Sitting with Poise

Can we sit like this child?

 
The child below was photographed as she played with her friends. She was not posing for the camera and she displays a natural, lively, free and easy balance that she is unconsciously using. Children can very often sit like this for long periods of time without any strain but unfortunately many tend to lose this easy poise as they grow older. 
Why does this happen? Well, children can get bored or upset and express this in their bodies by tensing and crumpling up into themselves. The furniture they use may be unsuitable, like the backward sloping chairs that are often used in schools which many AT teachers and others are trying to ban. Children may grow suddenly, so they don’t quite know how to use their bodies because they can’t work out how big they are. They can spend hours slumped in front of the TV…. there can be many reasons for developing habits that disturb our balance and poise!
In Alexander lessons, we aim to help people to consciously find an inner balance within themselves so that they can sit and move around freely and easily like this child. Knowing our own habit patterns can help us let go them so that we can return to, or create, an easier poise that we can enjoy during daily activities such as computing or playing the piano (below).

 

 
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Sitting at a Piano
 
A young woman came for AT lessons recently and one of the things that brought her to me was that she had a lot of pain in her upper back when she played the piano, which she loves to do for relaxation but the pain was making it less enjoyable. 
 
During lessons it became clear that she had a habit of over-tensing her back muscles as she lifted her arms up when she pretended to use a keyboard. Interestingly, her back was much tighter when she thought of playing the piano, compared to when she thought of using a computer, even though the initial arm movements were so similar. This beautifully illustrates how our thoughts and attitudes influence the way we use our bodies.
 
After having just a couple of lessons, this student was pleased to report that the pain in her back was already much less. This was great to hear and it was clear that this young woman has really begun to take the AT work on board, has been observing herself as she played the piano and has regularly used the lying down procedure, all of which has helped her to begin to change her habits really quickly.
If we can all sit at desks and pianos with the easy, fluid balance that the child displays in the photo, we shall all be a lot happier in our bodies!

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:

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.
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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.

Using Monkey Position

Monkey Position – or Monkey Movement – or even Monkeying About?

 
The use of the term ‘monkey position’ in the Alexander Technique has perhaps led to people thinking of this as a held position, when in fact it is a very adaptable movement and a useful way of using the body in many different circumstances. (This AT use of the term has nothing to do with the term as used in the Kamasutra!).
 
Of course one may choose to hold this position for a time but it’s also possible to move through monkey to a lunge and back to monkey very smoothly and fluidly, for instance. F M Alexander called this ‘The position of mechanical advantage’ and it is indeed a functionally very good way of using the body, particularly for bending forwards in a way that protects the back.
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‘Monkey’ Used in Activity
The fact that monkey can be used in activity is shown in this photo of an eight year-old child having fun playing on a bouncy castle and she quite naturally uses monkey position as she lands from a jump. Her spine is lengthening beautifully and she is aligned and all ready to bounce upwards again, once she has completed landing. She will be able to let her head lead her into an upward movement with very little effort.
 
In Alexander lessons, it sometimes takes adults a while to re-find this free way of allowing the hips, knees and ankles to work together in order to allow themselves to bend forwards whilst maintaining the length in the spine – but it is such a useful action that it is well worth working on, particularly for people that experience back pain, as using a monkey position protects the spine whilst bending.
This is such a useful way to use the body for many activities in everyday life e.g.:
  • Small monkeys are useful when chopping vegetables, washing up, cleaning our teeth
  • Deeper monkeys are great to use when picking things up from the floor, putting our shoes on and gardening, for instance;
  • A modified monkey position is helpful when riding a bike, rather than curling down over the handlebars in a crunched-up manner………
As an Alexander teacher, I use monkey position and lunges a lot when I’m giving lessons, particularly when I’m working on people on the table during the active rest procedure.  This helps me look after my own back and use, and it is far less tiring to move around in this way, rather than just contracting myself down as I bend over my pupils.
Importantly, the way I use my own body affects the quality of my teaching, so it is important to maintain my own body use – and this is an vital part of the learning that every Alexander Technique teacher trainee has to take on board, before they qualify as teachers.

BBC Interview with Sir Colin Davis

‘Sir Colin Davis with Love’
The BBC produced a moving tribute to Sir Colin Davis, with two programmes, the first showing him conducting part of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis with the LSO in 2011, followed by an interview with John Bridcut, made shortly before Sir Colin died.
For anyone who knew Sir Colin, and anyone interested in conducting, this is a programme to watch and is still available on iPlayer until 10 May ’13 : 
Sir Colin was touchingly frank about his life, his conducting and his thoughts about dying. The programme mentioned how he was ‘almost self-taught’ as a conductor and how, as a young man in the 1960’s, he was fierily passionate when conducting. As an Alexander Teacher, I was pleased to hear Sir Colin recounting how the eminent conductor Sir Adrian Boult came to speak to him after an orchestral performance and gave him some valuable advice about the way he had been conducting – ‘My dear boy, you’ll be a cripple if you go on like that! You must go and see Dr. Barlow’  ( Dr Wilfred Barlow trained as a teacher with FM Alexander and taught near the Albert Hall and the Royal College of Music, and musicians were amongst his many pupils ) – and that was how Sir Colin ‘started my acquaintance with the Alexander Technique’.

The AT became an important part of Sir Colin’s life, with both he and his wife Shamsi (an Alexander teacher) supporting the Royal Academy of Music Alexander Technique fund for many years and they were both patrons of the Friends of the Alexander Technique charity.
If you read the comment on this entry by Robert Rickover, you can follow the link to hear an extended, philosophical and fascinating interview with Sir Colin Davis (and this will be available for a long time ). 

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 and Anxiety Conditions

Anxiety and Panic Attacks


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. Some people that have for many years found the benefits of using the Technique to help with anxiety, are musicians and other performers, who have found the Technique invaluable to them in coping with stage fright.

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! 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.  

Next Intro Workshop for Women & Teenage Girls 9 March.  Booking and info here.

Individual Lessons regularly available. You can contact me here.

Alexander Technique Intro for Women & Girls

Introductory Workshop for Women & Teenage Girls 
 
Saturday 9 March ~ 2.0pm – 4.30pm
£25
Fundraising for Mary on the Green 

 

Reg Charity: 1087866
 

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All fees will be donated to MOTG, towards erecting a monument to the pioneering feminist and human rights activist
Mary Wollstonecraft, here on Newington Green 
 
This Workshop is linked to International Women’s Day, giving women and girls a chance to try out the Alexander Technique in a small friendly group. There will be some gentle experiential games, demonstrations, hands-on work ~ plus a nice cup of tea or coffee. 
 
SMALL GROUP:  PHONE TO SEE IF PLACES ARE STILL AVAILABLE
020 7254 9206
 
 
A Reduced rate 1:1 lesson will also be available to participants
 
 
Mary Wollstonecraft
But with awareness and AT lessons, we can free ourselves from this prison!

The ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ habit

Research shows the British habit of having a ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ may reduce Cancer survival rates.

The BBC cites research that indicates people in the UK tend to be slower to contact their doctors when they notice possible cancer symptoms and this puts them more at risk than patients in most other countries. As with most conditions, the sooner there is a diagnosis, the more treatment options are likely to be available. Delaying diagnosis can reduce cancer survival rates (as can a lack of NHS funding!)

The article says this is particularly true of Brits over 50 years of age, who often say they are embarrassed and don’t want to waste the Dr’s time. Researchers also suggest they still have a ‘wartime mentality’ and feel they need to be stoic. Money worries and the recession add to fears about losing jobs, so many people feel less able to admit to having a problem, so it is understandable why the ‘stiff upper lip’ comes into play.  How sad – if only they could allow themselves to seek help sooner.
A Stiff Upper Lip impacts on other conditions too

Some people come for AT lessons because their constant back problems or RSI (for instance) have become so painful that they are finally driven to seek help and come to the Alexander Technique. Often they have tried so hard to do their best that they’ve lived and worked through stress, pain or illness for months before deciding to address the problem, which usually makes their condition worse and can lead to more serious illnesses and ME, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis. 
People often find great relief from their pain by learning how to use their bodies differently in AT lessons but the more entrenched their habits and the longer they have been around, the harder it is for change to happen and for healing to occur. When we are ready and willing to allow ourselves to change, change usually takes place – the earlier this process starts, the easier it is and the sooner we can feel more comfortable in our bodies. This isn’t necessarily age related. I have known some eighty year old pupils more open to allowing change than some fifteen year olds!

Don’t be so Stoic!

Most of the time we just don’t need to be so stoic (although very occasionally, it is a useful skill to draw upon).  It is important to know when we are stuck in a pattern that does not serve us so we need to stop working in the way in which we have been doing and to allow ourselves to ask for appropriate help. 

To illustrate what often happens, I will explore the problem of RSI. There are many people who constantly use computers or musical instruments and experience increasing levels of pain. They continue working right through the pain in order to meet deadlines and they stoically believe they have to keep on going, despite their discomfort. This is not a very pleasant way to live and yet many people ‘keep a stiff upper lip’ and keep working, getting caught in the mouse trap. Changing the mouse may help briefly but then the pain tends to come back with overuse – unless the way they work and use their bodies also gets changed. Far better to seek help quickly, as one drummer recently did, in the very first weeks of having painful arms.

It’s OK to seek help sooner ~ Know when to STOP

My second example is of a new AT pupil who described her experience of previously having ME – I’ll call her Mary. As a younger woman, she had been both working and attending college at the same time and was doing far too much. She also had a full social life and chose not to take any of her holiday for a full calendar year. Then Mary became ill with sinus problems which just wouldn’t go away but she ‘just kept on working’ through her illness – until she found she couldn’t walk. Mary ended up in hospital for a week and spent three months being ‘out of it’ and unable to walk. Her body had rather dramatically told her to stop being so stoic and to stop overworking! 

Mary began to recover and to walk again. She changed her attitude towards work and her studies, so that she did a lot less and did not overstretch herself. The ME lasted for four years or so, which is rather less than it takes many people to recover and this may largely be due to the fact
that Mary took her condition seriously and made important changes in her attitude towards the way
she worked, cutting out everything unnecessary and ‘extra’, which gradually allowed her body to heal and her health to improve.

Wisely, Mary has taken a sabbatical in order to avoid going back into her old patterns of overwork. She wants to stay in touch with what is really important to her and has started having Alexander lessons in order to enhance this process 
Many people over the years have found that learning the Alexander Technique can help them to manage conditions like ME, RSI and back pain, as they begin to fine tune their energy and tension levels and learn to pace themselves better. 
The Technique not a cure-all but most people find the work incredibly helpful in all sorts of different situations and conditions – it can even help you free your jaw, smile and begin to let go of a habitual urge to keep a stiff upper lip!

F M Alexander’s Birthday

F M Alexander’s Birthday ~ 20 January 1869 – 10 October 1956


Frederick Matthias Alexander was born 144 years ago today, in a rural area of Tasmania which has unfortunately, been in the news recently for having major bush fires – whilst here in London we have what is for us, quite a lot of snow.
I am very grateful to Alexander for having developed his Technique, as it continually proves to be so useful and rewarding to use and I include as an important part of my daily life. Not only do I enjoy teaching the Technique but I apply FM’s work all the time – and right now the Technique really helps me when I have to cope with maintaining my balance as I walk around on slippery pavements and snow!
This process has been aided by my fitting ice grips to my boots and this has made it far easier to think about my use as I walk, as I’m not continually worried about falling down.
It is so easy to tense up our legs and hips when trying not to slip on the ice – but this really doesn’t help! The tension tends to go right up into our backs, which then restricts our breathing. Another unhelpful habit is to bend over to look down at the snowy pathway, which pulls people off balance. We move much more freely when we are poised and avoid getting into such unhelpful habits.
I also notice how important it is to keep breathing easily through my nose, so that the cold air gets a chance to warm up a little before it reaches my lungs. When we allow our shoulders to remain loose, plus free up our backs, abdomen and hips, rather than hunching against the cold, our lungs also work more easily and freely. Alexander was known by some people as ‘The Breathing Man’ and when I apply the Technique in these ways, I can begin to appreciate just why he gained that name.
Thank You Mr Alexander
So thank you Mr Alexander for developing your Technique ~ and for teaching other teachers, so that they have spread the AT work far across the world.