Get Your Whole Back Back!

How clear and accurate a picture do you have of your body and how it's put together? For example if I asked you to show where your hip joints are where would you point? Try it now.

I’ve been asking new Alexander Technique pupils this question for many years and experience suggests that you are most likely to have pointed to somewhere on the crest of your pelvis—several inches higher than where the joint actually is [see image below]. Can you feel the two bits of bone that stick out a little on either side at the top of you legs? These are at the top of your thigh bone (femur) and the joints are just a little bit higher and a couple of inches in from there. If you got this wrong are in good company—I have even seen doctors who have had intensive anatomy training make this mistake! Incorrect information together with a faulty kinaesthetic sense caused by years of unnecessary muscular tension means many of us literally don't know where our legs end and our torso begins!

But why should we worry about this anyway? Because the way our body moves in activity tends to be strongly affected by our ideas about it. It will faithfully respond to our intentions, and if our intention is to move at hip joints which we think of as being at the top of our pelvis the body will actually respond as if this were true—meaning that the lower back (lumbar spine) will be taking over some of the movement which really belongs at the hip joint. The back is not designed for this, and over time trouble can ensue in the form of pain and stiffness.

Another common error people have in their internal ‘body map’ is in thinking that the joint between their head and spine is somewhere in the region of their 5th cervical vertebrae (see diagram below). This is wrong! The spine continues up to a point roughly between our ears, where it articulates at the atlanto-occipital joint.

Looking at the spine as a whole we can see that it is a very much larger structure than many of us realise. It starts between the ears and goes right the way down to the sacrum (which is a series of fused vertebrae). The sacrum is attached very firmly to the pelvis so functionally we may think of the pelvis as also being part of the same structure. In a sense the spine and pelvis form a single, flexible lever.

Try bearing this in mind as you go about your day. There’s no need to get busy trying to change anything, but just be gently aware of how much longer your spine is than you might have thought, and therefore how integrated and supportive your structure is. Maybe give yourself occasional feedback with your fingers: "here are my hips, here is the top of my spine". You may be pleasantly surprised at how nice it feels to have you whole back back!

On wanting to be different by staying the same.

Whenever we have a problem or symptom our immediate feeling is usually that we would simply like it to stop. Even if we are conscious that there are things we are doing which are contributing to it, a lot of the time what we really hope for—deep down—is that there is something we can do to make it go away so that we can carry on just as we were before. In other words we want to change so long as we don’t have to be different! That’s understandable, but unfortunately things are rarely that simple—we are wholes, and all the parts and aspects of us are linked and work together. A specific problem is often a surface manifestation of a much bigger pattern. Even if we get rid of the symptom that is bothering us, the fundamental cause will still be there and will eventually cause the problem to recur, or a different one to appear in its place.

It’s human nature that when people come to Alexander lessons often part of them is determined to hang on to the way of being which is at the root of the symptoms which have brought them there. We love what is familiar and hate to let it go because it feels safe. “I will do anything”, they think, “so long as it does not involve giving up my favourite habit.” 

I once had a pupil who was a very ‘driven’ type of person. He came to have lessons after many years of working his way up the corporate ladder and was feeling stressed and overwhelmed; in addition his hands had started to hurt from typing and he was worried they would get so bad he wouldn’t be able to do his job anymore. As a result of his worry he was having trouble sleeping. I worked with him lying down for a bit and suggested that, at least during the lesson, he stopped trying to get things right or to achieve anything at all and that he just allow things to quieten down. We carried on in silence for a little while. “How do you feel?”, I asked after some twenty minutes had passed. He looked surprised: “Really good! I feel quite different, calmer and relaxed”. And it was true: a quality of peace and quiet awareness had entered the room.

But then this energy changed. He started to ask for concrete things to do once he had left the lesson—he wanted to know what he could busy himself with to hang on to the lovely feeling of relaxation. I suggested that this desire to be busy and occupied with things to do all the time was a big part of the reason why he was so stressed and tense, and that since overdoing things was one reason he was there, maybe just to be gently thinking about doing less and letting go a little would be a good place to start. But his lifelong habit was to address any problem by frenetic activity. He wanted something to do, whereas what he actually most needed in order to solve his problem was to STOP. But any approach to solving a problem that did not involve busy activity felt wrong to him, and because his problem had become so distressing, doing what felt wrong in relation to it was a frightening thought. 

We talked about this over several sessions but it was some time before he was willing to really try out what I was suggesting. Gradually he came to realise that his approach was self-contradictory. He wanted to relax by doing more and this doesn’t make sense! In time he found that the world didn’t end when he was able to let go of his need to be busy and in control at all times. He also found to his surprise that as he became more centred and relaxed in himself he achieved more, not less. 

A lot of the time when we are compulsively busy we are not accomplishing nearly as much as it feels that we are. Paradoxically as we do less of this we find that there is now more mental space (and more physical support from the body) to dedicate to achieving what we want. We also find that the habit which we felt was such a central part of ourselves is not really part of our core self at all, but is just something which we learned a long time ago and have since hung onto. Letting go of it we feel more like the person we really are.

So the bad news is that sometimes we really do need to let go of something we are attached to if we want to get rid of our symptoms. The good news is that letting go will benefit us in surprising and unexpected ways. It involves a shift in how we act in the world—and it’s absolutely worth it!

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Is the Alexander Technique a Good Fit for You?

Last week a pupil asked me if there's any particular type of person who tends to be drawn to the Alexander Technique. Thinking about it I realised that it's not so much people with particular problems who come as it is people with a particular outlook. Generally the Alexander Technique is likely to be a good fit for you if:

  • You like to take responsibility for your own health and destiny. Learning the Technique gives a powerful tool to heal yourself in the present and look after yourself in the future—so it appeals to people who like to take care of themselves, and who don't assume that someone else will magically sort things our for them!

  • You dislike doing boring and repetitive exercises. If the thought of having to do repetitive exercises every day is unappealing then the Alexander Technique offers another way. Of course it is important to take some exercise in life, but in Alexander lessons you learn to 'use yourself' better no matter what physical activity you undertake—leaving you free to choose activities you enjoy with much reduced risk of injury.

  • You enjoy learning new ideas and skills and integrating them into your life. Alexander lessons involve a willingness to think about and engage with what is being taught, and to explore the principles independently in your own life outside of the lessons, so it appeals to those who like learning and exploring.

  • You are willing to explore new perspectives and question widely held beliefs. The Alexander Technique calls into question things which many of us take for granted or have never thought about that much—so having lessons means being willing to consider fresh perspectives and try new things out.

  • You are open to changing and growing as a person. The Alexander Technique takes the view that our problems are not isolated symptoms, but a manifestation of what is going on for us as a whole—mind, body and feelings. So doing Alexander lessons involves change and growth. You will not be quite the same person at the end as you were at the beginning. In a good way!

So like anything else it's not for everyone; but if it's a good fit for you it can be a really good one. I've done a lot of different 'self-development' type of things over the years, and I would say that out of all of them the Alexander Technique has been the best for me. Not the most dramatic, or the most intense, or the fastest—in fact it's quite gentle and subtle and slow. But I think it's been the most solid, the most useful, and is the one thing I always come back to when I want to ground myself. It's like a strong trunk and roots for everything else that we do.

Photo by raufmiski/iStock / Getty Images

Are you a Habitual Slumper?

Are you a habitual 'slumper'? Have you tried to slump less but found that 'sitting up straight' is soon just as uncomfortable? Do you worry about how slumping makes you look and feel, and about the effect it may be having on yourhealth?

You're not alone! Slumping is very common habit which many of you find difficult to address. You may even be attached at some level to your slump, even as you realise that slumping is not doing any good. To slump may be associated with relaxation and letting go, even though in reality slumping is not particularly comfortable or relaxed. Over time slumping may lead to back pain and other problems. It places a great strain on the back and hips and the same time compresses and contorts your internal organs, preventing them working to their full efficiency, and has a negative effect on your energy and overall health. 

You may be all too aware of this but still find it difficult to change. You may intermittently try to compensate for your slump by pulling yourself back (which we call ‘sitting up straight’). But while this may look superficially better it only adds to yourproblems by creating a new level of tension in the back to counteract the pulling down in the front.  Needless to say this is tiring and soon wears you out. Unless you are very determined, you soon revert back to yourslump. If you are unfortunate enough to have the level of determination required to continue with ‘sitting up straight’ then in time all that extra tension may do you as much harm as slumping around was doing! 

4 reasons slumping seems hard to change

There tend to be three levels of resistance and misunderstanding which get in the way of you changing yourslump:

  • Faulty beliefs and reasoning. 
  • Emotions and attachment to the status quo.
  • Inaccurate sensation and feeling.
  • Focussing on parts rather than the whole

Faulty Beliefs

You may believe that ‘sitting up straight’ as you were told to do as children is a healthy antidote to yourslump, and you may be under the impression that what you are doing when you think you are ‘sitting up straight’ is becoming taller and more upright — when in fact you are compressing yourself and pulling back and down. And because you may believe that the only alternative you have to slumping is to use excess muscular tension to ‘sit up straight’ (which you find uncomfortable) you may at some level think that to slump is yourbest choice out of only two options available to us, without realising that there is a lovely third option which involves no feeling of effort at all….

Emotions

Familiarity feels comfortable. You no doubt have emotions and feelings about yourslump and may even be unconsciously attached to it as some level! It may have started as a reaction against being told by a well-meaning adult to ‘sit up straight’ which (correctly) felt unnatural and uncomfortable to you — so even now there may still be a subtle association of the slump with feeling free and that you are ‘doing yourown thing’. There may be some latent teenage rebellion involved! Yourslump may also have served a protective purpose for us, a way of curling up against an unfriendly or unsympathetic world. You can be quite attached to these feelings, which makes them hard to give up.

Inaccurate Sensation and Feeling

When you 'misuse' yourself over many years by alternately slumping and 'sitting up straight' it starts to affect yourkinaesthetic sense (i.e. your physical sense of yourself and where you are in space). Alexander called this 'Faulty Sensory Appreciation'. This means that you are no longer getting back accurate feedback about how you are aligned. Many people feel, for example, that they are in balance when they are actually leaning quite some way forward or back. They may feel they are standing up straight and aligned when in reality they are pushing their hips forward or backwards quite a long way. When you don't have an accurate picture of how your body is in relation to itself and the world it becomes difficult to make beneficial changes — because you may not be doing what you think you are.

Focussing on parts rather than the whole

The body is a single system! Because you are basically an unstable, upright being, a change of alignment in one part of yoursystem will have a knock on effect on everything else. But when we have a problem which manifests in one area of our bodies we tend to focus on that area when often the problem is being caused by issues elsewhere. Slumping is not really about the upper torso and shoulders, but more about a lack of overall support in our system. To be able to really let go of slumping and to release into an easy and relaxed uprightness we need to change the coordination of the whole, connecting more to the ground and releasing upwards from the feet into ease and support. This is something we all did naturally as a young child but which many of us lose as we grow older. The good news is that it is a completely fundamental part of yourdesign to be able to do this, so you can learn to do it again!

Finding a way back home

So how can you get yourself out of this muddle? The first thing to realise is that addressing one or two of the three levels of ‘blockage’—beliefs, emotions and sensations—is often not enough. They are interrelated and a block at any of these levels can get in the way of the change you want. You need to address all three. Hopefully this post will have started you thinking along those lines. If I have at least convinced you to stop trying to ‘sit up straight’ to compensate for a slump (or to stop telling others to do so) then I believe I will have done you and them a favour!

If you would like to explore some of these ideas further then an Alexander Technique lesson is a good place to start. A teacher can give you a new kinaesthetic experience, showing you how you can be effortlessly and ease-fully upright without either slumping or ‘sitting up straight’. This experience is a powerful challenge to all three levels of yourblocks to change. You may be surprised at how nice it feels to let go!