In order to understand how to use the body efficiently and holistically, it can be very beneficial to understand the way the body is put together by studying a little anatomy.
In the Alexander Technique, we never look at parts; instead we look at how the whole body functions and works together. That is the same way that I approach anatomy.
So if you have every been intimidated by anatomy because it involved memorizing an inconceivable amount if little parts, then don't worry! Because this anatomy lesson is broken down into a few simple AT basics that can really change the way you perceive your body.
The three main anatomical structures that I would like to look at today are all a part of the skeletal system and are essential in how we think about and move the body posturally. They are the atlanto-occipital joint, the spine, and the hip joint.
The Atlanto Occipital Joint
So to begin our lesson let's take a look at the atlanto occipital joint (a.k.a the AOJ)
Photo credits: BodyParts3D, Copyright 2008 Integrated Database Center for Life Science
The AOJ is the joint where the head connects to the spine. It is very high up on the head. If touch the bulbous part of the back of your head (in line with the tip of your ears or your eyes) the AOJ is central inside the head at that point. This is where the head is can look up and down, and rotate on the tip of the spine. This is also where we associate the phrase "allow the neck to be free for the head to release forward and up" where the head meets the spine. In a way, this is the initiator of the primary control.
From this point we have the spine, which travels all the way from the AOJ (C1 and C2 vertebrae) down to the coccyx (tail bone).
It is one long connected piece that attaches at the sacrum to the hip bones and pelvic girdle. So put one hand up by your temple, and another hand all the way down at the very end of your tail bone and that is how long your spine is! It's really incredible when you get a sense of the full length.
Mostly, in the use of the body, people think of the back as beginning around the shoulders/upper back, and ending just above the glutes. In the Alexander Technique, when we refer to "allow the back to lengthen and widen" we are talking about the entire length of the spine from the AOJ all the way down to the coccyx.
The Hip and Leg Joints
When using the body and conceptualizing the body, it is very important to know where the major joints are in the body. While the vertebrae have facet joints between them that give the spine some mobility and flexibility to rotate and bend, it's main purpose is for stability of the overall structure and the spinal column.
The major joints that are responsible for movement in the body are the AOJ, the hip joint, the knees, and the ankles (and of course the arm joints as well, but I am focusing more on the postural anatomical parts necessary for standing, sitting, bending, etc.)
The hip joint is actually where the ball of the femur inserts and connects into the hip bone. In your sensory awareness, it is probably lower down than you think. Take your hand and touch the very top and outside of your leg bone, and that is the hip joint. Then of course, we are all familiar with the knees and ankles.
Most people bend and "break the back" when engaging in daily activities, meaning you treat your spine as if you had many major joints at places along the spine.
Here is an example: if I go to bend down to pick something up (as in the picture below on the left), and I bend my back at the navel in order to accomplish this, I am acting as though I have a major joint located in my thoracic/lumbar spine. This is why so many people do serious damage to their lower backs using themselves this way, day after day.
Here is a side by side comparison of an older women "breaking her back" to bend down, where the picture on the right is of a young child bending correctly at the joints while maintaining a good use of the back.
As you can see on the picture on the right, we need to have freedom and movement in the AOJ, hip joint, knees, and ankles to lower in space and bend down. The back should stay quite stable and the spine should stay elongated to maintain the head-neck-back-feet relationship of the primary control. Otherwise, we do a lot of damage on the vertebrae and lower back. All of these things working together allow for freedom of movement and lightness in the joints.
In conclusion for Alexander Anatomy 101: the AOJ, hip joint, and joints of the legs are responsible for movement, while the stability of the spine is essential. As you begin to think about this work, as yourself how am I wearing my head on my spine? Where does my spine begin and end? Am I breaking my back?
Of course, most of this doesn't come together and really make sense until you experience the difference in your body with hands-on work from an AT teacher and learn what it means in your sensory perception to free your AO joint and bend from the hip. So, if you're located in North Florida and interested in learning more, book a lesson. If located somewhere else, check out the AmSAT website for a list of certified practitioners in your area: www.amsat.org