Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Choose Your Restaurant Table Carefully

Last week, Cas and I spent a week on the River Thames on our boat "Ten Forward" named after the recreation area on the USS Enterprise (Star Trek for those of you living in a bubble!)
Ten Forward

On one of the nights, we ate at the Riverside Brasserie at our local marina. The food at the Brasserie is always excellent and their wine list is well selected. BUT... their dining tables represent one of my pet hates! They are square, single pedestal tables with four stabilising "feet" at the bottom off the central pedestal.

The way these feet are supposed to be arranged is that the they should point to the centre of the table edge and not the corner of the table. See the pictures below to see what I mean.

Good and bad table designs

I found myself sitting at a table where the feet were arranged diagonally relative to the table edge. That means I probably would not be able to enjoy my meal. Let me explain what I mean by this.

How many times have you sat in a restaurant and seen diners perched uncomfortably on the edge of their seat with their feet pulled back under the table - even sometmes wrapped around the front legs of their chair as if trying desparately not to fall of the chair? They can't possibly be comfortable! Sitting like this tightens the groin muscles and this in turn causes the pelvic floor and lower abdominal muscles to be held with too much tension.

What most people won't realise is that this unnnecessary lower body tension will induce the iliopsoas muscles to contract. The "psoas major" branch of these muscles runs up behind the intestines and stomach and connects into the spine in 5 places beginning immediately below the diaphragm. See the diagram below

When your psoas muscles are in tension below your diaphragm it will give you a tight feeling below your ribs and make your stomach feel a bit tense. There's no way you will be able to enjoy a relaxing meal in such a state!

We have very little sensory awareness of our psoas muscles and therefore we have to use indirect means to control them and prevent them coming under too much undue tension.

This is where the diagonal-footed pedestal table commits its crime! The diagonal feet prevent you from placing your feet flat on the floor under the table and, as a result, you either fold you feet under the chair, put them uncomfortably on top of the table feet, or move backward so you can no longer reach the table comfortably.

To reduce the possibility of the psoas muscles getting into this state, you should always sit at the dining table with your feet flat on the floor, forward of the lip of the chair seat, vertically below your knees. You should free-off the muscles in your groin and sit with your bottom well-back in the chair and your head vertically above it. You shouldn't be leaning forward or backward. If the chair-back is not vertical, but instead leans backward relative to the seat then don't use it!

Sitting vertically like this, you might be tempted to pull your shoulders forward or even to slump forward in order to reach the table. Don't! You will need to pull your chair closer to the table so you won't need to over-extend your arms or to slump.

So the moral of this story when entering a restaurant is to request a different table if its feet are in the wrong position. Don't forget to explain to the restauranteur the reason for your choice!

As to my meal at the Brasserie, I managed to spin the table-top round relative to the feet, so that I could put my feet in a comfortable postion. I explained to the waitress that this was the reason why I'd managed to spill the wine and water all over the cloth but I don't think she was too impressed :)

Finally, a tip about getting into and out of a restaurant chair.

Stand with your back to the side of the chair so you are looking along the edge of the table and not across it. Sit in the chair, remembering to free your neck, ankles knees and hips. Remember to think "up" as you go into sitting. When you are on the seat, rotate yourself so your feet are under the table. Getting out is the reverse operation. Rotate your feet to the side of the chair then lean forward from the hips, following your head up to standing while keeping your neck free.

By chance, Bill Plake, a fellow AT teacher published a blog the very next day which talks about sitting comfortably.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Love, Relationships and The Alexander Technique

A question that doesn't seem to be addressed very often in Alexander Technique blogs is how the practice of AT affects your love life and relationships. I can only speak with any authority about the way it affects me but in relating my experience I will try to explain some general points which should apply to everyone.

So let's begin by stating my position.

Picture of Cas
I've been studying AT since 1989 and I would claim that my life is very happy and stable, partly because of AT. I've just celebrated my 35th wedding anniversary with my childhood sweetheart, Cas, who I've been with since we were 16. We are best friends and rarely argue seriously. We have a love for one another that is profound and unshakable.

Before you put your fingers down your throat and start gagging, let me tell you that it wasn't always so. I used to work in the UK coal mines. That was a tough environment within which I was ruthlessly ambitious. Although not a particularly violent person I was often "on a short fuse": very impatient and unforgiving. I tended to expect others to behave in the way I wanted them to. I now realise that my behaviour in those days was due in no small measure to the amount of undue tension that I kept myself under. This "wound-up" state caused me to suffer frequent headaches, stomach upsets and what I used to call "strangle-throat".

Strangle-throat happens when the tension in your neck and throat gets so great that it affects the way you speak. It is the same problem that Mr. FM Alexander suffered-with when he was in his 20's and which he set-out to overcome. His technique was the result of solving that problem.

Now that I practise the Alexander Technique 24/7/365, I keep my neck free and allow my spine to lengthen and my back to widen. I hardly ever feel stressed and on those brief occasions when something does stress me, I can deal with the effects of the stress using AT principles. My tension levels are lower and my mood is much more consistent.

So where does "love" come into this you may be wondering?

I have no doubt that I always loved Cas but I used to find it hard to express my feelings, emotionally or physically, towards her when I was fighting so hard to keep my own, undue tensions under control. In another post I have described the process
"psycho-physical-unity" that controls this link between our thoughts, emotions and feelings and our physical bodies. Too much tension in the physical body always reflects itself in a corresponding psychological tension that affects your relationships with others.

Your physical tension affects your ability to express affection and positive feelings towards others. In turn, the way you treat others affects their perception of you. The way you appear to others - the way you "hold" yourself - gives those with whom you interact a subliminal cue as to what sort of person you might be. One doesn't have to be trained in AT to sense that someone hunched-over and "tight-looking" might be angry or stressed. Your instinct on meeting such a person for the first time might prevent you from instantly warming to them as potential friends or, indeed, lovers.

From the perspective of a (former) up-tight "stress merchant": me, a few months of practising AT brought about physical improvements in my body that I wasn't immediately conscious of. However, I began to notice that other people were acting more relaxed when they were in my company. At social gatherings, people were tending to approach me more, rather than shying-away from me. I began to see myself in a different light. Although still the same old ambitious Jeff, I wasn't as intense or ruthless as before.

So where does "love" come into this you may STLL be wondering?

My relationship with Cas had been profoundly changed. She saw such a difference in me that she decided to take AT lessons herself. Our passion both inside and outside the bedroom seemed to blossom over the next two years - and is still as strong today. We were able to express our feelings to one another in a less "inhibited" way. I refer here to "inhibition" in the AT sense which I discussed in my post "Can We Define Inhibition?. Nowadays, we inhibit the sort of knee-jerk reactions to the things we say and do to one another which, in the past, might have sparked an argument. This has allowed the space for our love and passion to continue to flourish.

There are other ways in which AT has improved our relationship.

By way of an example, let me offer an Alexander Technique Teacher's perspective on kissing. Before trying this at home, make sure that the person you pratise with gives you their full permission and that you BOTH have (or want) the sort of relationship that goes beyond simple social networking ;) To underline this point, I will refer to the "other" person as your "lover".

First of all make sure you are relaxed and that your neck is free and your back is lengthening and widening. If you detect any tension in your body, try to let that tension go. This is particularly important if your feelings for your lover are running particulary strongly at this point because your psychological state could, via the process of psycho-physical unity, induce unnecessary tension in your physical body.

Take your lover in your arms - gently - wrapping one of your hands around to the back of their shoulder and rest the palm of your hand loosely on the base of their neck. Ask them to do the same with you. Use that feedback from their hand to remind you to keep your own neck free and ask them to do the same with yours. Draw your mouths closely together tipping your head sideways to prevent your noses banging! Don't allow the angle of your head to induce your neck to tighten.

Now, touch lips with one-another remembering to think about yourself! Don't be tempted to try to give the other person an experience. Just concentrate on keeping your neck and back free and enjoying the feeling you are receiving. Think about your feelings for your lover, but don't try to show it. Trust the process of psycho-physical unity to act on your behalf to express what you are thinking through the light contact that you are already making.

Repeat as often as you like for a long and happy relationship! I will leave it up to you to imagine other potential benefits of AT in your physical relationships ;)

I recommend the Alexander Technique to everyone, not only because it can help you with things like improved posture and chronic back pain but also because its effects will, in due course, change significant aspects of your emotional life.