Working on stances

April 21, 2016


Confusion about what we’re doing with the back and pelvis might reveal itself in pain or discomfort (in the back or leg joints) when adopting positions such as horse stance (image courtesy of Tinou Bao).

Having a conversation with a martial arts instructor a while back about a high profile figure from the world of taekwondo who had had to undergo several hip operations, he concluded with a little exasperation that “there’s something wrong with your technique” if you’re needing multiple operations.

I’ve dabbled with martial arts myself over the years, and though still far from being a skilled practitioner, I think I’ve reached a point where I can train without much in the way of pain or injury – a great advance on where I was 15 years ago when I assumed I might only have a few years left of being able to train at all, such were my difficulties (and the inadequacy of the answers I received when seeking solutions).

A lot of my own confusion about body awareness has been with the pelvis and lower back. This seems to be an area where a lot of people feel confused, from what I can observe. And it can be difficult to discern from a visual inspection, whether or not someone is making life needlessly difficult for themselves in this area.

In very small children and – I would say – people in whom things appear to be working well, there seems to be more of a unity between the back and pelvis, as though the two work together as a single structure.

What seems more prevalent among adults is a tendency to break this unity, to move in a way where the back and pelvis are moving independently. A common pattern is the pelvis tilting forwards and the lower back curving inwards to an excessive degree. Or when someone is walking or moving around, you’ll be able to see that they’re moving their entire pelvis with each step, rather than simply moving the legs.

This tends to weaken the back and make movement generally more cumbersome. My own attempts to eliminate this tendency have come with a sense that my knees and hip joints have been “oiled” – I almost never suffer from pain there anymore, and feel i can move much more easily. And this is something I’ve observed with other people too.

You can explore your own tendencies in this area by trying the following experiment: First, stand near a wall with your back facing the wall and your feet a few inches away from the wall. Let your back and buttocks rest against the wall. Your head will probably be a few inches away from the wall in this position – and so it should be as the spine has an ‘S’ shape (so don’t bend your neck to make your head touch the wall).

Keep your back and pelvis in contact with the wall and allow your knees to bend, so your whole body slides down the wall. If you notice an irresistible tendency to take your backside off the wall then that’s probably a sign that you tend to break this unity between back and pelvis unnaturally, a habit that tends to weaken the back and make movement of all kinds more cumbersome and less fluid.

Using a wall in this way can help you gain more insight into your technique. If there’s a stance you habitually perform which can be worked with in this manner, such as horse stance, try doing it against a wall. As you go into the stance notice whether you feel inclined to change the connection between the wall and bits of your back or pelvis, to pull one side of the back or your pelvis away from the wall as you bend your knees, for example.

Changing a habitual style of movement feels unnatural – this is just because of its unfamiliarity. What feels wrong might actually be right (or more right than before) – although pain definitely shoudn’t be ignored.

(Image courtesy of gothick_matt, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)

Having trouble with posture? Not able to get comfortable? Or maybe you’re struggling with activities that require good co-ordination. It could be that you’re relying on faulty kinaesthesia.

This is something we all appear to suffer from, to some extent. To put it another way, the information coming from your muscles and joints – which you rely on to orient yourself and your body parts in space – is unreliable. If you read further on, you’ll perhaps get a chance to notice this in yourself.

When teaching improved patterns of posture and movement, Alexander technique teachers tend to make use of a mirror. During a session, someone will say: “Oh, it feels like I’m leaning way backwards” or something similar, when they aren’t actually leaning back at all, or not as much as they think. It just feels that way because of long-standing habits of posture and the associated feelings of muscle tension.

A quick look in the mirror confirms this, often with slight shock or hilarity.

If you’re in the habit of slumping forwards a lot, for example, this will feel normal to you, and the physical sensations from your body – or kinaesthesia – will tend to keep you stuck in that habit.

Try something just now: fold your arms. Take a moment to notice how you do it. Perhaps you fold them right-over-left. You probably do if you’re right handed.

Now try it again. Only this time, do it the other way (left-over-right if the last paragraph applies to you).

It may well feel slightly strange. But if you look in the mirror you’ll see that it looks perfectly normal.

This tendency to cling to familiar sensations – even when they might be associated with bad or unhelpful posture habits – is pretty universal. We all tend to suffer from it. But it will hinder your attempts to make constructive changes to the way you sit, stand or carry out physical acts. So it’s something to be aware of.

You can help yourself by using a mirror. If you’re practising yoga or martial arts at home, or even if you’re just trying to get a better position in front of the computer, set a mirror up nearby so that you can verify that your physical sensations match what you see with your eyes.

In practice many of us find it difficult to observe ourselves objectively. As an Alexander Technique teacher pointed out to me recently, we’re much like the anorexic who always sees a fat person in the mirror. It’s taken me a long time to be able to really observe my own postural twists in the mirror, when they occur, and to use this as the basis for changing things. I now find it a great help when I’m doing slightly tricky or strenuous things – for me – like practising new tunes on the guitar.

If I can check my tendency for one shoulder to gradually creep upwards, with the accompanying increase of strain on one side of the body, then I can play more easily and for longer periods.

Care has to be taken here though. It doesn’t do to try and change things directly. If one shoulder appears to be higher than the other, for example, forcing them both to be level to each other will likely mean that you’ve just acquired another layer of unhelpful muscle tension, which might cause other problems. You want to be looking for ways that you can release muscles, and bring yourself into a more poised, balanced, use of the body – where the shoulders are more likely to be level.

If you think this is a problem area for you, it’s worth going for an Alexander lesson, to see what they can show you. Or if you feel you’re not able to do what you want to be doing, in terms of carrying out some physical act, you might want to start exploring this. Maybe you’ve taken up yoga or a sport and found yourself frustrated at your inability to properly carry out some of the directions given by your instructor, and you don’t know why.

Some useful study resources are available here.

Get to know your hip joints

February 3, 2011

They’re not necessarily where you think they are. (Photo courtesy of cobblucas, Creative Commons Attribution licence)

Where are your hip joints? It’s something you may discount as obvious. But almost everyone, in my experience, seems to have a poor understanding of this area. And – as hopefully will be apparent once you’ve read further down – this vagueness goes some way towards explaining why many people suffer from lower back pain.

When someone asks you to “place your hands on your hips”, you probably rest them on the upper crest of the pelvis, the iliac crest (see image above and figure 1, below). This is the area commonly referred to as “the hips”. The hip joint, on the other hand, the area where your legs join your pelvis, is quite a bit lower down, as figure 1 also shows.

The problem for many people is that they’ve formed the impression that it’s natural to bend at the hips. It isn’t. When we bend in the middle region of the body we should only ever bend at the hip joints. If you think of your body as something that folds in half when you bend over, then it’s important to locate the middle bit here, at the hip joints, not further up at the hips.

Figure 1: Pelvis skeletal system (left) and (right, inset) pelvic region of a real person highlighting approximate locations of hip joint and iliac crest

Just being clear about this can make quite a big difference to the way you walk, for example, with potentially positive repercussions for any back or leg pain you may have been having. You can locate your hip joints by exploring this region with your fingertip, looking for the place where the leg appears to hinge on the body. It might be a little bit sore to press on this area, if you are someone with habitually quite tight and stiff hip joints.

So looking at it another way, the pelvis belongs to the back rather than the legs, if you like. During activity, such as walking, the pelvis should be maintaining its alignment with the back. It shouldn’t swing forwards and backwards with the leg. This tends to weaken this lower back area and leave it more vulnerable.

Having a better experience of walking, where the legs can move independently of the hips and pelvis, felt at first – for me – like I was floating on top of the legs, rather than sitting on top of them, sinking down into them. It made walking, for example, feel fantastic – much easier. But it also felt quite different and unfamiliar, so it was easy to revert back to the old habit. It takes a little getting used to.

Being able to maintain this easier use of the legs while walking – if it’s not in accord with your habit – depends greatly on other aspects of your posture (or postural mechanisms, I should say) working well. So if you are someone with problems in this area, an Alexander Technique teacher would spend some time showing you how to maintain a good use of your head, neck and back area, primarily, before going on to explore this aspect of the legs and how you use them.

Lying down in semi-supine (see this youtube clip) is another very useful practise with respect to maintaining a good relationship between the pelvis and the rest of the back. When you practise semi-supine, your pelvis and back remain in alignment. So regular practise of it helps reinforce the tendency to maintain a unity between these two areas, if it’s something you tend to lose when you are walking or moving around.

We have choices over how we use our bodies, and we can base these choices on what makes sense anatomically, or simply allow ourselves to pick up habits from our parents or the people around us, many of whom might not really know what they’re doing either.

Photo courtesy of aussiegall/Creative Commons Attribution licence

Problems with foot pronation are commonly remedied by using arch supports or specially-adapted trainers. But if you’re really interested in re-educating your feet and posture, it’s important to appreciate the limitations of these kinds of orthotics. What else can you do to help matters?
Arch supports and other orthotics don’t take into account the role of the entire body’s musculature in creating and maintaining the arches of the feet. And many people prescribed them find they gain little benefit. It’s also true that people are generally given very little information about how to re-educate the feet and legs to work with these supports, or indeed to learn how you might eventually wean yourself off them – a desirable goal if you’re interested in improving the body’s functioning.
Arch supports can change the shape of the arch to some extent, relieve tiredness and knee pain, and make people feel a bit better. By avoiding some of the damaging consequences of simply allowing the foot to flatten onto the ground – in the case of fallen arches, for example – they seem to be invaluable. But it also seems evident that they don’t really get to the root of the problem and they do little to restore the natural shock-absorbing properties of the foot and arch.

Fallen arches and posture
So what more can you do? Well, as already mentioned, it’s important to realise that our arches are created and sustained by muscles elsewhere – in the calves and legs, most obviously, but ultimately in the way all the muscles in the body work together.
People who have developed a general postural habit of collapsing down will often tend to find that they are pushing the knees too far back, causing the arches of the feet to flatten. It seems reasonable to assume that putting an arch underneath will improve matters. And when the orthotic is in place, the muscles in the foot and calve contract, which seems desirable since one of the features of a flat foot is a lack of the necessary tone in the surrounding muscles.
However, when muscles are held in a state of ongoing contraction, they lose a lot of their sensitivity and responsiveness. So we may have achieved an apparent remedy to the problem, but by sacrificing some of our natural springiness. We will have diminished some of the function of the mechanisms that maintain posture, balance and uprightness. One result is that parts of the body such as the knees are placed under a different kind of strain, which isn’t ideal.

Re-educate your posture
Clearly, it makes sense to seek a solution that goes to the root of the problem, and doesn’t force us to introduce other compensatory forms of muscle tension. We can try to enforce change on the body using external devices, or we can work to improve the body’s functioning from the inside-out. Methods of postural re-education like Alexander Technique fall into the latter camp. This takes some time and effort to learn but the result is that you can do a lot of work to improve the arches in a way that involves the whole body, and doesn’t diminish the function of the delicate muscular reflexes that – when working well – can keep us upright and in a state of lightness, balance and poise.
Running is obviously an activity where the feet and legs are under particular stress. But you can minimise the tendency of the feet to over-pronate during running by adopting a running style where the forefoot lands first, something described in more detail in the posts on running, which appear elsewhere on this blog.

If you’re interested in the effect of arch supports on posture, this article Body and Sole presents a lot more detail, from the perspective of an Alexander technique teacher.

Beat the slump

April 6, 2010

“How should I sit at the computer?” People are often concerned that they’re not adopting the right posture for keyboard work. And indeed many people suffer from lower back pain nowadays, an almost inevitable by-product of sedentary occupations.
So what’s the right way to do it? My take on the matter: There isn’t really a correct position that will be right for everyone. We want the body to be resting in a balanced, relaxed manner – upright rather than slouched, but not in a way that requires excessive muscular effort. Generally, if you try and hold yourself in a particular position – the one you perceive to be correct – it will result in stiffness, tension, inefficient breathing and poor posture… the very things you might be trying to avoid.
That said, it’s possible to offer a couple of useful guidelines:
1) Make sure you’re sitting on the “sitting bones”, rather than the tops of the legs. These are the bony protuberances that underlie the pelvis, also known as the ischial tuberosities. Put your hands underneath where you’re sitting now and you should be able to locate a little pointy bit of bone under each side. You should be sitting on top of these little bony sticky-out bits. Often, people will find that they’re actually sitting with the weight a little bit forward from these points, and in this position the lower back is unlikely to be playing the supportive role that it should, and you’ll be slumping forward.
2) Breathing is important! People who gets sore arms at the computer, or experience problems like RSI, are very often breathing in a somewhat fixed and inefficient way. You can be sure that the ribcage will be more or less clamped in place and they’ll be holding their breath a lot while they work (something many of us do when concentrating). This interferes with the supportive role the back is meant to play, and the musculature in the back that is meant to support the arms. If you think this is a habit you have, try to be aware of it, and keep remembering to refrain from holding your breath while you type away at the computer. Also be aware that the ribcage wants to be able to move while you breathe, and try not to grip on to your sides so much.

Be aware that the sensory information you receive from your muscles and body (i.e. the physical sensations of weight, tension and so on) may be unreliable, especially if you’ve been working at a computer for many years. You may want to place a mirror to the side of your workstation so you can check that your perception of position or uprightness is correct.
I sometimes find myself sitting on the tops of my legs at the computer, rather than the sitting bones (which I should be sitting on), and the feeling I get from my body makes me think that I am in an upright position whereas I can see in the mirror that I am actually slumping forward.

People sometimes ask me about core stability, and if core exercises are a good idea. In fact, Alexander technique doesn’t involve core stability work at all, and the two approaches seem to be somewhat at odds with each other. Or are they?
On the one hand, core stability has been embraced throughout the fitness industry, so lots of people appear to benefit from it, or believe they do. On the other hand, it seems clear that many people who do these exercises end up with poor posture. There is a danger that it can immobilise people around the trunk area, restricting breathing and mobility in undesirable ways.
The main muscle targeted by core stability is the transverse abdominus (TA). It’s understood that when this muscle weakens, you get back pain. So it seems reasonable to assume you should try and strengthen it.
But there seem to be several potential pitfalls with this. For one, the TA is involved quite heavily in the way we breathe, so if you don’t allow it to move freely then this will restrict breathing.
Furthermore, any movement you perform, whether it be picking something up or signing a cheque, requires the participation of every muscle in the body, to an extent. So it’s difficult to be optimistic about the benefits of working on one muscle group in isolation. Lying on the floor of a gym and working your core is quite removed from the context of everyday life.
Type in “the myth of core stability” on google and you’ll find articles looking at other difficulties with this approach. There are those who believe the premise of core stability work is fundamentally invalid while others stress that it is simply being mis-applied.
As ever, it’s probably best to make up your own mind. A fairly recent Guardian article attempts to give different perspectives on this issue
Bear in mind that even if you have back pain, your problem might not be an under-recruitment of muscles like the TA, it might be something else. So core-stability exercises won’t be appropriate (at least as far as i can see – I’ll happily blog an addendum stating otherwise if anyone wants to clarify).
It perhaps also boils down to how you perform the exercises. A Pilates teacher might talk about “stabilising” the trunk while an Alexander teacher will worry that this involves “stiffening” it, with unhappy consequences for the way the body organises itself as a whole. It all depends on your existing level of co-ordination and body awareness. If you suspect you have problems in this area, it makes sense to get a bit of extra help.

Empty posturing

March 15, 2010

It’s easy to assume there must be some benefit to holding ourselves upright in what we believe to be a straight position, and that this is the way to improve posture. Unfortunately it’s not quite so simple (how did you know I was going to say that?).

During movement, your posture – the relative position of different parts of your body – is changing all the time. So there isn’t a correct posture that will help you perform a dance move or take a free kick more effectively. These acts require a dynamic and fluid transition between hundreds of different postures.

Runners who want to improve their technique or reduce a tendency towards injury will often pick up on the idea that they need to hold their pelvis or their chin or some other part of the body in a particular position. Unfortunately this tends to restrict breathing and movement – and any position that has to be held in place is going to require extra muscular effort in the long run, leading to tiredness.

But it is possible to cultivate a naturally better posture, one that doesn’t have to be held in place and doesn’t require muscular effort. And this can have enormous knock-on benefits for your ability to perform skilful or strenuous activities for long periods with fewer injuries and less of a tendency to tire out.

Physiologists and anatomists have long recognised that there are muscular reflexes that naturally operate to keep us upright, in a way that uses involuntary musculature – deep, postural muscles that seem to operate well in children and well co-ordinated adults, but which most people are out of the habit of using.

You can encourage these muscular reflexes to operate by resting in a position such as semi-supine (see image below) for a few minutes every day. All you need is a few books under your head so it is elevated off the floor slightly. Feet should be flat on the floor (about hip width apart), thighs parallel and hands resting on your front. Try this out for 15 minutes a day for a week or so and see how it feels.

semi-supine position

The correct attitude is also helpful. It’s good if you can be calm and refrain from any tendency to grip or hold onto muscles, and to keep your eyes open and remain aware of your surroundings.

It’s easy to be sceptical of the idea that what looks like “doing nothing” will bring about any benefit. But lying in this position is an opportunity for our normal muscular reactions – which in most of us interfere with natural, healthy co-ordination of the body – to ease off so that we can allow the deeper, involuntary musculature a chance to come into play a bit more. Less is more, you might say, when it comes to using the body well and cultivating good co-ordination.

It’s a position used extensively when teaching the Alexander technique, a form of movement re-education that has been shown in clinical trials to be highly effective when used to treat back pain, for example (as this video explains).

Most of us are fairly locked into this dualistic mode of thinking where we regard ourselves as comprising two distinct and separate units called “mind” and “body”. I encountered it myself this evening while using the computer. I was feeling a bit uncomfortable as I’d been typing for a while, letting myself get a bit absorbed in what I was writing.

I noticed this happening – a tightening of the shoulders and a gripping in the abdominal area, which was contributing to my back being a bit sore. Still fairly focused on the writing, I started trying to “Alexander” myself, applying directions and so on. But I realised it was making me worse, till I eventually relented and decided to take a break and change my attitude of mind a little as well.

I guess it’s all too easy to forget that we’re “psycho-physical” in nature, as it’s not a mode of awareness most of us have been brought up with. We tend to think we can choose to ungrip a clenched area of musculature, for example, while doing nothing to alter a demeanour of grim determination or anxiety or something similar.

Everyone’s got a story

January 28, 2009

I thought I’d start with a quick run-down of why i started learning the Alexander technique. 

It was a dark and stormy night… in 2002. I had been suffering from back pain and mobility problems in both my arms and legs (stiff joints, loss of strength, muscle spasms – that kind of thing). Chiropractic didn’t seem to shift it and the exercises prescribed by the physio seemed to make things worse. I started to suspect that my problems were being caused by the way I was doing things. There was something about the way I moved, the way I sat at the computer maybe, that was doing me harm. Doctors and medical people said that this was possibly the case, but there was nothing they knew that could help me with that (in an exchange bizarrely reminiscent of the one Alexander had with his own doctor).

But then…I found a book about the Alexander technique on my flat mate’s shelf and it seemed to suggest there was a way to change how you actually moved, walked and so  on.

Coming out of my first session nothing felt dramatically changed. I noticed that my legs felt like they were attached to my pelvis in a slightly different way than usual. I hopped down the stairs of the tube station and there was an unmistakeable “springy-ness” about me that was different. I remember a slightly freer feeling in my limbs. These effects were fairly subtle and slight, but still quite intriguing.

Subsequent sessions produced similar sensations of freedom and lightness, but never lasting more than a day or so. And whenever I sat down to work at my computer, it wasn’t long before I felt like an immobile lump once again. Why couldn’t I maintain this nice feeling of freedom and mobility?

There seemed to be no quick fix or easy answer but I felt that the insights I gained when going for Alexander lessons, and when applying these principles on my own, were helping me understand the way I moved in a much more fundamental way than I had previously thought possible. Though I don’t think I was easy to teach. I can remember the odd wryly amused grin from an Alexander teacher who was trying to get through to me, like the time I explained I was “concentrating on not concentrating”.

But as my awareness grew, I was able to let go of habits and tensions that were unhelpful and contributing to my problems, patterns of tension I’d been holding onto for years. The gradual improvements in my overall mobility were very exciting to notice, having previously resigned myself to just being “broken”, or simply “old” (given I was 28 at this point, I’d quite like to go back in time and give myself a slap).

Within a few years I had taken the step of enrolling in a training course, to learn to become a teacher of the technique. This may seem a bit extreme but I knew I still had a lot to learn about it, and I was deeply interested because of the help it was giving me – almost obsessed.

And there we are… seven years later. My back’s certainly loads stronger, though i still have to be careful when sitting at a computer that i don’t overdo it, and that i pay attention to my use (and don’t get sucked back into old habits). My left knee doesn’t go “crrkkk!” every time i straighten it, which i’m pleased about. Even long-distance running doesn’t seem to leave me with aches and pains any more. I don’t get panic attacks or breathing problems any more, which i used to quite frequently. And people I meet often comment on how much better i look than a few years ago.

So yeah… I’m one of those people who’ll chew your head off in the pub telling you about the benefits of some weird health fad they’ve discovered… Well, hopefully not.