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The Developmental Movement Project: Directing, Not Feeling

In his groundbreaking study of voluntary action, F. M. Alexander (1869 - 1955) observed that the decision to perform an action -- for example, to recite a sentence -- inevitably resulted in a pattern of muscle tightening. He reasoned that the muscles were being told to tighten by a flow of messages from his brain. He called these messages "directions." Actually, he called them "subconscious" or "instinctive" directions, but that is a discussion for another post.

He further discovered that he could consciously send different "directions" to muscles. The difference was that these new messages were preventive. He could "give directions" telling his muscles not to grip up. Here we focus on one specific purpose for giving preventive directions: reinstating the function of the postural reflex system.

Directing, Not Feeling

When we direct, we must not worry about muscle tension and think instead about the relations of body parts. Muscles -- even when we are overly relaxed -- tend to shorten and become chronically tight, and for this reason we want to stop tightening, not by thinking directly about muscles but by thinking about the parts of the body that the muscles connect to. We also do not want to focus on any one area but rather on the key areas that make up an organized whole.

In particular, we don't want to tighten the neck so that the head can go forward and up; we don't want to arch or narrow the back so that it can lengthen and widen; and we don't want to tighten the legs so that the knees can go forward and away. And we want to go around the entire circuit so that we don't get stuck on any one part of the body, but think of each piece only in the context of a total coordinated whole.

Now there is one part of these instructions that directly involves muscles, and that is the first instruction for the neck to be free, which focuses on the muscles of the neck. But this instruction should not be interpreted as a direct attempt to relax these muscles but simply as a wish to stop tightening them so that they can relax indirectly on their own. The direction to "free the neck," in other words, is preventive -- that is, it is intended as an instruction to stop doing something that interferes with how the body works. Which brings us back to the idea that the directions are, first and foremost, preventive -- that is, they are aimed at preventing the tensions that interfere with the natural relations of body parts. And because we can't bring this condition about by releasing or relaxing muscles directly, we must focus, not on the muscles themselves, but on the relations of parts and wait for the muscles to release on their own.

Although the semi-supine position provides almost complete body support, there is one exception to this -- namely the legs, which will tend to flop outwards when we let go in the thigh muscles. To counter this, we have to think of sending the knees up to the ceiling so that, when the thigh muscles release, the knees go upward instead of flopping. How this works is not immediately obvious and will take time, but as the other directions work, this will become clearer. The point is that all the directions begin to work together so that muscular release in different parts of the body become integrated into a whole, which in turn informs the parts.

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