Coordinating self-direction with activity

When people start learning the Alexander directions – release my neck, let my head go forward and up, back lengthening and widening, knees going forward and apart from each other – they can’t believe that they can give all these directions while doing anything else.

OK, perhaps while waiting on line, or sitting on board a train, or something else that’s not VERY active. (In fact, whenever you are upright, sitting or standing, you are coordinating your directions with an activity.) As we become more familiar with directing and accustom ourselves to doing it all the time, it is possible to interweave the directions with the attention needed for the specific demands of a given action.

It’s a little bit like being a driver making a left-hand turn at an intersection accounting for oncoming traffic – alternately looking at what’s coming with the action needed for turning the steering wheel and making the decision to make the turn at just the right time. It seems as though it’s really a lot of discrete observations and movements in quick alternation that create the illusion of simultaneity. We check our directions, we move with awareness of those directions, continuing checking as we continue moving.

But then again, another similar, but different experience – real simultaneity – is that of playing the piano, with different notes and patterns going on in the left and right hands. Our brain is simultaneously concerning itself with the movements needed to carry out those patterns in both hands. Doing so while intermittently giving one’s self the directions is challenging. But possible.

Or touch typing, thinking about what we are writing, the ideas that are pouring forth, as our hands move automatically and our eyes observe the screen and with part of our minds we are reading and checking for errors.

If we are also directing as we type, an additional level of attention is being given to how we are sitting – letting the chair provide support, feeling the “up” from the chair through us up through the torso, free neck and head, and the head balancing, forward and up above the tip of the spine, as our fingers radiate outward from the palm, the palms widening, the lower arms directed toward the inner elbows.

If I find I am getting stiff in the fingers (or anywhere else) as I write this, I pause. My first concern is what is happening with my head and neck, to let the neck be free and the head balance freely; I lay my hands flat, at each side of the keyboard, fingers flush with each other, flowing from the wrist outward to the fingertips across the supporting surface of the desk, in opposition to the “pull” of the forearm to the elbow.

Once I have restored the right directions, I can resume typing and keep the directions going as I begin the activity. It’s more challenging than directing with the hands at rest. But with practice and awareness, it is possible. And in fact, interrupting action occasionally with rest and a change in our focus of attention is a salutary thing to do.