by 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.
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.
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, using poorly designed furniture, 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.
Michael Stenning, a Canberra (Australia)-based teacher of the Alexander Technique, has 17 years’ experience helping people to overcome back pain and other debilitating conditions by reducing and eliminating strain from daily activity.
In addition to teaching the Alexander Technique to individuals, Michael consults widely to Commonwealth and ACT Government Departments and many other organisations with large numbers of people in desk jobs, and is a popular conference presenter.
Michael designed the Stenning Active-Balance Pelvic Support Office Chair and has produced Practising Poise with the Alexander Technique – An audio-cassette to help learn to stay centred and stress-free in an increasingly demanding world.
He is a qualified member of the Australian Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique, AuSTAT and he recently completed a pilot study into the effects of Alexander Technique training on the performance of elite athletes with the ACT Academy of Sport. Click here to visit Michael’s Web Site.