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An ex physiotherapy colleague, who I respect greatly, recently saw one of my Alexander Technique (AT) adverts. His response to what I had written was ‘Jane, why do we need to improve our posture?’ The short answer was ‘you don’t,’ but it got me thinking, and thinking…and thinking, about posture. It’s a commonly used word. A simple definition is “the position in which someone holds their body.” We kind-of understand what it means, or do we?
My machinations grew to me wanting to write a blog about posture and how it relates to the Alexander Technique.
I thought it would be useful to link it to a story from my past about posture and I came up short! Literally. As a child, I can’t remember anyone ever asking me to sit up straight or complaining about my posture. However, young kids don’t usually have a problem with their posture. They have an inherent way of doing things that seems to involve a great, easy, effortless way of being.
When I went through school, almost all my friends were taller than me and more willow-like. I guess at an unconscious level I admired their qualities and also, I didn’t want to stare up into their faces as we walked to and from school. I wanted to be level with them. My need to be upright was related to a need to fit in. I wanted to be the willow. I know I wanted to be taller as they shot upwards. I suspect it was one of the reasons I didn’t adopt a slumped posture. I probably tried to stretch upwards. Of course it wasn’t really about posture but other things.
I loved dancing too! I remember teachers instructing us to lengthen through our legs and arms. Reach beyond the foot and the hand. If anything I am fairly sure I held myself tightly and upright so that I “looked” like, what I thought, a dancer should look like. Yes, I was definitely thinking about how I appeared as I danced, how I came across to an audience and how I wanted to be in the world. It wasn’t really about posture, yet tenuously it was.
The nearest I can come to having an actual conversation about posture was in my teens when my grandma criticised me for wiggling my hips when I walked, but, knowing me, I couldn’t get my head round that and I probably did it all the more.
The first time I heard about the Alexander Technique was via a dancer who said he had become taller through having AT lessons. However, my lessons didn’t start then. They eventually started as I was curious. I wanted to experience the benefits my friend described: he was able to do simple things in a magical way, without effort. Nothing to do with posture.
My training to be an Alexander Technique teacher did not involve posture lectures either. In fact most Alexander Technique teachers will tell you AT is not about posture, and it’s become a bit of a dirty word for them (1 & 2). Yet, I bet if you Google posture you will probably find Alexander Technique is somewhere in the results. Or if you ask someone what AT is about, they may well say it’s about posture.
Historians will tell you that posture is a “fashion” thing. Look back over the centuries and you will find standards for posture have changed. It is more dependent on when you are, where you are, who you are and what you do! (4)
Recently posture has become a problematic subject for many health professionals as the latest research shows that posture does not cause pain problems. That slouching is ok. Text neck doesn’t cause neck pain (5). Physiotherapists now cringe at the assessments and advice they used to give about posture. So do I, as it was so prescriptive. Postural advice can make people even more rigid and fearful of getting things wrong. The opposite of what it should be.
Even though AT is not about posture, some of the early books on the topic have photographs of good and bad posture, and seemingly right way to do things and wrong ways. F. M. Alexander himself, in rare videos of him working, looks like he is sculpting his pupil’s body into a more upright position (3).
Many Alexander teachers do talk about posture in their advertising: even me. Magazine articles talk about good posture. Physiotherapists, the NHS and other health professionals still instruct us (their clients) on it (6 & 7).
Even though we are beginning to understand that posture isn’t the issue, it’s still in vogue to have “good posture”. I regularly see crazy products to strap those shoulders back. Slouching is not “fashionable.” People who slouch are often seen as lazy, even though that idea is based on the past, and when being ramrod straight was seen as a good thing as it implies having a back bone! Sadly therefore, slumping is still undesirable.
It’s no surprise then, that a lot of people come to me for Alexander Technique lessons wanting to improve their posture. Mostly it’s not about the posture. It’s usually because they are suffering in some way.
One thing we now know is “posture” can affect our mood (5). Or is it that our mood affects our posture? Probably the latter. When we are suffering we do tend to withdraw and shut off from the world. When we are in pain we try to minimise the pain and that often means we hold ourselves stiffly or start to curl up.
The suffering my clients experience comes about for many reasons. Maybe positions at work (that they have to be in for hours on end) seem to bring discomfort which over time then turns into pain. Maybe they just hate work? Perhaps an injury has made life very challenging. Pain, often lack of sleep, and possibly joint stiffness then makes things they love to do difficult too. Yoga class, once a joy, becomes uncomfortable. Playing their musical instrument for hours has to end. Crafting and TV watching becomes too painful and the crafting stops. Maybe they have relationship problems, bereavements, financial issues. Things spiral downward and life becomes limited and more like hard work.
Often alongside these changes my clients spot themselves in a mirror or shop window and see a stoop. Their partners tell them they are now slouching when once they did not. Maybe they can’t be bothered to change it. Sometimes they try to change it but it’s no longer comfortable to be upright, to sit up. It feels too effort-full so they give up. Friends, and family see they are suffering and may even suggest Alexander lessons because they have heard it helps with posture or they know someone, in a similar situation, who has had benefit from lessons. Their health professional may even suggest AT. They do an internet search and find someone like me. We gently explore AT and discover it is not really about posture and they discover their posture improves as a side effect! So it’s not about posture and yet it is.
I am so glad that posture brings us together so I can share what I mean when I say posture improves as “a side effect” and together we can explore what the Alexander Technique can and does offer. It has such a profound effect for people. I love sharing the work and seeing the light return to my clients eyes, restoration of hope as they begin to move more fluidly, with ease and less pain, witnessing their joy in returning to the things they love, slowing down and being in the present moment, hearing about all the gifts those things bring for them (1), and somehow that comes across as good posture.
A few weeks ago I learned a trick that birdwatchers use to find birds in trees. They don’t look for the bird outline, they look for the spaces that they can see in a tree and are much more able to spot a bird outline.
I hear birds in my garden but many times I wonder what kind of bird is producing such a beautiful song. I generally search in vain for the answer. With this new superpower, looking at the spaces, it was a joy to spot the Robin amongst the branches, following me from bush to bush, eagerly waiting for worms, as I worked in my garden.
I got the tip from a fabulous piece written on the 9th September 2019 on a Facebook page called The Feldenkrais Guild UK. They have been writing regular pieces which I have often shared to my Facebook page. The pieces made me aware of how similarly Alexander & Feldenkrais saw their work.
The topic for my “project” this month grew from reading that piece because the writer offered a way of applying the birdwatchers trick to the body.
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There’s a kind of Spiritual side to it:
the joy of moving my body that I had not noticed before
and thinking ‘that’s quite good’.
This is the 7th interview in a series of interviews I carried out with people who have had Alexander Technique lessons. Here are Seb’s answers to a simple set of questions I asked him about his experiences.
What drew you to the Alexander Technique (AT)?
I found out about the Alexander Technique via an acquaintance and following our discussion decided to try it for migraine. I have now had a year of lessons and think I am just scratching the surface of the technique.
What impact has doing AT had?
On daily activities:
Seb has begun to question and to notice things that he previously had not. Now, he says things to himself like: Why is my face is so tense? Why am I holding my shaver so tight when shaving? I can do it with less effort, I can do it differently.
Instead of standing in a queue for tea at work and distracting myself with thoughts/getting irritated that the queue is so long/looking at mobile, I notice standing. I “play around with it.”
Conference calls at work often got me irritated. I now realise I can sit back and notice other things, not just the irritation about the call but what is around me, so I don’t get sucked in.
I no longer feel, when I wake up in the night, that I have got to get up and read. I used to. Now I can enjoy just laying down and noticing things about laying down.
There is a joy in noticing.
It’s not like a huge “wow” but rather like noticing a robin in the garden.
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Recently, I rediscovered a poem called Lost by David Wagoner. When I came across it, I remembered that I had read it out to a group of my students when we were thinking about being in the present moment, something that is an essential part of the Alexander Technique. I am so glad I found the poem again:
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
This time as I read it, I thought it would make a perfect subject for my AT topic this month. The bits that stood out when I read it were:
The forest knows where you are.
Let it find you.
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I have no fuse. At least it feels that way. I imagine myself as a huge round black cartoon bomb but without a fuse. That’s me. I can be pushed and pushed and pushed…and then BOOM, I EXPLODE. I often feel shame when that happens. I learned that response from my childhood. I learned to suppress anger. My history informs me that anger brings rejection and calm doesn’t, so it’s understandable I have these habitual responses. I didn’t learn to use the feeling of anger effectively.
I’m learning to accept and embrace my anger. I am learning to be compassionate about it and be curious when it erupts. It’s a work in progress. Some of the process is about accepting what is and not changing it.
The Alexander Technique is about being in the present moment, accepting things as they are, releasing into it, and not “doing” something to change it. I like that it takes me into calm. However, I am using it to explore my anger. It doesn’t mean I have to explode, shout, scream, deny it, suppress it, just let it be what it is, a feeling that informs me. I can then choose what I do.
It’s coming in very handy whilst I wear a 24 hour blood pressure monitor. I want to rip it off my arm almost every time it beeps. That heralds the machine starting up. Frequently it pumps up, and fails, and starts again but with more pressure. It takes my breath away. My arm feels alien, like it’s turned into one of those rubberised fake arms. I think it might pop. I feel panic. I am irritated that I am having to go through this. My genetics are catching up with me despite years of healthy choices and oodles of relaxation and ways to find calm. Also, years of suppressing and denying anger and wanting to stay in a calm, peaceful state. My thoughts are wandering towards what the night is going to be like. Will I have bloodshot red eyes through lack of sleep in the morning?
I am observing what happens to me. How I tense up and brace. How the cuff restricts my movements which irritates me. How my thoughts are going towards tonight and the possibility of lack of sleep and the future possibility of medication. In this instance it’s not helpful. It will show higher readings as a result! I am choosing to stay in the present moment, notice my feet, stay grounded, notice my neck, invite it to have flow, notice my muscular response and choosing to invite ease and calm. I am not jumping over the reactions but I am responding to them appropriately.
The Alexander Technique is a tool. It can be a lifestyle as well. In this instance it is an extremely helpful tool. I am glad I can use it.
If you are interested in exploring how the Alexander Technique can help with anger, reactions you don’t know what to do with, overwhelm get in touch.
Jane Clappison MSTAT
Alexander Technique Teacher
The bottom half of my parent’s enormous garden was always looked after by my Dad, and since he passed away it has gradually become neglected. The clematis took over the lilac tree and pulled it down, the saplings, brambles and bind weed invaded everywhere. It became a wildlife haven. However, it had to be tamed as it was invading the neighbours gardens too. We also had to tame a lot of the saplings before they became trees too wide and high to manage.
So, my husband, sister and I all converged on the unruly garden last Sunday. We started at different points and hacked our way towards each other. It reminded me a lot of the Sleeping beauty story. Eventually we began to see glimpses of each other through the undergrowth and despite the rain, we kept going and met in the middle. We were surrounded by devastation, sweaty and wet, but had a great feeling of achievement.
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Lean into it
I am tired. I keep in mind the phrase “this too will pass” because I spend many hours per night awake. I lie awake because my shoulder pain is still with me. I experiment with many positions in the hopes I will find a spot where my arm pain can settle and thus I can sleep.
Yesterday, I got to lay on the sun lounger and fall asleep in the sun. I am sure I was never happier! The sun lounger is too narrow to find a place of comfort for my arm, which continues to catch my breath with the level of pain at times, and so my husband came up with a solution. He made a pile of several cushions to the right of me, and my arm lay on top of it rather regally, and the pain eased. I drifted off to the garden sounds.
The pain seems to have no pattern, it’s intense one moment, and doable the next. I save the analgesics for daylight hours though they don’t always do the trick. The Alexander Technique, hot packs, ice packs and TENS machine are also supporting me, plus exercise and imagining moving my arm (covert rehearsal).
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The eyes still have it
I have been reminded that what one sees is in the eye of the beholder, including beauty. I gave that some thought and realised how one sees is also the same. Do you notice how you look at things. Do you notice some of the ways that happens? I’ve spotted myself looking for safety, curiosity, pattern recognition, body language. Looking close up with mouse eyes, looking at the big picture with eagle eyes. What do you notice about the way you look. Does it make a difference? How does it affect your body and what you notice as you stay present?
This week I have been marvelling at how thinking about my eyes leading movement has an effect on my neck movement. It started off by doing an exploration described in Elizabeth Langford’s book Mind and Muscle, an owner’s handbook. I am grateful for her explorations of the eyes and have developed another version on similar lines. In the book, one exploration is done on all 4’s and the other is done with walking and changing direction. Both are fun to do. It’s adaptable to all sorts of activities and I have been doing my version in sitting and standing.
For those of you with neck problems might I suggest you do the exploration when you are with your Alexander Technique teacher? Either way, go as far as is comfortable and as few repetitions as is comfortable. You can chose to do only part of the exploration too, instead of all of it at once.
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