By Stella Weigel
Having eaten cake which caused her to grow to a tremendous height, Alice exclaims:
‘I shall be a great deal too far off to trouble myself about you: you must manage the best way you can; —but I must be kind to them,’ thought Alice, ‘or perhaps they won’t walk the way I want to go! Let me see: I’ll give them a new pair of boots every Christmas.’ And she went on planning to herself how she would manage it. ‘They must go by the carrier,’ she thought; ‘and how funny it’ll seem, sending presents to one’s own feet! And how odd the directions will look!
(Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll)
I recently learned at an anatomy lecture that during embryological development the skin which sits underneath the first vertebrae (atlas) redistributes to form the skin of the soles of the feet. This helps to explain why the receptors in the soles of the feet, provide such a good feedback to orient us in space and alert us to when we are going off balance. Raymond Dart, anatomist and anthropologist, wrote, “In the human squatting or standing (or orthograde) positions, the dominant segmental skin information concerned in human head balance is probably that coming from the sacral or hind most body segments to supplying the soles of the feet, especially the pads of the toes and heels” (An Anatomist’s Tribute to F. Matthias Alexander, 20 March 1970, reprinted in Skill and Poise). Alexander lessons encourage us to think of our feet being in touch with the planet, the pads behind the toes and the heels going back and down.
Due to a fear of falling, our common immediate response when we feel off balance is to stiffen; if this stiffening becomes habitual, then our fear response will become more or less a constant. The possibility of any movement will lead to a perception that we are going off balance, and the fear response is therefore heightened. This is a vicious circle.
No small wonder then that having developed a habitual fear reflex, I also developed a fear of heights; due to habitual stiffening, my feet were, quite literally, never on the ground. I also sat in chairs that were too big for me, which caused me to stiffen as much I could. As an undergraduate I avoided the paternoster lift at all costs, preferring to walk up twelve flights of stairs in order to reach the teaching rooms.
Dart continues, “Man is the creature of fear! In other words, he is the most fearful (in every sense of that word) just as he can and has become the most fearless of all animals. This is because he has become the most nearly tip-toed of all the two-footed, or bipedal creatures. His walking is a constant precarious process of saving himself from falling. So the primary fear to overcome is his fear of falling.”
The Alexander Technique teaches us to release and soften rather than to stiffen when being taken off balance, to experiment rather than to control, and to be aware that we do indeed possess a choice, either to topple over in a stiffening response
to gravity or to stand in dynamic equilibrium and stability, with gravity as our friend.
Alice sent presents to her feet. But F.M. Alexander sent presents to us all. He handed down the directions that help us experience standing on our feet as a pleasure, moving with them as a joy. Take a moment to think of your feet softening, spreading and enjoy being on the ground. It is a kindness to yourself.
Guest Blogger Stella Weigel lives in London and is an Alexander Technique teacher trainee at The Constructive Teaching Centre, the world’s oldest and largest Alexander Technique training school.