I now come to the last of the four conditions essential to health — the Correct Use of Self — and in this section shall probably appear to be most obscure and abstruse, because what I have to say will be most unfamiliar.
The whole problem of the human body, regarded as a piece of working mechanism which can be put out of gear, so to speak, by the wrong use of self, and thus have its functions gradually impaired to the point of disease, chronic or acute, though more frequently perhaps the former, is of relatively recent origin.
By this I do not mean to imply that the human body has at any time not been a piece of mechanism whose functions could be impaired and become diseased through wrong or faulty use of self, but merely that such a conception of the possible origin of dysfunction and disease is completely modern.
It originated with the work of Matthias Alexander about forty years ago. He may be said to have been the first seriously to set to work, not merely to examine the many morbid ramifications of the wrong mechanical use of self in all the activities of life, but also, above all to discover a use of the self which does not tend to lower the condition of general functioning in every man and woman who is not actually deformed, and even to improve the use in those who are deformed.
Our ancestors had not entirely overlooked all the aspects of this problem in a groping and rule-of-thumb sort of way. For instance, in many of the arts, particularly piano-playing, it had long been known that if the best use was to be obtained from the body active at a piano, a certain minimum of correct control over the posture of the trunk and the hang of the arms from the shoulders by the pianist was essential. Our ancestors, in a vague sort of way, also appreciated the value of an erect attitude when seated, whether at meals or at work, and probably knew from experience that the doubled-up crouching attitude, so common to-day, was, in the long run, not conductive to normal health, whether in the child or the adult.
But whereas, here and there, they may have had an inkling of the truth that the body, as a mechanical structure, could not be misused with impunity, they had no idea how extensive the field of wrong use and right use actually was; they had no knowledge of the rationale of the good or vile results obtained by the two kinds of use, nor had they a glimmering of a notion of the means whereby right use may be secured in every activity.
Before, however, proceeding any further with this matter, let me at once meet an objection which is probably forming in every reader’s mind.
The average reader, when told that there is an optimal use of the body as a mechanism, i.e., a normal and ideal use, departure from which must spell ultimate dysfunction and disease — feels inclined immediately to retort: “Surely Nature takes charge of these things! Are we, among all the other preoccupations of our busy lives to have a further anxiety foisted upon us? Are we to be constantly asking ourselves whether we are using our organisms correctly or incorrectly in every activity of our lives?”
There are several questions to be answered here, and the first one about Nature must be promptly answered in the negative.
Nature could obviously not implant in us all a rigidly instinctive correct mechanical use of self, without imperilling our lives, and for the simple reason that any such rigidly instinctive use of self, from which no departure was possible, would have left us with no margin for a prompt readjustment of the various controls, if such a readjustment suddenly became necessary.
Take the case of a quadruped! Suppose in a quadruped like the rabbit or the fox, all the conditioned reflexes of locomotion, or instinctive muscular controls for progress along the ground, had been rigidly fixed in a way which left the animal paralysed or completely knocked out of action if it cut its paw! Would it not necessarily perish?
If, however, a margin is left for readjustment with the help of consciousness, it can immediately modify its instinctive impulses and adaptation to quadrupedal locomotion, and race to its lair on three legs. And, when we picture the complicated mechanical readjustment necessary to a quadruped if it is suddenly to change from quadrupedal to tripedal locomotion, we at once appreciate that they are neither slight nor of a kind demanding only a small amount of conscious interference with age-long habit.
Thus, at the very root of life, it would appear as if Nature, on the principle of the survival of the fittest, had implanted a sort of dual control of bodily mechanisms which served the purpose of individual self-preservation.
While the sailing was good, the instinctive and traditional optimal controls of the particular species remained paramount. The moment disaster occurred, consciousness was left a loophole through which it could interfere, and possibly save the situation, by altering for a while the instinctive controls.
But even if we set aside the whole of this aspect of the question, and take no account of conscious mechanical adjustments in cases where instinctive mechanical adjustments have been interfered with either by accident, or disaster in the form of wounds resulting from fighting, being hunted, etc., the very scheme of organic evolution presupposes a dual control of the mechanisms of the animal organism.
Or else how would evolution, i.e., the gradual mutation of species from one form into another, have been possible?
If, for instance, the quadrupedal form of locomotion had been rigidly fixed to follow certain unalterable instinctive controls, for ever independent of conscious interference and never amenable to it, how can we conceive of the transformation of a quadruped into a biped, or of a quadruped into a flying animal?
Man must at some time gradually have adjusted himself from a quadrupedal into a bipedal organism. How could he have done this if the controls had been once and for ever fixed in his organism so as never to allow any departure?
Apart from any personal experience we may have, therefore, we are bound to acknowledge the incidence and possible sway of consciousness, i.e., of voluntary and deliberate choice, in the control of the bodily mechanisms throughout the animal world. And it is here, in this dual control, with the ever present possibility of conscious interference, that error in the use of self may, though not necessarily, find its opportunity, and has found its opportunity in modern man.
“But if this is so,” says the intelligent reader, who has so far followed the argument with care, “why single out man? Why have not the animals also gone wrong by allowing this factor of consciousness to interfere with the optimal control of their bodily mechanisms?”
The answer to this very pertinent question should be followed with care.
It all turns on the question of standardization.
The standardization throughout a particular species of an optimal control of their bodily mechanisms, presupposes many conditions which have long been absent, in a smaller or greater degree, from human life.
It presupposes, first of all, a stable and relatively simple environment, in which for countless generations only those individuals survived (without help from artificial aids) and reproduced their kind, who had evolved the optimal controls, and thus became the standard of their species.
And it presupposes a rigid elimination of all those who, in the process of adaptation, failed to evolve the optimal controls.
These conditions, however, hardly apply to humanity at all, at least during the last ten thousand years.
For, although we may possibly be right in postulating for mankind an era of nomadic hunters which lasted anything from 30,000 to 50,000 years before the historical period, and during which there was the stable environment, the lack of artificial aid for the failures, and, therefore, the chances of a standardization in optimal use comparable to that found among animals; ever since the historical period dawned, and probably centuries before that, the changes constantly occurring in human life — complications resulting from discoveries such as fire, mechanical contrivances of all kinds, including possibly a primitive plough, etc., changes of ways of living, and probably even changes in means of transport — must repeatedly have confronted man with fresh problems in the use of self.
The probability is, indeed, that these changes came so fast, and, certainly in the last 10,000 years, were also often so fundamental (the invention of chairs, * stools, carts, and any number of mechanical contrivances calling for new and wholly fresh bodily adjustments **) that, not only did the environment, particularly in certain quarters of the globe, cease to be stable, but also rigid elimination of failures ceased to operate with unfailing regularity.
* In the introduction he wrote to Mr. Alexander’s latest book. The Universal Constant in Living (London, 1942), the late Professor G. E. Coghill said:— “One ordinarily considers that rising from a sitting position in a chair to a standing position is a simple process perfectly understood by every adult. But this pattern of behaviour is not natural. It was introduced into our behaviour very late in our racial development with the invention of the chair, the most atrocious institution hygienically of civilized life.”
** It has for instance, been discovered that factory hands who change to a new job develop new wrong use of self in the process of trying to adapt themselves to the new demands upon their bodily adjustments.
When we add to this the factor of artificial aids, whether applied by a primitive form of medicine, or a primitive equipment of orthopædic instruments, or by actual artificial transport, we appreciate the enormous apparatus of ordinary living conditions which constantly changed and called for fresh adjustments, together with an increasing tendency to alleviate the plight of those who, in the effort to readjust fell short of the optimal method of mechanical control.
Thus, in the case of man, we may say there has been to an incalculably greater extent than in the case of animals, a sort of routine demand lasting many thousands of years for fresh adjustments. And since it is in fresh adjustments that conscious interference with former optimal bodily use gets its opportunity, it cannot be a matter of surprise that, in modern man, hardly any trace of a standardized optimal use of self remains.
It all has to be re-learnt, and the great virtue of Matthias Alexander’s discoveries is that they are not directed at procuring the optimal control and co-ordination for one activity, but for all, irrespective of trade, profession, craft or pastime.
And, apart from the great merits of the technique discovered by Mr. Alexander for inculcating the right use of his body upon modern man, what chiefly constitutes his claim to respect is that he appears to have been the first to see that, just as the interference of consciousness in effecting new adjustments and new bodily co-ordinations was the loophole through which error entered into man’s use of himself, so now it is through consciousness, and consciousness alone, that lies the road to the re-education of man and the restoration to him of the optimal use of his body in all activities.
Thus consciousness which, as I have shown. Nature was bound to leave in part control of our bodily adjustments and our various muscular co-ordinations, turns out to be a double-edged sword. Although it may, and often does, introduce error, it is our only means of eliminating error and recovering correct use.
The next question is, what are the consequences of wrong use, and are they as grave as I have implied in the above brief outline?
The answer is: The consequences of wrong use are as multifarious, as the possibilities and forms of wrong use are multifarious. They are as grave or as trivial as the wrong use is grave or trivial, and as the part of the body affected by wrong use is important or unimportant.
When we consider for a moment how varied both in kind and gravity may be the evil effects of wrongly using a relatively simple piece of mechanism such as a motor-car, it surely cannot be difficult to acknowledge that, in the case of a piece of mechanism very much more complicated, the varieties of wrong use must be very much more numerous, both as regards their nature and the different degrees of their gravity.
It is, indeed, difficult to imagine a beginning or an end to the possible deleterious consequences of wrong use throughout the organism; and only the differences between individuals, both in constitution and in the kind and gravity of the wrong use of their bodily mechanisms, can account for the deceptive specificality of the dysfunctions and diseases which arise from this source alone, and which, owing to their variety, seem to belie the allegation that the same source is common to all.
Let it be well understood, however, that the term “same source,” in this context, refers to wrong use, and is not, of course, meant to imply that the wrong use itself is in each case the same.
Alexander has shown and, as a matter of fact, claimed long before the rationale of his claim was explained by science, that the respiratory function, for instance, may be, and in millions of cases to-day actually is, dislocated and rendered abnormal and inadequate by the wrong use of self. That is to say, he has shown that the thoracic cage and the breathing apparatus within it depend for their proper and rhythmic expansion and contraction on right use of self.
Inadequate breathing, not occurring once or twice in the course of an hour, but carried on right through every moment of life, may thus be the outcome of wrong use of self, and in millions of modern people actually is brought about and established as a habit through their Failure to achieve the correct use of their organism.
When, therefore, we bear in mind what has been said in earlier sections on the importance of adequate breathing to health, to the proper assimilation of nutrition, and to the proper disposal of the bye-products of alimentation, we can imagine the innumerable sequelæ; which may follow chronic inadequate breathing. From rheumatism to all the disorders of dyspepsia and auto-intoxication, including even duodenal and gastric ulcer, there is a range of ailments so wide in its extent that it is impossible to say where the trouble may end.
But the most vital organ of all, the heart, is also one of the thoracic viscera. If, therefore, the function of the thoracic cage is impaired by wrong use, and the cage itself becomes, as it commonly does in such cases, unduly and prematurely rigid, dysfunction and ultimately diseases of the heart are added to the morbid sequelæ arising from inadequate respiration. And, when one remembers that heart disease and diseases of the vascular system now head the list of mortal diseases, we do not require any further confirmation of Alexander’s general charge against modern humanity as a generation of faulty users of their organisms.
There is not an organ or area of the body of which the same might not be said. Every part of the organism suffers gradual deterioration and ultimately becomes subject to disease, if wrong use of self is persistent. Although in some the wrong use may be so slight as to result in nothing more specific than, say, premature senility, or an uncomfortable and unhappy old age, this does not mean that, had they been correctly controlled and co-ordinated from their youth onwards, they might not have escaped even these apparently slight effects of wrong use in the autumn of their years.
Nor are impairment of function and disease, although the worst, the only consequences of the faulty coordination of the organism, which Alexander has long known to be due to wrong use. Other results, equally crippling in the long run, are — a reduced resistance to fatigue, lowered efficiency, and impoverished tone of all the muscles.
Long before Professor R. Magnus scientifically proved that the tone of muscles and their efficiency could be, and were impaired by wrong use, Alexander was daily demonstrating the fact. to his pupils, and when, in 1924, Professor Magnus’s work * became known, it proved a startling confirmation of Alexander’s claims, which until then many must have thought purely fanciful.
* Körperstellung (Berlin, 1924).
In his long and exhaustive work (it covers 715 closely printed pages) Professor Magnus, among other things, establishes the fact, for instance, “that the relative position of the head and the body, and of different parts of the body to the head and neck, far from being a matter of indifference in regard to the postural reflexes, exercises a profound and important influence both on bodily co-ordination and on the actual tone of the muscles concerned.” *
* Quoted from my Health and Education Through Self Mastery (London, 1933, pp. 26–27).
And since Magnus’s work appeared the attention to the subject of bodily co-ordination, habitual posture, and the use of self as a mechanism has become almost world-wide. Even orthopædic surgeons are now confirming independently what thirty years ago Alexander was probably the only man in the civilized world to appreciate and teach, and frequently the one arresting feature about their reports and findings is the conspicuous lack in them of any mention of the pioneer who first blazed the trail.
Thus, in the Report of the Committee on Growth and Development issued by the White House Conference on Child Health and Protection, * the American orthopædic experts declare that “Poor body mechanics [defects of posture] are extremely common among children of school age and are, in themselves, fatiguing. In a Massachusetts school the experiment was made of giving one group of children instruction in exercises designed to improve body mechanics, while a second group was given only the regulation callisthenics prescribed by the department of physical education. Nine times as many children improved under special training as those who received no special training, and the improvement in body mechanics was associated with benefit to health and efficiency as judged by school performance and behaviour, while regularity of attendance increased.” **
* New York. 1933.
** B.M.J. 15.4.33.
Professor J. A. MacWilliams, in his investigation into the effects of posture on heart-rate and blood pressure, seems to be on a similar tack, * whilst Mr. Philip Well has more recently made a further contribution to the subject, in which he has not only shown the awakened interest in this aspect of the ætiology of dysfunction and disease, but also given us by his article, in which he makes no mention of Alexander, a further example of the neglect by orthodox medicine of the work of our greatest pioneer investigator in this department of knowledge. **
* Lancet. 18.11.33.
** Ibid. 7.4.37.
But most remarkable of all, as confirmation of Alexander’s discoveries, is the work recently published by three orthopædic surgeons — Drs. J. E. Goldthwait, Lloyd T. Brown, and Laing T. Swain — entitled Body Mechanics *, which nobody can read without appreciating the accuracy of Alexander’s original criticism of modern man.
* London, 1934.
Take, for instance, the following: “Poor health may be found with no disease of the organs but it is always associated with faulty adjustment of the body or what is better called faulty Body Mechanics.” *
* Body Mechanics, p. 7.
This might strike many as a passage from one of Alexander’s early books.
Or take the following: “Much of the gynæcological disability and long periods of weakness following some pregnancies can be explained on the basis that the compensation for longstanding faulty Body Mechanics has been broken by the burden of pregnancy and parturition and when once broken, the badly used body is unable to regain its compensation and strength.” *
* Body Mechanics, p. 47.
This, too, abundantly confirms, from a totally independent standpoint, exactly what Alexander has so long been maintaining.
So that even the reader who has not had the privilege of being trained in the right use of self along the lines of Alexander’s teaching, is not now called upon to believe some enthusiastic supporter of Alexander if he is to convince himself that dysfunction, disease and the general impairment of efficiency are common consequences of wrong bodily use. He has only to turn to modern orthopædic surgery where the facts have at last been acknowledged.
The next question is, how can he acquire the knowledge of right use? Or, to put it more accurately — for the word “knowledge” is apt to convey the false impression that the matter can be settled by buying a book of rules or of instructional exercises — how can he acquire the re-conditioning of the reflexes governing his supporting and locomotory mechanisms so as to become habitually a right or correct user of his body?
The answer to this is, only by personal instruction. For, since the whole of Alexander’s system of re-education is based on the fact, proved by Magnus, that the proper and normal co-ordination of the organism is controlled by reflexes conditioned from a central area located in the junction of the body and the head, and that the exercise of this control is a matter of sensory experience and not amenable to theoretical or verbal communication, there is no royal road to correct body use except the daily psycho-physical experience of using oneself rightly under expert supervision and guidance, until the new and correct reflexes governing the supporting and locomotory reflexes become conditioned.
Even when this result is patiently achieved, however, constant and unflagging vigilance is required in order to prevent backsliding. For, not only is it a very difficult matter to recondition reflexes, but there is also a constantly recurring tendency to revert to the old faulty conditioning.
The reasons for this are twofold — first, the constant temptations, through the very appointments, equipment, and general hurry of modern life, to fall back into the old habits, and, secondly, the inordinate power of unconscious emulation, which makes us prone to be unwittingly influenced by what we see others doing. And since the majority to-day are wrong, even a corrected individual finds himself easily falling back into his old faulty habits.
The improvement in psycho-physical efficiency after corrected use has been established is, however, so dramatic and spectacular, and the enhanced sensory appreciation so greatly helps the individual to keep, as it were, an eye on himself, that he who really wishes to retain the progress made can generally do so by exercising ordinary caution, although, in these days, an occasional return to the expert is not unwise, any more than it is unwise, despite the most careful dieting and hygiene, to return to the dentist at intervals.
There will no doubt come a time when re-education in the matter of the use of self will be a routine element in all education, and when that time comes the health both of body and mind in the nation will undergo so marked an improvement that, even the present deleterious influence of a bad example which now, I feel sure, works havoc both among adults and children, but especially the latter, will be permanently removed and thus facilitate even individual effort in becoming re-educated in the use of self.
To those readers who wish to learn more about the art of Conscious Control in the use of self in activity, and all that it means for health and sanity, I cannot do better than recommend F. M. Alexander’s own books on the subject. These are:—
Man’s Supreme Inheritance.
Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual.
The Use of the Self, and
The Universal Constant in Living.
In The Use of the Self will be found a statement (as far as this is possible) of Mr. Alexander’s technique for the re-conditioning of modern man in the correct use of his bodily mechanisms. But readers should bear in mind, both in studying these books and thinking about them, that in view of the fact that the re-conditioning process is wholly concerned with the pupil’s sensory experience — that is to say, that it consists in a re-education of his feeling and muscular-sense reactions, they cannot expect in the printed word precise directions for applying the technique as if it were a new form of physical exercises for instance. The technique is the process of gradually getting the pupil to apprehend and apply a new means of correctly controlling his bodily co ordinations, and as it is based on the new feelings which it imparts, it can be conveyed as little in words as a description of the colour blue can convey blueness to a blind man.
In other words, to acquire the re-conditioning for the correct use of self, one has to undergo personal muscular experiences which, owing to their very novelty, are but gradually assimilated and allowed to become a permanent part of one’s active life. Thus, discarding the old and faulty muscular reactions is part of the re-education, and it is the part which usually takes up the time. Even bad habits have surprising powers of resistance.