Author Archives: athite

Rounded shoulders and the relevance of the Alexander Technique – Seán Carey

Biker posture

Biker posture ©Shutterstock

I’m driving slowly along Commercial Street in London’s ultra-fashionable East End when a young female cyclist passes me on the inside. Her expensive-looking bicycle has drop handlebars, though I observe that she is not using her hands to grasp or rest on the lower parts, the curving ends, but the central sections attached to the stem. Nevertheless, I notice that rather than maintaining the length of her spine by leaning forward as a unit from her hip joints, she is curving her back and pulling her head back and down on to her neck as she lifts her face to look forward. She is also pulling her shoulders up and forward so that they appear ‘rounded’. (You can see the same effect in the stock photo attached)

A number of my Alexander students are keen cyclists so I always point out to them that they should think about and organise themselves well if they are to avoid practising unnecessary stiffening while they are out and about on their bicycles. Why? Well, if they are using unnecessary tension and effort to cycle, they are not just adversely affecting their functioning (including breathing, circulation and digestion) but they are also affecting their structure, especially the structure of their spine, rib cage and shoulder girdle, more generally. This can have long-term consequences. In fact, I have been struck over my many years of teaching how stiff in the torso, shoulders, arms and hands almost all my enthusiastic cycling students are.

But it’s not just cyclists who are prone to stiff upper limbs, pushed-forward necks and rounded shoulders. This pattern of mal-coordination tends to affect anyone who uses their arms and hands to touch or manipulate objects. For example, people obliged to sit in front of computers for most of the working day exhibit a similar pattern – postural collapse involving distorting their double-S shaped spine resulting in pushed-forward necks and rounded shoulders. Alas, these poor habits do not magically disappear when someone stands up and goes for a walk or goes down the gym – instead, they become part and parcel of people’s everyday psycho-physical repertoire, affecting everything they do.

Which is why the Alexander Technique is so relevant. Here it’s useful to point out that FM Alexander, the founder of the technique, never made the mistake of thinking of the shoulders as specific entities to be manipulated, but rather he considered them to be part of a total neuro-muscular pattern that required kinaesthetic re-education. That said, he recognised that sometimes the shoulders did require specific attention. In his early years of teaching in the UK Alexander sometimes invited students who were rounding their shoulders to give their ‘orders’ or ‘directions’ for a better integration of the neck-head-back relationship and then add on another order for the shoulders to release ‘back and down’. However, after discovering that this order encouraged most people (no doubt influenced by popular concepts of ‘good posture’) to actively do something rather than simply give their mental directions he then opted to provide the relevant kinaesthetic experience without accompanying words. In short, he decided the less said the better.

Of course, one way of diminishing the amount of unnecessary muscular tension in your body, including undoing rounded shoulders, is to regularly perform Alexander-style lying down – what’s popularly known as the semi-supine position. This involves lying on a firm surface, such as a carpeted floor, with your head supported by a pile of books, your knees pointing towards the ceiling and your feet flat on the floor, comfortably near your pelvis about shoulder-width apart. Your arms can be placed by your sides. Lying down in this way uses gravity to good effect and helps to decompress your spine, and uncurl your shoulders without you having to ‘do’ anything.

For more information on rounded shoulders and the effect of Alexander-style lying down read Seán Carey’s Alexander Technique in Everyday Activity: Improve how you sit, stand, walk, work and run

Available through Amazon with free P & P

Have you walked 10,000 steps today? by Seán Carey

Women walking

I’m sure you’re aware of the recent flurry of articles regarding John Hopkins University’s Dr Greg Hager who queried the general usefulness of fitness apps, especially those which encourage the wearer to take 10,000 steps a day. “Some of you might wear Fitbits or something equivalent,” said Dr Hager, a computer scientist, “and I bet every now and then it gives you a cool little message ‘You did 10,000 steps today’. But why is 10,000 steps important? What’s big about 10,000?”

Good questions.

Dr Hager went on to tell his audience at the American Association for the Advancement of Science that 10,000 steps was a very arbitrary goal based on a single study of the movement pattern and estimated 3000-calorie burn of Japanese men some 50 years ago. “Imagine everyone thinks they have to do 10,000 steps,” said Dr Hager, warming to his theme, “but if you are not actually physically capable of doing that, you could actually cause harm or damage by doing so”.

Quite right.

Nevertheless, there is obviously a danger that some people will interpret Dr Hager’s warning that because the target of 10,000 steps is ill-founded they should give up walking for exercise. That, of course, would be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In fact, the general consensus based on current scientific research is that walking is highly beneficial, not only because of its cardiovascular benefits but also because of its mood-regulating effects. For example, it helps to stave off or reduce depression and anxiety, partly by releasing the stress hormone adrenaline stored in the muscles, and partly by stimulating circulation and breathing.

Walking has also been shown to reduce the risk of dementia by around 20 per cent, improve sleep quality and contributes to whole-body bone density. Yet whatever the motivation and benefits, the important question from an Alexander Technique point of view is: what methods should you employ in walking to make it as efficient as possible in order to get positive health benefits without incurring damage or injury to your musculoskeletal system?

In a brief account of walking in his first book Man’s Supreme Inheritance, FM Alexander complained about the widespread tendency of “civilised peoples” to adopt a “rolling gait” (side-to-side movement). “Nearly everyone I examine or observe in the act of walking,” he wrote, “employs unnecessary physical tension in the process in such a way that there is a tendency to shorten the spine and legs, by pressing … down through the floor.”

The “rolling gait” detected by Alexander was most likely the dominant pattern of walking amongst middle-class Edwardian Londoners. In fact making a side-to-side swaying movement remains remarkably prevalent amongst people in contemporary Europe and North America, although nowadays it is matched by a pattern of over striding, in which the foot lands too far ahead of the trunk, the head is pulled down on to the neck, the lower back is pulled in and the rib cage stiffened. This pattern of malcoordination in part reflects the amount of time many of us spend in slumped, C-shaped sitting, a practice which causes contraction throughout the body’s musculature and interferes with our kinaesthetic sense, but also in part reflects or expresses the many hard-to-escape time pressures embedded in post-industrial societies.

When Alexander made that observation about a rolling gait, he reckoned that the basis of efficient walking was to put one foot either behind or in front of the other making an angle of about 45 degrees between the feet, with the body weight supported mainly by the rear foot. This allows the knee of the forward leg to bend so that a small step can be taken with the front foot. At the same time, the ankle of the rear foot should bend a little so that, as Alexander explained, “the whole body is inclined slightly forward, thus allowing the propelling force of gravitation to be brought into play”.

Later on in life, Alexander had simplified and refined what was required sometimes saying to a student at the end of a lesson: “Up to put the foot down because we all think down to put the foot down.” It’s a succinct summary of what’s involved in biomechanically efficient locomotion.

You can read more about an Alexander approach to walking in Seán Carey’s Alexander Technique in Everyday Activity: Improve how you sit, stand, walk, work and run

Available through Amazon with free P & P

We know about the head but what about the feet? by Seán Carey

Standing male postureFM Alexander famously said that improved coordination comes ‘from the head downwards’. Does that mean that he neglected other parts of the body, including the feet? Definitely not. He knew from observing himself using a three-way mirror arrangement that while standing (and in motion) that as well as interfering with the balance of his head on his neck he was also making unnecessary muscular tension in his feet. In fact, he was contracting and bending his toes downwards in such a way that he was throwing his weight onto the outside of his feet, creating an arching effect, which in turn interfered with his overall balance.

Many of us will be able to identify with that or a similar type of misuse. For that reason we need to keep in mind that we do not possess the flat, extremely elastic and prehensile feet of ot
her primate species, such as apes and monkeys, which are so useful in tree climbing. In fact, one very important function of your parallel aligned toes is for balancing and feeling the ground. You can explore this by standing on one foot and then flexing your toes upwards so that none of them are in contact with the floor. It’s difficult to maintain balance, isn’t it? Your toes also play a vitally important role in locomotion. So you can also experiment with walking forward or backward with similarly upwardly-flexed toes on both feet. You will discover that this results in a tightening of your leg joints and torso and a pattern of movement which is very stiff and awkward.

The big problem is that most of us stand with too much weight on the front of the feet. However, this often goes with a pattern of general postural collapse – pulling the head down on to the neck, pulling the lower back in and stiffening the ankles, knees and hips. So if that’s what you’re doing in everyday life then you need to find a way of coming back from the pivot point of your ankle joints in such a way that the three contact points of the feet – areas around your heels, big toes and little toes – are equalised. But this is not just a matter of thinking of your feet in isolation; instead, it is a function of your general coordination. Put another way, balancing on your two feet is achieved not by ‘doing’ anything specific with your feet but by giving directions for your head, neck and back and then adding on suitable orders for your ankles, knees and hips joints and making a movement, such as walking forward, backward or sideways, so that as you move all your body’s joint surfaces are opening away from each other and your feet are releasing into the ground. As Alexander told those on his first teacher training course: ‘Everything in the body should be moving away from its nearest joint starting from the head.’

For more information read Seán Carey’s Alexander Technique in Everyday Activity: Improve how you sit, stand, walk, work and run

Available through Amazon with free P&P

Secrets of the Moving Body

Eric the skeleton, in trilby hat, looks bemused as a lady mounts a chair and stands on it whilst her torso is bound diagonally in red and yellow tape. Ted Dimon’s workshops are nothing if not graphic. The tapes follow the muscle spirals identified by the anatomist and Alexander Technique devotee, Raymond Dart. “Secrets of the Moving Body”, a 2-day HITE seminar in April in London, mirrors Dr Dimon’s latest book: Neurodynamics: the Art of Mindfulness in Action.

 

He begins by breaking down some of the more intimidating technical language which can obscure rather than aid understanding and mostly describes simple everyday shapes. He is not an anatomist, he says, but had to penetrate the mysteries of anatomical language himself in order to pursue his research and teaching in the Alexander Technique. Dimon aspires to offer a field of knowledge, a theoretical structure, which is specific to the Alexander Technique, and the special dimension of anatomy and physiology which he presented was felt to help everyone understand better what is happening in a lesson. No unnecessary jargon was used, only plain English, with liberal touches of humour.

 

We are suspended from the head, he says, with a perfectly designed system of levers (bones) and motors (muscles) which work together, and curves which counter-balance each other to sustain upright posture and absorb shock – a Lamborghini on orders of magnitude, he remarks.

 

He takes us through stages of evolution with entertaining illustrations of how we arrived at what is arguably a perfect tensegrity structure cooperating with gravity. We must allow it to function properly, respecting the working of the musculo-skeletal system, and this significantly depends on a constructive partnership of head balance and sacro-spinalis lengthening. The sub-occipital muscles and the hyoid bone also play key roles in our self-management, says Dimon. And primary control, a concept specific to FM Alexander’s work, is closely related to the autonomic nervous system.

 

So why does it go wrong? Why, with a body designed for effortless movement and daily tasks, do we unwittingly inflict harm on healthy muscles, ending up with chronic muscle pain? Do we need little men on the ground holding us up by guy-wires as in one of the illustrations, or a course of AT sessions to help us to make more reliable judgements about how we’re using our body? Mindfulness, says Dimon, must be grounded in an understanding of psychophysical functioning and not just in meditative practice.

 

Dimon manages to steer you from the simple to the complex in a painless way, richly aided by the illustrations . He has an engaging teaching style, with anything important being presented several times in different ways. He believes in frequent short breaks and there is never time to get tired. Participants appreciated this and also the opportunity to ask plenty of questions at the seminar – including many they’d never dared ask before. Participants who had read his books felt that this seminar brought them to life.

 

People attending the event came from an unusually wide range of backgrounds: physiotherapy, shiatsu, osteopathy, chiropractic, rheumatology, as well as students from the 3-year Alexander teacher-training courses and experienced Alexander teachers. Surprisingly the teachers were few, perhaps not realising that this seminar would offer new material. Writing as a teacher of the Alexander Technique I always appreciate Dimon’s passionate commitment to the work and take away new ways of explaining and teaching it. He feels that teachers of any subject would benefit from applying the principles involved in this work.

 

It was gratifying that so many different professions were represented and that their evaluations were extremely positive. Conversations overheard in the toilets suggested that non-AT professionals were enjoying the seminar, learning new material and would be thinking differently about the Alexander Technique in the future.

 

There was a plentiful supply of tea, coffee and tasty biscuits, a hallmark of HITE’s events which always goes down well.

 

Anna Cooper, MSTAT

 

Should you run in shoes or run barefoot? by Seán Carey

Running_shoes_display

Last week it was the effect on the feet of wearing high heels that was in the news. This week it’s whether running wearing a pair of trainers is better for you than running barefoot. University of Queensland researchers found that the cushioning and arch support features found in most modern trainers and running shoes can potentially impair ‘foot-spring function’– though with the important caveat that shod running may contribute to other advantages in a runner’s foot muscle function, especially in the activation of the muscles along the longitudinal arch of the foot. The researchers concluded (as researchers tend to do) that more research was required to explore the relationship between the foot and the muscles around the ankle and knee joints during running.

Certainly, all the top athletes I’ve observed in recent years wear some sort of shoe when competing. On the other hand, many elite middle and long-distance runners, hailing from rural areas in countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia, have grown up not wearing shoes or only wearing them occasionally. In fact, there is a huge advantage for all of us at least to walk barefoot whenever possible. Why? Well, the sensory nerves on the bottom of your feet provide important proprioceptive information about the ground you are walking on. Your brain and the rest of your nervous system interpret these signals to keep you upright with the minimum amount of effort in locomotion. This process is made more difficult if shoes are worn – and interestingly the more cushioned or stiffer the shoes, the worse the problem. In fact, even wearing socks on your feet interferes with this proprioceptive process.

However, walking barefoot and running barefoot are not equivalent activities. Most experts, such as Harvard evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman, recommend that if you are used to running with shoes but wish to make the change to running barefoot or using minimalist shoes you allow plenty of time to make the transition. And, from an Alexander Technique perspective, it’s not just your feet that you need to be concerned with. Much more important in many ways is the balance of your head on your neck. You want to keep your head freely poised so that your back musculature provides the necessary support for your body weight and allows your legs to move freely. Tighten your neck muscles and you’re pulling your head down on to your shoulders and compressing your whole body from the crown of your head to the soles of your feet. In short, you will run heavy and feel heavy. And that’s true whether your feet are shod or not.

For more information on walking and running read Seán Carey’s Alexander Technique in Everyday Activity: Improve how you sit, stand, walk, work and run

Available through Amazon with free P & P

 

Should you wear high heels? by Seán Carey

Shoes Modelled ATiEA

High heels are in the news again. Women, who have been told to wear high heels at work are being invited to tell their stories to a group of MPs in order to gain legal clarity about whether UK employers can force female employees to wear such footwear. The initiative by parliamentarians came after a petition calling for a ban on women being obliged to wear high heels in the workplace gathered more than 142,000 signatures (mine was one of them).

In fact, the use of footwear is a relatively recent development in human history. The world’s oldest preserved shoes were constructed from sagebrush bark fibre by Native Americans keen to insulate themselves against freezing temperatures in the Pacific Northwest around 10,500 years ago. Many contemporary populations living in warm climates in the developing world never wear shoes. Such barefoot people tend to have wide feet, pronounced arches and evenly distributed plantar pressure. By contrast, habitual shoe wearers have narrower feet, exhibit very high focal pressures at the heel, big toe and ball of the foot, and often suffer anatomical abnormalities, such as weak toes, bunions and flat feet.

High heels are particularly significant in this regard. Evidence suggests that extensive use of such footwear, especially ultra-high heels, is linked with significant physical problems. It’s associated with marked shortening of the highly malleable muscle fibres that make up the calves as well as thicker and stiffer Achilles tendons. Long-term use of high heels is also correlated with the development of on-going foot pain and restriction in the range of movement of the ankles. Unsurprisingly those problems show up more in ageing adults.

When people ask me in my role as an Alexander Technique teacher what shoes they should wear, I ask them what footwear would they select if they had to walk or run quickly? High heels, platform shoes, and flip-flops would not be a good choice, even for the very well-coordinated. They all interfere with your balance and alignment and decrease your potential speed in walking or running. The optimum choice is well-fitting shoes, with thin, flexible soles that follow the movement of your feet without the need to try to hang on with your toes.

So it’s probably best to wear a pair of Christian Louboutin-type heels only on very special occasions. If you do put them on try to walk on the balls of your feet rather than landing on the heels – though be aware that you are using around 50 per cent more energy compared with a normal heel-sole-toe movement as you would do if you were walking barefoot or in thin-sole shoes.

For more information on your feet and other parts of your body-mind continuum read Seán Carey’s Alexander Technique in Everyday Activity: Improve how you sit, stand, walk, work and run

Available through Amazon with free P & P

 

 

Why F M Alexander name checked the latissimus dorsi muscles – Seán Carey

FM Alexander, the founder of the Alexander Technique, rarely mentioned specific skeletal muscles in his writings but he made an exception in his account of the hands over the back of a chair procedure detailed in his second book, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, where he name checked the latissimus dorsi muscles.

Latissimus dorsiThe flat, fan-like latissimus dorsi muscles are part of a group of what anatomists term “superficial muscles” – that is, they are to be found just under your skin. In fact, you can easily locate part of one or other latissimus dorsi muscle by using your fingers and thumb to pinch the widest part of your back behind your armpit.

But why would Alexander specifically mention these muscles? Well, firstly because he was always interested in anything involved with breathing. Although the latissimus dorsi muscles are not primary breathing muscles, they do assist with the contraction and expansion of your rib cage. The second reason he was interested is because the latissimus dorsi muscles are the only ones in the body that connect the pelvis to the arms as each muscle runs from the lower back, travelling up around the outside of the rib cage to pass through the armpit and then attaches to the inner side of the upper arm bone, just below the shoulder joint. Although thin the latissimus dorsi muscles are incredibly powerful. Furthermore, even though Alexander did not explicitly spell it out these muscles play a hugely important role in any number of everyday movements in which you use your hands to manipulate objects. For example, you employ the latissimus dorsi muscles to open a fridge door, remove clothes from a washing machine, pull weeds out of the ground, or with your hand on a banister pull yourself up the stairs. If you are an athlete you will also be interested to know that also you use them in running, throwing and swimming.

As anyone familiar with the Alexander Technique knows, it’s best to use our muscles at their optimum length. But the intriguing characteristic of the latissimus dorsi muscles is that unlike other muscles, such as erector spinae, that run from your tailbone to your head and help to maintain or create lengthening in your body, your stretched or released latissimus dorsi muscles act to both lengthen and widen your torso. Which is good news because that helps your legs to release away from your trunk so that you experience what Alexander called “lengthening of the stature” – the ongoing stretch or release between the crown of your head and the soles of your feet. That’s beneficial because you will then breathe more easily and more deeply without any need to focus directly on breathing (as in popular activities such as yoga, Pilates or mindfulness). Furthermore, tight latissimus dorsi muscles can cause chronic neck, shoulder, middle or lower back pain, and rounded shoulders.

So, Alexander was right to draw our attention to the latissimus dorsi muscles not in an abstract or “academic” sense but because it’s to our advantage to develop awareness of them at a sensory level through an activity such as hands over the back of a chair to restore or maintain good general muscular elasticity and coordination.

For more information on the body-mind continuum and the hands over the back of the chair procedure read Seán Carey’s Alexander Technique in Everyday Activity: Improve how you sit, stand, walk, work and run.

Available through Amazon for £18.99 with free P&P.

Private one-to-one Alexander Technique sessions can be booked with Seán Carey on Thursdays afternoons with HITE Ltd, 10 Harley Street, London W1G 9PF. Tel: 020 7467 8461

Is your mind like a foraging squirrel in a park? Seán Carey

“The mind races around like a foraging squirrel in a park, grabbing in turn at a flashing phone-screen, a distant mark on the wall, a clink of cups, a cloud that resembles a whale, a memory of something a friend said yesterday, a twinge in the knee, a pressing deadline, a vague expectation of nice weather later, a tick of the clock,” says Sarah Bakewell in her excellent new book on phenomenology and existentialism, At The Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails.

Squirrel

In the analogy of the mind as a foraging squirrel there’s no doubt that Bakewell provides a pretty good description of how many of us experience the world while we are awake. However, whether everyone in all cultures, or indeed at all times, experiences life in such a frantic fashion is an interesting question. I would argue not. Why? Well, partly on the grounds that Bakewell’s list of attention-demanding objects or experiences is so thoroughly Western, urban and post-modern (think of people working in cities such as London, New York, Paris or Tokyo who make their livelihoods through listening, talking and typing and take frequent coffee breaks but probably not East African hunter-gatherers digging for tubers, collecting baobab fruits or chasing baboons), and partly on the grounds that those of us who have had lessons from a competent Alexander Technique teacher know very well that when the head achieves a better balance on top of the spinal column, allowing the neck and back muscles to provide support and stability for the whole body, this results in a less strained, more rhythmic pattern of breathing as well as clearer vision. At this point our experience of ourselves in time and space is no longer dominated by a habitually restless squirrel-like mind with a subordinate, barely-felt body but is transformed into an experience and also an appreciation of how one’s body and mind are so profoundly interconnected.

For more information on using the arms and hands read Seán Carey’s ‘Alexander Technique in Everyday Activity: Improve how you sit, stand, walk, work and run’

Available through Amazon for £18.99 with free P&P.

Private one-to-one Alexander Technique sessions can be booked with Seán Carey on Thursdays afternoons with HITE Ltd, 10 Harley Street, London W1G 9PF. Tel: 020 7467 8461

How do you use your hands?

pencil_grip3

What’s the difference between you and your nearest living relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos? Well, not too much in terms of DNA percentages but quite a lot in terms of how the hands work. One key difference is that while chimps and bonobos have long fingers but short, weak, immobile thumbs, you have relatively short fingers but long, strong, mobile thumbs. The result is that, unlike your great ape relatives, you can you fully oppose your thumbs and the pads of each of your fingers, a pattern that enables you to grip or pinch objects with great precision. You employ it all the time in everyday life – for example, when buttoning your shirt, text messaging, or holding a pencil or picking up a coin.

Interestingly, healthy, young children are very dextrous – typically, toddlers can easily hold a round object such as a ball much bigger than their hand by elastically opening the hand very wide, thumb angled away from their other fingers, and then making contact with the top or side of the ball with a minimum amount of flexion or grip. It’s as if the child’s hand is sticking to the ball. How many adults are capable of this? Not many because most of us create too much muscle tension not only in the hands and arms but also in the rest of the body’s musculature, especially in the upper torso. Which is a great shame. But you can learn how to undo excess muscular tension by paying attention to how you use your hands in conjunction with what FM Alexander, the founder of the Alexander Technique, called the ‘primary control’ – maintaining the balance of your head, while your supportive back muscles lengthen and widen to provide stability not only for your head but also for your arms and hands.

By Seán Carey PhD

For more information on using the arms and hands read Seán Carey’s ‘Alexander Technique in Everyday Activity: Improve how you sit, stand, walk, work and run’

Available through Amazon for £18.99

Private one-to-one Alexander Technique sessions can be booked with Seán Carey on Thursdays afternoons with HITE Ltd, 10 Harley Street, London W1G 9PF. Tel: 020 7467 8461

How do you do the housework, in Goa?

Goa’s Patnem Beach

Can you lean forward from your hip joints, holding a brush, without compressing your double S-shaped spine, stiffening your legs and feet, or pulling your head down on to your neck? If you spend long hours sitting in a C-shaped slump in front of a screen, the answer is probably not. But look at this photo of two women sweeping Goa’s Patnem Beach just after sunrise. You will see that the woman in the blue sari is working much more efficiently than her colleague. By placing her open left hand on her lower back, the weight of that arm (around 4% of her body weight) can release through her pelvis, her legs and then into the ground. Her supported left arm also counterbalances the weight of her right arm which is holding the short broom made from coconut leaves. That, in turn, helps to keep her spine extended, supple and strong. Very clever. It also means that she will never experience chronic lower back pain!

By Seán Carey

For more information on how to bend and use yourself better read Seán Carey’s much-acclaimed book, ‘Alexander Technique in Everyday Activity: Improve how you sit, stand, walk, work and run’
Available through Amazon for £18.99