The Alexander Technique and Ergonomics

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Ideally, once we have learnt the Alexander Technique, we should be able to use almost any furniture in a free and lengthened manner, so that we avoid creating back and neck pain, or developing conditions such as RSI, which are so difficult to heal once established.

Choice of Furniture

Even with the benefit of being able to apply the Alexander Technique during your activities, it can certainly help if you examine the equipment and furniture available to you and ask yourself, does it help or hinder your ability to remain poised and free throughout your activities? Is everything positioned in the best place for your own body and the way you need to use it - or is your furniture contributing to a build-up of unwanted tensions? Do you need more suitable equipment? Prevention is better than cure and becoming aware of these issues soon enough may help you avoid future back problems or RSI, for instance.

It can make sense to choose furniture that is designed ergonomically and to arrange it to suit your body height and your range of movement, so that you can maximize the chance of using yourself well. However, it is important to test furniture out before you buy it, to see how it works for your own body. Mail order may seem convenient but you may end up with an unsuitable item. A chair that is a perfect fit for a tall man who stoops and has kyphosis may not suit a small pregnant woman with lordosis. This is very evident in some of our new trains, with over-designed seats which have been given extremely curved backs. I find that these force my body and those of many passengers that I into a contracted and slumped position that thrusts the neck forwards and are more likely to create back ache and neck problems than relieve them!

We all need to understand that an important aspect to consider 'is the relationship between man and the machines he has created, between the equipment nature gave him and the equipment he has made himself.'

Elizabeth Langford ~ Mind and Muscle p.208 ~ Garant ~ 2001

Although the science and design of ergonomic furniture has greatly improved, unfortunately it is still true to say that 'Owing to the lack of an adequate concept of muscular balance, the ergonomic approach has not paid off the expected dividends. The working man still arrives home fatigued. Pain in the back affects most of the population, often with crippling severity.... they have not been helped very much by better designed equipment. It is their USE which needs redesigning.'

Dr Wilfred Barlow ~ The Alexander Principle p.49 ~ 1990 ~ Gollancz

Familiar habits can cause problems

Babies however, are entirely dependent on their parents to provide a reasonably good environment in which to grow up and for their bodies to develop in. I find it distressing therefore, to see small babies and toddlers being pushed around in a fashionable push chair, which is great for the parents to take on buses, but does not support the baby's back and head sufficiently - and the parent does nothing to change this. So many babies are left to crumple down with the head lolling to one side, their spines contracted into a twist. If this is a daily occurrence, then this is what the baby will gradually accept as being the normal way of being. This is a quick route through to later back problems.

As Alexander said 'the stupidity of letting children go wrong is that once they go wrong their right is wrong: therefore, the more they try to be right, the more they go wrong'

F M Alexander ~ Aphorisms ~ Mouritz 2000

Of course both adults and children can distort themselves and develop habits of mis-use, even when provided with good furniture, because of their attitude of mind, emotional state or levels of physical wellbeing. Copying the use of our parents and peers, along with pressure to adopt the mode of body use prevalent in a group we wish to belong to, is also a strong influence on our own use, whatever furniture we happen to be sitting on.

When we talk of 'feeling down' or 'gritting our teeth and getting on with things', those thoughts will be expressed in the way we use our body when we sit at a desk, wait at a bus stop, sleep. Temporary actions, for instance those that a child makes when contracting and slouching down over school books as he intensely learns how to 'get down to work' and write, often become the habitual way that writing is always done - with a tense and doward energy. This would be true even if the child was given the very best desk and chair to work at. By the time the boy becomes a teenager, this constant slouching may well lead to headaches and back pain that will go on increasing into adulthood, unless his manner of use is altered.

Faulty Sensory Appreciation

In other words, our familiar habits of use or mis-use feel right to us, even if they are in fact creating problems for us. If we try to change our habits on our own, we usually fall into the trap of faulty sensory appreciation which makes even helpful changes feel 'wrong' to us, so that we keep going back to the old familiar habits of mis-use which feel 'right'. However, with the help of an Alexander Teacher, we are able to re-educate our sensory appreciation, so that we can let go of old harmful habits and allow our bodies to work more freely and in a more co-ordinated manner.

Alexander was very concerned that most children lose their natural poise as they grow older and he was keen that his Technique should be introduced into schools, to help prevent bad use developing. The habits of poor posture that children often develop gradually become fixed and result in many of the problems that arrive at the Alexander Teacher's door. For instance, people complain of aches and pains from sitting at desks, computing for long hours at a time and carrying too many heavy items in their briefcases. A large percentage of the population take days off work because of problems such as back pain, RSI and carpal tunnel syndrome, and this creates problems not only for that person but for their employers.

Many of these difficulties can be prevented, by learning to avoid habits of mis-use but when office furniture is badly designed and does not adjust to the needs of different users, this will contribute to the problem and make it harder to learn a new and improved manner of use. However, people are now in a better position to ask for equipment that is designed with ergonomics in mind.

The Department for Education and Skills outlines EU legislation regarding the minimum standards for office equipment which employers are expected to provide:

User comfort and safety

'Apart from taking frequent short breaks from intense computer work (a ten-minute break for every hour to allow eyes to readjust to greater distances), users should be comfortably positioned with easy access to all equipment. In the case of equipment to be operated whilst sitting, it is essential that the user can adjust his or her position in relation to the equipment as appropriate. In particular:

  • Screens – angle and height should be adjustable. The top of the screen should be roughly at eye level. Users should also be able to control brightness, screen colours and type fonts.
  • Keyboard – users should have the option to have the keyboard flat or tilted, and move the keyboard to a more comfortable position on the desk to suit them.
  • Seating – height of the chair to the desk should be adjustable bearing in mind that users should be aiming for a particular posture when operating computer equipment; the lower arms should be roughly horizontal when working with knees fitting comfortably under the desk with thighs roughly horizontal. Footrests should be available as necessary.
  • Peripherals – avoid putting these in hard-to-reach positions especially if users need access to drives, switches etc.
  • Headphones and speakers - these need to be adjustable so that the volume is not too loud. Hygiene should also be considered, particularly when using in-ear headphones.'

Use affects Functioning

All this sounds great but how often do we see people mis-using themselves whilst working or ‘relaxing’ and how many people apply the above criteria to their own purchases of furniture or home-office equipment. Do you still sit contracted and crunched-down before a TV or VDU that is too low for you? If you do, then you are putting pressure on your intervertebral discs and internal organs, reducing your lung capacity and possibly irritating the nerves in your arms so that you are moving towards having RSI. Or do you corkscrew around to the side for long periods of time because the VDU is not positioned in front of your chair and keyboard? How are you sitting right now, as you read this? Another favourite is to hold the telephone between ear and shoulder, so that neck and shoulder pains are almost inevitable over time. Our bodies cannot function properly if we continually interfere with our natural poise and co-ordination.

Numbers of Alexander Technique pupils reveal that their office set-up and/or their soggy settees are, at least in part, exacerbating their problems. However, we all need to remember that we can have the perfect furniture for our body shape and size but still give ourselves back ache or RSI because of the way we use ourselves. This applies equally to adults and to children and Alexander realized that 'the important thing is what the child (or adult) is doing with itself in its activities'. So we need both a sensible arrangement of well made equipment and furniture and we need to be aware of our use, continually giving ourselves directions while we work, peel potatoes and even whilst we watch TV.

We are fortunate these days to have access to a wide range of ergonomic furniture and equipment such as copy holders, wrist and back supports and wedge cushions, all of which can help us - but always remember that it is possible for you to learn how to use yourself well, whatever you are doing, whether or not you have ergonomic equipment available to help you.

'I’ve found Hilary’s lessons very helpful for my general well being.

As a computer programmer, I spend long hours sitting in front of a screen. I have had problems with my joints, particularly my knees and hands. Computer work doesn’t really help with this, however with the Alexander Technique, I’ve found that my joints are more relaxed.

I don’t get the usual aches and pains, which come from intensive keyboard use, provided I actually apply what I’ve learnt in the Alexander lessons.

Other welcome side effects from the lessons are that I have more energy and I generally feel more relaxed and easy with my body'.

Kevin ~ Computer Programmer and Yoga Teacher