Give Better Yoga Adjustments with the Alexander Technique

wfs.adjustby Witold Fitz-Simon Yoga teachers giving adjustments has become a controversial issue in the yoga community. Classic yoga adjustments tend to be strong, manipulative and often invasive, with the teacher sometimes applying considerable force to push a student deeper into a stretch, or to get the student’s arms and legs into a particular position. If such an adjustment is given skillfully, the effects can be positive. Often, however, teachers yank and crank on the student’s body in such a way that can potentially cause injury. It has gotten to point where some studios offer “consent cards” that students lay on their mats to let the teacher know whether or not they are willing to be manipulated in such a way. One company has even started marketing very attractive wooden chips that you can take with you to any studio to let the teacher know your preference.

Injury in yoga—whether self- or teacher-inflicted—has become the current hot-button issue amongst those who love the practice. Even if the potential for injury were not in question, the way a teacher lays hands on a student can make a huge difference, for better and for worse. There a few different reasons why a teacher might give a student an adjustment. Amongst them are:

  • To take a student deeper into a stretch (e.g.: pressing their back down in a forward bend)
  • To arrange a body part to better fit an anatomical ideal (e.g.: outwardly rotating their upper arm bones and bringing their shoulder blades down their back)
  • To help a student get closer to the classic shape of a pose (e.g.: bringing hands together to achieve binding of the arms in a twist)

Such adjustments come from a misplaced value system where the shape of the pose is more important than the experience of the body doing the pose, where more range of motion throughout the body is always better, where more extreme contortion is an indicator of progress along the path. In this way of thinking, the resistances of the body must be overcome by the force the teacher applies. The student’s body must be made to conform to an arbitrary geometry imposed on the student by the teacher’s eye. This is an unsubtle and forceful way of thinking that will not necessarily have the effect the teacher intended.

From the perspective of the Alexander Technique, the root cause of the problem comes from something called “End-Gaining.” This is a particular way of thinking—one of which we are all guilty—where we put the desired end or goal first and focus all our efforts on achieving this goal. The opposite of this would be one where we are attending more to the means whereby we achieve the goal. It is this “means-whereby” which becomes the important thing, regardless of whether the goal is ever achieved. In the Alexander Technique, this type of approach is called “Non-Doing."

Part of this “means-whereby” you might achieve something such as a yoga pose is an attention to the way the body is organized internally. F. M. Alexander, founder of the Technique, discovered that the relationship of the head, neck and back governs the functioning of the body as a whole for better or for worse. If that relationship is well-organized, we are stronger, more balanced and better integrated in the way we move. If it is not, we are weaker, stiffer, tighter.

The primary focus of a yoga teacher working with these principles becomes creating the best organization of the head, neck and back of the student in any given pose or transition. If the student can be more organized in this way, their bodies will be better able to negotiate the demands of a pose, creating balanced and functional strength and mobility. A teacher working in this way will not only be less likely to cause injury, they will be more likely to create conditions of lasting and significant change in their students.

This post originally appeared on Witold Fitz-Simon's blog.

[author] [author_image timthumb='on'][/author_image] [author_info]WITOLD FITZ-SIMON has been a student of the Alexander Technique since 2007. He is certified to teach the Technique as a graduate of the American Center for the Alexander Technique’s 1,600-hour, three year training program. A student of yoga since 1993 and a teacher of yoga since 2000, Witold combines his extensive knowledge of the body and its use into intelligent and practical instruction designed to help his students free themselves of ineffective and damaging habits of body, mind and being.[/author_info] [/author]

The Alexander Technique: It's Not Just About Standing Up Straight

meerkatby Brooke Lieb When people hear that I teach Alexander Technique, they often comment "Oh, that's about standing up straight", or say something apologetic or sarcastic. Then they inevitably pull themselves up into their version of "Good Posture".

The good news is that gravity is not what's getting you down. It's actually your own muscles, over contracting, working inefficiently and pulling you down. When you learn to allow lengthening to occur throughout your musculature, weight falls more efficiently through bones and joints, leaving you more balanced on your skeleton.

Hours spent sitting at a computer, studying, driving a car and other such sedentary activities contribute to being habitually shortened through the muscles on the front of the body. Because we are so used to this shortening, it doesn't register in your feeling sense as active muscle work. In fact, it probably feels effortless and maybe even comfortable. Fortunately, when you learn to release this excess effort, the natural outcome is more evenly distributed muscle tone, lengthening and more upright alignment through your spine. You can get better results with less effort when it comes to posture.

I have a couple who've studied with me since Fall of 2000. He reported gaining a full inch in height at his last check up; and she went from a 1/4" to a 1/8" correction in her orthotics for a leg length discrepancy.

Studying the Alexander Technique can help you look taller and feel lighter and easier in upright posture.

I leave you with this quote:

"I am putting into gear the muscles that hold you up, and you are putting them out of gear and then making a tremendous effort to hold yourself up, with the result that, when you ease that effort, you slump down worse than ever." F. M. Alexander

[author] [author_image timthumb='on'][/author_image] [author_info]N. BROOKE LIEB, Director of Teacher Certification since 2008, received her certification from ACAT in 1989, joined the faculty in 1992. Brooke has presented to 100s of people at numerous conferences, has taught at C. W. Post College, St. Rose College, Kutztown University, Pace University, The Actors Institute, The National Theatre Conservatory at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Dennison University, and Wagner College; and has made presentations for the Hospital for Special Surgery, the Scoliosis Foundation, and the Arthritis Foundation; Mercy College and Touro College, Departments of Physical Therapy; and Northern Westchester Hospital. Brooke maintains a teaching practice in NYC, specializing in working with people dealing with pain, back injuries and scoliosis; and performing artists.[/author_info] [/author]

A Delicate Balance?

Balance photo by Karen Krueger

I recently heard the phrase "a delicate balance" twice in 24 hours: first, when a friend mentioned he had recently seen the current Broadway revival of Edward Albee's play of that name, and second, when I happened to hear an Alexander Technique teacher use it about the poise of the head. I was reminded of how often I have heard Alexander Technique teachers say that we are aiming for "a delicate balance" of the head on the top of the spine.

I have never liked this wording, and I don't use it with my students. But hearing the phrase twice in such a short period of time prompted me to wonder why. What is it about the word "delicate" that bothers me?

Here's the definition of the word given by my American Heritage Dictionary:

1. Exquisitely or pleasingly fine. 2. Frail in constitution or health. 3. Easily broken or damaged. 4. Requiring tasteful and tactful treatment. 5. Keen in sense discrimination or perception. 6. Manifesting sensitivity and attentiveness to the proprieties. 7. Regardful of the feelings of others. 8. Keenly accurate in response or reaction. 9. Soft or gentle in touch or skill. 10. Very subtle in difference or distinction. --See Synonyms at fragile.

Here's what the synonym list at "fragile" has to say:

Delicate ... suggests lack of durability or susceptibility to injury.

Reading these entries helped clarify for me why I don't want to think of my head balance as delicate: I don't like the idea of its being frail and injury-prone, as per definitions 2 and 3. In fact, I have found that a well-managed poise of the head releases a great deal of energy in the whole system.

The other definitions seem to me to describe the Alexander Technique in general, and the skills it teaches, rather than head balance in particular. Of all the many shades of meaning in this one word, the only one that seems at all relevant to my understanding of how the head balances on the top of the spine is the last of the ten definitions--"very subtle in difference or distinction."

It has definitely been my experience that subtle changes in head balance can have profound effects on the entire system--which is what I believe Alexander meant by "primary control." However, the experience of my head, neck and back that results is not delicate at all, but rather strong and powerful.

Probably those teachers who talk about the "delicate balance" of the head do not intend to say that this balance is frail or weak; it is my mind and my way of thinking that add that meaning. So this is an interesting illustration of the confounding power of vocabulary. Our language is simply not precise enough to ensure that we will all understand the same thing from the same words.

I believe our choice of words is worth examining because it can reflect and thus illuminate our priorities and values. Perhaps those who favor the phrase "a delicate balance" may seek, in their Alexander Technique work, to evoke a certain quality of being that might be called "delicate." One of the differences that I have discovered among Alexander Technique teachers is the degree to which they value and seek to elicit lightness, releasing and letting go, on the one hand, or energy and strength on the other hand. Of course, all of these qualities can happily co-exist, but many teachers seem to prioritize one or the other.

Despite my issue with this one phrase, I value both approaches for myself and for my students. Indeed, I seek a balance between the two--but a strong and energetic balance rather than a delicate one!

[author] [author_image timthumb='on'][/author_image] [author_info]KAREN G. KRUEGER became a teacher of the Alexander Technique after 25 years of practicing law at two major New York law firms, receiving her teaching certificate from the American Center for the Alexander Technique in December 2010. Her students include lawyers, business executives, IT professionals and others interested in living with greater ease and skill. Find her at her website: [/author_info] [/author]

Less Pain, More Productivity: Demonstrating the Advantages of Primary Control with Muscle System Pro III

Alexander Technique, Primary Control, productivity, painby Jessica Santascoy What is it that makes the Alexander Technique unique? One of the main ideas is primary control, and the understanding that it can help balance the whole body.

What is Primary Control?

Primary control refers to how the head, neck, and torso are working together. When primary control is working well, the head is poised at the top of the spine, and the neck muscles are supple and flexible. When primary control is not working well or has vanished, more muscles are recruited than are needed for movement, there is more joint compression, and there is stiffening. The head becomes a weight. The whole body will eventually feel the impact of the loss of primary control.

If the head, neck and torso are working efficiently together, then we have more ease, which equals higher productivity and more energy, because the body is freer.

Effortless Learning

Muscle System Pro III is an excellent anatomy app that can help you understand or explain primary control and other dynamics of the body.

Allowing the head to drop towards a laptop or a mobile device is a common habit that can cause pain.

One of my favorite features of the app is the robust amount of 3D animations. They help demonstrate key principles and can lead to “a ha” moments. Let’s take a peek inside Muscle Pro III, and find out how it can help you explain or learn about primary control.

Laptop Pain

A friend of mine had tremendous neck and back pain. She was working in cafes, where the screen of her laptop was about 4 inches lower than her eyes. She was dropping her head towards the laptop to see the screen. Her head became a weight, pulling on her neck and back. After working this way for 6 hours or so, she was in excruciating pain, very irritable, often had a headache, and had to stop working. (See Figure 1.)


Ease Pain with Primary Control

Through Alexander lessons, my friend became aware that allowing her head to drop down was causing a lot of the pain. The laptop had become a stimulus for her to “dump” her head - when she’d start working on the laptop, she dropped her head down. She realized that she could choose not to do this, and learned a better way to work, using only the muscles necessary and moving the head at the top of the spine (at the atlanto-occipital joint). (See Figure 2.)

Now, my friend uses less muscular action and effort, and gets more done because she’s not in pain. She is proactively preventing pain, which increases productivity.

What Do You Think About Learning Anatomy?

In my experience, learning anatomy clarifies learning and helps bring about a deeper understanding of Alexander principles.

What do you think? Does understanding anatomy help you learn? Teachers: What are the advantages of using anatomy to demonstrate primary control and other principles? Are there disadvantages to teaching with anatomy?

Features in the App Include:

  • A robust amount of media, including animations showing movement of the body including articulated area and range of motion; still images with different views: anterior, lateral, posterior
  • 3D perspective and ability to move the images
  • Remove and add layers of muscles quickly
  • Quick access to information - including audio pronunciation, origin, insertion, action, and nerve supply of a muscle
  • The ability to take notes in the app, and share images via social media

For Teachers

I recommend getting these apps by 3D4Medical for your app library: Muscle System Pro III, Skeletal System Pro, and the free Essential Skeleton 3. You can switch between the apps to show your student various views and media to clarify concepts. There are iPhone, iPad, and Mac versions. No Android version at this time.

For Learners

My friend bought Muscle System Pro III for iPhone, so she could have a quick review of what she’d learned at the lesson. The iPhone version is an inexpensive investment for your learning, at $3.99.

App images via Muscle System Pro III by 3D4Medical

Top image: Joe Cieplinski


[author] [author_image timthumb='on'][/author_image] [author_info]JESSICA SANTASCOY is an Alexander Technique teacher specializing in the change of inefficient habitual thought and movement patterns to lessen pain, stress, anxiety, and stage fright. She effectively employs a calm and gentle approach, understanding how fear and pain short circuit the body and productivity. Her clients include high level executives, software engineers, designers, and actors. Jessica graduated from the American Center for the Alexander Technique, holds a BA in Psychology, and an MA in Media Studies. She teaches in New York City and San Francisco. Connect with Jessica via email or on Twitter @jessicasuzette.[/author_info] [/author]