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.

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