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 animaster)

I used to find it really hard to do things when I knew someone was watching. I’d become self-conscious, uncoordinated and clumsy (or more so anyway). It’s interesting to observe this effect in other people at close quarters. The desire to be right – and associated fear of being wrong – is no doubt developed within us at a young age. But it seems to be a great enemy of, well, of excellence (that maybe sounds a bit prattish – agh, I feel like you’re looking at me while I’m writing!).

What happens when you become self conscious, or when you start to worry about not being right? Well, maybe you feel yourself getting a bit sweaty, feeling a bit worried. From a muscular point of view, there is a subtle sense of certain muscle groups contracting and the person beginning to lose height and width, to squash themselves. If the feeling was ramped up continuously you would probably end up curled up like a ball on the floor (I’m sure we’ve all wanted to do that at some point in our lives, or when watching The Office).

It’s a variant of something physiologists call the ‘startle response’, which covers the whole range of postural responses to stress. Fearful emotions like self-consciousness and embarrassment tend to come on with a kind of “withdrawing from the world” response, something like the shape shown below (shown in exaggerated form for illustration purposes).


Image (above): A version of the “startle response”. The withdrawal reaction that can accompany a fearful situation (includes tensing of jaw and face, pulling forward of neck, lifting shoulders, tightening abdominal muscles, contraction of hamstrings)

It’s a helpful shape to adopt if you want to hide yourself from a predator, which is probably why we evolved to do it. But it also makes you quite stiff, tense, unbalanced (making it harder to do anything requiring good balance – caution, tight-rope walkers!), as well as bringing some quite uncomfortable emotions in its train. So that helps explain why I found myself becoming uncoordinated when I was practicing keepy-ups in the school playground and suddenly noticed that girl from fourth year looking out the window.

So exponents of Alexander Technique work on themselves to develop the ability to withhold this kind of response, and to allow the body to come into a state of muscular expansiveness, balance, poise… whatever you want to call it. Even in the face of difficult or fearful situations.

What feels right might be wrong
Related to self-consciousness is the desire to be right. One unhelpful aspect of the desire to be right is the fact that people believe their own kinaesthetic senses can be trusted. If we believe we’re standing up straight, then we must be, we conclude. Most people persist in this delusion even when the evidence is stacked against it (even the odd nasty surprise in years past when noticing my stooped form reflected in a shop window wasn’t enough to make this clear to me).

Most of us develop a kinaesthesia very tuned to our current repertoire of postures and habituated actions. Moving outside of this limited range of movements makes us feel like something is wrong. If you develop a habit of standing like the crouched figure depicted above, then over time this will come to feel to you like standing up straight. To then be shown how to actually stand up straight would feel odd, like you were going to fall over backwards. For me it also felt slightly embarrassing as well, like I was now holding myself in an unnaturally upright manner.

Reading an article the other day about one of the first generation of Alexander teachers, Marjorie Barlow, the author Mike Cross mentioned that “Marjorie did her best to persuade me that, in the field of working on the self, being wrong is the best friend we have got.” And those working in this discipline – which is a fascinating one for its track record in helping people become much better coordinated – generally find that this is one of the major obstacles to progress, this unwillingness to allow yourself to be wrong.

So it’s worth exploring on your own. Notice your need to be correct for the tension it brings in the neck and shoulders. If you’re a juggler, for example, practise letting the balls fall to the ground and not being bothered about it. Let all that neck or shoulder tension – your preparedness to duck down to catch a falling ball – fall away. And then practise juggling after a period of this practice and notice if you find it easier to remain relaxed, upright and in good balance.

If you already have some familiarity with Alexander concepts like inhibiting and directing, you can apply these to situations that make you embarrassed or “in the spotlight” to an uncomfortable extent. So you can quieten bodily responses like shoulder tension, and carry on breathing, and lengthening and widening outwards (sorry if this means nothing to you).

Anyway… this has been a ramble on the subject of self-consciousness and fear. And I don’t even feel like curling into a ball and disappearing. 

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.


On being an explorer

June 2, 2012

In making improvements to our overall poise and use of ourselves, one of the difficult ideas to grasp at first is that of allowing something to happen, rather than making it happen. Most of us (well, certainly adults) are accustomed to doing things in an effortful way, so it doesn’t feel like we’re doing something properly if we aren’t making an effort, and if we can’t feel something very definite happening in our muscles.

This is a factor that can hamper your attempts to become less stiff and uncoordinated. We can undo some of these muscular knots we’ve tied around ourselves, and learn to do things more easily.

When I’m attempting to show someone how to move more easily, and improve the way things are working, I might say something like “let your knees go forwards” or “let gravity fold you at the knees and ankles” and they will be a bit puzzled and say something like “uh… so you just want me to bend my knees then?” At this point it will be clear that they simply want to do something they’ve done before, selecting a familiar program (“bend the knees”) from a storehouse of remembered kinaesthetic experiences; in this case, one that – in many cases – involves using the leg muscles in a very stiff, controlled way (with an accompanying tendency to stiffen unnecessarily in the back).

To experience a new way of moving your legs, for example, requires a certain bravery or willingness to just let something happen that may be unfamiliar, and that hasn’t happened before. To this end, Alexander Technique teachers sometimes recommend viewing yourself as an explorer. Or at least, someone who is willing to have experiences and perform movements that are alien and unfamiliar to you, kinaesthetically.

The Alexander Technique outlines a fairly clear principle that you want to work to (instead of just trying to perform a movement the way it feels familiar to do so), which is to do with allowing the neck to be free, so the head can balance more on top of the spine, and you avoid narrowing or shortening the back so much… there are many more details but I won’t go into it here.

But the unfamiliar kinaesthetic experiences you might have when working with an Alexander teacher, or working on your own, can be a little unsettling. If we find ourselves standing in a way that doesn’t feel like we’re standing (even if we can see in the mirror that we are) then we might simply want to revert to what feels like standing again, because it’s safe and familiar, even if the new way feels much easier and more pleasant… You can view it as a struggle between your feeling self and your rational, thinking self. 

Many people are unconscious of the postural habits that take over when they’re in conversation. (Image courtesy of *clairity*, Creative Commons Attribution licence).

It’s often fascinating to be shown how you can exercise a greater level of choice over how you respond to situations, and to be less of a slave to unconscious habit.

This has far reaching implications, from improving posture (and ridding yourself of problems like a sore knee or back) to approaching situations of all kinds in a more spontaneous, fresh and creative way, including social situations.

Just to give a concrete example: I used to find myself gesturing compulsively with my hands when I spoke. It was something that people often commented on, but I didn’t think there was much wrong with it. I felt it helped me get my points across if I had to make a speech, for example.

It wasn’t necessarily a problem except that it had become a habit which I had less and less control over, so that even when lying down, supposedly still, in an Alexander Technique session, my hands twitched and moved a little as I spoke. I wasn’t aware of this until it was pointed out to me.

I think it’s reasonable to say that you want to find yourself doing things because you’ve chosen to do them, rather than just because you’re in the grip of an unconscious habit. And I realised that my relentless gesturing had become something slightly robotic and compulsive.

On a postural level, this is obviously particularly relevant to actors. If you habitually hunch your shoulders and slink your head and neck forwards as you speak then that’s no use to you unless you’re playing the role of a slightly shy, fumbling person (notwithstanding the fact that this fixed way of holding neck and shoulders will be contributing to a general sense of postural collapse, affecting breathing and increasing your likelihood of developing back problems).

So if this is your tendency, for example, experiment with stopping it. Perhaps if you find yourself in a slightly dull conversation where your mind is tending to wander, you could practice this skill while you listen. Notice your tendency to do whatever your postural habit might be in conversation – whether it be hunching the shoulders or nodding compulsively or tightening your neck – and see if you can stop it or do it less.

You might notice some slightly uncomfortable feelings coming up, such as a fear that you are being rude or that you look odd. See if you can just calmly observe these feelings while carrying on the conversation, and see if they gradually pass. Or they might alert you to some problems you have with social anxiety that you want to work on.

If you want to go back to the habit of hunching your shoulders or whatever, then try to do so only as a conscious choice. On the other hand, you might notice that you feel a bit less tense and a bit calmer letting yourself quieten down these compulsive muscular responses. It might be something you want to carry on with, or adapt into your movement repertoire.

And if you practice Alexander Technique already, you’ll find it a bit easier to let your whole body just come into a natural, non-held state of poise.

So it’s useful to keep an eye on your postural habits and consider whether or not you want to carry on with them, particularly in social situations – which tend to cause most of us to stiffen a little, especially in the neck region. You don’t need to spend your life in the grip of unconscious habits. As well as improving your poise and general well-being, making you less prone to feeling tense or stiff or tired, this kind of practice is also cultivating your natural spontaneity and ability to respond to situations in a fresh and considered way.

Circus Artemis
The aerial feats of Circus Artemis (image courtesy of K.Kendall, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)

Do you have to compromise flexibility to achieve strength? It’s a debate that crops up in online fitness forums from time to time.

It all comes down to how you do it. In my experience it is possible for people to train or work intelligently, where activities that require muscular strength are performed in such a way that you are not sacrificing so much of your innate poise and balance in the process. And in this way, flexibility is preserved, along with your ability to perform skillful tasks (so you don’t have to lose so much of your violin-playing ability just because you operate a power drill for several hours a day, for instance).

That said, I doubt you’d meet an Alexander Technique teacher who would recommend weight lifting to their students. The more strenuous an activity, the stronger is the impetus to do things in a way that isn’t good for the body.

If you read a little further on, you’ll hopefully gain some insight into some of the issues that require attention when doing strenuous activity, at least from the point of view of an Alexander Technique teacher.

Most people approach tasks of all kinds by tightening up and contracting their body’s musculature inwards. There’s an observable tendency for the head and neck to retract into the torso, and for the muscles of the arms and legs to pull inwards towards the torso.

This is a difficult thing to convey merely using words but when we operate habitually in that inwardly-contracted state, we not only put more pressure and strain on the whole body, but we cultivate muscular habits that have an overall rigidifying effect on the body. And we’re more likely to build up habits of chronic tension in particular areas – for example, chronically tense arms seem quite common with heavy computer use.

We tend to sacrifice some of our natural poise and balance and ease of movement when we do things in this inwardly-contracted way. Things also seem to become less well “connected” to each other – a kinaesthetic quality that is tricky to convey in words.

The underlying physiology behind this has to do with a set of muscular reflexes – “antigravity” reflexes, they are sometimes called. When working well, they tend to keep us in a state of poised, balanced, expansiveness, where the muscles can adjust to each other and co-ordinate all the different parts of us in a way that feels easy and natural, and reduces the pressure on the individual parts.

But many people approach strenuous tasks in a way that interferes with the operation of these muscular reflexes, and they’ve been doing this for years so there is a slightly chronic state of contraction or collapse. One of the most significant ways you might be doing this is by tightening up the neck muscles and holding the head in a fixed position on top of the spine. It’s something you can find yourself doing without realising it.

It’s useful to explore doing things, even strenuous things, with as little muscle tension as you feel you can get away with. For example, experiment with gripping your pen or toothbrush less tightly.

Chronic tension patterns also go hand in hand with a tendency to lose touch with your surroundings, and how things feel. For example, the person who grips their pencil fearsomely will also not be very aware of how that pencil feels in their hand. So try to work in a way that maintains your sensory awareness of your surroundings and the physical contact you make with things around you. Continue to feel the little changes in weight distribution of your feet on the ground as you saw a plank of wood, for example, or the way the keys of your computer actually feel under your fingers as you type. Keep your vision in a reasonably lively state, interrupting up-close tasks with looking off in the distance every now and again, and maintaining some awareness of your peripheral vision.

There are various reasons why it’s good to be “sensing” your surroundings in this way. But to cut a long story short, this has the effect of getting our muscular reflexes more involved in whatever we’re doing, making it easier to do it, and requiring less undesirable muscle tension.

Just to give you a quick demonstration of these reflexes, try something now: stand on one leg.

Done it? Great. Now try again, this time with your eyes closed.

Notice the difference? It was probably a good bit harder to balance with your eyes closed. That’s just to illustrate the effect that one of your senses – vision – has on stimulating the operation of these muscular reflexes (or “postural reflexes”, as they’re sometimes called). The more you can reduce interference with these reflexes when doing things, the better your coordination and the easier everything will be.

You can cultivate poise and expansiveness in everything you do, whether it be playing a guitar or operating a power drill, and this will tend to counteract the development of chronic patterns of tension and immobilisation. It’s best to begin this re-education process with relatively non-strenuous tasks, before taking it to the gym. It can admittedly take some time and application (observation) to become aware of these kinds of muscular patterns, and to begin changing them. Taking Alexander Technique lessons can make this a lot easier.

(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.