Category Archives: Health

Sitting Can Damage Your Health

The Health Hazards of Sitting


This is the title of an article in the Washington Post which aims to address some of the health problems associated with sitting, particularly for long periods of time. Whilst many of these problems were familiar to me as an Alexander teacher, I was rather surprised when I saw that over-sitting increases your risk of mortality. 

A research study of people watching TV over a period of 8.5 years, showed that those who watched for 1-2 hours a day had a 4% risk of dying, whereas people who watched 5-6 hours had a 31% risk – and over 7 hours a day resulted in a massive 61% risk of dying. Of course many office workers also sit at their desks for over 7 hours a day – so beware.

Some of the health hazards listed that are associated with too sedentary a lifestyle are organ damage, poor circulation and brain function, muscle degeneration, soft bones, strained necks and bad backs. Quite a list!

What Can We Do to Avoid Problems?

So what does the article suggest people can do about this if they have to sit or use desks for long periods of time? Some gentle exercises are mentioned and these may well help, depending on how they are performed.

One suggestion is to sit on something wobbly (intentionally wobbly, that is).  I understand Google has supplied them for their staff to use, which is great. I must say I do love sitting on my exercise ball whilst computing and I am doing so right now.

I agree that using a ball in this way can help us stop fixing our bodies which in turn helps to keep our musculature active and flexible – and it’s hard to slump when sitting on a ball. But some people start locking their hip and leg muscles when on the ball, perhaps because of fearing falling off, so it can help them to learn how to avoid that tension reaction and allow themselves to sit freely, despite the constant movements. Balls can also be used for gentle exercises and for having a good stress-busting bounce occasionally (like a grown-up Space Hopper). 

Another good suggestion the article made is to use desks that enable people to alternate sitting and standing. One of my pupils had an adjustable desk at work and it did help her manage her back pain – but of course she also had to learn new ways of sitting, standing and moving around in order to make best use of this facility because previously, using the desk on its own had not get rid of her back pain. That’s where learning the AT can be so very useful, because applying the AT whilst working and living her life, my pupil gradually got rid of her debilitating back problems and then joined a dance class for fun – she could not have done that before!

The article also illustrates some of the impacts of slumping at a desk and makes it very clear how unhelpful this can be, showing a woman sitting in a collapsed position. However, the text here is somewhat misleading as it seems to suggest that we avoid using our sitting bones:

People who sit more are at greater risk for herniated lumbar discs. A muscle called the psoas travels through the abdominal cavity and, when
it tightens, pulls the upper lumbar spine forward. Upper-body weight rests
entirely on the
ischeal tuberosity (sitting bones) instead of being distributed
along the arch of the spine. 

But we do need to sit on our sitting bones! The main illustration in the article, of the slumped woman, does show too much weight going through the rear part of the sitting bones, which is not helpful and would be likely to cause lumbar back pain. However, if the pelvis were realigned to be more upright, the weight could be distributed through the spine, then transferred through the pelvis and into the central part of the sitting bones, or into the legs if standing.  

Strangely, the illustrations showing people the ‘correct’ way to sit and stand, omit showing the pelvis and sitting bones altogether, so the person appears to be finely balanced on thin air and the tiny coccyx. 

“There’s No Such Thing As A Right Position” FM Alexander

It is so easy to fall into wanting a quick fix and assume that standing or sitting up straight for sensible amounts of time and then taking exercise, will solve all problems. Well, while this strategy may help a bit, it’s quite possible to sit and stand in a rigid manner, for instance, which can build up tensions, restrict our breathing and may lead to other problems in the future. Stiffening like this is tiring and people usually can’t keep it up for long.

As Alexander himself put it when teaching:

I am putting into gear the muscles that hold you up, and you are putting them out of gear and then making a tremendous effort to hold yourself up, with the result that, when you cease that effort, you slump down worse than ever”. (FM Alexander Aphorisms) 

So it is not just about the positions we sit and stand in, but the manner in which we use our bodies during our activities that makes the biggest difference of all. We can learn to be aware of our body use, gradually putting our muscles ‘into gear’ so we find an easier and more balanced way of sitting and moving around that enhances, not damages, our health.

Improve Your Sleep

How Much Sleep do We Need?

An episode of the TV programme ‘Trust Me I’m a Doctor’ discussed the issue of sleep and an experiment that researched the question of how much sleep people need. It has been shown that people who have six hours sleep were sleep deprived and did not function as well when performing mental tasks, as those who had seven hours sleep. Also, that tests revealed a number of genes related to illnesses such as heart disease, were found in greater numbers in those research subjects that had less sleep. So it is obviously a good idea to aim to have at least seven hours sleep, in order to remain in good health.

It wasn’t just the length but also the quality of sleep that was discussed. High levels of alcohol can disturb our sleep and using computers which produce a blueish light from the screen late in the evening tends to over-stimulate our brains, resulting in poor sleep. Apparently you can download an App that changes the temperature of the screen to a more yellowish glow, which is less stimulating, so computer users might like to try that to see if it helps.

Improve the Quality of Your Sleep with the AT

There were not many suggestions on the programme as to how we can go about improving the quality of our sleep. However, there was a moment of synchronicity for me, as so often happens, when an AT pupil of mine came in the next day talking about the same issue (not having seen the programme). He said that since he started having Alexander lessons, ‘The quality of my sleep is much better and I’m less stiff in the mornings’.

You may ask, why is this? The fact that he is thinking more and more about the AT during his working day and that he regularly uses the lying down procedure, means that he is less tense and stressed at the time of going to sleep than he used to be. Using the lying down procedure just before going to bed can help us let of of the day’s tensions and can set us up for sleep. This allows us to enjoy a deeper and more refreshing sleep without the help of any drugs, which is great.

Unwinding

Many people ask me ‘what’s the best way to sleep?’ and I think this is a difficult question to answer as many people find they can only fall asleep in one particular position. Sometimes these positions may be very tightly curled up and actually cause discomfort by the morning.

How do you sleep? If you curl up tightly, the first thing you can begin to change, is to allow your body to soften and lengthen out within the position you are used to then, over time, you can learn to adapt how you go to sleep. Lying on the back allows your body to unwind and lengthen out without putting pressure on shoulders, your neck or your lower back – but don’t lie in semi supine to sleep, as bent knees will restrict the circulation in your legs if you stay like this for too long.

As you begin to drop off to sleep, you can think of your body becoming softer, freeing up your muscles and allowing yourself to unwind and lengthen out, taking a lovely gentle quietness with you as you drift off – you will probably sleep a lot better as a result.

Alexander Technique Helps Accidents and Shock

Using the Alexander Technique Helps with Accidents and Shock


Two of my pupils have. unfortunately, had accidents recently in which they fell and experienced shock as a result.  Sensibly, both of them used the Alexander Technique to help them handle the situation and found that it was very beneficial and reassuring to use.

Concussion and Shock

The first to fall was a woman in her 60s, who who fell in the Paris metro and the doors struck her head, giving her concussion and she experienced a shock reaction. However, whilst she was receiving first aid and then whilst waiting in A & E, she began to use the AT in order to help herself return to a calmer state and to avoid tension building up. The AT helped when she was left alone for some long time, as she waited for a consultant to examine her and she was wondering just how bad her injury was. 

She was diagnosed with a sub dural haematoma, which is a serious condition as it is a bleed between the brain and the surrounding membrane, so she was kept under observation in the intensive care unit for a couple of days.  During this time she was propped up in a sitting position in her bed and was unable to move around. However she often reminded herself to allow her neck and body to freely release and lengthen out again and she used the AT to help her to be more comfortable.    

Once out of hospital, my pupil experienced a number of headaches and was unable to lie down or bend over for some time, but she could keep working on herself with AT whilst sitting up and she found she could comfortably and safely use monkey position instead of bending right down, which would have put pressure on her healing wound.  I am glad to say that she has made a full recovery and has been given the ‘all clear’.

Falling from a Bike

My second pupil had a fall from her bike – on the way to her AT lesson with me! Her face was bleeding, her head had been knocked and she felt shocked and ‘shaken up’.  Unfortunately she had to miss her lesson as she needed to go home and possibly the doctor. I encouraged her to use the lying down procedure when she got home, in order to both calm her nervous system and to help her re-align herself.  I was glad to hear later that lying down in ‘semi supine worked wonders’ and she was later able to take herself into work.

Using the AT in this way, immediately after an accident, can be really valuable. I remember one of my AT teachers telling me how he had been thrown from a horse and he was very worried about the impact the fall had had on him. As soon as he got home he lay down and worked on himself in semi supine for an extra-long time and when he got up, he found he actually felt OK once again.  

Alexander Technique as part of Your First Aid Kit

As Alexander teachers, we are used to working with people who are recovering from accidents, injuries and illnesses and we know that AT lessons can help people a great deal. It is also important to remember that we can use the AT as part of our first aid kit and that using the lying down procedure, or simply using the AT in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, can immediately begin to calm the nervous system and we can use AT to help our body to re-align itself  – and in so doing, we can aid our recovery. 

It is also reassuring to know that we have a tool that we can use to help ourselves with, both in emergencies and in the long term – and this can help to empower us in crisis.

Grow Taller Using the Alexander Technique

‘I was taller after my Alexander lesson!’


This has been said by many pupils over the years and indeed people often do ‘grow taller’ in AT lessons, as a result of undoing the tension that compresses them, pulls them down and ultimately shortens their stature. When they stop pulling down, they can begin to assume their full height.

Our habits of contracting and shrinking into ourselves develop as we express our attitudes and emotions. Thought patterns are very often expressed in the language we use with terms such as ‘getting down to work’ and thinking we need to put our ‘nose to the grindstone’ as we deal with ‘weighty issues’ imply that work requires intensity (in-tense-ity) and a rather heavy-handed approach in order for us to be able to function well. But is this really true?

We also talk of avoiding trouble by ‘keeping our heads down’ and we avoid difficulties by ‘burying one’s head in the sand’. We can feel ‘down hearted’ or ‘down on my luck’….. and so on. Just reading all these idioms which include a ‘down’ concept encourages a heavy and somewhat negative feeling in me! Does the same happen when you read them?

How different my internal experience is if I think in terms of people being ‘poised and ready for action’, alert, aware and focussed so we can work well and ‘lighten the load’. How much nicer to feel ‘upbeat’ and ‘buoyant’ so that we are able to ‘think tall’ and ‘rise above our difficulties’. 

When I asked a pupil recently how her week had been she replied ‘ oh, up and down’ and when I enquired if she meant emotionally or physically she realised that she had meant both and saw how her varying emotions had been expressed by her body, which had been literally going up and down, so that she was shorter when she felt ‘low’ and was taller when her ‘mood lightened’. This is a very clear example of the mind and body acting as one unit, not as two separate parts of us.
Of course we can also contract down into ourselves as a result of an accident or illness and our habits can often add to this problem. I had a pupil who’d had a collapsed lung and he found it hard to maintain an expansive length in his body and he would ‘grow’ about 2 inches (5 cm) in his AT lesson. An important part of his learning was to find out how he could avoid contracting down again during his everyday life, so that his lungs had more chance to expand fully and continue the process of healing. 
Think Tall
I decided to Google the term ‘Think Tall’ and came upon an interesting piece of research by Cornell University that showed people who feel powerful tend to perceive themselves as being taller than they really are.  The research also suggested that people tend to think of tall people as more powerful than their shorter peers – who sometimes get called ‘The Small People’, with rather negative connotations . 
So what happens to us when we pull down and shorten ourselves? Do we unconsciously diminish ourselves and as a result feel less powerful? Or do we in fact shrink ourselves because we feel rather powerless and miserable? Probably both but we do not have to shrink for anyone!
But what happens when we change our habits and stop contracting down, allow ourselves to think ‘up’? Do we begin to feel more powerful as we expand into our true height again – or possibly find our full height for the very first time? Certainly one pupil gave a presentation for work and was consciously using the AT to help her. She was far less anxious than she had been on previous occasions and she was surprised to discover that she felt taller than usual at the end of it! Perhaps she found herself feeling more powerful than before?
By learning and using the Alexander Technique we can become more self-aware so that we can more easily answer questions such as these and have more skills to help ourselves maintain our full height – something that is also important as we get older. Even when life is tough, we can choose not to crumple but remain poised and balanced. And if you want to step into your power, think tall!

High Heels – the Inside Story

High Heels? How can people feel comfortable in them?

An Alexander Technique teacher trainee at LCATT sent me this X Ray photo of someone’s foot inside a stiletto shoe, which he had found on the AT Global page on Facebook. I find this photo very uncomfortable to look at, realising just how much damage is being done not only to this woman’s (?) foot but also her back.

When I was a ballet dancer and was regularly doing pointe work, my feet would have undergone similar distress, although the toes would have been lengthened out and we were taught how to use pointe shoes and how to look after our posture – and we didn’t walk around on our toes for long periods of time! Even as a young dancer, I would never wear stilettos.

Thankfully, when I stopped dancing I began learning the Alexander Technique which, amongst other things, helped my feet to free up and my potential bunions began to right themselves enough not to be a painful problem.

Wysokie obcasy1.High Heels.jpg

Feet that are squeezed into pointed high heels as above, day after day, do tend to get damaged and the whole body gets thrown out of kilter, causing many problems. A good number of women have lost their balance and fallen off their high heels, spraining and even breaking their ankles. The Achilles tendon can shorten so the foot cannot rest on the ground fully, the woman’s posture can become distorted so that an over-arched spine or lordosis can develop, creating backache, plus toes can become quite mal-formed and painful….. and more

Is all the damage to our bodies really worth it, just for fashion?

For a further discussion on this topic, you can read my article Back Pain and High Heels.

Alexander Technique and Anxiety Conditions

Anxiety and Stage Fright

The Alexander Technique is well known for helping with our posture and with back problems but not so many people realise it is a useful tool to use in conditions of stress and anxiety. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence of this and I personally know that it can help, from my own experience. However, there is little scientific evidence as yet to support this idea.   Some people that have for years found the AT can help with anxiety, are musicians and other performers, who have found the Technique invaluable to them in coping with stage fright.
William Hurt is one such artist who uses the AT to help with performance anxiety as quoted on the DVD shown below.
 
It’s not just performers that can benefit from the calming aspects of the Technique – we all can. Almost everyone experiences anxiety at some point in their lives and the strength of anxiety can range from situations when we are just mildly worried about things, through to conditions such as performance anxiety, panic attacks or post traumatic stress disorder.
 

Using the Alexander Technique during an eye operation.

 
A pupil of mine mentioned that she sometimes has panic attacks and one of the things we have been working on in lessons is the idea of not reacting to anxious thoughts by tightening up her muscles and restricting her breathing. This not only helps reduce tension but can help to stop the anxiety from building up. 
 
Shortly after starting AT lessons, this pupil had to have an eye operation for which she was sedated but only to the level where she could still talk – and she could still see the surgeon as he was performing the operation. This understandably lead to her feeling a bit anxious but she was pleased to be able to tell me that “When I used the Alexander Technique, I stopped myself from having a panic attack during the eye operation”.
 
It was quite impressive for her to be able to use the Technique so well after just 5 lessons. Fortunately, she was asked to lie down in the semi-supine position for the operation and the fact that she had been practising the AT lying down procedure regularly, in this position, would undoubtedly have helped her to remember what she had learned in her Alexander lessons. My pupil found she could use the AT during the operation in order to help herself stay calm, so that she avoided building up lots of tension and was able to keep her breathing more regular and easy. It also helped her that a nurse sat and held held her hand throughout the operation, something we could happily see more of in the NHS. 
 

At the Dentist…..

 
Another excellent time to use the AT is when we visit the dentist, where people experience different levels of discomfort and anxiety whilst receiving treatment. It can be very tempting to pull our head back with loads of tension in the neck, whilst holding the jaw open stiffly during dental procedures. However, we can use the Technique to keep our jaws more free, to look after our necks and backs and to help ourselves be calmer as we lie in the dentist’s chair.
 
Another bonus is that it’s helpful to have something else to think about, other than the drill or whatever bit of metalwork is filling our mouth at the time! 

After a diagnosis of long-term illness

It can be very reassuring to know that we can use the Alexander Technique to help us cope with a huge range of different situations and conditions. 
“My aching legs, though, were the precursors of a more serious, long-term endocrine condition.  My energy, memory, and stamina were affected and I had constant muscle pain. I continued with AT which helped me to cope with the worst.  Lying in the AT position made it less necessary to take pain-killers and helped me to be more calm and not to panic about the future of this illness”.
 
Individual lessons are regularly available. You can contact me here.

How Best to Carry a Baby?

Carrying styles affect a baby’s spinal development

There is an interesting illustrated article about a baby’s spinal development and how it is affected by the manner in which the baby sleeps in strollers and car seats, or whilst he is carried by adults – well worth reading if there is a baby in the household.

The main theory put forward in the article is that the best position for the baby is to be carried in a sling facing into the parent’s body, so that the head, neck, back and legs are supported and are therefore in a good position for their correct development. This position allows the baby to have close physical contact with a parent which aids good psychological development. It also lets the baby move and make body-adjustments in response to the parent’s movements and this develops the baby’s musculature. Being held in a more upright position also allows the baby to see and learn about the outside world. 

Strollers and Car Seats can leave Babies Crumpled

Interestingly, the article suggests that even laying babies flat on their backs is unhelpful. I agree that if babies spend a lot of time on their backs in strollers and car seats, their movements are very restricted and they are unable to move around much, so they cannot develop the necessary muscle-use in their necks, spine and legs. But, in my opinion, babies in so called ergonomic strollers are rarely ‘flat on their backs’ but are often left (by their parents) helplessly ‘crumpled up’ which could damage their their spines – and cannot help their breathing and digestion, come to that. How aware are you of your baby’s back and neck when you carry him, or leave him sleeping in a stroller? Do you check to see if he needs to be re-aligned, so that he’s not left sleeping in a contorted or crumpled position?

A baby lying flat in a cot has ample room to move around freely when she wishes to, so she can move into all sorts of positions. This is also true when a baby is allowed to lie on the floor to play, where she can explore the world and develop appropriate muscle strength and a capacity for exploration. I know one toddler who spent so much time in a stroller or being carried around that she’s very passive, does not show much curiosity about the world and was slow in trying to walk.

What about the Parent’s Back?

What isn’t mentioned in this article aimed at encouraging people to carry babies in slings, is the state of the parents’ backs when carrying a baby this way for long periods of time. I have taught parents and grandparents who have come for AT lessons because they have developed lower back pain and shoulder ache, partly through carrying an increasingly heavy baby around in a sling. This can happen because they have not been aware of their own body use so have not maintained the length in their own lumber spine, which can then become over-arched, compressed and tense, causing pain.
It is so easy as a new parent or grandparent to put all’s one’s attention on the baby and to forget to look after your own body as you lift, carry and bend over those precious but heavy and wriggly little bundles. This gets particularly difficult if you are feeling sleep-deprived and exhausted! How aware are you of what happens in your own body when you bend over to attend to your baby, or carry her, or anything else that is heavy that can put pressure on your spine? 
If you have some AT lessons, you learn to become aware of your own body use and how to maintain a freely lengthening back during all your daily activities and it can become possible to carry a baby in a sling in an appropriate way, look after the baby’s wellbeing and look after yourself at the same time. That has to be good – and I wish I had learnt the Technique when my children were babies, so that I could have looked after my own back rather better than I did.

Guidelines for Treating Back Pain?

New US Guidelines for the Treatment of Lower Back Pain

These new guidelines are medically-based, as would be expected but there is a welcome emphasis on encouraging the reduction of invasive procedures and the use of steroids and narcotics to reduce the symptoms.

I haven’t read the whole paper but I thought it was unfortunate that this abstract makes no mention of the use of the Alexander Technique to treat back pain – which has been shown in a major Research Trial published in the BMJ in 2008, to be more effective in helping people with chronic lower back pain than were massage or even a Doctor’s standard back care regime!

I was one of the STAT registered teachers selected to teach on the ATEAM trial and have worked with many people with back pain amongst other problems that bring people to me to learn the Technique.  In Alexander lessons, people learn to use their bodies in a more balanced and less tense manner whilst performing ordinary activities, so that their backs are more aligned and able to lengthen out, which gradually reduces problems such as lower back pain.

The fact that the AT really can help reduce back pain on a long term basis was scientifically proved in the research study and the conclusions of the ATEAM Research Trial were that One to one lessons in the Alexander technique from registered teachers have long term benefits for patients with chronic back pain’.

BMJ 2008;337:a884

Headache Prevention

Headaches are discussed in the media

The fact that the frequent use of painkillers can actually give us headaches, is once again being brought to the attention of the public – and a good thing too. ‘Medication overuse headaches’ is the term given to describe the preventable condition, in which we can become habituated to the painkillers so we try taking more in order to bring about relief – but only end up by making the situation worse.

It is therefore necessary for people who have been constantly taking painkillers to come off them but, like coming off other drugs, there are withdrawal symptoms and as the BBC news item put it ‘this will lead to about a month of agony as patients contend with regular headaches without pain relief, until symptoms eventually improve’.

This is obviously a situation worth avoiding!

So what can people do, other than reaching for drugs when they first get headaches? Well, using the Alexander Technique can be amazingly helpful here, particularly if the headaches have been brought about through stress, poor posture and/or general mis-use and tension. 
What Pupils Say
A new pupil told me yesterday that ‘I sat waiting for a train and thought about freeing my neck and my jaw and I actually managed to stop my headache from developing! So I avoided taking any paracetamol, which is what I would have done before I started having AT lessons’. This way of reducing headaches is surely preferable to using painkillers, if they can be avoided.

Another pupil, who came to me after having had major brain surgery also described, in her testimonial, how the AT had helped her with her ‘horrible headaches’  that she’d had since childhood. This pupil had previously ‘tried many things over many years to help reduce the frequency of the headaches’ and she said that taking Alexander lessons with me had changed things for her so that ‘I rarely get headaches any more because (Hilary) helped me teach my body to relax away from the bundle of tension it had become’. 
It would almost certainly have helped this pupil to avoid years of headaches, if she had been able to have AT lessons as a child, which would have helped her avoid the tension patterns and postural problems that she had developed as she grew up.

Working out why we get headaches, is an important part of being able to avoid them and factors such as tension, the way we use our bodies and even what we eat can play a part in bringing about headaches. Severe or frequent headaches can be a symptom of a medical condition that needs treatment, so do consult a Doctor in such cases. 
However, for the headaches that most people experience, learning the Alexander Technique so that you can use it as an invaluable first step to take and is far more beneficial to use it rather than automatically taking painkillers that have been shown to work less and less well over time, until they cause pain and many problems. Use the AT regularly and save painkillers for occasional use – they will work better for you and you will feel healthier.
International Alexander Awareness Week Taster Workshop ~ 7 August 
If you would like to find out more about the Alexander Technique I will be running a free Taster Workshop on 7 August in Islington N, as part of International Alexander Awareness Week. Individual lessons are regularly available in Stoke Newington N16.

The Alexander Technique and Gardening

Apply the Alexander Technique Whilst Gardening
Gardens keep on growing and there are lots of plants needing to be tidied up, cut back and pruned. And the grass needs mowing too….
Gardening involves using our bodies in ways that many of us just don’t do in our daily lives. People often spend days sat at a desk, then do a sudden heavy bout of gardening, which can involve movements such as:
Stretch, reach, twist, bend, kneel, climb, balance, cut, saw, chop, dig, push, pull, carry, and finally sweep…

Quite a work-out – and it can be easy to strain muscles or hurt your back doing all this work. So when you are involved in activities such as gardening, be aware and remember what you have learnt in Alexander lessons. Don’t rush into things but pause, take a moment to think about how you are going to use your body when doing the next job. Give yourself directions, remind yourself not to tighten everything up ( tension is not the same thing as strength). Avoid pulling your head back but to allow your spine to lengthen into all your movements, so that you protect your neck and back.

When you need to bend, be aware of your movements and hinge forwards freely from your hip joints, adapting the monkey position as the woman in this (un-posed) photo is doing (although ideally the movement is made without a hand on the knee) and you will be more likely to avoid the back pain that so often happens after spending hours bending, mowing and digging.

Monkey whilst gardening 23-07-2012 .jpg

Equally, take care when you have to reach and to look up, in order to prune trees and bushes. Allow your neck to freely maintain as much length as you can, regularly undoing any contracted muscles whilst working. It’s great to use the active rest procedure afterwards, to allow your body to let go of any tensions that have built up whilst working.
Look after yourself and you will enjoy your gardening – and your garden – even more!