“I run… because there’s nothing like feeling stronger, lighter, and faster than I did yesterday…” DA
Alan Bowers has enjoyed a vital and fulfilling career as a professional in variety of creative fields. Originally embarking on a performance path, Alan has appeared on stages all over the world as an operatic tenor, subsequently segueing into a successful stint as an instructor of vocal technique and style. His voice studio has, over time, encompassed some of the leading voices of opera, concert and musical theatre.
Armed with an inquisitive and inquiring mind, Alan had for years been interested in the role the Alexander Technique assumed for the legion of musicians who had at one time or another relied upon it as a way of improving their body awareness, and, as a result, their overall performance. This led him to engage in a course of study on the technique, and having received his credentials as an instructor, build a thriving practice here in NYC.
As Alan’s education and application has evolved, he has expanded his interest to include the effect AT has on the wide variety of activities and professions that would potentially benefit from its employ. He has graciously agreed to offer up his knowledge in a introduction of the technique, focusing on its relation to athletic endeavor. Please enjoy the following post, and for more information, visit Alan on his website: alanbowers.com.
What you are about to read is an essay on running based on my experience as a teacher of the Alexander Technique. My hope is that you find it to be, at the very least, original, and that it contributes to the lexicon of ideas that inform your running. Some of the ideas you may wish to discard. Perhaps there is one that will stimulate your own original thinking, one that will change your mind as well as your running. And so, to the flood of words written on the subject of running, I bravely add these on the subject of…trains, planes, and ought-to-be wheels.
When a train pulls into a rail yard and comes to a halt, a mindful engineer will briefly reverse the locomotive to enable the train to move forward on the next leg of the journey. In doing that the engineer creates space between the couplers that link the individual cars. With the train moves again, the locomotive will not be moving the entire train as a 100 car unit, an impossible task, but one car after another until all the cars are set in motion. You can demonstrate this for yourself by inserting the fist of one hand into the palm of the other with the fingers of the receiving hand wrapped loosely around the knuckles of the first. You’ve created the male and female elements of a train’s connectors. Move your fisted hand away from the palm of your second and let the fingers of the receiving hand capture the knuckles of the first. This is the fully extended coupler, an impediment to movement of a train, and to the motion of that jointed organ — free, flexible, and doubly sprung — your spine. A spine letting into length — neither compressed nor over-extended — with head leading is the requisite of most every human activity including running.
To hyper-extend the spine, to stretch it beyond its normal length, is to dull our sensitivities and set ourselves up for future pathologies. There are more ways than one to abuse the spine. We can, for instance, wear our heads, our locomotives, as captives of the spine, pulled down upon our shoulders. The whole spine suffers. It is easy to spot, especially in a hard-fought finish. The struggling runner puts the back of his head, his occiput, nearer his shoulders, raises the shoulders and stiffens the spine. To do so may even be instinctive, a gathering in and pulling back that husbands our forces. It almost sounds attractive. Clearly, it is attractive, or no one would be doing it. But armoring — work against self-imposed resistance — is not what is needed at the finish of a race or at any other point within it. What is needed is release into movement with your neck and spine serving as an unobstructed tributary to the forward and up of your head. Simply put, it’s better to free your neck.
Unless you’ve done something to stop it, your head, your whole body, is in constant motion. Standing is more like swimming in air than fixation. Through micro-movements of the sub-occipital muscles, your head is continually rebalancing forward, up, and around your atlanto-occipital joint — the meeting of the first cervical vertebra and the occiput. It is a letting into movement, more wish than actuality. In forward, up, and around, the crown of the head escapes the spine and the colonization of the torso. It is hard to imagine, especially since the forward we’re talking about is not forward in space — the neck stays back with the torso — nor is the up we’re imagining here, up in position — the head, mindful engineer that it is, does not stretch the spine into length. Forward and up is a malleable idea that F. M. Alexander, discoverer of the Technique that bears his name — asked us all to reimagine for our selves. You take a shot at it. Here is mine:
Think of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man with outstretched limbs reaching to the circumference of a great circle. Leave the circle in place and turn Vitruvian man to the West. Set the circle, now a great wheel, in counterclockwise motion. Let the wheel turn just above his head, and set Vitruvian man running to keep up. From running man’s perspective, the wheel runs forward, away, out, around, down, and back, in a great half circle, returning through the front toe and out the heel of the back foot and back up and around again to the head, continuing the circle. This is Vitruvian man’s forward and up. It is a continuum. Yours too, perhaps. Your running might be better viewed from Vitruvian Man’s perspective, a free-wheeling circle of the self, your forward contributing to your up, your up to your forward away, out, around, down, and back. Ultimately, wheels, circles, have no knowledge of down, of up, or of forward; they just keep coming back to themselves. You might do the same. When you run, keep coming back to your self, never toward, never out there. Run within the circle of your self, forward and up.
Observe how some folks walk and you may see how some folks run. People tend to walk favoring, really, disfavoring, one leg over the other. They swing one leg outward in an orbit around the axis of the spine, stiffen that leg, lock the knee, and then pivot the whole body around the spinal axis to bring the other foot forward. Step after step the process is repeated. It’s like walking a playing card across a gaming table in mockery, one side up and forward while the opposite end is anchored to the table as a pivot. (Hint: Do not do this during a serious poker game.) In walking, the spine is subjected to torque, to rotation as the axis of external rotation. It is a force to which a healthy spine is unaccustomed. It is dangerous to your spinal health and therefore to your greater health. There are better ways of walking. Your head can lead your torso, your lengthening spine, over your front foot while the leg behind springs forward from your toe with minimal effort. It is a way of falling up over the front foot as the body cants slightly forward at the ankles, never from the waist or hips.
Do the knees lead? No, I don’t think so. To lead with the feet is to move militantly — goose stepping — creating stiffness at the knees. To lead with the knees, though, tends to isolate movement rather than integrate it. It can disengage the torso and make of your legs the spinning wheels of a cartoon character preparing for explosive flight.
The way we think about our torso can be a significant factor in our running. The diaphragm is the torso’s natural divider, the floor of the thorax and the ceiling of the abdomen. When we talk about the diaphragm, we should properly call it the thoracic diaphragm, for there is another diaphragm beneath it that forms the base of the pelvis. The pelvic diaphragm is anchored by the central tendon of the perineum, a small muscular mass lying between the pubic and anal triangles of the pelvis. We can imagine a through line, an imagined connection, beginning at the very center of the central tendon of the thoracic diaphragm and passing through the pelvic floor and into the architecture of the central tendon of the perineum. It is this through line, our core, which the head leads over our front foot. And of course, the moment we fixate on that core, or any single part of the whole, the whole, our integrated self suffers, gets pulled in to our fixation. When running, walking, or standing we don’t want to be presenting our pelvises forward or back. We want the through line between central tendons to belong to the earth, to live in relaxed opposition to our heads’ forward and up.
Here’s a procedure to take a look at what you’re doing. Stand in an open doorway and take a step back onto the toe of one foot or the other. Stay there a bit. You’ll be briefly one-footed as you take one foot back. You may notice as you step back that the side of your torso opposite the moving foot swings widely out while the side of your torso over the foot in motion crunches down upon and into itself, yet another thing the spine is really not so fond of. And yet, it is so common that some might call it natural. It’s not. If that torso shimmy doesn’t happen for you, well, you’re gifted, kinesthetically aware. If it does occur, well, you’re like the rest of us and you can profit from a little look-see.
Relax a bit. Come back to your two-footed stance in the doorway, and this time lay an open hand on the doorjamb on the opposite side of the door as the foot you’re going to take back. Let the hand rest easily on the doorjamb. Let the heel of the hand open freely from the fingers, and the palm come into full, unpressed contact. Create a correspondence, a conversation, between the heel of the hand and lower back. Breathe. Now, think the movement of the foot back onto the toe, wait a moment, and comply. Spend some time back there. Free your neck and your ankles. The ankles don’t colonize the feet; the neck doesn’t colonize the head. Ankles are to heel, as neck is to head. Free your neck and come back to your two-footed stance. Relax.
Now, for the last iteration, take the hand away from the doorjamb and become a dispassionate observer of your self. Free your neck without wiggling or waggling it about. Think up and down, down and up from central tendon of the diaphragm to the central tendon of the perineum, up and down through your core, neck freeing, head going forward and up. Step back on to the toe of one foot or another. What do you notice? You might catch yourself stiffening to control your balance, crunching down along one side of the torso or another. In short, you’ll find and identify your habit. If so, great catch. You’re more clever than most. Stay with it. The procedure may continue to stimulate your thinking and inform your running. How often might you engage with the procedure? How about every time you find yourself waiting for an elevator, every time you leave the apartment? Rethink the procedure every time you repeat it. Make it the center but not the circumference of your own continuing exploration.
The procedure is a place to explore your form. The release of the heel can contribute to the release of the head, the release of the head to the release of the heel, a vital opposition from which your running might benefit. It suggests the 10,000 pound bow of Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery, its tip in the clouds while from “the lower end, as though attached by a thread, hangs the earth.” Let your trailing foot spring forward from the earth, the doubly-sprung spine let into length, the head go forward and up, a cloud with a stack of clouds in the sky above it, neck freeing. Let your running express a simultaneous anchoring and exaltation of your self, or if you like, a rolling thunder.
As our running gets more efficient, as we gain more freedom, more consonance with the laws of aerodynamics, little changes are writ large in our performance. Those that count the most are changes in our thinking. If this essay inspires such change, makes you running a bit fleeter and your form a bit neater, it will have been a success. Here’s to your continued running.
This post is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the opinion of the Dashing Whippets Running Team, its board, or its captains.