Category Archives: Back pain

‘Core strength and stability’?…but we’re vertebrates!

Skeleton doing plankYou won’t find many Alexander Technique teachers talking about ‘core stability’ or ‘core strength’. This is the notion that a core group of abdominal muscles exists that can be strengthened through specific exercises to provide us with better posture and a ‘strong and stable back’ 😉. The idea arose in the late 1990s and seems to have found a place in mainstream thinking. This place, however, is not deserved as researchers and health practitioners from a range of different disciplines now believe that ‘core stability’ is something of a myth (see the links at the end of this post).

For sure, so-called ‘core strength’ exercises can help you look more ‘streamlined’ if that is what you want, but there is very little evidence to support the idea that targeted ‘core strength and stability’ exercises are particularly good for back pain, or for our general health and well-being. Instead, the focus on bracing and pulling in the stomach may make things worse – encouraging us to hold even more muscular tension and placing destabilising forces on the spine.

It is now well accepted that it’s actually exercise in general and everyday activity that helps people recover from and prevent back pain. Of course, Pilates or yoga can be a great help here; just be aware that in a well-taught class you are unlikely to find a focus on ‘core’ or other specific muscles. There is also good evidence that Alexander Technique lessons are an effective approach for long-term resolution of back pain.

From an Alexander Technique perspective, we are intricate, finely tuned beings that work best when we allow ourselves to function as an integrated mind-body whole. We are also a lot stronger when we use ourselves as an interconnected whole rather than as if we consist of ‘separate parts’, which is a common concept of ourselves. So here’s one example – if I want to push open a heavy door and my underlying, largely subconscious, concept of strength is that it’s my arms that do all the pushing, then I’m going to find it harder work than if I simply put my arms out and use my body weight to send the door out of the way as I walk through it. In an Alexander lesson, we become aware of the countless ways in which we tend to make life harder for ourselves through our habitual ways of doing things. We also discover how everything is a lot less effort when we are shown how we can allow ourselves to work in a more integrated, coordinated and balanced way.

Humans are vertebrates, just like dogs and horses, and so at the physical core of our whole being you’ll find our spine and skull. Alexander teachers are interested in how well a person is working as a whole, and the head / neck / back dynamic relationship is a good indicator of this. Our head and spine constitute our central coordinating axis – and it was FM Alexander who discovered that, in this respect, we’re just like other vertebrates. Think of a deer or cheetah running and you’ll see a beautifully poised head leading the movement and the body seems to just flow along behind. Even though we are on two feet rather than four, the same principle applies. Most of us start out with pretty efficient, well-coordinated movement (think of the free, easy movement and balance of most 2–3 year-olds). However, we tend to lose some of this coordination and balance as we gradually adapt ourselves to our environment, which is usually a largely sedentary world of chairs, tables and computers. We tend to get stuck in habitual ways of doing things, including over-use of our arms and legs, which compromises the natural length and springiness of the spine.

The ideal situation is that all our muscles are doing the appropriate amount of work required for any given task at any given time, so we need to be able to continually adapt according to what we’re doing. In general, however, our muscles tend to be doing too much work, as holding tension is a very common habit. In contrast, the system of deep muscles associated mostly with the spine and head that provide us with postural support is usually in need of a bit of waking up. It’s all a matter of balance and, with such a complex system, there’s no way we can directly bring that balance about through any specific exercises. Alexander lessons provide a practical and effective approach to this problem. Through learning greater self-awareness and from direct experience of guided movement we can re-discover the central coordinating role of our ‘true core’, the healthy dynamic relationship between our head and spine. When this is working better, we’re more able to let go of unwanted muscular tension and discover easier, freer movement.

So, if you’re a vertebrate and would like to discover how you can access your ‘true core strength and stability’, find yourself a registered Alexander Technique teacher – feel free to get in touch if you’re in the Edinburgh / East Lothian area or search find your local teacher here.

Read more about the myth of core stability:

Eyal Lederman: http://www.cpdo.net/Lederman_The_myth_of_core_stability.pdf

Peter O’Sullivan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YezBG_NdLgs&feature=player_embedded

Emma Wightman: http://www.stockbridgeosteopathicpractice.com/the-myth-of-core-stability-part-1.html

https://trustme-ed.com/blog/the-problem-with-core-stability

The Alexander Technique keeps me safe

Stay safe with the Alexander TechniqueThis past month I’ve spent a lot of time driving up and down between Edinburgh and Bristol due to family illness. During this time I often found myself thinking ‘thank goodness for the Alexander Technique, I’m so lucky to have this skill!” – I was able to stay calm, aware and focused throughout, even when I’d had very little sleep and the road conditions were awful.

There have been countless times in my everyday life – for example, picking up something heavy, climbing a ladder, walking on uneven ground – when I’ve used the Alexander Technique to help me stay safe. How does this work? – by becoming more aware of oneself and what is happening moment by moment, and being able to give oneself a little bit of space and time in which to consider how best to respond in any given situation. So, for example, if I’m climbing up a ladder to wash the windows I’m very aware of my changing balance with each step – not trying to control or micro-manage, just staying present and paying attention to what I’m doing with myself rather than solely focusing on cleaning the windows. So if, for example, a rung is slippery I’m more likely to be able to adapt and stay in balance and so stay safe.

Less obvious perhaps but equally as important, is how learning the Alexander Technique is helpful for safety in its broader sense, particularly over the long term. So it’s not just about in-the-moment avoidance of accidents or strain – I’ve also protected my long-term health and well-being through the Technique. I’m convinced that without it I’d be a bit of a wreck now with neck pain and RSI – I was beginning to get signs of these developing before I started Alexander lessons. Through the lessons and my subsequent training to be an Alexander teacher, I’ve integrated the Technique into my daily life for better balance, movement coordination and mindful calm.

Driving home for Christmas

Sitting slumpedIf you usually have to drive to work, you may be looking forward to having a break from your daily commute (even if you’re facing a long drive home for Christmas first). For all too many of us, driving contributes to, or even causes, back, neck or shoulder pain, as well as stress. How can the Alexander Technique make the daily commute a bit easier? Here are some things to think about and try out at home over the festive break.

 

 

Sitting in balance, supportedHow are you sitting?

Car seat design has a lot to answer for but even with the best seat in the world, it’s still easy to end up with aches and pains. The most important factor is not the seat but yourself and your ‘human ergonomics’. This is where the Alexander Technique can be so helpful. An Alexander teacher can enable you to discover how to drive with less effort and stress, sitting easily in balance, holding the steering wheel with less tension, and ‘rising above’ the antics of fellow road users.

If you’re trying to sit up straight or hold yourself upright then you’re not on the right track. Good posture − like that seen in most toddlers − is effortless. It does take time, and Alexander work, to wake up the deep postural muscles that are the hallmark of a ‘strong back’, but a good start is to develop an awareness of your sitting bones and the support coming from underneath. So, find a reasonably firm chair to sit on and slide your hands under your bottom from each side so that you’re briefly sitting on your hands. Can you feel the bony parts of yourself that you’re sitting on? These are our sitting bones, the rocker-shaped bottom of the pelvis (see photos). Now you’ve found them, take your hands away and try gently shifting yourself forwards or backwards to get a sense of how to balance on them, allowing your weight to drop straight down through the chair. Can you get a sense of the support coming up from the ground through the seat and up through your sitting bones? It’s this support that triggers our reflexes that send us upright.

 Balanced on sitting bones

Skeleton driver nicely balanced on its ‘sitting bones’

 

 

 

 

Bottom of pelvis (sitting bones) balanced on supporting surfaceClose-up of the back of the pelvis and lower spine. Note the ‘sitting bones’ in full contact with the supporting surface below and in balance

 

 

 

 

How are you seeing?

Modern lifestyles, particularly the widespread use of mobile technology, are having the effect of narrowing our attention and visual field. Our vision is becoming more like a spotlight that focuses only on the specific object that our attention is currently on. This way of seeing can become a habit, and one which is certainly not helpful when driving! A safe driver is aware of everything around the current focal point, so that while looking at the road ahead, they will still immediately see movement at the periphery of their vision, such as if the door of a parked car they’re about to pass begins to open.

If your visual field seems quite narrow or two-dimensional and you’re interested in improving it, begin by spending a few minutes each day – perhaps looking out the window, or when you’re out on a walk – allow yourself to look at an object with a soft lively gaze, and notice the shapes, colours etc of what’s around it (these won’t be in focus). Don’t experiment with this when driving in case it distracts you – wait till you’ve developed the skill. This more natural, ‘panoramic’ (more three-dimensional) vision will pay dividends in whatever you’re doing through increased awareness and better balance.

How are you thinking?

No doubt, you’ll be familiar with the stress of trying to get to an appointment in time and being delayed by traffic. And as anyone who sufferers from chronic pain knows, stress makes it worse. The Alexander Technique helps us to shift our attention onto prioritising ‘looking after ourselves’ (keeping our poise) rather than over-focussing on the goal of getting there on time.

Another unwelcome aspect of driving is other drivers behaving selfishly or aggressively. The next time another driver does something that annoys you, see if you can take a second and, rather than just reacting unthinkingly, continue to keep your awareness of the road ahead, and at the same time notice the support of the seat coming up through your sitting bones and think of the distance up to the crown of your head and beyond. Then slowly and gently exhale through your lips, as if you were blowing a small feather away. Repeat a couple of times, noticing the in-breath automatically coming in through the nose and the continuous cycle of breath with no holding between the inbreath and the outbreath. Now decide whether or how you’d like to respond.

I hope you’ll enjoy exploring these ideas and discovering a more comfortable, calmer and less effortful way of driving.

Adapted from a previous article for BackCare’s Talkback magazine: Is your daily commute driving you to despair?; read the article for tips on how to adjust your car seat so that you can sit comfortably.