“So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn.”
Henry David Thoreau – Walking
Marjorie Barstow 1976
Perhaps not lost, not to all but, I fear, to some. It may not be getting the attention it deserves. Few teachers are as confident and accomplished at teaching walking, as a procedure, as they are in teaching chair work or lying down work as a procedure. Marjorie Barstow, one of my mentors, loved this procedure. She took people as much from standing into walking, as most teachers today take people from standing into sitting. And so do I. I like walking because it is the only procedure that clearly incorporates rotational and spiraling motions. Lunge, monkey, and hands over back of the chair, as wonderful as they are, can have the inadvertent side effect of training a person not to rotate or spiral when rotational and spiraling motions are called for, as they are in walking. This creates what I refer to as Alexandrian Artifice, unnaturalness, the exact opposite of what we want, which is naturalness. As we know, stiffness, that is, a certain held stillness, a slightly stayed quality like a beautiful white shirt, over starched and thus uncomfortable can pervade our work. When a person learns to walk well, this insidious artificiality gives way to fluid, powerful motion.
To learn how to walk well requires a working knowledge of the ‘motions of mechanical advantage.’ Here I will list, not all, but some of these motions of mechanical advantage as they apply to walking. I teach them ‘one after the other’ though, of course, the goal is that in the end they are all happening simultaneously, ‘altogether’. We learn them as notes, but ultimately they become chords. We also learn these motions of mechanical advantage from the bottom up and not from the top down. It’s easier this way.
Remember, it is not necessary to ‘do’ anything with force. All that is necessary is to perceive the truth of your anatomical design and what is happening, as it is happening. It is the truth that sets us free, effortlessly. That’s grace.
One. Our feet must learn how to give themselves to the ground. Alexander writes about this clearly in Evolution of a Technique. Most people stand on their own two feet, not on the ground. The way we give our feet to the ground is by allowing our ankles to be loose. In Japanese we call the ankle, Ashikubi, which literally translates, ‘the neck of the foot’. Once the ankles are loose and free, the back foot, the foot behind us when we are walking, be it our left or right foot, will have a slight tendency to linger in the back. Just perceive it, sense it, and allow this slight lingering to happen. Don’t do it. (A ‘footnote’: remember that the structure of our feet, including the bottom of our feet, are entirely above the ground. Remember that our feet are not like the sole of a shoe. Our feet are more like hiking boots. They have verticality, are also vertical structures, part of our vertical height.) The heels of our feet are low and behind our ankles, and our ankles are forward of our heels and higher than our heels. We don’t stand ‘on’ our own two feet. The ground rises up under our feet and stands us up.
Two. In the Alexander Alliance we teach about the workings of the pelvis, at first, in a simple but very effective way. We teach our students about the “Three Tails,” dog tail, duck tail, and dinosaur tail, as conceived by Robyn Avalon. We have people imagine that they are a dog that did something bad and that their master is scolding them. We get them to put their imaginary tail between their back legs and tuck their pelvis’s under in shame, and then walk around. Then we ask them to keep their dog tails and raise their arms, and then to take a deep breath, and no one can lift their arms over their heads, and no one can take a deep breath. (Try it now.) So we know a dog tail will not help us walk well. But many of us have a bit of a dog tail, and even a little bit of dog tail affects our arms and how we breathe; it affects everything really. Then we teach duck tail. We have everyone lift their gorgeous tails way up high. Everyone’s chest automatically sticks way out, their necks over straighten, their knees lock back, and again, when asked to raise their arms and then to take a deep breath both again are impaired. So we know that a duck tail does not help us walk. Even a very slight duck tail hampers the freedom of the entire body. Finally, we teach something that is not a dog tail and not a duck tail. It’s a dinosaur tail. A dinosaur tail is huge, grows out of our sacrum and curves behind us down to the ground, where it rests substantially, but lightly and happily. We then walk imagining our dinosaur tail naturally swinging from side to side. We don’t make the dinosaur tail do anything. We just imagine it swinging happily. We want the mind moving the body, not the muscles moving the muscles.
Now we go back to one, get the ankles loose and the feet lingering behind us, add the huge dinosaur tail image, and right away, there will most likely be a lively power coming into our walk. The ground and pelvis are sources of great power.
Three. It is important simply to notice where body parts are, one in relation to the other. We can never figure out where a part of the body is in isolation. We can only know where something is in relation to where something else is. Can you imagine wanting to find Paris and you look at your GPS and there is only one big point on the screen that says Paris? Locating our greater trochanters in relation to our hip joints, what I call our ‘hip pockets’ is important. Sense how much distance there is from greater trochanter to greater trochanter. Then notice where your hip pockets are, how close they are one to the other. Notice how the hip pockets are quite close to the midline, while your greater trochanters are located far out on the periphery of your body. While walking let your knees fall under your hip pockets. This will simply happen, if you let it, because the angle of the femur from the greater trochanter falls diagonally inwards toward the midline of your body, exactly where the knees want to be. Your knees exist close to the midline as do your ankles and your feet, and your spine too. Sense the truth of that.
Add this relational awareness of your wide greater trochanters in relation to what exists and moves close to your midline, i.e., hip joints, knees, ankles, feet, and spine as you allow your ankles to be loose, your feet to linger behind you, and your imaginary dinosaur tail to swing happily, altogether, one after the other. That is, altogetheroneaftertheother. I wish I could say all of those words simultaneously, but I can’t.
One, ankles/feet, two, dinosaur tail, three wide pelvis/ midline joints altogetheroneaftertheother.
Four. It is important to know how huge our rib structure is, how low it is, and how surprisingly high it goes. It’s important to understand how the rib rings become smaller and smaller as they get higher and higher, the top rib ring living just under the clavicles and rising above the clavicles in the back where it inserts into their costovertebral joints. Imagine two people climbing up the sides of your rib structure, your rib ladders. As they get higher and higher, imagine the climbers getting closer and closer together. Imagine them climbing all the way up onto the top rib ring behind the clavicles, and making their way up to where the top ring ribs insert into their costovertebral joints.
One, ankles/feet. Two, dinosaur tail. Three, wide pelvis/midline joints, Four, rib climbers, altogetheroneaftertheother.
Five. Our arm structure, (we don’t have two arms, we have one arm structure), which includes our clavicles and our scapulae hovers above our upper ring rib and is a large, wide structure in relation to our uppermost ring rib, which is small and close to our midline. Shoulders are wide just as greater trochanters are wide. The power of the dinosaur tail sends the pelvis swinging in such a way, (in such a way means in a way too subtle to describe), that sends a rotational spiraling action up the spine, which in turns swings the arm structure, allowing for oppositional motion in walking. It does not help to have dead, hanging, ropey arms. Play with making ‘finger rings’, touching the tip of your index fingers or middle fingers to the tip of your thumbs, creating a slight suspension and circular curving of the arm structure.
One, two, three, four, five, altogetheroneaftertheother. You should now be in ‘four wheel drive’, walking with ease and power.
Six. And of course, for good measure, we invoke within us ‘the true primary movement in each and every act.’ Aristotle speaks of, (I wonder, did F.M. read Aristotle?), the Prime Mover, the Unmoved Mover, a concept which means, ‘that which moves without being moved’ or, the ‘mover of all motion in the universe’. In Metaphysics Aristotle envisions the Unmoved Mover as perfectly beautiful and indivisible.
And so we invoke via our Alexandrian invocation, verbally or non-verbally, out loud or in silence, Let my neck be free, to allow my head to go forward and up, to allow my whole back from head to heel to lengthen and widen, altogetheroneaftertheother, (or whatever slight variation you like), and miraculously all the mechanical parts of the walk transform themselves into one organically logical living whole, at once functional, fluid, natural, beautiful, peaceful and powerful.
Flare your nostrils a few times, feel the coolness of the air as it rises up through your nasal passages. Let the Unmoved Mover breathe you and move you.
One, two, three, four, five, six, altogetheroneaftertheother.
The lost procedure, rediscovered anew.
Seven. All that is left is to see, not only through your eyes, but from your beating heart. Let the world, in all of its glory, enter and fill you.
Say thank you to the forces that be for granting you the ability to walk.
And mean it.
There is more to say about walking and, there is nothing more you need to know.
Gratitude is the ultimate freeing force.
Note: Consider recording this essay on your smartphone and listening to it as you take a half hour walk. Pause it when needed. See what happens. When you return home, sit down at your computer and write me a letter telling me of your experience. firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to know. Thank you.