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.
“It’s great! It helps me keep working” B.L. – middle manager
“It helps me to think more clearly” W.G. – senior public servant
“I can control stress levels. It’s an immediate stress management technique” M.T. – mother and consultant
What creates stress in us is the way we respond to a situation, not the situation itself. Stress involves a loss of poise. Our response to a stressful situation can disturb our own balance and distort our perceptions so that problems assume greater proportions and available time appears to shrink.
How to keep a level head
The Alexander Technique provides us with a way of being conscious of our reactions and choosing when, where and how to give expression to them without being at their mercy. This enhanced awareness can help us to choose to behave differently at the moment of response to a situation. It helps us to maintain distance and perspective on a situation.
Balance, posture, muscular tension and awareness
Relationships between balance, posture, muscular tension and awareness, aspects not usually recognised as interrelated, are taken into account in The Alexander Technique.
It embodies a three-pronged approach.
It works first through the muscular system by recognising that there is a primary control of muscular tension throughout the whole body. This obviates the necessity for the individual to come to relaxation and stillness by trying to progressively and laboriously relax every muscle in turn. Then, by understanding how to make use of the “primary control” of muscular tension and releasing physical tension, one frees energy and attention. Finally, practising the Alexander Technique involves schooling one’s attention. The discipline of this centering (in the central axis of the body) helps to keep attention in the here-and-now. Furthermore, centred body awareness cues us in to when we are going off balance. The Alexander Technique offers the possibility of control in process, rather than a palliative measure in dealing with stress build-up after the event.
“You translate everything, whether physical or mental or spiritual, into muscular tension” F.M. Alexander
“People are not disturbed by events, but by their reactions to events” Epictetus, 1st Century A.D. Rome.
© Michael Stenning
We all know about the desirability of good posture, of flexibility, relaxation, and the absence of tension. Yet, despite the considerable attention given to the externals, ergonomic chairs, stretching exercises, “correct” posture, stress management techniques, etc., we are still tense and uncomfortable in our bodies, susceptible to stress, and often suffer miscellaneous aches and pains. The statistics make very clear that the “externally applied” measures do not work for everybody.
How much is strain costing you?
What is needed is a method of self-management which gives us the self-knowledge we need in order to implement our good intentions. The Alexander Technique is such a method. It is simple, effective and it is used all over the world. The Alexander Technique allows you to optimise the way that you perform or function. It provides ground rules for reducing the risk of injury or stress-related problems. About 100 years ago, Alexander introduced the idea that the way you use yourself affects the way that you function – Use affects Functioning . He demonstrated that there are basically two ways of using yourself; either your tendency over time is to contract, shortening and tightening; or, it is to release and expand. Some of us have occasional glimpses of the latter as when, for example, everything goes right on the tennis court, always being seemingly in the right place and with plenty of time to hit the ball; or that perfectly balanced, flowing ski run; or doing the perfect interview. Yet how often do we experience this “on form” quality in everyday life?
Most of us are more familiar with the weight, effort and discomfort of the “contracting” tendency. In sitting, for example, we all know the daily yo-yo between slouching and “sitting up straight”. The endless attempts to get the posture “right” need to go on because they don’t change the underlying conditions. Our co-ordination, that pattern of muscular pulls which is peculiarly ours, is in place whether slouching or “holding ourselves up”, driving a car or driving a computer. It is what we use to support ourselves against the ever present pull of gravity. It forms the basis of the “How” of everything that we do, including “sitting up straight” or the performance of exercises or even relaxing. Our pattern of muscular pulls provides our posture and our overall orientation in the way that we respond to our world. It is a suit of clothes which we never take off; it is there all the time and if we are aware of it at all, we tend to take it for granted, as a fixed given, even when it hurts or malfunctions in some other way.
Simply knowing just what your co-ordination consists of, why it is, for example, that you are not falling over as you read these words, can be a tremendous tool in the on-going business of taking care of yourself and avoiding problems.
The rule of habit
If somebody suggested that you should daily practice tightening your neck and shoulders, say, 200 times, you would think their advice misguided. Yet half an hour with an Alexander teacher may reveal that this may be almost exactly what you do, albeit unconsciously. The teacher’s role is to make you aware of the subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, habits of contraction whose effects, multiplied by days and months and years, make themselves felt sooner or later. Tightening up, slouching down or any of a thousand variations on a theme of compression and distortion, predispose us to a host of musculo-skeletal ailments. They also constitute a “pre-stressing” of yourself, so that margins for coping with the day-to-day external stresses are narrower. They are almost always implicated in any sort of overuse injury. Becoming aware of what your familiar “norm” consists of, discovering previously unnoticed “holding patterns”, provides a choice and a way out of the monkey-trap of habit.
A desk-bound worker is highly likely to be placing demands on their arms and shoulders. But how much are they tightening elsewhere at the same time? Are they, for example, tightening their legs in such a way that their lower back is obliged to clench, thus affecting support and strength for the arms and shoulders? Might they be tightening around the ribcage, constricting the breathing and similarly unintentionally withdrawing support and strength from the shoulders and arms? Are they holding their head off-balance and then requiring compensatory tension elsewhere, or even using some muscles to pull it down whilst trying to “sit up straight”? Exhausting stuff! Sound silly? It is silly. It is also a tremendous waste of effort and a virtually guaranteed route to injury.
The Alexander Technique can add another dimension to our understanding of how we work. By paying attention to the small but significant things which you can influence right now, you bring the bigger picture and the longer-term picture under control. Learning greater control of that inner, muscular environment provides an on-going tool for life. Improving your use of yourself, raising the standard of your “norm”, your pattern of muscular pulls, can allow injuries a chance to heal and prevent their recurrence.
© M Stenning, Canberra 1997