Arms control

July 25, 2012

(image courtesy of yuppie922, Creative Commons 2.0 licence)

This sounds like one of those annoying can-you-pat-your-head-and-rub-your-tummy-at-the-same-time things, but is a bit more subtle. Can you move your arms without moving the rest of you (especially the shoulders)?

This relates to insights recently gained into my tai-chi practice, at a workshop with Jan Dames, an Alexander teacher in Manchester.

One of the useful things I realised was that during the beginning of the form, when you raise your arms out in front of you, I tend to brace backwards and stiffen my whole back slightly. This is a bit pointless as it just stiffens everything and locks you up, rather than leaving your muscles and joints free to move. For me, this goes with a tendency to move my arms as though they were glued to my shoulders.

This is an aspect of the way the arms work that I seem to notice more and more in sportspeople and others who have good coordination. The arms can work independently of the torso, and some people can do vigorous things with the arms without the upper body having to move as well (or at least not very much). It seems to be an aspect of good coordination, though not an obvious one.

I notice the opposite tendency in myself and many of the people I work with in my Alexander teaching practice. When you shake their arm (or shoogle it, as we say in this part of the world), their whole body moves as well, as if their arm was glued to the shoulder (and there was no such thing as the glenohumeral joint). It’s also something you see a lot in people out jogging. They swing their arms and the whole torso twists with each arm swing. This isn’t great because it stiffens and tightens the upper body, and as running coach Malcolm Balk says in one of his books, is “like driving with the hand brake on: you are always working against yourself”.

It’s taken me a long time to notice this in myself, and indeed when performing moves that I’ve done thousands of times before – like the hand form in tai-chi – habits tend to kick in. But I’m surprised with how much easier I’m finding the form these past few days, with making the decision not to throw the head back slightly and stiffen the back in this way as I raise my arms at the beginning of it. And it’s even a slightly odd sensation to just move the arms without doing all these other unnecessary movements.

Developing the ability to quieten parts of the body – to decide not to employ them in an activity – is an aspect of the sort of work you can do on yourself to improve your own coordination. But it’s a difficult idea to get across. Often people will say: “uhh… so you just want me to do nothing, then?” They’re understandably sceptical, as doing nothing never solved anything, did it? But it’s more a matter of regaining the ability to consciously choose the degree to which different parts of you get involved in an act. Over time most people develop habits of movement that involve lots of over-activity, such as making all sorts of unnecessary movement with the shoulders and back as you move your arms.

The ability to move different parts of the body independently from each other is an aspect of good coordination that is quite subtle and easy to overlook. Watch Roger Federer lunging for a difficult backhand shot and clearly his trunk and shoulders are doing all sorts of necessary work. But people like that also seem to be able to quieten down a lot of their muscular activity, to take an easier shot, for example – they seem to have more control over themselves, in a sense.


3 Responses to “Arms control”

  1. Geetha.d said

    i think keeping the torso still and moving the arms may becomes DOING but not NONDOING,
    if the person not undestand the fm mindbody unity.

    • Yes, I think you’re right. There’s a big difference between keeping the torso still by force of effort, and just leaving it alone (and so it remains still)… I guess this is another place where it becomes hard to convey many of the experiences of an Alexander lesson by words alone

  2. Geetha.d said

    leaving the torso alone is a misleading word.

    Some thing we should DO or NONDO to prevent the neck head back relationship ,
    working for our benefit.

    SUPPORT THE TORSO WITH THE ARMS is best phrase i think,
    which leads the torso UP.

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