Lengthening the back is simple to do, but has a complex effect on the body. FM Alexander described it like a piece of paper folded in half and opened again. The fold would leave a shortened piece of paper even when laid flat. Our backs get shorter even though it feels like the same back. Please remember that this part of the Alexander Technique is the next stage after stopping, freeing the neck and allowing the head to go up.
Our bodies get folded in many different ways. Vertebrae are stacked, slipped or bulged out of place by pulling too hard with certain muscles. They all work together and against each other to some degree.
The trapezius muscle is a huge influence on our length. When its working badly it gives no support at the base of the neck (C7 ish) and the collarbone is thrown forwards with the above vertebrae. This raises up and pushes the trapezius into the base of the neck rounding the back and shortening it. This in turn pulls the top of the rib cage forwards, and the bottom of the ribs back heavily restricting our breathing; fixing the diaphragm, reducing lung capacity and narrowing our trachea whilst throwing the shoulders forwards.
And if you’ve looked at how to widen the back you’ll know that the latissimus dorsi connect from the lower back to the upper arms. So as your shoulders roll forwards and inwards (narrowing) it will also shorten the back. This also throws the hips back and tightens the psoas muscle. So all of these muscular pulls influence each other. And I’ve not mentioned the effects of the arms and legs of the hands and feet, because that’s another subject. Also it’s important to remember that the neck, head and torso/back relationship has a much bigger influence than anything else.
The abdominal muscles also have an important role to play. So often we tighten our bellies. There are about 5 layers of muscle in the belly. So when these muscles are contracted they shorten in the front of the torso. This contributes to fixing the ribs and diaphragm which are close by. The balancing layers of muscles in the back, including the psoas and latissimus get over tightened to compensate and we end up with more fo the same shortening again.
A great way to let go of unnecessary tension in your belly is to imagine you have drank 10 pints of guinness. Just don’t behave or balance like it!
Walking back from a day at the pub on the river one of my friends said “I think I drank 10 pints of guinness today”. On hearing that I noticed my belly completely let go. This was a great feeling. Being in a rowing lycra all the time and doing lots of sit ups was a way of creating a very held and tight belly for me. That had become my normal, as it is for many people that I work with. Letting go was such a welcome release. Just thinking I had drank that much made my body rethink itself and function better. Of course you don’t have to drink 10 pints of guinness, you just have to let go.
It’s important to think of the head going up, asking the back to lengthen and to drive, pull the hips down or imagine that you’re standing on your hips to lengthen. You have to encourage a shape to your back. But equally if not more importantly you must prevent, stop or not do the whole host of things I’ve mentioned previously! So there’s a lot to think about and observe. This is not independent of the other directions, they all work together. All together, one after the other. Interdependent, coordinated, call it what you will, they all need each other to work effectively.
Alexander Technique exercises have different effects and intent to regular exercises. The three most important exercises are Semi Supine, Monkey and The Whispered 'Ah', but they come with a warning. They aren’t exercises in the same category as running or swimming. They won’t get you out of breath in the same way, but they can help you to perform at sports better. Calisthenics like push ups or sit ups again belong in a very different category. If you want to get maximum benefit from the Alexander Technique you are better off avoiding calisthenics entirely.
Before I start talking about these exercises it’s very important to remember that without the hands on guidance of an Alexander Technique Teacher you won’t be able to practice properly and these exercises will have little or no effect. Apart from semi supine perhaps.
You could make the argument that it’s better not to mention anything at all. That you’re better off not knowing. Having been taught that way myself, it lead to more questions and confusion. Alexander Technique Exercises are really worth mentioning because they will help you to understand what functioning you are trying to promote in yourself.
First and foremost Alexander Technique is a technique for living. It comes from the fabric of life. Processes that occur in the body under the right conditions are encouraged to happen by getting out of our own way. Once you take that approach everything else will follow and you will make gains. Ignore it and nothing will change.
“When an investigation comes to be made, it will be found that every single thing we are doing in the work is exactly what is being done in Nature where the conditions are right, the difference being that we are learning to do it consciously.” - FM Alexander
This is probably the most practical exercise because you are passively inhibiting your misuse. Put another way; you limit how far you go wrong by doing nothing. That’s not to say that you should use this exercise passively. You can be very active, telling your body what not to do. In Semi supine you have so many reference points in contact; the head resting on the books, back, upper arms and feet resting on the floor. It is so much harder to do something harmful to yourself in this position than any other. The benefits are many and wide ranging. You can find out how to semi supine here.
Also known as the position of mechanical advantage. You can see how this arrangement is utilised by skiers, wrestlers, ice hockey players to name but a few. They might not be performing it very well though! It's the practical consideration for anyone wanting to get themselves lower to do something to stress the back less and maintain tone. But it’s not just a case of bending at the knees. For many people with bad use, in particular back pain even when they bend from the knees or hip joint they still end up in trouble. Often they are bending from the waist (top of the pelvis) instead of the hip joint because of their established habit.
Monkey, used in practice of the Alexander Technique is a way to re educate these habits, redistributing the load of the spine so the joints hinge effectively and muscular release combines with a gathering of of the muscles to make this position more and more effortless. As mentioned before I cannot stress enough how important it is to be well set up before attempting this. If you find yourself trying to tough it out and stay there for longer, stop. You are missing the point. Monkey can be used like horse stance in QiGong and Kung Fu. With this idea that the longer you stay there eventually the muscles will strengthen up and keep releasing. This is rarely the case and just leads to more tightening up 95% of the time. This is not the attitude to succeed in Alexander Technique.
When you move from standing or sitting into Monkey you are encouraging all the same things to happen as before; allowing the neck to be free, in order to allow the head to go forwards (more like face forwards) and up, in order to allow the back to lengthen and widen. You must view monkey as a stop between sitting and standing. If you don’t have effective control over your neck, head and back, if the head isn’t leading and counterbalancing the spine to create an antagonistic stretch then it will become hard work for your joints and back.
With a good neck, head and back relationship Monkey will strengthen, firm up and emphasise the freedom and stability gained by the release. This should be an enjoyable and grounding process. You don’t need to spend a long time in Monkey. It can be effectively explored just by walking around, then stopping, then after going through the process going into Monkey. Remember Monkey is what you are inhibiting. You always have the option not to do it. And you can always choose something completely different.
You have to remember that these exercises or games are only there to emphasise the inhibition and direction already present in you. If it’s not there you can miss the point entirely, and in some cases make things worse. I cannot stress this enough.
This exercise comes with the most severest of warnings because it deals with your breathing. This is such a delicate area and easily misinterpreted. Most people’s breathing is too shallow. This is primarily due to the neck, head and back relationship. A consequence of this is fixed or held ribs. Most people’s breathing is too shallow. Our floating ribs still move but as we go higher up into the upper chest, armpits and upper back there is very little rib movement at all. The common remedy for this is to ‘take a deep breath’. However, this is not how your body is designed.
You can only take so much air in at a time. And if you take a deep breath, the startle pattern or misuse that creates in the body will reduce the volume of the air you are able to take in. This is something that many high level simmers and opera singers already know. So they don’t bother taking deep breaths. Instead they practice breathing out for longer. This is the underlying principle of the whispered ‘ah’. It’s how opera singers hold notes for what may seem an impossible length of time. It’s how wise swimmers are able to increase their fitness without moving faster. Once you have set yourself up, you must watch your breath like a surfer waiting for the right wave to come.
Point your tongue at your lower teeth.
Smile behind the eyes
Blow out making a whispered ‘ah’ sound
Keep blowing out to the end of your breath. But not so much that you start to lose your directions. It is very easy to blow out too much.
There will come a point where the breath will come back in without you doing anything. This is what makes it so hard to explain. If you blow out too much then it’s easy to pull down and fix your ribs, training your breathing to fix.
Think of a wheel that never stops turning. That's how the breathing movement should be. Your ribs need to constantly move, expanding and contracting. Never fix, stop or be hold the ribs in any way. This is more important that trying to make your breath last longer because this is what deepens your breathing and allows those things to happen without you having to try to get them. If you simply watch your breathing you will go a long way towards preventing your ribs from fixing.
To be honest, I barely ever use the whispered ‘ah’ because watching your breath and other basic fundamental parts of the Alexander Technique done well will go much deeper than any special Alexander Technique exercise. Especially when you start to realise how much you hold your breath. And that’s very difficult to explore unless you’re developing inner attention.
When I was part of a Toastmasters public speaking group I used the whispered ‘ah’ as a warm up before speaking so I could give a big ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’. But as I did these speeches more and more I found myself wanting to stop doing them. Instead, I just made sure I didn’t interfere with my breathing. I can remember standing there in front of everyone and gave myself permission to stop. It’s really tempting to just jump into a speech.
But I made a habit of giving myself time. It allows any fear to pass and to stop tensing up before I go to speak. It also made me aware that I wasn’t smiling! So I smiled and then started. My voice was actually louder, which was a little surprising. Not interfering with my breathing was more effective than using the Whispered 'Ah'. I found that I didn’t rush my words and my speech was clearer.
In terms of everyday use the whispered ‘ah’ isn't needed. It is useful, because it shows you how to project your voice and gives you an idea of what you're working towards. Watching your breath allows a deeper control of this and when you develop enough widening of the back you don’t even need to follow your breathing. On the other hand, semi supine is absolutely essential to me and I’ve used it many times to recover. Alexander Technique exercises are no different from anything else you have to work out when to use them.
Or more accurately head facing forwards and going up. This direction or movement is commonly mistaken (as it was by me) as the head and neck going forwards. Or the head tipping backwards, instead of going up. This largely stems from our startle pattern. We will continue to misdirect ourselves unless we stop first. Also if the neck isn;t free to the degree required the these problems will keep manifesting themselves. The head counts as everything above your eyes and the top of the neck and the base of your skull.
A few degrees at most. Anything beyond that and the head and neck go forwards, creating misuse. The head goes forwards and down, the neck shortens and goes forwards, the rips collapse and fix, causing the diaphragm to tighten along with the abdominals and the hips tip back creating pressure on the lower back / lumbar vertebrae.
There is an overall shortening of the stature and it’s harder to breathe. Tipping the head back causes very similar problems but in slightly different areas. The back of the neck will be gripping harder. The head and neck going forwards will put more pressure on your ribs and breathing. They both cause a loss of tone throughout the body and contribute to shortening and “crows feet” or hypertension on your neck. Because your head weighs about 10 or 11 pounds the heaviest density part of the body, if it’s misdirected tension is ricocheted all throughout the body to compensate.
The best way to start dealing with this is by spending time in semi supine. Yes it helps to think of your head going up. Thinking of the crown of your head pointing at the sky. But it’s equally important, if not more, to avoid pulling your head down. For example if we pass someone in the street we tend to avoid eye contact by pulling our head down to avoid contact with a stranger. You could just as easily not make eye contact by looking somewhere else without moving your head. Instead we choose to pile pressure down our spine by pulling the head forwards and down. You might say ‘but that is how I look away’ and that would be a grave misuse. You don’t have to move your neck and head to move your eyes. This kind of movement is also the opposite of confidence. It’s shrinking and making yourself less approachable. There are many ways in which we pull the head out of shape. You have to remember a few basic points to help with this.
When riding I was told to hold the reins so they gathered up the horses head. If you pull hard on the reins it would really crush the neck of the horse and would be the equivalent of pulling the head down and neck backwards for us, except you would have someone pulling on it! Ouch! Not letting the reins be too loose because that would allow the neck to drop forwards and pull the head back. When a horse has a person sitting on their back they need support to counter this weight. This is a huge responsibility for the rider and plays an important role in the efficiency of the horse's movement and communication. True the horse’s spine is in the horizontal plane, not vertical like ours but the same principles apply.
There’s a war going on in your own body and you might not even know it’s happening. Sure you get the pain in your knees, but no matter what stretches and core stability exercises you do the pain persists. So it might surprise you to find out that there is a very deep relationship between your neck, head and back that cause knee pain. When your body gets into bad habits such as the head pulling back, neck shortening and the hips being fixed it can over tighten our inner thighs, quadriceps and hamstrings to the point where we create pressure on out knee cap. Yes, we do it to ourselves.
The knee joint has very little wrong with it, but becomes the fall guy for the rest of the body’s misuse. The way that the psoas muscle is attached to the spine, pelvis and top of the femur is complicated by how the inner thigh attaches to the front of the pelvis and femur. This arrangement means that if one over tightens so does the other. They are both in it together. To be honest there are so many muscles around the hips, I generally refer to it as the clapham junction (a station with probably the most platforms in the UK!) of muscle in the body. The gluteus maximus or butt muscles can tighten and pull on the hamstrings. The quads can tighten and create a huge amount of tension on the trunk, in particular but not exclusive to the lower back.
So practically speaking how do we prevent this tightening up from happening?
1) Imagine you are alone on a desert island, you have eaten your favourite meal, you’re immune to alcohol and you’ve just drank 10 pints of guinness! Now that might sound like a lot, but we hold onto our bellies like mad. Vanity, fear, instability; it doesn’t matter. You need to let it go. It needs to release. Put some cushions or books behind your hips to stop them from tipping backwards.
2) Walk for 20 minutes or more, slowly whilst imagining your knees are becoming increasingly heavier. Very very heavy in fact. Your knees need to be allowed to hang from your hips. That will creates a natural stretch that takes pressure off the back and the legs.
3) Also think of your hips dropping away from the top of your neck. I know that it might seem like your shortening the distance between your knees and hips, but don’t worry about that. It really is about a counter balance of forces. Dropping your hips allows more release in the inner thighs.
So the knee joint really is just taking the punishment for the rest of the body. It’s tension building up and it’s not to say that you can’t do damage this way. You can, bones rubbing on joints from misuse will cause pain. I did something similar to this but by collapsing my back which slipped my discs causing my vertebrae to rub together and putting pressure on the sciatic nerve. But when people don’t collapse they can get hernias from holding their bellies in place. Or the tension comes out in the knee joint.
You can’t get rid of tension, you can only redistribute it. And all of us go wrong in some way, but we do it in very individual ways. There are as many different ways of going wrong as there are people, but they do follow some common patterns. It’s also worth doing semi supine, because this really will take the pressure off you back and the knee. It’s very important to remember to keep your legs bent or only have one leg at a time out straight in this position. Of course if you don’t stop and give yourself time to be in semi supine the effect will not be as great.
Tension and twisting in the back happen the moment we do something. It’s like we have blocked out all our ability or sense to feel this when it happens. We become so outwardly focused that we can’t acknowledge what we’re doing with ourselves. I think a big part of the reason for this is that we aren’t aware of how to prevent this. There seems to be no control when it does get bad we just tell ourselves that we’ll do some stretching or exercises later. But what if later is too late? Wouldn’t it be better if there was something you could do in the moment? Or whenever you felt like it? That is the beauty of the Alexander Technique, it can be done at anytime and can become a part of your life the moment you make the mental leap.
You can give yourself time at any moment. You may well be moving, engaged in an activity. It doesn’t mean you have to stop it, but you do have that choice. When you give yourself time you're saying no to thoughts that are irrelevant to the situation at hand or that make you over excited. There is no need to forget yourself. You mustn't do that. You do want to carry on. Try different paces. Experiment to see if your heart rate, breathing and coordination change positively or negatively.
We can do things too fast or too slow. Your job, should you choose to accept it, is to build your perception. You need to keep your senses engaged and not switch them off or dull them. It’s so easy to say “Yes I know” and stop listening, stop taking in information, stop observing and stop learning. And that’s a huge problem that you’ve given yourself there because when you do that you block out information, and you can only deal it out. When you learn something new, your mind stays in the past. Everything you learn is a different kind of version of what you already know.
I can’t tell you all the factors that go into this but I can tell you that your attitude towards time will make a big difference to how you see things. Of course if you’re in a rush to get things done there’s very little hope of picking up anything new, apart from finding out that you wished you hadn’t rushed and you had given yourself time. Most sensory feedback is given when we are quietened down and listening, when we get into this state, manner or attitude the likelihood of us picking up more sensory feedback or feeling more is much more likely to occur.
So if you want to feel more then you really do have to make that wish to give yourself time, your first choice and you have to make it a strong wish. You also have to expand it and see how your time is affected throughout your life. If you don’t you may find inconsistencies; panicking and rushing in unexpected moments because you haven’t considered what’s important and what’s valuable. Of course if there really is something you do need to take immediate action on then it will become apparent. But most of the time you can make better use of yourself by giving yourself time rather than throwing it away.
Freeing the neck is the first direction in Alexander Technique. It doesn’t matter how much you free your neck if you don’t learn to stop or prevent first. Stopping is your chance to allow bad habits to stop happening. It's something that happens, you don't do it.
So why do we free the neck and why does it come first? The neck is where many important functions happen, heartbeat, coordination, balance and breathing in particular. Some of our neck muscles and cervical vertebrae surround our reptilian brain where all of this processing goes on. If the neck muscles (sternocleidomastoid and trapezius) are tight around this part of the neck; they can shorten and narrow in all sorts of ways. That distorts our relationship with the head, back and rest of the body creating the majority of the startle patterns we individually carve out for ourselves. The most common being the head pulled back and down, upper back collapsing forwards and downwards and the hips tipping back. This tension adds up and masks where we think the top of the neck is. We end up with 3 places.
1) Where’s the top of the neck? You’re immediate reaction to this will tell you where your habitual use is. What part of the body you use as the top of the neck. Put your hand there immediately. HINT if it takes you longer than 2 seconds to find this out you’re doing the next part. Not this part.
2) The conscious perception when we think about it a bit we work out our neck probably finishes where our skull begins.
3) Where it actually is, up between the ears behind the eyes.
Without knowing where the top of the neck starts we will always have a tendency to shorten it. You cannot let go of the shoulder shrug look or trapezius tightening and shortening if you are using your neck as if it ended a the same height as your tongue for example. You won’t be able to give away as much weight in the shoulders because all that tension will carry on in the upper neck.
Well if you just free it, you say “I allow my neck to be free”. If you’ve never had lessons before or you’ve just started this won’t have much of an effect, but you do need to ask it and keep asking. Attitude is also important, you have to talk to yourself in a kind, methodical and calm way. Your body will tighten up if you bark orders at it.
Also you might want to try this when lying down in semi supine. It will make it a lot easier to release the neck muscles if you have the head and back supported. Your head is invited to face forwards and go up in this position. This will minimise any tension being made and give you some idea of what you’re looking for when you’re standing. This is probably the best way to stop chicken head. It’s very easy to start looking for the feeling of your neck being free. My suggestion is that you avoid this. The feelings will happen by themselves, you have to trust that if you are going to make any progress.
Simply giving yourself time and then allowing the neck to be free is all you need to do here. You send the message and wait to see if there’s an answer from your body. Sometimes, especially at the start we might get nothing , the experiences are as variable as the people that try it. So it might happen very easily, but it might take a bit of patience.
You will know when your body is able to carry out this direction when your neck starts to let go and lengthen without any doing on your part and when your neck starts to breathe or move in sync with you ribs or lower ribs. But remember, don’t look for this, send the message and observe what happens. That will go much further than trying to do anything with your neck.
The moment you start to put yourself into a posture or position you start to fix. Your forcing yourself to be there. You're making everything worse. You put one layer of bad habits on top of the ones you've already got. So you're fighting yourself. Eventually you'll give up. Some people might be able to do it for a really long time, others might not be able to do it for very long at all. At some point your body will cave in. And you'll be creating a lot of harm to yourself because when you put your body in a position and hold it, you fix your muscles and that is going to create shortening and tension all over your body.
If you think that you just hold your shoulders in a certain position and that's all it's going to affect, it's not the case. It'll affect your neck, your head, it will affect things in your hips and legs as well. It's going to have a knock on effect all over the body.
So that's what you don't want to do. You don't want to hold your body in a position and fix it into place.
If you want something to do to improve your posture then very simply go for a walk and don't look at the floor. Because if you look at the floor you're going to cause lots of harm to yourself by pulling yourself down. It doesn't mean you can't look at the floor ever, you just have to let your eyes lead the way instead of shortening the neck and pulling the head forward and down. You don't want to be staring at the floor the whole time. Creating that shortening down the front and curving the back into that C shape.
Or do semi supine for 20 mins.
If you look at babies or animals they're not trying to hold themselves up it's easy for them. And they have fantastic posture. Cultures where people aren't conditioned to sit in chairs, like eastern or african cultures they have much better use or posture. They use their backs more efficiently and haven't been sitting in backwards sloping chairs. They're also able to sit in squats in a way that strengthens their back naturally without having to do any kind of work out. They can also walk for miles across the desert with pots of water on their heads. Something that would endanger a bodybuilder. So there is a different strength that is available in the body, but we have to learn how to cultivate that.