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Changing habits: sitting positions

The following article was published in my Chester & Liverpool Alexander Technique Studio newsletter in September 2014:

I would like you to look at three pictures of Mr G, H and Z:

mrG, mrH, mrZ

Mr G is sitting with a very common posture – probably encouraged by a sedentary lifestyle, which can encourage us to become physically lazy! Mr G is slumping back – probably in the hope of resting against the back of the chair; but this way of sitting has become a habit, even when there is no chair back to rest against. This posture may eventually create problems in Mr G’s back, neck or shoulders.

Mr H is in the position into which, as an Alexander teacher, I have readjusted him. Here this man’s alignment is much better because his head is over the centre of his body and directly over his base on the chair seat; this rearrangement of his centre of gravity reduces the effort required by his back muscles to keep him upright.

However, if Mr H is a typically ‘slouchy’ person, this may at first feel very strange and unfamiliar to him. In fact, initially it might even feel quite uncomfortable and really hard work. This is simply because he is not used to it.

The last picture is different: it shows not how Mr Z is actually sitting, but how Mr Z thinkshe is sitting after his posture has been adjusted.

 

Mr Z‘s habitual shape was identical to Mr G’s which, of course, feels perfectly ‘normal’; he doesn’t realise that in that position he was leaning back slightly. So when his upper body is first adjusted to become upright, he feels he is tipping forwards.

A quick look in the mirror, along with a brief explanation of how our perception can play tricks, is likely to help Mr Z understand what is happening and facilitate the process of postural change.

Problems with changing habits

Mr G, Mr H and Mr Z may each experience a different problem. Mr G’s posture might eventually lead to pain; Mr H’s position is much better but he cannot yet maintain it; and Mr Z is feeling disorientated because his new balance is still unfamiliar.

Each of these problems has a different solution, but it is often difficult for the individual to recognise the particular solution required. This of course is where the expertise of an Alexander teacher is helpful. We are trained to guide each person through an individual journey, depending on a unique combination of ‘pattern of use’, problems or challenges, and stage in the learning process.

 

My newsletters – which include tips and ideas about putting the Alexander Technique into practice – are sent by email two or three times a year. To receive future newsletters, please send a request to janet@chesterATstudio.co.uk

Time for a Change

Time for a Change

Over the last year I have been through several personal changes. In summer last year, my husband lost a major work contract of ten years. That autumn our daughter (youngest child) went off to university – a predictable and positive change, but nevertheless a shock to the system, as every ‘empty nest’ parent knows! March of this year brought my 60th birthday: another expected change, nevertheless a watershed. Finally, the Wellbeing Centre in Hope Street, where my Liverpool work was based, suddenly closed; leaving me with the challenge of finding a new room, which initially I did. However, a couple of months later I took a hard look at client numbers and concluded that, in spite of two years’ hard work promoting it, my Liverpool business had failed to build up enough clientele and so, reluctantly, I decided to bring it to a close.

There are many kinds of personal change: intentional or unintentional; sudden or expected; predictable or surprising, welcome or unwelcome, subtle, dramatic, and so on. Alexander had quite a bit to say about change. In my September Newsletter* I have written about certain confusing experiences sometimes experienced in Alexander lessons. These, of course, result from intentional change.

But, sometimes, change happens to us whether we like it or not. This kind of change, where we have little choice in the matter, can be upsetting if effectively we are forced to accept what feels like a real change of identity.

Most of us tend to become quite strongly attached to our habits – to whatever feels normal. This may be, for example, the people we have contact with, our daily routine, favourite sitting position, or the place we call ‘home’. Habits can be useful, and being attached to them may not be a problem – until something changes. Then, whether the change is one we have chosen or something that just happens to us, we can become disorientated – anywhere on a scale from mild confusion to major emotional upset and even illness – if we are strongly attached to our ‘norm’.

In this situation, we are likely to encounter resistance to change. And resistance can be a problem: it may deny us opportunities for personal development, or simply leave us feeling frustrated and trapped.

How can Alexander Technique help us deal with personal change? Firstly, AT is a holistic approach. Alexander was perhaps ahead of his time when he wrote about psycho-physical unity – in other words the physical, mental and emotional parts of us exist not in isolation, but are always interconnected. When going through a period of transition it may help to remember this. It may offer us a sense of stability. And if, for example, we regularly feel upset emotionally, we might consider the need for more rest, exercise or good food.

It might also help to know about what Alexander called faulty sensory perception: the tendency of our senses or perception to be influenced and sometimes distorted by habitual patterns; by what ‘feels right’. (There is a practical example of this in my newsletter* in relation to ‘chair work’.) Awareness of this may enable us to stand back enough to allow change to happen, if we see that it is either desirable or inevitable.

Finally: as far as life skills go, people who have had Alexander lessons usually become quite good at letting go of tensions they don’t need. Although focusing initially on release of physical tensions, for most people there is a natural progression to letting go of mental and emotional resistance too.

 

* To read this, please email me at janet@chesterATstudio.co.uk and request my September newsletter.

 

“How many Alexander lessons will I need?”

How many lessons will I need?

This is a question I am often asked by new pupils – but one that is almost impossible to answer.

Alexander lessons are not cheap, so it’s understandable that people want to know how much money they should expect to pay out, or how much time they need to commit.

The problem, however, is that every person is different. A large proportion of pupils begin lessons because they have back pain, another type of pain or a problem they are hoping to resolve. For most, Alexander Technique is directly helpful, with relief from the pain or solution to the problem occurring within the first few lessons. For others, however, this is not the case and – especially if they do not fully understand the philosophy behind the Technique – it is easy to lose heart and just give up.

Alexander set out the basic principles of his technique in his four books, the first of which is called “Man’s Supreme Inheritance”. One of the first principles he defined was that use affects functioning: which essentially means that the way we think and do things affects our health, wellbeing and performance in all areas of our lives.

So, if I use my body in a well-balanced way, not only will I avoid subjecting muscles and joints to unnecessary strain, but I will also develop good coordination: promoting effective development of whatever skills I choose to learn. If, on the other hand, I use my body in a tense, out-of-balance way or with bad posture, I am likely at some point to develop problems: their specific nature manifesting perhaps in aches and pains or other symptoms of ill-health; or perhaps taking the form of failure to achieve my potential in a particular skill, or in my personal life more generally.

From this perspective of cause and effect (use affects functioning), individual problems and symptoms are viewed as the end result of misuse, or using the body in an unbalanced or badly coordinated way. The solution therefore is to remove the cause of the problem by fundamentally improving the way ‘use’ ourselves. And this is brought about through an ongoing process of re-education – which is what Alexander lessons are all about!

Mindfulness centred in the Body

In the recent Horizon programme, ‘The Truth about Personality’ (10th July, BBC2), Dr. Michael Mosley – who, a year ago, looked into the health benefits of fasting – set out to explore some personality issues. In particular, he wondered whether he would be able to alter his pessimistic outlook on life – in other words, to “change his mind”!

First, he went off to experience how some emotional states can in fact be measured physiologically by modern technology. He then went on to explore two therapeutic techniques: Cognitive Bias Modification (CBM) and Mindfulness Meditation: both of which have produced convincing evidence through brain scans and the like.

I was a regular meditator myself for several years before beginning Alexander lessons. I started with Transcendental Meditation at the age of 20, and felt more sociable and carefree as a person. Meditation also improved the sound I made when I played the violin – to the point where my teacher at the time could hear the difference if my meditation lapsed for a few days!

Six years later, when going through a tricky emotional patch, meditation didn’t help and, if anything, seemed to make me more anxious – perhaps by stimulating my imagination and tendency to fantasise around the difficult emotions I was experiencing. There were moments when I felt quite disconnected from people around me and from the physical world.  This may well have been a result of not having a personal teacher to guide me. (Some years later, while training to be an Alexander Technique teacher, I attended a residential retreat in ‘Vipassana’ meditation (which incorporates Mindfulness) and, with the help of the two wise teachers, finally learned how to ‘ground’ meditation in my body.)

But while struggling with anxiety in my mid-twenties, it was having lessons in Alexander Technique that helped me the most. The reason? It ‘grounded’ me; it re-connected me to myself and to my body; it reassured me and brought me into the present moment, just as mindfulness should do.

To return to Horizon, Michael Mosley concluded that he did benefit from both CBM and Mindfulness; that, between them, they helped him “change his mind”.

Alexander Technique, too, is a catalyst for change. It focuses on the body and engages the mind. It is a technique for balance, for choice and for the development of ‘conscious control’. You could even call it “Mindfulness centred in the Body”.

For details of Janet’s teaching go to her home page or see the tips on her Facebook page.

Go the STAT website for other articles about AT and wellbeing

 

 

 

Do giants get bad backs?

I recently launched a Facebook page for Chester & Liverpool Alexander Technique Studio. Searching around for an interesting cover photo, I found one taken in Regents Park (London) a few years ago. In the photo I was working with my ‘Alexander hands’ on the head and neck of a ‘giant’ who just happened to be lying there in what we call the semi-supine position – used in AT for resting, tension-release, and increasing your awareness of the body. The giant in the park was clearly doing his Alexander Technique semi-supine routine!

Janet working on giant

Unfortunately, when the photo was taken I hadn’t made a note of the sculptor who created the giant, so wasn’t able to quote this when I first put the picture on. But yesterday somebody found it for me: it featured in one of the national newspapers in an article about the 2013 Glyndebourne Festival, 18th May – 25th August. So now I can give credit to its creator. It is Sean Henry, who is exhibiting this and similar larger-than-life figures (the others are in more animated positions) in the grounds of the opera house, in Sussex, for the duration of the festival.

The only thing that puzzles me is the giant’s name: ‘Catafalque’. Does this name have a meaning? Well, unfortunately, yes! According to my Oxford English dictionary, a catafalque is ‘a decorated wooden framework for supporting the coffin of a distinguished person during a funeral or while lying on state’.

A dead giant?

Surely not! Everything about him corresponds with the AT semi-supine: head slightly raised to align with the body; eyes open to remain visually aware; and most of all, the position of his knees! You can’t actually see this from my photo, but the giant’s knees are bent (which is why, in the Technique, we call the position ‘semi-supine’; whereas a corpse, of course, would normally be in a supine position!

Examining the dictionary definition more closely, I suppose it is actually describing the structure on which the body is lying – rather than the body itself. So I remain convinced my giant was alive, just enjoying the sunshine in the park that day.

And what of the Alexander Technique – is this dead or alive?

Does it actually enliven those who take Alexander lessons?

In my long experience with AT, it is both enlivening and life affirming – in a number of ways.

Firstly, many of those having Alexander lessons feel they have more energy. This is probably a result of letting go tensions and effort they don’t need, leaving them feeling significantly less tired.

Secondly, most ‘non-Alexander’ people have quite poor posture and alignment; which can result in backache, headaches, neck and shoulder pain, stiff hips, muscular tension, or a vague sense of general discomfort. Any of these aches and pains can be a barrier between the person and the pure, simple enjoyment of life! If Alexander helps remove these discomforts, as often it does, the individual is free once more to live and to experience life without such obstacles interfering with their perception.

Thirdly, AT helps develop a quality of stillness, which we all need at times, particularly when our lives are too busy.

And then there is the quality of increased awareness – but let’s leave that for another time!