Neck and neck at London Zoo

Two giraffes at London Zoo

Term 4

I’ve been on safari in London this week, visiting London Zoo.  It’s not that I hoped to tick wild animals off on my bucket list, but because I wanted to observe with an Alexander eye how animals move. We often talk about this in our training, and compare it with the upright posture and gait on two legs of human beings. I hoped to spot the head, neck and back relationship working easily in the animal kingdom, and also see what I could pick up about use of hands and feet, and co-ordination and flexibility.

First up were the gorillas.  Their wonderful faces and expressions make them seem so nearly human, but instantly I spotted a few differences.  I watched an adult in the sunny outdoor enclosure, with a baby straddled on its back, move gently along the grass on all fours, then stop and lift a front hand to eat while maintaining perfect balance for the baby on top, without any disturbance to its head, neck or back. We did something similar this week in our training, going on to all fours and imagining champagne glasses balancing on our backs. It was not straightforward to get into position nor to stop the imaginary glasses from spilling over while lifting a hand and balancing on three limbs only. Gorillas can walk on two feet as we do, but mostly they get around on all fours, using their knuckles to walk.  To enable them to do this, their finger bones are wider than ours, giving extra strength. Their wrists and hands have evolved to provide stability and take their weight – up to 270kg in the case of a large male.

I then saw one drop from his high wooden platform using hands and feet to come down a rope.  As he approached the ground his legs melted into the grass softly and gracefully, and off he went to forage for more breakfast. I would have reached the bottom of the rope with a thump, and would not have been able to saunter off into another activity with such easy poise. The gorillas’ strength was obvious, but I was impressed also by their speed and agility, and their grace, fluidity and playfulness.

I spotted some lovely heads, necks and backs working in harmony in the penguin pool, at otter feeding time, in the giraffe enclosure and the meerkat den.  Further on, the Galapagos tortoise and the Komodo dragon were also happy to display their wares.   But the neck star of the day was undoubtedly the shy okapi.

Okapis are the only living relative of the giraffe, and their normal habitat is dense rainforest in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Here was this modest and secretive creature openly displaying the strength and length of its neck, as it raised its head underneath the overhanging leaves.  There seemed to be a great distance between the tip of the leaves and the okapi, but it kept its head raised, its tongue gently rolling in its mouth, eyes alert and neck stretched until the wind brought the leaves into touching distance.  Suddenly out came the lizard-like tongue, silvery grey and able to extend right up to the tree to lick the leaves.  Then the tongue retreated again, there was another watchful wait for the leaves to sway in the right direction, and off it went once more.

As with the gorillas, one part of the body moved, but the rest stayed still and in balance, while feeding continued with quiet focus.  There was no surplus muscular activity, all parts of the body worked easily and in harmony. The okapi prepared for the moment of action, but without unnecessary tension beforehand.

I saw perhaps 11 or 12 different species of animal during my visit.  They were in captivity and not in their natural environment, but I was struck by their natural posture, how fluidly they moved, and how well adapted their bodies were to their habitats, their food and their predators. I came to the Alexander Technique because, over time, mis-use of my body in my daily activities led to back pain, and I needed to learn a new way of moving. By contrast the creatures I spent time with at the zoo were fully at home in their bodies and moving with complete ease, whether feeding, playing, swimming or sleeping.

Adult gorilla carrying baby
Adult gorilla carrying baby, with second young one just visible underneath its chest
Adult gorilla on wooden platform, knuckle-walking
Adult gorilla knuckle-walking on the wooden platform before climbing down the rope
Baby gorilla
Young macaque, head turned, well balanced on one hand and  both feet
Humboldt penguin at ease in the water
Humboldt penguin completely at ease in the water
Otter at feeding time
Oriental small-clawed otter, using its partially-webbed paws to hold a piece of crab
Otter at water's edge with tail
These otters have a streamlined shape with a flattened tail to help propel them through the water.
Heron observing otters' feeding time
Heron observing otters’ feeding time, in balance but alert and ready to move
Meerkat looking adorable
Slender-tailed meerkat – the long thin tail allows them to balance when standing upright
Tiger, resting but alert
Sumatran tiger, sleepy but watchful in the sunshine
Galapagos turtle, neck extended as it moves slowly across the grass
Galapagos tortoise – its shell is relatively light, but they have vast fat stores, so they can survive without food and water for over a year.
Komodo dragon, scary but poised
Komodo dragon – their skin has armoured scales with tiny bones, making it into a kind of chainmail.
Giraffe feeding
The atlas/axis joint at the top of the neck allows the giraffe to tilt its head vertically and reach more leaves with its tongue
Two giraffes at London Zoo
Giraffes have the same number of vertebrae in their necks as humans, but each one can be over 28cm long
Okapi
Okapi waiting for the leaves above to be in the right place
Okapi
The okapi opens its mouth, releasing its tongue to lick the leaves above
Okapi
The okapi’s tongue can be up to 18 inches in length, and can reach its eyes and ears
Lion asleep
Asiatic lion with a long back, asleep in the zoo’s new lion enclosure

The photos were taken at London Zoo over the May bank holiday weekend

Chairs of the week

End of Term 3 and my first year of training

I’m used to standing up and sitting down.  Much of what happens in our training or in a regular Alexander lesson involves working with a teacher to get in and out of a chair.  We’re thinking about how we’re moving, and whether the head, neck and back are working in harmony to take our bodies fluidly and without effort from standing to sitting, or vice versa.

But this week my thoughts turned to what I’ve been sitting on rather than how I got there.  The chairs were many and varied.  Firstly there was a concert where I sat in a wooden Victorian pew with a hard, protruding backrest, made comfortable only when I stuffed my bag behind me to provide a different kind of contact for my back to lengthen into.  Then there was the awkward interlude waiting for a bus.  Trying hard not to be a bench, the shiny red surface was subtly curved downwards, so I could only perch and not sit, in danger of bracing my legs, and worrying always about sliding off.   Once on the bus, the soft springy padding of the lurid blue and orange seats gave me an illusion of a comfortable ride as the driver negotiated the potholes that have arrived with the coming of spring.

Matters were no better at the office.  My new ergonomic chair was both ungainly and uncomfortable.  Somehow I seemed to be at an angle below the desk looking up, accentuated by the sloping floor of the historic building I’m based in. So I tried the Arts and Crafts chair nearby.  This was the triumph of the week.  Beautifully made, simple, elegant and a good height for the desk, it had an upright back and a base that provided just enough support.

The next day I travelled by train.  Yet again my body had to adjust to a new shape of seat, the backrest long and angled backwards, the seat softly undulating.  And finally on the homeward stretch I waited for another bus.  This was my least favourite chair experience of the week.  The seats were metallic, harsh and cold, with a combination of severe straight edges and sinuous curves in the wrong places. This meant I was sitting too low, too far back, too far off the ground and in a position that made it impossible to get up without effort for the bus.

What do I want from a chair?

Until recently I hadn’t given much thought to chairs. But what I do know is that I want to be able to sit on my sitting bones with my feet on the ground and my hip joints slightly higher than my knees.  To do that I’d like a chair that has a flat, reasonably firm seat with a back I can rest against, and that is neither too high nor too low. Very few of the chairs I sat in fitted this description.  And most of them, unfortunately, encouraged the kind of use of the body that I’m learning how to prevent.

Victorian church pew
No sleeping during the sermon in a Victorian church pew
Bus stop seat
Perching at the bus stop
Bus seat
Well padded seat at the back of the bus
Office chair
Ergonomic office chair on wheels
Arts and Crafts chair
Arts and Crafts chair, useful and beautiful
Train seat
Travelling by train with the backrest leaning backwards
Bus station seat
Difficult to get up to catch a bus from this seat

If you want to read more about chairs, chair design and history and the Alexander Technique, read The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body and Design by Galen Cranz