We all have unconscious movements in our bodies that can work for or against us. If we don't know about them, then most of the time they are working against us. But it doesn’t start out like this. When we are babies, we have these special, fantastic movements in the body. As we get older they get worse. You can see some pretty bad things happening sometimes in those as you as three years old.
I’m not talking about flexibility or range of movement. Coordination would be much closer to the mark. Coordination in the sense of getting parts of your body to work together. Primarily between the neck, head and back. When working well this coordination feeds into the legs arms, hands and feet.
If you take care of the main trunk of your body (which most of us don’t) the neck, head and back, then everything else will follow on from it. And will get coordinated indirectly. So the neck, head and back relationship is primary. It comes first. It's the control point from which everything else is decided in the body. This has actually been scientifically researched and proven by Dr Coghill in the 1950s if you are interested.
It's very easy to see this going wrong in the body; hunched shoulders, curved back, atrophied muscle, tight neck. We can call that the startle pattern. If we are scared, stressed or even just trying something new we tend to do it. Once we get into this habit of startle pattern, it’s hard to break because it becomes harder to feel the more we do it. Shrinking in response seems normal.
The less we feel it the more normal it becomes and the more normal it becomes the more we accept it as how the body should work. So instead of the startle pattern being something we could do it becomes a habit we repeat excessively.
It does help to have a rough idea of what the startle pattern is.
You can see how the neck, head and back relationship gets disturbed when the startle pattern comes into effect. So what? Big deal you might say, we can just get through it and get on with it. Well yes, you can but you pay a price.
So you need to make use of semi supine and have the attitude of giving yourself time if you want to start to change this in any meaningful way.
Physical, mental or spiritually there are no right answers. They don’t exist. You can take a fixed view that when you make a mistake you are wrong and if you’re right you’re right. Of course to some extent that is perfectly true, but it doesn’t help us to learn beyond a certain point.
“Turn left, no! Your other left!” - Black Hawk Down
The soldier above understands perfectly well this idea and uses it to execute an instruction to his brother in arms to correct a mistake that could cost them their lives. Instead of telling the soldier to turn right, go the other way or start explaining the problem, he uses what went wrong or the mistake to take them in the direction they need to go. If he had taken one of those other options the fixing, brain fuzz, or mental leap required by the driver would have resulted in them not turning the corner and cost their lives as well as the others riding with them.
Now if I told you that modern scientists are actually using the same idea to get results you might raise an eyebrow. OK they do it a little differently, but its still this same basic idea. Rocket scientists in the 60s were trying to fire a missile in a straight line. Doesn’t sound hard does it? They kept trying and kept failing. The straighter they tried to make it the more it went off target.
This left their team purplexed, apart from one man who thought differently. Instead of trying to make the missile fly straight, he wanted to find out what made it go off course. What made it go wrong. And don’t try to change it. Just find out what it does. Then he attached a gyroscope to the front of the missile to rebalance it, and keep it on course. That way they could use the thing that was going wrong and counter steer it. The counter steering would give a more accurate or less wrong course.
So instead of just thinking the missile going off target as a failure he used it to get to what he wanted. The missile firing in a straight(ish) path. Straightish because it goes off target and constantly adjusts because it has to go wrong to know when it has to correct itself. So it becomes more accurate.
So you are using the wrong thing to get to the right. With your body you will notice more and more that it goes wrong and tightens up . The more you try to hold it in place by directly putting your chest out, shoulders back, the more trouble and pain you get yourself into. With this approach it's like we are trying to be right all the time without listening to our bodies. Unless we can stop and observe what is going on this will never change.
“Stop doing the wrong thing and the right thing will do itself” - FM Alexander
Perfectly true, but in order to make use this deal you have to make friends with the wrong, you have to have a blueprint of what it means and then you have to invite that awareness in so it becomes easy for you to access, use or become aware of the interference as it happens rather than an after effect at the end of your day. So you just want to keep an eye on things even when they are not doing what you want them to. Don’t rush or make that knee jerk reaction to put your body in place. If you can do that you are on the right path.
Our eyes can’t see 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 reason for this is that we'd rather go on autopilot. We don't like to think. 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? We can use Alexander Technique at any moment, which is the beauty of it. We just have to make the mental leap.
You may well be moving, engaged in an activity. It doesn’t mean you have to stop it entirely, but you do have that choice. You give yourself time; you are saying no to thoughts that are irrelevant to the situation at hand or that make you over excited. It’s important to acknowledge them as thought traps we can get ourselves into.
You don’t overcome them by denial, rather than acknowledgement. If you find yourself avoiding the cracks in the pavement you can just say "superstition" to yourself and stop it. We must acknowledge the thought, not deny it. There is no need to forget yourself. You mustn’t do that. You do want to carry on at variable paces for instance and by experiment see if your heart rate, breathing and coordination are affected in a positive or negative way. We do many things too fast, but we also carry out many actions too slow.
You need to keep your senses engaged and not switch them off. You don't want to dull them. For us it’s easy to say “Yes I know” and stop listening, stop taking in information, stop observing and stop learning. And that’s a huge problem you’ve given yourself there, because when you do that you block out new information. You can only deal it out if you do that. Learning new things becomes muddled in the habits of the past. The past is holding on to your mind. Everything you learn is a different kind of version of what you already know. A different kind of badly.
I can’t tell you all the factors that go into this, but your attitude towards time will make a big difference to how you sense 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.
This state, manner or attitude increases the likelihood of picking up more sensory feedback. Quietening down and actively listening, means feeling more. So if you want to feel more, then you really do have to make that wish to give yourself time your first response. You have to make it a strong wish. You also have to expand this idea and see how your time is affected throughout your life. If you don’t, you may find inconsistencies in your life; panicking and rushing in unexpected moments because you haven’t considered what’s important and what’s valuable to your needs. If there really is something you 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.
We want to feel more, that’s the problem and also part of the solution. Feelings only tell us what is happening in the moment. They don’t tell our bodies how to change directly. We need to change because feelings only give us experiences we already know about. You need the unknown experiences to get change in your use.
We need a way out of our normal experience otherwise we will just keep doing what feels right. If we just do what feels right nothing will ever really change, because we just do what we already know. Somehow we have to make a jump to the unknown.
“To see one must go beyond the imagination and for that one must stand absolutely still as if at the centre of a jump”. John Cage
Without a still point, without a pause there is no way to change anything. We have to think. But for most of us when we think we are thinking, we are in fact feeling. And when we think we are feeling we are actually thinking! So much of this happens unconsciously. And the “I’ll just get on with it” or “Just do it” attitude has a lot to do with throwing ourselves out of sorts.
So how do we start to identify these habits? Well, it is useful to observe the startle pattern and practice giving yourself time when you notice it happening. In the same way it’s also important to acknowledge your emotions, especially the negative ones so you can start to see them before you act on them.
If you ever find yourself wishing you had thought before you had opened your mouth, this is essential. It’s not an act of repression, but so many negative emotions are needless and get in the way of clear thinking. If you can watch them rise in your mind and keep acknowledging them, they eventually pass.
Anger, fear, doubt, boredom, craving and irritation are very good things to observe. Of course the time will come where these responses are actually needed, but most of the time they will be out by many degrees. The keyword here is needed.
“Instead of trying to figure out who you are, know your needs” FM Alexander
We are easily distracted by many things in life; from past relationships to cats playing pianos on the internet. If you strip back what you are doing in relation to your needs you will get much more accurate emotional responses. It will also save you a great deal of time. Our mind wanders easily, if we let it and you have to observe it if you want to stop walking into rooms and forgetting what you went in there for (for example).
The same is true with physical tasks and when lifting heavy objects for example you may find yourself tightening and tensing up a lot. Of course you are aiming to minimise this by giving yourself as much time as you can and thinking about what you are going to do before you do it.
For a lot of people with back pain they really do have the very simple dream of being pain free. But as life goes along many things get added to that, you realise that you can’t do certain things. It might be things in your job or just life in general. Playing the sport you want to or just playing with your kids. Being able to do simple things like get out of bed without your back screaming! Ironically you can be the one that everybody is relying on.
It’s tragic if people don’t believe you. Some people that do though and that’s really important. A lot of people go through life not being believed, because back pain isn’t visible. I remember it took many x rays, MRIs and eventually a spinal probe to show that my discs were slipped. By the time it was proven I didn’t really care because it had been so long coming I was only interested in getting pain relief. Some people go their lives without this though and even when they have had treatment they are left with the same result. It makes you skeptical.
This can lead to lots of compensations too. From lying on a back stretcher or some kind of device to wearing orthotic insoles for different leg lengths. Exercises that make little impact. Not to mention the things you do with your body to get through your day. So there is a huge fight within yourself to chase that dream of being pain free because it gets taken away in small parts that make a big impact.
My dream started out as being able to row again, and that still remained as an undercurrent whilst I was recovering. But, it wasn’t real. It wasn’t as important as not having to take pain killers or not being able to walk without aggravating my back or it failing on me. It seems ridiculous that my recovery took place with alexander technique rather than a surgeon’s scalpel. Especially as I had 4 slipped discs. But the people who I meet and work with who have had the surgery don’t always think it was the best choice. But the thing that I really want to get across is that just about anyone can do it. Just about anyone can get pain free and you can do a lot of it for yourself.
So keep that very simple dream of being pain free, because it is possible for many of you. It would be great to hear about where you are on your journey in the comments if you like or share this story so that others don’t forget that simple dream is possible too.
Today I wanted to talk about how Semi Supine or Constructive Rest can be used to help your back pain, neck pain or whatever else you are going through. To make it really simple you just lie down with some books behind your head and your legs bent. But there is a bit more to it than that so I'd just like to make a few points...
If you do this on a bed or sofa it's just too soft and your back doesn't have the support it needs to feel where it needs to go. It just all sinks in and you'll end up hunched and it won't really help anything. Similarly if you choose a hard surface, like a kitchen floor, most people know that it will jar your back and be painful. Not what we're after at all. We need softness with firmness so your back can get that spring from it. You need something like a carpeted floor I use a leather couch but a carpeted floor is just as good so use that to start off with.
It allows you to make micro adjustments to the height of your head more easily. If you find that your head is tipping back then you need more books, you don't have enough. Your head can also tip too far forwards (squashing the throat a bit) so you need to use less books. If your not sure then you need to err on the side of more! You'll work this out more as you go along.
When you go to lie down you want to move carefully slowly and gently to get there. When you go to lie down you want to get the books in contact with back of your head, the knobbly bit at the back of the head, your skull basically. You don't want your neck in contact with the books so you can release properly.
This is the hardest part! No scratching, no itching, no fidgeting about. Don't look for the perfect position because if your fidgeting about trying to get things into the right place then you will be getting in the way of undoing your bad habits. If you can just lie there and literally do nothing with your body, then you'll be doing it a great service. You'll start the unwinding process in the body.
If you really need something to focus on because the mind can go off into the future, interactions you've had in the day all kinds of stuff. When you notice this acknowledge this and come back to your breathing or literally do nothing. It's really hard to do, so you have to make a conscious effort tell yourself to stop or leave yourself alone and not help out by fidgeting about. You've got to calm yourself down and give yourself permission to stop.
Especially if you have a lot of pain. There can be quite a lot of unraveling going on. You might find it's quite painful. So there are 2 types of pain. The first type you know that it'll go away after a while. You know that if you sit through it or keep lying through it, you'll be ok. The second type (that I have definitely experienced) you know it will just get more and more painful. And it's really not good you being there. You need to just get up and walk it off. When you start to experience that don't stick it out or tough it, out just get up and walk it off.
The best time is when you wake up because your spine is fresh. It will give you a huge lift to the start of your day. If you do it in the evening it will calm things down, take your blood pressure down, heart beat down and allow you to sleep deeper. It's really worth doing first thing in the morning or before you go to bed for 20 mins.
That's full supine. That's really, really bad for your back to be in full supine! You need to have the legs bent and fairly close to your hips. Not as close as they can go, but close. This can happen because they associate semi supine so heavily with sleep they do the same thing. Don't do it with your legs straight!
This is something that is normally taught one to one in alexander technique lessons. So you might find your struggling or you might find it easy. If you want to find out what this is like I offer free tasters so you can experience. Some things I've found can only be conveyed through touch in the alexander technique.
A lot is lost in communication when you just read or watch this so it really does help to get the experience. But some people can't come to see me and it is useful to have this as a reference point. If you think I have left anything out please let me know in the comments section below. Please share this with anyone that you think would benefit from it.
Sitting at a desk all day is normal now for many of us: working from home or an office in front of a computer. If you get back pain or have bad posture, this post is for you! It won't solve all you problems but it will help. It will help you to keep your Alexander Technique practice going too. So here are some things to watch out for...
If you are using a laptop this is there is no getting around it! The hands fall forwards and the weight of the arms and activity of the hands pull the shoulders forwards over the chest and draw the upper back forwards. The neck correspondingly shortens and pulls the head back to draw level with the screen. This misuse is practically universal. Give your body the luxury of having phone books or something under your laptop so you can look straight at it. Get a keyboard and mouse extension so you don't have to reach up. If you have a desktop it is much easier because the screen is already on top of the PC although you might need to get it a bit higher.
This one is more common among "the long legged" but is possible for everyone to be doing. Try sitting on a low chair/object where the level of your hips are lower than your knees. Pretty uncomfortable? If so it is probably because the lower back is out of alignment with the rest of the back. This means that all the weight of the body above the hips is being put through the back of the sitting bones and the lumbar vertebrae instead of being evenly distributed through the body. This of course is an exaggeration of what happens but you need to been shown the exaggerated view so you can pick up on the subtlety of when it happens at your desk. If you do notice you are sitting with your knees higher than your hips just stick a phone book (or phone books) until you notice that you have a bit more mechanical advantage when sitting. Take a look at the image of the hips. Take a look at the sitting bones. We tend to think of our sitting bones as the bony bit at the back of the bottom. However, they are much longer than this and run forwards towards the genital area. What this means is that you are supposed to put more weight evenly through the sitting bones. Not just at the back of them on the bony bit, but evenly throughout them.
Again, this can happen to anyone, but is more likely if you have short legs. Try sitting in a high chair so you feet don't touch the ground, to see what I mean. When we do this we can over tense our butt muscles and hamstrings and create too much forward movement in the hips, shortening our stature and loading the spin in bad ways. This one is harder to spot. Something to help with this would be to put some phone books/directories underneath each foot. This allows more length down the back of your leg and creates less interference up the back.
Get up and move around every 30 to 50 minutes depending on what you can do. Staring at a screen and compressing your spine to look at a screen is just not what we are designed for, face it! Get up. Get a timer or something.
Those ergonomic chairs with wheels on the bottom are not necessarily good. What is good about them is that you can adjust the height and give yourself a good position where your feet are in contact with the floor while your hips are higher than your knees. What is bad is that if the chair has the potential to move a lot on the wheels it can subtly make you tense up your body in order to keep still at your desk. Not good.
OK so in summary I am not saying that you cannot do these things and that they are terrible if you do them a bit. If you use your laptop on the train then there is no much you can do to get around this. What I am saying is that if you spend all day without paying attention to these things you are paying a price and it will come in the form of unexpected pain.
Everytime you move your mouse cursor to the left (if you are right handed) you shorten and tighten your wrist muscles. When you type on a normal keyboard you hands will flex slightly outwards. You do the same thing when you use a knife and fork or tie your shoe laces. This is because it requires skill. Anatomists refer to it as ulnar deviation. When you do the opposite of this, like when you move the mouse inwards, it tightens up your wrists and increases your chances of things like carpal tunnel syndrome or repetitive strain injury.
Also you should download f.lux to reduce your eye tension or something like it to change your devices colour temperature in the evenings.