Tag Archives: performance

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.

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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

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

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

 

Should you wear high heels? by Seán Carey

Shoes Modelled ATiEA

High heels are in the news again. Women, who have been told to wear high heels at work are being invited to tell their stories to a group of MPs in order to gain legal clarity about whether UK employers can force female employees to wear such footwear. The initiative by parliamentarians came after a petition calling for a ban on women being obliged to wear high heels in the workplace gathered more than 142,000 signatures (mine was one of them).

In fact, the use of footwear is a relatively recent development in human history. The world’s oldest preserved shoes were constructed from sagebrush bark fibre by Native Americans keen to insulate themselves against freezing temperatures in the Pacific Northwest around 10,500 years ago. Many contemporary populations living in warm climates in the developing world never wear shoes. Such barefoot people tend to have wide feet, pronounced arches and evenly distributed plantar pressure. By contrast, habitual shoe wearers have narrower feet, exhibit very high focal pressures at the heel, big toe and ball of the foot, and often suffer anatomical abnormalities, such as weak toes, bunions and flat feet.

High heels are particularly significant in this regard. Evidence suggests that extensive use of such footwear, especially ultra-high heels, is linked with significant physical problems. It’s associated with marked shortening of the highly malleable muscle fibres that make up the calves as well as thicker and stiffer Achilles tendons. Long-term use of high heels is also correlated with the development of on-going foot pain and restriction in the range of movement of the ankles. Unsurprisingly those problems show up more in ageing adults.

When people ask me in my role as an Alexander Technique teacher what shoes they should wear, I ask them what footwear would they select if they had to walk or run quickly? High heels, platform shoes, and flip-flops would not be a good choice, even for the very well-coordinated. They all interfere with your balance and alignment and decrease your potential speed in walking or running. The optimum choice is well-fitting shoes, with thin, flexible soles that follow the movement of your feet without the need to try to hang on with your toes.

So it’s probably best to wear a pair of Christian Louboutin-type heels only on very special occasions. If you do put them on try to walk on the balls of your feet rather than landing on the heels – though be aware that you are using around 50 per cent more energy compared with a normal heel-sole-toe movement as you would do if you were walking barefoot or in thin-sole shoes.

For more information on your feet and other parts of your body-mind continuum 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

 

 

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

 

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

Alexander Technique and the Olympics

Have just finished with my last Alexander Technique client in Harley Street for the day and walked through Cavendish Square and onto Oxford Street.  Yes – you CAN feel the difference!  The energy and numbers of people filled with excitement, anticipation and expectation of the Olympic Games is palpable.  And that it is not raining, just now, is a bonus!

At HITE we are really looking forward to the Olympics Opening Ceremony.  Not so much for the ceremony itself but because it marks the start of the Games that have been 7 years in gestation.  We want to see the athletes, the A-W of sports from archery to weightlifting (there is no X, Y or Z!) and perhaps like many others endeavour to discern what makes the greatest great.

What are the ingredients, in what quantity, regularity, combination and timing?  Natural talent, childhood motivation and encouragement, or was it an ‘I’ll show them’ attitude?  Hours, days, weeks, months, years; a lifetime’s dedication to get to this moment – the starting line.

To how many other people, projects and distractions has one built up the ability to say, ‘No’, in order to focus on the ultimate glory of Gold at London 2012.  In the Alexander Technique, knowing what we do not want is as important as knowing what we do want.  The saying ‘no’ comes first in order to open up the space and the pathways for what we do want to be realised.

How much does nutrition matter?  From Jamaican Usain Bolt who got Olympic gold at Beijing and broke the world record for the men’s 100m on a pre-race meal of chicken nuggets, to the claims from Serbian male tennis gold-medal-seeking Novak Djokovic that eating gluten free has helped to improve his energy and form.

The men’s 100m sprint is somehow absolutely mesmerising.  Who is the fastest man on the planet? Usain Bolt said yesterday that if he wins the Gold in London 2012 he will become a legend.  This is what he has been preparing and hoping for; the years of dedication will all be over in less than 10 seconds – and that’s about the length of time it would have taken you to read this sentence.  Everything must work at this moment.  The reaction from the starting pistol, the burst of strength and sheer power, the co-ordination, flow, energy, obsession and determination all coming to the fore.

But as Alexander Technique teachers we will also have our trained eyes open across all of the sports for the ‘Primary Control’ working within the athlete.  The ‘Primary Control’ is the unique head-neck-back relationship which is the lynchpin of the Alexander Technique for optimum performance – be it in sport, music, acting, business and our daily life.  It is not only available to Olympic athletes but is the birthright of all of us.  It is that natural, flowing co-ordination that you see in a young child where movement appears flowing and effortless.  It is when mind and body are in an inseparable state of dynamic poise, which helps us to reach our potential in all of our ventures whilst maximising rather than jeopardising our health and well-being.

So on that note, HITE would like to wish you all the most fantastic London 2012 Olympic Games, and we’ll keep you updated with our insights as they progress.  And do send us your observations and comments.  If you are interested in improving your running, cycling, swimming, horse riding, or any other of the Olympic sport, by learning the Alexander Technique, then contact us today by email info@hiteltd.co.uk or tel +44 (0) 20 7567 8461.  You won’t regret it!