Despite performing lots of exercises, meditations and positions we still get bad posture. We still get pain, confusion and stress. It’s like there’s no escape. If you do sit-ups with the idea that it’s helping your back pain, stop. Sit-ups cause back pain. Press-ups help us get neck pain. Press-ups and sit-ups are exercises to avoid if you want to relieve your back and neck pain.
These exercises are only working a specific part of the body. Well that’s not the end of the sentence. They work a specific set of muscles at the detriment of others and rely on you doing many other specific exercises to balance out the rest of the body. So many workouts are left unbalanced, not everyone will think, want or be able to do pull ups to even out the press ups.
But unbalanced workouts are not as bad as the specificity and repetition that will numb your sense of how you use yourself. This numbness provokes a startle pattern, gripping and cramping response.
Because the exercises are so specific there is very little support and consideration for the rest of our bodies. For instance, when we do press-ups it’s impossible not to tighten our necks to stop our heads falling forward. This will shorten the muscles in the neck and create rigidity in the hips . A high price for a chest workout. Repetition simply adds fuel to the fire, stressing the limited movement, removing your sensitivity and gains in coordination for hard work. But wouldn’t it be better to work out in an expansive way where you increased your coordination and built up your own sensitivity to stress?
Full body activities where all of your body and mind is engaged with what you are doing. Olympic weight lifts such as the snatch and the clean and jerk are very good because you are lifting along the line of your spine with your whole body engaged. You don’t need to lift heavy weights though. Far from it. Running, swimming and climbing make you engage with the environment so you are more likely to build muscle and fitness in a coordinated way. You won’t see a Tour de France rider without a hump in the middle of his back. Racing bikes are just not set up for our bodies.
Over working will shorten our muscles too. Love him or hate him, Charlie Francis, Ben Johnson’s coach understood this perfectly. He could see when his sprinters would do intervals that lasted too long without rest. Charlie would notice when they would be training 70 metre intervals and would be losing their form or pulling themselves down to complete the interval. He would then lower the interval distance to e.g. 30 metres to get the effect that he wanted. Don’t work harder work smarter.
Press-ups, sit-ups and other exercises like star jumps are symptomatic of thinking in terms of specific, narrowed and concentrated ways. It’s not exclusive to the west! We are used to thinking in terms of problems solution with a specific result in mind and we relate this back into other areas of our lives. A wider view is needed. We need the body to respond as a whole so that everything works together in a coordinated fashion.
Neglecting this is what leads to injury, stress, and confusion. Rather than doing lots of exercises that bulk up certain big muscles and take the load, length and freedom off our joints and tendons, we need to be fully engaged. Instead of boxing in parts of our lives we need to see how they relate to each other. I’m not saying that they all become the same thing. Then you would have no boundaries or privacy and that would be quite useless.
So you do need to respond as a whole, with a broad picture in mind and to do that you must decide to stop. If you don’t stop and take your time then everything becomes unconsidered, results orientated, bitty and uncoordinated. Many people think that if you just sort out this one part then everything will be ok. Most of us will choose cure instead of prevention. Cures don’t exist for many problems but because we are conditioned to look for them we are unconsciously choosing them. This is why most of us are not thinking in an integrated way. Even the word integration gets used now as a melting pot for throwing as many results orientated solutions at you as possible.
Rather than seeking to change the person's overall condition of use, mentally, physically and spiritually by teaching them not to react and decide themselves they are just fed easy answers that never result in the person taking control for themselves. They revolve or regress instead of progressing. They react in all the predictable, old, subconscious ways and get the same injuries again and again, never exercising any choice that is unknown to them because that would “feel wrong”. And of course some of these choices are good, but because there is no method or technique for opening up the conscious (unknown) to get away from the subconscious (known) there is no change.
If we’re reacting all the time then we can’t stop to see what's going on with ourselves. The smashing happens with our bodies, if we can’t stop then we won’t understand how we are forming bad relationships between our necks, heads and backs. But don’t make it worse by dividing yourself and your body up by doing the wrong things.
“It’s no use giving orders whilst you have an idea at the back of your brain of doing something”
FM Alexander Teaching Aphorisms
Preconceived ideas really get in the way of learning anything new. Fortunately when we decide to stop and prevent ourselves from doing something, we start unlearning these preconceived ideas. Preconceived ideas are basically judgements that we stick to. We fix on them. They can be physical, mental or spiritual. And we use them repeatedly to avoid thinking for ourselves.
Most of us choose to tense up and repeat our physical experiences instead of stopping and listening to what our bodies are telling us to do. The human race is perfectly content to hand out such physical dogma as “bend from the knees and keep a straight back” with no consideration of individual interpretation. And this is widely open to many different degrees of behaviour. One person's hips tipping back could be another's hips tipping forward.
How these ideas start carries more influence than definitions. Although definitions do help. Because no matter what the definition is without the understanding that we need to stop first there will always be an undercurrent of doing the preconceived idea first. Anyone can make observations and criticisms about the body. It doesn’t take very much knowledge.
For years FM Alexander knew all the problems, all the misdirection that was happening in his body when he was about to perform. It only made a difference when he made the decision to leave himself alone and not react to the stimulus to speaking (because of his stage fright). The same problem exists for many people who through various disciplines; core posture, Pilates, yoga, or tai chi for example try to dominate their bodies into performing a movement.
The posture you can hold at the beginning of most tai chi forms is a good example of a dominating influence, even though it’s carried out in a gentle or slow way. It’s difficult to throw away these preconceived ideas because it feels like they are part of who we are. It can feel like you’re attacking the very essence of yourself. But you’re not. Our ego gets all of this tied up together and mixes up many things. This is how we end up competing for things we don’t want. It makes us feel empty even when we’ve won. We haven’t really satisfied our needs.
This isn’t an excuse to go back into the past and regret everything you ever did! You have to stay in the present with yourself. But you do need to become aware of past thoughts learned or not, influencing your thoughts now. It’s not that you have to throw them away completely, but you might need to do that to see that you do have a choice not to do something the way it’s always been done.
So what are some good examples of preconceived ideas? It could be anything for example how we use a computer. Usually fitting ourselves around it instead of it around us. Comedies usually depend on preconceived ideas being torn down by stark opposites.
I can remember when I first handled a golden eagle, I had to put on two layers of leather hand and arm guards to handle him. I thought he was going to grip my arm very hard. But my experience was very different. Most of the time the eagle kept his talons remarkably soft and unflexed. Only when he became off balance did he show a slight grip on my arm. This is because he was constantly sizing up pigeons for lunch. I could tell he was wildly strong and was only showing a small flex of his full capability. Stronger than just about anything else I’ve come across. But the experience was very different from the expectation. So when something surprises you, allow yourself to be surprised.
When we arrive somewhere we fall into a heap. Especially after a long journey. We manage to do the same thing when we get in and out of a chair. We make all the effort we think we need to and upon arriving at standing or sitting we congratulate ourselves by giving up and collapsing. This of course leads to fixing. When we have something to do, something to engage with we really don’t arrive in the same way. For instance, when we are looking out at something that engages our vision there is a much higher likelihood that we won’t arrive in a heap and fix. If we use our attention then it becomes a lot harder to fix. If you’re at a public event be it a stadium, theatre or something along those lines then you are (if it’s not boring) going to be paying attention.
Without that outward attention widening and taking in all the information around you, our perspectives become narrow and limited. If we want to feel more then we need to take in what’s going on around us. It can be really easy to fix the eyes on one spot. After all it’s what we do when we watch tv or any screen for too long.
This form of concentration is all to easily replicated when we go to pass awareness around the body. It becomes “hard to concentrate” when asking for our directions with the eyes open. It feels easier with the eyes closed. If you’re lying down in semi supine I don’t think it matters too much. But when you are sitting, standing or doing anything else you really are cutting out extra information. Yes it’s harder to concentrate, but that’s because you’re not meant to. Concentration is a form of fixing. Fixing our attention. Alexander Technique requires us to juggle it.
“All together. One after the other” FM Alexander
We can keep our attention on one area if it’s particularly in bad shape. But you do this at detriment to the rest of the body. And most bad habits that we get into are a result of our coordination instead of a specific part. We need to take a holistic view of the body, instead of blaming and praising specific parts.
For that to happen you must widen your field of view. And you won’t always have a competitive game to watch or compelling performance to witness. So you have to pay attention. Don’t let your eyes fix even if there isn’t much to look at. Even if your facing a blank wall. Keep it moving. Try to notice small details about your environment and if anything changes. Ask questions that you normally wouldn’t. When you notice yourself stiffen and start to fix, give yourself time to acknowledge that this is something you don’t want. That it’s something not to do. Never arrive.
It’s very easy to look at the body from a symmetrical viewpoint. It's how we tend to experience our bodies and achieve our balance. We can see visually if we have one shoulder higher than the other and sometimes we can tell if that’s happening with our legs. But most of the time we isolate the problem to one area. We think that everything else is normal apart from the one part that has pain. To correct this we like to line everything up straight, to counteract all the problems.
However, rarely does this solve anything. It usually causes more problems. This is because we’re not symmetrical. Not symmetrical at all. The harder we try to be symmetrical the more trouble we get ourselves into, and the less symmetrical we become. So you have to stop all that and throw away all those ideas about the body. Or you’ll succeed in creating another set of habitual problems over the ones you already have.
The body is also three dimensional and when we try to line things up we rarely do so. We generally think in one or two dimensions. We think of pulling our shoulders back to spread them out. But this leads to stiffening across the lower back, where your lungs are located and restricts the breathing.
We hold our heads up thinking that is the problem but we tend to think of the head going up when we raise our eyes and all that does is tip the head backwards. All of this doing only serves to make the problem worse. So what’s really going on?
Well, by various degrees we twist our spines. We twist them both horizontally and vertically. It's much more likely that your shoulders are different heights because of the muscular tension you are making in the surrounding areas, instead of your bones being different lengths. We are quite reluctant to allow the shoulders, hands and arms to hang from the top of the neck (up between the ears, behind the eyes).
We can also twist the spine standing. Thinking it’s perfectly natural to rest on one leg, that it’s a relaxed pose. While this may present a casual attitude it really puts the person’s weight heavily to one side and usually twists the spine because the hips turn inwards whilst the torso faces out. The pressure on the leg is intensified by a lack of support from the back. Usually the the hips will be tipped backwards too. Most people have no idea why they do it. If you look at the images we are presented with, models in particular you can see this happening. It’s become normal and accepted. But just because it’s normal and accepted doesn’t mean you should do it.
If you want any of this to change you have to throw out all the ideas of symmetry and correction. Then very calmly and quietly you have to take a look at what you are doing with yourself and see how your weight is distributed. There is a very big difference between even weight distribution and symmetry. Giving away the weight can happen via release. It also doesn’t require vast amounts of effort to keep it going throughout your day. Holding yourself up or in place does. It’s a tremendous waste of time and incredibly difficult. Doing this to your body will make your life harder and more painful. Most of us realise sooner or later that this isn’t what we want.
Sitting at a desk typing at your computer screen is a great way to create fear. Using a computer, device or just staring at a screen is a means of building fear up in the body. It creates vast amounts of physical tension that is almost imperceptible. Because the device is hogging your attention.
Everything becomes linked when you use an electronic device, for better or worse. Social media claims the gaps in your attention span. You don't realise your attention span has ended. Pushing you subconsciously to the next random thing. If you were reading a book you would soon realise if you had missed something because it would not make sense. You always have a reference point you can backtrack from to find your bearings. So this effect is created where you can’t tell the difference and our subconscious brain starts to get the message that it’s accomplishing tasks by checking on notifications, settings and scrolling through news feeds.
I know this sounds pretty harmless by itself, but many of us don’t know how to stop. We become used by our phones and tablets. We constantly search online for the next thing or compare ourselves to others, because they seem relevant. They are to some degree. So attention filling and increased tension overstates their relevance to our subconscious brain. This trains us to react, rather than think then act.
Devices ruin our attention spans hardwiring us into them, but what else do they take? Time is one. Decision making is another. Consideration narrows, so we feel we have less choices. Because your attention is artificially pushed, your sense of time gets distorted. So even though you feel it's only been 30 mins on your facebook feed it’s more like 50.
We are also asked to react more and discover who we are. But this ends up being more about showing who we are. It’s quite rare that it gets us to think of our needs. Because there are limited options for the way we interact with it (eg like or dislike) again we are encouraged to react. There is no button for “this doesn’t deserve my attention”! Although you can complain it’s not actively encouraged, because it’s not immediately available. We don’t get to consider the opportunities of not doing anything at all. I’m not saying all devices and the internet is bad. We need it, we couldn’t function without it. But if you want to avoid panic attacks that seem to come out of nowhere you need to stop using your devices so obsessively.
Friends, employers, our internet service providers and the government surveil our online activity. This creates social pressure to conform and to follow. There is an air of permanence if saying the wrong thing online. It stays there for many to react to. It starts to reinforce our decisions and mould our character. Things that might have taken place in a conversation or phone call become broadcast. This can be both good and bad. But the point is that it’s going to create more pressure and demand from your attention.
We only have so much time and it sucks you in deeper and deeper. If you are using your phone whilst you are walking to work (and I don’t mean just casually checking it) you will more than likely be pulling your head down into your phone and wrecking your posture. There is nothing on your phone that is worthy of this amount of attention. You need to be aware of your surroundings and your body to take in more sensory information. To not lose touch with yourself. If it helps get a timer or just decide to stop using your phone after a certain time of day. Your body will thank you for it and it will go a long way to improving your posture.
You shouldn't keep your phone in your bedroom. It doesn't need to be checked at night or when waking up. There's no need. Stop it. If you check it at night, it will disturb your sleep. Your brain doesn't need that much activity and blue light (which is fine during daylight) when it's dark and you're winding down to sleep. I think that Nicholas Carr has some good ideas about what the internet is doing to our brain. A tip of his that is very practical is to limit the notifications or emails that can come to you down to once an hour. We need that time to be able to have any form of productivity in our lives. If there is anything you think that is useful to know on this subject or something I've missed out please leave a comment down below.
Stopping can be seen as bringing something to an end. In terms of the Alexander Technique, it's your doing that needs to stop. So how do we identify the different ways of our own doing? Well, a good place to start is by listening. With the rigmarole of our own thought and feeling habits our mind can go round, quite happily in circles or other patterns and take nothing in. We can hear something very easily, identify it and very quickly categorise it in order to fit in with what goes on in our own mind.
But so rarely do we listen. So if you want to make a good start at stopping you have to decide to just listen. Listening to the sounds going on around you. Just listening. Not trying to label anything. Taking in all the different layers of sound from birds singing, to conversations, the sounds of people moving, traffic or just the trees moving in the wind. You can listen to you body. Apply this to your other senses as well. You are wanting the broadest view or sense of the situation as possible. The narrower your field of view the less you can sense. And we want to feel more.
Of course there's a massive difference between hearing and listening. Between looking and seeing. When we are mentally engaged with our senses we make connections. They happen, they can't be forced. But if you see the connection, it's something that you stumble upon. It's definitely a happening. Nothing will happen unless you pay attention to the right attitudes and functions happening in the body. Coordination, circulation, balance and breathing. Paying attention to these functions will allow you to feel more.
So you’ve got to stop and listen, look, smell, taste, and feel where you are. Now when I use the word feel I’m referring to your kinesthetic sense of where you are. It’s not mysterious, even when referred to as the sixth sense. It’s your sense of movement. How your different body parts are working together to coordinate in whatever activity you experience. That maybe the case, but you’ve still got to listen to it in order to use it. It won’t just happen by itself. Or rather it won’t just improve by itself.
So much of what we take in gets lost by our own judgements and trying to fit things into boxes. And of course we do that to make it easier to learn and take in or consume information. But there’s only so much we can do of that before we get saturated. Stopping and listening allows us to breakdown these barriers to feeling more. You can practise it anytime. It’s particularly good to do during semi supine. It’s also very useful when you’re trying to do something you find difficult.
It’s also interesting to watch cats and dogs. So rarely are they not sensing what is going on. Even when sleeping they have one ear on what’s happening around them. Now we can’t be like that. We have to get sleep and the deeper the better. But we can afford to spend a bit of time listening to what goes on.
Your back will never be perfect.
Your back will never be the way it was.
It can be better than it ever has been before. A huge problem with the way that many back experts work, is that they use fixed ideas of symmetry and anatomy. In other words they are trying to correct you. This is a huge mistake and was one of the major reasons I spent so long being injured. It’s still happening today, just like it was happening in the early 1900s in FM Alexander’s time.
Everyone has one arm or leg longer than the other. One shoulder or hip higher than the other. Everybody has a twist in their neck, spine and head to some degree. I have worked with so many different individuals, yoga teachers, Pilates teachers, Buddhist Monks, Shaolin Monks, Circus Performers. Some have good balance, but none of them are “straight” or symmetrical. This idea only exists in textbooks. Nowhere else, and the more you are pigeon holed into it the worse your pain is going to get. All those exercises you do to straighten and hold yourself in place actually works against your body. Your body is set up in a good way, it will actually heal itself. That probably sounds odd and I didn’t believe it when I started lessons but I was open minded enough to give it a go.
If you look at the people who have to carry water on their heads for miles on end across the desert they haven't done and special exercises or systems. None of them worry about their core. They just haven’t interfered with their bodies the way that we have learned to. They don’t get back ache and they go out and do the same thing again the next day!
Now you have probably seen things like MBT shoes that are modelled on how Masai warriors walk. They are supposed to make you walk the same way. But the thing is Masai warriors walk around in bare feet. So if you wanted to walk in a similar fashion wouldn’t you do what they do? Now always possible, I know but putting on a shoe to force behaviour from the body is a recipe for disaster. You and your body have to learn how to change first and then choose to keep doing it. Otherwise you will just end up with a different kind of badly. That’s the same reason you don’t want to be cracked into place. You just end up with two sets of bad habits fighting your body instead of one simple way.
Some people think that going to a chiropractor, osteopath or physio isn’t a scary experience. Some people do. And that’s ok. I can see both sides. Back pain treatment needs trust. When experts let me down I learnt to be afraid.
My first treatment came from a physio recommended by my coach. She told me to call her if I got into more pain. I took her at her word, trusting her. I called between appointments to check I was doing everything right, because I was just getting into more pain. In fact, before I was fully conscious of it I was calling twice a week. Lots of pain. Then one day they just stopped returning my calls! I got the message. Being a rower I wouldn’t give up, but I had to move on. I was in too much pain, I wasn't progressing and resented their lack of communication.
I also tried a chiropractor that actually did severe damage to my back. They actually were the reason I stopped being able to walk more than 20 metres a day. The harsh cracking movements on my back were terrible and actually left me in worse shape than when I started. I left my 3rd and final appointment in tears and being half carried!
You should be afraid of experts when they use harsh methods for back pain treatment! Is that person prepared to go the whole way with you and get you to recovery? I know I am.
So I set out to find a solution that would get me back walking again and pain free. The funny thing is that it involves NO cracking of bones back into place. NONE AT ALL. Because I’ve had to overcome some fairly extensive injuries (I’ve had more than just the 4 slipped discs, but I don’t want to bore you) I found a solution that provides the opportunity for just about anyone to recover from back pain.
So who are those people that I can’t help? Well there aren’t many people I can’t help but sometimes if the surgery is extremely extensive and there isn’t the ability to think with the body then sometimes I can’t help. I know it almost immediately after I put my hands on. I apologise, give them their money back and offer them what I can. But in the 10 years of teaching I’ve done, I’ve only come across five or six people I’ve had to say that to. Less than 1%. The chances are you can be helped.
You are more than likely to fail at recovery. Very few if any conventional treatments teach you how to use your body. They give you little or no control. How can you recover from injury if you can't control your body? Giving you a practical way for using your body never happens. You just do the therapy. Usually being cracked into place. Doing exercises which involve stretching or core stability. Expectations are high, but not realistic. You are not able to use this when they aren't there with you. And that’s what has to change. You should be given the toolkit for how your body works so you can undo problems when you need to. You should become independent, not reliant.
Without a learning process and developing autonomy, there is no understanding. There is no change. The person trying to help you only has something to do to you, rather than with you. They are not developing and neither are you. Relief and change are temporary rather than long lasting.
While what I do does have a therapeutic effect, it’s NOT a therapy. It’s learning.
After recovering from 4 slipped discs I managed to slip them another 7 times playing some very physical sports in my twenties. I put them back in by myself each time, just using the techniques I teach people everyday. This is how it should be for everyone. No one should suffer endlessly from back pain. That’s what I believe.