Would you like to use your body more effectively, with greater awareness and less effort? The Alexander Technique (AT) has been used for over a century to facilitate kinaesthetic awareness and strip away unnecessary physical tension.
With no equipment or a machine, which is unusual in our techno age, AT guides us into identifying where our imbalance lies.
Frederick Alexander, the founder of this technique, is famous for coining the term psycho-physical unity and revolutionised the way we view the mind versus body relationship. He was an Australian actor who suffered from chronic vocal hoarseness on stage and discovered AT while attempting to find a solution to this problem. The doctors said there was no cure. He observed that he was able to speak quite clearly off stage but suffered voice loss and hoarseness on stage. He then studied himself in the mirror in an attempt to identify what he was doing differently to cause this. He discovered that what he thought felt right and what he actually looked like in the mirror did not tally up. The it factor was his mind; on stage his thoughts caused bodily tension. He realised that our mind and body are connected and our emotions and thoughts affect our body’s response. Tension impedes the breathing process; Alexander felt that this was such a significant part of the learning process that he originally called AT respiratory re-education and this also explains why AT is so good for athletes: they are getting their full dose of oxygen!
These endurance muscles encase the spine and are designed to provide support by constantly contracting without you being aware of them. We usually refer to them as our core muscles.
These muscles are your sprinters; they burst with energy and rapidly deflate. Your phasic muscles are responsible for controlling your extremities and can be described as surface muscles.
The AT paradigm
This technique advocates inseparability and unity, all body parts work together to form the whole. So what might be more useful is to describe the muscle groups as voluntary and involuntary musculoskeletal patterns.
The human body is an amazing instrument; our muscles have memory. Imagine having to relearn how to ride a bicycle from the beginning each time you train – that would be pretty frustrating! Our muscle memory serves its purpose but it can also keep us back by internalising bad habits. Lucia emphasises that the “reliability of sensory information we have available is questionable because our perception of our postural arrangements is determined by habits.” We recommend you ask a friend to take a video or a few pictures of you while you’re running or cycling to get a good look at how you are performing. You might get a nasty surprise!
AT teachers support their student while they develop body awareness aiming to achieve a balance between their core muscles and movement muscles and recognising where bad habits lie. In essence we are recalibrating our sensory perception of our body and by doing so we stop restricting our natural movement and Lucia said we then “consciously co-operate with our human design.” By learning how we are exerting unnecessary effort we have, as Sharyn always says, “the choice to do things differently.”
“Consider this paddling example: I can rotate my arms in a particular use of the shoulder cuff and produce a grip on the paddle, alternate my reach at left and right elbow and make adjustment to the effort required for each alternate catch of the paddle as it takes water. This can be executed with full awareness and attention. Postural attentionality extends further, monitoring the relation of undue effort in related parts of the musculo-skeletal system. I secure balance and alignment of the upper and lower body by conscious awareness and response,” says Lucia.
Expert tips for cyclists by Barry Collin
1 Don’t collapse your back into a C-curve, because it restricts breathing. Collapsing the back produces in turn a collapse in the front, which restricts rib movement and breathing. One gets the most oxygen for the least effort from the floating ribs at the bottom of the rib cage. Collapsing forward restricts their freedom and much more effort is needed to use inappropriate upper ribs, and accessory breathing muscles.
2 Don’t tilt your chin up so that you break the line extending from your spine. Feel how the balance of your head (which depends upon correct muscle tone), is very important in the overall balance of the bike; the more you can allow the weight of the head to be transmitted down through the column of the neck and the length of the spine into the saddle, the more stable the bike will feel. The head, neck and back are now working as one integrated unit.
3 Let your legs do the work. Finally, keeping this sense of relationship between head, neck and back, allow yourself to pivot forward from the hip joints and then allow the heels of the hands to just support your weight on the bars. This is a poised cycling position. You soon appreciate that it is the legs that really must do the work. If the legs don’t do the work, the effort is passed upwards through the body. This will produce unproductive tension and tightness around the shoulders and arms, in the neck and jaw, and of course in the rib cage and the breathing.
Expert tips for runners by Malcolm Balk
1 The head leads and the body follows: RUN TALL, not military tall but an easy up. The spine should lengthen in the body, not bend forward in the direction of movement. The forward lean should come from the ankles not from the waist. Thinking up helps the athlete breathe more naturally as well as preventing back issues.
2 Lead with the knees not the feet. Alexander’s direction “let the knees go forward and away” is perfect for runners who want to reduce over-striding. Thinking of the knee leading, rather than reaching with the foot, encourages the runner to land more underneath the hip which helps to reduce braking and slowing momentum.
3 Avoid ‘end gaining’! Focusing too much on results is a great way to kill the joy of running and competing. Learning to run well, train intelligently and compete with courage and passion will bring results and enrich you as a human being in the process.
Barry Collin a qualified dental surgeon, has over 25 years’ experience in AT. He is an avid cyclist and goes everywhere by bicycle. He has an AT practice in London. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Malcolm Balk, known as the AT running guru, is an AT teacher who has specialised in applying AT to running. He has co-authored two books with Andrew Sheilds: Master the Art of Running and Master the Art of Working Out. See theartofrunning.com for more information on his workshops.
Lucia Walker and Sharyn West have a combined 45 years’ experience in AT and are passionate about what they do. They studied with Dick and Elizabeth Walker who trained under Alexander.
Written by Carol Bailey
Originally published in the May/June 2013 issue.