The Anatomy of Directing: Forward & Up


Part of the Da Vinci Project, this series of posts will clarify anatomical points for the purposes of functional mechanics and directing.  If you’re new to directing, check out this post, or the book, Neurodynamics: The Art of Mindfulness in Action. Click on any image to see it in full size.

Part 5. Forward and Up

Now that we’ve identified some the key anatomical landmarks and their role in directing, let’s look at the directions for the head: forward and up. These directions are key to establishing the correct working of the primary control, and often cause particular difficulty for students because of their nuance.

In a general way, we know that “forward and up” of the head means that we don’t want to pull the head back and down. But why do we use these words, and what exactly do we mean by them–that is, what do we mean by the “forward” and what do we mean by the “up”? Figure 2-5b PPWe’ve already seen that the skull sits on the atlas, or top vertebra of the spine, and nods at this point. This gives us an idea of what the “forward” refers to. Because we tighten the neck muscles and pull the head back, we have to stop this tightening to allow the head to nod forward at the AO joint between the ears, and put the extensors in the back of the neck on stretch; that’s the “forward”.


We also saw that, because there is a lot of weight in the front of the body, there is a very strong tendency to pull down in front, to shorten and collapse and lose our front length. As we’ve learned, front length runs along our sternum, but then attaches via the sternocleidomastoids to the back of our head, not the front. down with sternocleidomastoidsThis means that, when we lose length in front, we still pull the head back in relation to the spine, from behind the atlanto-occipital joint. When people slump, it is not always obvious that the head is pulled back because it seems so clearly to be down and forward in relation to the trunk. But we have only to observe what happens in ourselves when we slump to see that, if we lose length in front, we also pull the head back. Again, nodding forward at the AO joint puts these flexors on stretch.

And so, what is the “up”? This is not as simple to define because, while we can easily see how the head nods forward at the AO joint, it is much more difficult to see how it can go up at this point. The “up” direction requires clarity if we want to make real sense of this direction and its importance to the functioning whole.

slouching manWhen we pull down in front, not only do we pull the head back, we also pull the head down in space. Sometimes this tendency is very pronounced, as when we slump and collapse the upper spinal column, curving it unnaturally so the head pokes forward, not from the AO joint, but in relation to the entire spine. Sometimes the head doesn’t come visibly forward but just compresses downward. In either case, the head is not just being pulled back but is coming downward as well. This is a big part of what we mean by the phrase “shortening in stature.” We shorten in stature not only because we pull the head back, stiffening and shortening extensor muscles along the neck, back, and legs; we also shorten by coming down in front and losing length in our trunk.

What exactly should we do about this? First, we want to stop pulling the head back by releasing the muscles at the back of the neck and allowing the head to nod forward and the back to lengthen (that’s the “forward”). Then, we must also allow the spine and trunk to have their full length, which means we must also let the head as a whole come up in space in relation to the trunk as a whole (that’s the “up”).

Which brings us again to the question of our anatomical design. We’ve seen that the AO joint is located much higher than the line of the jaw, up between the ears. But what happens if you’re not clear on this–that is, what happens if you think that that the line of the jaw represents the base of the skull? In this case, you will essentially include the jaw and neck in your conception of the head so that, when you let the head go forward, you will instead put the head and whole upper spine forward in space, which in turn will prevent the trunk from having its full stature, ie. pulling down. To lengthen in stature, and to stop the pulling back and down of the head that is associated with shortening in stature, we have to be clear where the base of the skull is at the mastoid processes, and direct up to that point, which allows for our full front length.

One way to address this is to think of allowing the head to go forward at the AO joint, but at the same time to allow the head, AO joint included, to come up in space. In this way, you are thinking of the “forward” direction, but not at the expense of the “up.” If you try this thinking and give time for the directions to work, you’ll get a very new idea of what forward and up is because, when it works properly, you’ll see that “up” is really related to restoring the lengthened support of the entire trunk and not just about the direction of the head, which has no meaning except in relation to the whole system.

Another way to express this is to say that we pull the head back at the AO joint and shorten in stature from this point down; we therefore need to release the neck to let the head go forward at the AO joint, and to lengthen in stature up to the AO joint. That’s really what forward and up means. The forward direction takes place at the AO joint; the up includes the length of the entire trunk right up to the base of the skull and the AO joint. And for these directions to work, we  have to understand where the AO joint actually is–that is, where the neck ends and the skull begins. This is why it is crucial, when you give the direction for the head to go forward and up, that you send it to the right address.

If you’d like you try some exercises, take another look at the Skull & Atlas post, or simply try your own preferred directing exercise in semi-supine, standing or monkey, while applying this thinking and you may find some additional clarity.