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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.
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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This is the fourth interview, in a series of interviews with students of the Alexander Technique (AT) about their experiences of learning the technique:
“It’s easy to slump. I can even do it stood up.”
“I notice slumping, I notice my neck position, I notice my feet. I am aware of the automatic patterns in everything I do: how to recognise them, get out of them and avoid them.”
Nick started playing the saxophone at the age of eight and plays in a band. Nick is also self employed in I.T. He started having Alexander Technique (AT) lessons because of:
- Shoulder pain, neck pain and pins and needles in his hand
- Tension headaches
- Chronic Fatigue syndrome (CFS) and brain fog
The main benefits he has noticed, if he pays attention and applies AT are:
- No pins and needles in his hand
- No depression
- Less tiredness and brain fog
- Rarely gets neck or back pain
- Rarely gets headaches which used to be every week & last for days, and now they might happen every 3-4 months
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The cycle to work was heavenly. Warm, filled with the scent of newly mown grass and umpteen flowers and the inevitable exhaust fumes from a city commute.
Walking onto wards I was greeted with clouds of talcum powder and many other unaccustomed smells. My olfactory system, my lungs, my whole being was being assaulted all day long with new stuff! It was my first ever job as a qualified physiotherapist and I was also struggling to breath!
I had been working in various NHS settings for the last three years as a student physiotherapist so much of the hospital smells would not have been that new, but somehow it was affecting me differently.
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“That mindfulness doesn’t work for me, my mind is too full already. I need mind-less-ness.”
Yes, sometimes life is just so overwhelming you want a way out. You want to stop the whole world and get off. It’s just too much. David Whyte, describes it as:
“the meeting of two immense storm fronts, the squally vulnerable edge between what overwhelms human beings from the inside and what overpowers them from the outside.”
You feel like you are having to run to keep up with your thoughts. They are insisting on a conversation that goes round and round and round whilst you compete in an extreme sports competition. You try to keep up because you don’t feel you have a choice, but you know your legs are going to give out any moment, and you will collapse.
Sometimes it’s not quite so extreme. You always ran on fumes, talked fast, been on the alert, perhaps you physically shake in most of what you do. You’ve maybe had two jobs so you can make finances spread further. You fill your evenings and weekends with things to do. A game of squash usually helps to bring calm, or a long walk in the woods. Then something, almost imperceptible comes along, and that way of being just doesn’t work. Something gives, perhaps you find work becomes stressful or you develop a physical illness, start with persistent pain or simply you feel like your usual high energy approach just isn’t helpful any more. You crash and burn.
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Entrance swipe card poised in my hand, dressed in perfunctory work out gear, terrified, heart thumping, on the edge of the abyss…I swiped! It didn’t work! Failed at the first hurdle. Panic now rising because I couldn’t even get through the door. If that was difficult then how would I manage whatever awaited me in the gym?
I did get in when someone else came out. I felt helpless, floundering like a fish out of water and yet gyms, just like this one, had been my working environment (my pond) for many years as a Physiotherapist. On this day, I was attending the gym (and still am attending regularly) because I had developed a persistent problem with my right knee and had requested an “exercise on prescription” course which my GP had agreed to.
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