Sunday, December 9, 2012

Let your shoulders go at Christmas

Our shoulders are one of the most misunderstood areas of our body. This post explores our shoulders – how we think about them, releasing them, what happens when we lift young children, how we drive and “treatments” you can explore.

The power of thought
Can you make your fingers tingle, just by drawing your attention to them? Perhaps your eyes soften or your jaw releases through pure thought.
Well, maybe it is time to start playing with other parts of your body.

Release shoulders away from each other

Leonardo da Vinci
Our shoulders are often tight, pulled forward, or hunched up. Can you think about width across your shoulders. The tips are already far apart, ask them to widen further away from the neck.
Most people hunch forward a little when using a computer or mobile phone. Is pulling back the shoulders the right response? Lots of people do it. But this narrows the back - why respond to narrowing at the front by doing this.
Instead, think width along the collarbone, from the middle where it attaches to the sternum out to the tips.

 Helping a post-natal mum
Pregnancy puts new strains on the body. Caring for the baby imposes yet another set of strains on a body that has been softened up by the hormones that are released to aid in the birth.
Firmin Baes - Doux rĂªves

I have two grand-children. One is imposing huge demands on his mother. Towards the end of her pregnancy, her wrists became progressively sore, and this has continued two months after giving birth. Her patterns of walking, bending and picking up may not have contributed to the initial problem, but her recovery may be affected by tightening in her back and shoulders. We’re working every few days on giving her release, and on learning new patterns of movement.


Text message ‘light fingers on the wheel’
A client recently texted me to say she would arrive late for a lesson. I knew that this would make her a little anxious, especially as she hadn’t driven to me from work before. I texted back “don’t hurry. Light fingers on the wheel. Release shoulders wide.” She laughed when we met, and said that these suggestions had certainly helped her during the trip.

 What is the best massage for shoulders?
Nothing is like a good shoulder massage – hands softly moving across and up and down, or probing deeply into tight spots.

Did you know that similar release can also come from the gentle hands of an osteopath or Alexander Technique teacher?
Moreover, with Alexander Technique you learn a practical activity that gives you release any time – instead of always collapsing on the bed when you get home, try Constructive Rest (see my blog post about resting the back, and email me for a tip sheet). You also learn how to recognise your own pattern of muscle tightening, and learn how to deal with it better.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Work, rest and play - an Alexander principle

Whether we’re typing, cleaning teeth or walking, some muscles are actively contracting. What happens when those muscles are inactive. How well do they release back to a balanced resting position? Amazingly, your thinking can help make sure they do.

Influencing the resting state of our muscles
Muscles contract when effort is required. They release when the effort is over. The sequence might be micro-seconds, for example when running : contract–release   /   contract–release   /   contract-release.

Dr Wilfred Barlow researched the problems that arise if the resting position of muscles is unbalanced.
The cycle of contract – release is driven by nerve impulses involving the brain and the muscles, not just in the active work phase, but also the release phase. It is a two-way street. The brain “asks” the muscle to contract. The muscle “replies” with information about its length and tension. The brain then repeatedly adjusts its request in response to new information.
Barlow made two fundamental points:
·         When muscle is over-contracted, there is a fall-off in accuracy of information from the muscle to the brain.
·         Muscle length can be increased, purely by thinking about the release you want.

In summary, problems arise if muscles don’t lengthen after activity, while you can help break the vicious cycle with your conscious thoughts about release.
What can you do

1.      Begin by observing tension you are holding. Try this regularly at key points in the day – say cleaning your teeth, or when you turn the computer on and off (see blog post of September 2012). Ask for release just before you move your arm – recognising that you may not notice any response.

2.      Practise constructive rest (see blog post of December 2011) – where the back, arms and legs really get a chance to release. Practise your conscious asking for release here.

3.      Organise with me for an introductory lesson in applying Alexander Technique, or come to one of the classes that Anne Mallen and I run.
The science
In this post, I am aiming to capture some of the key points about brain-muscle co-ordination that are relevant to Alexander Technique. The relevant science is much deeper than outlined here. Muscle spindles send messages to the brain about the length of the muscle while golgi tendon organs within the tendon that attaches the muscle to bone feeds information to the brain about muscle contraction. Barlow discusses muscle spindles, but not golgi tendon organs. There are many ways to find out more about the science, see for example the Journal of Neurophysiology at – articles in back issues can be accessed free of charge.

By muscle release, I don’t mean total relaxation, rather lengthening back to the normal state of readiness. We are not rag dolls.

Wilfred Barlow (1973) The Alexander Principle. Victor Gollanz, London. The book became very popular in the 1970s, and can often be found in second-hand bookshops. It was reprinted by Gollanz in 1990, and also published by both Arrow and Vista. B arlow was a medical d octor, researcher and Alexander Technique teacher.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Observing ourselves in the chair - 1

How we view ourselves
You might be surprised if you pay a little attention occasionally. See what I mean by trying the exercises below.

Why self-observation is important
Old habits repeatedly introduce unnecessary tension in how we sit and move our bodies. These habits are often very comfortable – for a time. We all know about crossing the legs or slumping in a chair, but perhaps you have other habits that escape your attention.

I’m not against such habits, provided you are aware of them and consciously ‘plan’ them.

Try my test to find out how conscious you are about your habits.

Test yourself
Don’t change a thing about how you are now sitting. Try not to respond physically to what you notice.

Here’s a checklist.
·         Points of contact with the floor, chair and desk
·         Any tight or sore spots
·         Your breath
·         Your jaw, tongue and eyes

You might spend 2-3 minutes on this list.
Only now, ask what change is possible – without muscular effort.
Can you let go of something?

As I typed this blog, I noticed tension in my wrists – see what happens if you simply ask for release.

Here is another small checklist for you to try.
·     Your posture in relation to the computer screen
·     Where the ceiling and walls/partitions are
·     Your emotional state
·     Where other people are in the room

Recent classes
I have guided participants in recent classes through similar tests. They have been amazed at how much escapes their conscious attention.

Will you remember to do this?
Is there a good time in the day to check in on yourself? Perhaps just before each major break – say lunchtime.

Constructive rest
Self-observation really makes sense when lying in semi-supine position. You have no reason to be tensing muscles unnecessarily. 10 minutes will reveal to you much about where you are holding tension. See my blog about Resting the Back.

Sustain the practice
Improving your self-awareness, and consequently your daily habits, will require sustained effort.

Consider a series of private lessons, my group classes, or discuss with me options for an activity in your workplace.

This is not medical advice. Consult your doctor if you are suffering a medical condition.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Is driving a pain for you? - 1

Health effects of driving appear widespread
Most people suffer one or more problems when driving, according to an independent study in Britain. The findings are :

81% suffer from foot cramps
74% suffer from lumbar pain
74% have a stiff neck
74% have side aches, and
73% have a headache/eye strain (Adams 2006)
Notice locked elbows. What else?
We can easily find many reasons for the problems. Seats are designed for people of all sizes and slope backwards. You have to hold the arms up for long periods, keep a foot on the accelerator, and raise a leg to engage the brake or clutch. Driving magnifies the problems of sitting in a chair (Cranz 2000, Owen et al. 2010).

But what we do when driving is also part of the problem.

How we drive
The images in this blogpost suggest that pain is more likely in certain postures than others – specifically how we hold the steering wheel, and other places we hold unnecessary tension.

Cute, but gripping wheel,
locking jaw and more!
 In thinking about your driving habits, consider the similarities between our arm movements when we drive and when we sit at a computer, ride a bicycle and hold a book. You can also apply the ideas presented here during those activities.

Driving gives you a real opportunity to explore what Alexander Technique is all about – increased awareness of our thinking and our bodies, inhibiting old habits, imagining and making alternative choices, and as a result, more effortless activity, and a sense of ease.

My suggestion to you
One way to work towards this is to play imaginary games – before and during driving. Scientific research shows how our thinking can bring about bodily changes (Schwartz & Begley 2003).

Here are two sets of ideas to think about as you drive. Start with those points that resonate with you, and come back to the others later. I will add ideas about the spine and legs in a later blog:

1.       Fingers to shoulders
-          Allow your fingers to ‘play’ softly on the steering wheel, and ask for your wrists to free,
-          Allow the elbows to soften,
-          Allow the shoulders to widen away from each other, and think of them resting gently on the rib cage as it moves with each breath.

2.       Breathing
-          Observe how your breath comes in and out of the large spaces behind the nostrils,
-          Observe the ribs expanding front, sides and at the back where they rest on the seat,
-          Ask for your jaw to soften, and release forward and down from near the earholes,
-          Imagine lengthening on each out-breath (we so easily contract during this phase), and widening on the in-breath.
Minimal tension & using support well

Will you remember to do this?
You will probably need a memory jogger if you are to choose a new way of driving each time you drive. So why not try the following:

After you buckle the seat belt, pause and remind yourself about these two sets of ideas. Consider repeating this when you turn on the ignition

Soon you will find that your thinking changes more and more as you drive.

Constructive rest
Why not include lying in semi-supine position in your driving plans? Do it before, during and after long trips. You can also practice all these tips while lying there. (See my blog post of 7 Dec 2011 ).

Sustain the practice
Making changes to your driving practices, and other daily habits, will require sustained effort. I wish you well. To speed up the process, consider a series of private lessons, my group classes, or discuss with me options for an activity in your workplace.
This is not medical advice. Consult your doctor if you are suffering a medical condition.
There are other good sources of ergonomic information on adjusting your seat, and buying a car.
Chris Adams (2006) Do You Suffer from Repetitive Driving Injuries? Driving Through the English Countryside in Pain (available online). Sample size of 1,000; survey conducted by independent researcher ICM for eBayMotors.

Cranz, G. (2000) The Alexander Technique in the world of design: posture and the common chair Part I: the chair as health hazard. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies. Vol 4, Part 2, pp.90-98. (available on-line)

Owen, N., G.N. Healy, C.E. Matthews and D.W. Dunstan (2010). Too much sitting: the population health science of sedentary behavior.  Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews.  Vol. 38, No. 3, pp. 105-113. (available on-line).

Schwartz, J.M. & S. Begley (2003) The Mind and the Brain : Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, Harper Collins, New York.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Learn to bend well

Bending over – please help!
A friend recently contacted me about how her partner bends over. She is concerned about the hump that appears in his back. I gave him some advice over the internet using skype.

What to do?
Here are some ideas that anyone can play with.

Understand the body.
We have in-built hinges at the top and bottom of the spine – where the head pivots, and where the legs join the pelvis. Make sure you know where they are (Scroll down to Recent Posts, see Look up and down with ease - at the computer and elsewhere – 1, Apr 30, 2012; and Why the hip joint matters when sitting, Oct 18, 2011).

Observe yourself, or ask someone else.
Where do you typically hinge? Your back should remain long (from head to tailbone) and wide (at the waist and shoulders), so as to support the movements of the arms, shoulders and head. The legs should move freely out of the hip joints.

Play with moving differently – in standing.
When standing erect, place your hands on a ledge or table at comfortable height. Now bounce up and down a little by releasing at the hips – imagine bopping to music. As well as the hips releasing, the knees will need to move forward, and you will bend at the ankles. You can play with releasing one knee at a time, and then both knees.

While doing this, place a finger in the groin area to find the hip joint – it is halfway down the crease between leg and hip (Under Recent Posts, see Towards a better way to sit – 1, Jan 18, 2012).

Or try a lunge - perhaps a gentle one to start with.

Play with moving differently - when sitting.
Rock forward and then back at the hip joint, using your finger in the groin area to notice if you are really moving from there. The key is to hinge back up from the hip joints.

Observe carefully as you move to upright – avoid pulling your back into shape. Let the mechanics of the action help you find upright. Any muscular effort in the back is likely to be a sign that your perception of upright, for example with the shoulders pulled back, is very different to the reality for you. As you come up, the head should feel free on top of the spine.

Start with small movements, and then try hinging as far forward as is comfortable – for some people, the head can reach the knees.

Daily practice - give yourself a choice
Before you bend, for whatever reason, give yourself a choice about how you do it – based on these tips.

Start by making it part of your routine just once or twice a day - this way you will build commitment to the process of learning new habits, and not become frustrated.

What is your daily memorable occasion? Perhaps:

-          Reaching for your slippers or tying your shoes
-          Picking up your bag
-          Turning the computer on

It feels really good to bend this way, and over time, the more often you do it, the stronger the new way will become.

Bending with straight legs?

In one photo below, the person has loads of flexibility and bends easily at the hips while her legs are straight.

The other does not … why doesn’t he flex at the hips, knees and ankles?

There is a better way for all of us.

 Bending well
Perhaps the two images above of children bending over, and some-one lunging while exercising, will inspire you to bend differently. Their backs are long and wide, with hinging at the ankles, knees and hips.

Each of them could easily pick up something from the floor. It isn’t so hard to do it well – just a matter of actively changing our habits!

Further information
Don’t hesitate to contact me if you have questions or comments. Consider also trying out a lesson with me, or my colleague Anne Mallen on 0408 024 881 or


Monday, April 30, 2012

Look up and down with ease - at the computer and elsewhere - 1

We all look up or down frequently – just think about flicking your eyes between the keyboard and computer screen. We also look up to open a high cupboard, hang washing, or talk to a taller person. We look down to clean teeth, unpack a bag, or talk to some-one seated.
How we make these movements can put undue strain on some of our neck, shoulder and back muscles.
You can change how to look up and down by consistently applying some basic principles of Alexander Technique. This is because how we move the head is typically associated with a movement pattern involving the whole body and limbs. With Alexander Technique we work to identify the pattern, and gain some of the freedom that we had in early childhood.
Today we will focus on looking up.

How do we typically look up?
Try looking at the ceiling a few times before you read further. Note what happens in your neck, shoulders, and back
Put your hand on your neck as you do it. Did you pull much of your neck and back in as you looked up? Did you raise your shoulders?
What happened at the bony prominence (part of vertebra C7) just above the shoulder blades? Most of us move a lot here, rather than higher.
Well, whatever you do, it is a reasonable thing to do – you have found it a useful pattern many thousands of times, and it probably works for you. But maybe it can be easier.
Read on. I give you specific suggestions later in this blog to help look up more freely.
Finding where the head pivots
Ask yourself  - where is the point at which my head pivots on top of my spine?
Three step exercise
Touch your earhole with a finger.
Now try the smallest possible nod a few times to feel where that point is.
Now increase the size of nod.
Ask yourself  - Does this give you a different sense of how the head balances on top of the spine? It may help to think of the head moving forwards and backwards on an axle.
If you do this exercise in front of a mirror, notice how the finger moves very little. What happens if you place the finger elsewhere on the side of the head?
Some relevant physiological factors
Range of motion – We don’t have to crane the neck as much as we might think. There are seven neck vertebrae – starting with C1 at the top down to C7. There is room for lots of nodding movements, up and down, at the joint between the head and the first vertebra C1. The joint is known as the atlanto-occipital (A-O) joint.  The range of movement up and down here is 20-30°. The next joint – between C1 and C2 – is mainly for rotation as in shaking the head to say ‘no’. Another 100-110° of movement is available in the other joints between the neck vertebrae.  Below C7 is the thoracic spine, where flexibility is important, but there is less movement because of the connection of the ribs to the vertebrae.
Balance of the head – when the head is sitting freely on top of the spine, it is slightly forward of the centre of gravity. This results in passive stretching of the small muscles behind the neck, known as the sub-occipital muscles. Our bones and strong ligaments also hold the head in place.
Muscles can become unnecessarily involved.  When this happens, the neck, shoulders and back can tighten. Some of the muscles are the scalenes (see illustration), which suspend the rib cage from the head, and the large trapezius muscle, which influences shoulder movement.
Height differences mean that, in crowds or small groups, some of us are looking up more often than others. There is a distinct gender difference. 89% of women compared to 23% of men were found to be less than 170cm (5’7”) in a large Australian survey (ABS 1995)  (see details in the table below).
Why we need to look after the neck
If the head isn’t free atop the neck, it can affect how we eat, breath, swallow, talk, sing, see and hear. Where the head joins the spine, we find
·         semi-circular canals to do with balance,
·         the hinge for the jaw,
·         muscle attachments that suspend the larynx (voice box),
·         passageways for air and food, and more (Gorman p.167)

Furthermore, the cervical spine, otherwise known as the neck vertebrae, supports “the skull and acts as a shock absorber for the brain. It also facilitates the transfer of weights and bending moments of the head. It protects the brainstem, spinal cord, and various neurovascular structures as they transit the neck and when they enter and exit the skull. The vertebral column also provides a multitude of muscle and ligamentous attachments for complex movement and stability. The neuromuscular control afforded by the muscle attachments combined with the numerous articulations of the cervical spine allows for a wide range of physiological motion that maximizes the range of motion of the head and neck and serves to integrate the head with the rest of the body and the environment”. (Moskovich p.287)

Ask yourself - how well is this person looking after themselves? He is moving his neck in two different directions relative to the spine – down at the bottom (C7) and up at the top (C1). You can see this clearly if you hold a pencil along his torso, then along his neck, and finally up his head.
Suggestions on looking up – an exercise
Look straight ahead. Without moving your head, just imagine looking up in the following way. Start by imagining your eyes slowly rolling up, the head now pivots at the first joint, but the back and shoulders stay out of the movement.
Now begin the actual movement – eyes first, leading the head, which pivots at the first joint. Stop as soon as you feel any pain, or your neck and back pulling forwards.
Now bring your head back to face straight ahead again.
Now imagine your head is tied to a balloon floating above and slightly ahead of you. Imagine the balloon gently lengthening you right along the spine – both front and back of the body.
Imagine looking up again, and now think about releasing the muscles at the back of your neck.
Of course, in larger movements of the head, there will be movement in other cervical vertebrae – but it is useful to start by thinking of leading with the eyes and a nodding movement.
What else you need to know
You need to :
·         make sure you are not putting another unproductive habit on top of an existing one
·         observe what is happening throughout the body, not just the part. Your habits in looking up or down will be linked to others – how you use your shoulders, arms, ribs and legs.
·         Understand that habits are deep and emerge in stressful situations – you need to recognise the cues when they kick in, and then firmly consolidate new patterns to deal with this on an ongoing basis
At some point, consider joining one of my groups, or coming for individual lessons.  I can :
·         provide expert observation to help you really understand your habit – what you are really doing may not be what you think.
·         Teaching you to move more freely without tightening elsewhere, and how free movement of the head is linked to all movement
ABS (1995) How Australians Measure Up. Australian Bureau of Statistics Cat. 4359.0 (available on-line)

David Gorman (1981) The Body Moveable, Volume 1 : The head and trunk.

I.A. Kapandji (2008) Physiology of the Joints, Volume 3: The trunk and vertebral column. 6th Edn (English)

Ronald Moskovich (2001) Biomechanics of the Cervical Spine, In M. Nordin, & V.H. Frankel Basic Biomechanics of the Musculoskeletal System 3rd Edn.

Addendum : Statistics on measured height
Males        Females
Measured height (cm)                     %              %
Less than 150                          0              4.5
150 to less than 160                1.8            36.1
160 to less than 170               21.6           48.8
170 to less than 180               52.1           10.5
180 or more                             24.5            0.1
Total                                       100.0         100.0
150cm = 4’11’; 160cm = 5’3”; 170cm = 5’7”; 180cm = 5’11”
Source: ABS (1995). In the ABS survey, people were asked to self-report, while a large number were measured. An amazing statistic - 33% of males and 25% of females over-stated their height by 3 cm (1.2 inches) or more. 11,199 people were measured.