Tag Archives: back pain

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

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 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

 

Back in the Saddle; thoughts on recovery, riding and the Alexander Technique

by Leonie (Beadie) Charlton – Alexander Technique pupil of Claire Rennie & Erica Donnison

Last year felt like the longest of my life.  January through to August, when I finally had spinal surgery, felt like an interminable blur of pain.  Progressively debilitating back pain had forced me to stop my beloved work as an Equine Podiatrist, stop riding, walking, swimming, cycling, housework, even cooking was nigh on impossible.  In terms of my ability to helpfully participate in my life, with three young children and all that entails, I felt next to useless.  As I became increasingly out of kilter physically, so too did my mental and emotional balance tip dangerously.  It was a frightening time looking into a forbidding sea-swell of unknowns, and most starkly terrifying of all to me was the thought of no longer being able to enjoy my longest and truest passion, riding.

I had two herniated discs, one of which had oozed into my spinal canal and was crushing the sciatic nerve, giving me extreme nerve pain down my right leg and buttock.  The pain forced me into my own body in a whole new way; anyone who has experienced the final stages of childbirth will know the sense of total absorption that comes with intense pain. I see now that the whole experience was like a birth for me; I am brimful with gratitude with where I am now, how my relationship to my back, to my self, to my riding, to my life has changed.

It took something pretty serious for me to change habits that were damaging me, yet now the philosophical emotional and practical applications of the Alexander Technique that I have been able to integrate has brought me so many gifts.  I wouldn’t change anything.  It is an ongoing process of unlearning and learning, of doing and non doing; as a friend (in her mid seventies, who still rides extensively and beautifully) said recently, ‘if you cant enjoy the process you haven’t got a lot going for you!’.

I went into hospital with my vast array of painkillers, a book of Mary Oliver’s poetry and several on the Alexander Technique.  I spent the eight weeks following surgery learning a whole new level of awareness of my body, I was following FM Alexander’s directions as much as I could, by reading, by listening to CDs and from the few Alexander Technique lessons I had had previously.  I had no choice but to move very, very slowly; I had to think carefully about every movement I made and took the time to pause and consider before I did anything.  It was in many ways the perfect opportunity to change old habits that had clearly been causing me harm, mainly by doing things with a ‘pushing through/ driving/ no matter if it hurts’ mentality.  Pain had become normal for me over the years, something to be stoically ignored, almost part of my identity.  Well thankfully my body just wasn’t going to put up with that indefinitely.

Eight weeks after surgery I took my horses along to a riding clinic.  I was unsure and pretty anxious on several levels; I didn’t know how the surgery may have affected my riding, the horses had had a long time off so I had no idea how they would be, and I also had a big question around whether I may have lost my nerve.  The minute I was in the saddle I could feel myself different; I was almost totally focusing on my self and my own body, constantly checking in and asking if I was holding tension anywhere, and letting go if I found any.

My horse loved it, after 9 months with no work he gave me the most beautiful trot work I had ever had on him.  Forward, rhythmically and working through his back.  I was overjoyed, I can remember very clearly thinking ‘I don’t want this to end, ever..’. I felt like we were floating together.  I was with my horse, and he was able to flow forwards because my body was free of restrictions.  I could not have had more positive feedback from him.  I was in heaven.

At the end of the session my riding teacher said ‘wow, that’s the best I’ve ever seen you ride.  Eight months off has been great for you.  What’s happened?  What have you changed what have you been doing?’  I paused for a moment before answering with certainty ‘I’ve been really focusing on the Alexander Technique… and I have been letting go’.  Horses are such honest mirrors for us, the minute we do something differently they change.  How we use our bodies makes all the difference to how they can use theirs, and they will show us in an instant the difference between ‘use’ and ‘abuse’.

It takes a great deal of attention and practice to really change habitual patterns of tension, of posture, even of thought.  That is where the AT is so incredibly powerful; the technique is a fantastic tool for helping us become really body aware, to be able to turn off all the muscles we don’t need in a given moment, to turn on just the ones required, and then to turn them off again the minute they are no longer needed.  To the horse, a creature who lives so wholly in the present, that makes complete and utter sense. It is meaningful conversation.  With the help of the AT I am quicker to notice when and where I am holding and can use the directions to help release the blocks.

My riding teacher often says ‘hold nothing’; we give an aid and then immediately we go back to neutral with our hands and legs, if we hold on, hang on or squeeze on anywhere in our body we effectively set up resistance in the horse’s body, and all they can do to stay safe from our mixed messages and clumsiness and heaviness is to switch their own lightness off.  To ride well, really well, it involves incredible self awareness, and is a lifetime’s work, it is a constant meditation, it is an art, and I feel happy and honoured to be somewhere along the humble beginnings of this path.

Paying close attention to what is happening with our own bodies is a fascinating and health giving process, and when you are further rewarded for that close attention by your horse moving more fluidly and happily beneath you, it is massively motivating.  I love these words by the poet Roger Housden, ‘It is our attention that honours and gives value to living things…  When I pay attention, something in me wakes up, and that something is much closer to who I am than the driven or drifting self I usually take myself to be.  I am straightened somehow, made truer, brought to a deeper life’.  To me that resonates beautifully with the practice of the Alexander Technique.

*****

it’s the quality of the spine that influences the horse’. Perry Wood

our good posture is the only thing we have over the horse’.  Eric Herberman

The shoulder in is like herbal tea. It is a potion with medicinal qualities. When you ride it, let it go slow and let it steep.  Let it brew half the value of tea like this is in the careful meditation during its preparation’.  Anon 17th century

Sit well, do nothing, and let the horse do’.  Colonel Mario de Mendoza

*****

Our grateful thanks to Leonie for sharing her experiences.  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 HITE Improve Your Seat Riding and Alexander Technique Workshops today.

Top 15 Benefits of Learning the Alexander Technique (AT)

1.    Alexander Technique is ‘Common Sense’  … when you think about it.

  • AT is based on the principle that our ‘use’ – the way we do what we do – affects our functioning (mentally and physically) in all of the activities in our lives.  It does not require a stretch of the imagination to realise that the way in which we, for example,  stand, walk, bend, sit at our computers – affects our health, performance and well-being, but we are often so busy getting things done that we don’t think about how we are doing them.  The AT is about re-discovering our natural poise, the poise that we are born with and you see in young children.  It is, one of the foundations for good health – alongside nutrition and exercise.

2.    The Alexander Technique helps us to look, feel and perform to our best – male or female.

  •  As a woman, it helps us reveal our natural beauty, grace and elegance.  As a man it helps us to be our naturally handsome selves with an assured presence.   Male or female you may find that you are calmer, more composed and deal with difficult situations better – and that people notice.
  • This is not something which is superficially achieved with a combination of stress, strain, pulling in stomachs, plastic surgery, and expensive make-up and clothes.  It is the ‘looking good in whatever you wear’.  Onlookers may wonder how you do it, or what it is about you that they can’t put their finger on.  After lessons, friends may say. “you look well”, or ask “Have you lost weight?”
  • In essence it could be said that the AT helps us feel more confident about ourselves and our abilities, and makes us more attractive to others.  We come across better.

3.    Alexander Technique  is scientifically proven to work: 

  • Significant long-term benefit from Alexander Technique lessons for low back pain sufferers has been demonstrated in a major study published by the British Medical Journal on 20th August 2008 at Link to British Medical Journal BMJ Randomised controlled trial of Alexander Technique lessons, exercise, and massage for chronic and recurrent back pain
  • To summarise
    • 24 AT lessons proved to be most beneficial
    • Six lessons followed by exercise were about 70% as effective as 24 lessons
    • Long-term benefits unlikely to be due to placebo effect
    • Lessons were one-to-one, provided by experienced STAT teachers
    • This was a randomised controlled trial
    • 579 patients with chronic or recurrent low back pain; 144 were randomised to normal care, 147 to massage, 144 to six Alexander technique lessons, and 144 to 24 Alexander technique lessons; half of each of these groups were randomised to exercise prescription.

4.    Alexander Technique gets at a root cause, it does not just treat symptoms – thus saving you time and money, as well as enabling you to reduce medication and  in some cases avoid surgery.

  •  The need for services from health practitioners such as physiotherapists, osteopaths, massage therapists, chiropractors will probably reduce or even disappear as you learn how to stop causing the problems in the first place.  In some cases, surgery may also be avoided.  You may also find that you are less reliant on medication, such as painkillers, anti-inflammatories and anti-depressants.

5.    No need to rely on Alexander Technique teacher indefinitely

  •  The AT is taught – clients are students rather than patients.  As a student you gradually learn to become aware of habits that might be getting on your way and how to prevent them.  Thus you are empowered and able to take responsibility in a positive sense and means that you are not forever reliant on external support.

6.    Learning the Alexander Technique is an investment – scientifically proven to be cost-effective

  • An economic evaluation published in the British Medical Journal BMJ (11th December 2008) has concluded that Alexander Technique lessons are an effective and cost-effective option for the NHS. BMJ Randomised Control trial of Alexander Technique Lessons – Economics Paper
    • The evaluation found that a series of six Alexander Technique lessons followed by an exercise prescription is more than 86% likely to be a cost effective option for primary care providers treating patients with chronic non-specific low-back pain.
  • You identify the root cause of problems while  learning this skill which allows you to understand the means to apply it in all activities for the rest of your life.

7.    No need to do special exercises:

  • We learn to think during our activities, not simply repeat old ways.
  • We can learn to apply the AT to sport / exercise /dance – activities of interest to us – enhancing our whole well-being rather than having to do boring exercises and find the time to fit them in.

8.    Not about doing more in our already busy lives, but learning to do less

  • It is not so much about doing more on top of what we are already doing, but about learning to become aware of, and not do what is not necessary in the present, and un-do the unnecessary habits of the past to allow our natural poise to shine through and improve our performance.

9.    Universal Appeal – helps us whatever our job, interests, activities

  • Because the AT works at a fundamental level of being a human being, it helps us regardless of our occupation, interests, profession, gender.

10.  Helps all aspects of our lives.

  • It affects all areas of your life because it works at the level of your co-ordination in all that you do.

11.  Doesn’t matter about age, helps us all avoid aging before our time.

  • We will all die, but surely it would be good to live fully until we do!  The AT helps us do that and learning helps us whatever our age.  George Bernard Shaw started his lessons with Alexander aged 78 with extremely beneficial results and I have clients in their 80’s who are delighted by their improved health and well-being and their ability to be more active and be in less pain.
  • On the other hand I have clients in their twenties who have already experienced debilitating pain and feel that they are aging before the time.  In fact, I was in this situation too and know the feeling!  Learning the AT can reverse this trend enabling us to live fuller lives and be far more optimistic about the future.  AT gives you back hope.

12.  Alexander Technique works indirectly rather than directly / specifically

  • AT, through helping us to re-discover our natural poise, provides a general improvement in our health and well-being through an improvement in the way we work.  Thus the cause of specific problems may go away.  In fact, health problems that we weren’t even aware that we had may go away indirectly, such as poor digestion.

13.  Can help us deal with a disability

  • If you are in the situation where you have a disability or disabling condition eg through polio, thalidomide, Marfan’s syndrome or through previous surgical intervention, learning the AT can still help you to become the best you can be by learning how to use yourself most efficiently.  This can make a significant difference to one’s quality of life.

14.  Benefits are experienced from day 1 and throughout learning.

  •  This education provides therapeutic benefits and often people begin to feel better from their 1st lesson, as well as having a transformation in their attitude through the realisation that it makes a difference.

15.  Helps give clarity of thinking and deal with all aspects of life

  • As we become more practised in observing and becoming aware of how our habits  may be detrimental to us, and practised at how to change them, we are able to be more honest with ourselves, more reasonable and better able to make positive choices. In short, it helps us be more aware of our choices and increasingly more able to make better ones.
  • In conclusion, learning the AT improves the quality of our lives – and we each only have one of them – and this is it!

For further information visit www.hiteltd.co.uk e:info@hiteltd.co.uk