Category Archives: Lessons

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 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

 

Can you stand on your toes?

Jessica Ennis-Hill

What do you do if you want to eat a juicy, but just-out-of reach, apple on a tree? You go up on to your toes, of course. In fact this movement on to the toes has likely played a very important part in the evolution of the uprightness and mobility of our species, including the unique ways humans walk, run and jump. Healthy, young children from all cultures are very good at going on to the toes – they just pop upwards – though interestingly many of us adults in Western-type societies perform the movement very badly. Why? Well, instead of maintaining alignment with your head balanced on top of your extended, double S-shaped spine, chances are that as you initiate the movement on to your toes your neck muscles will shorten and stiffen which, in turn, will result in your head compressing your spine and narrowing the back musculature. Simultaneously, you will sink into your legs and throw your body forward. Put simply, you have lost some of your internal length or, to use FM Alexander’s apt phrase, you have ‘shortened your stature’. Does it matter? It certainly does if you’re hungry and can’t stretch those extra centimetres to get that lovely apple! And shortening your stature not only involves stiffening from your head to your toes but also means that you are fixing your rib cage and barely breathing. Not good. But look at this picture of 2012 Olympic Heptathlon Champion Jessica Ennis-Hill standing on her toes in preparation for her run-up in the high jump. Jessica has brilliant alignment – head poised, spine extending, her back musculature widening, and her leg muscles stretching without strain. One last thing: although she is relatively small for a high jumper – she stands at 1.65 metres (5′ 5″) – Jessica has jumped 1.95 metres (6′ 5″) and was for many years joint British record holder for the outdoor event.

By Seán Carey

For more information on how going on to the toes should be performed 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

Pointing is key

Pointing is key to learning the Alexander Technique – Seán Carey PhD

‘See, even at the age of 98, I can still move my arms above my head,’ said Elisabeth Walker at the end of my one and only lesson with her at her Oxford home. She was responding to my question concerning whether FM Alexander, the founder of the Alexander Technique, had offered her and other students on his teacher training course much advice about extending or pointing the arms out to the sides, or above the head. ‘But he didn’t really make a big thing about it,’ she added. ‘Nevertheless, it’s very good for musicians and other people who get very tight in the armpits and need to get release.’

That conversation got me thinking more about gesture and pointing in particular. Humans are a very social species and a crucial building block in the development of that sociality is movement of the arms and hands, with or without accompanying speech. One gesture that seems to be especially important in our social development is pointing with an extended index finger. In fact, you would have started using that gesture around your first birthday, before you could talk, to get and direct the attention of adults and other children nearby to an object you wanted, such as food, a drink or a toy, or something that you found interesting, such as a hovering bumblebee, a slow-moving cat or a fast-moving aeroplane. In doing so, you discovered that movement can initiate and then maintain shared body-mind experiences. Simply put, people pay attention when you point, and you pay attention when they point.

It’s also evident that what comparative or developmental psychologists call purposeful or declarative-pointing with the index finger (which triggers extension or lengthening of the arm as illustrated in the photo below) is something for which we are peculiarly well adapted. It’s a behaviour found in all cultures. Some psychologists go further and claim that directed index finger-pointing is a uniquely human gesture as there is no reliable account of any of our great ape cousins living in the wild using it to communicate with other apes.

 

shutterstock_41063452

Above We are peculiarly well-adapted to pointing with our index finger

The unique human ability to point not only your index finger but also your other fingers is certainly used to good effect in the Alexander Technique as it forms an important part of some specialised procedures, one of which Elisabeth Walker demonstrated for me in March 2013.

Another example is placing hands over the back of a chair. Alexander himself would ask a student to sit upright on a chair facing the back of a second chair equipped with a reasonably high back. Maintaining the balance of the head on the neck he slowly brought the student’s body forwards from the hip joints, carefully monitoring whether at any stage they compressed their double-S shaped spine. (If that happened Alexander would go back to the beginning of the sequence.) With the student leaning forward at an angle Alexander instructed them to take their time and then extend or point their fingers before taking hold of the top rail of the chair in front, using a gentle but firm beak-like grip with each hand, with the wrists pointing inwards towards each other and the elbows pointing outwards and slightly downwards. This opposition of fingers, wrists and elbows pointing in different directions creates a gentle forearm pull or stretch from the fingers-opposing-thumbs contact. This can be further amplified by directing the shoulders to release or point away from each other.

If you are not familiar with the procedure it might appear to be rather strange. In fact leaning forwards and then placing the hands on the back of a chair in this way generates a dynamic, elastic muscular release not only in the arms but also in the neck and shoulder girdle, and rib cage and pelvis. It also helps to fine tune your kinaesthetic sense. I have written about hands over the back of a chair in sitting and standing in some detail in my new book, Alexander Technique in Everyday Activity.

And I remember talking to Alexander’s niece, first-generation teacher Marjory Barlow, who I interviewed for Alexander Technique: the Ground Rules, about the problem many new students of the technique experience in letting their knees release forwards from the hip joints and away from each other as they move from standing on two feet to sitting in a more balanced way on their downward-pointing sitting bones. Marjory told me that whenever she encountered any difficulty she would not only ask the student to inhibit their immediate reaction to the stimulus to sit (typically by trying to actively place their bottom on the chair, pulling their knees together and pulling their head down on to their neck) but also ask them to think about and then consciously point their knees forward and away in the direction of suitable objects in her teaching room, such as a radiator or lamp, as with her hands she provided the experience of maintaining the integrity of the head, neck and back relationship. It was good advice.

A final thought. When you were younger you may have been told off by your parents for pointing at other people – “Don’t point, it’s rude!” is the customary form of words – but I hope I have said enough to convince your adult self that inhibiting and then pointing your fingers, elbows and knees and mentally other body parts, such as the shoulders, using the minimum amount of effort, is a good thing. In fact, it’s key to learning the Alexander Technique.

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