The utilization of primitive positions -- e.g. semi-supine, crawling, creeping etc -- creates the conditions within which it is safe to let muscles go. The upright support system is highly unstable; once it begins to work inefficiently, muscles begin to compensate and it becomes nearly impossible to release the resulting tensions because to do so would compromise balance. But the positions themselves are not enough. During our work in a primitive position we must be alert, we must understand our goal, and we must actively and intelligently think.
We have written in other places about the thinking that is necessary for re-establishing the natural coordination of the musculoskeletal system. F.M. Alexander created his own verbal formula to guide his thinking; the phrases have been taught to students of the Alexander Technique for decades. Here we consider the physiological meaning behind these phrases.
The Primary Directions
When we perform actions, we tend to tighten muscles and interfere with the natural working of the muscular system. By projecting mental orders, or "directions," we prevent these tensions and bring about a more coordinated working of the body.
You can "direct" body parts in a number of ways, i.e., "lengthen the fingers," "brighten the eyes." You can also work with directions in many different ways, as when we focus on a part of the body, or explore particular kinds of movements. There are, however, four main directions that relate specifically to the postural neuromuscular reflex system. Because these directions are so central to the working of the musculoskeletal system, it's important to think about them and what they mean; with time, they take on more and more meaning, and begin to work in a very definite way. The directions are:
Let the neck be free
To let the head go forward and up
To let the back lengthen and widen
To let the knees go forward and away
1. Neck to be free
Notice that, although we pull back the head, the first direction is not the forward and up of the head, but "neck to be free." This is because when we pull back the head, we tighten the neck to do it; we must first stop tightening the neck -- particularly in the muscles at the nape of the neck that pull the head back -- if we want the head to go forward and up.
2. Head to go forward and up
When we tighten the neck muscles, we pull the head back and down. That's what the "forward and up" refers to. By releasing the muscles at the back of the neck, the pulled-back head releases to tilt forward: that's the "forward." The overall release of the muscles of the neck and trunk allows the spine to lengthen and the head to go up: that's the "up."
3. Back to lengthen and widen
Along with the pulling back of the head, we tend to shorten in stature by tightening and arching the back. "Lengthening" the back muscles means to allow the back muscles to regain their natural elasticity and tone; "widening" means to allow the back to broaden and for the ribs to move freely.
4. Knees forward and away
Even if we are not aware of it, when we pull back the head and shorten in stature, we also tighten in the thighs and sink into the legs. "Knees forward" means to stop tightening in the thighs so that the leg muscles lengthen and the knees come out of the back; "away" means to stop tightening in the inner things so that the knees come apart.
Obviously, these directions are meant to work together. That's why the four primary directions are joined together by the word "to": each one is linked to the other, to be given "one after the other, and all together." Also keep in mind that the directions are not voluntary movements, but muscular releases that happen by themselves if you allow them to -- hence, the words "to let": you are letting these changes happen, not making them happen.