The Spine as a Compression Spring:
Weight-Bearing with the Alexander Technique
When we interfere with primary control* and the integrity of the lengthening and dimensional spine we impede our freedom of movement and adaptability. One way of viewing the spine is as a “spacer” of the entire body. Without it everything (skull, ribs, pelvis, arms, legs, and all of our organs) would collapse under the demands dictated by gravity. It responds to gravity by lengthening upwards, and all the parts of the system react and organize themselves according to its movement. This spacing system keeps everything stretched out, and it becomes shortened by muscular tension.
The idea of up is built into our system, and when we pull or hold ourselves up with extra muscular effort we are actually adding downward pressure to the spine. The upward response of the spine to gravity is enough to keep us vertical, and any extra work to do so is an interference with the central controlling dynamic of primary control. The muscular tension involved in holding oneself up translates into excess downward pressure on the innate upward thrust of the spine. The tension created by extra muscular effort becomes excess weight pulling down on the spine and increases fatigue. Similarly, when there is not enough muscular tension (as in an extreme slump) this lack of energy compromises the overall lengthening of the spine as well. So the overall expansiveness and availability of the spine is affected by both too much and not enough tension in the parts, and when the spine is free and available, its power is reflected out through the extremities.
By altering the balance of the head on the spine not only is the overall length of the spine affected, but all the parts of the body are energized differently. Tension (or sometimes a lack of it) in any of the parts affects the general springiness of the spine. Try this experiment: make a fist and tighten the muscles in one arm. Notice the pattern this creates in the rest of you. Take note of your legs, your toes, the space under your arm, your neck, and your back. Now release the arm, and note the rebound that occurs up the length of the spine, and the release of the hand away from the arm and wrist. Maybe even ask someone to give you a little push as you’re holding the arm, and notice your availability to recover your groundedness. By their involvement with the suspension system set up by the primary control the parts affect each other as a coordinated whole made up of many dynamically balanced relationships.
The pelvis and the skull are two fairly heavy bony structures. I think of them as two weights in constant interaction. They balance in relation to each other through their connection with the spine. The curved design of the spine enable it to balance in reaction to the weight of these two structures. When we release these two bony landmarks into balance it enables the spine to decompress. As the weight of the pelvis is released up and off the legs with the rest of the torso they also are released, and create an opposition for the upwards direction of the torso to rebound off of. As the skull is in constant interaction with the pelvis, the pelvis is also in constant interaction with the legs. If the weight of the head is back on the spine, then the pelvis’ balance is affected, as is the freedom of the legs in the hip joints and the overall expansion along the curves of the spine.
The primary instrument of balance is the spine, and its freedom to move on itself is of highest importance in optimum use of the whole. Every movement we make, in every activity we do alters that balance slightly. We are constantly reorganizing our balance in order to adapt to whatever activity we are involved in. There is a constant interplay between skeleton and muscles to maintain our uprightness as we move. The idea of the spine as a compression spring is especially vivid in regards to bearing any kind of weight -- a tray, a box, a backpack, a musical instrument, or a child. When an expansion of the entire system occurs we become a suspension system built off a compression spring and are released into balance. Balance is movement, and the work of bearing the weight can involve movement of the entire body, and not bracing against the presence of the weight. If we include the object in our system of balance it can be used to encourage the spring built into the spine. You are coming up with the whole of you and your spine to meet the downward tendency of the object in reaction to gravity. As you make contact with it and encourage freedom in the joints of the arm the downward response of it to gravity can actually influence a rebound up and away through the spine. When lifting or supporting any object the weight should be transferred throughout your whole. It is through this idea that you can use the weight as something to expand into, a tool to increase your oppositional support and directions. If the weight is taken only in one place and not distributed throughout the whole there will be unnecessary stress on the joints which will cause them to be stiff and ultimately less available for the movement involved with balance.
* Primary Control: "F.M. Alexander's discovery that a dynamic relationship of the head and neck promotes maximal lengthening of the body and facilitates movement throughout the body." -- Frank Pierce Jones (return to article)