Last week I spent several days touring colleges with my daughter, a rising high school senior. The standard program for these visits includes a presentation followed by a campus tour, and the student tour guides all lead the group while walking backwards. I wondered which took more practice: the spiel about the school or the backwards walking? It’s a bit of a trick, this backwards walking, but the tour guides are so lucky they had to learn this skill, because doing it is empowering and can be fascinating.
I often ask my Alexander students to explore walking backwards, because it provides so much useful information. It bypasses habitual assumptions about our bodies in motion and our relationship to the space we’re in. For starters, how often do you move with an awareness of the space behind you? Are you, in fact, including what’s in back of you right now (or to the side or above or below you)?
If your habit in walking forward is to lead with your forehead, your chin, or your chest or your pelvis, walking backwards helps you notice that because you can’t indulge these habits and move back. People often report a heightened sense of their feet in backward walking too — especially those who don’t normally walk heel-to-toe. It’s much easier to notice when you’re tightening your neck or pulling your head back and down, or whether you brace your arms as you move.
Perhaps most importantly, since you can’t see behind you, your kinesthetic sense is more sharply focused as you move — something that needs improvement in nearly everybody.
Try This: Find a space of about 15 or 20 feet in which to walk (a hallway, your living room, a yard, or a sidewalk), free of clutter and without interference from others. Start at one end and walk forward as you normally do (if you are familiar with Alexander work, apply your directions as you move). Now walk backwards and note any differences. Some questions you might ask:
- What does your head want to do?
- How are your legs and feet moving differently?
- How do your arms move?
- What are your thoughts?
- How do you know what’s behind you as you move?
- Do you sense anything different about your back?
- Does your breathing change?
Now take what you have noticed and keep it in your awareness as you walk forward again. If you have a greater sense of your whole back, carry that with you as you walk forward. If your feet seem to have a fuller contact with the ground, allow that to be the case as you walk. What do you do when walking forward that prevents your “backwards use”? Repeat this experiment a few more times, maintaining a bodymind sense of the space behind you.
Voila! You are now more present as you move forward in your life.
Nearly every day when I do my own walk/jog along the Delaware canal, I pass a man who is walking backwards — at a pretty good clip, too. I’m always tempted to shout out, “Good for you! Isn’t backwards walking amazing?’ But I just salute him silently, knowing we share the secret power of opening to the space behind us as we move.