Category: Alexander Technique
Good posture is effortless: Stiff posture is bad for your back
Question: “What’s the worst thing you can do for your posture?”
Answer: “Sit up straight”.
You don’t believe me? Judge for yourself.
I’m going to show you how you got bad posture in the first place. (Experience shows this is what usually happens).
Any movement always begins with your head. Your head leads and your body follows. (That’s as it should be). It doesn’t matter what the movement is: looking at something, standing up, walking, talking — even breathing.
What usually happens
You bend your back (or your neck) in order to move your head.
That’s not how your head ought to be moved. It’s just how almost everyone does it, even though it’s bad for your back.
What should be happening
Your head should move freely at the joint between your skull and the top of your spine. It’s anatomical name is the atlanto-occipital joint. Let’s call it your head/neck joint for short.
Moving your head from here is an essential part of effortless good posture. [pedantic note*]
Let me show you how this joint works. Put your fore-fingers lightly in your ears and nod your head a few times (don’t nod too far). Notice how your fingers don’t move.
Your whole head is turning about the axis you are marking with your fingers. If your fingers do move, it means you’re bending lower down — bending your spine as you usually do. In that case, try a smaller nod and see how that works.
If you need to look down further than this joint allows, your whole spine should tip forward as one unit, without bending.
Why you don’t do it like that
“If I can do it now, in your experiment, can’t I always do it like that?”
No, you can’t.
The fact is, you stiffen your head/neck joint every time you do anything. Your neck muscles never allow the joint to move freely. The only exception is when, as in the experiment, you are not doing anything else at the time.
Your unreliable kinaesthesia is what makes you stiffen it. You will need to look into this later. For now, let’s stay focused on the effects of the stiffening.
Since you’ve stiffened your head/neck joint, it won’t budge.
To move your head, you now have to bend your neck. You’ve no choice, so that’s what you do. You do it even to breathe. That means you’re doing it now. It means you even do it while you sleep.
Is it any wonder your spine is bent?
Now you can see why it won’t straighten: you need to stop bending it first — and you don’t. Ever. Not even while you are making an attempt to straighten it!
No wonder your attempts to correct your posture are not very successful. A lot less successful than you could ever imagine, until somebody comes along and shows you. (And since nobody has yet come along and shown you, I’m sure you’re finding difficulty imagining it now).
Turning your head to look left or right happens at the next joint. This first joint in your spine is known as the atlanto-axial joint. (Your top vertebra is called the atlas and the second is called the axis).
(The atlanto-occipital joint is called that because it connects the atlas to the bone that forms the bottom part of your skull, the occiput or occipital bone).
The Truth About Posture
Since the usual stiff posture is bad posture the truth about posture is:–
A slumped posture is not really a slump at all.
It’s a pull-down.
Your own muscles are literally dragging you down just like a team of men hauling on tight cables fastened to the crown of a tall tree would bend it over.
It’s not just your neck. You are also pulling your chest and shoulders forwards and down.
What muscles are pulling? First, your neck, throat and jaw muscles, then your chest, abdominal and even your leg muscles. They are all joining in — like a whole array of cables attached to the tree at different heights.
What you need for good posture is to stop pulling yourself down in this way. Compare this with the usual, old-fashioned posture advice.
Good old-fashioned posture advice
Seeing your slumped posture, everybody, well-meaning, chips in with the same advice: Sit up! Stand straight!
It soon becomes obvious that this is a struggle. Hence the next juicy bit of advice.
“Do your back and shoulders feel too weak? Then strengthen them! Start a regime of exercises to strengthen your back and shoulder muscles!”
I hope you can now see what bad advice this really is. Your back muscles are already being worked too hard. That’s why they don’t feel strong enough.
Muscle is fighting muscle in a relentless tug-of-war. When you make the extra effort to be truly straight, the resulting appearance of good posture is a stiff, tiring and unnatural travesty — far less functional, even, than the slump you are trying to correct.
That’s why it ends in pain — often extremely severe pain. To get rid of the pain for good you need to sort this mess out.
Just building more muscle (so that it can stand more strain) may relieve the pain short-term, but it will also give you the strength to tighten yourself up even more.
The pain of permanently over-worked muscles is often unbearable. I’ve seen muscle pain officially labeled as nerve pain simply because the doctor could not believe that such intense pain could possibly be muscular. It can be and often is.
For instance, sorting all this out properly normally gets rid of frequent migraine headaches — for good. Often symptoms begin to respond quite quickly — as muscles are no longer forced to work quite so hard.
Four Reasons for NOT Sitting Up
When you make an effort to sit (or stand) straight:–
1. You become stiff, fixed and immobile.
2. You tire quickly.
3. You end up hurting more.
4. Your mind wanders.
An effort to sit up makes you fixed, rigid and immobile
Think about it. To sit or stand straighter you tighten muscles. When you want to move you’ve got either to fight those tightened muscles or first let go of your so-called good posture.
Try it. Reach for something near you. Now sit up very straight. Pull your shoulders back. Then reach out again. Was it easier? I don’t think so.
An effort to sit up makes you tire quickly
How would you feel after holding that sitting-up posture for 10 minutes? Would you be full of energy and ready for anything? More likely, you’d be longing to slump back in the chair and recover from your effort.
An effort to sit up makes you hurt more
Maybe not after 10 minutes, but what if you did it for an hour?
Would it even be possible to maintain that posture all day long?
An effort to sit up makes your mind wander
Have you noticed how people’s eyes glaze over when they’re making a special effort to “sit up and pay attention”? No? Maybe your own eyes were too busy glazing over. After all, who’s immune from this obsession with posture?
Alertness is an early victim of postural effort. Attempts at concentration only make matters worse. The more you concentrate the more you stiffen. The more you stiffen the more your mind wanders.
Attentiveness is incompatible with effortful attempts at posture. Easy, automatic, effortless posture goes hand-in-hand with awareness.
So choose a better way.
What is the better way?
Here’s the first step. The very best way to start working on your posture is to practice Constructive Rest.
If you’re already doing step one, then also choose posture that works.
Posture that works
Here’s how you get good posture.
Before you try anything else learn Constructive Rest. Its a really useful thing you can do for yourself.
Once you’ve started using Constructive Rest
Here’s what you need to learn next.
Strange as it may seem, the first principle is always this: absolutely avoid making any effort to sit or stand straight. (You learnt about this in the previous article). Any such effort to sit or stand straight will only make your head/neck joint even stiffer.
Basic Alexander theory you need to understand
I mentioned the reason why your head/neck joint gets stiff in the first article. The reason is unreliable kinaesthesia. Understanding unreliable kinaesthesia is the real core of the Alexander Technique.
So what’s the secret?
We’ve just found that the real problem of posture is:–
You are dragged down as part of everything you do.
The pulling down feels like a necessary part of your movement — so essential that, if you are not allowed to do it, you can’t perform the movement. The result? If you so much as breathe, you tighten and pull down. (And, since it feels like a normal part of the movement, you don’t even notice it happening). [excerpt from “Unreliable Kinaesthesia”]
In this posture article, you discovered that this pulling down starts with the head/neck joint. This stiffening of the head/neck joint is one of those things that feels “so essential that, if you are not allowed to do it, you can’t perform the movement”. To stop doing it, you are going to have to …
choose to allow your movement to be fundamentally wrong.
Unless you do, you will never again move freely and easily.
[from the conclusion to “Unreliable Kinaesthesia”]
Horses for courses: no attempt to improve your posture is going to do the job properly unless it removes the reason it isn’t right already. If anybody claims to improve posture, check whether they are even aware of this reason.
Alexander Technique teachers are of course aware of it (although they may not be able to express it as clearly as I have done). This reason, unreliable kinaesthesia, is FM Alexander’s essential discovery. The stature of his discovery can be judged by the fact that over 100 years later most posture “experts” still haven’t got the message.
For instance, not allowing for unreliable kinaesthesia is why many people come to me to get sorted out after having being messed up by core strength work.
No written account can do the Alexander Technique justice. If you think I have made an even half-way decent case, you will need to test it. You can do that by getting yourself to an Alexander teacher. One lesson should be enough to make up your mind for you. Find an Alexander teacher: in the UK or in other countries.
But first discover Constructive Rest
Constructive Rest is a very easy and effective thing you can learn and do by yourself.
1. Introducing the Constructive Rest Position
This is the first of a series of videos to teach you how to lie down in the Constructive Rest Position. It’s vital that you be able to lie down at work — and any other place where you have to sit for long periods of time. Of course, it’s often difficult or impossible to lie down at work — even though you only need to lie down for a few seconds.
Yet, it’s a fact that normal tiredness in your back creates pain, loss of attention and loss of productivity. It’s also a fact that most people don’t know this. So, unsurprisingly, your workplace managers probably don’t understand it either. Starting with these videos, we’re going to change all that.
Why not understanding your shoulders causes back, neck and shoulder pain
Imagine being strapped too tightly into a full climbing harness. The harness is attached around your hips, around your legs and around your shoulders. It’s very uncomfortable because it’s pulling your shoulders back and down, jamming your body into your hips.
That’s exactly what you do with your shoulder muscles.
You have a whole panoply of different shoulder muscles. They pull your shoulders in every direction imaginable. These muscles can twist your shoulders every which way.
Because most of your shoulder muscles lie in your back, they get mistaken for back muscles and used to pull your back and neck around. They end up being used in your attempt to hold yourself tall and straight.
Which muscles am I talking about?
The most important of these muscles is the widest muscle in your back: “Musculus Latissimus Dorsi” in the anatomy books. One on the left and one on the right, each latissimus dorsi muscle acts like a climbing harness strap. Together, these two muscles link your shoulder blades down to the large flat bone at the back of your hips.
From the shoulder blade, each latissimus dorsi muscle continues up, passing through your arm-pit, to attach to your upper arm.
Other strong muscles move and hold your shoulder blades in various other ways. Your shoulder blades are linked together across your back, attached up to your head and neck, and anchored down to your lower back.
Yet more muscles attach the shoulder blades forward to your rib-cage. These last muscles act like the strap across your chest on the climbing harness.
A natural climbing harness
Taken together, all these muscles form a natural climbing harness.
Apes and monkeys use that climbing harness to swing through the trees by their hands. All that swinging keeps those shoulder muscles stretched and limber. No monkey would ever mistake its shoulder muscles for back muscles.
We humans are different in that we tend not to swing from trees very much. As a result we tend to forget what those muscles are for. We forget that they are shoulder muscles. We forget that their main purpose is to enable us to swing ourselves around by our arms.
Misusing our natural climbing harness
Mistaking our natural climbing harness for back muscles, we begin to use it to pull ourselves up straight.
“Neck back, shoulders straight!” It’s not just soldiers on parade who are told to do that. We all get the same demands from concerned parents, from teachers, even from friends and colleagues.
It may be a bit more subtle, but we get essentially the same input from fitness instructors, doctors and physiotherapists. Culturally brain-washed as we are, our professionals share and propagate the myth that our shoulder muscles are back muscles and that their purpose is to hold us erect.
Now we recognize our climbing harness for what it is, we can begin to slacken the straps. Relieved of the pain caused by a too-tight muscular climbing harness, we can begin to look in more appropriate places for the secret to standing tall and straight.
The Problem of Unreliable Kinaesthesia
Why you keep getting in your own way — and why you can’t help doing it.
The Alexander Technique works with your idea of movement.
That sense of movement is called kinaesthesia. Through your kinaesthetic sense, you know your body’s exact position in space and you know how it is changing as you move.
Well… you would know if your kinaesthesia were reliable. Very few people have a reliable kinaesthetic sense. Unless you are one of those very few, you don’t register your movement very accurately. What you are doing is subtly different from what you think you are doing.
It gets better: you don’t even realise that you don’t know.
A faulty kinaesthetic sense is so convincing that you will often believe what it tells you even when the evidence of your own eyes shows otherwise.
Why is it so difficult to disbelieve your kinaesthetic sense? Answer: your experience seems to prove you are right to believe it. An unreliable kinaesthesia is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
An unreliable kinaesthesia is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Let me give you an example.
Imagine that, as you sit down, you feel yourself beginning to fall back. What do you do to save yourself? I’ll tell you: you pull your head back, poke your neck forwards, arch your back and stiffen your knees. (I’ve seen it happen thousands of times). All that throws you off balance backwards.
So your reaction to save yourself when you feel you are falling backwards is to throw yourself back! Honest.
That’s what the outside observer sees, but what do you see? Well, of course you felt yourself falling and reacted to catch yourself. Since you knew all along that you were off balance, the fact that you had to catch yourself proves you were right. That’s what you see.
As I said, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. You only ended up off balance because you believed you were off balance. If you hadn’t believed you were off balance, you wouldn’t have been — because you would never have done the thing that threw you.
What would happen if you did that near a precipice? …
No wonder so many people are afraid of heights!
“Unreliable” is simply not a strong enough word. That’s why F Matthias Alexander called it debauched kinaesthesia.
How it begins
The process is usually so slow and gradual you don’t notice it happening. It’s the rule rather than the exception: very few people escape.
The average five-year-old is alert and full of life. The average fifteen-year-old is a permanent slouch. How many parents have not had to nag their teen-age children to “stand up straight”?
Sorry, parents, I’ve news for you. Telling your children to “stand straight” is just about the worst possible reaction. The nagging parent usually assumes their child is being lazy and letting itself droop. Naturally. That’s the message you got from your own parents and teachers and that’s the message you give to your children. But it isn’t so. The real culprit is a deteriorating kinaesthesia.
Your bad posture is the end result of muscle tension pulling your head, neck, chest and shoulders down. It’s the physical effect of that unreliable kinaesthesia which persuades you to stiffen and strain every time you move: every time you stand up, sit down, turn your head, take a step or lift a finger.
It isn’t just your children: it happens to nearly everyone.
How it goes on
You are dragged down as part of everything you do.
The pulling down feels like a necessary part of your movement — so essential that, if you are not allowed to do it, you can’t perform the movement. The result? If you so much as breathe, you tighten and pull down. (And, since it feels like a normal part of the movement, you don’t even notice it happening).
A small defect in the kinaesthetic sense always grows into a larger one — it never rights itself. For it to right itself, you would have to allow yourself to move as you used to. Since you now firmly believe that way of moving can’t work, it would mean choosing to move in a way that you know to be wrong.
How can you choose to move in a way that you know to be wrong? Certainly, not without someone there to lead you through the new way of doing. You need someone to persuade you not to react to the belief that you are doing it wrong. That person had better be very, very, very patient.
And they had better know what they are doing. Inside out.
Let me re-state the conclusion as simply as I can.
Since the right way to move seems wrong, you need to choose to allow your movement to be fundamentally wrong. (Unless you do, you can never again move freely and easily).
You don’t know how to allow your movement to be so totally wrong. You need subtle, patient, expert help. When, with that help, you finally let the wrong thing happen anyway, you discover that it wasn’t wrong at all.
Without that help you will never let it work, and the problem can only get worse.
How do you start moving badly in the first place?
In many seemingly innocuous ways. To name a few:–
1. The pain from an injury naturally makes you move differently. If this continues, you become used to the different movement and it comes to feel normal. When the injury has healed, the new movement pattern remains, because, having gotten used to it, it now feels right. The old, right, movement now feels wrong.
2. You learn a new skill. The teacher’s way of moving is copied because both teacher and pupil believe that the teacher’s way is right. After all, the teacher can do it. However, no-one is perfect. Whatever small defects there are in the teacher’s performance are passed on to the pupil, who diligently copies them. In this way, small defects get magnified. More serious defects can create major problems for the pupil. The teacher could be anyone: (school teacher, parent, sibling, friend).
3. Stress. Every time anything happens to startle you (a door slamming, somebody shouting, brakes screeching, telephone ringing) you stiffen and “pull down”. This is a perfectly natural reflex. If it takes a while to return to normal, for that while, you move stiffly. The more often it happens, the more you get used to it. The new way of moving comes to feel “you” and the old way feels wrong.
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