Something we do not generally give much attention to (nor should we have to) is our breathing. Yet years of slumping or tension create restrictions in this most vital of functions. Your breathing reflects your habitual posture. Breathing regimes which don’t take this into account do not address how we breathe when we are not thinking about it (which is most of the time!).
It is interesting to reflect that the Alexander Technique began with one man’s breathing problem. Initially he described his work as “respiratory re-education”.
When we slump or hold ourselves with excess tension or both (it is possible!), the ribs cannot move naturally or in coordination with the diaphragm. In allowing the back’s natural length without effort, we simultaneously provide the conditions in which the ribs and diaphragm can move easily and be responsive to the demands we place eg being vigorous vs sedentary. Ideally we work towards the conditions of natural springy length as our way of being. A simple way of supporting this and helping to free the breath is to practice “active rest”, otherwise known as semi-supine.
Lie on your back on a firm surface (eg a carpeted floor) with your head supported so that it is not falling backwards and with your knees raised. This already places a very gentle stretch on your back. Just lie there, with the intent to be as quiet muscularly as possible. Gradually, you may reduce muscular excess while allowing your back to lengthen and to fan out. Don’t be in a hurry, but do be consistent! (I.e. daily) As you allow length and breadth, everything involved in moving air in and out can operate with progressively less interference.
Semisupine – the formal daily practice of Semisupine is something we recommend as time dedicated to being still (ideally 15 – 20 mins daily), yet wide awake, attentive, and engaged in schooling your intent. There are a couple of times of day when you can very constructively extend this : when you first get into bed before going to sleep, and when you wake up but before getting out of bed. When you go to bed, lie on your back, head on pillow, knees raised, and give yourself a moment to come to neutral, and then review your directions – your intent to allow a free neck so that your whole torso can lengthen and fill out. This way you take a moment to “unkink” before sleeping, perhaps letting go of any disturbing thoughts in the process, and reviewing and recommitting to your intent for length and space as the last thought to take into sleep. On awaking, adopt the same position described above for a moment or two before arising, again setting your general intent for the day (free neck, length and space) and setting yourself on the right track from the first. More
A period of lying down each day should be thought of as an invaluable adjunct to all the attention and constructive thought you can give your use of yourself during the rest of your day. Your most comprehensive guide to Semi-Supine is the “Practising Poise” CD.
Lie on your back, with your knees raised and your head supported so that it is not falling backwards. Your Alexander Teacher can show you your correct support height if you don’t already know. Have your feet slightly more than hip-width apart, and comfortably close to your bottom, so that a minimum of effort is required to keep your knees aimed at the ceiling. Your hands can rest lightly somewhere on your lower chest or abdomen.
There are a number of overlapping reasons for lying down in semi-supine: to facilitate release throughout your musculature, to practice not tightening, to practice constructive thinking, and to practice making a connection between your intent and what you are actually doing….
Although it is best to aim for a “lie” lasting between 10 and 20 minutes, it is better to lie down for even just 5 minutes than not to lie down at all.
Lying down in the knees up/head supported position is a procedure whereby you can practise inhibition and direction (stopping and thinking). However, there are other occasions when it might be a good thing to do. One is if you are experiencing discomfort or pain in your back or neck, as it may have a palliative effect. The other is if you are fatigued. Lying in this position is mechanically a very constructive way of resting, and a short period spent in this way can prove quite reviving.
When you first start to lie down, your mind may be very busy or stimulated by all that you’ve recently been doing and thinking about. This can make it difficult to quietly attend to undoing and giving your directions. In these circumstances it’s worthwhile spending a few minutes just letting yourself quieten down. It may even be useful to have some quiet music to help, or your “Practising Poise” CD.
You are now ready for “Giving directions” – intent without “doing”
Your THINKING makes a difference! Your clearly focussed intent is the most effective tool you have for taking care of yourself.
Quietly run your mind’s eye around the contact that your back has with the floor. Resist any temptation to wriggle or adjust your position.
Instead, see if you can think your way out of any discomfort….
Quietly think your way around your body, giving your directions:
Allow your neck to be free, ie allow the muscles that run primarily up the back of your neck and attach to the back of your head, to soften and unclench and to lengthen; releasing right up into the back of your skull.
Allow your head to release forward and out around the end of your spine; your head hinges at the top of the spine, which is on a line precisely between your earlobes; you can soften around this head/neck articulation in such a way that your head is freer in relation to your neck and back.
Allow your back to lengthen and widen, ie allow the muscles that run along the length of your back to soften and unclench, and allow your back to “fan out” around your abdomen, and also through your shoulders and elbows.
Allow your legs to release out of your back. Invite the muscles that run from your hip-bones to your kneecaps to loosen. Allow your hip-bones (the front of the pelvis) to fall away from your legs, softening across the hip-joints and allowing the pelvis to meld with the rest of your back. Remember that your pelvis belongs to your back, not to your legs.
You are lying down in order to practice thinking, to practice focussing your intent, and to practice making the connections between your intent, ie what you want, and the way you are using yourself. Give time. (You are the only one that can do this!)
If you find that your attention has wandered, quietly bring it back to the contact you have with the floor, and to the business of giving your directions.
In letting go, however, you are not seeking to become floppy, or relaxed, in the conventional sense which often implies collapse. Your bones are still weight-bearing, and the muscular wrapping still needs to maintain a toned, energised state now, no less than when you are active. Your directions can help you energise and activate yourself, and distribute your energy in a strain-free way.
©M Stenning Canberra 1997
If we wish to improve habits of posture, movement, or breathing we can not rely exclusively on sensation! Sensation on its own is a dead end. If you think about it, it is clear that your habitual way of inhabiting yourself feels normal. Yet your characteristic norm may encompass compensatory (mal)adaptations to old injuries, or other on-going (mal)adjustments, that generate pain, strain or even injury, ie mis-use. This is normal – we each end up with our own quite individual way of using ourselves, and this is what each of us works with. Yet, despite the fact that our particular pattern is ours alone and is some sort of development from our Use as young children, and that it feels normal, any Alexander Technique teacher can demonsrate that it probably represents something of a departure from what is natural, easy or strain-free. In other words there is a gap between what you think you are doing and what you are actually doing.
The sensation or experience of yourself associated with your habitual “normal” way of using your self is thus suspect – we all become completely habituated to our habitual way of being in ourselves – even when it is demonstrably strained or distorted or tense etc. It still feels “normal”! So relying on our sensation is the same as relying on a measure which is calibrated to a norm which we don’t want! I.e. it is not reliable.
So what do we use as a guide, if our sense register is not to be relied upon? We use as clear a picture as we can create, of where we want to be. This means using a concept of what is possible, a wish, an intent, a desire. It means deliberately seeing yourself releasing your neck and allowing length and space as you reach for the salt or answer the phone. Your Alexander directions are an expression of an intent and a possibility.
You are unlikely to avoid sensation and this would be a mistake. You can use sensation incidentally, in a detached, disinterested way. I.e. you don’t want to be attached to a particular sensation, or to getting a particular sensation. This would be limiting of further development and would mean that you are no longer in the zone of open possibilities – you would not be giving your directions, but rather trying to feel something out. So rather than feeling stuff out, work with your directions in a detached way, observe any sensation in a detached way, but not actively rummaging for sensation. If you are rummaging, you are not in the zone of potential change, but rather stuck in unproductive sensing.
Would you like to be able to perform your choice of exercise with efficiency and grace?
Would you like to ensure good “form” whether in the gym, jogging, swimming, stretching, walking or even in martial art forms?
Would you like to avoid strain on joints or other tissue when you exercise?
What have summer and winter Olympic athletes, marathon runners, hammer throwers, elite equestrians including Australian Olympian Mary Hannah and the entire British team, multi-disciplinarian Daley Thomson and many others in common?
They have all used the Alexander Technique to improve some aspect of the way that they function – breathing, freedom or efficiency of movement, balance, dealing with stress, aches and pains or injuries.
In the early l950s, Percy Cerutty, the celebrated and sometimes controversial athletics coach, wrote in a letter to his Alexander teacher, “Alexander is a “must” for all competing athletes. You have taught me a lot of interesting material about the correct use of the body which I have passed on in my training with marked results eliminating bad use.”
The Alexander Technique is being increasingly adopted by recreational and competitive Sports people. Athletes involved in sports as diverse as long-distance running, dressage, swimming, X-C skiing and hammer-throwing recognise the benefits that come with a training in the Alexander Technique. For Sports people these can be divided in to three categories:
- General fitness (how to avoid wasting energy);
- Technique (ensuring that you’re actually doing what you think you’re doing); and
- Avoidance of or recovery from injury (not using yourself in a way which imposes unnecessary stresses on joints or other tissue).
Economy of effort
The Technique is particularly relevant because it is directly concerned with the working of the “postural reflexes”, i.e. the mechanisms that enable us to support and balance our bodies against the ever present pull of gravity while we go about our daily activities. It addresses how to move with an economy of effort and maximise poise and balance.
How hard are you making it?
The tensions and distortions that most of us, over the years, build into our habitual way of being and which have thus slipped below the level of our conscious awareness, provide an on-going restriction to the working of these natural postural mechanisms. This restriction renders movement more effortful and less efficient than necessary and can predispose us to injury. In our sporting activities, we are coping not only with these on-going interferences, which give us our “base line” of tension, but also often with further interferences engendered by the situation, e.g. the challenges involved in learning a new skill or the pressure of competition.
In other words, we’re making hard work out of simply standing upright, before complicating things with moving.
“My brain knows what to do but my body won’t do it”
In training or competition this is often more so, at exactly the time when economy of action and an absence of tension would be most desirable. This interferes not only with our poise and coordination, but also with our perception both of our inner environment, for example failing to notice that we are tensing our shoulders or holding our breath, and of our outer circumstances, so that for example, distances seem greater, or it feels as if we have insufficient time.
Enhancing kinaesthetic awareness (awareness of one’s inner environment), and learning greater control of one’s mechanisms of balance and coordination are an enormous help in any activity.
It is not just the elite who can learn to optimise their way of working with themselves to gain that competitive edge. Sports people who have trouble improving beyond a certain level can also gain. Technical imperfections can easily be unwittingly established as part of one’s basic modus operandi, limiting further improvement. Who at some time has not said to themselves, “My brain knows what to do but my body won’t do it”?
Discovering that not trying so hard can mean moving further, faster and with less effort, often comes as a pleasant surprise to many people.
The Alexander Technique gives us some simple ground rules through which we can observe ourselves, in order to achieve a gradual general improvement in poise and coordination, as well as simultaneously supplying ourselves with conditions most conducive to the development of a skill and reducing the risk of injury.