Monthly Archives: August 2015

Pointing is key

Pointing is key to learning the Alexander Technique – Seán Carey PhD

‘See, even at the age of 98, I can still move my arms above my head,’ said Elisabeth Walker at the end of my one and only lesson with her at her Oxford home. She was responding to my question concerning whether FM Alexander, the founder of the Alexander Technique, had offered her and other students on his teacher training course much advice about extending or pointing the arms out to the sides, or above the head. ‘But he didn’t really make a big thing about it,’ she added. ‘Nevertheless, it’s very good for musicians and other people who get very tight in the armpits and need to get release.’

That conversation got me thinking more about gesture and pointing in particular. Humans are a very social species and a crucial building block in the development of that sociality is movement of the arms and hands, with or without accompanying speech. One gesture that seems to be especially important in our social development is pointing with an extended index finger. In fact, you would have started using that gesture around your first birthday, before you could talk, to get and direct the attention of adults and other children nearby to an object you wanted, such as food, a drink or a toy, or something that you found interesting, such as a hovering bumblebee, a slow-moving cat or a fast-moving aeroplane. In doing so, you discovered that movement can initiate and then maintain shared body-mind experiences. Simply put, people pay attention when you point, and you pay attention when they point.

It’s also evident that what comparative or developmental psychologists call purposeful or declarative-pointing with the index finger (which triggers extension or lengthening of the arm as illustrated in the photo below) is something for which we are peculiarly well adapted. It’s a behaviour found in all cultures. Some psychologists go further and claim that directed index finger-pointing is a uniquely human gesture as there is no reliable account of any of our great ape cousins living in the wild using it to communicate with other apes.

 

shutterstock_41063452

Above We are peculiarly well-adapted to pointing with our index finger

The unique human ability to point not only your index finger but also your other fingers is certainly used to good effect in the Alexander Technique as it forms an important part of some specialised procedures, one of which Elisabeth Walker demonstrated for me in March 2013.

Another example is placing hands over the back of a chair. Alexander himself would ask a student to sit upright on a chair facing the back of a second chair equipped with a reasonably high back. Maintaining the balance of the head on the neck he slowly brought the student’s body forwards from the hip joints, carefully monitoring whether at any stage they compressed their double-S shaped spine. (If that happened Alexander would go back to the beginning of the sequence.) With the student leaning forward at an angle Alexander instructed them to take their time and then extend or point their fingers before taking hold of the top rail of the chair in front, using a gentle but firm beak-like grip with each hand, with the wrists pointing inwards towards each other and the elbows pointing outwards and slightly downwards. This opposition of fingers, wrists and elbows pointing in different directions creates a gentle forearm pull or stretch from the fingers-opposing-thumbs contact. This can be further amplified by directing the shoulders to release or point away from each other.

If you are not familiar with the procedure it might appear to be rather strange. In fact leaning forwards and then placing the hands on the back of a chair in this way generates a dynamic, elastic muscular release not only in the arms but also in the neck and shoulder girdle, and rib cage and pelvis. It also helps to fine tune your kinaesthetic sense. I have written about hands over the back of a chair in sitting and standing in some detail in my new book, Alexander Technique in Everyday Activity.

And I remember talking to Alexander’s niece, first-generation teacher Marjory Barlow, who I interviewed for Alexander Technique: the Ground Rules, about the problem many new students of the technique experience in letting their knees release forwards from the hip joints and away from each other as they move from standing on two feet to sitting in a more balanced way on their downward-pointing sitting bones. Marjory told me that whenever she encountered any difficulty she would not only ask the student to inhibit their immediate reaction to the stimulus to sit (typically by trying to actively place their bottom on the chair, pulling their knees together and pulling their head down on to their neck) but also ask them to think about and then consciously point their knees forward and away in the direction of suitable objects in her teaching room, such as a radiator or lamp, as with her hands she provided the experience of maintaining the integrity of the head, neck and back relationship. It was good advice.

A final thought. When you were younger you may have been told off by your parents for pointing at other people – “Don’t point, it’s rude!” is the customary form of words – but I hope I have said enough to convince your adult self that inhibiting and then pointing your fingers, elbows and knees and mentally other body parts, such as the shoulders, using the minimum amount of effort, is a good thing. In fact, it’s key to learning the Alexander Technique.

Advertisements