Category Archives: Uncategorized

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

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

 

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

one thing into another

 

by Lucy Ash, artist – Alexander Technique pupil of Kamal Thapen

When I started to learn the Alexander Technique, I kept being reminded of this quote by Pablo Picasso. ‘It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.’ The point about the Alexander Technique is that it’s about unlearning everything we have learned – what feels familiar and comfortable is often bad for us – routines of behavior acquired subconsciously over the years by repeating the same action again and again are likely to be the wrong actions. By adopting a technique that is about thinking and then doing, we can create positive change. But like Picasso this unlearning, the business of doing of things differently, takes time and courage.

Applying a technique to our approach to life and the world around us can have very powerful results, but you have to take a leap of faith. As a painter it helps me to apply a technique to my work that is about self-awareness and understanding my body, that way I can get more from it. Painting is very physical, so my body has to work for me. How well I paint depends on my awareness, my thought process, my sensitivity and intuition. By becoming more sensitive I can make better decisions and be more agile. Making art, like the Alexander Technique, is a lot about how the conscious mind connects and directs the unconscious mind so the work has a resonance. I work with mixed media, usually oil paints, spray paint and ink. The process of using mixed media is very exciting – there’s the wonderful thing of how the oil paint and spray paint interact, it’s not entirely predictable and is a process of discovery where I may not know what I’m doing but find out by doing it and being brave. Molding something out of nothing with a mixture of mediums is a big part of what my work is about. Like the Alexander Technique it’s not about the end game it’s about the process. Not knowing where colliding particles will land, not controlling them and not worrying about the rules is part of my approach to creativity.

 Image 

‘one thing into another’ mixed media on linen, 168 cm x 213 cm, 5’ 6” X 7’

Bringing something experimental all together to create a sense of wholeness gives a feeling of completion and satisfaction and pleasure. The pieces of a painting make sense of the whole; in the same way that the pieces of our body make up a whole. The relationship between our neck and head affect to the rest of our body and every subsequent movement and action stem from this connection which, when it works, brings about a graceful and fluid movement. If part of your body is out of sync it affects your whole being, which not only has ramifications on how well we feel but also on how we relate to the world and how the world relates to us, plus it parallels the quality of work we produce as well as the process of painting.

Painters are a bit like magicians in how they transform one thing into another and something out of nothing as well as juggle the constantly changing relationships that have ramifications throughout the whole rest of the work. One mark leads to another; a small mark can instigate big change, which is the exciting part of creating.  So why is change, which is so inevitable, so very unwelcome? A changing world and personal change are incredibly scary even when the status quo isn’t that great. What we know is what we like because it feels familiar and safe and is where we would like to stay if we could, but we can’t. A technique such as Alexander equips us with the tools we need to venture out from the known present into the unknown future. It’s about the fundamental nature of being, integrating and grounding the whole person; it allows bad habits to be unlearned, great works of art to be painted, and needs to be embraced.

 Image

‘one thing into another’, Winchester Cathedral, 2013, part of Creative Collisions 10 days Winchester

Alexander Technique in the Saddle – Origins

FM  Alexander on Horse

FM Alexander on Horse

Saddle work has a long history in the Alexander Technique. In 1955, a 4-year- old girl with spina bifida started having lessons with FM Alexander. She didn’t have the use of her legs and was unable to sit up. But Alexander was confident that if he could get the girl to stand, he would be able to help her walk.

Alas, Alexander died soon after their meeting. But his assistant teachers had a bright idea. To help the youngster gain more balance, they worked with her while she sat on a toy donkey. It was fun for the girl and easier for the teachers. She was able to sit comfortably on her sitting bones and the teachers could help her overall co-ordination and get release on her legs.

As she grew, the donkey was replaced by a wooden trestle with a horse’s saddle. By the time she was 13, the Technique had helped her build up enough upper body support to start to walk with callipers and crutches. This led the way forward to leading an independent life, going to university, driving and working.

In time, saddle work expanded and was also used to work with other Alexander students. It is an enormously helpful way to get undoing and lengthening in the legs. Our legs and hip joints often tend to get very tight and tense, particularly with the amount of sitting in modern life. Saddle work can also help with lower back pain, particularly in the lumbar and sacro-iliac areas.

In fact, sitting in a saddle is often feels easier than sitting in a chair, as the balance is directly on the sitting bones. Also, excessive tensions in the legs and the hips can release, often including those we are unaware of. Often we are not even aware we are holding tensions unnecessarily. The Alexander Technique helps us get to the tensions even held below the radar.

For horse riders, practising on a wooden horse with hands on guidance by an Alexander teacher helps to get a sense of a good seat, without needing to grip with the legs, buttocks or back. And a wooden horse won’t respond to any riding signals so is a good opportunity for experimentation!

FM Alexander himself was a keen horseman, as was his assistant Walter Carrington. Today horse riding and Alexander Technique have close connections. See Back-in-the-saddle-thoughts-on-recovery-riding-and-the-alexander-technique written by one of our students, a rider.

The next HITE ‘Improve your Seat’ workshop is from 1:30 – 4:30pm on Saturday 6th October at 10 Harley Street, London W1G 9PF. Designed especially for riders, you will gain insights and experiences through the application of the Alexander Technique on how you can find a comfortable posture and even seat on the saddle and discover a more harmonious connection with your horse. For further information and to book your place click on Improve Your Seat – Riding and Alexander Technique Workshop today.