Blog

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