Mind your knees, please!
I had the great pleasure of attending the Yale Repertory Theater production of Happy Days starring Dianne Wiest this past weekend. Her character is on stage for the entire 100+ minutes of the show, and is completely immobilized. For the first act, she is buried up to her waist in sand; for the second, up to her neck. Her performance is extraordinary in an extremely demanding role, and I was fascinated to read my colleague Jessica Wolf’s account of the experience of acting as “movement coach” on the performance. Her role was crucial to ensuring that Ms. Wiest did not injure herself in the course of the production. Humans are not designed to be still for the long hours of performance and rehearsal that this show demanded, so the actor had to be extremely conscious her “use,” as we say in the Alexander Technique. She had to have ongoing awareness of how she was using her body, and she employed the tools of AT to allow freedom of the joints and breath as she worked.
One area she needed to pay careful attention to was her knees. In the article, Jessica writes “people who are required to stand for extended period of time often unconsciously lock their knees.” And how! If you look around at people standing on the subway or in line at a store, you’ll see how common it is. And to those people it feels right to do so – it feels stable. But consider this: our bodies have an amazing reflex response called a “righting reflex.” This response allows our muscles and joints to coordinate quickly to rebalance our bodies into maintaining uprightness when taken off balance – very useful if we lose our footing and start to topple unexpectedly! Knees have the ability to lock back, ankles can tighten, ribs and pelvis can shift left or right, forward or back – a whole host of adjustments come in to stabilize our mass (body, with the head leading on the very top) over our base of support (feet) in the gravitational field we live in to keep us on our feet.
But the knee joint’s orientation is to release slightly forward when at ease. When knees lock back as a habit, the righting reflex is essentially turned on all the time, and other areas of compensation come in. F.M. Alexander said as part of his “directions” for balanced use that the “knee goes forward (and away)”. If you stand and lock your knees back, notice how your pelvis moves forward as your upper thigh bones pull up into the pelvis. Letting the knee joint release may feel odd at first – it could feel almost bent depending on how much you usually push them back. But notice how the leg muscles release out of the pelvis, your feet make a little more contact with the ground and your lower back isn’t as tight. Register that your head is balanced over your feet – the body finds its easy uprightness again without that joint being locked!
This is a habit worth easing up on – your knee cartilage will thank you for the relief from that pressure in the joint, and you are poised for movement. You are cooperating with your design for ongoing easy balance, so when you need your righting reflex for a misstep, it’s got you covered.