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Habits of Body, Habits of Mind (and Spirals!)

Part of any education process is reading and writing, and with this (and many other things) I’ve been occupied during the last month or so. Our fall term is the longest of the year, so we have two papers! Last August I wrote a paper based on chapter VI of F.M. Alexander’s first book Man’s Supreme Inheritance: Habits of Thought and Body. Alexander’s premise: you can’t change any habit in your body unless you’re willing to change a habit of your mind.

This term I’ve been assisting with an Alexander in Dance class at the University of Illinois (where we have several dance students, one pianist, and three actors). As I worked with one of the actors (who takes this class pretty seriously and has internalized a lot of the Technique), we were exploring a new way of sitting down. He really made a change and alleviated a persistent pain. He also used three habits of mind to change one habit of body. Without his habits of mind being in place, his body would not have changed.

  • He had a kinesthetic experience that allowed him to notice the change (body)

  • His resilience allowed the idea of possible change in his movement without the help of his classmates and props (mind)

  • His ability to inhibit his normal way of sitting allowed a new way of sitting (mind)

  • He used AT directions to allow the coordination to make the change in the moment (mind)

Now we’re studying the work of Raymond Dart, so my first fall term paper explored his article on developing poise. Dart was an anthropologist (born 1893 in Australia, died 1988 in South Africa) who had some Alexander Technique work and, in an effort to help his son develop neuromuscular coordination, laid out a series of developmental movements. He also discovered the Taung Child.

The moves are fascinating, but more interesting is Dart’s insistence that the most important movement of body is rotation. Because of hand dominance, everyone has preferred twists in the body, which sometimes cause movement issues along the way. The whole concept is based on the spiral muscle sheath that wraps around the torso from the top of the hip crest (where you “put your hands on your hips”) to the back of the skull. We routinely refer to them as spirals—and they are amazing!!!

Though the body has individual muscles, Thomas Myers (in his book Anatomy Trains) shows how muscles and connective tissue (fascia) form functional systems in the body: front, back, side, spiral. Before diving into Dart, we learned the spirals as taught by Dilys Carrington (1915-2009), a first-generation teacher trained by Alexander who continued his original training course with her husband Walter in London. We spent lots of time on the floor!!

When the muscles of these spiral sheaths are engaged (through hand placement or gentle stretching), they can have a powerful effect on how the body reacts. Upright posture is easier to maintain, walking happens more easily, and the body feels lighter and more supported. Arms and legs have spirals, too, so when they are all engaged, the body works more efficiently—ideally with less tension and more ease.

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