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.

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.

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.