not easy to put into words. In its ultra-simplistic way the words below certainly wont win any anatomy awards, but it’s an attempt to describe what goes on in this area when we are under stress. Right, get your imagination going: imagine having about 12 shortish lengths of ribbon, the ends of which you were holding in your right and left hands. If you were able to shorten all but 4 of the ribbons a little, can you imagine what those remaining four ribbons would look like? They would be flopping about with lack of tone. The allowing of the shortened ribbons to lengthen again has them able to regain their length and tone. In muscular terms, if our outer layers of muscles are over shortening in response to something in life, or in my case cold wet wind, the deeper muscles will be a bit like those four remaining ribbons - a bit ‘floppy’. Our muscles can’t send messages to the brain as effectively without tone. So, in releasing the tightenings around my neck and back, I allowed those all important four pairs of muscles to work effectively again. And this is one of the things ‘FM’ Alexander discovered. He didn’t invent this head-neck-relationship; it happens in us all, it’s how we work, but he discovered that interfering with it changes everything, and consciously allowing it to function as designed also changed everything - for the better!

So, there I was, still 100 miles from home, driving in filthy conditions - heavy rain, high winds, wild spray from the half-term traffic - and tired from many miles driving for a concert in London. There were signs suggesting that the road ahead was closed which would have added another hour and twenty to the journey, so I had stopped in a motorway services to check the situation. When I left again having discovered the road had re-opened, my wing mirror was too wet to see what was happening around me, so I pressed the button to lower the window and wipe the mirror. “Kerrrrr-screech-clunk!” The mechanism broke inside the door and the window fell all the way down and was clearly going to stay there from that moment on. The spray and wind poured in on top of me, along with the NOISE of the motorway! Immediately, reflexly, my head pulled back and down to meet my shoulders flying up the other way.....! And why would they not; this is a classic reflex we are born with, yet one we mostly have no idea we can consciously overcome.

Back when the stars were in a different place in the sky, (I just love that saying from Barry Brailsford!) I would have undoubtedly had a stiff neck the next morning, and I pondered as I thundered along (oh my, the NOISE!) how we think it’s a draught that causes a stiff neck, when of course it is the tension from our (futile) avoidance of said draught than creates it. So, what to do.....?

I stopped as soon as I could - in the sort of narrow lay-by that has trucks take you out as soon as you get out of the car. Hey ho, just another ‘startle pattern’ reaction possibility! I found a bag and some Sellotape in the car and set to trying to cover the gaping space. Everything was far too wet to stick so I gave up and got back in. Reaching around to the back seat (another movement all too often fraught with tightness in us all) I unzipped my suitcase and starting pulling clothes into the front seat with me. I put on a second coat, wrapped my nightdress around my legs, a long cardigan around my neck, my long black concert skirt around my neck too, placed a pale-blue fluffy hot-water-bottle cover over my right ear and secured it in place by tying a black cotton shawl around my head, and again tying the ends around my neck.

First challenge to my head-neck arrangement (remember those little guys deep inside there?) was the bulk around my neck!! Plus the pull-down of my head into my shoulders by the shawl as it held the hot-water-bottle cover tightly on my ear. I was already feeling such gratitude for knowing what I know; without ‘FM’ I would have already been in a right old state, the impending stiff neck already building up from within.

I began to drive again, the stimulus of the buffeting wind, the noise, and the cold constantly requesting I pull into the classic "This is freeeeezing and horrible" shape. But no; no way was I going to keep doing that. Each time tension crept in I was aware of it and kept releasing, softening, opening, releasing, softening, opening in my neck and shoulder area as I drove along. I was imagining how, through this softening, the three little pairs of muscles deep inside my neck were being afforded space to function.

As I often say to students about tightenings and tensions, “Ask yourself if it’s helping any. And if it isn’t, don’t do it.” Of course no amount of tension was going to stop the elements pouring into the window, and the journey ahead was going to be 100 miles taking 90 minutes no matter what....that was just the way it was going to be, and fighting it with my neck wasn’t going to help AT ALL. One point worth mentioning here: the difference from my work as an Alexander teacher is that “Just relax” isn’t part of my thinking; so often all that happens is collapse, and we can’t function as a bag of soggy mush either. It’s the specific, focussed release in this all-important area of the head-neck that makes all the difference. When this area remains free, other tensions find it much harder to manifest elsewhere. 

So, after a stop to re-fuel (requiring a lot of undressing and dressing up again!) and the building of the wind over Bodmin moor to at least a gale coming straight at my ear, I continued driving (aka, being thrown around on the road) with the noisy racket, plus the heater on full fan, the radio on LOUD to distract from both those... Learning, remembering, and appreciating so much as I went along. It was really quite strange to feel (due to the scarves) this ‘inability to move’ in my neck after 30 years - it sure took me back to the late 1970’s when it was indeed the case on a daily basis before my first lessons in the Alexander Technique. I was aware of the question ‘How do people cope with this feeling?!’ in my mind as I drove - the gratitude to FM, and my aunt for her first introduction all those years ago. (I also thought how useful this knowledge would be for sailors at the helm in heavy weather - something I decided I really wouldn’t like much at all; at least here I was fairly dry!)

I finally got home and the sense of freedom when I took off all the gubbins from around my neck was wonderful - and the relief in knowing that years ago I might well have not felt any different, scarves on or off, because the fixing would have been coming from within my neck and not from what was wrapped around it!

The next morning, no stiff neck. And a happy group of tiny, important muscles in my neck. Just a car window to be mended.

If you would like to know how to ‘free your neck in crazy circumstances’ (which also includes the ‘dull crazy’ like sitting at computers, washing up, using your mobile/cell phone) do get in touch with me, or with an Alexander teacher in your area. You just never know when you will feel really, really glad that you did! :-)

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