Category Archives: Age

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

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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

 

 

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

 

Alexander Technique ‘Proof of Age’ Elixir

by Emily Pacey, freelance design and architecture journalist  – Alexander Technique pupil of Kamal Thapen

The other day when purchasing a bottle of supermarket plonk I was asked for proof of age. Being nigh on 38 years old, this came as a bit of a surprise. In this instance, proof of age turned out to be nothing more official than my cracked smile and breathless thank yous for making my day, half-way though which I was waved on with no further questions. I went home glowing happily while also aghast at the derangement of the sales assistant. Were it not for my dodgy knees, I believe I would have skipped. You see, a few years ago I quietly buried any last hopes of ever being ID’d again, saying to myself, ‘well old gal, thosedays are behind you – let’s just get on with nurturing a dowager’s hump and eroding the rest of your knee cartilage,’ which I duly did.

Proof of AgeHad the incident been a one-off I would have treated it as a freak event and carried on as usual, but in the same week I was ID’d a further three times by three different sales assistants in three different brands of supermarket. By the way, I am not an alcoholic – I’m just addicted to being mistaken for someone who has to prove that they are over 25.

Bemused and delighted, I cast around for an explanation – what had changed in the past couple of weeks to knock more than a decade off my supermarket age? The answer: I had just broken the eight session mark in a course of Alexander Technique, my dowager’s hump was less humpy and my dodgy knee had got its spring back after we discovered that I have spent most of my life locking my knees and pressing them back like a sergeant major.

More people need to know about the cosmetic benefits of Alexander Technique – it is definitely not shouting enough about its youth-giving, elixir-like qualities. However, you can go too far – I am starting to fear taking many more lessons in case next time I’m in Sainsbury’s, a concerned sales assistant puts out a tannoy call  for my mummy (whose idea it was for me to take Alexander lessons – thanks mum).

Our grateful thanks to Emily for sharing her experiences. For further information or to book a session with Kamal, see  www.hiteltd.co.uk or contact kamal@hiteltd.co.uk

Image thanks to VALIDATE UK   www.validateuk.co.uk info@validateuk.co.uk 01434 634996