On attempting to read it through the impression given is hardly of a book but more of an extended pamphlet with a scrapbook attached. I reckon there are about just under 60 pages of actual text. The rest is made up of illustrations (over 200 of them), lists of quotations, cartoons, some questionable anatomy, advice on further reading, glossary and end notes. Our author is widely read - there are a full 10 pages listing the books referenced. McKenna delights in lists, and in bullet point lists especially, every one exhorting the reader to do this or not do that, think this or not think that. But this gives the impression of a collection of jottings as so many aide mémoire, that it is hard going as a book one might read. It is all a bit of a potpourri with all kinds of bits of advice, comment and assertion thrown in with little coherence. For example, beneath several photographs we are blithely told that 'his peripheral awareness comes from the back of his eyes', or 'vision coming in to the back of his eyes' - really? No explanation is given for such comments so what is meant is rather open to question. Since I have some understanding of the anatomy of vision I think I know what she is getting at here, but as for so many of these throwaway comments there is little enlightenment as to their purpose and meaning in relation to the Alexander Technique. The essential point of exactly how the use of our sense of vision is of crucial importance in relation to our work is quite missing.
THE BASIC MESSAGE
There is one basic idea which has two aspects. First, that in the evolution of vertebrates for many millions of years animals roamed the earth on all-4's, and so in these creatures the head is always leading the body. Second, that the spinal cord is located at the back of vertebrates extending out from the head. The back of 4 legged animals is, of course, on the top of their structure. The back of a vertebrate only comes continuously back (and up) when the comparatively recently evolved humans developed upright walking. In evolutionary terms our recency of uprightness means we are fundamentally, through the previous many millions of years of action of our ancestors on all 4's, hardwired (the author's subtitle) to have the head to lead and the body to follow. So the author is very enthusiastic that humans should be in a state of readiness to get back onto the floor and crawl on all 4's at the slightest chance from either of humanity's two most favoured body attitudes standing and sitting. The mantra repeated time and again in the text is 'is crawling an option?', as if such a thought should always be at the back of our mind, so instead of just giving yourself forward and up directions in the 'normal' AT style: 'If you believe crawling is an option and that the head (the brainstem) is indeed leading, you are 'directing upward'' (page 35).
The second point is that our back should be back. This is neatly summarized in the well-known quotation from Patrick Macdonald: 'Aim up, back back under all circumstances'. In fact this quotation summarises the whole Alexander message of the book. Whether anyone not familiar with AT will understand this without direct help I doubt - despite the numerous illustrations. The problem with this language of 'keep the back in the back' (e.g. 'the back and head should stay in line' - page 57) is that it implies to someone without AT experience that something has to be done. However, the Alexander Technique is essentially and primarily a technique of active prevention. It is much safer to use language that indicates a need to prevent shortening in the front rather than exhorting the reader to keep the back back. Macdonald's remark was for those experienced in AT.
Our author gives very many illustrations to show examples of sportspeople and others in the midst of action yet always, according to her, keeping their back back and apparently having an excellent head-neck-back relationship. However, several of these pictures (e.g. pages 24, 56, 63, 104, 111 and others), show people in the midst of a movement (or being still) where it is not at all clear that the head-neck-back relationship (especially in a conscious Alexander sense) is in fact being maintained or activated despite the assurances of the notes related to the pictures. On page 16 is a picture of a woman sitting in an aikido class where she appears to me to be very fixed and held, and also as if she is holding her breath. Such a rigid back is exactly the kind of image that gives the Alexander Technique the criticism that we want people to look as if they have a broomstick up their back. The contrast with the wonderful photo on page 68 couldn't be greater - here is a naturally lengthened back. I have a similar problem with the illustration on sitting (page 58) - it looks unnatural and stiff with the image having a strangely long neck. Yet, in contrast, the standing illustrations of the author herself working with her illustrator on pages viii and 67 are very different. Here we have clarity of direction, lightness and dynamism, without artificial stiffness. With so many illustrations in the book it is a pity that where they would be a real help to clarify the text they are missing. So on pages 20, 29, 31, 41, 48, and 67 a clear illustration or two would help the text but none is given. So the catalogue of illustrations is a bit of a mixed bag.
FAILURE TO ACKNOWLEDGE THE DEBT OWED TO DART
Twisting (spiraling) is also shown as an option and almost always shown as a spiral to the left - the right handed person's habit as pointed out by Raymond Dart. The Dart Procedures is briefly mentioned in the Glossary but there the phrase that 'the Procedures are bringing more spirals to A.T.' gives the impression that the Technique was always previously working with spirals, which is a very questionable assertion (among many in this book). Dart's contribution to the Alexander Technique regarding spirals is clear in his paper The Double Spiral Arrangement of Voluntary Musculature 1946, and the value of crawling which he probably gathered from Walter Truslow's book Body Poise which Dart read in the 1940's and likely as not borrowed from there, is not attributed to Dart at all. Crawling actually was introduced into the Technique by Walter Carrington and by Alex Murray who were both close friends of Dart and who both got it from Dart himself, so it is surprising Dart is not more respected from an evodevo, as McKenna calls herself. It is Dart who named what Alexander called 'lying down' as 'semi-supine'. It is Dart who proposed the manoeuvre called 'pentapodal' as listed in the 'practices for good use' section - (yet the drawing of pentapodal here on page 107 is not at all correct in its depiction of the position). Although Dart's four papers are listed in the bibliography it would seem that McKenna has not, if she has read them, taken in the points Dart makes, especially in his paper The Attainment of Poise published in 1947. In this paper Dart proposes exactly the transition that McKenna refers to from 4 legs to 2 legs, indeed Dart goes futher back starting from the ball-like jellyfish through the worm-like creatures (like Amphioxus) through all the transition stages towards uprightness. In this same paper Dart especially emphasises the value of rotational (spiral) movements and describes how they arise and are produced in human movement. But McKenna never cites Dart. Instead the author seems more enthusiastic about the Rolfer, Thomas Myers who, as Rolfers do, exhorts us to value the role of fascia in the body movement economy. But, as personally emphasised to me by Irene Tasker (Dart's teacher), in the Alexander Technique it is more relevant for us to speak about bones and joints rather than muscles and fascia.
There are a few excellent photos of humans spiralling, for example, dancing the tango (page 94) or playing golf (page 95). In both these illustrations the impression given is of a spiral going clearly in an upward direction with the head leading a fully lengthening torso. However, when a spiral is shown within a lesson in the Alexander Technique (page 55) the subject is rather obviously twisting downwards on her right side and retracting her head as she looks up. The beautiful upward extension as shown in the other illustrations is clearly missing. This kind of inconsistency occurs throughout the book and adds to the mixed bag problem of the illustrations.
When it comes to discussing the Alexander Technique there are some messages that appear to be contradictory. We are exhorted to 'trust our contact with the ground' (another mantra) , yet this is contradicted on page 104 as here we are asked to let 'mindfulness soften the floor', and 'let your body relax into it'. Then in the very next sentence we are requested to enquire: 'What is my contact with the ground? Do I trust it? Am I moving up off of it?' So which is it? Is the surface to be 'relaxed into or 'moved up off of'? And what is meant by the sit bones extend into the earth' (my italics) on page 90? Also in the section 'Practices for Good Use' the author seems very keen on the word pandiculation which is simply stretching in a yawn - but this has little to do with practices for good use in relation to Alexander Technique. Our work is to do with lengthening, as she correctly emphasises elsewhere, not stretching. Yet here in this section we have a whole collection of stretches which bear little or no relation to the Alexander Technique.
In describing Alexanders Procedures, page 50, she says we will get a detailed presentation of them in the next chapter 'The use of the Self' where we find notes on sitting, standing, walking, monkey, lunge, squat, crawling and semi supine. What is missing here is a picture of an AT student actually IN monkey. She refers the reader to look at various illustrations but they must decide themselves on page 61 exactly what it might be. (There is a well-known photo of FM putting the young Deborah Caplan into monkey which would have been an ideal representation - but sadly this photo is not shown.) She could have particularly directed the reader to the illustrations of babies on page 3 or page 69 but fails to do so. Also no mention in this chapter is made of the standard procedures of going up on the toes, whispered 'ah', or of the hands holding the rail of a chair - this last procedure described in detail by FM himself in CCCI. So these essential procedures, routinely carried out by Alexander, are not detailed at all. The picture of Joan Murray working with a student on page 140 is claimed by McKenna to be guiding 'Alexander's hands on the back of a chair procedure' - but this is certainly not in the least the case if you read the Chapter 'Illustration' in Alexander's CCCI. Joan has evolved something quite different here and McKenna's assertion is yet another example of muddle and blithe assertion.
QUESTIONS OF SEMI-SUPINE and WIDENING
Likewise the photo of the bonobo monkey (page 75) she claims is resting in semi-supine. But Alexander's semi-supine requires books under the head. The bonobo has little chance of widening the back while holding on on a thin branch yet widening the back is an essential part of the purpose of resting in semi-supine. There seems little regard in the text for books under the head in semi-supine - they are hardly visible on page 105 and on page 5 are not remarked upon. Semi-supine is described on page 74 as 'supine with flexed knees'. The footnote on page 105 indicates 'you may need books' (my italics) but books under the head seem hardly significant to McKenna. Yet semi-supine involves both the legs being bent AND the head being raised up on some books. The important dynamics of this raising of the body at both ends to encourage lengthening and widening of the whole back seem not to register strongly with our author.
I would also question McKenna's assertion that the crawling position 'facilitates widening' as she claims (page 35). My experience is quite the opposite - indeed the crawling position is rather a challenge to widening across the upper chest, as was emphasised by Walter Carrington when he taught us the procedure in 1970.
When the discussion attempts to describe the primary control in my view there is far too much over fascination with the suboccipital muscles. ('Because his - Alexander's - habit was to tighten his suboccipital muscles' - really?). The actions and value as head balancers of these little muscles will be readily overriden by the much more powerful head retractors trapezius and sternomastoid (plus other muscles) in people with tense necks who are pulling their head back. The suboccipitals will only have the chance to contribute to the balance of the poised head once these other much more powerful neck muscles have been so released as to allow the suboccipitals to work as delicate fingers, as it were, aiding the head to be appropriately poised. We need to first release the large superficial muscles to allow the suboccipitals the possibility of carrying out their function. Releasing the suboccipitals without releasing these larger muscles is meaningless. Anyone with knowledge of anatomy will be surprised to read on page 41 that 'The head doesn't actually fall forward, because its weight will be counterbalanced by the tensile pull of the suboccipital muscles'. These little muscles are not the only ones in the neck affecting head balance!
Having graduated in embryology I am surprised that with McKenna's inclusion of the 'controversial' illustrations of Haeckel on page 15, which she says in the footnote - 'molecular biology now backs the comparisons he made' Ð (??) she gives no reference for such a bold assertion.
So who is this book for? It appears more of an in-house document which gathers together many illustrations, some useful some questionable, a kind of shopping list of good and poor use and other bits and pieces (like the Charlie Brown joke), but I would never offer this to anyone who was not already quite experienced in the work. McKenna comes across as a lively and enthusiastic teacher who communicates her passion for what she does. Parts maybe fun for us in 'the know', and there are a few flashes of gold dust (pages 47 - great quotation (from FM ?) but no reference given - (51, 57, 68, 79 and 93), yet these are well hidden in the morass of this text. Despite the great title and undertitle, it is a long way from a trusty guide to the Alexander Technique.
2017 © Robin Simmons. Reproduced with permission.This edition © Mouritz 2017. All rights reserved.
It would be a great book for beginners and it might make them curious enough to take lessons. Alexander Technique teachers may like it for the fun activities, excellent visuals, and quotes from first, second, and third generation teachers.
McKenna has a unique perspective and way of articulating Alexander's work that is both refreshing and practical. She places the Alexander Technique within a wider frame of inquiry into human behavior and experience by presenting Alexander's concepts in a broad sphere of somatic, scientific and philosophical thinking, while keeping her writing simple and connected to practical concerns of wellbeing and health.Almost half of the book consists of photographs, illustrations, and cartoons that convey key concepts quickly and easily. The simple, clear, and lively drawings illustrate a dynamic understanding of movement. In many instances, illustrations depict a long sequence of movement that would take many pages to describe. They make text that could be confusing to a new student coherent and straightforward. The photographs are fascinating - for example, of the parachute that was used by the Denver Broncos to train John Elway, a quarterback who struggled to integrate his lower back into his running, and who later led the team to two Super Bowl titles. The parachute was attached to his back, using wind resistance to create a sensation of 'back to stay back' while running. There are many other useful, fun images and cartoons that you may not have seen before.
At the end of the book is a rich compilation of quotes about the Technique, and also addressing human behavior, from F.M. Alexander, a selection of first generation and contemporary Alexander Technique teachers, and, finally, from scientists, thinkers, writers and somatic practitioners.
The first three chapters clearly describe the structure and functioning of the human body throughout its evolution, including a historical perspective on the science behind how humans can most skillfully maintain an upright stance. The central thesis of the book is introduced in the third chapter: By re-learning to crawl on all fours, we can utilize the inherent 'hardwiring' of our brains and bodies, making the best use of our evolutionary history and inherent headward organization to break free of an overly limited repertoire of postures. McKenna proposes that the good use one learns in Alexander Technique lessons is contained in crawling, and that, if it is practiced mindfully, just the thought of crawling can elicit effortless poise and multiple directional possibilities in any movement.
The next three chapters tell Alexander's story, describe an Alexander lesson, explain how to get the most out of it, and how the procedures that an Alexander Technique teacher uses bring about good use. McKenna advocates for adding crawling to that repertoire of procedures and writes, based on her many years of teaching experience, that students who practice it will get great benefit. She describes clearly the meaning of the terms 'good use' and 'misuse,' giving practical examples. These chapters will clear up any confusion that a student might have about the difference between the Alexander Technique and other forms of movement study they may have encountered.
The last two chapters go into detail about the anatomical structures and principles that govern human movement, using the framework of tensegrity systems to relate bone, muscle, and nervous systems to one another in activity. The last chapter offers fun movement explorations devised by the author (different and more improvisational than teaching procedures) to help students discover for themselves the anatomy from chapter seven.
McKenna makes a very good case for adding crawling to the canon of Alexander Technique procedures. I enjoyed trying out her ideas, and I think that, if you read the book in detail and try the explorations yourself, you may be convinced as well.
2017 © Clare Maxwell. Reproduced with permission.This edition © Mouritz 2017. All rights reserved.