Spreading The Word, Even If The Word Is "Posture"

image1by Karen Krueger I'm a big believer in speaking up about the Alexander Technique whenever I get the chance. So I jumped right in with a comment when I spotted an article in the New York Times about the importance of posture:

New York Times: Posture Affects Standing, And Not just The Physical Kind

When I checked the comments section again a few days later, there were over a hundred comments -- most of them singing the praises of the Alexander Technique!

Not only that, but I saw no reluctance to identify the Technique with "posture" and no striving to convey all the complexity of the Technique in a few sentences. Rather, each comment mentioned that the Alexander Technique is a great way to improve posture, and added something about the studies that have shown its effectiveness, gave a personal testimonial, or mentioned ways to find a teacher or books to read. Some also responded to other comments in a constructive way. Anyone who reads even a handful of the comments would come away with the clear message that if you are concerned about your posture, you should check out the Alexander Technique.

Because the comments on the New York Times website are moderated, and perhaps also because of the nature of the Times' readership, the comments are often the best part of the articles. The Alexander community's vigorous response to this opportunity to publicize our work will reach thousands of readers who otherwise might never have heard of the Alexander Technique.

So thanks to all of you who added your comments to this story. It only takes a minute or two to add a comment to a news item or a magazine article; I hope we all will make it a practice to mention the Alexander Technique whenever the opportunity arises.

[author] [author_image timthumb='on']http://www.acatnyc.org/main/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/karen-headshot-67.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]KAREN G. KRUEGER practiced law in New York City for 25 years before training at ACAT, and has now been teaching the Alexander Technique for almost five years.  She is the author of the recently published book A Lawyer’s Guide to the Alexander Technique: Using  Your Mind-Body Connection to Handle Stress, Alleviate Pain, and Improve Performance (ABA Publishing).  Website:  http://kgk-llc.com.  Buy the book.[/author_info] [/author]

Mindfulness and the Alexander Technique

buddha-935135-mby John Austin There have been several articles in the New York times on mindfulness recently and it would seem that mindfulness is back in vogue. One that caught my eye most recently was focused on a study that found that pausing, even for just half a second, between having a thought and making a decision to act on that thought improved decision making.

Now this isn’t shocking new information to many people, especially anyone who has studied the Alexander Technique; but the question, “How do we access the space between thought and action?” is still an interesting one.

Most mindfulness practices when boiled down to their essence consist of these instructions:

  1. Be conscious of what you’re doing while you’re doing it. Pay attention without judgement to the present moment, not letting your mind wander elsewhere.
  2. Include your self doing the activity in your awareness, don’t solely focus on what you’re doing.
  3. When you notice your mind wandering, bring your attention to your breathing/feelings.

There are many variations and exercises designed to cultivate this state of ‘mindfulness’ but they are all essentially related to the above. The principles seem simple enough but try putting them into practice. You will soon find that it’s difficult to notice your mind wandering and come back to the awareness of your breath when you’re doing nothing, let alone when there is a task at hand.

Here’s where the Alexander Technique is invaluable. Through hands on experiences from a teacher your awareness of your self is significantly improved so it doesn’t require so much effort to pay attention to what you’re doing.

Most people have difficulty being conscious of what they are doing because there is a general misunderstanding of the nature of consciousness. Consciousness is not the voice in your head as many of us believe; however, we can be conscious of the voice in our head. Consciousness is also not our brains telling our bodies what to do non-verbally (i.e. desire for coffee, lift right arm to pick up coffee). We can be conscious and experience these things, but for the most part we are watching our unconscious habits unfolding. This is different than making a conscious decision. Consciousness essentially allows us to do two things. Pick a direction and stop; although not necessarily in that order. Generally you must stop doing your habit(s) that are taking you in directions you don’t want to be going to move in a direction you do want to go.

The difficulty here is that we have so many unconscious habits going on below the level of our awareness and it’s nearly impossible to stop doing something we don’t know we’re doing.

One thing I never liked about the word mindfulness is that it implies a separation between the mind, body, and consciousness. The three are parts of a whole that are intimately connected and functionally equivalent. The nervous system takes in sensory information and responds to the various stimuli we encounter. Our consciousness is able to access a limited amount of that information at any given time in order to act as a failsafe to our instinctual reactions. If the wrong response is learned one can inhibit the reaction by being conscious (or mindful if you will) and creating a space between stimulus and response for choice.

F.M. Alexander discovered that the information registered by the nervous system could be distorted by patterns of malcoordination and muscular rigidity that originated in the conceptualization of movement and posture. This is a huge point to consider because if our sensory information is flawed, even if we make the space for choice our decision is based on unreliable sources. Therefore, proper use of the self which results in reliable sensory feedback is an essential first step to a successful mindfulness practice.

There are some things often taught as mindfulness that actually take you away from being consciously aware.

  • Close your eyes when you pay attention to your breath.

Closing your eyes doesn’t bring you into the moment, it’s essentially hiding from it. You can’t very well take a moment to close your eyes to pay attention to your breath while driving on the freeway.

  • Imagine a sunny day (or some other scenario that is pleasant).

Again this type of instruction takes your consciousness away from your self. It’s much more helpful to be aware of what is there and your reaction to it. Whatever is there will still be there when you come back from your happy place.

AT-Mindfulness Tips:

  1. Find the top of the spine (roughly between your ears/behind your eyes). See if you can keep your awareness of the top of your spine without losing your other senses; keep seeing, hearing, feeling your feet on the ground etc. This will expand and quicken your conscious awareness as you learn not to hyper-focus on one thing at the cost of everything else in your awareness.
  2. Seeing is a great indicator of the quality of your consciousness in any given moment. If your vision goes blurry, your presence has a similar quality. When you think about something, do you still see? Or do you turn your eyes toward your brain to concentrate? Is it necessary to leave the present moment to think?
  3. When you have the urge to do something (pick up your phone when it rings, cross the street on green, etc.), take a second to stop and find the top of your spine. Keep the awareness of the top of your spine as you give consent to the activity or choose to do something else. Notice if you are reacting or actually making a choice.

This post originally appeared on John Austin's blog.

[author] [author_image timthumb='on']http://www.acatnyc.org/main/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/headshot.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]JOHN AUSTIN started pondering and pontificating on the probable and possible reasons for the tragic loss of joy in himself and his fellow musicians as he approached his breaking point in a music conservatory. In fact, he was nearly a casualty of the music “busi-ness" when he stumbled on the Alexander Technique. Since then he's been inspired by his training at the American Center for the Alexander Technique to write in an attempt to better understand what was happening to himself and others. Mr. Austin has an active performing career, blog, and teaching studio in West Harlem, Manhattan.[/author_info] [/author]

Fast and Loose: Protecting Those Hip Joints

(c) 2013 Joan Arnold by Joan Arnold

Yoga Alert

Women!  Beware of yoga!  So said a November, 2013 article in the New York Times by William Broad, a science writer whose provocative articles have challenged America's current love affair with yoga.* He cited serious injuries women have sustained in extreme yoga postures, concluding that yoga's emphasis on flexibility causes severe hip joint strain among women.

Speaking as a yoga teacher and a middle-aged woman with hip joints, I know that, in the practice and teaching of yoga, generalities don't help.  Some women have loose joints, and some don’t.  Some yoga forms put practitioners into exaggerated poses, others don’t.  As a teacher of the Alexander Technique, I help people – yogic and otherwise – recover from hip replacements by helping them unravel habits developed before or after surgery, and helping them learn how to move well in their daily lives.  For prevention or rehabilitation, the most important focus is you how you move.  How you walk and sit or perform yoga postures will create strain or harmony in that crucial center of the body.  It’s all in how you do it.

Use or Genetics?

Any movement teacher worth his or her salt should know the pitfalls of stiffness and hyper-mobility.  Some of our students are tightly strung, others loosely strung.  Some are women and some are men.

One aspect of flexibility comes from muscle – muscle fibers’ resting length and the quality of the connective tissue that surrounds each fiber and muscle group.  When we stretch to become more flexible, the best approach is to do so gently, increasing that resting length gradually.  Another aspect of flexibility is inherited, determined by the length of our ligaments, the connectors binding bone to bone that stabilize the skeleton.  Once a ligament is stretched, it stays that way.  That's why we need to be clear about what we're stretching and why.  When you stretch, your primary sensation should be in the muscle, not in the joint.

Those we call double-jointed are born with longer ligaments.  The advantage is that they are naturally flexible, and yoga’s full range of postures come more easily to them.  The disadvantage is that their joints are less stable.  They need to avoid hanging on their joints – something that can feel good and stretchy – and learn how to more fully engage their muscles to stabilize this genetic laxity.  I have one yoga student, a builder who swings a hammer, lifts and climbs all day long, who is hyper-mobile.  I coach him to engage his muscles, not to hang in down dog but to lift up, fully engage the shoulders to spare his joints from the over-extension that, to him, comes naturally.

Those with shorter ligaments have the benefit of greater joint stability.  Though they’d like to be looser, initially they may hate stretching.  In the current culture of yoga, dramatic flexibility is over-emphasized, as is performance over process.  These folks may envy those flexier types, but it’s best when they work with their own body gradually, learning how to release muscles and fascia, to make fuller joint movement available.

Do you know your body type? Your muscles may be tight or loose, but it’s good to know whether your joints—your ligaments—are close-knit or loose.  A good teacher or physical therapist can tell you, but you can test yourself.  Extend one arm out in front of you.  If your elbow goes beyond straight, so it rises above the forearm, you’re on the flexible side.  If it’s hard to straighten your arm fully, your ligaments probably tend to be short.

Structure & Habit

(c) 2013 Joan Arnold

I’ve had beautiful, accomplished yoginis come to my class, dropping into their shoulder joints in down dog – adho mukha svanasana – or too low in the forward lunge Anjaneyasana, pushing down into the ribs and waist, putting pressure on the hip joints and lower back.  In down dog, I help them allow their ribs to come back and up, to spare their shoulders and hips.  In lunge, I teach them to come up from the bottom of the pelvis rather than hang on those available joints. Using the Alexander Technique’s idea of lightness at the top of the spine helps them engage their torso’s natural buoyancy.  With a gentle hands-on suggestion, I encourage them to stop pushing down and guide the pelvis to tilt up and away from the front leg.  Rather than exerting repetitive pressure and misaligning the upper thigh (the femur in the socket of the acetabulum, if you want to get technical), they can spare those delicate feminine hip joints.  The result is freedom and lightness as they breathe more fully and build strength with balance.

(c) 2013 Joan Arnold

As teachers, we can determine how a student's habits and genetics interact and what each one needs to learn.  Though awareness is considered a priority in yoga, "listening to your own body” may mean that you indulge your preferences and perpetuate unconscious habits that do not further your practice.  An insightful teacher can suggest shifts that initially may feel unfamiliar or wrong, but can lead you toward a deeper understanding of your body’s unique needs and a more intelligent practice of the subtle, complex art we call yoga.

* The first, an excerpt from Broad’s book "The Science of Yoga," was a sensational New York Times magazine cover story in January, 2012, entitled How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body. That piece highlighted the prevalence and seriousness of yoga injuries, and has sparked an ongoing and worthy conversation. Here are two among many responses:

"How Yoga Can Free Your Body" by Joan Arnold "Does Yoga Kill?" by Timothy McCall

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Drawings ©2013 by Joan Arnold, used with kind permission

[author] [author_image timthumb='on']http://www.acatnyc.org/main/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Joan.Arnold.png[/author_image] [author_info]JOAN ARNOLD has been a movement educator for over 30 years, teaching dance, exercise, yoga and Alexander Technique.  She has a private practice in NYC, Brooklyn and the Hudson Valley and has been quoted as an expert in Fit Yoga, O magazine and Timothy McCall’s 2007 book, Yoga as Medicine.  Her articles on health, education and bodywork have appeared in national magazines and online in Elephant Journal.  Joan teaches at Jaya Yoga Center in Park Slope, Brooklyn.  In July 2014, she returns to Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health to reprise her week-long workshop on Yoga & the Alexander Technique. [/author_info] [/author]