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