The Argus Archive
These columns, written by Carolyn Nicholls, first appeared in the Brighton Evening Argus Women’s section ‘Body and Soul’ and are reproduced by permission.
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Jan 2008 – Frozen Shoulder
Frozen Shoulder is a very painful condition, affecting about 2% of the population, commonly in the 40-60 age group. Your shoulder becomes painful and stiffens up, and mobility is restricted. The pain can be so severe everyday tasks such as combing your hair, or getting dressed become very difficult. The cause of a frozen shoulder is not known, but it can last for up to two years. Although it is a very specific condition, it responds very well to the holistic approach of the Alexander Technique. When Peter rang me to say he’d been diagnosed with a frozen shoulder he was very fed up. His pain had come on gradually and he had ignored it until he couldn’t tie his tie in the morning. He tried heat treatment and was taking anti-inflammatory drugs, which he disliked as they upset his stomach.
Peter came for an introductory lesson. His first surprise came when I showed him how much compensation he was doing throughout his body because his shoulder hurt. He was twisting his neck to one side, pulling the painful shoulder round so his shoulder blade stuck out and curling the fingers of his hand so tightly it was difficult to straighten them. We started his lesson with him lying on my teaching table with extra support under his shoulder. He was surprised when I asked him to think about his back and neck rather than his shoulder, but gradually he began to release the additional tension that had built up in his muscles. Even his legs were tense. Every bit of unnecessary tension makes it more difficult for a particular ‘bit’ of us to fully release. So learning to release your legs and back really does make a difference to shoulder problems.
At the end of the first lesson Peter said he felt calmer and noticed his breathing was easier. His shoulder was still stiff and painful but he felt he had learned something about how his whole body played a part in his tension. Peter had 2 lessons a week for a 6 week period, saying that if he was going to do it he would do it properly. In that time his pain levels decreased enough for him to stop taking his pain killers, he learned to notice when tension was building up in him and how to release it, his mobility improved and he was delighted with how much easier his breathing was.
He continued to have weekly lessons for over a year. His shoulder healed completely and he found all his mobility much improved. He said he wished he’d discovered this self help technique years before as it offered him a positive way to manage his stress levels.
Feb 2008 – A pain in the neck
One thing I have noticed amongst my clients is an increase in the number of them complaining of neck pain. This includes young people in their 20’s and 30’s who are often doing a great deal of computer work either as students or in their job. So what is it about the neck and why does it so often give us pain? Your neck has seven vertebrae, so does a giraffe and so does a mouse. As a human being your neck and the whole of your spine is vertical, whereas if you were a mouse, your spine would be horizontal. This simple change of direction means your neck has different mechanical challenges to cope with compared to other mammals. Your neck is very slender and has to balance your heavy head on top. The only way you can support your head so you can see where you are going, is by using the muscles of your neck and back to hold it up. Everyone knows when you fall asleep on the train, your head falls forward-you literally ‘nod-off’ because you no longer generate the muscle tone needed to support you.
Our problems can start because of two factors. First of all we simply don’t employ the full range of movement available to us. If we sit at desks all day we spend most of the time with our head, neck and shoulders held in one position staring at the computer screen. Wearing glasses further rigidifies us, as our visual field is restricted. Our necks are very flexible and designed so we can look all around us all of the time, but we rarely do, except perhaps on a walk.
The second factor is we tend to use an excessive amount of tension in our necks and backs, far more than we really need. This tension is mostly unnoticed by us and is so much of a habit we accept it as normal, but it’s not and over time can lead to problems. Some of my clients who have neck pain know why it happened, usually an injury; but for many people neck pain seems to have no cause, either coming on gradually or stiffening up slowly until the point comes when it’s a serious problem. Restricted neck mobility means you can’t reverse your car easily, or look over your shoulder to see what is around you; it has a knock-on effect through your whole body leading to you tightening up more muscles and restricting your breathing.
As an Alexander teacher my approach to neck pain, after ensuring my client has sought appropriate medical opinion, is to help them learn to release excessive tension in a way that allows their whole body to lengthen. It’s a question of understanding how the head, neck and back all influence each other and how you can make the best use of your body to minimize pain and maximize flexibility. For my younger clients, simple changes in habits of tension, plus the awareness exercise of semi-supine can make a huge difference to them. For older clients it can take a little longer simply because they have more muscle habits to undo, but I have taught people in their 70’s and 80’s who have rediscovered a more natural use of their bodies and been all the better for it.
Mar 2008 – Body wisdom for choral singers
The highlight of my late summer is a weekend of singing with the English Consort Singers. Each year we tackle a choral work only possible with a big choir. This year we sang Handle’s “Israel in Egypt” and our conductor, Roy, asked if I would offer the choir some Alexander Technique tips.
Alexander teachers work on a one-to-one basis, using their hands to guide stiff muscles into a new co-ordination. With a choir of a hundred expectant faces looking at me this wasn’t possible. We began by thinking about standing. Performers are often packed into tight rows like so many sardines; using your body well in this situation is difficult, most people tense up, and pull themselves forwards, griping their legs and feet. This shortens them and makes singing difficult. So we imagined magnets above our heads and below our feet, gently unfolding us to our full height, and more magnets on our shoulders, encouraging space inside our chests.
Rehearsals are usually done sitting and this too makes problems for singers. We uncrossed our legs and let our feet rest flat on the floor. This gives a balanced sitting posture and makes it easier to hold music up so you can see the conductor. Simple tips, but they had a profound effect. One singer told me the idea of lengthening had eased her back pain. You don’t have to be a singer to benefit from simple changes in your posture-if you stand in your job, or at the bus stop-try it and see what happens. You have only your stiffness to lose.
Apr 2008 – Confidence
Posture and body language are the first thing people notice about us. Confident people use their bodies differently to those who are diffident. A lack of confidence makes us shrink physically into ourselves. Our shoulders narrow, our neck droops forward on our shoulders and our head is retracted down onto our neck. This gives a defeated look and people are less likely to listen to us if we project that bodily message. When my pupil Brian asked for lessons he hoped the Alexander Technique would help his confidence and went on to say he knew he had terrible posture and his girlfriend thought it made him look shy.
On meeting Brian, I could see what his girlfriend meant-he was tall and slender and very collapsed, his upper back was rounded and his lower back pulled in. It made him look a lot older than he was. He had a very slight scoliosis. He’d had an enormous growth spurt as a teenager and became very lanky, uncoordinated with back and leg pain. His mates nicknamed him spider because of his long arms and legs, which he hated. Now in his early 30’s he still had mild back pain, and that lanky look.
Teaching Brian to support his back and neck differently was a challenge. He was so used to the way he carried himself that all his efforts to move differently felt wrong and occasionally painful.
Brian persisted with lessons, was diligent with his semi-supine practice and came in for lesson 10 with a huge smile on his face saying his back felt completely different. He had both lengthened and widened and his shoulders had opened out. He looked much more relaxed and confident. He said he had some Alexander tools to help him in difficult situations, whenever he felt tense or nervous, instead of shrinking into himself-which was his old response, he released the tension in his neck muscles, reminded himself to ‘think up’, checked out what he was doing with his feet and made sure he wasn’t holding his breath.
Brian’s awareness of his body use continued to improve as he had more lessons. He took up the guitar again, something he’d enjoyed but stopped because it gave him back pain. He was more outgoing, confident and willing to try new things. He had started lessons because of back pain and lack of confidence, and now he applied his new knowledge to all sorts of aspects of his life, including a career change. He decided to give up being a banker and train to be an Alexander Teacher, as he commented-you never know what doors open when you start changing your body.
May 2008 – Anxiety
Today’s busy lifestyle can be stressful for some people and give rise to anxiety. Whilst everyone gets anxious from time to time, it can become a more permanent condition. When this happens, your nervous system is in a state of constant over stimulation and small things become big obstacles. Symptoms include restlessness, inability to concentrate, poor, shallow or irregular breathing and a general feeling of irritability. This is often accompanied by muscular stiffness such as clenching the muscles of the neck, jaw, face and abdomen. Most people are completely unaware of this tightening and only notice that they feel stiff or tired.
This was the case for my pupil Rebecca. She couldn’t pinpoint any reason for her anxiety but was aware that she got easily agitated, tendered to get panic attacks if she got upset and had back pain. She hadn’t associated the back pain with her anxiety, but when I pointed out to her that her anxiety was making her clench all her muscles to an extraordinary extend she saw the connection.
Rebecca quickly took to the semi-supine procedure, finding that lying on her back with her head supported by books and her knees bent allowed her to release the tension in her back and neck. During her first lesson, we concentrated on paying attention to her breathing and how neck tension is bound up with it. Like many people suffering from anxiety Rebecca held her breath out of habit, it felt normal to her, even though it was damaging to her health. Learning to allow her breathing to move freely in and out of her ribs was a big challenge, but enabled her to relax in a much deeper way that she could previously.
Over the course of several more lessons we looked at the way she reacted to things. Almost any stimulus caused her to react in the same way, she almost froze, her neck and back went rigid and she held her breath. Breaking this deeply ingrained habit took time but gradually she did and her anxiety reduced. Rebecca can now manage her condition, she recognizes when muscular tension is building up and immediately releases her neck and back and allows her ribs to move. She practices semi-supine regularly and find it both calming and energizing.
Anxiety is not simply a mental condition, it has a profound affect on the body and the Alexander Technique can help reduce anxiety by highlighting the relationship between mental states and muscle states.Jun 2008 –
Jun 2008 – Headaches
When Suzie rang to ask about Alexander lessons she said she suffered from tension headaches and eyestrain. She had been to an optician who reassured her there was nothing wrong with her eyes, “I always have pain behind my eye balls.” she said.
When I met Suzie for her first lesson, I noticed she frowned all the time and had an intense expression, as if she were concentrating hard on everything I said to her. The tension in her face and jaw was obvious, but she didn’t notice the accompanying tension in her neck, shoulders and back. At the end of the lesson, Suzie was delighted to discover the pain behind her eyes had faded and was keen to learn how to do this for herself. A specific pain, in one area of the body is usually accompanied by a tension pattern through the whole body. Suzie’s tension pattern was in her back, legs, her breathing and how she walked.
All of this was bound up with her use of her eyes. As she learned to release excessive tension in her neck and jaw, her face began to relax. At that point we were able to work more directly with her eyes. The first thing I encouraged her to consider was not straining her eyes forward, but to allow her eyeballs to ‘sit back’ in her eye sockets. Suzie didn’t think she was straining her eyes forward, until she stopped doing so, and was shocked when she realised the levels of tension she had become used to.
The next step was to encourage her eyes to widen away from each other. At first Suzie tried to do this physically and of course, you can’t. You can influence your muscles by thinking messages to them. This sounds strange, but it’s the way the body works naturally, your brain tells your muscles what to do. This thought had the effect of undoing deeply held tension around her eyes and nose, her frown disappeared and her whole face looked lighter and happier. Suzie practiced her eye directions at odd moments during the day and identified activities that caused her particular tension, such as being in meetings or working on her computer.
She was able to use her new knowledge to prevent the build up of tension. Suzie’s headaches began to subside and she felt an improvement in her general wellbeing. Colleagues began to comment that she looked calmer and she was less stressed at work and improved her performance. Suzie’s social life improved too as she no longer had to cancel social engagements because of headaches.
July 2008 – Do you have the tension habit?
Did you know you can practice tension? If you habitually clench all your muscles, after a while you don’t notice it-but you carry on practicing tension until you are really good at it-then trouble begins. David is a postman-he works in the sorting office moving parcels from place to place. Despite following the standard advise to bend hips and knees and keep his back straight whilst lifting, David suffered from both back and shoulder pain. At first, his pain stopped when he was not at work but things escalated until he was in pain most of the time, which interfered with his entire life. “I have to be careful even lifting the newspaper now.” he told me over the phone when asking about lessons.
In his first lesson I introduced David to the Alexander Technique practice of semi-supine. He lay on my teaching table in such a state of tension that his lower back was arched right up off the table. When I pointed this out to him, David immediately flattened his back down. This is a common response but it doesn’t help the situation. I explained to him our approach of undoing the tension that caused his back to arch in the first place. Using my hands I encouraged his back and neck musculature to undo long held tension patterns and start to lengthen out. This made David aware of how tense he actually was and his next response was to try to relax. He did this by making himself floppy and heavy. I explained that we didn’t view relaxation as our goal, instead we looked at changing how we used our bodies so we didn’t need so much effort and tension, going floppy didn’t change the way he was coordinating his back so it didn’t get to the real problem. After his first lesson, David felt lighter, taller and in less pain. He was intrigued and signed up to a full course of lessons.
Changing such deeply ingrained habits as David’s is not a quick fix. By the time someone gets to the point of debilitating pain they have be carrying themselves around badly for a long time. If you have the tension habit, you constantly practice it! Every time you practice it, it feels more natural and undoing it takes time and can be a strange experience. For David, using less effort initially made him feel he wouldn’t be able to hold himself up, but after a while he experienced the freedom that good body organization brings. He realized that it wasn’t so much what he did, or what position he got into, it was more about how he set about things. Previously he used to make enormous effort to stand up straight, now he recognized that effort as misplaced and released instead of stiffening.
Aug 2008 – Taking Time
One of the first things an Alexander teacher will teach you is how to stop. For many people this seems very puzzling and irrelevant to their problem. If you have back pain- you want to stop the pain but you have no idea how-so what do we mean?
It comes down to unpicking the tangle of our reactions to our situation. If you are in pain, you hold your body in a way that minimizes the problem. You won’t be aware of doing it-but you compensate for back pain by stiffening up muscles around your back and neck. You will do other things too, such as holding your shoulders rigid, restricting your ribs as you breathe and locking your jaw. All these tensions over stimulate your nervous system. Even if you move slowly or carefully to avoid pain, your whole system is on the body equivalent of ‘red alert’ and ready to jump in with even more tension at the slightest movement. This is what we want to stop. What happens is the tension quickly becomes a habit and part of your reaction to almost anything from answering your phone to the act of walking, everything is attempted with excessive and unfelt effort.
Learning to stop this involves learning to take time. For many of us this is an enormous challenge. We live in a ‘fix-it’ world that leads us to believe that solutions should be quick, if not instant. Our bodies are simply not like that. Whatever caused your back pain, whether it was a recognized injury, or something that came on gradually, or something that happened quickly, your response will have included a clenching right through the core of your being. Learning to ‘undo’ this is what takes time.
You could easily think this is just relaxation but it’s more than that. Alexander lessons will teach you to undo in a precise way so your whole body lengthens and opens out. It isn’t about lowering levels of tension, it’s about finding the appropriate level of tone required for your activity. If you are walking around, you need a lot less effort than you think. If you are engaged in a tug of war then you will make a great deal of effort. Our problem is that we bring the same effort to things like cleaning our teeth.
So give yourself time to stop and think about what you are doing and how you move. Do you really need to lock your jaw muscles when you walk up the stairs? Have your shoulders migrated up round your ears as you sit at your desk? What would life be like without those tensions? Well, you’d be calmer, a little taller because tension makes you shrink, and most important you will have learned the value of taking your time.
Sep 2008 – The best thing…
The best thing about the Alexander Technique is that it is a sophisticated self-help technique. You don’t go to a therapist for a treatment, you go to a teacher to learn something. This mind shift from ‘patient’ to ‘learner’ is a valuable and empowering one.
First of all an Alexander teacher doesn’t diagnosis, either conventionally or alternatively, and this in itself is liberating. If you have back pain, or other muscular problems, you have probably sought different kinds of help. Most approaches start by trying to find out what is wrong with you and then setting out to put it right. This approach inevitably hands responsibility to the therapist and takes it away from you. It also views you in ‘bits’, some of which have gone wrong and need fixing. When you have Alexander lessons, your relationship is a different one. You are learning skills to help yourself and the teacher is offering you a set of tools to do just that. It’s a dialogue between you rather than a one-way street.
You learn skills of balance and awareness that make it clear to you that you have a profound impact on the way you move around. At first this seems almost trivial, but it isn’t. Balancing over the tiny platform of your two feet is a skill only available to human beings and how you set about it has all kinds of consequences. If you have back pain, it is likely that you unconsciously use muscle tension to guard your back. This tension will be far more than you actually need to hold yourself up and has the effect of compressing you, particularly in the back.
This then is what you teach your body to do with every step you take. That excessive tension not only puts unwanted pressure on your poor back, it increases the mechanical load on your joints, compresses your internal organs, and generally makes you uncomfortable. What you are doing is maintaining your balance by excessive tension and effort instead of allowing your natural balance mechanisms to work for you.
The lesson process deals with this difficulty by increasing your awareness of what you are actually doing to yourself as opposed to what you think you are doing. It’s a journey of discovery made with the help of your teacher. The nice thing about it is you learn at your own pace. There are no expectations of you, or goals to meet, no tests to undertake, no manipulation of your body. Instead you explore movement, breathing and co ordination from a holistic viewpoint that acknowledges mind and body as partners in the dance of life.
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Jan 07 – Doing your homework
Working styles have changed dramatically and now it is common to work either totally or part time from home. This brings its own tensions and problems as well as freedoms. Most people who work from home put in more hours than they would do at an office and work very intensively, often finding the day has flown past and they are still in their pajamas because they sat down ‘just to check a few emails’ when they got up and it all went pear shaped from there!
My pupil Katie does exactly that and is now finding she is very stressed and developing a variety of computer related problems. She has neck pain and mild RSI in her wrists from constant typing, she has noticed her breathing is very poor and she feels very stiff and tired after sitting at her desk.
As there is no one to distract her by suggesting a coffee break or a lunch outing, Katie tends to ignore her own symptoms and simply carry in working. A lack of social contact means she can’t chat about what seem trivial problems to work mates because all her work contacts are very intense and deadline driven.
Stress made Katie seek out Alexander lessons and untangling her mass of problems was intriguing. When Katie talked about what her day was like she hunched her shoulders right up round her ears, stuck her hands in her packets and flapped her elbows about. One foot was tapping and she was jigging about. She simply couldn’t keep still. When I pointed that out she asked me what it had to do with her tension. I put Katie on my teaching table, lying on her back with her knees bent, and got her to stop wiggling. Gradually she realized her stress and tension was at a very high level and she did everything in such a hurry that her whole body was on constant red alert. Learning to break this vicious cycle by releasing neck muscles was the start of Katie understanding the effect stress had on her body and spirit. She learned to take more time to do things and to notice when tension was building up in her. Regular practice of semi-supine throughout her working day enabled her to keep releasing muscles that would other wise got tighter and tighter.
Over a course of lessons Katie noticed big changes in the way she sat at her computer and the way she walked. She felt as if her life was less rushed and her anxiety levels dropped too. She told me that the most important thing she learned was to take time.
Feb 07 – Elastic Riding
James is a keen rider. He competes in cross country and dressage competitions, trains horses and is totally immersed in the horse world. Suddenly at the age of 35, James started to get back pain when riding and afterwards when doing stable work. This was a real shock to him as he hadn’t injured himself in any way and was totally accustomed to the hard physical labour that goes with riding and caring for horses. James came for lessons because of his back pain, but continued long after the pain abated because the Alexander Technique made so much sense to him. Lessons clearly demonstrated to him how tense he was, and how he had mistaken tension for strength. Re-learning how to use his muscles differently was a revelation in economy of effort. In retrospect James wondered why his back had not hurt before, but I explained that was one of the great unknowns! Some people can seem to get away with mistreating their bodies and some cant. Sometimes something we have been able to do for years starts to cause problems and there seems to be no reason for it. All we can do is look carefully at how we are using our bodies and make the necessary changes. Apart from the relief of his pain, James got excited about how much the Alexander Technique was improving his riding, particularly his dressage skills. He realised riding is about the meeting of two minds, the riders and the horse; and of two muscular suits cladding two quite different skeletal structures.
James spent a lot of time schooling his horse, attending to its balance and co-ordination whilst ignoring his own. His co-ordination and postural support were not as good as his horses!
Improving the way he used his whole body influenced the way his horse uses its whole body. Lesson helped James realize what he did on his horse was totally dominated by what he did off it. The way he supported himself to walk, talk, eat, dance or slob on the sofa all has one force to content with, and that is gravity. If his response to gravity is effortful and tense, then that is how he rides.
We are all slaves to our habits, and find it very hard to change things. Habits of postural misuse are embedded so strongly in our nervous systems that we don’t realise we’ve got them. It took time for James to make changes but he considers it time well spent. His back is painfree, his riding better than ever and he says his horses are happier too.
March 07 – Hiatus hernia
My pupil Ester wanted lessons to help cope with her hiatus hernia. Ester is in her early 60’s and has been suffering from this condition for some time. Although surgery is an option, and indeed may be the best thing for her, Ester is keen to do all she can to help herself. Her posture and the way she uses her body are very important factors for her self management.
A hiatus hernia is when the upper part of your stomach pushes upwards into the opening in your diaphragm through which your gullet passes. Your gullet carries food into your stomach. When the top of your stomach pokes through the hiatus, it prevents the muscle fibres of the diaphragm from closing the lower end of your gullet and the result is stomach acid is able to move up into your gullet causing extreme heartburn and pain.
Ester can no longer sleep flat, she sleeps semi-inclined so that acid will drain down with gravity. This is not a comfortable way to sleep and Ester developed neck and back ache as a result.
Putting my hands on Ester I began to help her work out the compensation tension patterns she had developed. Whenever our health and wellbeing is challenged in some way, we work out ways of coping. Mostly this involves a muscular response to the situation and often it is not the best response. Often we are unaware of how we have responded and excessive tension can seem normal to us. We all need muscle tone to support us in our daily activities, but it needs to be evenly balanced throughout our bodies. When muscle tone increases into muscle tension we get problems. Excessive tension distorts our bodies and creates pressure in joints and organs, interfering with our natural functions of breathing and digestion.
In Esters case she was unconsciously pressing her chest wall down by depressing her sternum, particularly when she swallowed, which was an uncomfortable activity. She was tightening her hips and leg muscles which was contributing to the general downwards drag through her body. At first Ester couldn’t understand why leg tension might affect her hiatus hernia, but I explained our bodies work in harmony throughout our muscles and tension in the legs affects other parts of us. Over a period of 30 lessons Ester learned to support herself differently, she no longer pressed herself down, instead she allowed her body to freely move.
Ester’s symptoms became more manageable and although she will have surgery for her condition she felt much more positive in her ability to help herself. That is what the Alexander Technique is all about, learning to help yourself.
April 07 – Whiplash
Anyone who has suffered even a minor whiplash will know that it can give you a very stiff neck and back and headaches. Usually symptoms clear up in a week or so. When Charlotte, a long standing pupil, rang up to say she’d had a slight shunt in her car and thought she might have a bit of whiplash I advised her to check it out with her doctor and then come for a lesson. Charlotte’s doctor examined her and gave her painkillers and she came for a lesson the following week.
Although she had no pain, Charlotte was aware that she was holding herself differently. The accident had made her nervous and she was still bracing her body as a result. As part of the bracing pattern she had tightened her legs and lower back and was experiencing low back pain of the kind that brought her for Alexander lessons two years ago. In her lesson we worked with encouraging a general release of tension throughout the length of her body.
This helped her to recognize excessive tension in her shoulders and to let it go. Releasing her shoulders allowed her to breathe more freely and she commented that she hadn’t realized that she was holding her breath quite so much until she had let her tension go. “I feel as if I’m breathing properly for the first time since the accident.” she said. During the next few lessons we worked with making sure Charlotte unraveled any compensatory tension she had created. When someone suffers whiplash, they think they have recovered only to run into problems weeks or months later. This can be due to the development of tension in other parts of the body to support the original injury.
These tensions can stay fixed in muscles long after the injury and become a bit of a habit. Stiffness in the neck and back can make it difficult to turn the head in a particular way and so you might unwittingly avoid doing so. This in turn builds a layer of tension in the shoulders so that you hunch very slightly when turning. This can spread on to the upper back and on throughout the body so that little by little things stiffen up and suddenly there seems to be a problem. In fact the compensation has become the problem and has to be undone. For Charlotte this did not happen. She was diligent in practicing her semi-supine procedure and making sure she didn’t stiffen her neck muscles and scrunch her body downwards. She said she felt the Alexander technique had taught her skills to manage this and other problems she encountered.
May 07 – It’s ME/CFS awareness week
May 6th-12th is ME/CFS awareness week and as I have given Alexander lessons to people coping with this chronic illness I thought it would be useful to talk about how the Alexander Technique can help people manage conditions of low energy, muscle and joint pain and extreme fatigue.
ME affects people of all ages, socio economic classes and gender. It is classified by the world health organization as a neurological disease and ranges in severity from mild, to severe where the condition keeps a person housebound or even bed bound, constantly feeling extremely ill and exhausted. It is a disease that disrupts education for young people and causes others to loose jobs, homes and become isolated and broke!
There is no cure for ME but there is a lot of benefit to be gained in managing the condition and that is where the Alexander Technique can help. My pupil Eleanor got ME in her early 30’s following a viral infection. Basically she got flu and just didn’t seem to recover. She was unable to work and was housebound for 5 years, relying on her husband to do everything for her. Eleanor found she inevitably became very unfit, which didn’t help, but couldn’t exercise as she was too tired and any exercise inflamed her muscles for days afterwards. She had heard about The Alexander Technique and decided to give it a try. By this time Eleanor was well enough to get into a taxi and could walk a little if she took it slowly.
Our lessons first addressed the strange notion that Eleanor, like so many other people, with or without ME, was creating a lot of tension in her body by holding her muscles stiffly. She was not at all aware of this and literally cried with relief when she experienced a release in her shoulders as she lay on the teaching table in semi-supine. She was thrilled that finally here was something that gave her autonomy. She could learn to think about her body and herself in a different way. She could learn how to release and direct her body to lengthen and widen. Most importantly it didn’t require any physical effort and could be practiced in small doses so mental fatigue was not a problem.
We adjusted the lessons to suit her situation, making them shorter and more spaced out that usual. This helped stabilse her available energy and gently build better muscle co-ordination and confidence. She was particularly interested in non end-gaining, a concept that recognizes that if you go directly for your goal, whatever it is, without careful consideration of how you might achieve it, you are liable to run into problems. In Eleanor’s case this meant she began to recognize how much automatic tension she brought to simple activities such as raising her own arm to pick up a cup of tea. The Alexander Technique was one of a number of ways Eleanor used to improve her health and mange her condition. After 6 months of lessons she is more stable, able to walk more without fatigue and simply feeling a lot better.
There are no quick fixes for ME, but thoughtful management can go a long way to make things better.
June 07 – In the garden
Despite the recent rain, longer lighter days have tempted many of my clients out into their gardens and a flurry of activity results. This flurry brings with it complaints of sore backs, sore shoulders and sore knees from all that pruning, lifting and kneeling to weed.
Apart from the obvious precaution of not going form being a couch potato to suddenly doing a full days heavy digging, what can the Alexander Technique offer a dedicated gardener?
Sue is a dedicated gardener; she likes to undertake big projects, which often involve heaving stones and paving slabs around to be placed to her design. She is petite and although wiry, not able to manhandle materials about like an experienced builder. Instead she works out different ways of doing things. Sue recognized that she simply couldn’t lift heavy paving stones and so didn’t hurt herself trying.
She approached her problem indirectly, not trying to get the result done at all costs, but thinking through the best approach. In her Alexander lessons she had noticed her strong tendency to want to rush things, even standing up was done in a rush, and it resulted in Sue stiffening all over her body, so that although she stood up quickly, she locked her body as she did so and gave herself back pain. Lessons taught her not to think about the end of her project, even if the project was simply standing up out of a chair, but to consider instead what tension pitfalls she wanted to avoid on the way.
When it came to standing up, she clearly wanted to avoid creating tension in her neck and back that pulled her down again. When it came to paving stones, Sue learned to ‘walk’ them on their edge, keeping them in balance, and not to rush over the job, but to take her time and keep her own tension levels low. To her surprise she moved the slabs without exhausting herself and got them where she wanted.
Another task she enjoyed was kneeling to weed, but, even with a kneeling pad she found it hard on her knees. She realized that she used a lot of unnecessary force when weeding and this created compression in her back and a lot of pressure on her knees. Letting herself lengthen and allowing her ribs to move freely so she could breath easily, took the pressure off both her back and her knees. The Alexander technique is a tool, or more acutely, a series of tools, that you can use to monitor and release your own tension and create a greater degree of flexibility and balance in your body. If you are a gardener it will help you manage your weeding and digging.
July 07 – Rigid Posture
My new pupil George is an academic, and, like a lot of brainy people, treats his body as a way of carrying his brain around. He has no interest in exercise, often forgets to eat because he’s so involved with research and is a typical absent minded professor who looks as if he’s just about managed to change out of his pyjamas.
Unhappily for George, there comes a time when the body, uncomplaining for years, decides enough is enough and suddenly George is paying for years of misuse and neglect. Sitting like a sack of potatoes in front of a computer screen for years on end is not conducive to good breathing and Georges ribcage long gave up the unequal struggle to move so his breathing is very shallow and mostly takes place in his abdomen. His shoulders have permanently migrated up to his ears and his neck all but disappeared. His shoulders are also very stiff and he has problems getting his jacket on and off. Basically all his joints have stiffened up and he is aware of moving with increasing difficulty, beginning to struggle getting in and out of a chair and having problems turning his head when driving.
During his first few lessons we talked a lot about balance and I asked George to consider how he balanced himself when sitting at his desk. He had no idea! He just sat there, hunched up tapping away. Learning where his sitting bones where (in the middle of your buttocks) and how to sit on them, not behind them so you slouch, or in front of them so you over arch your back, was one step towards a more lengthened balance of Georges entire body. He enjoyed practicing semi-supine and found it gave him a sense of how his back worked, where his shoulders were and how to release excessive tension around his shoulder girdle and chest.
Over a course of some 30 lessons, Georges shape changed completely, he no longer shambled as he walked but had a more springy upright back, which he said was effortless. He realized he was exerting a lot of energy in his previous slumping and now he had changed habit he felt lighter and freer. He could get his jacket on easily, had to adjust the driving mirror of his car to accommodate his new lengthened back and generally felt much more energetic.
Although the Alexander Technique is a gentle process, it can help to rehabilitate lazy postural muscles to support us better. This can have a hugely beneficial effect on breathing, digestion and circulation. After all, if you squash a hot water bottle, it will change shape and distort. If you squash yourself, you can expect similar trouble!
August 07 – Alexander Tips for Travelers
Many of my clients who suffer from back pain are apprehensive about traveling, particularly flying. Most forms of travel involve sitting for extended periods of time and this can give rise to additional stiffness, and cramp and aggravate back pain. There are skills you can use from the Alexander Technique to help in these situations.
First of all you have to be realistic, if you have severe back problems a long haul flight is best avoided unless you have no choice, but preparing physically for a shorter journey can decrease the problems. Making sure that you start your journey in a good state. Doing some semi-supine before you leave the house helps you be more aware of when you are starting to slump and cause compression in your back and joints. Breathing is another consideration. Travel is stressful even if you enjoy it and when you are stressed, you will tend to hold your breath and breath very shallowly. This will make it more likely that you will compress your ribcage and so put pressure on your digestive organs. Combine this internal pressure with plane food and you can end up with indigestion as well as back pain.
When my client Rebecca decided she would take a holiday in Spain her biggest concern was her delicate back so between us we devised a list of tips to help her cope.
- Take advantage of any opportunity to lie down in semi-supine, so wear loose clothing, and choose a good book you can read on the plane or put under your head when you lie down. People do all sorts of things in airports so no one will notice.
- Do get up from your seat at any and every opportunity, which will annoy the air stewards, but they don’t have your back pain!
- Give your self an Alexander workout for five minutes every hour. This means attending to your back and asking it to lengthen, ask your neck to release any residual tension and let your head go up to the roof of the plane. Check your breathing and enjoy moving your ribs.
- Don’t sit still; wriggling will help keep you from getting cramp. Wriggle ankles, knees and your pelvis.
- Drink water. Dehydration affects your back as well as making you feel sluggish. Your discs need fluid to maintain their cushioning abilities, if your body lacks water the discs will tend to compress and add to back ache.
Rebecca followed the list to the letter, and was free from pain and actually enjoyed the flight. She used the skills she learned in her lessons to keep herself from collapsing unintentionally. The experience gave her confidence and she is planning a trip to New York, knowing she can manage her back.
September 07- Easy Driving
Many of my pupils find driving frustrating. The constant traffic, the road works, the unfair speed cameras; all contribute to a stressful experience. My pupil Sally summed it up “I find myself gripping the steering wheel so tightly my fingers go white. And since having my lessons I notice that I arch my back away from the seat, I’m so tense.” I got Sally to mimic holding the steering wheel whilst she was having her lesson and she bought her hands up and immediately stiffened her neck so much I was surprised it didn’t cause her immediate pain, but she hadn’t noticed. Along with the stiff neck Sally clenched her jaw and held her breath. When I gently pointed these things out to her she was shocked “And I’m only pretending, it will be much worse when I’m really driving won’t it? she cried.
Fortunately for Sally there are ways you can help yourself. The first is to acknowledge that you are one of those people who find driving stressful, the second is to accept that you can’t change the traffic, the road works or the speed camera, but you can change the tension levels that build up in you. It doesn’t matter what has caused you to get tense, it will always affect you in your neck and reveal itself in your breathing. These two elements together will make you stiffen your back as well, which is why some people get back pain from driving.
Releasing tension in your neck muscles is a matter of practice, and you won’t be able to do it whilst driving if you don’t practice outside the car! Sally realized that she already had skills she could use. She practiced semi-supine on a daily basis and could encourage her back to lengthen and her neck to release when she was lying on her back in this position with her head supported by books and her knees bent. She then transferred her skill of release to her driving and was very pleased with the result.
She felt much less tense, less anxious and more confident. She told me that she had been changing her route home from work to avoid a difficult right turn. She had been nervous and often got beeped by impatient drivers behind her, which made her even more tense. Now she was able to patiently wait until the traffic permitted her to turn right without getting anxious, and when other drivers honked their horn she simply ignored it and didn’t let it make her rush out into the fast moving traffic.
After each lesson Sally had to adjust her driving mirror because she had lengthened so much, then gradually over the next week she pulled down again. When she realized this, she recognized the amount of tension she bought to driving and was able to stop it.
Nov 07 – Skiing
This time of year, several of my pupils are looking forward to winter skiing. Balance is important at any time but when you are sliding over snow it is even more important to have the right balance in your body.
Excessive tension interferes with balance and if you are afraid you will fall over you are likely to tense up even more. Understanding the pattern of tension that is likely to occur gives you the chance to change it. Neck tension is the most common interference with easy balance. If your neck is tense and tight then the muscles of your back and legs are affected in a domino effect. This usually makes your back muscles short and tight and your legs stiff. In this way your whole body has lost the sense of fluidity you need to glide over the snow. Asking your neck muscles to unlock so that your head is not dragged into your shoulders can reverse the tension cycle and let your whole back become more flexible. In Alexander lessons we work a lot with the movement you make when you stand up from sitting in a chair. This may not seem to have much to do with skiing, but the transition form sitting to standing, and visa versa, requires you to bend your hips, your knees and your ankles. If you can’t do this freely and easily when you get in and out of a chair, then you won’t be comfortable in the flexed position needed to ski.
Learning not to tense your hip joints or your ankles when you move and walk will pay dividends on the ski slopes where balance depends on your ability to flex easily and feel what is going on under your feet. Tense feet are less sensitive to the terrain underneath them and you need to be able to ‘read’ the snow and the ground under your feet. For many people the fear of falling makes them tense up in their feet as well as in their neck. Tense muscles don’t respond to movement as easily as released muscles. Learning to release your ankles and allow your heels to rest properly on your skis and your toes to lengthen away from your heels gives your feet and legs the chance to support you properly. At the other end of your body you want to keep your neck free from tension and aim (don’t push) your head up towards the sky. In this way you set up a gentle elastic stretch through your body-with your head going up and your feet going down. All you need now is good snow and you’re off!
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Nov 2006 – Shut your mouth!
Have you ever looked at your nostrils? Are they like little slits at the end of your nose, or are they wide and easily moving when you breathe? Do you breathe in and out through your nose or your mouth?
Standing Claire in front of my teaching mirror and asking these questions puzzled her a lot. She came for lessons because she’d heard it could help her asthma and she knew that her breathing was, as she put it, a bit poor. But she had no idea how important good breathing habits are and the effect poor breathing has on circulation and general well being.
Claire’s nostrils were indeed like little slits, which told me that she was largely a mouth breather. I pointed out to her habitual mouth breathing makes your respiratory system lazy. It’s much easier to take a breath in through your mouth than through your nose. Your ribs don’t have to bother to move very much if you always breathe through your mouth. Your nose is lined with fine hairs to trap dirt and act as a filter, your mouth isn’t! Your nose has a very good blood supply close to the surface, which makes the nasal lining warm so air is warmed to body temperature by the time it hits your lungs. Your mouth doesn’t do that so in wintry weather very cold air hits your lungs and they don’t like it. If your nose isn’t used, it gets clogged up so stuffy sinus’s are likely. This was Claire’s situation. In our sessions I used my hands round her ribs and neck to help her appreciate the connection between her stiff tight neck and her fixed ribs which was the result of years of poor breathing habits. As she began to let go of some of the tension in her neck, and keep her mouth closed as she breathed, her ribs started to creak back into life.
At first Claire felt a little panicky, feeling that she might not get enough air in through her nose, but we worked a lot with her lying in semi-supine and she soon found the panic diminish as her ribs moved and plenty of air came into her body.
She learned to leave her shoulders alone too, which had migrated right up round her ears due to her habit of sucking in air through her mouth.
After three months of lessons Claire met up with an old friend who said that Claire’s’ neck had got longer and she looked taller. Claire told the friend she was having Alexander lessons and was learning to keep her mouth shut. “About time too” commented the friend!
Oct 2006 – Post surgical pain
October is breast cancer awareness month, a topic close to my heart (literally) as I had breast cancer seven years ago and had a total mastectomy and reconstruction surgery. I am free from cancer but had considerable pain from the surgery. Naturally, surviving this ordeal gave me an interest in helping other women with post surgical pain.
When Irene came for lessons, she was two years past ‘that day’ as she called it, the day she had surgery. Everything had gone well for her, except that she still had considerable pain in her left side and her chest. “I feel as if I have a rolled up newspaper under my left arm.” She told me, and explained her armpit was rather numb, which was a strange sensation. She further explained the pain in her left side, where she had had the reconstruction surgery, and said her lowest ribs hurt on that side too, which, as they were quite a long way from the site of the surgery, surprised her.
When she breathed in she could feel the tightness of her muscles on her left side and it started a pain that over the months had spread up into her shoulder and neck, radiating round to her shoulder blade and upper back. It interfered with her work, which was at a computer desk, and it prevented her from enjoying her favourite hobby of swimming. She anticipated swimming would help her relax, but it had the opposite effect.
When I put my hands on Irene during her first lesson, I could tell that she was tightening the muscles on her left side in response to her pain, and the surgical scarring. This tightening had the effect of shortening her on her left side so that she was squashed down. This caused more compensation through her body and she was quite twisted.
During our lessons we worked with the idea of lengthening the whole body from head to foot whilst doing nothing else. Irene found this idea strange and wanted to tackle her left side directly. I explained to her this would be unhelpful and liable to make things worse rather than better. There had been so much compensatory tension through her whole body, it was her whole body she needed to consider.
Irene found lessons helped her feel lighter and gave some relief form pain. Over a period of three months, regular lessons taught her to unravel the twists and knots she got into. She found increased mobility and showed me how she could now twist round to look behind her, something she had missed when trying to reverse her car. Pain levels decreased considerably, her breathing improved and she felt that finally she was herself again.
- For more information on breast cancer go to www.breastcancer.org
- The whole body use can help relieve post surgical pain
- Learning good use can help you manage low energy following surgery
Sep 2006 – Hypermobile joints
Some people seek out Alexander lessons because they are stiff, particularly in their joints. For my pupil Colin, it is the opposite problem. Colin is hyper mobile and some joints cause him pain. Many people have a degree of hypermobility with no problems, but for some it can cause severe pain and affect mobility on the greater sense, knee and ankle pain interfering with walking. So what is it and how do you know if you’ve got it? If, like Colin you can bend your elbow backwards, place your thumb down on your forearm and bend your fingers back at a right angle then you are probably hypermobile. This can have advantages in dancing for example, but beyond a point it can be a problem. For Colin his knees hyperextend and give him pain.
People with hypemobile joints can have a poor sense of where their joints are, so that they don’t realise that they may be standing with their knees pushed backwards creating tremendous pressure on the joints. It is this lack of awareness that bought Colin for lessons. He is in his 30’s and always kept fit, particularly swimming, but his knee pain increased. A friend told him that when he stood on the edge of the swimming pool he looked as if he’d got his knees on back to front! Colin had no idea he was doing this but became aware that he did it whenever he was standing, even when washing up, and that when walking he pushed his knees back.
During his lesson Colin learnt the role of his neck and back in his whole body orientation, although he was very concerned with his knees, he was also misusing his neck badly so it was always tense, locking his head rigidly down onto his shoulders and adding to the downward pressure in his body. His knees were definitely victims of his misuse. The practice of semi supine gave him greater awareness of his muscles and joints and changed his thinking about walking and movement. Over a period of 3 months, Colin has improved his walking enormously and no longer suffers knee pain except when very tired. He takes much greater care with his swimming too, making sure he doesn’t stand in a braced fashion. He hopes to avoid some of the long term problems that hypermobility can bring by using his body well.
- For more information on hypermobility syndrome go to www.hypermobility.org
- The whole body use can contribute to a single joint pain.
- Learning good use can help you manage difficulties.
Aug 2006 – Unaccustomed as I am
When Ellen phoned me for lessons she told me she’d just been promoted at work. This meant she had to give presentations to senior managers about product lines she was recommending to the chain of stores she worked for. “I get so nervous when speaking,” she told me. “My voice goes up high and sounds strangled. I find I’m gasping for breath and I sometimes feel faint. My nerves are really getting on top of me.”
During her first lesson I noticed that Ellen’s normal breathing pattern was very poor. She took small shallow breaths and then big catch up breaths. She also yawned a lot, for which she apologized saying she wasn’t really tired. She didn’t know it was her body’s way of getting oxygen. So we started slowly, with Ellen lying in semi-supine and beginning to pay attention to her neck and back. She soon realized her back muscles were rigid and her neck very stiff. I pointed out to her the link between stiff muscles, poor breathing and her voice and nerves problems but at first she couldn’t see the connection. She left her first lesson rather frustrated as she’d hoped to cure her voice problem in one go. She came for more lessons and gradually noticed that her tension levels were falling and this made her breathing calmer, more regular and in turn she was able to calm her nerves and speak more freely.
Ellen had a big presentation coming up and we prepared for it during her lessons. First she learnt to stand without bracing her entire body, paying a lot of attention to her neck muscles as she did this. Then I got her to start her presentation and at the end of each sentence I asked her to close her mouth and stop speaking, to allow the air to come back in through her nostrils rather than her mouth and to give herself the direction to release her neck muscles again before she began the next sentence. Ellen found this very difficult. She felt she would loose peoples’ attention if she closed her mouth and stopped speaking. It seemed to her that the silence between sentences was very long. I assured her that it wasn’t and people needed a bit of time to hear what you were saying. Ellen agreed to try it out.
The next lesson Ellen came in beaming; she had been congratulated on her presentation and told she came across as clear and confident. She continues to have lessons and to learn more about the connection between muscles, breathing and speaking.
- Breathing is always related to postural habits.
- Pay attention to your back and neck muscles before you attempt anything else.
July 2006 – In the Swim
Now that summer is here and the sea has warmed up enough to tempt people in, the topic of using your body well in swimming is a pertinent one. When you watch good swimmers there is a sense of ease and effortlessness about their movements, the water is not too disturbed by their passage through it and they don’t seem to run out of air. Lesser mortals, for whom swimming is more difficult, seem to trash their way around making waves and not getting very far.
You can apply the principles of the Alexander Technique to your swimming just as effectively as you can to your back pain. In fact if you are one of many people who want to swim to help mobilise a stiff back then read on.
The first thing to think about is not particular strokes, but you and the water. Can you let the water support you? Try a long gentle glide away from the edge of the pool, or in the sea if you are a sea swimmer, As you glide keep your arms gently stretched out in front of you as if you were pointing at something far away and ask your whole body to lengthen right from the tips of your fingers to the tips of your toes. Let your neck muscles be released from tension and allow your face to lie in the water throughout the glide. Breathe out slowly and gently through your mouth.
Play with gliding on your front first and then turn over and play with gliding on your back. This tends to be more challenging because you can’t take a quick look at where you are going, but has the advantage of letting you rest your head on the water more easily. Imagine that there is a cushion behind your head as you glide and rest on it.
Choose your favourite stroke to start with and begin with a long slow glide, then as you start to swim allow the water to support you more. If you are swimming crawl let your head lie on the water as you bring your arms over, don’t stiffen up and drag your head back because you’ll more likely to start taking water into you! If breaststroke is your choice then make sure you allow your face to go into the water with a free neck and don’t hold it up to keep your hair dry. Most people swim better with proper goggles and hair tied well out of the way. One final tip-don’t breath in under water!
- Lengthening muscles will allow you to use the water efficiently
- When gliding, make sure you don’t push your arms and legs away from you in an attempt to stretch-it will have the opposite effect and make you tense
- Concentrate on style rather than counting laps-you’ll enjoy it more.
June 2006 – Active Rest
Whatever reason people have for seeking out Alexander lessons, be it back pain management, stress reduction or to enhance their musical performance, there is one procedure that I will teach to everybody.
It’s a way of lying down called semi-supine and it’s an active resting state that has many benefits. I take people through it in a lesson whilst I use my hands gently on their muscles, and I encourage them to practice at home on their own so they can become more familiar with their funnily little habits of tension.
Its not difficult to do and safe for almost everyone. You might not choose to do it if you have osteoporosis or some condition that makes your bones fragile. If you want to try it, this is what you do.
Chose a good spot to lie down in, a carpeted wooden floor out of draughts is best. Pick a time when you wont be disturbed for at least 10 minutes. Put the cat out, unplug the phone and begin some ‘just for me’ time.
Lie down on your back, don’t worry too much how you get down, just do it calmly and slowly. Have your knees bent so that the soles of your feet are flat on the floor and your feet about 18 inches from your buttocks. Don’t forget to breathe!
Rest the back of your head on a small pile of paperback books. They want to be about the same height as your index finger is long. This is a rough guide-if you are round-shouldered you’ll need more. Just make sure the books don’t dig into your neck. Keep your mouth lightly closed and your eyes open. Allow your hands to rest on your midriff without interlocking your fingers.
Now take a little time to quieten down and then simply ask all the muscles of your back to lengthen from your tailbone to the top of your skull. Make sure you don’t clench your neck muscles or your jaw whilst asking for this. Don’t try and do it-just ask. Your brain will send messages to your muscles if you allow it to work naturally and not try and force things.
Stay there for about 10 minutes and then gently get up.
Lying there will allow the discs in between your vertebrae to plump up a little by absorbing fluid from surrounding body tissues. This happens because you are in a different relationship with gravity when you lie down. Lengthening muscles can gently release long held tensions and start to reorganise how your back is coordinated and supported. Breathing can quieten and deepen. You don’t deliberately want to relax, but you will find yourself feeling calmer, taller and better balanced.
Keep practicing daily and, over a period of time, you will reap benefits.
- Keep your eyes open, they are organs of balance telling your brain where you are
- Don’t give up if you don’t notice anything at first.
- Don’t listen to music at the same time-allow yourself the luxury of silence.
- Download the new PDF file form the website on semi-supine.
May 2006 – Easy Running
It is easy to think that as Alexander teachers we deal only with problem backs and necks. But we have a whole other side to our work that deals with performance, be it musical or athletic. This is the time of year when people dig the running shoes out of the back of the wardrobe and set off-frequently into early injury. Even serious runners can be plagued with injury and spend a lot of time developing a running technique that will help them avoid it.
My pupil Alan was a keen runner; he did the occasional marathon and thought nothing of running 10 miles on a daily basis. He came to have lessons after reading about the Alexander Technique in a running magazine and felt it made sense. Now in his early 30’s he injured his left knee and was experiencing back pain when running. He felt frustrated and couldn’t sort himself out, hence the lessons. Alan stopped running as he had been warned he could cause permanent damage to his knee if he persisted.
When I used my hands to move Alan from a sitting position to a standing position it was obvious he transferred his weight on to his feet by over activating his leg muscles and this effectively pulled his left knee inwards, towards his right leg. This meant when his weight landed on his left leg in running or walking, the forces were being taken through a twisted joint, no wonder his knee complained.
Alan found the idea of making less effort rather strange at first, particularly as he enjoyed the sense of having strong legs. He soon discovered the state of his neck muscles had a great influence on his legs and back, something which surprised him.
Over a series of lessons Alan learned to transfer his weight by paying more attention to his overall lengthening and by using his mind to influence the direction of his muscles. He felt he became springier. He began to move differently in his everyday activities. Instead of being tense he learned to release without collapsing.
Alan is starting to run short distances again. His technique has changed completely and his way of approaching running radically different. His goal before was concerned with distance and timing, now he pays a great deal of attention to how he is using his body. He says he feel lighter and more comfortable when running and walking.
- You will run in the same way you walk, sort out your walking first!
- Lengthening muscles support you better than shortening muscles.
- Be aware of the two ends of your body-your head and your feet, and ask your muscles to let go and lengthen between them.
April 2006 – Dentistry, fear and the Alexander Technique
I am often asked two things, first how did I get involved with the Alexander Technique and second what do I use it for these days.
I was introduced to the AT by my mother, a back pain sufferer with a degenerative disc condition she had not received relief from her pain by conventional means. She tried acupuncture and stretching exercises. Then she found an Alexander teacher and began to regain some control over her body use and posture. This made a dramatic difference to her and she simply nagged me until I went.
I had just finished a degree and had a serious illness so I was very stressed and exhausted, literally running on empty. The most important thing that I learnt was how to stop. This is not simple. Stop what might be a good question and the answer is, stop interfering with your own natural mechanics of breathing and movement.
These days it’s the biannual visit to my dentist that can scare me. Early childhood experiences at the hands of an extremely rough dentist resulted in my being very nervous and liable to gag at any second. For years this caused me problems and I dreaded going. When I trained to teach the Alexander Technique I didn’t think it would be relevant to dental phobia but I noticed that I lay in the chair rigid from head to foot holding on to my legs for dear life, my fingers clutching my clothes in a claw like grip. All of these tensions I could address. I also sought out a gentle dentist who never rushes my treatment or makes me feel I’m a wimp. So I lie in the black chair consciously directing my legs to untangle from my back so that I can breathe whilst my dentist Nigel makes soothing comments and encouraging noises, tells me what he’s doing and how clever I am for letting him do it. I was even able to have my teeth whitened, a process that involved so much mouth furniture that Nigel gave me a pad and pencil to communicate with. Being unable to swallow for a whole hour would have done for me in the past, but the combination of me not allowing tension to build up in my body and Nigel’s calm approach enabled me to flash my sparkling new nashers for the photo you see at the top of the column.
- Whatever causes you anxiety or fear will also cause you to stiffen your neck muscles
- This in turn will make you fix your ribs and hold your breath. This you can prevent.
- Find a gentle dentist who will listen to you and let you take time.
March 2006 – Osteoporosis is hard work
When I first met Ted he was 77 and had recently had three lumber vertebra fracture due to osteoporosis. This had left him not only in pain but also with a very rounded upper back. His neck ached because his head was so poked forward on top of his neck that the muscles were strained. He had digestive problems because his rib cage was more or less sitting on his pelvis due to the collapse. He walked with two sticks.
Despite his difficulties, Ted remained cheerful and keen to help himself. He was taking the prescribed medication for his condition, following a good diet and walking as much as he could-but the pain caused him problems and he got tired easily.
In our lessons I handled Ted very gently, encouraging him to let go of the incredible tension in his neck and upper back and to let his head begin to go up instead of drooping down to the floor. He immediately understood the sense behind what we were doing and was able to think clearly and carefully rather than react immediately.
Ted is a very conscientious man and practised his Alexander Technique lying down every day. This made a huge difference and he was soon able to discard first one and then the other stick and walk more freely and easily. His rounded upper back straightened out quite a lot and gradually his muscles supported the new improved shape. He and his wife were able to walk more and so he keeps fit and active. A noticeable improvement has been in the circulation to his hands. His fingers and hands used to go blue with cold in the winter due partly to the tension in his chest squeezing the blood supply to his arms. Now he knows how to release his shoulders and the blood flows nicely and his hands stay pink.
Ted has had lessons for 3 years now, coming once a month to keep things going. His specialist is very pleased with his progress. Ted himself is confident that he can continue to help himself.
- If you think you may have osteoporosis see your GP
- There are local osteoporosis support groups that can give you lots of information
- The National Osteoporosis Society can be visited at www.nos.org.uk
- The Alexander Technique is not a cure for osteoporosis, but can help you cope positively with the changes and problems you may have.
Feb 2006 – Pregnant and posturally challenged!
My pupil Tracey rang in great excitement to tell me she was pregnant. “I want lots of help with my posture” she said “My first pregnancy was really uncomfortable.”
During her next lesson Tracey told me her first pregnancy was accompanied by constant mild sciatica, considerable digestive discomfort and backache. She was told that her posture was bad and caused compression in her lumbar area which gave her both back pain and sciatica. She wore a supportive corset, which gave some relief, but she felt she could have done more to help herself. Her labour was long and ended in a forceps delivery and subsequently she felt her pelvis was very unstable and her back pain worse. That was why she came for lessons. Tracey realised that she had little sense of her own balance and was very out of touch with her sense of awareness. She went about her days with extreme tension in her neck and jaw. This was the most obvious tension, and a contributing factor to the rounding of her upper back, her friends told her she slumped. In turn the rounded shoulders and stoop created pressure on her lower back, contributing to her back pain. This same pattern of muscular misuse caused compression in her digestive system and as her baby grew everything got more cramped and squashed.
As Tracey’s second pregnancy progressed she maintained a sense of lengthening through her whole body. During her lessons we looked at how she balanced her increasing weight by coordinating her head, neck and back in a good relationship rather than separate bits of herself pulling in different directions.
Tracey is now seven months pregnant and very well. She has no back pain and her digestion is working well.
We have recently adapted our lessons so that Tracey lies on her side on my teaching table instead of on her back in semi-supine. This is for her comfort and to enable her to release though her back and legs. Tracey will continue to have lessons right up to the birth and is looking forward to adding to her family. She says the Alexander Technique has made this pregnancy much more comfortable.
- As pregnancy progresses balance becomes more difficult. Think tall
- A lengthened body means more internal space for your baby and your lunch!
- Gentle exercise will help you stay healthy
- The Alexander Technique can help you help yourself as your body changes.
Jan 2006 – Seeing straight
Did you know that your eyesight can affect your balance and posture? We can picture the stooped scholar with thick glasses, but eye problems can have a greater impact when unrecognised.
My pupil Adrian suffered from low back and knee pain. At age ten an accident almost blinded his right eye. He recovered and adapted well, he can drive, and makes his living with a computer. Posturally he is very twisted, his pelvis swivels one way whilst his knees swivel the other. Walking through a narrow doorway he often bumps his shoulders or hip on the doorframe. Adrian’s posture has adapted badly to the new messages that his brain received from his eyes and consequently he developed muscles twists that caused problems.
Our eyes are organs of balance, without realising it we are constantly taking measurements of horizontals and verticals to tell our brains where up and down are. We laugh at a distorting mirror making us loose balance but don’t realise our own eyes might have the same effect!
Through his lessons Adrian learnt to monitor his sense of where ‘up’ is. For most of us, this is obvious, but if your vision is distorted so is your perception of space. Adrian’s clumsiness, which he assumed was because he was a clumsy person, is a result of imperfect postural co-ordination. Now that he has a better sense of his own body he is much less clumsy-which was an unexpected bonus.
Poor sight can have a profound affect upon neck muscles, resulting in a fixing of the neck and head, which has a chain reaction on the muscles of the back and legs. During his lessons Adrian experienced confusion. He felt I had twisted him so he was leaning over, but when I got him to check my full-length teaching mirror he could see this was not the case. His senses were misleading him and he realised he had to stop relying on feelings and work with thinking instead.
Our muscles respond to us giving what Alexander used to call directive orders. Learning to be aware of excessive tension and to project directive orders to our muscles is all part of the Alexander Technique.
Adrian’s back and knee pain have gone, he can manage his posture and use very well now, catching himself when excessive tension creeps in and taking steps to release it before it builds up.
- Have your sight checked regularly; you optician will pick up problems
- Squinting will make you tense your neck. Wear sunglasses in strong light.
- A stiff neck means a stiff ribcage-don’t forget to breathe!
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Most of us enjoy the hustle of going out to the shops and choosing presents for family and friends. We load up with bags from all sorts of different places till we are like a packhorse. My pupil Alex finds the whole process a painful experience. Alex suffers from Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) and back pain, she finds lifting and carrying very difficult. Shopping for her is a nightmare.
Many computer users experience some degree of physical discomfort in their upper limbs and back and our modern technology of texting, computer use, and games consuls does little to encourage good use of the hands and fingers and instead can cause painful thumbs, wrists elbows and shoulders. When people are young they may not notice the damage being done, but RSI can start insidiously and then escalate into a crippling condition.
When she first came for lessons Alex was in considerable pain from her problems. She had pain and weakness in her hands and wrists, sore elbows and shoulder joints and stiffness in her back and neck. She insisted on keeping doing things in the belief if she stopped she would collapse and never get going again.
During her lessons Alex began to realise that her conviction that she must keep going was working against her. She gritted her teeth and was determined to do as much as she could. This meant she did every movement with so much tension and effort that her own muscles almost paralysed her and she tired herself out. This excessive tension made her condition worse. When I pointed out to her that her neck muscles were excessively tight she said ‘But it’s my wrists that are the problem’. Using my hands on her during her lesson I helped her experience the link between neck tension and tension in the whole muscle suit, particularly round the shoulders and arms. Gradually she was able to monitor her own tension and release it expansively.
This year she has taken a much more sensible approach to her Christmas shopping and we experimented with holding laden shopping bags whilst she kept her elbows bent. This prevented her arms from being over stretched by the weight of shopping, dragging on her neck and shoulders. Alex planned several small trips instead of one large trip and thought ahead. She took coffee breaks and made sure she was warmly dressed. She commented that the most important lesson she learnt was when to stop!
- If you have back pain make sure you distribute shopping evenly in both hands.
- Take your own bags with comfortable handles, plastic bags hurt!
- Don’t let the weight drag you down, keep your elbows bent and your head up.
- Ask Santa to bring you good warm gloves that cover your wrists. Particularly important for RSI sufferers!
Published September 2005
Pianists with poise
Late summer is full of music courses, where people go to study singing, string quartets, all sorts of musical performances. I spend this part of my summer in Ardingly at the Summer Music School teaching the Alexander Technique to singers and pianists. It’s the pianists who were the focus this year.
Posture is of particular interest to pianists because it influences the free movement of the arms and fingers so much. Take Ross, a pupil of mine who was getting cramp in his forearms and muscle pain in his upper arms after periods of playing. He had always been told that his posture was poor, but had no way to improve it apart from trying to sit up straight. He couldn’t maintain himself in this position for very long and inevitably slumped down after a few minutes.
When he was younger he didn’t notice any affects of his posture and thought his teachers nagged him just for the sake of appearance. In recent months, the pain started and got worse and now he is having lessons to help him.
Many pianists have difficulty with their breathing, particularly if they are accompanying a singer and need to listen closely to the performance. While they are listening, they often forget to breathe and so end up stiff and tense.
In our lessons we worked with balanced sitting and Ross began to realize the importance of getting the back muscles to support him whilst sitting. This meant knowing where his head was aiming, rather than letting it drop towards his music. He soon discovered for himself the Alexander principle of the head leads and the body follows. Most people think this is just to do with movement, but it is also to do with the orientation of the whole body whilst being relatively still.
This orientation of the body upwards encourages the ribcage to be nicely poised. This in turn provides a proper platform for the shoulder girdle to rest on. This is crucial to any fee movement of the arms and fingers because if the ribs do not support the shoulder girdle from below, then we hang on to it from above with the neck muscles and give ourselves all sorts of problems.
Ross found he could release excess tension in his upper arms too, once his sitting was better organized. We are working on more subtle applications of piano technique from and Alexander perspective in our current lessons. Ross is pain free now and delighted to have survived the grueling demand of playing for a summer school, a full 8 days of intensive work.
Tense shoulders always mean a tense neck
- Get balanced over your sitting bones for ease of movement
- Good posture demands attention to breathing and balance.
Published August 2005
Balance in climbing
THE BEST thing about being an Alexander Teacher is that you meet all kinds of people doing all kinds of activities. My pupil Keith is a rock climber and at this time of year he is to be found climbing in Tunbridge Wells.
Keith also plays the guitar and sings and these two activities can cause conflict. When climbing Keith needs to grip on to tiny pieces of rock face and with the tips of his fingers tightly curled, both pull himself up to the next hand hold whilst pushing with his feet from below.
A few hours of climbing leaves him with stiff, tight fingers which are difficult to straighten, not supple and flexible as he needs for playing his guitar.
Although Keith began lessons because back pain was interfering with his climbing and his work, he was very excited when he learned Alexander’s ideas about balance being connected with breathing and co-ordination.
In our lessons we work on balance with simple movements such as getting in and out of a chair. Keith soon realised the things he did when carrying out this movement, such as stiffening his neck muscles and contacting his back muscles so that he pulled his body in on itself, he also did when climbing.
Gradually he learned to let his neck muscles unlock so his head could lead all his movements, both small and large, and his back, instead of contracting, could literally spread out to support his body. He learned the value of taking time and not allowing the desire to move set off a chain reaction of tension in his body.
Keith was able to transfer his new awareness and skill to his passion for climbing and found that as he organised himself better, his back hurt less and his fingers remained more free. He described himself as flowing over the rock face whereas he felt he had been dragging himself over it before.
This in turn meant his hands did not get so tight and he could continue to play. The same balance that allowed him to climb better also allowed him to play better. By spreading his climbing and his playing apart from each other he continues to enjoy both.
Head balance is crucial to all activities:
- The Alexander Technique can help any activity that involves balance
- The biggest interference with balance is poor breathing
- Taking your time to release excess tension helps you maintain a better balance
- Head balance is crucial to the whole body
Published July 2005
A day at the sea-side
Summer is apparently here and my pupil Sophie is complaining that her bikini days are over. She blames two children and a love of chocolate. Sophie came for Alexander lessons because she felt squashed. She told me she was short, wore heals all day and stood up demonstrating kitchens to prospective buyers. At just over 5 foot tall, Sophie felt she needed to wear heals to make her presence felt. Over the years she has become increasingly uncomfortable through her lower back and shoulders and when she hasn’t got her shoes on her legs ache.
What has happened is Sophie’s hamstrings have become so tight that when she is bare foot the muscles complain. She has compensated for the high heals to the extent she now has significant problems. Her pelvis is thrown forward and her lower back very compressed. In a bikini her stomach sticks out, not because she is overweight-Sophie is a pocket Venus-but because her posture is appalling!
The thing about posture is it’s not just the way you stand, or sit, it’s about the way you move and breathe. If you let yourself press down into the ground your posture will reflect that in tension and you’ll probably stick your stomach out as a result. But it doesn’t help to then suck your stomach in because you won’t be able to keep the effort up and your stomach sticks out in the first place because you’re squashing your whole body down.
In her lessons Sophie has learnt to allow her whole body to lengthen upwards. On my advise she is gradually reducing the height of her shoes to give her legs time to adjust to the new dynamics. As she changes the way she uses her body she has become more confident about her height. Now she doesn’t come over as a short person at all. When she wore her high shoes and pulled her back in-she looked like a short person trying to be tall. Now she looks like a person with good presence and her height is not an issue. She still can’t reach the top cupboards when demonstrating kitchens-but she couldn’t anyway!
Sophie and her two gorgeous teenage daughters are off on holiday soon, and Sophie is packing a bikini. Her daughters keep asking her if she has lost weight but she hasn’t. “It’s the Alexander Technique” she told them.
- Make the most of your shape, let your body lengthen up and allow your shoulders to balance on your ribcage
- If you are overweight, pulling yourself down will make you look and feel worse!
- Even a skinny person looks unbalanced if they pull their back in
Published June 2005
International Alexander Awareness Week
Today sees the start of world-wide Alexander awareness week and teachers around the world will be mounting exhibitions, giving lectures and workshops. It’s 101 years since F. M. Alexander landed in England and was immediately in demand from people suffering from various ails. He gave lessons to George Bernard Shaw and Aldous Huxley as well as a local greengrocer who used to write to Alexander on the back of his brown paper bags!
In 1931 Alexander established a training course, now there are teachers and training courses across the world, including ours in Hove. If I look at my teaching diary for this week, my pupils include teenagers with scoliosis and back pain, an elderly gentleman with osteoporosis, an aspiring clarinettist, an established opera singer and a young man with flat feet. In addition to my private teaching, I have run my training course (with my teaching team), held a week long exhibition in Hove library and given a lecture on how to handle exam stress to a 6th form college.
What these people have in common is the way they use themselves in daily life, the way they walk, talk, eat their dinner, play their music or run up the stairs, they do with tension rather than release. In their lessons they become aware of this and choose not to do it. That’s why we are educational rather than medical-we don’t treat-we teach.
As part of awareness week, the college is having an open morning on Thursday 16th June from 10.00am-12.00pm and you are welcome to come and see us, talk to teachers, have a go on our saddle horse and find out what the Alexander Technique can do for you. Use the voucher below and have your first lesson for £15.
Ah yes, and for those of you still doing exams, try the following to calm your nerves, teach it to yourself and use it anytime, it takes about 30 seconds but the effects last a long time.
- Place your feet flat on the floor, close your eyes if you wish.
- Keep your mouth closed. Use your imagination and breathe in through the soles of your feet (yes you can!), imagine that breathtravelling up your shins to your knees.
- Allow the breath to travel down your legs and out your feet
- Breathe in through your feet again and imagine the breath going right up your legs to your pelvis. Let it out as before
- Breathe in again and let the breath travel all the way up to your chest. Let it flow back down your body and out your feet
- Breath in through the feet, draw the breath up through the legs, pelvis and chest and on up to the throat and mouth. Open your lips and let the breath out through your mouth in a soft sigh, ahh…Feel better?
Published May 2005
When posture really counts
Most people are conscious of their posture, for some it’s a matter of appearance, for others their posture can contribute to back pain or digestive problems. For a small number of people, posture can be a serious health issue. 15 yr old Karen was diagnosed with scoliosis at the beginning of this year. Scoliosis is a sideways twist of the spine, it is variable in severity and many people have a small degree of it without any problems.
For Karen, the twist distorts her whole torso, her right shoulder is two inches in front of her left and tugged down into her waist. Her pelvis is twisted so that when she stands, one foot is in front of the other, and she suffers hip pain as a result of the uneven load on her leg joints. Teenage scoliosis is measured in degrees. An Xray of the spine is taken and the angle of ‘tilt’ is calculated. Anything over 48O deviation from normal is serious enough for surgery to be considered. The distorted torso can press on internal organs, restricting the heart and lungs, which can be affected by the increased internal pressure. Karen’s spine was 44O, a significant problem.
In the Alexander lessons, Karen is learning how to let her ribs move flexibly when she breathes, how to maintain a good tone through her back muscles so that she uses her body in a coordinated way. This is slow work, but it can pay dividends. The last time Karen was measured, the distortion was 28O. This was very good news but Karen will have to work at her postural support continuously. Like many teenage girls with scoliosis, Karen is tall, very slender and she has somewhat lax ligaments, and a growth spurt! The Alexander lessons can help her manage all that in a positive way. She still needs monitoring by her orthopaedic specialist and she wears the corset specially designed for her. She is very fit and active and has little pain. The important thing for Karen is as she moves, she does so in a coordinated way, otherwise her activity will make her distortion worse by reinforcing the ‘muscle memory’ her body holds. During the next few years, while she grows and her bones approach adult density it is vital that she keeps this in mind. This gives her the best chance of avoiding surgery.
- Most scoliosis is not painful and only picked up in examinations, perhaps by a school nurse
- There is an element of hereditary, if it’s in your family-watch out for it!
- Good management is the key to coping
- Don’t ignore it-you will not ‘grow out of it’ and it will not ‘go away’ without skilled help
Published March 2005
Stressed? Moi? Well a bit…
So much is said about stress these days, people get confused. Stress makes people perform better according to some researchers; too much stress is bad for you according to others. So what is stress and do we need it? It might be easier to think of stress as a stimulus. We need stimulus of all kinds to react to in order to function, but if the stress is unrelieved and constant, then we stop functioning and start to break down. Each of us has a stress level at which we really work well-we are happy and stimulated, but just a little extra pressure can turn us into harassed overworked miserable people who never catch up with themselves.
Mike is a typical example; he has a high stress graphic design job with tight deadlines and equally tight neck and shoulders. He was constantly ‘on edge’ and unable to relax, although only in his early 30’s he was already feeling burned out and bad tempered. He used to work off his stress by thrashing around the squash court, but recently he had suffered a series of minor injuries whilst playing and finally had to admit this remedy wasn’t working-he couldn’t drop the stress and couldn’t work it off. “I feel as if it’s with me all the time, why can’t I just relax?” he said.
When Mike started having a glass or two of wine to aid his relaxation he realised he had to change something, but didn’t know what or how. He came for Alexander lessons following friends advise, although he wasn’t sure what the Alexander Technique could do for him.
Through his lessons Mike realised he responded to almost everything in his work and life by creating a wave of compressed tension through his whole body. This revealed itself in his poor posture; it wasn’t just his neck and shoulders but his lowerback, his legs, even his feet and toes, all held in a deadly grip. He became aware of how much he held his breath too and what problems that caused him. Mike learnt to maintain a sense of lengthening through his back and he practised lying down with his knees bent and his head supported by books the way I showed him in lessons. This helped rebalance the tension in his back and he began to feel more comfortable. He told me that the most useful thing he leant was how to say ‘no’ to the excessive work load that had previously been piled on him, because he was now more in touch with his own body and knew when enough was enough.
- Everyone is different, one persons challenge is another persons overload.
- Tell tale signs of too much stress include poor sleep, inability to ‘switch off’, forgetting details and irritability.
- Allow yourself to take time just for you.
- If your shoulders live permanently round your ears and feel tight, chances are you are overstressed!
Published Feb 2005
My sister is complaining about her son David’s shoes. “Look at this.” she says waving his size 11’s under my nose, “worn right down on the outside again. He’s so heavy on his feet.”
She’s right, he is heavy on his feet and it’s not just the shoes that suffer, his ankles, knees and hips and back are all subjected to extra pressure by the way he holds himself and walks. It’s as if he hangs on to the ground with his feet and pulls himself down into it. David is tall and gangly, a skinny teenage stick, so perhaps he thinks the wind might blow him away.
As a teenager he is king of cool, which seems to involve a slouching amble of a walk. He is already paying the price in back pain and sore feet, particularly when he rollerblades, which is his passion.
Teenagers are not the easiest of creatures to persuade to try anything that might affect their outward appearance but the back pain was bad enough to stop him rollerblading and so he agreed to come for some Alexander lessons. His first revelation was how much tension he was using to adopt his slouch; he thought he was relaxing, but soon realised he was doing exactly the opposite. When David discovered the lessons gave him better balance he was hooked. He soon understood the principle of ‘the head leads and the body follows’ and was able to apply it to negotiating the wonders of the skate park, with it’s half pipes and ramps. Now when he is about to ‘drop in’ down the almost vertical side of the ramps, he not only gets into position, but makes sure he keeps his neck free from tension and knows exactly where is head is going.
Although he was delighted with his newfound ease in rollerblading, the lessons made a difference to his everyday walking too. Instead of crunching himself down, he allowed himself to lengthen up. His new sense of balance literally helped take the weight off his feet and so my sister is delighted that the new school shoes have lasted longer than usual and are not completely worn down at the sides. His back pain is gone and he is skating more than ever.
David also sings in a band and came in one lesson demanding to know if the Alexander Technique could be the reason why his singing had improved. He’d experimented with the same process of freeing his neck muscles when thinking about singing as he did when preparing to ‘drop-in’. He found this made his voice stronger and less easily tired. ‘Of course’ I told him, ‘the Alexander Technique is about your balance and that affects every activity. ‘Cool’ said David.
- Walk freely, without gripping your neck or lower back muscles
- Allow your ankles to release so your feet make proper contact with the ground.
- Let your head ‘lead you upwards’
- Think up!
Published 31st Jan 2005
Fighting with vegetables – a sideways glance at repetitive strain injury (RSI)
My student Sara has been going to vegetarian cookery classes for weeks now. Thirty different ways to disembowel your pumpkin. The thing is her wrists ache. Carrying a pan of water to the stove and chopping veggies is hurting her. Chopping is a repetitive movement that requires a precision she’s not sure she’s got, especially with things like carrots that seem to deliberately roll away from people. When Delia chops it looks so easy. What is Sara doing wrong? A new knife perhaps? No-I think its Sara herself! She gets into such a stew (ha!) that she doesn’t just chop veggies, she clamps her jaw shut and doesn’t breathe. “Why are you grunting?” asks her son as repressed breath sneaks out of her tortured lungs.
Sara has also been doing a lot of computer work lately, tap tap tap on her lap top, tongue sticking out through her teeth, the hissing of self encouragement accompanies her typing and she’s had such a lot of it to do. She kept wriggling her fingers but it didn’t seem to help. She told me she thinks she’s getting Repetitive Strain Injury in her hand. A net search reveals over half a million workers in the UK who have reported an RSI condition-that’s not counting those who can’t or won’t say anything for fear of losing their job. Every day, six people in the UK do leave their jobs due to RSI and a massive 5.4 million working days were lost last year to the dreaded stiff fingers, sore wrists, shoulder and neck pain and headaches associated with RSI. It can be so severe people can’t lift their children, or even a cup of tea, and everyday use of the hands becomes painful-think of the state you’d be in if both your hands were out of action!
That’s a road Sara doesn’t wish to travel. So with my help she learns to undo the jaw clamping and the neck stiffening and asks herself to lengthen gently upwards. As her body uncurls she can breath. She takes more time for her computer typing and her cooking, because she has realised she approaches both in a great hurry thus creating more tension. Now when she reaches for the spring onions, they cooperate peacefully and don’t roll away, and she chops with a gentle touch. Recognising the amount of excessive tension she used for such a simple activity helped Sara avoid RSI and to take more care of herself.
Top tips for avoiding RSI
- Take frequent breaks from computer work
- Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration
- Sit back in your chair for a moment, let your hands rest flat on your desk beside your keypad, lift your head to look up above your computer and take a few quiet full breaths
- Don’t grip knives too tightly when chopping!
- Mix tasks so that you change activity frequently
- Keep your shoulders and neck free from tension
- Release your clamped jaw muscles
Published 4th Jan 2005
Baby it’s cold outside
My sister Jean is grumbling that her back pain is always worse in the cold wet weather. Her scientific husband Rob has loftily informed her that this is all in her mind and that the evidence is purely anecdotal and not proven.
Jean is unimpressed-she’s cold and her back hurts-that is the problem. The thing is Jean is a devoted Mum who watches her dearly beloved play football every chilly Saturday morning. There she is, huddled in her layers of scarves, the tip of her nose peeping out and her hands shoved deep into pockets. “Did you see that Mum-I nearly scored that time!”
Rob is half right, if you look for evidence the cold makes back pain (or any pains) worse you’ll find differing opinions. But the word on the street-or round the edge of the playing field is definite about it. There is plenty of evidence that wet conditions causes you to loose body heat more rapidly than dry and then hyperthermia becomes a problem too. So what’s going on and how can you help yourself?
If the weather is cold and you don’t have the right clothes on (layers is the look!) then you will tense all the muscles of your entire body, squeezing your self in the process-rather like someone else giving you an overenthusiastic hug. This tension will be reflected particularly in your neck muscles and will drag your head down into your shoulders as you go into hibernation mode. Unfortunately using your body like this creates compressions down your back and so your own tension is loading your body with potentially damaging pressure and your back might well complain.
Tension also interferes with your physical balance and the tenser you are, the more you are likely to slip over in wet conditions. What Jean does now is first of all go for a walk before driving her offspring to the football match, that way she arrives with warm muscles. She walks up and down instead of standing in one place on the side line-wearing a bright red scarf so that little Kevin can spot her wherever she is, and she deliberately keeps her shoulders down and wide, not crunched up round her ears-and she yells like a demon “Go on my son!”
Beating the cold
- Don’t tense up-you’ll make things worse
- Be properly dressed; particularly keep head, hands and feet warm
- Keep moving! And warm up before you go out
- Be sensible-keep dry if you can
- Keep your head to keep your balance
Published Dec 2004
The Alexander Technique
A light-hearted look at posture in our lives
Is your neck a pain in the neck? Try the Alexander Technique.
Party season is here, and whenever I answer that ‘so what do you do?’ question with ‘I’m an Alexander Technique teacher’, I’m met with guilty shuffling of feet. If we’re sitting down my new acquaintance straightens their back and apologies for their terrible posture-usually blaming some long past teenage growth spurt or their sedentary job.
The thing is you can’t escape posture-it’s part of every thing you do. We are never actually still; our balance is adjusted from moment to moment, even if we’re only waiting for the bus. We balance above the tiny platform of our two feet and must make the right amount of muscular effort to stay upright, there’s mental awareness too-after all most people find their balance affected when drunk! Every time we breathe and with each heartbeat, we move slightly and make minute adjustments.
The question is how? Do we just leave it to chance or could we be a bit more intelligent about it?
The good news is that we are designed to respond to the pull of gravity in a springy and expansive way. We should naturally walk, move and breathe freely. But stress and tension make us stiff and pulls us down towards the ground. This can make us shorten our spines, create compression in our back and interfere with circulation, digestion and breathing. We drag on ourselves and make life hard work! The slouch we adopted as a cool teenager becomes an ingrained habit that feels normal to us. Repetitive movements such as me typing this article can make things worse.
The Alexander Technique offers a constructive way out of the puzzle of posture. It is a subtle and powerful way to become more aware of what you might be doing to yourself that contributes to your woes.
In this column I am going to explore the issues that my clients bring to me and everyday activities that we could all do a little better if we knew how. The fact is the way you use your self affects everything you do, so people come for Alexander Technique lessons for many different reasons. Some come in search of ways to help with back, neck or shoulder pain. Others find that the stresses of their busy lives are more manageable when they learn not to tie themselves up in knots. The founder, F.M. Alexander himself was an actor and today’s actors and performers value his technique as a method for helping them perform with freedom and poise. Musicians, singers and those whose profession includes using their voice also benefit from lessons. So whether you play the fiddle, suffer from back pain, want to improve your acting or just want to cope with life better, the Alexander Technique is there to help you realise that the way you think can influence your posture and breathing for good-remember-mind moves, muscles follow!