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 waiting for the leaves above to be in the right place
The okapi opens its mouth, releasing its tongue to lick the leaves above
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

Anatomy now and then

cover of children's book on the human body
We have weekly anatomy sessions on Thursdays

Term 4

Finding information about the body nowadays is easy.  For our weekly anatomy sessions on Thursdays, one of us picks a topic and researches it on the internet or in books from our library. Within a few hours we can pull together a short presentation based on reliable sources and in non-technical language to share with our fellow students.

But it’s not always been as straightforward as this.  I realised that when I visited the Hunterian Museum in central London this week, shortly before it shuts for three years as part of a major redevelopment of its home at the Royal College of Surgeons.  The museum houses the collection of  anatomist and surgeon John Hunter (1728-1793). It’s a bit like an 18th century Wikipedia for medical students – anything you needed to know about anatomy at that time, including a giraffe, was in his museum or dissecting rooms.

What’s inside the museum

On a midweek afternoon I slipped past the reception desk and headed up the majestic staircase to the museum, looking forward to its ghoulish ambience.  The combination of over 3000 glass cases filled with animal and human specimens combined with eerie light levels and free entry make this a surprisingly popular tourist attraction.  It’s not often you overhear the words dissection, intestine, crocodile and syphilis while going round a museum.  Not for young children, though, or the faint of heart.

Over three decades Hunter collected and analysed animal and human body parts, both healthy and diseased, with his collection eventually reaching up to 14,000 specimens.  He used them as research subjects for his own experiments and as teaching aids for medical students.  I learned a bit more from the guidebook about John Hunter, and it made him sound not unlike FM Alexander: “as a teacher Hunter encouraged his pupils to think for themselves, to trust what they observed of the human body and always to ask questions rather than accepting established doctrine.  Hunter’s own lectures changed from year to year as his research and experiments developed his understanding.”

He suspended the specimens on threads to stop them sinking, and stored them in glass jars full of alcohol, sealed originally with pig’s bladder, tin and lead, then painted over with pitch.  In the 20th century during wartime, the size of the museum made it hard to move out of London, and about 10,000 specimens were destroyed in 1941 when the College building was hit by several incendiary bombs.

How we understood the body

Having had my fill of the glass jars, I was drawn to look at the Evelyn tables, dating from before Hunter’s time.  These are four large anatomical wooden boards, displayed upright, containing dried human tissue laid down and varnished on to show the nervous system, arteries and veins.  They were prepared in 1646 in Padua for John Evelyn, the diarist and traveller, and are thought to be the oldest anatomical preparations in Europe.  It is salutary to think that this was the way to understand the inner workings of the human body 370 years ago.

Today we take it for granted that animal and human anatomy are different, and forget that early anatomists assumed anatomy of all mammals was the same.  Through imaging, scans and cameras we can see inside the human body to an extent unimaginable to surgeons in Hunter’s time.  And through the widespread distribution of the printed word and the searchable ease of the internet we can access anatomical knowledge instantly and feel confident that it accurately represents how our bodies work.  So when I do my next anatomy presentation on Thursday,  I will remember John Hunter and his contribution to the knowledge I am so easily able to find and to share.


A new way to hold a ladder

Wisteria in bloom
Wisteria in bloom and bees buzzing as I held the ladder

Beginning of Term 4

I’ve returned from the Easter break, refreshed and ready to embark on a new term.  The holidays feel less like time away and more like an integral part of the course, just without active teaching.  For me it’s where the learning settles and takes hold of the body, and somehow changes and insights have time to quietly make themselves known.

Over Easter this happened unexpectedly while I was standing at the bottom of a ladder. I was outside on a slippery, uneven wet surface, while someone else went up the ladder to clear a gutter of autumn leaves.  Ladder-holding is not part of the curriculum. No-one has shown me directly how to do it in an Alexander way, and it’s not something I’ve done for a while, so it was a good place to notice the subtle but significant changes in how I approached it.

What surprised me was how naturally my body and mind started to work together to put me in the best place to support the bottom of the ladder.  I barely had to think about the placing of my feet.  They seemed to find a position that took into account the slope of the ground, the angle of the ladder and the opposing angles of my body.  Without effort, I had secure but flexible footing, where I could move easily if the ladder started to wobble unexpectedly.

I noticed my hands working together with my arms and back, so that I wasn’t gripping the sides of the ladder but was well balanced. I had a firm, comfortable hold, something similar to the ‘hands on the back of the chair’ procedure we practise in the training.  In the past I would have used maximum effort in my hands and arms to keep the ladder steady, probably locking my knees, clenching my jaw, holding my breath and keeping my feet too wide or too close for easy balance.  With my new stance and hold I felt much more in control, and more confident to handle an emergency.

All the while I was conscious of what was going on with a heightened awareness.  I saw my hands on the sides of the ladder, I was aware of my head, neck and back, and I felt the ground beneath my feet.  I heard the bees moving in and out of the sweet-smelling wisteria above my head and felt the dry leaves from the gutter above drifting down onto me.  But I wasn’t distracted, and knew my job was to hold the ladder firm for the person working above me.

Reflecting on my ladder-holding afterwards, I was encouraged that the training is beginning to take root within me and I’m starting to be able to use it in a dynamic multi-dimensional way.  If it can happen when I’m standing at the bottom of a ladder made of solid wood, then over time it’ll work when I have a person in front of me, and I’ll know where to put my feet and hands without worrying about it. But I’m sure it was partly the fact that I was on holiday, away from the activity of the training setting, that enabled me to bring together elements of what I’ve learned over the past year and apply it in a new way.