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Thinking with every muscle

The Thinker

I went to Tate Modern recently, to see ‘The Making of Rodin’ exhibition – the first time I had been to a Gallery for some time, because of the restrictions of Covid. It was so good to see art again!  The exhibition is full of Rodin’s plaster models for his sculptures and pieces that  experiment with expressing movement and form.

‘The Thinker’ by Rodin illustrates the concept that bodies express our thoughts and feelings, that mind and body work together as one unit. This concept underpins F M Alexander’s technique that we still teach today. Many people associate the Alexander Technique with issues such as reducing back pain, which it has been proven to do. But AT work goes far deeper than people realise. For instance, are we aware when react tensely to difficult situations and emotions, contributing to problems like back pain? If so, we can learn how to avoid doing that.

Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’ at Tate Modern 2021

I was interested to see a great quote from Rodin on the wall. This reveals how Rodin made the Thinker think with his whole body:

‘What makes my Thinker think is that he thinks not only with his brain, with his knitted brow, his distended nostrils and compressed lips, but with every muscle of his arms, back and legs, with his clenched fist, and gripping toes‘.

Alexander would have appreciated this statement as he believed that we tend to ‘translate everything, whether physical, mental or spiritual, into muscular tension’ (AphorismsHowever Alexander realised this tendency can be modified by our conscious control. We can re-educate ourselves to respond differently.

Psychophysical Re-education

Alexander used the term ‘Psycho-physical‘ to express this mind-body unity:

The term is used…. to indicate the impossibility of separating “physical” and “mental” operations in … the working of the human organism’ .  Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual 1923.  

Alexander goes on to say that he was forced to use the words ‘psycho’ and ‘physical’ because there is no other word that expresses the amalgamation of both concepts.

If Rodin’s Thinker was having Alexander lessons  his teacher could explore how much pain he experiences in those scrunched up feet, neck, shoulders, wrist and back. How often does he assume that position? Is it a habit, or a one-off expression of internal turmoil? Can he re-educate himself, let go of his habit and learn to change the way he reacts to situations? If so, he can learn how to continue his thinking, but without creating more pain.

Psycho?

Unfortunately Alfred Hitchcock’s film ‘Psycho’ has greatly contributed to ‘psycho’ being associated with mental instability and psychosis. This can create a misunderstanding when AT teachers use the word psychophysical! But the AT is not to do with mental illness.

Alexander described his work in a rather heavy-handed Victorian style. Unfortunately, this also includes passages that are considered offensive and racist today. So teachers are searching for a new vocabulary to express Alexander’s ideas and his books are gradually being edited to make them easier to read and more acceptable for all audiences. The essence of Alexander’s discoveries is still valuable today, so it is well worth reading his books, with an understanding that present day teachers do not hold his bigoted Victorian views of the world.

All Aspects of our Being

An important part of Alexander lessons is when pupils begin to understand this concept of psychophysical unity, of how our minds and bodies work together.  When we accept and embrace this fact, changes can take place.  This can be very healing.

‘Having someone remind me how to connect with myself again and to be aware of how I use all aspects of my being was exactly what I needed’ 

The Jigsaw Challenge

The Jigsaw’s Out of it’s Box

It’s that time of year. Out comes my new jigsaw and now I have several challenges. The first was to decide if the table should be covered with jigsaw pieces. With Covid around, there will be no guests at Christmas, so yes, the table can hold the jigsaw.

The second challenge is to find all the edges and line them up where they might fit. I’ve started hunting and I gently rummage around in the box. I explore carefully, so I don’t break any of the jigsaw pieces.  I’m already confused because the corner pieces are different colours from the image on the box!

 

So many jigsaw pieces to hunt through!

I’ve not done a jigsaw for a long time and I need to get my eye in. It’s hard to find what I’m looking for. I notice my shoulders and upper back are beginning to ache a little – that didn’t take long to happen! So what was I doing to cause that?

I had got lost in the activity and I had begun curl down over the table to see the jigsaw. So I’d started getting a bit tense and then achy. How easy it is to lose awareness of our body use when we get engrossed! It’s not surprising I was a bit achy, when you remember that our heads weigh approx 5 kg or 11 pounds. Our heads are so heavy, if we don’t support them with an easy poise and balance, the weight will drag us down.

My grandson is a good teacher! See how freely and easily he looks down

My grandson is a good teacher for me and when I see how he moves, it reminds me to come back myself and think of my own body use. He has such a lovely easy way of moving. Here he is looking down, yet he is not dropping his head and neck forwards as I had just done. He is folding forwards from his hip joints and his muscles are working together in a quiet and balanced way – just as I teach people to do in Alexander lessons.  (Teacher teach thyself!) You can sense the connection from the top of his head, along his spine and down to his coccyx and sitting bones.

So my third and most important challenge is that when I do my jigsaw, I will to do so with more awareness. I’ll hinge forwards from my hip joints so that I can see what I’m doing and take frequent breaks – as I do when I’m working at my computer. Maybe I don’t need to play so intensely (in-tensely – got it?).  Just because I’m having fun and supposedly relaxing, it doesn’t mean that I don’t need to look after myself.

Free Alexander Technique for NHS Staff

Six Free Alexander Technique online lessons for NHS staff

I am offering NHS staff six AT lessons as a thank you for all their dedication and hard work, particularly during this COVID-19 pandemic. These can be followed up with some further lessons at a discounted rate.  Just contact me using an NHS email address.

Other people are of course welcome to have some AT lessons but will be charged for these, at 20% the cost of traditional lessons.

These are internet lessons on Zoom, so will not include the hands-on element of Alexander work. I am registered with both STAT and CNHC  and have an enhanced DBS certificate

The Constructive Rest Lying Down Procedure

Learning the lying down procedure, for instance, gives us a tool we can use to relax, reduce tension and pain, plus recharge our batteries.  Using this procedure daily can help us avoid getting into burnout through overwork, whilst reducing problems such as back pain.

In lessons, we also begin to recognise our habits of body use that cause us problems.  When we learn to let go of unhelpful habits and reactions, we can move and act more mindfully in the world, enhancing our wellbeing.

Testimonial from a GP

You may like to read a testimonial from a student of mine, a GP and amateur musician:

 “A very committed and experienced teacher

… As an amateur musician with problems of tension getting in the way of performance, I was delighted to discover that (Hilary) had experience with helping musicians, but I can thoroughly recommend her to musicians and non-musicians alike. She is a very committed and experienced teacher. I have found it fascinating to explore with Hilary the more general applications of the Alexander technique. This has led me to some important insights about the relationship between my mind and my body… An excellent listener, she is able to focus on whatever problem I bring with kindness, encouragement and gentle hands-on expertise. She always strives to find the root of issues of bad use of the body, with suggestions on how to work on them…  When it is time to leave, I always feel revitalised both in mind and body. Dec 2018. “

Martha ~ Doctor and Musician
NHS offer is once again available until April 2021

Contact me   If you are an NHS staff member, please use your NHS email address

International Alexander Awareness Week

The first International Alexander Awareness Week (IAAW) took place in June 2004, when the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique, STAT, decided to inaugurate IAAW week, in order to celebrate the fact that the Alexander Technique had been taught in the UK for 100 years. In 2018 the name’s been changed to ‘Alexander Technique Week’ and it now takes place in October each year.

FM Alexander

F M Alexander came to live in London at the age of thirty five, in 1904, and began to teach his eponymous Technique here. Initially, Alexander and his work were unknown in London but he was recommended to various eminent doctors and his teaching practice soon grew. Alexander developed a reputation for teaching children and actors how to improve their general use so that they could breathe properly. By 1910, F.M. as he was known by his pupils, published his first book in the UK, ‘Man’s Supreme Inheritance’. In 1931 Alexander began the first Teacher Training Course in London and although he also taught in the USA and South Africa, Alexander continued to work in the UK until he died in 1955, shortly before his 87th birthday. His work is recognised the world over and he has been rated as one of the top ‘200 people who made Australia great’. So it’s well worth celebrating his work!

F M Alexander plaque

Centennial Celebrations

The 2004 Centennial celebrations were held in the UK, Australia and the USA, with a week full of activities and classes in the Alexander Technique. This first IAAW week was so successful that it has now become an annual event promoted by the International Affiliated Societies of Teachers of the Alexander Technique. ATAS is made up of the fifteen national Alexander Technique Societies that uphold the standards of Alexander Technique teacher training and practice around the world. ATAS also acts as an umbrella body for the many teachers who live in countries that have not created their own A/T Society as yet.

IAAW is celebrated in the fifteen countries represented by ATAS, with a variety of events such as Introductory Workshops and talks, that focus each year on a different theme to do with the experience of learning and teaching the Alexander Technique,  For instance, the 2008 theme was linked to the publication of the major ATEAM research trial, published in the BMJ in August 2008, which shows that the Alexander Technique can offer those who learn it, the chance to find an end to back pain. Other themes have been coping with stress and avoiding the problems associated with ‘text neck’.  Each year, so far, there have also been special IAAW Discount Vouchers available, which entitle people to one reduced rate lesson with participating teachers such as myself.

2008 saw another important anniversary for STAT, which was formed in 1958 by a group of Alexander Technique teachers. All had been trained by F M Alexander himself, who had died in 1955. The formation of STAT brought together most of the existing Alexander teachers and the Society began the process of regulating the profession. STAT is the oldest and largest professional organisation devoted to the Alexander Technique. Currently, there are over 2,500 registered teaching members within STAT and its Affiliated Societies worldwide.

STAT aims to ensure that a high level of Teacher Training and teaching practice are maintained throughout the profession. STAT is the professional body to which I belong and in order to become a teaching member of the Society, we are obliged to train at one of the STAT recognised 3 year Teacher Training Courses. Each STAT registered teacher is required to adhere to the Society’s published Code of Professional Conduct and Competence, and to be covered by professional indemnity insurance.

Back Pain and High Heels

Are High Heels an Alexander Technique Teacher’s friend?

Now you might think this a strange question for an Alexander teacher to ask and in many ways I would agree with you. High heels produce so many back and foot problems for their wearers and many of them come for Alexander lessons – so it could be said that high heels help to keep us in work! But of course I do encourage women not to wear them. 

I actually feel very concerned when I see all these fashionable young women teetering around on stilettos, often wearing a restricting tight skirt, sometimes holding a toddler and pushing a push chair; I also see their exaggeratedly-arching lower backs and various other sorts of distorted body use and crippled toes. It is obvious to see that women wearing very high heels are creating and storing up trouble in their bodies – and they are creating work for doctors, Alexander teachers, osteopaths, podiatrists and others for years to come. This may be helpful to Alexander Teachers during a recession but that gives me no pleasure – those shoes could work out to be very expensive for the wearers in the long run!

 

Killer heels

Photo: Wysokie Obcasy

‘Invasion of the Killer Heels’

This was the name of an excellent article ‘on a very modern torture’ by Polly Vernon in The Times Magazine (22.10.11). Heel heights were rated for pain and discomfort and the 6 1/2 inch high heels were give a 10/10 pain rating! Why do women agree to suffer in this way? The article discusses back and foot pain and a podiatrist states that he has treated women whose tendons ‘were so retracted they can’t put their foot on the floor any more’. An exaggerated claim? Unfortunately, no.

I had two Alexander pupils who always wore high heels – even their slippers had high heels! The result? Neither of them could put their heels down on the floor because it was too painful to do so! Their muscles and tendons had shortened so much from wearing high heels. Both women had a lot of lower back pain and when they lay down there was a gap of several inches between their lower back and the Alexander table (far more than most people). Some other pupils have had grossly distorted toes and painful bunyons, because of their high heels.

Sadly,they preferred to keep their high heels, rather than allow their bodies to become less distorted. However it is possible, through having AT lessons, to undo some of the damage, if women are willing to make some changes in their footwear and in their habitual way of using their bodies.

Why are high heels so damaging?

When such high heels are worn, the pelvis gets thrust too far forwards and extra weight is pushed down into the hip joints, and weight goes too far forwards over the toes. The higher the heels, the stronger the imbalance that is created. In order to be able to stand upright, the upper body then has to pull backwards, creating an exaggerated curvature in the lower back – lordosis – which compresses the vertebrae and frequently ends up damaging the discs and in particular the lumbar spine, which causes lower back pain. These downward thrusts interfere with the way the body naturally functions and can also distort the woman’s natural poise.

The women’s poor feet in these high heels are also damaged. The higher the heel and the more pointed the shoes, the more damage is caused. The toes are kept in a dancer’s demi pointe position with the weight of the body thrust onto the ball of the foot – for hours on end, often with the toes crumpled up in order to fit into the narrow shoe. These increasingly painful feet now begin to create their own problems and also interfere with the way the woman stands, walks and generally uses her body.

So what can happen by wearing high heels is:

  • Bunions and hammer toes can develop and the feet are distorted
  • Tendons shorten so the heels will not go down to the floor
  • The feet and ankles become over stretched and painful
  • Calf muscles are strained
  • Knees are damaged
  • The hip joints can get damaged
  • The spine is damaged and over-curved
  • The neck can also get damaged
  • The woman’s posture can become permanently distorted

 

Are high heels really worth this risk and high cost?

As for the woman’s ability to run if she so chooses, or more importantly needs to run, forget it. Fashionable women today are almost as packaged up and hobbled as Chinese women used to be in centuries past, when they had their feet bound-up so they were permenantly damaged. And whatever happened to Women’s Lib?

Mary Wollstonecraft, writing back in the eighteenth century would probably despair if she saw that many women in the twenty first century still display similar habits to most women in her time. How little things seem to have changed:

‘To preserve personal beauty, women’s glory! the limbs and faculties are cramped with worse than Chinese bands, and the sedentary life which they are condemned to live…. weakens the muscles and relaxes the nerves’. Wollstonecraftcomplained women were ‘slaves to their bodies, and glory in their subjection… Taught from infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison’.

How can the Alexander Technique help?

It is an interesting challenge to an Alexander teacher to work with such problems and to help women to feel good about themselves just as they are, so the urge to wear such attire, depite the risk they pose for the wearer, can gradually lessen. Women gradually understand that they can only lose their various aches and pains when they are willing to make changes in the way they habitually dress, as well as the way they habitually use their bodies.

However, with a willingness to learn the Alexander Technique and apply it in their daily life, people can gradually learn to ease the discomfort in their backs and legs and avoid such problems in the future. During lessons, women can learn how to let their tightly-arching lower backs to release and lengthen out again, so that less pressure in put on that area. With the teacher’s guidance, they will be able to re-align their bodies and regain their natural body balance. For women who are very conscious of the way they look, a good incentive for them to make such changes is that they will also help themselves regain their natural poise and elegance during Alexander Lessons.

Save your high heels for parties!

So please inhibit and say ‘no’ to wearing such high heels regularly. If you really love to wear them, save them for extra-special occasions and resist the temptation to wear them all the time. If you sense that aches and pains are starting to arrive in your body, address the problems now and learn the Alexander Technique before the problems build up and create real pain.

You will soon be grateful if you learn to look after yourself – but do it sooner, rather than later. 

Free Yourself from the Mousetrap

Does Your Mouse Frighten You?

I mean, of course, the mouse that lives on your desk! When you look at your mouse, mobile phone, or musical instrument, or you have to perform an activity regularly such as pushing a baby buggy, do you get a sinking feeling and feel afraid that it is gradually causing you to have repetitive strain injury, RSI, carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) or some other form of occupational overuse syndrome (OOS)?  Do you fear you will experience increasing and continuous pain as you work?

At this point, many people decide to seek help to re-organise their desk set-up and buy an ergonomic mouse, new keyboard, new mobile phone, violin chin rest or new whatever, and hope these will solve the problem. It is certainly important to adjust equipment to be in the best position for us in relation to our bodies and to use the most suitable tools for the task at hand. This also applies to people that hot desk at work (or share cars), who need to make sure they adjust the VDU, keyboad, mouse and seat to suit themselves – not to leave them in the position that suited the person who used them previously. That’s a good start.

New equipment may also help them and the market is now full of lots of different types of mice and keyboards, many of which are ergonomically designed and marketed as being the best way to prevent RSI.  Some of these can indeed help reduce RSI pain, at least for a while and they do require us to use our hands and muscles differently, so are worth considering. However, many sufferers who have invested in ergonomic equipment are disappointed to find that the RSI returns again. They are naturally baffled and ask ‘Why?’

Why Don’t Ergonomic Mice and Keyboards Solve the Problem Long Term?

Well, if you think about it, the mouse and keyboard may change if you buy a new design but, importantly, the manner in which they are being used almost certainly hasn’t changed – often the user just gets more tense with worry and is in yet more pain. This is a distressing situation to be in but there can be a way out of the mousetrap.

RSI sufferers (and indeed many people who experience pain such as headaches and backache whilst working), need to get to the point of recognising that a new mouse, new desk, phone, erganomic chair, or some other new piece of equipment, is only one part of the answer. HOW you use your equipment is the next important question to address.

Mouse

So What Can be Done?

Make a start by taking frequent breaks and do less! Stop before the pain builds up and refuse to get into a ‘driven’ or superwoman mode. Choose to work in a calm, balanced, freely relaxed and thoughtful manner. It is very different to work freely and quickly, rather than being driven and rushed, full of tension. Alexander Technique lessons can help you achieve this. 

Explore learning to do some actions and jobs with your non-dominant hand, to help us be aware of how you perform these actions and to help balance your body-use. For instance, do you always open doors and turn lights on off with your dominant hand? It can be fun doing it differently and gradually trying more complicated activities such as being able to use a mouse with either hand.  This can be particularly helpful if you have RSI – but take care, sometimes people end up with both hands hurting, if they perform actions in the same old habitual way that they have done for years! 

When someone is in severe pain Doctors often say that it’s necessary to rest and immobilise the hand as much as possible, helped by wearing a firm wrist support that restricts wrist movements and over flexion.  If you wear a support for too long, it is possible to lose strength in the muscles but using one for a while can often help, if we learn from the process. Investing in a computer programme that limits the time you spend working before you take a rest, or using a voice-activated programme can also help people change the way they work and minimising the time they need to use their damaged hands. These measures allow the muscles and tendons to calm down and begin to heal. However, at some stage the sore hands and arms will need to be used again but, if something hasn’t changed in the way they are being used, the pain is likely to come back again.

Essential to getting better is to begin to understand what we personally do when we work that contributes to our problems. This is not about blame but about practicalities. For instance working when feeling stressed, exhausted, angry, miserable or afraid, or driving ourselves towards a deadline, or over-practising playing a musical instrument, usually gets us tensing, winding ourselves up and contracting down into ourselves. This hinders the free use of our hands and arms as we work and tends to create discomfort which can, if it happens continually, build up into the pain associated with RSI. Recognising our habitual patterns means that we can learn to let go of them and can therefore make different choices about how we act (or not act) so that our bodies have a chance to heal.

Don’t feel trapped by RSI – Learning Alexander Technique Can Help

Many clients come to Alexander Technique lessons at the point when they just don’t know what to do and feel trapped by RSI. In AT lessons, you willl be helped to recognise your patterns of movement, attitudes and reactions that you habitually get into when you go about your activities and, with the help of the teacher, you can learn to let go of those that don’t serve you. For example, many people needlessly tighten their neck muscles as they sit down and stand up. Many clients tense their hands as they reach out towards the keyboard and mouse, particularly if they expect to get pain when they use them – but they are not aware of the fact that they are reacting to this little mouse as if it has become a monster, so don’t at first recognise that they tighten up their muscles and defend themselves against it. Very often, people begin to tighten their muscles at the mere thought of working, let alone touching the monster mouse!

Ask yourself ‘what do I think and feel about using a mouse/ violin; do I react to the mouse/phone by tensing my hands;  do I notice any other bodily tension as I begin to work?’ Questions such as these, and their answers, can be very revealing about how we use ourselves as we work, so our subtle habits and reactions are revealed and are well worth thinking about. These subtle but continual patterns of reacting to situations with tension all build up and are the sort of thing that can make using a mouse more and more uncomfortable, so that muscles and tendons are continually irritated, which gradually causes pain.

In order to change such habits, the Alexander teacher’s hands gently touch pupils as they make simple movements, so that the teacher can guide them and help them become aware of how they react to the thought of moving, how they move and what they are doing whilst they move.

As F M Alexander put it You are not here to do exercises or to learn to do something right, but to get able to meet a stimulus that always puts you wrong and to learn to deal with it…… It is what you have been doing in preparation that counts when it comes to making movements’ (Aphorisms)

The teacher will, for instance, gently touch a pupil’s neck muscles whilst she is moving to sit down, so she can recognise her habit of tightening and shortening her muscles and gradually, she can learn to stop doing this. Similarly, once a basic understanding of the Technique has been obtained by the pupil, habits such as tightening the hands whilst using a mouse or musical instrument can be worked on in lessons, so the the pupil can begin to approach those activities in a quieter manner that allows the hands to be used more freely and easily, which reduces or even stops the pain.

However, we tend to keep going back to our old habits because they are familiar to us, so we have to keep reminding ourselves to use ourselves in the new, freer manner. Pain is a good teacher too! It will soon remind RSI sufferers if old habits are creeping back in and causing problems. If this happens, it is important to use all the Alexander Technique that has been learned and to consciously think about our use whilst working.  In this way, we can usually stop the pain again – but the main aim is to say ‘no‘ to reacting in our old way, so that we avoid getting back into our old habits that damage us and then we have a chance to move and act differently and avoid pain returning in the future.

Lessons and Workshops

Individual lessons for men and women are regularly available.

My next Intro Workshop is for Women on International Women’s Day 8 March

My Alexander Technique Journey

 

One student’s route through to training as an Alexander Technique Teacher

I started to have Alexander Technique lessons with Hilary King in 1988 after a lower back injury at work and persistent pain.  I loved the AT lessons immediately and especially enjoyed using semi-supine to control any discomfort and pain and also to reduce stress.   I found Hilary was always very compassionate and attentive and took a lively interest in my work and lifestyle, to try to understand how my difficulties may have manifested. She was always very calm and considerate, paid attention to detail and was a very patient teacher, showing enthusiasm and commitment to the lessons.

I continued to have lessons for well over 12 months and during that time I became pregnant and Hilary saw me right through my pregnancy and for a few lessons after I had given birth.

After that, family life and work took over but AT thoughts were always in the back of my mind and I often gave informal advice to family and friends, lying down ‘talk-throughs’ to my young children and I often thought about how I was using my body for myself whether I was sitting, standing or lying down.  I even dreamed of training to become an AT teacher……….

Roll on to 2010 and my work and family life changed dramatically.  My children had flown the nest and my work pattern changed for the better, with reduced hours and stress.  So I started to think about AT training again.  I ‘Googled’ Alexander Technique and immediately found Hilary was running an International Women’s Day workshop in March.  The forces were speaking to me, I had to go!

And so, in September 2011 I started training to be an AT teacher at LCATT (London Centre for Alexander Teaching and Training), where Hilary also teachers, and I graduated in July 2014.

It was a wonderful three years including extensive aspects of bodywork, mindfulness and nurturing the soul and now, whilst being semi-retired, I have embarked on a new career. How wonderful is that! 

Thank you Alexander Technique and to Hilary for making my introduction to the AT so enlightening.

 

Deborah Levy

Deborah teaches in Crouch End, N8