Tag Archives: Alexander

Marjory Barlow on lying down work – Seán Carey

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FM Alexander provided no written instructions concerning how you or your student should carry out lying down work. This meant that information about the practice of lying down by oneself was mainly transmitted to students in the last few years of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century by Alexander’s early assistants and then from the mid-1930s by the first group of formally trained teachers, which included Marjory Barlow.

It’ s also evident that the vast majority of people who had lessons with Alexander himself in the 1940s and ‘50s were not told anything about the advantages of performing one or more daily sessions of lying down because his focus in this period was very much on chair work. Nevertheless, although as far as we know Alexander never made lying down a personal practice he encouraged his first group of training course students to perform it, though it seems he gave very little information in regard to its frequency or duration. ‘Like a lot of things concerned with the technique FM expected you to work out what was best,’ Marjory said. ‘He wasn’t especially prescriptive. But I’ve found from personal experience that lying down is best performed every day and that around 20 minutes is about right.’

Marjory told me that her group of training course students were instructed by FM to squat to get on to the floor. He advised them to have a slightly wider standing stance than for monkey and exaggerate the turn out of their feet to facilitate bending of their knees. The trainees were also told not to anticipate the movement on to the floor (no surreptitious crouching or stooping, in other words) but rather to maintain their internal length while standing, and then allow their knees to release over their well-turned-out toes to go into a deeper and deeper squat so as to arrive on the floor using their hands and knees for support. The students were then instructed to put both knees to the left or right to lie on their side, their legs straightening as they did so. Alexander then invited them to pause and roll over to place their head on a small pile of books that they had previously placed on the floor.

The next task involved bending one leg at a time so that they ended up with both feet flat on the floor, toes pointing out slightly and knees pointing towards the ceiling. As the students discovered for themselves bending the knees without disturbing the head, neck and torso relationship (especially not over-activating the abdominal muscles) was not at all easy to accomplish.

You can read more about how Marjory Barlow taught lying down work 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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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.

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.

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

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