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.
Hi, I'm Edward Fisher and I believe that everyone can have a life free from back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain and many other musculoskeletal pain related conditions. I recovered from slipped discs and sciatica. I spent 10 months being unable to walk. After 3 months of Alexander Technique I was walking again. Now I show others how to do the same thing for themselves.
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