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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Sep 022016
 

Most runside-view-woman-running-beach-horizon-sea-background-51068142ners I see pull their elbows back, behind the rib cage; they seem to “hold” their forearms stiff and elbows up high, swinging this bent structure strictly forward-and-back. This pattern coincides with a tendency to push the chest forward, which restricts easy breathing, and correlates with stiffness in the arms, shoulders, base of the neck, and back.StandingPosture

In standing, the arms ideally hang more forward than the back of the ribs, shown by the far right example of this image. You can see that in the middle “military” style posture, the chest is pushed forward and the elbows are drawn back. In the balanced posture, there’s no pushing forward in the ribs, and the elbows drape alongside the torso.

Rather than pulling my elbows backwards when I run, I think about them releasing forward. I find it informative and helpful to think of myself as being a four-legged creature who just happens to be standing on two legs. This enables me to step out of my habitual ways of standing and moving, and provides insights about the mechanics of the body.

running-cheetah-sequences-7722339In accordance with what I know about arm movement, I also think about letting my shoulder blades provide support for the forward reach of my arms. You can see in the running cheetah that the shoulder blades move forward as the front legs stretch out in extension. Rather than hold my shoulder blades glued to the back of my torso, and moving bent arms as if they swung solely from the humeral joint, I let my scapulae glide forward with each swing of my arms. With my hands and arms relaxed, it feels a bit like pawing the air! But anyone who has clambered up a mountainside knows what it is to use your arms and legs together; we just sometimes forget that the arms remain active, even when they don’t have contact with the ground. Thinking of running as a four-limbed activity creates a smoother gait and prevents stiffness.

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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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Jun 142015
 

A recent NPR program reported on the work of “posture guru” Esther Gokhale. I received several emails alerting me to this article, and I’m thankful for the chance to clarify both differences between Alexander Technique and Esther’s method, and some misconceptions in her work.

While Esther has some valid observations about contrasts in postural comportment between indigenous or non-industrialized cultures and those living modern lifestyles, I see some serious flaws in her approach.

The lengthened spine Esther calls a J shape is what AT has been advocating for over 100 years.

1. Mimicry and effort versus freedom. Everything Esther recommends is something to do, a remedial activity of effort designed to physically mimic what indigenous people are naturally embodying with ease. While many of her suggestions appear to fix the typical slump and contraction patterns exhibited by Westerners, they are also another example of the Western mentality of believing there is something to do — something that requires effort, to “get it right.” But if you consider the examples she provides of indigenous people with great posture, they are not doing anything to have good posture. These people with open, wide shoulders are not rolling their shoulders back, as she recommends; they are not interfering with the natural, good design of shoulders to be open. Your average Westerner is, in fact, actively rolling their shoulders forward — and until that person learns to STOP doing that, rolling their shoulders back is simply an additional effort on top of the original tension pattern… which explains why most people find they cannot sustain their attempts to take on “good” postural habits. Without alleviating the original conditions of misuse, which is what the Alexander Technique teaches for the kind of sustainable results reported in the British Medical Journal, it’s a struggle to hold the new standard.

2. Making it all physical. Alexander’s insight into what he named The Use of the Self is the mental/emotional component to psychophysical coordination. Unlike us Westerners, these good examples Esther cites are not watching the clock, trying to impress, pressurizing themselves with deadlines or thoughts and attitudes of “having to” get this done, make this happen, get it right… The Alexander Technique works specifically at the juncture of thought and action, body and mind, recognizing that it’s not possible to change one without changing without the other. The Technique supports investigation into, and choice at the deepest level of, our preconceived beliefs and reactions to everything that happens in life. That’s why the Technique is revered by performing artists and especially actors, who need freedom of expression rather than stereotyped responses. The Alexander Technique offers a way to deal effectively with anxiety, fear, and pain, and conditions where good posture is not available – such as for actors playing emotionally and physically contorted characters.

3. Quick fix versus open-ended inquiry. While some consider it a good thing that Esther’s method claims to fix the problems of poor posture, from an Alexander perspective this seems presumptuous: can we really, so quickly, presume to know what’s going on with someone’s “poor posture” — and how to fix it? The Alexander Technique is about removing interference, of getting out of the way so that the intelligence of the body can resolve issues, rather than imposing a predetermined solution to a situation. The Technique looks for what there is to STOP doing — narrowing the shoulders, stiffening the neck, tucking the tail, unbalancing the head, over/under focusing the eyes, exaggerating lift, constraining the breath, tightening / stiffening / pressurizing / depressing… Once we STOP doing all these habits of tension, we liberate the natural buoyancy of the human design and allow it to be upright and mobile according to its design.

4. Primal Posture versus Conscious Awareness. Yes, making changes in your posture affects your attitude. But taking on aspects of “primal posture” falls shy of the (typical) kind of insight that an Alexander student of mind recently reported, where making new choices about how she responded to her own internal pressure freed her up to realize that she didn’t have to worry herself about her son’s new business venture. Don’t you think that relaxed her shoulders more than a roll-back? And was good for him, too??

In sum: if you are misusing yourself in typical Western ways, Esther’s method will show you better patterns of posture and movement, as something you can do. But if you want to challenge and change your thinking, question your preconceptions, engage in a lifelong investigation into the ways we obstruct — and can consciously liberate and embody — our freedom to be present in the moment, call your local Alexander teacher.

 

 

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May 162015
 

Some positions within the Dart sequence demonstrated by Judith Muir

I use the Dart Procedures in lessons and classes to help students explore Alexander Technique principles via movement through a variety of positions. Working on myself in this manner has yielded tremendous results in changes to my posture and strength, and are an unending source of revelation about spirals in the body — and the ways we interfere with our natural design.

In anticipation of teaching a 6-week class on the Dart Procedures, I’m quoting *all the text below* from Dance and the Alexander Technique: Exploring the Missing Link, by Rebecca Nettl-Fiol and Luc Vanier, teachers of dance as well as AT. You can learn more about their work at www.dancealexandertechnique.com. Click here for a video.

Who was Dart?

Dr. Raymond Dart

Raymond Arthur Dart (1893-1988) was an Australian anthropologist, neuroanatomist, doctor, and educator best known for discovering and naming the Australopithecus africanus, known as the Taung Child. In his book, Adventures with the Missing Link, Dart postulated his discovery to be a missing link between apes and humans because it had features of both, including evidence of upright posture and dental characteristics of a human, along with a small brain and facial attributes of an ape. This discovery, although controversial in the beginning, was eventually given the recognition it deserved. Dart’s work led to significant insights into human evolution, and he is widely recognized now for his major contributions to science and human knowledge.

The Dart sequence

Dart’s experiences with the Alexander Technique began when he sought lessons for his infant son, Galen, who was born premature and suffered from cyanotic attacks, leaving him brain-injured and spastic. Irene Tasker, assistant to F.M. Alexander, worked with Galen for two years, bringing about significant changes to his bite and posture (Murray 2006). Dart was profoundly influenced by Alexander through lessons with Tasker and continued practicing and exploring the technique on his own. Within four years of being introduced to the techinque, Dart had written several papers about what he had learned, including “The Postural Aspect of Malocclusion” in 1946, and “The Attainment of Poise” in 1947. In 1949, Dart had a single lesson with F.M. Alexander himself.

How the Dart Procedures Came About

Joan and Alexander Murray met Raymond Dart in 1967 after twelve years of studying the Alexander Technique. The path that led the Murrays to Dart began when Alex Murray and his Alexander teacher, Walter Carrington, were discussing the role of the jaw in the balance of the head. Carrington recommended that Murray read Dart’s paper, “The Postural Aspect of Malocclusion.” Murray was captivated by the article: it so intrigued him that he copied it out by hand (Dart 1996, xi). In the paper, Dart described a sequence of evolutionary stages, or what he called “the pronograde and ventigrade phases of postural evolution,” which he suggested were useful for the exploration of “posture and poise” and to show the relationship between posture and malocclusion of the jaw (Dart 1996, 106). Alex was fascinated with the links between the Alexander Technique and the postiions described by Dart, and he patiently worked through these postiions on his own, exploring Dart’s writing by physically doing the movements as they were written. Joan and Alex worked together, putting the positions into a sequence and looking to see how the Alexander principles could help in bringing about the best use while doing the movments. This experience gave them new insights into human movement that were completely in line with what they had understood of Alexander’s work.

Developmental Movement: Toward Understanding Alexander’s Principles

Spirals in movement

The Dart Procedures contain a series of positions that, when linked, become a movement sequence that retraces the path of developmental and evolutionary patterns. It is not the movement sequence itself that is important, but the principles implied in each movement segment that provides the vehicle for experimentation. Learning the movements or positions is only the beginning of the journey toward learning about one’s movement patterns. “Working with these procedures will not teach one the Alexander Technique, but patient and intelligent investigation by one with no Alexander experience may still lead to a certain enlightenment by revealing inefficient patterns of movement and helping to discard them. Undertaken with the guidance of a skilled Alexander teacher, they are a constant source of insight and a point of reference in one’s patterns of behavior. One can continually return to these as to Alexander’s ‘positions of mechanical advantage’ in which category they certainly belong” (Murray 1988, 69).

Works cited

Dart, Raymond A. 1996. Skill and Poise. London: STAT.

Murray, Alexander. 1988. “The Dart Procedures.” Direction 1, no. 3: 68-71

———. 2006. “Raymond A. Dart and F.M. Alexander.” AmSAT News 71 (Summer 2006): 16-18.

Nettl-Fiol, Rebecca and Luc Vanier. 2011. Dance and the Alexander Technique: Exploring the missing link. Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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Jan 062015
 

Everyday slouchToday, I heard someone comment sadly that she’s been “trying to fix” her posture for ten years now; her back hurts all the time, and yet she “can’t seem to remember” to sit/stand/whatever how she “should”. I realize now — after fifteen years of study, three intense years of training to teach, and the deepening yield of my ongoing work — that applying inhibition and direction, what in the Alexander Technique we call “working on oneself,” isn’t the kind of thing you “remember” to do. The true application of this work is really in itself the result of a decision — but for me, it wasn’t so much a decision I made: IT made ME. I wanted to say to this young person, there just comes a moment (sometimes it drags out, but in hindsight you can see the shift), there comes a moment when you’re just done, or ready, or whatever it is for you, for this work to be something that takes you on, that becomes you. Then it simply is who you are. It’s never necessary to “remember” who you are; the world is showing you, always, and now there’s an awareness of it, a sense of Self that stands outside the self you see. You know there’s a You that’s choosing what’s so right now, and you can choose again.

Once you’ve made this first choice, the choice to recognize that choice is possible, the more power Choice-Making has, the more it demands its own activation. I want to admit: I’ve often chosen to abdicate my power of choice. That might not be apparent from the outside, but to me it seems that only very recently am I daring to touch on the true power of choosing — choosing to stop; deeply and and truly STOP. I catch myself in the moment of compulsion, of habit, and though it seems like the worst idea ever, (sometimes) I simply stop, and wait, and watch. Let me be clear: stopping like this is unutterably terrifying. The sensaSpeeding traintion is one of turning to face a speeding train that’s hot on my heels: A grisly death seems unavoidable. Yet asserting my intention to stop (and continuing to assert it! Moment by moment!) seems to sweep me right on top of the train, and if I keep my focus on being with the train, rather than running from it, its momentum slows and the panic dissipates.

I never knew how much stillness was possible, how much freedom. I know I’ve only caught a glimpse of it. Stopping like this isn’t something I have to remember to do; I couldn’t now forget how, not for anything. That does not in any way make stopping less painstaking, Still pondonly inevitable. Although it takes all my courage to stop, the habit of complacency just seems less tenable. Now Awareness is chasing me down, to where I feel a sense of choicelessness, that I MUST choose. The choices are making me. I see myself on an unyielding trajectory of awareness that is eased and pleased by my active participation. I’m going there anyway, to the Deep Quiet Self, but oh how much fullness is allowed when I surrender to it now!!

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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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What shoes to wear for posture and health?

 Blog  Comments Off on What shoes to wear for posture and health?
May 262010
 

My Alexander Technique students sometimes ask me what kind of shoes I recommend. There certainly are a plethora of options available and no shortage of opinions on the best shoe for foot health and good posture, so I’m happy to throw in my two cents!

I don’t recommend MBTs or EarthShoes, for the same reason given by most Alexander Teachers: Don’t ask the technology/tool to do the work that we’re designed to do, namely to use our bodies with balance and poise. There’s no substitute for bringing conscious awareness to how you’re using yourself, while walking or doing anything else. Our work is about allowing graceful movement through a positive relationship with gravity, rather than relying on the mechanics of nylon/rubber to keep us strong and healthy.

I firmly believe that the best shoe is no shoe at all. Human feet are designed to give us all the support we need to navigate uneven terrain, balance us upright, and affirm our deep connection with the Earth. A 2007 article in the podiatry journal The Foot demonstrated that “prior to the invention of shoes, people had healthier feet.”http://www.livingbarefoot.info/  I encourage my students to spend as much time unshod as possible, gradually increasing their comfort and flexibility. A wonderful way to strengthen your feet–as well as slow down and tune in with the natural world–is to walk barefoot in the woods. This practice encourages you to step lightly and soften your feet to accommodate roots, rocks, branches, dirt. Notice how (barefoot) toddlers and cats place their feet gently as they step, and allow yourself to imitate their lightness in a practice of walking meditation(http://www.wildmind.org/walking/overview).

However, you might reasonably argue that modern living (i.e., cement, broken glass, gross stuff on the street) precludes walking around barefoot.Thankfully, progressive thinkers are creating shoes to protect us from the dangers of unnatural terrain while giving the foot as much flexibility as possible. Vibram and Terra Plana are two companies that have created shoes with a puncture-resistant sole, while maintaining as much flexibility as possible so that feet can move as they are designed. I have not had the opportunity to try FiveFingers shoes; apparently they’re so popular they’re out of stock in stores. I have heard positive reviews from those who wear them, with two drawbacks: 1) they can feel hot/cold on city streets, and 2) they look funny!

I HAVE had the opportunity to get my own pair of Vivo Barefoot shoes from Terra Plana, and I love them!!http://www.terraplana.com/vivobarefoot Vivos meet all my needs for foot protection while allowing as much freedom of movement as possible — and they have a great selection of styles. Supporters of Vivo Barefoot Technology include the inventor of ChiRunning, chiropractors, physical therapists, trainers, and of course, Alexander Technique teachers!http://www.terraplana.com/vivo_friends.php In fact, the Vivo shoe was first designed with the input of Richard Brennan, a certified AT teacher who runs a training program in Ireland and who, while visiting my training program in Berkeley, raved about his Vivos.

I hope you enjoy doing your own research and exploration on this topic, take more opportunities to take off your shoes, and let your toes do the walking!

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