Primary Control

Using the goal to substitute new improvements to develop his vocal skills, Alexander observed himself. It appeared that his own problems with voice loss starting in a backward and downward movement of his head. He observed that shortening the head back or down creates unecessary tension that affects the entire body and its’ quality of movement. This habitual movement was similar to the movement a turtle can make, in the motion of retracting the head towards the shell.

F. M. Alexander concluded that the orientation of the head in relation to the body determines the quality and successful response of how all other intended bodily motion may occur. The head is a steering key to bodily movement. The head moving away from the body allows the whole body to expand in stature, and to be ready to move easier in any direction.

Alexander observed that once this pattern of head retraction went into action, it was very difficult to influence. So he decided to back up and make the improvement with the first motion that initiated action. He traced the origin of motion to a head movement. He wondered if he could solve his voice loss problem by moving in the opposite direction from his usual habitual preparation as he began to speak. In Alexander’s case, this opposite direction of improvement was slightly away from the body and tipping slightly forward, which he described as “Forward and Up.” This sort of movement counteracted what is now known as a startle reflex.

After coming up with some issues carrying his intentions into action, Alexander found eventually that he could counteract his habit of pulling his head down into his neck. Starting the action in this new way alleviated the pressure on his voice. Counteracting habitual self-imposed limitations provided Alexander insights about the qualities of motion related to his suspended goals of being a better speaker.

The eventual success of Alexander’s hypothesis and the commonality of observing this same pattern in other people led him to establish the importance of the head as an axiom about movement initiation. The head moving away from the body allows the whole body to expand in length. Inspired by Rudolph Magnus idea of central control in animals, Alexander called this principle primary control. Primary control works in action – whether for good or otherwise.

Later, other Alexander Technique teachers used additional terms to encourage and mark the importance of this head movement, because specific descriptions can be an advantage. Alexander’s first graduate of this first training course, Marj Barstow, felt it was important to describe quality of motion as being “delicate” and originated the phrase: “The head moves, and the body follows.”

Most of our habits interfere by superceding the primary control response as a special exception. In most adults, so many special exceptions have been put into place that these pull in opposing directions, often firing off simultaneously. The teacher helps the student to become aware of these routine interfering patterns in order to inhibit them and regain control against conflicting automated habitual responses.

The other special action Alexander found helped to undo the coercive power of routines was to “Direct.” This special term of “Directing” means to suggest the thought of a constructive means without overtly performing the action. Through experimentation, Alexander discovered the fact that movement preparation occurs long before the person is aware they are about to move. This agrees with brain science findings done a hundred years later.

The suggestion of thinking about primary control while moving achieves many advantages. Most important, this ‘Directing” allows a minimal tonus of the neck musculature, so that the head balances freely on top of the spine, rather than locked in a certain position. This freedom of balance allows the torso and spine to respond by slightly expanding. That is exactly how and why Alexander Technique has gained a secret reputation for expanding height in adults and preventing height loss during aging.

This is a reprint of a definition of Primary Control I wrote today for the excellent wiki attended by Lutz at: