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Don’t copy me!

On the weekend I taught a day workshop (about Alexander Technique) at the Bristol Folk House, a lovely venue in central Bristol. Amongst my students for this workshop I had a husband and wife lady of the couple said that they have a six-year-old daughter, and that they had been trying to explain to her what they were doing that Saturday. They had told their daughter that when people are young they move around really beautifully, but that as they get older, for one reason or another, sometimes they don’t move so well or so easily as they used to. And Mum and Dad wanted to investigate whether they could move a bit more like their daughter.

I think this is an eloquent description of something that a lot of people feel to be true. Children seem to move so easily and beautifully, with an artless grace that we adults can only wonder at. How do they do it? And what happens to them – and us – between early childhood and adulthood to cause us to lose it?

What happens to us – part 1

One of the other participants in my Saturday workshop was a lady who had a standing lesson. When I worked with her to counteract the habitual way she pushed her hips forward while standing, she exclaimed that I was stopping her from standing up straight. She then gave an impression of  her school mistress telling her to ‘Stand up straight!’

My student had been out of school for a couple or three decades, yet that teacher’s admonition stayed with her. Words are powerful things. If we are told to do something as a child, and told it strongly enough, it is entirely possible that we will keep doing that thing long after the person who told us to has gone away or lost interest! This is even more likely if we received praise for following their instructions.

What things do you still do, just because a teacher/coach/parent told you? And if you have contact with children, are you careful about what rules you choose to pass on?

 

What happens to us – part 2

My son, when he was younger, absolutely loved a book by author Helen Oxenbury. It’s about a little boy called Tom and his toy monkey Pippo. My son’s favourite little story from the book began like this:

imitation2

This is the second major thing that happens to us. We find someone we love, and we want to be like them. So we do what Tom does in the story – we copy the person we love. And we most often choose to copy the eccentricities of the person we love. We copy their walk, or the way they hold their head. Tom begins copying his father’s walk as an act of love.

 

Losing it – or not…

The thing is, we’re all really tempted by the idea that a childlike freedom and gracefulness is just that – childlike, and therefore a thing of the past. We feel nostalgic and a bit envious, and assume that like belief in Father Christmas, our freedom of movement, once gone, is lost forever.

This is a big trick.

If we believe this, we are cutting ourselves off from the truth. We never lost it.

We never lost it.

We listened to our teachers, and tried faithfully to do what they told us (‘Sit up straight!’). We copied those we loved, and did it studiously and well. We lived our lives, and made decisions about what was possible and what was not, and lived accordingly.

All of these acts are decisions. And decisions can be changed.

We have lost nothing. Our natural grace and elegance of movement is still there and waiting for us to rediscover it. And this requires nothing more nor less than a change in our point of view – what Alexander describes as “the royal road to reformation.” Like all roads, sometimes it may get a bit rocky, or may take a few twists or turns. But choose to stick with it.

This is what Alexander says to encourage us:

The brain becomes used to thinking in a certain way, it works in a groove … but when once it is lifted out of the groove, it is astonishing how easily it may be directed. At first it will have a tendency to return to the old manner of working … but the groove soon fills, and although thereafter we may be able to use the old path if we choose, we are no longer bound by it.*

Moving freely and easily is available to us. The path is waiting…

*FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat complete edition of the 4 books, p.67.

Put the patient down!

Last Friday, I travelled to Southampton to give a talk about Alexander Technique to the women of the NHS Southampton and Salisbury Breast Imaging Unit (part of SUHT).

These women are amazing. They carry out all the mammograms that form the main part of the screening programme against breast cancer in their part of the world. Sometimes they work from their comfortable and welcoming base in Princess Anne Hospital in Southampton. More often, they have to drive a large van up to an hour to a town or village in their catchment area. They park up, then spend the day carrying out the scans using the equipment on the van. For every patient who comes through their door, they have to greet the patient, (usually) calm them down, help to position the patient in the imaging equipment, take four images, label everything carefully, then help the patient out the door. They do all of this in seven minutes. Yes, seven minutes per patient.

Some of the patients are small and birdlike, and have – how can I put it? – assets that befit their small and birdlike frames. Other patients are considerably larger, and have assets that are rather heftier. And the mammographers have to heft these assets into the imaging equipment, and help to hold them there so that the images are clear and the patient doesn’t have to come back for a rescan. They do this ‘hefting’ (can’t think of a better word for it!) by extending their thumb and creating a V-shape with their hands, then ‘sweeping’ the assets into the machine (‘sweeping’ is their term for it). And they do this for every patient. Every seven minutes. Every day.

These lovely mammographers are starting to suffer from shoulder and back pain, and RSI-like symptoms in their hands and thumbs. They invited me down to Southampton to give them some tips and advice on how they can work to improve their working conditions and thereby alleviate some of the pain.

So what did I do? Well, one of the things that I did was to look at their hands, and then tell this story…

One of my least favourite household jobs is filling the washing machine had in Australia). One day I was bent over double, shovelling clothes through the door. One of my son’s socks had escaped, and was a few steps away. Without straightening, I walked over to get it, walked back, then put it in the machine. Then I noticed my husband’s hankie, halfway across the kitchen floor. Again, without bothering to straighten, I went to get it. The machine was full. Without bothering to stand up, I got the detergent ball, put it in the door, then turned on the machine.

Then I noticed the cat water bowl was empty. Without bothering to stand up, I picked up the bowl, filled it, put it back. I went on with other bits of cleaning. After a few minutes, my back started to feel tired. I realised that I still hadn’t bothered to stop bending over. I was walking around the house like Groucho Marx! I hadn’t yet stopped filling the washing machine!

My mammographer students were no different. Even though they had stopped scanning for the day, even though there were no patients anywhere nearby, their hands were still ready to heft and sweep. When I pointed this out to them, most of them looked down at their hands, and allowed their thumbs to go limp. They sighed in relief! They admitted to me that, now that they thought about it, they realised that they always kept their hand ‘ready to sweep’ – from first thing in the morning, to last thing at night.

They had forgotten to put the patient down.

My simple suggestion was this. What would happen if the mammographers put the patient down – not just at the end of the day, but between patients?

And what about you? Is your right hand always ready to click the mouse button? Are your shoulders permanently prepared to lift that bag/child/rucksack?

What would happen if you ‘put the patient down’?

 

Hemlines and stuff we do to ourselves

I’m going to tell you a little story that doesn’t put me in a very good light. In fact, it makes me look a little silly. Feel free to have a giggle…

For years, I used to complain about clothing manufacturers. No matter which shop I went to, no matter what skirt I tried on, the hemlines just didn’t seem to be straight. I’d try on skirts, sometimes buy them and take them home, and feel a little cross about the fact that the hem always seemed to be a little higher on one side than the other. And the fault always seemed to be the same side (the right side, in case you’re interested).

It wasn’t exactly earth-shattering – I mean, it wasn’t the bane of my life. On the scale of life crises, it barely rated at all, especially when compared to the RSI I suffered in my arms. But it niggled. Every time I put on a skirt, my eye was almost irresistibly drawn to the hemline. It was like an itch that just wouldn’t go away.

Why couldn’t the clothing companies get it right? And why was it only me who seemed to notice?

By now you’re probably leaping way ahead of me. “It wasn’t the skirts!” I can hear you exclaiming at your screens. And you’re absolutely right! But it took me years – and I mean, years – to make that realization for myself. One day I looked at myself in the mirror, and I saw for the first time why my skirts never hung straight. For the first time, I actually looked and really saw my hips. My hips weren’t level. I was managing to contract the muscles on one side of my torso in such a way that my right side was shortened, causing my right hip to be raised. It wasn’t the skirts that had the problem: it was me.

I think of that day every time one of my students asks me why they haven’t seen a particular truth about their use of their bodies before having Alexander lessons. This usually occurs when they have discovered that they do something that, post-discovery, they label as unnecessary or silly, and they want to know why they didn’t find it out sooner. There are a couple of important points to be made about this.

The first is this. Each of us live in our own private universe (Stephen Covey calls it a paradigm), where everything is right, makes sense, and seems to be logically consistent. In my own private universe, my body was right and normal and fine. Therefore, the skirt manufacturers were clearly WRONG. The hemlines were so clearly their fault and their problem that I didn’t even bother to question it. So if you, for example, like to lift up your whole shoulder girdle in order to reach your computer keyboard, that will feel right and normal to you, and you won’t question it. And that’s completely understandable. We can’t blame ourselves for stuff we don’t know that we’re doing. Let’s have some compassion for ourselves.

But maybe, as my hemlines did with me, something niggles you somewhere at the back of your brain. Like that itch that won’t go away…

In that case, maybe it’s time to use a question from FM Alexander’s toolkit. It’s the tool I used to discover my funny hips. It’s the tool that started FM on his journey from voice trouble to the development of the work we now call the Alexander Technique. Back in the beginning, talking to his doctor about his vocal troubles, Alexander asked this question: “Was it something I was doing … in using my voice that was the cause of the trouble?”

 

Is it something I’m doing to myself that is the cause of the trouble? This is a profound question. A student of mine, a plumber, found this question incredibly powerful. When he got into his van, put his hands on the wheel and felt neck pain, he asked FM’s question. ‘Is it something I’m doing to myself?’ And the answer was yes. He made some changes to the way he was sitting, and the pain went away. He asked FM’s question when his back hurt after picking up his toolbox. The answer was yes. He streamlined the number of tools in his toolbox, experimented with lifting it differently, and his back stopped hurting.

 

This can be a great step on a journey of discovery. Maybe you’ll find out profound things. Maybe you’ll streamline your toolbox. Maybe you’ll be able to take hemline adjustment off your To Do list. But whatever you discover, enjoy the thrill of it, and let me know how you get on.

Teach the chairs…?

chair

When I have a new student, especially if they have a history of back pain, it is pretty likely that at some point they’ll ask me about chairs. Often their workplace has bought them a fancy new office chair, or they’re waiting for one and cursing the chair they’re using at the moment. They don’t like going places like the movies or a cafe because they fear the chairs will be too uncomfortable for them. So they ask me about chairs, and whether they should spend their money on a nice, new, fancy, expensive ergonomic chair.

I especially like it when this question is asked in my main teaching room, because at my desk is just such a chair. It’s one of those kneeler chairs, but it’s a fancy one on runners so that you can rock back and forth like a rocking chair. It has a nice backrest. The upholstery is a lovely emerald green, and the chair wouldn’t look out of place in a set from Star Trek. It’s a nice chair.

I bought it back when I was suffering from severe RSI symptoms in my arms. I spent a lot of money on it, hoping that it would help ease my pain so that I could finish my degree thesis without crippling myself.

The chair didn’t help. It wasn’t because it wasn’t well designed – it is. It wasn’t that I didn’t spend enough money – I spent plenty, believe me! The problem was that the chair didn’t have the power to stop me doing all the extra STUFF with my muscles that was causing the problem in the first place. It turned out the chair couldn’t stop me slumping: I was smarter than it was.

I keep the chair now to remind me of how powerful the human mind really is. It doesn’t really matter how many gadgets we buy or how much we spend. What we need to do is to change the way we think! FM Alexander said that we should waste no time in educating the furniture, but educate the people. Let’s give ourselves the ability to adapt ourselves to our environment, so that we can be comfortable wherever we happen to be.

So how do we do this?

First of all, take a look at the chair. Are all chairs the same? Obviously not! But how often do we actually look at the chair we’re about to sit on? Is it high or low? Very cushioned, or quite firm? With a backrest? If so, what sort?

Ask yourself: what do I need to do to sit in this chair? What joints have I got to help me? Where am I going to bend?

Use this information. Form a plan. Then put your plan into action.

And when you’ve given it a go a few times, drop me a line and let me know how you’re getting on.

Image by winnond, FreeDigitalPhotos.net