Hilary King's Blog

Read more about the Alexander Technique including observations on more general topics that interest me, and notifications about my teaching timetable.

Big Garden Birdwatch - take care of your neck and back

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Are you joining in RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch this weekend?

The Big Garden Birdwatch is useful, as well as being fun! Encourage your children to join you in monitoring the birds for one hour in local parks such as Newington Green or Clissold Park, or even the birds you can see from your window at home.

This annual survey is the largest example of citizen science in the world! Your findings will add to the information that has been built up over three decades about the state of the UK's native birdlife. This information not only shows which birds are thriving and which are in decline, but it also gives an indication about the health of our environment as a whole.

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Be careful ~ birdwatching can cause problems for our necks and backs! 

This delightful sculpture of Sir John Betjeman by Martin Jennings in St Pancras Station shows some of the problems well. As he looks up, Sir John's neck is contracted and compressed, whilst his lower back is arched into an exaggerated lordosis, which thrusts lots of weight down into his lumbar spine. His arm is lifted, much as it would be to use binoculars - but I wonder, is he holding his hat on as he looks upwards towards the splendid roof, or is he protecting his neck by taking some of the weight of his head in his hand - or both?


How do you look up for ages, without hurting your neck and back?

If you are using binoculars, or looking up to see what bird is sitting in the treetops, your neck and shoulders can get very contracted, tense and jammed up.   A good challenge is to look right up to the top of the Tate Modern tower, to where peregrine falcons often sit and sometimes nest - without scrunching up your neck - How do you do that? 

The Alexander Technique can help you

You really need to apply what you have learnt in Alexander lessons - remember to keep freeing your neck and maintaining as much length as possible in both your neck and your spine as you look around. Allow your neck to lengthen out again at frequent intervals. Keep your arms and shoulders free and loose, allowing them to drop down regularly, so they can lengthen out again.  If you are using heavy binoculars use a wide strap to spread the weight, rather than pressing it into your neck.
 
Also, it is all too easy to arch your back if you are looking upwards like Sir John, so that you can end up with back ache. However, if you are aware of your use and keep giving yourself directions so that you maintain the length in your spine, you will hopefully avoid any discomfort and just enjoy yourself. You might be wise to lie down in semi-supine afterwards, to let go of any scrunching and mis-use that's taken place.....

Walk With Awareness on Slippery Paths

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Use the Alexander Technique While You Walk

Winter brings rain, fallen leaves, ice and sometimes snow on the ground, which can make our footpaths very slippery and treacherous. 


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Photo: Adam King

Observe Your Reactions

How do you cope with slippery paths? See if you can notice your reactions as you think of going out into the cold - do you start becoming tense at the mere thought of icy conditions? Perhaps you can say 'no' to bracing and choose not to do that, so that you can avoid building up unnecessary tension. Observe how you walk on slippery surfaces and experiment by relaxing and being thoughtful about how you move - and you may well experience a different, easier way of walking on slippery surfaces so you feel more secure and confident.

I know from my own experience that it is very tempting to tighten up our legs, feet and ankles, the muscles around our hip joints and even our neck and shoulder muscles when walking on slippery surfaces. Most of the tightening is the result of anticipating a possible fall and this can be tiring plus restricts our movements and circulation - and it's a waste of energy! 

Say 'No' to Bracing!

We really don't need to brace 'just in case' we might slip and fall. This doesn't serve us. In fact, tightening our neck muscles reduces the information we can obtain about our balance, and locking our ankles and hips also interferes with our ability to fine tune our balance. I remember an occasion when I was walking tentatively on an icy pavement and I was gradually getting very tight muscles around the tops of my legs - then a teenage girl sprinted down the icy road in front of me with beautiful grace and freedom of movement. Seeing her easy running skills reminded me to keep freeing up my neck muscles and my whole body as I moved and I felt a lot more comfortable as a result! When we do this, we are able to obtain more information about our balance, not only from the structures in our ears but also from the tiny movements our heads make as we walk and the AT can help us to do this. It is always helpful to walk mindfully but it is particularly important when paths are slippery.  

If you would like to try out the AT, individual Alexander Technique lessons are available on a regular basis. 

Alexander Teacher Training

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The Clinic at LCATT

It is always good to see some new Alexander Technique teachers qualifying from the London Centre of Alexander Teaching and Training, LCATT, teacher training course and to know that I have contributed to their experience of learning how to teach the AT. 

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Sarah Oliver, teaching at the LCATT Clinic just a couple of days before she graduated.

It has also been pleasurable for me, at the times when I have supervised at the LCATT Clinic sessions, to see senior students teaching members of the public with great poise and confidence. These sessions give them a lot of experience and act as a bridge between being a student and setting up their own teaching practice. So far, five of my own individual AT pupils have gone on to train as teachers at LCATT and another pupil has trained elsewhere. 

The LCATT Clinic is an excellent set-up. Reduced cost individual AT lessons are available to the public and are given by final year students, under the supervision of qualified Alexander teachers. Many of these pupils really appreciate this introduction to the Technique and often continue with the AT after their batch of Clinic lessons have finished.



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Some of the LCATT Teachers

For my part, I have spent some enjoyable and stimulating years teaching at LCATT since 2009 and this has greatly enriched my own teaching work. Refia Sacks is the Head of School, with Judith Kleinman and Roger Kidd assisting her (front row). The photo also shows some of the regular teachers at the school (I'm in the middle of the back row) but there is also a large number of visiting teachers and alumni that come to teach at the school, often from abroad, who are not shown here. All in all, LCATT has been a creative and enriching place to teach - and for the students to learn how to teach! 

International Alexander Awareness Week Taster

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Want a smart posture to go with your smart phone?

This intro workshop has taken place but this image was so popular I will leave it here for now

My next introductory taster session gives people chance to find out about how the Alexander Technique can help you avoid problems such as Text Neck pain whilst improving your posture and beginning to develop a tool you can use throughout your life.  

You don't have to look like this when you use your Smart Phone!

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Texting Gaming Posting and Text Neck

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Do you spend hours at a time using your smart phone and tablet?

Do you also experience tension headaches and pain such as Text Neck? Maybe back pain and RSIIf so you need to become aware of just how you are using your body whilst using these technological gizmos. Some people become addicted to using them so it would be good to acknowledge just how much time you spend on them, all the time developing habits that will impact on your body and possibly damage your health in the process.



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'Skellyphone' is my name for this imaginative mural

I love this wall painting in Finsbury Park! It seems to suggest that the person doesn't even know they are alive, they are so engrossed by the smart phone. The whole energy of the image is down, down, down - in much the way that real phone users sit  - even the mouth is down. So that heavy head is off balance and compressing the cervical vertebrae and other parts of the spine so would be likely, in a real person, to result in neck and postural problems. Many, many people are seeking help for painful necks and shoulders that have developed because of the over-use and mis-use of smart phones and other gizmos..

Do you worry about kids ruining their posture through over-use of phones? 

If you read my previous posts about Text Neck and how it has been found in children as young as 7 years old, you can see just how heavy our heads are and how neck and tension problems can arise, particularly when the sort of posture Skellyphone is displaying becomes habitual. Don't let texting become a pain in the neck - we can learn how to do it differently!


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We CAN have a Smart Posture to go with our Smart Phone!

The more aware we can be of our tendency to sink and contract down into ourselves when we use phones and other technology, the more likely we will be to be able to change our habits so that we look after our bodies. We can learn how to use them in ways that help us to maintain (or regain) our poise, avoiding tension and pain from developing. Phones are not heavy, yet we often let ourselves collapse down as we hold them as if they weigh a tonne! 

Short video about how to avoid Text Neck:   https://youtu.be/a2pOtg9qjQc

Habits Decide Our Futures

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F M Alexander's work centred on the role of habits in our lives.

Alexander is quoted in an article on Habits by Hank Wagner in Agri-View, a magazine for the agricultural community in Wisconsin. This is interesting, as farmers do not often advertise that they have AT lessons, so it is good that they are being introduced to Alexander's work. The Technique can help all sorts of people cope with stress and problems such as back pain, which are experienced in farming communities as well as by city dwellers. We all have habits that contribute to our various discomforts and, when we learn to recognise them, we can learn how to stop many of them them and to change them. As Alexander stated :

"People do not decide their futures. They decide their habits and their habits decide their futures." 


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F M Alexander 

This idea can be hard to believe and often we don't want to accept just how much we are responsible for our habits and how they influence our way of life. Habits can be formed, for instance, as our response to injury, to our environment and to our own thoughts and feelings. Some people want to claim that a problem 'is all someone / something else's fault', whilst others can get very self-blaming and think 'it's all my fault' when they realise how we form out habits. Neither attitude is very helpful - and both tend to be habits in themselves! Acceptance, without blame, allows us to make changes more easily.

Wagner acknowledges that habits can be 'particularly difficult to give up' and one of FM's well known quotes is 'Change involves carrying out an activity against the habit of life'. We need to be willing to allow ourselves to change. First we need to 'inhibit' or say 'no' to our unhelpful habits, then we can then allow ourselves to choose to do something different.

The article also cites some research undertaken by University College London into 'How long does it take to form a habit' (2009) which concluded that it takes 66 days to form a habit that can be performed automatically. Thinking about the process we go through in AT lessons, that is a lot of saying 'no' to old unhelpful habits and 'yes' to allowing new habits to take their place. This may help explain to students at least one reason why Alexander lessons are not a 'Quick 'Fix'! It takes time to change our habits and this process is helped when you are guided by the AT teacher's words and gentle hands. 

Teaching the Alexander Technique

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I've been teaching the Alexander Technique for 29 years!

That deserves a quiet celebration....

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What an enjoyable and satisfying job this is too. I have met so many wonderful people from all walks of life, who have come to me for AT lessons and at least six of those have themselves gone on to train as Alexander teachers.

Of course I have also met many excellent and inspiring AT teachers over the years, including several first generation teachers who trained with F M Alexander himself.  I am very grateful to them as they have helped me to develop my skills and my own teaching work and I would like to thank them all.

One of the best things about being an Alexander teacher, is that I have to keep using the AT work for myself, otherwise my teaching would be worthless and I would probably end up with creating problems for myself, such as back pain.  There are not many jobs where looking after yourself is formally built-in, as an essential part of the process of working. Of course STAT expects teachers to have to have ongoing CPD training  but we also have to we aware of our own body-use minute by minute as we teach - and whilst we live our lives.

One of FM Alexander's graduates was Margaret Goldie and I had the privilege of having some lessons with her and of working at the Bloomsbury Alexander Centre with her for some years. Miss Goldie had had been teaching for 60 years and had her 90th birthday whilst teaching there - now that's an inspiring role model!

Overwork and Study Pressures Can Harm You

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Studying can damage you - if you mis-use yourself 

Offices and performances have deadlines and exams get students working long hours. Some people will be damaging their health in the process. This has been understood for a long time. As Mary Wollstonecraft said in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman 1792, 'People of genius have, very frequently, impaired their constitutions by study or careless inattention to their health'

People still pressure themselves into over-working intensely (in-tense-ly - get it? ) at the expense of their health, whether it is reaching deadlines for the boss, feeling stressed, aiming for high scores in exams, over-practising on a musical instrument, or pushing themselves way beyond their natural limits in dance or sports. The end gaining 'no pain no gain' attitude has, unfortunately, led to many injuries over the years, which so often stop the person working or performing altogether. We don't need to do that. How much better when we pace ourselves and are mindful of how we are using our bodies, particularly under stress.


Be mindful of your habits and how much tension you put into your mouse hand

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Are you aware of how much tension you put into your mouse hand and do you keep working without a rest, despite RSI pain developing and making life miserable? This does not serve you - stop such habits now, before they stop you working! Many people set their equipment up well but do not notice how they actually use them. Do you tense yourself as you anticipate using the keyboard and 'getting down to work'? This downward energy will restrict your hands and arm use and such compression often results in neck and back pain

Become aware not just of what you are doing but how you are doing it.  Be mindful of your habits and allow your hands to move towards the keyboard and mouse softly and freely, without any reaction of tensing up. Keep reminding yourself not to tighten as you work and take frequent little breaks to free up your hands, arms and back again. This will also clear your mind and help you work better. This is easier to do with the help of an AT teacher.

Don't mindlessly 'Keep going until it's finished', without taking breaks

It is a common story that new AT pupils tell me as they describe why they have come for Alexander lessons ~ 'I felt I had to keep going because 'it' was so important and then I got headaches / RSI / hurt my back / got ill / strained a muscle'... Many people raise their blood pressure levels because of stress and overwork and that driven 'nose to the grindstone' attitude towards work, usually distorts our posture and impacts on our general health. 

If we thrust our neck out to look at books, phones and screens, we collapse the chest and our (heavy) head gets pulled forwards and down. The neck is constantly held out in front of the torso, so that it gets more and more tense as it tries to hold up the weight of the head without proper support from the bony structure of the skeleton and back. The neck and head become out of alignment - typical of 'Text Neck'! This distorts us and puts a lot of pressure on the neck vertebrae and the upper back so that Kyphosis develops, frequently resulting in damage and pain. It also pushes extra weight down into the arms and hands, making hand-use more difficult and restricted - very unhelpful if you want to make music, for instance.

This fixed, pulled down posture has been beautifully portrayed in a sculpture, 'The Scholar' shown below, which was exhibited in Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens, Cape Town. How familiar is that body-shape in those that study hard! You can see how the heavy weight of this man's head has been dragging his body down; endless study giving him a wealth of knowledge perhaps, but at the expense of his physical well-being. 


'The Scholar' by Tapfuma Gusta 

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All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy

Have you noticed how many words in English that are associated with work are descriptive of tension and a downward energy? We reflect that in our minds and bodies if we are not careful - but luckily we can learn to change this!

It helps us in many ways when we let ourselves lighten-up and allow our minds and bodies to change gear, to rest and play as well as work. As one pupil put it:

"When I use the semi-supine rest procedure in the office at lunchtime, it means I have a clearer head when I re-start work and I get less back pain"


Next Introductory WorkshopUnwind Free-up and De-Stress ~ 18 June

Limited Places, so please book in advance

Keep Calm in the Dentist's Chair

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'I'm Going to the Dentist'

For many people, even the thought of going to the dentist tends to bring about a reaction of tensing up in defensive anticipation and their anxiety can mount still further when they actually see the dentist and his tools. However, we can learn the Alexander Technique and use it to help reduce our tension levels and anxiety whilst the dentist is working on our teeth, so we are much more comfortable throughout dental procedures. Also, if we have a relaxed jaw and are calm, this will make things easier for the dentist!   


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This image expresses some of the feelings associated with sitting in the dentist's chair. It also shows the dentist looking rather unhappy about his own experience, which, sadly, is often the case. Research has shown that many dentists suffer from back pain, heart problems and depression and, apparently, are twice as likely to commit suicide as the rest of the population. It would be great if more dentists learned the Alexander Technique so that they had a tool they could help themselves with whilst they work, could look after their backs as they bend over their often agitated patients and could help themselves let go of tension at the end of what can be a long and stressful day's work. 

I saw my dentist recently and was very aware of how I constantly needed to remind myself not to react with tension to every drilling noise made! On a practical note, I first had to ask the dentist to adjust the height of the neck rest to suit my body as I lay back in the chair. Then it was up to me to keep calmly maintaining the length in my spine and to avoid creating tension in my jaw, neck and back muscles so that I could make the procedure more comfortable for myself.

Dentist at work.jpgThis image illustrates just how easy it can be to compress your neck in order to let the dentist look into your mouth and pulling your head back like this puts so much extra pressure on your cervical vertebrae and discs. It is really worth being mindful of how you lift your chin and open your mouth, so that you do this freely, with as much length along the curves in your spine as you can, thus reducing compression and distortion.  It will also be easier for you to have a relaxed jaw so that it opens wider, if your neck is relaxed.

Another great thing about using the Alexander Technique whilst at the dentist's, is that it gives you something positive to think about, rather than just focussing on all the sounds and sensations - and you can feel less powerless as the dentist drills and polishes your teeth.

How useful the Alexander Technique can be!

I Love Being an Alexander Teacher

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I Love My Work

How often do you hear people say that? Possibly not as many times as you would like - but you would probably hear a lot of Alexander teachers saying this - myself included. In fact I heard a colleague saying this a couple of days ago.

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Helping people to be more comfortable in their bodies and at ease with themselves, is very satisfying and it is a privilege to be able to do this. Also, in order to be able to teach other people, every Alexander teacher has to look after themselves and to pay attention to their own body-use, particularly during the act of teaching. Regularly practising the active rest procedure in semi-supine is one part of this process and it helps to maintain a lengthened spine, relaxed body, a quiet mind and nervous system - and helps us to re-charge our batteries. What a lovely work requirement!

This is in contract to my first career in classical ballet. Life at the Royal Ballet School could be very exciting but also challenging and could be unpleasant with all the pressures involved. Once I started training as an Alexander teacher I realised just how much I had, as a dancer, been trying to force my body to perform better and better and to stretch more and more - and just how this way of making my body do things had caused damage. I had to unlearn lots of negative attitudes and habits that did not serve me! Learning the AT introduced me to the initially strange concept of allowing my body to work the way it needs and wants to, without over-controlling it all the time. Such a relief!

I find AT work is so rewarding, particularly when my pupils say things to me such as

  • "Lying down in semi-supine is the best part of my day"
  • "My back pain has improved massively since starting AT lessons"
  • "I can't imagine how people manage without using the AT"
  • "AT has helped me be more upright and confident so I don't feel I have to hide any more"
  • "It feels as if someone has just oiled my spine!"
  • "I have already benefited a lot from this first session"
It is immensely gratifying to know that 1:1 Alexander lessons can bring so much help and indeed pleasure to pupils who learn it and use it in their daily lives. The more people take the AT work on board and think about how to use it, daily, the more they will benefit and the more at ease in their bodies they will be. Many people find that learning the AT really improves the quality of their life - and it has also greatly improved the quality of my life AND my working life.

I also work at LCATT, teaching Alexander teacher trainees, which is very enjoyable stimulating and rewarding. The students and staff are such a dedicated and friendly group of people at this Alexander teacher training course and it is very special to see each person blossoming into becoming an AT teacher. It is great sending more Alexander teachers out into the world, so that more people can experience the joys and benefits of learning the AT. 

It is quite special when one of my Alexander pupils who has gone on to train as an AT teacher, then teaches a pupil who also trains and qualifies as an AT teacher. It's like being a Grandparent!

 

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