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]

Alexander Technique and Somatics

F. M. Alexander (1869—1955) by Witold Fitz-Simon

People turn to the Alexander Technique for help for many different reasons. In the hundred years or so that it’s been around, the Technique has helped people with back pain, scoliosis, respiratory problems, speech problems, and balance issues. It has helped athletes rehabilitate themselves from injuries and performers refine their craft. There are many reasons why a person might be drawn to the Alexander Technique. Not least of these is for the simple joy of the Technique itself.

The Alexander Technique is one of the earliest examples of a Western Somatic practice. Thomas Hanna, founder of Hanna Somatics and Somatics Magazine, coined the term in 1976 to refer to practices that explored movement and the integration of mind and body from the perspective of first-person experience. Other somatic practices include Body-Mind Centering, the Feldenkrais Method, the work of Irmgard Bartenieff and Rudolf Laban, Yoga and Ideokinesiology.

What differentiates a somatic movement form from something like a dance technique is that it is intended to be experienced from the perspective of the mover rather than from an outside observer. Somatic practices can provide a philosophical perspective as well as a methodology with which to approach movement. With these as a foundation, the mover can have a richer, more meaningful experience as they use themselves in anything and everything they do.

What makes the Alexander Technique unique among all the other somatic practices are its five basic principles:

  1. Recognition of the force of habit: We build our lives on a foundation of habitual behavioral and movement patterns. They can be so entrenched that they become extremely challenging to overcome.
  2. Inhibition and non-doing: The way to overcome habitual behaviors is through inhibition of impulsive responses and an attitude of exploration rather than mindless achieving of our goals.
  3. Recognition of faulty sensory appreciation: One of the things that allows us to operate habitually is our feeling sense. We build up a vocabulary of choices that “feel right” so that we don’t have to be constantly monitoring the way we are doing things. But that feeling sense is unreliable. We might actually be working against ourselves, even hurting ourselves, when we’re doing something, but we have been doing it so long in the same way that it has come to “feel right."
  4. Sending directions: There is another way our conscious minds can communicate with our bodies that does not require reliance on our feeling sense. We can direct our bodies using all our other senses and with the power of our intensions, allowing us to move mindfully with greater ease and efficiency.
  5. The Primary Control: This is the aspect of the Alexander Technique that sets it apart from other movement systems. Primary Control refers to the relationship between the head, the neck and the back. When that relationship is going well— the neck is free to allow the head to be poised and the back to be long and wide—then all the systems of the body tend to go well. The Alexander Technique offers a simple and powerful way to work with movement based around optimal organization of the Primary Control.

If you want to learn more about yourself—the way your mind and body work together to create ease and balance in your life—The Alexander Technique is great way to do it. ACAT offers a number of ways to find out more:

Free Monthly Demonstrations Drop-In Group Classes Find A Certified Teacher Near You

[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. <a href=""></a>[/author_info] [/author]

The Alexander Technique and Yoga: Parallel Inquiries Into Freeing The Self

by Witold Fitz-Simon On the face of it, Yoga and the Alexander Technique would seem to be two completely different disciplines. Comparing them would be like comparing a dog with an iPad. Although they originated in very different times from very different cultural traditions, and would appear to have emerged out of very different intentions, thematically, they do have a lot in common. In a lecture given in 1985, John Nicholls—a senior teacher of the Alexander Technique—sought to put the work in a larger context of world traditions that aim to delve into the deeper nature of humanity. He identified seven general themes common to abroad array of such traditions, including disparate bodies of work as Freudian psychology, Osteopathy and Zen Meditation. The full text of his lecture can be found here.

The seven themes he identified are these:

  1. Consciousness becoming conscious of itself and the unconscious/subconscious
  2. Need to understand and control our reactions
  3. Being out of touch with feelings
  4. The integration of the body and mind
  5. The search for natural functioning (non-interference)
  6. Search for a central core to integrate the parts, a Center, Self or "I"
  7. Renewed interest in "vital force", bio-energy, Chi, Prana, etc.

A quick overview of how these themes interweave through Yoga and the Alexander Technique reveals that, although the terminology and the larger philosophical frameworks of each system might be different, the underlying concerns and observations are quite similar.

1. Consciousness Becoming Conscious of Itself and the Unconscious/Subconscious

The fundamental cause of human suffering from the perspective of both Yoga and the Alexander Technique is an essential misunderstanding of who and what we are. We act and react mindlessly and instinctively to the stimuli of life without clear, conscious reasoning. Each time we do so, we further ingrain the habits, misperceptions and faulty assumptions that have led us to where we are in the present moment.

Both systems hold that the only way to rectify our tendency for this kind of automatic behavior is to undertake the task of self-knowing. In Yoga, an awakening is necessary to discern what is real from the unreal in order to transcend the endless wheel of suffering in birth, life, death and rebirth. In the Alexander Technique an awakening is necessary to become aware of restrictive habits of mind and body in order to create the freedom and wellbeing of proper functioning of the human system. For both, this means, delving into that which is initially obscured from mundane waking consciousness. Both offer clear, well-considered practices and procedures to the student, giving them a framework With which to explore themselves in a formal setting and in the chaotic and uncontrollable outside world.

2. The Need to Understand and Control our Reactions

Both systems understand that it is not so much the doing of things that gets us into trouble as it is the underlying frame of mind that does the damage. In Yoga, every action has a consequence (the law of karma). Each of these consequences further deepens our suffering, be it physical, mental or existential. Some of these consequences will not necessarily come to fruition in the present lifetime, thus hurtling us forward into further births. We must learn the underlying causes of our actions in order to learn to act in such a way that we undo the harm we have done to ourselves.

The Alexander Technique also holds that every action has a consequence, although the consequences F. M. Alexander was concerned with were all of them much more immediate and written on the body. Every reaction based on habit, or the result of the sympathetic nervous system’s startle response, is a compression and a restriction that puts more stress on the body and mind of the individual, that contributes to greater discomfort and deterioration of proper functioning of the person’s entire system, edging them closer to the possibility of emotional upset, injury and disease. Only by learning to observe and inhibit our reactions, and to project specific intentions for more organized, balanced functioning can we avoid and retrain ourselves to greater ease and wellbeing.

3. Being Out of Touch with Feelings

Both yoga and the Alexander Technique have an interesting relationship to the senses of the body. Both are of the opinion that the way we use the senses causes us more harm than good. In Yoga, the thought is that paying attention to the senses draws us away from the Self, where the important knowledge lies, into the outside world. The Alexander Technique shares that thought, positing that we are too quick to respond to the stimuli that the senses bring us. Both believe it necessary to create a dispassionate distance between the object of the senses and the awareness so as to watch and direct the reactions of the self. The Alexander Technique even recognizes an additional sense, kinesthesia (the “feeling” sense), which needs to be regarded with a healthy degree of skepticism for the faulty impressions it can bring.

4. The Integration of the Body and Mind

Both Yoga and the Alexander Technique recognize that there is no separation between body and mind. They are two aspect of the larger whole of the Self. The body can be directed to influence the mind just as the mind can be directed to influence the body. The two must come together and work in unison to create the desired change in the individual.

5. The Search for Natural Functioning (Non-Interference)

In the Indian philosophical tradition, the human body is made up of a network of 72,000 subtle energy channels. These channels feed into seven wheel-like energy centers, or chakras, that align along a central column running from tail to head. If these channels are open, and the wheels are spinning freely as they should, then the snake-like spiritual energy known as kundalini coiled at the bottom of the spine will be free to rise and higher consciousness will be achieved. The goal of a physical yoga practice is to purify and open all these channels so that spiritual energy can flow freely.

From the Alexander Technique perspective, the human system is pretty much perfect when we are young children. Having emerged from the womb a largely blank slate of potential, the infant develops naturally, learning to push and pull, to lift its head, reach and grab, eventually learning to pull itself upright to stand an move about. It is only as it gets older that the child starts to learn bad habits that pull it away from the perfect poise of the toddler. The Alexander Technique aims to undo all the interferences and to get the individual back to that state of wasteful poise.

6. and 7. Search for a Central Core and Renewed Interest in Vital Energy

In some ways, these final two themes are where Yoga and the Alexander Technique are perhaps the most closely aligned. Both gave a strong sense of rising energy along a central channel with the head playing an important role in the final integration of body and mind.

In Yoga, the kundalini energy is encouraged to rise up the central subtle energy channel, the sushumna nadi. When it reaches the head, it blossoms out of the energy wheel at the top of the head and joins with the energy of the universe around it. In the Alexander a Technique, the upward flow of energy is directed through the torso along the lengthening and widening spine where the head is encouraged to balance in a poised state of freedom, leading the movement and subtle functioning of the whole system.

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]

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'][/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]