I have written a parable: A Modern Runner’s Tale to communicate to other Alexander practitioners something of the bemusing and often bamboozling ethos that surrounds today’s runner. Barefoot Shoes feature in my tale, but ‘The Barefoot Shoe’, the ultimate oxymoron, could well stand as a symbol for the weird pecuniary logic that surrounds our everyday lives.
My tale follows an individual up to the brink of something I call an Alexander moment, one that recreates F.M. Alexander’s transformative shift to working on and changing the way he used himself. Up to that moment FMA had tried all the available outer-directed treatments for his voice problem. Always with that key shift to an inner-directed approach comes a strong resolve to take responsibility for ones self. With that change comes a commitment to let-go of attempts to correct the way we function, for example how we walk, talk and run. The shift involves something deep and radical: a complex restructuring of the use of the Self.
Over 30 years of involvement with self-work and full time Alexander Technique teaching, I have grown more and more fascinated by the preparation, the tilling of the ground that leads up to these extra-ordinary moments when self-work begins. Thirty years ago I experienced an epiphany moment very like the one that I relate in the tale, because, for me, it also centred around my feet. The build up to that moment is a questioning state of mind, one which generates what I call Frequently Unasked Questions. (The acronym FUQ sounds suitably scurrilous!). In the tale we follow an individual as he generates a cascade of ‘FUQs’. Of course, a key FUQ is: why do certain questions rarely get asked. Often a tussle with pecuniary logic seems inevitable! Vested interests often distort things simply by avoiding certain questions.
My own epiphany moment had me staring in wonder at my feet. It was 1982 on a course led by Don Burton which was held at Manjuishri Institute in Ulverston where I live. I had walked and run barefoot for some years prior to my introduction to the Alexander Technique. I too buzzed with a whole host of FUQs which centred around just how much protection my feet needed. There is an interesting synchronicity to this date 30 years ago because at that time a new idea was coming into being and it spawned the epoch of the modern multi-million pound training shoe industry. The idea was this: the human foot not only needs protection it needs as well, correction. That the foot is faulty is the underpinning notion. On occasions some experts have even claimed that the human foot is incompletely evolved.
So my 30 year involvement with the Alexander Technique exactly coincides with the epoch of the modern corrective running shoe. My 30 year long exploration of the Technique, includes a 21 year long creation: the Natural Running Course. I have been way out on a limb in the Natural Running work, questioning the tacit assumption that human feet are inherently faulty and in need not only of protection but correction as well. Now a lot of people are starting to challenge these assumptions. In the tale we follow an individual as he tussles with these challenges to an established orthodoxy, and as he approaches an epiphany moment.
The best of teaching in regard to self-work acknowledges that, as a teacher I can only till the ground that prepares for the flourishing moment when real self work begins. In those moments we stop tinkering with habits and begin to change the use of the self and the habits that use contains. These moments are rare and challenging. They demand self-reliance, self-direction, an independence of mind and spirit to ask awkward questions, and the courage to go it alone into unknown territory in order to challenge established habits and traditions. I am sure of one thing in regard to these special moments: I cannot make them happen, either for myself or for another. They are truly individuating as they were for Alexander and as they are for us all.
It is just possible someone like the runner in my tale arrives at your practice room with a fancy shoe-box containing some barefoot shoes under his arm, a querulous look and bristling with a whole host of FUQs. It is said that runners are the biggest end-gainers in the world. The chances are that this particular pupil will be hanging on to a no-nonsense aim of getting over the race line faster than ever and with fewer injuries. As a runner myself I reckon this a great aim. I never suggest that such an individual should stop having goals. Instead I try to get over that the problem lies in allowing the end to drive the action toward the goal, instead of a far better idea : let the goal steer the action instead of driving it.
A Modern Runner’s Tale:
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered.
There is a two storey high ‘cliff-face’ of shoe boxes. Open metal stairs lead to a mezzanine area that separates the ‘cliff-wall’ of shoes and shoeboxes into two levels . In the “Giant Box” superstore sports outlet I stand perplexed, overwhelmed by the array of choices. Not only am I bewildered but I am a typical runner and I am also bothered by persistent nagging injuries. What I want is straightforward and simple: I want to get over that race finishing line faster than ever before, preferably faster than any other competitor and, I want to achieve this with as few injuries as is possible. Which shoe will help?
Occasionally the ‘cliff-wall’ is broken up by clear perspex protuberances that make the particular shoe on display look like it is flying through the air. I once made a model aircraft that stood on a similar clear plastic stand. Here and there are specimen shoes sliced down the middle like models of ocean going liners. There are various ‘decks’ . These ocean going shoe-vessels demonstrate an impressive technology involving arch supports and springing systems, shock absorbing gels, anti-roll devices. The more expensive ones even have onboard computer-driven control and navigation systems.
Now which of these technological miracles is going to help me get over that line faster and without injury?
It is all very confusing and besides the perplexity of choosing, it would take days to try them all on.
No … I have decided that to get it right I need expert guidance. So, now I am in the High Street specialist running store. The cliff-face of shoes is still there but buried in the store-room at the rear of the shop. There are examples on display but now what really grabs the eye is the impressive display of technology. It will actually diagnose the foot fault that underlies my ongoing bothersome injuries!
They take a look at my footprint on a force strain gauge that is like a fancy set of bathroom scales. Do I have a low or a high arch? I run on a tread mill while a computer driven video package analyses my running stride. It seems that the ‘Running People’ break neatly into three sub-tribes: There is the Floppy-Foot Tribe, the Rigid-Foot Tribe and the other Neutral People. The impressive technology will establish what tribe I belong to and then a specialist shoe will be fetched from the ‘cliff-face’ in the store room. There is an impressive dialect or language spoken around me, one that is full of scientific ‘latinised’ terminology. Apparently, if I am a supinator, sometimes also termed an under-pronator then I belong to the Rigid Foot tribe. I need a cushioned protective, structured, stability shoe to prevent my foot rolling too much inward. If the technology reveals that my foot rolls too much outward then I am a pronator and I will qualify for membership to the Floppy Foot tribe. To correct this fault I need a maximum support, motion control shoe. If I belong to the Neutral Tribe there is a range of options, maybe a little support here, a bit of motion control there.
I am utterly bewitched by all this. How great is this? They are identifying a need, something that clearly requires correction and they are supplying the means, a device, a shoe designed to correct the fault. It’ll cost me, of course as I would expect : you get what you pays for. But if it means getting over that line faster and injury free then it will be worth every penny.
Sorted! Well thank the Gods of Nike and Adidas! They have made it all so straightforward: my foot is faulty, it may even be insufficiently evolved. So here I am the satisfied customer walking out of the shop, albeit a £100 the worse off. But what the hell! I have under my arm a marvellously packaged and marketed correction device packed with the most up to date and fantastic technology, design flair and scientific know-how. Huge sigh of relief. Gratitude to the expertise of the running shop people for finding and allocating me to my ‘Tribe’.
Great. I am no longer bewildered…Uh-oh... until tomorrow that is… when the Spring 2012 copy of “Runners World” lands on my welcome mat! It trumpets the following:
“Runner’s World Steps Into the Future with its Revised Shoe Guide: Does this Mark the End of the Pronation Control Paradigm.
For nearly three decades we organised shoes and reviews into categories; motion-control, stability neutral-cushioned and performance training. The format was rooted in the prevailing science which held that flat-footed runners needed stability features, high-arched runners needed cushioning and everyone else fell in between. But over time that model has been outdated.”
I ‘google’ around a bit and it turns out that at least four major studies report that there is no basis and, rather than a scientific model efficiently upgrading and revising itself, there never was any established evidence base for the three decades of corrective pronation control shoes. So what is going on here? The pages of running magazines are as ever, full of lavish and expensive ads for ocean going or flying shoes. What does this sea-change, this paradigm shift really mean because clearly it seems to be more than a model that has grown a little outdated and become …well… so very ‘twentieth century’.
So to crown it all just when I briefly stopped being bewildered up pops the latest and very twenty-first century “must have”: the Barefoot Shoe! Now I am doubly bewildered, but as well, I am seriously becoming suspicious. I go down to the under-the-stairs cupboard and reflect on the fact that I am to running shoes what Imelda Marcos was to fashion shoes. Gazing on the row upon row of running shoes… could it possibly be that rather than being the solution I am staring at the problem? It seems too wild an idea. But the questions grow.
When did the correction idea first take hold?
Certainly thirty years ago the key idea of a running shoe was protection. The need that the shoe addressed was to protect the foot. There is a basic underlying marketing rationale at work here: First, either create or identify a need and then, sell a product that satisfies that need. Protecting the foot is simple enough business. We have been doing it for at least 10,000 years or more with a simple “second-skin” covering that pretty-well left the foot free to get on with the jobs that evolution shaped it to do. However eventually, with improved technology we got more and more sophisticated with the cushioning protection. But then lo, along comes another idea and one that has a much more effective marketing pitch : the foot not only needs elaborate protective cushioning it has a deeper need. It is faulty and it needs a device to correct its inherent failings.
Could it possibly be that the over elaborate cushioning and protection is somehow involved in this seriously strange phenomena in which at least two thirds of the modern Running People have faulty feet that are in need of correction? Could we really have evolved with a situation in which two-thirds of the Running People have seriously dysfunctional feet that lead to persistent injuries that render most of the tribe unable to run, to hunt, to gather? Was there really a secret Nike factory out there on the ancient savannah? Something does not quite stack up here.
Bewildered I might be but I am growing more and more dubious. There are some FUQs and I want some clear answers to these Frequently Unasked Questions:
Just why does it seems to have taken 30 years before the key question: Does It Really Work has been asked?
Another even more straightforward and simple question occurs to me: Does the corrective shoe at least, achieve its stated aim: Does it correct the fault?
The shoe companies assumed a spurious air of “scientific” authority to which they had little or no claim. But let’s face it the key job of the shoe companies is not to do science but to make money by selling shoes and the more shoes it sells the more money it makes. No wonder then it took 30 or more years for this question to be asked and it certainly was NOT the multi-million pound shoe companies who have initiated the asking. It is clearly not in their best interest to do so. Thirty years down the line seems a long time to get around to checking out these fundamental issues, but now it seems that the word is out ,and a raft of studies suggest that there is little or no basis for the underlying rationale of the corrective/protective shoe paradigm. One major study even reported less injuries for subjects assigned the “wrong” corrective shoe type than those assigned the “right” corrective shoe. There are currently four major research studies and they all unanimously indicate that assigning shoes based on indirect measures of pronation actually increases the likelihood of injury. So the best evidence based peer reviewed science suggests that the answer to the question: does it work is : probably not.
I return to that Spring 2012 copy of Runner’s World. Doubtless there is enormous revenue generated by the page upon page of lavish shoe ads. I begin to suspect that there is quite a bit of “air-brushing” going on in the Runners World quote that trumpets a 21st century “up-date”. “The format” (which sold millions of pounds worth of footwear) never was “rooted in prevailing science” and something considerably more than an a bit of “up-dating” seems to be going on. Something more like a complete paradigm shift seems to be taking place in which the entire ground beneath a whole industrial edifice is becoming distinctly shaky.
There was a short period of silence as the implications of these latest findings disappeared into the marketing boardrooms of the major shoe companies. Then the Dream-Weavers spoke: Nike changes its logo from “Just Do It” to “Run Barefoot”. One way or another, and by whatever clever manipulative means the bewitching enchanting dream must go. It does so by cleverly taking on the clothes of the enemy. Happily for the multi-million pound shoe industry, running shoes have become the “crack-cocaine of the modern runner”. I just must have the latest “fix”. And here it is: the latest “must-have”: Tuh…Duhhh: The Barefoot Shoe. “Now perhaps corrective shoes may have got you into a mess”, croons the Dream Weavers seductive voice.
“ Whoops! We are really sorry about that.. but we will not mention that too much more. Fear not and do not be at all bewildered! We have for you the perfect solution to your new need: The Transition Barefoot Running Shoe guaranteed to mimic and enhance all the features of a barefoot stride”.
Less bewitched by the dream, by the itch and scratch of it all, I take myself back down to the High Street Running Store. In the shop they are not all that happy with the changes. There is mumbling about modern underfoot hazards that our ancestors never had to contend with, mutterings about shin splints and possible meta-tarsal stress fractures. The shoe salesman, as he takes the latest Nike –Free running shoes from out of its tissue wrapping, complains that every time Nike send out the latest upgrade on the “Nike Free” that there is less shoe in the box.
“Take this for example,” he says, holding them out for me to see.
“This time they have cut the bloody tongue out. If they go on at this rate they will soon be sending me a box with the fancy packaging but there will be bugger all inside.
“ The Altogether But” latest brand in the “Emperor line ”? I venture.
Ok we conclude, after all ‘Run Barefoot is Nikes’ latest new logo!
We laugh but seriously I’m starting to think that if they succeeded and created the ultimate in a barefoot shoe, one guaranteed to mimic every aspect of a barefoot stride, what exactly would I be paying my £120 quid for?
Whatever happens it seems the bewitching dream must continue. There has to be a need, something that I must buy to address that need. It is such an ingrained feature of the prurient, ‘Itch and Scratch’ of our consumer driven culture. But come on. This is reaching comic proportions in which, to get the latest “fix” I am expected to pay more and more for less and less shoe wrapped in the ever more elaborate packaging.
Really what is the end-point of all this?
The cosmically comic proportions of this current version of the bewitching dream could seem like a Douglas Adams creation out of ‘A Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy: The famous Foot Warriors of Magrathea who are martyrs to their dreadful and expensive shoes that have progressively wrecked their feet as their civilisation advanced through strata upon strata of shoe leather.
Can I step out of the dream?
I started toward this awakening step when I first began to ask those awkward FUQs. And key amongst those Frequently Unasked Questions is: Do I really need an ‘outside-in’ solution which involves me inevitably reaching out to buy a corrective device to change the way I run? Is there really an alternative in which I adopt an inside-out approach, one that focuses not on forever doing/buying something to correct my functioning, but in stopping whatever it is hampering the efficient way I use myself.
Is the solution somehow in me, in those degraded feet, in the habitual way I use myself?
Oh Boy ! This is bigger than I ever imagined it to be and invites me to look inward at the way I use my Self. Perhaps I need to step out of the herd and out of those manipulative and persuasive dreams. A step in which special efforts are made in order which enable me to see right through the manipulative addictive itch and scratch of it all.
Are there really a different set of choices available.?
Will this lead me in future to look very long and carefully at the “itch” before I next “scratch”
The FUQs keep on coming!
But hang on! I’ve just taken my bare-foot out into the daylight for the first time.
I have liberated my foot from those fancy anti-pronation shoes I bought in the running shop. I may no longer be bewitched but I am now far more bewildered than ever I was in the “Giant Box” shoe superstore! Blinking uncertainly in the daylight my feet look slug-white, a bit forlorn, lost and very vulnerable, a bit dead looking. I might have been perplexed at the technology in the Running Store but, entering from the inside into the extraordinary wonders of my foot creates something in me more akin to awe than to bewilderment! Those earlier levels of bewilderment hold nothing against the daunting challenge of entering more deeply into the wondrous workings of my own amazing foot. Wow!
I have little idea of my starting point on this journey towards a fully functional stride. I don’t know just how degraded my foot is by the wearing of overly protective and corrective shoes. I have even less notion of how all the muscles from head to toe have habitually adapted to a gait conditioned by protective and corrective shoes. Furthermore, I have only the vaguest sense of my destination: what a fully functional stride might look like, sound like, feel like, maybe (heaven forbid!) even smell like.
I feel strongly the powerful pull of the Force of Habit. Maybe after all it is safest to return my foot into the security, comfort and habitual familiarity of that shoe. There is no doubt that taking this on is a really Big Call. Do I stay with the devil that at least I know? Do I stay with comfort of the known and familiar or do I step out from this very spot and begin to sort this out for myself and within myself?...
An ancient allegory: Life is in that Treasure Chest that you are pushing on ahead.
All his life a man chases after a mythical treasure. In fact he is pushing the chest that contains the treasure that he seeks out in front of him. The ironic twist in the tale is that the Gods have woven a spell over him that convinces him that he is chasing the treasure, when, in truth, he is continuously pushing it. It is another of many variations of ancient tales, like The Wizard of Oz, in which the hero/heroine is seeking a treasure. It is only the end of the story the discovery is made that they have actually had the treasure with them the whole time.
To break the spell of the Gods, the first thing that must happen is a STOP. We must first stop pushing the treasure chest. Next, lift the lid. Then a whole new chapter can begin in which it becomes possible to figure out exactly what is in the chest and which of the riches therein is the most precious.
Where we left the individual in the Modern Runner's Tale is very like the ancient allegory. The shoe is the ‘Treasure Chest’. He has almost come to the point of stopping pushing the treasure that has been with him the whole time, encased within his shoe. The process of stopping involves a letting-go, a cessation of the pushing, of the forcing and the straining. The process of letting-go of the perpetual seeking for an external corrective solution is almost complete. He is just about to rein himself back from chasing the Dream. He has already stopped, bent down and opened up the Treasure Chest (taken off his shoes), removed the enwrapping shroud (taken off his socks) and he wonders in a state of awe. He is within a hair’s breadth of opening up and exploring the mythic ancestral treasure.
For a whole teaching lifetime FMA, after his epiphany moment of true in-sight, continually admonished anyone seriously attempting to work on themselves, to stop meddling with the details i.e. to stop pushing the treasure chest. This kind of STOP (Alexandrian Inhibition) is a crucial pre-cursor to opening up the treasure: i.e. the conscious Use of the Self. The Gods featured in the Runner's Tale are in many ways the Dream Weavers who have convinced the individual that he is seeking a treasure that he in fact already has. Perhaps it is not true that they alone can supply the means for him to possess the Treasure. To see through the Dream Weavers spell in this way is to come to a point of realisation that, perhaps you really do actually possess the treasure and have been somehow bewitched into thinking that you are chasing it!
“You cannot solve a problem by the thinking that got you into the problem in the first place”. Albert Einstein.
Carve a way through the sheer nonsense of the pecuniary logic, set aside the process of tinkering, meddling, or correcting a 'fault', and then something new and different may open-up and that new and different thinking might enable us to start to see a problem with great simplicity and clarity: the foot is degraded, damaged and in places disabled and inflexible. The extent of this is unknown to the individual. The degraded state feels and indeed it is normal. Most people’s feet are degraded so it is normal, (‘of the norm'). To become 'known' the degree of deterioration has first to be sensed. This must form a part of the new thinking because part of the damaged and downgraded condition involves a considerable lowering of sensitivity and responsiveness. This must first be re-established for constructive change toward full functioning to be initiated. This is the beginning of Self-work; a process of freeing oneself, knowing oneself, of awakening from the dream.
So, if we set aside the Dream Weaver's spell of a 'tinkered-up' solution, we are left with a crystal clear condition that the individual himself cannot yet recognise: He has only a dim notion of how much his foot is desensitised, weak and inflexible. These conditions clearly make it vulnerable and unstable and they hamper its capacity for shock absorbency, weight spreading, load bearing and a host of rapid response changes crucial to the efficiency of support, balance and alignment in movement. But an experience, a sense of what a fully functioning foot is like is not “known” to the individual. The thinking that has created a partial and limited use of the Self, one that involves a raft of unconscious adaptations to a ‘norm’ that includes as normal, a seriously degraded foot, has to somehow radically change. It takes the genius of Einstein to state the essence of this with such forthright clarity and the genius of F.M. Alexander to open the way to this new and radically different thinking.
If the foot is disabled, inflexible, weak and desensitised then it needs enabling, strengthening, freeing and to be allowed the full and rich sensory stimulation vital to full functioning. But we must first pull away from the almost gravitational pull of the thinking that got us into this mess in the first place! In other words,the first thing is to stop reaching out for the meddlesome corrective tinkered-up solution and then initiate an inner-directed process of work on one’s Self. Attention needs to swing away from correction and toward connection. In particular attention shifts to a connection to the the huge edifice of habitual adaptations that have resulted from the severely lowered state of functioning of the feet. We cannot deal with the degenerate feet problem until this is properly fitted into a head-to-toe pattern that involves the habitual use of the Self. This is the new thinking that will lead us out of the problem. That the ‘tinkered-up’ solutions always reinforce pre-existing habits of use, that they may even make the situation considerably worse, only becomes apparent with the new thinking that can sense and restructure these head-to-toe habitual adaptations in the way we use ourselves. This is truly a first thing concern. Corrective changes will follow indirectly and often effortlessly as a second thing. Essentially there is nothing wrong with correction. It is just in the wrong place if it is placed before connection!
The Head-to-Toe Procedures that I have presented at the Conference are a way to address the degraded condition of the foot in the context of a whole head-to-toe use of the Self. They are not offered as a corrective solution but embedded in a process which in the Natural Running work I call 'Crossing the Line'. Shortly I want to briefly survey how I present the process of 'Crossing the Line' to runners but first I want to outline an ongoing Alexander Technique teaching challenge.
An Alexander Technique lesson as another corrective solution?
Let's say the Runner in the tale does decide to venture on with his explorations, and in fact he decides to try a course of Alexander Technique lessons. He has probably only partially pulled free of the end-gaining game of tinkering-up a 'fast track' solution, one that doesn't have all the daunting challenges that changing the way you use your Self involves. It may well be that he allows the 'corrective shoe solution’ to ‘morph’ into the ‘corrective Alexander solution’. This 'sort me out' mentality is of course, the well beaten track to the door of the physiotherapist/osteopath/chiropractors . Self-work cannot begin on that basis, even if it does form the warp and weft of most of our contemporary interactions. All one can expect from authentic self-work is to be given the where-with-all to sort your self out.
I refer to this important issue this as The Second-thing-First Problem. . Of course you want to correct something that is causing you distress and injury. Of course you want to function better. But the corrective process must not happen as a first thing. It properly tows along behind a first thing: the use of yourself. FMA was precise and clear about the fundamental indirectness of the process. In our individual ways we all have to confront this teaching challenge. If it is not confronted then self-work does not begin.
End-gaining in my understanding is what happens when a particular kind of thinking consistently puts the second thing first. Alexander, like the individual in the tale, had a good 'go' at the end-gaining game of directly correcting a malfunctioning voice. As long as he remained 'outer-directed', distressingly nothing in the habitual way he used himself really changed. As we inevitably fail in this way we invariably dust ourselves off and resolve to push the poor Treasure Chest even harder. It was Alexander’s genius to choose not to do this!. Since Alexander’s day our culture has become much more consumer driven, much more ‘itch and scratch, and the distress and restless discontent that this end-gaining generates is superb for driving people to reach into their pockets to buy ever more expensive 'solutions' i.e. to consume. This reactive ‘itch and scratch’ makes it ever more difficult for authentic self-work process to begin. But when it does it it will break the Dream Weavers spell. It will always encourage self-reliance and self-direction, the courage to step out of the herd.
CROSSING THE LINE: a journey from ‘correction’ to ‘connection’, from ‘reaction’ to ‘creation’.
The process I have called in the running work 'Crossing the Line' presents the key transformational changes to a new kind of thinking. It can be imagined as a stepping over a distinct line, one that enables the individual to know, change and re-direct the way he is using his Self. (This is of course, subtly different from using his body , after all,that would be tinkering yet again! Once that line is crossed the first thing moves into its rightful first place. Functioning then changes effortlessly and indirectly because the second thing is now able to settle into its rightful place. This reveals how accurately the Zen dictum 'The right thing will do itself', can catch the essence of the process. The right thing, will indeed do itself because the right conditions have been put in place to allow this to happen. But first we have to stop, to hold back from placing the second thing first and meddling or tinkering. Stop trying to correct things directly and then, in the case of the runner we can begin address the detailed ways that the deteriorated state of the feet ties into a limited, habitual head-to-toe use of the Self. The Use of the Self improves because the new thinking gains access and connection to the Whole.
Establishing the ‘first-things-first’ right order is the start of self-knowledge and self-understanding. As I emphasised earlier: it is not having goals, aims and aspirations that interfere with a process of coming up to our full potential. It is allowing the goal to drive the action (pushing the Treasure Chest) that is the root problem, and it requires the radical solution at the heart of the Alexander Technique . It starts with a stop! A stop that paradoxically becomes the start of a process of opening the Treasure Chest that is the Self. It necessitates a radically different thinking. As the individual in the tale comes to realise: it is indeed a Big Call but our ‘Supreme Inheritance’ of Constructive and Conscious Control of the Use of the Self beckons us on.
Crossing the Line: From Product Thinking to Process Thinking.
Crossing the Line involves a qualitative shift that transforms a mechanical action into a creative action . Let us delve a bit more into this different thinking. What I call ‘Process Thinking’ informs and underlies creative action. It is because creative action is perpetually re-created moment by moment that I refer to the opposite of mechanical action as re-creational action. On the other hand, mechanical action is underpinned by Product Thinking (end-gaining), and is driven by a future goal. Re-creational action is orchestrated by the on-going sensations that actually define the Present Moment. In the new Process Thinking, the aim or goal becomes the rudder that steers an ongoing process. We are never pulled out of process by a future intended goal!
Crossing the Line: Why row when you could sail?
There is a qualitative difference between a mechanical action and a re-creational one and it is the same difference as between rowing a boat and sailing a boat. You can reach a distant island by either rowing or sailing. They achieve the same end. However the manner or way that this is achieved is qualitatively different. When the boat is rowed, the resistance of the water against the oar, engages a muscular effort that hauls the boat through the water. The act of rowing is organised around the feeling of the necessary muscular effort. There is a doing principle inherent in the action of rowing. Sailing the boat involves a different set of principles that could aptly be referred to as non-doing.
You will never learn to sail by rowing very very gently:
There has to be, once again a distinct stop while you put away the the oars and erect a mast and sail. The action of sailing is more effective and efficient than rowing because, instead of using muscle effort, the sailing process involves an intelligent use of the wind. Only if the boat is becalmed in a windless sea does it become necessary to row. When we cross over from rowing to sailing we start to use gravity in the much same way that the yacht uses the wind, and with the added advantage that the strength of ‘the wind’ never varies! We will never be caught in a typhoon of gravity, and never become becalmed by the lack of it.
Once the Line is crossed into the new Process Thinking and into Re-creational Action we become, moment by moment engaged in an intelligent use of gravity to support and to move the body in the way we use ourselves. Just as rowing and sailing both achieve the end of reaching the distant island, so Mechanical Running and Re-creational Running will both get us to that distant finishing line . But the means by which this is achieved are radically different. Like rowing, Mechanical Running will be organised around muscular effort (‘doing’) and it will appear full of strain and effort. By contrast the non-doing principles that underly Re-creational Running will sail along fluently and effortlessly. The way that gravity is used in that graceful and efficient running action involves Process Thinking and an intelligent use of the Self that is absent in the mechanical action.
The end-gaining ethos that surrounds Product-Thinking and Mechanical Action is correction. Of the many radical shifts that occur as Product Thinking transforms into Process Thinking, a key amongst them is that correction changes to connection. As the use of the Self becomes conscious, the degree of head-to-toe connection improves. (We sometimes refer to this in another context as ‘presence’.) This connection engages progressively, more of the head-to-toe whole. It achieves this through a burgeoning awareness of where the disconnection exists. By removing whatever it is that is hampering connection, more of the whole becomes engaged in a developing process of constructive conscious control. It is worth noticing in passing, that this process is not making something happen (‘doing’) but an undoing of whatever is preventing something from happening. It is yet another form of ‘non-doing’ that characterises the new Process Thinking.
The partial and limited nature of the use of the self in Product Thinking and Mechanical Action only becomes conscious when the line is crossed into Process Thinking and Re-creational Action. Awareness encourages a letting-go of the limiting features of habit, and out of that comes a heightened head-to-toe connection. With a greater participation of the whole, there develops a heightened level of responsiveness , sensitivity and adaptability. These are the key qualities of the whole and in fact, they underpin anything that we do that is creative.
As the line is crossed then, ‘correction’ is transformed into ‘connection’, In the same way, ‘reaction’ is transformed into ‘creation’. Maybe it is just a coincidence that the letters and the construction of the words: ‘correction’ and ‘connection’, and the words ‘reaction’ and ‘creation’ are remarkably similar, but it may help to emphasize the fact that these transformations involve a slight and subtle re-ordering of perception akin to reorganizing the ‘c’ and the ‘r’ in ‘reaction’ in order to turn it into ‘creation’. And vice-versa - as today’s creative insights can all too easily easily form tomorrow’s reactive habits!
THREE LEVELS OF DISCONNECTION
Disconnect 1: The foot from the ground
Excessive layers of protection and cushioning create a barrier between the foot and the ground. This disconnection lowers the sensitivity of the foot to the variety of stimulation from the ground. It degrades the quality of proprioceptive feedback and inevitably affects the overall adaptability of the foot.
At an average running speed the foot may contact the ground for 2/10ths of a second. In that eye-blink of time it has flip from one quite contrary function to another. At a speed faster than thought it has to change from a flexible response system, one that can rapidly adapt to the changing under-foot terrain, as well as initiating a re-balancing of the body above the foot (supination), and then, it has to become a rigid propulsive lever to move the body forward (pronation): All this in 2/10ths of a second !
As the cushioning protection inevitably degrades and slows down the process, it reaches a point where it simply becomes impossible to achieve both functions in the time available. And so it settles into a partial, habit-locked version that presents itself either as the over-pronation/under-supination syndrome that afflicts 1/3rd of the modern running population or, the over-supination/under-pronation syndrome that afflicts another 1/3rd. It seems quite reasonable to consider whether this dysfunction is due to some inherent fault in the foot or, is an optimum habitual adaptation to a restrictive and limiting shoe.
Clearly the way that the foot disconnects from the ground becomes tightly inter-woven into the intricate tapestry of the most ancient and complex of all the psycho-motor habits within the habit structure of the Self: the way we stand, walk and run. Attempts to ‘tinker-up’ a solution by corrective means can never be a complete solution. If the complex habitual head-to-toe adaptations are not considered, how can arch supports, anti-roll systems and similar corrective shoe devices ever be a complete solution?
Once the Line is crossed, a key feature of an ongoing restructuring process involves a developing awareness of where and how the foot disconnects from the ground. When a shod foot is first liberated from its shoe is will still fail to present the springy, stable and broad platform of support of a natural foot. Obviously working barefoot is a good start but it remains only a detail embedded in a head-to-toe re-structuring of the whole. There is a general and a very important first-thing-first principle here:
Attention to the whole must always come before attention to any detail. This key principle guides and directs the development and teaching of the head-to-toe procedures
Disconnect 2: The foot from the head
This level of disconnection really begins to reveal the complex habitual adaptations that have influenced the working of virtually every muscle in the entire head-to-toe support system. There is a ‘knock-on’ effect that moves though the entire kinetic chain from the foot to the head: The knee is forced to take on foot ‘jobs’ because the foot cannot fully deliver the impact absorbency, load spreading and weight transmission from the initial foot-to-ground contact. In particular, this places the knee under torsional, twisting forces that it cannot cope with under great or prolonged exertion. It is significant that recent statistics clearly show that injury rates for runners over the last 30 years have moved to a significant ‘spike’ around knee injuries.
With the knee compromised, the hip inevitably has to take on roles that are basically knee ‘jobs’ and then, the spine has to accommodate similarly for the hips . All told, this makes for a radical disconnection between the upper and the lower poles of the support structure. The shoulders lose connection with the lower back and hips. In particular, the way that that the extreme ‘ends’ of the structure: the head/neck and the foot/ankle accommodate, result in a remarkably similar pattern. A shod gait encourages a heel-striking contact in which the ankle has to shorten in front and lock-long at the back, through the Achilles tendon. This process of presenting the heel to make the first contact, massively lowers the impact absorbency and load spreading functions intrinsic to the foot, and so, a whole host of powerful and subtle foot functions are degraded ‘at a stroke’. This down-grading in turn links into a vicious downward spiral in which the foot requires ever more (expensive!) protection and cushioning, especially for the vulnerable heel. Of course, the more degraded the foot becomes the more, superficially at least, the foot appears to be in need of all those correction devices. By the time the implications of this downward vortex have passed up the kinetic chain to the head, we find that the way that the neck relates to the head is in fact, strikingly similar to that of the ankle and foot: The neck also shortens in front. The back of the head also locks-up in much the same way as the Achilles Tendon. In a similar way to a disconnection through the foot/ankle, the head also loses connection from the buoyant, uplifting, shock-absorbency functions that are delivered through to the neck by the upper torso and the upper back in particular. From Head-to-Toes we are really down on our springs!
The whole structure from head-to-toe becomes locked habitually into a shortened state that feels and indeed is normal. Inevitably we lose resiliency, spring, responsiveness, adaptability, agility and strength. In this deteriorated state we lose as well, those key qualities of self-work: integrity, self-sufficiency and self reliance. In sum it makes us needy. Often this neediness expresses itself as a perpetual reaching out for corrective external measures. In this way we come to want things we really do not need. The more reliant and stuck, we become in this loop the more pliant and bewitched we are by the cleverness of the ‘itch and scratch’ of a prurient culture. We become product-orientated. We become less individual and less in constructive control of ourselves. There is a simple FUQ that rapidly becomes a FAQ in many differing contexts once the Line is crossed: The simple question is this:
How much do I need?
Here are a few examples:
How much do I need to lift my foot off the floor?
How much do I need to swing my arm or a leg?
How much do I need in the way of shoe wrapped around my foot?
and so on...
Disconnect 3: The Thinking Cap from the Body Sense
This particular disconnection occurs within the highly adaptable and plastic organ of the human brain. It has happened because, over a relatively short span of evolutionary time, thought and action have become more and more separated. Basically the cortex which I refer to as the 'Thinking Cap', has become disconnected from the Body Sense. The Body Sense, sometimes referred to as the proprioceptive sense, is the sense that forms the core of the sense of Self. This radical disconnection happens as the Thinking Cap becomes progressively over loaded with information in modern lifestyles, and also because the Thinking Cap becomes preoccupied with solving problems outside of the context of the action. This focus on abstract thinking puts the Body and the Body Sense onto the 'back burner'. Most of the time we operate on Automatic Pilot. Thought and action drift apart because we no longer need to be in the same state of constant vigilance and alert to immanent danger as our remote ancestors did.
As thinking and doing disconnect there is a radical re-routing of neural circuitry and we end up living centred in Product Thinking and with our action on Automatic Pilot: we become mechanical. We become disembodied, the Head has disconnected from the Body and rarely do we experience being centred in Process Thinking rooted into the present moment. That sense of being awake, alert and ready for action that meant survival for our ancestors becomes remote.
Crossing the Line demands an extra-ordinary effort of attention. It begins with a stop. The habitual flow into mechanical action is halted. Then, out of the pause, a different set of routings can be established that re-unites the Thinking Cap with the Body. This is indeed a Technique, a way into action that brings about a reawakening through a developing conscious use of the Self.
After over 20 years of disciplined work around Natural Running, I have become wholly convinced that the original function of the Thinking Cap is to solve problems in action. The essential reason for the Thinking Cap to come into existence and its prime role is to 'mind' a body in the same sense that a parent 'minds' a child. The problem and challenge we face in Crossing the Line centres around the fact that the Thinking Cap, the conscious part of the brain, has to be re-minded about its basic role. Once this is established the Technique re-connects thought and action.
I have only been able to touch lightly on some of the fundamental ways that Crossing the Line works to extend and develop the essence of the Alexander Technique for runners. I am hoping soon to publish a book, 'Crossing the Line' containing a detailed account of this work. Running and walking are natural activities and ideal vehicles to explore the nature of Habit and the use of the Self.
I have presented here three levels of disconnection and a brief survey of how things might become re-connected. This kind of disciplined Self-work always places the whole first and the detail second. This is a key principle. We are formed of mind, body and spirit. This constitutes ‘the whole’ of what it means to be human.
At a spiritual level re-connection takes into account the sense of oneness, a sense of belonging to an indivisible whole. A sense of wonder and a sense of at-one-ment form part of the spiritual sense of belonging that grows out of a connection into ones physical being. With this comes a sense of kindredness with other human beings who share an extra-ordinary evolutionary history.
At the mental level re-connection opens the complex work of understanding the structure and nature of habit, of how reactivity and creativity actually work in our lives. This is the work of the Alexander Technique.
At the physical level we acknowledge that we are composed of mechanisms, of levers, valves, pulleys and pumps. By reconnecting into ones physical body we are able to work with our nature from the inside. In this way we can bring our second-nature habits more into accord with our first-nature genetic endowments. This engages more fully our true potential. In the process of discovering our true potential we come to acknowledge that, indeed we are machines with complex mechanisms, a complex functioning anatomy and physiology. But at the same time, and most importantly we realise that we are much more than machines because, while we do function as machines we also have a way of being-in-the-world, a manner of use that no machine can possess. How we we are in the world makes us human.
THE HEAD-TO-TOE PROCEDURES.
Introduction: For this section I had hoped to complete a DVD to go with this information pack. This is the ideal medium to convey the detail of the Head-to-Toes procedures. Other demands have slowed down the progress of the DVD. It was not quite ready in time. It will be completed soon and if you are interested I will send a copy. For now I wanted to convey the spirit and essence of these procedures as we delve into one of those Frequently Unasked Questions: How do you get your foot off the floor in order to walk or run?
In order to walk or run we have to lift a foot from the ground otherwise we shuffle. To achieve this we have to eventually overcome gravity at some point. The Head-to-toe procedures explore an intriguing possibility: that we habitually lift the foot off the floor too soon. This has a disco-ordinating effect from head-to toe and it wastes energy.
The Head-to-Toe procedures begin, with the help of Alexandrian Inhibition to ‘Cross the Line’ and to shift from Product Thinking to Process Thinking. They are not exercises but self-awareness procedures focussed on improving connection between head and feet.
One characteristic feature of ‘Product Thinking’ is that it focusses on the end-product. We think: Walking: I can do it. Running: I can do it. Lift my foot off the floor: I can do it. Growing as these procedures do, out of Process Thinking, that focus shifts from; I can do it, to how am I doing it?
Another feature of Product Thinking concerns the way that second things always get put first. In this instance, as a first thing, we tend to overcome gravity in order to haul the foot from the ground In Process Thinking the lifting moment, the one where we put in the necessary energy to ease the foot off the ground, happens as a second thing, after the initial non-doing concern has ensured that gravity has first done most of the work for us!
Head-to-Toe Procedures: The stance:
Set one bare-foot about a foot’s length from the other. This stance could be seen as either the end, or the beginning of a step sequence. The procedures alway begin in this stance. With your weight centred over the rear foot, ease your weight forward on to the front foot. If you now allow gravity to ease through the structure from head to toe, then the rear knee can swing freely forward as it drops out of the rear hip and your rear foot rolls up and lifts most of the back foot from the floor. The foot is left with the heel raised, on the ball of the foot with the toes forming a long straight and firm platform for the fore-foot. I call this very important non-doing sequence the preparation for change of support. Change of support becomes complete when you ease your foot completely off the floor.
The Tarso-Phalangeal joint; The key role of the ‘Foot Knuckle’: .
Now imagine how it would be if you had a stiff board strapped to the sole of your foot and then try torepeat the sequence. You ease the weight forward ok, but with a key joint in your foot now disabled you have lost:
1. the heel lift,
the knee swing,
the free rotation or swivel action of the hip joint that lets the knee ease forward.
Note that all of these highly significant preparations can happen without you doing anything. It is a chief characteristic of Product Thinking that no attention or consideration will be given to this because you do not make it happen. Get the foot off the floor! You can do it! No problem. And so you can. You can still lift the foot off the floor when it is restricted by the stiff board and you can achieve it in a whole variety of different ways: It is even possible to do this from the shoulder. In which case you lift the foot off the floor by lifting the entire body on one side! Tightening and lifting into the hip is another very likely possibilty. You can do it from the lower back. They all involve a massive amount of muscle energy to haul the foot off the floor and, no doubt about it, you will still walk or run. You can do it! But the whole head to toe connection is degraded to some degree. We need to become aware of this because this is how we learn to walk and run in shoes.
Anything we strap onto the sole of the foot hampers to some degree the flexibility of the Tarso-Phalangeal joint. This is the equivalent joint in the foot to the knuckle in the hand . I call it ‘the foot knuckle’. It might be that we what we gain in protection is worth what we lose in flexibility. But we do need to consider this largely forgotten joint. It may be small and buried in the foot but as the above exploration makes clear, when we restrict it, we lose a massive amount of opening preparatory movement and that forces us to lift the foot way before the preparation for change of support is complete. When that action is complete there is a flow-through connection from head to toe that is mediated entirely by the free movement of gravity through the length of the body from head to toe. As Process Thinking finds it’s way into the myriad of habitual adjustments then it will guide and mentor a change toward that head to toe flowing connection. When the foot leaves the floor, the end-point of that non-doing preparation is smoothly picked up and continued by a very precise action that lifts the heel just a little further up-wards in a smooth arc - up toward the rump. The rump muscles modulating this action do this superbly, using just enough muscle power to to lift the lower-leg and foot. They use a tea-spoon full of energy instead of the spadefuls of energy that the limited version of change of support uses to haul the foot from the floor too soon. But then, using all that energy wastefully feels and is, normal. It is what we expect to do in order to walk and run. To break away from that ‘normal’ thinking and those ‘normal’ expectations is to discover something new and something that, as it turns out is perpetually ‘in process’, re-creating itself. It is never locked into something partial and limiting and never mistakes the partial and the habitual for the whole.
It is of key importance in the Head-to-Toe procedures to make sure that the key preparation for change of support is allowed to happen in a free and unhindered way. This process of ensuring that we remove any blocks and hindrances is preventative and non-doing in nature. There is a block at the foot knuckle and we first need to give some attention to freeing it, to re-enabling the foot knuckle.
When I first take people through the above exploration, it invariably happens that the heel lifts only slightly if at all, from the floor. In fact it behaves in very much the same restricted habitual way that it does in its shoe. It is habit locked! Encouraging the process of simply easing freely back and forth with a thought direction to free and ‘oil’ that rusty joint will help, as in the procedure above. Working around the joint by using a golf-ball or a rubber ball under the sole of the foot can also help to free stiff muscles ligaments and fascia and help to reveal the ‘treasure’ of that string of pearls that form the tarso-phalangeal joint. Compared to the knuckle joint in the hand, this joint is more buried in the foot, and also underused to the point of disablement, so bringing it more to light, actually seeing it helps an awareness of its existence and an appreciation of its key role.
The Head-to-toe procedures eventually consider the process of picking up the heel to complete the change of support and to explore how we move into a forward step using ‘user-friendly‘ gravity to the full. But it is useful at this point in the procedures to refrain from lifting a foot, and to hold-back from progressing into a forward step. There are other important connection issues to explore first. We can do this by developing the simple back and forth movement into a more definite back step or a slight backward moving lunge. This enables us to begin to explore how we can take control over a dropping heel.
The movement still begins with, and loops back to, that free movement that ends with the foot poised on the ball of the foot and in that rolled up position, but instead of continuing to complete the action and easing the foot from the floor, we move the centre of gravity slowly back over the raised rear foot and pause in the heel raised position. There follows a series of awareness explorations that centre around a controlled dropping of the rear heel. These explorations ‘work’ the length from head to heel by directing the focus of attention to different points of connection between head and heel:
Begin with the foot: As the heel drops maintain a firm but ‘elasticy’ head to toe control and lower the heel slowly with a slight lifting of the toes from the foot knuckle. Feel the connections between the fore-foot and the heel. Let the plantar fascia stretch freely over the ‘pulley’ of the heel.
Bring in the calf and lower leg. Feel the intimate connection between the plantar fascia and the achilles Tendon. Again a slight lift of the toes helps to deepen the sense of connection through to the knee.
Bring in a lengthening through the hip. You are engaging throughout these procedures, with a very powerful eccentric contraction in which you are not making muscles contract (concentric contraction) but controlling a released lengthening while the muscles are under load. As you move into the hip and upward try to really develop a sense of leaving the hip up there as the heel slowly lowers. Sense how intimately hip and foot link together in this released lengthening process.
Bring in the lower ribs. In particular this gives you a chance to experience the connection through the flanks to the heel and foot and the intimate connection this has to the breathing process.
Bring in the armpit. You begin here to explore the deeper connection the arm has into the roots of the back through the shoulder blades. How intimately shoulder and hips interconnect.
Lift the arm above your head. Move through the key linkages: elbow first. Then wrist. Finally fingers.
Finally bring in the head. Drop the heel and make the key connection that your head is at the other end of that dropping heel and plays a key role in that controlled release into length.
The Head-to toe procedures explore connection as part of a new and different ‘process thinking’. In restricting and degrading our feet by overly protective footwear we tend to lose connection between the head and the feet. Gaining control of a dropping heel from head to toe is a way to explore reconnection. Once length and connection are re-established, then we may start to question the consequences of the ankle shortening in front in order to pound the heel into the ground, as it does habitually in a shod gait. Against the benchmark of that connection we become aware of such limitations. It becomes clear that this not just a detail. It is not just a foot correction issue. The whole head to toe use of the Self is intimately involved. As the use of the Self improves then a procedure like this will naturally help to bring back strength and flexibility wakened modern feet. It achieves this by bringing in the detail as a second thing: for example the foot strengthening detail is only considered only after attention to the first thing; the head to toe improvement in the use of the whole. First things first second things second is a key Natural Running Course maxim.
I have tried here to give an over-view of some really quite remarkable recent changes in the world of running. My guide, friend and mentor the late great Paul Collins who initiated the Alexander and the Art of Running courses that became, in my hands the Natural Running Course, did a bit of crystal ball gazing before he sadly died in the early 1990s. His prediction was: that it will take two generations before the insights of the Alexander Technique start to interest the running community. He got that about spot on!
One of the leading bio-mechanics experts, Jay Dicharry who has been leading some of the recent research that has blown a huge hole in a 30 year long paradigm regarding shoes recently had this to say... “ are the the footwear changes that are being done from an industry point of view actually getting to the roots of what needs to be done, or should everybody be thinking about strengthening their feet?” This question is till in the realm of ‘correction’ but is definitely edging in the direction of ‘correction’. He goes on to say:” The stride is all about balance. When you’re running, you’re always balancing on one leg, so actually improving single leg balance is actually the best thing you can do for your running.” Bring on the Head-to -toe Procedures!
Perhaps there really is a shift away from Product Thinking. Perhaps the questions people are asking lead to a radically different thinking-in-action: the Process Thinking that is at the heart of Alexander’s life and work. I begin every Natural Running Course by saying “I am not here to correct the way you run. I’m here to guide you to a way of discovering, for yourself, whatever might be holding you back from using your full potential”. Up until recently I was pretty sure the tunnel visioned runners never really heard what I said. But just of late this has started to change. I can sense that they might just be beginning to hear what I am saying and how the Alexander technique might empower them. Good old Paul!
Rather than give an extensive list of recent research references can I refer you to an excellent and detailed summary:
“Tread Lightly” (ISBN-1061608-374-3)By Peter Larson and Bill Katovsky published by Skyhorse Publishing. They do an excellent and detailed job of breaking down the latest research.
Dan Liebermans Barefoot Running website is a mine of useful stuff especially the work that Lieberman, an evolutionary biologist has been doing recently in Kenya.
“Born to Run” by Christopher Mc Dougall Profile Books ( ISBN 978-1861978233) is a great read and did much to initiate the current interest in natural running. It also summarizes a lot of recent research.