Category Archives: Balance

Learning from my little finger

This post is taking a little longer to write than usual as my touch typing is somewhat hampered, having broken my little finger 2 weeks ago. Learning the Alexander Technique leads to many benefits, including greater self-awareness and better balance. So what’s an Alexander teacher doing breaking her finger? And, why am I quite so grateful to the Alexander Technique at this moment?

x-ray of my broken finger
My broken little finger after my fall

I was out walking by the sea with a friend, when I ended up having to climb down a sea defence barrier to get nearer to my dog who had wandered ahead out of earshot. I’ve happily clambered up or down these massive boulders several times before – I’m no climber but I do love scrabbling around. Knowing that everything was very wet from recent rain, I was actually looking forward to the mini challenge of navigating myself safely down. However, halfway through, I allowed myself to be momentarily distracted when my friend called out to me – ironically to ask how was I going to manage the bottom section which was covered in seaweed? As I looked up to answer I wasn’t paying attention to the step I was then taking and I soon realised that my foot was rapidly sliding underneath me.  

Probably everyone has had the experience of time appearing to slow down as an accident unfolds. What the Alexander Technique offers in such a situation is the ability to avoid simply going into panic or freeze mode but instead to give yourself time to figure out how best to respond in the moment. So when I first realised that I was slipping, I knew how I could allow myself to descend fairly smoothly and safely. However, as I was coming gently into contact with the rock underneath me, I realised that now my whole body was sliding on the slippery rocks and I was heading towards a large gap between the boulders. Falling down there could easily result in my head banging against the rock walls, so I threw my arm out to stop myself. No harm done except for my little finger which immediately began to throb insistently. Assuming it was just a sprain and stupidly feeling rather embarrassed, I didn’t tell my friend that I’d hurt myself. Later on though, my partner made me go to the minor injuries unit and I was shocked to see the x-ray of my finger with a very obvious fracture. 

My finger is recovering really well and I’ve been musing on how different everything would have been without the Alexander Technique. Of course I can’t know for sure, but I think it’s very likely I would have ended up with a worse injury. I certainly would have felt a real flash of fear while falling and tightened every muscle in my body – a reaction which is more likely to lead to injury (we’ve all heard about someone who has fallen over when drunk without hurting themselves because they were so relaxed). But perhaps more interesting than this is my attitude after the event, which has been very different to my pre-Alexander days. In fact, the reason I first began Alexander lessons all those years ago was fear about my future long-term health because of a family history of back and neck problems. All my life I’d perceived myself as primarily a thinking mind, with very little awareness of my body, which almost seemed ‘other’ to me. In those days if I’d broken a finger I would have spent my time worrying about whether it would heal properly and whether I’d end up with osteoarthritis in the long term. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that I had any real role to play in my own recovery. Now I have a better understanding of myself and more confidence in the natural healing process. What’s more, I know how to use my Alexander thinking to help this process along. On a practical level, I have a good sense of what activities will be ok for me to do, rather than my previous attitude of just being scared that I might make the injury worse by inadvertently doing something I shouldn’t. So, through my Alexander training, I’ve gone from a position of fear to one of self-confidence.

Training in the Alexander Technique certainly doesn’t make you invincible but it does give you the means to take better care of yourself. I’m sure that, compared with how one was before, the overall risk of injury must be reduced when one is more self-aware, more present and more in balance, more of the time. This will be true across many areas – whether it’s falling, doing DIY, or just ‘overdoing it’ during exercise.

So, through the Alexander Technique I’ve gained confidence in being better able to avoid an accident from happening, in responding appropriately in the event that it does, and in recovering from it afterwards. Of course one doesn’t want to be over-confident – after all, they do say that pride comes before a fall!

Why hands-on in Alexander teaching?

Alexander Technique hands-on teaching The Alexander Technique is essentially a self-help method for positive change that involves discovering how to think differently. So why do Alexander teachers use hands-on work to help people learn the technique?

Touch can provide a subtle yet powerful means of communication. Hands-on Alexander work uses a gentle, reassuring, instructive, non-judgemental and unique quality of touch that requires at least 3 years of training to acquire – and which then continues to be refined over a lifetime of teaching. Here are the main reasons why we use hands-on work (not mutually exclusive):

  • Helping people become calmer, more present and more alert. When the whole mind-body self quietens, the best conditions possible are created for positive change and learning
  • Aiding the development of greater self-awareness
  • Providing abundant opportunities to help people develop and practice core Alexander skills, such as giving oneself time to make conscious choices over whether and how to respond to any given stimulus (rather than just reacting automatically)
  • Enabling people to discover a clearer sense of embodiment – the sense of self as a whole, rather than as a mind linked with a body
  • Helping people to develop greater integration, coordination and stability within themselves
  • Encouraging the development of better postural support and balance
  • Guiding movement to enable people to have an experience of more fluidity and less effort than they would otherwise have been able to achieve
  • Helping people become aware of habitual tension patterns, and to let go of excessive muscle tension
  • Enabling people to better manage and reduce pain
  • Assessing what is happening within people, to provide feedback and to guide and tailor the teaching to the individual.

Hands-on Alexander work can bring about a profound sense of well-being. When someone leaves an Alexander lesson they generally feel more relaxed, yet alert, and more in control – strong motivators to continue to apply the technique in their daily life.

The majority of Alexander teachers combine their hands-on work with spoken guidance and dialogue. This synergistic combination creates the optimal learning environment for most people, equally engaging both experiential and cognitive learning.

If the spoken guidance element of teaching is lacking, it’s much harder to enable people to think differently and to ‘gain all the tools’ needed. Outside of the lesson, people are then less equipped to be able to work out for themselves how to apply and develop the Alexander Technique for themselves. As a result they may remain more dependent on the teacher than they need be.

At the other end of the spectrum, a small number of Alexander teachers claim that it is possible to predominantly, or even solely, teach without the use of hands-on work. This is sometimes now taking the form of online teaching. Perhaps remote teaching can provide useful supplementary support for people who already have a reasonable amount of Alexander experience. However, and particularly for those beginning lessons, the teacher’s guiding touch provides an invaluable help in developing the core skills, such as the ability to not just react unthinkingly but to pause to choose whether and how to respond to a stimulus. So, not using any hands-on work makes learning harder but it will also leave people short-changed of the full potential of the Alexander Technique to transform their lives. An article by Alexander teacher Joe Armstrong, eloquently discusses the importance of hands-on work in enabling the longer-term and life-transformative changes that can occur as a result of Alexander lessons.

Another important consideration is that, to date, all of the Alexander teaching in clinical research trials has consisted of hands-on combined with spoken guidance. This research provides good evidence that one-to-one Alexander lessons using hands-on work together with spoken instruction are effective in reducing pain and disability for people with chronic pain (back or neck), as well as enabling people with Parkinson’s to manage the associated disability. In contrast, there is currently no research evidence that either hands-on work alone, or spoken guidance alone are effective. It is also worth remembering that when FM Alexander began teaching his technique to others, he started out using just spoken guidance. But he then brought in hands-on work because he discovered that words alone were rarely enough to convey his meaning. This nicely reflects the practical and experiential nature of the Alexander Technique.

So I would argue that combining hands-on and spoken guidance together is essential if we want the teaching process to be as effective as it can be. In this way, people will be equipped with the necessary skills and understanding to be able to apply the Alexander Technique for themselves, as well as to continue to learn and develop it for the long term.

When less is most definitely more

Skeleton brushing teethDo you get mouth ulcers? Apparently, 2–10% of the population suffer from frequent mouth ulcers with no obvious cause [1]. If you often have mouth ulcers, you may well have tried treating them with different gels or creams. If that’s the case, have you ever considered if there might be a different way of addressing the problem? Whether there might be something that you could stop doing, something to take away, rather than the usual approach of adding a treatment, or working out what you need to do?

Of course, there are many different reasons for getting mouth ulcers [2] but it now seems that one factor could be toothpaste, or rather the sodium lauryl sulphate that is an ingredient of most toothpastes. Using such toothpastes might be causing mouth ulcers in some people and/or making their ulcers last longer and be more painful [3–5]. So if you frequently have mouth ulcers it might be worth finding out if they improve if you stop putting sodium lauryl sulphate in your mouth (several brands of toothpaste are available that don’t contain this ingredient).

What a lovely commonsense solution – to stop doing the thing that might be causing or exacerbating the problem. A logical solution yes, but it does fly in the face of our usual approach. Because, in general, we try to work out what we need to do to try and solve a problem, rather than asking what we could stop doing. Wouldn’t it be great if we could use this approach of simply taking something away to tackle other problems in life?

Well the good news is that just stopping what we usually do can be a highly effective approach for a great many of the issues we face. Whenever the problem is caused by, or aggravated by, the way in which we do things – and we do most things in an habitual fashion – then reducing or stopping that habit is likely to be beneficial. This is the basis of the Alexander Technique, asking the question, what might I be doing now that could be causing or contributing to this problem? And then using the technique to prevent or reduce the habit.

One example is back pain. For the majority of people with back pain there is no underlying medical condition, so a visit to the GP is usually followed by a diagnosis of ‘simple’ or ‘non-specific back pain’. The GP’s diagnostic process is essential in order to be able to rule out any more serious underlying medical issues. But when there is no obvious medical cause, doctors can struggle to identify the root cause of the problem. However, the good news is that GPs and other healthcare professionals are increasingly realising the pivotal impact of the way in which we lead our lives on our overall health (and not just in the obvious examples of diet and ‘lifestyle’).

US biomechanist, Katy Bowman [6] has comprehensively researched and written about the huge impact on our long-term state of health and functioning, of the way in which we move about while carrying out our everyday activities. It’s something that FM Alexander worked out more than a hundred years ago when he developed his technique in order to resolve his voice problems. It’s only more recently, however, that insights from research in biomechanics, neuroscience and clinical trials validate what Alexander discovered for himself over many years of experimentation and observation.

Back pain is the most common reason that people begin Alexander lessons [7]. And what do people learn in these lessons? They learn how to become more aware of their habitual ways of standing/sitting/walking/carrying/texting etc, and how these ways of doing things tend to put unnecessary strain on their back and joints. Through gaining an experience of doing things differently in a lesson, they discover how they can reduce or stop these habitual interferences with their natural movement coordination and balance.

Of course we didn’t start out in life with these habits but we developed them as (usually) subconscious strategies in adapting ourselves to our environments and largely sedentary lifestyles. Watch most 2–3 year-old children and you’ll see fluid, effortless movement and easy balance. That’s because nearly everyone is born with the potential for good movement coordination, balance and postural support. However, this inherent capacity becomes ‘buried’ under accumulated years of habitual responses. If we can learn how to prevent or reduce the habits that are getting in the way, we’ll tend to regain some of that natural poise and ease of movement. So if our back pain is caused by, or aggravated by, an overall tendency to contract in any movement or in just sitting or standing, then as we gradually reduce the strain on our spine, muscles and other tissues, our back problem has more of a chance to resolve itself.

Two large randomised controlled trials have demonstrated that one-to-one Alexander Technique lessons from STAT-registered teachers are effective, long-term solutions for the pain and disability associated with persistent back or neck pain [8,9].

So the next time you are faced with a problem, just take a moment to consider whether ‘just doing something’ is really the most effective approach. Or whether it’s time to find yourself an Alexander teacher to discover the truly groundbreaking and challenging skill of not just reacting like we usually do!

 

  1. Altenburg A, et al. The treatment of chronic recurrent oral aphthous ulcers. Deutsches Arzteblatt International 2014;111:665–73. doi: 10.3238/arztebl.2014.0665.
  2. NICE recommends that if you keep getting mouth ulcers, do mention it next time you see your GP, and to be aware that you should see your doctor without delay if you ever have a single ulcer that lasts for more than 3 weeks (just in case it’s malignant) https://cks.nice.org.uk/aphthous-ulcer#!topicsummary.
  3. Herlofson BB and Barkvoll P. The effect of two toothpaste detergents on the frequency of recurrent aphthous ulcers. Acta Odontol Scand1996;54:150–3.
  4. Chahine L, et al. The effect of sodium lauryl sulfate on recurrent aphthous ulcers: a clinical study. Compend Contin Educ Dent 1997;18:1238–40.
  5. Shim Y, et al. Effect of sodium lauryl sulfate on recurrent aphthous stomatitis: a randomized controlled clinical trial. Oral Diseases 2012;18:655–660.
  6. Bowman K. Move your DNA. 2017. Propriometrics Press.
  7. Eldred J, Hopton A, Donnison E, Woodman J, MacPherson H. Teachers of the Alexander Technique in the UK and the people who take their lessons: A national cross-sectional survey. Complementary Therapies in Medicine 2015;23:451–461.
  8. Little P, Lewith G, Webley F, et al. Randomised controlled trial of Alexander Technique lessons, exercise and massage (ATEAM) for chronic and recurrent back pain. British Medical Journal 2008;337:a884.
  9. MacPherson H, Tilbrook H, Richmond S, Woodman J, Ballard K, et al. Alexander Technique lessons or acupuncture sessions for persons with chronic neck pain: A randomized trial. Annals of Internal Medicine 2015;163:653–62.

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.

Parkinson’s, balance and the Alexander Technique

Consider the Alexander Technique for people with Parkinson’s disease who are experiencing balance or motor function problems.

These are the new guidelines from NICE (National Institute for Care and Excellence).1

Along with other Alexander teachers, I know from experience how helpful Alexander lessons can be for anyone with balance or movement difficulties, and it is good to see these benefits being recognised more widely. The NICE advice is largely based on the findings of a clinical trial demonstrating that people with Parkinson’s were able to carry out their everyday activities with less difficulty following one-to-one Alexander lessons, compared with a control group.2 The trial also showed that the skills learnt in the lessons stayed with the people long after the lessons had finished.3 Other research suggests that verbal instructions based on Alexander principles can enable people with Parkinson’s to find better balance and mobility when standing or walking.4

The improved balance gained from learning and applying the Alexander Technique goes hand in hand with improvement in movement coordination and postural support. Again there is research to back this up.5,6,7 Studies with older people have also shown improved balance, postural stability and confidence in standing and walking following Alexander lessons or classes.8,9,10 There has even been a study comparing the walking patterns of qualified Alexander teachers with that of people of a similar age; this showed that older Alexander teachers walked more like younger adults.11,12

Benefits for balance and movement are important, not just for people with Parkinson’s but for elderly people who may be afraid of falling, and indeed for anyone engaged in any activity – sport, dance, and yoga may come to mind but we also benefit from good balance and coordination when hanging out the washing, or doing DIY or gardening.

Contact me to discuss how you could benefit from some Alexander lessons, or find out about other research.

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