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Up On The Roof

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

Here’s a letter, an inquiry, from an Alexander Technique teacher, and professor of Architecture at Berkeley. Attempting to answer such good questions, as this one below, will help elicit and organize this old “body of knowledge.” Help me by asking me your questions. I’d be grateful.

Up On The Roof

Bruce, How do you deal with tension in the tongue, both its wide base in the front of the throat and its anxious tip, pushing against the roof of the mouth? Will is not enough. That is, saying no is not enough, in my experience. What is yours?

I prefer to say yes to something, and recently through work with Body-Mind Centering I’m saying yes to the thalamus and parathyroids. Then the tongue can relax with support from the glands below. I’m deeply curious about others experience and especially yours since you convey meaning and experience so poetically.

With thanks for your open sharing idea,

Galen Cranz


Thanks for your good question, and for sharing your findings. I will play with what is working for you.

Rest and support are simultaneous forces. Something cannot rest if it does not have support. And something cannot receive support unless it gives itself to that which wants to support it. Just look at any object in a room and you can see this truth. Those who learn to see things, kinesthetically, will feel this truth.

Yes, sometimes a yes is easier than a no. Yes. Erika Whittaker’s way of saying that was, “Inhibition is decision.” (I am so grateful I got to know her and to study with her). Marj once described inhibition to me when we were driving to Rutgers University on I-95 to yet another introductory workshop. “Bruce, it’s like this. Here we are driving down the road. You’re getting ready to bare left, because you believe that is the right way to get to where you are going. Then suddenly, while you are driving, you realize it is not the right way to go. So very delicately you lightly turn your steering wheel, power steering, and there you are, heading off in a direction that is going to save you some gas and get you to where you want to go. You can’t be going in two directions at once. Now, that is a simple example, but that’s how it works.”

So, Galen, your decision to say yes, if brought about sensitively, without excessive force, is what we, in Lincoln Nebraska, used to refer to as “active inhibition.” It’s a one step process. The no is on the underside of the yes. If I’m teaching Tai Chi and a person is dragging their foot on the ground as they step forward, I could say, “Stop dragging your foot.” But I might also say, “Release your knee further forward as you step out and see what happens.”

For years now I have taught people how to free their necks from the inside out. The tongue is critical. Yet I don’t think it is possible for your tongue to be free of tension all the time. We humans get scared in myriad ways, large and small, through the course of a day, and when we do we often unconsciously press our tongue against the roof of our mouth. And of course that is just one action within a larger fear response. So the fact that our tongue returns to the roof of our mouth over and over again does not mean we are doing something wrong. Actually this is good, much better then having that tongue stuck to the roof of the mouth all day long. Our tension patterns are good. And I am not just saying that to be kind. Their job is to help us learn how to become freer. They allow us to work out, to train.

Of course, when we are in tune, we can just free into our true and primary movement and, in the process of the whole body and being integrating, the tongue falls into place.

But experience tells me that sometimes we need to spend a bit of time sensitizing parts of our bodies, like the tongue. Then we can integrate that new sensitivity, in this case of the tongue, into our notion of the neck, or into our notion of whole body. We need clear differentiation, articulation of the parts, in order to arrive at an integrated whole. It is like an ecosystem. If we lose certain species, we jeopardize the whole.

In regard to the tongue, what I do for myself, and what I teach my students, is to become sensitive to the directional and spatial relationship between one’s tongue and one’s soft palette. Becoming aware of one’s jaw in relation to the skull also is important, as well as awareness of one’s lips.

Here are some simple, (actually not so simple), images I use that many people find freeing.

1.  Imagine the tongue like the inside tube of a bicycle tire. The tube gets a tiny hole in it and slowly the air leaks out of the tube. This will reduce the tone in a hypertonic tongue.

2. As the tongue is resting somewhere on the floor of the mouth, usually behind the lower teeth, imagine a warm mist circling and rising from the back of the mouth, from the Palatoglossal arch and the Uvula, up toward the opening of the auditory tube in the nasopharynx, which will enliven a sense of the back of the skull. Then imagine that mist hovering behind and above the soft palette, like a eagle looking down at a little mouse resting on the floor of the mouth far, far below.

3. While imagining all of this, (this is Ideokinesis work, in the tradition of Mabel Todd), imagine that the entire contents behind the lower teeth, inside of the jaw, has disappeared, leaving you with a jaw that looks the jaw on a skeleton, no muscles, just bone.

This is a rather elaborate collection of kinesthetic, (not visual), images but they really work for me. They create a spacious, inner landscape inside of the mouth cavity, (as in cave).  Imaginatively transforming the body into landscape is fun, informative, and freeing. One reason I like these images is that they engage my primary movement, so I experience the change of my tongue in relation to my whole body and being.

Kinesthetic images work for me, and for my students. This is irrefutable. Personally I think Mabel Todd’s pioneering work was brilliant. I will save my thoughts on kinesthetic imagery and the Alexander Technique for another time.

Let’s think about the tongue from a spiritual point of view. Why not?

In Judaism the tongue is considered to be an instrument so dangerous as to need to be behind two walls of teeth.

Here’s a Chasidic tale that in no uncertain terms warns us of just how dangerous a tongue can be.

A man went about the community telling malicious lies about the rabbi. Later, he realized the wrong he had done. He began to feel remorse, went to the rabbi and begged his forgiveness. He said he would do anything to make amends. “Take a feather pillow, the Rabbi said, cut it open, and scatter the feathers to the winds.” The man thought this was a strange request, but it was a simple enough task, and so he did it. When he returned and told the rabbi he had done it, the rabbi said, “Now, go and gather the feathers. Because you can no more make amends for the damage your words have done than you can recollect those feathers.”

Thankfully, the tongue is just as capable of blessing people, expressing gratitude, and singing.

One last thought about the tongue. Most of the time we think in words. I don’t know this for a fact but my guess is that when we are thinking in words our tongues are working, not resting.

How about when we are listening to someone speak? What would happen if, when we were listening to someone, we decided to let our tongue rest for the entire time, until that person was completely finished speaking? Might that improve us as listeners? Might that improve our relationships?

How about when our minds are spinning a mile a minute, digging us ever deeper into the mud? What would happen up there in the brain if we could completely rest our tongues?

Maybe we need to learn how to untie our tongues, how to let them rest, so we can use them well and responsibly when we need to, and to stop using them when there is nothing worth saying. Maybe we have to come down from being up on the roof, to just come down, down to the ground.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. James #

    I am amazed that the Alexander Technique is still holding on to this idea of a tongue being at rest in the floor of the mouth, with tongue tip against the bottom front teeth.

    I highly suggest people look into the work of the late Angela Caine, and also of dr Mike Mew.

    Fact of the matter is that this is a hotly debated topic. Tongue in the floor of the mouth? Tongue against the palate? Tongue tip or back of the tongue as the activator? Something you can consciously do or needs to be programmed at a deeper level?

    This article however, with is comforting imagery, may yet do more damage than it does good.

    People act as if they know, they know the physiologic rest position of the tongue (if there is even such a thing).

    Rest position for who? Everyone has different palate shapes, teeth/occlusion, and idfferent tongue sizes.

    Rest position for who? Can you truly rest the tongue any more than you can rest the lungs or the head and neck?

    As you said, it is about both support and rest. If our bodies were completely at rest we’d barely walk around, and our bodies, head and neck would be all floppy.

    Anyone who has truly experienced the Alexander Technique knows that the goal isn’t rest, it is the proper amount of force and muscular action that is being sought out, not too much and not too little. Not complete physiological rest, that idea is ridiculous, unless you are asleep.

    The same is with the tongue. The tongue is not completely at rest in the mouth, even when you are at rest. It has a function, it is connected to the muscular balance of the face, the lower jaw, is a part of the stomatognathic system, and has a role in the breathing musculature.

    To completely relax your tongue would be like completely relaxing your head and neck when standing up. Your entire posture would collapse and you would fall to the ground in a heap of mush.

    The Alexander Technique is about finding the right use. The right amount of support and muscular action. And the same is with the tongue.

    The sooner the AT people can get away from needing to apply this faulty logic to the tongue and jaw that they need to be completely relaxed all the time, the sooner they will approach a more holistic vision of how the tongue and jaw actually functions.

    The amount of misleading information surrounding the jaw and tongue in the world of the Alexander Technique is absolutely baffling, considering how spot on the rest of it is.

    September 1, 2014
    • james. thank you for taking the time to respond to this post. i agree with everything you say. and to be honest, i don’t consider myself an authority on anatomy and how things work. I wish i knew more about how things do work. and i do think most alexander teachers, myself included, are confused about how the tongue actually functions and what it functions are. but i also know, from my experience, that if my tongue is overworking, it creates a compression, a kind of lock down, between the skull and spine that i cannot release unless i change what is happening with my tongue. i didn’t mean to imply that we want to totally relax the tongue, or anything for that matter. most alexander teachers are clear that our work is not about relaxation but about readiness. I think it is a great point that we cannot assume that optimal placement of the tongue will be the same for everyone. i would love to read more of your writing about the tongue. i would like to have the benefit of your insights. let me know about your work and your writings. thank you again for your thoughts. they are very helpful. bruce

      September 1, 2014

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