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.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Heading in the Right Direction

You guessed it. It had to happen next. Now it's time to look at direction.

It took Mr. Alexander 8 years to develop the "golden egg" of AT - namely directions.

Allow the neck to be free
So that the head can go forward and up
And the back can lengthen and widen
Widening across the upper part of the arms
And the knees can go forward and away
Towards the second toes

"That's not much of a poem" I hear you say "and it doesn't even rhyme!"

I think of it as a mantra which I encourage my new pupils to learn and repeat daily. I've produced a couple of PDFs which they can choose to download and have a copy on their desk or sideboard.
The first (as quoted above) is slightly more proactive than the second and it makes YOU responsible for freeing your neck (without doing it). It's more suitable for the novice AT pupil. I personally prefer the second as I like to remind myself that my neck IS free.

Those of you who are familiar with the AT directions might be used-to a mantra that's worded slightly differently although the essence should be the same. Most of you will not have seen the line about sending your knees towards your second toes. This came from my mentor, the late (and great) Ray Evans. Think of a line drawn down the front of your thigh. You should project this line towards your second toe. Don't bend your knees, just direct them with a thought. Project the line too far out and you will look like you just got off your horse. Project it too far in and you will look like you are trying not to pee yourself :-) A line from your left knee through your groin to your right knee should look more like an upside-down "U" than a "V".

I'll probably return to the individual directions in future posts but that's not my purpose here.

Just as we did when we learned to ride a bike, drive a car, type on a keyboard, dance, play an instrument... I think you see where I'm going with this list... learning to direct begins with a somewhat kludgy effort to hold all the individual aspects together at the same time. As we gradually learn the meaning of each direction, we apply it with less and less thought. Eventially it becomes automatic. I'm so glad that I no longer have to search for each individual letter on the keyboard as I type - otherwise I'd get no pleasure at all out of blogging! So too with giving my directions. These days I apply them one at a time, altogether so I can give directions - all of them - in about the same time it takes to click my fingers.

The process of giving directions is like the principle I described in my recent post on inhibition. At first we apply the directions consciously but eventually it becomes subconscious and the new directions can then be applied - preceded by inhibition - in good time to supplant wrong habits.

I've described the process of consigning conscious processes to subconscious activity in my post "changing the habits of a lifetime". It's not a particularly easy read - especially the first half where I explain the 4 processes of the brain. But if this interests you, I recommend you to read it. This is where I originally proposed my four bullet points to explain the Alexander Technique.

I imagine that you will be wondering whether Alexander's concept of Constructive Conscious Control plays any part in my explanations of applying inhibition and directions at a subconscious level. Let me assure you that the principles of AT always begin with conscious choices - decisions to replace old bad habits with new posititive means whereby we use our body. Life itself is an ongoing process of learning to adapt to the ever changing environment. No matter how much we try, we will never reach a point where our use of the self becomes totally automatic. We must remain consciously aware that our habits are lurking around every corner, waiting for a momentary lapse of conscious control to slip-in and pull us down.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

More About Inhibition

My previous article on inhibition was recently cited in a paper on inhibition posted on www.mindplusbody.co.uk. That article equated inhibition with self control and came to a conclusion that inhibition was "A state you find yourself in".

I decided to post this article to address these points and hopefully to add clarity to the understanding of inhibition in the context of the Alexander Technique.

First of all let me summarise what I was trying to say in my blog post:
Inhibition allows us to suppress our subconscious habitual responses to stimuli. Because our awareness of a stimulus occurs a fraction of a second after we have responded to it, we must apply inhibition subconsciously so that it can afford us a window of opportunity to choose a better consciously directed response. Practice will, in time, develop a simple act of 'saying "no" to a stimulus' into a state of being and the new consciously chosen responses will become the new habits.

In a lecture Mr. Alexander clearly distinguished his use of its meaning from that in psychotherapy: "Many people would take exception to the word 'inhibition' but this inhibition is not the inhibition that we usually hear of... It is not the inhibition of supression".

The opposite of inhibition is volition. "Volition [stands] for the act of responding to... stimuli [with] psycho-physical action (doing), and inhibition [stands] for the act of refusing to respond to... stimuli [with] psycho-physical action (non-doing)"

Self control, on the other hand is perceived as self-denial: the act of denying yourself; controlling your impulses; the trait of resolutely controlling your own behaviour. Controlling emotional responses such as "angry, upset, shy" as quoted in the BodyPlusMind article is in the realm of self-control, rather than purely inhibition. Emotions transcend the simple stimulus-response mechanisms that pure inhibition deals with. However, we don't ignore their effect on the body. The indirect approach of inhibition and direction can affect emotional states via the process of psycho-physical unity. For example, it's not uncommon for a pupil to burst into tears in a lesson as a direct result of releasing tension. That tension would have been the physical manifestation of an underlying emotional state.

Frank  Pierce Jones described it perfectly:
...I found that the paradigm of inhibition that had been demonstrated for physical movement could be applied equally well when the activity would be classed as mental or emotional. ...any emotional disturbance affects [the field of attention] immediately and can often be perceived as a change in the level of muscle tone before a reaction in the autonomic system has begun. Anger for example has a characteristic pattern that is easily recognizable.  [When stimulated into anger] I turned my attention to my neck and shoulders. I found that I could inhibit a further increase in tension and allow the muscles to lengthen; and that as long as I did this I could carry on a rational conversation in spite of my inward agitation.

I would never describe inhibition as "a state you find yourself in". Finding yourself in a state happens at a level of conscious awareness. It follows-on from the subconscious stage where inhibition must actually be applied. It implies a lack of positive conscious control. Inhibition is an attitude of mind which will result in you being able to choose the state you find yourself in.

In my original blog post I described someone who is exercising inhibition as calm, confident and un-flappable. This is not to suggest that they do not appear alert and poised to respond in an instant to any given stimulus. There is no inevitable time-delay in receiving a stimulus and responding to it in a consciously controlled way. This is because the inhibition and the choice of response have been applied in sufficient time for a response to appear instant. It often amuses me when a group of AT teachers get together and try to out-inhibit one another - like a blinking competition where the winner is the one who blinks last.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Can we define "inhibition"?

(I've re-posted this article to add dark blue colour to "hover links" for words that may be unfamiliar to you)

In my 2007 post Changing The Habits of a Lifetime I presented an analysis of how the brain rations its conscious processing power in controlling physical processes. Whether or not anyone would understand or agree with that explanation, the important point is to appreciate the extent to which the brain tries to assign physical activity to unconscious processing. In effect, the brain wants to develop habits to drive our use of our body.

I went on to suggest my infamous "4 bullet points explanation" of how the Alexander Technique addresses inappropriate habits:
  • identify wrong subconscious habits (misuse)
  • inhibit the impulses that drive them
  • substitute different, consciously controlled (directed) means of using the body
  • repeat until the new use replaces the old habits
Strictly speaking, there should be a mention of responding to a stimulus under the first bullet point - but for this post, I'll use it to explain the word impulses in the second.

Just what is "inhibition"? Type define: inhibition into Google and you will see a variety of dictionary definitions. In AT, we use it in a particular way as defined by Mr. Alexander.

Inhibition is a psycho-physical process that is applied to prevent an undue response to a stimulus. For example, I may ask a pupil to sit in the chair and I want him to inhibit his response. I want him to say "no" to the stimulus. He is saying no to the force of habit - the subconcious habitual way of sitting. I want him to substitute a constructive, consciously controlled means of sitting in the chair. As he does this, I guide him with my hands. What he experiences may not feel right to him. Hopefully he won't be stiffening his neck and pulling his head back. He will release his hips and direct himself up.

If he repeats this process enough times both in lessons and, more importantly, in his day to day life, eventually the newly directed means of sitting in the chair will become his new habit.

So, returning to the starting position, what is the point at which the inhibition - the saying no - is applied? Think of an actor jumping off the stage. Where was she when she jumped? On the stage? No, that was before she jumped. In the air? No, that was after she jumped. When was my pupil supposed to be applying inhibition? (Marjorie Barlow would say "How far back do you want to go?") Can he say no to a stimulus before the stimulus is received? Saying no after the stimulus has been recognised is actually too late. His brain has already instantly prepared itself to respond habitually.

This is a bit of a conundrum!

To try to answer this question let's consider for a moment that scientific experimentation has shown that we have actually taken actions several milliseconds before we are aware that we have done so! This is not science fiction. What this means is that our response to a stimulus has already been chosen before we are aware that we have been stimulated. If we are to inhibit our response, and substitute a different one then we are going to have to apply inhibition prior to what we perceive as the present moment! Oh dear, this is beginning to sound a bit esoteric.

In practice, it means that inhibition has to be applied on a subconscious level in order for it to be able to "get ahead of" our conscious awareness. Maybe this is one of the reasons why so many people don't really grasp the subtlety of the Technique.

So how can we develop our ability to inhibit? We start by actually saying no to stimuli as we recognise them. We accept, for the time being, that this isn't actually inhibition in its true sense. We repeat this process - both inside lessons, where the teacher's stimuli are discrete and obvious, and outside lessons where all sorts of stimuli are constantly bombarding us. Eventually, with enough repetition, inhibition will become a habit. Only at this point will it actually have the desired effect in preventing subconscious bad habits. Is this beginning to sound familiar? It's the four bullet points used recursively to define the second one.

Inhibition eventually becomes a state of mind, an attitude if you like. It manifests itself in the practitioner as a state of calmness and confidence; an un-flapability. This is because we are all stressed and excited by the constant bombardment of stimuli in our day to day lives. In inhibition, we now have a mechanism for switching off our unthinking responses. Mr. Alexander spoke of this back is the early part of the 20th century so you can appreciate how the problem has expanded exponentially up to the modern day!

It takes time, understanding and persistence to develop inhibition. I believe that, throughout your life, if you continue to apply what you have been taught in your AT lessons, you will continue to develop a deeper understanding of the use of the self through the application of inhibition and that will bring you untold satisfaction and enjoyment. It has for me.