Category Archives: General

How Aware Are You When Driving and Cycling?

Safety First – Maintain Awareness
 
There have been so many accidents, injuries and deaths of cyclists in London recently and I believe that a lack of awareness, in both drivers and in cyclists, is part of the problem – and we can all do something about this. There are too many stories that cite drivers using their mobile phones and not paying attention to the road, for instance, so they drive into cyclists and often kill them – we all know that this behaviour and lack of awareness is dangerous. One pupil was referred to me by her Doctor for Alexander Technique lessons, because she had painful shoulder and rib injuries, plus a high level of anxiety, after being knocked off her bike by a thoughtless driver. In one sense she was lucky though, as the driver’s insurance paid for her AT lessons. 
 
Many cyclists appear to be unaware of their surroundings too! 
 
Cyclist.jpg
Look Where you are Going
I have seen people texting on their mobiles and wearing earphones whilst cycling, so they cannot see or hear any signals from the traffic around them! This cyclist above is riding fast but ‘sensibly’, leading with her head into movement and her back is lengthening – so far so good. But where is she looking? She appears to be looking at the road below her, so I wonder, just how much of the traffic around her can she see and be aware of? Surely this way of cycling has to be dangerous! The only way she could see in front and around her from this position, is to lift her face and pull her head right back, thereby crunching her neck and cervical vertebrae and probably giving herself neck problems. If her handlebars were a little higher and her body more upright, she could see ahead quite easily.
This cyclist is not alone unfortunately and many people cycle with their bodies much lower and pulled down, particularly the more end-gaining cyclists who are focussed on going as fast as possible to their destination. This may be good for their hearts but it’s dangerous in other ways.
London Cyclists
 
London Cyclists.jpg
The group norm here seems to be to look down onto the road in front!
If you look at the photo above carefully, you can see that only a couple of cyclists in this London group appear to be looking out and about! The rest look down rather tensely, with eyes glazed-over, which is risky to say the least. It is so easy to get caught up in riding as quickly as possible from A to B, that it is easy to lose awareness of the actual process of riding and what’s going on around you. This photo is in stark contrast to the photo of some Danish cyclists below, who are alert and poised as they ride in the city. They are able to look where they are going because they are using a much more upright position with higher handlebars, so they are comfortably looking ahead as they ride. They also look less stressed which must have a lot to do with the fact they have proper cycle lanes to use but I believe that the way they are riding helps them too.
Cycling in Demnark.jpg
Photo: The Times
 
The Way We Ride Matters
 
I have worked with many AT pupils on what to think about when riding a bike or driving a car. I sometimes sit people on the exercise bike for part of their AT lesson, not to see how fast they can cycle but to explore how they sit and what happens in their body when they start cycling. All sorts of unhelpful habits are revealed and then I can help people to let go of them so they cycle with improved use. A pupil’s comments a couple of days ago made me think about these issues again:
 “When I think about Alexander Technique whilst driving and cycling, I am more alert and more able to respond to traffic – and I don’t get back pain any more”
 
The Alexander Technique Can Enable Us to Cycle More Safely.
 

 

It’s not just about the position we sit in that matters but that is a good starting point. Being conscious of whether we hold the handlebars (or steering wheel) with awareness, or grab it with a strong grip, is one point. When cycling, do we just think of pushing ourselves forwards with our legs, or do we think of leading with our head to aid the forward momentum?  Do we have so much weight going through our arms that our shoulders are hunched and ache with tension and our wrists are getting painful? 
 
As drivers and cyclists, are we so caught up with end-gaining and ‘getting there in time’ that we lose awareness of how we are riding or driving right now and what is happening around us? This is the route through to trouble – but we can choose
to change ourselves and our behaviour, so that we can remain mindful not only of our body-use but also of our surroundings during these activities.
In Alexander lessons we can learn to minimise tension and help ourselves keep calm. We can sit in a manner that lets us see where we are going without hurting our necks, protects our backs and allows us to see around and make use of our peripheral vision, which will help keep ourselves and other people safe. Surely this is a much more enjoyable way to cycle and to drive, as well?

 

How Can We Maintain a Child’s Fluidity of Movement?

Leading With the Head
 
I have been looking again at the excellent book ‘Body Awareness in Action’ by Frank Pierce Jones and have been reminded of the similarity between aspects of F M Alexander’s work and the research findings of a famous physiologist.
 
F M Alexander began to develop his idea of there being a ‘Primary Control‘ mechanism of the head and neck in relation to the rest of the body, as early as 1912. He then began using the instructions, or ‘directions‘, for pupils to allow ‘the neck to relax and the head to go forward and up‘ both as they sat quietly or when began to move – for instance to stand up. These directions were a means to help his pupils regain, or even find, the natural type of movement and body use that most children have initially but often lose. Learning how to give ourselves these directions forms an essential part of Alexander Technique lessons today.
Some of Alexander’s medical friends who knew his teaching theories, pointed him to the work of the German physiologist Prof. Rudolph Magnus, who was researching the head and neck reflexes of mammals in the laboratory. Magnus’s best known book was Körperstellung 1924 (‘Posture’) and the Magnus & De Kleijn reflexes have been named after him and his colleague.
As Dr Peter Macdonald stated in his paper published in the BMJ (Dec 25 1926) Alexander’s rather similar concept appeared to anticipate Magnus’s research which postulated that:
The whole mechanism of the body acts in such a way that the head leads and the body follows”. 
 
Child leading with her head.jpg
A pupil of mine kindly allowed me to use this photo of the little girl above. She so obviously leads her movement with her head and her body follows as she fluidly pulls her trolley behind her. She is alert and poised, yet she is also active and purposeful.
I doubt whether many adults, or even teenagers, would display such freedom of movement as they pull luggage around on their travels! Many would be tensely contracting down into themselves, twisting the whole body as they pulled the suitcase along.
It is possible to re-learn how to move more freely and I have found it helpful to spend some time with pupils, as part of an AT lesson, exploring how they move suitcases around, so they can think about this activity before they go off on holiday. When they give themselves the directions ‘I will allow my head to go forward and up’ so that it can lead them into their movement, their body plus suitcase, easily follow.
It is such a shame that so many people lose this easy balance and poise as they grow up and then have to re-learn it. FM Alexander always wanted to use his AT work to prevent problems of mis-use from developing in the first place. How much better if we can help children to feel happily confident in their bodies, so they are able to continue to move around easily, in a freely balanced and coordinated manner.
When the Alexander Technique becomes an everyday part of a child’s home life and school day, as in the lovely little school Educare, then it will be easier to avoid habits of distortion and tension creeping in, despite the various stresses the world throws at us and we can help children maintain their easy poise and fluidity of movement.

Alexander in Education

Alexander Technique in Schools 
 
There’s a great new video available on YouTube called ‘Alexander in Education’ and it is designed to promote the AT as a subject to be taught throughout general education
The AT is already being taught in a good number of primary and secondary schools, plus colleges and universities and it is really proving to be a wonderful tool for those who learn it. Not only does it help with problems such as back pain but is also reported as giving children, as well as adults, greater confidence and learning it helps to increase their attention span. But there are many many schools that do not use the AT yet and they could very much benefit from doing so.
Studying and Homework can be Stressful
Teaching children to sit, write, draw, play music and sports with awareness and ease reduces stress and discomfort, whilst helping prevent problems such as back pain from developing. This work also gives children a tool they can use throughout the rest of their lives.
The child in the photo is doing some drawing for her homework with an easy poise as she holds her pen in a comfortable manner. Unfortunately many of us lose this natural balance and way of using our bodies as we grow up, through stress, overwork, illness and accidents. Sadly, I have had several teenagers come to me for AT lessons who have already developed back pain and RSI. If the Alexander Technique was part of the school curriculum as F M Alexander wished, many children would be spared the pain of developing such problems.
Child sitting drawing.jpg
F M Alexander’s Little School 
Alexander opened a school in London in 1924, with the help of Ethel Webb and Irene Tasker who was a Montessori trained teacher. The children had ordinary lessons at the Little School and the Alexander Technique was embedded into the teaching, so the way the children performed their work and lived their day was a very important part of their learning experience. Unfortunately the second world war started and the children were evacuated to America and the school was never re-established after the war ended.
Today, there is just one primary school in the UK called Educare that runs along very similar lines to FM’s Little School, with the AT embedded into the way the school works and how the children learn. At the other end of learning, the AT is also embedded into the degree course at the Royal College of Music and many other institutions offer the AT alongside other lessons. It would be so good if all schools used the Alexander Technique to form the foundations, upon which all other subjects could build.
Take a look at the video Alexander in Education and do let other people know about it. Let’s get the Alexander Technique into more schools:

Caring for the Carers

Caring for the Carers with the Alexander Technique 

This is Carers Week in the UK and it is great to draw people’s attention to the fact that carers very often get little support for what is often a lonely, stressful, challenging and exhausting activity. The Carers Week Website cites some research that shows that, as a result of their caring responsibilities, 84% of carers felt more stressed, 78% more anxious and 55% experienced depression (State of Caring 2015). It can be tough being a carer!
 
Some years ago I ran ‘Stress and Relaxation‘ and  ‘Caring for the Carers‘ courses in Adult Education Colleges and I was made very aware of just how difficult a life it can be for carers and how isolated they can feel. Unfortunately, carers often spend so much time caring for others that they forget to look after themselves – or even feel that they have no right to look after themselves or have time off – and this can result in their getting exhausted, unable to cope, angry, resentful, anxious, depressed or ill. Back problems are also a frequent outcome from lifting inappropriately, or from experiencing high levels of stress and tension. None of which is good for the carer, or good for the person being cared for. 
 
There are also many people who work in caring professions and locally, there are lots of charity workers who also tend to put other people and their needs first. 
 
“It’s Selfish to Put Myself First” – NOT NECESSARILY!
 
Have you ever travelled by plane and listened to the Pre-flight Safety Instructions? If so, you will have heard that it is important to put your own oxygen mask on first, before putting one on anyone else who needs assistance. People accept that idea on a plane but are often less happy to think that way at home, even though the same dynamics are true in the rest of life – you will help others far better when you look after yourself and avoid putting yourself at risk or making yourself ill from overwork
 
Sometimes that means putting yourself first, for a change. 
 
So how can the Alexander Technique help?
 
The AT is a wonderful tool that you can use throughout your life. Once you have learned how to use the AT during your daily activities it can, for instance, help you to cope with stressful situations, calm yourself, reduce tension and avoid injuries.  
 
The most obvious tool you can use is the Lying Down or Constructive Rest Procedure and this can quickly help you to unwind and rejuvenate yourself, so that you can proceed with the next part of the day’s activities from a calmer and more centred place in yourself. It is also great at helping you to reduce tension and back pain.
 
These women were learning how to use the active rest procedure in an Intro Workshop on International Women’s Day 2015. 
 
Calm ~ Mindful ~ Unwinding ~ Centred ~ Freeing-up ~ Alert ~ Calm 
 
Semi-supine IWD '15 07-03-2015 12-08-30.jpg
 
STOP and Count to Ten
 
There are many other less obvious ways in which the AT can help us cope with difficult situations. For instance, the old technique of ‘stop and count to 10‘ is familiar to many as a useful anger management technique. More subtle but similar, is the Alexander Technique use of inhibition. With this we learn to stop briefly in order to avoid rushing into a habitual reaction to something, so that we can more thoughtfully choose how we want to respond. (This process is a lot quicker than counting to 10!)
 
Inhibition can be applied to avoiding all sorts of habits, from tightening our neck muscles as we rise out of a chair, saying ‘no’ to shouting at someone, to reacting with tension as we begin to use a computer – or even in reaction to just thinking of using one. When we are aware, we can notice all sorts of habitual reactions to both the outside world and also to our own internal thoughts. Once we have noticed them, we can learn to have more choice about whether or not we react habitually, or choose to respond differently. 
 
Stress
 
Some situations are extremely stressful and we may have little chance to change things. However, we do have some choice as to how we react to stress and this can be invaluable in helping all of us, not just carers, to cope with the difficulties and challenges that are in our lives. We can use the AT as we travel on crowded transport, deal with a screaming child or try to unwind after a day’s work… you name the stress and using the AT will probably help you with it.
 
For instance, a pupil told me that using the Alexander Technique helped her to remain calm, still and relaxed, when cooped up in the machine to have an MRI scan, despite having thought she would feel claustrophobic in it.
 
Once we learn the Alexander Technique, we can use the AT during all our activities, every day. In so doing we can feel less helpless in the face of stress, because we know we have a tool we can use to help ourselves and to take care of ourselves in many, many different situations. 
 

Chilling Out in the Garden

After the Work – Enjoy your Garden

 
Now this is dedication to using the Alexander Technique Lying Down Procedure! 
 
This AT pupil kindly sent me a photo (Aug 2012) which was taken whilst he lay in semi-supine up his garden. He specifically built the little jetty over his pond, so that he can use it as a quiet place to practise the Lying Down or Constructive Rest Procedure outdoors.  
 
Whilst he is lying there he can see the fish and other wildlife living in the pond and garden – and he can also look up into a big tree above him, with sky and clouds as a backdrop. He has a beautiful view which is continuously moving, which helps him not to fix his eyes on just one point as he lies there. This will also help him to remain alert yet quietly ‘working on himself’.
 
Active Rest by pond.jpg
 
© Nicholas Franchini           Photo: Leonardo Franchini
What a great way to unwind after periods of work, sports or gardening – or just to return to a quiet place in oneself. You can find more info about using the lying down procedure here.
Now I wonder if I can create a special outdoor space for myself, where I can practise the lying down procedure with even more pleasure….

Applications of the Alexander Technique: Luggage

Everyday Activities:- Pulling a Case or Trolley

 
One of the activities that people sometimes ask to explore as part of their Alexander lesson is “How is the best way to pull luggage around and avoid getting backache?”
 
These days we are fortunate to have roller luggage and laptop cases that dramatically redce the weight that we have to deal with when travelling and commuting. Despite this, many people still end up with back ache or sore shoulders after pulling bags around, so it is really helpful to think about how to apply the AT to this and other everyday activities. 
 
As usual, it is important not to assume that good equipment will solve the problem on its own – we still need to think about the way we use ourselves as we manoeuvre heavy cases through crowds of people…..
 
We can learn a lot from the way this little girl is moving. She is alert, poised and aligned; her head is balanced as it leads her into movement; her upper chest widens out comfortably as her right arm reaches back and pulls the handle of her trolley. This child is not consciously aware of how she is using her body. However, as we get older we can learn to develop mindfulness and be aware, so we can give ourselves more choice as to how we move and act in the world.
 
Child with trolly .jpgAwareness and Choice
 
Some frequent but unhelpful habits to notice and to ask yourself about:
  • Do I hold the luggage handle at the right height for me?
  • Do I twist my torso as I drag the luggage behind me?
  • Do I pull down on one side of my body?
  • Do I rush through stations and airports tensely, carelessly, or with awareness?
  • Do I grab the luggage, or thoughtfully take hold of it – and how do I lift it?
  • Do I remember to stop and think before pulling or lifting something heavy – am I evenly balanced with a lengthened spine when I move or lift?
When you develop this type of Alexander Technique self-awareness, you can begin to answer some of these questions, so that you can have more choice about how to perform any activity. By  taking a moment to think about your body use and applying the AT to something like pulling your cases, you can help yourself avoid over-tiring, straining or even damaging your neck / back / hands / arms as you travel around. This process of noticing unhelpful habits can be easier with your AT teacher and some fruitful work can be done with this sort of topic in Alexander lessons

FM Alexander Portrait on Antiques Roadshow

Portrait of F M Alexander – a ‘National Treasure’ 

The Antiques Roadshow (BBC 1) is always full of surprises but it was particularly pleasing to see a wonderful oil painting of F M Alexander being brought in for valuation by a relation of his. The portrait was made to celebrate Alexander’s eightieth birthday in 1948 by the respected Australian artist Colin Colahan. Alexander’s hands, which were so special and the main tool of his teaching, were painted brilliantly, expressing their sensitivity very well.
It was good to hear Alexander described as a ‘great man‘ and a ‘National Treasure’ by the auctioneer and on TV. Of course people in the AT world understand Alexander’s importance but it is reassuring to hear such praise coming from a somewhat unexpected quarter and so very publicly.  Because the artist is well known and as Alexander was world renowned and ‘such an important sitter‘ the painting was given the valuation of £5,000.

Alexander has been listed as one of the top 200 most important Australians and in Tasmania there’s this inscription acknowledging his importance:

“On a nearby property was born Frederick Matthias Alexander, 20th January 1869 – 10th October 1955 Founder of the Alexander Technique, Discoverer of Fundamental Facts about Functional Human Movement. One of 200 who made Australia great”


However it was here in England that Alexander did did most of his teaching and training of AT teachers, so he could also be described as one of our own ‘National Treasures’.

It was enjoyable hearing the enthusiastic auctioneer describing his understanding of the Technique and how he tries to use it whilst working. He so obviously appreciated the AT for helping him to be more relaxed and poised whilst working.

Update

Apparently the Antiques Roadshow programme was a repeat and I understand that the portrait was actually sold by Sotheby’s Australia in November 2012 in the category of ‘ Important Australian Art’ – for £8,470 GDP.

You can see the portrait plus a short piece about Alexander on the BBC website. However, it is a shame that the BBC have not created a link to the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique, STAT, the UK based and oldest AT teachers’ organisation in the world:

Sir Colin Davis

Sir Colin Davis


It was with sadness that I heard that Sir Colin Davis, the internationally renowned conductor, has died at the age of 85 (14 April ’13). Sir Colin lived locally, in Highbury.

I remember him well from when I danced in the Sadler’s Wells Opera Ballet during the 60’s, when he was the musical director of the Opera Company. Performances and rehearsals that Sir Colin conducted always had an extra edge of excitement about them, as he was an inspiring and charismatic conductor who wanted the very best from everyone under his baton – and he did not suffer fools gladly! Some people described him as a ‘firebrand’ in those days.

Sir Colin was well respected internationally, was the principal conductor and President of the London Symphony Orchestra for many years, plus conducted the orchestras of the Royal Opera House and many other famous institutions.  Sir Colin held the International Chair Conducting Studies at the Royal Academy of Music for 25 years.  

Less well known is that Sir Colin was an advocate of the Alexander Technique and must have encouraged many musicians to take Alexander lessons. It has been said that over the years Sir Colin mellowed and it may well be that the Technique helped him to bring about this change? 

Sir Colin’s second wife, Shamsi, trained as an Alexander Teacher a few years after me at Misha Magidov’s AT Teacher Training Course. Shamsi Davis later taught the AT at the Royal Academy of Music and over the years, both she and Sir Colin donated a substantial amount of money to the RAM Alexander Technique fund.

Sir Colin Davis has left a rich legacy of music making and will be very much missed.






Alexander Technique Gift Vouchers

Give someone the chance to enjoy some Alexander Technique Lessons

Alexander Technique Gift Certificates make great Christmas, birthday or other presents!  They are available for 1:1 Lessons or Introductory Workshops with Hilary in Harringay, N4.

The Gift Vouchers come in various denominations and can be custom made to suit you, with the name of your friend added onto the Certificate.

You could buy a Voucher for:

  • Introductory Lesson or Workshop
  • A group of 4 lessons.
  • £40, £20, £10 and £5

Voucher.jpg

Please contact Hilary for full details

Leonardo da Vinci Anatomy Drawings

Leonardo da Vinci Anatomist Exhibition


There is a wonderful exhibition on at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, of Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomy drawings and if you are interested in art or the workings of our bodies, this exhibition is not to be missed! 

I have been very fortunate to have visited the exhibition as part of Clod Ensemble’s ‘Physical Thinking’ course. This allowed us, as course participants, to view the drawings after the Gallery had closed to the general public. What a privilege to be able to see Leonardo’s delicate, precise and beautiful work close to, without having to peer through crowds of people! He turns anatomical diagrams into fine art.

As an Alexander Technique teacher and ex-dancer, I find the short course both informative and fascinating, as Suzy Willson of Clod Ensemble leads the sessions and encourages us to find the movements suggested within Leonardo’s drawings of bones, internal organs and muscles, then to express those through our own bodies. It’s a very special experience to be exploring our body movement whilst surrounded by Leonardo’s works.

The Leonardo da Vinci Anatomist exhibition continues until 7 October ~ catch it while you can!