Apr 072017
 

I’ve been working with a young man who has terrible neck tension, a result of computer work. He never had pain or discomfort in all the years he was an athlete, but now he feels stiff all the time. Eight hours a day at a desk job will do that to you.

My main message to him has been, if some area of the body is tight, it’s because it’s missing support. Finding the support of the ground all the way through his spine will relieve the tension his neck is exerting to hold his head up. Today we worked on his ability to sense the contact that his sitz bones (what you feel on a hard bicycle seat) could make with the chair, providing upward support for the whole of his spine.

To distinguish what it means to “allow the sitz bones to release” into the chair, I asked him first to pull them up away from the chair, and see what that did to his neck. Try this, and you may notice that this is akin to “sitting up straight” for most people–it tenses the back and neck, requiring effort that can’t be sustained. You might also notice that it’s harder to breathe while pulling the sitz bones up. By contrast, releasing the sitz bones into the chair allows the entire length of the spine to release, and now the neck isn’t the only part available to support the weight of the head.

The contrast between contracting or releasing the sitz bones becomes even more pronounced when leaning the torso forward, as when typing. What’s harder, holding a 10-lb bowling ball at arms length, or close to your chest? The further the head is angled away from its base of support (point of contact with the chair), the more we need to release into that support below, so the neck can release above. 

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Mar 182016
 

There are schools of thought that promote moving from the center of gravity (the center of the pelvis, below the navel), in attempts to correct the tendency to lead with the chest or hips or chin. In various situations that is certainly a most helpful suggestion. But I always affirm that in total, we want the entire physical structure to be coordinated — and so it must include the primary relationship of the head to the spine (of which the pelvis is the root).

Most people have lost an accurate determination of where their head is, in space and in relation to the rest of the body. Your nervous system is wired to, at all costs, prevent your head from hitting the ground, so if you carry your head off-balance, your entire body will tense and brace to prevent you from falling over. An average head weighs TWELVE pounds, so it takes real work to hold it up against gravity when it's off balance. (When allowed to release forward from its pivot point, this weight actually helps your spine lengthen and your body to both stand at ease and mobilize.)

Because in Alexander Technique we are concerned with unifying the organization of mind as well as body, I find it helpful to ask students to consider where they're headed: Where exactly is your head (in space and in preoccupation)? What is its relationship to the rest of you (spine/pelvis, your heart, how you carry out your thoughts)? How are you organizing yourself around it (how do you let its balance on your spine inform your movements, how do you let your intentions lead you)?

Not knowing where their head is (literally and figuratively), most people can't organize themselves around it in a coordinated fashion. They flounder or flail, dragging and pushing various parts of themselves. It's like pushing the caboose to move the train when firing up the engine would move it so much easier…

By nature we then become accustomed to a skewed sense of where the head is, so it takes some creative imagination to have a different experience. This exercise may at first appear to be enormously different from what you believe or sense. I invite you to be a true scientist: Try it out and see, doing your best to suspend your disbelief until you've wholeheartedly acted “as-if” and explored the results.

A high pivot point lengthens the back of the neck

Place an index finger on the side of each cheekbone, halfway bewteen the front corner of your cheekbone or base of your eye socket, and the soft spot in front of your ear. Imagine a bar through your skull connecting these points. Without dropping the bar, tip your head forward-and-up over it. If you do not drop this imagined bar, you'll find the scruff of your neck lengthening as your face drops. Keep it up until you are glancing down from a very high perspective and you'll feel a stretch in the back of your neck. If you tend toward pain between the shoulder blades you may notice immediate relief. Let your shoulder blades drape away from this stretch in your upper spine, without bringing them toward each other in front. If you've been in a slump, keep raising the bar in your mind's eye as you tip your head up and over it, until the lengthening of your spine draws you more upright. Notice that it's not necessary to push from the back, at your lower ribs or pelvis, to bring you into a more upright seated position. If you're standing, you'll notice a different tone come into your legs from pivoting your head around this high imaginary bar.

Is the balance point of your head on your spine between your cheekbones? Not exactly, but there's a distinction between a balance point and a point of movement. In fact the point we've here discerned is called the sella turcica, part of the sphenoid bone, and cradles the pituitary gland. A helpful place leave free and mobile!

Remember that we're interested in exploring a reference point for organization. When you're driving you don't look down at the ground at where you are, you look through the windshield at where you're headed. Notice how organizing yourself into the approaching moment makes for a much smoother ride 🙂

 

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Mar 252015
 

I’ve heard people with “forward head posture” tell me they’ve tried to remedy this issue by sleeping on their back without a pillow. This is a BAD IDEA. The simple reason (aside from the new pain they report) is that years of “forward head posture” compresses the cervical spine in an exaggerated curve; going without a pillow doesn’t un-do this compression, and leaving this mal-positioned head without support only strains the numerous delicate muscles of the throat (and causes a host of other strains).

The phrase “forward head posture” is commonly used to describe a postural imbalance where the head is carried forward in relation to the torso. What the Alexander Technique distinguishes is that, in fact, the head is tipped BACKWARDS in relation to its balance point on the spine; it may be forward from where it “ought” to be, but in order for this poor soul to see straight ahead, s/he has actually tipped the head backwards to compensate for a PULL DOWN in the cervical spine – and, in fact, a pull down in the entire torso (see how the tail is tucked and the guts are squished?).

Sternocleidomastoid in red

I can appreciate the intention behind typical recommendations like these: “strengthen weak neck muscles” with chin tucks, “open the chest” with shoulder blade squeezes, and “think of a string pulling your neck into length.”

But squeezing the shoulder blades together doesn’t open a narrowed chest, it squeezes back muscles. Tucking the chin (from this position) pressurizes the throat and cervical spine. Stretching the back of the neck doesn’t release the downward pull of the very strong sternocleidomastoid muscle, which is shortened after a lifetime of sitting (in poorly designed chairs/cars/seating of all kinds), feeling pressured to “get things done”, and an appalling lack of healthy movement.

Many delicate connections!

The relationship between head, neck, torso, and arms is d-e-l-i-c-a-t-e. Years of misuse and shortened muscles cannot be undone by going without a pillow or forcefully tucking your chin; that just causes more pain. It IS possible to change “forward head posture”, but it takes a comprehensive approach to learn how to STOP DOING all the bad habits that created this mess.

Head is supported in Constructive Rest

Head is supported in Constructive Rest

The classic Constructive Rest practice supports the head and allows a lengthening in the entire torso. Releasing tension across the chest by learning a new way to move the arms, freeing up the hip joints so the legs and pelvis can provide support and stability, activating the organs to support the length of the spine and width of the torso, clarifying an understanding (and experience) of how the body is designed to move and balance… These are the tactics I’ve employed to alter my own postural habits, but first and foremost they came from a willingness to question my mental and emotional attitudes that created pressure and interfered with the natural buoyancy and support structure of my body.

In the collage below, you see me at age 25 (blacksmithing and playing guitar), with noticeable head-forward posture, including hunched shoulders. If you draw a line along the arc of my neck through my head, you’ll see that the curve angles forward and DOWN. On the bottom right of the collage, you’ll see me at 41 — looking down, but the arc of my neck is forward and UP, and my shoulders are no longer hunched up.

 

 

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Mar 172014
 

No, I'm not talking here about prejudice. One of the mixed blessings of studying the Alexander Technique is that you lose your tolerance for moods and behaviors that don't serve you. Yesterday a student of mine reported that she was full of ease after doing the Constructive Rest practice, when her husband called her over to review some photos on his laptop. As soon as she'd spent a minute craning over his shoulder to see the screen, her shoulder hurt worse than ever. I explained that once we open up stuck places, going back to the old patterns of tension becomes intolerable. Muscles that have finally come even the least little bit free from old tensions are loathe to return — and will let you know! A once-comfortable sofa becomes a nighmare of collapse. Curling up with a book is muddying and unpleasant. Pressurizing (stressing) oneself becomes abhorrent. We can no longer abide our old ways of being, of thinking, of responding.

Of course, we always retain the right to engage in those old habits of thought and deed. But no longer can we claim ignorance of the effects, or our complicity. All the ways we've rationalized or ignored our mistreatment of ourselves, in fact our prejudices against life, just don't hold water.

It may not seem fun to lose the illusion of those old comforts… Freedom is not for the faint of heart.

If we knew that undertaking this work would transform us in ways unimaginable, if we knew in advance that we would lose the self we think of as “me”, who would begin?? The desperate, the enlightened? Pain is a powerful motivator, but there are unseen forces at work too.

My guiding philosphy is that Expansion is the nature of the Universe. We can fight it, a little or a lot, but always it will have its way with us. Surfing is an apt anology here: The ocean is doing its thing, and we can despair at being tossed about, or learn to navigate its powerful ebbs and flows with respect, skill, enjoyment. Learning to go with that expansion — even, or especially, when it unmoors us from the carefully crafted Self we call home — is the game that opens the door for recognizing the limitlessness within.

Truth hath no confines.

 

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