Directions and directing are one of the core principles of the Alexander Technique.
F.M.Alexander's classic formulation to remind him to keep his head balanced freely on top of his spine was:
"Let the neck be free, to let the head go forward and up, to let the back lengthen and widen"
To be honest, I personally never found it helpful due to the nature of my habits when I first started my own Alexander journey. That's not say it's not useful for others, but I've become very judicious in using it in my teaching.
In time I came to evolve a different view on Directing that was still inspired by something Alexander said:
"When an investigation comes to be made, it will be found that every single thing we are doing in the work is being done in Nature where the conditions are right, the difference being that we are learning to do it consciously."
I simply wondered how other animal species direct themselves in their environment. It turned out I wasn't the first AT teacher to to come to the conclusion that Directing is not best served by introspecting; David Gorman has been working this way well before I was aware of him. So if I am a heretic, at least I'm not alone.
It should also be noted that, Alexander changed his mind on offering his students his original formulation for Directing in his later years owing to his concerns about what students tend to "do" with them. They are after all a reminder of what not to do!
When it comes to moving well it's not so much about what you do, but what you prevent from happening. As F.M Alexander put it, "If you stop the wrong thing, the right thing does itself”
It's an idea that goes back many centuries, embedded into the teachings of Taoism. It's what Aldous Huxley called a Perennial Truth. Coincidentally Huxley was a big supporter of Alexanders work having taken private lessons with him and immortalised him as the doctor in his book Eyeless in Gaza. But I digress ...
After millions of years of evolution a good deal of your movement potential is baked in, needing only freedom to experiment with movement in your early years to release it. This is obviously an idealised position that doesn't take into account congenital considerations or subsequent injury or disease, but even there it's possible to maximise what availability is present by preventing undue reaction/tension.
But it's not just about movement, it also speaks to your stress response and your ability to manage stress. And not wishing to sound too pedantic, stress is verb, not a noun!
You'd be forgiven for thinking Alexander Technique teachers are a little obsessed with the relationship between the head and the neck. F.M.Alexander considered it so important that he termed it the "Primary Control". And there is good reason for it when you consider the shear weight of the head on top of the spine, and the nature of the startle reflex; it's the first port of call when improving poise/posture.
This has become a bit of a mantra for me. I really do think it's vitally important to be able to make a distinction between poise and posture. Although the dictionary definition of posture is acceptable to me, the way people actually relate to the word, how they filter it when they hear it, is generally unhelpful. The moment someone makes an effort to physically improve their posture they do so in an unsustainable way. By understanding poise the physical effort is reduced and sustainability is increased.
This has to be one of the most pernicious pieces of postural advice out there, it's unhelpful and needs to be burst once and for all. Given how ineffective it is it's amazing that it's been so durable.
It also raises the question of how effective imagery is in general as you never know how someone is going to filter it. What they're going to do with it. F.M.Alexander was against the use of imagery for this reason. Not being one to tell people what they should do in general, even though I don't offer imagery in my teaching, I don't discourage those who feel comfortable using it. But I do highlight the potential pitfalls and to be mindful of them. An image is only as good as it's ability to positively improve behaviour, it has no inherent value.
I challenge you, have you ever maintained this advice for even half a minute?
So the next time someone offers you this image, imagine me next to you with a pin!
This has to be one of the most repeated pieces of advice with regards to posture, and one of my biggest bugbears. Essentially it's unhelpful and doesn't work, and you'll know it doesn't if you've ever tried it. Seriously, why go to all that physical effort to solve a problem of too much physical effort?!
This is a follow on from my vlog entitled Change Your Thinking, THEN Your Posture. Part two if you like.
In a previous vlog I mentioned how F.M.Alexander saw his work as dealing with the stimulus of living, and that was discussing our reaction to an external stimulus. But we also have an internal experience/life that we can react to. Our emotional state is also a stimulus..
As you physically follow your awareness, it should be no surprise that you collapse when you concentrate on your inner experience. It's possible to build a new relationship with that so that your experience is more inclusive.
I'm guessing most people think of the Alexander Technique as a form of Body Work. But what F.M.Alexander wrote about more than anything else was thinking! The way you think influences your posture more than anything else (injuries and congenital considerations aside).
Now, obviously there are physical aspects to consider when it comes to posture, but I purposely wanted to stay away from that in this video as it tends to produce a mindset that encourages more interference of your poise.
Once you've watched the video and have a sense of the mindset we're after, you could add a little more detail in understanding the way your head balances on your spine, which you can read about here, but don't let that knowledge change the quality of your thinking!
The million dollar question! It might seem like a strange question seeing how well known the Alexander Technique is for improving posture, but most Alexander teachers are slightly uneasy about this even if they don't say so publicly. Although it's better to be known for something rather than nothing, I can't help feel we could improve our message by promoting what the Alexander Technique is really about and why it's so fundamentally different to other modalities.
Don't worry, it will still improve your posture as well.
Why not give the Alexander Technique a try with a half price consultation?
Here I explain why if you've been in long term pain the Alexander Technique may be the logical solution you've been looking for.
Although I implied it in the video, I want to also explicitly state here that the raison d'être for the Alexander Technique is to reverse and prevent unhelpful patterns of movement/behaviour.
Given how posture is pretty much synonymous with the Alexander Technique in the public perception you're probably surprised at my claim that it's overrated. F.M.Alexander said of his own work that it was "dealing with the stimulus of living", and that's a whole other area to get into, but you can see he thought of his work in much broader terms.
This is my first video in what I hope will become a series where I answer all your posture questions.
This one came from Andrew (Kiwi Yogi):
"What is good use while driving a car? I'm curious about the relationship between the neck and the back. Not many people sit upright in their car - so the weight of the head goes...where?
What advice would you have for people who spend a lot of time driving?"
Have you ever felt the need to find a way to manage back pain, to play your instrument better, to increase your confidence, to recover faster from a serious accident, to take control of certain aspects of your life, or to ease some of the difficulties of old age?
Can it be that there is a skill that can be learned which provides a 'yes' answer to all of these? According those that that have tried the Alexander Technique, the answer is, there is.
The key concepts of the Alexander Technique are: the recognition of the force of habit, inhibition and non-doing, unreliable sensory appreciation, sending directions and the primary control of the use of the self.
I've always found it remarkable how common it is for people to behave as if gravity is the enemy, and yet we're entirely evolved to interact with it as part of the way we function, no less so than with the air we breathe. Russian scientist and academic P. Anokhin phrased it thus:
“The most essential characteristics of all biological systems are defined by the Universal Law of Gravity”.
We wouldn't get very far without it, well, we wouldn't exist without it, but our entire ability to move about would be impossible. And your posture (I prefer poise) is a dynamic relationship between you (the psychophysical you, not just your body) and your interaction within gravity's field.
We know how important gravity is to our health from the problems astronauts experience from spending extended periods of time up in the International Space Station (does anyone else think the Russian use of cosmonaut is so much cooler?!). Here's a few of the issues "weightlessness" causes:
It's ironic really that a supposed loss of gravity causes back pain, use gravity well to overcome it! I say "supposed" loss of gravity as it's not actually true that astronauts experience "weightlessness". The gravity on the International Space Station is only a tenth less than it is on the surface of the earth, it's just that the crew are in permanent free-fall as they fall/orbit around the earth. Really no different than jumping out your upstairs window (don't try this at home!), you don't suddenly become weighted the moment you hit the ground! The list of ailments that astronauts suffer from is really caused from a combination of a lack of interaction with the earths surface, and not being orientated in an upright manner for long periods which affects how blood flows and pools.
This guest blog from Daniel tells how he went from taking lessons with me to embarking on a full Alexander Technique teacher training course. Naturally I recommended my old teacher training school and it's wonderful to hear how much he's getting out of it and how much it echoes my own experience of training to be a teacher.
Squatting is normal functional movement, but for lifestyle and cultural reasons there are few opportunities to do so on a regular basis for many of us, and yet young children do it instinctively. In fact, when I looked for a professional royalty free photo to go with this piece I couldn't find any of adults that weren't associated with gym exercise rather than everyday living. Across Asia, Africa and the Middle East it's still very much an everyday activity, and long may it continue to be so. You may have found that you're uncomfortable squatting or you've lost your ability to do so altogether, effectively becoming dis-abled in this movement. Use it or lose it! Squatting is great for opening up the hips and lower back, I particularly recommend it for lower back pain sufferers. In fact, I used it regularly myself when I had an accident acutely affecting my lower back. It also helps with keeping the bowels moving.
F.M.Alexander (he of the Technique) didn't write about squatting in any of his books, but there is anecdotal evidence that he liked to practice doing it regularly with clients thinking they'd walked into an empty room until he popped up from behind his desk. He was also keen to get his pupils to do it and encouraged it on his teacher training courses. There's brief footage of him demonstrating it when he was about eighty years old too.
It can be hard to learn how to squat again as you react to perceived balance and flexibility issues with unintended tension. My favourite way to regain the ability to squat is to use water as a support. It's an idea that came to me whilst on holiday back when my own ability to squat wasn't all it could be. You'll need a pool with steps or that shelves gradually. You simply let the water naturally buoy you up and work your way into shallower water. Let yourself release into the pose the moment you start to notice that it's a challenge. Ideally you want to be able to keep the heels down in contact with the floor. The shallower the water the the deeper your squat will be. It's best to take it easy and really relax into it. An added bonus is that there's usually small currents in the water, don't fight them, let them encourage you to find the dynamic fluidity within yourself instead of trying to fix yourself in place. Also, everyone is built differently, so don't feel that you have to have your feet facing straight forward, I can't squat like that and have my feet pointing out at an angle. If you don't have a pool available it can be helpful to practice with the heals raised and supported (a couple of equal sized books will suffice) as it's common for the Achilles tendon to be tight to begin with. You can then slowly work on reducing the height your heels are from the ground. You'll notice in the photo that Ali (my guide whilst visiting Wadi Rum in Jordan back in 2009) has his heels slightly raised as the ground slopes downwards and rocks under foot. You can try this too wherever you find a slope. The steeper the slope the easier it will be to squat.
So first up, happy New Year ... and what an embarrassing start to it for an Alexander Technique teacher it has been ... I put my lower back out larking about with a friend's son on New Years Eve! He was much heavier than I realised and as I lifted him high over my head I went too far and started going backwards with the momentum and over extended my back. Just one of those silly things. I know I teach embodied mindfulness, but I have to be realistic and accept we all lose ourselves in the moment from time to time. That's life! And the human condition to a greater or lesser degree. Hopefully I'm learning to reduce that through the Alexander Technique, in fact, I'm confident that I am, but still ...
It was agony! And debilitating, had to walk very slowly and carefully. We were at a children's theatre at the time and I managed to sit through the performance without exacerbating things thanks to the simple idea of thinking of sitting as standing on my bottom. Saved me from curving my spine and putting extra pressure on it. I also found I was able to lower myself to the chair in the first place without trouble, but with great care, as that's all in the ankles, knees and hip joints. But I'd still frozen up by the end of the performance, took a couple of minutes of moving about gently to feel confident of walking any distance. This was good food for thought, it really made me consider the manner of my use rather than just the conditions (quality) of use (I'll leave you to ponder that). I might be a more relaxed proponent of the Alexander Technique than some and so tend towards the latter. But not on this day!
We had a table booked at a restaurant after the theatre, thankfully only round the corner, but I still decided to find a chemist and get some Ibruprofen and a heat pack. I wanted all the help I could to get me through the day. It took all my skill to walk a few minutes to the chemist and back with poise, but other than a couple of spasms that caused me to stop for a moment to regain my composure, I made it back to the restaurant without major mishap. Where I immediately ordered a beer. Well it was New Years Eve! And after a second beer and a bit of walking around the restaurant with my two-year old I was beginning to feel a bit more confident. Now, I'm not recommending alcohol in these situations, but this was my observation at the time: you probably know that alcohol is a muscle relaxant, and obviously a mental one too, so what I found was that I was less reactive to the fear and worry that I might cause myself further pain by moving. Dutch courage!
I see this all the time in my teaching, the unproven expectation of pain is enough to set off all the protective mechanisms that are displayed by tensing (especially the neck muscles that then pull the head off balance upsetting the whole postural reflex), and this is the very thing that then sets off the pain! Ultimately, we heal, and we heal faster if we don't interfere with ourselves, the desire to overly protect an injury can become a habit that actually interferes with the healing process and can even cause secondary issues by creating new habits of tension.
The expectation of pain is a strong stimulus to react, I found I could just about keep my composure getting to the restaurant, but those two beers made it much easier. Having said that, had I drunk anymore and started to lose any coordination it would have been a very slippery slope. I also surprised myself by being able to go into a full squat, which really helped to open up and release my lower back. Again, squatting, like sitting is a matter of ankles, knees and hip joints and need not put pressure on the lower back, quite the opposite in fact.
The journey home included a half mile walk and despite walking around like the proverbial old man a few hours earlier the walk loosened me up nicely. So lesson one, keep moving. Also, as I would professionally expect, any attempt to protect my back with "good posture" only exacerbated it due to the muscular tension from "trying". But keeping it free by not reacting to it and keeping my head freely balanced had me walking at my usual pace. It took skill though, a slight deviation in "alignment" could be quite painful. But the skill of poise beats "correct posture" every time.
Once home though it was great to finally be able to lie down in Constructive Rest/semi-supine on the floor for half an hour or so. It's a great way to take the pressure off and let the back and neck muscles fully relax. We were spending New Years Eve at home, so it was easy to take the rest of the afternoon and evening easy and just rest up. Although I was worried I would freeze up over night in bed and I wouldn't be able to get up in the morning.
Which I did! But nowhere nearly as bad as I was expecting, and after a lovely hot soak in the bath I was able to move about freely again. Still needed to be careful though, but at least I had the skills to do so. Took it easy in the morning then went to the cinema (Rogue One, if you're curious) which included a ten minute walk. Although very sore with the potential to be painful if I wasn't careful I got through the day without mishap and rejuvenated myself in the evening with some more Constructive Rest and squatting for short periods.
Come Monday morning I was feeling much improved and knew there was light at the end of the tunnel. We took our kids (two and five years old) to the playground but didn't feel confident to push them on the swings or roundabout, or help lift them down when they got stuck up climbing frames. It was a lot of standing about though and by the end of the day I felt I'd over done it a little bit. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, I'm a great believer that we heal to function and not to form. This is why doctors now encourage people to move as soon as possible after an injury, lying around only encourages healing enough to lie around! Use it or lose it, as they say. So by giving my healing mechanism a good signal that I need more from it to help me function fully it knew to crack on with the job.
The ability to travel from standing to squatting and stop at any point in between has been a real bonus for whenever I need to bend down/over for any reason. We call these positions of mechanical advantage (manner!) in the Alexander Technique, or more colloquially, a Monkey (F.M.Alexander, the originator of the Technique, wasn't fond of this term, but it stuck as it's snappier than the alternative). Whether to wash my hands, I'm tallish and sinks are always low to me, pick something up, or even going from standing to sitting and vice a versa, remembering the movement is in the legs rather than the torso kept me functioning.
By Tuesday and Wednesday I was able to look after the kids all day without trouble, still a bit tender, but could carry my youngest without fear. I shied away from horse play with my eldest and a couple of her friends, I wasn't out of the woods just yet.
Come Thursday I was back to teaching, and thanks to my work encouraging me to be really on top of my game in the way I use myself I totally forgot about the injury. After work I went and collected my eldest from her after-school play date. Normally I give her a shoulder ride on the way home but decided to take her scooter and tow her back. This wasn't just common sense, I didn't quite have the confidence for it either.
Friday morning, six days after the accident, still a little sore but functionally sound. I imagine I'll be more considerate of the manner of my use at all times for a while longer.
Saturday, one week after the accident, I managed to vacuum the house from top to bottom, including the stairs, with no trouble. There's a slight hint of discomfort, I can tell there's history there, but I don't feel any need to be careful about it beyond generally being mindful of my use as a matter of self-responsibility. All in all I'm really happy with my recovery. I know from experience that this is the sort of thing that's caused clients to struggle for months, and even years, before coming to me for help.
Let go, what's the worst that can happen?
I'm forever saying this as I help clients to let go of their habitual patterns of tension. And it's not entirely a rhetorical question. The worst that can happen in that moment is that it may expose your vulnerability. Your emotions are completely wrapped up in your physicality, and vice versa. It's all one and the same.
I like to think of these physical tensions as emotional shields, and they should be respected as such. They make you feel safer, even if you're not consciously aware of it happening. It's totally pointless to suggest you improve your posture by pulling your shoulders back, or standing up straight, if you don’t also recognise that your emotions are encouraging you to curl up into a protective ball. And that's ignoring that it's bad advice to "stand up straight" anyway as it just causes more tension. It's also important to realise that although your emotions and moods may "encourage" you to tighten, they don't actually cause you to do so in the long term. In those moments, you effectively start to react to your Self, which may become a vicious circle, but by practising embodied mindfulness with the Alexander Technique this can be reduced. And in preventing an excessive physical reaction and maintaining your poise you'll find that you're left to experience the emotion more fully, which may not be pleasant, but by being with it at least allows it to be better processed. Naturally some situations do elicit a very strong emotional and physical reaction (a psycho-physical reaction in Alexander Technique jargon), and that's fine too, what's important is to avoid habituating that response into a longer term experience.
Why are some people so resistant to taking responsibility for their own health?
The expectation is for someone else to "fix" them. So much of what ails us is down to the way we use ourselves; locked in tension and poor posture can affect breathing, digestion, stress response, musculoskeletal pain, as well as performance in sports and hobbies. In addition poor `use` can exacerbate other medical issues and get in the way of the natural healing process. Only you can change the way you use yourself, but as an Alexander Technique (AT) teacher I can guide you as you get in the driving seat.
We're being inundated with articles these days on the benefits of correct posture and how to achieve it, but nothing makes you tense up more than trying to adopt a “correct” posture and trying to be "right". Throw away the idea of an idealised posture that you need to maintain, it's not the solution for avoiding or overcoming your aches and pains. Natural posture is a loose and dynamic activity. It has been said that your best posture is your next posture, so don't hold on to it. In fact, do away with the word posture altogether and replace it with the word poise, it will get you in a better frame of mind to find the quality you’re after. Posture is a shape, poise is a quality, a state of mind.
After millions of years of evolution you can rest assured that your postural reflexes work well enough if you don’t interfere with them. You could say good posture is simply a lack of bad posture. Although good and bad are such judgemental words. You either have poise or you don’t.
The skeleton is an inherently unstable structure, our bones are not like a block of bricks stacked one atop another that hold us up. Left on it's own the skeleton simply collapses, it's our postural muscles that keep us up, not the skeleton. It's a bit like a tent (bare with me), it's not the tent poles that keep the tent up but the guy ropes. Well, they work together obviously but you get the point. And if you fancy having a deeper academic look into that idea have a look at tensegrity (a portmanteau of 'tension + integrity' created by renowned inventor Buckminster Fuller), which NASA are now studying to help with robotics.
Standing is basically a balancing act, and anything that’s balancing needs to be able to readjust, to move. So standing is a movement activity. As is sitting for that matter. If there's no movement it's at rest rather than being balanced, and this is only possible when lying, reclining or collapsing. Standing is no less dynamic than walking, running or jumping, it's just more subtle. When going from standing to walking, for example, you go from movement to movement.
It's probably at least a generation since we culturally believed in Descartes' duality of body and mind. Now it's the accepted norm that the mind and body are connected. But don't two things that are connected need to be separate entities? Saying the mind and body are connected is still hanging on to dualism. It's like saying someone is a little bit pregnant, or dead! You either are or you're not. They're either separate or they're not. To escape dualism the mind and body need to be seen as a functional and indivisible whole, a "mindbody" if you like, or even more simply, your Self.
This is the supposition on which F.M.Alexander (the originator of the Alexander Technique) based his work over 100 years ago now. He didn't coin the idea, there was even an educational establishment set up in New York, by the then well-known Thomas sisters, called "the Conservatory of Psycho-Physical Culture, Elocution and Dramatic Art" at the turn of the last century. Alexander was probably well aware of this as he had a passion for the theatre, and he certainly observed it to be true from tireless experimentation on himself and his pupils and frequently wrote about psychophysical unity.
Myths, by their very nature, are very hard to dispel once they've taken hold. Despite the core stability myth being exposed nearly ten years ago, and journalist Peta Bee writing about it in The Times in 2010, from conversations I have with people I'd say its hold is as strong as ever.
The myth is that by having a stronger "core" (a poorly defined term anyway) you will have better posture, less back pain, and will perform better in your sporting activities. There's an elephant in the room regarding this too and I'll come back to it later.
From personal experience I have never met anyone with a core so weak that they can't achieve good posture and less back pain without having to strengthen it. If you can walk into my Alexander Technique studio, your core is strong enough. And if it is technically a little “weak”, well-coordinated functional movement (the ability to perform normal daily tasks efficiently) will soon give it the tone it needs. Muscle tone, not strength; there's a world of difference! Balanced poise doesn't require "strength", and "stability" invariably translates into rigidity at the expense of mobility.
What isn’t weak are the habits that pull you away from your natural poise and freedom of movement. Millions of years of evolution have given you postural reflexes that work just fine if you don't interfere with them. You don't need to "do" good posture, simply stop doing bad posture. Stop thinking of posture as a correct position and instead as a dynamic and fluid balancing act.
So that elephant I mentioned: it (he) has a name, Joseph Pilates. If you haven't read his book Your Health, you'll probably find it quite amusing by modern marketing standards. He states quite clearly that what is required is "the simultaneous drawing in of the stomach and throwing out of the chest". The photos of Pilates demonstrating the “correct” way to stand look extremely tiring, I can't imagine anyone could keep that up for long. And it's clearly an affectation, it’s not natural at all. Why after millions of years of evolution would you need to do this? Why don't we instinctively do this as children? Ever see indigenous communities do this? They're not typically known for the postural abnormalities so prevalent in "civilised" culture. To be honest I found Pilates contradicts himself quite a bit in Your Health. I'd often find myself nodding in agreement with his principles only to not see it evidenced in practice. I guess it's very much a book of its time.
Stress – the virtuous verb, don’t give it a bad noun!
I’ve recently had an interesting exchange (ok, near fall-out, with my friend Adrian Farrell) about the meaning and use of the word ‘stress’. As usual, he’d written a great blog about how we use ourselves at computers and sometimes hurt ourselves in the process. I questioned his casual use of the word ‘stress’ as if it were a noun (guilty as charged, even though I do know better, Adrian) - an (unwanted) thing in itself, to which we react, rather than a physiological response that can be side-stepped, attenuated or controlled.
Computers are sources of irritation and strife for some, provoking symptoms we all might recognize as stressful; but I also know people for whom using them is a joy, an endorphin hit, and escape from the negative effects of ‘stress’, if I’m permitted the colloquialism. Stress, it seems, is a slippery concept, meaning (as in Alice’s Wonderland adventures) anything you’d like….
On the other hand, if we afford ‘stress’ reflexive verb status, implying some ‘self’ control, then we’ll all have a better time, even if occasionally our hearts beat a little faster and hands sweat a little more: the narrative song lines of the trysting lover’s heart not quite the cardiac chaos of an angry boss - context being everything.
There is no unitary thing called ‘stress’ – no-thing in particular, or even constellation of things; stress is our response, a well-known lexicon sometimes, at others, shades of grey, intimate and difficult to track.
Alexander Technique shows that it’s our smart, conscious capacity that allows us to prevent and re-route tricky responses before they manifest and it’s this that clinches the deal for me, in redefining stress.
Summoning up challenging ideas (think: job, money, boss, tricky colleague, meeting, commute……) you may notice, encourages mild to moderate bodily responses. An increased heart rate maybe, or slight tensing of your neck or legs, a shortening of the breath and tightening of the diaphragm; perhaps your attention is drawn downwards - introspection stopping your ‘out-ness’ into the world?
These feelings are reflexive, consensual, we do them to ourselves as we join up the dots of fear. We are not a mind on legs, but, truly, ‘a body that’s in the mind and a mind that’s in the body’, to quote Spinoza.
We all know what it’s like to feel the downside of our physiology on a low-tide day: jangled, pained, rushed, fazed out, rattled or even numb, to describe just some of these states, but stress, after all, and like all communication, is the result YOU get.
If I stop thinking in a way that tightens my body into an ever smaller space, but open my body out, considering new options or viewpoints, then I’m more likely to engineer positive, energizing, and helpful physiology, enhancing my performances, productivity and…..fun!
I might, then, become the captain of my own ship. Or, if that sounds way too grand, look at it like this: if you’ve ever worn a wetsuit, you’ll know what a relief it is to take it off………
Can you make a fresh decision today, to cue some smart ‘Alexander thinking’? Unclench your neck, find your full free height, allow the ground to support you and open your awareness to the world around you, and stop unwanted reactions before they have had any time to wipe their feet on your conscious attention.
You’ll find that you really can change your mind about stress, and turn that naughty noun, into a reflexive, virtuous verb……
Co-authored with Andy Smith, Alexander Technique teacher and sports journalist
There's a great saying amongst the fitness community that running is not bad for you – but running badly is.
According to Sport England, more than 2 million people in the UK don their trainers and head out for a run every week, yet research shows that 79% of runners get injured at least once a year – that's more than 1.5 million people in this country who have to stop or cut down the amount of running they do.
But rather than head straight for the physio or osteopath to receive treatment, how many runners have considered that many of these injuries can be avoided by changing their technique? How many have thought about how their bodies work as they stride along? And how many are aware of where their feet are landing in relation to their bodies, or what their arms are doing?
By taking some key Alexander Technique principles into your running, it's possible to improve balance, coordination and freedom of movement – all invaluable things for anybody who exercises. And by increasing efficiency in your technique you can also reduce your risk of injury and boost your chance of running faster and more easily than you have ever run before.
All that's needed is a willingness to try something new and an interest in how you run. And – as we can both vouch from our own experience – this change of attitude, coupled with some simple ideas about your form, can transform your runs from uninspiring slogs to experiences of genuine enjoyment. Bring an intelligence to your running and you'll never mindlessly pound the pavement again. And the real beauty is, anybody can do it.
"I see at last that if I don't breathe, I breathe. . . " [ Quote by pupil to F.M. Alexander ]
The idea of a breathing exercise is a bit of a contradiction as the only thing you can do to your breath is interfere with it! Any effort to breathe correctly will be null and void, taking you away from the very thing you're wanting, natural, unrestricted and easy breathing utilizing the whole torso.
So what we're looking for is a way to trick you into undoing the things that get in the way of your breathing.
When you think of breathing it's probably the in breath that you give more attention to. You'll also, no doubt, think that you you're breathing with your chest, I mean, who doesn't? it's where the lungs are (mostly). Your lungs may be in your chest, but it's not your lungs you actively breathe with, they're not muscles. The active part of the breathing apparatus comes from your diaphragm below your lungs, and the rib cage. The most expansive movement of the rib cage is also further below, around the diaphragm.
It has been shown that attempting to breathe with your upper chest (also known as apical breathing) and lower neck muscles, can lead to structural changes that can affect your spinal column, pelvic positioning and soft tissue attachments. This can lead to neck, shoulder and chest tightness causing headaches, shoulder problems and back pain.
Interestingly, the diaphragm only deals with one half of your breathing, the in breath, it has no involvement in breathing out , and this is where the problem arises. When you're stressed you keep tension in the diaphragm which effectively means you won't fully release your breath. Your breath will be shallower meaning less oxygen will be getting to your brain and your body. I'll leave it to you to intuit the side affects of that.
Also, as the diaphragm contracts it pulls downwards into your intestines, which is why your belly bulges when you breathe in. So any effort to contract your tummy muscles to engage your core muscles (which is a poorly defined term, I really must write on the myth of core strength at a later date [Update: the core stability myth]) has the adverse affect of interfering with your breath.
So enough with the anatomy, let's get on with the exercise, which isn't so much an exercise, but a trick to reset your breathing by letting go of the diaphragm and getting the rib cage moving more freely. It's all explained in this video:
So, having got over my professional pedantry in the previous blog, this next exercise is so ubiquitous that people actually think that the Alexander Technique is about learning to sit and stand well. Let me say this just once, the Alexander Technique is NOT about teaching you to sit and stand well. Now I've got that off my chest I'll explain why we use this exercise so much. To be honest, it makes life easier for the teacher. We need to find some movement that everyone can perform that doesn't require specific training to do. To be sure, there are Alexander teachers that market niche towards Violin players, runners, swimmers, yoga, horse riding and other activities, but obviously not everyone performs those activities, so we need something common to everyone, vanilla Alexander if you like. As it happens it's a useful contrivance as we do sit and stand routinely through out our day, especially in an office environment, and how you arrive at the chair will affect how you go on and sit on it.
What we're looking for is how you react to, and in, movement, and how that affects your functioning.
And why would your reaction affect your functioning? Consider this, you don't do good posture, you only do bad posture. Good posture is a by-product of not interfering with your innate postural reflexes, the ones you were born with and got you through childhood just fine until the demands of modern life got the better of you.
The universal habitual reaction that you'll more than likely succumb to is that you will tighten your neck muscles, pulling your head backwards off balance from the top of the spine. You won't even be aware that you are doing it, but there is nothing about bending your hips, knees and ankles to lower yourself in space to the chair that requires your neck muscles. You do not sit with your neck! And as mentioned in previous blogs, once your head is off balance your neck and shoulder muscles have to work hard to support it for prolonged period of time. It's also a sign that your nervous system is generally more agitated than it needs to be, leading to over all tension.
If a picture says more than a thousand words, then a video ... so have a look at the video I created for this exercise:
Whilst researching keywords to help my website rank well in search engines, I discovered that one of the most searched for phrases is "Alexander Technique exercises". This must be very frustrating for those who are doing the searching, as any Alexander Teacher will tell you, there's no such thing as an Alexander Technique exercise! The word exercise implies something you do, and the problem is that you'll filter any instruction through your current filter of the way you habitually move. To do something new, you effectively have to stop doing! The Alexander Technique applies to any activity, whether it's sitting, standing, running, doing yoga, playing a musical instrument, you name it and Alexander can be applied to it. It's more about the way that you do it, the quality you bring to it, rather than the activity itself. That said, if we swap the word "exercise" for "exploration" then we're on the right path and I can let my professional pedantry remain intact.
I view the Alexander Technique as exploring how we respond to stimuli and the quality we bring to our actions. And if the stimulus is too big for us, learning how to reduce it. That may be from finding a more mechanically advantageous way of performing a physical task to learning to mentally stop and and reassess how you are going to respond. A far cry from the Posture Police that I'm usually labelled with, not that your posture wont benefit from this way of thinking.
Now, that's all well and good, but does that mean you should try and Alexander your way through every waking moment? Thankfully no, that would be unrealistic and frankly unappealing. Yes your awareness of yourself will improve with Alexander lessons so that you naturally choose, and have the ability, to take better care of yourself, but there are also some common sense ways to reduce the challenges you face at work.
Cynical click-bait headline aside, I'll cut to the chase, they don't work. There, I said it.
We started this series of blogs at the top and we're working our way down to the bottom, literally, that thing you sit on.
I don't like to teach from an overly anatomical view, too much detail to think about in day to day living. I'm much more interested in the way we think and react, rather than what we think about,
but this is something really useful for you to consider.
Look at how the bottom of the spine joins with the pelvis. What changes to that relationship when the weight bearing changes from going through your hips, and ultimately to the ground via your feet, to going through your sit bones into your chair? Not much! You'll notice that both the hip joints and the sit bones are below the sacral-iliac joint, that is, where the base of the spine, the sacrum, fuses with the pelvis.
This is one of those lucky occasions (for me) when a blog wrote itself. I thought I'd share with you an (unedited) email exchange I had with a fellow who had seen my YouTube video. That video was all about sitting comfortably in an office environment, however, he was
interested in any advice I could offer on relaxing at home in front of the television, and why not, it's something we all enjoy doing from time to time. The nice thing was that he decided to
follow up by finding an Alexander teacher in his city, Buenos Aires, maybe a little too far to come and visit me.
After reading Part 1 you'd be forgiven for thinking that the Alexander Technique is about body mechanics. The way you use yourself certainly includes body mechanics, but you are much more than just your body, there's a whole mental/emotional component that makes up who you are and how you use yourself. It is common these days to talk of the mind-body connection, but the Alexander Technique likes to take this another step further and even consider that there is no connection, as that would imply a separation of the two requiring a bridge between them. A more holistic view is that the mind and body are one and the same, acting as a functional whole, that you are totally indivisible as a person, what Alexander liked to call psychophysical unity .
So, despite popular conceptions of the Alexander Technique, we teachers really are not the posture police, as what goes on in the mind is equally important, and posture really could be said to be a reflection of the mind. Mindfulness is all the rage these days and it wouldn't be a stretch to think of this work as being embodied mindfulness.
Good posture isn't something you do, it's the by product of not pulling yourself out of natural balance/alignment. It is bad posture that is caused by doing. But why do we pull ourselves away from poise and ease?
I like to work from a stimulus and response model, where a stimulus can come from within (ideas, beliefs, emotions) or externally. You can often tell someone's mood by their body language, but for now I want to draw attention to the way we deal with external stimuli.
Hopefully I convinced you in my last blog that the Alexander Technique is the logical solution to the aches and pains you experience during your working day. Over the next series of blogs I want to share with you some insights on how you can improve your situation.
There's a preoccupation with the relationship between the head and neck/spine in the Alexander Technique, and for good reason, your head is heavy, really heavy! The head can weigh up to 11lbs or 5Kg, think 5 bags of sugar or a bowling ball. It's not something you want to be holding up with the muscles of your neck, upper back and shoulders. Thankfully you don't need to if it's balanced on top of your spine well, thinking of your neck as part of your spine as a whole rather than a separate entity.
The head balances on the spine much higher up than many people realise, if you point your fingers right below your earlobes, in line with the bottom of the nose, that's the axis around which the head articulates with the spine to allow it to nod forward and back. Shaking the head from side to side happens between the first two vertebra so could be said to be a spine movement rather than a head movement.
So you have tried osteopathy, or maybe chiropractic, or even physiotherapy, but after some temporary relief the pain always returns. And it's not like you don't know what causes you so much discomfort, it's the hours sat at the computer every day at work, but a career change hardly seems like a practical solution. It's bad enough that it affects your work life, but when pain also starts to affect your hobbies you know it's time to take action.
Everyone knows how to sit, right? Right?! It's not like you haven't been doing it all your life. Yet you have a suspicion that you could do it better, if only it wasn't so much effort. Your employers provided you with a DSE workstation assessment, an ergonomic chair, keyboard and mouse as well as silicon filled supports to rest your wrists on, all to no avail. Maybe if you had a more expensive ergonomic chair, the one your company wouldn't shell out for, all would be well.
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