Human beings are born with an amazing possibility of understanding and developing their own innate body wisdom. Knowing how to physically use our bodies for the best mechanical advantage and aligned posture will make a difference in how we feel, see and understand the world. Alexander Technique can help us understand how to use our bodies in any activity without compromising alignment or adding compression. Compression is often responsible for the loss of height as we age and this is directly related to degeneration in the vertebrae.
Good use, an Alexander term for using the body consciously, means we understand our skeletal system and how to lengthen and widen along it. We have a sense of our muscles and how to direct them. One does not have to know anatomy or kinesiology to learn to do this. Good use means understanding the mechanical advantage of using our joints properly. Knowing this, combined with lengthening and widening, will make a tremendous difference not just for healthy aging but also for the improvement of any activity.
Another aspect of teaching AT is to help students become aware of their habits and the thinking that is connected to these habits. This is essential for making a change. AT helps undo mental as well as physical habits. It brings calmness to the body/mind and gives flexibility to our thinking as well as our movement. When there is less reactivity, there will be more ease and less physical holding of stress. An example of this is most easily seen when we are in a reactive emotional state. Having the awareness to sense the physical reaction can be part of our innate wisdom. This happens when we become conscious of the habitual physical reactivity. We can move through the reaction more quickly. One can learn “inhibition,” which in AT terms is learning to pause and have the opportunity to respond rather than just let habits take over.
Learning to consciously understand the body and what is physically supportive can give more ease and help one in life.
The pelvis and sitting
AT can help you learn to use your pelvis in a way that will reduce stress and impact/compression on your back, knees and ankles. Physically understanding how one’s pelvis is part of one’s torso and not part of the legs is important. When one is bending over to pick up something the bending happens at the waist.
This makes the pelvis orient more to the legs, causing pain in the lower back. Instead, if one included the lower back, (the hips and sacral area) as part of the back, the pressure would be taken off the back. You can try this now by bending over and placing your hands on the bones we call the sitz bones, or the ischial turberocites. Habitually these bones tend to point down toward the feet. Instead, let them lift up and there will be a stretch along the back of your legs. The hips will automatically become a more integrated part of the torso and the back will lengthen. Allow the sense that your head and tail are moving in the opposite directions. You can use this understanding in all activities, like yoga, gardening, sitting, or any movement in which the torso is engaged.
Today’s modern world seems to require more extended periods of sitting. When sitting, understanding how to orient your body is essential for preventing back problems. Knowing how to direct the pelvis while sitting is very helpful. Sitting can be a difficult activity to do supportively if there is no understanding of the relationship of the head to the pelvis. Ideally one would have the head directing up, spine lengthening and the sacrum pointed down. Having the head and tail move in opposite directions gives a lengthening to the spine. Sitting directly on the sitz bones (ischial tuberosities) and not forward or back of them is important.
It is most helpful to have the feet flat on the floor and not crossing legs or ankles. Having the feet in direct contact with the floor will give more supported information to the body.
Understanding that the hipbones are part of the torso and should be used and directed this way will make a big difference in compression of the lower body. You can try this yourself by putting your hand lightly on the back of the neck, so that the little finger is resting on the base of your head with your thumb on the lower part of your neck. Now sit in a chair. Which direction does your head go? Try the same when you stand up. You can check this and be aware of the direction of the weight of your head. Ideally it is moving up and taking weight off the vertebrae. This will also give a sense of what is happening in one’s pelvis. When you are able to send your head up and maintain the balance, the compression in the pelvis can be alleviated. This gives a sense of connection all the way to the feet, providing stability and balance, with equal weight in both feet.
When awareness and understanding are applied sitting can be done with out pain or causing compression.
The Emotional Impact of Posture
When one learns how to have direction in the body one can have more control over posture and feel less contracted. So much in our society seems to be based on outer appearance. Our poor posture habits expose our inner insecurities. We make a different, more positive impression when our posture is aligned.
There are many studies out that show that the brain is influenced by the body. So when we are slumping or compressing our chests the brain can interpret this as a problem and send stress hormones to the body. This can start a cycle that gets repeated, leaving one more tired and feeling more tension, even when the environment is not stressful. Conversely, if you are embodied in a conscious, aware posture you are giving a positive, less stressful message to your brain. Next time when sitting at a computer or using a cell phone, notice what the feeling is in your posture, body/mind and emotion.
Your posture impacts your sense of self on many levels.
Standing and the pelvis
There are specific things to notice when standing. First is the weight equal on both feet? Often we often put more weight on one side and this will over time cause a twist or tilt in the pelvis. Usually when taking a step there is a downward pressure of the pelvis into the leg holding the weigh.
In general people often tighten at their joints and pull up and or in. This causes undue stress and wear and tear on the joints. When one is picking up a heavy object the tendency is to tighten and pull in at the shoulder joint. This action then limits the support you can have if you were to direct the head and spine, bending your knees and using your back this would have a different outcome. Often the leg is pulled up into the hip when walking. A more easeful way would be to lengthen, allowing an upward movement with the torso (making sure to include the pelvis in the torso).
Here is an exercise that will give one a better sense of the relationship of the feet to the leg and hip.
Remember it is the quality of thought that will make a difference when doing the exercises. How you think with the whole body and not just the part being exercised.
While standing and before walking, feel your feet. There are three points on the bottom of your feet. You want equal pressure on each point. This tripod of support is on the ball of your foot, under the big toe, little toe, and the center of your heel. This exercise will give you a better sense of your feet, allow more support in the pelvis and give you more support for standing.
Stand with your feet hip width apart, bend one knee forward and lift your ankle (your foot will be in the same position as if you were wearing a high heel.) Now roll slowly across the ball of your foot starting with your little toe all the way to the big toe, then reverse this so you are moving back and forth at least 5 or 6 times. Now pause and take note of any changes, sensations or awareness. With the same foot solid on the ground, imagine your lower leg is like a pencil and you are going to trace a circle on the bottom of the floor, moving your leg in a circle in one direction a few times and then the other. When this is done, stop and compare the side you have worked with to the side you have not worked with. Is there any change or difference? Did that bring more awareness to your foot, knee and hip relationship? Now repeat this on the other side.
Having awareness of the whole body while one does this exercises Important. Remember maintaining an upright spine and ease in the neck is the foundation of the exercise.
My personal experience with AT
As an infant I had been very sickly and not active as a child or young adult. I didn’t have the pleasure of learning a sport or activity that would engage me. I felt awkward and not comfortable in my body. My mother said I was a fussy and picky child, sensitive and uncomfortable in my own skin. Fortunately in my mid 20’s I found the Alexander Technique. I’ll never forget the sensation of how the Alexander Technique resonated in my bones, as if some part of me was encouraged to wake up and participate. The sensation has been growing within me for a long time. It is something I try to impart to my students. When we have awareness and sensation of our entire body, there is an automatic engagement of our whole being. With this awareness, we have a fuller sense of alertness, of being toned and fully embodied. We are more attuned to our surroundings. With AT I gained 1/2 inch in height, no longer had back pain, and now was considered graceful by most who knew me.
How the head impacts the pelvis
Our heads are one of the heavier parts of our body, weighing anywhere from 8-12 pounds. The head is to be balanced on the top of your spine, at the occipital axis. When we have it aligned and balanced we have feeling of lightness, our footsteps no longer make so much noise when we walk. One client told me her husband noticed the difference after her AT lessons, that she no longer sounded ‘like an elephant’ walking down the hall.
Unfortunately most of us have our head back and down or forward and down in relationship to our spine. This creates compression as well as misalignment of the body. The anatomical connection of the spine and head is much higher than most people realize. It is behind your nose, and in between your ears. Therefore you can see the importance of understanding, and begin to sense direction.
You want to be able to send your head very gently forward and up. This is a thought but it’s a thought with your body. Allowing the movement without forcing it. When the weight of the head is balanced, the weight moves evenly through the spine and does not add to compression of the joints. This has a positive effect on the pelvis as the weight and compression is lessened.
The hips make up the pelvis, which is part of the torso, not the legs
Another issue with the pelvis is that people confuse their hips as being part of their legs rather than part of the torso. This confusion in thinking contributes to the way we use and move our body. The way you consciously or unconsciously think about or picture your body will influence the way you move. This is one reason it helps to know some anatomy; although it is not necessary it can help in your understanding.
People often lock their knees, which causes the hips to lock and push forward and down. Just making sure you are not locking your knees back will help your pelvis and spine. Noticing what your thoughts about your skeleton, muscles and body in general will help change your postural habits.
Next time you stand up from a sitting pause and see what your habitual movement would be. Does your head drop back, is it balanced on your spine and directed up? Or do your legs tightened and want to push you up from there. Once you are standing, do you lock your knees? Are you able to feel equal weight on your feet? Pausing and observing what is happening is the first step in making changes in your posture.
Our habitual unconscious patterns of moving will affect our lives. Being aware and using your body in an aligned easeful way will promote life-long mobility. Compression creates degeneration, stiffness and lack of mobility. Most of this can be avoided simply by learning to understand the body’s natural mechanical advantage and maintaining alignment.
One of the best ways to help yourself undo the compression and tension created by misuse is to do what Alexander teachers call rest position. This involves lying down on a firm surface with a bit of support under the head with the knees up, feet hip width apart and as close to the buttocks as is comfortable.
This is also a time to explore what is happening to your pelvis in relationship to your spine. You might feel it’s too difficult too hold your legs up with out engaging the hip sockets or buttocks. If so you can place your calves on a stool or appropriate height and supportive chair. In this way you can release the holding in your hips and allow the back to lengthen and widen as you free your neck. An alternative way is to tie a belt or scarf under the knees so you not effort at holding your legs up.
This is all done in the most easeful non-doing way. Alexander technique is really about allowing not making something happen. Allow the awareness to bring about the change.
This is a good time to notice where the habitual holding or tightening is in one’s body. It is a time for observing. Becoming aware of the breath is very helpful at this time. You can also direct or think to breathe into your back. Not in forced way but by bringing your attention to the back and letting the ribs move away from each other as the breath comes in and exhaling out allowing that upward movement along the spine out the top of the head. Do not collapse the chest when exhaling. Notice if neck muscles are being engaged with the breath, too often this is the case. Breathing ideally happens as the back and ribs expand, with out involving the neck.
Remember the basic instructions are to allow the neck to be free so that the body can lengthen and widen.
In my work with students I have found it is sometimes difficult to have the sense of not engaging the neck. I have them do this simple exercise while in rest position or in sitting. The simple side-to-side movement of the head can be done with out engaging the muscles of the neck, Most often the neck is over used and is tightened in movement. We want a free neck that then allows the easy flow of the direction of the body in an aligned manner. Doing constructive rest position as well as the following exercise will give you a better idea of how free the neck.
Occipital Bone Exercise
Imagine your nose has a pencil on the end of it and draw very small circles with it, so you are initiating the movement from your nose. Now do the same with the occipital. You can think of writing your name with your nose, or occipital. Say yes or no. Having the awareness of the back of your head and tip of your nose and moving from there could give you more ease, less tension in your jaw. You can do this exercise using your fingers light on the tip of your nose or and occipital. Once you have a sense of initiating the movement from you nose or occipital you can drop your arms and just move from those two parts as you. As you experiment with this be aware of your whole body, making sure your shoulders are relaxed, you are standing equally on both feet, or if you are sitting you can sense a balance of weight on both sides of your pelvis. (DON’T CROSS YOUR LEGS) This movement should be small, subtle. AS you are doing this movement (saying yes or no with your head, or writing your name in space) notice the feeling inside your mouth. Relax your jaw, your neck, and your teeth. As you do these gentle movements you may feel more room in your mouth, less tension in your neck, and more awareness of your tendency to tighten up when it’s not necessary. It may also give you a sense of dimension in your body. Remember this is an exploration you are gathering information that could help you relax. As you go about your day see if having this awareness, and moving from there, lets you feel and sense more ease through out your body.
This exercise can be done lying down, just make sure you have some height under your heard a book or folded towel. You want your head high enough that your ear is in line with your shoulders; have your knees up so you can feel the bottoms of your feet making contact with the floor.
When doing this exercise use very small movements.
This is a good exercise to do at the computer. Taking a break to move is essential to aiding the process of awareness and alignment. If you are using your computer longer than an hour it really is important to take a break and move. Remember that old saying ‘if you don’t move it you lose it!’ You don’t want to lose your flexibility. And if you have lost your flexibility the good news is you can regain it.
Understanding and having direction in one’s body takes awareness and practice. It’s best done with a professional Alexander teacher.
However you can experience some of it just by using conscious understanding and mindfulness.
As one applies the Alexander way of thinking and observing over time with practice habits change and a deeper sense of self and relaxation come in. The Alexander Technique will help you enjoy your body and find more pleasure in everyday movement. It can also reduce stress and bring mindfulness into your daily life. Understanding the mechanical advantage of knowing how to use your joints, learn how to lengthen and widen your spine will reduce compression that can cause pain difficulty as we age.
Taking some time every day to notice your posture and the relationship of your head to your spine is a good, useful habit to acquire. When there is ease in your body meeting life’s challenges and joys can be a satisfying experience.
Exploring and understanding your body intelligence will give you a deeper sense of ease and grace.
I will close with the image that Leonardo da Vinci gave us, expressing the dynamic openness and direction possible in the body. Notice all the movement out from the core to the distal points. This can you give the sense of directing and allowing expansion in the body.