On Getting a Pupil’s Head to go Forward and Up

Article added May 23, 2013

By Patrick Macdonald

This essay is not meant to be a comprehensive treatise on how to teach the Alexander Technique. Indeed, the subtle interplay of forces, both psychological and mechanical, between teacher and pupil, which is, in my opinion, the essence of teaching the Alexander Technique, will only be touched on casually. My purpose in this essay is to spotlight certain technical problems which are too often ignored and forgotten.

1. The Teacher’s Own Use
I think it is generally accepted that the teacher must maintain a standard of good use in himself in order to be able to pass it on to his pupil. One can describe this as maintaining a sold back and a certain up-flow of the body. The opposite is a contraction of the body and limbs, and results in a pressing down on to the pupil and a stiffening of the arms and wrists. The difference is generally observable and the pupil will frequently recognise it. It is important, in this connection, that the teacher should not hold his breath.

The teacher’s back and hands should tend to be oriented in opposite directions. While it is important that the teacher should maintain a good standard of use, it must be recognised that all teachers occasionally depart from it. This does not seem to matter unduly unless these departures are serious and/or frequent.

2. The Use of the Hands
While the writer is aware that one can persuade a head to go ‘forward and up’ with the hands in various positions, ie with the backs of the hands on the pupils head; with only the fingers and thumbs or even with one; or with merely an elbow or knee, there are certain uses of the hands which have proved effective and easiest and which give the teacher greatest control. I will list some of them. I have found the two first to be more suitable for use by an experienced teacher:

a) One hands on top of the head, the other on the pupil’s back or shoulder. A subtle pressure downwards on the spine and interplay of forces between the hands makes the pupil reset upwards against the top hand, bringing about the required co-ordination. This is a delicate operation.
b) With the hand nearest the pupil’s back grasp the pupil’s neck and squeeze it backwards from the head and over the back.
c) The teacher places the palm of one hand on the pupil’s forehead and the palm of the other on the back of his skull in order to impart the directions.
d) The more usual positioning and one that gives easiest control is one hand under the pupil’s chin and the other behind his head at the base of the skull. It is important to hold the skull and not the top of the neck. In all positioning of the hands, it is important to keep the wrists free and it helps to keep them free if, in this positioning, there is an angle of some 100-120 degrees at the wrists. This angle should be variable and continually varied. To maintain the freedom of the wrists it is helpful to turn the pupil’s head from side to side, which is also useful in keeping his neck free.
e) Taking a pupil lying down presents little difficulty. Again it is important not to mistake the neck for the skull, ie the neck should not be raised in mistake for the head.

3. Forward and Up and Freeing of the Neck if Required
After the necessary inhibition, the teacher should impart impulses to the pupil’s head, the first a forward one (roughly 90 degrees from the pupil’s spinal column), then an upward impulse along the spine. These two should be given one after the other and blended. The first is to release the neck at the atlanto-occipital joint and the second to bring about an expansion along the spine. The upward impulse should be curved so as to bring about the widening of the back. Both these impulses are small, so as to persuade the pupil’s body – not to force it.

4. Use of the Hands and Pupil Stationary
Aft the necessary inhibition and the freeing of the neck, taking a head forward and up presents comparatively little difficulty with the pupil’s body vertical and stationary. It can even be done with the wrists less than free. However, with the body tilted at an angle from the vertical the difficulty is increased and it is not always appreciated that the angles of the lines of force of the impulses must vary with the angle of the pupil’s body. Too often the inexperienced student does not allow for the altered angle of the pupil’s body, with unfortunate results. A pair of free wrists enables the modifications to be made with much greater ease than otherwise.

5. Use of the Hands with the Pupil in Movement
The real test comes with the pupil in movement. To achieve a proper flow of directions in this case, freedom of the teacher’s wrists is essential together with a subtle and delicate appreciation of

• What the teacher’s own hands are doing; and
• What the pupil himself is trying to do

To often the teacher, through lack of awareness can be found to be indicating a wrong pattern of behaviour to his pupil – the very pattern that he, the teacher, is trying to eradicate. The teacher should be continually asking herself, ‘are my hands doing what I want them to do?’ and ‘What is it that I am really wanting my pupil to do?’


This is the name Alexander gave to the neck-head-back relationship which determines the co-ordination of the rest of the body. When it was working properly he described it as: The neck being free, the head going forward and up and the back lengthening and widening. Viewed form the teacher’s point of view, this means:

a) That the pupil should not stiffen his neck – that if it is stiff the pupil should leave it alone for the teacher to free, which he will do by turning the head gently and, possibly, taking it backwards and forwards.
b) That the teacher will take the head forward from the neck at the atlanto-occipital joint which will further free the head from the neck and allow him to take the head upwards. This means that he will gently elongate the pupil’s spinal column.

This must be done with considerable subtlety so as to persuade the spinal column to elongate itself. Without this, any pulling on the neck will result in contraction along the spinal column and not expansion.

c) That the upward movement or impulse of the head should communicate itself to the whole spinal column and produce what Alexander calls a lengthening of the back. This upward movement (impulse or direction)s hould be given a slightly forward bias so that the lower back tends to swell out backwards, thus establishing the condition that Alexander called widening of the back.

The hips will tend to be carried backwards.

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