Sorting out Good Ballroom Posture

by Bette Chamberlin

When I was a professional ballet dancer with American Ballet Theater, people would come up to me and ask “are you a dancer? and then immediately “you have such good posture.” I would reply “yes”, and “thank you”. I felt content that in fact I had good posture. But that compliment was always tied with “are you a dancer?”

Hmm…

When I stopped dancing professionally and started to teach ballet, I continued to be that dancer that “had good posture”, yet I was unwittingly passing along the model of an over straightened spine to my students. At the same time, I was experiencing intense neck and shoulder pain. My spine was braced and operating by habit, acting as if I was still a professional ballet dancer, and not responding to conventional treatments. My anxiety about this was building and became another daily challenge.

The reality is that most of us dancers have an idea about posture that involves way too much muscular tension.

And I was an excellent example of this.

It wasn’t until I started looking for both relief for my neck pain and a more organic way to look at posture that I bumped into F. M. Alexander’s discovery. Rethinking the relationship between my head neck and spine was a revelation. I was soon pain free and decided to train as an Alexander Technique teacher.

Since that time, I have studied Ballroom dancing for the past 12 years, in particular American Rhythm and International Latin. There is no question that had I not changed my impression of “good posture” I would not have been able to continue lessons all these years, win competitions and find the enjoyment in moving.

Is there a special posture that we apply to ballroom versus walking down the street, waiting in line at the market, singing or playing a musical instrument?

We have all been taught by our awesome teachers that there is a specific angle of the head, or an element of body positioning that is required to evoke tango, salsa, waltz or rumba.

However, I have learned that good posture is based on the architecture of our bodies, the support of the spine, muscles, ligaments and tendons that help to move our amazing structure. But HOW to coordinate this in an efficient manner is what I have learned over the years.

Standing Up Straight Can Be Just As Bad As Slouching

Alexander Technique-167by Karen Krueger Many Alexander Technique teachers don't like to even mention the word "posture." They think the very word has so many wrong connotations that it should be avoided. But I take Humpty Dumpty's point of view: the important thing is not what people think a word might mean, but what we say it means:

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less." (Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Caroll.)

In my opinion, the Alexander Technique does involve posture, but it defines "good posture" and how to achieve it in a very different way than most approaches.

There's no doubt that bad posture is hard on the body. What most people think of as good posture is generally maintained by using excessive muscle tension in the neck, shoulders and back, which in turn stiffens the limbs as well.

If you habitually slouch in your chair, you probably can notice the amount of extra work that is required to "sit up straight" according to the usual idea. On the other hand, if you habitually maintain what you have been taught to believe is good posture, you may not realize how much you are overworking. You have learned to carry yourself stiffly erect as a child, from relatives or teachers. Or perhaps you learned it as an adult, from a physical therapist, a dance teachers or a yoga instructor. Those who taught you to do this had the best of intentions, but the result can be inflexibility, impairment of full breathing and even pain: ironically, the same problems that can result from slouching.

Several of my students have come for lessons with what most people would say looked like good posture, but who had suffered for years from mysterious neck and back pain that could not be traced to any injury or disease. It was immediately apparent to me, with my Alexander Technique lens, that each of them was holding his back and neck ramrod straight, with very tense muscles. As we worked together on letting go of that tension, these students were able to experience being fully upright with much less effort, and the pain gradually disappeared.

Adapted from "A Lawyer's Guide to the Alexander Technique: Using Your Mind-Body Connection to Handle Stress, Alleviate Pain, and Improve Performance."

[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]

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]

Good Posture Means Connecting, Not Correcting

by Dan Cayer I’m not against correcting our posture or body on principle. I wish all it took to rid ourselves of chronic pain and tension was figuring the right angle or position, and tapping our body into place. It’s such a seductive offer; that we need only arrange our body and then get on with the rest of our day.

I object to correcting our posture on practical grounds; it doesn’t work. From my perspective as an Alexander Technique teacher and a person dealing with chronic pain for several years, ‘correcting’ posture tends to tie us further into a tense knot, decreasing our ability to actually enjoy our body. In this article, I’ll offer a short but powerful exercise for connecting with a natural posture.

What Correcting Usually Means

The instinctual response to pain is to fix it or push it away. As discomfort crowds our consciousness, our brain reaches for a solution: “good” posture! Or, at least our idea of it. Usually, this means we push our shoulders back and stick our chest up. On a more subtle level, we may tighten our jaw and squeeze our throat against the discomfort and fear that’s bubbling up in relation to feeling pain. When posture carries the promise of not feeling pain or uncomfortable emotions, it’s easy to try too hard and stiffen ourselves.

I don’t mean to offer the unhelpful advice to never move your body no matter the pain. I only wish to say that when the first step of responding to pain or discomfort is to immediately try to correct ourselves, it only leads to a negative cycle of judgment, tension, and undesired results. We trade one problem, say slouching, for another, rigidly arching ourselves upward in an uncomfortable and ungrounded way.

We’ve skipped right over feeling what it’s like where we are, and flown straight to how we should be. It’s this nonstop flight that keeps us from actually finding a way of sitting or walking or simply being in our bodies that feels comfortable or ‘at home’. By dictating an idealized sitting position, we almost inevitably inflict an inhumane expectation on our body that just does not jibe with our actual structure. Sitting upright with comfort and ease and vitality is totally possible – it’s how we were designed. But we don’t get there by muscling ourselves up, “sitting up straight,” or yanking ourselves out of a slouch.

Connect with Your Self First

The first step needs to be connecting with ourselves. This need not be a big deal or require the services of a psychotherapist. Simply pause before changing your body and feel how you are – in your body, heart, and mind. You are touching in to your current experience. It may feel unpleasant like dipping into a cold pool or even overwhelming. Strangely, this is a good thing. You’re beginning to relate with your body not as a contraption that needs to be ordered, but as a physical and emotional self that has a natural organization and its own way of responding to life (often independent of our wishes).

How to Do It

Here’s a take-home exercise on how to connect, not correct:

When you find yourself out of sorts, imbalanced, slouching, or if pain is present, take a moment or two to notice what you’re experiencing on a visceral level, which includes bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions. It may help you to actually breathe in once or twice, with the intention that you are breathing in the full experience. After a moment or two, feel free to make whatever change you wish: roll out your shoulders, connect your sit bones to the chair. Notice if it feels different having listened to your felt experience first.

Widening Our Experience of Posture

Posture may seem to be a wholly mechanical exercise but alas, that is only part of the picture of ourselves. Think of how stage fright or performance anxiety has a strong physiological effect. Our bodies and minds are deeply connected.

Take the example of training a horse. The trainer has an agenda but unfortunately for him, so does the horse. A wise trainer coaxes and works with the horse, allowing the horse to have some room to play out its energy while still being taken through the proper procedures. A horse that’s bridled or reined in too tightly will bolt.

In working with students (and myself), I often find that we hold the reins too tightly in our well-intentioned effort to change body patterns and improve well-being. Over time though, students see that immediately correcting themselves – trying to fix their posture in an instant – is another habit just like slouching.

Posture isn’t about scolding and stiffening ourselves, any more than training a horse is like programming a computer. Gentleness and curiosity are required to make any long-lasting improvements in how you sit and stand. You could try right now: breathing in your experience exactly as you feel it for a breath or two before trying to change it.

This post originally appeared at dancayerfluidmovement.com.

[author] [author_image timthumb='on']http://www.acatnyc.org/main/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Dan-Head-Shot-13.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]DAN CAYER is a nationally certified teacher of the Alexander Technique. After a serious injury left him unable to work or even carry out household tasks, he began studying the technique. His return to health, as well as his experience with the physical, mental, and emotional aspects of pain, inspired him to help others. He now teaches his innovative approach in Union Square, Carroll Gardens and in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He also teaches adults to swim with greater ease and confidence by applying Alexander principles. You can find his next workshop or schedule a private lesson at www.dancayerfluidmovement.com.[/author_info] [/author]

A Nobel Prizewinner’s Perspective on the Alexander Technique

by Witold Fitz-Simon http://youtu.be/XXr-9kQZ0ow

Nobel Prize winner Nikolaas Tinbergen was so impressed with the work of F. M. Alexander that he devoted almost ten minutes of his Nobel lecture to the Alexander Technique. Tinbergen won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1973 for his “discoveries concerning organization and elicitation of individual and social behavior patterns.” Tinbergen, and his fellow prizewinners Karl Lorenz and Konrad von Frisch, performed studies on fish, insects and birds to observe genetically programmed patterns of behavior. They studied what the origins of these behaviors were, how they developed, and what stimulated them to be triggered. Tinbergen’s work had a profound effect in the field of behavioral sciences as a whole.

Tinbergen’s Four Questions

Tinbergen is famous for developing four essential questions that must be asked about any form of behavior in animals, human or otherwise, if the behavior is to be fully understood:

    1. Causation: What causes the behavioral response to be triggered? How is that changed by what the individual or organism might have learned for itself? What are the different mechanisms that come into play as part of the behavioral response?
    2. Development: How does the response change over time as the individual or organism ages?
    3. Function: What impact does the behavior have on the individual or organism?
    4. Evolution: How does the behavior compare in other species? Why might the behavior have evolved in the way it did rather than in some other way.

Watching and Wondering

In his speech, Tinbergen discusses how his time-honored process of “watching and wandering,” as he calls it, can be applied to the relief of human suffering, especially the suffering caused by stress. In the first part of his speech, he looks at Early Childhood Autism. His second example of an application of modern ethological methods (ethology is the term given to behavioral studies) is F. M. Alexander and the Alexander Technique. He praises Alexander for using these methods fifty years before they had become widespread in the scientific community:

"This story, of perceptiveness, of intelligence, and of persistence, shown by a man without medical training, is one of the true epics of medical research and practice.”

The Kinesthetic Feedback Report

One interesting scientific discovery Tinbergen talks about in his lecture (he skips over it in the above video, but you can find it in the written text here on page 12) is the way in which the brain uses the kinesthetic, or “feeling,” sense and how that can cause us trouble:

“There are many strong indications that, at various levels of integration, from single muscle units up to complex behavior, the correct performance of many movements is continually checked by the brain. It does this by comparing a feedback report, that says ‘orders carried out,’ with the feedback expectation for which, with the initiation of each movement, the brain has been alerted. Only when the expected feedback and the actual feedback match does the brain stop sending out commands for corrective action… But what Alexander has discovered beyond this is that a lifelong mis-use of the body-muscles (such as caused by, for instance, too much sitting and too little walking) can make the entire system go wrong. As a consequence, reports that ‘all is correct’ are received by the brain (or perhaps interpreted as correct) when in fact all is very wrong. A person can ‘feel at ease’ e.g. when slouching in front of the television set, when in fact he is grossly abusing his body.”

    • Tinbergen’s entire speech can be seen here.
    • You can download a PDF of his speech here. The section on the Alexander Technique begins on page 10.
    • To read more about Tinbergen, you can find his Wikipedia page here
    • To read more about Tinbergen’s “Four Questions,” you can find the Wikipedia page here.
    • To read more about the kinesthetic feedback report, you can find a Wikipedia page on “efferent copies,” the scientific term for the potentially faulty kinesthetic model that the brain stores and uses as a reference for what “feels right,” here.

[author] [author_image timthumb='on']http://www.acatnyc.org/main/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/After-crop1.jpg[/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. www.mindbodyandbeing.com[/author_info] [/author]

Giving Up Good Posture

Photo ©2011 Anne Wu, CreativeCommons License by Dan Cayer

I started meditating long before I ever heard of the Alexander Technique. Now, my experience as an Alexander teacher has profoundly affected how I sit on the cushion and even how I approach meditation altogether. A week ago, I taught a workshop at the Interdependence Project called Posture, Pain, and Meditation Practice. My experience there inspired me to write about "good posture."

If we look at a meditator like this, from my perspective as an Alexander Technique teacher I can see a few imbalances which are likely making this posture uncomfortable. The low back is arched, the chest is lifted, the neck braced to keep the head from falling back, etc. But mostly what I want to tell this person is, "Don't try so hard to have good posture!"

Working with the tendency to stiffen the torso during meditation.

A Punitive Approach to Posture

What most of us associate with good posture is that oft-uttered admonition from mom, "Sit up straight." For many of us, there is a "snap out of it!" element to this impulse. There we were, daydreaming and slumping, and Whack! We were chastised to sit up straight. There might be a little shame or guilt lurking about in the moment between being reminded to sit up straight and our attempt to do so. As if it were immoral or embarrassed to be in the posture we were in.

What's not clear from the sit up straight recommendation is where you sit up from? What part leads this movement and where do we get support from? Lacking this important information we tend to lift our chest and arch our back to be more upright.

Dan demonstrating how posture begins at the top of the spine.

And yet, sitting up straight never feels that comfortable or satisfying. It feels like we are barely hanging on to this upright posture and it's just a matter of time before we are deposited back into our familiar slump. I would argue that part of the reason we fail to find a comfortable, upright posture is due to the very intensity of our pursuit. When we strive to sit up straight, we neglect such essentials as our breathing, a free neck, and relaxed shoulders to name a few. By the way, I found this photo when I googled "correct meditation posture," and there are loads of other photos in a similar breathless effortful hold.

Good Posture Is within Us Already

But don't take my word for it, here is Suzuki Roshi talking in Zen Mind, Beginners Mind:

"People ask what it means to practice zazen with no gaining idea, what kind of effort is necessary for that kind of practice. The answer is: effort to get rid of something extra from our practice. If some extra idea comes, you should try to stop it; you should remain in pure practice."

It's not that we give up our intention to have a healthy posture. Rather, we accept that good posture can be found within us naturally, just as meditators believe that Buddha nature resides within. If we realize that our posture can be uncovered just like the natural qualities of our mind, it transforms the way we approach our bodies. Good posture emerges when there is a lack of interference.

The last word goes to Roshi:

"We do not need to polish something, trying to make some impure thing pure. By purity we just mean things as they are. When something is added, that is impure."

This post was originally published at dancayerfluidmovement.com

[author] [author_image timthumb='on']http://www.acatnyc.org/main/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Dan-Head-Shot-13.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]DAN CAYER is a nationally certified teacher of the Alexander Technique. After a serious injury left him unable to work or even carry out household tasks, he began studying the technique. His return to health, as well as his experience with the physical, mental, and emotional aspects of pain, inspired him to help others. He now teaches his innovative approach in Union Square, Carroll Gardens and in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He also teaches adults to swim with greater ease and confidence by applying Alexander principles. You can find his next workshop or schedule a private lesson at www.dancayerfluidmovement.com.[/author_info] [/author]