Look After Your Back When You Cough and Sneeze

Hay Fever!
 
An osteopath friend told me that some patients go to her because they hurt their backs when sneezing and coughing. I remembered this again now because the pollen count has been high so I have been suffering with hay fever over the last few weeks and have been sneezing a lot! My family and my pupils are used to me sneezing, often 8 times in a row, so I have had lots of time to think about how to look after myself when I do so.
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During wintry weather, people with heavy coughs and colds may also seek the osteopath’s help – unless they find a way of avoiding this problem to begin with by looking after their backs, for instance through having Alexander Technique lessons. You may well ask ‘how can using the AT help you when you sneeze?’ Read on…..
 
Sneezing and Coughing Create Strong Spasms

One of the main reasons that back problems can happen when sneezing and coughing, is that when we hold ourselves in a fixed or twisted manner, with locked knees, contracted muscles and habitual tension in the lower, lumbar region of the back, this tightness will be increased by the spasms of coughing and sneezing. The spasms will obviously be more exaggerated if you have long bouts of coughing so that the jolting can strain your muscles, sometimes even damaging an intervertebral disc, causing great pain.

Bend Your Knees When You Cough and Sneeze!

However, if we learn to unlock our hips, knees and ankles so that they can bend, this can help our back to be freely lengthening, so the muscles are able to respond more elastically as our ribs expand and contract with the sneezing and the jolt can be softened so that it ripples through us, rather than straining us. This way of sneezing and coughing can also be helpful for people after having abdominal surgery, possibly with the addition of holding the abdomen for extra support during the sneeze – something I found incredibly helpful after having major surgery.

So I will sometimes, as a small part of their AT lessons, work with my pupils to help them find a way of sneezing and coughing so they look after their backs – yet another activity to explore performing with optimal body-use!
The more able you are to have free, balanced and elastic body-use, unlocked knees and a free neck and back, the more resilient your muscles will be during and after each spasm. Remember to let the tension go again that inevitably built up during coughing and sneezing, so that you do not take that with you into your next activity.
Even if you have not had Alexander Lessons and learned how to do this in a AT way, you can help protect your back if you remember to bend your knees, so you let your legs act as the shock absorbers they are designed to be.

Over-use of Mobile Phones

Kids Ask Parents to Turn Off Their Phones!

The BBC reports a survey of secondary school children that shows the social impact of mobile phones, with many families having a home life that is being harmed by their overuse. Parents frequently use their phones during mealtimes, for instance, so that children have asked them to turn their phones off. Not surprisingly, the research also stated that many children were frequently sleep deprived because of using their phones late into the night. Some teens even managed to be on their phones for 20 hours a day during weekends and holidays! Add into the mix the epidemic in both adults and children having painful ‘text neck‘ and RSI problems, it is easy to see how damaging phone use can be.

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This five year old is poised and alert as she has breakfast and, hopefully, she will be able to maintain this easy body-use as she gets older. She does not use any phones, tablets or other screens and her parents aim not to use their phones in front of her. No doubt she will begin to use some technology at school soon but as yet she is being encouraged to find entertainment elsewhere so that she can develop her creativity, reading and active play in many other ways. This little girl does not know about the AT but her mother does some yoga, which she sometimes copies and this helps her to be more aware of her body-use.
It’s Not Good to Frequently Feel Ignored 
The above photo is in stark contrast to the one used in the BBC article, with father and daughter both slumped on a sofa, both heading towards having neck problems from the ways they are using their bodies. The father’s head is dragging forwards and down over his phone – a typical iPosture, with a text neck scenario developing in him as he ignores his daughter. She is twisting her neck and her whole body expresses how fed up she feels, in true psychophysical unity, as she stares out in front of her.

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Whilst mobiles are very useful bits of equipment, it is worrying that they seem to become so addictive and dominate people’s lives. I find it sad to see so many young Mums (and some Dads) pushing a toddler in a buggy but with no interaction between them because Mum ignores the child  – the mobile phone gets all the attention. What sort of habits of relating to other people and of phone-use will those children develop? Copying parents is a big part of the way we learn as they are important role models for us, so the pattern is likely to be copied and repeated as the child grows older. Many tiny children already use screens for hours on end, which is leading to some developing problems when really young. In a previous blog ‘Evidence of Text Neck in Seven-year old Children’ I discussed this alarming situation which has been created through the over-use and mis-use of mobiles and tablets.
There Can Be Another Way
Fortunately, Alexander lessons can help people unlearn habits that have been causing problems and, ideally, help them to learn how to avoid developing habit patterns of mis-use to start with. This was very important to F M Alexander, who ran a school for children which incorporated his theories and teaching into the daily life of the school. One school, Educare Small School is run along the same lines and the AT underpins every activity there.
Today, both adults and children are able to access individual lessons in many parts of the world and a group called Alexander in Education is promoting the Technique in UK schools and colleges. The educational institutions that include the Alexander Technique in their curriculum range from specialist music schools and colleges, to a children’s nursery.
All of that is great and quite exciting but it’s important for parents to realise just what sort of body-use and way of life they are modelling for their children and the impact it can have on their future lives, even before they are old enough to go to school. I’m sure many parents believe they are doing just that already but perhaps they can refine their awareness to include the little things in life too, such as how they use a mobile or tablet, how long they use it, how much they exclude others when using a screen and how they look after their own body-use as they text, chat and game away on their phones. Children are watching – and waiting for you.
There’s an interesting podcast from Body Learning you might like to listen to:

Could Using a Scooter Make Children Lopsided?

Children’s scooters have just been included in the UK Consumer Prices Index, CPI, as they are so popular they are having a financial impact in the UK. There must be a lot of people
using them!
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This photo show that many children love them – here in Stoke Newington, scooters are a favourite mode of transport for going to school and numbers of scooters get parked in playgrounds. They are brilliant for helping to keep children active and fit in a fun way and it is lovely to see kids zooming along the road, poised and lively, with their heads leading them into movement.
Pushing With One Dominant Leg?
But how could scooters possibly make children lopsided? Well, I wonder how many parents and teachers notice if children always use the same foot to propel themselves forwards? I imagine quite a number of people have never given it a thought.
But do please think about it – what impact might that have? Even tiny children use scooters and may do so for several years. If one leg is always pushing, then one set of leg muscles in that leg is being developed, whilst the other leg is always supporting, so a different set of muscles will be developed in that leg – so the muscles could grow visibly bigger in the stronger leg.
What would the implications be for the body’s general balance and poise, if legs develop differently from each other in this way? Unhelpful at the least and possibly harmful, if the imbalance became exaggerated through frequent over-use of one leg in preference to the other. This problem can affect adult scooter users too but would have a greater impact on children’s bodies whilst growing and developing and could be one way that children’s bodies could gradually become a bit lopsided. If it’s just habits causing the distortion, that can be avoided!
Twisting and Torsion
Another problem that could arise, is a habitual twist in the torso (and probably the knees) if the child scoots in an uneven way. Muscular torsion in the neck and back is also a potential problem with using skateboards, if the same foot leads all the time. Muscles in the neck and torso could work unevenly, the back and pelvis could become lopsided, which could eventually cause pain and discomfort. Given how many children and adults are using scooters and skateboards these days, we could end up with a large number of people seeking help for problems such as neck and back pain at a later date.
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This skateboarder has pretty good body use, leading with the head and using his hip joints freely. However, if he always leads with the same foot and he has to look in the same direction all the time, torsion problems in his neck and back could develop.
Mindfulness and Body Use
 
However, with awareness and by establishing habits of good body-use right from the start, including alternating their feet regularly, these problems could be avoided, so children and adults can have fun without interfering with their natural poise and balance.
If problems have started developing, Alexander lessons can help people to let go of their habits of imbalance and twisting, so that their head neck back relationship can be regained and a more evenly balanced way of using equipment such as scooters and skateboards can be learned.

Alexander Teacher Training

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!

Texting Gaming Posting and Text Neck

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

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

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

 

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 gainingno 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

 

‘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

 

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!