Category Archives: Standing

Going up the wall – Seán Carey

FM AleWall Work102Lxander told Marjory Barlow and the other students on his first training course group that once they had qualified as teachers they would find wall work very useful to perform in the intervals between lessons, especially if there wasn’t sufficient time to lie down on the floor or table. One reason why wall work is so valuable, FM went on to explain, derives from the sensory feedback that becomes available by lightly placing the whole of one’s back against a firm surface, such as a smooth wall or door, head freely poised on top of the spine and, then, using inhibition and direction, to make one or more carefully-thought-out movements.

Going on to the toes is one such movement. With your head leading, slide your body upwards (in stages if necessary) – ‘take plenty of time,’ Marjory advised me when I performed the movement in her teaching room – so that you go on to the balls of your feet and then your toes, without pressing back against the contact surface or bracing back your knees or holding your breath. Having arrived on tiptoe, it’s a good idea to pause at this juncture and release any unnecessary holding or excess tension in the buttocks, lower back, knees and ankle joints made while moving upwards. (When first performing the activity most of us will find that there’s often quite a lot of tension to discard. But definitely one way you can help the process along is by directing your heels to release away from your sitting bones or hip joints.) To return to the floor maintain your light contact with the wall or door and allow your ankles to release very slowly so that you maintain your internal length.

You now have the task of coming away from the wall without using some sort of leverage – for instance, by not succumbing to the desire to push with one or both of your buttocks or employing a quick flick of your shoulder blade. That, of course, is easier said than done – a true test of inhibition and direction.

You can read more about Marjory Barlow’s Alexander teaching techniques in Seán Carey’s new book, ‘Think More, Do Less: Improving your teaching and learning of the Alexander Technique with Marjory Barlow’, which has been written for Alexander teachers, trainees and advanced students. It is now available through Amazon or HITE.

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Marjory Barlow’s ‘Dimple Test’ – Seán Carey

Alexander told the students on his first training course that one very effective way to encourage the musculature of their back to work was to come back as an integrated unit in small movements from the pivot point of their ankle joints.TMDLpage83

 

The big problem for most of us attempting the activity on our own is that before initiating the movement back from the ankles it’s necessary to be reasonably well-coordinated – your head needs to be going forward and up, your back lengthening and widening, and your knees releasing forward from your free hip joints and slightly away from each other while maintaining a good connection to your feet. That’s often not the case, of course. Many of us obtain an upright stance not by lengthening the stature but by shortening it – specifically, pushing the pelvis forward, pulling the tailbone (sacrum-coccyx) and buttocks upwards towards the lower back, and also locking the knees, hips and ankles. One major result of this tangled malcoordination is that the pelvis is pulled down on to the legs instead of it being an integral part of the torso. As FM Alexander’s niece and first-generation Alexander teacher Marjory Barlow observed if someone is standing in this very common pattern of misuse and then attempts to come back from the ankles this will only serve to amplify or increase the degree of their stiffening.

The dimple test

Marjory suggested that if you have a habit of displacing your pelvis forward and hollowing your back, it’s useful to get a measure of that misuse, ideally with the aid of a mirror, by using what she called ‘the dimple test’. It’s very simple and straightforward. While standing, without raising your shoulders or pulling your head down to your neck, place the palms of your hands, with your lengthening fingers extending downwards along the outside of your thighs so that you can feel the dimple or hollow on the outside of your buttocks. With the heels of your hands you are now aware of the bony prominence of the greater trochanter of your thigh bone (femur) of each leg on the outside of your hip joints. (Note, the greater trochanter, a lever, acts as an attachment for two of your three gluteal muscles that stabilise your hip joint and enables you to extend, rotate or lift your leg sideways.)

Marjory then suggested investigating what happens when you keep your hands on your dimples and then deliberately stiffen your knees so that they turn inwards and backwards. ‘My husband, Bill, used to call this inward-rotating knee movement “squinting”,’ she recalled. ‘But what’s interesting is that a relatively small movement of the knees has a very big effect on the hip joints, which you can feel very easily with your hands.’ If you try this out you will also notice that as you brace back your knees your tail and buttocks are pulled upwards towards your torso (in other words, you are pulling

 

your back in) and you stiffen your rib cage. In addition, your ankles and the arches of your feet compress and stiffen. Furthermore such a simple experiment concerned with feeling how the hip joints work are not just food for thought for Alexander teachers or trainees – they can be a revelation to students who mistakenly believe that their hip joints are positioned just below the waist.

You can read more about Marjory Barlow’s Alexander teaching techniques in Seán Carey’s new book, ‘Think More, Do Less: Improving your teaching and learning of the Alexander Technique with Marjory Barlow’, which has been written for Alexander teachers, trainees and advanced students. It is now available on HITE and through Amazon.

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

 

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

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

How do you stand?

Seán Carey explains how humans are the only animals that have the potential to stand fully upright – though how many of us actually do that?

Standing male posture

How much do you weigh? Eight, 10, 12 or 14 stone? Whatever your body weight you need good support from your musculoskeletal system to stand without strain. In fact, humans are the only species that can stand in a fully upright stance, with flexible ankles and fully extended knee and hip joints. With our joints stabilised by ligaments, body weight is then efficiently transmitted into the ground through the bones of a double S-shaped spine, pelvis, legs and the platforms of the feet, notably without much need to use the body’s large, powerful muscles, such as the gluteals, thighs and calves. Intriguingly, as anatomists have discovered, this alignment allows a healthy person to stand for hours, swaying slightly, using only seven per cent more energy than while lying on the ground.

But how many of us are capable of such efficiency in quiet standing? Very few, alas. The big problem for most of us is that we never, ever manage to come up to the potential of our full height – that is, the measurable distance between the crown of the head and the soles of the feet. Instead, we tend to droop or collapse, pulling the head down on to the neck, raising or collapsing the shoulders, pulling the lower back in and pushing the pelvis forward, as well as stiffening the muscles that operate the ankle, knee and hip joints. Given this pattern of mal-coordination, it’s hardly surprising that many of us suffer from a variety of musculoskeletal problems – chronic lower back pain, chronic neck pain, shoulder stiffness, achy legs or flat feet – as well as fatigue.

So is it possible to improve the efficiency of how you stand? Yes, although it’s fair to say that this takes more brainwork than physical work. For example, there’s no point trying to get some extra height by tightening the abdominal, gluteal or other muscles to ‘engage your core’ or by ‘tucking your tailbone under’. If you do either of these things you will only create additional tension – yet another ‘different form of badly’ to use philosopher and Alexander Technique enthusiast John Dewey’s pithy phrase – rather than a genuine release of your body’s musculature brought about by Alexander-style thinking (‘ordering’ or ‘directing’) that allows you to achieve your full height.

Seán Carey

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