Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Slumping and your ribs at work

Here is the second post that relates to slumping as we sit. In October 2013, we explored how to gently lengthen between the pubic bone and the lower ribs, and up to the head.

Now we are looking at the ribs, and how they are involved in lengthening and widening the body. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

Slumping and core strength while you work

Most of us fall into a slump very easily – especially after sitting for a long time.

Then in correcting a slump, we’re likely to thrust our ribs up, and tighten the lower back. Our abdominals aren’t doing their work, and this can lead to lower back pain. Over time, slumping can greatly affect the lungs (Jenkins et al. 1988, Lin et al. 2006) and other organs.

Maintaining good length in the front of the body can help restore the role of a critical abdominal muscle – the transverse abdominus which is an important stabiliser of the back and pelvis ( Hodges & Richardson 1996). More upright sitting postures also involve more recruitment of pelvic floor muscles in resting activity (Sapsford et al. 1997).

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Is your head well balanced?

Balancing your head is a fine art, one that can help us avoid and relieve neck and back pain.

It requires an accurate mental image of how the head sits on our torso. Releasing tension in the neck muscles is also important. 

Consider a big heavy ball swaying on top of a pole, with guy ropes from underneath for support. The pole is our spine, and the guy ropes are the short and long muscles running through the neck.

Our heads are heavy

For most of us, our head weighs from 4.5kg to 5kg.

… that’s more than two big bags of sugar (lifted carefully) at the supermarket.

Where the head sits

Fairly obviously, the ‘pole’ supporting the head has to be central.

That pole is the spine, which is mostly deep inside our torso and not right at the back as we tend to think. It ascends centrally from the tailbone through the core of our torso, dodges back behind the heart and lungs, and returns to a more forward position up through the neck.

Some activities and thought bubbles
Please try these.

ACTIVITY 1 - Point a finger at an earlobe, and touch it. Now nod your head; that’s where you find the joint between the spine and the head. It’s the atlanto-occipital joint. Please check this in a mirror.


This joint is also much further forward than we expect, as you can see from the second picture.

Most people have an unconscious image that the joint is at the back of the head. Were you one of them?


THOUGHT BUBBLE 1 - Let tension go – allow the weight of the head to release down the body. 

Allow the weight to freely fall – out to the shoulder tips, and down the front and back of the body – down to the pelvis and then to the chair or your legs. The more grounded you are, the more effortlessly you will find an erect posture.

If you experienced a release of tension, then your head is likely to be balancing a little more freely. Now try Thought Bubbles 2 and 3.

THOUGHT BUBBLE 2 - Think of your head as a seedling reaching up to catch the sun, gently leaving behind the rich soft soil that nourishes it.

THOUGHT BUBBLE 3 - Think of a gentle cloud on a long string attached to your forehead and gently leading your head above and to the front of you. Is this what the giraffe is thinking?


Wrapping up
The key to Alexander Technique is stopping what’s wrong – it is often hard to find what’s right. That’s why I’ve used thought bubbles. Please reflect on them – they ask you to use your mental capacity, rather than making muscular movements. This is the starting point to changing away from our habitual patterns of movement. We emphasise ‘non-doing’ rather than ‘doing’ so that you don’t immediately replace one set of inappropriate tensions with another.

Lessons or classes are really worthwhile to get you on the right path. Please ring or email me to discuss options suitable for you.

More information
On the head-spine relationship, see my blogpost Look up and Down with Ease.

Click here for a summary of all blogposts up to February 2013. Look to the right for more recent ones, and the most popular.


Wednesday, June 26, 2013

How do you sit - when driving? – part 2

How you sit is the focus of this blog. The principles and tips are relevant for any seat, not just a car seat.

Let’s look at how to be more comfortable when sitting and reduce the likelihood of pain.

Our aim is to be able to move our limbs freely, without affecting the naturally free uprightness and width of our body.

Seat design
Sitting in car seats is not straightforward:
  • they slope backwards, affecting how we sit,

  • support for the lumbar spine or head is often poor, and

  • adjusting them for different people can be tricky
Car seats like all chairs involve compromises in design. Design of car seats is like chair design – manufacturing a standard product that doesn’t suit everyone. Moreover, it has to deal with the fact that sitting is not a natural position for humans, and designers invariably find only partial solutions (Cranz 2000).

Sitting squarely on your sitting bones
The shape of the car seat makes it too easy for us to sit on our tailbone (coccyx). Our spine is not designed for this. The weight of our upper body should ideally be transmitted directly to the large and strong pelvic bones – think of these bones forming a cradle or basin.

Under the basin are the sitting bones, which should carry most of our weight when sitting in the car. Of course, a little weight will be transmitted to the car seat via our back, our fleshy buttocks and our thighs. But nearly all goes through the sitting bones.


Tip : while standing and then sitting, use your hands to feel your sitting bones – find the large and bony prominences at the base of the pelvis.
Lengthening up to the head

Do you tend to slump over the wheel, or hold yourself rigidly back against the back rest?

These tips may help you find a more natural posture.
  • Imagine lengthening up from your tailbone to your ear lobes - yes, between them is where your spine connects to the skull. Imagine this length along both the front of your body, and then along the back.

  • Imagine the head really moving freely forward and up – towards the front of the car roof. 

  • Give yourself permission to occupy or ‘own’ the air space above your head, as well as behind it and to the sides (idea from a Robert Rickover podcast).

In this picture, the driver looks relaxed. But notice the curve in his lower spine. How should his sitting bones be involved?
Overall driving posture

I really like this description:

“This fully upright mobile posture balancing on the sit bones, gives the shoulders and arms of the driver a balanced torso to float on, so that the driver can effortlessly turn the steering wheel with free arms and shoulders” (blog by Ethan Kind, accessed 23 May 2013).

Other resources on sitting and driving
I have looked at sitting in several blog posts, including Towards a better way to sit and Why the hip joint matters while sitting.

In a previous blog, I introduced driving and gave you practical tips that focus on hands, arms and breathing. In that post, I cited a survey that found most drivers experience pain while driving (here is a link to a different report about it - http://www.carpages.co.uk/motoring-news/repetitive-driving-injury-23-05-06.asp
accessed 23 June 2013).

In his blogs and an e-book, Ethan Kind explores driving in great detail from the perspective of Alexander Technique.

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.


Monday, May 27, 2013

Fix me please … will I get pain relief?

Alexander Technique may help your pain disappear in just one or two lessons.  No guarantees, but it can happen. However, depending on your needs, there is much more to be gained.

Pain relief experienced by recent clients

  • Diane in Adelaide felt great relief having had excruciating back pain for two days after a long reading session, followed by some heavy gardening.
  • Greg in Fitzroy found that his lower back pain ceased after a workshop in which I gave advice on adjusting the chair seat so it tilted forward rather than back.
  • Ruth in Carlton came to me with excruciating shoulder pain. It went after one lesson, though she came for many more lessons to address underlying tension. 
  • A worker in Southbank told me that she could stir food on the stove without pain – after following my advice to her and her work colleagues at their monthly work meeting.


What do we teach?

Interestingly, teachers of Alexander Technique do not try to ‘fix’ the pain. We aim to teach you :

- how to sit, stand and move in new ways,

- an awareness of the habits that pull you down,

- an ability to consciously make choices that avoid these habits, and

- to work towards a mind-body unity that makes all this possible


Education or health therapy?

So is Alexander Technique a form of education or is it a health therapy? FM Alexander, the founder, always insisted that it was a form of education – addressing psycho-physical coordination. Interestingly, Alexander used this term or others such as use of the self. The term ‘Alexander Technique’ was popularised after his death. Since then it has also become known as a health therapy, written about in books and websites dealing with holistic health, and recognised by health insurance funds.

On a recent visit to Australia, American teacher John Nicholls suggests the distinction between education and health is not very helpful (Nicholls 2012). I like the description of Alexander Technique on his website (http://atnyc.us/). Here are some extracts (in inverted commas):

“The Alexander Technique re-organizes patterns of chronic tension that have unconsciously become a fixed part of how we move, breathe, and act in the world”. It doesn’t rely on relaxation or exercising to release this tension. It focuses instead on “consciously addressing the primary coordination of postural support, movement and breathing”. By this means, “tension could be transformed into available, coherent energy”.

“All activity then becomes far more energetically efficient. Physiologically, the specialized guidance of an Alexander teacher’s hands and verbal instruction can re-distribute tone between the support muscles of the neck and back, the breathing muscles of the trunk, and the movement muscles of the limbs. Psychologically, this brings about a whole new awareness of what it means to be supported, to be breathed, and how to allow appropriate effort to arise from this self-sustaining background without interfering with it.” (my italics)

New skills

This involves learning new skills, which may take several, or many, lessons. Increasingly the skills can be applied in daily life. Nicholls also argues that “this heightened awareness of physical coordination can bring with it that greater ability to be in the moment, consciously present, grounded and uplifted, which is sought after in so many psychological and spiritual disciplines.”



John Nicholls (2012) Keynote address. Annual Conference of the Australian Society of Alexander Teachers, April 13- 15, Canberra.  
Images - copyright  Auremar




Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Is it me … or the chair?

Adjusting or upgrading our chair can really make a difference to our comfort and pain levels. The same goes for the desk, bicycle or backpack we use. In this post, I explain what Alexander Technique teachers say about our chairs. But first, here’s a short story to illustrate that great equipment is only part of the solution - how we use it is equally, if not more, important.

How my friend sits over a meal
I have just had lunch with a 65 year old, who I haven’t seen for a long time. As we met, this tall man walked towards me with a distinct stoop, his head forward but craned up. 20 years ago, he stood proud.

Over our meal, he chose to sit on a soft cushiony bench seat, instead of an upright chair. He slumped appallingly, saying this was his preferred type of seat. His lower back was strained, his chest compressed, and his neck pulled back tightly. He sat like this for nearly an hour as we ate. (I didn’t know him well enough to gently tell him!)

Can you picture how he sat? It is his mental picture of himself that is most at fault here.

What is wrong with his thinking?
He feels most comfortable when his spine is constantly in tension, and is in fact shortening. He has no intuitive sense of lengthening and broadening his whole torso, so that the limbs move freely and the head is balanced on top of the spine

His body map is telling him “instinctively” that the right places to bend are in the lower back and base of the neck. If only he understood that the hip joints are much lower, and that the spine meets the head very high up – as I explain in earlier blogposts.
The most critical point to understand here is about alignment of mental image and body mechanics. If your mental picture of how your body works is wrong, it will continually struggle to obey this faulty picture.

The pose adopted by the ‘thinker’ pictured to the right shows us graphically how our body and mind are a unity.

Does the chair, table height or back pack matter?

Yes, they do. We’re not all the same. There is a huge variation in body height and length of our limbs. Furthermore, habits vary from one person to the next. Uniformly designed furniture does not suit all our needs.
Our patterns of chair use build up over many years. Alexander teacher Richard Brennan has campaigned for years to ban backward-sloping chairs from schools in Ireland – see http://www.alexander.ie/chairscampaign.html. He points out that the National Back Pain Association in Britain reported that such school chairs are a major cause of back pain in adults.

Michael Stenning and Leonie Johns, two Alexander teachers based in Canberra, Australia have even designed their own chair, and they give a concise picture of what can go wrong with our sitting. See http://freedominaction.com.au/resources/sitting-without-strain-2/

Professor Galen Cranz is both a design expert and an Alexander Teacher. She has written a book about the chair in human culture. In a short powerful article available on-line (Cranz 2000), Prof Cranz uses illustrations to highlight the effect on our bodies of different sitting positions and chair design. She shows how efforts by chair designers to solve one problem affecting the head, pelvis, hips and spine have only led to others. She makes impressive statements about ‘the inherent instability of the seated posture’ but balances this by criticising a cultural assumption that it is ‘too tiring to sit upright without support’.

Prof Cranz emphasises five principles from Alexander Technique and relates these to problems with the chair and how we sit – the statement I like best under the first principle is : ‘disorganisation at the head-neck joint will ricochet throughout the body’. The next four principles cover : recognising the force of habit; acknowledging the subjective nature of what feels good; the power of simple thoughts (based on a scientific understanding) to guide our movement; and finally saying no to our old habits.

Her arguments are also summarised and well-illustrated in a 2008 article - http://bodyconsciousdesign.com/uploads/interview_galen_cranz_portland.pdf.

In summary
How you use the equipment around you is critical. Helping people address their ingrained habits is the key contribution of Alexander Technique to our well-being. Not everyone can tilt their chair forwards, adjust their desk height, or buy a new backpack. But getting the right gear is also important.


Galen Cranz (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 http://alexandertechnique.com/resources/JBMT-alex.pdf).

Galen Cranz (2008) The Chair: It is time to rethink ergonomics. Portland Spaces. Oct-Nov 2008, pp.103-108. (available http://bodyconsciousdesign.com/uploads/interview_galen_cranz_portland.pdf).

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Principles and tips for self-care

In this blogpost, I provide a guide to Alexander Technique, and tips on how it can help people - via links to previous blogposts. Each draws on personal experience, scientific information and the Alexander literature.

A quick glance at the titles shows that Alexander Technique is holistic, and emphasises how the mental and physical are inter-connected. It truly involves a“psycho-physical re-education” – as it was once named.
I hope that you find the listing interesting, and useful.

The Alexander approach

Principles of Alexander Technique. As you apply the Technique, it helps to know the principles behind it. Alexander principles over Hanoi dinner (October 2011).

Observation is the starting point to improving our well-being. Observing ourselves in the chair - 1 (September 2012)

Mindfulness. A personal experience of pain led me to explore the use of Mindfulness and managing pain (February 2012)

Body awareness, the effects of tension and releasing it. Your body and mind on holiday (December 2011) and in Work, rest and play - an Alexander principle (November 2012)

What to do each day -resting the back. Resting the back is great for desk-bound people (December 2011) – it really does release tension, allowing the back to lengthen and widen, and softening our breathing.

Our bodies (and minds) in action

Walking and feet are covered in As we were walking (October 2011) and My big floppy feet (October 2011).

Sitting and our hips. Why the hip joint matters when sitting (October 2011) and Towards a better way to sit - 1 ( January 2012)

Shoulders are important too. Let your shoulders go at Christmas (December 2012).

Our necks are the fulcrum for the whole body. Look up and down with ease - at the computer and elsewhere - 1 (April 2012)

Our backs deserve a break. Learn to bend well (June 2012)

Breathing and arms when driving. Is driving a pain for you? - 1 (July 2012)