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!

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!

Running with Ease

Born to Run: The Secrets of Kenyan Athletics.

It’s not often that there are two excellent programmes on TV that can be related to the ideas behind the Alexander Technique but BBC4 had another such programme which looked at the training of Kenyan boys and girls to become runners. This should still be on iPlayer.
The programme showed runner after runner moving with easy grace, poise and a focussed but relaxed style. Irish runner Eamonn Coghlan was amazed at the contrast between the way he’d trained – he’d expected to run himself ‘into the ground’ to the extent that he would be sick at the end of a training session! This is another example of what F M Alexander would call ‘end-gaining’. Coghlan could see that these young Kenyans always looked relaxed in training sessions and they could have gone on running even further than they did. 
Brother Colm O’Connell, who coaches the Kenyans, said he aimed to build up each runner’s confidence in himself / herself and he had five main points he wanted runners to concentrate on during training:
Very neat – and very much encouraging people to think about their use and the ‘means whereby’ they run, rather than just thinking about winning.  And they are fast – these Kenyans win many international races. This formula is quite similar to that advocated by Malcolm Balk in ‘Master the Art of Running’ a great book if you want to explore how to apply what you have learned in your Alexander lessons, to your own running. 

Phone Hilary to see if there’s still a place available: 020 7254 9206

Hearts and Minds

Heart v Mind: What Makes us Human?

This is an excellent programme shown on BB4 0n 10 July 2012, so it will still be available on iPlayer for a while to come.

David Malone explores our society’s conflicting views of the heart, with the view from people with a poetic sensibility describing the heart as being central to our emotional states, whilst a more anatomical, mechanical approach sees the heart purely as a pump which is part of our physical make-up.

Contemporary research is taking place which bridges this gap and shows that the physical  heart has neurones that bring about changes, for instance in the heart-rate, in response to our empathic and emotional reactions.  

This is a fascinating programme that questions the mind-body split that F M Alexander was always challenging in his writing and when teaching his Technique. Keeping an awareness of these issues during Alexander lessons will surely enhance both the teaching and the learning experience.

This programme is well worth watching. Visit iPlayer to see it here 

Elisabeth Walker Interviewed on BBC Radio 4

Elisabeth Walker, the last remaining teacher who trained with F M Alexander himself, was interviewed on Woman’s Hour, BBC Radio 4 (12 June 2012).

Elisabeth Walker is surely a National Treasure who is still teaching in Oxford – at the age of 97!  She is a highly respected teacher and a wonderful advertisement for the Alexander Technique.  

Elisabeth Walker is the author of Forward and Away;  her Memoirs,  published by Gavin Walker (2008).

Shoulder Tension ~ Learn to Let it Go

In a previous Blog entry which explored the concept of end-gaining I mentioned a very stressed young woman who had come to me for her first Alexander Technique lesson, because she had high blood pressure levels, migraines and lots of tension in her neck and shoulders, which wouldn’t go away despite trying various things, including physio and yoga.

When she came back for her second AT lesson, we were both amazed by how much she had been able to help herself by beginning to become aware of habits of tension and by practising the lying down procedure regularly during the preceding week. She was brilliant and managed to do this two or three times a day – working on herself that frequently really paid off.
She told me ‘ It’s been wonderful. After doing the semi-supine procedure a few times, I suddenly thought to myself “Ah, that’s what it’s like to have free and relaxed shoulders!”. I felt so different and was a bit calmer at work. My boyfriend said ” It’s great you have found something, at last, that really works!”.’ 

This young woman committed herself to the Alexander Technique and has worked on herself regularly, with awareness, so she brought about some changes in herself remarkably quickly. She also noticed habit patterns of tightening in her jaw and in her legs, which she can gradually work on as she uses the Technique more in her daily life.
This really underlines the importance of people realising that the Technique is a learning process, not a treatment. When we are willing to take the work on board and think about our use on a regular basis during our activities, plus practise lying down in the semi-supine position, we can let go of many of our habits that create excessive tension – and thus bring about profound changes in ourselves.
Three other pupils have  dramatically reduced pain levels and RSI problems in their arms and shoulders, by being aware of how they use equipment such as computers and how they ride their bikes. Raising handlebars can help bring our bodies into better alignment but it is learning about the way we use our necks, arms and backs as we work, that really brings about the big changes for us all. 

One Child’s View of the Alexander Technique

This short piece was written by a young secondary school child for his Religious Studies homework and it illustrates an aspect of the Alexander Technique that is not often known by about many people, who often think that lessons are only about ‘sitting up straight’ – until they have experienced the work for themselves.

No mention of the Alexander Technique had been made by his school teacher. However, the boy had experienced some Alexander Technique for himself and he had also seen how people around him had changed in themselves, after taking a number of Alexander Lessons.

The boy’s words illustrate the fact that the Alexander Technique is a form of psychophysical learning which explores the relationship between the way we think and feel and the way we express those aspects of ourselves through the way we use our bodies. The Alexander Technique can even have aspects of being a spiritual experience – it’s not just a set of ordinary physical exercises that you do in order to improve your posture.

I will leave his homework to speak for itself.

A Child's View of the Alexander Technique.jpg

Uni Boat Race is extreme end-gaining

The University Boat Race 2012

This year’s boat race was dramatic and fraught, with a man swimming between the two boats and an oar breaking. At the end of the contest one of the crew, a 27 year old student doctor, collapsed and had to go to A & E. He said that he ‘didn’t remember anything about the race after the blade breaking’. The Oxford coach Sam Bowden was quoted on the BBC as saying “I think it was just (just?) somebody rowing themselves into a state of exhaustion”.
The use of the word ‘just’ gives away the predominant attitude in our society that such an occurrence is to be expected. But is this really a good way to look at things?

F M Alexander certainly did not think so and, referring to a photo of the 1931 Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race in which he thought the young men looked either ‘ tortured on a rack‘ or ‘in a trance‘ in their attempt to win the race, FM wrote:
‘Surely a university boat race should be a friendly contest between men animated by the sporting instinct…. It should be an experience of pleasure… not an unnatural struggle involving distortion and a loss of consciousness through the “determination” to gain an end even at the cost of personal exhaustion and damage…. in the long run he will defeat himself by his habit of concentrating on his end, without having first thought out the means whereby harmful by-products will not be created in the process of gaining it’. FMA – The Universal Constant in Living 1941.
This year, the exhausted bowman recovered the by the next day, thankfully. But is such a race – or even the jobs that keep so many people over-working in order to achieve ‘urgent’ goals – really worth the damage and illness that such end-gaining causes? It would be great if this young doctor-to-be could think about these issues before he starts taking on patients himself.
A young woman has just started taking Alexander lessons with me in order to address the damaging over-work in her life, that results in regular migraines and raised blood pressure, because of the tension and constantly high stress levels she experiences. This young woman has been end-gaining constantly, tending to focus on deadlines and other people’s needs, at the expense of her own health. She has wisely decided to change that way of working.
We cannot always alter the level of stress in our lives but where we can, it’s sensible to change things to make life more manageable for ourselves. What we can do, is learn to change the way we react to stressful situations so that we can calm our nervous systems and musculature, reducing over-tension and discomfort. When we learn and apply the Alexander Technique in our daily lives, we gain an incredibly useful tool to use, to help us cope with stress. One study has even shown that practising the AT helps reduce high levels of blood pressure.
The semi-supine lying down procedure is a good place to start the process of calming ourselves down and then we can gradually include the Technique more widely and think about the way we perform our activities so that we can look after ourselves as well as our work – just as in Ella Fitzgerald’s song in the previous blog entry.

Tain’t what you do but the way that you do it….

Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘Tain’t what you do but the way that you do it’ 

Now that’s a great song and it has been suggested that it could be called ‘a hymn for the Alexander Technique’. Thanks to Margaret Almon ( US mosaic artist) for that great idea.

One of the main tenets of the Technique is precisely this, to be conscious of the way we perform our various activities, so that we can choose the most free and easy way of using our bodies for the task at hand. F M Alexander used to refer to the ‘means whereby’ we perform an activity as being crucial to the health of our bodies. He was adamant that when we get caught up in ‘end gaining‘, for instance when doing something like dancing or playing sports, we very often injure ourselves because we forget to pay attention to the way we do it and then self-medicate to cope with the pain we feel as a result..
This isn’t just something for high flyers to think about, it applies to everyday actions too. A pupil who came to me after a nasty bike accident, which had resulted in her experiencing lots of pain, said to me after she’d had a number of lessons and had taken herself off painkillers:
I now think painkillers are like evil tempters into end-gaining. It’s as if they say to you “go on, take me and do it all anyway” even when you know it would be best to stop that activity because it will hurt if you go on.’ 

Well put!
Think about how you work. When you sit at a desk, you can have the ‘perfect’ chair, desk and set-up at your disposal but if you sit in a distorted, collapsed or tense manner, giving yourself too few rests and keeping on working in order to to complete the latest deadline, you are likely to give yourself aches and pains – or may even develop more serious problems. However, when you learn to act with awareness and consciously use your body in a more balanced, poised and freely relaxed manner, pacing your work to a suitable level for your own needs, you can look after yourself and help prevent problems from developing.
If you would like help in finding out how to do this, you may like to try some Alexander lessons where such issues can be explored and worked on. 
You could also come to my next Taster Workshop on 21st April and find out more about how the Technique can help you if you learn it.
There’s a lovely version of Ella Fitzgerald singing ‘Tain’t what you do but the way that you do it’
on YouTube but for some reason I’m unable to link to it here, sorry.

Ban Backward-sloping School Chairs

One Cause of Back Pain
Richard Brennan, an Irish Alexander Technique teacher has created a petition which I fully support, that asks for backward-sloping school chairs to be made illegal in Ireland. However, I would also like this to happen in the UK – and elsewhere.
Why? Well the backward slope of the chair offers poor support to children’s backs and the backward angle of the seat encourages the child to curve their spines over their work, rather than to hinge forwards from the hip joints – a movement that allows the spine to remain lengthening. A long spine is a strong spine.
Backward Sloping School Chairs Cause Back Pain
BackCare UK and STAT argue that these chairs are a major cause of back problems in adults, as a result children using them for hours on end at school – because curling forwards in this way for hours on end encourages the mis-use of their bodies which causes damage such as kyphosis, resulting in back pain for many people later in life. (If you would like to see what kyphosis looks like, see my previous Blog entry here.)
Photos Copyright: Richard Brennan
Richar Brennan seated.jpg
Children who end up curving down over their desks may be learning with their heads but their bodies are being badly educated! Our language encourages a downward contraction as we work – for instance ‘Nose to the grindstone…. Getting down to work… She had her nose in a book…  I must say that adults have similar problems when using backward sloping chairs, whilst many pushchairs that crumple up a baby’s spine are problematic as well.
Using a seat wedge can help a child remain poised even in a backward sloping chair but how much better if the chairs were designed for people, not just for stacking.
Child Sitting.jpg
Of course, children can still slouch and end up with back pain,  even if they have the ‘perfect’ chair and desk to sit at and ultimately it is the way they sit and use their bodies that is crucial. Children can learn the Alexander Technique, which will help them to minimise the problems associated with poor body-use and this will help them avoid pain in the future. This process will be so much easier if children are also given decent seats to sit on whilst they are growing up, developing their own posture and learning how to use their bodies.
Sign the Petition
So please support Richard Brennan’s petition. Visit the URL below, Sign up and draw this issue to the attention of policy makers: